Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Teaching Poetry and Learning Grace

My creative writing class. They are a sentence unto themselves and then some. And yet, just as a colleague promised, for the very reasons that they make me crazy, they will also be a class I remember for a long time and maybe even miss. In almost every sense of the typical use of the phrase, they are not my best students, but they are making me a better teacher.

Last week we worked on meter and rhyme. It was a struggle. A struggle that sort of defies description. Even so, yesterday we carried on with a really cool villanelle lesson that a colleague designed in which every student writes a single line in iambic pentameter with a few assigned end rhymes and then posts the line on a padlet that everyone can see. Then the homework was to cut and paste those lines into a villanelle template. Today’s plan was to look at how those same lines took on different meaning when used in different places in the villanelle: the point being that form affects meaning. Of course, today’s plan was entirely contingent on at least SOME students having turned in a sample villanelle. ONE person did. ONE.

I put a bunch of zeros in the gradebook. I showed up to class ready to lay into them. Why? Why couldn’t they do this super easy task? Why did they sign up for creative writing if they couldn’t write this one pre-made poem? I literally cannot make these people learn. I literally cannot make an assignment easy enough that they will even attempt to do it. Despair and frustration overtook my ability to make a new lesson plan. My colleague’s wise advice was to shame them by showing them that LITERALLY I was just asking them to cut and paste, that they could have done their homework in five minutes. Then make them do the assignment in five minutes and carry on with the lesson as planned. When the bell rang and they didn’t sit down and begin the Tuesday check-in, I stormed into the middle of the room and told them that I was already feeling low on grace due to having to change my lesson plans because noone did their homework and could they PLEASE just do the Tuesday check-in on classroom.

And then maybe because of the nature of grace, because it comes when we need it and not when we earn it, I was given grace.

One of my students raised his hand and said that the Tuesday check-in wasn’t showing up on classroom. I apologized and said I’d go post it. As I was posting it, I overheard what my students were chattering about: poetry. My posse of students, more than half of whom are failing CREATIVE WRITING (!) as well as multiple other classes, most of whom have experienced some version of being kicked out of their houses or lost parents because of the actions of those parents, most of whom struggle just to show up on a regular basis, many of whom see their deans more than their classroom teachers, some of whom speak English as a second language, were talking about how they like poetry. (“Then why the hell didn’t you do the poetry homework?” I thought.) The rest of them were talking about the fact that I am their only teacher who does a check-in. They wanted to know why and if I use the information for planning. I told them that I don’t necessarily use it for planning, but I like to know about them, and some people will tell me things when asked that they wouldn’t initiate on their own. I want to be here if anyone needs me. “That’s nice,” said a very uber-cool young man. “I like that you do this.” And so, because of the nature of grace, instead of shaming or blaming or accusing, something moved me to say instead, “What’s going on? My lesson plan was to look at how lines take on different meanings in a bunch of different villanelles, but I didn’t get a bunch of villanelles, and so today might not be as good as I meant it to be. Why did this happen?”

Three people said they wrote their poems on paper and didn’t know they had to be turned in electronically. “OK,” I said. “Maybe we can still work with that. Let me think about that. Get them out.” Everyone else started to babble about how they just didn’t get it. “Didn’t get what?” I asked. “Tell me where the confusion starts.” About ten people raised their hands. After everyone had spoken once or twice, I said that I was hearing two possible places of confusion. One was that they didn’t understand what a villanelle does, and the other was that they didn’t see how to make sense of a bunch of random lines that didn’t necessarily go together. Most students said it was the second problem. The problem, dear teacher, was that my students want their poems to make sense. They didn’t want to write just anything and turn it in. Oh.

And then more grace happened. To show them that the point of the assignment was to help them see how form can help MAKE meaning, I pulled up the one poem that had been turned in. It was from a student who has not turned in anything else. She is from Colombia and struggles with English in addition to having the usual (in this class) list of personal issues. I had thought it odd that the handful of people who always turn in their work had not but that she had. With her permission, I projected her poem on the board and read it out loud. I read it with my most expressive awe-filled voice. I paused after a couple of the stanzas and pointed out something beautiful that had happened because of the form. When I finished reading, there was a moment of silence. “Wasn’t that beautiful?” I asked. “Didn’t she make something meaningful out of the lines that originally had nothing to do with each other?” The whole class nodded, unusually silent. I looked over at the poet, and she had her head down with her hood pulled up. I told her I didn’t mean to embarrass her but to show everyone what the villanelle form can do. She sat up, and tears were running down her face. Her friend, another native Spanish speaker, but one more adept at speaking in English, said, “No miss. She isn’t embarrassed. She’s...how do you say this? She wrote that for someone in particular. It’s emotional for her.” And then the class began to reread the poem and murmur about how beautiful it really was. They literally patted her on the back. They told her it was her best writing so far, and it was.

I held my breath. My lungs were filled with grace.

“Do you see how the form can help you write something beautiful?” I asked.

The class nodded.

“Do you want to try again?”

The class nodded.

“Do you want to just use your own rhymes and go it alone already?”

The class exhaled in relief and asked for me to post the template back on the board and a new assignment on classroom. One girl moved to her focus spot at a table by herself. Other people pulled up websites with rhymes. People started counting syllables on their fingers. Five hands went up: could I check this line? Did it have the right number of syllables? Did it make sense?

I ran around for about ten minutes posting things on classroom, answering questions, suggesting rhyme options. Then I stood still and looked at my room full of poets. They were learning. So was I.

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