By Matt Gano, WITS Writer-in-Residence
I hate the word “lecture.” I’ve always considered teaching poetry as a “conversation.” I hope to learn along with my students by talking about creative ideas, to open space in the classroom to unpack concepts such as “writing from the body,” “poetry as an economy of language,” “write what you know,” and other standard writing adages. But what do you do when you find yourself as the instructor asking and answering your own questions – when your class is not engaging in conversation – when the class you have designed as an exchange turns into a “lecture” (gross)?
After a rather blunt conversation and critique from the 27 students (a mix of 9th – 12th Grades) in our Poetry Elective at The Center School, it became clear that what I had been interpreting as a Socratic seminar over the first 8 weeks of class had in fact read to them as a “lecture.” I was losing them. Cue my heart dropping, internal booing, and disappointment that I wasn’t able to read them earlier.
The truth has a way of splitting paths. You can either choose to follow your ego down the dirt road and continue to be a rigid dummy, or choose to shed your preconceived ideas, go fluid, and hop in the river. They wanted to write more and talk less. Did that mean more writing assignments per class? (We were already tackling two writing assignments per class). Or did that mean longer periods of writing time? Turns out, according them, they wanted both.
Now of course, the easy and spiteful thing to do would be to take their criticism and swing it to the other end of the pendulum. To come back to class and say, “Okay, guess what, hope you have a lot of ink in those pens,” and force them to write for the entire 100 minutes of class. That’s what they wanted right? “You want it, you got it.”
Well, not really. Forcing them to write for 100 minutes would be ridiculous. I knew they didn’t really want that. So what were they actually asking for?
This is where intuition and experience intersect as a teacher, and you go with your gut. My hunch was that they were really asking for more structure – interesting! Specifically, a class designed to workshop their writing. They wanted space to talk to each other about their poems, to write, edit, revise, to process their free-writes into poems. They wanted to be accountable to one another, to be writers!
The first thing I did was restructure the physical layout of our classroom. I made sure to do this before anyone entered the class in order to shake them out of their previous perception of the space once they entered. We re-arranged the tables into squares to create writing “pods” with 4-6 students at each station. Students were allowed to sit anywhere and choose their own seats.
Instead of calling on individuals to share out loud with the class immediately after our initial writing warm-up, I instructed them to share within their small groups. Immediately following this share around, I added a revision element to our warm up which required them to underline their top 5 lines from their free-write and re-write them as a revised draft of what they had just written. Then, we spent time sharing with the class, and students were given the option to share their free-writes or revised drafts, but they were also encouraged to talk about the choices they were making in their revisions.
The overall energy in our classroom has shifted from silent observer to active participant. The “conversation” was happening! My students were encouraged: encouraged to share, encouraged to explain choices. Encouraged to formulate ideas and explore, encouraged to “write” more, encouraged to write questions on the work they turn in to help me pinpoint feedback, encouraged to involve themselves in the process, to be accountable to one another, to be writers!
I’ve included a few excerpts that have been workshopped over the past two weeks since making this change:
The legs of the easel sprawled out,
Imitating the cell spiders weaving dresses.
The plain white stirs into the red of blood oranges,
Leaving no silhouette of the eye’s whites.
Bristles slow dancing with the grains of the canvas
And the music that tunes with my body
Weave together a friendship bracelet
From my head to my canvas.
Their sways are lissome
And frail like gossamer.
The sun sets like an old dog
In the distance you can hear the spinning of a bicycle wheel
And if you listen even closer you can hear children playing
The shutting doors make a symphony of squeaking
The people are drifting away to sleep
Something warm came through my window.
Last summer when the ink flowed without hesitation.
I could wear only my best ideas, as the pins and needles of the cold were out of town.
I remember the lawn,
Green carpet for our bare feet.
Blue, light blue, the chairs and Cheez-It crackers.
We had a funeral for the goldfish I had stepped on.
Buried him next to the Fruit Snack War Memorial.
It’s not the front yard without a couple civilian casualties.