For poetry’s sake

So, I had this dream last night…hang in there with me…it is a little fuzzy as remembered dreams tend to be. I was seated at some event with some of my favorite authors (I can’t recall who precisely; I didn’t really see them, I just knew they were there). We were in conversation and it was as though I belonged there…as though I was an equal. Then, suddenly the person seated just a few chairs down from me turns and shares details about a poetry anthology that is about to be released.

It was Maya Angelou.

In my dream, this person speaking directly to me, was Maya Angelou. I immediately, without intimidation or reticence and as though I were speaking to a friend, replied with enthusiasm for this text and began my sad story about how I have all these things to say about poetry and no voice or platform to share them more effectively. And this is where I know my sub-conscious was really trying to nudge me…Ms. Angelou looks me directly in the eyes and says, “You have a voice. You are just choosing to put other things first. Free your heart, the words will follow. Give them the time they deserve.”  I’m certain if this had truly been Maya Angelou, she would have expressed this far more profoundly, however, she was limited by the confines of my sleepy brain. Regardless, this truth-baring reprimand was enough to get me writing again…and the words below are my heart set free (well, when it comes to poetry anyway…especially the necessity of poetry in the lives of our students…).

What feels like a million years ago now when I was still young and smart, I spent my last two years of undergrad researching and composing my honors thesis on Dante’s Divine Comedy. This project was a passion of mine–I began taking Italian so I could read the poem in the original language…I read Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso each more than once…I read texts that inspired the allusions within Dante’s work…I read criticism…I wrote about all of this and then wrote some more and some more after that. It fueled my brain and felt like the most intriguing puzzle ever set before me.

When I finally narrowed my focus, I was surprised that I landed in the beauty of Paradiso rather than the glorious and righteously (and maybe vindictively) bestowed agony of Inferno. I never saw that coming, the Inferno always seemed far more deliciously awful and enjoyable. But somewhere along the way I discovered a pattern in one of the cantos of the Paradiso and my brain said, “Yes, thank you! We will park ourselves here and think some more.”

Honestly, as nerdy as this will sound, working through this text and the sometimes terror…sometimes frustration…sometimes exuberance of writing about it and about my findings was legitimately fun and some of the most gratifying work I have done in my life.

With all of that in mind…I bring you to the day of my defense. One of my favorite humanities/comparative lit professors had offered to be one of my readers, and I honestly couldn’t wait to hear the praise and accolades he would lavish. And while there was some of that, there was also something else…something that in all these 20 or so years, I have never forgotten. With a look of true disappointment, he revealed that while my academic work was excellent and my dissection of the poem important, I had lost the beauty of the words along the way…that I had completely sacrificed the magnificence of the aesthetic created by the poet in order to deconstruct the work for deeper understanding. I mean, look, my defenses went way up because the aesthetic wasn’t my focus or my purpose. But the fact that the sting of that statement still lingers, points me toward the fact that there was enough truth in what he observed that he was right.

Which brings me to the point of this first blog in a new series of blogs (well, I’m hoping it becomes a series of blogs anyway!). I’ve been advocating for years that the reason students (high school students especially) need to be studying poetry in the classroom is because it will impact them as writers in deep and meaningful ways. I know this to be true and so do so many other teachers I admire. Poetry, in its brevity and precision, offers a microcosm of what happens in prose–each word, each piece of punctuation, a deliberate and intentional act on the page–each poem, approachable for study even when it will take work to navigate because the page isn’t so overwhelmingly full.

This (in greater detail) has been my plea for the last 5 years:

Teach the poetry and your young writers will better their craft.

Something in this poetic passion project always felt hollow, false, lacking. I could never put my finger on it until the other day when I woke up from my Maya Angelou dream a little unnerved and suddenly thinking about my thesis defense. And then a more complete truth settled upon me.

In all of my research and in all of my speaking and writing on this subject, I have been too focused on the academic outcome and less focused on the human need for and the value of the aesthetic, of the emotion, of the truths contained in the beauty (albeit sometimes raw rather than rapturous) of poetry…the value of students finding themselves in a poem, finding comfort, finding joy…the value of students finding the truths of others in these brief texts…the value of the outlet of poetic composition when a student is anxious, overwhelmed, in crisis, happy, in love (and yep, teenage love counts you guys–perception is reality, so guess what…that perceived love is their reality)…

In all of my efforts to feel and sound credible, I lost sight of sharing the importance of the empathic weight of poetry and what that delivers to the human beings in our classrooms, seated before us. I ignored the truth that sometimes what we read–especially poetry–doesn’t have to be an academic pursuit, rather it can be a soulful one, a healing one, a rejuvenating one, an exploratory one–one that isn’t followed by analysis and essay, rather causes us to look carefully inward. And just because we have demands placed on us as teachers that sometimes restrict what it is that we do in our classrooms and how we do it, does not mean we cannot make the space for poetry and for allowing our students to be human beings rather than simply learning machines…for allowing them to be frail and vulnerable and to interact with a text that will foster connection and allow them to feel seen, heard, understood…for granting them time to appreciate the beauty of the words and not have to peel back layers in search of some purified explication. After all, if we are truly teaching the whole child and respecting them as individuals who deserve to be seen, doesn’t all of this fit…doesn’t all of this become required curriculum?

In the coming days and weeks, this blog will be filled with stories and moments and ideas that validate the use of poetry in the high school classroom (okay, and really in all of our lives…just saying…) and not for any other purpose than allowing our kids to feel and to wade into and to soak up the beauty of the language, its function, its artistry, its ability–for in allowing them to do that, we will empower them to harness their own emotion, to develop their own voice, to know who they are and to speak their own truths. In a world where the college admissions process has become debilitating and where our students often feel othered, unheard and ignored, how can we discount poetry when it can work against the injustices they feel and face?

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As an educator, I’ve long realized that my students are brilliant beyond all expectation and that if I will just get out of their way, they will prove that truth time and again. It’s the dismissal of my own pet projects and the getting out of the way that can be tricky. There are certain works and assignments that I simply love to witness kids interact with and grow from, so the temptation to micromanage the curriculum can often be difficult to dismiss.

This is particularly true in my AP Literature class. It’s less a temptation in this situation and more a burden placed by the weight of the test in May…you know, the test that is made without knowledge of my kids but that determines whether they will receive college credit without regard for the fact that maybe they have completed important, intelligent and profoundly thought provoking work all semester but maybe came into the test not feeling well. An entire year of work denied in four hours. I digress. My point is that given the import my kids place on this test, I feel an obligation to find a balance between teaching a really solid literature course and also instructing on the nuances of the test.

Every other course I teach roots itself deeply in the choice offered through reading and writing workshop, but my AP class has always been a little bit different. Choice has been present but within parameters–often set by me (particularly when it comest to reading).

This year has been a bit different. We still share a central text every now and again so we can discuss and learn from each other as a whole class. But our reading for the most part has existed in book clubs. And while, yes, there have been literary analyses that were written, this year we have also participated in a true writer’s workshop. Students set writing goals for themselves, selected a style of writing and topic that would assist them in achieving their goals, and then set to work. I was present for conferencing and teaching one on one as they went through the process.

What I found incredibly intriguing is that so many of the kids were inspired to write based on the books they had chosen for their book clubs. A few students read Layli Long Soldier’s poetry collection entitled Whereas. This beautiful book of poetry reveals the hard work of the poet, and the intricacy of Layli Long Soldier’s craft deepens the connection of the reader to the work, to the meaning (and also opens eyes). As much poetry as I have shared with my kids over the years (there has been so much poetry, trust me here), there was something magical about their independent reading and interaction with Whereas. Not only did they appreciate the text and have riveting book club discussions, but they also all decided that their writing goals would include exploring what they could really do with poetry.

Now I have to say that historically, when a student asks to pursue poetry for independent writing, questions like these are often involved… “So, like, how many poems do I have to write?” “So, 3 or 4 haiku would count, right?” “But what if I worked really hard on these two poems? Two would be enough, right?” This group of students, however, asked an entirely different set of questions… “Can I include an intermission in my collection?” “Would it be alright if my collection had 3 parts?” “I’d like the third part to be interactive for the reader–is that too creative? Will people get it?” “Can I play with spacing on the page and punctuation if it works with my point?” Meaningful questions about the work of a writer–questions that reflected thought and consideration and investment. I was dazzled.

And the outcome? Well, one student crafted a 62 page, three part collection of poems that illustrated the transition from anxiety/depression/hurt to taking a breath to finally healing (the healing is approached through an interactive set of poems and directives that aim to help the reader work toward healing rather than simply acting as a passive observer). Another student, who had never attempted to write poetry and maybe hadn’t even really attached himself to any piece of writing before, composed his own multipart collection in which he plays with spacing, punctuation and word choice in a rather magical way. His continued affirmations that he was so proud of this work only made its worth shine more brightly.

One student, intrigued by Jean Toomer’s style in Cane, attempted an entire essay composed in prose poetry, and get this, merged the airy, imagistic language with terms and ideas associated with Calculus and Physics. It was utter brilliance. Stunning to read. I’m pretty sure I audibly gasped at certain points. Again, the pride she took in her accomplishment was remarkable. She wrote, “I read it out loud to myself for the first time last night and I heard growth as a writer, thinker and viewer of the world.”

Finally, another student who had been frustrated and a little bored by Camus’ style in The Stranger realized that his own writing reflected this very same style. He went back to the short story he had been composing in workshop with a fresh eye and revised from there. His self reflection included these words, “Who knew I would end up liking to write? Probably you, Mrs. Clark.”

And I’ve only mentioned the kids whose writing was inspired by their reading…For the sake of space I haven’t  included others who played with style, development, genre, imagery and more apart from their reading, but with equally impressive outcomes.

Here’s the thing. I could never have created a set of directions that would have led to the crafting of any one of these assignments. My brain would never have gotten there. And if I had by some small miracle, actually assigned even one of these pieces, the investment and engagement that was palpable in the classroom simply wouldn’t have existed. Why? Because they would have been working for me, for the grade. They would have been doing the work that I asked them to, in the way that I told them to and it would have been good but it wouldn’t have meant so much. Teacher pleasing is not engagement. It gets the work done, but it doesn’t resonate, it doesn’t linger.

The student who wrote the 62 paged piece has now, long after the grading is done, methodically increased the collection to 120 pages and is considering inserting photography as well. This piece is hers and hers alone. Its genius stems entirely from her mind and her process. The small intricate touches she is adding don’t reflect the work of school; they reflect the work of her heart.

The writing turned in during this writer’s workshop represents the inspired work and thinking of students who, when given the chance, were ready to prove without question the value of choice and freedom, the value of engagement and ownership.

And as a result, despite knowing these students for the last four years, after shifting my role completely to consultant rather than instructor and after the joy of witnessing the results, I find myself quite simply awestruck.

(this piece really needs to be longer…and less clunky…I don’t have an ease about my writing when I write about my classroom yet–something I am working on over these months… Day four writing, done!)

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.