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Declamations: What Are They and Why are They Important?

Declamations: What Are They and Why are They Important?

It's declamation season at Rumsey...but exactly what is a declamation? According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a declamation is "an elocutionary recitation; the art or action of reading or reciting a literary text with the proper intonation and expression." In other words, Rumsey Hall students are memorizing a meaningful work and then recalling it out loud.

In the New Yorker article, Why We Should Memorize, Brad Leithauser states, "The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen." As a school built on the foundation of effort, we champion the energy and determination it takes to boldly speak out loud: declamations are a prime opportunity for students to find — and share — their voice. 

The History of Declamations at Rumsey

Declamations have been a tradition at Rumsey for decades. We unearthed a document from 1996  in which past English Department Chair John Oberwetter lays out the key assignment details. In this excerpt from the document, Oberwetter explains the outlets for the speech presentations:

The Speech: When and How Students Present

Throughout the spring term, students gather their courage to stand in front of their peers throughout Morning Meeting and English class to recite their declamation. The speeches are met with enthusiasm and encouragement from friends, faculty, and the community at large.

Aside from Morning Meetings and English classes, students also share their declamations during our special day of connection with Grandfriends. Two students who excel at presenting their declamations will recite them at Commencement for our extended Rumsey Hall family. Ultimately, one person will win the Edward B. Whitney Prize for Excellence in Declamation. Student performances are evaluated according to the following criteria: quality of piece; diction (modulation of voice and sound quality); feeling (connecting to piece); and the level of memorization.

K-Primes present their declamations as an entire class together. From there, students take on the assignment as individuals; however Ist and IInd Form (Grades 2 & 3) students have the option to present their declamations. 

The Process: Choosing and Presenting Declamations

The length of the speech students choose is outlined in the original assignment details. For instance, beginning in the Lower School, students may choose writings with 14 lines minimum to memorize. By the time students are in VIIth Form (Grade 9), they may pick works with 24 lines minimum.

When making selections, students pick a work they connect with or that challenges them. They keep in mind that the words need to be appropriate for the audience. 

Students can choose to memorize the following items:

  • a speech
  • an opening page from a a book or essay
  • a newspaper article
  • a soliloquy from a play
  • an interesting description or situation in the middle of a story
  • a letter
  • a poem

Valerie DiLorenzo, Library Media Specialist, works with students to explain the process and equip them with the tools they need to choose and memorize the piece. DiLorenzo states, "We make sure everyone knows what a declamation is and what is expected for their class. We have a special display for Upper School Declamations--a prose and a poetry display. I give students some examples of how and what they might find. We give them time to wander the library, browse the shelves, and delve into a book or two. I am a firm believer that 'books call out to us.' What is key is that students connect with the piece as they'll spend quite a bit of time with it. Quite a few students come in on their own. I love talking to students and trying to find their 'perfect' declamation."