SILVER CREEK - Every day, teachers across the country struggle to find a way to connect with their students. It's not an easy task to get kids excited about isosceles triangles or sedimentary rocks, literary devices or the U.S. Constitution.
But the Silver Creek Central School District has found a way to engage their students in the study of poetry.
High school students, grades 9 through 12, participate in a national program, called Poetry Out Loud. It's a poetry-recitation competition, "which encourages the nation's youth to learn about great poetry through memorization and performance," according to the Poetry Out Loud Web site.
OBSERVER?Photos by John Mackowiak
Top: Steven Mills, a senior at Silver Creek High School, recites a poem, which he wrote himself, at a recent school board meeting.
Above: Ana Figueroa, a sophomore at Silver Creek High School, recites a poem onstage at her school’s 2010 Poetry Out Loud competition.
"Students are asked to simply find a piece of poetry that resonates with them, and we get into what purpose poetry has for them," said Sarah Davis, the English teacher who first pitched the Poetry Out Loud idea to administration.
The teenagers - not typically a target market for poetry publishers - take a poem and put their own spin on it. They are not told how to approach the poem. They interpret it themselves, Davis said.
"I think it's safe for students, also, because poetry can be very intimidating," Davis said. "The classic idea of poetry is: you've got to figure out this puzzle and what it means. But this program just doesn't approach poetry in that way. It says, 'You're safe to do whatever you want with this poem.'"
Students are given a grade for participation. If you stand up and recite your poem, you get an "A." Davis said she can't recall a single student taking the "F" and choosing to not participate.
"We have classroom competitions, where every student participates," Davis said, "and then we take the three top students out of each classroom to move on to the school-wide competition."
From there, the top two students in the school participate in the Western New York regional competition. Silver Creek is the only Chautauqua County school that participates in the regional Poetry Out Loud competition, Davis said.
During the school-wide contest, the entire high school gathers in the auditorium to watch their classmates perform recitations of poetry.
Some teachers may find it difficult to believe, but according to Davis and Superintendent David O'Rourke, students are not just respectful during the assembly. They're also thoroughly engaged in the performances.
"It's a poetry celebration. It's a poetry slam, and students find this event to be an incredible and engaging assembly," O'Rourke said at a recent board meeting. "It's 80 or 90 minutes of poetry, and students are very wrapped in their attention."
"Mr. Hertlein (the high school principal) was a little skeptical at first that kids might be able to sit and watch their classmates do poetry for an hour, but there was such a level of respect," Davis said. "It really did blow the whole school away the first time they were able to see that.
"It's pretty amazing how it has become just a competitive event to see who can add the most flair to a poem," she added.
This year marks the third annual Silver Creek Poetry Out Loud recital. The school-wide winners were sophomore Ana Figueroa and senior Steven Mills.
Reading poetry in front of the entire school was a nerve-wracking experience, Figueroa said.
"I was very nervous to be on stage. My hands were shaking," she said. "My heart was pounding almost out of my chest."
Figueroa, who is bilingual in English and Spanish, took on the challenge of reciting "Dona Josefina Counsels Dona Concepcion Before Entering Sears" - which bounces back and forth from English to Spanish - by Maurice Kilwein Guevara
"My teachers and classmates love to hear me speak Spanish," Figueroa said, "so when I told them I had picked a bilingual poem, they all pushed me to enter."
Mills performed a poem that he wrote himself. It's called, "Cardboard Cutouts."
He recited his poem in front of his classmates, but he also bravely read his poem at a recent school board meeting. Mills explained the meaning behind his self-authored poem.
"Basically, it's just about," Mills said, "a lot of what I hear about my generation is that we're lazy, that we don't succeed as well as others, but I'm saying regardless of what we do, as long as we are ourselves, and we don't sell our selves, that we will be more successful than anyone could have ever thought we would be."
The school board gave Mills a warm round of applaudse after he recited the poem.
Poetry Out Loud appeals to Davis because it gives all students - some who rarely "grab the headlines" - an opportunity to showcase their talents and express themselves. It's a diverse group of students who take the stage to perform poetry.
"It hits kids that are often not in the spotlight," Davis said. "What I really love about it is that it's not necessarily the athlete getting accolades or the drama star. It can be any student at any reading level, and it brings them to the forefront."
Figueroa and Mills recently competed against the best in Western New York in the regional competition. Unfortunately, they did not break through to states.
For 2010, Davis, who also serves as chair of the English department, supplemented the high school's poetry study with a new digital literacy initiative, adding a video component to the competition.
"Digital literacy is kind of the up-and-coming, buzz word in education now," Davis said, "using video to teach the same skills as the traditional acts of reading and writing, getting kids to practice reading a film and getting them to compose video much like they would an essay."
Davis was inspired to spark the digital literacy movement in Silver Creek after attending a conference in Buffalo. The Silver Creek video project stems from a program known as, City Voices City Visions (CVCV), which is a Bufflao-based digitial literacy effort.
With a group of her junior-class students, Davis instituted the program, asking them to create a video interpretation of a poem.
Emily Rechin and Jennifer Phillips were selected as having the best videos. Their short films will be viewed during a regional CVCV film festival in June.
Phillips produced a short film around Albert Rios's poem, "The Cities Inside Us." An ongoing community art project, known as "PostSecret," inspired Phillips's production.
"My inspiration was Frank Warren (the founder of the project) and PostSecret," she said, "which is a continuing community art project where people write their secret and convey it with artwork on one side of a postcard and then mail it to Frank."
Phillips and Davis distributed postcards to high school students, requesting that they anonymously contribute their secrets to Phillips's project. She combined her classmates' secrets with music and her voice reading the poem to create a unique and moving short film.
"I think it's extremely powerful," Phillips said about the power of combining poetry and film, "not only in the aspect that it personally appeals to the creator's life, but it also gives something back to the audience which can help them in their lives."
Rechin's video was heartfelt and particularly timely. She produced a video for the poem, "It's the Little Towns I Like," by Thomas Lux.
In the poem, Lux ponders life in a small town that is struck by a flood. The world created in the poem is not far from the reality experienced in Silver Creek during the August flood.
"Me and my youth group, United Angels Youth Group, went down around the area that got hit really badly," Rechin said. "And we went house after house, just mucking out basements. One of my teachers lives down there, so I had to ask her for some pictures because that was the area that I had really interacted with and I saw the true devastation that occurred."
She incorporated pictures of the tragic flood and somber music with her reading of the poem. When her short film was shown at a recent school board meeting, the board members were not only impressed, but also touched. Rechin called it a "proud moment," showing her video to the people in charge of her school.
Using video to interpret poetry has helped Rechin gain a deep understanding of the poem she selected.
"It's just that visual that's there that adds to the understanding of the poem," Rechin said. "I know sometimes poems can go way over my head, and with this video and the digital technology, I can really put myself in the poem and understand it."
Davis urged other Chautauqua County high schools to consider instituting Poetry Out Loud competitions. It's free, and there are clear educational benefits for students, she said. To learn more, visit www.poetryoutloud.org.