By Karen Decker
In a cabinet in my classroom, I keep a stash of small books of Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry. At least once a year, a student comes in and says, “Can I recite ‘The Raven’ next time I go to the podium?” My answer is, of course, yes, and I hand him or her one of the books. They are thrilled to be given a free book on the spot, but they are even more thrilled to discover that there are more poems within it. This has happened twice this school year already. The follow up always seems to be the same. A few days later, the student will approach the podium, proud to introduce a classic poem to the class, and begin with their pronouncement that they will be reciting an excerpt from “The Raven.” I don’t know which is more thrilling for me–the student’s vim, their motivation, their connection with the poem, or their use of the word excerpt. Oh and even better–this week, one of those students, a girl named Xena, asked if she could make study flashcards for the words in the poem she didn’t know.
A couple weeks ago, a tree fell on my house and I needed to run home briefly and assess the damage. Rather than waiting for a substitute teacher to cover for me while I was gone, my colleague, who had only four students in her literacy lab that period, brought them over to my classroom and watched over both groups of students. Her eighth graders had been in my class last year. When they entered my classroom, the first thing they asked was whether they could recite “Hope is the thing with feathers” for the seventh graders. Of course they could and did.
These experiences are fueled by student comfort and excitement about poetry, and they have nurtured my own passion for poetry. Hearing a seventh grade student own the line “This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself, as I walk through the universe in my sneakers” from Billy Collins’ poem ‘On Turning Ten,’ or “Don’t show me frogs and snakes and listen for my screams, if I’m afraid at all, it’s only in my dreams” from Maya Angelou’s poem, ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,’ is magical. The words of Collins and Angelou become as familiar to them as the lyrics of songs they seem to be streaming through their earbuds twenty-four-seven.
Poetry Out Loud is a national contest that recognizes the power of poetry on the tongues of young people. I want my students to see participation in the contest as an attainable goal. In the past, when some students heard they had to memorize and recite a Shakespearean soliloquy or started to peruse the choices for poems to recite in the Poetry Out Loud anthology, they would express apprehension about their potential to learn a long piece, sure their memories would not be up for the task. Once they fully processed the fact that they needed to perform it for the class, fear and doubt loomed in the room. They asked how low their grades would be affected if they just skipped an assignment. They pleaded for alternative assignments. Some started to get weepy and others were mad and pouty.
In order for students to understand the value of poetry, I had to show I valued it, by devoting class time to it. Making recitation routine ensures we acknowledge the beauty of poetry often; it provides my seventh grade students with the experiences and confidence they need to become recitation rockstars. Only students in grades nine through twelve can participate in the Poetry Out Loud contest, but that doesn’t mean my students can’t start preparing in seventh!
The process we use is the process integral to learning anything–accomplishing big things in small steps.
We begin with the goal of learning two lines as part of a collaborative recitation. “If” by Rudyard Kipling is a powerful poem to begin the school year with. We use it as a lens for analyzing the behaviors of characters we read about, identifying whether they are thriving on rational thought and persistence or whether they thrive on emotion. For example, can Cole in Ben Mikaelsen’s novel Touching Spirit Bear, relate to the lines “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you and make allowance for their doubting to” at the end of the novel? It also establishes an encouraging tone at the beginning of each class, acknowledging that obstacles exist while praising resilience and fortitude. These verbal reminders are necessary when students are being challenged with tough content, such as analyzing and reciting poetry, or simply struggling to demonstrate maturity in the classroom. Those who like to call out your name a bunch of times to get your attention rather than understand the nonverbal beauty of a raised hand need subtle reminders that the world is a less frantic place when they “can wait and not be tired by waiting.” The students take ownership of their lines and take ownership of the attitudes expressed in the poem as they take turns reciting and the lines echo around the room. Assigning each student in class a line or two to recite each time the title and author is announced builds meaning and connection quickly. It also allows you to take attendance in a productive, fun manner!
We practice the class recitation over several days, and students, even those who originally stumbled over vocabulary, pace, volume and inflection, get in the groove, often rising from their seat to say their lines with surprising confidence. At this point, I usually introduce the poem “Dreams” by Langston Hughes and ask them to learn the entire poem. Eight lines seems to be the magic number for boosting their confidence and teaching a variety of study strategies. We learn two lines, then two more lines, and then we chant all four together. Then, we learn lines five and six, and repeat the first stanza followed by the two new lines. Then, we learn lines seven and eight. And then we repeat all the lines at once. They peer coach each other to identify which lines they struggle with. It’s an engaging process because of the peer interaction and the comfort that comes with managing it in steps. Also, the poem contains rhyme, so there are auditory clues to guide them.
Once they are comfortable with eight lines, we go for twelve, then sixteen and so on. Some learn more lines from “If,” and others learn additional lines from the poems I continue to add to the collaborative recitations we engage in at the beginning of class.
During my first experience pursuing this with my seventh graders, we came up with something called “Club 72.” Students worked to learn seventy-two lines between November and May. I put up a bulletin board where I would post the names of Club 72 members. We had Poetry Cafes; students raided the lunchroom and recited for their peers. Students recited on the morning announcements. Students created videos of themselves reciting. They were relentless, and all seventh graders became part of Club 72 that year, earning the placement of their names on the designated bulletin board!
Since then, I have used mastery charts, tracking the amount of lines for each student as the year unfolds. Most students go beyond seventy-two, but all reach that goal. It helps that we engage in a collaborative class recitation every few weeks, but many of the students are hooked after our first two–asking when we will recite next and telling me about something they recently noticed about a poem or wanting to show the class a video they discovered that contains a favorite poem. Each student maintains an index card where he/she records the title of each poem and the amount of lines he/she knows from that poem for easy recall and review of the poems. When there is a free minute in class between activities, they grab the index cards that hang on the wall and practice with one another. The peer coaching is fun to observe. They give each other non-verbal clues, teach each other new poems and clarify vocabulary for each other. They ask to go in the hall and record recitations to send via DM on Instagram to contemporary poets.
Routine recitation provides a consistent foundation for creative writing and literary analysis. Students don’t like to re-read texts, although it’s integral to the many layers of comprehension. Our recitations make re-reading fun, and knowing a poem by heart provides students with a bank of examples of different writing techniques. It also allows them to use those poems as springboards or seed ideas for their own poetry. We write odes full of metaphors and hyperbole after reciting “Ode to Socks” by Pablo Neruda and reading “Ode to My Hair” in Crossover by Kwame Alexander. We use Dickinson’s poem to write about where hope perches for Fatima in Iqbal by Francesco D’Adamo.
Practicing public speaking habits has become more efficient and effective, too. Often when being given a public speaking assignment, students invest time in researching a topic and organizing it into a cohesive speech. It’s hard to do that while working to maintain eye contact, pacing, volume, and posture. When they recite a poem that they have learned by heart, and perhaps already recited several times prior to being assessed on their public speaking skills, they are able to really focus on their body language, the painting, punching, pausing of certain lines, their posture and the volume of their voice.
Routine recitation doesn’t monopolize a lot of time in my room. New poems are incorporated into our study of a novel and tied to a theme and/or writing activity inspired by the novel. I don’t take time out to do a poetry unit. Poetry is included in each of my units. Due to time constraints, some weeks we won’t recite at all, and other weeks, we will recite three out of the five days for about five minutes–sometimes collaboratively, and other times because a student has independently mastered more lines and is anxious to approach the podium. About once every three or four weeks, we will take a day and everyone will recite for the duration of the class period. It’s neat to see students grow in their comfort with the poems, cue each other with a word or line before I even need to, show up with a homemade cardboard sword to brandish when reciting “Jabberwocky,” and get excited when they discover they have learned most of a poem that they haven’t necessarily studied, all through the process of listening to their peers. It’s time well spent acknowledging the power of words. One of my students went out into the woods surrounding his home and took photos to include in a slideshow to accompany his recitation of an excerpt of “The Woodpile” by Robert Frost. I have visions of a poetry flash-mob occurring at a school-wide assembly very soon.
Students are engaged and empowered. Our classroom routine has made it so students are comfortable when they hear, in ninth grade, the words recitation and Poetry Out Loud Contest. They know they have strategies in their toolbox to study the poems, having both observed and nurtured their memory capacities. More importantly, they appreciate poetry! Former students initiate conversations with me about their favorite poems and some recite poems for me in unexpected public places, such as the grocery store!
Other Poems to try (student approved!):
“The Dream Keeper” by Langston Hughes
“April Rain Song” by Langston Hughes
“Harlem” by Langston Hughes
“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
“On Turning Ten” by Billy Collins
“Man Listening to Disc” by Billy Collins
“Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost
“A Valentine for Ernest Mann” by Naomi Shihab Nye
Short works by Williams Carlos Williams
“Sea Fever” by John Masefield
“Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes
“Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll
“To James” by Frank Horne
“The Women’s 400 Meters” by Lilian Morison
“Knock, Knock” by Daniel Beatty
“Invictus” by William Ernest Henley
“Layers” by Stanley Kunitz
“One Today” by Richard Blanco
“Praisesong for the Day” by Elizabeth Armstrong
“Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Thayer
“The Woodpile” by Robert Frost
Any poem in the verse novel Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Karen Decker is a 7th grade English teacher in Galway, NY. She loves introducing her students to new books, celebrating hope via poetry and other literature, reading student writing, and observing growth. When she isn’t in her classroom, she likes to travel, spend time with her family and walk her yellow lab Chase.
Teachers & Writers Collaborative partners with the NEA and Poetry Foundation to host Poetry Out Loud in New York State. Learn more at nypol.org.