Performing Poetry: A
Study Guide for Teachers
by Kathy Norris
Voice Emphasis Exercises
Purpose: To have students learn
the importance of varying the pitch, rate and volume of their voices.
Emphasizing different words will alter the meaning of the poem that
the students are reading.
1. Use the following poem by Bruce
Lansky for this exercise.
- My Baby Sister
- My baby sisters
I love her smile,
but not her smell.
- (Note: All poems used in this study guide are
copyright by Bruce Lansky.)
2. Have students take turns reading
the poem emphasizing one word over the others. For example the first
student reads it emphasizing "My" and the second student
reads the poem emphasizing "baby," and so on until the
last student has read the poem emphasizing the last word "smell."
3. Reading the selected word with emphasis
means to say it louder, slower and more dramatically than the other
words in the poem. If you emphasize "My" it means my baby
sister as opposed to yours. If you emphasize "baby" it
may mean your baby sister as opposed to your older sister.
4. Discuss how the meaning of the poem
changes as different words are emphasized.
5. Teach your students that as they
practice other poems to present in class that they can decide which
words to emphasize. They can underline these words so that they
can identify these words as they practice their poems.
Many students speak too quickly when
presenting poems in front of the class or an audience. Your pitch
and volume can vary more when you slow down your rate of speech.
1. Use the following poem by Bruce
Lansky for this exercise:
- Id Rather
- Id rather wash the dishes
Id rather kiss a frog.
Id rather get an F in math
or run a ten-mile jog.
- Id rather do my homework.
Id rather mow the lawn.
Id rather take the garbage out.
Id rather wake at dawn.
- Id rather dine on Brussels sprouts
or catch the chicken pox.
Id rather do most anything
than clean the litter box.
2. Have a student volunteer to read
the poem slowly, much slower than she/he would if they were actually
presenting to the class.
3. Now have a student volunteer to
read the poem quickly. Tell then to read it as quick as she/he possibly
4. Discuss the effectiveness of both
5. Lastly, have a student read the
poem at a rate between fast and slow. Quick enough to maintain an
interest of the listeners yet slow enough to enunciate each word
clearly and at a pace which enables the reader to ad emphasis through
his/her pitch, volume, and rate.
6. You can have students read the poem
in pairs. The reading should take approximately seconds.
Variations: You may want to break up
your class into small groups to do this exercise or assign it for
homework to be done with parents participating.
Some poems require the use of different
voices or characters. Students should practice these different voices.
Students are often reluctant to practice using characterizations.
Ask them to overemphasize them during this exercise. If you exaggerate
them while practicing it is easier than to tone it down when you
actually present the poem. It is very difficult, though, to effectively
portray a characters voice when you have only practiced it
silently or without much emotion or drama.
1. Use the following poem by Bruce
Lansky for this exercise:
- Where My Clothes Are
- Dirty clothes should be put in the hamper.
Clean clothing belongs in the drawer.
But it takes too much time and it takes too much work-
so I throw them all over the floor.
2. Have students pair up and practice
reading the poem to each other.
Have them read the first two lines in the following voices, followed
each time by the last two lines in their own voice.
- A. Their own mother or father.
B. A really mean or strict person.
C. With an accent of their choice.
D. With a really sassy voice.
E. With a rally bored voice.
F. With a cheerful voice.
G. With a scientists voice.
H. With an artists voice.
I. With a police officers voice.
J With an opera singers voice.
Tip: Encourage your students to have
fun with this exercise. Have them vary their volume, pitch and rate
greatly. Remind them to over exaggerate and to be as dramatic as
Here is another exercise designed to
increase emotion through your voice.
1. Have students say the words "Whats
So Funny" using the following emotions:
- Happy Angry Afraid Surprised
Sad Jealous Apologetic Shy
2. Read the following line from Bruce
Lanskys poem, "Whats So Funny?"
- I notice people staring at me everywhere I
Now read the same line above, but mean
the following things:
- A. Youre mad that people are staring
B. Youre sad that people are staring at you.
C. Youre glad that people are staring at you.
D. Youre nervous or anxious that people are staring at
E. Youre embarrassed that people are staring at you.
F. Youre surprised that people are staring at you.
G. Youre suspicious of people that are staring at you.
H. Youre tired of people staring at you.
Body Movement and Gesture Activity
This is a nonverbal exercise to increase
the awareness of how we show our feelings through different parts
of our bodies.
1. Use the same emotion cards created
in the facial expression exercise.
2. Have students practice being the
arms of another student by standing behind the students and slipping
their arms through the arms of student who is standing facing the
3. The student playing the "hands"
of the speaker tries to show the given emotion through her/his gesturing
and positioning of her/his arms and hands.
1. Select some of the basic emotion
cards out of the pile. Ones that would be easier to display with
2. Have students select a card ( or
do as a group exercise) and portray that emotion through their posture
1. Write down the names of animals
on index cards.
2. Have your students act out that
animal nonverbally. Encourage them to think how their animal moves
(slowly, quickly), any mannerism it might have (head movements...).
3. Have the class guess what animal
(These animal cards can be used for
students to use in exercise #4 of the vocal variety exercises. Have
your students read the "Whats So Funny" line as
their animal would sound.)
Facial Expression Exercise/Expressing
Emotion Through Facial Expressions
It is important when students recite
poetry to have the appropriate facial expressions accompany the
text. It is easier for some students than others to do this. It
is also helpful for everyone to practice this skill. This is a fun
and interactive exercise. Encourage your students to over exaggerate
the emotions through their facial expressions and have a great time.
1. Create a list of easily identifiable
emotions that can be shown through facial expressions. Such as:
- Happy Sad Surprised Fearful
Anger Dislike Shy Hopeful
Disappointed Courageous Anxious Bored
Stubborn Tired Disgusted Puzzled
Calm Sorry Mischievous Arrogant
2. Have the group as a whole practice
each expression together or ask selected students to volunteer what
particular emotion might look like and demonstrate it for the class.
3. Write these words on index cards.
Create a group of these for each small group in the class. Also
write all of the expressions on the chalkboard.
4. Have each small group sit in a circle.
The first person takes a card off the top of the deck without letting
others in the group see the word.
5. She/he then shows this emotion to
the group through a facial expression. Repeat the expression if
the group needs to see it again.
6. The members guess which emotion
the person demonstrated by writing it down on a piece of paper that
they have numbered.
7. If they guessed correctly, they
circle the number.
8. That card is then put in a throw
9. The next person in the circle repeats
Tips: If the younger children are having
problems, let them use their whole body to express the emotion.
Quieter students may have a more difficult
time with this exercise. Be careful who is in their small group.
Discourage any teasing or laughing
at others during this activity. Disparaging remarks among group
members may result in decreased participation.
Variations and additional exercises:
Purpose: To have students see how different
parts of the face show emotion.
1. Draw a circle on the chalkboard.
Pick an emotion word from the generated list. Fill in the eyes and
eyebrows in the circle as they would appear for this emotion. Then
fill in the nose and mouth.
2. Go through several or more words
and repeat the above.
3. Have students practice moving their
eyebrows, mouth, etc.., to see how their facial expressions change
with each movement.
Stance, Posture, Gestures, Movement
& Eye Contact
Nonverbal Delivery Techniques
When reciting a poem in front of the
class or an audience, the speaker should stand in the front of the
room or on the stage facing the audience. The speakers stance
should be balanced with the speakers feet approximately shoulder
width apart. Students should avoid swaying side to side, shifting
their weight foot to foot, or crossing and uncrossing their ankles.
The speakers object is to deliver his or her presentation
with as few distractions for the audience to observe as possible.
An exception to the balanced stance would be if the student wished
to emphasize a point, for example, as in the stomping of a foot,
or as part of a characterization, to cross her/his ankles so as
to show bashfulness.
The speaker maintains an erect posture
during his or her recitation (straight back, shoulder up and back,
head direction straight forward). If a part of the poem calls for
an old man or a sad moment, it could be reflected with a drooping
of the shoulders and lowering of the head. Thus, if a change of
posture is part of a characterization it is appropriate to otherwise
maintain a balanced stance and erect posture.
The hands should rest down at the speakers
sides in a relaxed manner. As easy as this sounds, it takes practice
in order to not grab at your clothes, ball up your hands, or fold
them across your chest. Speakers should gesture appropriately to
the material being presented and then return the hands down to the
sides between gestures.
For the majority of the presentation
the speaker should maintain a balanced stance without much movement.
If a part of the presentation lends itself to movement, such as
bending down or bowing etc.., it can be effective. Remember, though,
that these moments of movement should be purposeful and planned.
If this is not so, the speakers movement may turn into a pacing
back and forth across the stage.
The speakers eyes should maintain
contact with the audience members. the exception to this is if the
speaker places a character or characters in certain places which
are usually to the side and above the audience. The narrator should
always maintain eye contact with the audience. this also takes much
practice. Most students are not used to keeping eye contact with
the audience members without looking down or up. Teach your students
that when you look away from you audience members (without dramatic
reasons) you are giving them permission to look away from you. The
speaker wants the attention of the entire audience for the entire
presentation . Also have your students work on maintaining eye contact
on a particular audience member for roughly one to two seconds.
It is distracting for the audience to have the speaker scan over
the audience quickly wither their eye contact. Engage your audience
by maintaining longer eye contact with your audience members Tip:
Advise your students to avoid looking at members of the class who
might make them laugh.
I tell my students that their performance
begins as soon as they are introduced. All eyes are on the speaker
as she or he walks up to the front of the room. Walk confidently
to the place where you will deliver your presentation and stand
in a balanced stance with your hands down at your sides. The speaker
stands in front of the audience, establishes eye contact with audience
members, waits until they are all silent, and then begins with the
title of the poem, the author, and after a brief pause, the poem
itself. This is not a time to giggle or appear nervous. Teach your
students that they can feel nervous, but act confident and the audience
will never know that the speaker was apprehensive.
Purpose: To become aware of the effectiveness
of your delivery through feedback.
As your students realize what they
are doing nonverbally in their delivery, they can correct distracting
mannerisms and become more effective speakers.
1. Review the delivery techniques listed
above with the class.
2. Have students speak in front of
the class for one minute about any subject that you choose or that
the class has brainstormed. For example, what happened over the
past weekend, their favorite vacation, their most precious possession,
3. Have the audience members observe
the speakers delivery. If the speaker doesnt maintain
a balanced stance have the class stomp one foot. If the speaker
doesnt return his or her hands down to his/her sides in a
relaxed manner, have the audience snap their fingers once. If the
speaker looks away from the students eyes (up, down, or to
the sides), have the class clap once.
4. The student is instructed to simply
acknowledge the stomp, snap, or clap and continue on with his or
her presentation until his/her minute is completed.
This exercise can also be used to reduce
distracting filler words that do not belong in presentations, such
as "like," "um," "uh," "anyway,"
"stuff like that," and "I mean" by the audience
hitting their desks with one hand each time they hear one of these
The oral speaking experience is not
complete without an audience. When discussing effective delivery
skills with your students, it is important also to instruct them
on how to be an effective audience.
Effective audience members give their
undivided attention to the speaker. It is disruptive to the speaker
to talk with others, fiddle with their hair, clothing, or objects
around them, or to make inappropriate facial expressions while the
speaker is delivering her/his presentation. It is useful to remind
your students how they would feel if people were disrespectful while
they were presenting a poem, story, or speech.
Feeling comfortable speaking in front
of an audience is only achieved through practice and positive speaking
experiences. Even one negative experience can cause a speaker to
be extremely anxious about performing in public again. As a teacher,
be diligent about reminding the class to be a supportive, empathetic
audience and your students will reap the benefits by enjoying and
looking forward to future speaking opportunities.
A single students can present more
than one poem in a given them or more commonly several students
can join together and present poems which have a related theme.
A Readers Theater presentation is an
oral interpretation of poem or prose. In this way it differs from
a play production. Readers Theater is generally more subtle and
suggestive. For example full costumes are not necessary. The performer
may have a hat and change from the hat to a scarf to signal another
character. It is also common for Readers Theater participants to
have the poem or text in front of them (as in story telling), though
it is not relied on heavily and sometimes only the narrator has
the text in front of them. It enhances the "oral interpretation"
Students may want to select poems that
are grouped together by a common theme. For example, in Bruce Lanskys
book, Poetry Party, poems are grouped in the table of contents according
to a common theme.
There are no set rules in a Readers
Theater performance. Let your students decide where the characters
should be, how little or much movement and what props and costuming
Preparation and Practice
1. Read through your poem silently
2. Think about the narrator and characters.
3. Ask yourself:
a. What is this character feeling?
b. What meaning is this character trying to get across?
c. What do you think this character looks like?
d. What do you think this character sounds like?
e. How do you think this character moves (slowly, quickly, proudly...)?
4. Think about how you can best portray
this character through your:
c. Facial expression
5. You may want to underline key words
that need emphasizing or write instructions on the poem (if it is
your own copy or photocopy), such as "slow down," "louder,"
whisper," "stomp foot," etc.
6. The more preparation and practice
that you do, the easier it will be to present your poem. Try to
practice in front of others so that you get used to looking at different
parts of the audience.
7. Record your poem and listen to it.
Is there anything you can do to improve your presentation?
8. Videotape your presentation. Watch
it and ask yourself what you can do to improve your delivery.