Our Poetry Out Loud program is currently welcoming partners for our 2021-2022 season. Poetry Out Loud (POL) is a national poetry recitation competition for high school students. By encouraging youth to learn about great poetry through memorization and performance, students can master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about their literary heritage. The program and all materials are provided to each partner at no cost. This month, we interviewed two teachers: Kevin Griffin and Eric Hammerstrom, currently involved with the POL program. In their own words, they told us about their experience with Poetry Out Loud and how this participation has greatly impacted their students. We invite you learn about their experiences below and attend the POL orientation on October 20th to access more information.

Kevin Griffin, English & Creative Writing Teacher at Detroit Catholic Central High School

As a teacher, what activities did it involve to be part of Poetry Out Loud?

Our school already values poetry, which is taught across all grade levels throughout the school year. For the past twelve years, every student in our building (some 1000 boys per year) has participated in the program. Poetry Out Loud is now a part of our English curriculum and our school culture. English teachers will typically introduce POL in mid-September, and students will choose their poems by early October. Students are then given a few weeks to prepare. Classroom competitions are held in mid-to-late October, and classroom champions advance to our school-wide competition (typically about thirty students) in early December. Our students have embraced this competition and very much look forward to it each year.

What impact did Poetry Out Loud have on your students?

Poetry Out Loud has had a profound effect on our students, who are now exposed to at least twenty new poems each fall. I still meet graduates who can recite their poems verbatim!

Why would you recommend other teachers to participate in Poetry Out Loud?

Every English teacher should become a part of the POL program. It strengthens vocabulary, empathy, critical thinking, and public speaking skills in all students. The most rewarding experiences during my participation have been taking our school champions to the state competitions. Each school champion has made me so proud to be a Detroit Catholic Central Shamrock!

Eric Hammerstrom, Language Arts/English Instructor at Marquette Senior High School, Content Coordinator at Marquette Neighbors Magazine

As a teacher, what activities did it involve to be part of Poetry Out Loud?

Getting involved in Poetry Out Loud was one of the best choices I’ve made as an educator. The program supports teachers to bring classic and contemporary poetry into the classroom in a meaningful and fun way. To be completely honest, I hated poetry when I was a high school student. We studied poems like they were frogs being dissected–here’s the rhyme scheme, oh, look, alliteration! I remember identifying and highlighting and analyzing, but I did not understand HOW poems worked, or WHY they worked. The how and the why are the most important parts, but I didn’t really understand poetry until I began to study it under Hugh Ogden, Elizabeth Libby, and Gerald Stern (a writer in residence at the time) at Trinity College in Connecticut. They were my mentors. Under their guidance, I learned to love writing as a craft, then as an art instead of a lab assignment.

My favorite Poetry Out Loud activity involves the TONE MAP. If there’s one thing language arts teachers need to teach in the modern world of emails, texts, and tweets, it is TONE. The English language offers writers an incredible variety of sounds that originally come from German, Latin and Greek. Repeating the harsh sounds of German–G, K, Z, D, etc,–or the lovely, soft vowel sounds of Latin allows English-language writers to manipulate the emotions of readers in ways no other language can. Poetry Out Loud gives me an opportunity to help students identify when they sound angry, or impatient, or elated, and to explain HOW that is expressed in their writing. That is step one in controlling your writing in a way that controls your reader’s emotions, and that is the ultimate goal of any email, text, tweet or poem–isn’t it?

What impact did Poetry Out Loud have on your students?

Pre-Covid, our school championship had grown into one of the coolest events of the year at Marquette Senior High School, filling the Shirley Smith Little Theatre beyond capacity. It was incredible to watch students take center stage beneath spotlights and close to 200 high
schoolers in the audience hush and listen closely, before roaring in applause for a rendition of Yeats or Byron or Naomi Shihab Nye. The Poetry Out Loud competition is the one time everything in our school gets put on hold to make way for poetry, and it is my favorite day of the year!

“Angels don’t come to the reservation,” a freshman girl asserted to that packed theatre one year. “…everyone knows angels are white. /Quit bothering with angels, I say. They’re no good for Indians.” The young woman stood before 200 of her peers and the poetry of Natalie Diaz. Her performance poured straight from her Anishinaabe heart and into the minds of her audience at the home of the Marquette Redmen. What a moment! “You better hope you never see angels on the rez. If you do, they’ll be marching you off to/Zion or Oklahoma, or some other hell they’ve mapped out for us.”- she continued.

This Anishinaabe young woman, Roxy Sprowl, was our Poetry Out Loud champion for four straight years. She went on to win the Poetry Out Loud Essay Contest and to interview Lois Beardslee before heading to Michigan State University on a full scholarship from the STARR Charitable Foundation. Roxy plans to become a civil rights attorney, and I can’t help but think that the Michigan Humanities Council, the Poetry Out Loud Program, and that moment on stage at Marquette Senior High School set her on that path, each moment of applause from her peers was an affirmation of her dreams.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this blog, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or Michigan Humanities.

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