Those Who Can’t Do…

Before I found my calling teaching small autistic children I did a short stint teaching high school English. I know how trying typical teenagers can be ( I know I was) but I got to teach the alternative kids. The ones with criminal records and emotional problems. The students who were barely passing, and found it more stimulating to smoke outside by the tree than come to class. I liked English and walked in my first day with all these expectations and big plans. But this is no romantic story of a teacher overcoming the odds and reaching her students. I was no Michelle Pfeiffer  in Dangerous Minds. This was not Freedom Writers.

I was twenty-one when I started with them. The oldest girl in my class was twenty, barely six months my junior. I couldn’t tell those kids what to do like most teachers. Seriously, who wants to listen to a twenty-one year old anyway? I had to cajole, manipulate and in a couple of cases beg a few of them to listen. In the meanwhile I had to teach Shakespeare. Julius Caesar. All of them hated it and frankly I didn’t blame them. They couldn’t relate to it. The language was difficult to understand and even I was faking enthusiasm for my least favorite play. I did them a favor, printed out SparkNotes for everybody and created the test from that. Only half of them passed. Of course, while my spirits sank and I started to rethinking this whole being-a- teacher- thing, my cooperating teacher assured me that it wasn’t my fault. ” Look on the bright side. At least nobody cut class today.”

Thankfully we moved on to other units. Short stories, American Classics and poetry. Poetry? Poetry! When I enthusiastically announced that we were going to study and then write poetry all I got were blank stares. One kid mumbled, “I $%&*ing hate poetry.”

I liked poetry in high school. I remember reading Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou as a teenager and thinking I had found my personal anthem. I wanted that for them. I wanted them to find a poem they loved and identify with it. So, I exposed them to a lot of poetry. Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (Which I got a couple I -don’t -get -it’s.) The Raven  which is actually really just kind of dark and creepy and awesome. They didn’t find it as awesome as I did until I showed them The Simpson’s version of the poem. ( Click The Raven to see it.) How cool was I?! (Not very.) I earned bonus points for the day but they still weren’t excited until I introduced them to Poetry Slam and Def Poetry and spoken word artists. One kid said, “Hey, that’s not poetry it’s hip hop without music.” Ding! Ding! AHA and Woot! Woot!

How could I have forgotten that songs are poems without music? From there I started to forget about the classics and pulled the lyrics to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and stuff by Bob Dylan and all those great protest songs from the late sixties. Some of them even liked it but I found myself falling in love with this genre of writing the more I taught it.

Then came the part of the unit where they had to write their own stuff and my blank stares and ‘I $%&*ing hate poetry,’ returned. I could teach them all about stanzas and couplets and rhyme schemes but I couldn’t inspire them to be creative. A lot of poems are about life experiences and pain and while this class probably had more of that than most kids their age I just couldn’t get them to put it down on paper. So what did I do? Fill in the blank poems. It was like Mad Libs for poetry and a total cop-out but it got them writing.

What’s the point of all of this? I hate teenagers. Just kidding. But seriously, teaching writing, and poetry is hard and I will gladly admit that it is not one of my strengths. That’s why I admire English teachers, mentors, the people who help us shape our writing and inspire us to put words on paper. Sometimes a little education can be a good thing.

Sharing time! How do you feel about poetry? Got a favorite? Hate it? Write it? Any real English or writing teachers out there? Leave any comment you would like.

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14 thoughts on “Those Who Can’t Do…”

  1. That’s awesome, Jaime. Teachers have the toughest jobs! It takes a lot of patience and creativity to reach so many different personalities and styles of learning. Way to go!

    My editor is a retired high school English teacher who has been exceedingly patient with me, enthusiastic, and ruthlessly honest. i love her! She has made me a better writer and I don’t know what i would do without her.

  2. I will say, as a teacher/speaker, teenagers are the hardest to teach. I hate after I’ve poured my guts out and think I’ve reached at least one of them, I’m still met with the blank stare. But I have had numerous kids come to me after on their own and say I really made them think. So Jamie, even if you think you didn’t make a difference in the moment, there were some kids who walked out of that classroom with a seed planted in their minds, and you may never know how it took root, but just know you did make a difference.

    Now as for poetry, I am actually having to look into some dark stuff right now for my WIP, and am finding it pretty interesting…if not a little disturbing. 🙂 What kind of frame of mind does a person have to be in to write like that? My nurturing self just wants to reach out and hug these people. 😉

  3. Hi Jamie,
    Teachers have my total respect, especially today. It seems with all the technology the kids today are a tougher crowd. I was fortunate in having had a teacher who gave us song lyrics. He was a cool guy. I like poetry. My favorite is “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost. Not romantic, I know, but I live behind a state forest in CT so I often think of that poem when walking in winter with my dogs.

  4. I $%&*ing hate poetry. I don’t get it. Seriously, if you want me to know something, just tell me! Don’t make me figure it out! As an English major in college, I took as few poetry classes as possible. 1. Well, not including my Shakespeare class or my Chaucer class. Or my Anglo Saxon class where we read Beowulf in Anglo Saxon. But typical, short, little poems, I took one class and it was TORTURE! The only thing I learned was that Rod Stewart’s Forever Young is basically Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn set to music.

    In fact, I turned my loathing of poetry into a marketable skill. Before I began life as a full-time writer of things I’m interested in, I worked in an Internal Audit Department taking their complicated findings and results and breaking them down to easy-to-understand (not poetic!) reports.

    1. hahahaha! Poetry is not all bad check out Shel Silversteins where the side walk ends. Very easy to understand and the kids will like it

      1. Second that! My son LOVED Shel Silverstein. Probably still does, but at 13 might not admit it.

  5. Back in the day I used to enjoy poetry. I preferred the classic rhyming kind; my fave was the Edgar Allan Poe stuff, I think because the language was just so over-the-top, words mere mortal writers cannot get away with anymore. Unless you are Dean Koontz, you cannot use a word like “tintinnabulation” (http://poestories.com/read/bells) and live to tell about it. I did write a little poetry at one time — most of it spectacularly bad, and most of it long gone, which is probably for the best. Jamie, THANK YOU for being a teacher, and for what you do every day for those atypical little ones who need you so much. The world is a better place because of you and your colleagues.

  6. I love to read poetry. I enjoy classic poems (Longfellow, Whitman, Poe – old school type stuff). I could never write it. My poems always came out sounding like bad nursery rhymes or commercials. You get major kudos from me on being a teacher. My family is filled with teachers (including my godfather – a retired high school English teacher) and I learned early on to have tremendous respect for the profession. Teachers work so hard, for so little, compared to other professions. If we all think back, I’m sure we call all point to a teacher (or teachers) who made a difference in our life. Thank you so much!

  7. Jamie, you were great with those kids. Teenagers are between people. They think they know everything, and are waiting for someone to prove them right. Then one day they wake up and remember you, and become whole people. Good job.
    For me, i never cared for poetry, mostly cause I don’t get it! But am sure if i took the time to do some learning, i would find magic. Thanks.

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