With Feathers

Teaching gives me hope. The smiles and interest of students, their energy and ability to surprise all make time in the classroom some of the richest imaginable.

As a middle school principal, I have lots of opportunities to see strong teaching and learning, though most of this is as an observer, visiting classrooms, staying to watch the great work, and going back to other responsibilities.

As April arrived this year, however, I took advantage of National Poetry Month and asked my kind English Department if they’d open their doors to me to teach a lesson to some of their classes. They were welcoming, as they had been in October when I taught a little Sherlock Holmes, and this week was my first of more than a half dozen opportunities to teach some Emily Dickinson, Emily Brontë, and two poems about hope.

photo 4 (4)Knowing I’d be working with a range of students, both 7th and 8th grade, college prep and honors, I started with the question: “What is poetry?” The ideas the kids presented were creative and honest, and as I asked them to clarify what they meant by “strong language” and “emotional response” they were able to use details to make their points.

Next we talked about language and the importance of choosing the right words, and they tried their hands at creating some found poems. Taking pages from Call of the Wild as their starting point, they came up with some pretty fantastic adventures into poetic language.

From there we got to the heart of the lesson, two very different poetic perspectives on hope.

Emily Brontë, the reclusive author of Wuthering Heights, called Hope a “false guard, false watch keeping,” likely in the toughest times to “turn her face away.” It took the kids some work to unpack what Brontë was saying, and when they did, I’m not sure that many were happy with what was strewn on the table.

photo 2 (6)Emily Dickinson brought a much more popular perspective on that “thing with feathers/that perches in the soul/ and sings the tune without the words/ and never stops at all.” The students had to do some work to define a few words in the poem (using phones, Chromebooks, and good, old fashioned dictionaries) and then talk through how those words were being used. As they did I saw more than a few nods of satisfaction as they figured out that they kind of liked what this 19th century New Englander was saying.

As I walked around the room listening to the students discussing the two poems, pulling textual evidence to support their close reading, and arguing to what poem spoke to them most, I found myself inspired by the engagement and thoughtfulness these young people brought to their interactions with the poems and each other.

Those who question education would have their minds changed if they saw the quality of learning that takes place in classrooms every day. I sometimes hear critics express fear about the future, or doubt about what happens in schools, but an hour watching these kids wrestle with poetry would turn their world on its head.

As one student, smiling as she explained why Emily Dickinson resonated more with her than Emily Brontë, said: “There’s always room for hope.”

And inspiration.

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