Every so often, the stars align and allow a project to shine brighter than anyone could anticipate. Several years ago, that happened at my high school.
It was late winter, and every cultural organization had booked a day to promote the language, the food, the movies, the music, the dance of its country of origin. Parents were heavily involved in choreographing the events, and the administration allowed the leaders of each club to spend the entire day making sure that all activities went smoothly. Teachers were encouraged to incorporate an in-school field trip into classroom activities to support these students’ efforts in educating their classmates about their culture.
It was 2005, the same winter that Christo’s Gates were displayed in Central Park in New York City. My husband and I drove from the Philadelphia suburbs for a daytrip so we could say that we had seen a Christo installation, mainly because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The thousands of gates lining Central Park made us giddy. Strangers became friends as we walked through the saffron-lined paths.
As we were driving, we listened to NPR. One story was about Wallace Steven’s poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” It seems an urban elementary school had used this work to introduce its entire student body to poetry, allowing children who had been written off to become totally immersed in this difficult piece. They went on to write their own poems using “Blackbirds” as a scaffold. The students shared their poems on a nationally-broadcast radio program. It brought tears to my eyes to see how poetry could brighten the lives of students who had not seen much sunshine.
These anecdotes are wonderful, but how in earth are they connected, you might ask. Simple. The Monday after our trek to New York, I was bemoaning yet another interruption to my class by yet another cultural group as I put my lunch in the mini refrigerator in the English workroom. My rant came to a heated end with, “Why don’t we have a day devoted to teaching English?” One of my colleagues, sick of hearing me complain, said softly, “Why don’t we?”
A light bulb went off. Ours was a high school in an affluent school district with a 99% of students going to college. Why couldn’t WE take a day for everyone to read “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”? And if we could all read it, why couldn’t we use it as a scaffold to write poetry? And finally, what if we displayed those poems for National Poetry Month?
A quick calculation showed that if every student and teacher and support staff member wrote a poem on an 8½ by 11 sheet of paper, we could cover every wall of our sprawling high school with poetry. It would allow every student to become a published poet with classmates, teachers, and parents reading his or her works between classes or during free periods. We would have our own poetry installation, not unlike Christo’s Gates. Why not do this during April, National Poetry Month? I was dizzy.
Since it was only February, I had time to talk up this idea with colleagues in my department. Not surprisingly, not everyone was as enthusiastic as I was. They complained about having yet one more interruption in their classes. They worried that they didn’t know anything about the poem or about how to teach poetry. They voiced concerns that students would deface the poetry.
When I volunteered to create lesson plans that they could use as they liked, along with ways the activities would correspond to state standards, they finally agreed. We put out the word to other departments, inviting them to visit our classrooms so they could participate. We asked them to make links to Stevens in their own classes that day to extend the participation. There was some skepticism, but most of the teachers were willing to accept yet another crazy activity.
Quickly, the designated day arrived. Teachers picked up packets that included background on Stevens, lesson plans, copies of the poem, and scaffolds printed on colored paper, keyed to the students’ year of high school. I was nervous that the day would be a failure, that students wouldn’t like the poem, that teachers would agree that it was weird and difficult, that no one would write. After first period, though, I started to hear a buzz. As students entered the room they asked me if it was true that everyone was writing poetry. When I answered in the affirmative, a few of my less enthusiastic students responded, “Cool,” in a carefully calculated tone, but everyone joined in, reading the poem, discussing it, brainstorming their own ideas for something that could be looked at in a number of ways. By the end of the day, I could tell Poetry Day had been a success. Math teachers stopped me in the hall to tell me how they included the number “13” in their lessons in support of the event. Art classes had given their students the option to draw something connected to “Blackbirds.” Some teachers even shared their own poems.
The next day, stacks of poetry appeared in every English classroom. Students who never turned in assignments waved their poems at their teachers, anxious to share what they had written with their classmates and with the school. The art teachers contributed drawings that went with the poems. That afternoon a group of us started hanging them around the building.
It took hours to get all 2000-plus poems and pictures displayed, but the result was worth it.
The next morning, students and teachers alike took their time as they headed to their first classes. Students wanted to know where THEIR poems were. Students ran up to their classmates to tell them that they read their poems and loved them.
The poems stayed on the wall for two weeks, until spring break. While some of the poems did fall down because the adhesive didn’t hold very well on some surfaces, not a single poem was defaced during the entire time.
Now it’s an annual event, and students and teachers look forward to April Poetry Day the way we anticipate the first spring flowers. It’s a chance for community, but more importantly, it’s a chance for students to bask in the light of poetry and reflect their own creativity.