DuBOIS — In early March, just prior to when schools were closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, DuBois Area High School freshman Julia Wirths put her talents to use by competing in the 2020 Pennsylvania Poetry Out Loud state finals along with 13 other regional finalists in Harrisburg. She never could have imagined that she would soon use her way with words to cheer up residents in several area nursing homes.
Around mid-April, Wirths received a message from the state POL coordinator who reached out to regional finalists asking them to consider reciting their poems for seniors in nursing homes, retirement homes or rehabilitation facilities as a form of entertainment for them since they cannot receive visitors.
Wirths, who is the daughter of Dr. Phuong and Debbie Wirths of Treasure Lake, researched how she could do this through Christ The King Manor in DuBois and Ridgeview Elderly Care in Curwensville. She decided she would send the residents audio files of her reciting five poems which were part of her Poetry Out Loud list of poems to the two nursing homes – audio was the easiest way due to technical/logistic issues.
“I never thought I would use my poetry reciting in this way,” Wirths said. “I felt that I needed to put more emotion into the recitations since they could not see me. I selected happier and sillier poems because I wanted them to be uplifting and entertaining for the residents.”
Staff members at Ridgeview Elderly Care played Wirths’ poetry readings to the residents in their rooms, said Activities Director Elizabeth Hipps.
“It brought a lot of smiles to the faces of the residents,” said Hipps, noting that Wirths was the first person to reach out to the nursing home and do something so touching for the residents. “They (residents) couldn’t believe that she is only 15 years old — they were very mature readings. She made the poems very uplifting for them.”
Wirths said she first learned about Poetry Out Loud through her high school English teacher, Dorothea Hackett.
The competition, presented in partnership with the ArtsPath, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Foundation, is part of a national program that encourages high school students to learn about great poetry through memorization, performance, and competition.
Poetry Out Loud is a national arts education program that encourages the study of great poetry by offering educational materials and a dynamic recitation competition to high schools across the country. Poetry Out Loud uses a pyramid structure. Beginning at the classroom level, winners advance to a school-wide competition, then to regional competition, and ultimately to the national finals in Washington, D.C. Since 2005, more than four million students from 16,000 high schools in all 50 states, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have participated in Poetry Out Loud.
For schools that choose to participate, the program starts in the classroom, where teachers may use the Poetry Out Loud toolkit to teach poetry recitation and run classroom competitions. Students select, memorize, and recite poems from an anthology of more than 1,100 classic and contemporary poems.
To prepare for the competition, students visit www.poetryoutloud.org website to peruse and choose three poems that speak to them. They then need to memorize them and recite them with inflection, poise, dramatic qualities that convey the poem’s meaning as they see it.
Wirths said she chose poems that resonated with her for the contest and admits the experience has helped her acquire more of an interest in poetry.
“I like that all of the poems are so diverse and there’s a lot to choose from on the website,” she said. “There’s something for everybody.”
Although Wirths was disappointed she didn’t finish in the top five, she said her goal is to always make it to the state competition for the remainder of her high school career.