Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 6
'It Can Save Lives': Students Testify
To the Power of Poetry
By Catherine Gewertz
Teachers of poetry have always had
many reasons to teach it. Poetry can
enrich instruction in reading, writing,
speaking, and listening, capture students
with its musicality, and spark
their creative and critical thinking.
But during the pandemic, and a
painful national soul-searching on
racism, an often-overlooked reason
has quietly resurfaced: Poetry can sustain
both students and teachers during
tough times. That power is fueling renewed
explorations in April, the 22nd
annual National Poetry Month.
" Poetry just looks like a bunch of
rhymes on paper, but it can save lives, "
said Terrain Small, a junior at MiamiNorland
Senior High School in Miami.
As COVID-19 ravaged his community,
shutting down his school for
long stretches, Terrain turned again
and again to " Invictus, " a poem by
William Ernest Henley, mining its
lines in search of a steadying force.
He even memorized it, reciting it over
and over to burrow into its meaning
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed ...
Henley was only 26 when he wrote
" Invictus " in Edinburgh in 1875, after
losing his left leg to the complications of
tuberculosis. But his search for bravery
reached through the years and miles to
Terrain, reminding him that even amid
pain and chaos, strength can find its
" It really made me feel more confident,
like I know things will get better, "
he said. " It's always gonna hurt, but
nothing negative will last too long. "
Precious Symonette, Terrain's
teacher, dives deep with her students in
Creative Writing II, a year-long course
on poetry. They study a diverse array
of poets, from William Shakespeare to
U.S. poets laureate Rita Dove, Gwendolyn
Brooks, and Joy Harjo. They
analyze hip-hop lyrics and watch spoken-word
performances. They learn to
write in classic forms such as sonnets,
villanelles, and sestinas.
And, of course, they perform their
work in readings and slam competitions,
such as " piano slams " that incorporate
keyboards, dance, and spoken
word. Seven of Symonette's students
collaboratively wrote a poem that was
published last month in " Dear Freedom
Writer, " the latest in a series of
collections of writings by young people
that grew out of a project launched
in the mid 1990s by California high
school teacher Erin Gruwell. The piece,
" Poetry is Our Poker Face, " is a paean
to the life-saving power of writing.
Eric Charles, left, smiles after
performing his poem " Goodbye
to High School Football "
for classmates at Sharpstown
High School in Houston in 2017.
Terrain Small, 17, and Sydheera
Brown, 18, both students at MiamiNorland
Senior High School in
Miami, have found sustenance
reading and writing poetry during
the pandemic and the national
reckoning on race. They've been
studying poetry with Precious
Symonette, their teacher
... We wrote ourselves into existence
to learn and to love who we were, every
part of ourselves, even the parts that
were too broken to piece back together
We wrote ourselves out of existence
to cope, to breathe, to learn new ways of
piecing ourselves back together,
to reenergize, rejuvenate, to gain
strength to fight the injustices of life ...
" Poetry reminds us all that we are
whole, that we are human beings,
and it is so important that students
know that, even in the midst of everything
that's going on in the world, "
Symonette said. " They have all these
emotions that they are going through,
and poetry helps them make sense of
all of that. "
After the murder of George Floyd,
STUDENTS WRITE THEIR
WAY TO HOPE, COURAGE:
READ THEIR POEMS
students gravitated to one poem in
particular: Renee Watson's " This
Body, " which uses the dictionarydefinition
know well-to explore racism
and affirm Blackness. Symonette read
it to students over Zoom. They kept
asking her to re-read it. They flooded
the chat with thoughts and questions.
They wanted to discuss it over and
" I think what really resonated with
them is the fact that it's written with a
series of definitions, and it gave them
the idea that we could write a poem
6 | EDUCATION WEEK | May 11, 2022 | www.edweek.org
The poem began as a class assignment
by her English teacher,
Elizabeth Bush. It asked students to
research and write a poem using sensory
details from their cultures.
Like many of her classmates, Andrea
had been dealing with hard
things: family members falling ill
with COVID, her grandfather dying
from the virus. As she explored her
thoughts, the poem morphed into
a kind of rescue. " It let me express
feelings I'd been holding back, and
that gave me an inner peace, " she
Exploring the work of established
poets, Giselle Sanchez-Vasquez, one
of Bush's 11th grade students, stumbled
on writing by S.C. Lourie, and
found messages of self-care that she
needed to hear.
where we are defining things for ourselves, "
Sydheera Brown, one of Symonette's
12th grade students, loves reading poetry.
She finds strength, too, in the
poems she's written herself. Again and
again in the last year, she re-read her
poem " My New Normal, " a piece that
details the pain of racism and the isolation
and fear of the pandemic.
" When I go back to re-read it, I'm
looking for hope and courage, because
I really needed that during that time,
and I'll continue to need that in the
future, with how things are changing, "
Even as Sydheera takes on difficult
experiences in her poem, she finds her
way to an uneasy kind of hope:
... I gaze beyond the world through
these windows in my face
The life I once knew is no more; so,
I make new beginnings
Without tears brimming or my head
Or my ears ringing, but my heart
Where waterfalls trickle through
Clear, crisp cooling calms the craze
And horizons bleed gold over oceans ...
A realm where tranquility rivals fateful
In chance my choice is giving me
This " new normal " is horrible
But I'm adjusting willingly.
Three thousand miles away, a student
in Los Angeles wrote herself into
calm and connectedness by exploring
her cultural roots. Andrea Mejia Garcia,
a 10th grader at Belmont High School,
wrote a poem detailing the vibrancy of
her family's homeland, Guatemala.
... Thank you to my ancestors for this gift.
I will always embrace who I am,
remembering those who surround me
like a ring of Quetzal birds,
singing my family's story for you.
Go into this week with the attitude
that your peace, your health of mind,
and your heart mean more than
getting everything else done.
That your smile matters.
That feeling rested matters.
That holding the hands
of your loved ones matters ...
Bush covers the whole gamut of
language-arts skills and knowledge
in her class. She can use poetry to
address academic standards such
as figurative language and evidence
to support a claim. But well-chosen
poems also have a way of getting students'
attention, she said.
" A powerhouse poem can compete
with a phone, " she said. " They like to
take poems apart, peek between the
blinds, and look for insights into life
that will remain with them. "
Bush has long had a list of poems
she likes to study with her students.
But with racial debates and pandemic
fear roiling, she dug back in to find
pieces that would connect to students'
lives now. Here are a few that
* Ada Limón's " Instructions on
Not Giving Up " uses the emergence
of spring leaves as a symbol of
humanity's power to go on living,
" despite the mess of us, the hurt, the
* Mary Oliver's " The Summer
Day. " The final two lines are the
famous and most-quoted ones: " Tell
me, what is it you plan to do/with
your one wild and precious life? "
But Bush likes to focus her students'
attention on Oliver's lush, natural
imagery for solace and presence of
* Gary Soto's " A Red Palm. " This
bittersweet tribute to family and
back-breaking field work often grabs
students' attention with its striking
* Pablo Neruda's " Ode to the
Onion. " Students are charmed by
this romantic take on a common
vegetable. Bush assigns them to
write their own odes to everyday
Courtesy of Precious Symonette
Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle via AP
Education Week - May 11, 2022
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - May 11, 2022
Education Week - May 11, 2022
Why Misusing ‘Groomer’ as a Political Smear Is Especially Dangerous
School Sports Are Back. Where Are the Athletes?
What the Research Says
‘It Can Save Lives’: Students Testify To the Power of Poetry
Key Takeaways From Praying-Coach Case While U.S. Supreme Court Deliberates
1 in 5 Educators Say They’ve Experienced Long COVID
A Flood of Federal Cash and Then Layoffs. What Gives?
With Millions of Kids on the Line, Can Schools Make Tutoring Work?
Online Tutoring Can Be Effective, Research Shows
What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching?
What Should Culturally Relevant Teaching Look Like Today?
What If We Treated Public Education Like the Crisis It Is?
Why Students Can’t Tell Fact From Fiction Online
Letters to the Editor
EdWeek Top School Jobs
Hardest Year Ever? One Teacher’s View
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - Education Week - May 11, 2022
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - CW2
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 1
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - Briefly Stated
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 3
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - School Sports Are Back. Where Are the Athletes?
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - What the Research Says
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - ‘It Can Save Lives’: Students Testify To the Power of Poetry
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 7
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - Key Takeaways From Praying-Coach Case While U.S. Supreme Court Deliberates
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 9
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 9A
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 1 in 5 Educators Say They’ve Experienced Long COVID
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 11
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - A Flood of Federal Cash and Then Layoffs. What Gives?
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 13
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - With Millions of Kids on the Line, Can Schools Make Tutoring Work?
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - Online Tutoring Can Be Effective, Research Shows
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching?
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - What Should Culturally Relevant Teaching Look Like Today?
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 18
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 19
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - What If We Treated Public Education Like the Crisis It Is?
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - Why Students Can’t Tell Fact From Fiction Online
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - Letters to the Editor
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - EdWeek Top School Jobs
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - Hardest Year Ever? One Teacher’s View
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - CW3
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - CW4