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Risk Out Loud
Risk Out Loud TItle


Reading and writing is one thing; performing is another thing altogether, and public speaking is something many adults avoid as much as possible in their lifetime. At Marshall, students in seventh through twelfth grades are charged with the opportunity and obligation to face that risk each year through English Out Loud and Poetry Out Loud.

Back when middle school was added at Marshall, Drama Day—a day full of class plays and musicals—was part of the year-end festivities. After 20+ years, Lori Durant and Matt Whittaker ’02 refreshed and relaunched it as English Out Loud, an event where seventh and eighth graders performed memorized passages for the occasion.

“Eighth graders have the option to write their own piece, and when they do, it’s such a rewarding experience,” Durant shared. “After seventh graders perform, many start planning for their next EOL right away. Seventh and eighth graders also dive right in by choosing to write and perform their own words instead of a piece they find in their research. Seeing the extra work they put into crafting their message and the heart that goes into performing it is incredibly rewarding.”

After wrapping up middle school with this time on the stage, upper schoolers are ready for their next challenge: Poetry Out Loud in classrooms in November. Former Marshall faculty member David Johnson brought Marshall into the Poetry Out Loud fold in 2010, and as it grew, the entire English department got in on the project. Students select a poem from the vast Poetry Out Loud catalog and spend two weeks not only memorizing their poem but diving into the mind of the poet and seeking to understand the meaning behind the words and turns of phrase as they can.

Focusing a student’s attention on one piece of poetry for this period of time unlocks different benefits than simply reading it once or twice in class. “If they spend two weeks with their chosen poems, working to understand them and memorize them, every day students have new realizations about the meaning of the poem, they discover new meanings of words or new interpretations of metaphors,” English faculty Nate Mattson explained.

Angelina Dodge ’20 can attest to the personal benefits of this time: “I found time spent focusing on my poems, because I liked them, to be stress-relieving. By spending so much time with my poems, I was able to really understand and explore what the author was trying to communicate. I’d say my appreciation for poetry is much higher now than it was before Poetry Out Loud.”

Dasia Starks ’22 explained that she spends the majority of her preparation time committing the poem to memory. “When I memorize a poem, I work on two or three lines at a time. Once I have an entire stanza memorized, I move onto the next one until the entire poem is concrete in my mind,” she said. “However, I never ‘perform’ a poem while memorizing it. My first time performing the poem is always in front of my audience. This allows me to use true emotions in the moment and not sound like a robot!”

Spending the time to prepare sets the stage for success, but actually performing is a huge step outside of most students’ comfort zones. “It’s not easy, getting up in front of your peers to recite a poem; after all, you might have to show some emotion!” Dr. Susan Nygaard said. “And it’s scary because you might suddenly forget a poem you’ve been obsessively memorizing for weeks. You might even experience the supreme awkwardness of being stared at while you pause, panic, and wish desperately to plunge into an abyss! You can’t just give up and quit—somehow, you have to get to the end of the poem.”

And when a performer does get to the end of their poem, their classmates are waiting to celebrate with them. Mattson shared, “Outside of sports, I never see students truly support and appreciate each other as much as during Poetry Out Loud practices and performances. They are high fiving and clapping. They say things like ‘That was awesome,’ or ‘How did you DO that?’ or ‘You’re gonna win for sure.’ When someone messes up or forgets lines, the audience is even more supportive. They genuinely smile at each other and try to make their classmates feel better. It is truly one of my favorite times of the year.”

“I’m so glad I competed in Poetry Out Loud,” Dodge said. “It led me to realize a few things, the first being that competitions can be enjoyable if you go into them with the right mindset. The second is that I learned how to present myself and speak in front of crowds, something I’ve had only a little previous experience with.”

Nygaard summed the experience up well: “No matter how you performed, no matter how painful the experience might have been, you’re stronger for having gotten there. These days, lots of folks think that grit is the key to success. I think they’re probably right.”


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