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A Classroom that Moves like a Poem: Teaching Poetry through a Social-Emotional-Learning Framework

The kind of poetry and the kind of teaching I am interested in are both practices of Noticing.

  • What is happening right now ?

  • What are you noticing ?

These are the first questions that I bring to my students as well as to the page. As a poet I find that this question keeps me mindful, embodied and accountable to the work. As a teacher I want to find frameworks that allow me to build pedagogy around this question.

It was this desire to challenge and fine-tune my teaching-, noticing- and writing-practice that led me to TAP and, subsequently, Social Emotional Learning facilitation.

What is SEL ?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning defines SEL as “how children and adults learn to understand and manage emotions, set goals, show empathy for others, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” In Social Emotional Learning Frameworks we create a classroom space in which we encourage students to get curious about their emotions and explore them in a safe way. I would argue that poetry, similarly, is a site of curiosity and feeling. In my growing-up I did not have such a thing as SEL teaching frameworks but what I did have was poetry. Poetry allowed me to get curious and turn things inside out. Poetry continues to teach me how/what/why I notice. I began using poetry as a methodology to study and understand the world around me but by way of feeling. The great Ursula K Le Guin says:

“Science describes from the outside. Poetry from the inside. Science explicates; poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe. We need the languages of both science and poetry to save us from merely stockpiling endless “information” that fails to inform our ignorance and irresponsibility.”

It is the alchemical conversion from information to feeling, from feeling to action, which interests me as a teacher and artist. In our classrooms teachers can be resources to students. We can provide readings, writing techniques advice, support. But I am learning how we can also let the classroom move like a poem, by which I mean: to cultivate a space of feeling, noticing and making choices. This is where SEL frameworks come in. Acquainting myself with SEL helps me to see how the workings of pedagogy can be intimately entwined with the kind of poetry I want to foster.

  • What do you notice?

  • In this very moment ?

A simple exercise that might lead into a poetry workshop through a SEL framework might be breath-work, reflection and writing. For Example:

  • Inhale for 5, Hold for 6, Exhale for 7

  • Then we ask: What do you notice .. ? And where…?

(You may take a minute and try this exercise in your own reading of this text.)

“Social-Emotional Learning does not mean shying away from difficult situations/subjects, but

creating a nurturing environment in which students can explore those subjects and feel safe.”

Indeed, poetry and teaching keep each other safe and alive. There is a long lineage of teachers, who are poets and poets, who are teachers. I am thinking of Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, and Adrienne Rich to name but a few. I am also lucky to have had many teachers in my own life time, who taught me that teaching could be a kind of poetry. How could I not mention my mentor, Laura Elrick, who, gently and consistently helps me to show up to the page, again and again, which means showing up for myself again and again, which means showing up to the world again and again. In my work as a poet I am learning just how important a community of teachers (the living and the dead) are for the work. How a book is always a collective act. How we must continue showing up for one another, again again and how we must remind and support one another to do so, again and again.

One of the core competencies of SEL is the identifying of emotions, accurate self-perception,

recognizing strengths, self-confidence, self-efficacy. This may mean that in the classroom we find ways to ask:

  • What are my thoughts and feelings? What causes those thoughts and feelings? How can I express my thoughts and feelings respectfully?

A teaching environment in which poetry is taught through an SEL lens can nourish an environment, where emotions are held gently and curiously. The ability to accurately assess one’s strengths and limitations, with a well-grounded sense of confidence, optimism, and a growth mindset, is, I believe, essential in building a sustainable life as politically active poets.

Because attention is political. Poetry is many things but first and foremost it is a particular kind of attention. Which means that practicing a kind of attention in the classroom and on the page is part of the work of any social justice informed pedagogy.

Recently, I have had the fortune to partake in a workshop facilitated by another alchemical teacher-poet, TC Tolbert, who began our workshops with: What do you notice ? And then, added, importantly: What do you not notice? (What don’t you? Take a minute.)

The languages to which I have access tell their own tales of what poetry is. The German word for poetry, Dichtung, means quite literally 'to condense'. It makes me think of the physics of water. Condensation is the “moment” when a cloud is holding onto, gathering and compressing what it has collected of the morning dew, the ocean, your sweat and all else that has transpired through skin, tree tops and sun rays up into a cozy cloud. Condensation happens before the release, precipitation, before the rain, the nourishment, the release of life juice, water. Of course, everything is spirally, cyclically arranged; Dichtung, then, gathers, across time, collects and condenses a kind of poetic attention, encapsulating the news of morning dew in something as brief as a word. Students/teachers participate in this water cycling of attention, noticing what has always been there.

“For there are no new ideas/ There are only new ways of making them felt.” - from Poetry is not a Luxury by Audre Lorde

Poetry is also about choices. In writing we constantly make choices: words, rhythms, enjambment, syntax. In living, too, we choose: between doing this and that, between speaking up or not. A teaching practice rooted in SEL aims to practice choice-making in the classroom, so that we become more comfortable making informed choices on the page and in our life. This means writing curricula in which there is space for a student’s own agency, in which we model an environment that empowers everyone to act/speak/change/choose freely, respectfully, curiously - in other words, the kind of society we wish to live in. Where else would we start building utopia if not here, now.

And what is utopic thinking without poetry? It’s a puddle, I tell you that. English and Italian’s story of poetry - Poetry and Poesia - travel to the present from the ancient greek ποιητής , poietes: to make. It reminds me of the material aspects of language, the fact that we make words and that words are matter, that words matter, they produce something tangible. Aristotle, or was it Plato? (I honestly have spent too much time googling ancient greek men) wrote about their ideal state which needed to exclude poets because a poet’s ability to imagine(make imaginative matter) would necessarily pose a threat to any efficiently run (read: proto-capitalist) state. Honestly, that’s not the kind of utopia I am interested in, anyway.

SEL helps me to grapple with a teaching framework that is as much about the work as it is about the feeling. It reminds me why and how teaching poetry is a practice of care. I want my students to teach me what I am (not) noticing. And I want to be in a classroom that moves through feeling, care, choice and revolution, just like the best of poems, do.