From the Classroom: One Poem, One School
By Tricia Ebarvia
Every year as April approaches, my colleagues and I gather together to make a decision. What poem will we choose to celebrate National Poetry Month this year?
For the last nine years, students at Conestoga High School have marked National Poetry Month with a celebration known as “One Poem, One ‘Stoga.” Each April, every English class takes a break from its regularly scheduled programming to study one poem together. That means that more than 2,000 students, from 14-year-old freshmen to 18-year-old seniors, read the same poem. It’s one of the few shared experiences students have that transcends age, grade, and academic level.
As you can see, we’ve celebrated National Poetry Month with a range of wonderful poems:
- 2006: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Bird” (Wallace Stevens)
- 2007: “The Weight of Sweetness” (Li-Young Lee)
- 2008: “The Summer I Was Sixteen” (Geraldine Connelly)
- 2009: “Sad as a ship” (Charles Simic)
- 2010: “The Fury of Overshoes” (Anne Sexton)
- 2011: “Fairy Tale Logic” (A.E. Stallings)
- 2012: “Blackberry Eating” (Galway Kinnell)
- 2013: “The Changing Light” (Lawrence Ferlinghetti)
- 2014: “Spring in New Hampshire” (Claude McKay)
While reading such beautiful poetry is certainly worthwhile on its own, each year students also use the selected poem as a mentor text to write their own poetry. Over the years, we’ve had poems that explored thirteen ways of looking at sunsets as well as the fury of the backpack. One of the few poems I’ve written that I’ve actually liked—I openly admit to being poetry-challenged—was inspired by Li-Young Lee’s “The Weight of Sweetness.” My version, about the weight of motherhood, is below:
No easy thing to bear, the weight of motherhood.
Love, guilt, ambition, joy: motherhood
equals three of any of these gravities.
See the child through the lens,
unassuming and unburdened
Hold the photograph, feel its texture, motherhood
and moment so heavy and light
between your fingers.
And, so, there is
the weight of memory:
Sun-soaked, a warm
fall wind breezes, refreshing
mother and child.
They laugh and count,
as the mother pushes the boy up farther, higher,
swinging until his toes
kiss the clouds.
The little boy’s hands clutch rusted chains
for dear life.
Now he watches
his mother walk away, carrying camera in hand.
See the look on the boy’s face
as his mother fumbles with the shutter
again and again, while his own smile grows tired
and the swinging slows down, as he learns
about the weight of motherhood.
To make this a truly shared experience, our poetry moves beyond our classroom walls. Student (and teacher) poems are posted up in the hallways, so that for a few weeks in April, you can’t walk through the building without encountering poem after poem after poem, each inspired by the same mentor text. It’s not uncommon to see students stop to read each other’s poems.
This year, we decided to try something a little new. We chose a song as our poem—Bob Dylan’s iconic, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” As Dylan does in his song, students grappled with questions about humanity, the wonders of nature, and the pressing social issues of our day. Others took a more satirical approach. Because Dylan’s poem is a song, particular attention had to be paid to the meter, rhythm and rhyme. And to cap off our celebration, “Blowin’ in the Wind” will be played during the morning announcements this week. (I’ve already heard students humming that familiar melody throughout the day.)
So if you’ve ever wondered what 2,000 additional stanzas of “Blowin’ in the Wind” might look like, you’d just need to walk our halls.
Tricia Ebarvia currently teaches 9th grade world literature and AP English Language & Composition at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA. This year, she continues her quest to inspire a love for reading in her students by integrating more independent reading and free choice. She admits that her heart skips a beat whenever she sees a student with a book in his hand she’s recommended. She is currently writing daily as part of the “Slice of Life” challenge at her website, mrsEbarvia.com. She can also be found on twitter @triciaebarvia.