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 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.