In The Center of My Classroom

What is at the center of my classroom?

I was invited most graciously to participate in Point of Inflection’s Convention Center 2011, and write a post answering this question. I did. Lots of paragraphs.

But then I read it out loud late at night while editing it, and realized that what I had actually done was write a slam poem– a writing genre which awes, humbles and intimidates me. This means– of course– that I’m going to have to learn it and teach it soon.

I would be grateful for any feedback or comments.


The Question

At the center of my classroom

sits a question.

I have learned

that if I do


in my power

to invite, protect, and nourish

the question,

then I am teaching well.


The question

belongs to the kids.

They bring plenty, after all:

in their pockets,

in the upturned soft cotton bowls

of their caps.

Sometimes they loudly announce

their possession of the question.

Other questions

are hidden in the corner of their pencil cases,

or buried deep in purses

under lipsticks and cell phones,

and we have to


for them




we trade off, and

I’m the one who

first holds out a question.

That’s ok, as long as the kids

take it into their own hands,

incubating it

on their own.


Thus nurtured, the question

can yield wondrous things:

downy yellow and peeping,

or naked and gangly

with improbably huge heads,

or royally fledged, majestic.

Sometimes they fill every space in the air

like a sanctuary,



But sometimes they break.

Or they die.

The cracking sound of a breaking question

will usually alert me soon enough

to bring it to the class’ attention,

and we save it,

administering discursive


but sometimes I don’t notice until it’s too late.

Nothing’s worse

than clearing up at the end of the day and

finding the small lifeless body of a question

under a desk—


crushed mouth


I find less and less of them

the better I get,

the more the years go on–

but I still find them.

I always cry.



the question is a dud right off.

(These are usually teacher questions.)

It doesn’t hatch.

It starts to smell.

Or every once in a while a kid

will hand me a wad of chewed bubble gum,

or a balled-up empty juice box

and tell me with a grin that it’s a question.

The trick here

is to dispatch with these imposters

with the same gentleness and respect

as I would a real question.


Because sometimes,

just as I’m dealing with the question,

the question pecks its way out of its shell

and reveals itself as




giant, scaly,

horned and taloned,

blasting the room

with its huge limbs

and hot meaty breath.

It eats my lesson plans,

knocks over the ELMO,

and in general stomps around

pulling file cabinet drawers out of their sockets


At this point there is only one thing to do,

and that is to



and pay the question

some serious attention.


And if, in the end,

I am still wondering whether

this thing I am asking or answering

is a real question,

alive and well,

then I

remember this:

Questions are never the same species.

But they are always the same genus—

geniuses, all–


always have feathers.

Like Emily Dickinson’s hope,

questions always

perch on the soul.

A question


has wings.


15 thoughts on “In The Center of My Classroom

  1. Love this! Now to figure out how to make it into a poster for my wall… (with your permission, of course)

  2. This post was gorgeous. I’m a bit obsessed with the idea of questions…probably stemming out of a college reading of Rainier Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” where he talks about living the questions and living your way right into the answers. So beautiful.

  3. This is so beautiful! Thank you for sharing. I felt an immediate connection with the idea of a question in a classroom. This captures the art of teaching in such a lovely way.

  4. What a wonderful picture of an organic, living, breathing classroom. An excellent reminder as we go to a new group of kids to really encourage and listen for their questions.

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