'Elevator Chat' with Poetry Out Loud Guru Davina Smith
The upcoming school year will mark the fifth year that Davina Smith, an English teacher of 20 years, has participated in the Poetry Out Loud (POL) national poetry recitation contest, which is administered in Maryland by the MSAC. Smith, who says that her personal form of meditation is starting each day with a poem, has her M.A. in Literature from American University. As a teacher at Richard Montgomery High School, she has coached three students to victory in the Maryland POL competition, with all three also advancing to the final round of the National POL Competition. As the contest enters its tenth year, we caught up with Davina to chat about her experiences and success with the program.September 02, 2014Arts Across Maryland
MSAC: What sparked your interest in bringing POL to Richard Montgomery High School?
DS: Driving through Maine in the summer, my husband and I heard Will Farley, the 2009 Poetry Out Loud (POL) winner from Virginia, recite a poem on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. Surprisingly, we had not heard of the POL program before, despite our proximity to Washington, D.C. We were both bowled over by Farley’s poise and the enthusiastic reception of poetry by the studio audience. We wanted to know more, so once back home, I checked out the program, ordered materials, and organized our school’s first contest that December. Student interest was high. Nora Sandler, one of the students who participated that first year, came in third nationally and we were hooked.
MSAC: Every year, around 350,000 students across the U.S. compete in POL. And yet, you’ve coached three who won the Maryland competition and went on to place second, third and fourth in the national competition. Can you share your secrets to success?
DS: Our three national winners have all been very different, needing different levels of support. We begin by understanding the distinction between poetry recitation and dramatic performance. I encourage students to find their own poems, complex ones that speak to who they are, then make their way into the depths of the poem. This is probably the most important step for students.
One way to do this is by working individually with students to ensure they understand what is going on throughout the poem. Blessed Sheriff, our 2013 Nationals winner, had chosen a lovely poem titled “Heaven” for her school competition. She was good but preparing for county competition, we nailed down a much stronger version by framing questions: Who exactly is speaking? What does the allusion to “Gold Mountain” signify? What is the context? Who is the mysterious “he”? Her natural poise gave her a good first reading but discovering the answers to these questions made it first-rate. Only by deeply understanding the words can a reciter make the audience understand and care.
MSAC Arts-in-Education Program Director Chris Stewart with Blessed Sheriff, who placed second nationally at the POL final and Davina Smith.
MSAC: Beyond appreciation for poetry, how have your students benefited from competing in the program and what might they take away from the experience?
DS: Almost everyone fears the self-conscious moment of standing up in front of others to recite. Students gain poise and confidence by conquering this fear and channeling their nerves into creative expression. Students who are highly successful are given even more opportunities to shine and many are inspired to write their own poetry. As students progress through levels of competition, they make friendships with peers and also meet creative, supportive adults, potential role models.
During Blessed Sheriff’s year as a National winner, she performed her original poetry along with Phylicia Rashad, at the NEA 2014 Salute to Excellence in Education Gala, as well as participating in a panel discussion at the Baltimore Book Festival with adult poets and teachers. These extraordinary opportunities opened a new world to her.
MSAC: The competition can be quite suspenseful and exciting—especially at the National Final. Do you have a favorite POL moment?
DS: Our first National competition in 2010 was a rollercoaster ride. I was still learning the ropes of POL and was not prepared for Nora Sandler’s success. Ironically, Nora had come in third place at the school competition, but she mastered her complex and beautiful poems and rocked them. When she was announced as third place winner, we were proud of her accomplishment and she inspired our students.
MSAC: Poetry Out Loud registration is open to all Maryland high schools now through October 3. What advice do you have for teachers considering joining the program?
DS: Keep an eye out for developing talent. For example, Blessed competed at the school level as a freshman; although she placed fourth and did not move on to the next tier, it was clear she had exceptional potential. A month later, we brought her along to county competition so she could learn from this higher level and be inspired to continue with the program. The next year she came in second at Nationals. I also found it helpful to coordinate with the theatre department for recruits: two of our National winners, Kari Barclay and Nora Sandler, were both thespians who loved poetry.
I would also make sure to educate both the students and the local judges. I send them judging criteria at least a week in advance, suggest that they view at least 3-4 videos on the Poetry Out Loud website, and then stop by to chat about the criteria. Without this, some judges tend to reward overly dramatic performance, which is not what this program is all about.
And most important: keep it fun. Involve lots of students in the school-wide competition as musicians playing during scoring, tabulators (I always have two with laptops to ensure accuracy), ushers, and audience.
MSAC: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience with Poetry Out Loud?
DS: The longer I teach, the more I appreciate the concision and complexity of poems as a means to teach critical reading. The Common Core standards demand students read a variety of complex texts, develop critical thinking and analysis skills, and demonstrate presentation skills. The variety of good poetry available can engage every student, from new language learner to advanced programs. Poetry Out Loud helps us prepare our students, both hearts and minds, for adulthood.
Maryland Poetry Out Loud invites all Maryland high school teachers to register by October 3, 2010 to participate this year. For more information, or to register, visit www.msac.org/poetry-out-loud-pol.