South Dakota Celebrates Poetry Out Loud

Posted by Rebecca Cruse, Feb 18, 2016 0 comments

2011 South Dakota Poetry Out Loud winner Melissa Johnston being interviewed at the National Finals by Kerry Washington (Credit: James Kegley)I’m really excited at work these days because Poetry Out Loud in South Dakota is in full swing. If you don’t know what Poetry Out Loud is, you should probably spend the next several days watching videos of these amazing kids at the National Finals and reading through the poetry archives and teaching resources on the website. It’s a really cool, intensely educational program available to all high school students across the nation.

The main purpose of Poetry Out Loud is to encourage the nation’s youth to learn about great poetry through memorization and recitation. This program helps students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about their literary heritage.

We’re fiercely dedicated to Poetry Out Loud at our state arts agency because poetry is an artistic representation of life. Poetry includes everyone. It helps us understand each other and the world around us. It helps us connect the past to the present, as it’s been practiced for centuries. Poetry is a living, breathing art form that can be enlightening both on the page and off. Poetry is for everyone, and Poetry Out Loud helps students and teachers see that concept to fruition.

Here’s how it works:

  1. The National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation team up as the primary sponsors of the program.
  2. Each state plus D.C., the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico receive grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to administer Poetry Out Loud at the state level.
  3. Awesomeness ensues.

OK, there’s a little more to it than that. All of those things are true, but let me take you back a little bit to the state funding. POL grants are given to state arts agencies. Then the agency is responsible for figuring out how to make the program work best for their students. That part varies from state to state, but the main components of the program remain. Poetry Out Loud starts in the classroom, where teachers teach poetry units and then introduce students to the program. Students compete through a series of local and regional contests to qualify for their state contest. A state event is held, and each state champion goes on to the national finals in Washington, D.C., where they compete for the national title. Students and their school libraries receive cash prizes for being named the POL champion at both the state and national level. In fact, the national champion wins $20,000! Cash prizes are awarded to the top 12 students in the nation.

As I said, each state does this a little differently. In South Dakota, we ask teachers to start planning their Poetry Out Loud units in the fall. We direct them to the teaching resources section of the POL website, which is full of valuable and fun resources to get students excited about poetry. We also send out all of our important dates for the year, including the deadline for our preliminary round of competition and the date of our state finals event. As the year goes on, classroom and school contests are held at the local level to identify their school champion. A qualifying contest consists of students reciting at least two memorized poems before judges. The judges use a scoring rubric that rates them on various aspects of the performance pertaining to understanding of the poem and recitation style.

Our preliminary round of competition is done via video in South Dakota – which is unusual. Many states hold regional contests. Some don’t have a qualifying round before the state contest.

In South Dakota, we also incorporate an original poetry component for schools that submit videos to the preliminary round of competition. Each school can submit up to three original poems with their video, and three original poetry winners are selected to present their poetry at our state finals event.

2014 South Dakota Poetry Out Loud state finalists (Credit: Stephen Thurman)Then we take the state champion to Washington, D.C. for the national finals – which is the coolest event! Students get to hang out with all the other national finalists. They get to meet famous poets, authors, theatre, TV, and movie stars who are there as judges or emcees for the event. They go to fancy parties celebrating their successes, and meet with their Congressional delegates to talk to them about Poetry Out Loud.

It is truly amazing to see these students in action – which you can do on the POL website or Youtube channel. You can even watch live-streams of the national finals and many state finals, as well.

So, if you’ve ever wondered what it is, exactly, that your state arts agency does, this is one of many programs administered at the state level. If this sounds interesting, I’d encourage you to look into other arts education programming and grants your agency offers, as well.

At the South Dakota Arts Council, I’m the contact for Poetry Out Loud and all other arts education programs and grant initiatives. Feel free to throw out any questions in the comments section here. If you’re in another state, I can help connect you with your state arts agency’s arts education director.

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