5+ Questions with Meg O’Brien

“5+ Questions With” is a new series in which we learn more about Mass Poetry’s partners throughout the region. This week we’re hearing from Meg O’Brien, the Interim Co-Director of Education at Huntington Theatre Company. In partnership with the Mass Cultural Council, the Huntington Theatre Company facilitates Poetry Out Loud. Read on to learn more!  

Tell us a bit about your organization’s engagement with poets and poetry, and why a relationship with Mass Poetry makes sense.

The Education Department at the Huntington Theatre Company facilitates Poetry Out Loud in partnership with the Mass Cultural Council. Poetry Out Loud, POL, is a national recitation contest run by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, and we are so proud of how many schools and students participate from Massachusetts each year.

We are so grateful to have our relationship with Mass Poetry for several reasons. Many of the students who participate in POL at their schools are discovering the beauty, wonder, and power of poetry for the first time. When we share events and other information from Mass Poetry, we are providing them with an opportunity to continue exploring the world of poetry. Mass Poetry has also been a vital partner in helping us secure POL judges at our state semi-finals and state finals. We aim to have local poets involved in the program whenever possible, and Mass Poetry’s network is remarkable.

What is your personal relationship to poetry? Are you a reader, writer, educator?

I am a theater educator, and I am a casual reader of poetry. I will admit I didn’t come to enjoy poetry until I started my career after college. I wish there were programs like POL when I was growing up, and I wish I had lived near an organization similar to Mass Poetry. I wasn’t exposed to poetry outside of a required unit of study in English class, which never included speaking poems out loud. Each year I work at the Huntington and work on Poetry Out Loud I discover new poets and poems that I simply adore. It’s quite fun!

Tell us more about the structure of Poetry Out Loud contests. What do you think students gain from participating in Poetry Out Loud?

Poetry Out Loud is a pyramid structure. Everything starts at the classroom/school level. Schools have the freedom to determine how many of their students participate – we’ve got some schools that have the required minimum of two students, schools that require every single student to participate every year (2,000+ students), and everything in between. This freedom allows schools to customize POL at the school level in a way that makes the program very accessible for all students regardless of their learning style and/or learning challenges.

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Each school names a champion who then moves on to represent their school at one of five state-level semi-finals.  From those semi-finals, 25 students will advance to the state finals and the chance to be named the 2019 Massachusetts Poetry Out Loud Champion. All state champions travel to Washington DC (all expenses paid) to compete for the title of National Champion and a $20,000 prize. All 50 states participate as well as DC, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. One of the best things about POL is it is entirely free for schools to participate, which includes the NEA and Poetry Foundation providing all of the program materials to schools at no additional cost.

Students gain public speaking skills, develop and/or deepen their self-confidence, learn how to analyze and memorize complex text, and are able to “find themselves” in the hundreds of poems available in the POL anthology. It’s also been my experience that POL is a program that connects to any student, and helps to break down some of the barriers students have and experience in high school. The usual high school stereotypes don’t apply in POL. Athletic students, academic students, scientists, engineers, performers, students with special needs – ALL students can find a poem they connect with, and ALL students can be successful in this work. The anthology is so wonderfully diverse in so many ways, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it all, but this diversity results in our students finding a poem that helps them express themselves. That deep connection with the poem is what makes the program such a powerful tool for teachers, and such an impactful experience for the students who participate.

How has your relationship with poetry changed because of your involvement with your organization and/or Mass Poetry?

Personally, I’ve been able to discover an entire world of art, culture, expression, advocacy, rebellion, rhythm, and creativity in poetry thanks to the work Mass Poetry does. This informs the work I do at the Huntington and for Poetry Out Loud because it allows me to speak from a place of authenticity when I am asked my thoughts on poetry. My students want to know how I feel about poetry, especially when they are struggling to find ways to engage. I don’t ever want to lie to my students, and promoting poetry is easy because of often I can engage with the art myself.

Who and what are you inspired by? (Poetic or not!)

At the risk of sounding cliché, I am inspired by my students when they perform. Especially when they perform for the first time in class. What is left out of “the story” so often are the moments of discovery I’ve seen them achieve in the classroom and in rehearsals, moments the audience never gets to see (and rightly so) but are so rich with excitement, energy, and peer-to-peer support. Those individual journeys and stories contribute to the pride I feel when I watch them perform or speak publicly. I love watching them discover their own greatness, and I love watching their self-confidence grow. Ultimately my goal as an educator is to help my students see in themselves what I see in them. I want them to know their power, strength, talent, imagination, intellect, and compassion are all there, ready to help them achieve the goals and dreams they have for themselves.

Do you have any big programs or events coming up that you would like to promote?

I would love any high school teachers who are interested in Poetry Out Loud to consider registering for this year’s contest! Registration is open until December 21st and we (Education at the Huntington Theatre Company) are here to answer any questions you may have about getting started. It’s an amazing program and one we feel should be in every high school in Massachusetts. For more information and to register, please visit www.huntingtontheatre.org/pol or contact me directly at mobrien@huntingtontheatre.org