Dorothea Lasky Visits B.F. Day Elementary School

by Julie Feng

In Ms. Sawyer’s classroom at B.F. Day Elementary, the third graders are buzzing with dynamic activity when Dorothea Lasky walks in. However, her hold on the room isn’t one that silences the commotion—the presence of a poet feeds the students’ positive energy.

Dottie greets the class as if she’s in wonder of their potential, of their possibilities. When she asks them to introduce themselves not by name, but by anonymous poetic line, they comply. One by one, the kids read their lines, which vary from enthusiastic pronouncements of “I love to read!” and “My favorite sport is soccer!” to shyer whispers of “I play the piano,” and “I have two cats,” to one student who simply and solemnly declares, “the sea.”

To introduce her main lesson, she asks a student to read Gertrude Stein’s “A Dog”:

A little monkey goes like a donkey that means to say that means to say that more sighs last goes. Leave with it. A little monkey goes like a donkey.

I’m always surprised (although I shouldn’t be) at how willingly and boldly students that age read out loud. The poise with which the young reader announces Stein’s verse wows everyone in the room who might be too mired in adult sensibilities. The students all nod at the reading, as if it makes perfect sense to each one of them.

Dottie has them pair up and write three lines together, describing a dog without using the word “dog.” The results are at once hilarious and insightful and imaginative. Dogs become amalgams of dingoes and bunnies and lions and wolves. They explore concepts like evolution, companionship, and hatred of cats. They are everything from lightning bolts to cotton balls. Although Dottie seems to have expected this profoundly ridiculous and ridiculously profound outcome, she is still newly delighted by each poem.

The electric audacity of Dottie Lasky’s teaching style combined with the unguarded and accepting nature of third graders makes for a classroom buzzing with creativity and amusing ideas. When the lesson is over, both the poet and the students maintain a sense of inspiration.

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