Opinion
Reading & Literacy Commentary

How Do I Teach Thee?

By Frances G. Wills — November 21, 2001 7 min read
To enrich the experience of our annual leadership retreat, I asked the administrators to bring a favorite poem to share with the group.

To enrich the experience of our annual leadership retreat, I asked the administrators in our small suburban district near New York City to bring a favorite poem to share with the group. Since several of the administrators were new to the district, I looked on the retreat as a good opportunity for team- building. I asked my colleagues to select poems that inspired, ones that could be gathered together in a packet we could return to during the year, at times when our energies and optimism might be in jeopardy. I also asked them to think about how they might inject poetry into the professional lives of their staffs and the learning environment of students during the year. The idea for this assignment came from a friend’s comment, reminding me that too often the poetry in our lives and work is submerged in routine tasks. I also had read a story in The New York Times about a corporate motivational speaker who uses poetry to inspire business executives. Why not learning executives, I thought.

Rather than bring only my own selection to the group, I wanted each administrator to go through the process of searching out the right poem to share. The search itself, I surmised, would be an opportunity for reflection and learning. We had, after all, been reading a book called The Mosaic of Thought, a beautifully written map of literacy instruction focusing on explicit modeling of thinking skills and building personal connections to literature.

I’ll admit that I had a difficult time selecting just one poem—though not the poet. Emily Dickinson had long been a source of inspiration to me, but there were so many possibilities within her work. Finally, I selected the small poem which begins with the line: “The Child’s faith is new.”

Certain themes pervaded the chosen works: discovering the wellsprings of resilience, maintaining hope, experiencing the child's journey from innocence to experience.

As we schoolpeople read our poems aloud and reflected on the personal and shared meanings of each one, it became clear to us that certain themes pervaded the chosen works: discovering the wellsprings of resilience, maintaining hope, experiencing the child’s journey from innocence to experience. Because this was summer, we were thinking, too, of the school year ahead—of the challenges that would come from our various constituencies, and the joy we would take from being with the children.

This stanza from a high school principal’s selection, Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” captured the theme of resilience:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run—
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more— you’ll be a Man my son!

Though some of the syntax may be anachronistic—and the final phrase perhaps “politically incorrect"—our discussion of the poem focused more on the abiding truths it catalogued, such as these:

If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools ...

For school administrators, who encounter intense resistance to initiatives and countless expectations and demands from every constituency, while also being called on to make what are sometimes unpopular decisions, this ability to master disappointment and disapproval—to rise above the twisted “traps for fools"—is critical to survival.

A middle school principal had chosen a more obscure poem with a similar theme, “Shadows,” by John Clare. Here are a few lines:

And in the painted meadow’s host of flowers
Some lurking weed a poisonous death enshrouds.
...
Amid this checkered life’s disastrous state,
Still Hope lives green amid the desolate;
As Nature, in her happy livery, waves
O’er ancient ruins, palaces, and graves.

The journey to maturity emerged clearly in our interpretation of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken."

The conversations that followed this poem made it clear that principals need to find their own personal strategies to withstand the stings that often accompany their transactions with adults in the schools, so that they can better focus on the “hope” represented by the children in their care.

Hope reappears in another song of despair chosen by the district’s professional- development coordinator, a middle school teacher. The poem is “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), in which the narrator’s plaint that “Nobody sings anymore” is countered by the revelation of his daughter’s prayers:

And then last night, I tiptoed up
To my daughter’s room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there ...
Only she on her knees, peeking into
Her own clasped hands.

This need to find sources of inspiration and hope was a constant theme of our discussions. Most often, the source found in our readings was the child. But the moment of revelation, we found, often was unpredictable, accessible only if one were listening and ready for the discovery.

Some of the poems offered insight into the vulnerability of children and of a child’s dreams. Here is an elementary school principal’s choice, “The Dream Keeper,” by Langston Hughes:

Bring me all of your dreams,
You dreamers,
Bring me all of your
Heart melodies
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.

The same feeling recurs in the Dickinson poem I chose, as the child whose “faith is new” ultimately learns to understand the world as it is:

Grown bye and bye
To hold mistaken
His pretty estimates
Of Prickly Things
He gains the skill
Sorrowful—as certain— Men—to anticipate
Instead of Kings

We shared the weight of responsibility we feel about educating a child, prodding him or her toward maturity and offering realistic appraisals with understanding, while also supporting the child’s optimism about the future.

The journey to maturity emerged clearly in our interpretation of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” selected by the director of pupil personnel services. We focused on the fact that once a decision is made, a path chosen, “way leads on to way” and there is seldom a return to where we were. This notion struck us as an insight into the urgency we feel about our need to offer guidance to young people on decisions that could shape their futures, yet are often made on impulse. We reflected, too, on Frost’s narrator’s satisfaction with taking a unique and “less traveled” path, and strengthened our commitment to fostering an environment that nurtures creativity and values rather than disparages “difference.”

The poem chosen by a new high school assistant principal was challenging, not only in its form, but also in what it said to us. It was taken from Don Marquis’ the lives and times of archy and mehitabel, a book written in 1916 that features a cockroach, archy, who has been a poet in a previous incarnation. To write, archy has to leap headfirst onto the keys of a typewriter, and thus is unable to capitalize letters. The assistant principal’s selection reminded us of the pressures we face in dealing with the forces—passion and dedication—that have brought us to this place. Without passion for our work, we would lose our joy in it. But too much passion, untempered by “sense,” could cause us to lose our way (and perhaps our jobs). In “the lesson of the moth,” the moth explains to archy the reason for his attraction to the light bulb:

we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while

The cockroach archy disapproves, yet ends the poem on a wistful note:

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself

Our reflections on such poems provided a foundation for the set of goals we worked to frame for the coming year. We focused on the kind of environment we wanted to create for students, one that would excite their intellectual curiosity, give them hope for the future, and engage them passionately in their own learning.

As we began this goal-setting task, we were buoyed by two other poems. One, offered shyly by the district’s assistant superintendent for business, was a poem written by his daughter that he had discovered on the home computer. Its youthful exuberance about the beginning of the first high school year was infectious in its optimism.

The other, chosen by the district’s technology director, was the anonymously written poem “The Teacher,” which reminded us of the power of our chosen field and the eternal influence of a teacher. “I am here because this teacher taught me,” is the refrain of the poem’s former student. And the teacher’s poetic revelation? “There is no end to my teachings.”

Frances Wills is the superintendent of the Briarcliff Manor Unified School District in Westchester County, N.Y.

The journey to maturity emerged clearly in our interpretation of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”
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A version of this article appeared in the November 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as How Do I Teach Thee?

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