Monday, August 18, 2008

Dinner: baked ham and chanterelles and little purple-and-white-and-yellow ears of corn and cucumbers and maybe something else that I'm just not remembering at the moment.

Today I've decided to dredge up a speech I gave a couple of years ago--a kind of manifesto, I suppose; maybe even a call to arms. It still seems pertinent.

Teaching Poetry: A Manifesto of Sorts

            condensed from a speech I gave in 2005 to the Maine Council for English Language Arts

As visiting poet, I work with students of all ages, from kindergarteners to adults. And as you can imagine from the condition of your own local school budgets, it’s a hand-to-mouth job: not many school principals are standing in line to hire a traveling poet. So like most teachers, I’m not in the job for the money. Also, believe it or not, I’m not very fascinated by testing; and I suspect I’m not alone: most of us don’t become teachers because we have a big interest in SAT scores. I believe most of us choose to be teachers because we have ideals—because we love learning, we love books; and because we feel a moral imperative to share our passion; because helping even one child open her heart and mind is a great and irreplaceable gift.

I teach poetry because I love words—I love reading them in books, writing them on paper, playing games with them, arranging them on the page, trying them out on my tongue. I teach because reading and writing and human connection are my life raft, my one true thing. I teach because I’m passionate about my vocation and because I think sharing our passions, whatever they might be, matters enormously.

            Unfortunately, school administrators and policymakers at every level overwhelmingly conceive of education as career training rather than a search for individual vocation.  So instead of sharing our intellectual and creative passions, we teachers find ourselves pressed to emphasize formula over discovery, grades over scholarship, rules over self-discipline, obedience over engagement. One SAD superintendent told a friend of mine that teachers must follow these kinds of premade patterns of curriculum and assessment; otherwise, they might only teach what they love! And this is horrifying to me.

            I’m sure Mr. Superintendent would be happy to explain all the institutional reasons for this trend. But he won’t convince me. As I have seen in school after school, most students, by their late elementary years, have no curricular opportunity to trust their own links among images, words, ideas, sounds, experiences; to cut their own paths of discovery among poems and other art forms. Language arts textbooks and assessments routinely require students to find “meaning” in poems, as if “meaning” were a finite, two-word answer the poet withholds from the reader but writes down in the teacher’s manual. And when textbook assignments ask students to write poetry, those poems often involve gimmicky patterns or prompts rather than emerge as a child’s natural response to reading and experience.

            Poetry is not the only form of creativity that suffers from this sort of fenced-in, quantifiable education. But it’s certainly a vital form for English teachers—and not only because it shows up on standardized tests. More important, poetry affects both the inner lives of our children and their confident handling of their native language.

In a lot of ways it just seems easier to skip a poetry unit in favor of routine grammar and punctuation lessons. But consider this idea: that grammar and punctuation are poetic tools—that you can teach students to care about commas if you lead them to care about what commas do. Then ask yourself the same questions about plot structure, adjectives, point of view, use of capital letters, dependent clauses . . . and a hundred other goals listed in your language-arts curriculum. This is exactly the role that poetry can play in education: it can teach children to synthesize basic tools of communication into precise and compelling forms and at the same time require open-ended, complex, personal engagement with the subject matter.

            But really, it’s just as important that we teachers are teaching subjects that excite us—because, for the most part, our students believe in us as experts, as models. So if you flame up about the novels of Dickens, or contemporary short stories, or journalism, or whatever it was that led you to become an English teacher, your students are far more likely to ignite creatively and academically. Granted, it’s very difficult to reveal your passions to students and then watch the kids ridicule them, and that does happen; we all suffer through it. But dealing with that kind of pain is part of the risk of letting students know that we love what we do.  It’s part of our job, to put our passions on the line.

            John Keats, the nineteenth-century English poet, was also a great letter writer and spent a good deal of time trying to explain, mostly to his brothers, what it was like to be a poet-in-training. He was very young, hardly older than a high school student, when he wrote the following lines: “I myself am pursueing the same instinctive course as the veriest human animal you can think of—I am however young writing at random—straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness—without knowing the bearing of any one assertion of any one opinion. Yet may I not in this be free from sin?”

            You, as teachers, are the gatekeepers of this imaginative yearning. Right now some student is sitting in your classroom “young writing at random—straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness—without knowing the bearing of any one assertion of any one opinion.” Trust your own love, your own vocation, and don’t close those gates on the inner voice.

No comments: