SOL 2016 Day 21: Kendama

Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life March Challenge 2016
This March, more than 300 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even students), visit:

Today I had back-to-back classroom observations. Traveling through the halls of a middle school during passing period is always challenging. Since I became an instructional coach last year, I've lost my chops. I'm surprised at how much the noise and craziness bothers me now.

Then after making my way through the mass of adolescent wildness, I walked into a language arts class in the midst of their mid-block break. Kids chattering and playing their middle school games, finally set free from adult talk for a few minutes. And as always this year, the kendamas were out.

I work in Daly City, California, a suburb just south of San Francisco.  About 30% of Daly City's population is Filipino, so it is affectionately known by some as "Manila by the Bay".  This means that Filipino culture figures very large in our classrooms. No school event is complete without lumpia and a few years ago students performed tinikling, a Filipino folk dance with sticks. (What I find humorous  is that when I was a student way way back in the old-time days in Illinois, that dance was part of our gym class, even though I had no idea where it came from.)

The latest student craze is Kendama. Although Wikipedia says that this game comes from Japan, in Daly City it's the Filipino students who have brought it to our schools. Every free moment students have, they start playing.

Today I saw the best incarnation yet: a kendama made from a highlighter, string and a roll of cellophane tape! Unfortunately by the time I could get my phone out to take a photo of the creative contraption, the bell had rung and it was time for writing workshop to start. Maybe I'll catch the same young man in action next time I visit.

SOL 2016 Day 14: What Writers Need

Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life March Challenge 2016
This March, more than 300 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even students), visit:

Today two of my coaching meetings got cancelled at the last minute, and I was the only one in the ELA Department office for much of the day.  So I spent time doing more research on writing workshop, finding information and advice for my coachee teachers. Some of that research included reading  What A Writer Needs by Ralph Fletcher.  The introduction to one chapter leapt out from the page: 

“Too often in classrooms we give children little squirts of language,” Bill Martin says, “We squirt at them, and they squirt back.”

This is precisely the problem. For too long, we have not been willing to give children the time they need to develop their skills. We expect that squirting copious amounts of information in their general direction will give us the results we desire. Too often we think that equals teaching.  

Those squirts won't help our students become better readers, better communicators and better writers. Why are the powers that be in this country's educational system so afraid to slow down and give children time to grow and learn?

Reading this today made me think of all the times I was guilty of "teaching" like that. It made me more determined than ever to coach teachers to grow beyond that. It made me want to repeat over and over "mea culpa, mea culpa" as I watch students in the classrooms I visit scribble long and hard in their writer's notebooks.

SOL 2016 Day 4: The Magic of Writing Workshop

This March, more than 300 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit

“Writers, off you go.” These are my favorite words of writing workshop, the signal for young writers to leave the meeting area and return to their own notebooks. When a class is going well, and students excited about what they are writing, it is just magic. Yesterday Mr. Hagen’s sixth grade class was just such a moment.

As soon as he said those words, every student – and I mean every one – rushed back to their desks and bent low over their notebooks, pencils flying. I walked around, asking“What are you going to work on today?” Some wanted to start a new piece, others to finish up what they had already started.  But everyone was writing, writing, writing.

As an instructional coach, I’m privileged to observe in many different classrooms. This year our district is rolling out writing workshop for all grades, kindergarten through eighth grade. Coaching teachers to help them improve their writing instruction is pure joy for me. What an exciting time in my job. 

Most teachers in our district have jumped at this opportunity to change their practice, but not all. In one of our district training sessions, a teacher, skeptical that writing workshop would be better than her usual writing instruction asked, “So, you’re saying the fact that kids get a choice in what to write makes workshop so motivating?”

I wanted to exclaim, “Well, good lord, yes!” Of course, I gave her a more professional response, but was emphatic. Choice is exactly what her students would love, what they need.  It seems so obvious: let kids write about what is important to them, not to us. How can something so human and simple be so revolutionary? 

I wish that doubting teacher had been in Mr. Hagen’s sixth grade class yesterday. I’m glad I was.

SOL 2016 Day 2: Daily Writing Practice

Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life March Challenge 2016

The alarm rings at 5:40 a.m. dragging me from deep sleep. It is always a shock, an unwelcome call to get up. I hate it and yet every morning I make myself leap out of bed into the dark of predawn. 

I have my rituals: light a candle, wrap myself into a blanket before sitting in my chair, drink from the thermos of tea I made the night before. Even the brand of tea is ritual, the same kind every day. Its name is Ready, Set, Go, symbolic of what I need each morning.

Today I can hear a train roll by sending people who are also early risers off to work. A bird trills somewhere in my backyard. I have not heard many birds all winter, so this is one is welcome. Perhaps it means the spring migration is beginning.  With the blinds closed, I rely on sound to tell
my how the morning is progressing outside my window. It helps keep me centered on the task at hand: writing.

I began this writing practice on August 19, 2013. 926 days ago, 926 days of rising to meet my notebook, putting pen to paper. It is the only way I know to do this, the only way I know to keep going. For years I wrote sporadically, trying to harness writer-energy after hard days of working the teacher life. Sometimes I could make myself write, but mostly I couldn't refocus inward after a day of giving to my students. I felt so drained I had no words to give myself.

The teacher-writer tug of war. What I hear from so many teacher-writers. How do we keep the writer alive when we give so much for our teaching? Of course, there are always weekends and vacations when there is ample time to write. But I always found it difficult to get going again after times of not-writing, my mind refusing to cooperate. Always feeling like I was starting over again. 

So in August of 2013, in the airport on my way back from a summer writing retreat where I had regenerated my writer self, I resolved to make this change.  I had thought about it for years but fought the idea. I am not naturally a morning person. I hate going to bed early. But I want to write. And I want to teach. How to reconcile those conflicting desires? Something had to give.  

I made this promise to myself, fearing I wouldn't be able to go through with it. I've tried so many other regimens before but always stopped. Somehow this time I was ready. And so each morning I write.

My alarm has sounded once again, telling me I must put down my pen and get in the shower. It's time to put on my teacher self and go out into the world.  My writer self has been fed for the day. I can let her rest until tomorrow.

The Power of the Internet Part III

Only one week to go before the monthly challenge begins!

Back on March 27, 2012 I wrote a post about writing odes with my eighth grade students:

Writing Odes with Eighth Graders

Just when I start dreaming of early retirement, the sun shines through the dirty, cracked windows of my classroom, and I forget all the bureaucratic and political hoo-ha to fall in love with teaching all over again. That’s what happened when I spent the day writing odes à la Pablo Neruda with my 8th graders.  (read more here)

In the last two years, my classroom website,   has just languished in the cloud without me. I'd even forgotten I had that website at all. Then today I got an email from Karin Warzybok, an 8th grade teacher at Sussman Middle School in Downey California telling me how much her students had enjoyed one of the odes written by one of my students. She even posted the poem on her blog: Warzyblog. And she wants the assignment I used to teach those wonderful poem. What an honor for my former student (I wish I could remember his name! Since I had to remove it before posting his poem, all I have are his initials: S.S.), and what an honor for good teaching. 

Once again I have been pleasantly surprised at the power of blogging. I've written before about hearing from people who had found my blog, and reached out to me. I even had one of my photographs I wind up in an art exhibit in Germany. (The Power of the Internet or How I Wound Up in an Art Exhibit in Germany)

When we blog, we can reach so many lives in ways we don't even realize. How encouraging it was to get that email the week before the Slice of Life Challenge begins. Just when I was starting to get cold feet. 

Can I do this? -- Taking up the Slice of Life Story Challenge

It's been over three months since I last posted to this blog, and even that post was just a "hey, look at me" short notice of publications. No real writing, no real effort. That's been the issue with this blog ever since I took my new job.

When I started blogging, I knew who I was, I knew what this blog would be about.  I was a poet and middle school language arts teacher who loved to travel.

Four years later, I'm still a poet and still love to travel. What has changed? My job. After 23 years teaching 7th and 8th graders, I left the classroom to become an instructional coach for language arts teachers. I'm still an educator and I'm in classrooms all the time. But teacher? I no longer grade papers or create lesson plans. I don't go to parent-teacher conferences or bus duty. I'm no longer responsible for 90 or more 12 and 13-year-olds on a daily basis. It's hard for me to say "teacher" when I realize that all the things that make teaching so complicated are no longer part of my working life. It almost seems like it would be an insult to all the teachers I know who are still in the trenches.

I never expected these feelings to stop my blog dead in its tracks, but they have.

Then in the course of doing some research on how to help teachers implement writing workshop in their classrooms, I stumbled across the Two Writing Teachers website. What a wealth of information!   For weeks I've been reading posts on tips about writing workshop and sharing it with teachers I work with.

Inevitably, all this led me to the Slice of Life Story Challenge. According to their website, "the individual challenge began on Two Writing Teachers in 2008 and has grown each year. Adults, classroom teachers and their students across six continents participate in this weekly challenge as well as in the month-long challenge in March."

Basically, this challenge is designed to get teachers and students to write their own "slice of life" stories and share them with the world, to get them to embrace their own identities as writers. This is exactly what I'd like to inspire in the teachers I coach, hoping they will then bring this passion for writing to their students.

Since finding out about the challenge, I've been toying with the idea of contributing for months, but the idea of a daily challenge for an entire month sounded too daunting. Finally today I decided that I'd just go for it. After all, what better way to inspire others than by modeling it myself. Isn't that what teachers do? Maybe there is some teacher left in me after all.

So here is my first post. I have one more Slice of Life Tuesday to go before the March challenge begins, so I can see how it feels. All I know is, it's the first excitement I've felt about my blog in a long time.

Learning from Anne Frank's Tree

Leaving the classroom to become a coach for English/Language Arts teachers has left me in a bit of a quandary. I'm still a poet who loves to travel, but am I still a teacher?  Not having papers to grade or report cards or parent conferences anymore has made me more than a little guilty when I talk to my teacher friends. Coaching teachers isn't easy but  facing a class of 30 8th graders is much, much more difficult.  So, am I still a teacher? For the last few months I've wondered if I should continue this blog or change its title. Somehow I wasn't sure I had anything more to say here.

Then I found something I wanted to share.

One of the duties of my new position is writing curriculum that aligns with the Common Core State Standards. I know there is much debate about the new standards, but to me one of the most hopeful aspects of the new English/Language Arts standards is a renewed focus on the meaning of individual pieces of literature. In the former California State Standards, instruction centered around comprehension skills that were then tested with multiple choice questions. Trying to understand the author's real message was often lost. While writing this new curriculum, I've had to dig into texts in a way I have not done since I studied literature in college. It's been exciting.

The other day, while writing about and researching The Diary of Anne Frank, I came across an online project I had never heard of before:  Anne Frank Tree: An Interactive Monument. It has been a long time since I read Anne Frank's diary, and I had forgotten how important the chestnut tree outside her window was to her. She mentioned it over and over. I also didn't know that the actual tree had become diseased and was blown down by high winds on August 23, 2010. However, people had found a way to commemorate both Anne and her tree.

This interactive project is sponsored by Anne Frank House. Individuals can create a message about Anne and how her work inspired or affected them. This message is typed on a "leaf " that joins other messages to create a digital tree as a monument to Anne Frank's memory. As of today 709, 222 people have participated. I thought this would be a wonderful way for students to respond to Anne's story.

The actress Emma Thompson was invited to place the first leaf when the project was unveiled. In the video of her speech introducing the Anne Frank Tree Monument , she shared some interesting insights about Anne and her importance to us all:

Listening to her made me realize that this didn't have to just be for young students. I decided to place my own leaf containing the haiku I had written about Anne. And that haiku led to another one:

immersed in Anne Frank's baby leaves budding
story I still cry for all frothy yellow in sunlight
her lost future words soon they will glow green

I also learned about The Sapling Project. When it became obvious that Anne's tree could not be saved, The Anne Frank House began gathering chestnuts from the tree. These chestnuts were germinated, and the seedlings sent to various organizations around the world. The American Anne Frank Center in New York received 11 saplings that were distributed to places throughout the United States. One sapling was given to Sonoma State University not far from where I live. That tree became a part of the University's Holocaust and Genocide Program. Since discovering this, I plan to visit the tree soon.

Emma Thompson said that Anne Frank's "would haves are our real possibilities." I believe Anne would have liked that phrase. For myself, I think reading Anne's words again has made me see that teaching and writing is not only about making my own possibilities come true but also helping others as well.  

If you have never read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, I urge you to do so. If you have already been touched by her story as I have, perhaps you will write a message on a leaf. 

Once Again Teachers Blamed

To Time Magazine

teachers blamed again
low pay no respect too much
work with no support

journalists use us
to sell magazines to whip
up feeding frenzy

too bad they didn’t think
no teachers no people who
can read magazines

Time magazine is about to use its cover to blame teachers for every problem in America's schools. On Monday, Nov. 3, this cover will be in every supermarket checkout line and newsstand across the country—and it's already online.

There are serious challenges facing our schools—tell Time that blaming teachers won't solve anything.

Take action! Sign the petition telling Time to apologize to American teachers:

Saying Goodbye to Room 31

After 23 years teaching Reading and  Language Arts to more 7th and 8th graders than I want to count, I am hanging up my teacher shoes.  I began my career in this very room in 1991.  As the years of my teaching life piled up, I thought I'd spend my entire time as an educator right here in Room 31.  Then a new opportunity came my way, and I decided to leave the classroom for a new career path.  What happened to change my mind?  I haven't really figured that out just yet.  Maybe summer vacation will reveal the answer.  Maybe not.  Maybe it doesn't matter.  Perhaps some changes just don't need explanation.

In any case, when August comes, instead of standing at the door to Room 31 to greet a fresh bunch of middle schools students, I'll start my new job as a district English Coach working with teachers to help them with their own students.    

Saying goodbye to this dusty old classroom with peeling window paint and rickety furniture older than my career is bittersweet.  Being teacher has been so much a part of my identity for so many years that I'm nervous about who I will be and become.  I'm like one of my eighth graders going off to high school.

And of course all this uncertainty has come out in writing.  Here are some haikus about how it feels to end this part of my life:

twenty-three years one
classroom time to close the door
step into unknown

Steinbeck: teaching great
art melding mind and spirit
what will stir me now?

eight more days to teach 
asked my friend what will I be
poet she replied

paper folders books 
paper folders books all packed
now to say goodbye

My Guest Post on Mother Writer Mentor

My friend Tania Pryputniewicz asked me to write a guest post for Mother Writer Mentor, a website offering practical advice for writing mothers.  I've had the great honor to collaborate with Tania on other writing projects.  As a writer-mother herself, she has pushed me to explore my own role in the lives of children. In 2011 during her stint as poetry editor, three of my poems, Childhood, Daughters, and Uneasy Grace were published for the online journal The Fertile Source as well as an interview, Celebrating the Foregoing of Motherhood: Poetry in the Service of Spiritual Quandary, Lineage, and Teaching Adolescents.  Here is a taste of the latest:

lisa rizzo headshot
“He used to be such a nice little boy!”  That lament voiced by a student’s mother at a Back to School Night presentation has stuck in my mind for years.  I can even remember the student’s name although he must be almost 30 years old by now.  As a middle school teacher with 22 years of teaching experience, I have heard a variation of that parental cry many times.

With no children of my own, I have always hesitated to offer advice to the my students’ parents, but when my own beloved niece turned twelve, my brother and sister-in-law turned to me for help. That is when I realized that as a veteran teacher who has spent over two decades in a classroom with thousands of twelve and thirteen-year-olds, maybe I can offer some advice to mothers facing an adolescent child for the first time.  And as a writer who struggles to balance writing with my very stressful job, I can sympathize with mother-writers who have an even harder balancing act. 

To read the rest of my post, go to Mother Writer Mentor: Practical advice for writing moms

A Child's Garden of Poetry

Listen to a young girl describing the effects of how poetry "zaps into your takes you somewhere." Or another child who tells us that through poems we can "find something that will stay with you forever." And what better writing advice could any poet get than to write your words in "a soft, drifty way."  These are just some of the words of wisdom spoken by the children interviewed in the delightful HBO documentary titled A Child's Garden of Poetry.

Yesterday I watched this short film.  Produced by HBO along with The Poetry Foundation, the film makers have combined clips of young children detailing the joys of  poetry and recitations of famous and some not-so-famous poems.  Some of the poems are read by actors and singers such as Dave Matthews and Julianne Moore.  Three were recorded by the poets themselves: E.E. Cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Carl Sandburg.  Along with lovely animation to accompany each one, the poems come alive on the screen. 

Another delight is footage of children performing Romeo and Juliet and middle schoolers performing in a poetry slam.

Poets included are:  Li Bai, Matsuo Basho, Robert Frost, E.E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson, Mary Ann Hoberman, Langston Hughes, Edward Lear, Claude McKay, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carl Sandburg, William Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Wordsworth, William Butler Yeats

Any teachers interested in using this video for their classrooms will be happy to know there is a downloadable book of the poems so students can follow along.  I know I plan to use this in my classroom.

What is “Real” Writing?

For the last year I have indulged in a subtle form of self-flagellation by keeping a calendar of my writing days.  On days when I write, I get a green star on the calendar. On days without writing, the blank white calendar square stares at me reproachfully.  A few days ago, feeling guilty about one more day away from my writing desk with no poems drafted or revised, no blog posts written, one more day when I could not put a star on the calendar, it suddenly occurred to me that I had just spent the last three days working for hours on curriculum for my upcoming classes. 

For that curriculum I created writing prompts for my students to follow, crafted sentence frames to help them generate ideas, researched sources for them to use, wrote my own examples of assignments to model for them and then revised my ideas until I felt they were ready to give to  students.  Let me see, the words I just used were “created,” “crafted,” “researched,” “wrote” and “revised” – all words that are used by people who write.  So why – after all these years – have I never seen the writing I do for my teaching job as real writing?  This led me to the question – just what do I mean by “real” writing? 

As with most people who call themselves writers, I have a day job that earns me the money that allows me to keep body and soul together (and have a comfortable middle class lifestyle – no artist in the garret for me!) so that I can write.  However, unlike many writers – and unlike myself for many, many years before becoming a teacher - my day job is not just something I do because of necessity.  My day job is something that I love and find incredibly rewarding and creative.  In fact, I have never thought I really wanted be a “full-time” writer – to be truly fulfilled, I need to teach as well as write.  So if I think teaching is so creative – truly an art – then why do I ignore the writing I do for that art?  Instead of saying I hadn’t written for the last three days, why didn’t I just name what kind of writing I did – educational writing?

The day of that revelation I had lunch with my friend Barbara Ann Yoder, a fellow writer and writing coach.  Barbara has written a book about writing primarily aimed for women who have trouble slaying their writing demons.  I met her at the AROHO Retreat in New Mexico last August, but luckily for me she also lives in the Bay Area. We’ve started to meet now and then to talk about our writing lives -- and our demons.  That day, sitting outside the Ferry Building on one of those sunny days so rare for summer in San Francisco, I told her about my new conflict. She suggested that perhaps my writing calendar couldn't tell the truth of my writing life.  Just having a small space to show yes or no – so black and white, so unlike my writing life that ebbs and flows, has fits and starts –doesn’t let me tell the whole story.

Barbara gave me a tip that she has shared with some of her clients: keep a writing journal in which I record what I create - or don't create - each day as well as a short reflection about my thoughts and feelings about that day's work.  This idea resonated with me.  I know how important self-reflection is for my own students.  I have them reflect about their writing all the time. Why didn't I think about it for myself?  I had nothing to lose.  Besides, it would give me a chance to buy another journal to add to my large collection.

After several days of online research looking for the perfect tool for this new way of recording my work, I found what I wanted at Journals and Notepads (coincidentally owned by Deonne Kahler, another AROHO friend!): a weekly calendar that would give me a small space to write about each day with a place to list plans for future projects. I wanted to keep my notes brief, otherwise I would be tempted to spend all my time writing about writing instead of actually writing. 

Since the day my journal arrived, I have recorded my progress each day.  I still have conflicting feelings about the days when I don't work on what I'm now calling, for lack of a better term, my artistic writing.  However, being able to record the events or emotions of a day when I haven't been able or willing to sit at my desk has helped me feel better about my work. I also can give myself credit (doesn't that sound like a teacher?) for my educational writing. 

I still keep my calendar as well, and  only give myself a green star for a day with artistic work. After all, even though I know I work with many kinds of writing each day, the words that make me feel like a writer are the ones in a poem or memoir or this blog. 

So, I thank Barbara for giving me some better tools to sustain me and supporting me to get a little clearer about how I think of myself as a writer.  That journal has already helped to keep me from derailing myself when guilt or doubt creeps up.  Unfortunately, I'm the still only person who can get me back to the writing desk - even the best writing coach in the world couldn't do that.

Teachers Can Never Tell...

Today I learned that a young man I taught about ten years ago is the current reigning heart throb on a Philippine television show titled "My Bonondo Girl"  This exciting news tidbit came to my attention when a news crew from a local Bay Area Filipino television station showed up to film at Ben Franklin Intermediate, our little Daly City, California middle school.

When I was his 7th grade teacher, I knew him as Alex Lim.   My memory could be faulty (after all, I've taught 10 more years since Alex was in my class!) but I think of him as being rather artistic.  He was a sweet boy with a good sense of humor. Nowadays he goes by the name of Xian Lim, and he is quite the good looking young man!  Check out the photos on his website to see how dreamy he is now.  No wonder he's a heart throb.

All this just goes to show that teachers can never tell where their students will end up.  We spend our days together for nine months in a very intense relationship which ends abruptly when they fly away in June. Sometimes my students stay in touch with me, but more often than not, I never hear from them again.  What a pleasure to find about a former student who has made a success of his life.  Of course, I'd like to take some credit for that success; after all, teaching him English must have had some effect on his ability to act!

Writing Odes with Eighth Graders

You’ve all heard it over and over:  overcrowded classrooms, decaying buildings, reduced budgets, furlough days without pay and constant teacher-bashing by political pundits and the media.  These issues weigh heavy on the shoulders of all teachers -- even a 21-year veteran like myself.  More and more these days, I have to remind myself why I chose this profession and have stayed in the classroom – with 7th and 8th graders no less – all these years. 

And then, just when I start dreaming of early retirement, the sun shines through the dirty, cracked windows of my classroom, and I forget all the bureaucratic and political hoo-ha to fall in love with teaching all over again. That’s what happened when I spent the day writing odes à la Pablo Neruda with my 8th graders.  

I first fell in love with odes as an English major in college when I read Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “Ode to a Grecian Urn” with it’s famous lines “beauty is truth, truth beauty,' – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  But it wasn’t until many years later that I  thought of odes as a genre for teaching poetry in middle school – they seemed too serious and formal to attract most young people. 

That was until I read Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things.  Neruda’s odes to everyday items such as tomatoes or socks or salt were just the thing to interest adolescents in writing poetry.  The ode’s extravagant praise for something important in their lives appeals to the emotional exuberance of 12 and 13 year olds.  They can swoon over their first love, kiss up to their mothers or proclaim their undying devotion to their iPods or basketball.  They love it, and so do I.   They play with language in a way that makes their voices come alive on the page, and when they read their poems during our poetry reading, every one of them is a true poet.

I wish I could print some of those poems here but there are privacy issues with student work.  However I can provide you with the next best thing:  a link to the odes posted on my classroom website –
You can check them out there if you want.

And of course, since I try to practice what I preach, here is my own ode "eighth grade style":

Ode to My Backpack

You backpack,
so worthy
of my praise.
Zippered one,
orange as the sun,
snug and secure
on my back.
I need you!

You are always
with me -
constant companion,
strong, expansive,
heavy or light,
your pockets
ready for my
every need.

Compared to you
suitcases are like
rocks in my hands.
Purses are as useless
as tiny boxes.
Only you, backpack
hold my life.

When we travel together
you keep me safe,
hold my memories:
evil eye from Turkey,
stones from Zanzibar,
shells from ocean waves.

I want to slip
your straps over
my shoulders,
slide into your
warm embrace.
You proclaim,
"We're on our way!"

For you I will
brush the crumbs
from your pockets,
shake the sand
from your seams.
Oh backpack,
lead me
again and again
through the world.

One Woman's Day

The inaugural post for my blog has just been re-posted at One Woman's Day, a blog hosted by The Story Circle Network, an online resource for writer-women.  You can read the entire post by clicking on the link above.

January 27 – The Teacher/Poet or Poet/Teacher?

by Lisa Rizzo

Today a funny thing happened in my middle school classroom. The teacher stopped “teaching” and became a writer being interviewed by her students. We were watching a video about an author of one of the stories in their textbook. When it was over, someone asked me what my writing routine was. I’ve told my students that I write poetry and have always written poems with them for classwork. But I’ve never really just talked to them about who I am as a writer, what I do and why I do it.

The Power of Poetry

Today was not an easy one in the teaching part of my world.  Already exhausted from putting in 10-hour days for the past weeks, this morning I found out that due to changes in our school's enrollment, I will no longer be teaching a class I truly love.  After that news, I felt depressed and withdrawn, already mourning the loss of the wonderful experiences I've had with this class since the beginning of September.

One of the difficult things about teaching is trying to keep up my spirits in front of a class of students. Sometimes I can forget whatever life issue I struggle with, but there are some days when it just feels too much.  Today was one of those.  All I could think of was to get through the rest of my classes until the bell rang at the end of the day.

And then I began my 8th grade class. The new unit they are studying is poetry. On a whim, I decided I would read the poems for the day's lesson. I told my students how important it is to read a poem aloud as a performance with style and grace.  So I began to read two poems by Jacqueline Woodson from her book, Locomotion. This is a book of poems written in the voice of Lonnie, a teenage boy living with a foster family.  Lonnie learns from his teacher that he "has a poet's heart."  As I read - with as much expression and emotion as I could - my unruly, noisy bunch of 35 8th graders sat as silently as any 5-year old listening to a bed-time story.  Anyone who has seen - and heard - this wild group would find it hard to believe their rapt attention to the words.

As I read the last lines of "Almost Summer Sky," with its symbol of Rodney acting as a tree to provide shade for his young foster brother, my heart calmed.  I'm sure I'll feel sadness for my loss at another time.  However, for that moment I was able to forget myself in the beauty of words.  Once again I was renewed by poetry.

The tale of a teacher and his donkeys

Photo from:

 Yesterday I watched the POV production "Biblioburro," a film about Luis Soriano, a teacher in Columbia who has dedicated his weekends to bringing books to children in remote rural areas. I encourage you to check it out on the PBS website - it's showing until September 18, 2011. Link:POV - Biblioburro

Seeing this man ride his donkey great distances, fording rivers while carrying his library sign and tables put a new spin on the idea of dedicated teacher.  Everyday I try to figure out just how much more of myself I can give to my education.  Everyday I complain that the photocopies don't work, that there is another faculty meeting, that I have to grade too many papers. After watching this movie, all my complaints pale in comparison. Maybe next time I feel put upon and unappreciated I'll think about Luis and his donkeys. 

Teacher/Poet or Poet/Teacher?

Today a funny thing happened in my middle school classroom. The teacher stopped "teaching" and became a writer being interviewed by her students.  We were watching a video about an author of one of the stories in their textbook.  When it was over, someone asked me what my writing routine was.  I've told my students that I write poetry and have always written poems with them for classwork. But I've never really just talked to them about who I am as a writer, what I do and why I do it. 

This day was different - I put aside the set curriculum for 20 minutes and just let them ask questions -- and they had some really good ones.  One boy asked if I thought it was better to start writing when you were still young or was it okay to wait until you were older.   That is something near and dear to my heart because I never really wrote when I was a child even though I "wanted" to be a writer.  I told them that I always loved reading books which had as the main character a girl who wrote -  Little Women and the Betsy/Tacey books in particular - and that although I dreamed I'd be like them I didn't do anything about it until I was an adult.  I had to admit that I thought it would have been better for me if I had started sooner, if I had taken myself more seriously, if I had worked harder. I asked them to think about whether they wanted to create art in some way - to write, paint or play an instrument. If they did, I wanted to encourage them create a space for it in their lives when they are young, to feel the joy of creation now.

Who was more affected by this whole conversation - the students or myself?  As with all middle school teaching, it may be years before I know if any student took this to heart enough to start on their own writing career.  That's the wonder and the ache of teaching adolescents - I have to have faith that I am touching their lives even though they may never tell me.  However, I do know that their genuine interest in me as a writer, their desire to understand me just a little bit more touched my heart in a way I won't forget.