April was National Poetry Month and as Brookwood’s fifth through eighth graders spent weeks preparing and practicing for the Harold W. Wise Declamation Contest, excitement was also palpable in fourth grade because these students held their own grade level version.
The annual Declamation Contest is a 44-year-old tradition at Brookwood in which fifth through eighth graders select, practice, and declaim a poem for an audience of peers, parents, teachers and judges with three finalists from each grade declaiming at a special School Meeting. And while not involved in the formal competition, fourth grade teacher Sarah Perkins says students are ready for their first-time grade-level challenge.
“Fourth graders are great readers who are ready for some healthy competition. Developmentally, they have started to step outside themselves and see more objectively who they are as a member of the greater community. They have real capacity to give and receive feedback. It is another leap from Lower School and a step into the Middle and Upper School experience.
This right of passage is not a stand-alone entity but is a part of the Grade 4 literacy curriculum. “The competition is nested neatly into our study of poetry in which students are immersed in the experience of reading, writing, performing, and listening to poetry. We focus on different styles of poetry and get to know a few different poets in particular, and write poems through internal and external observation (observation of the self and observation of the world). We also explore questions such as 'How can poetry help me understand my world?' and 'How can poetry help show who I am as a person?'" explains Sarah. “We create poetry anthologies which are composed of poems written by students as well as collected from published authors. Students explore deeper meanings in the poems they read and write reflective essays on those poems different meanings.”
With that background and from those anthologies, Grade 4 students themselves select the poems with guidance and requirements from their teachers. “Poems must be at least 10 lines long but no longer than 40 lines. The poems that they choose are quite diverse: from Maya Angelou to Shel Silverstein to lesser-known poets. We try to keep students choices unique by not repeating poems,” Sarah says.
After the selection, of course, comes the preparation and practice. “We show them a number of mentor declamations – from previous years Upper School winners, as well as people reading from the TED stage or from other poetry contests. They start to get a feel for what a ‘good’ poem choice would be and what it sounds like to declaim a piece,” Sarah says. “They practice their poems in class a great deal. We work hard on giving and receiving feedback to improve performance and enhance meaning."
"Fourth graders declaim in front of their teachers and classmates and are judged on the same rubric that is used in the Upper School, and judges select winners from all three sections rather than three from the grade as they do in the upper levels. We include honorable mentions and all students receive positive feedback,” says Sarah, speaking on ways the contest is modified to be age-appropriate for fourth graders.
Between the curricular integration, developmental stage strengths, and peer/community support, fourth grade’s Declamation Contest was a great success. The experience left most students eager to do it all again next year.
"I looked forward to it, but it was a little frustrating to memorize the whole poem and do all the hand motions. When it was over, I felt really relieved,” says fourth grader Maeve G. “I am really excited for next year, and I think it may be even a little better because we'll all have learned more things so we can try to do a better job."
The annual Declamation competition reflects Brookwood’s dedication to teaching children at all grade levels to be capable and comfortable public speakers. The competition was named by longtime teacher and administrator Dan Wise for his father who, as a would-be actor, struggled to memorize his lines. Through the years, hundreds of Brookwood students have participated in the Declamation Contest.
Learn more about Dan Wise and the Harold W. Wise Declamation Contest.