In this last year and a half of teaching during pandemic, I found myself reflecting heavily–wondering…considering… asking a lot of questions (more so than in a typical year).
Why am I teaching this material in the way that I am? Where is my focus centered–on kids or on material? Is this lesson really necessary in the learning lives of my students? How does this activity (you fill in the best word here–test, project, assignment, etc.) help kids grow as learners and as humans? How does this bring them actively into their learning process? In what ways will this learning open up their curiosity, ideas, perspectives? Is this work meaningful in the lives of the students seated before me?
When I cannot answer those questions in a way that aligns with what I know to be important in establishing a classroom that fosters engagement and is fully centered on the kids in front of me in that moment, then I know a change is necessary. In this year when so much was different and difficult and distracting, this reflection helped me maintain my focus and cull my practice. There was only time for what was truly substantive and significant. There was only time for learning that honored my kiddos, their voice, and their needs not only as students but also as humans living through a worldwide crisis (or, if you will, through worldwide crises).
It was a far from perfect year, but that intensity of inward gaze and outward paying attention to my kids created a critical cascade of change that should not disappear simply because things will one day return to some version of what was once “normal”.
One practice that withstood this crucible of questioning without much adjustment was that of daily poetry work. The work looks something like this…I bring in a poem (either one I have chosen or one a kid has recommended) printed and cut to size-ready to be taped into writers notebooks. We read the poem aloud, twice, then I ask my students (almost always) without agenda, to respond in any way that feels right to them. Maybe, the poem has struck them and they have something to say? Maybe they want to talk about structure or word choice or punctuation or line breaks? Maybe the poem reminded them of something and they want to write or draw about that? Maybe the poem ignited a creative flame and they will write in that direction? Maybe they feel a connection with the poet or they feel seen or they understand someone else’s perspective and they want to write or draw about that? This time can go any which way. It is theirs. I never pick up these notebooks. I never micromanage them. There is expectation and there is trust and in the marriage of the two, we are a community of readers, writers and thinkers.
After a few minutes of time in their notebooks, we talk. These conversations are never predictable or planned, but they are always worthwhile because they uncover learning I could not have foreseen…which is kind of the best.
Now, it would be dishonest to say that it’s easy for me to let their responses lead the way without my voice. Because I love poetry. Because I want them to love it. Because I want them to see all the nuances and depths awaiting them on that page. But it is also because of all of those things (namely that I want them to love poetry) that I stay out of it. If they are going to love it, it can’t feel like “just schoolwork”. They have to feel connected, invested, engaged and like they matter as individuals in the process. Once they fall in love with poetry (and they always do…always) and with some practice, my students come to notice all those intricacies on their own. And in that moment, the poetry and the meaning and the learning lingers and lasts because it is theirs. It belongs to them and not to me.
I spent last week at the beach with my family and friends. A much needed vacation after an incredibly stressful year. As I relaxed watching the waves, engulfed in the peace and serenity of their melodic journey to shore…as I felt the seaspray on my face, the sand beneath my feet, and the sun on my skin, I was reminded of two things (hang in their with me… teaching is always with me as is poetry so the connections are always close):
- This line of poetry by Juan Felipe Herrera in his poem “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings”: “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.”
He’s talking about poetry here–poetry is not about the business (in other words, it isn’t crafted so we can underline metaphors and circle alliteration). Rather, it is about allowing the deepest part of yourself to connect with the work…and when that happens, “the mist” or the undefinable bits of meaning that spark only for the individual, well, that mist “becomes central to your existence” That seaspray connected me to that singular moment in my life in a way that I can promise you my 14 year old son, for example, didn’t experience. It is still what lingers with me today and I haven’t been on that beach in days.
- And then also this…My friend Ellin Keene talks a lot in her work about the value of the aesthetic in the classroom. And that is what this poetry practice elevates. It allows kids to stand in the presence of something wondrous and to find connection with it…it creates time for the poetry to steer them toward meaning and creation rather than the teacher telling them how and what to think or to observe. No one had to guide my beach appreciation moment and quite honestly if they had, I might have missed the seaspray…I might have missed the mist (couldn’t resist that)…and the moment would have been more the guide’s and less mine. And I needed that moment just like my kids need the time with poetry (even when they walk in, roll their eyes, and sigh deeply the word “poetry…”).
I’ve considered over time tightening up this work in my classroom. Making it more instructive or practical. But without fail, each and every year, I watch this work shape my students as readers, writers, thinkers, and creators. I watch as it emboldens them to play with words, to shape and share their voice, to venture out onto the shaky branches of analysis and creativity. I watch as they slowly come to own their notebooks, to treasure them. I watch as they bathe in the “alarming waters” and linger in the mist of the beauty of the written craft placed before them and the works they have yet to create. I watch and am filled with awe of their courage and their ability when freed to put it to use as they wish to.
Sometimes, crafting a structure for a moment, the scaffolding, is far better than filling in the details. There is time for more precise and intentional instruction in other ways and in other spaces in my classroom. This time for poetry will remain a gift to my kids. Always.