Tag Archives: #TeachLivingPoets

Paired Texts: Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” and Ilya Kaminsky’s “We Lived Happily During the War”

Robert Frost and Ilya Kaminsky
Robert Frost (New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection/Library of Congress) and Ilya Kaminsky (Slowking)

I have to admit to a love/hate relationship with Robert Frost’s poetry stemming from the fact that I wrote a research paper on symbolism in his poetry as a senior in high school. That kind of thing will put anyone off, and it didn’t help that I had what I’d consider now to be an inarguable thesis (essentially it was, yes, he uses symbolism—not much of an argument there). Still, not many people write poems about people getting their arms chopped off with a chainsaw. There was a reason I chose to write about Frost at that time, and it was that I loved his poetry. After I finished that paper and set his poetry aside for a while, I came to enjoy it again. I like the simplicity with which Frost grapples with big ideas and large problems, bringing them to the scale of the mundane. He’s the type of poet who has been a staple of the classroom for so long and become such an institution that it might be difficult to approach him in a fresh way but remember, our students are often just meeting him for the first time. He’s new to them, and he can become new to us all over again when we teach his work.

After the war in Ukraine started, I knew I wanted to bring Ilya Kaminsky’s devastating poem “We Lived Happily During the War” into my classroom, but I needed to think about how. I teach thematically, and as a result, every work I teach connects to a theme. The more I thought about “We Lived Happily During the War,” the more I wanted to put it into conversation with “Mending Wall.”

My rationale is that both poems deal in some way with complicity. The speaker in Frost’s poem doesn’t rail against all the barriers and borders we put up. He says “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” But what is the “something”? Not necessarily the speaker. After all, he is the one who reaches out to the neighbor to say it’s time again to repair the wall between their properties. If he doesn’t exactly agree that “good fences make good neighbors,” he also doesn’t disagree because he continues this annual ritual—a ritual he’s not sure about. Kaminsky’s poem asks us to think about what we are doing (enough?) during a time of crisis or war.

In crafting my lesson, I drew from two excellent resources. First, Poetry Foundation has a poem guide for “Mending Wall” that includes a great analysis of the poem and offers interesting insights. Second, the podcast On Being: Poetry Unbound has an episode devoted to “We Lived Happily During the War” in which the host, Pádraig Ó Tuama, talks the listener through his analysis of Kaminsky’s poem. These resources helped me craft discussion questions for a teacher-facilitated class discussion of the two works.

I started class with some biographical details about Robert Frost. I like to introduce my students to the people they’re reading. Here is a good, relatively short biography of Robert Frost.

We listened to Frost read the poem “Mending Wall” and then read the poem on our own again, annotating and jotting down our thoughts.

After we read the poem, I asked students some questions:

  • What is Frost talking about literally in this poem?
  • What is he talking about metaphorically? (Students will probably identify this poem can be read about geopolitical borders, but if not, you might gently nudge them.) Are we driven toward connection and cooperation or are we more mistrustful?
  • Who gets the last word in the poem? How does that choice impact the poem’s message?
  • Who is the one who suggests the two go out and rebuild the wall? (Notice it’s the speaker, who seems less inclined to put up walls, who suggests it’s time.)
  • Why do they rebuild the wall? What purpose does it serve?
  • How do the speaker and the neighbor interact? Does the speaker confide his thoughts to the neighbor? Who does he confide in?
  • If fences do NOT make good neighbors, what does? Who is our “neighbor”?
  • In his old age, Frost said this poem had been “spoiled” by being “applied.” This comment seems to imply Frost wishes he could control how people interpreted or applied his work. Do we have to respect his opinion, or is it okay to interpret or apply his work in ways he might not have intended?

I told students Frost published this poem while living in England in 1914. We turned a historical lens on the poem and discussed how the times in which it was written may have informed the poem’s message. I shared how this poem became a Cold War poem after the Berlin Wall was built and that George H. W. Bush quoted from this poem when it came down in 1989. I referred to Ronald Reagan’s famous speech in which he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” I explained that even if Frost wrote this poem at another time, he can’t control how people read and apply it later on. He might not even have been thinking about geopolitical borders when he wrote it, but even if he wasn’t, it doesn’t matter, especially if so many people see that message in his poem. Poems take on a life that no one can foresee, much less control.

One might argue this recently happened with Ilya Kaminsky’s poem, “We Lived Happily During the War.” I put this poem in conversation with “Mending Wall,” even though I have no idea if Kaminsky considers his poem in conversation with Frost’s poem or not. I showed my students this excellent feature on Kaminsky.

As we did with Frost, we listened to the poet read his work. I love Kaminsky’s dramatic reading.

It may be important to share that Kaminsky’s poem “We Lived Happily During the War” opens his collection Deaf Republic. Deaf Republic is about a town, Vasenka, in which soldiers shoot and kill a young deaf boy at a puppet show performance taking place in the town square. As a means of protest, the townspeople refuse to hear and create a subversive sign language to coordinate their fight against the soldiers’ oppression. It reads in some ways like a verse play, with a cast of characters.

As we did with Frost’s poem, we took a few minutes to reread Kaminsky’s poem. You might have students read and discuss in small groups. You know your students and their preferences for working.

After we took that time to unpack the poem, I facilitated a discussion, asking the following questions:

  • What repetition do you notice in the poem? What is the effect? (Be sure to unpack the implications of the repetition of “house” and “money” and “not enough”).
  • What is the “house”? Who is in your household? (Encourage students to think more broadly, as Kaminsky does when he starts with the street of money, the city of money, the country of money; could our “house” be our country?)
  • If everyone in our “house” is okay, is that enough? Should we be doing more for people outside our “house”?
  • What about the repetition of “money”? What does that make you think of? (The podcast mentions how crises and wars can be opportunities for people to make money.)
  • Who is the “we” in the poem and how do you know?
  • Later the speaker asks forgiveness—”(forgive us).” Why is that in parentheses? What is the speaker asking forgiveness for? Would you forgive the speaker? Would you want to be forgiven if you were the speaker? Do you think you could be forgiven? Who needs to be forgiven?
  • What does the speaker mean by “happily”? What is living happily, especially in the context of living happily during the war?

The podcast discusses the “politics of disability,” which may be interesting to share with students as well. There is also a connection to Martin Niemöller’s piece, “First they came for the Socialists…” I would definitely bring that piece for discussion. Pádraig Ó Tuama mentions in the podcast that in so many places in the world, people are dying or just trying to survive the day, while others are picking out a color to paint their kitchens. He says, “There’s a brutality about that. This poem isn’t, I think, trying to make us feel guilty about those things, but it is trying to say, ‘Are you doing enough?’ Because the poem has the invitation to say, ‘we protested / but not enough, we opposed them but not / enough.'” Pádraig Ó Tuama invites us to wonder “What is the ‘enough’ going to be?”

One of my students said he felt like Kaminsky’s poem reminded him of the United States’ isolationist policies during World War II until Pearl Harbor. He explained the connection to his peers, who really appreciated it. Reading these poems gave us an opportunity to use a historical lens (or new historical) to examine how poetry can speak to the time in which it was written and the times in which it might be read.

Finally, I asked students how these two poems could be in conversation with each other. How are their messages related? I placed them in a unit on the theme of Tradition and Progress. I might argue they explore the tension between the two ideas. Like Frost’s poem before it, “We Lived Happily During the War” has taken on a new life in the wake of Russia’s invasion and war in Ukraine, especially as Kaminsky is a Ukrainian-American poet. Both poems might have been addressing the times in which they are composed, but they also speak to our time.

Book Recommendation: Teach Living Poets by Lindsay Illich and Melissa Alter Smith

If you teach English, get this book!

If you follow me on Twitter or have read through some of my previous blog posts, you probably know I’m a huge fan of #TeachLivingPoets. In fact, I’m not exaggerating even a little when I say the #TeachLivingPoets community has revolutionized the way I teach poetry. I cannot recommend Lindsay Illich and Melissa Alter Smith’s book Teach Living Poets highly enough. Lindsay and Melissa share a wealth of teaching ideas that will help you get started.

The book begins with recommendations for discovering and reading contemporary poetry. I love the protocol for reading poetry in chapter 3 (see how I used it with a lesson on “She Walks in Beauty” by George Gordon, Lord Byron and “To the Girl Who Works at Starbucks…” by Rudy Francisco). Next, Lindsay and Melissa explain how to approach teaching poems and single-author collections. They discuss how to invite poets into the classrom—this section of the book made me so envious, and it really made me want to figure out how to bring poets to my school. Lindsay and Melissa offer ways to teach poetry writing and poetry projects (including poetry blogs and podcasts). They end the book with discussion about how to connect with other educators.

I was really excited by the activities and ideas that I could bring right into my classroom. I am trying the tone bottles activity described on pp. 49-52 the week after next. I’d originally planned it for January 4, but we had to be remote because of an increase in COVID cases, and the activity is hands-on. 

A few years ago when I decided I wanted to do more with contemporary poetry in my classroom, I reached out to Melissa on Twitter, and she graciously offered me a list of poets to start with. She’s an evangelist for poetry, eager to share her expertise. Every book she recommended was an absolute winner, and I gradually learned more about the contemporary poetry scene on my own and was able to identify collections to purchase for my classroom. I’m lucky in that I have the ability to purchase poetry books out of my department budget. Since that’s not true for many teachers, I would recommend trying outlets such as Amazon Wish Lists, DonorsChoose, or grants for educators so you can build your collection. You will not be sorry. However, it’s also possible to access the work of many of these great poets online at sites like Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets (poets.org) as well as some of the poetry presses.

Before COVID, I went to a poetry reading given by Eve L. Ewing for the benefit of MassLEAP, a poetry organization serving Massachusetts youth. I wore my #TeachLivingPoets t-shirt, and when Ewing saw it, she asked me, “Oh, are you one of the #TeachLivingPoets people? I love you guys.” She went on to tell me how I could access free audio versions of her collections and ideas for teaching her work. Ewing also taught me how to use the burst feature on my phone to get good photos!

If not for #TeachLivingPoets, I’m not sure if I’d have discovered Eve L. Ewing—or Kaveh Akbar or José Olivarez, or Jericho Brown, or… the list goes on! And what a world these poets have opened up for me.

Anecdotally, I know I’m a better poetry teacher and that my students enjoy poetry more (and their course surveys often attest to this fact) since I have incorporated the voices of contemporary poets in my curriculum. Lindsay and Melissa’s book gives English teachers a great place to start to #TeachLivingPoets. Thank you, Melissa and Lindsay, for sharing your knowledge with us all!

Buy Teach Living Poets from NCTE or Amazon (unfortunately, I couldn’t find it for sale at Bookshop.org).

Here We Are

After the election of the current occupant of the White House, I wrote a post in which I discussed my feelings about it. In the comments on that post, you’ll see a commenter chastise me for bringing my politics into my own blog. Well, the fact is that teaching is political. We all have a positionality and a bias. We have lived our experiences and interpreted them subjectively through the lens of our positionality and bias. Other people do not share those same experiences. However, when people’s lives are at stake, it’s wrong to be silent. It’s just flat wrong.

I was actually raised (or I should say my mother attempted to raise me) to believe that discussing politics was tacky or crass. No joke. Obviously, the teachings did not stick. Nor did the casual racist attitudes of my family. And fighting the racism in which I was brought up takes daily work. I still make mistakes all the time. Racism is so deeply embedded in the fabric of our society. The biggest mistake I think I make on a regular basis is not speaking up to my family or old friends when they say racist things. It’s something I am working on trying to change, but being a bystander in these moments comes from a place of fear, and several years of therapy are helping me grapple with this fear, but it is embedded very deeply in my psyche. Freezing or fleeing are responses to trauma that I have relied on as a coping mechanism. I do it because when I was small, I could not fight.

Fighting does not come naturally to me. I really have to push myself to do it. Even challenging people is very hard for me to do. I struggle with how to do it and have had to learn all kinds of techniques for approaching it. I absolutely fear confrontation. However, I have also realized as I have become older that confrontation and facing these fears are necessary sometimes. Now is one of those times.

I am struggling with how to say what I want to say, so bear with me. This post will likely not be polished. This post will likely ramble.

Racism is wrong. It is just wrong. There is no place for it in our world. It is holding us back as a species. When I think of all we could accomplish in this world if we didn’t spend so much time fighting each other over things that don’t matter, I feel so angry.

Racism is also the lived experience of people of color. And believe it or not, it hurts the people who are racist as well. It twists them and makes them go against concepts they would otherwise believe it—Christian charity, kindness, and love, for example. When you can dehumanize a group of people, when you can see them as the other or as less than human, it is so much easier to devalue their lives. That is what we have done for centuries in this country. We have said over and over that Black lives do not matter. Black lives DO matter. Of course all lives matter, but it is Black lives that are in peril because of systemic, structural racism that our country was founded on. If you don’t believe me, go beyond Jefferson’s writings in the Declaration of Independence (did you realize a passage about Great Britain inciting slaves against the Colonists was struck?) and read his Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he says,

Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarfskin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites. Perhaps too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious* experimentalist has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them from extricating, in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in expiration, to part with more of it.

Or how about this?

Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar œstrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [Phillis Wheatley]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism. The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem.

This man enslaved his own children.

My perspective is that people struggle with absolutes. Either the founders of this country were brilliant men who conceived of a radical idea about a new government, or they were horrible White supremacists who wanted to preserve their way of life. Actually, yes, they were both. Being able to hold these contradictions in your head at the same time is the essence of critical thinking, and it is sorely lacking in this country right now. There is no reason why we shouldn’t have learned about Jefferson the man with all his contradictions and problematic aspects in addition to Jefferson the statesman.

Let me be absolutely clear. When I teach my students, I teach this full picture. This includes the inclusion of a variety of voices that our curriculum has traditionally excluded. I am not going to apologize for doing that. I think it’s a moral imperative. I think teachers who DO not do that need to do some hard thinking about why they are silencing certain perspectives. Take a look at Langston Hughes’s poem “Let America Be America Again.” This poem is not new.

There is actually a logical fallacy called “appeal to tradition” or argumentum ad antiquitatem. The crux of this appeal is that we should not change things because we have always done it that way, so therefore, it’s the best way. While there is nothing wrong with tradition, there is something wrong with clinging to practices and beliefs because they have been held a long time. One of the worst accusations I have heard politicians level at one another is “waffling.” You used to believe something else, and now you don’t anymore, so that must mean that you don’t stand for anything. No, it means that you changed your mind. Or to quote Taylor Mali, “That changing your mind is one of the best ways / of finding out whether or not you still have one.”

I have changed my mind many times as a result of new learning, and changing our minds is something we need to do to save ourselves from the sicknesses in this country. Educating ourselves is critical. We live in a country in which a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Three other officers stood by and did nothing. Police officers murdered Tamir Rice in the park for playing cops and robbers with a toy gun, an activity many White children engage in without being in danger of their lives. Trayvon Martin was walking home to his father’s house from a store with a package of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea, and because a racist man didn’t recognize him and saw only his hoodie and skin, he felt like it was okay to kill him. And he escaped penalty. How many more? I could offer a list.

Ahmaud Arbery

Tony McDade

Breonna Taylor

Freddie Gray

Amadou Diallo

Botham Jean

Dreasjon “Sean” Reed

Philando Castile

Jamar Clark

Michael Brown

Ezell Ford

Eric Garner

Sandra Bland

The sad fact is that I could go on an on and on with that list. I don’t have to worry if my son leaves the house that he won’t come back. I don’t have to talk to him about how to comport himself with police officers so he can avoid being killed. That’s it. Bottom line. Meanwhile, my friends send their beautiful Black sons into the world knowing the world fears and despises them.

Look at your own child, if you have one. Can you fathom being able to do that? For God’s sake, put yourself in someone else’s shoes and learn some empathy. You can’t sympathize with the feeling because it is not your experience, but unless you can try to picture what that experience must be like, we are lost.

And the leadership we have in this country right now demonstrates a frightening lack of empathy. I do not think the current resident of the White House is capable of empathy. That means he doesn’t care about you, either. He is completely morally bankrupt and incapable of any feelings that are not rooted in self-interest.

Make no mistake about where I stand. Black Lives Matter. We are a sick country, and we have always been sick. We are also a country with some pretty wonderful ideals, if we could ever manage to live up to them. As James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” America can be both great and terrible. But it cannot become better unless we have an honest reckoning with systemic racism. As Baldwin also said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

This is a wholly inadequate response to what is happening in our country, but it’s only the start. I’m going to work on doing better. Racism is a cancer. We don’t eradicate cancer by pretending it doesn’t exist. Eradicating cancer takes extreme measures. I’m going to work on learning more. I am going to try to be braver and confront racism and injustice.

Are you?

NCTE 2018 Reflections

Each year, I try to take some time to reflect on my learning at NCTE. Last year, I actually did it in three parts, which I don’t think I will need to do this year.

Some perennial issues remain unaddressed. For example, rooms are still over-crowded for certain popular sessions. I know this is hard to figure out, and predicting which size room presenters need is blind guessing, but it’s essential that whoever is making these decisions has the pulse of conversations happening on social media. I could have predicted, for example, that the #DisruptTexts and #TeachLivingPoets sessions would be full to bursting based on chat participation, but neither were in big rooms. On the other hand, my session, which was up against the ALAN Breakfast and some heavy hitters (see below), had scant attendance, and we were in a ballroom. That session should have had better attendance, but it’s hard to compete against the ALAN Breakfast (to say nothing of big-name presenters).

Another issue: We are still an echo chamber to some extent. I tweeted this out twice during the conference:

There are some folks who present every year, and unfortunately, it’s pretty much the same thing every year. I realize not everyone goes every year to hear them, but there are folks presenting multiple sessions, and they do it every year. And they’re selling books and professional development workshops. And some of these folks have great, innovative ideas. But we need to share the floor. Caveat: I have presented several times, too—six times since 2010. Some of the folks I am talking about have presented six times in the last two years or less.

I also know some folks who were in the session in which writer Sarah Cortez apparently said some hurtful, homophobic, bigoted things. Two horrible results: 1) fellow panelist and author Bill Konigsberg was hurt by the remarks, 2) many of the others presenting in the session were also hurt and are preservice teachers experiencing their first NCTE conference. I know in the moment, it’s hard to know how to respond, and it is very easy for those of us who were not there to say what we would have done, but it’s important that this is addressed with whatever agent that helped NCTE book this author and also that this author is not invited back again. Clearly, it was not something the fellow panelists should have had to address.

I had actually marked that session as one I might attend and went to High School Matters instead. I loved getting Carol Jago’s book recommendations at that session, and the two roundtables I attended were great. One was “Taking Writing from the Personal to the Public Minded: Teaching for Social Justice and Global Citizenship,” and the other was “Reading Between the Lines: Using LGBTQ Literature with Middle and High School Teachers and Counselors.”

I’m already out of order with my reflection. I missed A and B sessions as well as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s keynote because my flight landed at 6:00 PM. Usually, that’s not an issue with NCTE, but this year, some sessions were moved up so that Sunday could end a bit earlier (that’s my conjecture, anyway), and I like this change, but I didn’t know it would happen when I booked my plane tickets months ago. Lesson learned.  I hated missing Adichie.

I went to Cornelius Minor’s session, C.01: Raising Student Voice—What is Our Role in Equity and Justice in the English Classroom? He is a dynamic speaker, and I enjoyed hearing from him. We received free copies of Kwame Alexander’s Solo, too! Unfortunately, I didn’t get notes. I was sitting on the floor in the corner and couldn’t see, too, but that’s because I was late. I had gone to a Penguin/Moth breakfast that morning, and it ran into the first session. I’m not sure if Penguin was aware they were running into the next session or not.

I skipped a D session so I could eat and check out the exhibits. I only went to the exhibit hall this one time. The more often I attend this conference, the less interested I am in the exhibit hall. I can’t tell you how much free stuff I’ve taken that I’ve never looked at again. I’m really thoughtful about what I take now (my husband would probably disagree, but it’s true).

I went to Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena Germán, and Julia Torres’s session F.65: #DisruptTexts: Dismantling and Rebuilding (Reimagining?) the Literary Canon. If you haven’t been involved with #DisruptTexts on Twitter, you should fix that. We missed Kim Parker, but the group shared a stellar rationale for why we need to do this work and how we can do it—even if we have limited options about changing our curriculum, we can still disrupt it. I do hope they will share their slide deck. It looked like they had linked some interesting things on the slides themselves and also cited some research worth digging into. Josh Thompson took good Twitter notes (see the entire thread):

One big takeaway from this conference and from #TeachLivingPoets: I have a renewed interest in poetry. I admit I had let this interest slide because I was looking in the wrong places. We are in the midst of a poetry renaissance, and we need to be sharing these poets with our students. The picture at the top of this post includes all the books I heard about from #TeachLivingPoets either before or at the conference. I went to two sessions with the #TeachLivingPoets crew: G.34: #TeachLivingPoets: Redefining the Canon to Discover and Develop Student Voice through Living Poets and M.18: The Argument for Poetry: How Poetry Can Help Students Hear Other Voices and Raise Their Own. Both sessions were fantastic, and the great news is that both groups shared their slides and are linked above. I will try to share the book recommendations in a future post once I’ve had a chance to read them all.

My research in graduate school concerns eliminating grades, so I went to J.22: Report Cards that Motivate: Including Student Voice in Assessment. I was hoping to encounter research I wasn’t familiar with, but instead, I walked away with a list of schools who are actually doing this work, and perhaps I can figure out how to visit or how to interview people at these schools as part of my research. I’m glad I went for the sake of my dissertation, and I hope I can bring some of the ideas I learned in this session back to my school.

My last session was N.18: Teaching for Social Justice in the Age of Trump: Exploring Empathy and Vulnerability in a Divided America. This was a panel crafted from separate proposals, I gather. Meredith Stewart and her colleague Laura Price from Cary Academy, North Carolina, shared some interesting ideas about an American video essay assignment. They were great, and the assignment looks really intriguing.

I went to an E session that wasn’t memorable and co-opted the work of others, to boot. Nothing new and nothing to report. Same with the I session, which I attended hoping to get some ideas for a text I am not a huge fan of teaching. I mostly didn’t. I guess it’s time to speak with my fellow ninth grade teachers about this text.

I reiterate the remarks I make every year. Please check your equipment. Bring the right dongle. Make sure it works. Share your slide deck so people can listen to you and do not need to frantically take notes and block everyone’s view taking pictures of your slides. If you’re interested in other advice, you can find it here.

I missed part of Chris Emdin’s keynote but caught the second half. It was powerful! It was the only general session I was able to attend. I wish I had had time to get a book signed. I think it’s important that NCTE is bringing in academics like Chris Emdin and inviting authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to speak at this conference.

It might have been my imagination, or perhaps I was more aware of it, but on the plus side, it looked to me like more teachers of color attended and presented, and this is a step in the right direction. So what can we do to be more inclusive?

This conference remains out of reach for many. Some years, I had to pay my own way. It’s nothing to drop $1000 to attend this conference. I’m lucky my current school supports my professional learning, but many teachers are not in this position, and NCTE can and should do more to make this conference accessible to all. They can start by not charging presenters. I have a feeling they don’t want to do that because they make a lot of money from presenters attending the conference, but I have long thought it seems like a lot of money to shell out for a line on a résumé. NCTE is profiting from the work of these presenters. The least they can do is charge them a presenter fee that is significantly less than the full conference registration fee, but the right thing to do would be to waive the fee altogether.

Scholarship opportunities are also limited. Julia Torres and Lorena Germán coordinated an effort to raise money to send teachers this year, but NCTE should be part of the solution on this one. I know many, many teachers who only go when they can commute to the conference because hotel and airfare cost too much to go every year. And the learning they miss out on is substantial. We can do better by these teachers. I know how they feel because I was in their position, and there were some years that I went to NCTE on borrowed money and ate only fast food or snacks the whole time because it’s what I could afford since my school didn’t support my going. I love this organization and conference for making me a better teacher, and because I love it, I feel like I can tell them they need to work to be even more inclusive.

It was great to connect with friends and colleagues again. Despite some hiccups and fumbles and significant problems, I think this is a good conference that can be GREAT, and I look forward to next year already. The conference theme is “Spirited Inquiry.” I already have some ideas.

#TeachLivingPoets: Introduction to Literary Analysis and Critical Lenses

Books

I’ve been a little bit frustrated by my first unit in AP Lit. since my first year teaching it. Since this year is my fourth, it was time to make some changes or scrap it altogether, and since I felt it had some real potential, I decided to rethink the selections I was using to introduce literary analysis tools and critical lenses. I’m a little embarrassed it took me three years to figure out the solution. Even more embarrassing? I stumbled on this solution by accident after forgetting I was a day ahead of where I thought I’d be in my lesson plans. But after that serendipitous change went well, I knew what I needed to fix the rest of my unit: student agency.

I started peeking into discussions on Twitter at the hashtag #TeachLivingPoets some time ago. I asked which collections teachers using the hashtag recommended, and they offered a great list. I already had Clint Smith’s Counting Descent, which I highly recommend, and Wisława Symborska’s Poems New and Collected. I found Second Space by Czesław Miłosz, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry edited by J. D. McClatchy, and Miracle Fruit by Aimee Nezhukumatathil in a classroom, presumably left behind by a teacher who departed our school.

I ordered the following:

I put all these collections in a box I called my Box of Books by Living Poets. Of course, Miłosz and Symborska are not living poets, but they are at least 20th-21st-century poets. I carried the box with me to class.

The books that generated the most interest were Counting Descent and Citizen Illegal, though students also looked into Calling a Wolf a WolfElectric ArchesAmerican Journal, Miracle Fruit, and The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. To be honest, no one cracked open either Miłosz and Symborska. Some students elected to focus on poems they knew and loved by poets as diverse as Rupi Kaur, Allen Ginsberg, Dr. Suess, Eminem, and Emma Lazarus.

The first thing students do with the poems is learn how to use one of several literary analysis tools to help break down the poem. In my AP Lit workshop a few years ago, I learned about DIDLS, TWIST, and SIFTT (video). Lisa Huff had already introduced me to TPCASTT (weirdly, this TPCASTT post on my blog is the one that consistently receives the most traffic). If you know who invented any of these strategies, let me know so that I can give proper attribution. I do not know who created them, but they’re widely shared.

Students worked in groups to use the literary analysis tool to analyze a poem of their choice, create a presentation using Google Slides explaining how to use the analysis tool, and demonstrate their application of the tool to their own poem analysis.

In between using the literary analysis tools and learning critical lenses, students discussed Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor.

Students created a second presentation using critical lenses to deepen their poem analysis. They could use the same poem as before or a different one. Most students chose a different poem, again from the Box of Books by Living Poets or one of their own choosing. Again, students analyzed the poem using one of the literary analysis tools and added the layer of the critical lens.

Some of my takeaways from the change:

Students were much more engaged in this unit this year. It’s probably obvious, but the reason why I think they enjoyed the unit more was the selection of poetry. They had an opportunity to either analyze poetry they really like or they were introduced to poetry by living poets, with the immediacy and relevance of those voices bring with them. Students were really enjoying Clint Smith’s poetry. They were excited by the fact that José Olivarez’s book had been released just weeks ago, and they were probably some of the first students to analyze his poems.

Students were reading more poetry than they had in previous years. They had to find the poems they wanted, which in itself was a process. Students also shared their poems in presentations, reading the poems they were analyzing before sharing their analyses. Because of the large variety of poems available, students were simply reading more of them.

Students were able to bring in literature that was important to them. One student lamented in a recent discussion that she didn’t feel represented well in our school’s curriculum. She had read one major text by an author with her background, and to quote her commentary, “It was weird.” Because of these projects, she was able to bring in poets with backgrounds similar to her own background and share those poems with her classmates. Another student brought in her own poem to analyze. Two other students brought in a poem by a student their age at another school (video).

Students understand the literary analysis tools better. They are better able to articulate why they selected certain tools. For example, they noted the diction was interesting, and it prompted them to use DIDLS. If tone seemed really important, they chose TWIST. They loved TPCASTT for its versatility.

Students understand the critical lenses better. Purdue OWL has revamped their pages on critical lenses, and they are amazing. Having really good introductions to the critical lenses made a huge difference. Also, I think choosing their own poems asked students to think more about which lenses could be used to interpret the poems. For example, students with experience reading Clint Smith’s poems for the first presentation knew he would work well for critical race theory in the second. A student who loves Eminem knew his song “The Monster” was ripe for a psychoanalytical analysis. As a result of having to select their poems, students had to use higher-order critical thinking skills of application and evaluation to do their analysis as opposed to the past, when I selected poems I thought would be good to use for the critical lenses.

I was more engaged in the classroom, too. No, it’s not about me as the teacher, but I was way more interested during the students’ presentations because their own engagement and interest showed through in their work. Watching the presentations this year was really a lot of fun.

My prediction is that students will use both the literary analysis tools and the critical lenses more this year than they did in past years. I am hoping to grab a few minutes to ask their feedback on the unit in the upcoming week, but one student remarked as she left class Friday that “this is fun English.”

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