Monthly Archives: October 2014

Dodge Poetry Festival 2014

DPF2014

Poetry is not my comfort zone. It never fully clicked with me. I could read it and interpret it for class, but I rarely enjoyed it as a student. The exception was epic and narrative poetry that told stories, which is where I’m at home. So when I decided to attend the Dodge Poetry Festival this past week, well, I don’t know what I was thinking.

Actually, I do. I wanted a jolt, a kick in the pants to push me to both appreciate poetry better and use it in my classroom more. And what a jolt it was! Dodge brings in the best poets in the entire country for four days of readings and discussions. And part of what makes Dodge special is the both the diversity and level of the talent that is brought in.

The day began with a “sampler” of fifteen poets reading one or two of their poems. Of course not every poem clicked with me, but a few of them gave me visceral reactions. I actually jolted back in my seat at Brendan Constantine’s “Dementia, My Darling,” a poem imagining his mother’s mind unraveling with dementia. Saeed Jones and Rachel Wiley read pieces that also gut-punched me.

The first session I attended was a panel of four poets who were also actively teaching. This session had a mix of useful suggestions for engaging students with poetry, entertaining stories, and a few utterly impractical perspectives. By this I mean I was reminded how different teaching an undergraduate poetry workshop is from teaching general education 7th grade language arts. Simply telling students there are no rules and to do whatever they want might work with really, really advanced students, but not for squirrely 12 year olds.

Then I attended a panel on women in poetry. I was one of 5 or 6 men in a crowd of about 75. I was pretty uncomfortable, especially when the session began with Jan Beatty’s “Shooter,” a poem about shooting all the men who ever harmed her. But I think it’s okay to be uncomfortable. After women spent centuries being the object (rather than the subject) of dominant white male poetic culture, I think I can sit in a poetry reading for an hour and a quarter and feel marginalized. It was a good perspective-shifter.

Maybe the best session was with Robert Pinsky, who I saw back in 2004 or so when I was a college student. His advice was practical and honest for teachers, and his sense of fun and gravitas was perfectly balanced. . He also created the Favorite Poem Project, a site of videos with  people reading their favorite poems aloud.

The final reading was by Yusef Komunyakaa. He is a brilliant poet who thinks about poetry and sound a lot. As far as being able to use his advice in the classroom, well, it was all rather abstract. A lot of “I think of sound…and tone… and beauty” type commentary. Still, it was a pleasure to sit two rows from one of America’s preeminent poets and hear him read.

The Dodge Poetry Festival only happens once every two years. It brings some of America’s most beautiful words to the heart of Newark, one of America’s ugliest places. I hope to go again in 2016, and in the meantime, become better engaged with poetry.

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6 Things You Thought You Knew About Teaching

Ah, fall! School is back in session. Retailers are shoving 3-ring binders in your face at low, low prices, children are groaning about their free public education, and the sky is bright with the colorful opinions of people who know absolutely nothing about education, but think they do.

Every teacher experiences it. At dinner parties or holidays. In online forums. At the gym or in line at the grocery store. You tell someone you are a teacher, and the other person nods knowingly. They can’t wait to pass some wisdom to you about education. Maybe you’ve heard these before.

1) “Boy, it must be great to work from 8 to 3.”
I don’t know a single teacher that does this. At all. Not even the very worst scum teachers on the bottom of the teacher barrel can pull off these hours. Demands on teachers have become so intense, and the requirements so elaborate, that in order to simply get the bare minimum done, teachers often arrive at school an hour before or stay an hour after. Their weekends are filled with grading papers and tests. The 8-to-3 teacher is a myth.

2) “Teachers have it great with their paid summers off.”
Is summer break great? Sure. But it isn’t paid. Teachers are paid for ten months of the year in most public schools. This means two months of unemployment, for which they cannot collect unemployment benefits from the Federal government. Teachers have two choices: squirrel away money during the year to survive July, August, and the first half of September, or find seasonal work.

3) “Teachers are paid great. Why, I know one who is making $95,000 a year!”
First of all, it should be “paid well.” Adverbs, guys, come on.
It’s true, teaching can provide a stable, predictable middle income salary. But for the amount of education, training, and specialization that teaching requires, teachers are underpaid relative to other occupations and relative to teachers in many other countries. And secondly, most districts pay teachers on a step salary guide, locking them into an incremental pay level. In the business world, an ambitious and talented employee could double his or her salary through promotions in five or six years of service. A teacher might see an increase of a thousand dollars a year in that time. And that 95k teacher? He or she probably has 35 or 40 years of experience and an advanced degree. That salary is the culmination of a lifetime of work, not a sweet ride on the backs of taxpayers.

4) “I pay taxes, so technically you work for me.”
Great. So when I talk to a firefighter, I’ll tell him to let your house burn down. Since I’m a taxpayer, too, technically he works for me.

5) “All you need to do is _______.”
Make class fun. Show them who’s boss. Keep their attention. Speak to them in a way they can relate to.
There is no one key to successful teaching. Teaching is complex and constantly shifting. In a class of twenty-five students, there are twenty-five minds that learn differently. For some, making class fun and talking like a gangster (or is it “gangsta” now?) makes you relatable. For other students, it makes you a buffoon. There is no one thing that is “all you need to do.”

6) “You should really teach them about _________. I loved that when I was a kid.”
People not in education fail to understand that teachers have very little control over what and how they are allowed to teach. We can’t teach the books, perform the lab experiments, or introduce the mathematical concepts we want to. We have limited control on how we teach, and that is heavily observed and scrutinized. So just because you had a great experience making a baking soda and vinegar volcano in third grade, or you loved reading The Lord of the Flies, don’t assume I can do that, too.

People who are not in education think they know better than teachers. Breaking a bone does not qualify me to be a doctor. Eating in a restaurant does not qualify me to be a chef. So having been a student ten or twenty or fifty years ago does not qualify you to be a teacher. The next time you hear someone is a teacher, keep the helpful advice to yourself.

Instead, just tell say “thank you.”

Or, “God bless you.”

Or, “Here, have a drink. I bet you need one.”

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