Smith details many of the same levels as those found in the “I Notice” method and the “Noticing Poetry” unit plan published on The Academy of American Poets website. She wrote that she tries to “listen to the music,” “look at the images,” look to where the “turn” (of ideas) takes place, and wonder at the “visual shape” of the poem. These align with the four levels of language used by the “I Notice” method and “Noticing Poetry” unit plan — sounds (sonic), images (sensory), ideas (ideational), and visual and shape (typographical).
One of the most powerful ways to explore poetry is in conjunction with other disciplines.
Case in point: I once gave a reading at Johns Hopkins University to a small audience of academics and other guests. At this event, I read my poem, “Entropy”, a poem about the struggle that parents face with small child rearing and the sense of exhaustion and disorder that can emerge at such times. After the event, a man came up to me and introduced himself as a professor or physics, wanting to know if the poem were published anywhere. At that time, it hadn’t been. He told me that he would have liked to explore it further because he found it interesting what I chose to do with language and the allusions I made in the poem (since he happened to be a teacher of physics). I told him that he should look out for the poem, that it was being considered at online journal. A year later, it appeared in Verse Wisconsin, in their issue on poetic form. Here is the link to it, if you’re interested to hear the audio as well.
The physics professor’s interest in poetry reminded me that there are lovers of poetry from all walks of life and from all professions. Over the years I’ve counseled teachers from many subject areas on selecting contemporary poems that they could use in their classes to augment their instruction. I’m always more than happy to do some sleuthing, pairing poems with subject areas/lessons like wines with dinner entrees. Why? Well, when teachers in disciplines other than English expound in front of their students about how the language directly makes use of scientific principles, history, art, etc., students can better notice poetry for what it is and teachers can help increase student engagement in whatever it is that they’re learning. In fact, reading and discussing how one poem’s language relates to a subject area/lesson is not only wonderful introduction to a concept or subject; it can also deepen the understanding about the applicability of that learning across disciplines and help with what we call trans-disciplinary transfer, wherein students can take the knowledge from one area of study and apply it autonomously to another. Basically, poetry’s richness of language nurtures learning across all disciplines.
Poetry as a genre is well-suited to the roles of increasing engagement, deepening understanding, and promoting transfer across all disciplines, since poetry’s concern is the language itself. Where teachers go from using one contemporary poem is up to them. But why not give it a try? I’m happy to play a small part in suggesting contemporary poetry pairings to enhance students’ experiences not only with poetry, but with all subjects areas.
Here’s what I mean: the whole teacher-writer balance for me was more of a myth that I relied on to avoid doing the difficult work of committing myself fully to both teaching and writing. It felt like a constant balancing act. Why? Because giving to myself was difficult, especially when I gave so much of my time and energy to my students. Because living as both a writer and teacher is difficult. But because a thing is difficult is one more reason to do it, right?
So I challenge any teacher-writer to do three things that I did for myself:
Read Matthew Kelly’s book. It deals with personal and professional satisfaction in general,. And then ask yourself two questions:
What will it take for me to feel satisfied in my teaching life?
What will it take for me to feel satisfied in my writing life?
I do this routinely, and it works well for me. There are times when I prioritize my teaching. There are times when i prioritize my writing (from the increased posts you can see that this takes place in the summer…). If you’re interested, you can read this short prose work below, too, just so you know that you’re not alone. If you choose to share it elsewhere, I only ask that you attribute it appropriately. Same goes for this post. If you find it meaningful and beneficial, share away!
Teacher? Writer? A Manifesto
Teacher. Writer. I am both. Sometimes, I am the Writer before I am the Teacher. And sometimes (most times) I am the Teacher before I am the Writer. For me, these two identities don’t always mesh, but they are omnipresent.
I work at leading a life in literary circles. I work at leading a life in teaching circles. I am always going in circles. Recently, I have come to think of this as one circle.
This is a metaphor, a necessary one for me; it is a reconciling of two halves, the creative and the pedagogical. I remind myself: I am always more than one, but always only one.
For this, the tajitu emerges — I cannot be the Teacher without being the Writer; I cannot be the Writer without being the Teacher.
At various times I have tried to convince myself that I am more one than the other. I do not write daily. I teach far more than I write. What kind of a Writer am I then? I look around, lamenting I am not the Writer that so-and-so is, that I do not create work that vaults me to the top of Writer-ly circles and the literary establishment, that I do not create as often as I should. This guilt persists. It keeps me guessing – am I just faking being a Writer?
I have two chapbooks out. One won a national contest. I am proud of each of them. However, in the years since their publication, what have I written? Will I write again?
So I push myself in my Teaching. I infrequently use my own writing as a pedagogical springboard for my students (if I can do it, you can, too – rah, rah, rah!). However, what I am also doing is also shaming myself (my conscience says, “If you call yourself a Writer in front of them, then you better write”). I trick myself into writing, but what comes of it is always inauthentic. I blame the Teacher. If only I had more time to be the Writer I want to be (blah blah blah…).
Confess and reflect. Write it! This is not the Teacher’s fault.
A colleague who himself struggled with his own Teacher and Writer selves once said that I, like him, must make a choice, “Are you a Teacher, or are you a Writer? You need to decide.” Agony. No. I choose otherwise.
Living the question “Am I more of a Writer or more of a Teacher?” an answer — I am both. Teacher-Writer. Writer-Teacher. There is only me, only my path, what I will live with and what will satisfy me, and, as Mary Oliver wrote in “The Summer Day”, what I will do with “my one, wild, precious life.”
Those of you who know me, know that I’ve been a fan of Poetry Out Loud for quite some time. Their site just keeps getting better for students and teachers of poetry. I’d like to highlight one thing in particular:
So I know this may be far away for some of you, but if you’re in the Beijing area this coming weekend, March 17-18, I’ll be participating on two panels at the Beijing Bookworm Bookstore for their 11th Bookworm International Literary Festival. Click on the image above to get details about the Poetry in Education event! Click on the image below to get more information on my reading and discussion of Crafting the Creative Abroad panel! I hope to see you there!
However, I do have one additional piece of advice which is especially important for educators who want to make writing lives: in order to make a writing life, give to yourself first.
What this means is that although we, as educators, have the natural inclination to give so much of ourselves to our students and their parents, to our lessons, to our grading, to our after school activities, etc., we often neglect the necessary work of self-care that is absolutely essential for a writing life. This past fall, I was guilty of this. I gave up writing and exercising and replaced those activities with school work, sacrificing myself to meet with students, to respond to emails, to grade in the morning, and to generally allow myself to be consumed by my service. I became lethargic, enervated, and less than happy for months on end. And I kept giving this way, thinking that I needed to give more and more and more to my work as a teacher. However, I felt that I couldn’t ever give enough and that even though I was working so hard, there was always more to give. I became trapped in a cycle of giving so much to others that I had nothing left to give to myself. Why and how did this happen after over fifteen years in the classroom? Shouldn’t I have known better? How did I lose my way?
At my school, I am fortunate to have many, many students who want to excel. They work hard, and the vast majority genuinely care about their learning and/or their grades. They want to write better and to improve upon their abilities, and as an educator who cares, I want to be there for them to help facilitate their learning and to help them to achieve their dreams. This is my natural tendency, and the habit of many other educators with whom I work. However, some of us are givers who are terrible at giving to ourselves. I’m one of them, and I suspect that I’m not alone.
Enter December and its holiday break, which gave me time for reflection. What I learned is that prioritizing my writing and my exercising does not have to be in conflict with my grading, my lesson-planning, or my meeting with my high achieving students/their parents. Instead, in order to be at my best, I need to “give to myself” first with writing and exercising. Building a healthy and writer-ly life as an educator means that I must make the time for those kinds of work every day. I cannot shortchange myself by not “paying myself” at all. This has required me to adjust how I go about “paying myself.” Here’s my new standard schedule:
I used to exercise in the morning, but recently I’ve discovered that this just won’t work for me anymore. I need more sleep than I used to. Now in the mornings when the house is quiet, when the cats snuggle up next to me, when I can have my cup of coffee, when I have my pen and journal in hand, and when I can think in silence before my family wakes, this is my writing time. Also, I used to immediately check social media in the morning. Now, after deleting those apps from my phone, I make a conscious effort to delay checking in online until I’ve had my writing time. Pen and paper. No computer unless I’m at a revision stage. No WiFi. No phone.
Then it’s off to school work. Even though school is not yet in session for us, this time is still filled with comments and grading.
I tend to crash around late afternoon, so when I’m at my energy low later in the day? Exercise! This shift is necessary for me; however, what it means is that I may have to say “no” to some after contract hours activities in order to take care of my physical well-being. That’s okay.
At home with my family, I get little done in the evenings aside from occasional assessing of student work. I answer emails within twenty-four hours, so I cannot guarantee students will be able to reach me after I leave for the day. When I’m at home, I’m husband and dad first and foremost.
December holiday break can be a rejuvenating time. For me, I realized that writing, teaching, exercising, and spending time with my family are all restorative “must-do” activities for me. All of those things nurture my spirit and help me be better all around as an artist, as a professional educator, as a father and a husband, and as a friend and a colleague. If I’m spending time giving to myself by prioritizing my writing and my exercising, I’m happier, more focused, more energetic, and more able to engage in additional school work, if necessary. I’m also eager to give more, and I feel better about doing so.
So if, like me, you’re an educator who’s feeling bogged down by how much you give, give to yourself first. Engage in what nourishes you, and you’ll be in a better position to positively impact everyone around you. Before you know it, your writing will reflect this, too.
All best in writing, fitness, meditation, reflection, and self-care in 2018 and beyond,