Education Week - February 14, 2018 - 8
Breathing New Life Into an Old Art: Poetry Recitation
By Catherine Gewertz
Mount Vernon, Wash.
Everyone is standing up and
shouting at once in Lance Fisher's
English class, and that's exactly
what he wants them to do.
Fisher's 12th grade students
are reciting-more like hurling-
poems at the walls. They stand in
a big circle, facing outward, simultaneously reciting poems they've
memorized (or almost memorized).
The teenagers work on projecting
their voices, animating their faces,
gesturing with their hands. Snippets of verse by dead and living
poets zig through the air.
In this class, poetry isn't a sit-atyour-desk-and-try-to-stay-awake affair. It's a stand-up-and-get-into-it
thing. But this isn't "slam" poetry,
where students perform their own
work. Here, students memorize and
recite other people's poems.
The idea seems old-fashioned,
even quaint at first. Until you get
hit with a flying chunk of Natalie
Diaz ("Angels don't come to the
reservation," one girl snarls), or
wince at a melancholy slice of Robert Frost ("I'm done with applepicking now," says one student,
trying out a wistful tone).
Fisher's work with these students is
part of a national program that seeks
to persuade students that reciting
other people's poetry can be as transformative as performing their own.
A Powerhouse Teaching Tool
English teachers say that memorizing and reciting aren't dusty relics,
but powerful levers that help them
impart key skills to students: acquiring deep understanding of text structure and author's purpose, building
vocabulary, and finding a personal
connection to written language.
"I just like them having the words
in their mouths," said Fisher, who has
been teaching English at Mount Vernon High School an hour's drive from
the Canadian border, for nine years.
"The language is so much higher
than what they're normally using."
He finds that the memorize-andrecite approach supports his teaching of common-core standards in
reading and speaking. It also helps
his English-learner students by exposing them to aspects of language
they don't otherwise use, Fisher said.
There are many ways to teach poetry through memorization and recitation, but the one Fisher is using
is called Poetry Out Loud. It was
developed in 2005 by the National
Endowment of the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, and is supported
by NEA grants to states. Free for
schools, it includes an online anthol-
8 | EDUCATION WEEK | February 14, 2018 | www.edweek.org
Ian C. Bates for Education Week
It's as powerful as
'slam,' experts say
ogy of 900 poems by a diverse array
of poets, performance videos, and a
teacher's guide with lesson plans.
Schools that participate in the
program host schoolwide competitions that feed into regional contests. Local winners perform for
cash prizes at the state level, and
those contests produce an elite crop
of about 50 who come to Washington, D.C., all-expenses paid, each
April to vie for the national title.
The top 10 performers on the national circuit can win $1,000 to
$20,000, plus additional cash for
their schools. More than 300,000 students from 2,300 high schools across
the country competed last year.
'You Really Have to Understand'
Eileen Murphy became a fan
of Poetry Out Loud 12 years ago,
when she was a high school English
teacher in Chicago. She taught creative writing and coached slam poetry, but she found that having her
students memorize other people's
verse deepened their understanding of written and spoken English
in unique ways.
"To memorize, you have to assume
the voice of the speaker, and to do
that, you really have to understand
what they're saying," said Murphy,
who wrote a book about using poetry to teach complex text and now
runs a Chicago-based company that
supports writing instruction.
That's what Ava Ross, a student
in Fisher's class in Washington
state, discovered. She had to read
her chosen poem, "Mr. Darcy," a
contemplation of marriage priorities
by 47-year-old American poet Victoria Chang, many times to master
its meaning and rhythms. Knowing
she'd have to say it out loud to other
people required her to dig deeper
than if she only had to read it silently to herself, she said.
"To get the delivery right, to pause
in the right places, to emphasize the
right words, you really have to get
everything that's going on in the
poem," Ross said.
In Fisher's class, memorization
starts with the hands. He asks his
seniors to copy their poems by hand
five times, a repetition that helps
students cement the words in their
heads, he said.
Then they move into another approach: They reduce the poem to abbreviations. They write only the first
letter of each word in each line. Then
they have to decode each line by remembering what the letters stand for.
Gradually, they take on bigger
pieces of their poems. They're en-
Students recite their poems to
the walls in English teacher
Lance Fisher's classroom at
Mount Vernon High School in
Mount Vernon, Wash. The
exercise is designed to reduce
jitters as students prepare to
perform poems they've
couraged to recite chunks of the
poem to friends, to the bathroom
mirror, walking to school, anywhere
Ross' target was the windshield
of her car. She recited her poem
while driving to school or to friends'
"I just did it over and over while I
was driving around," she said.
From Memorizing to Reciting
While students are memorizing
their poems, they're also writing
journal entries about them, and
discussing them in class. Fisher
uses the popu la r T P- CA ST T
method to help students analyze
their poems. (TP-CASTT stands for
title, paraphrase, connotation, attitude/tone, shift, title, and theme.)
The students paraphrase each line,
then wade into guided discussion
about themes and tone.
Recitation strategies can be fun:
Students perform tongue-twister
exercises to work on diction. Fisher
encourages them to stand up tall
and talk "to and through" the walls
(loud, in other words).
Your aim, he tells the students, is
to let the strength of the poem-not
a hefty dose of drama-carry the
"You don't have to die on stage like
in Shakespeare to make this meaningful," Fisher said. "Just anchor
on that poem and deliver it with
Before students stand up to recite
simultaneously, he guides them to
think about places in their poems
where they could use an appropriate hand or facial gesture ("like
when you talk to your friends"),
places they could inject a meaning-