She’s Not Hannah Montana (Or, Poets Are Really, Really Nice.)

Yep. I’ve been using Poetry 180 as the source of a new opening activity, ripped unapologetically from Nancie Atwell (as a great many things I do these days are), called Poem of the Day– or the P.O.D., as the kids call it, which I believe they think sounds a little more like a rapper, and therefore more worthy.

Twice now we’ve read through a kick-ass poem and the kids have been burning with questions at the end. Who’s the speaker? What does this line mean? And always: where did this poem come from? They want to eat its genesis, its reality, in the same way they gobble up the “real lives” of their favorite stars. Ah, who doesn’t want to know, in their heart of hearts, what David Foster Wallace had for breakfast?

“Do you want to email the poet and ask your questions?” I say nonchalantly, banking on what has now become the expected class-wide whooping answer: “YEAH.”

I model– no– I conduct, real-time– our search, over the digital projector: Googling the author’s name, searching the poet’s biographies, looking up websites. We find an email address, pull up my school account, write the email together, and send it, having conversations about such things as why adding “P.S.– YOU ROCK!” at the bottom is kind, but not quite the tone we’re looking to strike.

Laurel Blossom, author of “Radio,” answered our email within six hours today, and asked us to send her poems. Dorianne Laux, author of “Break,” was located at North Carolina State University, and is currently figuring out a conference call with my sixth period class so they can ask her their questions in person.

These are not magical emails. We don’t write and re-write them, add gratuitous appeals to pity, or include money. We send them out into the world sailing on nothing but the feather-light breeze of tween curiosity; and what returns, seems to do so ten-fold.

What things my kids are learning through this exercise cannot be found in any state or national E/LA standard– and yet I am beginning to wonder if this is in fact the litmus test for the most important things kids do learn. My kids are learning that poets will write back to a class of polite seventh graders, and write back with alacrity and delight. They are learning that wordsmiths out there in world are not only generous with their words, but with their time and attention.

They are learning a different meaning of celebrity– the root of which, I found out today, is the Latin celeber: Frequented. Populous.


11 thoughts on “She’s Not Hannah Montana (Or, Poets Are Really, Really Nice.)

  1. Gratuitous me-too anecdote:

    My students were reviewing Nicholas Felton’s 2008 report last year and didn’t understand why his favorite beer and his most-consumed beer weren’t the same.

    So we did the same thing and homeboy e-mailed back WITHIN THE PERIOD telling us that his favorite beer was a seasonal release. It was like we had called fire out of the sky together.

  2. I have immense respect for middle school teachers (as an elementary school teacher I’m amazed by what you all do). Envisioning your classroom with this sort of enthusiasm and excitement about poetry gives me chills.

  3. My students used to love corresponding with a Peace Corps volunteer via her blog for the same reason. They loved that she would answer all of their random questions about herself (within reason), living in Romania, and the state of the world.

  4. @Dan: No kidding. I wonder what makes this particular type of communication so magical for them. The residue of celebrity, as I mentioned? I had more than one kid mumble doubtfully that “she’s not going to have time to answer us, you know.” The idea that any figure of authority as presented in class is unreachable– or uninterested? It can’t be the emailing. Kids do that every damn day. Thoughts?

    @Jenny: you’ve been so supportive here and over at Reading Free. It’s been a real boost and I wanted to sure you knew that explicitly. I marvel at elementary teachers, myself. An hour to myself at best daily and every subject to teach? Man. Props to you.

    @Sue: You’re right, of course, but I feel like one of the “teachable moments” here is one of communicative tone. You’d never write “you rock” at the bottom of a letter to a potential employer, even if you loved their work. Since these are adults of whom we are asking the favor of a reply, I feel more formality is called for than informality.

    @Cynthia: Tell me more! What did you teach? Are you teaching now?

  5. Dina- your school district has a cool distance learning operation- might work for your conference call (sent you a link via e-mail)

  6. Been following your blog for some time now, but I really enjoyed reading this post. I imagine the excitement that fills your class and it’s comforting to know that there are teachers who are gifted in the ways of tapping into the attentions and motivations of middle schoolers.

    Can I ask what else do you do with the POD, besides recitation?

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