California English Journal

 
 

CONTENTS

April 2004

NON-TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING: A NEW VOICE FOR THE STUDENT-POET
-Herman R. Card

STAND AND DELIVER: THE POWER OF PERFORMANCE POETRY
-Barbara McBride

SHHHH! DON'T TELL THEM I SAID SO
-April Halprin Wayland

POETRY: REACHING INTO THD THROUGH THE STANDARDS
-Linda Toren

"WHERE'S THE LOVE?": TEACHING POETRY IN HIGH SCHOOL
-Thomas Roddy, Jr.

FOR HE ON HONEY-DEW HAD FED AND DRUNK THE MILK OF PARADISE
-Steve Tollefson

Artist of this issue - Barbara Kolo

Features & Departments

Breiger's Bookshelf

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SHHHH! DON’T TELL THEM I SAID SO
by April Halprin Wayland

“Tell a secret,” I say to a class of teens.

“When writers reveal something personal,” I say, “readers sit up. Whatever your most embarrassing or scary or funny moment is, it’ll ring a bell for the rest of us. We’ve been there. And we’re amazed and grateful that you’re brave enough to share it.

“For example, here’s one of my secrets: sometimes I act as if an entire movie crew is filming my life, “ I say.

“And here’s another: I cried when Mr. Rogers died.”

“Now,” I tell them, “close your eyes. Take a slow, relaxed breath. As you let it out, think about a secret. Think about that one thing in your life that you regret—the one thing that if you could run time backwards, you’d undo.

Or think of something that you’ve never told anyone because you were afraid of being judged or misunderstood or maybe just because you’d feel silly.

“Did you read someone’s diary? Do you want a ferret so badly it hurts? Did you steal a bathing suit? It doesn’t even have to be earth shattering: I love the smell of gasoline.”

I give them a few minutes to list five secrets. “Include one you won’t mind sharing aloud,” I say.

When the time is up, I ask if anyone came up with a secret they hadn’t thought of in a while. A good number raise their hands.

”Now,” I say, “pair off and share one secret on your list with your partner.”

When they have finished, we discuss how this felt. Did your partner’s secret surprise you? How did it feel to reveal your secret?

Next, I tell them the behind-the-scenes stories of a few of my poems which began as secrets. I show the poems on an overhead so they can see the structure and alignment as they listen to the poem.

For example, I tell them how I wrote poems but tucked them into the bottom drawer of my desk . Most of the poems were about Jordan, the guy I had a crush on, but many were about world events. One day when I was 13, I came home to find my 15-year old sister (who became an editor) with all of my poems in three neat piles on my bedroom floor.

One pile was the poems that she felt weren’t worth working on. The middle pile was poems that were promising but needed work. (She had written editorial suggestions on each one.) The third pile was poems that she thought were outstanding…and she was reading them aloud to my mother when I walked into the room!

She was (and is) my biggest cheerleader and only wanted to bring my poems out of that drawer. I was being “outed” as a poet. But was I grateful? No! I was mortified. It felt like she was lifting up my dress and showing everyone my underwear.

So here is the poem I wrote about this:

POETRY IS MY UNDERWEAR

My sister found them.

Read them out loud,
She’s so proud,

she’s running to our parents
waving my poems in the air.

Doesn’t she know
she’s waving my underwear?

Another poem is based on a different kind of secret. At a party I spun the bottle, and miracle of miracles, it landed on Jordan! But when he kissed me, he stopped at one point. Why? Why did he stop and begin again? I tell them that I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve wondered about this for years. Here is the poem:

I WONDER WHY

he stopped
in the middle

of kissing me passionately on the lips
to give my neck a nip.

Beth said he didn't move aside her coat
to kiss her throat

when her spin
stopped at him.
I wonder why
he kissed my lips / neck / lips? What did it signify?

Was it a whim?
Just a dumb spin-the-bottle turn to him?

Was my breath so bad
that he just had to take a break?

Did he think I was a flake?
Was it a hair?

Or--
did he care?

Was he just being polite?
Or did he really want to kiss
just me all night?

I also read them Mr. Barton, the poem about what I secretly included in my term paper to see if my teacher actually read our work.

Now it’s their turn. I ask them to write a poem about one of their secrets. I make it clear that no one has to share their poem at the end. They can fold their poems up and take them home, read them to the class, give them to me to read privately, or I am happy to read their poem to the class anonymously.

When the time is up, we discuss how it felt to write this poem. We also talk about how most poems take a long time to write and rewrite, and how this may be just the beginning.

Then a few volunteer to read their poems, and class is over.

That’s how I used to teach this workshop—until a boy in Washington, D.C. raised his hand and said, “Why don’t you give us a choice to write about one of our own secrets or about someone else’s?

Brilliant!

Now, just before I ask them to write their own poem, I hand out a list called Other People's Secret's, which are from students in previous workshops (included at the end of this article.)

You can feel the energy shift—there’s a palpable feeling of relief—once they have this list, and once they hear me repeat that I am willing to read their poems anonymously.

Students seem to pick a secret—either their own or one from the list—with less agony, the quality of writing is higher, and many more volunteer to read their poems aloud. What they write about may or may not be true. It doesn’t matter.

Teens want to share—and they also don’t. Giving them a chance to slip behind someone else’s secret may be all the cover they need to write from their hearts.

But don’t tell them I said so.


Other People's Secret's

1. I’m in love with someone who lives in Mexico.
2. I pretend that ____(name of a movie star) is my boy/girl friend.
3. I have invisible wings.
4. I pretend that my entire life is being filmed for a movie.
5. I once drove my mom’s car when she was gone.
6. I have a crush on _____.
7. I messed up during my piano recital (or other performance).
8. I know who my brother / sister / friend has a crush on.
9. I’m not really a vegetarian.
10. I cheated on a test / (or diet.)
11. I cheated on my boy/girl friend.
12. I really prefer my jeans up to my waist.
13. I’ve seen _____ (title of a movie) 29 times.
14. I am afraid of ______ (spiders, the dark…)
15. I don’t know what _____ (any word) means.
16. I sucked my thumb until I got braces.
17. I bought a term paper online.
18. I cried when Mr. Rogers died.
19. I have my _____ (part of body) pierced.
20. I once stole a bathing suit by wearing it under my clothes.
21. I love liver.
22. My real name is _____.
23. I love the smell of_____.
24. Inside, I am really a jaguar (or other animal.)
25. I have an online boy/girl friend whom I’ve never met.
26. My middle name is_____.
27. It’s my fault that our dog was run over.
28. I’m scared to pierce my ears.
29. I have a tattoo.
30. I hate brown M & Ms.
31. I got sick on the rollercoaster.
32. My true hair color is _____.
33. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’m a bigot.
34. I like my dog / cat better than my best friend.

-from a workshop by April Halprin Wayland

be sure to check out “Where Can A Young Writer Get Published?” on April’s website:
www.aprilwayland.com

About the Author:
April Halprin Wayland has been a farmer, a folk fiddler and a corporate manager. She is currently on the faculty of the UCLA Extension Writer's Program and has been invited to speak at over 375 schools across the US and in England, France, Italy, Poland and in Germany at the invitation of the US Department of Defense.
She has published thee picture books with Scholastic and Knopf.
She can be reached through her website, www.aprilwayland.com or at aprilwayland@aol.com.

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Poetry: Reaching Into and Through the Standards
by Linda Toren

I use poetry in my classroom and have worked as a poet in the schools in Calaveras County. The first lesson always begins with the telling – this is how poetry arrived in my life. It was sixth grade and Mrs. Garrison said –“This is a haiku and this is how you write one. Now make one of your own.” Her instructions were as spare as the form itself. Perhaps a student somewhere else in the room was struggling, but for me, I jumped in and began working with the words. It has been like that ever since – an unquenchable passion for reading and writing poems. I show the students a handmade book that an artist friend made for me. I agonized about what should be in my little book and then remembered the first haiku I wrote in sixth grade – Lonely people live/ within themselves like dusty/ books upon a shelf.

We start every lesson by listening to the best of the best. Mary Oliver said, This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know: that the soul exists, and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness. So we pay attention. We listen to Blake, Dickinson, Poe, Frost, Sandburg and the living likes of – Collins, Oliver, Clifton, Hopkins, Kumin, Shihab Nye, and more. We get a feeling for metaphor and simile and laugh about hyperbole. They yearn to rhyme and I say wait. It is so easy to make a poor poem by rhyming. Elementary students are not afraid to try their hand, nor are they intimidated by the variety of forms they meet. My job is to keep the standards in mind for the fourth-seventh grade students I have worked with the past few years. I like to look at the continuum of poetic skills and have developed poetry studies around the following standards:

Third Grade
Narrative Analysis of Grade Level Text
3.5 Recognize the similarities of sounds in words and rhythmical patterns in a selection (e.g., onomatopoeia, alliteration)
Organization & Delivery of Oral Communications
1.9 Read prose and poetry aloud with fluency, rhythm, and pace; use appropriate intonation and vocal patterns to emphasize key ideas and areas of importance expressed by the author.
Analysis & Evaluation of Oral and Media Communications
2.2 Plan and present dramatic interpretations of experiences, stories, poems or plays, using clear diction, pitch, tempo, and tone.

Fourth Grade
Narrative Analysis of Grade Level Text
3.5 Identify and define the presence of figurative language in literary works, including simile, metaphor, hyperbole, and personification.
Listening and Speaking
2.4 Recite brief poems (two or three stanzas), brief soliloquies, or dramatic dialogues, using clear diction, tempo, volume and phrasing

Fifth Grade
Structural Features of Literature
2.5 Identify and analyze the characteristics of nonfiction, fiction, drama and poetry as forms chosen by an author for literary purpose.

Sixth Grade
Writing
1.1 Choose the form of writing that best suits their purpose (e.g., letters, editorials, reviews, poems, reports, narratives).
Analysis & Evaluation of Oral and Media Communications
1.8 Analyze the use of rhetorical devices for their intent and effects (cadence, repetitive patterns, use of onomatopoeia).

Seventh Grade
Literary Criticism
3.6 Analyze a range of responses to a literary work and determine the extent to which the literary elements in the work shaped those responses (Reader Response).

Eighth Grade
Structural Features of Literature
3.1 Determine and articulate the relationship between expressed purposes and characteristics of different forms of poetry (ballad, lyric, couplet, epic, elegy, ode and sonnet).

How we understand figurative language and identify the lyrical beauty of poetry is the journey. After we listen, we explore. I have developed book marks for figurative language and poetic devices that students can use as they read the poetry of others as well as when they are writing their own poems. Discussions are usually lively and peppered with examples as they read to one another. In one 4th-5th grade class, two students were at a workshop station. The task was to read a poem to each other and think about the author’s message, noting the use of figurative language. They selected Tyger, Tyger by William Blake and I was keen to eavesdrop on their discussion. Each girl read the poem aloud twice because they “liked the way it sounded.” They weren’t sure what it meant but decided that it could be a great poem nevertheless. And perhaps Blake was using metaphor to relay his message. Their informal reading aloud of Tyger, after much practice, drew enthusiastic applause! This same group of students completed a classroom anthology and did a public reading for Open House. Their skills ranged from one reluctant writer finding his voice: Chris – Dark, dark poems are not for me./ I like light ones. to another writer with a specific image in mind: Kyle – Snake Head/ A snake’s head is prowling/ faster and faster/ moving through water/ moving like wind/ moving inside my dream.

A cycle of learning has evolved - listen, workshop time, write, read aloud draft work. The best days are when time allows for the full cycle. Students love the chance to read their drafts and often stop to make changes and corrections. Workshop time can be a single task or a variety of activities that allow students to enter into the process of understanding and writing poetry at a level that is comfortable for them. Workshops are presented to the whole class and then given to small groups or partners to practice again (and perhaps again). Workshops that work include:

Poetic Dialogue. For partners or small groups. One person reads a poem, stopping at line breaks or natural phrase boundaries. Writers respond to the poem and then polish the responses to make a poem of their own. Andrea (4th grade) commented that she would never have written the following poem. The dialogue surprised her.

My Dreams
Snow turns gold
sweet and cold,
cracking the streets
with silver and ice.

The moon is bright.
It casts a light,
wizard in the mirror,
so real, waving to the river
until I wake up.

Cold, cold river
suddenly awake,
then back into my dreams.

Found Poetry. Individuals or partners select poems or prose text, collect words and/or short phrases to make a poem of their own. Here is an example of a found poem from the works of Naomi Shihab Nye.

The voices from countries,
the person who wrote – YES!
Someone just told me our taste buds would die …
so you have to be careful telling things
between the regions of kindness.
– Tim, William, Bronson 5th grade

Recitation. Select a poem to memorize. Read and reread the poem. Practice expression, phrasing and projection. Be prepared to present your poem to others. Once a week, time can be set aside for recitations in class. The principal, secretary, and custodian make willing audiences. The opening and closing of school assemblies are great occassions for recitations, too.

Illumination. Select a favorite poem. Copy it in your notebook. Use your best cursive handwriting and illuminate one or more letters. Write why it is your favorite. I have examples of illuminated text students can study as examples.
Powerful Images. Select a poem that has powerful visual images for you. Illustrate it. Read the poem to a partner and have them illustrate it. Compare illustrations and discuss.

My students’ illustrations of poems by Naomi Shihab Nye were instantly recognized by the poet although they may have differed in the choice of medium and images represented!

Content Links. Math, science and social studies have extension activities connected to poetry. These make great workshops. Here are examples from 5th grade science - potential and kinetic energy.

While you stand in the cold streets
winter falls from the sky.

Spring leaps from his sleep
And awakens us all.

- Laura

Almost Haiku
As winter paused,
I ran to the post office.
Snow accelerated again!

- Nick

Playing with Forms. Choose from the forms we have studied. Submit a draft for writer’s conference. One class I worked with this year, raised enough money selling calendars (with their original poems) to take a multi-day field trip! They loved playing with forms and the seasons.

SPRING
Sprouting flowers
Precious colors
Raining, day in and day out
Ice is melting
Nice days to take walks
Getting warmer.

-Kathleen

The Heat of July
The heat of July
is hot enough
to knock you off your feet.

The heat of July
is hot enough
to fry your brain.

The heat of July
can be pleasant
or brutal.

The heat of July
is just fine
with me.

-Dustin

Partner Poems. With a partner find two poems that go together. Be prepared to say why and read the poems aloud. Some of the best partner poems selected by students came from a poet-study of Naomi Shihab Nye. Fifth and sixth grade students brought together poem pairs from three collections of her work – Red Suitcase, Fuel, and Words Under the Words. It was amazing to hear Next Time – “eating the leaves that will clear your brain” partnered with Hidden – “the little sucked-in breath of air/hidden everywhere/ beneath your words.”

At a recent community event, a student from the middle school reminded me that we “had done poetry together.” “I keep writing poems.” She said and shyly handed me a copy of a poem she just happened to have in her pocket. I read the first two lines and smiled – My family is like the saying/ “sweet as chocolate with a few nuts.”

The truth of the thing
lies inside us,
but no power on earth can force it.
Time after time,
I search my heart in this struggle.
Sometimes a door slowly opens;
sometimes the door
remains bolted.

- Lu Chi
The Art of Writing Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

translated by Sam Hamill
Milkweed Editions 2000

All of us who work with poetry are opening the door, not by force, but by inspiring the search - so the heart and mind might play, learn, create, even find truth.

About the Author:
Linda Toren is a 4th-5th grade teacher at West Point Elementary School in Calaveras County. She works half time in the classroom and half time as a teacher on special assignment K-12 language arts. She is also co-director of the California Reading and Literature Project, CSU Stanislaus. Special thanks to the 4th, 5th, 6th grade students of West Point Elementary, Dan Stoddard and his students at Mokelumne Hill Elementary School, and 5th grade students and their teachers at Michelson Elementary, Hazel Fisher Elementary, Rail Road Flat Elementary, and Teresa Fasola and her 7th grade core students at Toyon Middle School.

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“Where’s the Love?”: Teaching Poetry in High School
By Thomas Roddy, Jr

Waiting for my acting teacher to speak while I stood on the stage alone caused great pain. After a moment, a very long moment, Mario Siletti looked at me from over his glasses and asked pointedly, “Where’s the love, Roddy?”

Raising my stiffened shoulders I asked, “Huh?”

Rushing forward and grabbing my hand Mario said, “The love, my dear, the love! You speak Mr. Thomas as if he were devoid of life. What does Mr. Thomas want us to do?”

“ To rage?” I queried.

“ To what?”

“ To rage!”

With that Mario, small, knobby kneed and himself dying, widened his eyes with supernatural ferocity and said, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light!” As his mellifluous voice filled the studio, his truth pulled everyone’s attention to him and stopped several small tittering conversations in and outside of the room. Then, just as quickly, he returned to this sphere, smiled and said, “The love, Roddy. Do you see? Find the love.”

The love Mario Silletti, tried to coax from within the “gentle closure of my breast” was trapped deep beneath a thick armor of fear. With persistence, passion, and hardest of all, patience, I learned to connect many poets’ wonderful words, which I had understood for years intellectually, to my heart. Then, when I acted in a play, or read a poem, I could put my thumbprint on the piece because the poem or character had taken root inside my spirit and not just my brain. That journey from expressing only one cerebral note to multiple impassioned ones challenged me, frightened me, and frustrated me, but it also thrilled me. When I became a teacher, I knew that helping my students to find a voice for who they were and what they thought would be my mandate. I chose poetry as the vehicle.


I began my first poetry unit, as all good teachers do, by setting my end in mind. In my view, by the end of the lesson, the students would identify twenty poetic terms, deliver an oral interpretation, and write a lengthy personal response. The love that each of my teachers, Mario, Melissa, Jimmy and Cay had worked so hard to carve out of me would fuel the discussions I planned to have with my pupils, Benito, Isabel, Erick, and Roberto. “I love this stuff!” I thought. “Teaching it will be a snap!” I went to bed after many days of planning confident that I had created a life changing lesson plan.

The first day of the unit, I began by passing out the poem “Do Not Go Gentle to That Good Night” and asked the students to read it quietly and hold their questions until the end. I waited with great anticipation as each one moved across the paper. Some simply read, others mouthed that gorgeous and firey writing. It was working, I could tell. When they were done, Benito Rivera, resplendent in a massive set of braces, raised his hand. In the moment that followed, I knew exactly what an ancient Jesuit, who was rumored to have been Jesus’ personal tutor, meant when he said to a classmate, “Every time you raise your hand, you elevate my hopes, and then you open your mouth and you send them crashing on the rocks below!”

And all Benito said was this, “What does ragé mean?”

Stunned, I replied, “You’re kidding?”

“ No, I don’t know what it means.”

“ Oh! Well rage…anger, deep, deep anger. You’ve never heard that word before, Benito?”

Benito, guileless, shook his head.

“ Did anyone else have the same problem? There was long pause as the students began to slouch into the chairs and avoid my look.

“ For real, gang” I said, “was this poem a problem? I am not mad, I want to find you something you can enjoy, something you can get something out of. I thought this might be it.”

“ Well it ain’t!” Ana, my honest muse, shouted from the back and snapped shut her compact.

“ Okay,” I said. “Well let’s try to break it down. Who’s the speaker?”

The silence filled the room until Erick said, “Some guy.”

“ Okay, yes it’s a guy and what’s happened to him.”

“ He’s dead.”

“ No, no, he’s not dead. Who’s he speaking to, Erick?

“ I don’t know.”

I asked the class if anyone had known someone who had died, and Ana piped in, “My cousin got shot!”

“ Oh, I am sorry, Ana? When did this happen?”

“ I didn’t like him, it’s cool.”

Sensing that perhaps this was not going to work I decided to shift to another poem, still a favorite, “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost.

I told them to follow the same procedure, to read the poem to themselves and hold any questions. Again, things seemed to be going fine and once again, Benito raised his hand. Reluctantly I said, “Yes, Benito?”

“ What’s a boulder?”

Mercifully, the bell rang and I told the student’s we’d continue next time.

That night I got home and reviewed my plan. It looked perfect on the page: neat, well arranged, logical, careful. Could that be it was I too careful? Too safe? How could it fail and not even fail, not even start to fail? Undaunted, I searched through my books of poetry lessons and decided to experiment with writing poetry instead. In Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? by Kenneth Koch I found a lesson which called for imitations of the William Carlos Williams’ poem “This Is Just To Say.” I was willing to try anything.

I went back and asked the students to create webs on poetry. They could say what they wanted, and yes, if they wanted to they could swear. The words they generated did not surprise me —“stupid,” “boring,” “dumb” and, of course, “gay.” We read Williams’ poem and I offered very little discussion, but explained how to use the poem as a model and then set them to task. They produced something wonderful and even surprised themselves.

In writing the poems, my students discovered some freedom, some of the love that would have made Mario proud. In reading them, the joy infected everyone in the room. One young woman wrote “This is just to say that I have stolen your boyfriend…”

Another wrote, “This is just to say that I am bored and want to sleep.” Imitations allowed the students to connect to the work in way that reading alone did not. To teach them the more analytical aspect of looking at poetry, I decided to look at something that might be more familiar to their world, but still might be controversial enough to spark good discussion. So I turned to Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry edited by Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan. It includes the work of two authors, Pat Mora and Jimmy Santiago Baca who each has a voice my students could hear very clearly.

Pat Mora’s poem, “Senora X No More” tells of a grandmother who learns to write, a story not unfamiliar to my students and very close to their parents. As we prepared to read this poem, Jimmy, normally hidden within his caramel colored cowl, sat up and volunteered himself to read. He gave a splendid rendition and emerged, if only for a second, in a way that I had not seen before. I asked each of them to identify one image in the poem that struck them in some way, either they did not get it or it moved them and to write about it for ten minutes. When I asked them to share their discoveries most referred to the grandmother’s fingers, which Mora describes as “soap worn” (129). Isabel said, “Like my gran.” When we read Mora’s poem “Immigrants” the students expressed knowledge of what it was like to give up something of their heritage in order to become an American. Their insights were deeply moving.

Next we moved on to a poem called “So the Mexicans are Taking Jobs from Americans” by Jimmy Santiago Baca. But before we began, I asked the students to read the poem to themselves and as they did to form a question about the poem. This would eventually become, I explained, their thesis statement for a short paper. I got this idea from a book by Carol Jago called Cohesive Writing and it worked splendidly.

There are moments as a teacher when I have the sense that I am Leonard Bernstein in front of the New York Philharmonic. This day was one of them. After I set each student with his or her question, I watched as their hands scurried across the keyboards, their eyes intent. No one talked or interrupted. Their questions, although grammatically imperfect, had zest and spunk and, love. Brenda wrote, “Americans have better jobs that’s why Americans don’t have to count pennies to buy their food.” Erick, “The Americans are afraid of Mexicans because they know Mexican’s work very hard.” Jimmy, “I think Jimmy Santiago Baca is racist.”

In order to connect to the standards, I converted the standards into questions. I wrote the questions on the board to discuss them. By framing the standard like this: “Does the author use precise language, action verbs, sensory details, appropriate modifiers, and the active rather than the passive voice” I afforded a more immediate connection for both me and my students. We looked at the poem again and pointed to the specific diction within the text that made it come to life. The energy in the classroom was so exciting. I had led them to the love.

The first speech Mario made me learn was from Richard II. It comes in the second act, when Richard learns that Bolingbroke has seized the entire kingdom. Shakespeare filled the speech with gorgeous images, but at the end the deposed king concludes by saying to his aides, “I live with bread like you, taste grief, feel want, need friends. Subjected thus, how can you say to me, I am a king?” (III, ii). The first time I used that piece in a professional audition, the director stopped me and said that in thirty years of hearing that speech, my interpretation was the only one that was done as he said, “the way it should be done.” Needless to say, I got the job and I still know and think about the speech today.

Mario taught me to find the love, not just for Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas, but for myself. I doubt that my students will become scholars of Pat Mora or Jimmy Santiago Baca. I hope that they came to realize that there are voices just like theirs in the world and those voices are valid and can be heard.

Works Cited:
Gillian, Maria Mazziotti. 1994. Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry. New York, New York: Penguin.
Jago, Carol. 2001. Cohesive Writing: Why Concept Is Not Enough. Portsmith, New Hampshire: Heinemann.
Koch, Kenneth. 1990. Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? Teaching Great Poetry to Children. New York, New York: Vintage.

About the Author:
Thomas Roddy, Jr. is a third year teacher and department chair at Manual Arts High School and can be reached at mroddy@earthlink.net

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The Power of One Teacher

The theme of CATE2005 in Santa Clara February 18-20 will be “The Power of One Teacher.” Leading up to the convention CATE Board members will be contributing testimonials about teachers who had a powerful effect upon their lives.

I entered fourth grade as a new student at Highland Elementary School in Bakersfield, California in 1955, my third school in five years. I was a scrawny, homely, feisty child who liked fighting boys, playing football, throwing rocks, and doing school. As a matter of fact, I loved school—the books, the learning, the reading, the hours spent on cursive writing, the number nine and its multiplication magic. But most of all, I loved knowing answers, being smart, and raising my hand enthusiastically at every question our Mrs. Dickey asked. Never has there ever been a more dedicated, energetic, devoted hand raiser than I. It’s not easy raising your arm unnoticed. After a few minutes of hand raising, the whole arm starts tingling, and then one’s arm gets so tired that the other arm unexpectedly appears to swap duty with the exhausted arm. Finally, after repeated arm swappings, one arm resigns itself to the chore of supporting the other, taking the lesser role, cradling the raised forearm into the air, waiting for the call that never comes.

It never occurred to me that I was dooming myself to my lonely existence, that my exuberance at learning was not appreciated by my fellow fourth graders, or that the reason Mrs. Dickey did not always call on me was not that she didn’t like me nor was ignoring me but that she was trying to help me make friends, to gently shape me into being a little less exuberant at answering questions and a little more exuberant in personal relationships.

I often stayed after school so I could bask in an arena where I excelled, and so Mrs. Dickey often invited me into her room after all the other children had gone home, asking me to “help” her get ready for the next day. I refilled glue jars (only rarely licking my fingers to savor the minty white paste), sharpened pencils, cut out calendar designs for the next month, put up bulletin boards, stapled papers, and watched my teacher work.

Mrs. Dickey, when did you realize how central you had become in my life? Did you coach me? Mentor me? Advise me? I don’t know, but surely, you befriended that awkward, driven child. I cannot remember the content of our conversations, but I do remember those hours I spent after school in your room as one of my cherished childhood moments.

And so, Mrs. Dickey, I learned much from you--not only the fourth grade curriculum but also what a teacher can be to a needy child. Know that you taught me well. Because of you, Mrs. Dickey, I always make sure to remind myself that I teach children, not English.

-Faith Nitschke, CWP Liaison, Hoover High School, Fresno, California

As early as elementary school, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. After all, my great aunt, Edith Barnes, was a high school English teacher in New Orleans Louisiana and my uncle, Earl Mott, worked for McGraw Hill. Potrero Heights Elementary and Schurr High School in Montebello were replete with great teachers. However, it was when I was an undergrad that I met "the one," Dr. Lillian Lang from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.

A wild woman with flaming red shoulder length hair, thick glasses, who quoted Dickinson and Chaucer, and married a man half her age, was a true inspiration to me. Dr. Lang encouraged me to "go for it, be myself, take risks, and not to be afraid of change or to change." She also told me to trust my instincts and be honest with my students. For example, if a lesson was not working, just stop and adjust. She was quite vocal in allowing me to be subversive when the situation became untenable.

Not only was Dr. Lang a master in motivation, she was a font of knowledge in English language arts. She managed to listen intensely, criticize constructively, and support me in my student teaching. Her methods class was filled with practical ideas as well as theory. She encouraged me to join professional organizations and attend conferences to keep abreast of the best practices and theories in education.

Because of Dr. Lang’s presence in my life, I returned to Los Angeles to pursue my career as an English teacher. This is my 25th year in teaching. I followed Dr Lang’s advice and joined many professional organizations including SCTE, CATE, NCTE, TESOL, and CRA. I attend many conferences each year, take courses, and try to stay on the cutting edge. I do trust my instincts, I am not afraid of change, and on occasion I am subversive. Thank you, Dr. Lang, for believing in me.

-Jo Anne Mitchell
Member-at-Large, High School
John Marshall High School, Los Angeles Unified School District

The Power of One Teacher - Miss Eleanor Potter

My memory is hazy about the time many years ago when I started school at an
elementary school in the Chicago Public School system I attended that school
during kindergarten and first and second grades. I remember that, regardless
of the weather (although we must have stayed inside during some of Chicago’s
coldest weather), we had recess twice a day on a blacktopped school yard. We
milled around, playing games when it wasn’t too cold. Teachers blew whistles 5
minutes before the end of recess, which was the signal to line up by class
outside the locked door nearest our classroom. Then the bell rang, the door
opened and we marched in as a class, down the corridor and pealed off into our
classroom. Once a month we got to go to the gym instead of going outside, but
there were no organized games there. I remember nothing else about those years.

In third grade I was given a scholarship to Francis Parker. For two months I
rode the street car an hour each way, but then we moved to an apartment
closer to Parker, so I could walk to school. It was worth any trouble. We had PE
twice a day, in a gym when it was cold out , and there were organized games.
In the classroom there was a radiator with a shelf on top of it and on the
shelf was a comic book library, We could bring new comics, and we could read
comics whenever we finished our class work. Our teacher was Miss Eleanor Potter.
Every day Miss Potter read one chapter of The Scarlet Pimpernel to us and,
although we begged her each day to read more, she never did. She was from the
East and told us stories of her trip to Chicago on that newest wonder of the
world, The Pennsylvania Turnpike.

We loved Miss Potter.

We had a wonderful surprise when we entered fifth grade. Miss Potter was
being promoted and she even skipped a grade so she would be our fifth grade
teacher. We were overjoyed. In fifth grade she continued many of the practices
from third grade and added a new activity. We built a Pueblo in the classroom.
The Pueblo walls were made of wooden boxes, piled on top of each other and
covered with brown paper to give them an authentic adobe look. There was a
doorway on the front and two windows on the sides. It seemed huge to us, but
probably was no more than five feet tall and about ten feet by ten feet in width
and length. There was a ladder that went up to the roof which was our favorite
place to be when we were in the classroom and not focused on a lesson. We
would sit on top like Indians, doing Indian things, such as weaving and reading (a
place to take comic books).

I had Miss Potter again in sixth grade, although it had not been planned that
way. In the summer before sixth grade, I came down with polio and spent my
sixth grade year in the Polio Ward at Michael Reese Hospital on the South side
of Chicago. I never found out what arrangements were made, but Miss Potter
was my teacher for that year, coming to the hospital one evening a week. As a
result I didn’t study with the hospital teacher who came every week day to work
with the other boys in the ward. I wrote a play about my experiences during
that year and Miss Potter is the only person identified by a real name in my
unpublished play, Polio Ward. A scene from the play is at the end of this
article.

There was then a six year gap in my relationship with Miss Potter. After
sixth grade in the hospital, I never had her as a teacher again. Because the
school was a K-12 school, I saw her on occasion as I moved through 7th and 8th
grades, but after only two years, she moved from Chicago to Philadelphia and
became the headmistress at the Springside School for Girls.

But fate weaves mysterious patterns, and after graduation I was accepted to
and enrolled at Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia. Before I started
college, I traveled to New York with my mother, who was on a business trip there.
It was a wonderful opportunity to see the Big Apple and I went to my first
Broadway show, Call Me Madame, with Ethel Merman. However, the timing was less
than perfect, for between the New York stay and the opening of the dorms at
Swarthmore, there was a week’s gap. The question was how to solve the logistics
of getting to New York and filling the time before the opening of college. The
answer was Miss Potter.

We wrote to Miss Potter and I received an invitation to stay with her during
the time. She had a small apartment which had a guest room and it wasn’t
being used during that week in September, 1951. So I stayed with Miss Potter and
she found time to introduce me to Philadelphia. It was a wonderful way to
travel to college, first a week in New York and then a week in Philadelphia. I
was a big city boy from Chicago, but I had never been east and the Eastern
cities were marvelous to see.

Three years later, Miss Potter played another important part in my life.

Towards the end of my junior year I decided to get married. My fiancee, Anne,
was graduating in 1954, although I had one more year to go before I graduated.
Some of the logistics were easy to handle. We met with the college’s
vice-president and he was helpful in planning the details. The college had no problem with my keeping my scholarship because my wife would not be a student. At that time we could not be married and both still be students. How times have
changed. The college agreed to let us live in one of their dorms where they had
changed some of the rooms into apartments for faculty by adding a kitchen in
one bedroom with a bath that linked it to a second bedroom. But a bigger
problem was how to get enough money to eat. By that time we had both decided to
become teachers, so it seemed natural to call Miss Potter and invite her to have
lunch so we could ask about possible teaching jobs for Anne.

The lunch produced even better results than we had hoped for. It seemed that
Springside School was going to have an elementary teacher taking a leave of
absence the next year, and Miss Potter was glad to recommend Anne to the person
responsible for filling the position, the headmistress of the lower school.
There was an interview, and with the support of the headmistress of the whole
school, Anne was given the job, teaching 15 second grade girls. It was a
wonderful solution for us, but caused a bit of shock the next year when we moved
to San Diego and she had a class of 35 second grade boys and girls.

After graduation it was on to graduate school and then to San Diego. We
still wrote to Miss Potter, but we were on the other side of the country from her,
so we saw her seldom. Eventually she retired and moved into a retirement
home. In a typical fashion, she was soon involved in running the home. On the
occasion of our college reunions (the few we were able to attend), we always
stopped to see her and spend some time talking about the old days. Then we
received a letter from her niece that she had died.

The wonderful thing about great teachers is that their influence does not end
with their deaths. As long as their students live, their power keeps rolling
through the years. And on those occasions when one of their students becomes
a teacher, the power keeps going from generation to generation. My students
didn’t know it, but they benefited greatly from the power of a teacher they
never knew, Eleanor Potter.

In my play, I have tried in my own way to keep Miss Potter’s memory alive.

Miss Potter

(The scene is the boys Polio Ward at Michael Reese Hospital, Chicago in 1944.
Miss Potter has pulled a chair away from a bedside and placed it in the
middle of the room, between the ends of beds 5 and 6. Jim and Murray are seated at the ends of their beds, listening. The other boys are gathered around her,
Bill and Eric in wheelchairs and Ben, Pete and George on the floor. Nurse Mary
sits at her desk, writing on charts.)

Miss Potter: It’s about time I did some arithmetic with Pete. We’re not
getting our lessons done while we sit here and talk.

Ben: You don’t need to start yet. It’s still early.

George: That’s right. He doesn’t want to do lessons anyway.

Miss Potter: That has nothing to do with it. The only reason I come is so
Pete can keep up with his schoolwork. If I don’t work with him, I’ll have
to stop coming.

Bill: Don’t do that. We all want you to keep coming. You’re so much
nicer than our teacher. She’s horrible to us and we never have any fun with
her.

Jim: Golly, besides that, you give us something to do at night.

Miss Potter: You have lots to do. You can read, you can listen to the
radio, you can work on your crafts.

Ben: You’re better than all of those. Is it true that you have comic
books in your classroom and that the students can read them whenever they want
to? That’s what Pete told us.

Pete: Of course, it’s true. I wouldn’t lie about Miss Potter.

Miss Potter: Well, it’s almost true. We do have a comic book library, but
students can only read the comics when they have all their other work
finished. They can’t read comics instead of doing their arithmetic.

George: Did you really read them a story about pirates and their battles?

Miss Potter: The Scarlet Pimpernel? I sure did. It’s one of my favorite
stories.

Ben: Please tell us a story before you go to work with Pete.

Miss Potter: I don’t have The Scarlet Pimpernel with me, but if I tell you
a story about Esmeralda, will you let us go do our work?

Bill: Yes, of course.

Ben: Certainly.

Eric: Tell us and we’ll be quiet.

George: Who is Esmeralda?

Miss Potter: Well, Esmeralda is my car, and I don’t think I’ve ever told
you about our adventures when we drove from Philadelphia to Chicago.

Eric: No, tell us. (They settle more comfortably. Nurse Mary puts down
her charts and listens, as well.)

Miss Potter: Esmeralda is a very special car. First of all she is b
eautiful, a bright shiny red with chrome bumpers. As a matter of fact, she is just
as proud as a peacock about how she looks and likes to be kept polished and
bright.

George: How can a car be proud? Cars can’t think.

Pete: My family doesn’t even have a car.

Miss Potter: That’s where you are wrong and there’s another way that
Esmeralda is special. She has feelings, just like you and me. What’s more, she
lets me know how she feels. Oh, I don’t exactly talk with her, but she groans
and squeaks and rattles and purrs, just to let me know how she is. And
whenever I polish her, she runs as smooth and as quiet as can be, so I know she
feels good.

Bill: Cars talk?

Miss Potter: Esmeralda can, and we sometimes hold long conversations when
I’m driving. Just tonight as we drove here, she was saying that it’s getting
cold in the evening and she hoped I wouldn’t leave her sitting in the windy
hospital parking lot too late. But I’m getting away from my story. When I
decided to move to Chicago and teach here, I had a long talk with Esmeralda about
the route we should take. We had a choice between the Pennsylvania Turnpike
and the regular roads. Esmeralda and I had never driven on a turnpike and I
asked her what she thought about it.

Pete: What’s a turnpike?

Miss Potter: A turnpike is one of the wonders of the modern world. It’s a
road that is so straight and so smooth that cars can just whiz along it. And
there are no crossroads or traffic lights, so you never have to slow down for
hundreds of miles. What’s more it has two speed limits, one for going too
fast and one for going too slow. And that is what I was worried about. I knew
Esmeralda wouldn’t go too fast, because she was such a cautious car, but I was
afraid that she would want to poke along and go too slow.

Ben: What was the slow speed limit?

Miss Potter: That’s what was frightening me. Cars on the turnpike have to
go at least 35 miles an hour. Now that is usually the fastest that Esmeralda
goes, and I wasn’t sure how she would feel about that being the slowest she
could go. Well, we had several long discussions about the turnpike and in the
end Esmeralda surprised me by being braver and more daring the I thought she
was. She told me that we should come on the turnpike.

Jim: Hurrah, good for her.

Eric: I knew she would, I like Esmeralda.

Miss Potter: So, I packed up everything and sent my furniture and other
belongings ahead on the train and then Esmeralda and I set off on our great
adventure. When we drove up to the turnpike ticket booth, both our hearts were
pounding wildly. We eased our way onto the turnpike and just sort of took it as
slow as possible at first. Of course, slow meant 35 miles an hour, so it
seemed to Esmeralda and me that we were just racing along. You can bet we stayed in the right hand lane, too. We weren’t about to take a chance and move to
the fast lane. For a while we were glad that we were being so careful, for the
traffic was just zooming by us. Cars and truck roared by in a steady parade,
and we just tootled along. Then a funny thing happened. Esmeralda seemed to
tell me that we should go a little faster, and we did. And nothing bad
happened. Even the cars that passed us weren’t as frightening because they didn’t
seem as fast and as noisy. So we talked a little more and decided to go even
faster and pretty soon we were just rolling down that turnpike like everyone
else and only the fastest cars were passing us. I even had to warn Esmeralda
not to get too daring and to slow down a little. After a while she told me
that we needed to stop and rest a little and get something to eat, and almost at
once there were signs telling us that we were coming to a place where there
were a restaurant and a gas station and we pulled off the turnpike just as neat
as could be and both of us got a rest and something to eat.

Eric: What does a car eat?

Miss Potter: Why, she had a some gasoline and a little oil and water, and
I had a ham sandwich and a cup of coffee. Then she told me she was ready to
go again, and we slipped back onto the turnpike and went all the way to the end
of the road.

Bill: What then?

Miss Potter: We came to another ticket booth, and this time we gave them
our ticket and paid our money and our big adventure was over. Believe me,
Esmeralda and I will always remember our drive down the turnpike. And now, we
have some fractions to do, so Pete and I are going to go in the other room.

(She and Pete go through the door to the porch, while the other boys say
thank you and go to their beds.)

-Punky Fristrom

Punky Fristrom has been a board member of the CATE local San Diego affiliate for thirty-six years, at various times serving as vice president, president, and treasurer. At state level, Punky has serced CATE for twenty-three years on the board in many positions from president to parliamentarian and convention coordinator, attending thirty-five consecutive annual CATE conventions and planning nineteen of them.

TOP

Editor’s column
Carol Jago

Mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body, has long been the motto of educators keen to nurture sane children. As a result, most states mandate participation in physical education classes. I would like to recommend another kind of P.E. that is equally important for a child's well-being, a Poetic Education. Unless children exercise regularly with words, many will never develop the imaginative muscles they need to survive in the troublesome world. A poem can make getting up in the morning bearable. A poem may win over the person you love. A poem offers solace more lasting than any pill.

While most states' standards documents make reference to the study of poetry as an important and lasting outcome of a high school education, none that I have seen include the writing of poetry in their list of standards. While hardly a workplace skill, writing poetry is to my mind and in my experience with typically troubled teens a survival skill. Just as P.E. coaches demand that students, whatever their natural talent, get out there and move, effective Poetic Education teachers demand that their students write.

In Rules for the Dance, the poet Mary Oliver explains why it is so important for students to experience poetry. “Poems speak of the mortal condition; in poems we muse about the tragic and glorious issues of our fragile and brief lives: our passions, our dreams, our failures. Our wonderings about heaven and hell—these too are in poems. Life, death; mystery, and meaning. Five hundreds years and more of such labor, such choice thought within choice expression, lies within the realm of metrical poetry. Without it, one is uneducated, and one is mentally poor.”

This issue of California English invited teachers to share ideas for making poetry come alive for students. On the following pages you will find articles by poets who teach: April Halprin Wayland and Sonya Sones as well as by teachers who write poetry: Herm Card, Gary Thomas, and Linda Toren. Different as their approaches to teaching poetry may be, what emerges is a common call for using poetry to awaken students. Too many teenagers walk through the day in a kind of daze. Insulated by their iPods, they seem to have tuned out all but a narrow band of experience. Because poetry shares many of the elements of song: rhythm, rhyme, repetition, figurative language, alliteration, it can be tool to pry open the door to powerful literature. I believe that as we help poetry “come alive” in our classrooms, we also help our students become more fully alive.

As an introductory taste of CATE2005, “The Power of One Teacher,” CATE board members will be contributing stories about how a teacher made a difference in their lives. Be sure to mark your calendar for next year’s conference in Santa Clara, February 18-20, 2005. If you would like to submit a proposal to present, just go to CATE’s web site at www.cateweb.org. Presenters have their registration fee waived!