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Change in the Classroom

It’s been an interesting two weeks.

The new semester began the second week of February, which ultimately meant the conclusion of my first semester poetry class. That class was special. It became a family. Before Winter Break, we did a “secret snowflake poetry exchange” where EVERY SINGLE STUDENT wrote a poem for another classmate. My seniors wrote poems to freshmen, bestowing their knowledge and letting them know how beautiful they were, inside and out. My freshmen wrote poems back, thanking them for making them feel valued in the shark tank known as high school. We went on a field trip. We grew as a family. Hearts were stomped on, mended, broken, and held gingerly in our class. This group of students was an amazing group that I’ll probably only have once in a lifetime.

It’s been tough to accept the loss of this class while still trying to be open minded to my second semester poetry class.

This group isn’t my first semester class. Then again, neither was my first semester class 2 weeks into the school year.

With the combination of snow days, long weekends, and a rotating block schedule, I have only seen this class a few times. Students are still in the add/drop period for their second semester courses, and the class roster changes on the daily. It’s tough to build a relationship with inconsistency, especially when the schedule is filled with uncertainty.

Yesterday was a rough one. For whatever reason, the class was in a special state of excitement over it being Friday. They just came from lunch. Half the class walked in 10 minutes late. Hormones were raging and drama was flying. I gave up trying to share notes on breaking down poetry, and instead dispersed a handout with explanations of figurative language on them. I told the class they were having a free write where they could write about anything– yes, anything— as long as they incorporated 5 of the 8 types of figurative language into their poems.

Then, I broke out the poetry ball.

The poetry ball is a giant plastic toy capsule, like the ones you find in a vending machine with dinky toys, only this one is the size of a cantaloupe. It’s filled with different writing topics my students have written down, ranging from “iphone addiction” to “family members in jail.”

This class hadn’t used the poetry ball yet.

Oddly enough, having the freedom to write whatever they wanted about topics created by people their own age got every single student to be quiet and write. Some even groaned when I made them stop writing so we could put the room back together. (I try to lead my poetry class in a circle.) They wrote beautifully. Even the most difficult of students–students I had warned were one step away from getting a phone call home– wrote lines upon lines of beauty.

They have promise.

As long as I remember to open my heart to their promise and lives, we can have promise together.

Mourning poets

This morning, upon finding out that Maya Angelou died, I found myself paralyzed with emotions I couldn’t quite convey.

The same thing happened when Adrienne Rich died.

Like Adrienne, I didn’t immediately understand the rich history behind Maya’s words. I discovered Maya when I was in the 5th grade, about 10 years before I discovered Adrienne. You could venture to say that Maya is one of those poet friends who both simultaneously reminds me of my childhood and of my college years, when I truly became aware of the varying degrees on inequality and injustice in our world.

I remember the nerdy conversation I had with my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. B. She was the one who introduced me to reading poetry for pleasure, as well as the idea of being the sort of teacher who takes on a more personal role with students. I told her reading poetry was boring, and she came in the next day with a copy of Life Doesn’t Frighten Me she had checked out of the library for me. I remember begrudgingly reading the book and being surprised that poetry wasn’t a waste of time, although it would be years before I read poetry again on my own. A few years after Mrs. B introduced me to Maya, she died of a combination of various cancers. Mrs. B was an adoptive grandmother to me, right up until her death, and she managed to give me life lessons even after fifth grade was done.

It seems fitting that Maya Angelou passed today, as it’s also the 11th anniversary of Mrs. B’s death.

I’m mourning the loss of a woman who gave a voice to so many people, before they could even articulate words that needed to be said. I’m mourning the loss of the reassurance that a poetic great is still living and breathing words into our struggling world. I’m mourning a monumental loss that can barely be articulated.

When news broke of Maya Angelou’s death at my school, there was a sense of loss amongst my English teacher peers. And then… a few of my students were discussing her death while I took attendance. I was half listening, not ready to answer their teenage ruminations and questions, when I was once again paralyzed, this time by disbelief.

My students confused Maya Angelou with Nelson Mandela.

I immediately stopped what I was doing and played a video of “Still I Rise.”

(The poem starts at 0:44.)

The students were silent until the very end, and then all a single student could say was, “Damn. Preach, Maya.”


This is why I teach poetry– to give a voice to students, to expose them to dialogue, to start a dialogue, and to create a relationship between the past and the present.

Thank you, Maya, for giving me a reason to teach, for giving me a voice to listen to, and for giving thousands upon thousands of people the gift of your words.

I rise
I rise
I rise