Declamations are considered a rite of passage to many students, a long-standing tradition as part of Deerfield’s history. In fact, they have been around for so long that no member of the English Department seems to know why, when, or how the practice was first established at Deerfield.
Some describe the declamation as a core element of the Deerfield English curriculum that must be kept for the future, while others feel they are an antiquated practice that should remain in the past.
Any changes to the tradition of declamations are generally implemented by the English Department. All the teachers of a certain grade level meet to discuss ideas and opinions. In the past 25 years, these meetings have led to various changes in each grade.
Until two years ago, ninth-graders chose a passage to recite from a book read in class that year. Now, the ninth-graders write their own pieces by drawing inspiration from a set of photographs selected by the ninth grade teachers.
10th grade declamations have changed somewhat as well, as finals are no longer performed on Family Weekend, which had been a tradition in the past. English Teacher Mark Scandling explained, “We moved it off because there were so many other things competing for attention. We wanted the sophomore group to have their own night, where the softball or crew team wasn’t gone.”
The 11th grade declamations have undergone the most dramatic evolution. About 25 years ago, juniors began writing their own piece on some American issue, which then evolved into today’s task of writing about a personal issue that connects with the “American experience.”
Two years ago, the 11th grade English teachers also decided to remove the memorization aspect. Mr. Scandling explained, “[We were] hoping instead to have students spend more time crafting the written part and really delivering it with more conviction.”
Despite changes made for general improvement, there is disagreement within the department regarding the relevance of declamations and their future path.
Certain members were pleased with the removal of the 11th grade’s memorization aspect, such as Mr. Scandling,who stated, “There were times where people would get halfway and forget their words, and then what did we teach them?”
Others, however, appreciated the memorization of certain declamations.
English Teacher Christian Austin explained, “There is a lot of value in [memorization of the sophomore declamations] and having to take ownership of someone else’s writing and ideas that are not necessarily theirs.”
He added, “There are still mixed opinions on how [the 11th grade declamation] change has gone. It’s an ongoing conversation and we might always go back.”
These disagreements are echoed by the student body, where there is no clear majority opinion on declamations.
Some remain in favor of maintaining the tradition, like Roopa Venkatraman ’18, who said, “Declamations bring us back to the old notion of reading and performing traditional literature and poetry.”
Others believe only particular aspects should be altered. Sam Bronckers ’20 criticized the voting system of declamations, saying, “It is hard for us to judge another’s performance while declaiming because of our limited knowledge regarding declamations and literature.”
English Department Chair Michael Schloat also reflected on the unfair bias present in student voting.
“I get worried that in small classes it’s pretty easy to have a vote that selects a student for a reason other than ‘this is the best declamation,’” explained Mr. Schloat, who teaches a ninth grade English class.
Certain members of the community believe the practice should be amended altogether.
Maggie Tydings ’20 remarked on the sophomore declamations, “There is no applicable scenario in your professional life where you would utilize this skill. I will never need to stand up straight with my hands still by my side and recite a piece of literature.”
For the future, changes might be implemented in the voting system, as many worry it is too subjective. However, there currently are no major future changes planned for the declamations.
“It’s a distinctive thing about Deerfield and it is not without academic value, so I think it is worth keeping,” concluded Mr. Austin.