Teachers as Poets in the Classroom

A new kind of poetry teacher

THERE is something truly magical about watching your group of 12-year-olds spend their first 60 minutes with the poet. These are the faces which a while ago registered, ``OK - a poet is coming to our classroom. Fine, we'll give it a try, but please, Ms. H., don't expect miracles. Poetry is fine for a few of us, but most of us are ball players, or mathematicians, or skateboarders, or....'' And within that first short span of time virtually all of these adventurers are tuning in to the images created in their own heads. This immediately leads to experimenting with words which will convey these images to the group of intent listeners. Before the hour is up, every one of them has entered a world previously nonexistent, which they themselves helped to build.

A ball player is envisioning a leopard in some remote jungle, while a skateboarder has conjured up an old Indian woman sitting in the warm sun. Thoughts that they didn't realize they had - corners of their world as yet unexplored, soon appeared on paper before their eyes.

We are beginning the process of waking to observe our own world. And as we begin with tiny objects or moments during those first sessions, we eventually develop an awareness of the larger, more difficult process of touching and defining unnoticed or long-buried thoughts from within.

The poet's lessons give us both specifics and inspiration upon which to build our experiments. We learn to edit and shape our ideas. And we somehow seem to move along too quickly to realize that, while we are writing all this poetry, we are the same people who used to have trouble just thinking of a subject to write about!

As the visits progress, the poetry often deepens, as the poet instructs, ``Don't be smart today. Don't impress me today. Just listen to the voice that speaks to you from inside.The inside. The student you will write student poems. The angry you will write angry poems. Be a deeper, quieter self.''

And something happened at my desk as well, as I began to discover the voice of the poet within my own self. As I joined in the activities with the children and began creating poems which expressed long-lost but welcome feelings and thoughts, the teacher in me began to ask a question. ``How can I make sure my class has this beautiful experience when the poet is not here?''

In order to teach any subject to others we need to feel a certain sense of strength within us. This strength is easy to achieve in areas which involve facts and figures. If the teacher feels a strong, broad background in math or history, this knowledge can be passed on to the students. I guess that's why we've tried to attach ``facts and figures'' to our teaching of poetry. ``Haiku equals this many syllables and that many lines.'' Good. ``Onomatopoeia is the formation of a word which....'' ``Iambic Pentameter equals....'' Correct. We rely on the comfort of the cut-and-dried nature of this type of poetry teaching.

But now with the realization that it can and should be so much more, comes the need to develop my own feeling of strength as a teacher/person who uses this glorious method of communication in her own life. So I begin to take this risk - both with my students and also alone at my own desk. I begin gathering the class around me outside in the warm sunshine as we start to see and feel and explore our own ability to find the real poetry which exists within us. Gradually, the teacher part of me begins to feel that strength coming from a very different direction. So I am working as a new kind of poetry teacher. I'm taking my students along on guided fantasies, and roaming around in their memories with them, and studying old family pictures with them. And together we are all writing, and writing, and experiencing the joy of poetry.

What a lovely treasure to share with children.

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