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!!)

sermonizing

Every so often on a Monday, I have the opportunity to address my entire high school student body. I take that privilege seriously and use it as an opportunity to find new ways to remind my kids that we are in fact a community rather than some cold institution and as such each member has a responsibility to be a decent and kind human being. Without that standard being upheld, we devolve into just a building with people working side by side rather than together…without that, we lose our heartbeat, and the vibrance of who we have always intended to be as a school withers.

We are a small school, so these moments of sermonizing are rather cozy occasions–no microphone needed, just me talking and interacting with 120 kids seated side by side on the floor in front of me. Part of me recognizes that I have usurped a time typically reserved for announcements simply to yield an extra opportunity to teach now that my new position has reduced my class load. (But I am okay with this) I have taught at this high school since the second year of its existence when it only consisted of two grades, 9th and 10th…when I was the English department…when we were only 20 students big. In those early days, it was evident that there was something special about this school we called home…a school where learning for learning’s sake was embraced before grades and test scores…where the operating principle of “be kind, be kind, be kind” centered us everyday…where we were as much a family as a student and faculty body…where cliques were shunned and acceptance of all, required. Most importantly…acceptance of all. Every single kid, no matter their uniqueness was accepted for exactly who they were in that moment and they were given the grace to change as they grew over time. It wasn’t perfect all the time, but it felt ideal at its core.

As we have grown in size, slowly but steadily, it would be easy to move farther away from that beginning…to rise far enough above the core that we forget it is our foundation.

I can’t let that happen.

I have poured too much into this place and I treasure our first few classes of kids who knew this and embodied this and, truly created this bedrock, to walk away from it or to cheat it in any way. Honestly, the main reason I applied to be Head of the High School (having had zero inclination toward administration before) was to preserve the heartbeat of this school…to make sure a stranger didn’t arrive who might not get it…who might unwittingly stray from our purpose and who we are meant to be.

So, here I am. Stealing time on a Monday to reinforce these values in myriad ways. This week, we spoke about judgement…about how what we see of others is sometimes the eighth layer of the wall they have built in order to protect who they really are from being hurt…about how instead of judging others and walking away, maybe we could ask some questions to grind away the layers…about how we can extend each other some grace because sometimes life is hard and a little compassion goes a long way…about how it is not our job to judge, but that it is our job to love, to accept, to uplift the members of our community.

Did they hear any of this? Hard to say, really. But if even one kid walked away with new understanding and with the ambition to act on it, then I’ve done okay…then, the example will be set and spread…then, the time was well spent…then, our little school will continue to strive toward being the community of learners we were created to be, to become.

And hopefully, the tiny community will begin to influence the community at large. Teenagers are pretty remarkable humans. If anyone can begin to change this world for the better, it is them.

(Day 45–I still cannot believe there have been this many daily blogs in a row…two weeks away from king cake!! I cannot wait!!)

A rough start

(The following is the start…a very rough one as the title implies…of a piece I am working on. It’s been a long day and as midnight nears, I know I can’t do this topic justice this evening. Planning to polish and complete it tomorrow. Just didn’t want to miss a day of writing and given that I’m writing about patience, I think that being patient and working my way through this one exemplifies my point.)

—————————————————————–

Missing:

the ability to sit still, to wait (with grace), to wonder in the waiting.

Patience has fallen out of practice and become nearly obsolete. Technology grants us immediacy. Answers to just about every conceivable question reside just a google search away, we can mobile order coffee or fast food to lessen the wait time, packages can be ordered and delivered overnight, if desired. And these options, in bringing ease to our life, make us comfortable and lull us into believing everything requires swiftness…that we should be living our lives at a faster pace…that if we aren’t moving quickly, moreso than those around us, then we are falling behind.

(Day 35–almost didn’t happen. Grateful for just a little perseverance to get even just a little writing in!)

in defense (part one)

I have had to learn not to be surprised by the audacity of judgement on my choice of not just teaching high school students, but also judgment because I love doing so. I have so many answers for these cleverly disguised insults so frequently slung my way. But the essence of my argument centers around the fact that high school kids possess an energy and a light and a potential for goodness that is simply waiting to be identified and shaped…simply waiting for an opportunity to express itself in the world in some meaningful way. The ability to mask this goodness in attitude and impetuous actions seems to be a trademark of the teenage population. It is the teacher’s job to see through this facade straight to the truth that sometimes the kid herself is blind to. It is the teacher’s job to encourage the student to recognize and harness their potential, to be a guide along the way, and to stand back in awe as the kid takes flight. I gladly shoulder the responsibility of forming part of the village who will shape these young people. I take that duty on as a bit of a sacred act because I know with faulty steering, the ship will lose its way, be drawn off course. And that sometimes, even the most precise guidance and mapping isn’t enough. But the opportunity to try…the opportunity to make that difference blesses me each and every day that I get up and go to work.

My job isn’t an easy one. But even in its most frustrating moments, it brings me inordinate joy.

I guess my main question is…who wouldn’t want to have this kind of impact?

(Day 30!!! That seems amazing to me!)

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)

voice

Since the surgery on my inner ear, a negative pressure has developed. What might this mean? Well, thankfully, it doesn’t make me dizzy, but I hear every inhale and exhale I take no matter how shallow. My heartbeat pounds my eardrum causing vibrations deep in my ear (we won’t even talk about the cacophony in my head when I am running–all breath and pounding). There are several more elevated internal sounds that would shake even the most serene soul, but only one feels like a burden. Every word I utter reverberates, echoing loudly inside my head. If I didn’t talk for a living, this might not be such a big deal, but I spend my days talking to teachers, kids, colleagues, parents, etc. Sometimes I can just ignore it, but other times the distraction is overwhelming and I am rendered exhausted by the effort of just attempting to hold a simple conversation. In crowded or noisy places where I really cannot trust my own sense of the volume of my speech, I think twice before talking, wondering for a moment if what I have to say is really worth the exertion.

It’s in those moments, that I am so grateful to have the outlet of writing–to know who I am as a writer, to know how to use my voice in that way, and to know I have the confidence to do so. So many young people, though, come to my classroom having been told they can’t write, will never be able to write, are failures as writers (because that is what an F translates to) and their confidence is shattered. I imagine that for these students, writing feels about as comfortable as holding a conversation does for me right now. I also imagine that mustering the courage to put the words on the page, no matter how few actually make it there, is absolutely draining.

For many of my students, their first writing goal is just to work on their confidence because so much of me knows that they will never be able to learn and to grow as writers if they believe they can’t.  But confidence, it seems, takes trust. And so, my first goal as their teacher is often to build that trust. To prove to them in my methods and in my words that I’m present and my only hope is to encourage and support, to listen and assist, and to offer opportunities for revision and growth. Trust also comes because with the choice and freedom they have to define and develop their writing, they know I respect them as thinkers, as individuals. They know I believe that who they are matters enough to allow it to shape their assignments.

It takes time, developing that trust and building confidence, and sometimes it doesn’t happen in a single school year. But, it is always worth the effort because witnessing the moment a young person finally realizes and owns their voice as a writer, is one of the greatest gifts a teacher of writers can receive. There is a vibrance that is indescribable–the words have a greater texture on the page because they’ve been imbued with authority and style and every so often, nuance and grace. There is a vibrance that is indescribable—the smile that creeps across the face of the writer whose heart and mind are finally at peace with one another. There is a vibrance that is indescribable—in the face of a kid who is finally hearing commentary that recognizes not only their skill as a writer, but more importantly, its worth…their worth.

Those are the moments I was terrified to miss when I left full time teaching to become a principal who only teaches a couple of classes. How could I walk away from such incredible moments? Well, it took me some time, but I finally realized that I actually was creating the same moment only in different context.

I am always yammering on to students (and anyone else who will listen) that three things are most important to me for our students at all times:

  1. That everyday–I mean every single day–students come to school and feel free to be themselves–exactly who they are without the mask of who they think they are supposed to be. And that they feel this freedom because they feel accepted.
  2. That at some point in their educational careers at my high school they feel truly engaged in their learning. That may not be an everyday, every class event. I understand this, but I want them seeking engagement rather than just teacher or parent pleasing…rather than just working for a grade.
  3. That my kids leave this school knowing the import and weight of their voice and knowing how to use it for good in this world–and that they have the confidence and the skills to do just that.

All of these are integral to our success as a high school and, in my opinion, to the educational and future successes of our students. School shouldn’t be about just checking off skills and courses; it shouldn’t be about just getting a diploma or into college. School should also be about learning what it means to be an effective, productive citizen in this world. And if I’m being honest, I think that has everything to do with accepting yourself, seeking engagement, and using your voice for good. And again, if I’m being honest, when I see my kids standing up and using their voices in a purposeful way, with confidence, it is just as vibrant as it was in the writing classroom…just as meaningful…just as significant.

I suppose I should start listening to my own advice when it comes to this ear situation…accept, engage, speak up anyway.

(Day 5 done! This daily writing thing has been far tougher than I expected and I suspect my dog is tired of me spending so much time on my computer at night instead of scratching behind her ears, but the challenge has me moving through the world with the eyes of a writer in a far more intentional way. Grateful.)

 

Sometimes it’s the moments that make the movement

The most important moment in my high school career had nothing to do with grades, awards, or really school itself. And I guess, if I’m honest, it was more of a realization than a precise moment. In my memory though, it feels like a decisive point in time.

Somewhere in my sophomore year, a determination settled in my heart: I didn’t care what other people thought of me. I was going to be myself and if that wasn’t enough, then I didn’t need the weight of that judgment in my life. And in return I would quit (or try my best to quit) judging other people.

It wasn’t defiance or some kind of a front or a wall that I was putting up—it was the truth of my heart. It was me making peace with myself.

~~~~~~~~

I’ll never forget the look on his face. He walked into my classroom exhausted and distraught and ready to fall into pieces. He looked at me and said, “I’m here because I knew I wouldn’t be judged and I need to talk.”

My heart was ready to carry the weight it would receive. I was ready to listen and accept whatever it was he needed to share.

I had already accepted him and nothing could change that. Thankfully, somehow, he knew that.

~~~~~~~~

“I’m a non-writer and a struggling reader.”

Those were the first words she spoke to me as she entered my classroom on the first day of school. I had never heard a 15 year old identify herself in these terms before this moment. She introduced herself this way almost as if this information, that she believed so intently, was more important than her name.

I told her, “Well, we will see about that.” I gave her a smile and made a note that her first reading and writing goals would be nothing more than to work on her confidence.

Doubting the possibility of any kind of growth, she was skeptical.

I knew better. I could see what she couldn’t about herself.

~~~~~~~~

It was May 2014 and I had just become a Heinemann Fellow. I had no idea what that meant exactly and when people asked I am pretty sure my answer was some variation of “I think I will do some research and maybe write a little bit and I know I get some free books.”

I never even really expected to be chosen—I just wanted to try for it. I had never written professionally. I knew I liked to write, but I didn’t think any of my writing was very good.  I didn’t consider myself a writer for sure. A teacher of writing, yes. But a writer, no way.

So, there I was at the Heinemann reception at the ILA conference in New Orleans. I didn’t know a soul in the room, but I was totally awestruck because so many of the teacher authors I admired were present. That whole high school confidence “I don’t care what people think” thing was out the window…I was nervous! I wanted to impress, to fit in and I couldn’t see a way that I could ever measure up.

But I was in a room full of teachers and, you know, teachers have this sensibility about them, a certain kindness.

I was introduced to Ellin Keene early in the evening. She would be “in charge” of the Fellows—we were her babiesJShe had been one of the readers of my application. Upon finding this out, I immediately began to summon up an apology for not having submitted professional writing, only a creative personal piece. Before the words could exit my lips, Ellin said, “You are a writer, you know that, right?” and proceeded to talk about how my piece had moved her.

I was a writer? I was certain she was thinking of the wrong person, but she knew my work. It had stayed with her. It had meant something to her. I was a writer.

Confidence restored. I haven’t looked back.

The power of a teacher.

~~~~~~~~

We all have stories to tell. Stories of our interactions with a text…stories of our experience in the world…stories that help us figure out who we really are…stories that help us heal…stories of endless variation. This includes our students. Grades and fears of judgment/fitting in and getting into college should not limit the possibilities and potential of those stories.

I think sometimes, as high school teachers, we forget that we teach kids. That is not to diminish their intelligence or to challenge their maturity or the value of their voice. I am awestruck by high school students every single day. I think they are brilliant and funny and worthy of being heard in this world. That is why I teach them. That is why I have agreed to work in an administrative role in addition to my teaching duties–because I think so highly of high school students.

But at the same time, we get caught up in material and in testing and in expectations and we forget. And our students have this uncanny ability to appear so grown up on the outside that it becomes easy to overlook the fact that on the inside they are still just kids trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in the world. And they are trying to accomplish this in the midst of enormous pressures from the outside. Our kids, our students, are faced with impossible expectation for what it means to succeed, to fit in, to be smart, to be normal, to be accepted.  The last thing they need is another grown up in power proving to them that they will never measure up.

Our students sit in front of us—a composition of a whole lifetime of stories and experiences that have shaped their literacy lives as well as the person they have become over time. They are still growing and still determining the person they want to be. They need a little extra grace and some positive words from their teachers. They need us to be able to see beyond the facade of the moment and understand that there is so much more complexity to them. They need us to consider them—not as students or as a job, but as human beings…even when it is hard…even when they skillfully deliver attitude or appear entirely apathetic…they need us to see beyond the show.  They need to be accepted.

Is that always easy? Does that mean we don’t usher them towards any kind of growth? Absolutely not. Accepting people for who they are, as they are, is never easy.

There are so many ways to grant those positive words though—I’ve written before about writers notebooks, but they extend a gorgeous means for kids to figure out who they are, how they feel, and to begin to accept themselves (they are pretty handy for adults too…just saying…) But also, as teachers, we can name kids as readers and writers without negativity and be able to speak specifically to each about why. We can write small notes of response and reflection on their work that extend the insight they don’t have into their own work instead of simply marking a rubric or issuing a grade, We can ask about how they felt as they were reading and writing and then we can reassure them along the way. We talk to them sincerely about the unique gifts they bring to writing (and to reading and to the world at large)—to let them know that not everyone else can do what they can.

It takes a little time. But these are the words they will carry with them. The time it takes us to offer this encouragement is worth the lifetime of effect that encouragement could have.

~~~~~~~~

I think Mary Oliver’s “Roses” had it right…

“Forgive us,”

they said. “But as you can see, we are

just now entirely busy being roses.”

(http://www.stmarksbuderim.org.au/poem-of-the-week-roses-by-mary-oliver/)

~~~~~~~~

Having finally recovered from six months of debilitating vertigo, I finally had the chance last week to sit down with my youngest son and watch The Greatest Showman. My kids absolutely adore this movie and this soundtrack so it was fun to get to watch it with him.

We were sitting together on the couch when the song “This is Me” (written by Benj Paskek, Justin Paul) was performed and I got a little teary eyed. He was worried for me. He said, “Mom, why are you crying? This is everyone’s favorite song! You should love it!”

I did love it.  It was perfect. We paused the movie so I could explain that all I could ever want in this world is for him and his brother and every kid I teach to feel this way:

“But I won’t let them break me down to dust
I know that there’s a place for us
For we are glorious

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me”

I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m just a sap who cries at weird places in movies, but sometimes it’s the small moments that create the movement.  Felt worth the conversation to me.

 

As I Return to School…

Tomorrow morning, I go back to school. Back to my classroom, to my students, to the profession that is my passion after a weeklong Mardi Gras holiday. However, I will also return to an unusually timed school assembly, to an emergency lockdown drill, to anxious and also angry students, to an unsettled faculty and to locked classroom doors. My own children who are ages 9 and 11 attend the same school where I teach 10th and 12th grade. They are merely across campus from me, which is always a comfort, but tomorrow will feel entirely too far away. Tomorrow, my heart will beat just a bit faster behind the mask of a calm exterior (“We Wear the Mask” Paul Laurence Dunbar). Tomorrow, my heart will break all over again for those lives lost and for the fact that this is the current reality of education—one that I refuse to accept as normal or futile.

And can I also just say that tomorrow, as I climb the steps to my classroom, the memes and the snark that are flying around on social media don’t make any of that any better. No matter how smart that meme you are sharing or tweet you are retweeting feels or how victorious your comment to that person you don’t know but felt the need to take down made you appear, it doesn’t change one damn thing about the days every teacher and student face as they go back to class. Not one damn thing.

Voices need to be heard—I’m in no way denying that. We as a nation, should be in discussion. As I scrolled through social media this weekend, I saw so many people tirelessly attempting to house meaningful conversation and to share fair minded articles of importance. I also know, however, that what I saw more frequently wasn’t a national conversation on an important issue, it was a downward spiral, in many cases, through the wars of “I’m right and you’re stupid.” Real change isn’t enacted in that way.

As a teacher, every decision I make in the classroom is made with my kids in mind—which poem to share, how to respond to a writer so that they learn to elevate their craft and still maintain confidence, when to reach out to a kid in need, what kind of professional development will best benefit my classroom and those who populate it, and so much more. Even with that, I can understand how those removed from schools might not see this issue as anything more than a political scenario to be argued in any petty way possible. So let me say it like this, I’m glad you had that moment of vitriolic facebook or twitter fame, but none of that extends comfort or safer circumstances to the students I will walk through the day with tomorrow and everyday for the foreseeable future. If anything, it makes them less hopeful that any kind of change is possible.

Issues of school safety are far bigger than political and personal opinions. The lives of our children are at stake. They get it—our kids see this so clearly. They get that they didn’t have a say so in who has been elected and in what policies have passed because they aren’t old enough to vote. They have had to rely on us—the responsible adult population—to make decisions that would keep them safe. They get that we have failed them and they are witness the arguments we are stoking in response instead of making any kind of real change.

So what are our kids doing? They are organizing marches and protests to make their voices heard—to be taken seriously—to be considered as important if not moreso to the voting citizens and leaders of this country than the preservation of longstanding political allegiances and opinions. And I would say that it is about time the rest of us wake up and pay some attention.

A former student of mine who graduated last May, Marshall Ponder, sent me an email today with a piece of writing attached that he had composed out of sheer frustration with the current state of affairs in this country. With his permission, I’m going to share a bit of what he wrote:

“…In terms of recent events, I’m at a loss for words. I’ve found myself struggling to formulate my ideas into words in the past, however, those matters were for describing beauty, wonder, and amazement; for the most part the light, not the dark. The one thing I do know is that children are dying, innocent children, our children, and we as a nation point fingers, send thoughts and prayers, yet continue to do jack shit about it.

Today much of my time has been spent reflecting and researching the school shootings our nation has endured. From Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland I find nothing from my research besides deep sadness and skewed political opinions pointing fingers.

If you know me then you know I come from a background of gun wielding outdoorsmen. I was raised around guns my entire life, taught the importance of safety, the effects of what could go wrong and so on. My father and grandfather did an excellent job of educating me in this field that many in this nation are not accustomed to.

In this ongoing yet immobile debate of what ought to be done to protect ourselves from this internal terror, there are two major factors at play, access to guns capable of destruction and depraved mental health; both of which need to be dealt with in full force if we want to eradicate this terror. Even if stricter gun laws don’t solve the problem completely is it not worth a try? At this point any sort of progression towards peace is worth the effort. From a gun owner’s point of view, put restrictions on buying guns and ammo, because we as a nation have proven that we aren’t capable of handling a responsibility as large as that, time and time again.

…I wish I could write more about the mental health issue side of this debate but I’m exhausted. Thinking on this subject matter breaks me down in a way I’ve never experienced. To the people in Washington sending thoughts and prayers, get your head out of your ass and take a stance. If only the people who run our country could go visit each and every one of those families who were shattered, then maybe, just maybe, they’d be inspired to do everything in their power to prevent this from happening again.

The divided nature of this country has driven me to a point of insanity. Learn how to love your neighbor despite how different their views may be, hug your child, inspire love not hate, and reach out to those you see are in need. If we all came together and got close to the problem at foot, then maybe one day we can send our children to school without the panic they may be gunned down, maybe one day we’ll live in a world where different views are rejoiced rather than spat on, maybe one day we’ll see more laughs and smiles, and less crippled frowns, maybe one day…”

Marshall is 19 and he is broken down and exhausted and still he sees this issue so much more clearly than so many of the rest of us. His words also exemplify why I am so passionate about teaching high school students. He sees the brokenness of school safety honestly and is able to put aside what is comfortable for the reality at hand—to sacrifice long standing beliefs in order to stand up for what he sees is right—to see the world through the eyes of another and to push for change. I place my students regularly in situations that ask them to think in this way because as an English teacher, I’m not just teaching reading and writing, it is also my job to help mold empathic human beings who will leave high school ready to make the world a better place. Honestly, we are all capable of this vision and called to it. That is the hope that is left in this world-the hope that impels me forward to my day with my students tomorrow. The hope that we will “inspire love not hate, and reach out to those… in need.” The hope that we can rise above our selfish desire and create a world our children deserve.

I’ve shared this poem before, but it feels appropriate:

“The World Has Need Of You”
by Ellen Bass

everything here
seems to need us

—Rainer Maria Rilke

I can hardly imagine it
as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient
prayer of my arms swinging
in counterpoint to my feet.
Here I am, suspended
between the sidewalk and twilight,
the sky dimming so fast it seems alive.
What if you felt the invisible
tug between you and everything?
A boy on a bicycle rides by,
his white shirt open, flaring
behind him like wings.
It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much
and too little. Does the breeze need us?
The cliffs? The gulls?
If you’ve managed to do one good thing,
the ocean doesn’t care.
But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,
the earth, ever so slightly, fell
toward the apple.