Poetry’s Recent Resurgence and the Import of Teaching It

Poetry’s Recent Resurgence & Importance

Recently, The Atlantic published an article titled “Still, Poetry Will Rise”  where Megan Garber interviewed the editor of Poetry magazine asking why so many poems went viral in the wake of the 2016 election.Don Share explains “Poets are kind of like—it’s a bad metaphor, but—canaries in a coal mine. They have a sense for things that are in the air.” 

With the current tension in the air with politics and concern about the unknown, Share elaborates on how poetry can help create empathy: “What poetry does is it puts us in touch with people who are different from ourselves—and it does so in a way that isn’t violent. It’s a way of listening. When you’re reading a poem, you’re listening to what someone else is thinking and feeling and saying.”‘

I found this to be true with my own students. It was sheer coincidence that I started a mini poetry unit in one of my classes immediately after the election results, but I was grateful because writing poems allowed my students–on either side of the political spectrum–a chance to voice their opinions, thoughts, and concerns in a healthy, meaningful way. We read  recent poems from Amit Majmudar, Maggie Smith, Margaret Atwood, Billy Collins,  Warsan Shire, and Wislawa Szymborska. Then, students wrote odes, free verse, and light rhymes about the world today–technology, politics, relationships.  Afterward, a few confessed to me they felt better about writing out some of their feelings. 

 I shared with my students poet Dana Gioia’s opinion on the function of: “Poetry can be analyzed, but that’s not why it exists. The purpose of poetry is not to create literary criticism. It exists to delight, instruct, and console living people in the sloppy fullness of their humanity.” I would agree–in all our messy humanity, poetry offers us an outlet to share what it means to be human. 

Additionally, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me about how writing poetry can help us find ourselves: “Poetry aims for an economy of truth––loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts. Poetry was not simply the transcription of notions––beautiful writing rarely is. I wanted to learn to write, which was ultimately, still, as my mother had taught me, a confrontation with my own innocence, my rationalisations. Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.”

So if you’re seeking a way to help students hone their thoughts and articulate crisp images, perhaps poetry is the vehicle.

Posted by Kate, PCTELA Blog Editor.

Poetry’s Recent Resurgence and the Import of Teaching It

Book Review: Up Late with Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Up Late with Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

I love reading Jodi Picoult’s books–they delve deeply into the subject matter at hand and often offer multiple perspectives to a situation (I briefly reviewed Leaving Time here two years ago.) Small Great Things is no exception. We see/hear/understand this story from three perspectives: Ruth, an African-American nurse; Turk, a white supremacist; and Kennedy, a white public defender. This novel tackles issues about race, but at first I was uneasy about Jodi Picoult writing about this–was it her story to tell? After reading the book, I think it was, because she approached her own racism as well as systemic racism.

Perhaps what I appreciated most was the author’s note at the back of the book (which I skipped to half way through the novel since I was curious), where Picoult writes: “I was writing to my own community–white people–who can very easily point to a Neo-Nazi and say he’s a racist…but who can’t recognize racism in themselves.” She goes on to talk about institutional power and how “it’s hard to see those advantages, much less own up to them.” As a white woman, I think it was an important reminder to me of the automatic privilege I have in our country–now more than ever.

I particularly enjoyed Ruth’s perspective, but I’m not a black woman, so I don’t know how accurately she was portrayed. However, I could relate to her as a woman and as someone who works hard and loves her job.  Early in the novel, she shares: “It just goes to show you: every baby is born beautiful. It’s what we project on them that makes them ugly.”

I appreciated when Ruth called Kennedy out on her priviledge, which reminded me of parts of Go Set a Watchman when Scout claims she doesn’t see color and her Uncle Jack takes her to task for that. Similarly, Ruth chastizes Kennedy: “You say you don’t see color…but that’s all you see. You’re so hyperaware of it, and of trying to look like you aren’t prejudiced, you can’t even understand that when you say race doesn’t matter all I hear is you dismissing what I’ve felt, what I’ve lived, what it’s like to be put down because of the color of my skin.”

I struggled with Turk’s portion of the novel, as parts were hateful and uncomfortable, but Picoult managed to help me see all people have origin stories, and many people turn to hate because they feel isolated and alone, and want someone to blame. I found myself struggling when reading his character’s perspective, but in the end, hoping for his redemption.

Finally, Kennedy’s character drove me crazy and gave me hope at the same time. I appreciated how she had to dig deep into her identity and her priviledge and how she was self-reflection.  When she starts to think about the world she lives in, she wonders, “What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn’t fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down, modify yourself to fit? How come we haven’t been able to change the puzzle instead?” This metaphor exemplies Picoult’s writing style for me: original metaphors and relatable concepts to show how a character works through her ideas.

I read this in less than 24 hours, and have three people on a waiting list to borrow it–I highly recommend it for the story and the personal contemplation it may inspire.


Posted by Kate, Blog editor for PCTELA

Book Review: Up Late with Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Friday Five: Alternative Gifts for Booklovers on Your List

Now that Thanksgiving is over, we’ve moved into the holiday giving season. Have a booklover on your list, but not sure what books to buy them? Here are 5 ideas:
1. Out of Print Clothing carries T-shirts, mugs, bags, and other gift-y items for the booklover on your list.
2. Donate books to a homeless shelter in your booklover’s name.
3. Buy a giftcard for your booklover to an independent bookstore near them.
4. Choose a booklover candle at Frostbeard on Etsy.
5. Buy a book *you* love and inscribe it to your booklover.

Peace, love, and books.

Image result for peace love and books


Friday Five: Alternative Gifts for Booklovers on Your List

Poetry: To Be of Use by Marge Piercy

To Be of Use
Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Poetry: To Be of Use by Marge Piercy

A poem for Thanksgiving week: The Pumpkin

The Pumpkin
John Greenleaf Whittier, 1807 – 1892

Oh, greenly and fair in the lands of the sun,
The vines of the gourd and the rich melon run,
And the rock and the tree and the cottage enfold,
With broad leaves all greenness and blossoms all gold,
Like that which o’er Nineveh’s prophet once grew,
While he waited to know that his warning was true,
And longed for the storm-cloud, and listened in vain
For the rush of the whirlwind and red fire-rain.

On the banks of the Xenil the dark Spanish maiden
Comes up with the fruit of the tangled vine laden;
And the Creole of Cuba laughs out to behold
Through orange-leaves shining the broad spheres of gold;
Yet with dearer delight from his home in the North,
On the fields of his harvest the Yankee looks forth,
Where crook-necks are coiling and yellow fruit shines,
And the sun of September melts down on his vines.

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and from South comes the pilgrim and guest;
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board
The old broken links of affection restored,
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before,
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye?
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!
When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune,
Our chair a broad pumpkin,—our lantern the moon,
Telling tales of the fairy who travelled like steam
In a pumpkin-shell coach, with two rats for her team!

Then thanks for thy present! none sweeter or better
E’er smoked from an oven or circled a platter!
Fairer hands never wrought at a pastry more fine,
Brighter eyes never watched o’er its baking, than thine!
And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express,
Swells my heart that thy shadow may never be less,
That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below,
And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow,
And thy life be as sweet, and its last sunset sky
Golden-tinted and fair as thy own Pumpkin pie!


A poem for Thanksgiving week: The Pumpkin

Friday Five: My Top Five Moments of NCTE16

So this is totally my personal list of my Top Five Moments (although it was hard to only choose five), but feel free to add your own in the comments section. We all know conferences are about conversations, and there have been so many conversations today that made my day better–whether they were conversations in line for food or books, or conversations at or between sessions–each conversation enriched my experience. I feel privileged to call myself a teacher today in the company of these remarkable people.

In no particular order:

1. Listening to the opening General Session titled Authors as Advocates–what a conversation. Sharon Draper, Jason Reynolds, Ibtisam Barakat, e.E Charlton-Trujillo, Meg Medina, and G. Neri were phenomenal together.

2. Attending a session by sj Miller, titled “Teaching, Affirming, and Recognizing Trans* and Gender Creative Youth: A Queer Literacy Framework.” This session was small, but important, and I was reminded in this session this work matters so much–but why doesn’t it matter more?

3. Informal conversations as we passed in the halls with PCTELA people: Amy Nyholt, our President; Jennie Brown, past president; Bob Dandoy, our treasurer (and past Executive Director); and Glenda Daulerio, the VP of Middle Level.

Jennie Brown and Jennifer Novotney sign books

4. Talking to the exhibitors who really know their books. The Penguin Book and the HarperCollins booths were particularly helpful, and I walked away with a copy of Jacqueline Woodson’s  Another Brooklyn and a copy of The Red Bandana by Tom Rinaldi.  I’m looking forward to reading these and hopefully adding them to my curriculum.  The conversations at the booths with publishers are always enlightening.

5. Conversations with the authors themselves.  After talking to Sharon Draper at PCTELA about books, and then seeing her this morning, I found a copy of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and dropped it off for her while she was signing. Her face lit up–nothing like giving a book to a famous author to make you feel good. Then, I chatted with e.E. Charlton-Trujillo and had her book Fat Angie signed and we talked about gender-neutral salutations (Mx) and she signed my book like that!

screen-shot-2016-11-18-at-7-36-27-pmSo I admit it, I’m biased: I’m all about peace, love, and books. I’m all about conversations with people to create connections, and the NCTE conference is a phenomenal venue for that. So here’s to a great first day at the conference, and there are still two more left!

Kate Walker maintains the PCTELA blog. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher in State College, PA and a former board member of PCTELA.

Friday Five: My Top Five Moments of NCTE16

Thoughts about Teaching as Curating

In July of this past summer, when I attended the Library of Congress’s Teacher Institute, one of the other attendees used the word curate when she referred to the way the facilitators chose images for us to use for an activity. Since then, I’ve been marinating on the concept of teaching as curation. I thought even more about it when I went to the Whitney Museum in New York City in August and considered curation in terms of museums as well as teaching.

I have come to embrace the term curate as a verb for what I do as a teacher because of the connotations entailed within the word. As Satchell Drakes says in one of his video essays, “creativity…is a person’s ability to make connections between things that wouldn’t normally be associated with each other.” I believe great teachers know how to channel that element of their creativity and pair things (readings, activities, concepts, theories) in such a way that makes their students see them in new light.

For example, I recently used one of Teju Cole’s essays from Known and Strange Things to talk to my seniors about identity, satire, and writing college essays.  It was a phenomenal moment in the classroom that allowed them to reconsider how they defined themselves in terms of definition in opposition. By offering them satire as a vehicle for writing about themselves, it helped solidify who they were.

On another occasion, I paired Stephen King’s “Why We Crave Horror Stories” with a Neil Gaiman short story “Click, Clack, Rattlebag,” (From Trigger Warning) and then moved into discussing how a chapter in The Kite Runner actually qualified as horror based on what we’d discussed with the previous items. It was almost magical how perfectly they fit together. While the initial reason I placed these texts side-by-side was time of year (Halloween) the serendipity of the topics reminded me how curation of texts, even accidentally, can illuminate elements you might not have been aware of before.

So when you’re thinking about planning your next lesson, consider how you might select, organize, and present (curate) it in such a way that might illuminate the text in a new way. In the mean time, I’m off to Atlanta for the NCTE 2016 conference, where I’ll be searching for new texts to add to my collection and consider for my next act of curation.

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor for PCTELAscreen-shot-2016-11-16-at-8-40-48-pm

Edward Hopper image from the Whitney Museum

Thoughts about Teaching as Curating

Book Review: From Me to We: Using Narrative Nonfiction to Broaden Student Perspectives

From Me to We: Using Narrative Nonfiction to Broaden Student Perspectives
by Jason Griffith

Full disclosure, I know Jason and he sent me a copy of this book. Before he went off to graduate school in Arizona, I always made sure to attend his PCTELA conference presentations, as I knew I would walk about with concrete ideas I could immediately integrate into my lessons the next week.

Well, this book is sort of like attending a week’s worth of PCTELA presentations–I found myself taking notes about which lessons to integrate and when I would use them.  What I love about this book is how Jason is a realistic teacher. He acknowledges that most of us can’t just add new books to our curriculum instantly, that we need ways to supplement the texts we already have. But he does remind us how “As an English teacher, I see myself as an ambassador for books that I love.” I couldn’t agree more!

Jason offers a number of concrete ways to develop a unit using narrative nonfiction–and his introduction explains why he’s even using the term narrative nonfiction. He reminds us that “By reading narrative nonfiction, students can explore much of the circular plot and character content that they can through classic and contemporary fiction, but narrative nonfiction also offers a chance to experience vicarious perspectives from real lives.”

The book is split into two main parts: Reading the Truth and Writing the Truth.  Throughout, there are useful activities. I know I’ll be implementing the 1-1-1 Research paper, where students refer to one source, use one citation/quote from that source, and write one page. What a quick, efficient way to check for understanding.

I also really appreciate the time Jason took to include a few paragraphs about profanity and censorship in writing–and his references to the recently departed Leonard Cohen and the prolific Stephen King strengthened what he had to say. This is another element of this text I appreciated–Jason has gathered numerous sources to support his observations and his activities.

In short, not to be too much of a fangirl, but this book is a must-read for anyone teaching what I used to call the Personal Essay, or the Fourth Genre, which Jason calls Narrative Nonfiction. I confess, I think I may be switching what I call this type of writing because Jason’s term makes so much sense.

The best part is this: you can see Jason at NCTE next week presenting during these sessions:

G.10 Igniting Instruction—Round 2

J.02 Why Middle Matters: Middle Level Mosaic

L.15 My Story, My Place, My Path: Empowering Student Self-Advocacy through Expressive Writing


Kate is the PCTELA Blog Editor and will be at NCTE this week in Atlanta!

Book Review: From Me to We: Using Narrative Nonfiction to Broaden Student Perspectives

Friday Five: Things I’ve Learned in the First Marking Period

To continue our trend from the week, we have another student teacher sharing thoughts about his first marking period in the classroom. Here are some things that surprised him as he began teaching:

  1. Changing methods and strategies once the lesson has actually started is a common occurrence. Keeping overall objectives in mind is extremely useful for in-the-moment responsive teaching.
  2. Students are much more receptive/responsive to pop culture references than I expected. It may be more of a challenge for me to create relevant connections to our current lessons than I thought, but the payoff in student engagement is worth it.
  3. Dealing with the “human” side of teaching is easily twice as important as dealing with the content side. Learning the psychology of students is essential. They are complicated and there is always more to them than meets the eye.
  4. Students don’t often work/think anywhere near the way you did as a student. They often have vastly different value systems and work ethics, and trying to apply my own viewpoint to their logic is occasionally less than useful. Trying to figure out what motivates students (and what doesn’t) often requires a significant shift in perspective.
  5. Students will sometimes bring more to the table than you ever would have imagined, but you would be doing them a disservice not to expect that. (Kind of a logical paradox but it makes sense in my head.)

James Sumereau is an intern and former student at State College Area High School in Central Pennsylvania, currently teaching Advanced Placement Literature and College Prep English 11.

image from shutterstock

Friday Five: Things I’ve Learned in the First Marking Period

Student Teachers Reflect on Their First Marking Period

Hayley Frerichs & Erin Ludy reflect on some things they’ve learned after ten weeks of teaching.

Defn. Pre-service Teachers (noun): People who balance being full time teachers and full time college students.

What our friends think we do: Talk about students all the time.

What our moms think we do: Shape young minds.

What society thinks we do: Take the entire summer off.

What our students think we do: Go to frat parties in our spare time.

What we think we do: Shape young minds.

What we actually do: Stay up late grading, creating lesson plans, calling our moms, thinking about if our students are actually doing their homework, and all the while smiling from ear to ear.

Hayley: In all honesty, the first couple months of teaching have been both eye opening and motivating. I had serious doubts about going into the education field, but all those doubts were squashed under a massive boulder as soon as I met my students. During inservice days administrators remind teachers to keep the students first, but how can you not when they make it all worth it? It’s funny how easy it was to create the meme above because it all rings true (ringing the cliche bell over here). And you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Erin: With the end of the first marking period upon us, I am astonished at how quickly it has passed. These first ten weeks have been challenging, but also incredibly fun. I have enjoyed getting to know my students and see their personalities emerge in the classroom. I have built a strong relationship with my mentor teacher and enjoy collaborating with her on lessons, while also just talking to her about life. The other interns in the program have become my friends, and it has been so wonderful having them as a support system as we all face this first year of teaching together. What do I do as a teacher? Create lasting relationships with my colleagues, and hopefully with my students.

 Ms. Frerichs is a student teacher at State College Area High School, teaching Advanced English 9, Intro to Theater, and English 10. She’ll be graduating Penn State in the Spring with degrees in Secondary Education and English. Her favorite author is Virginia Woolf and some of her passions include writing, traveling, swimming, hiking, sewing, and–of course–reading.

Miss Ludy is a year-long student teaching intern at State College Area High school
teaching Advanced English 10 and English 10. She will graduate from Penn State in the spring with a degree in Secondary English Education, an ESL Teaching Certificate, and a minor in English. She enjoys reading classic British literature, young adult literature, the Harry Potter series (many times), and is currently obsessed with reading Carrie Fisher’s novels and autobiographies. She also enjoys traveling, writing, singing, and spending time with friends and family.


Student Teachers Reflect on Their First Marking Period