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Hilary Gan is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona, an Education Intern at The University of Arizona Poetry Center, and writer-in-residence at Hollinger Elementary.
I was lucky enough to be present for the Poetry Out Loud Southern Arizona Semi-finals competition--I even scored a seat by the outdoor propane heater for the last half. I am a fiction writer who knows very little about poetry and who tends to favor the out-of-vogue and terribly inappropriate narrative poetic stylings of Charles Bukowski. I like it when ugly language is repurposed into something beautiful, and I like finding beauty in grittiness.
My mother is an English teacher and says that the best poems for high schoolers are the old, tried-and-true sentimental poems: 'O Captain, My Captain!" and so forth. Sentimental rhymers were the poems most of the students chose to perform.
Robert Oliphant argues in his article "Speech, Hearing, and America's 100 Most Memorable Children's Poems" that the memorization of poetry helps children develop phonemic awareness, learn multiple connotations for words, and become "civilizationally literate." He goes on to explain that rhymes allow children to practice distinguishing between consonants, while literary devices use words in different contexts and allow students to expand their understanding of meaning, as well as expanding their vocabulary to include words that are uncommon in their neck of the woods.
So it appears that the students who are going on to the State Competition on Thursday, March 29 in Phoenix (Joshua Furtado, Cassandra Valadez, and Mark Anthony Niadas) were the students who gleaned these lessons well enough to express their poems with the full force of their own personality.
Two out of three of the winners were actors in their school drama clubs, and it showed. What made them stand out was their treatment of the poem like a conversation. They let sentences and meaning dictate their delivery, rather than the rhymes; they recognized and allowed the humor of their pieces into their performances, and it was clear that somehow they related deeply to their poems in unique ways, which brought hidden meanings to light. They had distinguished their phonemes to the point that they could choose to ignore or emphasize them. They had understood multiple connotations so well that they could express them with the tone of their voices. And they had understood the purpose of the poem so well that they could take, say, a 19th century poem written by a guy in Massachusetts and perform it in Tucson, Arizona with all of the emotion of the original and some besides. In short, they had learned their poems.
So if you would like to see what an arts education really does for our students, please think about attending the State Finals Competition, held here:
Thursday, March 29, 2012
7:00pm - 9:30pm
Phoenix Center for the Arts
1202 North 3rd Street
Phoenix, AZ 85004
And in other poetry-related news this month, check out the links below:
The U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan blogged about the importance of arts in the schools: http://www.ed.gov/blog/2012/03/it%e2%80%99s-march-do-you-know-how-strong-your-schools%e2%80%99-arts-programs-are/
The New York Public Library offers its summer seminar program for teachers in conjunction with The Cullman Center Institute for Teachers: http://www.nypl.org/events/cullman-institute-teachers
And Reddit has an official "literature channel" for videos of performances thanks to Miracle Jones: http://www.reddit.com/r/litvideos/