Deaf Jam at Poetry Out Loud
Text and original artwork by Jiayi Zhou, Intern, NEA Office of Public Affairs
Do you believe that deaf people cannot understand poems, which are mostly based on sound and rhythm? Have you thought poetry could only be recited or performed in spoken word? Well, think again: the Poetry Out Loud (POL) program, which is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Poetry Foundation, has included deaf students in the recitation contest for the last few years.
As a deaf artist with a passion for the integration of disability and arts, my curiosity and motivation led me to find out how POL works in deaf schools. POL was developed to encourage youths to build an appreciation of the finest poetry through memorization and recitation. It actually helps students to increase their self-confidence in various levels of personal growth as well as discover the rich treasures of American literature. One of the best parts of the POL efforts is that it is designed to include young deaf students who can use American Sign Language (ASL) to express their favorite poems.
This year, there were five deaf high schools from Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, and Oregon participating in POL. I had the opportunity to interview participants from two of these deaf high schools to get their personal experiences.
Gayle Robertson, the highly energetic teacher of the art and drama class at the Oregon School for the Deaf, talked about how POL was modified and integrated with ASL to be presented to her classroom for the first time in history. As she recalled, she heard about the POL National Finals in 2007 on National Public Radio by chance. She believed that her deaf students had great potential to participate in this artistic adventure, so she encouraged them to deliver their favorite poems in their own unique way, expressed in sign language. Robertson said, “I tell them, do not let English worry you and you do not have to mean each individual word. Try to visualize.”
Tiffany Hill, a former student of Robertson’s, won the state championship in 2009 and represented Oregon for the POL National Finals in Washington, DC. Robertson was very proud of Tiffany, saying, “Going to DC was a wonderful experience for her. It changed her life, and she is currently enrolled at the University of Oregon.” She continued, “I love POL. I want all deaf schools to get involved in POL.”
Her current students are also enthusiastic about POL. Senior Bradey Burton, who has a passion for poetry and advanced to the state contest, said, “I am interested in ASL expression. I have the [means] to convey my excitement, explanation, and understanding.” Sophomore Emmanuel Robles agreed. “It is cool.... I want to keep myself involved in POL until my senior year, for sure.” Freshman Maria DeLeon added, “I am a shy person, but my teacher noticed my ASL skills and encouraged me to join. I enjoyed having this experience and want to do it again.”
I also obtained insightful perspectives from interviewing several deaf students from the Iowa School for the Deaf. Sophomore Johama Scherlien recalled, “Standing on stage, I was very nervous, but I felt good at the same time because I brought our [deaf] culture to the audience…. I can do something that is different from daily life that I have not attempted to do before.” Sophomore Auna Fergusen, who advanced to the state competition, shared her experience. “I was connecting with my heart, not just memorizing. It felt wonderful. Advancing to the state contest really surprised me.” John Isaacson, who has cochlear implants, said, “I am really not good at ASL, but my mentor worked with me, encouraging me to convert into ASL, just using my imagination.”
And what advice do these students have for the future deaf contestants? Isaacson said, “Just have fun, do not be nervous, and be yourself.” Fergusen emphasized, “Just have confidence in yourself.”
More information on accessibility for students with disabilities can be found on the official POL website. For instance, the availability of ASL supplements to the POL teacher’s guide encourages teachers to use inclusive development planning in classrooms and make sure that every student’s interests are represented. The judges’ criteria also help to evaluate deaf contestants’ performance with a reasonable rubric.