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July 6, 2020
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Both Poetry and Praise for TCS

Published Feb. 26, 2013 • Last Updated 10:06 a.m., Feb. 27, 2013

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When "Little Gidding by T.S. Eliot" is searched for on Google.com, it takes 0.13 seconds for 72,200 results to be generated. For The Country School (TCS) 8th-grader Gabby LaTorre, it took 3 minutes and 21 seconds to recite Eliot's poem on Feb. 15 and generate one result: a first-place finish in the 57th annual Lois MacLane Poetry Recitation.
Second place went to 8th-grader Ryan Kitsh, who recited "Like Totally Whatever" by Taylor Mali; 6th-grader Joseph Coyne, who presented "The Village Blacksmith" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, placed third out of the 17 finalists who ranged from 5th- to 8th grade.
The recitation was established in 1957-a year and a half after TCS was founded-by the first head of school, David T. MacLane, and was named in memory of MacLane's sister, Lois.
"I think what the entire school has done in memorizing poetry is a very, very important thing to do," said contest judge Michael Chappell, associate professor of English at Western Connecticut State University. "We don't challenge ourselves enough these days, and memorization is one of those skills that [goes] back to the first days of poetry-it was oral, it was not written...You're really participating in literary history, in the history of human kind, by challenging yourselves and memorizing a beautiful piece of literature."
Along with Chappell, judges for the recitation included Elizabeth Walbridge, a member of The Country School's Class of 2003 and English teacher at Choate Rosemary Hall; Dr. Margaret Murray, a professor of English and American studies coordinator at Western Connecticut State University; Sheila Murphy, a retired English teacher and the former co-director of the Connecticut Writing Project; and John Fixx, head of Chase Collegiate School in Waterbury and formerly assistant head and middle school director at TCS.
Judges awarded scores to the participants based not on the speaker's speed, but rather on his or her presentation, articulation, and difficulty of text. Murray, however, feels the process isn't just about who wins and who loses, but the effect poetry and memorization have on the students beyond the recitation.
"That poem is going to come back to you. You don't know where it's going to happen and you don't know how it's going to happen- and that's on an emotional, psychological level," said Murray. "On a pedagogic level, kids need to memorize. It's a skill that is lost and it's not memorizing for the purpose of memorizing. It's a critical skill that develops into greater skills."
Murphy acknowledged that many students don't gain an appreciation of poetry in school or the ability to memorize.
"I think memorizing is extremely important. In an old-fashioned way, it trains your mind to focus in a way that's exactly the opposite of what we do on the Internet," said Murphy. "Discipline is an old-fashioned word, but it's concentration and it's focus and it's engaging your mind with wonderful words, with the richness of our language."
Addressing the students, parents, and faculty gathered in the DeFrancis Gymnasium prior to the start of the recitation, Head of School Dr. Laurie Bottiger said, "What we know 57 years later...is we know that anything that we ask children to do, they can."
Bottiger also praised the students for their poise, saying, "You just learned at a very young age not to be afraid of [public speaking], something that almost every human is more afraid to [do] than die, which is really amazing to realize."
The students were lauded by the judges for their confidence, which Murray never saw waver.
"Some of those kids had professional-level poise and I'm looking at them and thinking, 'Some of those kids are in 6th grade,'" she said. "Initially they just had to do it for the English teacher and then as they move up to this [competition] level they start to own those characteristics instead of just going through the motions."

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