In Defense of Poetry

My employer, my state, the world demands: teach your students how to read and write. Teach them how to cite their sources, dig deep into ideas, learn and compare and contrast and make Meaning. Teach them how to argue with logos and facts as their foundation. Leave the ethos and pathos to pretty speech-makers and politicians. What we need are citizens who can think dispassionately, reason clearly, and (for heaven’s sake) write using proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

So I have. I do all of these things. These bloodless, starched-shirt, bureaucratic things. I tell my students these skills are valuable. I tell them these abilities matter. And I mean it.

For the most part.

What I don’t tell them, and what tears inside me like a growing ulcer, is that this is not the epitome of what makes a successful human being, or a dispassionate citizen, or a college-and-career-ready life. At best, these lesson amount to training in marketable skills in the business world. At worst, it’s a lesson in conformity. It subtly implies the only writing and thinking that matters is the writing and thinking we do when we work for others, when someone tells us what to do, when it’s our job and not driven by curiosity or passion or even basic interest. Cite your sources, please. Don’t think about being your own source.

Instead, in quiet defiance, I teach poetry. That fluffy-bunny writing that will doom you to a life on welfare and living in your parents’ basement. No one makes a living writing or reading poetry. Or stories. (Unless those stories become blockbuster novels turned into films. But, hey, not all ball players make it to the majors, so you’d better focus on that business degree when you’re twelve, ok?)

Poetry. The realm of dreamers and dissidents. The writing that’s “for girls not boys.” The kind of writing only nerds and flaky artistic-types understand, right? In the classroom it can mean opaque symbolism and a coroner’s quest for meaning through autopsy. Line by line, excavating, making note of figures of speech, counting the syllables, and hauling away adjectives and alliteration into neat, tidy, standards-based piles of UNDERSTANDING.

The Standards say:

  • Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of a story or drama.
  • Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning
  • By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

I am aware that these are worthy goals and “standards aren’t curriculum” but as the distance grows between what will be tested and what can never be tested, I find myself fighting to keep poetry as a vital part of what I teach and what my students learn. I feel pressure to keep it short and move on to “more important” things.

I don’t teach poetry because it’s cute or pretty or cultured. I teach poetry because it is one of the best ways for the truth and honesty of human experience to find expression. I teach poetry outside of surface measures and seek-and-find literary device games.

We read and write for real, and the work my students produce takes my breath. Instead of limp and dull, though technically proficient poems, what they write when we study poetry sends electricity up my spine.

Like this:

only In–

our dreams             when the world is wish-

magnificent the things

we wish were reality

 

fly high      and        free

 

and the princeandprincess live

happily ever after and

do the unimaginable

but we’re dreaming

 

when the world is journey-magnificent

 

the plans we’ve

held captive inside us escape

then come to be

and we hopeandpray to never wake up

 

from imagination and perfection

 

we’re

dreaming

and

                    the

                                     frightening

things real life holds make us

wish

we

weren’t

 

Or this:

Grade 7–

 

a Time where everything is Group–Separate

nerds and JOCKS as well as

those who are world–unaware

 

the crude Talk in the

room–

the Alliances and Enemies

 

the Numbers and the TEACHERS–

 

a Place that is experiment–fearful

the Whispering

                     the Giggling

                                          the “Secrets”

to think it is all bricks

caging the Mayhem–

even the labyrinth

has never been so twisted–

 

everyone has to but

eventually will

                                                forget

a place where the odds may be ever in your favor

Or this:

in Science–

where everything is lecture-boring

and the science man

goes on

and  on

and

on

sapping every bit of interest    out

 

when life around you is snail   –   speed

the distant mumble of speech

droning on — forever

endless

meaningless

 

a standardized test

the monotonous article

that puts you to sleep

at a single glance

 

everpresent is the interest

lurking

creeping on the edge of existence

living in a deep   dark slumber

searching for a time to awaken

 

but that time

has yet to come

I hear their voices clamoring to make sense of the world they find themselves in, struggling to understand how they are to become whole people in the midst of conflicting expectations and misdirection. I want to tell them that sometimes there are no arguments that make sense, no sources to answer the questions they ask, and that pushing against their fears with a poem might be the best self-defense.

Argument: Was this in the cards?

According to the student handbook, playing cards of any kind are not allowed at school. It’s an obscure rule buried deep in the handbook and has its reasons, but isn’t on the list of top student infractions.

"Wave" by Caleb Roenigk cc Attribution License

“Wave” by Caleb Roenigk cc Attribution License

A few of my students had been using a deck at some point during their lunch break to perform magic tricks, and an adult rightly asked them to put the cards away.

This is where things got interesting.

The students came to me, their language arts teacher. We’ve been studying argument writing and my students, instead of wanting to complain or protest, wanted to write an argument to defend their use of the playing cards as appropriate and to ask for an exception to the school rules. I’ve seen this movie before. Over the years I have witnessed student petition drives, performance art, handbills plastered across every public surface, and even outright rebellion as students fought to have their voices heard. Often there was an edge of immaturity to these protests because, let’s face it, adults have the power and the advantage. The immature response is a result of their perceived lack of power or frustration due to feeling unheard. The adult reaction isn’t always as constructive as it could be, often devolving into a “because we said so” or “sorry you feel that way; too bad.”

That wasn’t happening this time. These students were calm, rational, and respectful. They acknowledged that the adult in charge who had asked them to put the cards away was following the rules and they held no grudge. They had done their research, brought a copy of the handbook rule to me with the significant parts highlighted, and simply asked: how can we have our point of view heard?

What is a teacher to do? I knew the rule and the simple thing would be to tell the students there was no point in arguing. This is the rule; we have to abide by it with no exceptions. Instead, I offered to help them put their thoughts in order. The rule is inconsistently applied with some playing cards allowed at certain times of day, including a four-table Pokémon game before school officially begins. They had been using a standard deck of playing cards and the rule assumes these cards are a distraction while the other games’ cards are not.

The students came to my room during team time to get my advice and to start putting their argument together. I will read it and likely give them advice for revision or editing, but the words and opinions will be theirs. As I listened to their thoughts, I was so impressed with the way they turned to writing and dispassionate argument as a way to find their voice and a sense of personal power. Real world writing, indeed!

Are the adults in administration ready for these voices? Are we prepared for students to take the lessons we teach them about analyzing evidence and defending a position to challenge our rules, policies, and procedures?

When a student uses close-reading strategies to mark up the handbook, are we ready for honest conversation and to possibly admit we need to change?

I hope we are. There could be nothing worse than to teach students how to become their own advocates through reason, logic, and maturity to tell them it only works when it’s for a grade.

Screen Glow

The first message came at 11:09pm.

Then 11:21pm.

The last message, at 11:32pm, was the one that caught my eye. The glow of my cellphone’s screen in the darkness as the “alert ” screen slowly faded to black.

What was so urgent that I was woken from my sleep? A student was replying to feedback I left for him on an assignment in Google Drive.

It’s Sunday night, way past bedtime for this teacher, and truth be told–for my young students as well–but I can’t help but feel bemused.

I’ve been giving feedback on student writing for years. Hours of time. Gallons of ink. (Hyperbole? Perhaps.) So often, once the grade was on the page, the feedback and comments were tossed aside or even straight into the recycling bin.

This late-night, unasked for revision? This was not a reaction I’m used to getting to my feedback. Its mere existence on the document invites action! It’s half of a conversation, waiting for a response. The immediacy and ease of communication, the personal, one-to-one coaching: all of it is so powerful.

Still…to my kiddos…it CAN wait until daylight, ok?

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Oz: The Great and Powerful

I’m restless. From the first time I set foot in an education class, I was looking and listening for anyone who saw education as a frontier worth exploring.

I dutifully generated bloodless lesson plans for phony classrooms populated with imaginary students. The veil between my imaginary classroom and my ability to teach remained a barrier until I began my career and awoke to reality. With each new group of students, I questioned my methods, learned and tested new strategies, and ever-hungry for more, joined professional groups.

Still, no matter what I did, I felt lonely and isolated. I felt transformed and renewed each time I grew as a professional in my practice through study and application or through the hard-knocks of teacher experience. Teaching was alchemy and each alchemist tested and refined her own methods for spinning straw into gold. We didn’t hide our conclusions from one another, but we didn’t share them openly either.

Parents and the general public questioned: What goes on in that classroom of yours? How do you know that what you’re doing works? Fear of judgement kept us from inviting colleagues or supervisors to visit and learn with us.

I realized our profession has often made us into mad professors hiding behind barriers of our own making. We can easily become the Great and Powerful Oz, obscured behind grade book averages and hidden behind closed classroom doors–mired in “the way we’ve always done things.”

I have sought ways to tear down that curtain, find other like-minded and restless professionals, and show what teaching and learning really looks like in my classroom. The future looks open to all kinds of possibilities: Twitter, Edcamp, Sanderling. These are the tools that will help bring professional development out of the shadows and into the noisy, energetic tumble of teacher professionals.

I’m off to be a Wizard and the journey all at once. It’s time to put on my walking shoes and put this restless drive for change into action.

(Cross-posted on Sanderling.)

9/11 and My Seventh Graders

Today I teach children born in late 2000 or 2001. They have never known a world without the United States at war in the Middle East. Bin Ladin was as real (and frightening) as Voldemort from their childhood storybooks. And they are profoundly affected by their passive connection to this day’s events simply by being born in the year of 9/11. It shows in their conversation and in their writing. From this generation on, 9/11 is a dusty bit of history, as remote as Pearl Harbor.

We did not dwell on 9/11 today. I left their families to approach the historic day, or not. They carry a burden, no matter how young they were on that day. It breaks my heart to read their first writing assignments: a self introduction. Many of them begin, “I was born the year the twin towers fell.” They don’t understand that day, but they have absorbed its haunting, lingering fear. The media images play like cinema footage, equally real and unreal.

I hope for the day when they can say, without fear, “I was born the year the twin towers fell, and I am here to change the world for the better.”

My Kids -Your Kids

I started teaching in 2002, armed with a Bachelor of Science, methods courses, and a mentor. I was fresh out of college, single, and childless. I looked so young that I once had a colleague stop my class from going down the hallway because she thought they were unescorted by a teacher and thought, at first glance, that I was one of my eighth-graders. At the end of the year 7th vs 8th softball game, I wore my hair in braided pigtails for team spirit and a parent asked my partner teacher if I was a “new kid” in the seventh grade class.

It’s now over a decade later and no one is going to mistake me for a twelve year-old anymore, and while I am now married, I am still childless. According to an article by Sara Mosle on Slate.com entitled “Parents make better teachers,” because I am childless, I lack a critical perspective on child and adolescent development.

Mosle writes about her early career as a TFA grad, working for a charter school with the limited perspective that is part and parcel of being in your twenties. If you’re out in the world as an adult for the first time, you’ve got learning and living of your own to do. She writes, “To the extent I understood family dynamics, it was solely from the perspective of the teenager I’d been just a few years before.”

I can remember early entanglements with parents when I attempted to assert my authority in the classroom. A parent refused to have her daughter serve a detention because I could not prove that she was talking when I had asked her to stop. Her mother said, “Just because her lips were moving doesn’t mean my daughter was talking.” I talked with my mentor; I learned flexibility; I learned how to reflect on my actions; I became a more savvy classroom manager–but these skills took time and mentoring to develop. Now, my students rarely receive detention because I’ve learned how to engage them, guide them, and help them stop a problem before it gets to the level of a detention. It took experience and observation to get good at this part of the job.

I remember having a sophomore student who missed class frequently, didn’t bathe regularly, never completed his assignments, and often went to sleep in my class. In my early years, I would have seen this student as someone who needed discipline and strong consequences. Instead, I asked the guidance counselor what was going on. He lived with one parent who worked the graveyard shift. If his parent didn’t come home in time to take him to school, he would miss. This fifteen year-old only had access to the groceries and laundry detergent that was in the house. When supplies ran out, he had to wait until the next grocery trip. He spent most of his waking hours at school or alone at home. When his parent was home, the parent slept. They were on opposite schedules for school and work. He felt adrift and unmotivated. How’s that for “family dynamics”?

I’m not sure how having my own child would help me better empathize with students like him.

I agree with Mosle that charter schools who employ only young, single, childless teachers are being short sighted–but I reject her thesis that hiring teachers with children is the answer.

Enough. Enough with the oversimplification.

It takes a school community. It takes teachers like my mentor when I was twenty-three and starting out to help me learn from her experience and reflect on my management choices. It takes guidance counselors and principals. It takes parents and guardians who are willing to work with teachers and schools as partners. Charter schools who demand their teachers work 100 hours a week for the sake of their students at the expense of their own lives or own families are not sustainable. Teachers are human beings with a very real and important need for boundaries that allow them to be whole people with lives and families of their own. Teaching and caring for someone else’s children should not be all we are allowed to do.

I would love to have children of my own, but so far I can’t. I suffered a miscarriage while at school and had no choice over the following weeks and months to mask my grief and pain in order to protect my students. Don’t tell me I can’t be a good teacher if I’m not also a parent.

I buy school supplies for my students. I buy them lunches. I have held them when they’ve cried and talked them down from their feelings of betrayal and despair when a parent goes to jail or when there is divorce. I have held a student’s confidence when she told me she’d just worked up the courage to tell her parents and the police she’d been raped. I have walked students to the guidance office when they were facing the possibility of pregnancy. I have had a student steeped in his own depression lean on me to guide him to the help he desperately wanted but didn’t know how to ask. I have consoled parents who don’t know how to handle their child’s heartache, or addiction, or anxiety. I have been to hospitals. I have been to funerals.

It’s an old cliche that teachers refer to students as our kids. No one who says so does it lightly. I know when a new group of children are entrusted to me at the beginning of the school year that I have an obligation to provide each child with an intellectually and emotionally safe, motivating environment. They become my kids and I advocate for them; encourage them; and challenge them to see their potential even when they cannot.

I may not be a parent, but I have learned over the course of my career that I don’t have to be a parent in order to be a good teacher. What makes a good teacher? All those things I have been so blessed to find as I have grown and developed as a teacher: consistency, support, positive relationships with parents (their child’s first teachers), trust, and experience. Having a fertile womb hasn’t really entered the picture.

My Ninth First Day

All the anxiety melted away as I greeted my new seventh grade classes today. After hiring on last week and getting the whirlwind introduction to my new school, it was a relief to stand in front of a class again–a place where I feel at home. It was everything I hoped for from a first day and I want to build on the excitement and energy of my new students.

This is the ninth school year when I’ve kicked off an opening day and each time it gets more and more comfortable. I’m keeping a list of To Do/Don’t Do Again in my desk drawer to remind me for next year. So far, the To Dos are running away with themselves. If I can do all this with barely a week to learn all the protocols and even the closest faculty neighbor names, what can’t I do this year?

Of course, I’m flying high right now. I’m in love: new classes, new school, new faces, new opportunities. There will be bumps and uglies coming very soon, as they always do–because human beings are messy. Still, I’m going to enjoy the extra burst of energy and enthusiasm and plan for a great year learning with my students.

Today I thought back to my very first day in the classroom. I also taught seventh grade–and I was also hired on with barely a week to prepare. I’m such a different teacher now and I keep learning more about what it means to be a good teacher. In a way, it reminds me of Sandra Cisneros’s short story “Eleven.” In the story, the main character Rachel describes the way she feels about age–that all the years grow one inside the other like tree rings or nesting dolls. Perhaps that’s true for teachers, too, as we face each year both with experience and with fresh beginnings.

At any rate, I’m looking forward to what the year has to bring and all the ways my students are going to grow.

Happy New School Year to you all!