When I coached debate and competed as a student in high school and college, occasionally the results of competition surprised me; however, I've always understood the subjective nature of competitive speech and debate and could usually grasp how judges arrived at their conclusions, even if their decisions didn't always harmonize with my own.
There's some comfort in transparency offered through knowing judges' names, having ballots for students, and even the often long wait between the end of rounds and the announcement of awards. Additionally, tournaments offer some assurances to coaches and participants by having multiple personnel from various schools running the tournament and assigning judges.
Poetry Out Loud competition once we get past the school level and relinquish control to the state POL "director," whom I met last year for the first time at our district competition. I have only been coordinating my school's program two years, but my dealings with the state liaison has been so unpleasant that I'm not sure I can continue working with the program, which I love.
--First, flash back to last year. Here's the story:
We had 16 students compete in our school tournament, and I traveled to the district competition with my student. At this level, students present one poetry recitation. I was shocked when my student lost because as an expert in interpretation, the results were so egregiously wrong. I say this without hesitation.
Yet even more shocking is how the judging was done. It's the state liaison's job to acquire judges, but she failed to do so and instead appointed herself judge. Consequently, instead of three judges, which we should have had, we had one who, arguably, had a conflict-of-interest.
Initially, I didn't plan to say anything about this, but when the "judge" asked me what I thought, I didn't hold back.
--Second, flash forward to this year's regional competition. Here's the story:
Yesterday, two of my students competed in the Southeast Idaho Regional POL competition in Twin Falls. Each school was allowed to take two students to the competition. We did not have a district competition, which our state coordinator decided to eliminate.
We had many more students memorize and present poems from POL in various classes this year, supported primarily by three teachers on our staff, including a wonderful first-year colleague who outshone us all in her support of POL. However, only a few participated in the actually school competition.
Our two students both worked tirelessly on memorizing and practicing their two poems. Both girls had total command of their poems, both in terms of memory and internal understanding. I'm very proud of both students whom I've been honored to teach and coach in POL.
Three students from the regional competition advanced to the state final, which will be March 16. One of the three is one of my students. I'm happy for her and very proud.
So what's the problem?
My student who did not advance is every bit the equal to the one who did and far superior to the other two students who also advanced. I say this knowing full well that some will call it sour grapes or my being a sore loser. That's not the case. I was mentally prepared for both students to lose but not for one to advance and not the other, especially after watching all the performances.
POL is a recitation competition. One of the students who advanced didn't know her second poem very well. She stumbled. Because I'm familiar with many poems and most on the POL site, I know when a performer doesn't fully grasp the poem. I know a line-by-line recitation compared to one that conveys meaning.
POL emphasizes vocal interpretation over physical movement. Last year, our "judge" based her decision on my student's use a "too many gestures." She had fewer than half a dozen. This year one of the students advancing to the state competition couldn't keep her hand still during her first poem.
POL recitation is about control of ones voice, body, and the poem itself. Watch the sample videos and you'll notice this control in the student performances. These have been our guide, and my students have become students of the POL videos and resources.
--Lack of Transparency in POL.
To its credit, the POL program has a well-defined, detailed set of rules and criteria for running the program. This only works when the one in charge does her due diligence. What didn't happen at our regional competition is noteworthy:
1. No program. We did not have a program provided with student names, poem titles, etc.
2. Order of performance nonsensical: The POL coordinator alphabetized presentations by students' first names. Who does that? Because some students had the same title, she used that to justify changing the order. This is all arbitrary based on her whims.
3. No identification of judges. Judges and their affiliations were not announced.
4. No ballots. Students did not receive written or oral feedback. POL has ballots for use at competition.
5. No Accuracy Judge. Again, this is a POL rule for contests, but if we had one, I don't know who it was. Indeed, on the POL website, there is a list of volunteers needed, including an emcee and prompter. I know for a fact that our state coordinator assumed the role of emcee and prompter, and I suspect she was also a judge.
6. No time lapses between presentation and announcement of awards. POL suggests having music play between presentations so that judges can have time to score a student. Having judged many competitions myself, I know this is necessary. One needs to reread the scoring criteria and needs time to process the performance. It's most troubling that within a minute after the final performance, the state coordinator was announcing the results.
--Risks of Subjective Competitions:
Of course, any subjective competition poses risks. This is probably more true for speech competitions than for most others. This is a discussion I have with students when they choose their poems, and I suspect that my student who didn't advance felt the sting since she presented "Rondeau," a very short poem with a male speaker. I suspect that ultra-conservative Idaho didn't quite know what to make of that, and I further suspect they judged her down for choosing a short poem. These are risks we discussed.
Ironically, POL requires students to choose a poem with fewer than 25 lines at the state and national competition, and performing a short poem offers it's own unique and difficult challenges.
--Poetry Out Loud: A fabulous program that deserves greater participation:
Poetry Out Loud offers huge scholarships at the national level. More importantly, it promotes close reading and comprehension of a difficult genre. Amazingly, when I teach interpretation in my speech classes, students often choose poems from the 16th and 17th century, something they would never do if those exposed to those same poems in a text book, an off-putting form.
I also use POL poems to teach the poetry unit in my senior English classes, and wrote about one students poetry image annotation in an earlier post.
Poetry Out Loud offers a fabulous opportunity for students, but without teacher support of the program, it's DOA in schools. Indeed, my high school is the only one of the four in my district that participated. I know that a colleague from another school was as perplexed with last year's district competition as was I. I suspect this impacted her decision not to participate this year.
When the rules are adhered to, when the judges receive training according to the program's guidelines, when the competition is well-organized and runs smoothly with all the necessary volunteers in place, students and teachers can be confident that judging subjectivity is a normal byproduct of human nature.
Absent these things, teachers such as myself have no plausible response or comforting words to offer our students who lose, even as we celebrate the winner's accomplishments.