Secret of Life

 So what's it like coming back to Falk?

I got that question a lot in August and September, and sometimes still when I catch up with friends. I've answered it dozens of ways, and I think about it often. At least every other day at work I take time to jot down a few thoughts, insights, or observations about teaching in the same school I was taught in thirteen years ago. If I tried to do justice to all of the realizations I've had even in this first month of teaching, this blog would never end. I started this with the intent of writing about this experience in detail—I just didn't account for how much I would learn in the first thirty-some days alone. For now I want to mention just some of the most important things.

 A self-portrait done at a faculty day at the beginning of the year. I titled it "Cameron 'Samuel L. Jackson' Barnett"

A self-portrait done at a faculty day at the beginning of the year. I titled it "Cameron 'Samuel L. Jackson' Barnett"

The most obvious thing is that the building isn't the same as it was when I graduated in 2003. When I left, there was a grass field in both our front and back playgrounds. Our library was a small house reachable via wooden walkway cutting out the back of the building. The newest "addition" to the school then was the gym, constructed decades before my time. The top floor of the building housed intermediate classes, primary was on the first floor, and the basement was home to middle school. I still remember some of my homerooms—222, 225, SB3. Some of those rooms remain, some have been renumbered and repurposed into conference rooms, and others are gone completely. The hallways, offices, cafeteria, and other spaces are all different. The new design is beautiful and inviting, a space that is both suited for work and at the same time homey in such a way that children feel comfortable everywhere they go. I love the new design, and at the same time yearn for the building I knew as a kid. This nostalgia gave rise to my first lesson here as a teacher.

 The front of the old building, with a new bus/carpool drive in front of it. The new addition begins in the leftmost part of the photo.

The front of the old building, with a new bus/carpool drive in front of it. The new addition begins in the leftmost part of the photo.

To start the year I collaborated with one of the art teachers on a project focused on the twin questions: "what's something strange that was once familiar? What is something familiar that was once strange?" I used this project as a way to introduce myself to the middle schoolers, to relate to them as a former Falkie, to address the strangeness of a familiar building now so unfamiliar to me in many ways. The students considered how these questions applied to their own lives, in and out of school, journaled about it for some time, then transformed their writings into visual art. So many of the pieces they produced revealed their character, their struggles, their hopes, their own growths and transformations.

 The astrological signs Libra, Cancer, and Taurus on the outside of the building—something I'd never noticed before. Apparently this is a common feature of many other progressive schools built in the same era as Falk.

The astrological signs Libra, Cancer, and Taurus on the outside of the building—something I'd never noticed before. Apparently this is a common feature of many other progressive schools built in the same era as Falk.

There were nine sections of this lesson, and with each one the lesson changed. I would say things differently, introduce myself in more or less detail. The one consistency was that I would bring each of the classes out of the art room right at the beginning of class and take them to a wall connecting the "old" building to the new addition. I'd touch the wall, remarking on how this part of the building probably didn't stand out to them too much these days. I asked how many of them remembered the old building, the construction that went into the transformation. I commented on how this wall was near the top of the outside of the old building, a place I could never touch when I was a student, then described the back playground that once existed below where we stood, now in a brand new hallway.

 The wall of the old building, outside what used to be room 222 where my home room was for 3rd and 4th grades. Straight below used to be a wide open grass field.

The wall of the old building, outside what used to be room 222 where my home room was for 3rd and 4th grades. Straight below used to be a wide open grass field.

In retrospect, this probably came off as largely corny to the students. The 6th graders were more impressed, but the 8th graders were less fazed. It dawned on me that the oldest of the 8th graders still was only barely born when I graduated 8th grade myself, so they would have started kindergarten right when the new addition was being built, still within reach of memories of the old Falk. Yet when it came to the art making, they let their personalities pour forth in their work. Some made pieces alluding to finally accepting themselves for who they are, others made art about friends and family, about their favorite food or favorite Pokémon, or decorated around the key words "strange," "familiar," and "change". One student created a very moving piece about his grandmother who had recently passed away, depicting her house and including the Gaelic word for "grandma" among the words "strange" and "familiar". It was so interesting to see what they came up with. The intersection of age, space, time, experience—theirs and mine—only reinforced what a special place this school is.

 Part of a display of the pieces that students created in the "Strange/Familiar" project.

Part of a display of the pieces that students created in the "Strange/Familiar" project.

What's it like coming back to Falk? When I'm there I always have an inner tension of how I truly feel with how I think I should present that emotion. I feel the impulse to temper it, to make my statements measured, to be professional in a way that doesn't come off as seeming too special, or that my teaching experience here is anymore unique and fulfilling than my colleagues'. I fear gaining too much of a special recognition as some prodigal son, yet my alumnus status is something I hold dear and something I want to utilize in my pedagogy. Yesterday as I was walking up from the MPR through a staircase I'd run up and down countless times in my youth, I realized there's no point in short-changing what each day here means to me. I love what I do, even as I struggle to master it and feel that I'm even doing it adequately; I love the people I get to work with—the familiar and the new—even as I learn how to negotiate what it means to be a colleague and an educator; most importantly I love where I am. In a word, I'd call it home, and I truly don't care if that's sappy. I get to do for others what was done for me, in the same place and among many of the same teachers.

 When the new addition of the school was added, many of the old stained glass windows were broken into pieces and reshaped into new images in the original frames. This one hangs in the window of the art room.

When the new addition of the school was added, many of the old stained glass windows were broken into pieces and reshaped into new images in the original frames. This one hangs in the window of the art room.

Of course, I'm here to teach poetry. I've only very rarely "taught" poetry to anyone, let alone to children. How to do this with kids K-8 has been an interesting challenge. I've turned to several books so far—Wishes, Lies, and Dreams and Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?, both by Kenneth Koch, as well as What Have You Lost? by Naomi Shihab Nye. The lessons and ideas in the first two books are a brilliant approach to getting children engaged with and excited about writing. The notion of a "poetry idea" or a central question that can rise out of a poem and be turned into a prompt/challenge/invitation for children to write taps into several natural truths about kids—they come with loads of a priori knowledge, they are eager to talk about and share what they know, questions are just as fascinating to them as answers, and their imaginations are not yet overly hampered by social norms and the pressure of conformity. That is all to say, many children are not only prepared but hoping to tell you what they think about anything and everything.

 A puzzle in a 5th grade classroom the students love to play with, and almost certainly the exact same one I played with as a kid myself.

A puzzle in a 5th grade classroom the students love to play with, and almost certainly the exact same one I played with as a kid myself.

Importantly, though, some children are not. It would be wrong for me to paint my experience so far as a utopia of students who are always engaged with or wanting to do poetry. While the majority of students participate as I wish, there are shy students, students who don't feel comfortable with writing, students with different learning needs and challenges, and so forth. It's been a very humbling challenge to try to reach all those students as equally as I can so that these poetry lessons can be in service of their learning, and not a burden, distraction, or deterrent. I'm still pretty far from mastering it, yet when I talk with the students who are disinterested, who struggle, who constantly say "I can't write" or "This is bad, but..." I'm made aware of the many ways writing intersects with people's lives and the unique roadblocks that can be there. Finding out what makes people fear writing is just as important as finding out why others love it.

While the overall experience of these poetry lessons is very nuanced, one of my first lessons turned out so unexpectedly delightful that I want to end on that note. Nye's book What Have You Lost? has tons of great poems in it that convey complicated content in a way that doesn't soar over children's heads, so I've been pulling from it to teach lessons. The first poem I used is Diana Der-Hovanessian's "Secret of Life." I liked it because of its metaphors and riddles, some very abstract and some more straightforward. I read the poem to a class of 5th graders one time through and paused to gauge their immediate reactions. I read it again, this time asking them to close their eyes as I did so. Then I let them share their impressions of the poem ("It's kinda confusing" "Who is this person?" "I don't agree with that secret"). The poem's six stanzas of secrets worked well with the clusters of tables in the room, so I passed out copies of it and assigned a secret for each group to discuss. Then we shared our thoughts all together. At the end I gave them homework to write their own "Secret of Life" poem as the person delivering the wisdom to a recipient.

 The classroom where the first "Secret of Life" lesson went down.

The classroom where the first "Secret of Life" lesson went down.

Two days later we talked about the poem again. I started by reading it one more time, then dived into letting the students share their work. I was surprised how strongly the idea had taken hold. Many of their poems displayed mature thinking beyond what I anticipated. To paraphrase a few, some of the secrets of life were "happiness: it's all we really have," "love: even if you lose someone you should be happy for them," "death: the circle of life," "responsibility: you only gain more of it." The home room teacher and I looked at each other several times throughout the sharing to acknowledge how deep the students were getting. She and I had both written our own poems and shared them with the class, something I'm learning is enormously beneficial and encouraging to the students. The mutual admiration of work made for the feel-goodiest of moments.

Each time I read a new poem to a class my first question to them is very deliberately phrased "What did this poem make you think?" I ask this because I want to foreground their experience and reaction, and the inverse of this question ("What did you think of this poem?") feels like I'm cutting out their feelings in favor of analysis of the text. Likewise, after I have them write poems and share as a class, I ask them "How did it feel to write these poems?" To me, this question celebrates and reflects on effort rather than achievement (which I celebrate individually with remarks in their writing notebooks), and a discussion around the act of writing poetry seems infinitely more fruitful in making poetry exciting and accessible.

 A scratch on the wall in my office with the uncanny resemblance of a horse's head.

A scratch on the wall in my office with the uncanny resemblance of a horse's head.

The first time I asked this question I hit the jackpot. Responses varied from difficulty starting a poem to excitement about what "secrets" different kids knew. My favorite moment came at the very end, when one boy (let's call him T)  responded to my question about how it felt to write these poems by saying, "Well sometimes the beginning can be hard but since we got to make up whatever we want, the more we kept going it got more fun and we wrote better things."

I couldn't help myself—with a smile, I told him "T, I think you just revealed to us the secret of poetry."

What's it like coming back to Falk? It's the feeling of T's statement. If I can have other classes reach that point even a  few more times throughout this year, every minute in this school will be worth it.

Cameron BarnettComment