On Tuesday, Mar. 3, Maclay upper school students gathered in their homerooms to watch this year’s Poetry Out Loud (POL) competition. In previous years, students would gather in the Cartee Gym to listen to the students recite a poem before a panel of three judges. However, POL, like many other things, has adapted to Covid-19 and many Maclay students being online. 

“Studying poetry requires an attentiveness, an openness, a kind of radical empathy,” English department head Lee Norment said. “In poetry, language reaches its greatest intensity and power, so when our students study and then perform their poems, they get that close to the eternal present tense of art and the actual ‘value’ of language as a communicative act.” 

Students from grades 9-11 participate in POL and begin by reciting poetry before their class. The POL units typically happen before the end of the first semester but were postponed this year to give teachers ample time to determine a safe way to conduct the competition.

“Understanding the poem is the most important criterion for success. The students who did well totally inhabited their poems, becoming a kind of vessel for the poet’s language,” Norment said. “And being about to communicate the overall flow of the poem from beginning to end, the drama of its movement to a conclusion or revelation. And those who had the right level of dramatic performance, too.” 

To prepare for their initial performance, students select a poem that they are interested in from the POL website and go through steps to better understand their poem. The material varies based on the English class, but includes tasks such as completing a “tone map,” analyzing the poem through questions or creating an annotated version of the poem.

“I was drawn to the poem because of the final lines ‘we must learn to bear the pleasures / as we have borne the pains.’ Learning to allow yourself to enjoy life and not be held back by pain is an aspect of growing up,” finalist Mercy Crapps said. “Further, I chose the poem as it represents the bittersweet maturing and changing perspective between mother and child. To understand the meaning of my poem, I analyzed each line and pinpointed the words I needed to emphasize.”

Typically, students would perform in front of their English class, but, to accommodate online students, they sent in videos of them performing their poem, which were then played for the class. The English teachers then select winners from their classes and give the students the opportunity to compete in the school-wide competition.

“I honestly was shocked and did not expect [to win the class competition] because, while I do believe I did well, other people in the school also did amazing jobs, so I am just so happy for this,” sophomore Tovah Levenson said. “I was doing a French poem for a competition that week as well, and for both, I first practiced doing line or stanza by stanza at a time and just over and over. I am normally good at memorizing poems and lines (acting) so after I got it down, I would work on saying the lines the way I want to make it sound flowy.”

This year, the participants in the school-wide competition were freshmen Sophia Krizner and Anne Mason Roberts, sophomores Meghan Goletz, Evan Brown, Clayton Knox, Prezsence Francis, Tovah Levenson, Jackson Kottkamp, Teresa Morgado, Paloma Rambana, Liisi Schnippert and Lucy Whitehead and juniors Mercy Crapps, Riley Karpinski, Stuart Higdon, Connor Chason, Kate Krizner, Maddie LaPine, Hannah Leatzow and Carly White.

“Students who end up excelling at POL always surprise me. Often students think it’s about memorizing, but it’s the delivery of the poem that is at the essence of POL,” English teacher Lauren Fantle said. “I can never predict in advance who will give a compelling performance. Also, as a freshman teacher, I get to see students blossom over time.”

The video that was played in all upper school homerooms was put together by librarian David Low and featured the finalists and the winners of the school competition. The video started out with the poem “Motto” by Langston Hughes and listed the judges for this year’s competition: Dr. Aaron Spotts, Mrs. Cindy Thomas and Dr. Paul Berk, with Berk being the accuracy judge. 

In the school-wide competition, sophomore Tovah Levenson took third, junior Mercy Crapps took second and sophomore Jackson Kottkamp came in first place. After competing in the school-wide competition, the winner can compete at the state and national level, which will both also be held virtually this year.

“I think there was definitely less pressure because I could re record if I did not like it,” Levenson said. “Last year, I did not win but did in front of the school, and it was extremely stressful but also fun.” 

While this was the first year that students performed virtually, many found it easier to do it this way, as it enabled them to repeat their performance until they were satisfied without being watched by their peers. However, the virtual option also drove students to gain new technical skills and required a little more preparation, such as recording with good sound quality, clear video and more. 

[Performing virtually] was easier because I was able to make sure I had accurately recited the poem,” Crapps said. “Also since I did not have an audience when I was recording, I was able to be encompassed by the poem without the worry of being watched.”

The English department’s adaptations to Covid-19 allowed for an important part of the English curriculum to continue on and give students more feelings of normalcy in their education, along with making sure virtual students have the same opportunities as those in person.

“I loved [students performing virtually]! I saw the quality of their recitations increase immensely,” Fantle said. “I enjoyed seeing creativity in their backgrounds, their dress, that I don’t usually see in-person, and Mr. Low was able to help some students with a ‘green screen.’” 


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