West High senior to defend Alaska’s national Poetry Out Loud title

West Anchorage High School senior Shannon Croft takes a deep breath, then begins reciting John Keats’ “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be.

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West High School student Shannon Croft recites the poem “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be.” at the 2016 State Poetry Out Loud Competition (Photo: YouTube screenshot)
West High School student Shannon Croft recites the poem “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be.” at the 2016 Alaska State Poetry Out Loud Competition (Photo: YouTube screenshot)

Her recitation of John Keats’ poem on Tuesday won her the state championship of Poetry Out Loud. It’s a classroom-based poetry program and this year, more than 3,600 students from 29 schools across Alaska participated.

As state champion, Croft received a $200 cash prize, a $500 stipend to buy poetry books for her school, and an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C., for the national competition in May. Last year, West Anchorage High School student Maeva Ordaz, now a freshman at Columbia University, won the national competition.

Thunder Mountain High School freshman Briannah Letter didn’t advance past the state finals this year, but she still got something out of the experience. Poetry Out Loud is also a chance to practice something many students dread — public speaking.

“You should’ve seen me right before I went up for the school competition. My heart was pounding. I was breathing really heavily,” Letter said. “I realized that after the school competition and the district competition, I felt a lot better standing in front of those people. After this, I’ll be a lot more comfortable with my voice through a microphone and talking to people in general.”

Letter’s mentor, Thunder Mountain English teacher Barbara Maier, said Poetry Out Loud is about encouraging students to develop memorization, analysis, and public speaking skills.

“Kids grow just by standing up and presenting something to their peers,” Maier said. “Poetry Out Loud is a defined list of poems that have been chosen because they can be presented well. There’s that safety that no matter what they choose there’s something in that poem that a kid has to discover. They’re digging into really good literature and then playing with it standing up and presenting.”

And, for Letter, it started out as a finals week assignment. By February, Letter had advanced through school and district Poetry Out Loud competitions, beating out more than 50 students for the chance to represent Juneau at the state competition.

With finalists traveling from as far away as Shaktoolik and Unalaska, the state finals were also a chance to visit the capital city. Before the competition, finalists heard guest lectures from local artists, visited state representatives at the Capitol, and toured the Governor’s Mansion.

Alaska state champion Shannon Croft heads to Washington, D.C., for the Poetry Out Loud national finals May 2 to 4. Croft will represent Alaska and defend Ordaz’s title.