Poetry Class

Poetry Class

Oh what joy! 🐦

My poetry class (for 11th and 12th graders at my amazing little public high school) has started for this semester, and I am loving it. I designed the course last year with a small group of incredible students who gamely jumped into writing their own poetry and followed me down the path of reading poetry. This took guts — most of them weren’t already poets, and many had those stubborn, thorny views of poetry as a whole: it’s old, boring, and hard. 

Many people think that to get high schoolers to engage with poetry is impossible, but I believe that it is just a matter of getting them to try it. Like when you’re a kid, and your Dad makes a deliciously refined dish — or broccoli– and you are required to take three bites. Three bites, and if you still don’t like it you can go make yourself a PB&J. If I can get kids in the classroom to write three poems and read three poems without realizing that they’re really doing ~POETRY~ then usually they’ll kind of keep going. I know not every kid I teach is going to wholeheartedly embrace poetry, but I think that I can at least open the door.

I said it this way to a junior student who is thinking about taking the course next year: “It is definitely a class that requires creativity and a willingness to just try stuff, even if it doesn’t work. But by the end of it, the goal is that you could read poetry on your own for enjoyment, you have a way of writing poetry that you can always return to,  and you could succeed in a poetry course in college.”

black ball point pen with brown spiral notebook
Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom on Pexels.com

As I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, writing beside my students has been simultaneously the best thing to spur my writing practice forward and the best thing to help my students’ writing growth. So, in concordance with this mission, I’ve started producing more poetry again.

We start with memory poems, inspired by Geraldine Connolly’s The Summer I Was Sixteen, then we move on to lists. I write what I assign the students to write, and ended up with a flawed poem about the sky that reminded me of afternoons waiting for my mom to come home from work, and a few different lists of things I see and notice.

An easy way to write a list poem is to write “I Saw” three times, creating three stanzas, and then fill in the blanks. Here’s what I wrote in class, on the whiteboard.

I saw the fog over Providence this morning on the bridge.

I saw a bird looking suspiciously down at me as I walked out my door.

I saw the steam from coffee brewing.

 

It’s simpler than what I usually write, but there are things I like about it. I like that it includes both fog and steam, which are relatively hard to see. I like the story it suggests about birds — in every house I inhabit I seem to make bird enemies, who yell at me or haunt my windows when I’m waking up, or guard their chicks from me up in the eves. I think it’s funny how birds like to yell at us, expecting us to understand what they mean.

My students are always invited to comment on these in-class rough drafts, and I often ask them to help me revise. In this case, one girl was adamant that I should switch the order. It made no sense, she insisted, that I started with driving to work and then went backwards back into my house. She’s right, in a way — it would be clearer to the reader if I swapped the first and last lines. But I like how the morning chases me back inside, into a quieter space. It’s often how I feel in the mornings, boldly venturing out in the cold to drive to a job I love, yet somewhat inclined to go back, bundle into bed once more, return to the warmth of reflective, quiet morning.

Does the poem mean that to a reader, or just to me? If I expanded it or added more entries to my list of things I saw, would it add to the sense of the poem, or just make it seem cluttered? When I write frequently and within a community, I get to have this thought process. Poetry happens spontaneously most of the time (at least in my life), but the handling of the poems once they have come into existence is where great skill is needed. I’m still learning that, and I LOVE having my students around me to help.

Stay tuned for further adventures in poetry!

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here I am, a work in progress: Writing Identity Letter

A beginning of the school year ritual: each year I write or revise a letter introducing myself to my students, and I require the students to do the same. For AP Lang, we specifically focus on writing identity, and I ask students to tell me who they are as writers. Here’s mine, slightly changed from last year: 

Dear Students,

Before I wanted to be a teacher, I wanted to be a writer. And before that, I was a reader. For me, those three things are rock-paper-scissors; one or the other tends to come out on top and at times cuts or crushes the others, but in a game of three rounds you can bet I’ll throw my best version of each. When I teach writing, I know that my students need to read great writing, and I base a lot of my knowledge about writing in what I have read and loved. But I also think about the practice and process of writing that I go through and what experiences of mine might be helpful to younger people who are learning how to write.  

I always tell my students that “if you write, you’re a writer,” and I truly believe that what grants us the identity of writing is the practice of writing. “Practice” means a few things here: first, it’s just doing it. It’s the repeated and habitual flexing of the muscles we use in our craft. I write almost every day now. Second meaning of “practice”– just like practicing a sport or an instrument or any skill, we get better by trying to do it better, and trying over and over again. So when I say I am a writer, I don’t mean that I have arrived at some point of mastery or gotten a trophy, I mean that I am trying my very best to get better at writing by practicing it over and over.

An individual practice is defined by how we do it. I usually write by hand in a notebook, in pen, with messy cross-outs and arrows to show what order things go in. I like to write in coffeeshops and libraries, on porches or park benches, at any time of the day or night. I stare off into space or make funny faces when I write because thoughts are trickling through my head and forming stubbornly obtuse ice dams that I need to break through. Sometimes I write all at once in a big rush, and the first draft is pretty much how it stays. This happens most often with poetry. But sometimes I will chip away at an idea for an essay over time, keeping a list of fragments, writing the same section over and over again, or having long conversations with friends about my ideas that eventually make it down onto paper.

I have been writing frequently this summer, with a few finished pieces that I’m happy with, and some beginnings of things that I’m excited to continue. Current works in progress include: A poem called “Love Song for Lawrence of Arabia,” a sonnet, “In 50 Years, on Your Porch,” two short stories, one featuring my friend Sam Holliday as a 1940s spymaster, the other about a guy who goes through a breakup and literally learns to fly.  I also want to write something about a horrific jaguar rampage that happened at a New Orleans zoo this summer, but I haven’t yet found a form that captures the drama and horror of the actual event.

Finding time and energy to write can be a challenge, but I have a gift in my career. My job requires a constant engagement with literary texts. I keep up with book news. I follow authors and read their blogs. I get to read amazing student writing which teaches me a lot about individuality and voice; in critiquing students’ work I get to learn about pitfalls of writing and places where things get stuck. During the school year I write comments on papers, notes to other teachers, emails to parents, detailed plans for my lessons, “plots” for the semester, and discussion questions. This year, I am especially lucky to have you, my AP Language and Composition class, because I intend to write alongside you.  

This letter is supposed to be about me, but I’d like to write about you for a second. You are about to embark on a course of study that will be strenuous and at times perilous, but (I hope) ultimately valuable and enjoyable. You will be challenged in this class. You’ll probably fill an entire notebook with writing. You might feel that you’re not good enough. You are. You also need to look around and realize that everyone in the room is going to struggle.

I am aware that this letter may distress you. You may not be used to teachers acknowledging that we’re still learning or that we’re at the starting point of something. You may be wondering if you’ll get through this class alive and how you’ll do on the AP test. I assure you– I am indeed an expert in reading, in analyzing text, in academic writing, and in teaching. I’m a connoisseur of literature and a sommelier of language. I’m critical and crafty and cranky about precision and quality. I am also pretty good at having fun, and being real, and making people feel welcome, so I hope you’ll enjoy that as well. I do think it’s worth acknowledging, though, that writing is so personal and so hard and so magical that no one ever really masters it. No one is ever done learning how to write. Some people are a lot further along the road than you or I, but for every writer, there is always more practice to be done, more strength to uncover.

I so look forward to learning more about you and diving into our study of writing and language.

Sincerely,

Ms. Pace

Thoughts on NIGHT

I’m teaching Night, by Elie Wiesel, in my freshman class. So one of the things I taught the kids this week was the definition of dehumanization–essential for understanding the book. Kids were absolutely *silent* as they learned about how Nazis used dehumanization in concentration camps to make victims feel powerless and to allow perpetrators to avoid guilt. Then we read one page of the book, and when I asked kids to identify two examples of dehumanization, 60% of hands went up (shocking in this class). Every kid listened as one of my students explained how referring to Jews as “filthy dogs” was calling them less than human. Another student said “yeah it’s like they matter less if they’re animals.”

This wasn’t a responsive lesson to anything in the news; it was planned as part of teaching this essential text. I don’t mention Trump in class unless students bring up questions. Kids need to learn about the history of the Holocaust because it’s part of our human record. I just didn’t realize that they would need to apply their new vocabulary to understanding the news that same day. It’s heartbreaking, but I can hope that my 9th graders start reading their world and making their own connections.

It’s my third time reading the book, and what stuck with me this time was the ending lines. Elie’s first act after liberation is to look at himself in a mirror…. “From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me. The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me.” Elie’s gaze at himself, possibly seeing his dead father in himself, and certainly seeing his own journey through “the kingdom of night,” seems to freeze him at that age. This experience will never leave his mind, and no matter how much time passed, somewhere in his heart he was suspended in that state of desperate survival. And I think that visceral feeling of envisioning and facing death in his own body is what enabled his humanitarian impulses and his transcendent passion for peace. In his Nobel Speech, he references his younger self, too. He says that he wrote for the young Jewish boy in the concentration camp, to show him what he has done with the life belonging to that boy. So Elie the character and Wiesel the writer are in service to each other, showing even yet again that life and personhood matters greatly and we must respect it in ourselves and in the world. We are human, and if we see the traumatic human-ness of ourselves, we can see it in others too.

Some notes on writing

  • Yesterday my students took an in-class AP Exam essay, and I wrote alongside them. I wanted to go through the process again so that I could remember my approach, and I wanted a model essay to show them and analyze together. What I didn’t expect was how thrilling it was for me. I was writing super fast, keenly analyzing the passage, and having to come up with the right words under pressure, and I genuinely found it fun. Maybe my strengths lie more in analytical writing than in creative writing? Or maybe my writing would be better if I could capture some parts of that approach– speed, motivation, exhiliration, and a little bit of competition.

 

  • I have a student who wants to be a writer. She’s a good one, too– her poetry is emotionally interesting and her writing voice is strong. She’s one of the students who seems to have her own style, even in high school. But she’s struggling to write at the moment, so yesterday we talked about ways to deal with the times when we just can’t write. I think I convinced her that every artist or creative person loses the will to put out work at some times. And what can we do? Either we take a break, focus on our “real lives,” jobs, school, friends. Or we push ourselves to create positive patterns in our lives so that we write daily or weekly and hope that something good comes of it.

 

  • All of this gothic literature has been affecting my poetry– I am writing dark story poems about bells and lying in the heather waiting for death and yearning for lost love. It doesn’t really feel like me, but I’m enjoying the experimentation, especially with meter and rhyme. Maybe I’ll write the next “Annabel Lee.” More likely my writing will change again with spring.

 

buttons and horses

My poetry class wrote this poem as a group today. Each person wrote a first line and we passed our papers in a circle. 10 poems. This was my favorite. I wrote the first line and each student wrote one of the following ones. 

For context, you may want to read “In a Word, a World” by C.D. Wright, from which we gained the idea that the word “horse” unhorses what is not horse. 

 

buttons pressed are always unbuttoned.
horses unalive are always unhorsed.
unbuttoned buttons are eventually rebuttoned
horses that are born are always rehorsed.
Buttons can fall off.
And horses can die.
But buttons can be resewed
And new horses brought to life.

unhorse the buttons that unbutton
but rebutton the horse that unhorse