I started teaching in 2007 with City Year, Americorps largest program which primarily focuses on literacy in public school classrooms across the country. It is an organization which is often criticized for putting untrained young people into classrooms. I was certainly that, working in 8th grade civics classrooms twice a week and also running programming at a teen center on the border between Jamaica Plain and Roxbury in Boston. While I had never formally done any teaching before, most of my work was relegated to classroom assistance and also helping students conceive of and execute civic engagement projects in their school and broader community. While the work was taxing, over-taxing at times, overall the experience steered me on a path towards working with youth. At the present time, I teach poetry two days a week at two high schools in Detroit. I am fortunate to have gained a position as a Writer in Residence for insideOut Literary Arts, a Detroit-based writing and literacy organization founded by Terry Blackhawk nearly two decades ago. (Eddie Stewart is a student at Marcus Garvey. He works with iO's Peter Markus at his school.)
Part of me feels strange talking about teaching, in part because I feel strange publicly writing about my students without their knowledge. I think it’s worth talking about insideOut, however, and giving some insight into my experiences working in Detroit Public Schools. Recently two friends of mine were in town for a reading, one from Providence and the other from Minneapolis. They stayed at my place and when we headed to the venue where they were reading, I found myself explaining that a good number of the poets who we were chatting with also work for insideOut. In that moment I realized just how large a part of the literary infrastructure of Detroit iO truly is. I was already well aware of it in theory, but being in a room with a number of fellow iO Writers in Residence made the reality tangible. I began to think how different this was from my experiences in other cities where I’ve lived. To me, iO benefits several groups within Detroit—the writers employed by the organization, the students, the schools in which we work and more broadly speaking, the literary community overall. I’ve seen similar organizations operate in other cities, but never on this scale or perhaps quite so organically, in part because iO’s longevity has allowed time to develop and evolve to best serve schools and writers alike.
As far as my life in the classroom goes, it’s one of the best parts of my experience thus far in Detroit. I relish the moment in every class, every week where students groan when I ask them to take out a sheet of paper as if we haven’t been doing that during every class meeting for months. I mean that honestly, because it’s so typically adolescent—to groan at being asked to do anything that doesn’t involve their immediate social lives. And of course, it’s only a handful of students that do the groaning. Others love being able to express themselves through writing, and rush to be the first to share their work at the end of class. I know that I am asking both a lot and very little at the same time. Sometimes prompts are complex, sample poems are more dense than students are accustomed to, or I am asking students to delve into their emotional interior terrain. Every week, however, I find myself surprised by the results. Students who seem to have been chatting all class will hand in beautiful or silly poems. Some students even enjoy writing poems more than I can perceive in the classroom. One student, who happens to be about a foot and a half taller than me, a basketball player told me that he had grown to enjoy writing poems every week. This is a student who will occasionally answer questions I ask and then immediately bury his head in the crook of his elbow as if he is about to take a nap.
I mostly teach high school students, but I have one classroom of eighth graders. They are by far my most talkative class, but they are also exceptionally creative. Every week I find myself nearly doubled over with laughter from their exuberance and wit. And it floors me, every time. I typically bring in a style of poem to talk about—ekphrasis, odes, list poems, epistles, even a lesson on metaphor and simile that involved me decoding lyrics from Lil Wayne. A few times I’ve brought in dark subject matter about what it means to be a person of color in the United States today—we’ve talked about Ferguson, and Eric Garner, about Aiyana Stanley-Jones and racial profiling. While these things are often difficult to talk about, and none of my classrooms are uniformly one race or ethnic group, the level of engagement from students always blows me away. Many of my students have experienced dreadful things and all of them are living at a time when the oppression of and violence towards people of color are prevalent news stories. And the students take these discussions seriously, and express a kind of hopefulness and belief in their own worth that I think I would have been hard-pressed to express when I was their age. I’ve told my students that when the 9/11 attacks happened when I was in high school, and that the current public discussions around the prevalence of police brutality was just as significant to American history. I know that when I was in classrooms following the attacks on the WTC, if we were not talking about what had happened, it felt as if my teachers were avoiding acknowledging the truth about the world in which we lived. I do my best to allow space for the collective frustration and grief many of my students feel, and try to steer clear of injecting my own opinion into the conversation. The dialogues I’ve witnessed in Detroit middle and high school classrooms are often more complex and nuanced than many I’ve seen adults have on the internet and in real life.
I love teaching. I find it incredibly exhausting, but joyful. I know my own constitution well enough to know that I couldn’t do it full time, and I have immense respect for public school teachers in particular because of it, especially here in Detroit. This is not because the students are any more difficult than anywhere else, but because the school system has melded together so many schools that many classrooms have 40+ students in them, which is an incredibly difficult environment for teaching or learning in. I often tell people who ask me about teaching that I enjoy my role with iO because it allows me to develop my own curriculum without the trappings of being a public school educator, which is to say that I can maintain professionalism without having to worry about standardized testing. Poetry is in many ways the exact opposite of rote memorization. The multiple choice questions that poetry asks of students have infinite answers, none of them right or wrong. As I am working on finalizing the manuscripts for both schools’ publications, I find myself immensely proud of the work my students have done. While it’s not quite the end of the school year yet, spring is upon us, and I know that everyone’s mind will start to drift out the window by mid-May, including my own. Reflecting back upon my first six months in Detroit, I have to say that teaching has been an immensely important and grounding experience for me. I leave school twice a week feeling both drained and full all at once, and sometimes I think that feeling is poetry itself.