Poetry in Motion: NMH's Youngest Students Perform for Their Peers

Nov. 15, 2019 — The ninth graders stand in Grandin Auditorium beneath a portrait of school founder D.L. Moody and carry on a longstanding tradition in NMH’s Humanities 1 classes. They recite a poem from memory.

“Still I Rise,” by Maya Angelou; “Digging,” by Seamus Heaney; and “A Wasp Woman Visits a Black Junkie in Prison,” by Etheridge Knight — the poems are about self-identity and the vast spectrum of human connection, and the students try their 14- and 15-year-old best to inhabit the words with their voices and gestures.

By early November, more than halfway through the fall semester, they are succeeding. “That gave me chills!” one student declares after hearing a couple of her classmates perform “alternate names for black boys” by Danez Smith. “It felt like you were storytellers, like I was listening to an audiobook,” says another.

“The students learn and understand poems in a much deeper way than they would if they were just reading them,” explains Lori Veilleux, a religious studies and philosophy teacher who teaches Hum 1, as it’s known. “They’re also developing confidence and real skills for speaking to a crowd.”

The Hum 1 curriculum combines religious studies and English, and gets NMH’s youngest students thinking about essential questions such as “Who am I?” and “What is my place?” and “What does it mean to be human?” This fall, Veilleux and her Hum 1 partner, English teacher M.K. Brake, read and discussed poems with their students, watched videos of spoken-word performers, and assembled the students in small groups to work together on the recitations. Collaboration makes the practice “less nerve-wracking,” Veilleux says. “It’s also an opportunity for the students to coach each other, become one another’s teachers, and be good listeners as well.”

It’s not easy. When it comes time to stand up in front of an audience, the students occasionally forget their lines, or crack up and giggle. But they develop strategies to cope with their performance jitters. When Peter Luo ’23 recited Ocean Vuong’s “Essay on Craft” — which he described as a “weird poem” with “lots of emotions” — he said afterward, “I wasn’t nervous because I took off my glasses so I couldn’t see anyone’s faces.”

Back in Grandin, as pairs and small groups of students take turns performing, their peers offer feedback, and Veilleux and Brake gently prod them to reflect. Brake asks, “What was that like? What are you feeling?”

“Relieved,” said one student. “I was more nervous than I needed to be,” says another.

“Poetry recitation is an integral part of what makes Hum 1 a community,” Brake says. On one hand, “when you perform a poem, it becomes your own.” But on the other hand, she says, “when students see each other this way, when they collaborate —  it feels like we are all in it together.”