I recently attended a teacher’s workshop presented by Penny Kittle at Rutgers University sponsored by Rutgers Center for Literacy Development. I’ve seen Penny many times. Usually, she talks to teachers about creating reading and writing workshop spaces in high school classes. Penny was a high school English teacher in New Hampshire and her mentor was the late, great Donald Graves. I was looking forward to Penny’s presentation because she is always inspiring and gives my teaching doldrums a spark. This time, I was especially looking forward to hearing her because she would be talking about one of my favorite subjects – Poetry. However, in the back of my mind, I thought there was very little new that I’d learn ,since I was a student of Adrienne Rich, have published some poetry, and have taught poetry to children for the last 40 years. What could Penny teach me that I could bring back to the faculty at my school? Probably not much, but I’d have a great day listening to and writing poetry. That is a noble undertaking in cold and dreary January.
And of course, Penny had much to share. She talked about exposing students to a lot of poetry, reading it aloud and re-reading it. Then lifting a favorite line and using that line to spark one’s own poetry. I’ve done this many times before both as a student and as a teacher, but practicing it again with unfamiliar poems made it all brand-new again to me. One of Penny’s creative admonitions also rang true: Don’t write what you know – Write what you notice! As a little child, I was always noticing everything in my environment. In fact, I was such a slow reader, because I was absorbing and dissecting the author’s craft. I didn’t want anything to escape my notice. I was also a notorious eavesdropper, using everything little tidbit in different poems, stories, and drawings. Helping students develop a keen eye for noticing is a essential in having them grow to be more curious and deliberate writers.
Then came a space in Penny’s presentation in which she showed a video clip of a poem by Patrick Roche, “21 Cups.” I could not keep up with the rest of the workshop activities after that. I became entranced by Patrick’s poem both the way in which he constructed it – counting back from 21 years to one year old – and the compelling way he described the dysfunctional relationship he had with his father. Patrick’s poem completely held my attention; completely made me sit up and take notice. Now, this is the true power of a poem. I immediately had to share it with someone. Who could I share this poem with? I knew almost immediately – Mike Rosen! Mike is a former student of mine, and now he is an amazing, accomplished spoken word poet. I would share Patrick’s poem with Mike; he would understand. And of course, the world being what it is – small and round – Mike knew Patrick’s poem and had organized a poetry slam in which Patrick was one of the participants. Small world, indeed. And that is the other power of poetry – it connects.
I strive to write poems that will make people sit up and notice and connect. I want to help students writers to notice, connect, and share. One of the 3rd grade classes in the the school where I am the ELA Curriculum Coordinator, introduces children to philosophical ideas through literature. This past week, the 3rd grade teacher shared with me her students’ reaction to the question: “Is art and poetry necessary for a community?” after reading Leo Lionni’s book, Frederick. This teacher was a bit dismayed that her young students all agreed that poetry and art were indeed NOT necessary. She wanted to jump into the discussion and tell them that they were wrong, but that is not allowed in philosophical discussions. My reaction to her was that she needed to provide her students with more art, music, and poetry and have them wonder what life would be without the arts. This is what happens when we separate the arts from academic instruction, but that is a topic at another time!
Penny ended her presentation by sharing the work she has been doing as a board member of the non-profit group, Poetic Justice, which helps incarcerated women in Oklahoma express their feelings and ideas through poetry and writing classes. Here, Penny illustrates the immense need for community to forgive and heal through poetry. Here, she shows pathways between the outside and inside world. Here, there is a place for inmates to explore the depths of right and wrong and redemption. And it is here where readers sit up, take notice and are transformed.