What is blindness?

“It’s a hard time to be human. We know/ too much and too little”                                                  Ellen Bass “The World Has Need of You”

I feel like this quote is my touchstone these days. I feel it as I learn more of the world, as I watch my children grow into it, and as I watch the rest of us try to live in it…clinging to what we believe is right (we know too much), often so fervently, we miss the whole truth (and too little). But as Bass’s title proclaims, “The World Has Need of You,” so even when I am overwhelmed by the surrounding maelstrom of voices and vehemence, I have to remember that I am called to work for good, to work for betterment, to work for peace and freedom and love.

Last weekend was a tumultuous time. This seems to be commonplace these days.

The President called out NFL players using words I’m not allowed to utter in the classroom and certainly words I teach my children not to use toward others. NFL players, coaches, and owners reacted in solidarity with each other, as if to say “This is our family. And you cannot call them names.” And we, as a people…as a nation, erupted. All the while, those in Puerto Rico, an American territory, whose homes and livelihoods were demolished by Maria were left waiting for aid, for response to a crisis of massive proportions.

So, as a teacher, what do you do? I cannot simply leave it alone. Students need a forum and information, they need discussion that includes opinions other than theirs and they need to practice civil discourse. There were lots of options, and heaps of resources immediately became available. But, it seemed to me important to engage in a different kind of conversation first. It seemed important to find out where my students landed on all of this before furthering any kind of agenda, before deciding what to teach. They are individuals, after all, so just as I would ask a bit about their reading and writing histories to gather some ideas on where to begin teaching those things, I asked a seemingly innocuous question during notebook time.

What is blindness?

We are reading All the Light We Cannot See together as we begin the year and Doerr, the author, starts a paragraph with this very question as he begins to explain what it feels like for one of his characters to have become completely blind. Yet, as the weekend was eclipsed by the start of a new school week, I began to understand this question in a much different way. So, I asked my students to forego consideration of physical blindness and to dig into other ways people could possibly be blind.

As always during notebook time, they responded to this quote in any way that made sense to them. Some illustrated their thoughts, others wrote poems, while still others wrote in prose. After a few minutes of this reflection, we discussed.

Their responses were beautiful. One student wrote a sort of list poem that describes various scenes of people we might easily forego truly seeing. She was inspired by the idea that we so often ignore or “blind ourselves” to the truths of the lives of those around us because then we can keep living our own comfortable lives without the discomfort of the reality of so many. It is easier to know too little and remain content, than to be disrupted and called to action by knowing too much. Her list of those people who are easier not to see included:

“the young girl whose feet are bare as she walks to school.

The boy who feels alone in a crowded room

The dad who returns home in the morning to make his son breakfast and doesn’t eat

The man whose face is hidden behind knotted hair and harsh wrinkles…his sign

dampened by the rain as he sits on the uncovered curb

the boy who sits watching the chatter.”

The class was moved by her description and it drove us to really dig in to who it is in this world that we are missing. Who is it that we are blinding ourselves to? What struggles are being faced that we can’t see because of whatever privilege allows us to ignore them. A truly relevant reminder and an invitation to continue defining the many ways each of us experiences privilege.

There were various other ideas and theories shared on what it is to be blind—not seeing the world around you, blinding yourself to an idea or to another possible opinion, feeling blind in math when you just can’t see the answer, and so on. But one of the more heartfelt responses came near the end of the conversation and I think speaks to the importance of conversations like this in our lives.

One girl raised her hand and said, “Blindness is choosing not to see that there’s a human being behind the opinion you so angrily disagree with.” She proceeded to speak passionately about why this upsets her so much and the rest of us joined in. In this moment, the room became aware that the world isn’t about a single side. It isn’t a single story. It is about many people, with varied backgrounds, with differing opinions coming together respectfully to find a better way.

Sometimes, the issue that calls us to action isn’t necessarily where we need to begin. Sometimes, our greatest understandings are those we come to when nudged rather than shoved.

All the time, our students are capable of so much more than we realize and we need to give them the time and the space to explore their ideas and opinions as well as the opinions of others. All the time, we need to extend our respect to them as individuals in this world and remember that while they are with us for school, they are also concurrently still trying to figure out where they fit and how to be in this world. The world has desperate need of them too and it is our job to help them navigate the waters of knowing too much and too little. Indeed, “[i]t’s a hard time to be human,” but in our classrooms with open communication, with respect and with time for our kids to reflect and to think, we can extend the comfort of community to ease the difficult moments. We can create a space to try new ideas and to grow as thinkers.

Our discussions did not end here. This was just the beginning…well, not entirely, these discussions are a staple of my classroom, but for the purposes of considering what was incited last weekend, it was just the beginning.

And then today, Friday, one of my seniors entered my room thoroughly annoyed with someone else’s closed minded opinion on the purpose behind the “take a knee” movement. This is a student who a year ago only saw the importance of standing for the anthem and saw a pro football player potentially only standing for himself. Today, I sat in awe as I listened to her share with great emotion about the different resources she had read or listened to that were making her think and about how we need to look hard at ourselves and why it is we might take issue with these players and their decision to take a knee.

She was doing exactly what I hope all of my students will do. She was seeking information, asking questions, and forming opinions based in research…and it was all self-motivated. This kind of growth and development is one of the coolest things about teaching kids—they are willing to open their minds and look around and even sometimes, change their minds. They don’t always see it as admitting defeat or to being wrong just to create a more informed opinion. There’s no shame attached in that change.

When it comes down to it, the point of these discussions is never for my students to share my opinion. It is for them to become informed on their side and on other sides before digging in and fighting for it, and it is to learn to speak civilly, even in disagreement, because when we lose respect, for ourselves and for others, we, in a sense, deny our own humanity and the humanity of the people with whom we share this world.

A Community of Learners

The brown envelope had been hanging on my board taunting my AP Lit students and I for days—staring us down, fully aware of the contents it kept concealed. So many pleas of “Can we take a peek! No one has to know” from the students in the room had begun to wear me down. I was equally eager to finally meet the text our friends from Conestoga High in Pennsylvania had sent our way as part of our mentor text exchange.

And maybe I was also a little bit apprehensive…my students and I would be encountering a piece of nonfiction prose together, for the first time, at the same time. I would have no way to prepare and we would all be working in real time. I’m pretty sure that my students reveled in this thought and after I shook off the nerves, so did I. Reading, writing, and thinking cannot be something that we inflict on our students without practicing ourselves…and what better way to practice than all together…let’s just say, I was confident by my fingers were still crossed.

The only thing that helped was that I knew Tricia and her AP Language students at Conestoga High would soon be encountering a poem that we had sent—all seeing the text for the first time, together. All a bit out of their comfort zones as they examined this poem we had sent their way.

As the day approached, apprehension further faded into anticipation and what happened in the midst of the reading made it all so much more worthwhile than I could have ever predicted.


The decision was made so quickly.

My friend and fellow Fellow, Tricia Ebarvia, turned to me after a conversation with Bob Probst at the Boothbay Literacy Retreat, and said, “I have an idea!” It was for a mentor text exchange between our classrooms, and the plan she’d devised was perfect for the two of us.

I have a passion and deep appreciation for poetry and Tricia’s expertise was nestled in the realm of prose. So, of course, I would send poetry to her classroom and she would send nonfiction prose to mine—and we would be unaware of the text that had been sent until we opened the envelope with our students in the classroom. This would be different than your average in school text exchange, though, because Tricia teaches in Pennsylvania and I teach in Louisiana. Our texts would have to be mailed (which honestly kind of added to the intrigue and excitement of it all). We decided that we would exchange texts between her AP Language class and my AP Literature class like this on a monthly basis.

A schedule was set and envelopes were mailed. This was actually going to happen.



As Ellie opened the envelope, the rest of us waited a bit impatiently. There had already been some grumbling about “another nonfiction piece” as this particular group of students had taken AP Language last year and spent their days in that course swimming in the deep end of nonfiction. I reassured them. Knowing Tricia as I do, I was fully confident that the text she had selected would be surprisingly fun to play with and to analyze—I was confident that it would not only pique their curiosity but intrigue their intellect and mine.

When Ellie retrieved the set of copies from the folder inside the envelope, it quickly became apparent that the text was very short. A lone paragraph. Four sentences, to be precise

(The text happened to be the first paragraph from the article “The Arc of Justice and the Long Run” by Rebecca Solnit).


Papers were distributed and we set to work…each of us, teacher and students, at the same time, in the same space…reading, thinking, writing, rereading, and so on. It was fun and all were engaged, and I’m also pretty sure there was some curiosity over what my ability was to work on something like this in front of them without a ton of time or extra resources…to encounter a text I hadn’t selected and to work with it in the same exact way that I ask them to do on a regular basis.

As we ventured into discussion, it didn’t take me long to realize that my kids absolutely loved not just the piece but the whole process. It was cool to feel a part of something bigger than themselves and their school. It was cool that another teacher had sent them a text that their own teacher had never seen before. And the piece itself captured them and inspired gorgeous conversation.

Students posed questions to each other; they wondered about the images/examples provided in the piece and spent a long time talking about the shape of an arc (they were shocked at how many math connections they made during their reading and our discussion—there was talk of getting too far down the wrong path beause of wrong window settings on calculators and the lack of slope at the top of an arc, and more); they talked deeply about the justice and hope brought up in the piece (and today of all days, that was a really great discussion to be having); students noted the progressively increasing sentence lengths throughout the piece and pondered why Solnit might have opted to do this, only to settle on a thematic connection; and at the end of the discussion, one of my students said, “I love this! It’s like a poem, but not a poem…which is my favorite kind of poem…I don’t have to think so much about the form of it.” They loved that Solnit left many of the ideas in the piece disconnected without forcing it on them –they appreciated her trust in them as readers to make the connections themselves.

Each of us enjoyed the camaraderie and surprise of it all and not a single one of us can wait patiently for what next month will bring.

It was a single class. On a day with a shortened schedule—45 minutes of time. It was a break from the literature we had been reading. A day away from the schedule we had been keeping as we push forward in a literary study. A day that was entirely off topic and entirely worth every second spent together in this new space. And I am left wondering how I can build even deeper continuing connections between this text and what we are currently working on together.

This is what happens when teachers are able to escape the confines of their classrooms and their schools in order to meet other teachers, other thinkers who work in other places. This is what happens when as teachers, we don’t just seek a clever pin-able idea, but instead we seek a community of learning…and then we act on the inspiration found there with confidence granted by the fellowship. This is what happens when we take on an idea having no idea how it will go, but we venture into this territory because we have the comfort of colleagues, even one who is 1200 miles away, and because we trust in our students. This is what happens when we step away from our plans and what feels comfortable and submit to the anxious excitement of trying something completely new—to the anxious excitement of learning beside our students.



Weights and Balances

Can I hear today? Am I dizzy or is the room cooperating and staying in one place?

These are the first two questions I ask every single solitary day that I have woken up for the last 5 years—since the moment my inner ear decided to stop communicating effectively with my brain…since the moment vertigo and hearing loss infiltrated my life stealing a bit of balance, a bit more of my hearing and freedom, and all of my confidence in my body. It’s a bit of an invisible illness– frustrating to both me and my family, as all of us struggle to understand and to find inroads to health and regular life…only to find that “regular life” doesn’t look the way it used to.

It’s the hearing loss that bothers me most. At it’s worst, the sound of my children’s voices is muffled and my husband finds himself speaking louder and more repetitively than he might care to (bless him for his patience!) and I find myself having to read lips. I fear total hearing loss in my left ear every moment of every day. The thought of the sounds of this world and the words my family speak to me being muffled or stifled completely, the thought of my own clarity becoming more muffled terrifies me.

So, it’s no wonder that when the Radiolab podcast on Words aired on my local NPR station today, I found myself sobbing in my car in a Starbuck’s parking lot. As the storyteller, a sign language interpreter, herself hearing impaired, revealed the story of her interaction with a 27 year old man born without hearing who not only was without words of any kind—no way to name himself or the things of the world, let alone his feelings—but who also had no idea they existed, I found myself deeply in awe of words and their meaning in our lives. When she spoke of the emotional moment he finally discovered words, I was overcome.

No matter what happens to me, to my hearing, at least I will have words.

Words fascinate me. Just ask any tenth grader who has passed through my classroom in recent years. The class is crafted to be a study in the importance of story in our lives and we begin our workshop with an investigation into words—their weight and power, how to balance them, how they play together to create rhythm and resonance. My students look at me like I’ve lost my mind when we begin this as if to say, “Uh, Mrs. Clark, we know words…we learned them a long time ago.”

I always have to explain that this is no simple exercise in vocabulary. If my students are truly seeking to express themselves meaningfully, with clarity and voice and style, they can’t just “know words.” They have to be able to place them on the page in a way that means something, that creates movement and moments, and the only way to really understand that is to be immersed in language.

So, how do we do that? Lots of way, really. My students are always reading independently—books of their choosing that excite them, that make them want to keep reading, that feel like a guilty pleasure and not homework. This isn’t always easy. But the struggle of pairing every kid with a book they want to read is worth it every single time.

I also begin the year with a central novel that we will consider as a class (this is one of maybe two or three whole class texts for the year). Sure, we study short pieces all year, but the crux of their reading is independently driven work. However, I start this way with a purpose. I select a text that will allow me to, as Ellin Keene would note, teach the reader/writer and not the book. Sure the story has to be compelling, but there must be a larger purpose. This year we are working with All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. While I absolutely adore the story contained between the covers of this book and while it works to support our theme of “story”, I am teaching it because Doerr writes in a way that allows for intentional study of word choice and its power. We are 16 pages in and already students have noted the beauty of his craft and specifically how his choice of verbs acts to create suspense. And they have taken these observations to their writer’s notebooks for practice in their own writing.

Finally, though, it is important to note that the early days of our notebook work often center around poetry as well. This work is integral as poetry is more than just a great example of word economy, of a time when a writer (poet) had to choose only the best most precise words. It is more than the simple fact that poetry can include intense emotion or illustrative imagery.

Poets have the unique sensibility to play with rhythm, repetition and sound as well as placement on the page. Exposing students to and immersing them in the artistry of this craft uncovers newfound appreciation for the working of words and invites them to play a bit on their own—to venture out onto uncertain limbs to see what they can create and their writer’s notebook is the perfect place for this practice.

So, for example, we can look at a classic like Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” which always comes off as kind of simple and “beneath them” at first. Trust me, there are always a lot of 15 year olds with opinions about the quality of this particular poem and none of them are terribly forgiving…until we begin to discuss his word craft. After allowing them to respond to the poem in their notebooks in any way they wish (reflection, connection, illustration, etc), I ask them to go back and look for words that stand out to them and to explain why. When they have finished hunting and reflecting, we come together for some discussion. Inevitably, the conversation grows from merely a look at what it must mean to “wander” and to do so “lonely as a cloud”—my kids are always struck by the magnitude of the disconnect he must have felt—to a deeper reflection on the difference between loneliness and solitude (for in the end, he feels “…the bliss of solitude; /And then my heart with pleasure fills”). But there’s also the recognition of choosing a word like “golden” instead of yellow or the myriad words he uses to reveal the happiness of the daffodils who were “Tossing their heads in sprightly dance”.

It’s a good beginning and they start to see why we are studying words. So, we move on to other more complex examples… A.E. Stallings’ poem “Sestina: Like” is a beautiful and current poem, perfect for word study as well as for a look at the way we can use punctuation to deepen the meaning of our words and to either create or disrupt their rhythm. I also really love to have my tenth grade students study the first stanza of Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” as the imagery is stark and the whole “like a patient etherized upon a table” image always brings us to an immense discussion of how crafting comparisons can change everything in a poem…can you imagine this poem without this image? It’s the beginning of Modernism. Had he phrased it even slightly differently, maybe “like a patient asleep on the table,” its weight, its impact would have been diminished and that is an important realization for kids—all it takes is a single word and everything can change. So we take this to our own writing and begin questioning the precision of our words and playing with how we place them on the page—in any writing form (poetry or otherwise).

As the weeks go on, I am also always sure to ask students to bring in poems they find that work in this way and I further this study by bringing in the work of poets like Lucille Clifton, Naomi Shihab Nye, Joy Harjo, Terrance Hayes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mark Strand, and Rita Dove. These conversations, this work takes 10-12 minutes of class time a day before me move into our work for the day, but I would not give up that time for anything. It is some of the most important work we do and it inspires my students as readers, writers and thinkers not just in a classroom but also in the world.

All of this focus on words in my classroom has really sort of coincided with my inner ear (balance and hearing) adversity, and it brings me to wonder…is the recognition of the beauty of words working together, of the sounds they make in the silence of our minds, and how they are used to create something powerful, something important, something meaningful, really just a result my struggle to take them all in quickly, to appreciate the way they work together and to pass that along just in case one day it’s not so easy to do anymore? Or is it just where I would’ve landed professionally anyway, knowing that my young writers need this kind of study?

Hard to say really.

But in this time of volatile language, hostile tweets, inane memes and truly uncivil discourse, I can think of no more important study for my students than to dig in and truly learn to use words meaningfully, carefully and precisely… and to hopefully gain style and voice. Maybe in this way, they can begin to set the example for the rest of us!