Thursday, December 19, 2013

Poetry Out Loud: An Exercise in Developing Grit

For the third year in a row, Marshall School is participating in the National Poetry Out Loud program. (Thanks to Mr Johnson for getting us involved!) All the Upper School English teachers conduct a classroom contest in which students perform their poems and earn a score based on guidelines set by The Poetry Foundation. The winners of each classroom contest (who may or may not be the top-scoring performers--more about that later) move on to the Upper School contest, and the winner of that contest goes to the Regional contest.  

The students must choose their poems from an approved list. They practice reciting from memory in front of friends and family members, and occasionally you can hear them reciting as they walk through the halls. Usually, we spend some time in class, practicing and working on these poems, but this year, because of our (awesome three-day stretch of) snow days, I sacrificed our practice sessions and left the kids to work on their poems on their own.  In years past, I've had seniors visit Middle School classes to practice performing their poems--I regret that I didn't have time for that this year (that might be my only regret about the snow days!).

It's not easy, getting up in front of your peers to recite a poem; after all, you might have to show some emotion! And it's scary because you might suddenly forget a poem you've been obsessively memorizing for weeks. You might even experience the supreme awkwardness of being stared at while you pause, panic, and wish desperately to plunge into an abyss! You can't just give up and quit--somehow, you have to get to the end of the poem. 

And no matter how you performed, no matter how painful the experience might have been, you're stronger for having gotten there. These days, lots of folks think that grit is the key to success.  I think they're probably right.  (Make sure you click on those two links:  one is a really long but really good article, and the other is a really good and shorter article that includes a video and a test you can take.)  There's even a poem about grit on the POL list.

That's why this experience is so good for our students! In the process, some of them find they have talents they didn't know they had. Others discover they can conquer their fears.  Perhaps a few even realize they actually like poetry. And, yes, I know some students dread POL and feel an enormous sense of relief when it's over. But I'm betting that someday they'll look back on this moment and feel a bit nostalgic about it...

This year, the contestants from my classes will be Meggan G, Jake K, Clara E, and Sunny W. You can watch their classroom performances in the video playlist below, along with some of the runners-up (except for Jake--we had technical difficulties!).  

Some of these folks had the highest score in their class; some of them didn't. When I decide who should go on to the US contest, I take a number of factors into consideration, and the score is just one of them. I also consider who competed last year, who could benefit the most from participating, and who might grow the most as a result of tackling this test of character... Sometimes, I take a chance on someone who might never expect to be chosen. Sometimes, I ask (or nudge, badger, push, bribe, beg, emotionally blackmail, plead with) kids to step out of their comfort zone.  Sometimes, they take me up on my offer; sometimes, they don't.

I hope everyone will attend the Upper School contest here at Marshall on the evening of January 8. A few local poets (one of them a former Marshall English teacher) will serve as the judges, and they will assess the performances they witness that evening according to the criteria provided by The Poetry Foundation. I'll be very excited to see who wins--but what I really care about, and what I'm most proud of, are the largely invisible, inner struggles that lead up to that moment.  


  1. What talented students! I have January 8th on my calendar.

  2. What you write about grit supports why all my favorite films are what they are.

  3. I got to sit in on Mr. Johnson's class today and caught a moving reading of Sarah Orne Jewett's "A Country Boy in Winter" -- It was a wonderful reminder of the special moments in these winter days:

  4. I have enjoyed walking through upper school hallways several times this year past groups of students who appear to be "talking to themselves", but are actually working on their poems. Amazing example of grit from 6th grade this week...students singing solos in front of their entire grade for our class musical auditions. Your comfort zone is most often separate from where the magic happens!