How Much — How Little

Emotions are high. Tears, anger, frustration, arguments, hurt feelings, and a feeling of failure have all been on my computer desktop this week, through emails, Zoom meetings, and snippets of social media. It’s been weeks since we started school, such as it is, not together on a campus, but remotely through keyboards and computer screens across town, and few days go by when, as the principal of an amazing school, I don’t see tears and shaking heads as part of my working day.

Emily Dickinson caught the emotion of it all in her short, short poem:

In this short Life
That only lasts an hour
How much—how little—is
Within our power

It’s in those last two lines that I suspect at least some of the emotions originate. It’s easy to feel that much, very, very much to be honest, is not within our power.

A counselor I work with made the comparison between our pandemic prompted separation and being an astronaut. Astronauts, she said, know when they’re coming back to earth. We don’t.

And so… as a high school principal I see small things turning big ones for many of the students and families I work with: that mis-marked absence, that grade on a quiz, that inability to see anyone beyond an inch wide square in a video conference. Day after day, week after week, those small things add up and can feel big.

When it’s not in our power to chat with a friend in the hallway, stay after class to ask the teacher a question (discreetly), or stop by the counseling office without an appointment, we start wondering what is within our power.

For some the answer is disheartening, unhealthy, or worse. The pain I see in the eyes of my staff, students, and parents is real. And…

In another, more well known poem Emily Dickinson reminds us that:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

“Chillest land” and “strangest sea” sound about right, at least on some days, and the hope that Emily Dickinson writes about, resilient, consistent, and quietly powerful, is appealing. We all want to believe that the stress we feel can be overcome. We need to hope and hold on to hope, and Dickinson’s “thing with feathers” is a nice reminder of that need.

Nice, of course, but… right now this present gale does seem to be “abashing the little bird” and, for me at least, that familiar poem isn’t the only place I’ve found some comfort and inspiration from the Belle of Amherst, and it might not even be the best.

One poem that struck me as apt for today was a lesser known piece (at least to me) from early in Dickinson’s poetic life.

Besides the Autumn poets sing
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the Haze –

A few incisive mornings –
A few Ascetic eves –
Gone – Mr. Bryant’s “Golden Rod” –
And Mr. Thomson’s “sheaves.”

Still, is the bustle in the Brook –
Sealed are the spicy valves –
Mesmeric fingers softly touch
The eyes of many Elves –

Perhaps a squirrel may remain –
My sentiments to share –
Grant me, Oh Lord, a sunny mind –
Thy windy will to bear!

This poem, which I didn’t remember as I was reading it out of the big book of Emily Dickinson poems I brought out during the summer, reminds me that while there is much not in our power (the coming of fall, for one thing, and its attendant chill), we can control our view of it. We can choose to notice “the eyes of many elves” where others might see only gray days and frost on the ground) and look inside ourselves for peace and “a sunny mind” to see us through the winds we bear.

I like that, a sunny mind against the winds. How much is within our power.

Or maybe it’s just time to go watch Elton John sing “I’m Still Standing.”

I think if she were alive today even Emily Dickinson would smile at that.

“Look it up…”

poetry1“What do you do when you don’t know the meaning of a word?”

Hands shot into the air.

“Look it up on your phone,” one girl answered.

“Figure out context clues,” offered a well read young scholar. Wow.

“Look it up in a dictionary,” a student suggested bashfully.

“Good,” I praised her old school response. Then, looking around the room, I called on the boy in the back, the last hand in the air. “And…” I prompted.

“Ask your mom?” He said.

Perfect.

It’s why I love teaching. The unexpected nature of the flow of a classroom discussion. The exquisite goofiness of students. “Yes!” I said. “That could work too.

I was about a third of the way through a lesson on poetry, a celebration of Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë and their poems about “Hope.” Both poems are old, and some of the language that shows up isn’t familiar to the kids, so before I asked them to dive in and discover meaning, I knew I wanted them to be sure they knew what the words meant that make up the verse.

And so we read through the poems, and students underlined the words they didn’t know.

Gale. Abash. Strife.

They’d have time to collaborate with each other once we got to the heart of the lesson, but I wanted them to wrestle with the words first on their own.

“Okay,” I said after a couple of minutes. “Use one of those ways of getting the definition you need to find out what the words you underlined mean.”

Phones emerged from backpacks and purses like gophers after a rainstorm. Three students strided to the bookshelf on one side of the room and pulled down dictionaries. A couple of kids sat, puzzled, before grabbing thesaruses from a counter. And they all got to work.

As I walked around the room I heard quiet conversations. “I don’t get this definition,” one girl whispered, looking down at what Wikipedia had to say about grated. “I think a silverfish just crawled out of this thesaurus!” said a boy. “My eyes are spinning,” said a girl with a thick red dictionary open in front of her. “I don’t think I’ve used one of these since like second grade.”

And then I heard it. Quiet. Hardly loud enough to disturb even the kids around him. It was the boy from the back row, his phone held to his ear… “Mom. Hi. The principal is teaching us about poetry right now, and I wondered if you know what the word abash means.”

I may have a message on my phone when I get back to my office. Or maybe I just made the conversation around one dinner table a little more interesting tonight.

Either way, I know that the real reason teaching is the grandest profession is the kids. Their earnestness, curiosity, and insight; their ability to engage with the world, be it poetry, pottery, phenomes, or pi; their open eyes and open hearts, and their willingness to pick up the phone and call their moms, all give me hope.

As Emily Dickinson said more than a hundred years ago:

Hope is the thing with feathers-
That perches in the soul-
And sings the tune without the words-
And never stops- at all-

After teaching a lesson about poetry to some of the best seventh graders I know, I’ve got hope in my soul right now. And if I listen, I can hear it singing.

Or maybe calling mom.

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.

A Passion for Learning

The magic of teaching comes not from getting a student to be able to say back to you a formula, Spanish verb conjugation, or poem by Emily Dickinson. Instead, that place of academic fireworks is the moment when a student’s passion is kindled and the need to know (how to use the formula, why to use the verb, or what it means to say that Hope is a thing with feathers) becomes so important that the inconsequential things (grades, parental pressure, peer approval) take a back seat to learning.

Teachers make this magic in a million ways: asking the right questions, showing relevance, laughing with students, and providing them room to explore, to name a few.

At the core of learning is curiosity, and education is at its best when it pushes students to discover that curiosity within themselves.

Sometimes students arrive at school filled with a desire to learn and ready to have their intellectual fire brought to life by the spark of a good teacher and the bellows of a well orchestrated lesson.

Other times students present tougher academic husks that must be trimmed away by the kindness, patience, and passion of great instructors. These young minds can be brought to flower, but it takes everything teachers can muster to bring out that desire to learn more.

For still others, curiosity is a luxury, lower in importance than safety, or survival, or respect. For some kids, school is a place to come not because they are excited to learn, but because they told they must, or because they fear the immediate consequences if they avoid it.

Learning in school for kids who have learned hard lessons outside the classroom is a trickier enterprise than it is for those who arrive loved, fed, and prepared to learn.

It is for these students, the shaggy ones, whose clothes may not be as clean or hair as well kempt, whose voices might not be clear and whose eyes may be averted, that great teachers matter the very most. It is for these students that school must be more than a place of books and computers, maps and memorization. For all students, and especially for these, school must be a place where students can be inspired to see possibility, articulate their dreams, and find the safety and sense of home that allows them to discover their curiosity and write their own futures.

The paths to that promised land are many and the guides diverse. The history teacher who introduces his students to Sojourner Truth, the math teacher who shows her students the power of numbers, and the science teacher who opens up the world of biology (which is life) with two swift slices on a frog’s belly all have the potential to infect students with a passion for learning. It’s a disease one never wants cured.

The art teacher’s pastels, the computer teacher’s code, and the band teacher’s sousaphone are all tools that can be put in a student’s hands and used to build a bright future.

Teachers and schools can nurture those dreams of incredible futures, and do so every day. Purposefully and passionately, with humor, caring, and devotion, teachers create a place in their students’ hearts where hope, that thing with feathers, can perch upon the soul.

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