Connecting Out Loud

Kaitlin Rosenfeld, April 2023

Two years ago, in the fall of 2020, I found myself questioning whether hosting our school’s annual Poetry Out Loud competition would be “worth it” or “worthwhile” during the height of Covid, when almost all of my students were learning from home full-time or part-time. I felt like my connection with my students had been partially severed by the stresses and distance imposed by the pandemic, and I had trouble imagining that they would want to recite poetry from the other side of a screen. I had trouble imagining how teachers would host classroom competitions on Google Meet, when most students were reluctant to even turn their cameras on. I also had trouble imagining what planning and hosting a fully-online competition would look like for me as a coordinator.

Despite my trouble imagining, when the yearly email from the folks at Poetry Out Loud came to my inbox, I decided to move forward. I am incredibly glad that I did.

I began working with colleagues to plan our school’s first POL competition in 2015. I helped with behind-the-scenes prep work to figure out what exactly it meant for a school to participate – levels of competition, judges, etc. and I helped as a prompter at the school-level competition to aid students who were struggling to remember lines. That first year, one of our school winners also placed in her regional competition and made it to the NY state competition.

I was instantly astonished by the talent of our POL participants, and I loved seeing our reciters connect with their chosen poems and use their powerful voices to communicate these connections to their audience. I was hooked.

In 2017, I took on the role of POL coordinator for our school. In 2019, I was excited to watch yet another Monroe-Woodbury student make it to the New York State competition.

As coordinator, it has always been my goal to ensure access to the program to as many students as possible. During 2020, I knew that we needed a new approach to guarantee that all students would have access to our program, even from their homes. I started to host after school “classroom competitions” to allow students to compete even if their English teachers were not hosting “traditional” classroom competitions. I worked to design “ready-to-go” POL introductions and lessons for other teachers to use. These methods helped keep POL accessible, and they are still staples in our POL program.

During our 2020 school-wide competition, which was held virtually on Google Meet, I was impressed, as always, by our talented students. However, I noticed something even more impressive happening in the chat box: after each student’s recitation, the other students (unprompted) wrote the most kind, thoughtful, and supportive comments. Each student was so happy and grateful to see the support from their fellow reciters, and I saw the biggest, realest smiles that I had seen on my screen (or in school, really) in 2020. They were students connecting with poems, connecting with each other despite the boundary of screens between them.

In 2021, connection among our reciters grew as we returned to in-person learning. We participated in virtual POL workshops through the Teachers and Writers Collaborative with an absolutely incredible teaching artist, Twinkle Burke. Twinkle was able to create a true safe space for the students attending her workshops. She inspired them to lean on each other as they shared their own personal stories connecting to their chosen poems, and to trust each other to be keepers of these stories and connections.

At that year’s school competition, the atmosphere felt different than it had at our in-person events pre-pandemic. Rather than a competition, it felt like a celebration. The students were there to rejoice in each other’s hard work, to root for each other, and to uplift each other. The chat-box comments had transformed into real-life energy, and it was magical.

This year, the magic of connection between students continued as we hosted after-school competitions and workshops (this year with teaching artist Khadija Bangoura). The students formed and deepened the most amazing connections with each other through their love of poetry and their desire to mix and mingle their own experiences and feelings with the content of their chosen poems in their performances. At their school-wide competition, the air buzzed with their positive energy, their compliments, and their excitement for one another’s performances.

Recently, I reached out to a few of our reciters to see if their experiences with POL match my own understanding of it, and to see if they feel the same magic that I do. One of our repeat performers, Nicole, said, “it’s a great way for people who love poetry to learn and express themselves. I look forward to it every year and overall I think it is just a wonderful experience. The people I have met through it I have remained in touch with and are now some of my good friends. I hope it keeps on going for a long time for generations to come.”

Nicole’s hope for poetry to keep inspiring these experiences for “generations” speaks to the power of poetry, and the amazing influence that it can have – especially when shared out loud.

More than talent, more than competitive spirit, Poetry Out Loud has highlighted something truly amazing: our students’ compassion and the magic of connection. I have trouble imagining anything more worthwhile.

Kaitlin Rosenfeld is an educator at Monroe-Woodbury High School. She teaches 9th grade English (Honors and co-teach Regents) as well as 12th grade Women in Literature. Kaitlin is currently the school coordinator for Poetry Out Loud at MW, the advisor for Crochet for a Cause, and a co-advisor for the junior class. She loves reading a book in any cozy space, arts and crafts, theater, and listening to podcasts about ghosts.

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