No more apologies

We have to stop apologizing for poetry.

It’s tempting to do. I get it. So often when I ask students about poetry, they reply (loudly) in disgust proclaiming how much they hate it: Poetry is for kids and old romantic people, it’s too hard to understand, it doesn’t make any sense, and the list goes on.

And so, when we go to share a poem, we feel compelled to apologize for it in a way that we don’t apologize for novels we share or movies we love.

Yet, what I have come to discover is that as teachers, we might have the wrong idea about what it means to “teach” poetry.

I think so many of us see poetry only as a means to teach figurative language and analytical skills to students, as a means for students to make gifts and booklets, and as a means for students to read the poems that we love or that we were taught, that we unwittingly strip the poetry of its worth and meaning. In “schoolifying” poetry, and in only presenting it in this way, we deprive our kids of the opportunity to find themselves in the poems. We deprive them of the opportunity to linger in “the mist” that “becomes central to [their] existence” as Juan Felipe Herrera mentions in his poem “Let Me Tell You What A Poem Brings”. And we discount a genre that in its brevity and intentionality is perhaps one of the best writing teachers out there.

All of this gives me pause to wonder.

Why do we spend so much time talking about the importance of choice in a kid’s reading life if we are going to mandate the poems that they have access to? If, as the teacher in the room, we are the only ones with control over what poetry gets read, how can we ensure that our kids will be able to find themselves in the text? Are we really helping them create a robust, well-rounded reading life or just one that includes books?

I realized a couple of years ago, that my tenth grade students were hating every poem I brought to the classroom. After some research and help from colleagues, I realized that my students weren’t really resisting the form, they were resisting my need to control their interaction with it. So, I set them free…with some parameters…to seek the poems that meant something to them, to write those poems into a “poetry notebook”, and to, from time to time, share their selections with the rest of the class. I never anticipated what happened next.

Students took ownership and became engaged. They found poems the resonated with them and poets that they loved. They found word choice, imagery, language patterns and punctuation placement that deepened meaning–even when they weren’t required to analyze. Their notebooks became a precious space and reflected their individuality as the contents of this notebook were entirely up to them. They selected the poems and chose how they would respond to them; they wrote their own poems in their own voice after uncovering their own inspiration rather than one that was assigned; they made lists of poets they were excited to seek out; some even translated poetry into and from other languages. Each notebook was as different as each kid in the room and it was amazing. (For real, kids were coming to school exhausted because they were up late working in their notebooks and because they were annotating on )

When those students became seniors, they returned to my class. As I watched them work in their writer’s notebooks, I was left in awe. No particular genre was required in these entries, yet so often many of them freely opted to write in poetry. It had become part of who they were as writers. These same kids also populated my poetry elective course that year because they just wanted more time with the genre before they graduated. And I can’t lie. I was glad to have them. I learned more from these kids than I am pretty sure they ever learned from me. And because of my students, and their sharing of poems, I discovered poets I might never have met—poets like Jennifer Grotz (“Poppies”) and Amit Majmudar as well as Jude Nutter whose poem “The Insect Collector’s Demise” is now one that I return to frequently.

I also owe to them credit for some beginning of the year moments from this school year. They have all graduated and gone off to college and other endeavors but their legacy lives on through the opportunities my current students are now granted.

Part of my summer reading requirement is for my students to seek out at least 5 poems they are unfamiliar with and that they absolutely love. I offer them websites like,, and many more to use while finding these poems. Many poetry websites and apps will even send the kids a poem a day-which is a nice reminder, especially over the summer! They do not have to do anything with the poems except be willing to share one with the class upon our return in August. When the school year begins, and it is time to share poems, we do not all share on the same day. Rather, three students a day will share until everyone has gone, and we can continue the rotation after that as long as they are enjoying and finding meaning in it. In this way, the kids can really take in a few poems each class and pay attention to each classmate and the poem they selected to present. Finally, after the student reads the poem aloud, they explain why they chose it and then the rest of the class has the opportunity to discuss it as well.

This year, my students have taken full advantage of this opportunity. Their response has simply been phenomenal—kids sought out funny poems, political poems, poems that reminded them of places they have been… kids who have never liked poetry before were begging to share the poems they found.

And then there was this: Today, a student came to me and said that she was starting poetry sessions with her parents because they weren’t sure they even liked poetry and couldn’t remember reading any since college. She mandated that they seek out poems that they like and bring them to dinner the next night. So, tonight at their house, there will be a fantasy football draft, nachos, and poetry. (melt my whole heart!)

Poetry deserves our attention and not our apologies for its inclusion in our classroom. When given the right opportunities to linger with poems they have chosen, students begin to better understand not only themselves and the world at large, but the moves writers make and they begin to work with an intentionality that heightens the quality of their writing in all forms. They find themselves understanding that a dash can be a breath on the page and that dashes are different from parentheses (and they didn’t need a worksheet to tell them this—they just needed a poet applying punctuation meaningfully).

I’m going to close with the words of one of my students who wrote a letter to me before leaving for college: “Sophomore year, I had no real appreciation for reading and writing. Yeah, I would read a book or write an essay…however, there was no critical thinking which meant nothing there really connected me with it. If I went back and told my sophomore or freshman self that I now had a love for both reading and writing poetry, I would’ve laughed in my face. [Poetry has] opened up a completely new world for me and it’s a nice world to escape to every now and then.”

Every kid deserves this chance. Every kid deserves to find him/herself in a poem. All it takes is handing them the choice and trusting in them. They will do the rest themselves.


Water is a deceptive friend. Necessary for survival while also unforgivably, forcibly, greedy for the life it fosters and all the items that celebrate the importance of it.

As I sit in my classroom, I can hear the sheets of rain pouring down, training in. It’s been doing this for a couple of hours now as the first bands of now Tropical Storm Harvey creep this direction–making it hard to concentrate. There’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot of friends so close by that are suffering an even greater deluge and significant loss.

As a native New Orleanian, I am no stranger to tropical weather systems and the destruction and pain they can leave in their wake. It is not a way of life by any means, rather a fact of it. Kind of like heat, humidity, good food and good conversation. We live here because it is home and because there is a culture here that ties us to this place and to each other and because epic weather events, increasingly, happen anywhere—not just here.

My parents lost their home and its contents to Hurricane Katrina when a levee broke blocks away, leaving their house to marinate in 8 feet of flood waters for weeks before finally receding. Flood waters are merciless and powerful, moving furniture unmovable by a single individual so that when people return home, the inside isn’t so recognizable, a kind of symbol for how life now feels. Rooms rearranged just as lives have become, making the safe harbor of home treacherous ground.

There are no words to place here that properly speak of the profundity of the devastation that comes with this kind of flooding. Sure, that house was just full of things that can mostly be replaced, but within and beyond that, there is so much that can never be returned or recovered. There are years of life stolen from an entire coastline of people as they figured out what to do next, how to recover. Of course we were grateful for each other and life and safety but reality can be a cruel visitor and overstayed his welcome that year.

The memories are visceral—the smell, the creeping mold, the ashen residue on trees, bushes, houses, the silence of a city shut down except for the whirring of helicopters circling. As I watch the footage of Houston, just as when I saw the Baton Rouge area flooding last year, my heart becomes increasingly and unbearably heavy in helplessness as I grieve for those in the midst of the crisis and grieve all over again for the loss suffered by so many in Katrina. I will work to send aid and to help in any way that I can, but the hardest work of the recovery process is the heartwork. There is no salve for that. It just takes time.

And in this heartache, I think of my own children and the young adults that I teach and the debt I owe them because when it comes down to it, I don’t teach English, I teach human beings.

This has been a very difficult start to the school year. My students returned with eyes opened wide to the hatred spewed in Charlottesville and now find themselves worried about their friends and family in Houston and if in fact we will flood at some point here as well.

They need a safe space. They need a space that shelters them from the storm a bit while they work on building the strength and the courage to help this world and its people. They need a space to ask questions and voice opinions and explore just what it is they feel and how to put it into words. They need their writer’s notebooks.

The writer’s notebook forms the core of my classroom and shapes my students as readers, writers, and thinkers in this world. In our classroom, the notebook is very clearly defined as a place to play with words and ideas—a place to find what is important in our lives and to put a voice to it. It is a place to venture into uncharted territory as a writer without fear of failure or a deduction of points. It is theirs, becoming a place that steers young writers toward the writing that will mean something to them—writing that will engage them—that they will compose because it feels important and not because of the points the piece might earn.

Yes, students receive points for this work. I ask them to pick five selections every nine weeks for me to read. However, I use this time with their work as an opportunity to lift up what they are doing so well and to encourage them along the way. A small note of “I know you say you aren’t a writer, but the ideas you express in this entry would suggest otherwise—they are so important and deserve expression and attention” can offer a boost of confidence to a writer that is changing. When the work isn’t graded in the same way we often have to grade so much of what they turn in, there is freedom for me to seek the good and to illuminate it.

The first responses in these notebooks are often prompted by poetry that I have shared with them. Poetry is rich in content, compact, varied in topic and style, and it is replete with carefully selected and organized words and punctuation chosen to create and deepen meaning. Each poem extends ideas that resonate deeming themselves worthy of consideration as well as a lesson to a writer. I ask students to simply respond in any way they are so moved. Some will draw. Others will analyze the work. Still others will offer opinions or begin a creative piece or something else entirely. And then we have time to share and discuss for anyone willing or moved to do so. In these first few days of school, as we have begun to create this safe notebook space, my students have responded to “Choose” by Carl Sandburg, “Jerusalem” by Naomi Shihab Nye, and “The Story, Around the Corner” also by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Their responses have astounded me, as they do every year. I really shouldn’t be surprised anymore, but every time my students and I begin to venture into this space I find myself awestruck as students volunteer to share some of what they have written with the class. Students of every level are working with challenging texts, and giving the freedom to do so in a way that means something to them, yields some pretty jaw dropping results. They have been bold and honest and revealed so much of how this world has shaped them as thinkers and as people. I think they have even surprised themselves.

Tomorrow, though, I will simply write the word “water” on the board and ask them to write. Some might write about how they hate drinking water because it is flavorless, others might write about how they love to swim or about how tired they are of the incessant rain, but there will also be those who will use this space to explore the deluge and flooding occurring so nearby and affecting loved ones and maybe even a vague Katrina memory still whispers inside and needs to be expressed. They will have safe space to do this work and listening ears all around if it will help them to share.

This is the least I can do. There will be more, but we begin in the safety of our notebooks.

(and this Natasha Tretheway poem keeps rising in my head. It is a part of a post-Katrina tribute to the Mississippi Gulf Coast…“Believer”)

Taking a Breath

The longer I live, the more it becomes apparent that my greatest responsibility is to love my neighbor. The longer I live, the more I see and feel the importance of working to remind my heart to see beyond a single action or word or belief; to understand that it comes from a place that I haven’t experienced; to see, respect and love the humanity that resides there (even when it is not always easily visible).

This is of course much easier to accomplish when I’m comfortable—at school, or around the people I know and have a reason to try to love, or with people who make it easy to love them. But as my friend and pastor, Chris Fryou, often points out, loving your neighbor most certainly also includes loving those that feel most difficult to love (the definition of those that feel difficult to love changes, I think, by the person as we all have our own safe spaces, comfort zones, and belief systems).

Today, I am uncomfortable. Today, I feel sick. Today, loving those individuals who feel and express the depths of their hatred for other human beings both vehemently and violently is my challenge and I’m failing miserably at seeing past what hurts so much.

Please do not mistake my words here. I take no issue with peaceful public displays of opinion and disagreement—with the lawful exercising of first amendment rights—even and especially of those that I don’t see eye to eye with. This kind of civil disobedience and the freedom to take part in it are a vibrant and important thread in the fabric of this nation. I believe that when we pull that thread, or even threaten to, the whole tapestry begins to unravel.

No, what I am struggling with is finding a way to extend a loving heart to a group of people who gathered together with the sole purpose of doing just the opposite…who gathered together with the insidious intent to intimidate those they hate, to incite fear, to illustrate boldly the vastness and totality of their hatred for entire groups of human beings on this planet as though the world has no means to support difference…who gathered knowingly to hurt other people (either in words or action or both).

How am I supposed to rise above the sickness and disdain that are simmering in my heart as I see these pictures and hear these stories? How, in my hurt and anger, do I stop hatred from rising in my own heart? How do I let love for others, even those I don’t know how to extend it towards, win me over and carry my actions just as much, if not more than they spur on my words? How do I accept that while I may not be able to ameliorate, to dissolve the hate in their hearts, I still must work to prove that hate is never an acceptable means of expression?

And then I think of the young people preparing to enter my classroom next week and the importance of the example I model for them…the importance of maintaining, as I’ve mentioned before, the ideal of “radical humanity” as a lens through which I plan my lessons (and live my life). And suddenly these questions reduce to one that is pretty simple—how do I not?

I talk to my students all of the time about digging deeper. I usually mean this in regard to some literary work or into whatever subject matter it is that they are writing about. It is a call to think beyond the superficial and to seek what isn’t so easily observed at first glance. A call not to be fooled by what appears simple and singular (by something like hatred) but to think further in search of truth, meaning and depth.

Increasingly these days, digging deeper takes on greater significance as something much more than representative of strong literary analysis. Despite offering a release from the burden and negativity of judgment, “digging deeper” becomes even more complicated when we are put in the position, as we are today, of witnessing to the truth of humanity rather than simply demonizing those who try to deny it—for in demeaning and diminishing we sink rather than rise…for in reciprocating their hatred, we reveal the worst of ourselves rather than the best and we become that which we are railing against.

Hatred always deems itself righteous, which is why it can be expressed so powerfully—it always feels justified. We cannot justify our hatred of those who hate. The emotion is the same no matter the reasoning behind it and it is the easier method of relief to reach for. Or, at least it seems to be. Until we have realized that our hearts are still sick and our hatred has resolved nothing.

We must seek love instead—even and especially when it is hard. We must allow it to catalyze our actions and reactions. It will be difficult at times. We will grow weary. But we will carry on knowing that the only way to heal hate is with love (and that begins in our own hearts).

I walk into my classroom this week not with a political agenda. I don’t need my students to think the way I do about the world or about politics. I don’t need them to agree with me. But we all have to live in this world together and as a teacher of students who will vote in the next election and who are our future decision makers, I feel it is imperative that they, at the very least, walk away from a year in my classroom understanding that hate is never an option. So we will have some difficult and courageous conversations…and we won’t always know how to feel about them…but we will always be working toward understanding, toward empathy, toward respecting others simply because they are human beings on this planet and we honor that.

Today though, on my own and in solitude, I am working on my heart. Today, I am seeking ways to love. Today, I will pray.

“Choose” by Carl Sandburg

“Jerusalem” by Naomi Shihab Nye


The Inspiration of Writers

As I get ready for the coming school year, I find myself inspired and excited to meet my students and to begin a year of learning with them. Most years at this time, I just find myself stressed, feeling underprepared, under-rested, and begging for just one more week off (like, just one more week would solve the complex problem of my procrastination).

But this year, I am ready.

Are my lessons planned? Uh, not compleltely. Is my classroom cleaned and tidy and welcoming? Definitely not yet! Have I read all of the books that I was hoping to? I never do (this always comes as a surprise despite my deep self awareness of my painfully slow reading habits).

So, why the inspiration this year? Why the excitement in the face of so much to do?

Well, I spent three days last week with some very generous colleagues, friends and former students who gave up their time to attend a writing workshop that I was hosting. This workshop was to be nothing more than an opportunity for all of us to sit down and have some time to write. It felt so important to me—and not just because people would be giving up their last few days of summer to join in, but more because I wanted the days to be filled with meaningful writing experiences and for participants to walk away feeling some sense of fulfillment and joy in their writing.

I planned this event meticulously—carefully selecting texts for quick writes, determining a means to quickly create a community of writers where all felt safe to write and to share, selecting activities that would be as worthwhile as they were enjoyable. It took way longer than I thought it would to gather materials and to prepare folders—this work alone left me exhausted.

Yet when these writers arrived, my energy reignited.

As we eased into the hard work of writing and sharing, I stood back in awe (and maybe with teary eyes). Something about the sight of my friends and colleagues furiously writing in notebooks moved me unexpectedly. I couldn’t figure it out. I work with young writers for a living. Why was this so different? Why was I so moved?

And it was this. As teachers, we expect writing from our students—we preach the importance of writing and of story as we carefully usher our kids through the writing process—offering choice, guidance, conferences, and hoping to instill confidence. We do this not simply because writing is an important skill but because it is freedom and with our words and our voice comes great power to tell the truth of our story. Sure, writing is important in college and in our day to day lives but its heart and its greatest weight lies in the writer’s ability to share their truth and to create empathy in the reader thus banishing the falsehood and tunnel vision of any single story.

Even with this knowledge and this understanding in our hearts; even though we are inspired by the beauty of the young writers in front of us; even though we demand their vulnerability as they pour themselves onto the page and turn it in for critique and dare I even say it, a grade, as part of a learning process, so often we do not grant ourselves as teachers the time and opportunity to write, to tell our stories, to feel the weight and the power and the freedom for ourselves. There are papers to grade, lessons to plan, and families to care for. And what would we write about anyway? Who would want to read it? Where would I even begin? What’s the point? (I’ve discovered, by the way, that all of my excuses for not writing mirror my students’…apparently, I need to start taking some of my own writing advice!)

When it comes down to it, writing is hard. And it can be terrifying to truly put ourselves on the page. There are lines in an A.E. Stallings poem titled “Explaining an Affinity for Bats” that read like this: “ Who find their way by calling into darkness/To hear their voice bounce off the shape of things” ( She is writing about bats, but of course also about writers—specifically poets. This idea of “calling into the darkness” speaks to the truth of writing as we don’t always know where our writing will take us, but like the bats, we call out anyway “To hear [our] voice bounce off the shape of things.”

Or maybe it’s simpler than all of this. Maybe, creative expression is more like what Mary Oliver describes in her poem, “The Storm.” (

“…Running here running there, excited,
hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spins
until the white snow is written upon
in large, exuberant letters,
a long sentence, expressing
the pleasures of the body in this world.”

Sure, she’s writing about her dog in the fresh fallen snow, but I also think she is saying something here about the joys and freedom of writing. I think that sometimes as teachers we might lose sight of this side of things. Between all of the requirements of grades, report cards, testing, making sure we are teaching what students need while often not granting ourselves the time we need to write as well, it is easy to lose track of the exuberance that should come with creative expression.

This is what moved me. A room full of teachers expressing themselves, “Running here running there, excited, / hardly able to stop.” It was such a gift to be in the presence of that reminder of how important writing is for everyone-not just for kids in school and for writers, but for all of us.

As we closed our session, and took time to share with each other either some bit of writing or what we gained from the three days, I was struck by the courage of each individual in the room to share a bit of themselves. Some read heart-full pieces that I’m relatively certain they didn’t see themselves writing before last Tuesday while others just expressed gratitude for the reminder that there is always time to write, even if it isn’t a complete piece…just to put the words to the page. One teacher, an experienced fiction writer, found herself writing in poetry much of the week (bestill my poet’s heart!) and was so please to have discovered a new outlet for her writing.

I found myself humbled in their presence and so grateful for their willingness to fully participate and even more for what they have inspired in me—a resolution to continue writing and a zeal with which to return to my classroom as I work to craft meaningful writing experiences for the young adults soon to become the newest members of my writing community.