7 Gorgeous Poems For You to Feed Your Secondary Students

Thursday, June 28, 2018

A friend of mine is an incredible chef. When I visit her, she’s constantly pulling things out of her cabinet or refrigerator for me to sample.

“Here. Take a bite.”

“Smell this.”

“Try this. It’s SIN.”

“What do you taste?”

The stuff she has me try is always phenomenal, and always leaves me wanting more. Herb-marinated homemade feta. Pickled green tomatoes. Vanilla halvah frosting. “Can I just… have the rest of that?” I find myself asking about things I’m fully aware she needs for a recipe.

This has become my favorite way to “teach” poetry. Pulling out samples of my favorite poems and letting them settle on my students’ tongues, just for the sake of sharing something rich and delightful. This is not the only way I teach poetry—we do, of course, have to teach analysis and terms and the classics—but taking a minute or two once a week to share poetry for poetry’s sake does two things:

1) Communicates that poetry has intrinsic value, not just “something you need to pass my class/do well on the state test/SAT” value
2) Is a great way to build relationships in the classroom, through discussion and the mere fact that you’re taking the time to experience beauty with your childlings

Plus, here’s the best part: informally sharing poetry secretly teaches it, too. I find that the more poetry I share with my students “for fun,” the more I catch them in discussions saying things like, “I like that metaphor,” or “This reminds me of that poem we read about freckled things,” or, once, in a comment that almost made my heart stop beating, “I know that isn’t an iamb, but is there a word for a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables?”

Here are some of my favorites and where you can find them:

This is a really fun poem to discuss with students. Their ideas and interpretations will enchant you: I promise.  There are no wrong answers when you teach poetry this way.
Power line: “What must be voices bob up, then drop, like metal shavings/In molasses.”

Long before social media or video games, teenagers had a tendency to feel disconnected and alone, so I love any opportunity to share a poem about our interconnectedness and the invitation to participate. The last line is so powerful.
Power line: "Surely, even you, at times, have felt the grand array; the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding out your solo voice."

Mary Oliver: "The Journey" 
I love Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” and always share it with my 8th graders, but this is one of her poems that I don’t let students leave my classroom without knowing.
Power line: “One day you finally knew/what you had to do, and/began”

Rupi Kaur: “There Is So Much More To You Than Being Pretty”
Students will love Rupi Kaur, both for her short, meaningful poems and for the whimsical illustrations accompanying them.
Power line: “i am sorry i made it sound as though/something as simple as what you’re born with/is the most you have to be proud of”

I love this poem so much that I can’t decide whether it’s more like cheese, chocolate, or wine—my holy trinity. It’s an important poem, particularly for right now.
Power line: The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.”

This poem, which May wrote about Detroit, might be better understood by high school students, but that doesn’t mean middle school students can’t enjoy or be moved by it, too.
Power line: “…but they won’t stop saying/how lovely the ruins,/how ruined the lovely/children must be in that birdless city.” 

Definitely worth listening to out loud in addition to or instead of reading on paper. Also this has the “d” word for those whose students have never heard that word before and whose ears will crumble at its mention.
Power line: “…because there’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline no matter how many times it is sent away.”

What are the most delicious poems you know?

(And yes, I will be using "gorgeous" to describe inanimate objects like poems or iced coffee or Kleenex Cool Touch from now on. Thank you, Jonathan Van Ness, you gorgeous human.)



Somewhere Between 6 and 7 Things I’m Doing This Summer

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Hi, hello. Here I am.

I know you thought I’d left you, but I’ve been right here all along.

Doesn’t that sound like lyrics to the next big power ballad? I’ll make a music video for it. It’ll be of me wading in knee-deep water on a tropical beach in Antigua, except 1. I have no money to go to Antigua OR for professional video services and 2. I don’t want you to know who I am just yet, so the music video will really just consist of someone filming me walking and sloshing along the length of my bathtub and singing a song I made up with a bag over my head.

(As you can see, I’ve grown no less weird in our time apart.)

Today is my first day of summer, and summer feels a little different this year. Professionally, 2017-18 was great. I want to adopt all my students and their parents, and I feel like I’m the best teacher I’ve ever been. But the weight of the world outside of my classroom has just been...a lot. Between Harvey and the shooting in Santa Fe and a hundred other disasters near and far, I felt like I was army-crawling to the finish line this year, dragging both legs because this school year had broken them. You know what I mean?


One of my favorite summer traditions as a teacher besides peeing when I want is to make a list of everything I want to accomplish, complete, try, or visit over the summer. However, I haven’t actually made one of these lists in years. Between grad school, switching schools, professional development, moving, my contract job writing for WeAreTeachers, writing four new curricula*, and a large chunk of my close friends getting married, the past three summers have been so brain-stabbingly busy that I haven’t had the time for such frivolities. (Don’t worry, teachers who are parents—I hear your uproarious, condescending laughter about what I think being busy means.)

But this summer, I’m back in the game. Having a list helps redirect me from my natural inclination of how I’d like to spend a free day (sitting in complete darkness either watching a true crime documentary on Netflix or scrolling through articles online about how bad the world is) to more positive, healthy, productive ways of caring for myself, connecting with others, and developing Skills.

These are things I hope to accomplish between professional development, training, a super secret project I’ll tell you about before the end of the year (!), and the 3.5 million weekday appointments/errands I haven’t been able to complete from September 2017 until now:

My Summer To-Do List, 2018

1. Make at least one meal from a cookbook each week. 
I’ve amassed quite a few cookbooks and have made recipes from, oh, I don’t know, .01% of each of them? There’s something so pleasant about using a cookbook instead of your phone—it harkens back to The Old World. No frustration about your phone locking you out every 30 seconds, no spilling batter or sauces on your screen. Just the usual frustration about how to divide 1 and ¾ cup flour in half.

2. Read books. 
Here is my little baby stack!

Calypso because I love David Sedaris, Little Fires Everywhere because I’m late to the party where everyone read it in 2017, Eligible because my friend Alison’s book recommendation game is on fire, and Cravings because Chrissy Teigen is a national treasure. And yes, I AM counting a cookbook as summer reading, thank you for asking. Also note the jasmine plant that I have miraculously not killed. 

3. Learn how to throw an axe. 
No explanation for this one. I just want to.

4. Go to the beach or a lake. 
I like the beach best in the morning and evening because I’m ancient, so maybe I’ll rent a tiny beach house for a weekend. Want to come with me? I promise to bring boozy popsicles and go to bed every night before 10.

5. Invite my aged neighbor to have dinner with me one night. 
I say “aged” instead of “elderly” because she’s fabulous and zesty, words we might use to describe some great cheeses and wine. Plus I suspect she has some wild stories from her past, and I'm here for them.

6. Take a cheese class. 
I just learned that this is a thing, and I’m not sure if it’s a “how to make cheese” class or “learn about the different types of cheese” class, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll be there.

6. Compile my favorite quotes and poems into a journal. 
Right now I have them on a single, giant email thread with myself that I keep replying to, and it’s getting very hard to read with all the >>>>>s. Do you know what I mean by that? It’s only the first day of summer which means I don’t yet the energy to explain any further.

7. Teach my dog to stop jumping on people OR shake. 
One of these is way more ambitious than the other, so I want to have an “out” in case the first is too hard. This is how I approach to-do lists. Also maybe life.

 Just realized I have two number sixes. I’m leaving them.

What is on your summer to-do list? Besides your second jobs to make ends meet and your professional development and your curriculum writing and just in general recovering from a job that people think only lasts from 8-4 Monday through Friday nine months out of the year? Tell me what you're cooking (and which cookbooks you're using), what you're reading, what you're catching up on, what you're binge-streaming. Or just send me pictures of your pets.

I’ve missed you. And summer. It’s going to be a good one.



*Have you ever tried to use someone else’s lesson plans/curriculum? It feels like wearing someone else’s underwear**. I can’t do it.  So I write my own.
**I have not done this often.

4 Things That Happened This Semester That Should Give You Hope For the Future

Sunday, December 31, 2017

We have a lot of reasons to be worried about the future. (I won't list them for you. It's hard staying informed and involved without personally crumbling.)

But. One thing I’m going to do more of in 2018 to avoid personal crumbles in my quest to stay informed/involved is to practice gratitude in a more disciplined way—to sit and list out each morning at least three things I’m grateful for. I also will take this opportunity to recognize that I stick with journals/ routines/resolutions like this for approximately three weeks before abandoning them permanently. But it’s going to be a really good three weeks. I can feel it.

To get myself ramped up for the New Year, I’m listing out some moments from this past semester that have made me grateful and hopeful for the next generation. Though I worry about the world we’re leaving them, I rarely worry about the goodness of the young people. Here’s what I mean.

1) My students watched Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” early in the year, in which Adichie discusses the harm in accepting stories about a person, group, or situation from only one point of view. I had thought that the best part of this lesson was my student’s initial discussion of the video, but it turns out that the best part was how much it stuck with my students. Without my prompting, my students have returned to the talk again and again, comparing ideas and stories to things they find in literature, current events, and in their own lives.

When one student confessed to me that she had a crush on a guy in school—one that I don’t have in my classes—my first question was if he was nice to her (“Yes,”) and my second question was if he tries hard in school (“Well… not really.”). When I raised an eyebrow at her answer to my second question, she said, smiling, “Ms. ______, you aren’t making him into a single-story kind of guy, are you?” I absolutely was, and I was absolutely delighted to be called out on it.

2) Another middle school teacher I know—we’ll call her Ms. Todd—told me this story. A student asked why they weren’t doing Christmas activities in her class, and she responded that, although Christmas is a special time, anyone who celebrates Christmas would have more than enough opportunities to do so at home with their families.

“But everyone in here celebrates Christmas!” one student said. “Right?”

Another student spoke up that he was Jewish, so his family celebrated Hanukkah. He was happy to explain to the class the origins of the holiday and how his family celebrated. (In case it’s been a while since you were around middle schoolers, acknowledging that you are apart from the pack at age 13 is basically the bravest thing in the world.) Then the next day at school two students brought him Hanukkah cards that they had the class sign. You can go cry now. 

3) One day I found a note between classes that had fallen on the floor. It said, “You seem sad. Is everything OK?” The other person had written beneath that question, “No.” Then the first person had responded, “Want me to draw a sloth for you?” 

4) Ever since I taught my students about finding and evaluating sources for reliability, they have developed this running joke (really, a clever social criticism) that anything they disagree with or don’t want to believe is fake news.

Me: Well, I would let you redo this tomorrow, but we’re presenting projects tomorrow.
Student: We are? No—I thought they were due Thursday!
Me: Nope. It’s been on the board, my friend.
Student: The board is fake news!

Student: How long does the analysis need to be?
Me: Hmm, I would say ballpark 700-1,000 words.
Student: Fake news. You meant 100.
Me (laughing): One hundred words is barely a paragraph!
Student: Fake news. One hundred words is a book now.

It cracks me up every single time. They’re being silly when they say it, but it makes me deeply happy to send a pack of kids into the world who can read, think, and recognize absurdity for themselves. 

There are more reasons, but I didn’t have space for, like, four thousand more.

Peace and joy to you this holiday season and in 2018. Let me know if you want me to draw you a sloth.



On Harvey and helping

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Water in the hallway of Lutheran South Academy, where a friend teaches

I’ve lived in Houston for almost my whole life. I lived elsewhere for college, and there have been times I’ve wanted to live elsewhere again (usually during the dog days of summer when I have to drive places with Kleenex wadded under my armpits for several minutes before my A.C. kicks in), but I love this city fiercely, protectively.

I first heard rumors about the tropical storm forming over the Gulf last Wednesday evening. If you would like to know why the decision to mandate a city-wide evacuation is incredibly nuanced and could have been far more catastrophic in the case of Harvey, see my footnote for reading material.

By Thursday morning, my first period students were abuzz with news that the tropical storm was projected to hit Corpus Christi, over two hours away. By lunchtime that same day when I checked my phone, I had dozens of missed texts from friends and family about the storm, now a category one hurricane. My afternoon classes were somber.

“It’s going to be okay, right?” one of my students asked, her eyes wide. “Like, it’s not going to just, you know…” For summer reading, she and many of my students had read Isaac’s Storm about the 1900 hurricane in Galveston, which left between 6,000- 10,000 dead.

“Oh, for sure,” I told her. “Don’t worry. We’ve got way better technology now, and ways to mass-communicate. Even if it hits us directly, we’ll be okay.”

I have thought about that conversation a hundred times since then.

By Thursday evening, my district cancelled school on Friday. I don’t have cable, but the weather radar on my phone app showed a projected path for the hurricane to hit mid-coast Friday night, then travel upwards on to Houston. I packed a small bag and drove to my parents’ house—also in Houston, but in a neighborhood higher than mine—and there we waited for Friday to come.


Imagine with me for a moment that your Facebook feed—usually full of grinning babies, squinting selfies, grills lined with slabs of brisket and ribs, dogs almost as cute as yours—is now a parade of the unimaginable.

Imagine that it started with a photo taken from the second story of a friend’s house of dark flood waters sloshing over the wooden interior stairs. Then it was a picture from a neighborhood minutes from yours of a car completely underwater—still on, mercifully unoccupied—its tail lights glowing several feet below water like the huge, red eyes of a giant, mythical sea monster.

Then it was everyone.

Imagine post after post of rising waters, cries for help, frantic questions and pleas thrown into the Facebook void:
“Does anyone have access to blood thinner medication??”
“My cousin is in labor and is trapped in her house—we’ve called dozens of numbers but they’re all busy and the roads are flooded, someone help us!!”
“I just talked to the fire department-- if you’re escaping rising water, either go onto your rooftop or your attic but take an axe with you so you don’t drown.”

Imagine learning that a childhood friend had to be rescued from their roof in the middle of the night.

And then a former coworker had to be rescued in the same way.

And then your friend’s parents.

And then a neighbor.

And, and, and.

Imagine that it is no longer shocking to find out that people in your community are being rescued from their homes this way.

Imagine that for four days in a row, the text thread you wake up to is one in which you and your friends and family are checking on each other to see whose homes have water inside them, who needs help. And when someone doesn’t respond on the text thread, it is no longer absurd to assume something terrible has happened, because something terrible is happening.

Imagine seeing videos posted by nationally syndicated news organizations featuring people from your hometown. These are people that you passed in the halls of your high school, being interviewed by camera crews as they drive their boats down the middle of streets where you grew up searching for those who need rescue, the wake of their boat lapping up onto rooftops.

Imagine people you love spending the night in lines of cots in middle school gyms and cafeterias, churches, the inside of a furniture store. Imagine not being able to get them.

Imagine that during all of this, it’s still raining, and that it will be raining for another three days.

Imagine hearing that one in three homes in your city has water in them.

Imagine that, just when you think the worst is over, the dams in your city begin to release, and you see on the news a helicopter image of the neighborhoods surrounding your school underwater. In some places the only thing visible are the treetops.

Imagine for four days watching the news with the persistent, dark feeling that you’re about to see faces of students you teach or have taught.

Imagine the impact all of this will have on your students—current and former, and their families, their schools.

Imagine, after five days, driving back into the city you love, seeing the devastation firsthand. From the elevated highway, you see what you’ve been seeing on the news, but there’s something about seeing it through a window instead of a TV screen that breaks your heart wide open. You drive past the Target in your neighborhood, full of military vehicles, fire engines, huge search and rescue trucks from across the country—Oklahoma, Lousiana, Nebraska—and this is where you crumble. Your world is underwater and you were gone for most of it. You pull over into a parking lot of a business you used to frequent where there is debris in a neat line on the windows four feet high. You put your head in your hands and cry.


I am unbelievably lucky. It is not lost on me that everything I just described is nothing compared to the trauma of those who lived it. My house and car were left undamaged by Harvey, but it has nothing to do with me or my decision-making (I don’t have flood insurance, for instance), or being “blessed” and has everything to do with chance. The god I believe in is a god that is unflinchingly good and is present in the love that we show each other, not one that handpicks certain special people to spare.

Many of my friends, neighbors, and community were not so lucky. As I write this, much of the damage is still unknown. Many people can’t know status of their homes because roads leading to their neighborhoods are still blocked by five, ten feet of water. The dams protecting the city are still releasing water. I don’t yet know when our schools will reopen.

Houston has been fantastic in setting up shelters for immediate relief of its citizens. Yesterday, I looked up a list of needs for the shelter nearest me, and by the time I checked the list again before heading to the store, it was at capacity for all donations. What I’m more worried about is the long haul, and the needs of people who will be piecing together their lives after total losses, particularly those communities who were struggling even before the storm hit, from Rockport all the way to Beaumont and beyond.

I write this for several reasons. I write it because, even as my city is still underwater, I hear about the conversations the rest of the country is having, judging my city and its people or politicizing the events of the last five days, and I think about how hard it will be when these people one day know a horrible sadness. People who have known horrible sadness know that you can never understand a situation—especially the ones that tempt you with the thought that you would have done it better or differently—until you are in it yourself.

I write this also because I consider so many of my readers family. If you are in Texas and are hurting, know that I stand with you, and if you are elsewhere, know that we desperately need you on our side right now. Many of our students are hurting, and will come to us when schools reopen with a range of emotions we can only begin to predict. Many students will not know how to articulate these emotions. For teachers in this area, who, even in a normal year go above and beyond to make their class a safe and welcoming space, we are stepping into uncharted territory.

And finally, I write because, as someone who sustained no property damage from the hurricane, I am now in a position to help. As I’ve said, much of the damage is yet to be assessed, but for now I think the best thing I can do as someone with a platform is to give a space and a bullhorn to those who need it.

Teachers, readers, whoever: if you or someone you know has funds set up for your students, your homes, your classrooms that were flooded or damaged by Harvey, please comment either on this actual post or on Facebook and I will create and continue to update a list below. There are so many people willing to help who just need to be pointed in the right direction.

Links on how to help/donate:

Adopt a Texas Classroom: info and link to a Google Doc to be directly matched with a teacher needing donations post-Harvey
Bear Creek Elementary Amazon Wish List: needs for students affected by Harvey at Bear Creek Elementary in Katy ISD
Cardiff Junior High Amazon Wish List: needs for students affected by Harvey at Cardiff Junior High in Katy ISD (Ship to: Cardiff Junior High, 3900 Dayflower Dr., Katy TX 77449)
Dickinson Education Foundation Needs: Dickinson ISD
The Galloway School: School in Friendswood, TX that flooded and has no insurance
Flood of Friendship: Gift cards for teachers in flooded areas
Houston ISD Supplies/Donation Fund: Houston ISD
How to Donate to Friendswood, TX: Facebook group with links to GoFundMe accounts, Amazon Wish Lists, local organizations, and and individuals coordinating with displaced families
Hurricane Harvey Teachers In Need: Facebook group for Houston teachers to post needs OR teachers who want to help to be matched with a teacher in need
LSA Hurricane Relief fund: fund to help restore school featured in the image at the top of this post
Mayde Creek High School Amazon Wish List: Katy ISD
Mayde Creek Junior High Amazon Wish List: Katy ISD
Pearland ISD: Beginning Tuesday, Sept. 5, you can drop off or mail gift card donations at the Virgil Gant Education Support Center (1928 N. Main, Pearland, TX, 77581). For more information, please contact Communications Coordinator Lexi Marshall.
South Houston Intermediate Amazon Wish List: Pasadena ISD
Spring Branch Pledgecents: supporting Spring Branch ISD families affected by Harvey
Teacher Harvey Relief: an individual I know personally who is coordinating with HISD and Cy-Fair teachers who are displaced or have damaged homes
Texans Helping Teachers:  Facebook page where teachers can post needs to be met/matched by others

Links for teachers (or anyone) who might need help repairing/restocking homes or classrooms:

Adopt a Texas Classroom:
 info and link to fill out a form to receive help from those wanting to be matched with a teacher
Hurricane Harvey Teachers In Need: teachers can post needs to be matched with other classrooms across the country
Mormon Helpings Hands Hurricane Harvey Recovery: Call hotline to submit work order (800) 451-1954 or (844) 965-1386. These folks are amazing, y'all. You don't have to be Mormon! :)
Teacher Harvey Relief: an individual I know personally who is coordinating with HISD and Cy-Fair teachers who are displaced or have damaged homes
Texans Helping Teachers:  Teachers can post needs to be filled by others

So much love, always,


Footnote on evacuation reading: 
Read here and here for starters, but also Google it or talk to any human who evacuated during Rita.