Breaking Through with Poetry

The teacher as writer.

Flowers on a summer day

In the spring of 2020, when the world we knew had been put on pause until further notice, I received an email from Teachers & Writers Collaborative. I was about to delete it, until I saw the words “free writing class” in the subject line. “Free” and “writing” are two words that tilt my head out of a slump. T&W was offering a writing course with Matthew Burgess, called “Soul of Summer” for educators. Pangs of nostalgia hit. In the chilly permafrost days of mid April, I was lacking both soul and anything close to the rhythm of summer. 

Like many others, I was feeling overwhelmed with the responsibilities of teaching while taking care of two young children stuck at home. When I saw Matthew’s name, I was taken back to my first year of teaching in Washington Heights, the 2007-2008 school year. There are few gifts you receive as a first year teacher. Matthew, who swooped into our classroom with a bag of creative energy, was one of them. Initially I viewed his visits as a reprieve from my 7th and 8th grade students – who on any given day – could cut my first year exuberance down to size. The Heights, as they call them, has its own cadences and rhythms. If you’re not wise to them, you’re an outsider. I was a young teacher who didn’t quite fully understand how to win their trust. 

Into our classroom entered a soft spoken Matthew for his weekly sessions with my crew. Seventh and eighth grade students can be hard nuts to crack. Some were invigorated to see a new face while others slouched in their seats, unwilling to acquiesce to new expectations. Swiftly, almost seamlessly, his engaging lessons caught them off guard. The “I Am From…” poems unleashed something personal within many. The examples he shared were written by poets with backgrounds similar to theirs, recalling familiar home cooked foods and neighborhood sounds. The students were inspired to share a slice of their own lives. They felt invited to the poetry table, as if what they had to say could matter.  Janis Crespo writes in her poem “Mi Casa, Todo, Soy Yo”:

I am from police sirens
Lifting away all the silence of the night,
The peace of sleep. 
From streetlights and car lights
Streaming through the window, 
Hearing conversations, 
“Go home, go away!” 
“This is my man!”
Two blocks over.

She lets us into her world, her street, and her home as she shows us what it sounds like from her bedroom window. Michael Perez-Powell, another one of my inspired writers, recalls in “Outside the City Life”: “I am from the Spanish / ladies talking “bonchincho”… I am from the fresh scent / of just made rice, beans, chicken / and platano.” The rhythm and the story that unfolds is dynamic and intimate. The “I Am From” poems enabled their personal narratives to pop up, unencumbered by lengthy prose. I quickly learned how much poetry was bubbling just beneath the surface. It was inside of them all along. It made me wonder if we all had a little poetry inside waiting to be gently nudged into expression.

Another activity that inspired a lot of fun experimentation were the “Odes.” It wasn’t lofty stuff like “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” The models Matthew handed out were playful and silly, like an ode to my shadow or an alarm clock. The kids dove in, recognizing all the seemingly familiar things in life it would be fun to elevate and praise. Lori Avital writes in “Ode to my Sneakers”:

To the tortured soles that hit the pavement

Ode to the tattered shoelaces
Woven and stretched
Battered and battered for

Blue faded to gray 
Bold and battered 

The poetry allowed my upper middle school kids, with that adolescent edge, to lose their inhibitions. I’d sometimes struggled with things like engagement and participation, cajoling with “participation points.” I wondered what was happening for them in this space. Perhaps his sessions with us were like a time-out from expectations and standards. I think they saw it as playing, but with words and ideas. I remember how the pencils scrawled across the page. For me, it was nice to lean back a little and be a spectator in my own classroom. Something shifted within, as my shoulders dropped an inch from my ears. A writing spell had taken hold. 

“For teachers as much as for students, writing gives us all an invitation to lift ourselves above our seemingly ordinary desk jobs, classrooms, bedroom windows, or small towns. It grants us permission.”

Fast forward to summer of 2020, where everything was on Zoom. My square emerged onto the screen for a meeting filled with other “Soul of Summer” faces. That same feeling took hold of my shoulders. I was ready to be lifted on a journey – to be given the permission to let go. I was a student once again, eager and hopeful. A teacher thrilled to be taught. We so often neglect our own passions, the very ones that lead us into the field to begin with. We light the path for many young minds and ignite the flames of curiosity and growth. However, we all too often neglect our own. 

Matthew launched with an “I Remember” exercise to kindle our memories of summers past. Summer is an especially fond topic for teachers. And who doesn’t have at least one vivid if not tender memory of summer? Joe Brainard’s “I Remember” set the tone with candid lines that sucked us all into the writing zone: “I remember daydreams of being a singer all alone on a big stage with no scenery, just one spotlight on me / singing my heart out, / and moving my audience to total tears of love and affection.” Beauty in seemingly ordinary moments is the most powerful type. These are the ones I strive for as a writer. When Matthew set us into an independent writing block, I was swept back to my semester abroad in Italy, beginning in the summer of my junior year as an undergrad. However, many of the people in our class, from a different generation than I, were reminiscent of summers of the late 1950s and 60s. Our differences were punctuated by the way we interpreted the exercise. Anissa Reilly wrote brilliantly about cooking with her grandmother:

I remember being knee high to my grandmother as I looked at the 
table of rising dough. Wondering how in the world that flat dough 
would rise. 

Jodi Sabra recalled summers of her childhood so vividly I felt like I were watching it unfold in a film:

I remember the snap of the screen door as you squeezed through before it hit  your legs, balancing a paper plate with a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich. The  Chattahoochie floor heating up in the Florida sun. Perfect pebbles in an amber  glaze burning tender feet.

My reaction was admiration and intimidation. I’d felt outdone before I’d begun, as if my take on the exercise was automatically less meaningful than theirs. I realized how fragile my ego was. And then I couldn’t help but think of my students and their budding sense of self and identity. How I always nudged them to share. Sometimes begged. It doesn’t take much for that stifling self-doubt to settle in. In my class that day, I questioned if I had anything worthy to say. I shared in spite of my fears:

I remember Rome, end of August 2003. Heat wafting off cobblestones. 
I remember sun-weathered women hanging their bed sheets off balconies, 
yelling “ciao bellisimo” to men down below…
I remember the yellow McDonald’s arches across the street from my ancient apartment, 
the smell of those commercial potatoes frying. 
I remember stumbling back from the piazza at night and 
that trace of sizzling oil guiding me home. 

I felt my face hot and splotchy. I’d inadvertently taken on that adolescent burden. Yet Matthew found something specific in my writing he liked. “Your image of the ‘heat wafting off cobblestones’ was vivid and took me to Rome.” Since his comment felt genuine to me, I settled down. Overly exuberant praise, especially in the older grades, doesn’t fly. Young teenagers can smell disingenuous enthusiasm. Matthew asked if the class had anything else to comment on after I’d read. One of my classmates remarked on how she was surprised to see an American McDonald’s while in Italy and enjoyed how my poem was honest. At that moment, I felt a connection. Each time we show that we’re listening to one another, in a class, we build community. The teacher did not force her to speak. However, he modeled good listening. We teach with our gestures and our responses as much as our words. It’s a balancing act. When the class broke out in snaps, I felt deserving. 

In Washington Heights that first year, Matthew introduced snapping: the writers’ response to a fellow writer’s work. There were definitely a few sneers. It’s different. Snapping, as opposed to the clapping, not only continues the rhythm of our words, it helps to set our writing world apart from the larger one. The little things we do to carve out sacred spaces in their often hectic teenage lives can make all the difference in productivity. 

What never ceases to amaze, both with middle schoolers, and my “Soul of Summer” peers, is that we all not only have rhythm inside, we also have halting ideas about the genre of poetry. I am always taken back by the exercise “Poetry Is…” Students must finish the sentence with whatever comes to mind. A lot is revealed here. I never knew kids and adults alike could have so much insight into the form itself. It almost allows us all to be an authority on poetry. These poems are almost beckoning to let me let you in on the secret. In her poem, “Poetry,” Casey Ecker writes:

The writing of the pen makes
Your body move and flowers dance
When the words fly from your mouth
And the wind gets knocked out of you. 

Samantha Olivieri writes: “Poetry is the magnet and we are the paper clip.” And Shekinah Baez describes poetry as an “[o]wl screeching on a dark moonless night, who, who am I?” The imagery! The onomatopoeia! I will admit, it was no secret to me that my kids were smart. But the raw talent within these students, some never having left their neighborhood, gave them an air of worldliness that was extraordinary.

In a time when we couldn’t see our way up, down or forwards, writing offered a path to go back to my start. It was an invitation to revisit a little bit of magic from long ago. It wasn’t only a chance to return to a happier time, it was an opportunity to move forward on my own journey, as an educator and a human being, longing for soul. For teachers as much as for students, writing gives us all an invitation to lift ourselves above our seemingly ordinary desk jobs, classrooms, bedroom windows, or small towns. It grants us permission. It helps us take flight, be exuberant, or brush up against greatness.  We sometimes just need the right teacher, with a good prompt, to ignite us. At times, when I’m the best version of myself, I feel like a verse from the poem I included in our final compilation, or “Soul of Summer Zine”:

If I were a jellyfish pulsing towards the surface, 
I might break through. 
Beautiful and frightening.

Image by Larisa Koshkina from Pixabay

Stefanie Goldenberg

Stefanie Goldenberg has been an educator in the New York City public school system for the last 15 years, as an English and social studies teacher. She has enabled many young writers to find their voices. When she is not teaching, or caring for her two young children, she loves to explore the infinite wonders of her NYC neighborhood, learn, and write.

Flowers on a summer day