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.