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Students compete for National Poetry Recitation Contest

Thousands of students across the country are bringing poetry to life by competing in this year’s Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest.

This is the contest’s fifth year, and it is growing rapidly, influencing thousands of high school students to learn and perform poetry.

Kristin Margolis, the California state contact from the California Arts Council, said that "there is an incredible demand for the program, with 300,000 participants nationwide this year."

"California has the most competing in the nation," Margolis said. "We will have 40,000 students from 27 counties, which is a big jump from the 24 counties that competed last year and 20 counties the year before that."

The program itself was founded to inspire high school students to read poetry and learn, not just from today’s poets, but from many poets before the 20th century.

"It is really important to encourage students to pick the poem and find something that has meaning for them," Margolis said.

The National Recitation Contest begins in the classroom, where students memorize poems and compete within their schools through their ability to remember, connect and perform their chosen poems.

Winners from each school continue on to compete in county contests and then state and national finals, where a single winner is chosen.

Margolis explained that it is such a great program because it can start by a parent, student or teacher hearing about it and deciding to get an entire school involved. There are no boundaries to who can participate because, as Margolis said, it is open to all students, whether home-schooled or in overcrowded classrooms.

"What is unique is that the program can run completely paperless," Margolis said.

Though she did say that supplies and poems are given to many of the schools, the Poetry Out Loud website has all 600 poems from which students can choose, making the contest accessible to every student.

This allows for a wide variety of students, some with very little resources and others who are in every available advanced class to compete on the same footing, Margolis said.

The competition is composed of a very diverse group of people, Margolis said, many of whom relate to poetry through hip hop and slam poetry.

The students gain more than just the knowledge of poetry – they gain confidence, public speaking practice and, as Margolis pointed out, "the feeling they have done something that they never thought they could do."

"All of the students really get the poems in their hearts, and we hear that they remember them years later," Margolis said.

The California finals will be held fro 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday in the Senate Chambers of the Capitol. This will be the second year of the finals being held at the Capitol.

Competitors will arrive at the Capitol the night before, allowing students to meet one another and bond through their poetry. Margolis said this "really allows them to root for each other."

The 27 winners from this year’s competing counties will be reciting three poems for the California state finals. One has to be pre-20th century, one 25 lines or less, and the last is the student’s choice. Students will be judged on their physical presence, voice and articulation, appropriateness of dramatization, level of difficulty, evidence of understanding, overall performance and accuracy. The overall score will determine a winner, and in the case of a tie like last year, Margolis said that the students must recite one of their poems again.

One state winner will move on to the national finals, which will be held at the George Washington University Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C. Semifinal rounds will begin April 26, and the finals will be held the following evening. The event is free and open to the public.

This year’s competition is being sponsored by Target, which is donating gift cards and books to state finals participants to accompany their Poetry Out Loud certificates of participation.

Each state winner will receive $200 and a paid trip to compete in Washington, D.C., as well as a $500 stipend for the winner’s school to purchase poetry books. The runners-up will receive $100 and a $200 stipend for their schools’ library.

The winner of the national finals will take home $50,000 in awards and school stipends.

Monday’s competition is open to the public, though space is limited. Since it will take place in the Senate Chamber, there are seats, but Margolis said she expects the chamber to fill up to standing room only.

The good news is that the competition will also be aired live on the Cal Channel, and a link can be found at calchannel.com.

2009 California State Champion Spencer Klavan


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