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To be or not to be a participant in the Poetry Out Loud competition? That is the question high school students throughout the county are asking themselves as the competition season starts.

Poetry Out Loud is a national competition that several local high schools participate in. Students compete first at the classroom level, then at the school level, then at a regional level before competing at a state level and ultimately against students nationally.

Four local schools are participants in the program: Central York High School, York Suburban High School, Logos Academy and Dallastown High School. Many teachers within the schools make the competition a part of the class curriculum. Bethany Yuninger, the faculty adviser for the program at Dallastown and an English teacher in the high school, and Kelly Paraskevakos, leader of York Suburban's Poetry Out Loud program and English teacher do just that.

Currently the two schools are going through their classroom competitions. Paraskevakos and Yuninger, along with other English teachers throughout the schools, have all students in the class participate for a grade, but through a combination of a class vote and the teacher's input, one or two students is sent on to the school-wide competition.

How many poems the students need to read for the classroom varies depending on the teacher, and it varies at the school-wide competition as well. Dallastown has students read two different poems, which vary in lengths and time period published. York Suburban's school-wide competition only requires students memorize and recite one so that they can have a larger number of students compete.

After the school competition, one student is selected to represent the school at a regional competition in Gettysburg. There, students must have memorized three different poems. Students continue to compete at the state and then national level if they advance from there.

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The competition involves a lot more than just memorizing a poem word-for-word, though that is a huge part of the score at the regional level and above, Paraskevakos explained. Students have to truly understand the deeper meaning of the poem and reflect that in how they perform it. No props are allowed, but students need to convey emotion and meaning through their voice alone.

Carla Christopher, the former poet laureate for York County and a member of the Dispatch editorial advisory board, has been a judge for the Dallastown school competition and also offers to coach and meet with students throughout the county to help them prepare for the competition. She explained she pays special attention to phrasing and the emphasis students use while reciting.

"I want it to sound as if they have written this poem," Christopher said. "I want it to sound as if they’ve really spent time with the message and understand it."

Yuninger said that those are some of the things that judges are looking for at every level, including in the school competition. Dallastown High School has been participating since 2008 when Yuninger introduced the program to the district. That year one of their students went to the state competition.

York Suburban High School has been participating for 11 years now, and Paraskevakos has been running the program for 10, but they haven't had any student make it past regionals just yet.

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York Suburban's English 3CP's Poetry Out Loud classroom competition Friday, Nov. 18, 2016 at York Suburban High School in Spring Garden Township.

For the two teachers, the program provides a great way for students to deeply interact with a poem of their choosing, all of which are found on the Poetry Out Loud website. Paraskevakos said the competition also helps students with their public speaking skills for presentations, but also for persuasion by using their tone and physical presence.

"A lot of us have said that this is just yet another way that we’re working on public speaking skills and the importance of being able to get up and talk in front of other people," Paraskevakos.

Yuninger also explained that the skills they practice for the competition are also skills needed for the common core, like analytical reading skills, speaking skills and listening skills. She also believes that students practice leadership skills by effectively reciting a poem out loud.

"To be a good leader you must be a good communicator, and to be a good leader you need to have the methods of persuasion," she said. "So much persuasion is emotional, and poetry is all about emotion."

Christopher said the second she heard about the program from Yuninger, she fell in love with it. Students learn in all different manners, and for some, reciting, memorizing and audibly hearing a poem may help them dig deeper, she explained.

"I love that it recognizes the tie between good writing and good performing and that a wonderful poem needs to be brought off the page and be given life if you want it truly affect and reach people," Christopher said.

"Even beyond just the learning, school is and should be about creating the kind of humans that can build a better world," Christopher continued. "To do that they need to be empathetic, they need to be able to put themselves in another person’s shoes and understand their feelings and thoughts and reality, and realize that those are important."

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