Poetry, Reflections Speak to the Courage to Teach
Reviewed by Ariel Sacks
Teaching with Heart: Poetry that Speaks to the Courage to Teach is one of the loveliest books I have had the pleasure to read, and it is one I know I will return to frequently. Like teaching, this book seems simple but is incredibly multi-faceted.
Teaching with Heart is a collection of 90 poems, each one selected by a different teacher. Along with his or her poetry selection, each teacher offers a short reflection exploring the connection between an aspect of teaching and the poem.
Some of the poets are well known—Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walk Whitman, to name a few—and others were new to me. Some are modern, others ancient. The teachers, too, are diverse in their teaching and life experiences. They include some of my favorite teacher-writers, such as Jose Vilson, Steven Lazar, Kevin Hodgson, and Taylor Mali, who wrote the introduction.
AFT President Randi Weingarten and recently elected NEA President Lily Eskelson Garcia are among the educators who contribute to the anthology, as well as teachers of all grade levels from around the United States. I appreciated the variety of both the poems and the teacher-writers, and the excellent editorial work of Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner, who have curated a series of “Courage to Teach” anthologies during the past decade, in association with the Center for Courage & Renewal.
Windows into the heart of teaching
The experience of reading through this book is unique. The different way that each teacher connects with his or her chosen poem is one of the most interesting elements of Teaching with Heart. Sometimes the teacher makes an explicit connection to the poem, describing how it offers inspiration or wisdom, or connects to a specific aspect of teaching; other times the poem echoes a feeling or relationship in the prose piece, and it is up to the reader to draw the connection. This variety of approaches keeps each entry fresh. What we end up with is a wholly unique window into the heart, imagination, and real work of each teacher.
As I was making my way through the book, I realized I was reading with several hats: I read as a teacher in the general sense, a lover of poetry, a poet, and also an English teacher, with an eye for resources in my own teaching of literature. One of the things that won me over about this book is how well it holds up as an anthology of poems in its own right. So many of these poems I will turn to again both for myself, and as a teacher introducing them to my students. In fact, many of the poems that resonate with the act of teaching also reflect the courage and tenacity it takes to be a learner, or a young person in the world. I saw the connectedness of teaching and learning in so many of the poems.
Of course, it was reassuring to me to see many of my own more private feelings and experiences of teaching show up in these poems and reflections. The experience was also eye opening, as great poetry often is, because I had never seen some of these ideas or emotions in print before, or articulated just that way through language.
Teaching with Heart gives voice to teachers and explores the nature of teaching in a totally new way. It is also testament to the power of poetry in a culture that often forgets its value. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to all teachers, lovers of poetry, and to those who love teachers.
Ariel Sacks teaches 8th grade English Language Arts in New York City. She is the author of Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach (Jossey-Bass, 2013). She is member of the CTQ Collaboratory, and she writes the blog, On the Shoulders of Giants.