Debunking the myth of teaching poetry

Story possesses relevance in our lives that might easily go overlooked. But the stories we tell ourselves and others both implicitly and explicitly, the stories others tell us, the stories we allow ourselves to believe and the ones  we  pretend are not true all shape who we have been, who we are in the present moment, and who it is we have the capacity to become. Over time, the idea that “story” possesses this weight has won itself a position as the primary lens through which I teach English–at every level, to every kid who might walk through the door. To work towards creating an environment that allows young people the opportunity to realize that they are the curators of the stories that comprise their identities imbues the teaching of reading and writing with new energy and vitality. Watching kids discover their truth and the truth of the world beyond the stories they’ve been living and beyond what they’ve been told is nothing short of inspiring. 

I like to tell my students the story of my reading journey as evidence that sometimes the stories we assign ourselves are not always reflective of a lifetime of truth. Proof that stories can change. Despite the  joy of walking to the public library in the summer to select books to read and the thrill of being allowed to check out texts from the upper school library before I had reached the required age, I never really loved sitting down to read those books. I certainly never had a passion for reading. I faked my way through nearly every text I was assigned to read for school (which I like to think gives me great instinct to see the same behavior in students). I loved the idea of books, but hated the process of reading. I was slow when others were swift. I craved the joy of finishing the book but didn’t have the stamina to get there. 

Reading made me feel less than smart and so I chose to avoid it.

Then, in junior year of high school, when I was 17 years old, I read The Great Gatsby as part of my English III class. It wasn’t that I saw myself in this text that drew me in. I’m not sure I read a single book in high school that allowed me to feel seen. Still, this book became the spark that ignited my passion for reading. It was Fitzgerald’s lush language, his symbolism, his imagery…it was the writer’s craft…that drew me in more than the story. I felt valued for my insight into the text and I lingered over every word. I thought, in that moment, that maybe I was so slow as a reader all this time because my analytical skills were hyper alert.

And so for a long while, I thought I loved reading because I  loved unravelling its meaning through analysis. Yet, the more I grew as a reader, the more I realized that it wasn’t the work of analysis that allowed me to be affirmed by my reading process. On the contrary, it was being allowed the privilege to witness the genius of what happens to words when a writer so carefully arranges them to create a moment for the reader. It was the joy of recognizing that every writer would shape their words differently…that I could do this too…that I could play with words until I found my own voice…that I could create a moment for a reader too.

I was a slow reader because lingering with beauty should never be rushed.

I was a slow reader because even if the book was assigned for a particular purpose, that personal interaction between me and the aesthetic remained sacred and could not be denied.

Kids are always amazed by this story because surely every English teacher has always loved to read and any story to the contrary seems ludicrous. (side note…they also love it because I talk of the olden days where I had to physically go to a book store to purchase Cliff’s Notes…that cracks them up every time). But what they don’t see coming is how their own mythology as readers and writers will be debunked…and not by me, but rather by themselves and their experience.

Students in my classroom are exposed to an inordinate amount of poetry.

It is sort of my thing.

They come in to my classroom knowing that will be their experience and they prepare themselves to hate it. Their poetic experience has been nothing short of schoolified misery…poetry only for analysis…poetry only for understanding figurative language…poetry only for making class anthologies…poetry only for exposure to the classics (whatever those may be). They have not read poetry for themselves. They have often not been granted the agency to find the poems they love. They have not been given license to linger with the words, to appreciate the aesthetic. They have not been freed to write poetry the way they want, finding their own voice as they explore what is meaningful in their world.They have not had the chance to read poetry for enjoyment without an assignment or larger purpose tacked onto it, and so poetry is always for the classroom. And because so many of us who spend our days in classrooms with kids were taught poetry in a way that prevented all of this from occurring, the cycle often repeats itself.

But what if we rewrote that story?

Juan Felipe Herrera writes this in his poem “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings”:

“a poem, of course,
is always open for business too, except, as you can see,
it isn’t exactly business that pulls your spirit into
the alarming waters, there you can bathe, you can play,
you can even join in on the gossip—the mist, that is,
the mist becomes central to your existence.”
 
We have been granted the brilliant opportunity to shape the story of poetry in the lives of our kids…to allow their “spirit into the alarming waters” where “the mist becomes central to your existence.” We can let them sit with poems. We can give them the time to enter into the work with no greater purpose than to find themselves and the world. We can allow space to connect not just with what the poet is saying but with how it is being said. And we can do all of this in meaningful ways without requiring the same exact analysis from each and every kid. Is analysis of text important? 100%. This world throws texts at us daily and we need to know what  to do with them…how to make meaning from them instead of waiting for someone else to do that for us. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot also give time for the appreciation of the gift of the words on the page. Just because students aren’t picking the poetry apart searching for some  aloof meaning does not mean that they are not learning important lessons about what it means to read and to write. 
 
I’ve yet to teach a kid who hasn’t walked away from our time together with a new story of poetry and what it might mean for them. I’ve yet to teach a kid whose writing didn’t improve as a result of having  spent meaningful time with  poetry. When we present something as possibly bringing joy and connection instead of as a chore because “we have to do this poetry unit,” we open doors to new possibility for our students and for ourselves. 
 
We rewrite the story of poetry as one of sacred space for each and every human who allows their spirit to be pulled in.
 
Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that authorship?
 
The first step? Find the poems and poets you love…not the ones that are in the curriculum guide or that you were told to teach or to read…the poems and poets you love. Sit with them. Set your spirit  free to linger in the “mist” and maybe even set your mind free to begin to play with words poetically yourself.
 
The rest, well, the rest will take care of itself.
 
(Much love to Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Georgia Heard, and Micah Bournes who  presented an amazing session at NCTE 2020 last night very much affirming my practice and reminding me of its importance…and also to Ellin Keene for her die hard advocacy for making space for the aesthetic in our classrooms)
 
 

Anticipation

Having dealt with chronic illness for the last 8 or 9 years, one of the messiest mental mud holes I needed to dig myself out from existed in a very simple sentence starter…which existed in variations of itself but always lead to the same deleterious effects. It always went  something like this: “Back when I  could…” or “The old me could have…” or “There was a time in my life when _____ was possible”. The trouble with these statements emanates from their constant glance backwards which blinded me to my current truth. And maybe that was my mind’s ulterior motive. If I was always idolizing and gazing back at the “old me”, then the current version of myself was only a temporary imposter. I didn’t have to accept this new human with her new limitations, in her new situation. She was a lesser version of old me and I didn’t really like her very much. Her life seemed less than the one I had been working so hard for so long to create. I wanted more. I wanted what I felt I deserved.  I looked to every outlet that might offer healing because this would not  (NOT) be what defined my existence for the rest of my life. This was a “right now” scenario and I would fix what people told me could not be fixed. I tried acupuncture,  chiropractors, physical  therapy,  vestibular  rehab, essential oils, neuro-otologists, audiologists, oral  surgeons, dentists (this list  goes on for a while, you get the picture). And while I might find relief, no one held the cure…the magic potion that would restore old me and extinguish new me. I felt I had tried everything to heal myself.

But sometimes…

…we have to look within first.

One day, in a moment of defensiveness, I told a friend,  “I have a neurological and inner ear disorder; I am hearing impaired. So what?!”  And it was one of the most freeing moments of my entire life.

I had said it.

Out loud.

In the world.

For someone else to hear.

I had spoken the truth that I had been working so furiously to deny and to walk away from. In that moment, I began to nurture acceptance rather than denial. In that moment, I began to slowly and steadfastly heal myself rather than futilely and frantically try to eradicate my disorder. The path toward acceptance possesses an inordinate number of thorns and there is no map to navigate it well. It requires resilience and dedication and also, as I came to learn, anticipation of who I was becoming rather than disappointment over who I had lost. I did not need to mourn that girl who could do some stupid number of burpees in two minutes…I did not need to mourn the adventures she would never seek (because let’s face it, “adventure” was never really my thing anyway)…I did not need to mourn any of it because she was still a part of me and together, we were becoming someone stronger, someone more beautiful, someone who despite limitations still had plenty to give to this world.

And so in anticipation of who I was becoming, I fought harder.

As 2020 wears on and I feel like so much in this world is changing and shifting, I once again find myself gazing backward. “Remember when we could…” “Remember when we didn’t have to…” “Remember the days before…” Of course we all remember all these things, they are a part of us and our stories. And for a substantial piece of our lives they dictated our narratives for us. They are not lost forever, though, just in a holding pattern of sorts…wrapped in bright paper waiting for us to unwrap them again when it is safe and maybe with the newfound gratitude we are all bound to feel for what was once just the everyday.

I  find myself making this note in my notebook at school regularly: “Anticipate who you are becoming in all of this”  It is a necessary reminder when the work of reimagining school on a regular basis grows exhausting and frustrating. It is a necessary reminder when I decide how I will  react or respond to those around me at work, at home, in my community. It is a necessary reminder that this is my story and I am not a static character. I am dynamic. I am changing. And I can shape that change and my attitude about it.

Opening my mind and my heart to accepting myself, presented some of the toughest work I’ve faced…and that work doesn’t end, maybe not ever. Some days issue considerable challenges while others tender feelings of accomplishment and joy. Regardless, all the days are situated in anticipation of who I will become on the other side of the struggle and what work I can do in the moment to make that person a better one than she is today.

Neither a neurological disorder nor pandemic can change that…unless I allow for it.

Reset hope

I realized this morning that I haven’t worn my glasses in days. Well, I think it has been days, though honestly, it could be a week or more. I actually don’t remember when I wore them last. In fact, if you asked me for their current location, a reaching guess would be the best I could offer.

And yet, I don’t seem to have missed them…their ever present weight on my face, their incessant reminders of my aging eyes as I begrudgingly reach to remove them simply in order to read my computer screen, their gentle bounce as I jog the neighborhood…a gentle jog of memory for how the world moved when vertigo was a daily friend. I really haven’t missed any of those things…at least not enough to notice their absence.

But, that singular perspective doesn’t tell the whole story because in fact I do miss the presence of the distances in my life that required the glasses in the first place–my students across the classroom from me, ripe avocados from the other side of the produce section that glimmer with the hope of future guacamole, the screen at the gym that reveals my heart rate (in some way confirming that I have in fact worked out, as though the pounding heart and pouring sweat weren’t evidence enough).

Everything these days is in close proximity…my family, the pantry, my backyard, my desk. There is no distance that requires my glasses for clarity, only a distance that is too great for my glasses to clarify. I see my students on my computer screen…I read their words and hear their voices and in some ways they are still very present in my everyday. Yet, the absence of the vibrant richness of their presence marks everyday as a bit emptier than it could have been. This is not summer. This is not vacation. This is a collection of days that were promised and then revoked, without warning. Days etched now with the wispy shadow of what should be. Yet in the midst of this distance, my affection for my profession, for my school, for my community deepens, strengthens fueled by the lens of truth held up by space and time.

Even in these strange and unusual days, when we are sheltered in our homes from an invisible and indiscriminate adversary…when we are separated from people and places and produce (sorry, I miss the grocery store…a lot)…even when we are anxious, afraid, and uncertain…even now, gratitude has a way of unfurling in small moments as the first flower of spring offers hope that despite the desolation of winter, eventually the earth defrosts and new life comes to be.

And I think that has to be where my focus turns…toward the new life that has yet to take shape…the bud, still tightly wound, yet to reveal its beauty. My focus has to be on the gratitude for that moment yet to arrive. I am not diminishing in any way the very real concerns this virus instills. Trust me. I feel them deep within my core. That fear has overwhelmed and frozen my writing for over a week now and borrowed sound sleep from my mind’s vocabulary.

It’s just that I cannot exist in that hopeless fear driven space and expect to be of use to those who need me–including myself. And so, I am simply adding a new lens to the collection. This time, the lens of reset, the lens of renewal, the lens that will allow me gratitude for this pause in life and that will water seeds of hope for the goodness already present and the goodness yet to arrive.

I still don’t know where my glasses are…I’m not entirely sure when I will find them…but my vision feels sharper nonetheless.

(a poem for you in this moment…one that I shared with my students–whose insight was stunning, I might add–take a second to read it if you can…“Today” by Billy Collins)

 

 

Motivation in around 300 words

At first, I thought it was the king cake that kept me motivated. Then, posting each blog on social seemed to hold me further accountable. What could be a more powerful incentive than the forces of friends/family and food?

My students.

Some of my students started reading my blog. And it is just the best validation for why I believe English teachers need to be writing for themselves…and in some way, large or small, sharing that writing. My kids are saying things like “I can totally tell when you are excited to be writing and when you are just doing it because you promised you would. It makes me feel like a teacher-like when you can tell we haven’t done our best too.”

It’s the reciprocity that matters, I think.

They see me working hard and being vulnerable by posting work publicly even when it isn’t my best. And I know better what it feels like to go home exhausted with loads of responsibilities and still have to find a way to sound coherent on the page.

Even better than that, they know me as a writer which is only fair given that I know that side of them so well.

I also feel in a very real way that they will know if I miss a night. I wouldn’t just be letting myself down, I would be letting them down. And that is the accountability that keeps me going. My students traveling this journey with me is far better than any slice of king cake at the end. What we have gained along the way far exceeds that delight!

(Day 23–short entry because, well, I got to chaperone Winter Formal tonight)

Heavy

We wear our stress until our stress wears us out. The physical toll, unmistakably draining, exacts its punishment mercilessly. Yet we persist in carrying that weight under the misguided impression that we were meant to bear it alone. We shelter others from what we shoulder as though we prove something about our worth in doing so. We exist within community but refuse the benefits of becoming an actual member of that community. We deny support. We deny outreach. And in doing so, we deny our best life. Sleep eludes us; irritability invades. We become merely a shadowing our possibility. We grow weary and feel heavy.

I can discern simply by looking at my high school students where their stress levels are–and a lot of times, I find myself concerned. I do not mean to imply that they should be shielded from discomfort or that they have nothing to learn from it or that sometimes they don’t create it themselves. A healthy amount of intermittent stress and learning to manage it and to cope with it possess the potential to hone life skills in meaningful ways. What worries me is when my kids turn that stress inward and refuse to speak its truth because they think they should simply tough it out. What worries me is when their stress becomes their shame because what they learn in those moments is to feel less than and unworthy…isolated and singular.

So today, I wore the hat of relatively corny principal/English teacher–but I hold no humiliation in actions I think could remotely help even one of my kiddos. As they filed in for assembly today, I asked that each kid grab a rock from a collection that had been scattered on a table. I began by asking how many of them ever felt weighed down or heavy from holding onto their stress. Hands flew up. Then, I explained that sometimes in community, we forget that that we share the space so we can share the burden as well as the bounty. Sometimes we get a little lost and a little blinded to the help that surrounds us. I told them that a visible reminder that they didn’t have to be alone in carrying the heavy seemed like it could be helpful. Then, I asked them to write their stress on their rock and when they felt ready to share the  gravity of that burden, to drop it in a back pack that I would carry around school as that reminder–a reminder that, in fact, people were all around them ready to listen and lighten the load.

There were some very to be expected eye rolls:) But I fully admitted that I didn’t care how silly it seemed, we were doing it because they and their well being are important to me. There was also concern over my carrying a bag with 150 rocks in it, but I told them that I could manage the weight without wavering…not to worry.

At some point today I opened the bag to shift the rocks a bit and saw some of the stressors written on them. The rocks may have been small, the words written flatly across them, but the immensity of what these kids are walking through life with was unmistakable. Part of teaching the whole child, or of seeing the whole human, is owning a willingness to witness the reality of their existence. What may come across as a kid overly concerned about good grades could really be deeper stress that is fed and fostered by something much darker, something much more difficult to manage. And there is no way to know this by simply looking at the surface. We have to be willing to open the door to conversation, to trust. We have to be willing to put on a backpack full of rocks if even for a second it alleviates their weight and allows them to feel seen and loved. We have to be willing to see past our own discomfort to understand that of others.

And not for reward, but simply because this is what we do in community.

We live in relationship with one another.

Hard to be in relationship if we live alone in our own heavy.

IMG_5262.jpeg

(Day 20! That’s a lot of days in a row:) )

lyrically redeemed

Thursday holds such promise. It’s the day that unabashedly informs me that weekend is promised soon and by Thursday night, despite Friday’s proximity and eventuality, I feel as though those leisurely days have arrived…I feel as though we’ve made it through yet another week at school successfully…I feel as though I can breathe a little easier and my brain rejoices at the sight of relaxation on the horizon.

Today, however, at least in my world, did not do Thursday justice. Today, for me, became Thursday in name only as it was infiltrated by the stress and worry and anxiety of some other day of the week…you know, like Monday maybe? (though, this accusation feels hypocritical because I have a whole blog about how Mondays don’t deserve that rep…I’m abandoning that momentarily though in light of today’s misery). Today was just not very friendly and it began the moment I woke up.

I could spend my time tonight sorting through the details of what made this day so demanding, but honestly that would be a waste of my time and yours. What deserves far more attention are the redemptive moments in this day. Because, truly, even the toughest days have those moments if only we seek them out–if we open our eyes and our hearts to the promise of positivity. I had to look hard today, but my people came through to drag me out of my funk.

The salvation of this Thursday came in the form of three songs gifted to me by three very different humans under very different circumstances, but when I consider those moments all together, they reflect generosity and goodness and love…they remind me that even on my worst day, that is what surrounds me.

Song #1

“Mrs. Clark, are we having notebook time today…because I have this rap in my head and I have to write it down!”

Okay, so let’s begin here…in the history of notebook time in my classroom at this particular school, those words have never been uttered. Sure, students have come in excited for notebook time (every now and then), but this is not usually the reason presented. Regardless, I had spent the day for the most part mentally and emotionally exhausted and wishing I were at home rather than at school, and then those words were uttered and I couldn’t help but smile–inside and out. In this single moment, she reminded me how grateful I am to work with my students and young adults in general. I’m relatively certain she had no idea the impact she would have on my day. She was just being herself in the middle of her own day and it was entirely what I needed to begin to turn my attitude around. Then she agreed to perform her rap, despite unexpected stage fright, and the room erupted in support and laughter and joy and I was wrapped up in gratitude for the opportunity to spend the last hour of each school day with that particular room of students. Seniors can often take themselves too seriously because they are under a great deal of stress. This moment, though? This moment was pure silly fun…and we all needed it. Maybe me most of all.

Because I will quote the others songs that saved this day, here is a snippet of her rap (which she graciously allowed me to share)–

“ate chocolate all day, following my heart

maybe I should do better things

like make art

I’m sitting in English, breathing in air

to use my notebook time wrong

is something I don’t dare

and maybe me rapping won’t be so rare!”

Song #2

My friend, Morgan, possesses passion for music that surpasses just about anyone else I know. Her song lyric vocabulary and register exceeds my poetic one, and I can always count on her to send me the perfect song in any given moment in my life. Today was no exception.

I had gone to the gym after school because I knew that if I didn’t workout, the joy of that rap would soon be scattered by returning reminders of the stress of the day that will string out into days to come. Exercise is essential in my life in that way. Morgan knew I was there and why and when I was leaving I had a message from her with “When It Don’t Come Easy” by Patty Griffin in it (along with a comical note about why she wouldn’t sing it to me herself:) ). This song was new to me, so I listened to it on the way home from the gym…and cried through every lyric. I know what you are thinking–that doesn’t sound like a song that turned my rotten day around. Except these were tears that came in recognition of the fact that I have this amazing friend in my life who loves me enough to send me just the right song in just the right moment. I have a friend who knows that she cannot fix my life with a song, but who also understands the way words move my heart and she wasn’t afraid to send a song my way…A song with lyrics like this:

“Everywhere the waters getting rough/Your best intentions may not be enough/I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home tonight/But if you break down/I’ll drive out and find you/If you forget my love/I’ll try to remind you/And stay by you when it don’t come easy”

In the midst of the Mondayest Thursday ever, I was wrapped in support, in love, in friendship.

Song #3

My youngest son will one day rival Morgan’s lyrical dexterity. Tonight, after his shower, and entirely unaware that I had “suffered” this difficult day, he brought me his ipad while I was cooking and said, “THIS! We should sing this!” He proceeded to hit play and sing “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” from Mary Poppins Returns (in his best Lin-Manuel Miranda British accent…).  His smile and his joy percolated comfort and happiness within my heart and mind reminding me that there are things in this world deeper than a day. But also, beyond that, the lyrics of the song presented me with advice I give to others far more than I adopt for myself…

“When you’re alone in your room/Your choices just embrace the gloom/Or you can trip a little light fantastic with me/For if you hide under the covers/You might never see the day/But if a spark can start the inside your heart/Then you can always find the way…”

It was up to me to turn this day around…to recover my smile…to rekindle my own joy and to resist owning the struggles of others too much as my own. It was up to me to “trip a little light fantastic” and with the gifts of gratitude for students and friends and family, I was able to do just that.

(Day 15! King cake…really delicious king cake…crossed my path today…tempting…but I refrained:) )

courageous community

For the last few days, my AP students have been working their way toward and into a short story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie titled, “A Private Experience”. A superficial description of this story might read something like this: two Nigerian women seek shelter together in an abandoned shop during a riot. However, what this story asks students/readers to confront is far more complex than that simplicity. Through her careful storytelling and arrangement of detail, in the nuanced way her characters reveal themselves and their truths, Adichie places readers in the position of having to consider their own assumptions and biases. She coerces us to exchange places with these characters facing an actuality that the comforts of American life (even at its worst) do not reveal. The exchange between these two characters opens eyes to both the assumptions we make about those we only think we know that establish distance between “us and them” as well as misunderstanding and to the compassion one human can share with another that bridges that vastness.

I wasn’t sure how ready my students would be to read this story with honesty and without pushback. These kinds of truths can be super uncomfortable and while I know my kids well enough to realize they can do this kind of work, I wasn’t sure they were in a place to examine it willingly. We waded into this story by considering what the call to “love your neighbor as yourself” truly means in this modern world. Then we read some history of the riots that took place in Nigeria in the earlier parts of this century–so, not so long ago. Then they read the story independently–so it was just them and the words on the page–a conversation between reader and text before we hosted a conversation between reader and other readers in community. They needed to have the space and the quiet to think this one through and to question themselves adequately before really speaking to the story and the power of its influence.

I spent today listening to their thoughts and explanations of how they connected with this story; how it made them confront truths that weren’t so easy; how they appreciated the way Adichie’s style and craft drew them into this honesty without screaming it at them; how they now understood that academic knowledge of a crisis doesn’t supplant the lived experience of those moments. I spent today with reminder after reminder of why our young people don’t receive the credit they deserve. It would have been so easy for them to stop short of meeting the story where it asked them to. It would have been so easy to just see a story about one woman attempting to help another. It would have been so easy to never involve themselves because it was just an assignment for English class. They didn’t do any of these things. Instead, they allowed themselves to be vulnerable and to share the not so pretty realizations they had about the assumptions they make of others…to discuss what they learned of themselves and of others in the reading. Their intelligence and their honesty and their willingness to be uncomfortable and to sit with that discomfort was compelling.

It was also a brilliant reminder of why I teach young people and the hope their ability to step out of their comfort zone and embrace new ideas delivers. I cannot speak for all high school students on all the days of the year, but today, my kids made me proud as they taught me a thing or two about how to confront difficult ideas courageously in community.

(Day 14)

100 quick words

The culmination of my school week included cheering on my students as they claimed the soccer district championship. Witnessing my kids play the game they love with energy and passion is a gift. I cannot pretend that all kids will love school, but one of the beauties of high school is that young people have varied opportunities to express who they are and explore what they love. During the first game tonight, one of the fans didn’t realize I was the principal and asked me which one of the girls playing was mine. My answer was simple.

All of them:)

(Day 10–I’m tired–100 words was all I had–it would have been super easy to quit on this challenge tonight, but 100 words counts–even when I don’t love these words. I’ll do better tomorrow.)

 

 

unexpected

Pretty early in my teaching career, I realized that no matter how well I knew my students, my barometer for the questions that might stir them wavered in its accuracy. Some days I would anticipate a raucous discussion only to be met by a few meager, diffident responses that were really only offered aloud to absolve us all of the weight created by awkward silence. Other days, I would anticipate a quick idea share only to find myself suddenly immersed in intense inquiry. The easy answer here is that teenagers are unpredictable. I could simply sigh in frustration and place the blame on them for their inherent fickleness and never dig any deeper. Honestly, I am pretty sure that I would have some company in this reaction.

The truthful answer, though, is that a whole host of components often beyond their control (the day of the week, the conflicts they are confronting outside the class, the amount of sleep they have been able to accrue, their comfort level with every other human in that room on that day, the text beneath the text in the question itself),  could deter or encourage their ability to respond. The other part to this is sometimes the question itself is faulty-maybe removed from any sensible context. Understanding this has lead me toward teaching students how to craft substantive questions for themselves and then turning the role of the asking to them…giving them the power to sculpt and shape our talk in a way that is meaningful to their lives while I am there to simply provide boundary, to push further, to require a deeper exploration, to help maintain respect.

Getting to this point was a process of letting go because sometimes I really just want my students to talk about what I am curious about–to explore the parts of a text that I find super meaningful. I suppose that is a search for connection in some way, but a stronger connection is built on respect . When I respect my students’ ideas and abilities and when I open the opportunity for them to invest themselves in their class rather than simply permit them to operate in mine, suddenly we are in community as learners in a shared space…and in that moment the real learning occurs. In that moment, engagement receives the oxygen it needs to ignite and suddenly school is no longer something we are doing to our kids, rather it becomes an education they are creating for themselves.

But today, I broke my rule. I asked the question. We are preparing to read a story and I wanted to lay a foundation of sorts before I transition the weight of the work to their intellect. I had no idea how they might respond. I suspected they would have opinions to share…I suspected that they would have a stake in the conversation…but I could not be certain. They were to answer first in their writers notebooks (a bit of a free write) and then to take their thoughts on the road with them as they left school and see how lived experience shaped them. Our actual discussion will be tomorrow.

Here is what is interesting–I offered the question and they wrote furiously–some filling pages in their notebooks, others thoughtfully choosing words and crafting ideas with care. I had to call their writing to a pausing point in the last seconds of class, yet even then, some continued to write. It was apparently one of those times where my hope for a question was met with a mirror image in reality.

So, what was the question that stirred them?

It was quite simply this:

What are the implications of the call to “love your neighbor” in this modern world we live in?

I have no idea what they will share, but here’s the thing. Say what you will about teenagers, the fact that they immediately knew what they needed to convey about this question shows us not only a great deal about the world we live in, but also their awareness of their experience within it. I honestly cannot wait for these discussions tomorrow. I imagine their thoughts will be fulfilling, challenging, provocative, honest, and full of heart (and knowing  my kiddos, some intense philosophical assertions as well).

I also expect that more questions will arise. And we will chase those too.

(Day Eight–this one was tough–National Championship viewing on Monday makes for a sleepy Tuesday. I struggled all day to make complete sentences just in conversation and the sentences in this blog ended up way too long…sorry about that…but the writing is done! And I am proud of that:) )

Revive

In the last few weeks, I’ve allowed myself to become wildly overwhelmed–in part by the stress of running a school but moreso by something a bit elusive. What began as a low rumble of productive internal doubt, soon became a hurricane of hesitation–of blinding uncertainty and insecurity. A little self doubt typically keeps me in check, so I permit its presence. Questioning my decisions before they are final both at school and at home just seems to reflect careful reasoning. And this works.

Most of the time.

Trouble stirred recently because at some point even with this very self-aware process, I spiraled and before I could recognize what was happening, I was deep–really deep. I’m guessing this place is familiar to many. It’s the place where the refrain “you’re not good enough” echoes from the far reaches until it is all you can hear. It’s the place where every turn seems to drive deeper into the wilderness of withering confidence. It’s the place of helplessness, yet at the same time you will swear you are doing everything you can to help yourself. It’s the place where wallowing becomes the way instead of the won’t.

And you don’t even sense your citizenship to this place–that’s the insidious part. There was no intentional journey or paperwork to fill out, you just weren’t paying attention. It feels like “this is what life has become.” People can reassure you, but you’re so deep that it doesn’t resonate…they are just words without weight…the impact despite the intent.

Yet the words linger. Reminders of what you once knew yourself to be.

Funny story about this…one of my better skills is helping people (kids mostly) recognize when they’ve reached this destination and helping to support them as they unwind the spiral of negative self-talk…helping them harness the buoyancy of their spirit. Yet, somehow it seems, and not surprisingly really, I am pretty abysmal at helping myself in the same way. Goodness, even Dante needed Virgil to get through Hell and Purgatory. I needed another voice…a guide.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Somewhere around a week ago, my youngest son shared some memoir work he had composed in ELA. In this collection of pages was a half sheet of revision notes. On this page at some point he misspelled the word “Revise” and he wrote:

“Revive”

And I thought, I should help him see his mistake. And then I thought, wait a second, revive is a perfect word because isn’t that what revision does in the first place–it revives the work.

And then, because I’m an English teacher, I thought of Eliot’s Prufrock and his “visions and revisions” and how the indecision of it all paralyzed his entirety.

And then, I realized what I was doing wrong. A light came on, my vision was restored and I knew what needed to be done. It was time to revise my thinking and my acting in a way that would revive my spirit and in doing so renew my purpose. This wasn’t about changing other people. This was about the work I needed to do for myself. You know, the work we never want to take the time to do…because it is so much easier to make our inner mess someone else’s fault…that work.

I had to realize and own yet again that I cannot control the choices my students make, though I can guide them. I cannot control everything that will happen in the school day despite planning for it. I cannot control every action of every being and while I can try to control things in my house, inevitably, it is still going to be sort of a disorganized mess and my kids will still talk back to me from time to time. None of these things are necessarily failures on my part (okay, maybe the messy house, but that is a lifelong struggle and my husband knew this when he married me!), but I had been taking sole credit for too much that wasn’t really completely mine in the first place. I needed to unburden myself from this weight but had no idea how to do that in the midst of the busy-ness of life.

But to revise is to step away from your work so that you can return refreshed and ready to breathe new life into it–to revive it.

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My step away was booked months ago before I even knew I would need it. It involved leaving both my school and my family with more going on than I should have left behind in order to attend NCTE. I wan’t sure I should go. I nearly canceled several times in the weeks leading up to my departure.  I felt selfish. While I knew this conference and the people here would remind me of my “teacher/administrator why”, I would be leaving behind a lot of people who rely on me to be there for them.

Except, I hadn’t really been there for them because I was a bit lost in my own stuff. This trip would not be selfish. This trip would restore me to the people I know and love. This trip would center my focus and energize me to move forward. This trip would give me time to reflect and to be still as well as time to interact and be social. This trip presented a shift in my physical location but also stood to present a shift in my mental location as well.

I had to go. Here’s why…

as the plane

lifted above the clouds—

weightless—free,

visions of magnificence, of blessing

struck awe

 

sunsets are the stuff of the everyday—

skyscapes from the ground,

majesty beyond humanity’s ability—

a gift—a reminder

all we have, all we don’t deserve

 

as the plane

lifted above the clouds,

a new perspective dawned

at dusk—unusual timing—yet not;

a sunset from a new angle

glowing through the grey

 

inhale, exhale

—release—

sparks of revival glow in those clouds

igniting the path

to myself

my truth

my life.