There’s this section in Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Jerusalem,” that lingers…sort of always there, but every so often pronouncing its presence with a sense of passion.
“I’m not interested in
who suffered the most.
I’m interested in
There’s this section in Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Jerusalem,” that lingers…sort of always there, but every so often pronouncing its presence with a sense of passion.
“I’m not interested in
who suffered the most.
I’m interested in
I have been rereading Toni Morrison’s Beloved…lingering over the language, pausing to absorb the weight, walking away when the truth (atrocity) overwhelms me (knowing that is a weakness), standing in awe of the craft and construction of this text–a text that knows itself, doesn’t oversell, over word, or over extend itself. I have adored this rereading more than any other reading of this book for some reason. I am not sure why, but something inside of me was ready to understand it differently (and I am not entirely sure that isn’t simply because I’ve been writing more and that impacts my perspective).
But I’m conflicted.
I am rereading the book because I recently took over a class for a colleague who had assigned Beloved to AP juniors. So, this time I’m reading the book to teach it. Working through literature with teenagers is honestly one of the best parts of my job. Inevitably, my students reveal insight through their analysis and questioning that is profound and reflects a perspective I might not have considered. This is particularly prone to occur when I allow them to lead the way in discussion and response. When I allow them to define what is important and to determine what is worthy of study, their engagement with the text deepens. When I allow the text to belong to them too and I grant them agency as readers and thinkers, the work is suddenly far more than a school assignment.
Yet despite my love for facilitating discussions about and analytical work with literature, I’m struggling with this one. I really just want to read the book. I just want to enjoy that reading and with all that I am, I sort of just want to keep it to myself. I don’t want to have to mar the solemnity of the read or intrude into my interaction with Morrison’s words and images in order to create lesson plans. Selfishly, I want to consider and consume the book in solitude…to make sense of it on my own and not to have to share that with anyone else. And in the midst of the whining I’ve been partaking in because of this, I realized something else.
My students feel this way all of the time. Sometimes they just want to read a book without school sort of wrecking it.
We (as teachers) talk all of the time about the importance of independent reading. And then we attach regulations and projects and logs and assessments to what we are calling “independent” and in doing so we have stripped the independence clean away. When we micromanage the reading lives of our students, we in no way stoke a joy of reading…if anything, we stifle it. As an avid reader, I really just want to read books I will enjoy (and sometimes I want to read them more than once…and sometimes they are beneath my reading level but they feed my brain in a different way…I’m looking at you Crazy Rich Asians) and then I want to talk to someone else about them. My 10 year old would agree with this philosophy. He is pretty clear on knowing that if a book project is required, he doesn’t really want to involve a book he loves…because that kind of work destroys the read for him. I think it is time that we really consider the work we attach to independent reading and then consider what those assignments are doing to heighten the reading experience, to strengthen reading skills, and maybe we also need to consider what those assignments are doing to the reading lives of our kids. And then, from that place of understanding, we need to take some action.
So, as I plan structures that will allow my students to share their understanding of Beloved, I am working hard to maintain my personal reading life and also to help my students develop theirs. This book isn’t part of their independent reading…it was assigned to the whole class…but maybe there is a way for them to own it as though they chose it themselves…and maybe I can help make that happen.
Reading and I have endured a bit of a love-hate relationship over the course of time. (I’m pretty sure that as an English teacher, I am not supposed to admit to this…but if anything, I am overly candid, so consider it a purposeful admission)
As a child, I honestly hated to read. Painfully slow, the process itself became an exercise in humiliation and self-retribution. I was a smart kid, so why was I such a slow reader? Books felt endless and the embarrassment I sustained, even when reading in a room alone, slowed my process further and detoured my comprehension regularly. I struggled to find myself and to make connections within the books I was reading, so I distanced myself from reading altogether. I faked my way through assigned readings and the subsequent tests and projects. And I must say, that I accomplished this task with style and stellar grades. An expert at covering my lack of diligence…I could take pride in that. No one would have ever guessed.
I did enjoy shorter texts. Poe’s stories riveted me and poetry was a language that seemed foreign to so many but preached wisdom to my mind and my innermost self. This isn’t surprising, though, given my situation. I was a slow reader which I thought meant I was a terrible reader and my stamina languished as a result. Short texts, even for me, became a worthwhile challenge; they made me feel smart and insightful. They propelled me forward.
My junior year of high school, though, I met with the book that would transform not only my reading life but my future as well, The Great Gatsby. It was required reading, a book not of my own choosing and so historically, it should have been one I ignored. However, something about Fitzgerald’s words and imagery drew me into its pages, into its story, into its complexity. I found myself sharing my analysis in class and in papers and realizing that while I was a slow reader, part of the reason for that was the thinking and digging into the text that were an intuitive part of my process. No one had ever really paid enough attention to my individual reading habits in school, no one had seen through my veiled charade, so no one had the ability to point this out to me–to instill the necessary confidence. Honestly, without Ms. Osborn’s English III Honors class and this book that captivated my imagination and captured my attention, I would not be an English teacher today. (I really love to tell my students who complain about being slow readers this story! I don’t expect them all to become English teachers, but it is so important for them to know that there are more possibilities than they realize in their own stories and reading lives.)
In recent years, my brain has been distracted by my inner ear issues and the accompanying vertigo and reading became a different kind of challenge. My process slowed more than usual–I fought for comprehension and retention while my brain focused more intently on maintaining balance. Whether I was reading a book or student writing, taking in the words, making connections, considering deeper meanings shifted from a joyful and fulfilling process to an exercise in futility. I found myself faking my way through once again and utterly disheartened, completely discouraged. But again, poetry was the answer. I found solace in these short texts that challenged me as a reader, thinker and writer but also didn’t overwhelm my temporarily stunted abilities. Poetry became my daily meditation.
Suddenly, in the midst of those years of building resentment and irritation, an epiphany settled in. So many of my students suffer from learning differences and for them the process of reading is painful…for them, avoidance is salvation from the discomfort and humiliation of having a brain that is wired for miscommunication…for them, lack of understanding and encouragement only exacerbates their defensiveness and decimates their self-esteem. None of these kids have done anything to earn this set of circumstances, just as I didn’t ask for my inner ear to sever ties with my brain. I took it on as my duty to harness this understanding and to learn greater patience with myself as a reader and to learn what tactics would help me overcome my deficits. I took it on as my duty to work with my kids in the same way–to treat them as I was treating myself and to hope that they could learn to extend themselves some grace in the process, to open themselves up to the vulnerability of working through it. This was hard work but worthwhile, and it began with building confidence and stamina with shorter texts…it began with poetry, it began with choice.
This summer, after the surgery that healed my inner ear, my brain feasted hungrily on every book I could usher its way. I couldn’t stop myself from reading at every possible opportunity, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had been able to enjoy books in this way. I found it difficult to explain to other people exactly what this liberation felt like; I found it difficult to relate the excitement of reveling in reading for the first time in years. A burden had released. A passion restored. A life revitalized.
(Day 27! Encouraged today by my husband’s refusal to let me quit just because I’m tired and by my students and their enduring smiles and support)
It’s been a Mary Oliver kind of day. Her words have nourished me as I meandered rather blindly throughout the sometimes chaotic moments of the last fourteen hours.
I was particularly struck by her poem “Messenger” today. I’ve read this poem before and thought “how lovely”, but today, well, today, it was medicinal. As I read the words and took in their meaning, my inner self paused, took a breath and relaxed. This was the poem that I needed…it was the reminder of my place and my purpose that was absolutely necessary to survival. And this is why I love poetry as I do. It meets me wherever I am and extends what I need in order to find my center.
Today, this is what I needed to read:
from “Messenger” by Mary Oliver
“My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird–
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
There is more to this poem, of course, but this is the part that struck me most. This idea that “My work is loving the world…my work,/which is mostly standing still and learning to be/astonished” was what I needed to sustain me today. Because when it comes down to it, no matter how much work I do at school, no matter how stressful that can be, my real work is loving the world. Period. (as an aside, I sort of really love the complete sentence in that first line–it is so delicate and simple as the deepest truths have the potential to be). And sometimes the reminder of that calling to love the world in all its complexity and effortless beauty is required. We blind ourselves in the worries and wants of the world and in our inability to ever really be enough in any given moment and we forget that without the richness of the most basic love–a love that allows us to be still and astonished, the rest is quite worthless.
So, as I proceeded through a day of days, I stopped to observe the wisps of clouds gliding across a serene blue sky, to notice the blades of grass jutting through the rocks, to feel the breeze on my face and the warm embrace of the sunlight. I got out of my own head, saw past my “stuff” and my imperfection and was in the world with eyes open to its wonder. Grateful for such a gift as those moments. Grateful for Mary Oliver for steering me there and grateful for poetry for speaking a language that my heart and mind crave in all moments of all days.
(Day 20–which feels like a landmark?)
So, I’ve spent the weekend with teachers from around the country talking about and considering the importance of inquiry and literacy for kids. Even though we have all come from different places, it just so happens that this institute is being held in my home town, New Orleans. However, despite being in my actual hometown, I have found myself confronted and surrounded by more thoughtless stereotypes about this city that I love and about what it could mean to be from here than at any other point in my life–which has also heightened my realization that the number of people who buy into these over generalizations and the number of people who label the residents of this city based on those assumptions is far larger than I might have originally thought.
I suppose I sort of insulate myself–wrap myself in the belief that surely people know there is something more to the fabric of this richly historic town, something more to its culture and to the people who cling to it fervently than just raucous drunkenness. More than just a Southern drawl (that actually doesn’t even exist here). More than the sort of grotesque caricature shown in film and on television that is fun to imagine but denies the complexity of reality.
I just assumed that people would know better. I felt like if nothing else, the resilience and spirit the people of this city displayed in the aftermath of Katrina should have helped to erase some of the broad brush strokes. People weren’t just clinging to a city in those days; they were clinging to their home. But time has passed and I suppose those images have become blurry, maybe a little forgotten.
So, as I attempt to absorb and understand the nature of these predispositions, as I attempt to inform without sounding too defensive, I recognize that as frustrating as this bias has been, I don’t have to face it everyday. On any given day, I am mostly surrounded by native Louisianians. But, there are far too many people in this world who have been walled in by stereotypical expectations and who live every single day of their lives trying to break free from that prison of sorts. I have come to realize that just as teachers at this institute have been breaking away from their assumptions by working through an inquiry process, through a question asking process to uncover some truths about this city and its people, we need to be conducting inquiry every single day of the week in every week of every year to uncover the truth of those around us. We need to take the time to ask the questions that will scratch past the facade we have created with our simplistic assumptions. We need to ask questions that show interest in actually understanding rather than gathering ammunition to further judgement. We need to ask questions so that we can listen and consider the information and then reconsider our original thoughts. We need to ask questions without fear of having to admit we were wrong–because that admission is where the change begins.
I’ve lived in or near this city my whole life and felt like I didn’t really need this inquiry group study. Except in asking questions on our topic, I realized there was still more to uncover. I was reminded that my story and understanding of this city is just one of many and that I haven’t paid nearly enough attention to some of the threads that make the fabric of this town so rich, so vibrant. In acting as though we know the truth of a person or community or faith or country without ever asking or seeking to know more, without ever hearing the narrative of the person or people living the reality, we will live our lives ignorant of the vibrance of the whole story. And that loss is profound. That loss is dangerous.
(Day 15 of the king cake season writing challenge–this could have easily been about the Saints playoff game instead…figured I would channel that energy here instead…can’t win them all I suppose…)
Since we returned from winter break, my AP Lit seniors have been working to set individual reading goals and then to select a book that will challenge them as they work toward achieving the goals they have set. Some are tackling longer books than they have read before in order to build stamina (and maybe to prove something to themselves); others are selecting texts that reside in a genre they wouldn’t normally visit, an attempt to extend their reach as readers; and still others are hoping to slow themselves down and really think their way through their reading rather than simply speeding through a story for the fun of it. There are no restrictions on the books selected as long as the student can justify how their choice helps them meet their goals in a meaningful way. They do write reflections weekly, but these aren’t your typical readers response. In these reflections, students do respond and react to the text they’re reading, but they also respond and react to how they are growing and changing as readers as they are working to meet their goals. In this way, they aren’t just unwittingly becoming better readers. They are fully aware of what the challenges are and how they are actively working to meet them.
Because my kids are setting their own challenges, their enthusiasm for their selected books and for their growth as readers has become contagious. One student in particular selected And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts because at over 600 pages, finishing the book felt like an insurmountable task–and she wanted the push to do it. However, she also picked it because it is nonfiction and she is not typically drawn to nonfiction. Today in class, she was beaming as she explained that not only was she around 200 pages into the text, but she was thoroughly enjoying it. She didn’t realize she would be able to read a book like this so fast. She didn’t realize she would enjoy it as much as she has been. She didn’t realize that this challenge could offer so much to her as an individual.
I feel strongly that without choice in this situation, engagement would almost certainly drop out, if it existed at all…and without engagement, true growth of the reader is stunted. If I assumed a singular challenge for the class as a whole and then assigned the same book to each kid to be studied in the same way with the same questions and the same assignments, I really don’t believe their investment would have become so rich and so rewarding. Sure, every now and then in this class we work with a shared text and the kids learn and they grow in intentional and measured ways as readers, but opportunities like this challenge book assignment are more present than they used to be in my space because after witnessing the impact I would be negligent to act in any other way.
The energy charging this student’s voice as she shared her excitement about the challenge and about the book was palpable and entirely beyond the simple satisfaction of having completed an assignment. She had chosen goals that she felt were impossible or at the very least, improbable, to meet, she pushed herself to meet them in a way and with a text that she determined best and as a result, every achievement over the course of this assignment is hers and hers alone.
As a teacher, it just doesn’t get better than that!
(Day 11…done…this one had the potential to be much longer but this has been a rather chaotic night and organizing it would have been too much. The challenge book work will go on for some time in my classroom, so I will simply write on this again another time.)
As an educator, I’ve long realized that my students are brilliant beyond all expectation and that if I will just get out of their way, they will prove that truth time and again. It’s the dismissal of my own pet projects and the getting out of the way that can be tricky. There are certain works and assignments that I simply love to witness kids interact with and grow from, so the temptation to micromanage the curriculum can often be difficult to dismiss.
This is particularly true in my AP Literature class. It’s less a temptation in this situation and more a burden placed by the weight of the test in May…you know, the test that is made without knowledge of my kids but that determines whether they will receive college credit without regard for the fact that maybe they have completed important, intelligent and profoundly thought provoking work all semester but maybe came into the test not feeling well. An entire year of work denied in four hours. I digress. My point is that given the import my kids place on this test, I feel an obligation to find a balance between teaching a really solid literature course and also instructing on the nuances of the test.
Every other course I teach roots itself deeply in the choice offered through reading and writing workshop, but my AP class has always been a little bit different. Choice has been present but within parameters–often set by me (particularly when it comest to reading).
This year has been a bit different. We still share a central text every now and again so we can discuss and learn from each other as a whole class. But our reading for the most part has existed in book clubs. And while, yes, there have been literary analyses that were written, this year we have also participated in a true writer’s workshop. Students set writing goals for themselves, selected a style of writing and topic that would assist them in achieving their goals, and then set to work. I was present for conferencing and teaching one on one as they went through the process.
What I found incredibly intriguing is that so many of the kids were inspired to write based on the books they had chosen for their book clubs. A few students read Layli Long Soldier’s poetry collection entitled Whereas. This beautiful book of poetry reveals the hard work of the poet, and the intricacy of Layli Long Soldier’s craft deepens the connection of the reader to the work, to the meaning (and also opens eyes). As much poetry as I have shared with my kids over the years (there has been so much poetry, trust me here), there was something magical about their independent reading and interaction with Whereas. Not only did they appreciate the text and have riveting book club discussions, but they also all decided that their writing goals would include exploring what they could really do with poetry.
Now I have to say that historically, when a student asks to pursue poetry for independent writing, questions like these are often involved… “So, like, how many poems do I have to write?” “So, 3 or 4 haiku would count, right?” “But what if I worked really hard on these two poems? Two would be enough, right?” This group of students, however, asked an entirely different set of questions… “Can I include an intermission in my collection?” “Would it be alright if my collection had 3 parts?” “I’d like the third part to be interactive for the reader–is that too creative? Will people get it?” “Can I play with spacing on the page and punctuation if it works with my point?” Meaningful questions about the work of a writer–questions that reflected thought and consideration and investment. I was dazzled.
And the outcome? Well, one student crafted a 62 page, three part collection of poems that illustrated the transition from anxiety/depression/hurt to taking a breath to finally healing (the healing is approached through an interactive set of poems and directives that aim to help the reader work toward healing rather than simply acting as a passive observer). Another student, who had never attempted to write poetry and maybe hadn’t even really attached himself to any piece of writing before, composed his own multipart collection in which he plays with spacing, punctuation and word choice in a rather magical way. His continued affirmations that he was so proud of this work only made its worth shine more brightly.
One student, intrigued by Jean Toomer’s style in Cane, attempted an entire essay composed in prose poetry, and get this, merged the airy, imagistic language with terms and ideas associated with Calculus and Physics. It was utter brilliance. Stunning to read. I’m pretty sure I audibly gasped at certain points. Again, the pride she took in her accomplishment was remarkable. She wrote, “I read it out loud to myself for the first time last night and I heard growth as a writer, thinker and viewer of the world.”
Finally, another student who had been frustrated and a little bored by Camus’ style in The Stranger realized that his own writing reflected this very same style. He went back to the short story he had been composing in workshop with a fresh eye and revised from there. His self reflection included these words, “Who knew I would end up liking to write? Probably you, Mrs. Clark.”
And I’ve only mentioned the kids whose writing was inspired by their reading…For the sake of space I haven’t included others who played with style, development, genre, imagery and more apart from their reading, but with equally impressive outcomes.
Here’s the thing. I could never have created a set of directions that would have led to the crafting of any one of these assignments. My brain would never have gotten there. And if I had by some small miracle, actually assigned even one of these pieces, the investment and engagement that was palpable in the classroom simply wouldn’t have existed. Why? Because they would have been working for me, for the grade. They would have been doing the work that I asked them to, in the way that I told them to and it would have been good but it wouldn’t have meant so much. Teacher pleasing is not engagement. It gets the work done, but it doesn’t resonate, it doesn’t linger.
The student who wrote the 62 paged piece has now, long after the grading is done, methodically increased the collection to 120 pages and is considering inserting photography as well. This piece is hers and hers alone. Its genius stems entirely from her mind and her process. The small intricate touches she is adding don’t reflect the work of school; they reflect the work of her heart.
The writing turned in during this writer’s workshop represents the inspired work and thinking of students who, when given the chance, were ready to prove without question the value of choice and freedom, the value of engagement and ownership.
And as a result, despite knowing these students for the last four years, after shifting my role completely to consultant rather than instructor and after the joy of witnessing the results, I find myself quite simply awestruck.
(this piece really needs to be longer…and less clunky…I don’t have an ease about my writing when I write about my classroom yet–something I am working on over these months… Day four writing, done!)
—in poetry, when a sentence or phrase overflows its singular line and pours into the next (and maybe beyond) before meeting with a solid pause and some kind of terminal punctuation…
As I sat in my office early this morning considering whether I really needed to teach the term “enjambment” to my AP seniors later in the day, I suddenly found myself daydreaming and spiraling away in wonder from the task at hand.
My affection for poetry runs deep. And I’m not even sure there is a tangible way to describe why. For a while, I thought it was because I simply loved the puzzle of analysis or the way writing a poem allowed me to lay my emotions down on the page. But as I began to include more poetry in my classroom–and not just poems that I was choosing because “they were important to study” (how do you even qualify that?), but poems that students sought out because they were struck by the words on the page, poems that we read aloud and then lingered over, poems that made us smile or think or pause, poems whose careful construction crafted something unexpected–in those moments, I realized that I loved poetry because it was, in fact, the greatest teacher in my life.
As a teacher of writers, poetry has instructed me to choose and arrange my words with care and how to apply punctuation in all of my writing to deepen meaning and understanding. As a teacher of readers, poetry proved to be a bridge rather than the barrier it is always portrayed to be. So often the assumption that students will hate poetry prevents us from really giving it a chance in the classroom. We relegate it to a singular unit as though it has no place in our everyday lives. Except that unit is a false metric. Poetry presents a perfectly sized challenge to our readers–all of our readers. In their brevity, poems allow us to better understand what it means to be a writer and also grants us the opportunity to better understand ourselves, the world around us and our place in it without alienating or overwhelming us with verbosity stretching from margin to margin, page after page. (there’s so much more for me to say here–but it’s not my point, so I’ll return to those thoughts another day…it’s not like I’m not writing everyday at this point…king cake is a powerful motivator!)
But, today, as I considered the word “enjambment” my brain strayed from line breaks and end marks in poetry to the moments we consider end marks in our lives–and I realized that maybe they aren’t the clearcut extended pauses we hope they will be, maybe there is nothing “terminal” about these moments we see so clearly punctuated. And maybe that’s the best possible circumstance, to live a series of enjambed lines.
The more I thought about it, this truth grew more brilliant–it would seem my life has been exactly that: an extended thought that overflows the expected boundaries.
I can’t isolate events without realizing that every moment I’ve lived, every hardship endured, every joy celebrated has influenced and shaded in some way every moment that followed. Because each one of these experiences has molded and shaped me into the person I am today. There may be a brief pause for momentous occasions as there would be to denote the end of an unpunctuated line of poetry, but then the poem keeps going, we keep on living–defined by the lines above, defining the lines to come. I like this so much better than the cliche of “starting a new chapter in life” as though you need to completely close out one period of time in order to move into the next. As much as I joke about how great it would be to just close the chapter on my inner ear illness or the years where I thought we would never have a baby, I also know that my perseverance and much of my strength emanates from having endured those years. To view healing as a complete stop and better health as a new and entirely separate enterprise would be to deny the truth of my experience, of my life…and the wisdom and compassion gained in living those days…it would deny me the continuity and movement of each experience flowing into the next.
I didn’t end up teaching enjambment today. I needed more time to figure out how to grant my students the opportunity to see it as more than just a literary term with form and function. I didn’t just want to give notes and examples. There seemed to be greater opportunities available. So we will wait.
I suppose that it might seem I was wasting valuable planning time in this wandering distraction. Yet, I feel like it defines the real reason I love poetry…it grants me the space and time to be still and to wonder. And as much as I love gifting myself with those moments of freedom as I wade around in a poem, granting my students that opportunity to think freely and for themselves and then witnessing the outcome is infinitely more valuable. And certainly isn’t an opportunity to be caged in a single unit, taught once a year.
(This one was tough to write. I knew what I wanted to say but by the time I sat down to write it, I was exhausted and the thoughts jumbled. But day 3 is done and I’m proud of that!)
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…
they said. “But as you can see, we are
just now entirely busy being roses.”
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.
I’ve spent my whole life trying to avoid who or what I really am. Trying not to see, feel, or be the turmoil inside of myself. I’ve spent my whole life covering for the anxiety simmering and seething within. Trying to keep it contained, to maintain “normalcy”, to be like everyone else–to smile. I’ve spent my whole life with people who think it is as simple as “there’s no reason to be nervous” or “that is so irrational, you’re too smart for that” or “just have some fun.” Wondering if anyone really understands what it is like to live one life, confined by the walls of anxiety, knowing that a better alternative is out there, just unavailable to me. I’ve spent my whole life keenly aware of the toll my selfish anxious world takes on my friends and family. Wondering why they continue to tolerate my nonsense. I’ve spent my whole life in an effort not to be my own worst enemy. Striving to become louder than the anxiety enriched voice of doubt within.
Lonely and isolating, anxiety stalked my brain at all hours, preying on my weakness and jealously seeking my companionship. It sabotaged my thought process with constant reminders of what I absolutely could not do and all of the germy places and things I should avoid. It made ridiculous rituals and paths seem intelligent and even clever…after all, I didn’t want to get sick.
When it sensed my strength rising and my thoughts clearing, anxiety charged panic with the takedown. Panic was a tougher opponent—subtle at first, as it crept surreptitiously from some dark corner of my mind. Unnoticed. I had no way of protecting myself, of establishing a means of defense. The struggle to survive panic’s attack felt intense and like a losing battle. Shaking from head to toe, sick and breathless, I would try to fight back, to overcome the internal siege with reason and rational thought, but panic was louder than I could hope to be and for a while I just had to wait it out—retreating to some internal nook or cranny until it was safe to exit.
My parents called me “the clam” because, well, I just didn’t really talk about how I was feeling most of the time. They and others, my husband included, have tried to understand and have tried to help. They’ve listened to what I was willing to share when I was willing to share it, but I withheld so much. I’m 41 years old and I still don’t really talk about it with any specificity. This piece of writing is the most I have said about this part of my life and the details of it still remain carefully veiled. I’ve spent the past 32 years working this out—fighting back with skills and strategies that even now sometimes feel vague and unequipped to handle the weight of the work, but I put them to use anyway. Panic doesn’t visit as frequently as he used to—my understanding of his elusive and insidious ways have stripped some of his power and brought me into greater control. But it is hard work. Everyday. Hard work.
And then there are the moments when I look into the eyes of my own child or into the eyes of a student and witness a mirror image of my own struggle—and my heart sinks to my toes. I cannot make it better for them. I cannot remove their burden. Only they can do the work. But, I can let them know they are not alone. That in some way I understand. Community, in the midst of the isolation and doubt, can be a sort of salvation. I can offer that.
John Green’s new book Turtles All the Way Down offered me that community, imbuing me with the confidence to write this today. In his character Aza, I saw myself. My struggles never truly paralleled the magnitude of Aza’s. I was lucky in that way, I suppose. But the emotion tied to her anxious, compulsive moments, the honesty and truth of her character, the way her fight within herself impacted her family and friends—all of it—overwhelmed me as a reader. I had never seen this side of myself, my high school self especially, so clearly expressed on the page. I found myself having to put the book to the side from time to time because, well, I had to take a break…from myself. It was as though someone had extracted the deepest secrets I owned and shared them with the world. I have spent so much time in the last few decades denying myself, that to see a portrait so clearly painted terrified me. And at the same time made me realize, once again, that community can be salvation—and that words can offer a way out.
My interaction with Turtles All the Way Down proved to me again, in the most personal way, why we offer our students diverse books and choice when it comes to their reading. They need these moments. They need to see themselves on the page and to know that whoever they are, whatever they are going through the world of print doesn’t deny their existence…that the world doesn’t deny their worth. Jane Eyre was a great book and I loved every second of reading it, but access to a character dealing with anxiety the way Green portrays Aza would’ve helped my sophomore self far more. I might have understood myself and what was happening on the inside a bit better and I might not have been so afraid of it all, knowing that I was not alone.
But our kids also need to see the lives, joys and struggles of those people whose worlds and experiences do not reflect their own. Growing to understand and care for a character can lead our students, and all readers, to a retraction of judgment and to an extension of empathy. It can take time, practice, nudging and conscientious reflection for our students to acknowledge their own bias and to build these bridges. However, in a world so darkened by judgment and the need to be right, in a world so taken with the simplicity of the single story, it would seem offering the chance for kids to find themselves in a book as well as empathy for others is the least we can do.
This week, I’ve opted to share Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet” (you’ll have to scroll through the article to find the poem-but it is worth it). I realize, of course that neither of these poems are about anxiety directly, yet somehow the imagery takes me there as well as to the places intended by the poet. And on top of that, they are both simply beautiful pieces of poetry and emotion on the page.