Paul Wellman

In a nearby 11th-grade English classroom, a flowchart lists the supporters of Poetry Out Loud’s (POL) National Recitation Contest. It starts with the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, then moves down to the California Arts Council, the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, the South Coast Writing Project, Santa Barbara Poets in the Schools, the Santa Barbara High School District, and generous donors, such as Chaucer’s Bookstore. Looking at the chart, the poet-teacher explains, “All these people, and your teacher besides, thought it was worth their time and money to give you the opportunity to memorize and recite a poem.” Then she asks, “What do you think? Are they all nuts?”

The kids laugh. No one has told them they might win cash and prizes (up to $20,000) for themselves and their school. Nor have they heard about travel opportunities and public appearances or how great this might look on a college application.

But even without such material motivation, the students do realize the benefits, and the ones they mention are potentially more meaningful ones: It’s a great way to get to know a poem, to improve public speaking skills, and to hone their useful memorization skills.

Several weeks into the program, the students are even more effusive. “I’ve never seen my classmates so enthusiastic about poetry,” said 11th-grader Cayla Clark. “It’s fantastic. This is a form of literature that is often forgotten, and to have it taught in such depth is a great thing.” Geoffrey Bell, Clark’s classmate at Dos Pueblos High, added, “Through POL, I am learning things about poetry I never learned in my English classes.”

Dollars and Cents

Poetry Out Loud is a model program. It has backing from both private and government donors, so it is free to schools. It taps the expertise of Poets in the Schools, so teachers do not have to teach a specialized program themselves. The Web site ( and other materials all evince high production values and curricular savvy. The anthology from which the students choose their poems, in particular, includes a wide range, much of it challenging. The teacher guide contains thoughtful lesson plans and charts the ways the program fulfills 10 of the 12 national standards for English classes.

In addition, Poetry Out Loud offers students opportunities to be recognized at the regional, state, and national level. Santa Barbara’s own poetry recitation competition will take place on Friday, March 9, in the mural room at the courthouse and will be judged by Santa Barbara Poet Laureate Barry Spacks, poet Christopher Buckley, and actor Richard Dysart. The winner will travel to the state competition on Friday, March 23 in Sacramento.

The program looks particularly good to teachers and administrators who have seen a dwindling of arts programs in recent years. Since President George W. Bush took office, he has not put any money for the arts into the education budget. What little arts money does make it into the Department of Education budget is put there by Congress.

In 2003, the budget for the California Arts Council (CAC), which funds many Santa Barbara student arts programs, was cut by more than 90 percent-the council’s grant awards were all but shut down as a result. Pam Vanderheide, an 11th-grade English teacher at Dos Pueblos High School, for one, has not seen many opportunities to bring arts funding into her classroom. So when she heard about POL, she said, “I grabbed it. I was thrilled to bring something like this into the classroom that reinforces so much of what I am trying to do.”

Kathy Abney, principal of La Cuesta Continuation High School, was also excited to be approached. “It’s very rare to have someone show up with all the money in hand,” she said. “All of a sudden there is money and that creates opportunities whereas previously our arts education was catch-as-catch-can.” Abney sees the benefits of the program clearly. “It gives our students an opportunity to come out of their shell, to experience poetry, which they’ve probably never experienced before. It brings somebody who knows what they are talking about into the classroom to guide them through the process.”

For arts administrators like Ginny Brush, executive director of the Santa Barbara Arts Commission, the program is also a welcome addition. As she explained, “This is a model for how we used to work with the CAC. Money and programs from the federal and state level make it possible for us to raise matching funds and get people involved at the local level.”

Think Globally, Act Locally

But POL’s introduction to Santa Barbara has hardly been effortless. In particular, Bush’s No Child Left Behind mandates have complicated the arts-in-education picture, making it harder to find time and to administer arts programs even where they are free. In Santa Barbara, for example, only five of the seven high schools offered the program elected to participate. One administrator admitted, “We’re squeezed by the mandates and layers of accountability. You can only plug so much in.”

The vision for Poetry Out Loud is to reach students throughout the nation, much like the National Spelling Bee. This is the first year that it is being offered across the state; Santa Barbara is one of 11 out of 52 counties that will participate. The program in Santa Barbara seems set for future expansion. Christine Kravetz, the area coordinator for Santa Barbara Poets in the Schools, has found the program even more compelling than she expected. “Now that I’ve done this myself, I really think there is no way to truly understand a poem without memorizing it. The kids get that too. For many of them this program requires a leap of faith in themselves and their abilities. It is a program worth investing in. I see it continuing to grow.”


Poetry Out Loud’s Santa Barbara student recitation will be held on Friday, March 9 at 7 p.m., in the Mural Room of the county courthouse. The winner will go to the state competition in Sacramento on March 23. See


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