The Poetry of Teaching

Why a poem? Because in writing posts for this blog and for books I have written over the past half-century, I have used expository writing. I describe, analyze, and try to capture school reform, policy-making, and the practice of teaching using facts, evidence, and explanation. It is aimed at the brain, not emotions.

Yet art, dance, drama, short stories, novels, and poetry–even cartoons–can capture features of teaching and learning, particularly what teachers and students feel when in classrooms in ways that exposition cannot.

I am neither a poet nor an aspiring one. I offer these as ones that stirred me, that captured in vivid language what teachers and students feel and do.

The Hand

Mary Ruefle, 1996

The teacher asks a question.

You know the answer, you suspect

you are the only one in the classroom

who knows the answer, because the person

in question is yourself, and on that

you are the greatest living authority, but you don’t raise your hand.

You raise the top of your desk and take out an apple.

You look out the window.

You don’t raise your hand and there is

some essential beauty in your fingers,

which aren’t even drumming, but lie flat and peaceful.

The teacher repeats the question.

Outside the window, on an overhanging branch, a robin is ruffling its feathers

and spring is in the air.

Reprinted from Cold Pluto: by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press © by Mary Ruefle 1996.

Why Latin Should Still Be Taught in High School

Christopher Bursk

Because one day I grew so bored

with Lucretius, I fell in love

with the one object that seemed to be stationary,

the sleeping kid two rows up,

the appealing squalor of his drooping socks.

While the author of De Rerum Natura was making fun

of those who fear the steep way and lose the truth,

I was studying the unruly hairs on Peter Diamond’s right leg.

Titus Lucretius Caro labored, dactyl by dactyl

to convince our Latin IV class of the atomic

composition of smoke and dew,

and I tried to make sense of a boy’s ankles,

the calves’ intriguing

resiliency, the integrity to the shank,

the solid geometry of my classmate’s body.

Light falling through blinds,

a bee flinging itself into a flower,

a seemingly infinite set of texts

to translate and now this particular configuration of atoms

who was given a name at birth,

Peter Diamond, and sat two rows in front of me,

his long arms, his legs that like Lucretius’s hexameters

seemed to go on forever, all this hurly-burly

of matter that had the goodness to settle

long enough to make a body

so fascinating it got me

through fifty-five minutes

of the nature of things.

From The Improbably Swervings of Atoms by Christopher Bursk © 2006. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Poem for Christian, My Student

Gail Mazur

He reminds me of someone I used to know,

but who? Before class,

he comes to my office to shmooze,

a thousand thousand pointless interesting

speculations. Irrepressible boy,

his assignments are rarely completed,

or actually started. This week, instead

of research in the stacks, he’s performing

with a reggae band that didn’t exist last week.

Kids danced to his music

and stripped, he tells me gleefully,

high spirit of the street festival.

He’s the singer, of course—

why ask if he studied an instrument?

On the brink of graduating with

an engineering degree (not, it turned out,

his forte), he switched to English,

his second language. It’s hard to swallow

the bravura of his academic escapes

or tell if the dark eyes laugh with his face.

Once, he brought me a tiny persimmon

he’d picked on campus; once, a poem

about an elderly friend in New Delhi

who left him volumes of Tagore

and memories of avuncular conversation.

My encouragement makes him skittish—

it doesn’t suit his jubilant histrionics

of despair. And I remember myself

shrinking from enthusiasm or praise,

the prospect of effort-drudgery.

Success—a threat. A future, we figure,

of revision—yet what can the future be

but revision and repair? Now, on the brink

again, graduation’s postponed, the brilliant

thesis on Walker Percy unwritten.

“I’ll drive to New Orleans and soak

it up and write my paper in a weekend,”

he announces in the Honors office.

And, “I want to be a bum in daytime

and a reggae star at night!”

What could I give him from my life

or art that matters, how share

the desperate slumber of my early years,

the flashes of inspiration and passion

in a life on hold? If I didn’t fool

myself or anyone, no one could touch

me, or tell me much . . . This gloomy

Houston Monday, he appears at my door,

so sunny I wouldn’t dare to wake him

now, or say it matters if he wakes at all.

“Write a poem about me!” he commands,

and so I do.

Gail Mazur, “Poem for Christian, My Student” from Zeppo’s First Wife: New & Selected Poems (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005). Copyright © 1995 by Gail Mazur. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Source: The Common (The University of Chicago Press, 1995)

Mrs. Kitchen

Ann Staley

Teaching is about making 400 close-judgment calls a day. Wise teacher comment

Mrs. Kitchen

…traveled the world with her M.D. husband,

both working for the American Red Cross.

They returned to suburban Harrisburg

and began the next chapter of their lives.

Mrs. Kitchen became a 2nd grade teacher at Progress Elementary School.

Our classrooms had floor-to-ceiling windows,

which opened so you could hear recess voices,

and dark wooden floors polished to a sheen.

We were seated, not in usual rows,

but in a square “u” of desks.

We were allowed to sit with whomever

we wanted, as long as our work was uninterrupted

by giggling (the girls) or hitting (the boys).

Mrs. Kitchen was small in stature, big in heart.

She wore glasses and had curly brown hair.

She loved all of her students, but had,

I realized even then, a soft spot for me.

I didn’t understand why and still don’t.

Every afternoon, in the hour before school ended,

she read aloud to us–from books

on the New York Times Bestseller list.

 Kon Tiki is one I remember most vividly.

Winifred Kitchen taught “up” to us,

believing that eight-year-olds could understand more

than the 1950s psychology books expected.

This was her great gift to her fortunate students.

We studied Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal men,

then made shadow boxes depicting their lives.

One day when I’d finished my work early,

she sent me to the library, alone, saying,

 Get whatever book you want, Ann.

That day I chose a book titled The Pigtailed Pioneer,

about a girl whose covered wagon arrives in Portland, Oregon,

where she meets her first Indian in an encampment south of town.

I had braids, then, which my mother plaited each morning,

tying on plaid or satin ribbons that she ironed.

Girls still wore dresses to school in those days,

no pants were allowed until we got to Junior High School.

Jeans–never!

One afternoon I asked Mrs. K if I could go to the office

without being sent there. I wanted to meet the principal,

a woman, but wanted to go there on good terms.

She arranged an interview with this imposing woman.

After we finished speaking, the Principal told me to

sit behind her desk, answer the phone if it rang.

She was going out for her usual late afternoon of listening

to the classrooms with open doors. I was thrilled.

My 2nd grade year convinced me that I wanted to be a teacher.

I set up summer school for my dolls in the basement

and began, in earnest, my professional life.

In Instructions for the Wishing Light, with Permission from author

Teaching English from an Old Composition Book

By Gary Soto

My chalk is no longer than a chip of fingernail,

Chip by which I must explain this Monday

Night the verbs “to get;” “to wear,” “to cut.”

I’m not given much, these tired students,

Knuckle-wrapped from work as roofers,

Sour from scrubbing toilets and pedestal sinks.

I’m given this room with five windows,

A coffee machine, a piano with busted strings,

The music of how we feel as the sun falls,

Exhausted from keeping up.

                                       I stand at

The blackboard. The chalk is worn to a hangnail,

Nearly gone, the dust of some educational bone.

By and by I’m Cantiflas, the comic

Busybody in front. I say, “I get the coffee.”

I pick up a coffee cup and sip.

I click my heels and say, “I wear my shoes.”

I bring an invisible fork to my mouth

And say, “I eat the chicken.”

Suddenly the class is alive—

Each one putting on hats and shoes,

Drinking sodas and beers, cutting flowers

And steaks—a pantomime of sumptuous living.

At break I pass out cookies.

Augustine, the Guatemalan, asks in Spanish,

“Teacher, what is ‘tally-ho’?”

I look at the word in the composition book.

I raise my face to the bare bulb for a blind answer.

I stutter, then say, “Es como adelante.

Augustine smiles, then nudges a friend

In the next desk, now smarter by one word.

After the cookies are eaten,

We move ahead to prepositions—

“Under,” “over,” and “between,”

Useful words when la migra opens the doors

Of their idling vans.

At ten to nine, I’m tired of acting,

And they’re tired of their roles.

When class ends, I clap my hands of chalk dust,

And two students applaud, thinking it’s a new verb.

I tell them adelante,

And they pick up their old books.

They smile and, in return, cry, “Tally-ho.”

As they head for the door.

Gary Soto, “Teaching English from an Old Composition Book” from Gary Soto: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Gary Soto

2 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

2 responses to “The Poetry of Teaching

  1. Although I should start sending you poems on writing

    On Thu, Jul 30, 2020, 11:00 Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice wrote:

    > larrycuban posted: ” Why a poem? Because in writing posts for this blog > and for books I have written over the past half-century, I have used > expository writing. I describe, analyze, and try to capture school reform, > policy-making, and the practice of teaching using facts, ev” >

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