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Thanking a Teacher

We get a wonderful glimpse today into what it can feel like when a curious child gets to follow a compelling trail of written words from one discipline into another, with a wise teacher as her guide.

Take a look at this piece by the poet Nikki Giovanni, broadcast this morning, via National Public Radio, on Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac." (Better yet—please, oh, please—listen to it.)

Giovanni remembers trying to make sense of her world through reading. She reaches a turning point when she reads Edna St. Vincent Millay's "First Fig." Suddenly, she knew her world, and she knew her place in it, and she thanks the teacher who helped her find both.

There are many great tidbits to mine in here, but one is the sense Giovanni shares of wandering from history to English in a process of making sense of the world. (I know she doesn't touch on math or science. But the math-science lovers I know speak glowingly of doing the same sense-making through those disciplines.) Giovanni's reflections shed a poignant light on what teachers dream of doing, and how close they can come to that given the many competing forces on their time and resources.

Another tidbit I can't resist revisiting is this concept of sound in learning; the power of rhythm in putting us right smack in the middle of something, viscerally. (Check here for a recent related blog post on this.) Giovanni doesn't address the role of sound directly, but of course creates it in her poems. You have to wonder, also, about how the distilled, rhythmic power of "First Fig" hit her in a way that longer works of fiction and history didn't. (To test this out, try reading that Writer's Almanac piece silently, and then click the audio version to hear it, and listen with your eyes closed.)

This sort of thing won't trip everyone's trigger, I know. And I freely confess to my poetry and read-aloud biases. I own them. I embrace them. Without fear, favor or shame. But if some of teaching is finding the varied pathways to students' heads and hearts, then stuff like this is worth noting. If Harriet Ball had taught me math, who knows? I might have chosen a different path in life. (There is even a "math out loud" program now. I love Google.)

Luckily, the power of the spoken word isn't lost in schools, and has gotten a bit of a boost in the last couple of decades because of the influence of hip-hop. Programs like Poetry Out Loud are prospering, and there are great spoken-word poetry archives teachers can draw from.

A great example is the bank of videos that's been assembled by the folks at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Foundation, which sponsors the biggest poetry festival in the country every other year, and also has an impressive poetry-in-the-schools program.

These YouTube videos, of the world's best poets reading their work at recent festivals, take a plain page of black-and-white verse—off-putting to most students—and turn it into a riveting show of sound and meaning. They could serve as amazing teaching tools, not only about the art of poetry itself, but larger lessons. (For a profound lesson in intercultural conflict, the nature of forgiveness, and just plain nobility, listen to Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali read about how he would treat his father's killer, if ever he got the chance.)

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