Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Unbeknownst to one another, my friend Baron and I have both been writing about the Dove-Vendler debacle. Here's a link to what he has to say about it. As one might expect, he's brilliant.

What I ended up doing yesterday was writing a teaching statement for the Frost Place. Here it is, in case you're interested. And thank you to the teachers who gave me the opportunity to see these particular students in action:

In November 2011, I visited a high school in rural Maine. Many of the students I worked with that morning were general-level ninth graders, most of them boys, all of them either resigned to boredom or openly scornful of academics. As one of their teachers told me, the school is so focused on making sure that these kids are barraged with "the basics" that there is almost no available class time for anything personal or creative. And yet, she said, so many of them long for the freedom and focus to express themselves.

This longing was evident to me and to all the staff members present that morning, even though our interactions were limited to the space of an hour-long workshop. These students, most of whom had few academic expectations, not only could write well but wanted to write well. They wanted to figure out what was going on in the work of poets such as Robert Francis and Richard Wilbur. They wanted to focus hard on subjects that mattered to them and that they knew a great deal about. They wanted to use exactly the right word for the situation they were imagining in their heads. They wanted to read each others' drafts and comment on them. They wanted to keep writing, even after our hour was up.

More than a decade ago, Baron Wormser founded the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching because of such students and their devoted, questioning, yet struggling teachers. Today the conference continues to build connections and confidence among educators who understand the value--the necessity--of creative independence and who believe that poetry is a way both to teach academic focus and to open locked windows. Poetry matters enormously--and not just to high-achieving or arts-oriented students. All children need the opportunity to wield the tools of language, to discover the power of speaking for oneself. It's entirely possible that those students I saw in November may never again get the chance to read a Frank O'Connor poem and to figure out for themselves how sentence structure can influence narrative and emotion because they, like O'Connor, got the chance to use sentence structure to influence narrative and emotion. Perhaps this will be the last poem these fourteen-year-olds ever write. Meanwhile, they have a life to endure, with all of its joys and tragedies. Surely, one duty of our schools is to give our children at least a handful of ways to articulate that endurance.


Carol Willette Bachofner said...

I heartily agree with Baron and with you. I'd add that poetry is an "essential human art." I know from my work with students when I lived in CA that not only do most of these kids read poetry on their own, but they also write it. I'd ask each class how many of them ever wrote a poem, and 97% raised their hands. When I asked how many secretly still wrote poems, 95% raised their hands. I want the other 2% who stopped. I want the additional 3% who wouldn't admit it.

It is so critical to foster the creative. Our brains want those connections in order to stay alive and healthy. Poetry does what Math and Music do in that regard. So enough with the uber-focus on STEM courses already! We can teach ourselves blind in those areas and still fail our kids and our nation by ignoring the ARTS and thinking they are "electives" that can die a budgetary death.

I long to have rooms full of teens with notebooks and unlimited time to write with them.

Dawn Potter said...

Amen, Carol.

Maureen said...

Thank you for that link to Baron Wormser's piece. I've shared it with someone I know will appreciate it. It's among the very best responses I've read.

Seconding your amen of Carol's remarks.

ruth said...

As we launch into writing our next poem in grade 5, I love to hear the YES!!!! from the most unexpected students! I do so agree that poetry does what Math and Music do for our brains and our souls. Poetry teaches so many skills. I continue to be amazed at the searches for the best word and the best line breaks. These kids truly care about good writing. And even, if like me, they are not "gifted poets"(!), they seek and want to express themselves creatively.

Dawn Potter said...

Thanks so much for sharing Baron's piece, Maureen.