Poetry Sustains, Challenges, Connects, Inspires: Four Teacher-Poets Reflect - NCTE
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Poetry Sustains, Challenges, Connects, Inspires: Four Teacher-Poets Reflect

We hope you’ll find inspiration and resonance in the reflections contributed by NCTE members Margaret Simon, Michelle Bulla, Tammi Belko, and Meg Eubank. Comments were shared in response to prompts included in the INBOX newsletter earlier this year.

 

How would you describe the role of poetry writing in your life?

Poetry is a daily practice both in my life and in my teaching. I begin each of my gifted classes with notebook writing. Many days I use poetry as a mentor text. I write with my students. I also write on my own blog and have published poems. —Margaret Simon

I started writing poetry casually during grad school, and continued into my teaching career by writing with my students. Ten years into hosting an annual evening celebration of student poets and musicians, I read a piece onstage for my students. Now, poetry is a genre I return to when I want to capture a specific sentiment, often one I want my students to think about. As a result, most of my poetry is tied to social issues, though I do sometimes write just for myself. —Michelle Bulla

Poetry is an integral part of my life. As such, poetry has sustained me through the loss of my mother, through the isolation of the Covid lockdown, and the trials and tribulations of marriage and raising children. Poetry is my life blood. —Tammi Belko

I am composing poetry all the time, though only some of it gets recorded on the page. Poetry provides me with a way of viewing the world in different ways. I enjoy the art of it, carefully choosing words and formatting lines to communicate more than what is said in the words themselves. Poetry has also brought a community of artists into my life and inspired me in ways that transcend beyond the page. As a child, I was in a poetry group after school; by High School I was attending poetry festivals; in college I met some of my dearest friends at an open mic; by my 20s I had several pieces published. Now, as a teacher, I can bring my love of poetry to my students. — Meg Eubank

 

Do you have regular poetry-writing routines or processes

I participate in Poetry Friday, a blogging round-up of poets and teachers. I also have a writing group that has a monthly writing challenge. We meet bi-weekly for critique sessions.  I write with Ethical ELA Open Write over a period of five days each month. I write daily poems and post them on social media. —Margaret Simon

Sadly, no. . . . I write when a line develops in my mind, so these sessions and pieces come from bursts of inspiration. —Michelle Bulla

I write regularly with fellow teacher poets (www.ethicalela.com), participate in poetry challenges https://thepoetrymarathon.com/, and have published in literary magazines. Additionally, I am the author of a forthcoming YA novel, Perchance to Dream, which is told in alternating verse and prose. —Tammi Belko

The best part of poetry, to me, is that there is no routine. Poems challenge norms in writing and in our thought processes. Poetry comes to me while driving, while walking the dog, while teaching. It appears in the words that students say in the middle of a class discussion or something overheard in the hall. It’s everywhere in the stray thoughts that we have. Record the snippets and then stitch the patterns together, and a poem is born. —Meg Eubank

 

How do your poet and teacher identities feed or influence one another?

My poet identity is closely connected with my teacher identity. My practice of writing alongside my students feeds the writer-self. I plan lessons around poems that inspire me. —Margaret Simon

The volume of poetry I incorporate in my teaching has increased exponentially over the years, and I facilitate many, many more opportunities for my students to read poetry and write in poetic form using mentor texts, taking lines for a walk, writing in response to poems, and choosing poetry as a genre option for written responses and projects. —Michelle Bulla

My life has been enriched through the connections I have forged with other teacher poets. Through poetry, we have weathered through the obstacles of teaching in a pandemic.  We have shared strategies for connecting with our students through poetry. We have wept together over social injustices that have plagued our country and have used poetry in our classrooms as a vehicle to drive discussion and as a medium for catharsis. —Tammi Belko

Poetry has taught me to look at the world in a different way, to find the interesting in the mundane, to turn things upside down. Teaching is a bit like that, too, finding ways to explain concepts in new ways and engaging students in creative thinking processes. The poetry mind and the teacher mind work together to create new ways of thinking. —Meg Eubank

 

How does being a poet affect your teaching and affect the advice you give student writers?

As a poet myself, I am familiar with the process of writing a poem. I can discuss poetic elements with my students that will help them be better poets and better readers and writers. Poetry is closely related to critical thinking and problem solving. Using poetry to teach helps students develop these skills. Poetry encourages students to stay closely aware of their own feelings. By writing a daily poem, students learn to express their thoughts concisely and with figurative language. Mastering understanding of figurative language creates stronger readers and writers. —Margaret Simon

My advice to student writers is to create spaces for writing to happen in their lives—carry a journal, write in the notes app on a phone—and to not be afraid that what they write needs to be perfect or perform-able each time. The more they / we / I write, the more we all want to, as the fear of not doing it well is lessened with repetition and familiarity. Great artists don’t just craft a few amazing pieces; they create tons and tons of pieces, among which select gems sift to the surface. —Michelle Bulla

As a teacher poet, I allow myself to be vulnerable, authentic . . . human. As a teacher poet, I share my writing failures and triumphs with my students, and I encourage my students to submit their writing to contests. This authenticity helps me build trust, and now more than ever, students need to know they are valued, that their voices are heard, and that their words are powerful. —Tammi Belko

Poetry opens doors. There is something for everyone. For students who need structure, there are poetry forms that they can follow. For students who struggle with structure, poetry provides them a chance to escape those rigid boxes and break free of normal writing conventions. Poetry is about expression more than anything, and I encourage students to express themselves first and foremost, with everything else as a secondary concern. There is no “wrong way.” —Meg Eubank

 

Margaret Simon is a poet and elementary school teacher in Iberia Parish, Louisiana. She blogs at http://reflectionsontheteche.com.

Michelle Bulla is an English teacher and department chair in the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District, Central Valley, New York.

Tammi Belko is a 5/6 ELA and gifted intervention specialist at sophospsmartbannerend North Ridgeville City Schools, North Ridgeville, Ohio.

Meg Eubank is a professor and reading and student success coordinator in the Language and Literature Department, Bucks County Community College, Newtown, Pennsylvania.

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