Saturday, August 10, 2013

Why Poetry?

For several years we read a poem in my class every single day. I primarily used Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, edited by Billy Collins. When I took over seventh grade, I tossed all the classics and whole class novels and went all in on contemporary novels and choice. I didn't question my decision, but I did have to defend it one summer morning before school even started.

It was my ten year college reunion, held eleven years after graduation. A friend and I had gone for coffee while our traveling companions were on conference calls for work. (One advantage of a career in teaching is that I am almost never required to be on a conference call during vacation.) As we stood in the crowded coffee shop I recognized the shaggy intellectual next to me as a friend and greeted him. My traveling companion looked surprised until I introduced him to the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet that I knew from grad school. He was there with his wife, a friend of mine who had graduated a dozen years ahead of me but was on the same reunion cycle, and so we joined them at an outdoor table for breakfast.

After some good natured smack talk about whose college threw a better reunion (my poet friend is a professor at a rival university), conversation turned to schools and teaching. My friends' son was in middle school at the time, and they asked about my plans for my classroom. "I'm changing the reading list," I declared. "All new YA, no classics. What kid wants to read Tom Sawyer?"*

"No Tom Sawyer?" the poet asked. "Really?" (You have to imagine this said in a terrific Irish accent. You can hear him read one of his poems here.) He added that he and his wife, a writer herself, wanted their son to be in exactly the kind of classroom that did read books like Tom Sawyer.

I was momentarily stumped. Plenty of people question what we teach: parents, students, administrators, colleagues. You have to develop a thick skin, and I had. I was educated, I was trained, I had done my research. I knew I wasn't wrong, but for the first time I had to defend myself to two people I very much admired. I knew the reunion would be full of fancy finance jobs and the competitive parenting of toddlers; this breakfast was a rare meeting of nerdy intellectual types (and my traveling companion, a fancy finance guy whose wife was back at the hotel on a fancy business call). These were my people. This was my moment.

"Poetry," I said. I took a breath. "We're going to read a poem every day."

I don't remember how the conversation turned after that, but I did keep to my promise. We read a poem every day, usually from Poetry 180, but sometimes I pulled from other sources. We read two poems from my friend. Poetry was the backbone of our understanding of literature, and when it was pushed aside by a grade level change and the switch to humanities, I missed it.

I think this year is a good time to bring it back.

Currently Reading: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Why: My favorite high school teacher recommended it to me. It's the best kind of "assigned" reading.

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*I paraphrase the conversation, of course, as it happened five years ago. We definitely discussed Tom Sawyer specifically.


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