To Pair with Hamlet: Maxine Kumin’s “The Excrement Poem”

This week I’ve been finishing up teaching Hamlet to my seniors, and when he spoke to Claudius in IV.iii, he says Polonius is at supper: “Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.”

This prompted a conversation about the circle of life (cue The Lion King singing/humming by students) and also about how in the end, we’re all the same, just fodder for worms. Over the summer, I stumbled across a poem by Maxine Kumin called “The Excrement Poem” and I used it in class after we finished reading IV.iii.  It ponders how death (or manure) can prompt life, and has strong, vivid images of the speaker mucking out the stalls on her farm.

Here it is for your reading/teaching pleasure. Consider using it with Hamlet the next time you teach it.

The Excrement Poem

Maxine Kumin

It is done by us all, as God disposes, from

the least cast of worm to what must have been

in the case of the brontosaur, say, spoor

of considerable heft, something awesome.

We eat, we evacuate, survivors that we are.

I think these things each morning with shovel

and rake, drawing the risen brown buns

toward me, fresh from the horse oven, as it were,

or culling the alfalfa-green ones, expelled

in a state of ooze, through the sawdust bed

to take a serviceable form, as putty does,

so as to lift out entire from the stall.

And wheeling to it, storming up the slope,

I think of the angle of repose the manure

pile assumes, how sparrows come to pick

the redelivered grain, how inky-cap

coprinus mushrooms spring up in a downpour.

I think of what drops from us and must then

be moved to make way for the next and next.

However much we stain the world, spatter

it with our leavings, make stenches, defile

the great formal oceans with what leaks down,

trundling off today’s last barrow-full,

I honor shit for saying: We go on.


Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

To Pair with Hamlet: Maxine Kumin’s “The Excrement Poem”

English Class, a poem by Robin Chapman

English Class
Robin Chapman

Twelfth grade reading lists stretched out
as endless as the sentences we diagrammed,
as orderly as the outlines for our senior essays—
“Humanism in England in the Fourteenth Century”
I think I wrote about, cobbling facts together
about Erasmus and the Church, forgetting
those were plague years, and Henry David
Thoreau’s pithy quotes, marching to a different
drummer, hooked me for a solitary ramble
of Walden, not knowing he’d dined every night
with Emerson and Alcott; and our teacher
always turned to us with hope, searching
for some sign that we’d found a spark,
an engaged liveliness, in all those endless
marching words—her eyes lit up, her thin hair
frizzed, her faith in us fixed, misplaced,
stirring fugitive regret in our adolescent gaze,
preoccupied with who to ask to the Swankette Ball
and who to sit with at the Friday football game
(whom, she’d certainly have made us say).

Amherst Books in Amherst,  MA

English Class, a poem by Robin Chapman

Book Review: Flying Lessons & Other Stories

Book Review: Flying Lessons & Other Stories
Edited by Ellen Oh, cofounder of We Need Diverse Books

This collection of short stories includes tales of basketball players, of students trying to be ninja elves, and of young people attempting to discover their identity in the world. Here’s the list of all the authors who contributed a story:

  • Kwame Alexander
  • Soman Chainani
  • Matt de la Pena
  • Tim Federle
  • Grace Lin
  • Meg Medina
  • Walter Dean Myers
  • Tim Tingle
  • Jacqueline Woodson
  • Kelly J Baptist, who won the We Need Diverse Books 2015 contest, which led to her publication in this anthology.

I enjoyed this entire collection of stories but I have to say, particularly enjoyed Grace Lin’s story “The Difficult Path” — not just because I’m enamored with Lin’s TED talk about Windows and Mirrors and use it with my seniors every year, but because her story involved lady pirates. I mean, what adventurous person wouldn’t love a story about female pirates? And it made me research Ching Shih, the pirate Lin based her story on, and I found myself reading all about this phenomenally successful pirate who I’d never learned about in history class. Isn’t that what we hope for with our students? For a story to connect with them and sparks their curiosity?

Tim Federle’s “Secret Samantha” also appealed to me, mostly because I feel like I’m a terrible gift giver and always second guess myself.  Sam (or Flame, her secret code name) attempts to find the perfect gift for the new girl, Blade, who’s from California and has never seen know. I just love Federle’s descriptions (“The mall is a zoo, if the zoo forgot to build cages”) and the way he creates Sam’s character–I root for her the entire story, happy when she grows bold and triumphant when she finds her voice.

Kelly J. Baptist also wrote a story I found myself identifying with, as Isaiah often ends up in the library reading or writing, or transcribing the stories his father left behind for him in “The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn.” He takes care of his sister, and sometimes his mom, trying to fill the gap the loss of his father created. Once again, I was rooting for the protagonist, watching him make waffles for breakfast, color with his sister, or reminisce while watching the king fu movies he used to watch with his dad.

I could write something about each of the stories in this book and why I loved it, but I want to leave some things for you to discover when you read it. Now that I’ve been reflecting on the book, I think one thing that ties all these stories together (aside from the diversity, of course) is the skill with which the authors invite the reader into the protagonist’s lives. Each of them offers an intimate glimpse into a different life, and yet everyone wants a version of the same thing: strong relationships with others and people to love them as they are.

c1qtkaqxuaaic6gI’ll be giving away my copy of this to someone in Pennsylvania. So either comment below to be entered or retweet one of our PCTELA posts with this link. I’ll choose the winner on Sunday night (2/19/17).

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA



Book Review: Flying Lessons & Other Stories

Connecting Classics with Modern Texts: Using Slaughterhouse 90210 in Your Classroom

I discovered Maris Kreizman this summer at the Cape Atlantic Book Company. I’d taken a day trip down to see the lighthouse (and, of course, visit a few bookstores). Rain came down in torrents, prohibiting any view more than about six inches in front of my face. Soaked through and mildly disappointed, I visited the Cape Atlantic Bookstore and found sunshine in the form of books and delightful bookshop owners. Slaughterhouse 90210 was displayed facing out and I swear a spotlight encompassed the book and I heard flights of angels singing. I knew immediately I needed this book and the lessons it contained.

Essentially, this book takes classic quotes from literature and pairs them with images from popular culture: TV shows, films, rockstars, and political events. Originally a tumblr blog, the book showcases many pairings that make you consider how, as humans, we’re more alike than not alike (to paraphrase Maya Angelou). Fast forward six months later, and I’m using the book / blog as a jumping off point for teaching Hamlet to my students. One of my biggest goals in teaching Hamlet derives from the belief that we haven’t changed much as humans in the last few hundred years.  So I’m asking them, a-la-Slaughterhouse 90210, to take a quote from Hamlet, and pair it with an image from pop culture.  They then need to explain the connection for a reader who might not initially see the connection (or know the reference in the visual). So far, this assignment is going swimmingly. As I teach, I periodically stop and ask if students have noticed any passages, quotes, themes, or situations that seem familiar, or that they could connect to other stories. Unsurprisingly, Harry Potter has come up often, but also my seniors have mentioned Game of Thrones and other television shows (see Game of Thrones image below).


So far, results have been impressive. This activity will also help scaffold our final synthesis essay, where students will be asked to choose a theme to write on and include at least five primary texts and three secondary sources and explain something significant about what it means to be human. This activity already has them thinking about connections between texts based on characters as well as themes.


Plus, this is a transferrable activity. You could essentially do this for any book. It could be an in in-class assignment or homework for any text, really.  You could start by choosing one quote and do it as a class, or you could place students in pairs or small groups and have them match quotes and images. There are so many ways to incorporate Kreizman’s brilliant idea. The benefit of seeing the threads between texts are plentiful. Students begin to make connections on their own, they begin to see archetypes and tropes, and they can tie their own interests to the texts you read and discuss in class.

Let me know in the comments if you plan to try this out and what your results are with your students!

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA


This connection to Whiplash and the obsessive way he trains himself was one of my favorites–a connection I would not have thought of but that makes perfect sense.

Connecting Classics with Modern Texts: Using Slaughterhouse 90210 in Your Classroom

Friday Five: “English-y” things I did with days off

Many of us in Pennsylvania had a few days off this week from snow (and our school had a gas leak day off).  Those precious days off can be wonderful for catching up on grading papers, or, alternatively, days to do English-type-things.

Here’s PCTELA member Gina Motter’s list of 5 “English-y” things I did this week with two unexpected days off

  • Contacted a former English teaching colleague whom I have missed terribly
  • Discarded teaching materials long buried and forgotten (Catherine Called Birdy from 18 years ago; Chinese Cinderella from 17 years ago, and many others!).
  • Read several more chapters in Neil Gaiman’s The View from The Cheap Seats.
  • Wrote a sonnet in honor of a colleague
  • and graded half of 62 writing assignments on Henry V

Hopefully you all had safe, productive, relaxing time this week.


Friday Five: “English-y” things I did with days off

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I was lucky enough to win an ARC on twitter of this phenomenal book. Seriously, 5 stars, hands down. If this is Thomas’s first book, I can’t wait to see what she has in store for readers next. I r32075671ead this book in one day (we had a snow day) but I found myself putting it down to cry, to think, to process every twenty or fifty pages.

This book centers around Starr Carter, who goes to a prep school but lives in a neighborhood with a less-than-desirable school. Her parents, a shop owner and a nurse, look out for her and her brothers and their extended family lives close by, too: uncles, aunts, a grandmother. This is a family I would love to be part of: they celebrate birthdays and holidays together, they joke around with each other, tease each other, but will always be there for any family member in need. In the first thirty pages, Starr finds herself in a situation that becomes much larger than herself. She becomes witness to a crime and has to find strength within herself to stand up for justice–for her childhood friend and for an entire movement.

This book is powerful for many reasons. The content is obviously an important topic. We can see the Black Lives Matter movement from within, from a reluctant participant who fears for herself and her family. But the real power in this novel is the way Angie Thomas creates her characters. The verisimilitude with which she crafts her teenagers is impressive. Starr sounds like a teenager, acts like a teenager, and makes me want to just give her a hug. She loves old reruns of Fresh Prince of Bel Air, she’s meticulous about her kicks, and she worries about her boyfriend, her teammates, and her friends. She’s so real, and that is what gives this novel power. She’s complex–this is no carbon copy character–and that complexity gives the novel the depth readers crave. I want more stories about Starr. I want to know if she keeps up with her blog, or if she finds a different venue to share with the world about Khalil. I want to know how the rest of her family fares, how DeVante does after the end of the book, and where she might decide to go to college.

The point here is that Angie Thomas created Starr, and Starr reads like a real girl with real struggles and real triumphs–and that alone is a triumph in fiction these days. So when it comes out on February 28 in a few weeks, do yourself a favor, and pick up a copy. Just don’t forget to buy some tissues, too.

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Poem: Mirror in February by Thomas Kinsella

Mirror in February
Thomas Kinsella

The day dawns, with scent of must and rain,
Of opened soil, dark trees, dry bedroom air.
Under the fading lamp, half dressed — my brain
Idling on some compulsive fantasy —
I towel my shaven jaw and stop, and stare,
Riveted by a dark exhausted eye,
A dry downturning mouth.

It seems again that it is time to learn,
In this untiring, crumbling place of growth
To which, for the time being, I return.
Now plainly in the mirror of my soul
I read that I have looked my last on youth
And little more; for they are not made whole
That reach the age of Christ.

Below my window the wakening trees,
Hacked clean for better bearing, stand defaced
Suffering their brute necessities;
And how should the flesh not quail, that span for span
Is mutilated more? In slow distaste
I fold my towel with what grace I can,
Not young, and not renewable, but man.


Poem: Mirror in February by Thomas Kinsella