I’ve decided to post narrative e-mails from my first few years of teaching middle school. It was my way of journaling and reflecting on my craft, student behaviors, and experiences–both good and bad–in the classroom. This is an account of attempting to teach 7th graders poetry from January 2006, my second full year teaching (student names have been changed):
I hate it.
It’s for sissies.
I don’t understand it.
I only like lovey-dovey poems…
We did poetry in fourth grade, that’s all I know.
NO i do not Like poem because i can’t keep a good poem going so that why i can’t stand it! Tim, age 14
The above lines represent initial comments my students wrote about poetry before delving into the genre. In early December, I had just returned from the National Conference for Teachers of English (NCTE) in Pittsburgh. I was lucky to see Nancie Atwell speak, as she is the Michael Jordan of middle school language arts. She said something along the lines of over the years I’ve found that once my kids understand and appreciate poetry, their writing and reading flourishes. By golly, that’s all I needed to hear to begin scheming up a poetry teaching plan. On the flight back from Pittsburgh, I started brainstorming. I folded down the crusty tan seat tray, squished my knees against the seat, and took out a notepad and pencil.
As I finish up a poetry unit, I can’t say it has been a rousing success for all students. Some still believe poetry is exclusively for fruitcakes; others have trouble with anything resembling abstract or creative thought. But some of the most unlikely students have inspired me after, I suppose, I inspired them to open up a little bit. Encouraging students to write poetry began with a poem by George Ella Lyon, a native Kentuckian. It’s called “Where I’m From” and contains lines representing various facets of one’s life, like faith, family, common phrases, etc. This is the first stanza of the poem:
I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.
Most students have enjoyed writing Where I’m From poems, especially struggling writers who gain confidence and exude pride while penning honest images about their lives. Steel-toed boot kickin’ Jake and Tim are two of my struggling readers and writers.
I wish I could show you the jumbled mess most of Jake’s writing is. His handwriting looks like a cross of Russian and Arabic. Uhhhhh, Jake, could you read that to me? I have no idea what it says. He is representative of a group of boys who view literary exploits as feminine. Like Jake, Tim—whose verbatim quote at the top of the e-mail is both alarming and poignant—is functioning at a literacy level way below that of his peers.
Tim—100% deer hunting, four-wheeling, tobacco-spitting—has approached me several times about his Where I’m From poem. “I got it out during science class and re-wrote it,” he mentioned a few weeks ago. “Can I bring it home to show my dad?”
I honestly believe this was the first time he’s ever been proud of something he wrote at school, besides crude notes he passes to friends. Jake also got excited over his rough draft.
“I showed my family the poem,” Jake mumbled one day, seemingly embarrassed with that very act of sharing. “They all really liked it, but my dad said poetry is gay.”
“It’s not,” I responded. “Let’s write him a poem about 4-wheeling and guns and see if he says the same thing.” I have yet to help his with this poem, but it could happen. The rest of his family thought the poem was sweet.
I’ll admit some students can compose a poem that belies their actual shaky grasp of the written word when it comes to longer, more complex projects. But the mere fact that this type of student is excited about his writing—a feeling I suspect has few and far between—is wonderful.
So that’s the news from East Middle School in Shelbyville, Kentucky. Hard work but this type of student response could keep my motor running all day. I’ve copied Jake’s rough draft below (I helped him with spellcheck).
I’m from Longview, Texas
From the Texas woodlands
Full of spruces and pines.
I’m from Laura and Chris,
From a family of five.
I’m from sweaty shoulder pads,
From chicken and mashed taters.
I’m from I’m telling mom
And from a dog named Fletch
With his blue eye that could
Light up a room.
I’m from a cranky old man
I call grandpa.
I’m from a green shingled
Dog house in my backyard.
From a long line of athletes
Once was and never was…