Last week, Jesca Gilbert (‘21) won the state Poetry Out Loud competition, earning her an automatic qualification to the national competition in April and the distinction of being the first Valor student to ever win the event. We sat down to talk about the competition with English teacher Shane Gilbert, who also happens to be Jesca’s mom.
Tell us more about Poetry Out Loud and what the competition looks like?
Poetry Out Loud is a national recitation contest created in 2006 by the National Endowment for the Arts to increase awareness in the artof performing poetry. Valor has competed for the past 10 years and for the last 3 years Greg Sherman has led our English Department and librarians in hosting the competition for students who have the desire to try it. This year, we ran our school-wide competition on February 7, with our English teachers and administrators as the judges. Our two finalists were Jesca Gilbert in second place and runner-up to Sydney Kamel in first place. Since Sydney was unable to attend the State competition this past week due to her role in the spring musical, Jesca represented Valor and brought home the title and trophy for the Colorado State Champion! Jesca now heads to Washington DC in April, paid for by the National Endowment for the Arts, representing Colorado and Valor, for the national championship. It’s all super exciting!
How do you see students engage with Spoken Word poetry?
To kick-off our POL events, the 9th grade English team invited our very own Michael Jennings as our guest speaker and in-house Valor poet. It was an amazing way to both start poetry in high school and get to know our community members personally. Michael Jennings actually performed some Spoken Word pieces to our freshman English students a couple months ago. I saw sparks flying after Mr. Jennings made poetry accessible and possible for our students. He wrote the poems he recited, and he was genuine and honest with his poetic journey, so everyone walked away with an appreciation for the art form. Several students told me they were so inspired they now felt compelled to write their own poetry. I truly believe this is the kind of classroom experience students will remember as their favorite English class of the year.
Why do you think it’s important for Valor students to have exposure to Spoken Word poetry?
Exposure to any kind of art, without it being directly attached to analysis or criticism, is what encourages creativity and a love of language and life. So, whether it’s Spoken Word or some other art form, I just dream of students loving to create, explore, and learn.
Art of all forms — whether poetry or music, dance, theatre, painting, sculpture — evolves within cultures and across time. People engage with their culture and oftentimes make sense of their experience through their artistic endeavors. Spoken Word is no different; it is a young art form that is fundamentally about resisting oppression and cultural silencing.
I am amazed by the power of Spoken Word to show all of us that life is actually a battle for some people within our community. This battle has provided them with wisdom, as well as an ability to tap into God and his love in profound ways. Christians and Spoken Word poetry have met each other over the last decade and, when used for God’s glory, can reach a lot of young people in profound and transformative ways.
You are an English teacher and mom to our Poetry Out Loud State Champ. That’s like a double win! How does that feel?
As Jesca’s mom, I’ve had the opportunity to see how her involvement in Poetry Out Loud means so much more than any prize or competition. She has only lived in the US for two years now and English is her second language, so in many ways her connection with POL has allowed her to seek out a way of learning that she loves. Picking her pieces to recite for the competition ignited a curiosity about the poets themselves, which then led to her own research about their lives and influences. In her growing knowledge of poets like Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes, she’s connected with historical figures in a way that she hadn’t been able to before. This year, she performed “I, Too” by Langston Hughes at both the school and state level.
Spoken Word Poetry is a new art form for many of us at Valor — and it got a lot of us excited to try it! What else are we missing that’s out there, and how do we find it?
One way forward is to just be curious. We are all made in the image of God, and there are cultural expressions all around us that show us different facets of what God is like.
Another is to look for ways to include more participants at the table of ideas. I’m a bit biased as an English teacher, but I believe literature is a great way to do this. Books open up worlds to us that we can’t otherwise access. So, let’s all commit to reading more, especially material that offers experiences and points of view that perhaps aren’t as familiar to us. As we prayerfully listen to a wider variety of people and experiences, I believe God will use what we see and hear to get us excited by what the Bible describes as the Church formed from every tribe and every nation.