Thank you, Sandy and Ken, for inviting me to speak at today’s event. More importantly, thank you for hosting an event that has continued to for both my brain and for my heart over the past six years. The annual drive up here has become a favorite milestone of my annual school calendar, and the weeks leading up to this event always include moments that remind me of why I love to be a teacher.
Ken asked me to speak about the value of Poetry Out Loud for teachers: Well, as the Poetry Out Loud web page will tell you, this activity is great for students. It meets the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) standards numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12. Not many people know what those numbers mean, but that’s a lot of standards! The secret, however, is that Poetry Out Loud isn’t just good for students. It’s good for me, too. Here are some of the things that I’ve learned as a teacher of Poetry Out Loud.
There are many great poems and poets out there! Happily, the ones at the beginning of the alphabet are no exception: The last years of working with students who select their poems on line have left me quite fond of
“Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”
and “Adam’s Curse.”
I’ve also discovered some other great poems, some of which do not begin with the letter “A.” One way I did that was by encouraging students to look at the pictures of the poets, and to browse for poems by clicking on poets who looked like interesting people. Somehow the photos help students to get past get past
Virginia Hamilton Adair
Kim Addonizio, and
Alphabetically or otherwise, I have found that working with students on Poetry Out Loud has been an exercise of discovery for me. Every year, students select poems that are completely new to me, and I get to share the joy of getting acquainted with and learning about these poets and poems that I was previously ignorant about. And I have found particular joy in exploring these poems with students who have learned them by heart, and who, through study and performance — and further study — and practice — have taken made their poems a part of themselves.
For some of you, the experience of watching this event may still leave you with a fundamental question: Why do we do it? My students often ask this question, and here is my best shot at answering it:
All study gives us knowledge, and we can get utility and joy from appreciating, knowing, and understanding things. By knowing stuff, we are able to understand how the world works and, one would hope, we are able to predict how things are going to turn out. Mathematics gives us order and provides models so that we can make reliable predictions. History shows us where we came from and gives us a sense of where we may be going. The sciences show us what we’re made of and how all of these forces and chemicals and atoms combine to make our world and our universe function as it does. But what about Poetry?
I believe that Poetry is special because it gives us a kind of knowledge reserved for us humans: It shows us how people feel. Poetry gives us a chance to get inside of someone’s soul and live, for a time, that other person’s joy or suffering. For all the contestants out there, I hope that over the year you have felt some of the joy that my colleagues and I find in reading great Poems. If at some point, you wonder at this mysterious person who Shakespeare compares to a summer’s day, that’s great. If you suffer and laugh with Billy Collins at the death of Allegory, or if you feel the fear, the urgency, and sadness of Dylan Thomas as he exhorts his father not to Go Gentle Into That Good Night — That is, if you take the poets’ words into your own minds and hearts, and if you share what they feel — Well, you’re making yourself that much more of a complete human being.
I get a lot of joy out of my annual visit to Tallahassee. It’s a long drive, but every year I encounter remarkable students who, by learning three poems by heart and sharing them with me, have enriched my life. I look forward to my annual trip up here because I always encounter students who recite with power and conviction, and beauty. And the memory of these performances can move me to tears, especially when I go back and re-read what they have shared with me and remember how they made me feel.
Watching this event always leaves me happy with the knowledge that students around the country are sharing in a celebration of the human condition – in all of its beauty, horror, sadness and joy, and perhaps above all, in wonder. Thank you, parents, fellow teachers, judges, and everyone involved in today’s event for making this celebration possible. For helping students to take the risk of sharing themselves with poetry and with us, and with each other. I’m very happy to be part of this celebration.
Enjoy the rest of this party!