Rushed

So, when planning this writing challenge, I didn’t really consider that I would also have to write while on senior retreat with my students. My intended purpose at this event roots itself in maintaining my focus on facilitating a remarkable experience for my students. All that just to say, this blog won’t be lengthy or full of deeply considered thoughts. I just need to get my writing in so that I will be able to enjoy the king cake that has been ordered to celebrate a successful ending to this challenge (which is only a few days away!!). It feels strange at this point not to be able to truly carve out a few moments to think and to write. I’ve grown accustomed to stealing moments in the evening just for myself, to foster this passion, to develop my craft. It felt selfish for a while, ignoring the people around me for an hour each day so I could compose. But now I realize that in the same way that taking time to exercise is, giving myself these moments is really a selfless act. I am a far nicer person when I have worked out and a far calmer, self assured person when I’ve had the chance to put some words on the page. Missing the time I would usually take tonight has made me realize that this challenge has done its job. I’ve not only created a discipline, but I’ve instilled in myself the sense that my days are incomplete without having written. There were nights this challenge didn’t feel worth it, nights I just wanted to quit. In this moment, I’m so grateful for the support of the people in my life and for the perseverance that I was able to will into being because without that, this identity as a writer, might never have materialized.

(Day 54–I think?–not my best but I literally only had 20 free minutes to get something down while on this retreat. It’ll do but tomorrow will be better)

titles

So, I feel my blog has a bit of an identity crisis on its hands.

I was at the chiropractor the other day and mentioned my self-assigned blogging challenge to one of the practitioners. She was curious and asked what kind of blog I kept. I was uncertain and my response delay extended a bit too long. She filled in the vacancy with “You know, is it a food blog, a fitness blog, a fashion blog, something like that?”

She was genuinely interested and I didn’t have a reasonable single word descriptor for what this space has become.

The origin story of this blog remains clear in my mind, but its journey since that day has been somewhat unexpected.

When I sat down to start this blog in Boothbay Harbor, Maine at a literacy retreat a couple of years ago, my intent was to craft my writing around my classroom and the importance of poetry in that space and in my life…hence the title…I am pretty passionate about the necessity of poetry in the English classroom and this was going to be my outlet to prove that imperative to the world. However, since that time, while I do often discuss my classroom, I don’t only discuss my classroom. I love to talk about what is important to me as a teacher, but when I write about it (even when it includes poetry), my voice as a writer and my passion as a teacher seem to conflict and stifle each other. As a result, both suffer and I am left with a piece of writing that reveals neither my most skilled writing nor my truth as an educator. And so I often embed discussions of my classroom in larger discussions of the world and the humans that populate it.

And then other times, especially these days, I don’t mention my classroom at all. And my blog is just the ramblings of my day. I suppose I view this space now as a canvas where I can create whatever moves me in that moment as long as I am writing. It is a means of accountability because each day, I have to click publish and others will see it. It is an opportunity to grow as a writer, a safe space to learn and to practice and to honor this thing I so love to do…even when it’s been a long day and the writing will suffer for it. It keeps me honest, it keeps me writing. This blog (and the ensuing challenge) has become my greatest burden and my greatest relief in that way.

When I tried to explain how I used this space, her next response was “Oh, so it’s a journal…like an online journal?” I cringed. I don’t want to think of this space that way though I suppose it does sort of fit the definition. But words matter to me and I am not comfortable with that term for some reason. So if it has to be that, until I can better define what this space is, I think I would prefer it to be called my writer’s notebook (not to be confused with my tangible writer’s notebook full of my handwriting and notes and revisions). For me, a writer’s notebook is a space to play with words in a very real way…a chance to grow and to learn and to stretch abilities…a place to be myself without care for the opinions of others…a writing space that is mine and on any given day reflects who I am in that moment.

So, while my blog’s identity might still be in crisis, I’m okay with that. It’s generosity in allowing me to think on the page is all I really require.

(Day 22!)

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.

 

Poetry is a human thing

So, it’s been a while since I’ve written. There’s no real explaining it other than to say that this poem reveals a bit of where my frame of mind and heart have been…“mydreams, my works, must wait till after hell” (Gwendolyn Brooks)

I’ve been sick. Not in any terribly dire way—just in a terribly disruptive way. My inner ear has been unusually and relentlessly unfriendly for the last few months bringing about frequent periods of hearing loss, imbalance, and vertigo. These symptoms have haunted my days and stalked my spirit, even when not present, for the last five years. They weaponize themselves further with feelings of anxiety, fear, helplessness, and most recently, because of their refusal to retreat, hopelessness. It was difficult to see the rather hopeless path I was walking as my mind was foggy and focused on simply making it through each day. It wasn’t until I was granted a few days of feeling well recently that I looked around to realize I had arrived some place unfamiliar to my bright, optimistic, unconquerable spirit. I couldn’t see my way out and to be honest, I wasn’t sure I had the energy to try.

But I knew what was missing—I wasn’t reading poetry…I wasn’t writing…I wasn’t myself. And that had to change. The trouble was that without realizing it, as Brooks writes, I had stored “…my honey and…my bread/In little jars and cabinets of my will.” And apparently, I had placed them on the top shelf, out of reach. They were too important, too critical, too central to my being and I refused to tarnish them with the ashes from which I hadn’t found the strength to take flight.

I would wait.

And then I realized the veracity of Brooks’ 5th line. Two short sentences, one line of poetry; a line divided into simplicity, while burdened by the weight of truth—my truth. “I am very hungry. I am incomplete.”

Poetry and writing are part of my being. Without them, I’m hardly whole and without them I find it hard to breathe and impossible to move. Sure, I was still physically getting through my days and I was smiling through as many of them as possible, but my spirit—the intangibility that ignites the fire within my heart, eyes, thoughts—was starving, weak and waning.

Returning wasn’t easy—I had to make myself do it (and as you can see by this not so uplifting piece, I had to work through some stuff as I did). But, the more I read, the more I write, the more alive I begin to feel and suddenly health and hope seem possible again. I’d be lying if I said I felt fully invigorated because I read some poems and sat down to write, but I’m on my way—I’m on a better path and my jars of bread and honey are getting easier to reach and open.

I shared Brooks’ poem with students last week as we were opening a study on the impact of justice (or the lack thereof) in our world and on the individual. It’s always tricky sharing poems I’m so personally attached to with kids. Inevitably, those are the poems that evoke initial student responses of “this is ridiculous” or “this is why I don’t like poetry” or my personal favorite, “the poet is wrong” (though this does bring up conversations of empathy and questions of when do we have the right to deny the feelings of others—and it also brings up the opportunity to discover what can happen when a poem is read multiple times so that its words are no longer being decoded and its ideas and truth become present and palpable). But this piece felt important to our work because it reveals that justice isn’t something that exists solely in the courthouse and with lawmakers. So, I brought it to my kids. I wanted them to connect with the poem, to dig in and understand it, to feel its worth and weight. In order for that to occur, they had to be free to respond honestly, in their own way, and in a safe space, one that was theirs and theirs alone—their writer’s notebooks.

After I read it aloud and they reread, reflected, and wrote (or drew), we talked—well, they talked and I listened. They got it. They knew this moment of storing honey and bread. They had been or are currently incomplete and hungry. My kids, while they seem to have plenty, know significant loss; they know depression and anxiety; they know isolation. They felt as one with the poet—a solidarity of sorts. Many were amazed to know they weren’t the only ones who had felt this way and not only that but that a famous poet had felt it deeply enough to write it down.

They recognized that injustice doesn’t have to be as far sweeping and giant as racial inequity or police brutality or child poverty. They recognized that sometimes even their lives could feel unjust. They recognized that they weren’t alone—that this was a human thing. But mostly, they connected to what personal injustice had felt like and in doing so, doors were opened to be able to begin a discussion of systemic injustice with fewer barriers—because we are all human and injustice is a weight, a burden—one that maybe cannot be overcome alone. In connecting to an issue before putting up the barriers of having to be right, it is often more possible to understand it more fully. We were ready to begin.

This is why poetry is essential. It reminds us ever so gently that we are all humans—no matter what, we are all humans—and with that comes a common bond and a responsibility to sometimes reach the jars and loosen the tops and stand side by side until the “devil days of…hurt” are no more.

(just as an aside—we also read and discussed this poem as we moved through these early parts of our study on justice– “Kindness” [Naomi Shihab Nye])

Weights and Balances

Can I hear today? Am I dizzy or is the room cooperating and staying in one place?

These are the first two questions I ask every single solitary day that I have woken up for the last 5 years—since the moment my inner ear decided to stop communicating effectively with my brain…since the moment vertigo and hearing loss infiltrated my life stealing a bit of balance, a bit more of my hearing and freedom, and all of my confidence in my body. It’s a bit of an invisible illness– frustrating to both me and my family, as all of us struggle to understand and to find inroads to health and regular life…only to find that “regular life” doesn’t look the way it used to.

It’s the hearing loss that bothers me most. At it’s worst, the sound of my children’s voices is muffled and my husband finds himself speaking louder and more repetitively than he might care to (bless him for his patience!) and I find myself having to read lips. I fear total hearing loss in my left ear every moment of every day. The thought of the sounds of this world and the words my family speak to me being muffled or stifled completely, the thought of my own clarity becoming more muffled terrifies me.

So, it’s no wonder that when the Radiolab podcast on Words aired on my local NPR station today, I found myself sobbing in my car in a Starbuck’s parking lot. As the storyteller, a sign language interpreter, herself hearing impaired, revealed the story of her interaction with a 27 year old man born without hearing who not only was without words of any kind—no way to name himself or the things of the world, let alone his feelings—but who also had no idea they existed, I found myself deeply in awe of words and their meaning in our lives. When she spoke of the emotional moment he finally discovered words, I was overcome.

No matter what happens to me, to my hearing, at least I will have words.

Words fascinate me. Just ask any tenth grader who has passed through my classroom in recent years. The class is crafted to be a study in the importance of story in our lives and we begin our workshop with an investigation into words—their weight and power, how to balance them, how they play together to create rhythm and resonance. My students look at me like I’ve lost my mind when we begin this as if to say, “Uh, Mrs. Clark, we know words…we learned them a long time ago.”

I always have to explain that this is no simple exercise in vocabulary. If my students are truly seeking to express themselves meaningfully, with clarity and voice and style, they can’t just “know words.” They have to be able to place them on the page in a way that means something, that creates movement and moments, and the only way to really understand that is to be immersed in language.

So, how do we do that? Lots of way, really. My students are always reading independently—books of their choosing that excite them, that make them want to keep reading, that feel like a guilty pleasure and not homework. This isn’t always easy. But the struggle of pairing every kid with a book they want to read is worth it every single time.

I also begin the year with a central novel that we will consider as a class (this is one of maybe two or three whole class texts for the year). Sure, we study short pieces all year, but the crux of their reading is independently driven work. However, I start this way with a purpose. I select a text that will allow me to, as Ellin Keene would note, teach the reader/writer and not the book. Sure the story has to be compelling, but there must be a larger purpose. This year we are working with All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. While I absolutely adore the story contained between the covers of this book and while it works to support our theme of “story”, I am teaching it because Doerr writes in a way that allows for intentional study of word choice and its power. We are 16 pages in and already students have noted the beauty of his craft and specifically how his choice of verbs acts to create suspense. And they have taken these observations to their writer’s notebooks for practice in their own writing.

Finally, though, it is important to note that the early days of our notebook work often center around poetry as well. This work is integral as poetry is more than just a great example of word economy, of a time when a writer (poet) had to choose only the best most precise words. It is more than the simple fact that poetry can include intense emotion or illustrative imagery.

Poets have the unique sensibility to play with rhythm, repetition and sound as well as placement on the page. Exposing students to and immersing them in the artistry of this craft uncovers newfound appreciation for the working of words and invites them to play a bit on their own—to venture out onto uncertain limbs to see what they can create and their writer’s notebook is the perfect place for this practice.

So, for example, we can look at a classic like Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” which always comes off as kind of simple and “beneath them” at first. Trust me, there are always a lot of 15 year olds with opinions about the quality of this particular poem and none of them are terribly forgiving…until we begin to discuss his word craft. After allowing them to respond to the poem in their notebooks in any way they wish (reflection, connection, illustration, etc), I ask them to go back and look for words that stand out to them and to explain why. When they have finished hunting and reflecting, we come together for some discussion. Inevitably, the conversation grows from merely a look at what it must mean to “wander” and to do so “lonely as a cloud”—my kids are always struck by the magnitude of the disconnect he must have felt—to a deeper reflection on the difference between loneliness and solitude (for in the end, he feels “…the bliss of solitude; /And then my heart with pleasure fills”). But there’s also the recognition of choosing a word like “golden” instead of yellow or the myriad words he uses to reveal the happiness of the daffodils who were “Tossing their heads in sprightly dance”.

It’s a good beginning and they start to see why we are studying words. So, we move on to other more complex examples… A.E. Stallings’ poem “Sestina: Like” is a beautiful and current poem, perfect for word study as well as for a look at the way we can use punctuation to deepen the meaning of our words and to either create or disrupt their rhythm. I also really love to have my tenth grade students study the first stanza of Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” as the imagery is stark and the whole “like a patient etherized upon a table” image always brings us to an immense discussion of how crafting comparisons can change everything in a poem…can you imagine this poem without this image? It’s the beginning of Modernism. Had he phrased it even slightly differently, maybe “like a patient asleep on the table,” its weight, its impact would have been diminished and that is an important realization for kids—all it takes is a single word and everything can change. So we take this to our own writing and begin questioning the precision of our words and playing with how we place them on the page—in any writing form (poetry or otherwise).

As the weeks go on, I am also always sure to ask students to bring in poems they find that work in this way and I further this study by bringing in the work of poets like Lucille Clifton, Naomi Shihab Nye, Joy Harjo, Terrance Hayes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mark Strand, and Rita Dove. These conversations, this work takes 10-12 minutes of class time a day before me move into our work for the day, but I would not give up that time for anything. It is some of the most important work we do and it inspires my students as readers, writers and thinkers not just in a classroom but also in the world.

All of this focus on words in my classroom has really sort of coincided with my inner ear (balance and hearing) adversity, and it brings me to wonder…is the recognition of the beauty of words working together, of the sounds they make in the silence of our minds, and how they are used to create something powerful, something important, something meaningful, really just a result my struggle to take them all in quickly, to appreciate the way they work together and to pass that along just in case one day it’s not so easy to do anymore? Or is it just where I would’ve landed professionally anyway, knowing that my young writers need this kind of study?

Hard to say really.

But in this time of volatile language, hostile tweets, inane memes and truly uncivil discourse, I can think of no more important study for my students than to dig in and truly learn to use words meaningfully, carefully and precisely… and to hopefully gain style and voice. Maybe in this way, they can begin to set the example for the rest of us!