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.”
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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
grade.”
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
breathless.
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. 
Love,
Your teacher

49 Comments

  1. Mrs. Waibel

    Loved this so much I had to share on FB. Made me cry —this is why I teach. I have always thought that students will rise to the expectations that we put out there—this is a prime example of that!

  2. Anonymous

    My kids and I are so stressed out right now — it's been frigid and snowy and spring break is not for weeks yet and we just need to get away from each other — but this post made me remember why I go back to them every cold, dark morning. Thank you.

  3. Anonymous

    Dear Teach,

    I stumbled across your blog a couple weeks ago. I have found your posts to be humorous and relatable to my every day encounters with the middle school kids at the school I teach and my own 5th grade class in a very low income area. We have our state standardized test coming up in 2 weeks. The stress this year has been over the top (as it has for most teachers) with implementing common core, funding issues, and the ever changing education system. I have struggled with if I want to return to the school I am at or even teaching in general next year. I found this post to be extra special! My teammates thought I was absolutely crazy for starting a literature unit with my 5th graders. They wanted to strictly work on test prep as the amount of days we have left to review quickly declines. I stuck to my guns and started my lit unit anyway! We are reading Wonder and my students absolutely love it! We all needed a break from test prep (even me). As we read yesterday and I listened to the giggles in my classroom while they all were engaged reading the book (even the 5 SPED kids and 4 ELA students), I remembered why I teach. My students completely blew me away with the discussion we had and I left yesterday feeling so proud of them. I was reminded how far my students have come and my heart grew just a little bit more! I knew I made the right choice choosing a literature unit over the extra 45 minutes of test prep right at that moment. I, too am so lucky to have them this year! I think we all need a little reminding of how lucky we are sometimes even when the going gets tough!

    Sincerely,
    One Lucky Returning Teacher

  4. Ms. Okes

    I forced my seniors in high school to research famous American and British poets and present on them. They grumbled. Then I forced my students to choose poems from the writers presented and create a MovieMaker project on the texts. They grumbled, but mostly because we had a lot of technological frustration. Some were actually excited about this project, and I got some great "movies" out it! This week we've been emulating poems and writing our own originals. The kids were uncertain at first, but many of them are excited to share (if not necessarily present) their poems now. I don't know how many times I thought I was crazy, but I'm really glad we pushed through.
    How do you help your kiddos choose poems to memorize? Would you be willing to share your rubric?

  5. Anonymous

    Still remembering the terror and joy of reciting poems (prop mandatory) every Friday afternoon in fourth grade. "The Nap Taker" by Shel Silverstein was my favorite and I still know it by heart. Keep up the good work, Teach!

  6. Anonymous

    As a teacher of 37 years-these are the kinds of things that keep us coming back year after year and still loving what we do!

  7. Shannon Robinson

    I love your blog. I, too, teach 7th grade and can totally relate. What you wrote made me cry. I love it. I used to make my students memorize "Paul Revere's Ride," and they groaned about it. However, one of my former students saw me years later and commented how great that was and was proud to say she still remembered most of it. Thank you for sharing your 7th grade classroom with us.

  8. Anonymous

    Hi! I am a first year teacher and a devoted reader of your blog. Thank you for writing and sharing such thoughtful and hilarious stories. I come here when I need to laugh, some inspiration, and advice for how to get through. I read this and share with others because your posts are so relevant and it's so comforting to know someone thinks the same way I do. I really enjoyed this assignment. I would like to use this if that's alright! Did you have them choose any poem that they wanted? Were there guidelines at all for how to read the poem? This letter was touching and honest. Thank you!

  9. Ms. Okes

    After downloading your poetry assignment, I went to cite you in the header (because if I require my students to cite their sources, I must lead by example), and started to put your name as Teach, Love. Let me know if you have a preferred nom de plume. Lover, Cardigan? Writer, Literary Song? To Us All, Inspiration? Love, Another Teach

  10. Matthew Boffey

    Wow. So moving. I am interviewing with a school right now for what would be my first year of teaching, and your posts are simultaneously terrifying and inspiring me – mostly the latter. If I get the job, you'll be my sensei.

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