The darkened auditorium is hushed. Two students step up to the microphones. “Windshield Wiper, by X. J. Kennedy,” they say. Then, together, they recite the poem, sometimes alternating lines, sometimes speaking together, using hands and arms for emphasis. The audience erupts in applause when they are done. Poetry is alive at the Kennedy Longfellow School. “Poetry should be spoken out loud and recited with feeling. That’s what we do here, and the children understand why we do it,” said Meg Urquhart, K-5 literacy coordinator, and one of the organizers of the third annual Kennedy Longfellow Poetry Slam.
The Poetry Slam began the year of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 200th birthday celebration. “We were commemorating the legacy of Longfellow, one of our namesakes, and one of our parents, Dr. Randy Matory, suggested the idea of the slam to give the students the opportunity to speak poems out loud, especially poems that meant something to them personally,” said Susan Moynihan, one of the Slam’s organizers. “We didn’t know then that it would become an annual event, but it has. Kids are talking about next year already.”
“I’m definitely doing it again next year” said sixth grader Hailey Johnson, who participated for the first time this year, reciting The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear. “It was a really good experience. I’ve never done anything like that before.” Shimals Tesfaye, also a sixth grader, said “when I first started, (a few weeks before the event) I thought I couldn’t memorize it (The Shady Character by Colin Mcnaughton), but I kept working at it, and I got it.”
In order to participate in the event, students must memorize a poem of their choice. They can recite it alone, or in a group of two or more. There is a dress rehearsal in school the day of the event, and the Slam itself takes place in the evening. Judges who are not teachers in the school evaluate the kids based on enthusiasm, posture and eye contact, pauses, enunciation, and complexity and difficulty of the poem. Putting students on stage in front of an audience raises the bar. “I did it in front of a whole bunch of people I didn’t know,” said fourth grader Quincy West. “I felt like I was on American Idol with the judges watching me. And my family was there, too.” The families come to watch because they know it is important. “I felt happy because when I was on stage my mom and my sister were cheering when I was done,” said Hend Elkatta, a first time fourth grade participant. “It made me feel brave,” said fourth grader Kevin Spires, who recited The Plan by Nikki Giovanni “ I felt happy when my mom was cheering, but especially when my big brother was cheering, because he said I wasn’t gonna do good, but then he liked it.”
Judges awarded prizes to the following participants:
Original Poems, Grades 6 and 7: Matthew Teffera for Should I?
Poems in Another Language, grades 6 and 7: Noreen Joseph Le Corbeau et le Renard Jean de la Fontaine
Poems in English: Recitations, Grades 4 and 5: Kalkidan Tadesse Stopping byWoods on a Snowy Evening Robert Frost, Honorable mention: Nashlee Joseph for Praise Song for the Day Elizabeth Alexander
Poems in English: Recitations in pairs, Grades 4 and 5: Peterson Philippe, David Flores for Winter Wind Margaret D. Larson
Poems in English Grades 6 and 7: Amy Zhao for Hope by Emily Dickinson
Poems in English in pairs or threes, Grades 6 and 7: Bryan Duarte, Jonah Schwartz for Little Old Letter by Langston Hughes