Poetry Out Loud: Best High School Poetry Activity Ever

Poetry Out Loud builds students’ untapped talents

Have you heard of Poetry Out Loud, (POL), the poetry recitation contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation? If you’re needing to inject some excitement into your ELA curriculum, dedicate some time to this contest. Last year, I made Poetry Out Loud a priority in my high school poetry class curriculum, and I’m so glad I did.

Poetry Out Loud was the catalyst that…

  • added dynamic, real-world relevance to my poetry class (PBL at its best!)
  • built student self-confidence
  • cultivated an appreciation for poetry in my school AND
  • developed my students’ public-speaking skills

Poetry Out Loud is simply one of the best things I’ve done in my eleven years of teaching.

Note: This year, to eliminate my former two-hour round-trip commute, I have begun teaching freshman-level writing courses at a local college, and since POL serves high school students only, I won’t be participating. However, since I’m a huge fan of this program and the slew of benefits it provides to students, I wholeheartedly encourage you to give Poetry Out Loud a try!

Here’s the gist of Poetry Out Loud

Students memorize and recite three poems from the POL website in front of judges at your school. The student who scores the highest is your school winner and advances to the regional level to compete against other school winners. The student with the highest score at the regional level advances to the state contest. The winner there advances to the national contest.

My single regret with POL is that only one student can represent each school. If only more students had an opportunity to advance to regionals! Still, the excitement is there when everyone realizes that they share the same chance to win.

My poetry class reads and thinks about poetry at the end of a long day.

Furthermore, students shouldn’t assume that the most theatrically-inclined students win. Everyone has an equal opportunity to excel at Poetry Out Loud and that’s the beauty of it. Honed drama skills are not required. In fact, according to contest materials, POL organizers advise students, “Recitation is about conveying a poem’s sense through its language. This is a challenging task, but a strong performance must rely on a powerful internalization of the poem rather than excessive gestures or unnecessary emoting.” Students shouldn’t, as the guide adds, “overshadow” the poem. In other words, successful poetry recitation shouldn’t be distracting and attention-getting; even reserved students can succeed with Poetry Out Loud.

Check out last year’s national winner here:

Last year’s winner, who, by the way, recited one of the same poems my school’s winner competed with at the regional competition.

And, of course, there are prizes to lure students and pique their interest. Here’s a screen grab from the Poetry Out Loud FAQs about available prizes:

National Level:  A total of $50,000 in awards and school/organizational stipends will be given at the Poetry Out Loud National Finals, including a $20,000 award for the National Champion, $10,000 for 2nd place, $5,000 for 3rd place, and $1,000 for 4th-9th places. The representing schools/organizations of each of the top nine finalists receive $500 for the purchase of poetry materials. There will be one honorable mention in each of the three national semifinals competitions. Those students will not advance to the finals, but will each receive a $1,000 cash award and a $500 school/organizational stipend.
State Level: Each winner at the state level will receive $200. The state winner’s school/organization will receive $500 for poetry materials. One runner-up in each state will receive $100; their school/organization will receive $200 for the purchase of poetry materials.
The Poetry Foundation provides and administers all aspects of the monetary prizes awarded for Poetry Out Loud.”

poetry out loud faq’s

How to get started with Poetry Out Loud

I’m not even sure where I initially learned about Poetry Out Loud, but it was most likely during an online search for materials and poems to share with my students. In fact, if you google Poetry Out Loud, you’ll quickly find the website. Upon first glance, you may think it’s simply a poetry database resource, much like The Poetry Foundation or Poets.org.

This is last year’s copy of my Poetry Out Loud Teacher’s Guide. This was invaluable and guided me through the entire contest process.

And yes, while the POL site will provide you with loads of quality poems, it also serves as your hub for organizing your school’s contest. Everything is there: materials for teachers (see the guide in the above photo) and/or contest organizers, materials for judges and students, contact info for your state’s POL organizer, regional contest dates, and more.

Last year’s teacher’s guide (above) was invaluable to me as I scheduled activities to help my students prepare for the competition. Click here for a downloadable file for the 2022-2023 contest season. Here are some photos of my teacher’s guide from last year:

So, if all this sounds interesting, read on for how I tackled Poetry Out Loud last year.

My General Poetry Out Loud Timeline with Other Notes Added In

Here’s a timeline of the tasks I aimed to accomplish along with the calendar dates, so I would be sure my students would have plenty of time to select, memorize, and finally, internalize their poems so they would be ready to compete in December.

  • Sept. 15: I contacted my state Poetry Out Loud contact to register my school by the date requested.
  • Sept. 21: I introduced students to the contest and showed three POL poetry recitations from YouTube.
  • Sept. 23: We watched more recitations. The more the better!
  • Oct. 28: I asked students to find a poem to memorize for our POL school contest.
  • Nov. 4: I showed students this “Get Involved in Poetry Out Loud!” informational video. I also passed out a tentative timeline and copies of evaluation and accuracy judging sheets.
  • Nov. 9: All students submitted to me the name and author of their chosen poems to recite for the school contest.
  • Nov. 10: We all, as a class, practiced judging a recitation in order to learn what judges look for. To do this, I recited three Shakespearean sonnets that I’ve committed to memory. While I recited, students judged my recitations and evaluated my accuracy using their copies. This was a very valuable activity and whether you recite from memory or not, it will give your students insight into the quick thinking that is required from judges as they evaluate.
  • Nov. 16: Each student practiced their poem from memory in front of the class.
  • Nov. 17: Each student worked independently or with a friend to memorize and practice.
  • Nov. 18-19: We watched more POL recitations and continued practicing.
  • Nov. 30: We practiced our poems for 20 minutes and then we all recited them from memory. I placed a dot on the wall to encourage students to look up and out. (Several tended to keep their gaze toward the floor.)
  • Dec. 1: Critique time! I made and shared to each student a Google Slide presentation that included each student’s poem on a slide. As students recited from the front of the room, listening students referenced the slides to offer constructive criticism in a critique-like activity. After a student recited, listeners circled errors and later gave the sheets back to the reciters as feedback.
  • Dec. 7: We held an all-class “run-through” where all students recited before me as I filled out a judge’s evaluation form while also carefully following along on a printed copy of student poems. It’s a lot for one person to do, but again this was just a “run-through.”
  • Dec. 8: More recitation practice.
  • Dec. 9: School Contest Preliminaries: Everyone recited their poem in the classroom again before me, but this time also with an accuracy judge (another teacher). The five top scorers would compete in our School Contest Finals later in the week. (I also confirmed that my judges and accuracy judges would be available later in the week for the school contest.)
  • Dec. 16: Our five top-scoring finalists from the preliminary recited their poems in front of the class.
  • Dec. 17: School Contest Finals: In the school cafeteria, the five top-scorers recited before judges, who included our school counselor and two teachers. The student with the highest score won. We announced the winner over the intercom and celebrated our school’s first-ever Poetry Out Loud school champion.
  • Jan. 13: I asked our school winner to choose two more poems by the end of class this day. These two additional poems, plus the one he recited in the school contest finals, would be the three poems he would recite at the regional.
  • Jan. 14: I posted a sign-up sheet and details for class to attend the POL Regionals on Feb. 9 at a location about an hour away from our school. (The regional contest was ultimately held virtually due to Covid-19.)
  • Jan. 18: I took a headcount for the Feb. 9 regional “field trip” and turned in my bus transportation request.
  • Jan. 25: In class, our winner rehearsed two of his poems before the class.
  • Jan. 27: Our winner rehearsed his third poem, which was required to be published before 1900.
  • Feb. 1 -8: Our school winner continued to memorize and practice.
  • Feb. 8: We planned for the virtual regional the following night held in my classroom and a computer connection via Zoom.
  • Feb. 9: The Regional Contest!

No, we did not win our regional contest in this first attempt, but we had a fantastic time trying our best at Poetry Out Loud. Our state organization provided a $250 stipend for school organizers, which I used to provide an ekphrastic poetry field trip in April for the entire class. From that stipend, each student received ten dollars to purchase their lunch while on the trip. It was a well-earned field trip and a fun way to culminate our first experience with Poetry Out Loud!

My awesome poetry class visits a local art museum to write ekphrastic poetry.

What I would do differently next time

  • Have students memorize three poems from the start
    • I thought having students memorize three initially would be too daunting, so I required them to memorize only one for the school contest. However, our school winner then had to memorize two more poems between middle December and the regional contest in early February. To memorize a poem to the point where the student fully internalizes it and “owns” it really requires more time. If I were to do POL again, all students would memorize three poems to recite in the school contest finals. It’s a lofty goal, but by starting our preparations about a month earlier in the fall, I know they could do it!

Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading! I absolutely love Poetry Out Loud and wished I could do it again.

In a world that too often prioritizes athletic endeavors over the artistic, POL provides an engaging opportunity in which all students can thrive, excel, and gain recognition.

Consider adding POL to your schedule to infuse project-based learning into your ELA classes, not to mention the extra boost of building your students’ confidence and public speaking skills. And of course, poetry… there’s always the benefit of having more poetry — language at its most sophisticated — in our lives.

Leave a comment below if you have any questions for me about POL or message me using the form on my Contact page. I would love to hear from you!

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Published by Marilyn Yung

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