Education Talk Radio
Once a month, host Larry Jacobs interviews NCTE members on this radio talk show for educators and administrators.
Listen to a recording of the interview.
Melissa Smith teaches AP Literature, 11th grade American Literature, and Creative Writing at Lake Norman Charter High School in Huntersville, North Carolina. She is her school’s 2016–17 Teacher of the Year, is National Board Certified, and is an AP Reader. She has presented at NCTIES and the AP Annual Conference, is a contributing author for aplithelp.com, and is creator of the #TeachLivingPoets hashtag. You can follow her on Twitter @MelAlterSmith.
For this interview, Melissa was joined by her students Lauren Bush, Tyler Kay, Olivia Masterton, and Dominic Tecza.
Why should we teach poetry?
Melissa Smith: In today’s educational system there’s so much focus on standardized tests. Students feel defined by test scores, [which] determine what college they’re going to get into. There’s so much pressure. But I believe it’s also important to teach kids personal skills like the ability to be empathetic and open minded, and to tell a story, and I think poetry offers us really good models to help us teach these skills and to help us become more creative and diverse thinkers. Poetry helps us make sense of our world. It can help us put words to feelings that we might not otherwise be able to express. I think it also helps to affect societal change.
What is your blog, teachlivingpoets.com, all about?
Melissa Smith: The hashtag, #teachlivingpoets, came first and really just started as me being a cheerleader for poets that I love so much and enjoy reading myself. Once I started teaching more living poets in my classroom, I saw the impact that it had on my students. I saw how inspired they were, so it became a mission of mine to share that passion with other teachers. Now there are so many teachers on this hashtag that it’s kind of become a connective tissue and a way to collaborate both with other teachers and with poets, for ideas around teaching poetry. It’s become a movement, in a way, among teachers who believe in the importance of teaching modern poetry.
What do you like about poetry?
Lauren Bush: I like the fact that poetry allows you to get in touch with your emotions. As Miss Smith said, it’s really an emotional connection. . . and I think it’s [about] getting to the root of what the poet is trying to say, whether it be a criticism, whether it just be their thoughts, whether it be feelings, or just how they think about something when they’re bringing their past into their [work]. Through poetry you have the ability to analyze all that, and then take in that deeper meaning so you can learn more about yourself.
What do you get out of poetry that you don’t get out of novels?
Tyler Kay: I feel like with books it’s very story driven. . . but with poetry there’s a lot more nuance. If there’s a single line break, a line space between two words can drastically alter the meaning of the entire poem. Seeing how nuance, how specific word choice, letters, assonance, and stuff like that alters the meaning of the poem is really satisfying. That gives you a much deeper connection with the poetry because you feel almost like a detective, like you’re trying to find the meaning of the poem, trying to piece together all these tiny things, these tiny decisions that the poet makes. Why did they do this or that? You’re trying to put yourself into their mind and also gain a deeper meaning about your own life and relate it with your own experiences. In that way I think poetry is a lot more involved and a lot more intricate than novels. [Poems] convey so much raw emotion that novels somehow fail to capture.
When you teach living poets, does that engage the kids more?
Melissa Smith: Absolutely. 100,000% yes.
Where do you find these poets?
Melissa Smith: I follow a bunch on social media. Twitter is a big resource for me, as well as local readings at the university. We just went to a reading at Davidson last week. NCTE has some phenomenal resources on their web page. They have a whole page just for poetry resources. You can also sign up for the Poetry Foundation’s poem a day. They’ll send you an email every single day with an amazing poem and a little blurb about it. There are so many different ways to find living poets. Even going to a bookstore and going to the poetry section [can lead to new discoveries]. I just found a new [poet], Rudy Francisco, at Barnes and Noble a week ago, and he was just on The Tonight Show. There are so many poets out there!
What does the tagline on your website, complicating the canon, mean?
Melissa Smith: [Unlike canonical poets], living poets create a more personal connection [for my students]—they feel more relatable to them. In the past there were gatekeepers to what poems we published, and honestly they were mostly white men. So I think that [there is value in] students being able to see themselves more in contemporary poetry. With social media avenues, there’s a much more open space and more diverse voices are able to shine through and be appreciated. That’s where that tagline came from because. . . the canon is fine but I feel it’s missing some really integral people and voices and I want my students to hear those voices.
Each of Melissa’s students chose a living poet to recommend. Here are excerpts from their recommendations:
Olivia Masterton on Victoria Chang
I always thought of poets as people sitting behind a desk with a pen in their hand just writing, and that’s all they do all day long. But after being able to actually talk to Victoria Chang [via a Skype call] I saw how alike we are to her, even as students in North Carolina when she’s living in California. We actually had a bit of a connection because a section of her book is called Mr. Darcy; that’s her favorite character from Pride and Prejudice and that’s my favorite story of all time. I love that book. Finding out that I had that connection with someone as famous as Victoria Chang really brought things down to my local level for me. It made me feel more comfortable with poetry and being able to analyze it and read it and maybe even write some poetry myself. I saw that poet Victoria Chang and I aren’t that different after all. I thought that was pretty cool.
Lauren Bush on Clint Smith III
[After reading Counting Descent] I was able to see through [Smith’s] writing that he’s talking about some of the plights facing African Americans in the world today. As an African American, I was able to really connect with the poetry. It was different from things I had seen in the past—I’ve read books by authors who were talking about African Americans, like James Baldwin, Malcolm X, or Martin Luther King Jr., . . . [but with] poetry, it’s different. It’s shorter. It’s more concise. It’s really powerful the way that [Smith] structures his poems and the way that he was able to convey all this meaning and anger at the American system and how it’s harming African Americans today. . . . Being able to actually read that through poetry gave me that personal connection. Skyping with him, I was able to ask questions about why he decided to incorporate certain phrases, certain words, and how his personal experience was reflected throughout his books. It was great for him to write this book because it taught a bunch of other people about the problems that people are facing. It’s not just being in an echo chamber where you’re solely focusing on the African American community and their interest in this problem. [He’s] building a bridge to reach between other races and other communities to make sure that people understand that everything is not okay. We’re still facing problems that date back to when James Baldwin was writing.
Tyler Kay on Ocean Vuong
I really connected with him. He’s Vietnamese American so he really gets that cultural perspective, especially of the Vietnam War. Since my mom was a refugee from Vietnam during the Vietnam War, I can personally relate with these poems. When he talks about the destruction of war and when he talks about that bitterness, that sadness, that sorrow and grief, I can personally relate to that. That gave such a strong connection for me personally with these poems and gave a lot more power behind his driving message of what that [war] was.
Dominic Tecza on R. A. Villanueva
When I first saw his poem I was freaking out. It looked so hard. But I reached out to him on Twitter, which is a great place to find poets. There are all these poets and you can always reach out to them. They’re so open. [I’m learning that] they’re normal people. They’re coming to our school! Villanueava’s poems are not so happy. They’re really serious. He talks a lot about topics that really should matter in a life: the afterlife, family, memories, all these things that as a society we should look more into. I like that he brings all those issues to light and he really got me thinking. I’m really appreciative of getting to know who he is as a person and as a poet.
Listen to a recording of the interview.
Anna J. Small Roseboro is known for her work with groups like the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the Conference on English Leadership, and the California Association of Teachers of English. With 40 years of experience in public and private schools, she is a National Board Certified Teacher vetted by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. In 2016 she received the Distinguished Service Award from NCTE for her dedication and service to the organization. Currently, Ms. Roseboro mentors the NCTE’s Early Career Educators of Color cohorts as well as providing mentoring and support for teachers through several other programs and organizations.
How did your journey into mentoring begin?
The journey began in mid-January at Jefferson Elementary School in St. Louis, Missouri, when I became an eighth-grade teacher one month after graduating from Wayne State University in Detroit. It began with a tall, broad-shouldered math teacher who taught the eighth graders I had for English.
One day, after having been reprimanded for sending too many disruptive students to the office, I decided to handle things on my own. But a frustrated girl grabbed me by the collar and lifted my five-foot-eight-inch frame up two inches from the floor. Shocked, I stumbled from the room in tears. Thankfully, the teacher across the hall heard the ruckus, came out and stood, shielding me from prying eyes of students and teachers in the hallway. He handed me a tissue but insisted I get back in there and get my class under control. He said I could depend on him to back me up. I believed him.
I returned to class and asked the cowering students if they wanted to graduate. They nodded. I exclaimed, “You have to pass your classes. I can teach you, but you’ve got to help.” They conceded, and the girl, ashamed of her loss of control, apologized and offered to back me up. I believed her. She did!
We spent the next few days developing classroom guidelines and also a range of in-class consequences for misbehaving. They agreed to abide by the rules they established, and we finished the year with all graduating and moving on to high school.
I learned at the end of the year faculty meeting that I was the fifth teacher those students had had that year, and no one expected me to survive! But I did. I thrived thanks to the mentoring and support of a teacher whose name I cannot even recall. He stood with me.
What do you tell new teachers today to help them get started?
The main thing I tell them is how important it is to balance their personal and professional lives. I remind them that while they are full-time teachers, they are also full-time human beings. And so often, English teachers particularly get bogged down with the paper load and end up taking home reams of paper or if not paper anymore, files of student writing that they feel they must respond to.
Probably the thing I tell them most is to carve out and hold sacred time for yourself every week. At least one day a week do nothing having to do with teaching.
Spend some time singing in a community choir, growing vegetables in the backyard that you take to the state fair . . . anything, time with family, time with friends, away from teaching so that you can come back revived. Otherwise you get overloaded, stressed out, and feel like it’s not worth it. I can tell you it’s worth it every day if you can come fresh.
Tips for rethinking the paper load
One of the things I love sharing with new teachers and even veteran teachers are strategies for using in-class time to have classmates give each other feedback on writing. So often teachers think that they are responsible for giving all the feedback, and that’s not true at all. One of the opportunities I had when I moved to California was to spend a summer as part of the National Writing Project, and one of the theories of that organization is that students should write every day, but teachers don’t have to read every day for that writing to benefit the students. We, as teachers, can model for our students ways to give useful feedback to one another. By getting that feedback on the early drafts, the students turn in better writing for the teachers to evaluate and consequently it takes much less time to grade a well-written paper.
How does the Early Career Educators of Color program work?
Teachers who have been the classroom five years or fewer apply, and they send their applications to the National Council of Teachers of English. There’s a committee there who reads the reports, and one of the things they’re looking for is teachers who see a problem on their school site or their college campus and have a plan to try and solve that problem. The six finalists gather in the summer at a leadership retreat where they meet their mentors, and we spend two and a half days working to refine their program and make it S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time limited), making it something that can possibly be completed within a year.
Over the course of the year the mentors meet with the cohort members: we call them “teams.” I’m working currently with Jeffrey Cabusao, a professor from Bryant University in Rhode Island, who was member of the 2011 cohort. He works with three of the six mentors who happen to be on college campuses. And I work with three who are K–12. Over the course of the year we meet—sometimes online, sometimes by telephone, sometimes in hangouts—our job is to encourage them to use resources available to them to implement their plans. The following year at the NCTE Annual Convention they have an opportunity with their team of two other teachers to present the progress of their project at a national convention. It’s quite an opportunity for young teachers . . .
NCTE’s purpose for this program is to identify teachers early in their career who are already experiencing the desire to be leaders. The goal is to raise up leaders within NCTE who will be ready and willing for positions of leadership either within their state affiliates or within the National Council of Teachers of English. That’s the goal of the Early Career Educators of Color, to prepare them for the future . . .
We don’t have enough teachers of color. And we don’t have people who stay in the profession long enough to develop the kinds of skills that make them as effective as we think they can be. And that’s the reason I mentor. My personal goal is to reduce the number of early-career teachers who leave in their first five years.
What do you find that teachers need most these days in terms of support, and how are programs like the ones you’ve described from NCTE uniquely situated to offer that kind of support?
Teachers, both novice and veterans, need time. Time to learn, time to attend professional conferences and conventions, and time with family and friends to keep themselves balanced personally and professionally.
If administrators asked, I’d tell them that they could save thousands of dollars a year hiring new teachers to teach reduced class loads and veteran teachers in the same building to mentor them their first two years in the department. During unassigned classes, the new teachers would regularly sit in on classes taught by their mentors. The mentors would regularly sit in on classes taught by their mentees. They would have a common preparation period to plan and debrief together. I’ve seen it work and highly recommend this quasi-internship approach.
How does it save money? Recruiting and hiring teachers is expensive and time consuming. Taking a little more time to support the new teachers onsite benefits all. The veteran teacher is being affirmed as a professional, but also is learning from the new teacher and vice versa.
Belonging to a professional organization is also a kind of mentoring but maybe not one that new teachers these days know a lot about. What can a new teacher find to support their work by belonging to something like NCTE or an affiliate of NCTE?
Active membership in the National Council of Teachers of English and/or its state affiliates can offer efficient ways to use time. But, what is equally valuable is time during the school day and school week to complete the tasks of teaching without having to take so much home each day, thus eating into important time with family and friends that can revive us. Friendships made there often last for decades.
A personal example: When NCTE met in Orlando one year, we had a field trip to the hometown of author, Zora Neale Hurston. On the bus, I met a teacher from Washington, DC. On the all-day field trip, we often shared a seat. We found we had lots of common interests and decided to submit a proposal to present at the next year’s convention. It was accepted. She and I went on to co-present at that conference for ten years—her living in DC and me in San Diego. We supported and mentored one another in a coast-to-coast relationship.
She’s visited my school and I hers. When, as English Department chair I had to arrange a team of educators to evaluate our program, I called on her. I knew and respected her work; she knew our school improvement goals; most important, I could trust her to be honest about what she observed and what she recommended to help our faculty do a better job of teaching the demographic of students who attended our school.
Listen to a recording of the interview.
Tonya Perry is Assistant Professor of Secondary English Language Arts in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the Univeristy of Alabama at Birmingham. She is also director and principal investigator for the UAB Red Mountain Writing Project.
On the students in Florida who are raising their voices:
Having children have a voice and learning and reading about other children who have made a space for their own voices is a part of what education is about. It’s really what literature and other media platforms can do for students. [What we’re seeing right now is] how they can use it for getting their messages out. But they also learn about [advocacy] through their ability to read. I can’t imagine that the children in Broward County haven’t read something about the children’s sit-ins or the impact that children have had in other spaces across the United States and the world and how they’ve made a difference.
On the purpose of the African American Read-In:
Being able to read literature that is written for children of color and written by authors of color but also learning about the messages that are within these books, that goes across all lines. That is such a rich history and that is a history that I think should be shared with all children. . . .
I don’t want people to think the African American Read-In is just for African Americans. That is not the target. The target is to raise awareness of the richness of African American literature and reading and platforms and media for all people. And it’s just a recognition of that gift. . . .
People will say, “I teach in a predominantly African American environment, so I know I have to teach African American literature.” And I don’t disagree with that; I think people should see themselves in literature. But I’ve also been in environments that have not been predominantly African American where people have chosen not to vary the text as much because their context wasn’t as varied. I’d say to anyone who is listening today that having varied texts in the classroom is important no matter the people with whom you are teaching because we are such a global and multifaceted and multicultural-context country and world that books allow us to see other people and understand their experiences. We need to give our children access to other peoples and to learning about other people’s experiences. That’s really what the African American Read-In is about.
In the interview Tonya references the following article from the September 2013 issue of Voices from the Middle:
21st-Century Students Demand a Balanced, More Inclusive Canon by Tonya B. Perry and B. Joyce Stallworth
“Reading literature that simply reflects a mono-ethnic view of history with sprinklings of works from other groups does not allow students the opportunity to think about other cultures and critically engage in discourse about history, current events, and future events.”