Ars Poetica

April is Poetry Month and there is still one more week to celebrate!

There is so much good stuff to share. If you are looking for classroom inspiration try:

The Dear Poet Project 2021

Poems of Hope and Resistance

The Parkmont Poetry Festival for Students

Lift Every Voice

AAPI Women: Untold Stories Through Poetry Unit (Elementary/Middle)

This month I am reading:

Hybrida by Tina Chang

Amazon.com: Hybrida: Poems (9781324002482): Chang, Tina: Books

The Freedom Business by Marilyn Nelson

Love Poems by Pablo Neruda

Love Poems (New Directions Paperbook): Neruda, Pablo, Walsh, Donald D.:  8601200381955: Amazon.com: Books

I have not always been a fan of poetry, but I have always been drawn to it. I have been very lucky to collaborate with several teachers over the years who LOVE it (shoutout to Gini, Thu, and Becky!) Following their examples has increased my own appreciation, as well as my ability to authentically share poetry with students. Their best advice has been to stop trying to get it. Just let the words wash over and see what sticks. I do this now and find myself less frustrated.

For my next trick, I will share two poem drafts of my own (SCARY!). While I am not a poet, I do prefer poetry to “journaling” and find it an effective way to capture moments and feelings as they happen. Leaning into poetry has certainly improved my prose, as well as my overall ability to notice the minutiae of life and its impact on the senses. Poetry is about the kernel of a thing and when you don’t have time for a cob (P.S. I stole this metaphor from Jason Reynolds), I find it’s exactly the right bite.

Thaw

The woods shed winter

like the crispy skin of an onion,

the crackling crust breaking open and then falling away.

I am surprised by the snowdrops, which appear

out of nowhere – a herald.

My son and I step lightly around the mulch,

there is something now to disturb.

Days later come the daffodils,

yellow yolk middles with ivory and golden crowns.

They spray forth and lean across the path,

beckoning with promises of more.

Cherry blossoms come early to ensure they

are spring’s star.

As the snowy petals drift to the ground

Redbuds burst

above tulips,

which signal to the Kwanzan,

which pull irises and azaleas out of the wings.

Suddenly the sky that seemed so big

through the bare exposed branches

shrinks back.

The view is seized by

millions of tiny verdant leaves.

Facts

You are either lying to them

or to yourself

Which is it?

You have to decide now.

No sitting on the fence,

no double talk,

no side eye, no asides.

It’s time to be all in,

pull the sword, claim the throne.

The bags are packed and the

journey is the destination,

and anyways

you have long left the station.

Can’t you just see, honey?

You have already

arrived.

{Inhale}

I stand in front of the classroom and

tell my students, You are real writers.

{exhale}

I stand in front of the mirror and

tell myself.

Monument and Memory: How the Word Is Passed

I am currently in a training workshop with the Zinn Education Project, having received an advanced copy of Clint Smith’s forthcoming book, How The Word Is Passed. Part reflective memoir, part travelogue, part historical text survey, part poetic response, it takes us on a road trip to the places in the United States and abroad that memorialize slavery. I love the way Smith verbally paints the places he visits in vivid landscape and the people he meets in precise portraiture. We are along with him for the ride. He also shares personal history, familial connections, and internal ruminations. His notes reverberate; my own experiences traveling to  places like these and teaching this history bubble up from the depths of my subconscious. I have many other books about slavery in America, but this one is unique. 

The workshop has gathered a mighty group of educators, and we are being asked to consider how this book might inspire us and how it might inspire the students in our classrooms. 

Clint Smith is a poet and an educator and a lover of history. We are kindred spirits.  Not many people know that my masters degree is in museum education. I did not intend to become a classroom teacher; I wanted to work in the kinds of places Smith writes about. I wanted to shape the narratives that people encountered outside of the classroom, outside of their childhoods, during their freetime, and on their vacations. Almost 15 years ago, I interned at the New York Historical Society during the mounting of its exceptional exhibit, Slavery in New York (you can still access a version of the online exhibit here but the Flash elements are no longer supported).  The primary goal of that exhibit was to remind old and new generations of New Yorkers that, while New York City was not the South, from the beginning there was slavery.  That enslaved people were integrated into the earliest groups of settlers. That they built Wall Street. That they sought freedom among the encampments of both British and Patriots troops during The Revolution. That they were integral fibers in the tapestral history of this metropolis and that their bodies still lay beneath the streets.  

It’s strange, but I forgot about that experience until the workshop facilitator asked us to craft a response to Smith’s writing and I began this post. Giving tours to school children at NYHS was a precursor to giving Saturday Academy tours of Seneca Village with the Central Park Conservancy, which begat teaching 4th graders at Dalton about the Amistad, Olaudah Equiano, and The Gullah. We visited the African Burial Ground, which is also mentioned in Smith’s chapter on New York’s racial history. After I moved, I taught about slavery to 6th graders as I shared my family tree during our culture project and to 8th graders on a spring break trip to South Carolina and to 7th graders studying The Civil War. I teach it to my son. Everywhere I have taught, I have taught about slavery.  As a museum educator, as a classroom educator, as a parent, it has always been relevant. How The Word Is Passed, indeed. 

My husband’s family is proudly from Hampton, where the first Africans were brought to Virginia.

Even now, as an English teacher, it occurs to me that To Kill A Mockingbird is itself a sort of literary monument linking slavery to segregation to racial terror and injustice in America. It is iconic, persistent, and flawed like many of the places Clint Smith visits in his book.  Each person who encounters it must reckon with its continued existence and make sense of their own experience. They have to walk around the edges, go into the doorways, look around, touch the walls. I am my student’s tour guide on this journey, focusing on what I want them to notice and pointing out what they might miss, but ultimately not in control of what they might walk away with or how this visit will resonate and connect many years down the line.  

In a few weeks I will present with my good friends Anthony Cohen and Michael V. Williams at the Independent School Experiential Education Network (ISEEN) Winter Institute, the theme of which is Reflection, Reckoning, and Rebirth: Inspiring Change Amidst Global Crises. Our workshop will present the work of The Montgomery County Lynching Memorial Project and invite educators to reflect on narratives of historical conflict and reconciliation within their own communities, to conduct research on those topics, and to build curricular ideas for integration into the classroom. I plan to share how I am connecting MoCoLMP’s work to To Kill A Mockingbird, since a book so deeply connected to the history of lynching must be tethered to both the work the Equal Justice Initiative and our area’s own unearthed skeletons.  I hope to encourage other local schools that teach TKAM to do the same.  In September, they can participate in a soil collection during the planned Remembrance Weekend. One day soon, there will be markers they can visit. This history belongs to all of us, and the wounds won’t even begin heal until we all take part in remembering. 

Smith writes that we can learn this history from so many people and places, but “at some point, it is no longer a question of whether we can learn this history but whether we have the collective will to reckon with it.” 

Perhaps I hope most to give my students the will to remember and to reckon, and maybe, to find a way to heal. 

Here are a few resources for thinking about and teaching monuments and memory. Comment and share if you have others.