I have never been a fan of memory work. I had to do a great deal of it when I was in school and on a scale of thinking abilities it ranks quite low. I also feel that many of my students over the years have relied too heavily on their memory skills and too lightly on their abilities to formulate their own ideas. Having said this, I have to admit to really liking Poetry Out Loud or its Canadian version Poetry In Voice. These are national competitions where students recite poetry. They both have excellent websites with collections of poems, videos of performances and podcasts on how to recite poetry meaningfully.
As part of my grade 10 poetry unit, my students have to recite a poem of about 25 lines to the class. I turn it into a mini-competition and award prizes for the top 3 performances. The students are not allowed to use notes or cue cards although they may have someone prompt them. They have spent time learning all the vocabulary in the poem and deciphering its meaning; we have listened to performances and podcasts and discussed how to stress a word or use effective pauses. Almost everyone in the class managed to memorize their poem and perform it without stumbling too much. Many of the students showed great poise and an ability to convey the meaning of the words. The value in something like this is that it takes most students out of their comfort zones; the performance itself is really only about a minute long but it challenges them to deal with nervousness and to get something letter perfect. I would never insist that a student perform if they had extreme stage fright but surprisingly no one in my class of 27 refused to do it. Last year, the top performer was a boy who has a speech impediment and a slight stammer. Not only was he able to speak without stammering but he really performed his poem with emotion. This year I have 2 exchange students from South America; although they speak with heavy accents that didn’t stop them from reciting their poems well.
Oral communication is one of the four strands in the Ontario English curriculum and it is something that we probably don’t assess enough. This activity does cover quite a few of the expectations. When I combine this with the writing and reading aspects of the poetry unit, I have covered many expectations in 3 strands. I can even throw in a bit of media study as well. Here is a short film/visual poem called Mankind is no island. My students were asked to explain how this could be called a poem and they had to figure out what the visuals in the film would correspond to in a regular poem. The students were also able to pick up on the use of different fonts in the signs and how they often corresponded to the idea that was being expressed. Throughout the poetry unit, our discussion often came back to the idea that poetry is a vehicle for expressing emotion and ideas. They were able to see this in this short film as well.