How to Prepare For What You Cannot Expect

All teachers face this dilemma in the first encounter with new students: will my lesson be effective, exciting, worthwhile?  Most teachers work something surefire to begin with and quickly gauge student interest and ability from there.  The challenges, of course, do not end at this point, but they do change.

I’ve been lucky enough to be one of two writers working SAL’s pilot program at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital this winter. The nature of this program, however, is of constant flux. This means that we begin the first-day process over each week.

I’ve worked with kids ranging in age from three-years-old to 21, often on the same day. This means I lug a bag full of poems, lessons, prompts and miscellaneous tricks all over the hospital in order to hook whoever might be on the other side of the door.

Like all teachers, I’ve had good days and bad days. I have been amazed by the uninhibited creativity of young children and the discerning lines of teenagers. The work is one-on-one, innovative and unpredictable. The longest I’ve had with any patient is three consecutive times and each time the nature of the interaction changes. Some days patients are excited, others they are tired or we face constant interruptions from doctors, nurses and parents.

My greatest asset has been genuine presence and humility. I bring my passion up front and do my best to make poetry something kids want to participate in. More often than not, the improv that follows makes for lasting impact. At least on my end. I can’t guarantee that the kids will remember me, but I’m not forgetting them anytime soon.

The closest I’ve come to a surefire start is The Recipe Poem. Also known as a Potion or Spell, this list poem asks students to come up with a number of objects, people and qualities, all while putting pressure on the details. I point out how quantities, both strange and exact, amplify the effects (think “a smidgen of grease” or “1,000 teeth”). I nudge students beyond the first simple object (“telephone wires”) to something quirky and specific (“telephone wires leading nowhere I can see”).

The poem can be complete as a list or can include “instructions” for what to do with the ingredients. The poem can also address the success of intended effects or the failure.

The best part of this poem is that it can be for anything. Like a “Recipe for a Good Day.” If I were writing one of those right now it would surely include the dozens of marvelous kids I’ve worked with at Children’s Hospital. And this Recipe would be a success.

–Matthew Nienow


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