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)
 
 

really rough draft

As my poetry students begin diving into the real work of writing their own original poetry, it is time that I venture in the same direction. It is time to move away from simply admiring poetry and from shaping poetic prose, and into actually crafting poems myself. This is not comfortable territory for me, partly because I feel like I know who I am as a writer of prose-my voice is clear to me as I employ it and this grants me confidence. As a poet, I almost feel as though I’ve lost my voice or as though I am in the midst of some identity crisis. I don’t know what kind of poet I want to be or could become. Imposter syndrome possesses undeserved strength and takes over my mind convincing me that I should just not even bother to explore my poetic identity. It drowns out all of the rational writing advice I so freely give to students and persuades me to put the pencil down…even when I know better.

Today, my students read Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “The Stolen Camera” and heard John Mayer’s song “3×5” and considered what it might mean to really see the world and hold those images only in our minds. Then, they went outside to find something in the natural world to truly take in…all the while knowing that they would be writing from this experience. In a quick write session after our time outside, I wrote the following lines after paying specific attention to two trees standing side by side, one dead and leafless and the other fully alive and overwhelmed by green foliage. This is truly a very rough draft, composed in maybe 8 minutes of class time and not edited since…sharing here is my way of reminding myself what this process will feel like for my students. A level of vulnerability is required when drafting writing and turning it in for feedback–in doing this we are essentially saying, “Here, let me pour myself across the page and you can then dissect my truth and tell me where I have been false” This is not easy work. But it is critical work. So, here is that untitled draft…

Barren brown branches stand strong,

though morosely self-aware—

right next door stands

another set of branches,

generously glorified by the green

leaves clinging in pride reveling

in their vitality.

 

Death and life—side by side

coexisting peacefully—

as though friends…

Unaware one should fear the other

Unaware the other is fueled by the one

 

—One eye…then the other

In closing the first, death

dominates the landscape in front of me.

In closing the other, life

blooms brilliantly verdant.

Looking through both eyes reveals

the truth of the world—

 

Not all is death.

Not all is life giving.

Both…together…side by side…

giving weight to the world—

balance to our existence—

an end to the beginning.

 

Shielding one from the other

is neither prevention nor protection.

Only loss.

 

(Day 16! Got home super late from a lovely night out but still managed to get this writing done!)

exchange

“Poems change landscapes rather than photograph them”

Jericho Brown 

I woke up yesterday morning absolutely elated about the prospect of returning to school. You might question this stance. I get that. After all, what sort of individual finds excitement in exchanging dreamy leisurely vacation days for weighty exhausting workdays? Maybe I should have felt grumpy about having to wake up early and wear real clothes and makeup, but this time, I simply couldn’t.

What I knew as I awoke that morning was that with the opening of the second semester also came the start of my semester long Poetry elective. This is a class that is altogether indulgent on my part. It is not a course that is steeped in technicality and terminology. It is not a course overwhelmed by analysis and singular right answers. I could teach that class, and kids would learn plenty, but they would miss the point.

My poetry class is more of an invitation, an entry point if you will.

I simply want my kids to fall in love with poetry. I want them to find themselves in poet’s lines and then to be willing to then put themselves on the page. In reading poetry, I want them to better understand the people of this world whose experiences differs from theirs–to recognize that just because someone else’s truth is different from their own, doesn’t make either truth wrong. It just makes them different–and we can respect difference. We can learn from difference and the brevity of poetry makes us more amenable to remembering that. I want them to witness, to understand what an arrangement of words can create not simply on a page, but within our spirit, within our minds, within our core-and to know that their words can do that for other people too. I want them to not just know but to feel that they are in fact poets. Will each of them be published? Probably not–half of them didn’t even sign up for the class intentionally…they just “lucked into” it:) Does that mean they aren’t poets? Not in my opinion. They will do the hard work, write themselves into the identity, and it will linger with them even after they leave my space.

How can I predict this lasting identity with certainty? Well, I suppose I cannot.

Except, for this.

As I was leaving work this evening after a ridiculously long day, I received a text from a former student. They wrote, “Decided I’m going to start writing every day and get back to working on my craft. Here’s a poem I wrote today, still not polished off but I wanted to share it with you:)” Okay, so a couple of things–First, these are the moments that make the long days worth the effort. Second, they attached screenshots of a draft of an incredible poem–one that wasn’t assigned or worth points, but was valued far more than any grade. There was a later text that included this as well, “…I don’t know, it felt good to write it out…”

What a lot of people are missing is that when we stick solely to the form and function …what we miss when we focus only on essays of analysis and everyone in the room reading the same teacher selected poem at the same time…what we lose when we introduce poetry with apology and corroborate the learned student philosophy that poetry is worthless or too complex is this opportunity for a kid to grow up and still be able to express themselves poetically if for no other reason than to get what is inside, out. That is a gift worth more than any A on any report card. When we allow ourselves (and our students) to find the poetry that moves us, to write about what matters to us, to discover our own poetic voice, our vision of this world is intensified and enriched. When we become poets and think poetically we have this constant unfailing gift of expression that can be wielded to heal, to sort through, to rejoice, to thank, to revel in the fact that when all else fails, words and our ability to arrange them will not.

What I knew as I awoke yesterday morning was that while some of my students might come to me not so sure about poetry, every single one of them would leave with the gift of it. What I knew was that my job this semester consisted of nothing more than opening the door and shepherding them through it…supporting them as they uncover their voices and choices…pointing out their triumphs and helping to clarify their confusion.

What I knew was that this semester would bring gifts to us all, and I could not wait to begin.

(Day Two of the King Cake writing challenge 2020–it’s nice when inspiration comes via text:) )