By Joseph Robertia
Leonardo da Vinci once wrote, “Poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” In that spirit, students at River City Academy painted a rich collage of verses Feb. 13 as part of their annual Valentine’s Day Poetry Slam.
This is the fifth year of the event.
“I’ve been very impressed with its evolution. It keeps getting better and better,” said English language arts instructor Tad DeGray.
The school functions on a performance-based standard of progress for students in grades seven through 12. DeGray said that the inception of the poetry slam was trying to come up with an interesting and fun way to engage students while meeting their speaking and listening standards.
“The standard is mostly getting up in front of a group of people and presenting or public speaking. It’s like forensics,” DeGray said, citing a program which involves debate, cross examination, informative and persuasive speaking, and/or oral interpretations of prose or poetry.
“But,” unlike forensics, DeGray added, “they don’t need to have it memorized. They can read from their notes and perform if they choose to.”
The school divides the students up into middle- and high school-aged divisions, and the students may read an original work or present their rendition of an already published piece of poetry.
“The competition is fierce in both divisions and has come a long way. The first year it was a lot of Shel Silverstein (author of ‘The Giving Tree’) and Kenn Nesbitt (author of ‘My Hippo Has Hiccups’),” DeGray said.
The pieces have come to reflect students’ interests and knowledge of more complex issues and literary works.
“Now we’re starting to see Walt Whitman, more from TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talks, and performance pieces dealing with bullying,” DeGray said. “We’re also seeing a lot less humorous pieces and more of the kids going for dramatic pieces to impact the audience.”
The students also are including multimedia effects in their presentations.
“They have access to projectors and some will put up an image behind them while they present. Others will use a sound effect on their phone. We had one kid last year who read ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ and he had cannon fire on his phone. It was plugged into the sound system and was amazing and really added to his piece,” DeGray said.
Skyler Diehl took first place in the high school division, others’ poetry category with his performance of “To The Boy Who Will One Day Date My Daughter,” by Jesse Parent.
“I saw the video on YouTube a few times and really liked it,” he said.
“It has aspects of seriousness and comedy, since it begins as a father kind of laying down the law and jokingly saying, ‘If you hurt my daughter I’ll kill you,’ but in the end it goes more into how he wants the best for his daughter, someone to love her and care for her when he’s not there anymore,” Diehl added.
Diehl said that it helped that he had seen the piece performed before he tried it.
“It’s easier when you see someone else do it already. I knew how he emoted and what I needed to do,” he said.
Diehl added that he’s also been at least one girl’s first boyfriend, so he has been at the receiving end of this concept in real life, and is wise enough to know he may one day be at the other end of the spectrum.
“It’s funny to think I could one day be the father of a daughter and what that might be like if she brought home a boy,” he said.
Grace Mills went tongue in cheek to get her win in the middle school division, personal poetry category with her piece, “Tad Won’t Stop Talking,” referring to a habit of her teacher, DeGray, being loquacious in class. She said she thought it was her presentation that earned her the win, though, more than the humorous subject matter.
“I don’t have stage fright, so I used my voice more than a lot of folks and I had really good eye contact with the audience,” she said.
Emily Ehret took first place in the middle school division, others’ poetry division for her piece, “Dear Straight People,” originally done by Denice Frohman. Ehret said she picked this piece to raise awareness of an issue she believes is important.
“I picked this one because it’s 2015 and people are still hating on gay people. I think everyone should have equal rights, so it felt good to send that message and get people talking about it,” she said.
Kaylin Morrell, who took second in the same division, also went with a poem that was solemn in nature, presenting “Five Reasons to Date a Girl with an Eating Disorder,” originally done by Megan Maughan.
“It was a response to an article I read. Some people don’t take it seriously, but I knew someone with an eating disorder and it is serious. I didn’t think a lot of people would understand the poem, but most did. A few people talked to me afterward and said they liked that I brought attention to the problem,” she said.
That’s an additional perk of the poetry slam, Morrell said — learning what fellow students find important in their own lives.
“I like this standard,” she said. “You get to see a different side of people and what they connect to.”
Overall, DeGray said that this year’s competition was a good one, and the kids grew personally and academically from it.
“They really tap into the passion inside themselves and the role of the character they’re speaking for, and they get comfortable being in front of a big group of people,” he said.
The poetry slam has become an event the students look forward to all year, DeGray said.
“They really like the spring and fall debates, but I think the poetry slam is the big one,” he said. “I’ve already had kids tell me they’ve got their poems picked out for next year.”
Middle School Personal Poetry
First place, Grace Mills, “Tad won’t stop talking;” second place, Dawnie Altman/Amelia Johnson, “Fun, Unique, Crazy, Kind Irritation Time;” third place, Trenity Jones, “Battlefield.”
Middle School Others’ Poetry
First place, Emily Ehret, “Dear Straight People,” by Denice Frohman; second place, Kaylin Morrell, “Five Reasons to Date a Girl with an Eating Disorder,” by Megan Maughan; third place, Elizabeth Conner, “Best Friends,” by Unknown.
High School Personal Poetry
First place, Morgan Stoddard, “The Impossible Woman;” second place, Maria Maes, “Do What You Will;” third place, Dakota Edin, “Block.”
High School Others’ Poetry
First place, Skyler Diehl, “To the Boy Who will One Day Date my Daughter,” by Jesse Parent; second place, Morgan Stoddard, “Carver,” by Neil Hilborn; third place, Izabeau Pearston, “Day 2,” by Kevin Burke.