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Monday, November 9, 2009

DC SCORES poets practice performances at Starbucks

On a recent Monday afternoon, a group of 14 excited Howard Road Academy students walked into a Starbucks on Pennsylvania Avenue, highly anticipating what awaited them.

And, no, it wasn't the complimentary hot chocolate they received.

Rather, the students were excited about the poetry reading they were about to partake in — their first chance of DC SCORES' fall season to recite their original works in front of an audience.

As part of Starbucks’ sponsorship of DC SCORES, every year for at least this decade the coffee shop has hosted poetry readings in the fall and spring for all of the program’s schools.

This year, Elementary School Program Coordinator Zach Elkin is in charge of leading the performances, which begin with a good dose of instruction before the young poets showcase their works.

“It’s probably the first time a lot of the kids have been able to stand up in front of their peers and perform their work and also give criticism in a helpful way, which I think a lot of them have never done before,” Elkin said a few days after the visit from Howard Road.

HRA was the third school to read at Starbucks this fall, and Elkin plans on hosting two more Eastside schools before the 12th annual Poetry Slam! Dec. 2 and 3. The rest of DC SCORES’ 17 elementary schools should get a chance at the special workshop during spring programming.

The benefits of the experience can’t be understated. All you needed to see were the performances of the 14 HRA poets. They began the hour in Starbucks’ upstairs room shyly telling everyone what their favorite food and drink are.

By the end of the hour, however, 16 poems had been performed in front of classmates, HRA’s two writing teachers, Zach, me and a couple other Starbucks patrons sitting at tables in the room.

The shyness was gone, replaced in many cases by confidence.

Before the readings, Elkin prepared the students by taking them through a set of tongue twisters to help their enunciation. He also used a large poster board to illustrate examples of positive feedback and constructive criticism so the students could react to their peers’ poems without hurting any feelings.

Then it was time to take the stage and one by one, the poets walked to the center of the room with their writing journals, opened to their chosen piece of prose, and began to read.

Some poems were more advanced than others. A few of the poets, it seemed, had practiced before. But most importantly, by the end of the afternoon everyone had improved their reading ability and knew what they needed to work on to get even better.

The kids loved telling each other to “enunciate” their words and “project your voice more,” but they weren’t just horsing around. Often times, their constructive criticism was right on the mark.

A few times I mistook them for young adults interacting with each other.

“I think being in a public space, and especially if there are other patrons there watching; in some ways I think they can feel kind of adult-like,” Elkin said.

“I think the constructive criticism part of the workshop is great for them.”

Elkin doesn’t want to give anything away yet, but he has a feeling a couple of the works heard at Starbucks readings this fall might be taken to the big stage at the Poetry Slam! — where each of DC SCORES’ 23 schools gets to perform.

“Some kids have actually performed some of the things for Poetry Slam!,” Elkin said. “I’ve heard some Poetry Slam! material, which has been great.”

Just as great, every kid has left these readings feeling better about their ability to perform poetry in front of an audience as well as help their peers recognize what they need to hone to become better poetry readers.

So it’s no wonder that when the HRA students walked downstairs and past the coffee shop’s front counter, they yelled in unison, “Thank you, Starbucks!!!”

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