Dear fellow teacher,
Here’s a quartet of poems to enjoy with your coffee,
during this five-minute break in your day.
Lars Erik Larson, UP English”
Can poetry teach us to become better teachers?
In a word, no.
But in its ability to remind us what it is to be human, poetry places us back on the foundation all good teaching comes from.
With sensory concreteness, these poems use humor, empathy, passion, and confusion to remind us to be ourselves as we teach our students to locate their own best selves.
First up: among poetry’s strategies, a poem might choose sarcasm, as prompted by this poem’s title, a familiar question we hear:
“Did I Miss Anything?”
by Tom Wayman
Nothing. When we realized you weren't here we sat with our hands folded on our desks in silence, for the full two hours
Everything, I gave an exam worth 40 percent of the grade for this term and assigned some reading due today on which I'm about to hand out a quiz worth 50 percent
Nothing. None of the content of this course has value or meaning Take as many days off as you like: any activities we undertake as a class I assure you will not matter either to you or me and are without purpose
Everything. A few minutes after we began last time a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel or other heavenly being appeared and revealed to us what each woman or man must do to attain divine wisdom in this life and the hereafter This is the last time the class will meet before we disperse to bring the good news to all people on earth
Nothing. When you are not present how could something significant occur?
Everything. Contained in this classroom is a microcosm of human experience assembled for you to query and examine and ponder This is not the only place such an opportunity has been gathered
but it was one place
And you weren't here
Sarcasm helps us blow off steam, and in the case of this poem, the humor is directed at the student’s cluelessly broad question.
But there are more constructive strategies than sarcasm for thinking through our pedagogy. Poems might take the opposite tack, deploying earnest empathy at the impossible challenge of our classroom work:
“Lit Instructor” by William Stafford
Day after day up there beating my wings with all the softness truth requires I feel them shrug whenever I pause: they class my voice among tentative things,
And they credit fact, force, battering. I dance my way toward the family of knowing, embracing stray error as a long-lost boy and bringing him home with my fluttering.
Every quick feather asserts a just claim; it bites like a saw into white pine. I communicate right; but explain to the dean-- well, Right has a long and intricate name.
And the saying of it is a lonely thing.
Stafford’s poem gives us concrete images and gestures for visualizing our fragile classroom challenge – namely, getting across the complexity of what we’re teaching.
But is this all too self-pitying? Another strategy is to re-connect with what got us into the ed. biz. in the first place: our own simple passion in our subject:
“To be of Use” by Marge Piercy
The people I love the best jump into work head first without dallying in the shallows and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight. They seem to become natives of that element, the black sleek heads of seals bouncing like half-submerged balls. I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience, who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, who do what has to be done, again and again. I want to be with people who submerge in the task, who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along, who are not parlor generals and field deserters but move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or the fire be put out. The work of the world is common as mud. Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. But the thing worth doing well done has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident. Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used. The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.
In place of sarcasm or self-pity, Piercy redirects us toward simple passion (and fills our head with the everyday objects and actions that can serve as reminders). When our teaching is driven by this engine, we serve as models for student engagement, rather than enforcers. And then there is teacherly humility; this last poem uses comically surreal juxtapositions to get at the “confusion of the world” – a confusion that bedevils not only students but ourselves as well, across a lifetime:
“To David, About His Education” by Howard Nemerov
The world is full of mostly invisible things, And there is no way but putting the mind’s eye, Or its nose, in a book, to find them out, Things like the square root of Everest Or how many times Byron goes into Texas, Or whether the law of the excluded middle Applies west of the Rockies. For these And the like reasons, you have to go to school And study books and listen to what you are told, And sometimes try to remember. Though I don’t know What you will do with the mean annual rainfall On Plato’s Republic, or the calorie content Of the Diet of Worms, such things are said to be Good for you, and you will have to learn them In order to become one of the grown-ups Who sees invisible things neither steadily nor whole, But keeps gravely the grand confusion of the world Under his hat, which is where it belongs, And teaches small children to do this in their turn.
With its jumbled reminder of all the disciplines we encountered in school but failed to pursue or remember (even as we excelled in our own disciplinary silo), we’re reminded of the vastness of what we don’t know. Nemerov’s poem leaves us with more questions than answers.
But then again: in that teaching course we took from Professor Socrates way back when, wasn’t that precisely our Learning Outcome?