CANNONSBURG — A hundred pairs of eyes locked onto Cynthia Changaris, tracking her every move. A hundred pairs of ears strained to hear every word of the hoary old ghost story Changaris was telling.
Changaris had the seniors at Boyd County High School right where she wanted them absorbed in the verbal world she was creating at a podium in the auditorium.
She started with a story but she was there to talk to them about poetry, the worlds poetry creates and how they can use their hands and faces and voices to bring those worlds to life.
Changaris is an educator for the Kentucky Arts Council; she spent the morning at Boyd County to prepare students for their upcoming Poetry Out Loud competition. It's a contest every student in the school, freshman through senior, is entering.
The terms are simple: choose two poems, memorize them and present them to classmates. It's the doing that goes into rugged terrain, where those who are inexperienced in public speaking can trip over their own shyness and fear of flubbing lines. Changaris hoped to show a path through those obstacles and share techniques for effective oral reading.
The best classroom presenters will compete schoolwide, and winners of that contest will advance to state and, perhaps, national events.
Boyd County is one of 20 Kentucky schools to take part this year. Not all schools included every grade, but English teacher Robin Crum believes it is important for everyone to participate. “Every student needs to perform something,” Crum said. In the real world, they're going to have to perform whether they think of it like that or not. They'll be performing at some level for the rest of their lives so the sooner they get comfortable with it, the better.”
In the end, students will have a valuable, practical skill the ability to speak intelligently, clearly and to the point, Crum said.
Stage fright is just one obstacle to effective presentation. Changaris coached students on techniques to overcome the tendency to misuse the inherent rhythm of poetry, reciting it in a sing-song monotone.
She gave them tips on hand gestures, tone of voice, cadence, eye contact and the effective use of silence to punctuate and get attention.
Doing poetry out loud is much like performing in a play, said junior Lissy Rigsby, who is president of the school drama club. “You get into character and feel the thrill of being someone else,” she said.
And not just for thespians: Most people think poetry is lame and boring or just for theater nerds like me. But it's not. They just need to try it.”
The contest, in its sixth year, is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation to encourage students to embrace poetry.
The school competitions begin soon and the state and local events are in March and April. State winners get $200 and an all-expense-paid trip to Washington D.C. for finals. The state winner's school gets $500 for poetry books.
MIKE JAMES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2652.