By Joe Nathan
Here’s a suggestion for the summer. If you care about learning, teaching, schools or parenting, get a copy of “Teaching with Heart,” edited by educator Sam M. Intrator and writer Megan Scribner. The book has 90 brief, one-page essays by educators, explaining and describing a poem that has inspired them. The book contains some of the most majestic, memorable writing I’ve ever read.
Whether as a parent, grandparent or educator, you’ve probably experienced the exhilaration, and sometimes frustration, of working with youngsters. You’ll recognize, identify with and enjoy the complex array of emotions described here.
One of my favorite essays, by South Carolina high school teacher Leatha Fields-Carey, discusses the poem “Purple” by Alexis Rotella. The poem compares emotions a youngster felt by having two teachers react to art projects. Fields-Carey agrees that in the poem, and in life, “Teachers have incredible power to hurt and to heal.”
Julia Hill, a Minnesota reading teacher, speaks for many veteran teachers (and parents) when she explains, “In my 16 years (of teaching), the road has not been easy.” But she keeps coming back, citing Gary Snyder’s poem “For the Children.” Snyder urges, among other things, “stay together.” Hall does this, trying not to “let the weight of the system take my energy away from what I know is best for the children.”
Idaho middle and high school teacher April Niemela praises “Persistence,” by former President Calvin Coolidge. Niemela believes that while her official job is to “teach literary analysis and close reading,” what she’s really doing is teaching “survival skills, resilience, this refusal to give up the dream.”
Many of the essays recall a particular student the teacher helped. Emanuel Pariser, a Maine teacher, writes of Alexander, who “had a pattern of rarely finishing anything, moving from school to school.” Yet Alexander “bloomed” in the high school Pariser helped start that focuses on farming, forestry, sustainability and alternative energy. Pariser cites John O’Donohue’s poem “Beannacht.” It includes a goal that Pariser seeks, to help young people find what O’Donohue describes as “the clarity of light” after “weight deadens on your shoulders.”
Georgia teacher Jovan Miles recalls his first year of teaching, which was deeply, daily frustrating. But Miles found strength to continue in Maya Angelou’s poem “The Lesson,” which concludes, “I keep on dying,/ Because I love to live.”
A few pages later, Sandie Merriam describes her fears on retiring from teaching after 38 years. But a poem by Judy Sorum Brown, “Hummingbirds Asleep,” has encouraged her to stay busy and active.
“Teaching with Heart” includes essays by district, union, charter, private, traditionally trained and Teach For America classroom teachers. Authors also include principals, superintendents, college professors and a congressman. Some describe the enormous satisfaction of helping students. Others acknowledge the encouragement and inspiration that students gave them.
My only quibble with the book is the introduction by educator Parker Palmer. He comes on heavy in his criticism of standardized tests and news media. His essay seems out of place and unnecessary. Some of the educators’ essays cite frustrations with traditional tests, poverty and other challenges.
These concerns are not raised in the opening essay, written by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. She comments on the poem “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, found on the Statute of Liberty. The poem ends, “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Our country and our schools are not perfect. But as this beautiful book reminds us, at our best, this nation and its schools represent a “golden door” of opportunity.
Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, [email protected]