Let’s Work Together to Nurture Poetry Readers

On July 10, the New York Times published an article by Matthew Zapruder entitled, “Understanding Poetry is More Straightforward Than You Think” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/10/books/review/understanding-poetry-is-more-straightforward-than-you-think.html?smid=fb-share&_r=1), which led Johannes Göransson to respond to some of Zapruder’s claims, mainly to the idea that poems need to be “straightforward.” While some have indicated that Göransson’s response may be based on a misunderstanding (which I believe it is), he makes some good points about the power of “strange” poems.

However, the real problem in this exchange is that it needs to be refocused. Göransson writes (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2017/07/to-vibrebrate-in-defense-of-strangeness):

“It is true, as Zapruder notes, that often in school students are taught that poems are merely messages to interpret, to find a “meaning,” and that this reduces our enjoyment of poetry. This is a good insight. However, Zapruder’s solution to the issue is not to open poetry up to different approaches, but instead to limit what poetry is to a very narrow definition: It’s the “literal,” a reductive idea of ‘everyday language.’”

And Zapruder responds (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2017/07/matthew-zapruder-responds):

“Really what I was talking about was the initial encounter with a poem, how vital it is, when reading or writing, to be almost (but not quite!) sacred in relation to the words that appear on the page, and that this attitude of attention is the first step toward all the exciting, troubling, contradictory, gorgeous mysteries of poetry.”

The “different approaches” in Göransson’s critique and the “attitude of attention” in Zapruder’s response are essentially the same thing. Those of us invested in poetry want to help students develop their abilities to notice/pay attention to what makes poetry, well, poetry. There are a myriad of ways to make this happen. However, professors and poets and teachers shouldn’t be practicing them in isolation.

What is sorely needed is a focused and collaborative effort by poets and academics and educators at all levels to not simply engage students with poetry but to teach them what the genre is, what it can do (basically, anything any other genre can do), and how to approach it so they can see it for themselves. It’s true that poems can be riddles, but they don’t have to be. Poems can be stories, but they don’t have to be. Poems can be wildly obscure, or they can be very straightforward. Poetry is big enough for all of these and more. Paraphrasing Lewis Turco in The Book of Forms, poetry can do anything all of the other genres can do. The difference between poetry and the other genres is that the medium of ultimate concern for poetry is the language itself in all of its nuanced aspects. What needs our collaborative intellectual effort is figuring out how all of us can better help people experience the language itself in all of its beautiful unfolding.

How can we engage all stakeholders in a constructive dialogue about what each of us can do or what each one of us is already doing to help more and more people experience the joys of poetry? Maybe we could all start by sharing our best pedagogical practices in the teaching of reading/experiencing poems. I’ll go first. My “I notice” method is one approach (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/lesson/noticing-poetry). It’s not the only one. However, it has worked well for me, and others have adopted it and/or adapted it. To Göransson and Zapruder and anyone else who cares about helping others notice the beauty of poetry — what has worked for you? Let’s discuss so maybe we can help others, too.

Reading Poems = The Mindful Noticing of Language

For some time, I’ve been spreading the word about my Academy of American Poets unit plan on “Noticing Poetry”, which is really more than a unit plan; it’s a shift in pedagogy and methodology, an approach that helps both teachers and students focus on what’s most important in reading poetry — practicing noticing language in all its nuances. That noticing, often slow and thoughtful, is at the core of experiencing poetry.

Reading a poem is a mindful noticing of language. As teachers, we need to make sure we are modeling this. If we, as mindful readers of poems, model how to be present and aware of the language and the way it unfolds, line by line, beginning to end of the poem, students will notice. If we are not comfortable engaging in such reading, our students will most likely not become such readers themselves.

So how does one be mindful when reading a poem? I like to tell my students that they should first approach a poem with an awareness that it may be doing many things simultaneously, and no two poems will have the same combination of language levels. This makes reading poems a challenge, since, to paraphrase Lewis Turco, poems can do everything any other genre can do. We can only control how we engage with the page; we can only get better at noticing what is there. Since all poems are comprised of language, this is our common ground, our starting point for reading any poem.

For more on my method, I hope you’ll check out my unit plan and pedagogy at The Academy of American Poets and my post on “A Letter to Students Before We Start to Read Poems.”

“Noticing Poetry” Unit Plan Published by The Academy of American Poets!

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I’m thrilled to share the news that my unit “Noticing Poetry” has been published by The Academy of American Poets‘ at https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/lesson/noticing-poetry! I hope you find it useful; feel free to share!

While you’re on the site, check out the tremendous resources offered by The Academy of American Poets!

All best,

Scot

The Courage to Live Their Dreams

Here at Shanghai American School, part of our mission statement reads:

Shanghai American School inspires in all students:


上海美国学校激励并培养所有的学生:


[…] the courage to live their dreams

追求梦想的勇气 

In “My Letter to Teachers Who Still Yearn To Be Writers” I wrote that teachers who want to live writing lives need to believe that they can do it. This takes courage. In order for me to inspire my students, it is necessary that I, too, model the “courage to live [my] dreams.” However, I didn’t always have this courage. Where did I get it?

When I was a high school freshman, I was lost in my education. I had fallen out of love with reading and learning and was in a school district with a less-than-challenging curriculum. My parents wanted to reinvigorate my love for learning, but we couldn’t move since my father’s work kept him close to home.  I wanted to go away to school, too, mostly because I wanted a new opportunity to learn and a chance to start over. My parents and I decided that going away to a private school was the solution.

In my sophomore year at my boarding, co-educational private school, I met a young teacher named Rob. Rob was eleven years my senior, and he was a poet and writer. He would go to poetry readings, write poems, publish poems, read poems aloud, and generally support poetry and literature. He had a Masters degree in English, and he had studied with famous poets. He made his life in a community of others who loved literature, too. He had met his wife, Nancy, a teacher, in graduate school at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English, and they married during my first year at the private school. Rob introduced me to the Transcendentalists, whom he loved, and he formed a school club called, “The Writers’ Forum,” which I excitedly joined. I was one of Rob’s very first students, and he was the first real live poet that I’d ever met. He encouraged me to submit my work to literary presses, and he loaned me his copies of The Writer’s Market and The Poet’s Market, reference guides with the contact information on where to submit and how. I often went over to their apartment for coffee, for discussions about literature, or just for a chat. He and Nancy still like to say they had “adopted” me during those three years. Rob nurtured my love for literature, writing, and poetry, and he and Nancy became good friends, and still are to this day. Nice story, eh? But there’s much more.

Only recently did I realize that Rob just being a writer and a teacher wasn’t what impacted me. However, what changed my life was that he shared his “courage to live [his] dreams,” bringing me into his world of working on his craft, attending the Bread Loaf School of English, and publishing his work in newspapers and literary magazines; he was open about his writing life as part of his teaching life and vice versa. He didn’t hide his writing life one bit. To reference my last post, he allowed himself a degree of vulnerability, living authentically as both writer and teacher.

Not many of my classmates went on to write poems and teach. But I did. I kept at it, and I still do. Whenever I doubt my own abilities as a writer and a teacher, I think of Rob, still writing and teaching and inspiring young people. My life has been enriched beyond measure because Rob modeled his own “courage to live [his] dreams” for me.

As a teacher, I know I can make a positive difference in the lives of my students by also living as a writer and sharing my writing life with them. However, this doesn’t apply only to me, or only to teachers who still yearn to be writers; all teachers who have “the courage to live their dreams” and who live them openly are automatically paying it forward to their students. This includes art teachers, science teachers, math teachers, and more. No matter what dreams you pursue, by pursuing them openly you are sharing your courage, inspiring your students to follow their own passions.

So when was the last time as a teacher you modeled your own courage to your students? When was the last time they saw you living your dreams?

“Standing Naked Before the Reader”: Embracing Vulnerability as a High School Teacher & Author

In his essay “What You Get For Good Writing” David Huddle writes,

I feel that in my published work all my weaknesses of character have been made so evident that balding, duck-footed, and pot-bellied, I stand naked before the reader… Difficulties go with making oneself so available. In the process of reckoning with oneself, one can hurt family members and friends, who might not wish to be revealed to the world or who might prefer to reveal themselves in their own terms. Instead of love and admiration, one can win anger and alienation. One can show oneself to be stupid, obtuse, insensitive, ignorant, treacherous, and generally despicable. And one can’t take it back.

This ongoing nakedness, in my opinion, is one reason why some very fine writers get nervous, defensive, and sometimes pretty tricky about discussing their work” (Huddle 206-208).

I am a teacher and an author with two poetry chapbooks, one of which co-won a national poetry prize, but I am continually coming to terms with these two identities, since where I teach is not in a college but in a high school.

Since I started teaching overseas a year and a half ago (after thirteen years in public schools and  community college in the U.S.), I have tried to let more of my students know that I’m not only their teacher, but I’m also an author, just like the people who visit our campus as “visiting authors.” I go to the same conferences, submit to the same journals, and occasionally publish alongside many of the authors they read. I have sat in the audience as these authors were guest panelists, and they have sat in the audience while I was a guest panelist at the same writing conference. I want my students to read my poems only if and when doing so is relevant, appropriate and an extension of their learning. However, even this complicates my teaching identity; life as both author and teacher is a constant struggle with my own comfort level of vulnerability in the classroom. Yes, for me, being “naked”, living my writing life publicly, means being vulnerable, and making some difficult decisions about how much I share with my students.

Recently, I watched a TED Talk by Brené Brown on vulnerability, and while she never addresses writing, I couldn’t stop thinking about its relationship to my life as both teacher and author:

 

For a long time, I have felt uncomfortable with allowing my students to see more of the writer-me, and I have been concerned that the “nakedness” Huddle describes will decrease my credibility in front of my students. However, research suggests this is not the case:

As teachers, we know that when we make insights about ourselves as writers and readers explicit we often help students see themselves as readers and writers as well. Therefore, it is imperative that we scaffold teacher wisdom, not teacher compliance, and encourage teachers to examine the role of self-as-writer utilizing multiple methods. They should also reflect upon the ways in which this identity maintains, sustains, and at times constrains their instruction, thereby beginning to reach a deeper understanding of writing in the context of their lives and in the schools (Bausch).

How can I be my most authentic writing self not only for my students, but for other faculty members and parents who may want to make writing lives for themselves, too? If I truly want to nurture my students’ passions and help them find the courage to live their dreams, I don’t need to put my own writing aside, leaving writing for myself outside of the classroom. What I need to do is to live my writing life more in the classroom.

This is why this spring I’m taking the first small step — giving myself and others the gift of space and time, opening my classroom to anyone on campus who wants to come in and write. Every Wednesday at lunch is now writing time for me and for others who want to commit. It’s an opportunity to do focused, personal work, free from the distractions of email, schoolwork, etc.

So students, parents, colleagues, or visitors to campus, stop by to work alongside me at lunch in my room, the write place at the write time.

 

Work Cited

Bausch, L. S. “The power of teachers’ writing stories: Exploring multiple layers of reflective inquiry in writing process education”. Journal of Language and Literacy Education [Online], 6(1), University of Georgia, 2010.  20- 39. http://jolle.coe.uga.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Bausch_stories2010.pdf

Brown, Brené. “The Power of Vulnerability.” Brené Brown: The Power of Vulnerability | TED Talk | TED.com, TED, June 2010, http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en. Accessed 19 Feb. 2017.

Huddle, David. “What You Get For Good Writing”. The Writing Habit: Essays. Burlington, VT, University of Vermont, 1991. 197-209.

 

My Letter to Teachers Who Still Yearn to Be Writers

Hi Friends,

On Twitter, I recently reconnected with a teacher-friend from one of the high schools where I taught for several years. One of the two parts of her message indicated that she was still trying to find the time to write. Over the years I’ve encountered many teachers who write or who want to know how it is that I find the time to make a writing life for myself. Part of me stubbornly holds onto the notion that writing is a major part of my life-path, as is teaching. I will never give up on either one. They feel the same, but they just can’t seem to have their writing life grow.

However, it’s tough to do both. There are times when I’ve been more of a teacher than a writer and other times when I’ve been more of a writer than a teacher. I always feel guilty about not writing enough. I tell myself that success in teaching means sacrificing my writing life and success in my writing life means sacrificing my teaching life. Lately, I’ve come to realize that this is all hogwash. This is an illusion of my own making. We make the time for what’s important. I make the time for what’s important — family, friends, teaching, and yes, writing. You do, too.

For years I’ve done both and have been successful in both writing and teaching. I write slowly. I teach daily. I’m in no way a “model” writer who has everything figured out. Are the writing and teaching parts of my life in harmony? No way. Do I strive for that harmony? You bet. For me, writing and teaching have a yin-yang interconnectedness. Neither has ever been easy, but I need them both. If you’re a writer-teacher or a teacher-writer, I bet you feel the same way. So we go onward, right?

If you’re a teacher, and you want to lead a writing life, too, first, know that you can do it. If you want to engage with a community of letters, by all means do it now. The only thing standing in your way is you. It won’t be easy. But here’s some pieces of advice from my own life, in no particular order:

  • Don’t give up on the dream. It’s possible to do both, to write and to teach, even though it may seem impossible at times.
  • If you’re at all serious, join a writing group and hold another teacher who wants to write accountable.
  • Send out your work to magazines that you admire. Know that it’s going to take time, a lot of time.
  • Be patient with yourself and with the work. After all, teaching is an art as well, and it takes time, too. But don’t let it take all of you, since your writer-side needs to be nurtured as well.
  • Engage. Do not think that just because you imagine yourself a writer that you will magically become one in isolation. Sure, it may happen, but what I’ve experienced is that writers, while craving isolation, also find comfort and envy in the company of other writers.
  • Accumulate rejection slips and be proud that you’re doing the work, that you’re trying to enter into a community of letters, wherever you can find one.
  • Accept criticism with grace, and know that the work must stand on its own.
  • Know that there is no one way to become a writer.
  • Go to AWP’s Annual Conference. It’s huge. And amazing. For that matter, just join AWP.
  • If you fancy yourself a poet, go to the West Chester Conference on Form and Narrative. Go to Poetry by the Sea.  Heck, even if you don’t think you’re a poet, go anyway. Both are smaller, more intimate, and run by some of the best teachers and writers I know.
  • Go The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, or a like-minded writing organization elsewhere. Get involved in CityLit Project in Baltimore, Maryland. There are so many resources for you across the country and overseas!
  • Your writing and teaching lives will be enriched by these conferences, I promise. Do your research on reputable conferences, oftentimes associated with the most skilled practitioners of their crafts.
  • For that matter, level of craft and quality go hand-in-hand.
  • Attend readings. If there are no readings where you live, start one.
  • Seek out mentor writers who might be willing to offer you the kind of encouragement and camaraderie you crave.
  • Be kind to writers and buy their books.
  • If you see a writer at an event, and you’ve read his/her work and you really like it. Go tell them. We love that.
  • Go buy David Huddle’s The Writing Habit.
  • Turn off your phone and put it away. Close your emails. Disconnect Wifi. Now.
  • Don’t expect another writer to want to read your work. If they ask, great. Do follow up if another writer is interested in what you’re doing.
  • If you want an M.A., M.F.A., Ph. D., or an advanced degree in writing poems, fiction, nonfiction, etc., know that such degrees may help you teaching life and also provide a gateway for you to enter into many of the worlds described above. However, there are no guarantees. Again, do your homework about choosing the right program so your writing and teaching lives can thrive. I went to The Johns Hopkins University for my M.A. in Writing. I did it part-time because I was teaching. It was amazing.
  • Go the The Frost Place.
  • Go to the Bread Loaf School of English, not necessarily for their Writers’ Conference but also for the M.A. in English program. Trust me. Seven weeks in the summer in the mountain of Vermont where you can focus on academic scholarship, pedagogy, literature, and writing is a wonderful treat. It’s a restorative bubble up in the mountains.
  • Above all else, write. Your work depends on it.

I’ll be adding to this list and linking up to more pages that I’ve mentioned above. For now, I’m logging off. Feel free to share this, especially with that one teacher in your life who doesn’t think that he or she can make a writing life as well. You might just help him or her revise his or her life. Or if you’re a teacher reading this, it’s time to stop making excuses.

Get to your work.

Best,

Scot