Leveraging NCTE’s Position Statements to Support Teachers’ Curricular Inclusion of Sexual and Gender Diversity
By Dr. Katie Cramer
As a teacher educator, I have been preparing future middle and high school English teachers—first in Georgia and now in Kansas—for more than a decade. Since 2007, I have used position statements from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) to support my professional practice, particularly my decision to center sexual and gender diversity in my curriculum.
When NCTE passed the Resolution on Strengthening Teacher Knowledge of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Issues in 2007, I was able to further defend my curricular inclusion of sexual and gender diversity in my English methods class against resistance from a small but vocal minority of my teacher candidates who argued that …
Aside from expressing my dismay at each of these claims (and my absolute horror at the last one)—as well as my relief that I’ve not heard teacher candidates express these views in the past 10 years—I will not belabor them. In fact, I have written about these challenges before, including in Kansas English (Mason & Harrell, 2012) and more recently in a chapter in Incorporating LGBTQ+ Identities in K-12 Curriculum and Policy (Cramer, 2020).
Instead, in this piece, I want to remind all of us that we can be even more powerful in our teaching for social justice when we seek out support from our professional organizations at the state and national levels.
What are position statements?
For the past 50 years, NCTE has published position statements on a number of issues that guide and support our professional practice. According to NCTE, position statements “bring the latest thinking and research together to help define best practices, offer guidance for navigating challenges, and provide an expert voice to back up the thoughtful decisions teachers must make each day” (NCTE Position Statements). They begin as resolutions, crafted and submitted by a group of at least five NCTE members and reviewed by the NCTE Committee on Resolutions before being discussed and voted on at the Annual Convention and later ratified by NCTE membership. NCTE notes the value of both the process and the product on its resolutions page:
“When a resolution is ratified it signals to members and the wider education community that these issues are top concerns. Most resolutions also come with research about and suggested solutions to the problem. As such, a resolution is a tool you can use as an educator to advocate for these issues, knowing you have the backing of a national organization in your stance.” (NCTE Resolutions)
The oldest position statements NCTE lists on its website were discussed and voted on at the NCTE Annual Business Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1970 and include fascinating and still relevant resolutions on …
More recently, NCTE membership has ratified statements that center sexual and gender diversity. During LGBTQ Pride Month, let’s turn our attention to two position statements that support our efforts to recognize and affirm sexual and gender diversity in our schools and curriculums.
Resolution on Strengthening Teacher Knowledge of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Issues (2007)
NCTE’s Resolution on Strengthening Teacher Knowledge of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Issues was ratified in November 2007 at the beginning of my career in teacher education, and it has provided the support I needed to center sexual and gender diversity in my teacher preparation curriculum. It states that “effective teacher preparation programs help teachers understand and meet their professional responsibilities, even when their personal beliefs seem in conflict with concepts of social justice” (NCTE, 2007). It advocates for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ studies in teacher education programs, even going so far as to advocate that accrediting bodies recognize the importance of the study of LGBTQ+ issues in such programs. This resolution/position statement not only strengthened individual faculty members’ rationales for the inclusion of sexual and gender diversity in their coursework, it also led to positive changes within the NCTE. Less than two years later in March 2009, English Journal published its first themed issue on sexual and gender diversity, and more recently, the NCTE formed the LGBTQ Advisory Committee on which I am currently serving my second term.
Statement on Gender and Language (2018)
In 2018, NCTE members ratified the Statement on Gender and Language, which evolved out of NCTE’s previous position statements on gender and language from 1978, 1985, and 2002. The most current iteration of this statement “builds on contemporary understandings of gender that include identities and expressions beyond a woman/man binary” (NCTE, 2018). This 12-page document—one of the longest NCTE position statements I’ve encountered—features a plethora of information to guide teachers’ understanding of gender diversity. It defines gender-expansive terminology; describes research-based recommendations for working with students, colleagues, and the broader professional community; and includes an annotated bibliography of resources to help us “use language to reflect the reality of gender diversity and support gender diverse students” (NCTE, 2018).
Stay Tuned …
This summer, I was invited by the NCTE Presidential Team to collaborate with colleagues across the U.S. to revise three statements on gender and gender diversity. Two of the statements are 25 and 30 years old, respectively, and they need considerable updating as conceptions of gender and sexuality—and the language we use to describe them—have evolved (and continue to evolve). This committee, under the leadership of Dr. Mollie Blackburn, is currently planning to address both sexual and gender diversity in curriculum design in our revisions, and we hope to have one or more statements ready for discussion and vote at the 2020 NCTE Convention, which will take place virtually this year.
Your Next Steps
I invite you to take some time this summer, as you reflect on your curriculum design and prepare for the next academic year, to engage in the following activities:
Alongside our state affiliate the Kansas Association of Teachers of English (KATE), NCTE’s vision is to empower English language arts teachers at all levels to “advance access, power, agency, affiliation, and impact for all learners” (NCTE About Us). NCTE’s position statements are just one of the many ways the organization enacts that vision.
Cramer, K.M. (2020). Addressing sexual and gender diversity in an English education teacher preparation program. In A. Sanders, L. Isbell & K. Dixon (Eds.), Incorporating LGBTQ+ identities in K-12 curriculum and policy (pp. 66-111). IGI Global.
Mason, K. & Harrell, C. (2012). Searching for common ground: Two teachers discuss their support for and concerns about the inclusion of LGBTQ issues in English methods courses.” Kansas English, 95(1), 22-36.
NCTE (n.d.). About us. https://ncte.org/about/
NCTE. (n.d.). Position statements. https://ncte.org/resources/position-statements/
NCTE. (n.d.). Resolutions. https://ncte.org/resources/position-statements/resolutions/
NCTE. (2007, November 30). Resolution on strengthening teacher knowledge of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues.
NCTE. (2018, October 25). Statement on gender and language.
About the Author
Katherine Mason Cramer is a former middle school English teacher and a professor of English Education at Wichita State University. She has been a KATE member since 2010 and an NCTE member since 2000. She serves on the KATE Executive Board, and has served as Editor of Kansas English since 2017. She can be reached at Katie.Cramer@wichita.edu.
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 email@example.com.
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
By April Pameticky
I am a poet and a writer. It’s taken me years to take ownership of those words, in large part because I so often considered those activities somehow frivolous, self-indulgent, or superfluous. I saw them as ‘extra’ to my other roles: teacher, wife, mother.
But I find there is nothing ‘extra’ about engaging the world as a poet first; that it’s the lens by which I measure and experience everything. It’s how I reconcile injustice and how I make sense of the senseless. Poetry is how I find my way home, both spiritually and metaphorically. And it’s often how I reflect on my every day, ordinary life.
While I loosely studied poetry in college, my primary focus had always been fiction. It was only about ten years ago that I started exploring and studying poetry on my own. The irony, of course, is that as an English teacher, didn’t I always love poetry? The answer is No. More often than not, I believed that Poetry [capital P on purpose] was actually somehow lofty and above me. Poetry was for the ascetics and more ‘literary,’ not for me, who read trashy urban fantasy novels all summer long.
But while pregnant with my oldest daughter, I found myself nesting in unexpected ways, drawn to more creative expression, and reading in ways I had never bothered to before. It helped that some friends put more contemporary poetry in my hands.
Today, I take comfort and solace in poems:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Do not go gentle into that good night –Dylan Thomas
Poetry reminds us of perspective, like in the lines from Rae Armantrout’s “Thing:”
We love our cat
for her self
regard is assiduous
for she sits in the small
patch of sun on our rug
and licks her claws
from all angles
and it is far
to "balanced reporting"
though, of course,
it is also
the very same thing.
Poets respond to the world with humanity, giving word to our fear and unrest. Rattle maintains the series Poets Respond, and poet Francesca Bell touches on our collective anxiety in her poem “Love in the Time of Covid-19.” She writes
I held my hands steady
in the water’s reassuring scald,
trying and trying
to save you.
As teachers and educators, we have the opportunity to either spoil poetry for our students, or introduce them to something that will be their companion through life. My concern is that we often want to ‘unlock’ a poem, somehow divine its key, and then we expect our students to do the very same thing. We approach a poem as a Biology I student might a formaldehyde frog. I love how Elizabeth Alexander defines poetry with such concrete detail in “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe:”
Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overhear on the bus.
While poetry is both a craft and an artform, and there are certainly ‘rules’ and ‘conventions’ that apply (as anyone who has ever had to coach students through their own poetry revision process can attest), poems are also this wonderful opportunity to live with ambiguity. To grieve that we are no longer in our classrooms, but to celebrate that we are still teachers, that we can provide comfort and care to our students. So as we enter April and National Poetry Month, I want to encourage my fellow educators to give your students an opportunity to really engage with poems.
The internet can be an amazing resource, even if an educator feels they don’t quite ‘get’ poetry. Take some direction from Dante di Stefano’s award-winning poem “Prompts (for High School Teachers Who Write Poetry” when he says
Write the uncounted hours you spent
fretting about the ones who cursed you out
for keeping order.
For those teaching remotely, the Dear Poet Project 2020 [Poetry.org] is an awesome opportunity to engage directly with poets. Students are encouraged to write letters after viewing the poets’ videos—two of my favorites are participating this year: Joy Harjo and Kwame Dawes. Poets read and discuss their works, and students can then respond.
For educators wanting to embrace their inner poet, here are a couple of prompts to consider, but don’t feel you must limit yourself! We at KATE would love to read what you come up with. I want to encourage you to embrace your inner poet and to not strive so much for perfection or that ‘A’ poem. Instead, respond to where you are each day. There are some prompts provided below, as well as some further resources for inspiration.
English language arts is a vulnerable subject. It involves self-expression, serious reflection, and deep discussion in a way that I did not understand when completing my pre-service teaching program. Entering this profession last year, I was pleasantly surprised by the complex subjects my students were eager to write about. Excited, I grabbed ahold of their engagement. We used it as fuel. My students have written essays, podcasts, and blogs on their home-life struggles, the unbelievable pressures of high school, and the microaggressive acts of racism teachers can not quite catch in the hallways. Together, my students and I learned that writing and talking about these issues creates positive change. I loved giving my students the chance to write about and discuss hard topics in my classroom. On the days when we cleared out the mumbo-jumbo of “normal” class expectations, when we simply talked and wrote about real world issues, it was those days that were special. They were meaningful. My kids asked for more days like them, and I tried to honor that request.
Seaman High School
As a newly minted teacher, I have begun to look back with fresh appreciation for my year of student teaching and the many people who helped shape and inform my ideas about education. Among those who left their impression on me is one student, Phan, who expanded my vision for the English classroom as a safe place to express and reflect. From this student I learned that a teacher can support by listening without judgment even when she or he does not fully understand.
Jenni Bader, Wichita State University
Jenni Bader is a recent Wichita State University College of Education graduate and a first-year English teacher at Winfield High School. She has felt the call to serve through teaching ever since first grade when she read about Anne Sullivan in a chapter book detailing the life of Helen Keller. Although her path to professional teaching has been long and winding, Jenni has found many opportunities to share her care for people and her joy in learning along the way. She looks forward to the possibility of each new day and helping each student realize his or her full potential. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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