Teaching What Scares You

By Sara Brickman, WITS Writer-in-Residence

As a teacher, I feel I spend about half of my time worrying about what I want my students to get out of a particular lesson and the other half worrying about whether they’ll like the way I’m trying to teach them. I spend hours combing through poems, looking for ones that have that essential fire I know will resonate with the ninth-graders at Nathan Hale High School, but that are also classroom appropriate. I think about how to get my students excited about the nerdy parts of language that thrill me as a poet, and I remind myself that not every kid can think about comma placement for hours on end.

The week of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, I didn’t want to think about poetry. And at the same time, poetry was the only thing putting words to my grief, my rage, and my feelings of helplessness.

As I prepared to teach that week, I attended marches organized by youth from Garfield High and read poems by black authors my friends were posting online. I called a close writer friend and talked to her about what poetry and teaching meant in a moment when the whole country was focused on the small suburb of Ferguson. I’d had a lesson planned for that week already, on developing image patterns, but it felt disingenuous now. Poetry was what I turned to when the world was on fire, and this felt like a chance to teach the kind of poetry that made me into a life-long writer. I remembered what it felt like to be in a classroom on 9-11, how some of my teachers just let us watch the news. How others led us in discussions about what was happening and how we were feeling. How some pretended nothing was happening, and how fake that felt, how we held each other’s hands and waited for the smoke to clear so we could think clearly about how the world had changed. I remember I went home and tried to write a paper for my English class. I ended up writing poems instead.

I feel fortunate that the teachers I work with at Hale were open to a discussion and lesson based around a current event that can inspire heated feelings. I felt challenged to present the lesson in a way that would take into account both what was known and unknown about the facts surrounding Michael Brown’s death, Darren Wilson’s non-indictment, and the national reaction; that would honor where different students were coming at the issue from, and that would use writing as a way to process and respond to these issues.

Using Danez Smith’s excellent poem “not an elegy for Mike Brown,” we discussed what we knew about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, what we thought we knew, and what we wanted to know more about. Smith’s poem functioned as an excellent springboard into a broad ranging discussion that encompassed the role of police in America, the meaning of race personally, racial profiling, and the connection between global histories and personal experience. The students’ own poems from that day reflect their feelings about this moment in time: frustration, confusion, anger, and above all, a call to leadership, to step into their power to shape their hopes for the future. They talked about how different a poem was from a news report, from the internet. They talked about how a poem can have a message or a call to action, even if that message doesn’t seem entirely clear on the first reading. And, they developed poems that can say all the complexity a news report cannot. While planning my lesson, I feared that this was too touchy a subject for a classroom of students I see at most twice a week, or worse, that they would be bored. I feared that as a white teacher, students of color in my class would feel alienated by my leading the discussion, and made plans to have the discussion be student-led as much as possible. And, students certainly engaged in a vigorous debate about these issues. But, that was the point: they felt the fire of what a poem can do at its best: make us think, question, feel, and want to act.

Danez Smith reads his poem, “not an elegy for Mike Brown”


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