A letter to my students

I wrote this yesterday after my students performed poems they had memorized. Yeah, it’s sappy, but as George Washington once said, “Sappy’s aiight every once in a while, y’all.”
Dear students from March 26, 2014,
Sometimes being a teacher is hard.
It’s been particularly hard lately because we’re in the middle
of standardized testing season, which, as you know, turns us all into crazy
people.  You guys take 6 tests a week to see if you’re ready for the
battery of standardized tests coming up, while I have to “drill and
kill” you as administrators breathe down my neck, because their bosses are
breathing down their necks, because the state is breathing down the districts’
necks, and so on.  (There is a lot of neck-breathing going on.)
Anyway, all of my colleagues thought I was crazy for scheduling
a poetry memorization project in the middle of testing season, and with good
reason.  You guys said I was crazy, too. Making you memorize poetry when
you’ve got mountains of packets of test review? That’s flirting with an Eighth
Amendment violation, right there.
I explained to
you why were doing this.  I said that when we memorize poetry, we
internalize it; we have a new relationship with it. When we learn a poem by
memory, inexplicably, it becomes a part of us. We
learn about fluency, pausing, shifts, tone, and sound devices, yes, but we also
learn about study skills, about determination, and about going outside our
comfort zone. Then I gave you the guidelines and rubric. (You responded by booing.)
Today was the performance day, so I got to school extra early to decorate our room.  As I stood on wobbly desks to hang Christmas lights from
the ceiling tiles, it finally dawned on me that I was crazy, and not because of
the multiple fire/work safety rules I was violating. I realized that I had asked
too much of you.  You are in 7th grade, after all.  You probably
wouldn’t be able to even appreciate the poem you’d chosen to memorize– many of
you chose poets like Longfellow, Keats, and Byron, poets you don’t usually read
about until high school. Plus, many of you come from homes where there might
not be anyone willing to help you memorize it or listen to you practice. Or
maybe you do have people at home who want to see you do your best, but just
don’t know how to help you.
And maybe the whole idea of this poetry project was just me being selfish.  Part
of me thought it would be fun because I did a poetry memorization project in
fifth grade that I remember being fun.  Was I just unfairly projecting my
nostalgia onto you? Maybe it was only fun for me because memorizing was easy
for me and I was relatively outgoing as a child– what about for the kids who
are painfully shy or for whom memorization is extremely difficult? I got down
from the desk I was standing on and began to panic.
I had visions of almost whole classes standing up to perform
with hardly anything memorized, of anxious criers, of students falling asleep
as their classmates performed right in front of them.
I thought, “What have I done?”
I thought, “This will be a disaster.”
I thought, “I will let the first few kids go and see if I
need to call the whole thing off.”
I thought, “Maybe I’ll just take it as an extra credit
I thought wrong. You blew me away.
There was the student who memorized a nearly 400-word spoken
word poem that included a singing part. Our jaws dropped.
There was the student, a recent immigrant, who performed
Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again” in a way that left us all
There was the girl who is painfully shy in class; who will
barely speak above a whisper to me, and doesn’t speak at all to her classmates.
In a clear, loud voice, she performed every single word of  Amy Gerstler’s “Touring the Doll Hospital”
flawlessly, her words easily reaching the back row. You guys gave her a
standing ovation. I don’t know if you saw her while you were clapping, but she wasn’t just smiling. She was laughing triumphantly.
Then there was  the boy who performed “First Love” in such a way
that I’m sure if John Clare were in the room with us, he would have said,
“Yes! You captured that perfectly.”
There were the girls who wrote and memorized original poems
about self-harm, bullying, and other deeply personal subjects, and their words
moved the audience to tears. Some of you wrote and performed poems about hamburgers or monkeys with mustaches, and we laughed, because good poetry makes you laugh, too.
Being a teacher is hard sometimes. But other times you remind me
how lucky I am to be here; that knowing you and learning with you is my
greatest privilege.
Thank you.
Your teacher