Making it Yourself



your breath is your promised land

if you want to feel very rich

look at your hands

that is where

the definition of magic

is located at

- Pedro Pietri, “Love Poem for My People”


I grew up in a family of artists and artisans.   My mother is a poet and a famous local chef, my stepfather is a carpenter and drummer, my father was an accomplished guitarist.  


It was intimidating.   Not creepy intimidating, like late-night parties where erudite bohemian types got drunk and tried to feel me and my brothers up, just plain old wholesomely intimidating.  Mom was always wowing people with her poetry or the latest glowing restaurant review, my stepdad could make anything from furniture to sailboats, and my dad was well-known in the NY and LA jazz worlds.


I became a jack of all trades to compensate.   


I learned to sing, draw decently, shoot and develop my own film, and attended 5 miserable years of piano lessons with the local church organist with the only result being that I now have memorized the bass line of “With or Without You” by U2 which I probably could have picked out myself.  


The one thing I seemed to be authentically good at was acting.    My breakthrough role was in “The Gingerbread Man” in 4th grade.  This performance was given in the antiquated basement/cafeteria/auditorium of my small town grade school.  I remember my classmates and I doing a lot of giggling and running around, not necessarily where the script called for it.  Afterwards parents unloosed us on a smorgasbord of bizarrely colored yet appealing treats, like rice krispie bars twinkling with maraschino cherries, and red velvet cake whipped up from a can of Campbell’s tomato soup.


I was hooked.


Acting gave me an outlet as a girl and then young woman which I couldn’t find elsewhere.  Inter-racial romance, family dysfunction, religious torment: it was all on tap in the auditorium in plays like West Side Story, The Miracle Worker & Jesus Christ Superstar.   Here was a space to safely role-play the trials and tribulations of young adult and adult life.   As a teenager, I relished the intense emotional bonds I formed with peers when working on a production.   And by “intense emotional bonds” I mean flirtation, flirtation, and more flirtation.  It was great.


Given the joy I derived from the rollercoaster ride of theatrical production, it’s a small surprise I chose high school teaching as a profession.  Teaching and drama have so much in common: the powerful bonds of community, the exploration of provocative topics through literature, the creation of a safe, even sacred space…  and of course, flirtation, flirtation, and more flirtation!


Yet I’m making it sound like an easy choice, when it wasn’t.  Growing up, I had never measured up to my own expectations for myself.  I had wanted in the worst way to be an artist, like my parents.   Even though my family was very happy for me and supportive when I chose to do a graduate degree in teaching, I was torn.  My program was excellent.  Yet my work on curriculum planning, classroom management , and understanding the myriad types of assessments felt like drudgery.  Where was the creativity in teaching?  Where was the artistry?   I was hungry for the joy, the pride, the catharsis that comes from making something beautiful.  I wanted my students to engage in that process, go on that journey, feel those feelings.


It was a question that dogged me in my early years of teaching, a question that kept  demanding an answer amid the blizzard of questions every new teacher faces.


So without really knowing what I was doing, I started feeling my way towards an answer.   I had students write Shakespearean sonnets in my first job out in Washington state, and assigned my 9th graders to make illustrated booklets of their best efforts.  The students had so much fun messing around with rhyme and metaphor.  I noticed that even my most squirrelly kids settled into working hard on these projects.    The results were funny, sweet, poignant, real.  “Shall I compare you to a tootsie blow pop?” was one of the most memorable lines of the semester.   


My next job was at a middle school in Amherst, MA.  We were encouraged here to develop more multicultural curriculum which was already a priority of mine.  Working with the school’s guidance counselor Barry Brooks, who was a jazz buff and brilliant with kids, I created a jazz poetry unit around Langston Hughes’ cycle “Montage of a Dream Deferred.”  Many readers are familiar with “Harlem” from this collection but don’t know the larger piece that poem is part of.   Barry helped me teach the kids (and myself!) the difference between bebop and swing, and the kids created dramatic performances to bring Hughes’ rich and rhythmic poems to life.   The students brought a natural interest in music to the process, and related to the vibrant portraits that populate Hughes’ world; even now, I can see them juking around the room reciting “Good morning daddy/ain’t you heard/ the boogie woogie rumble of a dream deferred?”  This was one of the most successful units of my year, and I felt especially proud of my kids’ work: Amherst had just instituted full inclusion, and I had a roster ranging from students who were developmentally delayed and struggling with basic communication, to precocious students raring to tackle the classics .


When I came to Brookline, I knew for sure I wanted to keep infusing creative work into my teaching, and I now knew more fully why:  the students experienced the joy and catharsis that I had hoped for.  But they also learned better.   When they explored great literature through drama, creative writing, or visual art, they understood it in a deeper, more multi-dimensional way.   I didn’t feel this came at a cost to teaching the skills of analysis and expository writing that are important to master yet in my view given unnecessary emphasis these days due to the high-stakes consequences of standardized tests and assessments.   Instead, I saw—and continue to see—that joyful, energetic engagement with complex works of literature produces more appreciation and enthusiasm for these works, which in turn fuels stronger writing and thinking.   


So, I continued to develop my art.  


One year early on at Brookline High I had my seniors give performances from Samuel Beckett’s enigmatic play “Waiting for Godot,” because otherwise no one got the humor.   Kids donned bowler hats and button down shirts, wielded carrots and picnic baskets.  Suddenly, the tragicomic reality of Didi and Gogo’s existentialist predicament sprang to life.   And my students who had struggled the most with articulating verbal or written responses to the play could act the hell out of it.  They got it, and had us all laughing until we cried.   More recently, I have assigned kids to participate in a more intensive creative process, by having them work on fictional pieces in long-term writing groups.  Professional development with the Boston Writing Project helped me to structure these groups, but it was the students themselves who proved what excellent work they could do within a supportive community of their peers.   They took the work seriously and produced stories that have become models that I now share with current students.   This year I taught Max’s “Boy” based on Jamaica Kincaid’s famous monologue “Girl.”  The kids were just as excited to discuss my former student’s work as they were to probe Kincaid’s provocative story.


There have also been some bombs.  In my first year of teaching at BHS, when assigned to share a “best lesson” in department meeting, I brought a skit that I had had my sudents do to prepare for reading “Oedipus Rex.”  It was light-weight and asked the kids to do little in the way of acting and almost nothing in the way of thinking.   Margaret Metzger had been assigned to facilitate my group.  After reading over my lesson, she peered at me over the tops of her bifocals and opined, “I’m concerned about you, Jennifer.”  (As a young and still fairly inexperienced teacher I quaked in fear.  Then felt a conflicting glow of pride.  Was it a good or a bad thing to have the legendary Margaret Metzger worrying over you?!).  Just this past year, coming full circle, I again assigned my students to write sonnets-- as I had 16 years ago in my first teaching job.  But I threw too much at the kids and didn’t give them enough time: iambic pentameter, Shakespearean rhyme, quatrains, extended metaphor.  Kids sat outside with their notebooks in the quad, silhouetted in the soft haze of early summer, stunned by the enormity of the task before them.  Only a handful of my strongest students produced finished poems, with the best being a tongue in cheek roast of Donald Trump.


What struck me however, was their persistence.  I had given them an enormous task--an impossible task, really--yet they sat outside in the quad, focused, and kept going.  In the whole 45 minutes, most kids only produced 4-5 lines-- not even 2 full quatrains.  I remember one student in particular, a sweet and charming boy who was socially adept, yet had struggled with writing all year.  He really wanted to nail this poem down.  He was writing about his turtle named Yoda  (I LOVE 9th graders!), but he couldn’t find a metaphor to describe him.   Yet, he didn’t give up as he might have with a less compelling subject -- or a less engaging task.    He was committed to making this poem.  As were all the kids.   Given the choice to write about someone else’s writing or do their own?-- the answer is obvious.  Students hunger to write something of their own, not just to analyze someone else’s creation!   The composition scholar James Moffett writes in his book, Active Voice: “Here is a great irony.  We have a curriculum in which students write exposition; but when they read, they read literature.  We should have them do both  types of reading and writing” (181).  Thank you James!  Can you imagine forcing someone to watch cooking shows all the time, but never letting them go in the kitchen and try the recipes themselves?  Unfortunately, that is what we do all too often in English class: assign kids great literature to read: poems, stories, and plays--, and yet, all too rarely do we give them the chance to write their own poems, stories and plays.  


My students these days remind me of myself as a young person: Bursting with creative energy, and desperate for an outlet.  Too often, I find that the students who are struggling with learning disabilities or who are academically at-risk are often unusually artistically talented.  They are visual artists.  They are musicians.  They are poets, cartoonists, actors.  I have to ask the question: is it the students’ abilities that are impaired, or is it our perceptions that are limited?   Are the students failing to master the material, or are we failing to fully recognize and develop their skills?


There is something deeply human about the urge to create.   And children and teenagers feel that thrall keenly.  They haven’t had their imaginations stifled the way we adults all too often have through accident or sad design-- the daily grind of work and set routines.  Shouldn’t we be nurturing that instinct by giving students opportunities to make art through creative writing, drawing, music, etc on a regular basis?  Shouldn’t we be capitalizing on their intrinsic interest in building, inventing, designing?  Based on that first disastrous but fascinating day writing sonnets, shouldn’t I have brought my students out into the quad for another day, or a whole week, of writing their own poetry?   Instead, I soldiered on with my curriculum, which, you guessed it, revolved around analyzing Shakespeare-- what a lost opportunity!

I have to admit this topic is deeply personal to me.  I lost my dad--the jazz guitarist--12 years ago, in a premature death brought on by depression.  Despite his phenomenal talent, in the mid-90s, he left music for a business job.  It was the beginning of his steepest slide in a life characterized by ups and downs.   When dad stopped playing music, something inside him died.  It was heartbreaking.  


Perhaps if dad had had more teachers early on who lauded his talent, something might have gone differently.  Perhaps instead of believing that he had to mask who he was or how he was feeling, he could have expressed it.  Perhaps instead of being a place where he was constantly deemed a failure or a troublemaker, school could have been a haven for dad.  There are many perhapses…   Now is not the time to say them all.  But dad, I want you to know, tonight I’m dedicating this speech about the beauty and power of creativity to you…  


I’m also dedicating it to the parents who raised me, my mother and stepfather, Bro.    Mom: you are a chef, poet, gardener, and so much more.  Bro, you are a woodworker, drummer, illustrator, and so much more.   Your commitment to pursuing art as a job --indeed as a way of life--has given me the courage to stand up on this stage today and say everything I have to say.  You were the ones gave me the OK to stay late at play practice.  To say yes to that first crazy Whitney Houston solo in 8th grade (can you imagine, me trying to cover Whitney?!).  To let me go to a small college few had heard of halfway across the country because it had a strong arts program.  


So now I have an answer to my question about where to find the artistry of teaching.  In fact, I have known it all along:


It is in the excitement of seeing students engage deeply with literature through creative responses.  It is in the pride they take in writing their OWN “literature.”   It is in the wonder of discovering the talents of students who have not had enough opportunity to express them.  And it is in the absolute joy of

seeing all students learn, succeed, and pour their hearts into writing.


Works Cited


Moffett, James. Active Voice: A Writing Program Across the Curriculum. Bonyton/Cook Publishers Heinemann, 1981.