WAIMEA — Kahilu Town Hall was humming with activity Sept. 26 for Waimea Middle School’s first annual Poetry Night. With almost 100 percent participation, there was a full house of excited students and their families.
Literacy Night wasn’t well attended last year with only about 30 people, so when WMS language arts teachers Leesa Robertson, Barbara Haight and Linda Lobue met last spring to plan the event, they decided to have the students perform something.
While there was initial reluctance due to anxiety, by the time Poetry Night rolled around, that was replaced with sheer exuberance. It was almost like being at one of the first U.S. Beatles concerts; the students in the audience could hardly contain their excitement, roaring with accolades at the end of each poetic performance.
Poetry Night was the culmination of three weeks of joyful engagement where students delved into all aspects of poetry in preparation for the performance. During those weeks, they lived and breathed poetry, exploring many different poems and doing choral readings.
“We did all different kinds of poems. For warm up, we’d all go in a circle and perform it all together. We’d act it out with each person saying a single line. It was a safe introduction to performing poems,” said seventh-grade language arts teacher Robertson.
“Students also watched poetry being performed on short ‘Poetry Out Loud’ videos, and I brought in a microphone for them to practice with,” she added.
Poetry Night made deep cultural connections to the oral traditions of the islands, where chants are memorized and shared to preserve history, experiences, wisdom and connections within the extended family community.
To prepare a poem, students used a six-step process that encouraged them to make meaningful connections on many levels. They thought about how the title connected to the poem, explored the structure and patterns, noticed and defined unfamiliar vocabulary, wrote a paraphrase of the poem, identified the theme and connected it to their personal experiences.
For Poetry Night, Robertson assigned poems to each of her four classes.
“But I gave them the freedom to figure out how they wanted to do it,” she said. “When they were partway through the process, they performed the poem and then reflected on what they needed to do to improve. There are a lot of things to think about — clear diction, volume level, tone, gestures, lighting, props and costumes. After they reflected, they improved.”
As family and students registered, they received a snack ticket for a musubi prepared by Earl’s Snack Shop and then the evening got underway with a show of solidarity by the WMS teachers performing “Miracle Workers” by Taylor Mali, an ode to teachers everywhere.
“It was a big team effort. All the teachers volunteered to serve the food and perform the poem,” Robertson explained.
The seventh graders performed a mix of poems that spanned cultures, concepts and life lessons including “If I Were in Charge of the World” by Judith Viorst; “It Couldn’t be Done” by Edgar Guest; “My Own Fantasy” by Jerneen Kauahi; and “Alone” by Maya Angelou.
But for the eighth graders, the chance to perform a poem of their choice was a rite of passage. The poets selected ran the gamut from Nikki Giovanni’s “Prickled Pickles Don’t Smile” to “Trees” by Walter Dean Myers to “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe, with many selections in between including “El Desierto Es Mi Madre” by Pat Mora, in Spanish, and “Kuu Hawaii” by Charissa Puamana Waialae.
“Football” by Amy Fowble was also performed by three eighth-grade Waimea Cowboys football players in uniform.
Some poems tackled by the sixth graders ranged from “Atomic” by Louis Ginsberg, which compares splitting the atom to the danger of splitting men apart, to “Jabberwocky” — a fanciful adventure by Lewis Carroll. Other poems, “Fireflies, a Poem for Two Voices” by Paul Fleischman and “The Wind” by Robert Louis Stevenson, were playful observations of the natural world.
After all the practice and the performance had finished, the fear had turned into joy.
“One student threatened to change schools rather than perform, but when we it was over he asked, ‘Can we do that again?’” said Robertson.
Through Poetry Night, the students were able to connect with the timeless oral traditions of poetry, gain some wisdom and find their voices along the way. A resounding success, Poetry Night proved once again what joyful accomplishments can be attained with everyone paddling together.