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?

Commencement

On the evening of Friday, May 17, my seniors graduated. Commencement is a pretty common event yet I always find myself inspired and moved as I watch another group of young people venture off toward their future. This year was a bit different as this was the first group to graduate since I became Head of High School and I was also asked to deliver a commencement address. Since Friday, several people have asked me to share my words from that night, so I figured this would be the easiest way to make that happen. Below are those words–certainly, they are more significant to my kiddos and in the moment that it was delivered. Regardless, here it is…

“I love graduation night at CES. Friends and family outside of this community struggle to really understand this about me. Last year, for example, I was too sick to attend graduation and in the depths of my disappointment over my absence, I turned where anyone else would for comfort…to social media. I just knew that if I were to share my heartache over missing this special event that at the very least my teacher friends from other schools in other places would get it…they would understand. Except, most didn’t. In fact, many of them congratulated me on getting out of attending the ceremony, saying things like “the kids won’t even know that you aren’t there” and “there will be another graduation next year, don’t worry” All I could say was “You just don’t get it.” And they didn’t. I didn’t try to explain that things here are different or unique. They wouldn’t have gotten the weight of that either because our “essence” as Zoe referred to it in her Seniors Speak is far too intangible to fill a pithy Facebook response and worth far more than any number of likes, loves, thumbs up it might receive. There wasn’t enough space to express that when these young people graduate after spending so much time with us in our small, quaint setting that they are not just students saying goodbye, rather they are family moving away from home—and graduation has become a sort of formalized celebration of that bond before they depart and look to the next exciting moments in their lives. When graduates cross this stage, it means something to each member of this faculty because we have an investment in the lives of each of these young people that is made richer because of the size of our school, for though our community may be small, its heartbeat is mighty. Every graduation counts here. Every kid matters. These young people seated before you and all who have graced this stage before them have taken up a residence in my heart and in the hearts of all on this campus and while they leave us physically, there they will remain.

I consider it a great honor to have the opportunity to speak this evening as I stand in awe of this particular group of graduates. Mr. Morvant referenced them as “Living Stones” of CES the other night at our Academic Awards and while I’m sure his intent was for us to consider St. Peter, I couldn’t help but think of a line from the U2 song “Ordinary Love” —“the sea throws rocks together/But time leaves polished stones.”  While these lyrics stray from Mr. Morvant’s purpose, I also think they typify and exemplify so much about this class. To me, these lyrics consider the power of refinement an environment, even one that is tumultuous at times, can have. These lyrics also speak to the power of the company you keep in that environment—company that is not always your choice but because you share space you are being shaped by each other every single day in ways you may not even recognize—Yet, as a result of this closeness, there is  also a need to figure out how to respect the differences in those that surround you without losing what makes you the individual you are. After all, the rocks being tossed in the sea would become far less interesting if they were all polished to look identical.

So, if you don’t already know it, this is a group of strongly opinionated young people who had to work rather hard in order to learn how to share those convictions without insult or injury and how to hear opinions different from their own without judgement and clearly disgusted facial expressions. They had to learn how to have difficult conversations without it degrading into argument and vitriol. Honestly, the adults in this world have a great deal to learn from the process these kids have endured. When they believe in something, they are fiercely protective of it and that is commendable. That is how you end up with an Equality Club and a GSA; that is how you end up with a thriving golf team and a student council that fosters activities on par with schools 3 and 4 times our size; that is how you end up with costume design and a newly popular student vestry; that is how you end up with 17 young men and women some terrified, some exhilarated but all willing to stand up at Seniors Speak and share not just their learning, but their truth.

It is in fact a process of refinement. And I think part of what makes that refinement so difficult is the call to love. This greatest commandment, this call to love our neighbor is daunting because sometimes it is the people in closest proximity that can become the most difficult to love, the most difficult to forgive, the most difficult to really see because we feel we know them so well. But as we heard in the reading tonight, love “bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8)

These polished stones seated on this stage tonight have learned together the weight of these words as they have trekked the journey of these four years in community. Their years here while often full of laughter and silliness, coordinated dress up days and themed get togethers, have not always been so simple and this call to love has gotten cloudy and complicated at times, as it does for all of us–yet despite the seemingly enigmatic challenges and the time it may have taken to unwind them, these young people have always abided, they have always found a way to rise above, they have always sought to work it out and I believe that they will continue to do so in their lives even now as they go their separate ways. They will bring that goodness and the understanding that the single story, what we think we know, is never, not even once, the entire story, they’ll bring that to new environments, to new people they have yet to meet because that foundation is strong—because they worked to build it. Because this is the sheen of their polish. And in doing that they will absolutely become “Living Stones” of Christ Episcopal School. They will carry forward the love that was fostered in them and by them and in doing so, I hope, I expect the world will be a better place for it.

As an aside, as our Salutatorian and I discussed speeches this week, she told me my speech would be great as long as I didn’t include any poetry, and I tried not to include any, I really did, but alas, here we are and I am definitely going to quote some poetryJBut it fits, I promise…

Elizabeth Alexander in her poem “Praise Song for the Day” writes the following words that I believe speak to this call to love perfectly and also to the call that I repeat more often than any of my students cares to hear that “words matter”

“We encounter each other in words, words

spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,

words to consider, reconsider…

 

What if the mightiest word is love?

 

Love beyond marital, filial, national,

love that casts a widening pool of light,

love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

 

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,

any thing can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

 

praise song for walking forward in that light”

Each of these young people seated before you have faced at one time or another seemingly insurmountable odds, moments that have forced them to make decisions far beyond the wisdom of their years, moments that presented challenges they may not have felt equipped to face, moments that required courage they didn’t know they possessed, yet here they are tonight on this immense occasion, not simply having survived but having overcome. Having overcome it all together. They are here tonight ready to face what the world will offer them because that offering while sometimes brilliant and generous, will not always be pretty, will not always be kind, will not always be an extension of love. Yet, they will leave here tonight, I hope, with the knowledge and confidence that they have what it takes to meet with adversity, hardship, crisis and to tough it out until the polishing is complete and their sheen has returned only now with more sparkle. They leave here tonight, I hope, with the knowledge that their CES family is always here to shelter, to support, to celebrate, to sing their praises. When I look at this class that is what I see—I see strength, perseverance, and a willingness to melt the skeleton and reshape when necessary. A willingness to extend love and grace—and hopefully that love will cast “a widening pool of light.” You have all taught me so much about what it means to be a human in this world. And for that, I am so grateful to each of you. Your absence here as you move forward will be noticeable and you will most certainly be missed—and not because you ran clubs or helped set up chairs, not because you made good grades or won awards—you will be missed simply because of who you are, because you are a part of this school family.

Just don’t lose sight of the fact that as you greet every new and exciting moment that you have the opportunity to consider and reconsider your words, don’t lose sight that love is the mightiest of those words and that today –every day “any thing can be made, any sentence begun” You guys are walking forward into such bright futures with so much light, but don’t forget that “we all make choices” and that it is your job to bring light with you as well.

Your mark here is indelible, Congratulations Class of 2019. We are so proud of you.”

 

 

things unseen

Invisible. Elusive. Concealed. Disguised. Obscured. Masked. Buried. Veiled. Guarded.

If teaching kids has taught me anything, it is that the behavior we witness in the people who share our space, often reflects a dishonest version of their story. Humans harbor all kinds of achy-ness on the inside that they are too fragile to allow themselves to share. The vulnerability required to reveal the truth frightens away the confidence needed and some behavior, foreign to the heart of the transgressor, acts as a repellent  instead.

It would be easy to judge simply based on actions…a kid sleeping in class, sass given instead of respect, responsibilities falling by the wayside would all seem to be punishable offenses. It would be easy to command…demand better, but what if the kid is simply not capable of more in that moment? What if something is happening in their life (a problem at home, an issue with health, worries over identity) that they don’t know how to deal with and this is their literal best? What if instead of fussing, we peeled away the layers with questions…softened the exterior with concern and a safe place to speak up…remembered that our kids are humans and even though they are young, that doesn’t diminish the weight of their worry. How might that transform their classroom and school experience? How might being truly seen and heard reconstruct what school has always been? How might taking a moment to pause and think more about the kid than our hurt feelings allow for an interaction that might change the trajectory of that kid’s life?

The impact of our words, not solely teachers but all of us, and our decisions and the way we care about those around us bears significance beyond our comprehension. I mean, think about it. Consider a moment when someone stopped to notice the truth of your situation–took the time to see beneath your mask and defenses–and then gave of themselves as they worked to uplift you. Consider a moment when someone saw your worth and told you. Consider how those moments have shaped the course of your existence…and theirs.

This world is hard enough without us judging each other on exteriors and assumptions alone, you know? Let’s wade past the shallows and into the deeper water as we work to heighten our humanity, as we work to build trust that allows for vulnerable moments (honest moments), when we can just be ourselves and live into the truth of our lives without the cover. When we don’t have to fear condemnation for simply being who we are, and as a result we can honor our true selves. When our self worth is upheld because we are seen and not just respected, but loved and treated as such. Wouldn’t that be something?

(just a poetic gift– “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar)

(Day 52!! King cake is getting harder to resist the closer it gets to the end of this journey!!)

becoming

I was speaking with a student the other day about how when we aren’t paying attention, things in our lives (both insignificant and critical) change. Sometimes that change brings positivity and goodness and sometimes that change surreptitiously steals something irreplaceable. We also talked about how it can be hard to look back on that easier time, that time before. Pervasive jealousy can eat away at you in those moments if you aren’t careful. Jealousy for moments when you felt more yourself, more able, less confined, less troubled. I should know. I look back on the pre-inner ear days with great longing. In pictures from before this disorder began, I immediately recognize an ease to my smile that indicates I hadn’t yet suffered the weight of what was to come. I wonder who that girl could have become…what her life might have looked like…what she could have accomplished.

But, I had a student in a bit of a crisis with me, so I couldn’t stop there or even really linger. I had to bring a more important insight to her. And that was simply this: Don’t focus too much on who you feel like you were before this “thing” interrupted your journey, retrain your gaze on who you will become as a result…give that girl some grace and begin to wrap her in love and acceptance.

For my own purposes, it doesn’t matter who that smiling carefree girl in my pictures could have become without the illness; the fact of the matter is that the strength and determination I possess today was instilled because I walked through that fire…because it melted and reshaped me and I am stronger as a result. Is my life what I thought it would be? Nope. But that isn’t a terrible thing. Sure it would be nice to float through a simpler existence on this earth…to move through my days with nothing more than average human dilemmas. That is not the lot I drew and pouting about it only denies the beauty that my life still has to offer.

Of course I can say this because I’m currently on the other side of that fire and it is easier to see the truth because of that. But this student needed to know that she wasn’t alone. That she will reach the other side of her fire as well. She needed to know that it is okay to grow and to change in response to this life and it is also okay to feel frustrated and hurt that this change had to occur…but that giving up is not a worthwhile indulgence. She needed to know that she could still tackle amazing feats. She needed to know she’s not done yet just because it’s hard right now. And she needed to talk and to be heard. So I listened…for a while..before sharing anything with her. Because sometimes you need to empty the tank before you can be filled up again.

(For some reason, as I wrote this, Joy Harjo’s “Once the World was Perfect” came to mind. I think it was the beginning of the poem that resurfaced first–

“Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.
Then we took it for granted.
Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.
Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.
And once Doubt ruptured the web,
All manner of demon thoughts
Jumped through—”)
(And I also thought of this–“Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes)
(Day 49–7 weeks of daily blogging–and good thing I’m almost done. Parades have begun in full force and king cake is getting harder to resist!)

reading life

I have been rereading Toni Morrison’s Beloved…lingering over the language, pausing to absorb the weight, walking away when the truth (atrocity) overwhelms me (knowing that is a weakness), standing in awe of the craft and construction of this text–a text that knows itself, doesn’t oversell, over word, or over extend itself. I have adored this rereading more than any other reading of this book for some reason. I am not sure why, but something inside of me was ready to understand it differently (and I am not entirely sure that isn’t simply because I’ve been writing more and that impacts my perspective).

But I’m conflicted.

I am rereading the book because I recently took over a class for a colleague who had assigned Beloved to AP juniors. So, this time I’m reading the book to teach it. Working through literature with teenagers is honestly one of the best parts of my job. Inevitably, my students reveal insight through their analysis and questioning that is profound and reflects a perspective I might not have considered. This is particularly prone to occur when I allow them to lead the way in discussion and response. When I allow them to define what is important and to determine what is worthy of study, their engagement with the text deepens. When I allow the text to belong to them too and I grant them agency as readers and thinkers, the work is suddenly far more than a school assignment.

Yet despite my love for facilitating discussions about and analytical work with literature, I’m struggling with this one. I really just want to read the book. I just want to enjoy that reading and with all that I am, I sort of just want to keep it to myself. I don’t want to have to mar the solemnity of the read or intrude into my interaction with Morrison’s words and images in order to create lesson plans. Selfishly, I want to consider and consume the book in solitude…to make sense of it on my own and not to have to share that with anyone else. And in the midst of the whining I’ve been partaking in because of this, I realized something else.

My students feel this way all of the time. Sometimes they just want to read a book without school sort of wrecking it.

We (as teachers) talk all of the time about the importance of independent reading. And then we attach regulations and projects and logs and assessments to what we are calling “independent” and in doing so we have stripped the independence clean away. When we micromanage the reading lives of our students, we in no way stoke a joy of reading…if anything, we stifle it. As an avid reader, I really just want to read books I will enjoy (and sometimes I want to read them more than once…and sometimes they are beneath my reading level but they feed my brain in a different way…I’m looking at you Crazy Rich Asians) and then I want to talk to someone else about them. My 10 year old would agree with this philosophy. He is pretty clear on knowing that if  a book project is required, he doesn’t really want to involve a book he loves…because that kind of work destroys the read for him. I think it is time that we really consider the work we attach to independent reading and then consider what those assignments are doing to heighten the reading experience, to strengthen reading skills, and maybe we also need to consider what those assignments are doing to the reading lives of our kids. And then, from that place of understanding, we need to take some action.

So, as I plan structures that will allow my students to share their understanding of Beloved, I am working hard to maintain my personal reading life and also to help my students develop theirs. This book isn’t part of their independent reading…it was assigned to the whole class…but maybe there is a way for them to own it as though they chose it themselves…and maybe I can help make that happen.

(Day 39!)

half-way

Today, I was mentioning to my students that I was at the half-way mark of my blog-a-day writing journey.

Their response?

“Oh my gosh!! You are only half-way?! It seems like you have been doing this forever!”

(there was also this… “How have you not eaten any king cake yet?!?!” Which, honestly, I have no idea how I have not given in!)

I’m not going to lie, I feel like I have been blogging everyday forever at this point as well. The difference between my students and I here exists in the fact that some of them sort of grimaced at the thought of having so many more blogs to go, while I relish it. What was once a duty brought on by the creation of this challenge to myself, has become habit…has become the discipline that I was hoping for. I’m not really writing for king cake anymore (though don’t get me wrong, I will be indulging on Mardi Gras day), I am writing for myself and because the more I write, the more I understand who it is I am as a writer. It’s not always easy, I do not always want to sit down to write, and sometimes, once I do, I sort of hate what I have written. Some nights I argue with myself for a good fifteen minutes before finally succumbing to the will to write instead of falling prey to the desire to sleep. Some nights, I have no idea how I will find the time. Work and family garner my attention and dedication first and some nights that means I don’t have time to write until later than I care to be awake. But somehow (and with the encouragement of my husband), a moment opens up, invites me in, and the writing finds its way onto the page. The creative act is all at once intimidating and exhilarating and I enjoy facing that challenge every evening, if for no other reason than out of curiosity for what will come of it.

And I’ve learned so much about myself as a writer and writing in general through these 32 days:

  1.  I don’t have to like what I write; I just have to write.
  2. Despite being an avid and proud morning person, I can in fact write at night, while tired, and with a headache.
  3. The more I write, the faster I write. My process has always been methodical, slow, intentional. I have always sort of loved that. And it works–when there is time. But my process should not create an impediment to a regular writing habit. Sure with more care and more time, each of these blogs would have been improved…but with more time, most of them would never have seen completion or publication (and I require that accountability).
  4. This project is a far better use of my time in the evenings than staring at my phone!
  5. I am better spoken than perhaps I was before…or at least it feels that way. Because I have dedicated time with just me and my words everyday and because my composition skills feel sharper and swifter, my conversational skills feel the same (which is saying a great deal– since the inner ear malfunction, my brain hasn’t always been friendly to my ability to converse with ease).
  6. Writing teachers need to be writing. ( I’ve always known this, but I understand it far more deeply now than before this project began)
  7. Writing teachers need to be sharing their writing journey with their students (because honestly, that has been one of the best parts of this whole affair. And I don’t mean just the stiff, teacherly “Let me share my process with you.” That is helpful and important of course, but there is more to it than that, right? It is important to share the moments that aren’t so carefully crafted to be teachable–the human moments that are more instructive than we give them credit for. My students and I have this whole writing thing in common now and if nothing else, they know that I am with them…that I get it…that I am doing the work too…and that sometimes it is difficult for me just as it is for them…and that we can all persevere through that. And also, they have come to realize that writing is not just about assignments in school, it is a way of life.)
  8. 32 days is not enough time to persuade my dog that this project, which has placed a computer in the lap she prefers to sit in, is a good idea.
  9. King cake is a good motivator, but clicking publish is a better one.
  10. The support of my family–the knowledge that they recognize how important this is to me–heightens my desire to persevere, to continue writing.

(32 days!! My sister told me I should post a pic of myself longingly looking at king cake today. I totally failed there…but it’ll happen eventually.)

And also, because this poem makes me think about the creative act of putting words to the blank page…“The Storm” by Mary Oliver

praise

I would venture to say that I read Elizabeth Alexander’s poem “Praise Song for the Day” once a week, without fail. Of all the poems in the world, why read and reread that one in particular, you might ask? And, you know, that is a really valid question. There are so many poems that move my mind or spirit toward thinking and imagining and pushing beyond, but this one is on regular repeat. Always for different reasons, but essentially because in some way or another, it continues to instill in me a sense of hope for humanity. It portrays the strength we can muster when injustice needs to be called out and then Alexander pushes us a bit more and offers up a praise song for it: “Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day./Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,/the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.” This is our responsibility. To be grateful for this gift of being in the struggle and finding ways to speak out against it…even when it is difficult. Even when we feel threatened. Even and especially when we speak out for others, with others, who are struggling more than we are…because we can, and we should. Because that is who we are called to be in the moments when justice fails. Because we are granted the freedom to do so.

And then there is this, “We encounter each other in words, words/spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,/words to consider, reconsider.” This idea of encountering “each other in words” steals my attention with each reading and reminds me that what I say, in every situation, no matter who is around to hear the utterance, bears significance, creates impact. As a teacher, I have to remember that no matter how powerless I may feel, in a room full of kids, I have power. To wield words carelessly can alter the course of a young person’s day, can fray self esteem, but when considered cautiously can instill confidence, encourage perseverance. I can’t make decisions for my kids, but I can select language and words that allow them to feel able to do the work even when it is difficult…I can choose words that respect their humanity. And the truth of this extends beyond the classroom. When I pause to think, to take a moment to empathize even briefly, before issuing words, I can take the time to craft the statements that reflect the kind of person I really want to be. Am I perfect with this? Of course not. Hence, this poem is a regular read because, as I tell my students, I am not above reminders!

But really, it is this that keeps me coming back to this poem…

“What if the mightiest word is love?

 

Love beyond marital, filial, national,

love that casts a widening pool of light,

love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.”
Love and light and hope and gratitude swirl in these lines and fill me up with a joy in
and a vision of what can be…if we only remind ourselves to be the people we were
created to be…if we only remind ourselves of the praise song for who we are and who we
have the capacity to become, together.
(Day 29!)

love-hate

Reading and I have endured a bit of a love-hate relationship over the course of time. (I’m pretty sure that as an English teacher, I am not supposed to admit to this…but if anything, I am overly candid, so consider it a purposeful admission)

As a child, I honestly hated to read. Painfully slow, the process itself became an exercise in humiliation and self-retribution. I was a smart kid, so why was I such a slow reader? Books felt endless and the embarrassment I sustained, even when reading in a room alone, slowed my process further and detoured my comprehension regularly. I struggled to find myself and to make connections within the books I was reading, so I distanced myself from reading altogether. I faked my way through assigned readings and the subsequent tests and projects. And I must say, that I accomplished this task with style and stellar grades. An expert at covering my lack of diligence…I could take pride in that. No one would have ever guessed.

I did enjoy shorter texts. Poe’s stories riveted me and poetry was a language that seemed foreign to so many but preached wisdom to my mind and my innermost self. This isn’t surprising, though, given my situation. I was a slow reader which I thought meant I was a terrible reader and my stamina languished as a result. Short texts, even for me, became a worthwhile challenge; they made me feel smart and insightful. They propelled me forward.

My junior year of high school, though, I met with the book that would transform not only my reading life but my future as well, The Great Gatsby. It was required reading, a book not of my own choosing and so historically, it should have been one I ignored. However, something about Fitzgerald’s words and imagery drew me into its pages, into its story, into its complexity. I found myself sharing my analysis in class and in papers and realizing that while I was a slow reader, part of the reason for that was the thinking and digging into the text that were an intuitive part of my process. No one had ever really paid enough attention to my individual reading habits in school, no one had seen through my veiled charade, so no one had the ability to point this out to me–to instill the necessary confidence. Honestly, without Ms. Osborn’s English III Honors class and this book that captivated my imagination and captured my attention, I would not be an English teacher today. (I really love to tell my students who complain about being slow readers this story! I don’t expect them all to become English teachers, but it is so important for them to know that there are more possibilities than they realize in their own stories and reading lives.)

In recent years, my brain has been distracted by my inner ear issues and the accompanying vertigo and reading became a different kind of challenge. My process slowed more than usual–I fought for comprehension and retention while my brain focused more intently on maintaining balance. Whether I was reading a book or student writing, taking in the words, making connections, considering deeper meanings shifted from a joyful and fulfilling process to an exercise in futility. I found myself faking my way through once again and utterly disheartened, completely discouraged. But again, poetry was the answer. I found solace in these short texts that challenged me as a reader, thinker and writer but also didn’t overwhelm my temporarily stunted abilities. Poetry became my daily meditation.

Suddenly, in the midst of those years of building resentment and irritation, an epiphany settled in. So many of my students suffer from learning differences and for them the process of reading is painful…for them, avoidance is salvation from the discomfort and humiliation of having a brain that is wired for miscommunication…for them, lack of understanding and encouragement only exacerbates their defensiveness and decimates their self-esteem. None of these kids have done anything to earn this set of circumstances, just as I didn’t ask for my inner ear to sever ties with my brain. I took it on as my duty to harness this understanding and to learn greater patience with myself as a reader and to learn what tactics would help me overcome my deficits. I took it on as my duty to work with my kids in the same way–to treat them as I was treating myself and to hope that they could learn to extend themselves some grace in the process, to open themselves up to the vulnerability of working through it. This was hard work but worthwhile, and it began with building confidence and stamina with shorter texts…it began with poetry, it began with choice.

This summer, after the surgery that healed my inner ear, my brain feasted hungrily on every book I could usher its way.  I couldn’t stop myself from reading at every possible opportunity, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had been able to enjoy books in this way. I found it difficult to explain to other people exactly what this liberation felt like; I found it difficult to relate the excitement of reveling in reading for the first time in years. A burden had released. A passion restored. A life revitalized.

(Day 27! Encouraged today by my husband’s refusal to let me quit just because I’m tired and by my students and their enduring smiles and support)

titles

So, I feel my blog has a bit of an identity crisis on its hands.

I was at the chiropractor the other day and mentioned my self-assigned blogging challenge to one of the practitioners. She was curious and asked what kind of blog I kept. I was uncertain and my response delay extended a bit too long. She filled in the vacancy with “You know, is it a food blog, a fitness blog, a fashion blog, something like that?”

She was genuinely interested and I didn’t have a reasonable single word descriptor for what this space has become.

The origin story of this blog remains clear in my mind, but its journey since that day has been somewhat unexpected.

When I sat down to start this blog in Boothbay Harbor, Maine at a literacy retreat a couple of years ago, my intent was to craft my writing around my classroom and the importance of poetry in that space and in my life…hence the title…I am pretty passionate about the necessity of poetry in the English classroom and this was going to be my outlet to prove that imperative to the world. However, since that time, while I do often discuss my classroom, I don’t only discuss my classroom. I love to talk about what is important to me as a teacher, but when I write about it (even when it includes poetry), my voice as a writer and my passion as a teacher seem to conflict and stifle each other. As a result, both suffer and I am left with a piece of writing that reveals neither my most skilled writing nor my truth as an educator. And so I often embed discussions of my classroom in larger discussions of the world and the humans that populate it.

And then other times, especially these days, I don’t mention my classroom at all. And my blog is just the ramblings of my day. I suppose I view this space now as a canvas where I can create whatever moves me in that moment as long as I am writing. It is a means of accountability because each day, I have to click publish and others will see it. It is an opportunity to grow as a writer, a safe space to learn and to practice and to honor this thing I so love to do…even when it’s been a long day and the writing will suffer for it. It keeps me honest, it keeps me writing. This blog (and the ensuing challenge) has become my greatest burden and my greatest relief in that way.

When I tried to explain how I used this space, her next response was “Oh, so it’s a journal…like an online journal?” I cringed. I don’t want to think of this space that way though I suppose it does sort of fit the definition. But words matter to me and I am not comfortable with that term for some reason. So if it has to be that, until I can better define what this space is, I think I would prefer it to be called my writer’s notebook (not to be confused with my tangible writer’s notebook full of my handwriting and notes and revisions). For me, a writer’s notebook is a space to play with words in a very real way…a chance to grow and to learn and to stretch abilities…a place to be myself without care for the opinions of others…a writing space that is mine and on any given day reflects who I am in that moment.

So, while my blog’s identity might still be in crisis, I’m okay with that. It’s generosity in allowing me to think on the page is all I really require.

(Day 22!)

transformative

High school students enter my school everyday with their own individual sets of “stuff.” It would be naive to demand or command that they adhere to some delusional set of unreal expectations that implies that perfection is the only allowable outcome–constant, never wavering hard work, attentiveness, dedication, positivity, even-keel temperament, and a zeal for the subject matter. These kids, though, are teenagers and their most important job in the moment really doesn’t have anything to do with getting into college or taking on leadership roles in clubs or pleasing me. Their most important job has everything to do with figuring out who they’re going to be in this world, what kind of person they will become. If I narrow-mindedly assume that my class should always be their first priority, I have lost sight of the fact that these students are living complete and complex lives. If I can’t extend a little grace toward them, with the understanding that they will have good days and bad because in fact they are human beings, then I’ve missed the point.

In her poem “Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes these words:

“Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.”

She is writing about empathy’s integral role in kindness. She is writing about the sort of transformative moment that empathy creates as it brings  sincerity and  weight to common niceties. Nye seems to imply that in order for kindness to live into its potential, for it to truly be meaningful, we must see ourselves in the situations of others. We must recognize the common ground of humanity in everyone we encounter. We must see our sameness in order to be able to nurture each other through our differences. We must understand that someone else’s misfortune could be our own.

In that awareness, we not only become truly kind, but we also transform ourselves into better human beings. We are able to creep out of our shell of selfishness in search of ways to help those in need around us…even the people we don’t necessarily know because we have paused to imagine life through their eyes. We are able to shift out of our own biases to see the truth of the people around us rather than our assumptions about them…assumptions that imprison and inhibit our true kindness potential.

This is what I attempt to achieve in my classroom. I work really hard to see beyond the moment and to understand what is causing the moment. Is the student tired, overwhelmed, going through a hard time…what is the reason for the behavior? In doing this, I’m working to pause before rushing to judgement. I am working to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I was recently reminded by my friend Sara Ahmed of the benefit of the “soft start” in classrooms. This is a brief period of time at the start of a class where students are actively engaged in an activity that interests them but isn’t necessarily course work.  So, this week, I have placed magazines, adult coloring books, books of poetry, QR codes for a Padlet full of links to interesting articles, writing prompts and more on the tables of my classroom. The kids come in, sit down anywhere they are comfortable and work on whichever activity they feel best suits them that day. Part of why I offered this, outside of the fact that it is just good practice, I was sort of struck by the realization that our kids go from class to class with sometimes stark contrast in subject matter and we expect them to immediately switch gears without much pause. The soft start allows kids to decompress a bit and to transition so that when it comes time to work on coursework, they are better prepared and mentally ready to focus. My students this week have said that at first they thought the “soft start” was silly and a little fluffy. After a couple of days though they realized that it was really helping them–they felt like they were thinking better in class because they had that moment to quiet themselves and find their focus. I loved this!! However, if I stood harshly by the idea of working bell to bell, if I ignored the needs of my students, we would have missed out on this transformative.

It was a kindness. I saw myself in the way we ask them to “do school” and understood that there could be a better way. I recognize that there are people out there who think that because of my level of empathy, I am too soft on my kids. There are people who feel like I am not preparing them for the real world. On the contrary, I feel like I am preparing them to become leaders in the world I want to live in. A world filled with sincere kindnesses. An empathic world.

(Day 18)