This week we’re celebrating National Arts in Education Week. Yesterday we talked about some of our arts learning programs and today, we take a closer look at one of our favorites: Poetry Out Loud.

Poetry Out Loud builds on the resurgence of poetry as an oral art form, as seen in the slam poetry movement and the immense popularity of rap music among youth. Poetry Out Loud invites the dynamic aspects of slam poetry, spoken word and theater into the English class. Through Poetry Out Loud, students can master public speaking skills, build self-confidence and learn about their literary heritage.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Poetry Foundation partner with State Arts Agencies (like the Arizona Commission on the Arts) to bring Poetry Out Loud (POL) to all 50 states and US territories.

Recently we spoke with Eleanor Billington, Program Manager at the NEA, about the program and its benefits, not only to the students who participate, but their communities as well.

IMG_2721aWhat do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of your involvement with Poetry Out Loud?
The stories. I love hearing from Poetry Out Loud participants at every level of the program. A teacher emails me and describes how one of her shy students blossomed through reciting aloud to her peers; a student explains how she had no initial interest in poetry, but after participating, she hopes to pursue creative writing and study literature at the college level; a parent pulls me aside at the National Finals and describes how their family now discusses poetry around the dinner table—these are just a handful of the hundreds of anecdotes we hear each year about Poetry Out Loud. This program changes the lives of individual students and has a positive, visible impact on school systems and local communities. It is a true joy and privilege to manage Poetry Out Loud for the Arts Endowment.

What would you say are the greatest benefits for high school students who participate in the program?
Through Poetry Out Loud students build self-confidence and master public speaking skills all while learning about their literary heritage. Poetry Out Loud also offers students a chance to connect to a larger community of writers and readers. Learning a single poem by heart means that each and every student has a friend for life; they have the language and wisdom of another writer available to them at any moment of the day. This is a powerful thing. High school students receive thousands of competing messages every time they turn on the TV or pick up their phone. Poetry Out Loud is a chance to hear a different message—a message about the importance of youth voice and the power of language to effect positive change and connect individuals.

IMG_2849aWhat advice would you give to students who may be unsure or nervous about participating, or completely frightened by the thought of performing poetry?
Try it. Just try it once. It is scary, and it takes great courage to stand up in front of your peers or even complete strangers and recite a poem, but you will learn so much in the process and be incredibly proud of yourself for trying. Start with a shorter poem, something that you are interested in and feel comfortable with, and practice in your mirror at home. Once you can recite in front of the mirror, try your stuffed animals or even a family pet, and then work on your parents. You’ll be much less nervous about performing at school if you’ve practiced out loud to an audience at home.

Can you explain your personal experience of poetry?
When I read poetry I slow down. I have to in order to understand what I am reading. Reading a poem can be fun and easy—the way the language rolls through your mind and interrupts your normal thinking and speech patterns—but it can also be incredibly challenging. It is human nature to avoid what is difficult, but there are great rewards from reading a poem closely and wrestling with the content, structure and themes. It’s much like taking a long run for your brain, a mental workout rather than a physical one.

zaskia2Poetry is often thought of as a private and solitary experience, but POL is very public. What do you feel is the benefit of sharing poetry as a community?
A public poetry performance draws people together and then pulls them outside their own experience into a larger, shared space. While listening to a poem, the audience begins to see the world through another’s eyes, and that change in perspective is very healthy for a community. It builds a connection between strangers and creates empathy. We often hear that Poetry Out Loud competitions are attended by a wide range of community members—not just those interested in poetry or literary events—and that those who attend one competition often return for others. They come back to hear powerful recitations, but they also return to feel connected to a wider circle. Audiences walk away from Poetry Out Loud events with new friends and new insights into their lives and their shared community.

Registration for 2017 Arizona Poetry Out Loud is now open. Teachers who would like to participate register themselves for the program. Once registered, each participating teacher/school site receives a toolkit, which includes a program guide to help teach recitation and performance and a DVD and companion guide for learning recitation—free of charge.

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