The Power of Poetry in the Classroom
Here is why the arts, including poetry, matter in high school.
A student I know, writing about herself in the third person, addresses a problematic teacher: "you wait for her to / trip and fall / she is waiting for you to / pull her from the land / of broken light bulbs."
This girl wants to escape. The broken light bulbs might mean old ideas, or fears, some sort of dead end. And to offer a hand, to assist, is a teacher's "job," although he can't know exactly what is going on with her.
This girl, an original and powerful writer, so impressed me that I arranged a meeting for her with a prominent poet, who later told me that she didn't think the girl was actually much interested in poetry—and went on to mention a most practical profession, a helping profession, that my student was interested in. It's complicated, this business of offering a hand.
An 8th grader who had never been challenged writes about finding herself among kids who seem so much smarter than she is. Then she learns that the other students work! In her old school, she never had to "do work." She was a star, and now her legs feel cut off. Her classmates are running, and she is standing still. It's not supposed to be this way.
But this 8th grader's writing, her look back at 7th grade, is so clear and honest, and she is already such a writer that you can see she might well begin to put in effort to allow a new, stronger self to emerge. Certainly she is trying to face up to her challenges, and has the skills to do so, but she does not know if she has the courage to take the risk. For this kid, a teacher thinks, becoming is bumping up against something. She is not saying "Pull me up"; she is saying "I suddenly see where I am." She is afraid she won't rise to the moment. She is self-aware.
Next consider the first draft of a poem in which a boy goes out at 3 a.m. and sees the local Italian kids (the poet is Chinese-American) playing a game.
The student watches as a boy stands in the street, another kid drives his car straight at him, and the standee has to jump, landing on the hood of the car, or get mowed down. Our senior passes, enters an all-night deli, buys three cans of Red Bull, and heads home to face the onrushing deadline of his term paper.
Education Week Commentary asked leading educators and advocates to discuss the arts in K-12 education. Some of the contributors assert that the arts are a bridge between traditional academic subjects and the creative skills necessary to thrive in a global, 21st-century economy. Others argue for the critical part the arts play in child development.
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The boy says, in conference, "I have no imagination." I say: "Boys, nerve, car; you, caffeine, term paper." Boy says: "Oh shit, that's a poem, isn't it?" I say, "It could be."
The boy is struggling with belief. The school year is half over. He has written a lot and read a lot. He has grasped how images carry poems. He would like to speak. "My mom says I need to focus on science," he says. He does not finish the poem.
Another boy writes a perfect poem about his mom. It is all in images. At a parent-teacher conference, the mom says, yes, she saw it; he left it on his desk. (She tears up.)
The kid is a natural-born poet and has his own band, but he is not sure he wants to do much "school" work. He hands in poems about his neighborhood as a final project. The project is good. It has little drawings of the subway, sea gulls, and row houses. Other kids hand in a stapled pack of poems; this student, wearing his mask of coolness and detachment, hands in a book. The teacher is happy. Is the boy happy? Maybe. One thing a teacher is pretty sure of is that the voice in that chapbook is a glimpse of what this boy is at his best, a green shoot of what he might become. Then graduation happens.
The point here is not that each kid is "trying to be a writer" and that we are, together, finding that out. The point is that each kid is aware, in their writing, of a gap between who they are now and what they might do.
Think for a moment of these four examples: help me from the world of broken light bulbs; hear that I'm afraid I'll never try to excel; I can see that school is about to run me over; and finally, I can make poems, but I have my reputation to think about. The teacher knows that all four see something new about themselves. Hopefully, they also see that they are not alone. Their stories are messy, open, and unresolved.
From where the teacher stands, there is the students' sense of who they are; and there is the teacher's sense of the life in each: of moving ahead versus the past, of independence versus passivity. Here is a fifth story.
The priest who saved a boy from terror listened.
I can guess now he was angry about "hell"
and a boy who believed all he was told.
Father stood in his black cassock like a magician
plucking a quarter from behind a kid's ear,
gently, he said, "Listen. To me. You
can do nothing worthy of hell, yours is
a scrupulous conscience." In 1954
in Chicago, I was freed to fall asleep and hope
to wake and find me still on earth, a boy.
As an adult, I faced a kid who sat
in my classroom staring at his teacher,
and could not speak at all. Opened,
his mouth made syllables, squeaks
other kids learned to recognize.
But if his hell was a tongue melted
in some furnace he'd survived, he did
write two stories. "You could be good at this,"
I told him, having no cassock, Roman collar,
or magic coin to offer, just words with which
the thing can be offered which
is then accepted or refused and
so it must have been.
"Only Words" is my poem, and I was the terrified boy. I was cared for. Many years later, I taught the silenced boy.
What the two boys have in common is powerful. The poem tries to show that our childhoods emerge in our teaching, that we bring our lives to bear on our work, that the natural authority of a priest in long-ago Chicago lives on.
A boy met a wise priest. That boy, as a man, meets a boy whose life has silenced him. Did that man help this silent boy? The story of this poem ends in uncertainty. It is where teaching often ends. It is not where poetry ends.
The two arts merge. Each informs the other. The teacher encounters kids through their poetry; the teacher's own poetry makes forms from that encounter. What he knows about the life of a teacher, his perceptions, become poems; what he does in this life among kids is the art of teaching. This is the work a school is to engage in, living in "the land of broken light bulbs." With it, learning and risk-taking can proceed. Without it, we can prepare for tests.
Vol. 34, Issue 13, Pages 22-23Published in Print: December 3, 2014, as A Teacher, Students, and Poetry in Motion