The moment one gives close attention to anything,
even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome,
indescribably magnificent world in itself.
– Henry Miller
“Look! Five poems were delivered to my mailbox!” I squeal, holding up five envelopes as I dash into Heather’s room in between lunch and 5th period yesterday. I hang my head in shame as I admit that the idea for this lesson sprouted from pure procrastination. April has been a daunting month that has been flying by with the intense energy of a 9th grader. I have been in search of balance. I try to support my husband’s full time status as a college student, log miles on the treadmill, grade projects, plan healthy meals, create meaningful assignments, attend meetings, arrange to take six more credits to keep my teaching certificate current, plan summer courses…all while doing a spirited tango with spring fever.
“You will have to blog about this ‘Poetry Gift’ assignment,” Heather insists with a smile the size of my guilty conscience. I am a slacker blogger. While Heather sends piece-after-brilliant-writing-piece into the digital universe I still have two unfinished blog pieces for National Poetry Month (NPM) hiding in one of my computer files while two other reflections attempt to muster themselves alive in the moments I try to catch my breath. I still have my students’ poetry responses to Bud the Teacher’s NPM prompts to post, my 9th grade Romeo and Juliet rewrites with hundreds of photos for documentation and the piece about hearing my grandfather’s voice in W.S. Merwin’s poetry is right on the tip of my tongue.
Our AmeriCorps worker Matt Maki has engaged our entire school in the celebration of NPM. He has encouraged a creative writing student volunteer to read an original poem during the afternoon announcements each day in April. He enlisted four creative writing students to venture to Northern Michigan University to create a podcast of their poetry which will be showcased on the university’s webpage and radio station (future blog piece in progress). Matt has also engaged the creative writers in an ambitious fundraising project to create a calendar out of artwork and original poetry. Heather and I are so thankful to Matt for the time he has dedicated to these projects. Because of his astute attention to detail and investment of time in the calendar (along with the students’ labor of love) we will be able to fund two annual writing contests at Gwinn High School and will be able to participate in a writing retreat with the students in May at The Joy Center in Ishpeming.
This morning when my alarm sounded at 4:30 I knew what I had to do. Heather and I created Blended Voices to share our classroom practice and network with other teachers. Therefore, I really want to share the ‘Poetry Gift’ idea that I had to help celebrate NPM before NPM is over.
The idea for the assignment materialized last Tuesday morning while I was on the treadmill. I was feeling quite stressed because my Moodle was not updated, and while I had a mini-short story unit planned, I felt rather unprepared for the week. I wanted to do something special for NPM but was at a loss of what to do. Last semester I engaged my students in an in-depth poetry unit and we explicated published poems, watched videos by spoken word poets, examined music as poetry, created digital poems, experimented with language and turned over raw emotion and polished words until they glittered. As I poured over my students’ poetry portfolios (containing eight original poems, a Wordle cover and an auto-biographical essay) I mused over how fortunate I am to be an English teacher. I believe that English teachers have a unique understanding of our students because of the potent stories and pieces of their personal lives that they entrust us to read. I may be slightly biased but my students created brilliant and remarkable poems. Grading them took forever since I kept reading them over-and-over to delight in the wisdom of fifteen-year-olds.
I try to encourage my students to share the poems they write (and I share the portfolios at Parent-Teacher Conferences) but I know that teenagers can be guarded and often too timid to share their writing. “Poetry makes a great gift!” I often exclaim but I know that the fate of many of the portfolios is to end up at the bottom of a locker or abandoned in a neighboring waste basket.
Last Tuesday morning I started each 9th grade English class with a prompt projected on my classroom screen. The prompt came from Bud Hunt’s blog, Bud the Teacher. Bud is a teacher-consultant with the Colorado State University Writing Project. A visionary, Bud is celebrating the spirit of National Poetry Month by posting a prompt each day for the month of April. The prompts are composed of a photograph and include a thought-provoking statement. I really was inspired by Bud’s prompt for April 5th. The photo is of a park bench bathed in sunlight with the phrase, “Who would you like to be sitting with today? Why aren’t you?” I gave the students twenty minutes to write to the prompt telling them they would be turning the piece of writing into a poem. When the students shared their pieces I learned that the prompt had also struck a chord with my students and many in twenty minutes had scribed beautiful poems.
The next step was to instruct the students to bring a completed poem to class the following day. It could be the poem that was generated in class, one from the portfolio assignment, or a brand new piece they could craft. In addition to the poem they were to bring the address of someone to “gift their poem” and our school would provide an envelope and the postage. I was surprised that the students met the assignment with a positive attitude and I was even more shocked the next day when only a handful of students (out of 92) had forgotten the address at home.
Each student accompanied the poem with their own version of the following note:
In celebration of National Poetry Month I am sending you a poem that I wrote in English class. If you would like to send me a poem back please use the following address:
Gwinn High School C/O Amy Laitinen ATTN: Student’s Name School Address
Addressing the letters was an interesting process and I am always astonished to learn that many teenagers do not have the slightest idea how to format the address on an envelope. Wednesday I heard many choruses of,“What do you mean I have to use pen?” “Where does the zip code go?” “Where should I write the address?” While one class took nearly the entire hour to be guided through writing and addressing a letter (they were instructed to add personal details to the letter) the poems went out in Thursday morning’s mail.
In order to make this assignment a little more interesting I told my students that we would track their poems. We would chart which hour (of my four sections) received the most poems and had poetry sent from the farthest locations. Once a student receives a poem in the mail they can then send out a second poem to garnish another reply. The class that receives the most responses will then receive a prize from Mrs. Laitinen.
Yesterday I was delighted to find that the first of the poems had arrived. The students accepted the envelopes addressed to them in amazement. Soon after I delivered the poems to two students in fifth hour one student was visibly moved emotionally. “Mrs. Laitinen, you have to read this,” she told me, placing a letter in my hand.
Mrs. Laitinen, (the letter began)
Thank you so much for sending us a copy of our grand-daughter’s poem.We are so very proud of her. She always seems to put a little extra in all her subjects.
The letter went on to explain that their whole family had gone through a very difficult time this year due to an illness:
Living with cancer is not easy but we all have the faith that we will get through this.
The letter ended with, “Thank you for having such a concern for our young people.” Enclosed in the letter were two poems.
At this time my student was not able to read the poems to the class and asked me if I would. Somehow I managed to get through them both. My student’s eyes were filled with tears. She was not alone, many of us in the room were crying.
By the end of fifth hour I had received an email from the recipient of one of my student’s poems. She was from my student’s past and had been an aide in my student’s elementary classroom:
Amy, I just received the note and beautiful poem from (student’s name). I will be writing her a personal note, but I wanted to let you know how much it touched my heart. The note was very special and her writing was so beautiful. If you could only see how far she has come. She barely had a grasp of the English language and now she is writing poetry!!! It’s just amazing to me. I am so proud of her. I’ve thought of her often and wondered how she was doing. She is such a sweet young lady. You must enjoy having her in your classroom.
This student moved to America from the Philippines when she was nine years old and truly is a phenomenal writer. I felt honored that an assignment in my class helped their lives intersect again.
By the end of the day numerous students shared with me that the person who had received their poem had contacted them and was working on a poem in reply. One student remarked that she had no idea that her Grandpa wrote poems. Another student said her aunt was encouraging other members of their family to write poems to share for Easter dinner.
After teaching for ten years I am continually renewed by the discoveries I stumble upon. A former student, angered by unions in the state of Michigan, recently questioned me in a facebook discussion about how our school was scoring on standardized tests and what our high school dropout rate was. Instead of being angry, I felt empowered with the charge of helping my students find their voices. Like many educators I profoundly believe that there is more to educating our young people than measuring their intelligence with standardized tests. I believe that part of my role as an educator is to help guide my students into becoming thoughtful adults. A bubble test cannot quantify the capacity my students have for understanding the power of mastering language and how they can communicate in a sophisticated manner. There is so much more to teaching and I am thankful that I have the opportunity that I have to make a difference. It is important to me that I share the beauty of my student’s writing with others.
In a school day I come into contact with close to 130 students in my classroom. While it would be easy to get lost in a sea of faces I am always searching for ways to see my students as individuals. As I near the end of my 10th year of teaching, I feel that I have been successful in navigating the journey with a variety of engaging and meaningful writing assignments.
I have always had a special relationship with poetry and feel that it forces us to slow down and savor the moments that our lives are carved from. My students never fail to impress me with the way they navigate language to pierce the human heart. I am thankful that we were able to celebrate National Poetry Month together and bring a bit of poetry to the important people in their community inside and outside of our school. Poetry is a gift. What are you and your students doing to celebrate National Poetry Month?