Sunday, February 24, 2013

What Do You Say to the Student Who Deserved to Win and Still Celebrate the Victor?

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.

None of the above exist in our state's 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.


  1. Glenda --

    I was a speech coach (and judge) for many years, and I'm still sort of in touch with how things work in Illinois in the competitions sponsored by the Illinois High School Association. It's not perfect, but all of the transparency mechanisms that you mentioned are in place for those competitions.

    Poetry Out Loud, as you say, "offers a fabulous opportunity for students," but it evolved from the poetry slam world, which is more rough-and-tumble because it grew out of the club scene, originating at Chicago's Green Mill with my friend Marc Smith. The ethos and logos of that world says fairness is what the people say it is. Which might be fine if the audience members were the judges, but when the judges are supposed to be experts (albeit secret experts), weird stuff happens.

    I suppose the answer to your title question is to try keeping the focus on the intrinsic rewards and helping the students understand that the judging system is, at best, flawed and maybe even biased. When art meets competition, sometimes the results get ugly. (For another example, watch the Oscars tonight.)


    1. I had to smile at the idea of fairness in Hollywood, Gary.

      If there were at least the appearance of following the POL rules, a loss would be easier to swallow, but even knowing the history of POL, the rules are very specific just for the purpose of keeping the "weird stuff" at bay.

  2. Glenda, I'm feeling for you especially severely since I have been a regional judge for POL for the last two years. We just did our 2013 regional on Thursday night, so this is all very fresh. You should complain straightaway to someone. I don't know how your coordinator can keep that position with such gross abuses. We have a strong program in PA, and that's because the rules matter and are followed assiduously. Our accuracy judge is a beast--and rightly so. The words need to do the work--and if they aren't perfectly right--that's a big problem. I am so thankful I didn't have to attend to the accuracy in addition to the published criteria.

    I will say, though, from my POV as a judge, there is a difference between recitation and "acting" a poem, and that is often the difference between our regional champs. Too much acting--and that includes too much body action--is specifically mentioned in the judges' guide. It's obvious, too, watching the kids who get to the national round that "acting" is not what gets you there. It's a fine line--and yes, of course, a bit subjective, but in my view, it's an important distinction.

    1. By the way, this is Kim McCollum-Clark. . .didn't know my Google account still had "Elfarran" attached!

    2. Thanks, Kim. Last year the results were very emotional for me. Not so this year. I'm very proud of both students.

      I tried to talk to the state coordinator via email early in the year about the importance of having qualified judges and following the guidelines. I know she thinks I'm a trouble-maker. Neither of my students used more than a couple of gestures, and both studied the POL resources, rules, and DVDs in earnest. One of the students who advanced had much physical movement w/ her arms and hands. I was shocked after my conversations w/ the state coordinator last year.

      Our debate/speech coach listened to my students Friday, and suggested to one that she add sound effects and repeat lines, which students get by with in National Forensic League competitions. I explained that POL does not allow that and that complete fidelity to the words is of utmost importance.

      My biggest issue is the cavalier way the state coordinator ignores the rules. She has no formal training, but assured me last year that she has "been doing this for seven years," and that's training enough.

  3. I coach speech (in fact, we had district individual competition yesterday) and I know how hard it is to help kids through the sting of "losing" . It sounds to me like the director of your competition needs a little reminder of the rules and how things are supposed to work. Can you appeal to the national organization?

    As far as what to say to the one who didn't get to move on...this is always a tough conversation. Like it seemed you did, we talk a lot before competitions about judging, how it isn't sometimes fair, how choice of selection can influence a judge (fairly or unfairly). When this happens--and it happens every year--I always ask the student if they did the very best they could, if they practiced like they should, if they still loved their piece as much as they did when they picked it out. If they are better than when they started. If they can say yes to all of that, then they did win and we will know about it.

    And then, right or wrong, I have to let them wallow in it. The disappointment, the unfairness, the dream crushed. But only for awhile, and then I get them started thinking about next year and what they can do to prove the judge wrong.

    And I go home and rant and rave to my husband....

    1. Since POL limits selection choice to poems on its site, one would expect some of the subjective judging of selections to diminish. The student who did not advance makes the most difficult-to-understand poem seem simple. She had a lot of repetition of a line in her first poem. After that round several people from other schools and some of the contestants told her she was "amazing." Since we did not receive any feedback, I don't know how the judges evaluated her.

      I don't think my student will wallow; she'll help her friend prepare for the state competition and cheer her on, and maybe even attend the event. We'll see.

  4. Since I have far less experience with POL (none) than the others who have already commented and given great advice and support, all I can say is that I agree with what Gary has said about what happens when art meets competition. And, I agree with Elfarran and Deb's advice to make your voice heard. If you believe the competition was poorly organized and unfairly judged, you should definitely speak out.