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A Tradition in the English Classroom Has A Modern Touch

Stories, know-how, and guidance from the experts in educating boys.

Jacqueline Keller

A Tradition in the English Classroom Has A Modern Touch

For decades, the Avon Old Farms School annual poetry contest has been a special experience shared with all brothers. Started by English Department Chair John Haile in the 80s, the experience of reciting a poem in front of his peers is an experience that all Avonians since that time share.

WHY POETRY?

At Avon Old Farms, the Connecticut boarding school for boys, the faculty and staff encourage our students to try new things, to be vulnerable, and to embrace that feeling—which we know can sometimes be uncomfortable. Poetry has the ability to evoke deep feelings and responses. In struggling to learn a poem, our students are motivated to interpret the words from the author and internalize them. Then, when it comes time to recite a poem in the front of the class, boys are challenged to make the words their own, make the recitation authentic, to share their feelings with their classmates through the spoken word.

HOW DO THE STUDENTS GET TO KNOW A POEM?

In the third quarter of each academic year at Avon, each section of English works through a poetry curriculum. In Mrs. Kate Doemland’s English sections, she has utilized the technology our boys are most comfortable with to bring the curriculum into more familiar territory: the internet. 

In anticipation of our annual poetry recitation, students in Mrs. Doemland’s English 2 and English 3 class created Google Sites to showcase the body of the work they produced during their poetry unit. The goal was to read, write, research, connect, and produce a collected visual and aural experience with their poem and poet in a way that makes their recitation personal and powerful.

Here, Mrs. Doemland shares a few examples of her students’ websites, and prefaces her students’ work with words from Poet Laureate Joy Harjo: 

 

“When I began to listen to poetry,
it’s when I began to listen to the stones,
and I began to listen to what the clouds had to say,
and I began to listen to others. 

And I think, most importantly for all of us,
then you begin to learn to listen to the soul,
the soul of yourself in here,
which is also the soul of everyone else.”

 

Enjoy this sample of student work and “the soul of everyone else.”

Step One: Get Familiar with the Author

Griffin Williams: English 2 project on Amiri Baraka’s poem “BA'KA”

In Griffin’s site, he dedicated his homepage to the author, stating that “Amiri Baraka was born in 1934 under the name of Leroi Jones … Throughout most of his career, his method in poetry, drama, fiction, and essays was confrontational and calculated to shock and awaken audiences to the political concerns of black Americans.”

In exploring the author and who he was in society, students are able to understand the meaning behind the written words and breathe that emotion into them when reciting a chosen work.

Step 2: Understand a More Complete Body of Work in Order to Internalize the Author’s Intentions

Everyone has heard of Shakespeare, but that does not make reciting a piece of his work any easier—in fact, Shakespeare is very difficult to recite. However, by studying a body of work, students are able to identify nuances within each piece and better understand the context of the piece, the author, and what each piece is intended to communicate. 

Yuan (George) Shi: English 2

On Yuan's site, he explains,“I chose this poem because it contains the kind of spiritual energy that is positive and vigorous ...  Shakespeare is encouraging people to focus less on the things that are out of reach because there are uncountable things an individual cannot reach. However, while focusing on things we already owned may free us from the depressing reality. Although drowning in the past is also dangerous, causing a vicious spiral of depression can easily destroy a person.”

Step 3: Express the Connection They Feel with the Poem

Logan Seo: English 3

Within Logan’s site, he shared why he chose to recite "Funeral Blues" by W.H. Auden:

“I thought this poem relates and demonstrates not only the global circumstances but also my past memories. Globally, COVID-19 brought devastating casualties around us. In South Korea, there are about 90,000 COVID-19 cases and there are more people who struggled from the loss of their friends or family members. As the poem was about a speaker’s sadness and emptiness after the loss of his close friend, I thought this poem demonstrated the current situation around the world very well.”

In working through what meaning the poem represents to the student, he can reinvent the words to reflect his own interpretation in the way he chooses to recite it for his class.

KEY TAKEAWAY

Avon Old Farms is a school rich with tradition. Each winter, before spring break, all students participate in the annual poetry recitation competition not only to become enlightened by the artist's word of published authors, but also to become enlightened by their own growth. After four years of reciting poetry, our seniors are no longer intimidated by expressing themselves through poetry at the front of the class. They embrace it, and that lesson is one they carry with them forever. 


About the Author

JACQUELINE KELLER

Associate Director of Communications & Publications

kellerj@avonoldfarms.com