Dear Adrienne

As promised, this is the model letter I wrote for my students to have as a mentor text while they work on their Dear Poet letters. We read the poem together, then read my letter aloud and discussed what they noticed and how it could serve as a model. I was surprised at how vulnerable I felt sharing my work with them–a good reminder for why it’s important to share our writing with students, and a nudge to myself to make more opportunities to do so. Feel free to use in your own classes, alongside Diving Into the Wreck, if you are doing this or a similar project in your classes.

Dear Adrienne,

I met you once, years before your death, when you came to speak at the girls’ school in Baltimore where you were educated as a young woman. I sat in the dark theater and looked up at you, glowing with a fierce passion on the stage, and I clutched a copy of one of your books and felt amazed and grateful to be in your presence. Later I stood in line to have you sign that book, and I babbled something incomprehensible, trying to express what your work has meant to me.

Now I teach in that school, helping to educate bright young women who might someday grow up to govern or influence our world, and from time to time I drop poems of yours into their laps like gifts. A friend asked me recently what poems I would share with her so she could pass them onto her daughter, another bright young woman, feeling downtrodden by the world and its misery and in need of some inspiration. I thought immediately of Diving into the Wreck and the solace and sustenance it has given me over the years.

“I have to learn alone to turn my body without force in the deep element”: in the course of the poem, this element is the sea, blue and black and wide, but so often, I’ve felt this in the stream of my own life. The lesson of navigating the waves of our lives, how to bend and not be broken, is one we can only learn alone, isn’t it? And it’s a sad loneliness, but a strong one, and a necessary one. And it requires so much force to learn, but so much softness and turning to achieve.

“I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail”: how brave we need to be to dive into the wreckage of our lives and our world and look fearlessly at the damage there. Or are we fearless, or maybe the more brave because we tremble as we look? And it is only by looking that we can see the “threadbare beauty,” only by diving that we can be “the mermaid whose dark hair streams black.”

“By cowardice or courage,” wielding our “knife, camera, book of myths in which our names do not appear”: we dwell in the knowledge that we are broken, that we all have the wreckage inside us and live within it at the same time, that we must keep looking and be prepared to face what we find, that we can comfort ourselves with myths even when they do not acknowledge that we exist.

Thank you, for all the words you left the world, for the rays of light that help me see in the darkness, for diving into the wreck and sharing with us all what you found there.


Poems for the Brink of Hopeless

Poetry knew where hope lived and could elicit that lump in the throat that reminds me it’s all worth it.

That sentence comes from a breathtaking personal essay published in the New York Times recently about a mother making “a quiet stand for hope” as her daughter struggles through some tumultuous waters and using poetry to send her daughter whatever resilience and optimism she could.

Of course, this piece resonated with me on every possible level: mother of daughters, teacher of girls, writer and lover of poetry. I loved that the writer was self-aware enough to see that her biggest gift to her daughter was staying out of her way so she could navigate these challenges on her own, and that the poems were small but powerful gestures to show her presence, distant though it may have seemed. When I shared it on Facebook, I commented that I’d be stockpiling good “shoe-poems,” and many of my friends asked me to share what I collected. So here are my best suggestions for poetic messages of hope, ones I can see myself slipping into a bookbag, lunchbox, shoe or pillow to create a lifeline of words and support between me and my own girls.

Here are three mentioned in the piece itself, all of which I love:

Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front by Wendell Berry

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

I Knew a Woman by Theodore Roethke

Here are others I’m adding to my own personal stores, ready for when I think my girls might need them:

A Valentine for Ernest Mann, Naomi Shihab Nye: I’m choosing this one for several reasons; it’s accessibly written with some clear images, and because when we are at the brink, we need to know that “if we re-invent whatever our lives give us we find poems”–it’s an empowering idea, to turn pain into beauty, and my students found it inspiring when I taught this poem last year.

Planetarium and Diving into the Wreck: I love Adrienne Rich’s work, but I included these two almost solely on the basis of these two lines: “I am bombarded yet I stand,” and “I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail.” There’s an essential resilience there that I find myself responding to, again and again.

The Weighing, Jane Hirshfield: Take a minute and dwell on “and still the scales balance”–beautiful.

Colors passing through us, Marge Piercy: “Here is my box of new crayons at your feet” and “a sing song of all the things you make me think of”–the string of vivid images in the poem remind me to stay in touch with everything beautiful I see around me, and I like to think it would for my daughters too.

A Blessing, James Wright: what adolescent doesn’t sometimes wish she could “step out of her body”? What adolescent doesn’t need reminding that there is a blossom waiting to break free inside of her?

Still I Rise, Maya Angelou: the ultimate in empowerment poems, this is a favorite among my students too.

woman, Nikki Giovanni: a great break-up poem for women, young or not, floundering after heartbreak

Poem For A Lady Whose Voice I Like, Nikki Giovanni: because young women should be encouraged to be “full of themselves” sometimes.

Thanks, W.S. Merwin: “Waving, dark though it is”–the bravery and hope in that line, in a poem full of determined gratitude; it makes me feel comforted and inspired, every time.

My school’s philosophy has two phrases in it that guide me on a regular basis, qualities we hope to instill in our students and value as a community: “tenacity of purpose” and “resilient spirit.” These ten poems express the striving towards that resiliency, that determination to see the light in the world even when all seems dark.

Wrap-Up: My Time at NCTE 2014

As a first-time attendee, I did not know quite what to expect as my department headed to the annual NCTE convention, but even if I had developed detailed expectations, I’m fairly sure they would have been exceeded. We only stayed for Friday and Saturday, but even in those two days, I absorbed so much, gained such inspiration, and sparked so many new ideas that I feel it was an incredible investment of my time and energy, even at a time of year when I am feeling even more depleted than usual.

Here’s some brief descriptions of the workshops I attended and found most useful; for each, I took pages of notes on the ideas and materials presented, but also found myself filling the margins with ways to adapt the topics for my own classes. Any teacher knows this is the sign of truly beneficial professional development, when you gain global insight into a theme, text, or instructional method, while also acquiring ways to immediately put the theory into practice in your own classroom.


Text and Image or Text as Image? New Approaches to Teaching Visual and Media Literacy: This was a great way to start off my NCTE experience: thought-provoking yet extremely practical, with plenty of examples and ideas to make me feel energized right away. These presenters focused on how we can synthesize texts and images in our classrooms, thinking about how visual elements enhance texts and helping students become “selective and active creators of content.” They gave examples of texts interpreted as images, texts remixed into images, image to text, and images inspiring text, inspiring me to think about new ideas as well as ways to deepen and better assess projects I already do.

Portfolios: Reflective Processes for Independence and Innovation: This presentation made me think globally about the value and possibilities inherent in “making thinking visible” for my students, and how that can deepen their learning, enhance our classroom community, and help them see themselves as scholars. Like many of the convention presentations, these Wisconsin teachers have thankfully made their slides available for post-convention viewing. Even though I teach in a very different environment from these presenters, I gained so much insight in to how to aid student in being more reflective about their work and about themselves as scholars-in-training.

Queering(ing)Literature in the Secondary English Classroom: I attended this one partly through my work as our school’s GSA sponsor, but also because I’ve made some tentative inroads into using critical theory in my senior elective and wanted to think more productively about how I might do so. The discussion and resources (like this set of inclusive frameworks), helped me push my thinking in directions such as wondering how I might lead my seniors in a discussion of “queering” One Hundred Years of Solitude .

Interactive Notebook Foldables: After getting shut out of a “featured session” that was jam-packed, I ended up in this one, which ended up answering some questions I’ve had about “foldables” since I read a pair of blog entries from a high school history teacher who used them with success in her classroom. Foldables are all over Pinterest as well, but without seeing concrete examples, I never quite understood how they would be used with my classes. This session focused specifically on their usage with poetry lessons and included Dinah Zike, who seems to be the queen of foldables and refers to them as “manipulatives for learning.” After this session, which involved us all making our own foldable book with instructions and examples, I can easily see how these could be useful in vocabulary work as well as a prewriting tool for my ninth graders when they write poetry explications in the spring. I even thought ahead to next summer and how I might use them with my CTY kids.


Methods of Teaching Writing: Power and Cohesion in a Writing Curriculum: This workshop started my Saturday off with a starstruck jolt, as Lucy Calkins was one of the presenters. While she is known primarily for her work at the elementary school level, I have found her work very helpful in thinking through how to incorporate elements of writing workshops in my classes. This session was no exception, as Calkins and the other presenters gave me structured and insightful ways to think about how I conference with my students as they are working on drafts, as well as ways to think about mini-lessons and whole-group instruction. One topic touched on a puzzle that’s been worrying me lately: how can I help my students see that in writing their successful personal essays, they’ve been working on skills that will help them with critical essays as well? Again, I felt I gained both insight on how to think globally about these dilemmas as well as some practical suggestions.

Letter-Essays: Engaging Kids in Social and Analytical Response to Stories: Another brush with someone I’ve long admired: Nancie Atwell, who writes primarily for 7th-8th grade teachers, but again, in whose work I’ve found much food for thought. One of my long-debated ideas is how to incorporate independent reading into my 9th grade course, and Atwell’s devoted scholarship on the subject is the main reason I keep returning to it, even though it is not customary in my division at my school as a year-long practice. This workshop focused on one aspect of how Atwell and her teachers use “letter-essays” to communicate with their students about what they’ve been reading, and I found the examples they shared fascinating and inspiring. I even brainstormed about a mini-choice-reading project I could do with my seniors over spring break and added The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers to my wishlist as soon as I got home.

Understanding the Middle East Through Literature: I chose this session because after truly enjoying teaching Persepolis, I realized that I felt confident about teaching graphic novels but not very much about placing the work in a greater context of literature from the region. This session included the work of two teachers who have been teaching semester-long senior electives on the topic for years, which was immediately inspiring to me because our senior English classes work on the same system. The materials presented were so comprehensive and engaging that I emailed my department chair this weekend to ask about proposing a similar elective in the 2015-2016 school year. Found myself a winter break project, clearly, and I think a course of this nature could be so enriching for our students. I am already looking forward to asking our Arabic teacher for assistance, as well as one of our history teachers who spent a few years living in Turkey.

When I got back, I saw I had missed workshops by some great teacher-bloggers, including Epiphany in Baltimore on John Steinbeck, Glenda Funk on Landscapes of Truth and Fiction, Dana Huff on online writing workshop techniques, Nerdy Book Club and more! As you can see, I covered a fair amount of intellectual ground in the hectic two days I was able to spend, though of course I feel like I missed out on some great sessions as well. I also got to hear an amazing address by Marian Wright Edelman and seeJacqueline Woodson appear on a panel, fresh off her National Book Award win. This doesn’t even include my trips through the jam-packed exhibition hall, where I managed to pick up an armload of free Poetry Out Loud materials, get a free copy of David Levithan’s Every Day, signed in person by the author himself, as well as a free Agatha Christie-themed totebag for my daughter, a nifty Scholastic shoulder bag (also free!), along with an assortment of catalogs, posters, and other giveaways. I don’t know when I’ll be able to make it back, but I’ve added a few goals to my professional dreams (attending, and then presenting), and re-experienced the joy of truly worthwhile professional development in a community of dedicated colleagues I’m proud to call my peers.

Proud of a Newly Published Poet

Right in the midst of exam-week frenzy, I’ve gotten a piece of exciting news that reminds me how fulfilling my job is, and how lucky I am to do what I do.

Back in April, my students participated in the Poet-to-Poet project from the Academy of American Poets, one of their many wonderful initiatives for National Poetry Month. The classes I spent on this project were fun and energizing, and I knew my students’ creative sides had been engaged by the task of writing their own poems inspired by what they heard and read. Having the poets recorded reading and discussing their own work is such a genius touch, and I thought it was a great addition to my regular poetry unit.

The Academy received over one thousand poems from students all over the country and have published a selection of them on their website. I’m thrilled and proud that one of those published student poems is a student of mine! Charlotte’s poem, Things That I Hide/Are Hidden, is beautiful, and I’m honored to have been a tiny part of its genesis.

On Losing Maya Angelou

Each year, I offer my students many gifts in the form of literature.

I offer them Holden Caulfield and his battered heart, his sense of confusion and loneliness in the world. I offer them the fierce lunacy of Lady Macbeth, a woman trapped by her society and broken by her own frustrated ambition. I offer them words to express their own dreams and rage, and I offer them the tools to make those words heard and understood by others.

Each spring, I slip Still I Rise into a packet of poems and ask one girl to read the poem aloud. The first time I did this, I chose a girl new to our school, a girl still deciding whether she would find a place in our community, a girl with inner treasures she had not yet discovered. Did she read that poem? She read that poem, her voice gathering power with each repeated line, instinctively hitting the words like piano keys and bringing forth her own melody from the music of the poem. When she finished, we all sat there, and then the students began clapping.

I’ve taught “Still I Rise” ever since, and each year, I see it unfold itself for the students, the lyrical quality woven through it like a golden thread, the frank and confident sexuality and power that this woman feels. Each year, girls are struck by the sense of actually understanding a poem, seeing the power in it and feeling their own powers enhanced by it. Each year, I watch them discover it, and I feel enriched all over again by what Maya Angelou has achieved in this beautiful piece.

Today we lost a great voice, a powerful member of the choir of African-America, one of the many writing a new history, truly reconstructing what it means to be American, to be a woman, to be the descendent of slaves. Today we cannot lose what she offered us, the value of her story, and the wisdom she embodied and espoused.

National Poetry Month: “Poetry Is….”

“Now that I’ve got all your responses, I’d love to have Lucie and Grace read theirs aloud.”

This is what I said to my class after starting a recent lesson on poetry with a very simple freewrite; I wrote “Poetry is……” on the board, and they had to complete the sentence as often as they could in five minutes, writing the whole time. Here are some of the responses I got, and I think you’ll see how they wrote little poems back to me, probably without even knowing that’s what they were doing.

Poetry is metaphoric.
Poetry is piece of mind.
Poetry is finding your center.
Poetry is the thoughts we have at random.
Poetry is the song we hear from nature.
Poetry is the world’s way of manifesting grace.
Poetry is the dreams we fear to tell.
Poetry is a path to the soul and spirit.
Poetry is a way of showing our beautiful thoughts.
Poetry is profound in a way that only the mind can decipher.
Poetry is calming to the weak the and needy.
Poetry is therapy for the strong who fall weak.
Poetry is the childhood and life we see every day and imagine in our dreams.
Poetry is the mind’s camera.
Poetry is for everyone.
Poetry is for dreamers.

Poetry is interesting.
Poetry is boring as well.
Poetry is rhythm.
Poetry is for adults.
Poetry is like the sea, it flows.
Poetry is something that I’m not good at.
Poetry is hard.
Poetry is a way of expressing yourself.
Poetry is what people back in the days used to write.
Poetry is not my favorite.
Poetry is cool, I guess.
Poetry is a word.
Poetry is a poem.

Poetry is rhyming. Poetry is like a flowing river. Poetry is the heart speaking. Poetry is an empty nothing that means something. Poetry is fear. Poetry is love. Poetry is passion. Poetry is in everyone. Poetry is inspiration.

National Poetry Month: Poet-to-Poet Project

Today my classroom was filled with the grunts and squeals of manatees.

In addition to understanding poetic terminology, creating public poetry projects, and writing timed explications, my students are participating in the Poet-to-Poet Project, another wonderful initiative from the Academy of American Poets.

We worked through a modified version of a lesson plan provided on the website, which incorporates Manatee/Humanity by Anne Waldman and Valentine for Ernest Mann by Naomi Shihab Nye. We began with taking notes on background information about manatees, including a photograph and audio recording of the noises they make, and then read Waldman’s poem aloud, recording our impressions afterwards. Finally, we watched a great performance of the poem by Waldman herself, and recorded our impressions of it, followed by group discussion and writing about how the performance impacted our experience of the poem and how the poem itself made us see manatees differently and think think more emotionally about what it means when animals are endangered. As directed in the lesson plan, we only watched Waldman talk about her inspiration after we had discussed the poem more ourselves, which I think worked really well. Waldman’s reading really adds a richness to the text, and as one of my students noted, “she’s definitely giving off a hippie vibe, in a good way.” It’s a great poem to connect to the environment and sustainability issues, as well as a reminder of the interconnectedness of life, and Waldman’s passionate intensity shines through the screen.

Next, we read Nye’s poem and recorded our impressions as well. We watched Nye perform the poem and also speak about what inspired it, this great anecdote about an 8th grade boy who walked up to her in a school hallway and “ordered a poem,” as well as a friend of hers who gave his wife a pair of skunks for Valentine’s Day. Immediately afterwards, my students said how much they loved her line, “the person you almost like, but not quite,” so we brainstormed in our notes for a few minutes about what that line inspired in us.

In our next class, the students will work on a series of planning questions to help them write a poem of their own, inspired by either Waldman or Nye’s work, which they will send in to the Academy. I’m so excited to see what they write!

National Poetry Month: Public Poetry Project

One of my favorite parts of celebrating National Poetry Month with my ninth graders is watching what they do with the public poetry project I’ve been evolving for them over the past few years. I used to offer it as extra credit, but I’m so in love with the assignment that I’ve required it this year. This assignment has been popular in our community as well; faculty and students have approached me and others to express how much they enjoyed seeing poetry  I’m going to include the entire assignment in this post, and if you end up doing something similar with your students, here are some recommendations:

  • make sure to approve each student’s poem, not necessarily because they will find something inappropriate, but because they will find lots of “poetry” on the Internet that more closely resembles what you find on the inside of a greeting card. I approve each poem to make sure it has an identifiable author and is of literary merit.
  • student choice is really important here to increase engagement, but I make sure to require the students to explain why they chose their particular poem, as well as why they chose this particular method of sharing it publicly with our community, to encourage them to think carefully about their choices.
  • the other advantage of approving poems is making sure you don’t flood your school with “Where the Sidewalk Ends” in fifteen different presentations!
  • it can also be helpful to keep a public list somewhere so students can check it themselves and see what poems have already been claimed.

Here’s the assignment I give them–feel free to adapt or modify for your own use:

Dear students,

As April is National Poetry Month, we will conceive and execute a public poetry project! First, you will choose a poem (go here for some suggestions, but you can choose others as well), and then think about how you will make it public. Here are some ideas for you to consider:

• posting poems in public places like hallways or bathrooms (with approval)
• making a greeting card or bookmark featuring a poem to distribute in student and/or faculty mailboxes
• reading a poem aloud at a morning or class meeting
• printing the poem (or a portion of it) on a t-shirt and wearing it in public
• teaming up with a few other students to create a bulletin board display for my classroom (or another classroom, with that teacher’s approval)
• creating a visual representation of the poem that would hang in my classroom for the month
• writing your poem on sidewalks with chalk
• teaming up with a few other students to organize a poetry reading, like perhaps for a Lower School class (see me if you want help arranging this)
• many other creative possibilities!

The requirements are that you must document your project, either through pictures, giving me an example of what you have distributed or some other form you clear with me, and including a paragraph about why you have chosen this poem and this method of public display. You must also submit your event on the Academy of American Poets website so that it will be recorded with all the other public poetry projects happening this month across the country. I must approve your chosen poem before you do anything public with it, and I must approve any proposals involving more than one student. Finally, your public project must happen in the month of April and take place on campus. This project will be worth 25 pts.

Have fun—I’m looking forward to the results!

National Poetry Month: Analyzing “Let It Go”

Do you want to build a snowman?

If you’re like me, then you have some young people in your life obsessed with Frozen, the animated juggernaut breaking records and flooding the world with the Frozen soundtrack and Frozen digital or DVD edition.

Yesterday and today with my ninth graders, I decided to tie our study of poetry to analyzing “Let It Go,” so my students could see that the same poetic tools we were discussing are often essential in songwriting as well. We began by discussing imagery, metaphors, and similes, and then moved into making sure we could define alliteration, rhyme, assonance, and consonance. We focused in particular on these sections of the song:

The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I tried


My power flurries through the air into the ground
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around
And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast
I’m never going back,
The past is in the past

which I projected and had the students annotate on their own copies. In just these two sections, you can point out alliteration, assonance, rhyme, metaphors, images, similes, word choice, structure and characterization. We had a very good discussion about the complex ways the songwriters used language to create the same effects that we would see and hear in the film version as well, and I think it helped make our discussion of poetry more closely tied to the power of language in their own lives. Of course, reading the song made them want to hear it, so I did play a few minutes of it to wrap up our discussion!

Help Me Choose!

Now that the Pulitzer Remix project is over, our fearless leader Jenni B. Baker is assembling a manuscript to pitch to publishers. Due to the sheer number of poems, we are all choosing what we think are the best of the work we produced, to help her sort out some early candidates. After some personal/family factors, I do not have the entire 31 poems I hoped to have, but I do have a good amount of poems to choose from–if I could make a decision.

That’s where you come in.

Please go see all the poems I wrote during the project (click on each book cover to reveal the poems), and let me know here in the comments which poems you like the most. The project will be hidden from public view after May 19th, while Jenni assembles the manuscript, so if you could look sometime soon, that would be great. While you’re on the website, feel free to look around; there’s an incredible amount of interesting work posted, and I’ve read some amazing stuff from my fellow remix poets.

Thanks for your help!