By Bill Ivey
Twice a year, our independent school invites the families of boarding and day students to Family Weekend – a busy, enjoyable time when visitors can attend classes as well as various talks, performances, presentations and athletic events. This year the spring weekend came along just as my Humanities 7 course was finishing up their self-designed unit on “judging” and was not quite ready to dive fully into the next (poetry).
This left me somewhat at a loss for what to do during our special weekend class – on precisely one of those days where you want the students (and yourself) to be at their best.
I eventually decided to hold an official poetry unit kickoff. Olivia asked me right before we started if she could read one of her poems. Her beautiful and powerful reading opened the class perfectly. I then told the kids I was about to give them their one writing prompt for the entire unit, and asked them to take out their iPads and write a poem entitled “Poetry Is.”
I reassured them they could choose to read their work as “finished” or “unfinished,” depending on how they felt, and told them when they asked that the ambiguity in the title was deliberate and they could go in any direction they chose.
As I expected, they came up with stunning, breathtaking work in just five minutes. For just one example, by Isabela:
A silent thought of laughter,
Spirals of colors winding through my mind, All written down on fresh,
That’s what poetry is…
I could hear parents periodically gasping or murmuring as they listened to all 13 students, including the one who always takes the most time to craft her writing and as a result was the most hesitant to read.
I then put the students in random groups (by passing out playing cards) and asked them to define poetry. They all came to consensus remarkably quickly, and it quickly became clear why. Each group, for different reasons and in different words, felt poetry was… undefinable.
Be calm and move forward…
Well. That placed the outcome of my next two planned activities – thinking about what makes poetry good, and then developing a checklist to assess their own upcoming books of original poetry – in serious doubt.
I reasoned, though, that simply continuing on as originally planned (especially with families watching) was my best move in the moment, so I passed out old literary magazines and asked them to work in pairs and select a favorite poem to share.
This they quickly did, with constant murmurs of admiration (and delight from the group that found a poem written by their art teacher when she was a student here), and again, there were sharp intakes of breath from parents as they listened. I asked the students to think about why they had chosen the poems and what made them good. They came up with a short list, and decided that “connections” was the thread running through them.
And then they were silent…
I asked them to think beyond “connections” to what it was about the poems themselves that made them good. Absolute and complete silence. And eight minutes to go, so the “Wow, look at the time. See you Tuesday!” option was out.
I raised my eyebrows and gazed at the ceiling… and decided to ask them to write a bad poem. But before we could start, Emily, bless her forever, raised her hand.
“I don’t think you can write a bad poem,” she said, and I told her that was a really important concept and asked her to expand on it. “I think that if your poem does what you wanted it to, then it’s good whatever anyone else thinks of it,” she said.
I looked around at the class. “Reactions?” And as they contributed ideas, a consensus gradually emerged that only the author can judge when a poem feels right – bearing in mind that for some people, any given poem may never truly feel 100% finished.
“So,” I told them as the minute hand approached the 9, signaling the end of class, “I’m thinking that to assess your poetry books, I may ask you to write me a paragraph about them and then I’ll write back to you and react to what you said. I’ll think about it over the weekend, and you can too, and we can talk on Tuesday.” They nodded and began to get ready to move on to their next class.
That evening I was talking to one of the seventh grade parents, who is a successful author. He said both he and his wife thought the poetry kickoff was a great approach for kids this age to a subject that is so abstract and complex. I thanked him warmly, with immeasurable relief.
There’s the saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” In my case, though, it’s more like: “When the going gets tough, trust your students.”
Together, we always seem to get there. It might not necessarily be the destination I expected – but it’s almost always the place they needed to go all along.
Bill Ivey is Middle School Dean at all-girl Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Greenfield MA, where he also teaches Humanities 7, Social Media, and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program. Bill’s other MiddleWeb posts include Hungering for a Better World and Actually, You ARE Special.