Two years ago we challenged our middle and upper school students to memorize the Gettysburg Address as part of the national “Learn the Address” project to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s speech. After memorizing the speech, students then recited it in front of a panel of judges, who chose one winner from each division. The winners of the MMFS contest went on to compete in a national competition with other LD schools in Putney, Vermont.
The experience of memorizing the address and reciting it in front of others was an incredible confidence booster for our students. It challenged their brains, refined their grasp of the English language, and taught them to be fearless in front of an audience. We wanted to design a similar activity that would build on the skills they learned in the contest while including the elementary school as well. Thus the MMFS Poetry Contest was born.
Our first contest was held last winter. Students in all three divisions volunteered to participate in the contest. They then worked with a teacher to select a poem they liked and memorize it. The teachers helped them break the poems into smaller, more manageable chunks, incorporated multisensory techniques into the learning process, and taught the content of the words to build connections. After weeks of work, the students presented their poems to a panel of judges made up of friends of the school. The judges chose a winner from each division and the winners performed their poems at the ES Winter Performance.
In this year’s contest, five students competed from the upper school, eight from the middle school, and a whopping twenty-eight from the elementary school. Many of the competitors were returnees. One of them was the runner up last year but won this year. The same upper school student who won last year for Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” won this year for Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.” The poems students chose came from a variety of sources. One student recited the lyrics to a Pink Floyd song while another recited a work that had begun as a poem but was then turned into a song by its author. And, of course, plenty of traditional poems were chosen as well.
There are lots of reasons why we believe the poetry contest is good for our kids. It trains, builds, and flexes their memorization muscles, improves their public speaking skills, and gives them an opportunity to meet and be seen by their peers at other LD schools. Most importantly, though, it gives them a poem for life. Who among us doesn’t have a poem we know by heart? When we memorize a poem, it becomes a part of us. We take it right into the center of our lives, which is why we call it “learning by heart.” Those poems become some of the best friends we’ll ever have, because they’ll always be there when we need them. As the poet Billy Collins wrote in The Atlantic, “Once you’ve installed [a] poem in your memory, it’s there to comfort you—or at least distract you—wherever you are.”