“I am a teacher, and who was I kidding, right?” she said. “This was my calling. It’s a really nice validation to get from the district.”
New Jersey Poetry Out Loud turns 10 this year! During the 2014-15 school year CavanKerry will celebrate this significant anniversary by inviting New Jersey teachers and students to write about their NJPOL experiences.
This is the 2nd piece by Holly Smith, a Language Arts teacher and departmental coordinator at Dr. Ronald E. McNair Academic High School in Jersey City, NJ. She was the first recipient, in 2013, of the CavanKerry Press scholarship to the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching because her student, Cameron Clarke, was the state runner-up that year.
As a teacher of writing and literature, I never ask students to do what I cannot do myself. I, as much as humanly possible, write to their essay prompts and play guinea pig for my own methodologies.
As my students are memorizing a piece for our in-class recitation for Poetry Out Loud, I also memorize a piece. I only perform it if they wish me to, and in the order they ask me to.
In class, my students (some who had taken a Shakespeare class or who had done Koranic recitation) weighed in on collective wisdom on how to memorize. Really memorize. Not the photographic-memory-wing-and-a-prayer-night-before stuff they had been trying to shill in their lit classes for years.
Here is our list. The all caps emphasis mine.
How to memorize:
- Re-write the text (by hand) to match the line breaks as you will recite, not as written on the page. Use punctuation as a guide to help your pacing, etc.
- Never practice sitting down. Try to practice in the manner in which you will be reciting (standing, moving, etc)
- Memorize one part before moving on to the next one. Build the memorization line by line. Then stanza by stanza.
- Get as many inputs as possible. Record yourself reciting and listen to it. Recite it to yourself during your daily life (getting dressed in morning, walking to school, etc). Even once you are “off book”, read the text as you recite, etc. Idly recopy the poem at various points in your day.
- Practice by reciting it to friends.
- When you actually memorize something, you remember it for life. LAST MINUTE DOES NOT WORK. YOU ARE FOOLING NO ONE.
- And no boo-hooing, poetry recitation was a very common school assignment for CENTURIES.
I do not have the time to agonize over a selection. I know I will force myself to pick a longer piece, and a pre-20th Century work, for now. But other than that, I give myself five minutes, tops, to pick a piece.
Last year, having just come back from a summer vacation spent visiting Haworth and the very moors where the Bronte sisters wrote, I choose an Emily Bronte piece was a way to hold on to that connection I felt with her.
With the Bronte poem, I spent my morning commutes living with it, building my memorization line by line, stanza by stanza. And I had to find my own way into the poem, trying not to have the literature teacher crutch of explication. I tried to link the voice with something in my own life, much as my students would be doing. In my own coming to terms with the poem, I turned my address towards someone who the demands of work and life forces me to grudgingly turn away from. My muscle memory of those weeks is of walking down a hill past a Colonial Era cemetery at day break, thinking and speaking: “Why did the morning rise to break/So great, so pure a spell?” The anger and anguish of being ripped from a world of dreams became mine.
This year, I just picked a letter. “T” and came up with “Thoughtless Cruelty”. The imagery reminded me of “The Fly” by William Blake, so my immediate instinct was “Ah ha! Paired poems for my Romanticism unit!” I choose you, Charles Lamb.
But that was my teacher brain speaking.
So, as the Dodge Poetry approach teaches us, back to Beginner’s Mind. I read the poem to myself a few times, immediately letting go of line breaks and trying to find the conversation in the poem. And the surprise to me in the poem is that it is a teacher-like voice speaking.
I shall embrace the object lesson of the fly handed to me by the poem. And await for the surprises bringing the poem in the world brings to me.
This is what I will actually use to memorize the poem:
You have killed that fly
And should you thousand ages try the life you’ve taken
To supply, you could not do it
You surely must have been devoid of though and sense
To have destroyed a thing which no way you annoyed
You’ll one day rue it
Twas but a fly perhaps you’ll say
That’s born in April dies in May
That does but just learn to display his wings one minute
And in the next is vanished quite
A bird devours it in his flight
Or come a cold blast in the night, there’s no breath in it
The bird but seeks his proper food
And providence whose power endued that fly with life
When it thinks it good may justly take it
But you have no excuses for’t
A life by nature made so short less reason is that you for sport
Should shorter make it
A little thing you rate
Do not estimate a creature’s pain by small or great
The greatest being can have but fibres
And these the smallest ones possess
Although their frame and structure less
Escape our seeing
New Jersey Poetry Out Loud turns 10 this year! During the 2014-15 school year CavanKerry will celebrate this significant anniversary by inviting New Jersey teachers and students to write about their NJPOL experiences. If we’re lucky some of them will also share their own poems.
I find it quite fitting that a piece by Holly Smith is launching this series because she was the first recipient, in 2013, of the CavanKerry Press scholarship to the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching because her student, Cameron Clarke, was the state runner-up that year. Holly is a Language Arts teacher and departmental coordinator at Dr. Ronald E. McNair Academic High School in Jersey City, NJ. She currently teaches AP Literature, Journalism, and Critical and Creative Writing.
-Teresa Carson, Associate Publisher
Saying Yes to Poetry Out Loud
by Holly Smith
The last thing you want to say to a teacher in the first month of school is “Hey, how about you organize a whole-school, nationally affiliated, kinda-of-a-big-deal poetry program in your building. Now.” When you’ve barely got your roll book set up, the papers are mounting into a summit that needs climbing, and you’re nursing your first cold of the year.
But I am telling you that Poetry Out Loud is the stuff we need to make time for. And that it is the best teacher-cheat in the world. Students will hand you a list of high-interest poems of literary merit to use in the classroom.
Trust your students and their voices and that the poems will speak to them.
For those of you who simply cannot add another thing this year, here’s the seed to plant:
- Look up the State Regional Competition for your county.
- Shoot an email to the regional coordinator to set up getting free reserved spots for however many kids you can bring (a full house is welcome for the competition).
- Come late Fall, pick a small but hardy group of freshmen, sophomores and juniors to take to the competition as spectators. Let them know. Show them the Poetry Out Loud website. Perhaps select one or two seniors who might be able to come back next Fall to help coach or guest judge a school competition. Pick students who show a love of drama, or are flagrant bookish types, or are just so hardworking that you know if they get lit up with excitement will follow through.
- Then, a few days after the Regionals, have a chat with them about what they saw.
I hope that you will also find they will own it and be eager to take the next steps to bring POL to the school. You can start the program with a small handful of committed kids that have seen it in action, and “get it.” Keep it as small as the POL rules allow until the program builds the word of mouth (ha, puns). You might even find allies in your Department or school will emerge to help.
If you are already on board with the idea and ready to bring Poetry Out Loud to your school – my suggestion is to use your teacher sense of backwards planning.
The POL website can be a bit daunting with dates, rules, etc. Pull out your planner, your school calendar, fire up the browser window– now work backwards.
- When are Nationals? (Ah, the “luxury problem “ of making it to Nationals!)
- When are States? (Another “luxury problem.”)
- When do you need to have your 2 school competitors reciting at Regionals locked-in with poem choice and poem order?
- When do they need to be coached and off-book?
- When does the school-wide competition need to happen?
- When do classroom competitions need to happen?
- When do we get the word out to teachers and students?
- When can you have an informational meeting with students (planting that seed)?
Pacing and planning gives you and the competitors time to prepare. Let’s face it, we are asking them to do something so anachronistically un-teenage. In public. Under a spotlight. We want them to have a good experience and honor their effort.
My school is entering into our second year of full-on Poetry Out Loud action. And backwards planning has saved me. Here’s what it looks like on the playback in chronological order:
- I put Poetry Out Loud on my staff meeting agenda from the first day of school.
- Our school is registered with NJ Arts.
- We have selected Nov. 19 as our school-wide competition date, and it is on the school calendar. (I learned last year December is way too crowded. I got the competitors, but not the audience.)
- On October 1, I will do an after school info session open to any interested student. This can be as simple as a walk through of the Poetry Out Loud webpage and viewing recitations on Youtube.
- In-class competitions with participating teachers will begin in mid-October. Mine are October 20th, and I have already posted the rubrics and criteria to my class wiki.
- Then we move from classroom to whole school. A few willing teachers will judge an audition-type preliminary on November 5 to select the 12 school-wide competitors.
- Those competitors will have some vacation days to memorize two pieces (for most of them, is just adding one, as they did a piece in class). We will coach the 12 during the week of November 10th. I will get the 12 students excused from class early and do a dress rehearsal on the 19th for the school-level competition.
- Once we have our winner and alternate from our school competition, we can take our time and guide the two Regional representatives through the process of selecting pieces, finding voice, and practicing recitations in December and January.
- In January, there are submission and paperwork deadlines. Then practice until Regionals in February.
And then we breathe.
Unless we’ve made it to States. But that’s another blog entry.
And, did I mention, Poetry Out Loud is a free program?