By Michelle Robert
Raise your arms, step over that line, and let the smile spread across your face. You made it! You finished the Kansas Continuous Learning Program. Whew! Now find a comfortable seat, grab a cold drink (water, of course!), and take a deep, cleansing breath. Reflect for a moment. How are you feeling? Exhausted, sore, drained? Relieved and accomplished? Maybe anxious, tense or irritable? My guess is that you’re experiencing all of the above. And for good reason. Not only did you cross the finish line, but many of you pushed, pulled, dragged, cajoled, threatened, and begged some of your students across the line as well. Sadly, some students chose to never finish, leaving you with feelings that range from resentment to deep sadness and concern. It was certainly an unprecedented challenge, and on a personal note, I commend you all for learning and applying new skills, being there for your students, and seeing it through to the end.
This metaphorical marathon that you just participated in has probably resulted in a very literal depletion of your mental and emotional reserves. This might lead you to ask, “If this was a mental and emotional expenditure, then why does my physical body feel as though it just ran a real marathon?”
There’s plenty of science to answer that. Please humor me as we take a quick jaunt back into high school biology. But first, let’s consider that we are all whole beings, and we can’t experience sensations or stimuli in one compartmentalized component of the self. Body + Mind + Spirit = You. So an emotional distress will somehow, some way manifest as a mental and a physical distress as well. It’s a three-way vice-versa that applies here - it doesn’t matter which component experiences a sensation first, the other two will correspond. And that correspondence often perpetuates a vicious cycle.
As a quick example, take a moment to remember the last time a loved one said something hurtful or angering to you. It’s difficult to even pin-point where the initial reaction was experienced, but I’m sure you can think of examples of how each component (body, mind, spirit/emotion) did respond. It’s like dominoes toppling into the next.
We owe this ripple effect to the release of stress hormones by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic (meaning automatic) nervous system (ANS). This system creates arousal in most of the body’s systems - circulatory, respiratory, digestive, vasomotor, endocrine, etc. Blegh, lots of science terms. But just remember this - autonomic is automatic. Think back to your hurtful experience with a loved one. Did you have to tell your blood to rush to your face? Did you purposefully shorten your breath and make your mind race? Did you hand-pick specific thoughts and emotions to experience? Of course not. It was all automatic. And in this reaction (many know it as the fight-or-flight reaction), your ANS became dysregulated, off kilter, out of whack, choose your favorite idiom. And returning to our first premise - if the physical body is out of whack, then the whole being is out of whack.
So what was the point of this mini science lesson? It’s two-fold: 1) to lay the foundation of how we can invite restoration (that’s coming soon); and 2) to help relieve any guilt you might be experiencing regarding how you responded to the stress of teaching during a pandemic. The undesired effects of your recent stressors (possibilities are irritability, mood swings, lack of motivation, inability to focus, joint pain, sluggish body or brain, anxiety, unexplained sadness) are not your fault. Feeling this way is not something you’ve done to yourself nor invited into your life. Rather, your biology is simply responding to chronic stress just like every other human on the planet. So take another deep breath and let yourself off the hook for a moment. Extend some grace and offer yourself some compassionate, empathetic words. You’re human, responding like other humans.
The good news is that you’re not alone in this. Knowing that not one of us has come through this quarantine unscathed can bring some comfort. However, that collective commiseration doesn’t satisfy for long. None of us wants to remain in this dysregulated state! But are we just at the mercy of our ANS, waiting and wondering when it will regulate itself?
The answer, and even better news in all of this, is NO. Our ANS has an equal but opposite branch called the parasympathetic nervous system that can automatically bring our body (and our whole being) back into a state of regulation, an even keel, a bounce-back, choose your favorite idiom. It calms everything that has been aroused in the fight-or flight reaction, bringing forth the opposite reaction that is dubbed the rest-and-digest action. Ahh, doesn’t that sound lovely?
This parasympathetic system is largely governed by a powerhouse nerve called the Vagus Nerve. Don’t worry! I’m not going to launch you into another science lesson. But let’s just say that when our vagus nerve is healthy, toned, and supported, we can bounce back from dysregulation in quite an effective and efficient way.
So here is the best news. We all have the power within ourselves to kick-start that rest-and-digest process, and to maintain and support the health of our vagus nerve. It sounds technical, but it’s much easier than you might think. You may have never heard the words, “tone your vagus nerve”, but I can almost guarantee you’ve heard of most of the common ways it can be done. How many stress-relief articles have you read that tell you to breathe deeply, practice yoga, meditate, get enough sleep, engage in recreational activities, and take daily walks? These are all effective ways to lower stress, because they’re all effective ways to tone your vagus nerve and support a healthy autonomic nervous system.
I’ll go a little further with some suggestions that are not as common:
So, before entering another teaching marathon, give yourself some time to recoup and adopt one or two of these activities into your daily life. Choose something that resonates with you and doesn’t feel like another task to complete. Hopefully, you will have bounced back by August, ready to see your students again - whether face-to-face or via Zoom. And if I may, with the mention of your students, I’ll offer another tidbit. After you have practiced self-care and feel a bit more regulated, consider the many stressors that hijacked your students’ nervous systems. Their lack of motivation, focus, and organization were most likely manifestations of their own dysregulation. If you have a chance, share this information with them.
One more side note, or rather, a caveat: This information is not to suggest that there are quick fixes for depression, general anxiety, or other mood disorders. These are simply suggestions to invite restoration after a period of chronic stress. If you feel your nervous system is in a constant state of dysregulation, I urge you to seek the care of appropriate professionals.
If you would like FREE courses that dive deeper into the role of the vagus nerve, self-care strategies, and mindfulness practices, be sure to register for any of the 6 courses offered by Michelle Robert from June 3rd - July 8th. These courses, along with over 150 more on various topics, are offered through Greenbush University - a six-week virtual opportunity for professional development offered by Greenbush - the Southeast Kansas Education Resource Center. They are free to every Kansas educator, pre registration is required. Visit this website for more information.
About the Author
Michelle Robert is the owner of Higher Power Health & Yoga - a small yoga studio in Osage City, KS. She is also a former 5th-grade teacher who became a stay-at-home mom of four kids, and then discovered the beauty and necessity of self-care and yoga. Her studio serves as an umbrella for the many services she offers in the health and wellness world, including life coaching, mindfulness education, and self-care education. She also offers professional development in-services to districts interested in implementing mindfulness strategies with students of all ages. Contact Michelle with questions or interests.
Website - www.HigherPowerHealth.net
E-mail - email@example.com
YouTube Channel - Higher Power Health
Facebook - Higher Power Health & Yoga
Long sought and finally happening, KATE book clubs are another way for ELA educators to connect across the state! Each month, we will focus on 1-2 books. Meetings will be held either once (at the end of a reading) or bi-weekly (for longer texts). Open to any KATE member as participant or facilitator, we hope that these clubs not only entertain but also inform and inspire you.
Following a book club, the club facilitator will write a post for KATE Blog reviewing the text per feedback from participants. A KATE Blog book review should containing the following elements:
If you would like to participate in a book club, please check out offerings and register via the Online Meetings portal. KATE member password required. This password can be found via our monthly member newsletters, or you can contact the KATE President to check and verify your membership status.
If you would like to host or suggest a book club, please email KATE Blog Editor Michaela Liebst.
By LuAnn Fox
I found myself perched anxiously on the sofa in the anteroom of the women’s faculty restroom at the high school with my drama teacher right after I had done the deed. She settled into the sofa—a weird place to have a conversation, but then I was not a stranger to weird conversations. We were at play practice and the faculty women’s bathroom was directly across the hall from the old stage door. Actually, we were finished, but I had stayed to go over the blocking or to run the lines again with my teacher, who usually seemed willing. I was a jock-turned-drama-geek because I had to do something, something, after I couldn’t run the cemeteries for sports conditioning anymore. I’d daily cinch my belt around those ‘80s “mom jeans” to see if I’d made any progress in getting it tighter. I’d lay down nightly to gauge how the hip bones jutted against the flesh. I repeated mantras in my head, and sometimes almost aloud, as methodically as my own students years later would play with Theraputty or fidget spinners. When I threw myself against the heavy stage door on my way to the restroom, the drama teacher noticed, tossing out “You could have a sandwich or something,” in the same seemingly casual way you’d say “good night” at the end of an encounter. And then I had gone and done the deed, like so many times, like I was getting good at. But since blood lately dripped from my mouth into the toilet bowl, I was alarmed after and in fiery racking pain.
Someone I trusted needed to know my painful dirty secret, and I decided to tell that drama teacher--Ms. Lin Holder. She was patient with light eyes and dark long hair, reminding me of Judy Collins, the folk singer I’d seen albums of when she was young. “Ms.” was the preferred title, even though she never called out any student for slipping with “Mrs.” It’s easy to do, with so many “Mrs.” around. Tall and imposing, she was striking with all that long unkempt Judy Collins hair, a key to her past. She’d flunked out of college because she’d had “better things to do” than go to class back then. She had sit-ins, protests, demonstrations, and rallies to attend—all the brothers were taken, disappearing into the jungles of Viet Nam and either never returning or returning changed forever. In her age band were the fighters, the lost, the finders of voices in a rapidly changing landscape. Ms. Holder knew all the peace songs, the protest songs, and the scarring of the betrayal of that era. She attended college later and graduated at the very top of her class. By the time I knew her, she had powered through graduate school and taught me the word extrapolated, because that’s what happened to her entrance examination scores: extrapolated from the national average, so as not to skew it.
So I told her that night in the anteroom, after shakily making her promise not to tell anyone. She weighed something invisibly and then lied to me. It was the best lie ever told to me.
I revealed an alternating sneaky starvation with even sneakier throwing up, and I feared I had done serious harm to my throat, among other things. (I had.) Of course this was the landscape of a full-blown eating disorder; I had all the textbook causes that birthed the symptoms. We just didn’t have the knowledge nor those words for it then in the newly-minted 1980s.
In telling my teacher, I felt almost physically lighter in that moment. Something weighty had been expelled and hung between us, yet I felt that perhaps I could see more of my problem, and by extension, grope toward a solution. For the first time something like it seemed possible—perhaps.
And then the very next day, she told the administration. Of course she had to. But she miscalculated, there in the office at my small parochial school. She told them I was in certain trouble (and I was as I skeletally moved across my classes) and that she wanted to be the one to tell both me and my conflicted parents that I would need to leave my high school for an extended stay at the hospital. She was the one I had trusted—had loved, Ms. Holder reasoned. She should break the news to me. She could explain that I would need to leave the place where I was working doggedly for good grades and scholarships that would open the gateway to college. She would explain that it was a matter of my life, so that I would understand.
But the administration simply thanked her for her service and said they’d take it from there. Lin Holder was shut out of the equation. I walked by the office and saw with my own eyes her red face and gesticulations and wondered why she was vehemently arguing with the principal.
Within the hour, I was whisked away from my school--as abruptly as the spectre of COVID-19’s descent whisked away all of our students—for an unknown period of time.
Within the next hour, I was deposited in a hospital—dumped--much like Haley Joel Osmont’s character in the movie A.I. is dumped into the woods. I was beyond panicked in a place that didn’t know then how to treat eating disorders—with people all around me trying (and failing) to handle me.
I knew Ms. Holder was the culprit. If I had just shut my mouth . . . but too much blood and destruction came out of it with the gagging.
She came to the hospital after work. I wouldn’t see her, like a prisoner who declines the visitor because it is the only power they have. Still she came. She came every day until I would see her. She wore me down. She gave me my homework. She gave me news: I had won this or that scholarship, I had maintained my high grades. She had nominated me for other awards that I had won. I was a National Merit Scholar, and I was one of two people who had won a national scholarship through my father’s work.
She was my conduit to the world outside my ward, and she came every day. My first words to her were not of scholarships and awards, but of anger at her betrayal: her utter betrayal that led to me being caged.
She took it, listened to it all. Just sat there. Didn’t censor me. Then, she explained, telling me why she lied, that she knew that was the only way for me to open up about the deadly thing I was doing that I didn’t apparently hide all that well. That she simply had to tell the school administration. This was a legal matter. And finally, that she had fought—oh, how she had fought—to be the one to see it all the way through, to help me, and my parents, by having us hear from her what help I needed. But it had all been summarily stripped from her, and she was dismissed. I had seen that last part myself, although I didn’t know it at the time.
She told me that she knew that I was angry at her, and that, actually, she was fine with it. I was surprised. We were so close. Why wouldn’t she care? She explained in very direct and solemn terms that she was strong enough to bear my anger, that she would willingly do that any day, because the destructive cycle was interrupted and my life could be saved. She would rather have me hate her and live my life than love her and not be here. When I asked her why (as I thought my life was miserable—and no one ever accused me of never being dramatic), she told me that no matter how I felt now about myself, that this time would pass. That my life was one worth saving.
I think of her to this day. She shaped me in ways I still learn about. I think I teach so passionately (no one’s ever accused me of not being intense, either) because I lost time in school. I lost valuable time. I teach with an urgency that I felt all through school, trying to get somewhere safe. I never want students to lose time or not feel safe, but we all contend with that in some way or another.
I’ll never be the teacher Lin Holder was—saving a life--but I can strive to teach in ways I know she would approve of, taking the high road, doing the harder thing, keeping the welfare of students at the heart of the matter. And really, in tandem with teaching our craft, it’s these things that elevate teachers to being remembered long after the student becomes the teacher herself.
About the Author
LuAnn Fox has been a high school teacher in the Olathe school district for 23 years, having taught almost 2500 students. She also works extensively with her local chapter of the National Writing Project and has done regional and national presentations and committee work. You can find her on Twitter, @theteach, or Instagram, @luann_fox.
By Mark Fleske
My dislike for Diet Mountain Dew verges on being distasteful. Seriously, it might be the second-worst drink that I can imagine - second only to anything with Kombucha in the title!
For years, I wouldn’t dare to drink any diet soda, but when the numbers on my scale climbed to an embarrassing height, my weighty conscience drove me to drinking (diet that is). I could give or take other diet sodas. Diet Coke was palatable. Coke Zero was agreeable. And I would even claim Diet Cherry Pepsi as desirable. But Diet Mt. Dew? Diet Mountain Dew is detestable.
This inordinate response likely stems from the fact that I love regular Mountain Dew so much. Mountain Dew is the drink of a generation for kids growing up in the ’80s and ’90s - my generation! As a kid, I have vivid memories of “Doing the Dew” and grabbing a cold can from my grandparents’ fully stocked refrigerator in their garage and finishing it in a few gulps. As a teenager, whoever was in charge of bringing supper (yes, we called the evening meal supper) to the harvest field would always have Mountain Dew as an option in the beat-up cooler in the trunk of the car or in the back of the pickup. I would make sure to grab a second can before getting back on the tractor to somehow sustain me for a few more hours of work before dark. Once I started driving to school, my favorite breakfast was a can of Mountain Dew and a Poptart as I navigated my Ford Ranger towards town. Compared to these vivid memories of my childhood and adolescence, Diet Mountain Dew feels (and tastes) like a watered-down version, a poor substitute for the real thing.
I had a similar feeling earlier this week when I got off of what felt like my 1,000th Zoom call of the day. For extraverts like me, who have built their lives around purposefully positioning ourselves in the lives of others, Zoom calls feel like a watered-down version of a conversation, a meeting, a relationship; it is a poor substitute for the real thing.
As a teacher, a coach, and a Young Life leader, I have built my career around engaging teenagers almost every hour of every day, in person. In person, I feel like I can make a difference in the lives of my students, players, and Young Life kids. I can celebrate their successes, even the minor ones; I can comfort their tears, even the ones they are fighting back; I can motivate their apathy, even when they really don’t want to; I can seek their hearts, even those who are always “fine”. While I can physically see their faces and utter the same phrases via Zoom, it’s not the same. It’s different.
My favorite twenty minutes of my work week is a Zoom call a student schedules for 9:30 am every Tuesday. One of my students reserves that same time each week moments after I post the link to my office hours sign up (Google)sheet on Sunday evening. We have conferenced via Zoom every Tuesday morning of this continuous learning-inspired break from school. Throughout all of our conversations, she has asked precisely zero questions about class or about school in general. She simply wants to talk, so we talk. We talk about her parents’ recent divorce, how her younger brother is bright but bored and resists doing his homework, her newly found love of baking and delivering baked goods to classmates and teachers, the new depression-fighting techniques she has learned from her therapist, and pretty much anything else she wants to talk about. She has a need to talk, and I have learned that I have a need to listen. Unlike most Zoom meetings where we simply check tasks off of a list, where I lecture to a screen full of disengaged faces, where updates are read and comments are posted, I leave my Tuesday morning meeting with a joy and a sense of purpose; I feel filled up instead of poured out.
The sad realization is that when I am allowed to teach, coach, and mentor teenagers in person, I experience similar, soul sustaining moments multiple times each day. During continuous learning, I am blessed to get it once a week at 9:30 am on Tuesdays.
Don’t get me wrong; I am eternally thankful for the veritable geniuses who are responsible for the vision, the technology, and the technical support that allows people like me to connect with my extended family, my peers, and my students face to face in a virtual world. These digital connections have not only exponentially aided in the logistics of my job but they will also help emotionally sustain me until this new reality fades away into old memories. My emptiness as I clicked “Leave Meeting” is not a condemnation of Zoom, Google Hangout, FaceTime, or any other technology as much as it is an awareness that my soul is fulfilled by personal contact, intimate relationships, and communing together.
The funny thing is that I get really excited when Zoom calls first start. Whether I am meeting one to one with a student or a Young Life kid or meeting with our school faculty or Cimarron Region Staff, a rush of endorphins kicks in. However, once the faces on my screen sign off, I’m left with a sadness, a realization of what I’m missing.
Today has been difficult for me. I didn’t sign up to be a virtual teacher, to merely instruct my content from my home to the homes of students. I signed up to touch lives, in person, to experience successes or failures, with kids, to place myself in the middle of their lives. And that is hard to do on a Zoom call. At first, it kind of feels like I’m getting what I signed up for, but when I sign off, I realized I am simply settling for a substitute.
I ordered a regular and ended up getting a diet.
About the Author
My name is Mark Fleske, and I have taught at Andover Central High School in Andover, KS since 2001. My wife, Elizabeth, and I have three daughters, one of which will be graduating this month. Many of my reflections revolve around my emotions about Madison, my senior daughter, and her classmates. I have also coached boys basketball and tennis during my tenure at Central and have worked part-time for a ministry called Young Life for the past decade.
By the Andover Central ELA Department
Patrick Kennedy would not want this blog post published. It would make him feel proud, but it might also make him a little uncomfortable. You see, Patrick Kennedy never set out to focus attention on himself. Instead, he focused attention on students and co-workers in a fun, profound, and unforgettable way, leaving a deep rooted and everlasting legacy. Patrick Kennedy died unexpectedly April 29, 2020. When we think of great English teachers to acknowledge during Teacher Appreciation Month, we would be remiss not to remember him. So, as his friends and department members, we share these words to honor his legacy.
If you were to ask a co-worker or student about Mr. Kennedy, the initial answer might have something to do with his impressive collection of Converse shoes and matching shirts. It might have something to do with his ever expanding baseball hat collection or his messy desk. Inevitably, however, someone will mention Shout Out.
Shout Out is just one of Mr. Kennedy’s legacies. It’s a little weekly show he developed and produced to highlight the accomplishments of students and staff. Every week, on his own time and with his own resources, he would gather a few students to “shout out” to teachers who had impacted them in positive ways, showcase students’ accomplishments, and create awareness of cool things happening at school. Each episode is filled with some kind of crazy antic: Mr. Kennedy dressed as a giant turkey for Thanksgiving,or a Star Wars character, or a pirate. While he created entertaining and innovative shows, the students were always the focus. He ended every show the same way, with a big, “I’m proud of you!”
However, Shout Out is only a small sliver of what Mr. Kennedy left behind. We’ve all heard the saying that while people will forget what you said and forget what you did, they will never forget how you made them feel. How Mr. Kennedy made people feel is his real legacy.
He had this intuitive nature of creating intimate connections. Though he was one of the most interesting people you could ever know, those connections weren’t about him. His interest was in you, in forming more than a friendship. It was more like a heart tether. With one dry-wit comment or hilarious deadpan expression, he could remind you of a dozen conversations you’d shared that you always came out of feeling better than when you went in.
He had a knack for creating private jokes and in-depth conversations that lasted years, literally. With one colleague, he continued a habitual discussion of his extensive movie collection. With another he shared an ongoing love of literary puns, and with another, Star Wars quotes and sports highlights. For our department, he challenged us through example to raise the bar on our own work ethic, school involvement, instruction, and humility.
Mr. Kennedy built close, friendly, caring connections with many students from the present and the past. No current or former student could walk by him in the hall between classes without the two of them exchanging some word or nonverbal cue, sometimes as a tradition established many months or even years prior. One particular student played rock-paper-scissors with Mr. Kennedy every single day on his way to another class. Because he had taught the young man in middle school and high school, who knows how long ago they established that tradition? This senior looked forward every day to the banter and competition of the simple game--and the connection to his former teacher. It was a daily reminder of a heart tether that transcended classroom walls.
Mr. Kennedy was more than just a colleague; he was also a devout friend who socialized in many different groups. He would take trips with family or high school and college buddies to see as many baseball stadiums as he could, hoping to visit all fifty states eventually. He shared countless stories about wedding trips with friends. He would meet with former colleagues routinely to stay caught up, and he was always there to lend a supportive ear or give advice when asked to do so.
Besides his love and care for people, Mr. Kennedy also had a love and care for the subject he taught. His love of the written word was not only contagious, it was also inspiring. He gushed over the Romantics and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to the point where some of us started thinking maybe we’d missed something in our study of them. His students, even the reluctant readers, analyzed Gatsby in ways that would make even Fitzgerald take notice. When students graduated from his classes, they knew--really knew--clauses and phrases and poetic devices. They learned it because they understood that he expected them to. Mostly, though, they learned it because he made it accessible, interesting, and powerful.Their continued interest in stories carries on his legacy.
The kids he coached looked to him for lessons in character as much as skill. His basketball boys knew the value of hard work and tenacity because he lived the message. They might miss the shot, but they would never miss the opportunity to learn the lesson. Nate Brightup, one of his Scholar’s Bowl students explained it this way, “Mr. Kennedy was someone who helped to center the team. It was like he could set us into the zone. If we thought we were hot stuff, he would remind us of our mistakes, not as a way to bring us down, but as a way to remember that there is always something to improve. The team shouldn't ever become complacent or comfortable with where we were at, we should keep on working.”
Kate Calteaux studied with Mr. Kennedy in middle school. Her experience clarifies his inspiring nature. “For him to create an environment for me when I was thirteen or fourteen years old to understand the magic of English meant everything to me. It was a place where I could go and be a nerd and cut loose because I knew he wouldn’t mind. In fact, he would encourage that. He cared about every single student. No matter who you were, he was going to stick up for you, encourage you, and support you. And now, for me to want to become an English teacher, I owe a portion of that to him. He taught me that words and grammar are so much more than a subject. He made learning so exciting. He wouldn't want us to be sad. At the end of the day, he would say, ‘The show must go on.’”
Mr. Kennedy is the kind of person whose presence made such a difference that his absence will make an even bigger one, but the heart tether remains strong, ensuring a continuance of inspiration. As we celebrate and remember him, we understand that, in fact, we are his legacy: his students who take with them into the world a love of language and a connection of caring and his co-workers who will attempt to fill the gap his absence leaves in our school community. As students figure out a way to carry on his Shout Out and create shoe drives in honor of his Converse obsession, and spread hashtags of his catchphrases through social media, we all know our show must go on. When someone pours into you like Mr. Kennedy has, we have the privilege and obligation to continue the legacy so that when he looks down on us, we know he’ll smile, raise a finger to the air and shout out, “I’m proud of you.”
If you have a memory of Mr. Patrick Kennedy or any teacher whose legacy you have the privilege and obligation to continue, please add it to the comments, so we can continue to be inspired.
About the Authors
The 2018 - 2020 Andover Central High School ELA department exemplifies teamwork. Though we were only fully together for two years, we enjoyed a camaraderie that can be rare in workplaces. We each had our specialty and our special interests, but it was our sincere respect for each other that held this team together. Sometimes, a person is blessed to be in the right place at the right time with the right people. That's what we had for two years. Going forward, it won't be exactly the same, but the fact is now that we've experienced it, we won't settle for less.
By Dr. Elizabeth Minerva
My favorite English teacher kept a loaded water gun handy in case a student drifted off during her AP English class. She once removed a spoke-like film reel from its case, tiptoed across the room, and dropped the empty metal canister on the hard floor beside a sleeping student’s desk. We were all delighted, save the startled sleeper. She could be terrifying when she asked a question about one of our assigned books, such as Absalom, Absalom (Faulkner was her favorite). Her bright blue eyes would rove from face to face until she snagged someone. She expected a lot and would push for more if she saw a student verging on a significant realization. In no other class did I think or write as intently as I did during her in-class essays, and this was before I discovered caffeine. Her timed tests were a pure adrenal joy.
Sara Lamar was my favorite high school teacher. She knew so much about the literature we read that she made each book seem essential to understanding humanity: James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness/Secret Sharer, Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Each new book was a revelation. She appreciated students’ ingenious ideas in class, guided us when we went off track, and encouraged our individual interpretations. I didn’t talk in class unless called upon. When she did call on me, it was because I was caught in her tractor beam gaze.
One morning, Ms. Lamar gave the class a brief task and asked me to talk with her in the hallway. She had noticed that I’d seemed upset all week and wanted to know what was wrong. Voice shaking, I told her that my two-year crush had asked one of my best friends to the prom, which I learned when I called to ask if he wanted to go with me. This travesty led -- a few days later-- to the Latin teacher ordering me and the friend into the hall to deal with whatever was causing our furious note-passing. In the cell phone age, we would have spent the class period jamming our thumbs into our screens; then, our friends passed the folded up sheets of notebook paper hand to hand, all of them in on the conflict. This is a story I tell high school students with some self-deprecating humor (so much angsty material!), but at the time that boy mattered more than anything.
Although teachers usually liked me -- quiet, conscientious, a copious taker of notes -- Ms. Lamar was the one who let me know that she saw me. We talked for a few minutes in the hallway. I cried; she listened and offered sympathy. It won’t always be like this, she assured me. When class resumed, I felt better -- not about the boy, but about being heard.
My high school years occurred in a very different time. If a student knocked at the door of the teachers’ lounge, a resentful adult would appear in a slice of doorway, puffs of cigarette smoke wafting into the hall. “What is it?” the teacher would say tersely. On the south side of the school, there was a sloping student parking area where you couldn’t see inside the cars through the interior fog (“Freak Hill,” it was called). Freebird… Black and white students played on teams and served in student government together, but interracial dating was rare. Gay students, what? My American History teacher, a middle-aged woman with a perfect, shoulder-length flip, picked fights with our textbook’s prejudicial treatment of the south. Did she actually use the term “war of northern aggression”? Seniors had to pass a one-semester Americanism v. Communism class to graduate (no Bolsheviks in our bathrooms, thank you). I sat near the same people all four years in college prep track classes because alphabetical order was the obvious choice. Robin Montgomery, who often sat in front of or behind me depending on the class, maintained a 25-inch Levi waist size all four years.
Although most administrators and teachers at Tallahassee’s Leon High School were kind, intelligent, and devoted, trauma-informed teaching would not have taken root in that red clay soil. If the houses on dirt roads that branched off Henderson Road really did not have central air and heating or other utilities, well, that’s just the way it was. Some people are poor. When baccalaureate was canceled my senior year due to complaints about holding a religious ceremony on school property, a civil war of words erupted; the church/state divide might’ve been legal but it wasn’t tradition. The school’s service clubs -- Key, Anchor, etc -- operated like fraternities and sororities with legacy members; many students who went on to public office started off in those exclusive groups. Life isn’t fair, is it? Deal with it, and hold your head high. We were a pride of lions.
My high school was about the size of the one where I now teach in Wichita. My students don’t sit alphabetically in rows of desks, nor do the students in most of the ELA classrooms nearby. While ELA teachers still teach dead white male writers, the offerings are far more diverse these days. In addition, teachers are trained to know what ACES are and how they impact student performance, to recognize suicide warnings, to practice trauma-informed responses to student behavior. Individual relationships with students are essential because, without these connections, we can miss a key aspect of a student’s motivation. If you teach the material but don’t reach the students, what was accomplished? We are in this together and we care about our school community. Pride, Respect, Excellence. We are a sleuth of Grizzlies.
When Ms. Lamar called me into the hallway that day, I already knew that she cared about me as a student. We had talked about my college choices. I’d stayed after class, questioning her about comments on my papers. She had supported me when I dropped typing to take Southern Lit with her senior year (the typing teacher was apoplectic -- a girl should have secretarial skills! What if I had children and my husband died and I had to support my family? I would need that second semester of typing). After my freshman year of college, I went back to see Ms. Lamar and she was eager to hear how I liked college, how my English professor had interpreted Faulkner. She had been sure I would enjoy college more than high school, and she was right.
What I can take from all this as a teacher is obvious. Any teacher reading this knows how much those moments of recognition mean when a teenager just needs someone to look beyond the curriculum and see their face. My appreciation of Ms. Lamar is a call to be compassionate when students are struggling with life circumstances. Many of my students have far more challenging personal issues than a prom date. Students face serious mental health concerns, either their own or within their families. They might work a ridiculous number of hours at a low-paying job, watch younger siblings, bounce between households without a sense of stability, witness or participate in dangerous, risky behaviors. Schoolwork can be a lost concern when basic needs such as shelter and safety take precedence. Too, a boy or a girl who broke your heart is still cause for distress, as is the disappointing grade, the lunch spent alone in the Commons, the new glasses that no one noticed, the crap day that just keeps going. A moment of kind concern isn’t reserved for traumatic instances.
And now, throw in a pandemic.
During the COVID-19 crisis, reaching out to students has lacked the face-to-face barometer, the reward of seeing a teen smile or relax when they realize you just want to know how they are. In a professional learning session, a colleague suggested using Remind for short check-ins with students of concern, and I’ve found that to be a simple way to say “hey, how are you? Heard you’re working a lot of hours these days” or in some way let them know they are on my mind. Even students who do not end up turning in work will respond to a short personal inquiry. This isn’t, after all, about the student’s grade.
So, I don’t wield a water gun or teach Faulkner, but I do still rely on the example Ms. Sara Lamar set. I see you. You matter to me. Are you okay?
About the Author
Lizanne Minerva is an ELA teacher at Northwest High School in Wichita, KS. A native of North Florida, she is a Florida State University graduate.
By Angie Powers
My grandmother was hard and sturdy. She taught me that being a woman, a human even, meant “sucking it up.” Life doesn’t care so much about your feelings; it will simply go on. She knew, with great certainty, that her job was to raise me as a strong woman.
Enter Kay Bushman Haas.
I knew, without really knowing, that Mrs. Bushman was a great teacher within moments of walking into her class as an introverted freshman. I didn’t know the accolades she had earned; I just knew that teaching came out of her pores. She effused her passion for language at the beginning of every class with our Daily Oral Language work--not something she mindlessly pulled from a book, oh no! She crafted our language workouts from student writing. She made nouns and verbs and adjectives and adverbs titalating. She invited us into Verona, Italy; Tuscumbia, Alabama; and even London, Oceania. I immersed myself in their pages, emerging after the last somehow expanded. I walked into her classroom knowing I wanted to be a teacher; I walked out knowing I wanted to be an English/Language Arts teacher like her.
Lucky for me, Mrs. Bushman taught me again in Creative Writing sophomore year. I had been hoarding poems for years, so this was a class I desperately wanted to take. But, like most budding writers, I was terrified of sharing my writing. There was no way I was going to take that risk... well, until I learned she was the teacher.
She taught me that my writing doesn’t have to be “good” or “bad,” but that writing is about those moments. Those punch-you-in-the-gut, jump-off-the-page moments. They can be fleeting, even buried. She shared those moments out of our writing anonymously in front of the class, finding the pearls in the mollusks of teenage angst, lonely sci-fi, and saccharine romance. I would sit--really perch--on the edge of my plastic seat, waiting to see if one of my moments would come out of her mouth. Sometimes, they did; sometimes, they didn’t. But that didn’t really matter because once she handed me my pages, they would be cluttered with plus signs, signifying that she saw every moment I offered. I would spend hours re-reading every moment she marked, trying to figure out what made that moment--or even me--worthy.
I knew Mrs. Bushman was a strong woman. She was like my grandmother in that sense. They both weren’t tongue-holders; some might have even called them pushy, or worse. They both walked with a confidence that lacked arrogance to the discerning eye. So imagine my surprise when Mrs. Bushman smashed my grandmother’s definition of strength before my very eyes.
We spent a lot of time in Creative Writing journaling. I looked forward to the quiet time to write, finding asylum from the din of adolescence in the silence. I can’t remember if Mrs. Bushman shared her poem after one of our daily journaling sessions--or if it was something she shared at another time--but I remember her sharing. The poem was about loss. As she read, I constructed plus signs in my head for each of her moments. I was in awe that she shared so fiercely, reading her own words in front of a group of people--albeit a motley crew of drama-prone teens. And then it happened. Her voice cracked. I looked around, uncomfortable to stare directly at raw emotion. She wiped tears from her face. And then we continued class. Nobody knew that she had just incinerated my idea of strength.
Over 25 years later, the yin and yang of strength and vulnerability still give me pause. I am more practiced at my grandmother’s strength: it carried me through long days as a teen mom and long nights of studying. It helped me through my first year of teaching while pregnant, strangely enough in the same teaching position that Mrs. Bushman left the year before. That kind of strength was about risk aversion: put your nose down, work hard, and never EVER let them see you sweat. But the vulnerable strength of Mrs. Bushman is the polar opposite of my grandmother’s and all about risk-taking. Like writing this.
Those of us teaching today have the same power as Mrs. Bushman, who I now call my dear friend, Kay. Whether we teach from a classroom or a cart or our own homes, our lessons may begin with standards but they don’t end there. Our students learn a lot from us--not only from what we say but what we choose to not say. Kay had the strength to show her vulnerability. She took a risk, not knowing the impact on me--or my classmates. Her tears revealed her hurt; the crack of her voice told me that she knew she was going to be okay. Isn’t that what our students need to know right now? We all may hurt in different ways, but we can be okay.
Social-emotional learning and resilience are hot topics in education, but master teachers of the past have grappled with them for centuries. Today, our challenge is to meet students’ needs in these areas during a time of uncertainty and amplified inequity. The weight of this challenge, no doubt, will require both my grandmother’s and Mrs. Bushman’s strengths. I’m putting my nose down, embracing my grandmother’s grit, by studying what it means to be an “emotion scientist” with Permission to Feel by Marc Brackett, Ph.D. However, I’m also living the truth of vulnerability.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve felt the annoying sting of tears in my eyes for all of the things I’m missing at the end of my tumultuous twentieth year of teaching: my students, my colleagues, my family. Sometimes I’m angry. I’m furious that some of my students are ashamed of being who they are because of the anti-Asian sentiment COVID-19, and some of our nation’s leaders, have stoked. I resent the fact that some of my students need food, internet, or even a hug, and I cannot provide them all. But instead of feeling all of these things alone in my house, I choose to share them--even though you can’t hear the crack in my voice. I choose to share them because of a teacher--now friend--named Kay. And I know that, in the end, we can be okay.
About the Author
Angie Powers is the mother of two strong humans. She's finishing her 20th year of teaching from her kitchen table in Olathe, KS. Her passion for advocacy has provided her many professional opportunities: NEA Board of Directors, Welcoming Schools facilitator, 2018 KTOY Team, Greater Kansas City Writing Project Fellowship, and National Board Certification. You can follow her on Twitter at @angsuperpowers
By Amanda Little
Robert Frost is quoted as saying “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found its words.”
It is cryptic quotations like this one that often make people run from poetry screaming. While I identify with Frost’s quip as an amateur poet and an aesthete myself (full confession, I had to look that word up), I can understand why poetry has a tendency to scare off students and teachers alike. One of my main goals, however, is to bring a love of poetry back to my students. Or at least make it so they don’t groan in anguish any time someone utters the word.
I have used various methods in the classroom to try and make poetry more accessible for my students. Aside from reading a poem a day out of the critically acclaimed Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, I try to disarm the word daily. When I start talking about poetry in depth, which is usually sometime around National Poetry Month, I often hear one of two things: “Really?! Ugh!” or crickets chirping louder than those found on a pastoral night in one of our beloved Kansas prairies.
But I then ask my students if they enjoy music. Usually, most hands go up or heads nod in assent.
Then I drop the bomb.
Music. is. poetry. (Wait, whaaah???) I remind my juniors of our Native American Literature unit, of the fact that the oral traditions of most cultures were often first sung around a fire, set to a rhythm to bring it to life and to help them remember their sacred legends.
I explain to them that the iambic foot is so widely used in poetry because it mimics our own heartbeats. duh-DUM, duh-DUM, duh-DUM. Poetry is a part of our very being and body.
I assure them that most poets aren’t trying to hide a “special” or “deeper” meaning in the words of their poems. That readers connect with some poems and poets more than others. That to a certain degree, a reader gets to connect with each poem in their own unique way.
And I comfort them with the knowledge that all a poem is is an astute observation about a microscopic slice of life.
Finally, after we’ve taken the fear out of poetry, I introduce them to poet Taylor Mali’s poetry game: Metaphor Dice. Because many teenagers either lack the words or the experiences to put life into lyrics (well, most of us adults do, too, for that matter), Mali, former-teacher/SLAM poet/advocate himself, invented a game to help us identify and connect words with life. He has a starter set and the new “Erudite Expansion” pack.
I stumbled across these as I was fan-girling and stalking Mali’s Facebook page—Mali has been a favorite of mine since discovering him in college. (And I continue to follow him. #Noregrets!) You might know Mali for his poem “What Teachers Make” found in his collection, What Learning Leaves.
I usually use Mali’s dice as a brain-storming activity for our summative poetry project in which the students must create their own “book” of poetry (usually between 6 and 9 poems depending on the time we have). I give them choices, examples, and mini assignments to help them build different styles of poetry like haiku, concrete poems, acrostic theme poems, and traditional forms (like sonnets). I also let them explore mimic poetry, using an excerpt of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” as the mentor text. I’ve even let them explore slam poetry after viewing a student edition of SlamNation (a 1998 documentary by Paul Devlin). They have quite a bit of freedom balanced with guidance to choose forms and create the poems that will express themselves best. My goal is to help them find their own way to voice their own experiences.
And this is where Mali’s dice come in.
The way the dice work is simple. In the original edition, there are 12 dice, 4 red (subjects), 4 white (adjectives), and 4 blue (objects). When you roll the dice, you see which subject, adjective, and object make a metaphor that you can identify with.
Sometimes you get remarkably insightful ones: Home is a burning kiss.
Other times you get hilarious ones: Your mother is a desperate party clown.
And still other times you can mix it up by using negation: The world will never be a bright trophy.
Once you have found the metaphor that strikes you through your heart, you know you have a poem started. Then the work becomes putting into words why that metaphor is true.
Here’s a finished product of my own:
Fronts of the Mind
Regret is an obstinate odyssey
relentlessly pursuing the pursuer
memories attacking blindly--
(but hind-sight is only 20/20
if the view remains unskewed)
escape only possible
for those with the tools
still forfeiting friends
in the chimerical front
that is the mind
Regret is the perilous sojourn
we choose for ourselves
knowing we eventually
come to the fork
in the road
realizing we must take
the path of self-clemency
(the path less traveled)
for the sake of our own survival
for the sake of survival
the sake of sanity
the journey of regret
and only we choose that
If you didn’t notice it, my starting metaphor was regret, obstinate, and odyssey. I related to that in my own thought patterns and redemption to create my poem.
Many of my own students, especially the ones who thought they hated poetry, have found the days that they played with Mali’s dice to be some of the most fun of the year—I have survey answers to prove it! I have limited sets, so my students work in groups, passing the divided sets from one group to another throughout the class time, which only adds to the conversations and fun. I also pair the dice with Rory Story Cubes to help students brainstorm ideas for their own poetry projects.
This year, I am heartbroken that the pandemic is stealing yet another experience from my students, one that this year’s juniors won’t even know they are missing. I can’t wait to get back in my classroom and inspire my unwitting poets next year.
In the meantime, I am focused on writing my own poetry. I’ve never been published before—at least not professionally, so I am looking forward to submitting some work and getting valuable feedback from publishers. I find poetry so cathartic, and I hope to inspire that feeling in my students as well.
I encourage you as teachers to let your students play with words. We often times are so focused on the analysis and scholarly study of poetry, that it’s easy to suck the joy out of it. And I postulate that poetry should bring joy, both to the reader and the poet.
If you are interested in exploring Metaphor Dice for your own classroom, you can find them here or on Amazon. If you would like to know more about my own poetry project, please feel free to contact me via email. I will happily share my resources.
About the Author
Amanda Little is a mother of two and a native Salinan who has been teaching ELA and Public Speaking to juniors and seniors at Ell-Saline MS/HS for the last 7 years. She earned her bachelor's degree from Kansas Wesleyan University and recently earned her masters through the summer MA program at Fort Hays State University, graduating Phi Kappa Phi. When she isn't at school serving her students, she is serving through the church, scrolling Facebook far too much, reading books that are past due from the library, and writing poetry. Her first publication was published in the local newspaper when she was in kindergarten, a short poem about Christmas trees. You can contact her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Matthew Friedrichs
As a second-year ELA teacher, there are so many things that I don’t know. One thing, however, that seemed intuitive when I entered the classroom after nearly 20 years as an editor, was the tie between images and words. Great readers effortlessly form mental images as they dance through the words on the page. Unfortunately, many of my eighth-graders, and even some seniors, struggle with that mental animation. At the same time, my photography students in grades nine through 12, often scuffle when asked to translate visual information into words. As a result, I’ve worked hard with both groups to bridge those communication gaps by juxtaposing and connecting visual and written artworks.
During the fall 2019 KATE conference, Deborah Eades (@DeborahEades10) presented about using portraiture in the ELA classroom. I could only shake my head up and down in violent yeses as she provided a framework for many of the methods I have tried. Eades shared what she had learned during a Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery training on the topic of stimulating nuanced student conversations guided by pictures.
One example of a portrait Eades shared that would spark great conversation in a classroom is Roger Shimomura’s, Shimomura Crossing the Delaware. The painting references the famous image of General George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Close study could be paired with art and/or history classes. The image mixes traditional Japanese styles with pop art and more realistic depictions, and also draws upon Shimomura’s personal history of being imprisoned along with other Japanese-Americans during World War II. Including this painting in my teaching excited me, for while it offers strong, cross-curricular ties, it also offers a deep Kansas connection.
Work by Shimomura is on display throughout the state. I am a firm believer that standing in front of art often is more transcendent than looking at an online or print image. Thus, Shimomura, who taught at the University of Kansas from 1969 to 2004, is a great painter for close study and first-hand lessons. These nearby museums hold his works:
In early November, my photography class encountered a Shimomura painting during a visit to the Beach Museum. Martin Cheng: Painter and Fisherman, acrylic on canvas from 1991, fascinated them. They were drawn to the juxtaposition of fishing items, odd text (1+1=3), painting paraphernalia, and the subject’s garb (underwear instead of the mawashi a sumo would wear). Eighth-graders would undoubtedly find it weird, too, a perfect hook for the strangeness they often describe to me in their bewilderment when they read poetry. While I haven’t tried pairing this image in the classroom, the possibilities are infinite. Numbers by Mary Cornish does the math: “I like the domesticity of addition -- / add two cups of milk and stir.” Kansas poet Kathleen Johnson redraws that state connection and highlights the role of sight. “Nothing prepared me for evenings blue as topaz … There’s nothing not stained with color,” she writes in Summer. Finally, since there isn’t space to muse on every line in the canon, Phillis Levin’s Cloud Fishing describes the curiosity that is at the heart of what I teach. “Take care or you’ll catch yourself.”
Physical field trips with our students are regrettably shut down right now. However, we do still have the ability to explore both art and poetry. Some of the most famous art museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, could serve as a graduate program in history, archaeology, sociology, and even art! for the intrepid and curious person willing to read through the galleries over the period of months necessary to closely scrutinize the tiny portion of its holdings. In addition, artists’ sites such as Shimomura’s, and The Gordon Parks Foundation’s are informative. In this digital age, finding images that contextually pair with readings, literary or historical, has never been easier.
Since we shifted to online courses at Marysville Junior-Senior High School, I have been utilizing these online resources to compose a daily email to my English and photography classes. In addition to the links for assignments and our next video class, I connect excerpts from readings, images, Tweets, Instagram posts, and links. As I would do in class, I layer poems, artworks, and my own experiences within these emails in order to provide students a glimpse of the academic path ahead. I supplement the primary materials with some background, usually chosen from details that I think will catch students’ attention.
On April 7, I provided a link to a painting by David Inshaw (found on Twitter), which is an illustration of this Thomas Hardy poem:
She did not turn
by Thomas Hardy
She did not turn,
But passed foot-faint with averted head
In her gown of green, by the bobbing fern,
Though I leaned over the gate that led
From where we waited with table spread;
But she did not turn:
Why was she near there if love had fled?
She did not turn,
Though the gate was whence I had often sped
In the mists of morning to meet her, and learn
Her heart, when its moving moods I read
As a book—she mine, as she sometimes said;
But she did not turn,
And passed foot-faint with averted head.
Like the speaker in this poem, students are consumed with unvoiced longing for a certain classmate to turn their way, to meet their eyes. Our forced seclusion only heightens desires for close companionship, a common denominator of our humanity in all writing. The evocation of an averted head provided hope, to me, that one or more teenagers in the email audience might read and want to know more about the author and painter. As much as students struggle with poetry, when they find the words, the images that resonate with their personal experiences, they embrace the revelation and work to uncover additional meaning.
To the reader intrigued by this poem -there’s so much more to explore! Hardy studied architecture and clambered through ruins (which I noted for my blue-collar seniors). I read Tess of the D’Ubervilles, one of his most famous novels, in college but retain only an impressionistic memory of bleakness (a bit of self-deprecation that acknowledges for the “but I’m not going to be an English major” students that even their English teacher doesn’t retain all of the material). Although Inshaw paints the Wiltshire Downs near Devizes, England, not the Sunflower State, we as Kansans recognize open, furrowed fields; the expansive, dark sky and rainbow combination of thunderstorms; the grassy lane with tracks worn by wheels; and a slightly leaning building. Is the painter as pessimistic or sad as the writer? These are symbols, Inshaw’s site says, “not simply of despair, but also of a hope based on a belief in the depth and permanence of all loving human relationships.”
Once we return to our classrooms and are cleared for trips, I encourage you to take your students to local museums. Katherine Schlageck and the staff at the Beach Museum work well with educational groups. If artwork you want to see isn’t currently on exhibit, they might be able to pull it from storage. They arranged for us to view photos by Parks -- another Kansas cultural and historical touchstone -- for a visit we made in spring 2019.
In the interminable interim, consider what inspires you and your students. Then follow a path similar to the one I walked from Inshaw to Hardy. Search for art that matches your favorite literature and vice versa. What connections do you make? Does an Emily Dickinson poem sprout life when watered with Victorian imagery? Does a Parks photo add depth and nuance to the study of Muhammad Ali? Are there other Kansas artists and writers who foment revolution in your thoughts? I’d love to see the tendrils that intertwine your teaching. Share below your favorite poetry and artistic combinations, the lessons we can learn from them, and what makes them so powerful to you and your students.
About the Author
Matthew Friedrichs teaches eighth-grade ELA, senior English and photography at Marysville Junior-Senior High School. He is a 1995 and 2000 KU graduate who is currently a transition- to- teaching graduate student at FHSU. Before teaching, Matthew worked as an editor at ESPN.com and newspapers for almost 20 years.
By Tim Wilkins
In Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry,” the poem’s speaker depicts what often occurs with poetry in American high schools. The poem, written in 1988, begins by sharing what most writers would prefer their readers to do with their poems. Collins’ speaker wants readers to “hold it up to the light,” “walk inside,” “feel the walls for a light switch,” and—most recreationally—“waterski across the surface of a poem.” These breezy, informal acts invite the reader to unwind with a poem. Loosen up, he seems to say. The students, however, take a different approach:
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
I find that little has changed in our classrooms with regard to poetry since these words were penned. In my experience, students might approach poetry with scorn or reluctance or great intrigue; whatever their interest level though, at some point most will don their investigator caps and begin to question the poem for its “deeper meaning.” I can almost see the dangling yellow bulb and bare steel table of their mind’s interrogation room.
Our students’ recognition that poetry offers a depth that most of our world passes over is certainly right. But if we lead them to believe that this is all poetry has to offer, then we withhold from them a world of enjoyment. I want to suggest that we as educators begin to present poetry as a pause, a pleasure, and a practice in creativity. In the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, we need all three of these in our lives. What a perfect time to rediscover the wonder of poetry!
Poetry as a Pause
Three years ago, I decided to start each of my Honors English classes with the reading of a poem. I have maintained this practice in my classroom to this day, and it has become a great way to come together as a group before we begin our learning for the day. As a class, we don’t study the poem, examine it for meaning or metaphor, or even look at the text together. I simply read it aloud, then we move on. I call it Paused for a Poem. Poetry, I tell my classes, is really a pause from the unceasing rhythm of life to grab at a moment, at a brief glimpse of life, and relish it. Even the lineation of verse draws the reader back into the poem, pausing after each phrase and returning again to the moment in question.
When I first introduced this practice to my students, I was worried they would find it hokey, childish, or simply a waste of time. And some probably do. But I can’t tell you how many times a student has connected with a particular poem, asked me afterward for more information about a poet, or made sure to remind me if I forgot to read one to begin our day. As I share poems with my students, I can see the tilt of the head or a focusing of their eyes that says, “I’m listening.” Sometimes there is even a whole-class exploratory discussion —a longing almost, to do something more with the poem of the day. Overall, I have been pleasantly surprised by their responses.
When our school was shuttered amid this pandemic, one of the first questions I received from a student was, “Are we still going to have Pause for a Poem?” I have since started @pauseforapoem on Instagram to showcase the title, author, and audio reading of a daily poem for my students and for me. While we are apart, and in need of a pause from the isolation and distance, poetry lets us share together in a moment of verse -- to become, for a few seconds, a community looking out some window other than our own.
Poetry as Pleasure
Anyone who has ever written much poetry knows the work that goes into selecting the words, images, and punctuation that are just right for each situation and turn. Of course we can get out our dictionary of literary terms and lead students through an understanding of meter and scansion and lineation. But does being able to distinguish a trochee from a spondee really add to the students’ experience and understanding of a work? Don’t get me wrong, I love dissecting a poet’s labors as much as the next guy. But if our goal is to get students to pay attention to a poem and appreciate its depth and richness, I think focusing on these details is the wrong approach.
The two areas of focus that I have found to help students grasp and appreciate poetry in the classroom are: 1) working with punctuation and 2) self-selecting impactful portions. When trying to emphasize the importance of punctuation in poetry, have students stand in a circle and read a common poem aloud, skipping readers at each punctuation mark. Every comma, dash, or period means a switch in the student reading the work. This exercise helps them grasp enjambment and end-stop, and what each contributes to the meaning and clarity of the language. Another exercise to try is to have students self-select a 2-4 line portion of the poem in question that they “like best.” This gives them the freedom to evaluate the words and images as critics, and then to reflect on why it resonated with them. I always get the most quality feedback and reflection from students using this exercise. They often share that they could personally connect to a description, or the words flowed well together, or they “just liked” the image or language used. That’s the pleasure of poetry.
Poetry as Practice (in creativity)
The last focus or exercise I’ll share is what I refer to as style swap. This exercise gives students an opportunity to try out their own poetic hand, but with reduced intimidation. I select a model poem that uses some structure or language that can be easily re-applied to something the student is interested in or familiar with. For instance, Ted Kooser’s poem “Splitting an Order” is a wonderful model poem for this exercise. In the poem, Kooser uses participle (-ing) verbs to begin phrases that describe the many delicate motions of a person splitting a sandwich with a romantic partner. After we read, annotate, and discuss the poem, I have students select an everyday common action that they are intimately familiar with (putting on make-up, making a Tik-Tok, changing the oil, entering a tree stand, etc.) and describe it using a style similar to Kooser’s litany of participle verbs. The results can be impressive, inspiring,and even revealing, for both you and your students. Engaging in this activity provides students with an opportunity to write their own open-form, expressive poetry, and shows them that poetry can be as innocuous and approachable as one chooses to make it.
Below are some resources for applying the strategies I’ve mentioned. I hope you will turn to poetry in your personal life during this bizarre time of social distancing and voluntary isolation - go waterski across a poem perhaps. I also hope you consider ways to inject poetic experiences into your classroom for your students, to let them explore it without abusing it—teach them how to pause and appreciate a moment for all it has to show us.
Recommended collections of easy readable poems: Good Poems series collected by Garrison Keiller; A Treasury of Poems compiled by Sarah Stuart; Best Loved Poems of the American People collected by Hazel Felleman; Poetry 180 and 180 More, both compiled by Billy Collins.
Recommended poems for style swap exercise:
- Ted Kooser: “Splitting an Order” “So This Is Nebraska” “Abandoned Farmhouse”
- Walt Whitman: “I Hear America Singing”
- Naomi Shihab Nye: “Full Day” “Famous”
- Robert Hayden: “Those Winter Sundays”
- Jane Kenyon: “Coming Home at Twilight in Late Summer”
Comment below any other poems/works you enjoy utilizing in your classrooms!
About the Author
Tim Wilkins teaches English at Abilene (KS) High School. He is currently in his tenth year as a Kansas educator. Besides exploring poetry, he spends his free time reading and being outdoors with his wife and son. Twitter: @considerthis_ Instagram: @pauseforapoem
Message from the Editor
Hello! My name is Michaela Liebst, and I am the editor of the new KATE Blog. I am very excited to see the connection and inspiration that take place here. If you are interested in being published on our blog, or have any comments or questions for me, please email me at email@example.com