Poetry, Politics, and the 3rd Way

Two roads diverg, and between these two major roads is a hill, with a hand-laden path of stairs.

“Five thousand tongues applauded…” but I look up to see blank stares. I continue anyway:   

“Then the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip.” Snickers and giggles from junior high boys (“Huh, he said ‘ball’). I shot a quick, teacher glare to regain control. 

After five painful minutes of  “Casey wouldn’t let that ball go” and “the force of Casey’s blow” I finally finished my straight-faced recitation with the line that was published 133 years ago: “..mighty Casey has struck out.”    

Glossed over eyes met my stare. I thought the worst was over. I was wrong. I then went to the whiteboard and wrote, TPCASTT. “Each of these letters,” I explained, “Stands for a way to analyze poetry.” I was clutching my teacher curriculum guide tightly, reading from the page, 

“The ‘T’ means Title. It’s when we look at the title…” I was reading directly from the book now (and probably sweating a little), “…it’s when we look at the title before reading the poem, and we make predictions about what the poem will be about.” 

I looked at the students.

They looked back at me.

“Umm..so, we already read it; so, let’s pretend that you hadn’t read it, okay?” Now I was turning red. “So. Umm, what do you think the title means, ‘Casey at Bat’…that is, if you hadn’t already read it?”

No one in the room was buying it. I was sweating, stumbling, and it was painfully clear that I had no idea what I was talking about.  

To understand how I got to this spot as a veteran teacher holding viable curriculum, we’ll have to take a step back.  

First, you should know that school systems purchase professional, published curriculum, and it comes with guided lessons, practice workbooks, reading passages and assessments. There are online components and extension resources. The advantage here is that when a school purchases curriculum, the teachers are immediately on the same page with access to the same resources. 

You should also know that there is nothing inherently right or wrong with published curriculum; but that is like saying there is nothing inherently right or wrong with politics. In both regards, curriculum and politics exist to provide access and opportunity. In politics, it is the opportunity to have the individual voice represented, and with published curriculum, it is the opportunity to provide resources to every individual student. 

Curriculum designed to engage and challenge students may be too difficult for some, too easy for others, or unrepresentative of the individual student.

To quickly continue the comparison, those who are familiar with politics know that the difficulty lies in the individual differences of the people being represented. A policy to provide benefits for some often does so at the expense of others. The system of politics is not to blame, it’s the difficulty that comes in enacting singular policies that meet the needs of the individual. 

Those familiar with education know that the difficulty lies in the individual differences of the teachers and students. Curriculum designed to engage and challenge students may be too difficult for some, too easy for others, or unrepresentative of the individual student. 

In my story, I’m holding a teacher guide that our school district had purchased for every junior high. That means that every 7th grade teacher, like me, had access to the same reading passages, questions, and quizzes.

…the story is about how individual differences test the limits of any “one-size-fits-all” system. 

When the curriculum was purchased, the district did everything perfectly–they rolled out the new program by training every teacher. They shared documents that had been internally constructed to match our schedule. We knew what page of the textbook we should be on and when. The school also reinforced why we were adopting new curriculum–because it guaranteed every student (regardless of which junior high they attended) access to viable curriculum. Now, a student who attended School A would be learning the same, rich content as students who attended School B. 

Again, nothing is inherently good or bad about any of this; but the story is about how individual differences test the limits of any “one-size-fits-all” system.   

It’s about a week before the painful recitation, and I’m sitting in lesson planning with my team of teachers. We’re looking through the upcoming lessons–the next few days would be spent on poetry. I want to be perfectly clear: I love poetry. In high school, I performed in a Beatnik band; I attend poetry slams…even now, I have pages of scribbled poems and a few published pieces. 

As you can guess, I was pretty excited about the upcoming chance to share a personal passion with the students. That is until we all opened our district-purchased, guaranteed and viable curriculum. There was a reading passage about baseball and then a poem about baseball that was published in 1888. Then, there was a sterile, one-way method for analyzing poetry…regrettably titled TPCASTT. It was more of alphabet soup than a functioning acronym, and it all boiled down to a recipe for disengagement. It was clear that none of the teachers in the room were excited, but it was early in the school year, we had been told to use this curriculum. The importance of “guaranteed access for every student” had been pounded into us. We shrugged and moved on…relinquishing ourselves from any obligation. 

“The second ‘T’ means…” I look down at my curriculum guide, reading along now, “‘Title.” I pause, confused. Undeterred, I keep reading: “It means to read the title again looking for different meanings.” I move to the white board and turn to ask the students, “So, uhhh, now that we’ve read the poem, what does the title ‘Casey at Bat’ mean to you?” My face is in full-on blush and words are more chewed and spit than spoken.   

It was less than fifteen minutes into the poetry lesson, and as I stood there, I realized I was done. A lack of obligation had translated into a lack of preparation. Finally, I relinquished control. I mumbled an apology to the students, closed the curriculum guide, and set it lightly on my desk. I started again. This time, I started from a raw but familiar place: “Poetry,” I began, “Poetry is art…painted with words. It’s meant to be read aloud, to be performed–so that you can feel the beat of the syllables, the syncopation, the ups and downs of intonation. Shakespeare didn’t simply write his plays, they were live and loud and performed.” 

Time was suddenly without measure. For the rest of class, we shared favorite song lyrics. We played with words and internal rhyme–trying to rhyme “orange” with “door hinge” and break the rules. I had students physically limping around the room, demonstrating how iambic works (and why it’s called iambic). We took apart the poem “Casey at Bat” and turned it into a beatnikesque found poem that we all snapped to at the end. It was fun, it was raw, it was magical. 

I am not so naive to think that every student left that day loving poetry, but they were inspired towards an appreciation for poetry. Every Friday for the rest of the year, we did a poetry performance. Often it was me, bringing in a selection, but other times, students would perform favorite songs or even recite their own original poems. We never deconstructed the theme, but instead, inferred meaning by allowing the flavor of sound and definition to linger. 

This “Captain, My Captain” moment, fueled by passion and knowledge, flew in the face of guaranteed and viable curriculum.

It would be great to leave the story there, but the truth is that not everything was smooth sailing. This “Captain, My Captain” moment, fueled by passion and knowledge, flew in the face of guaranteed and viable curriculum. It wasn’t long until my team uncovered what I was hiding, that I had not been doing the same lessons on poetry. 

At the time, I felt like the system had presented me with a Catch-22, or at least some ethical conundrum where either side of the binary was met with loss: teach the curriculum for the sake of the greater good, but give up who you are and forego student engagement. Or, go rogue and inspire students, but at the expense of your team and at the expense of providing equal opportunity to faceless others across the school district. I chose to go it alone, and this was both the most rewarding choice but also the most isolating. It was this loneliness and a desire to change the system that eventually drew me out of my public school classroom.  

The irony is that it was not a binary choice, but it took me leaving the system to recognize that. Allow me to quickly explain, and see if you agree:

The system of education measures a student’s learning using objectives. These have a variety of names (content objectives, knowledge objectives, standards, learning targets, etc.), and what is being measured is if the student has acquired and attained mastery over certain knowledge. These objectives can be as straightforward as what year was the Declaration of Independence was signed to how well a student can analyze a poem. The role of a teacher is to help students reach these objectives the best way possible. The curriculum is simply a tool in her hand. One teacher may be able to use poems about baseball and pour his love for the game into teaching students how to analyze poetry. Another teacher may need to show her students the recitation “The Hill We Climb” by National Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman.

“…[do] not place the system above the needs of the individual, but instead, provide a system that supports individual opportunity and growth. 

There is a false ethical divide where teachers feel they must either “stay within unhealthy limits” or “isolate themselves.” There is a third way, and it is to ensure that every teacher knows their objectives, ensure that every teacher has access to curriculum, and then (most importantly) stand to the side and coach as the teacher breathes their individual passions and talents into the life of their classroom. When objectives and standards are being met, then the path is justified–whether that path be baseball and TPCASTT or Slam Poetry.

This “end justifies the means” may sound utilitarian, but when it comes to measuring the quality of instruction, this third way actually provides space for the individual, both for the inspired teacher and for the individual preferences of the student. This third way reminds us to not place the system above the needs of the individual, but instead, provide a system that supports individual opportunity and growth. 

What a Teacher Really Needs

Heading for blog about curriculum and instruction

The diploma reads, “Curriculum and Instruction.” Two words often tied together with an ampersand. It wasn’t until much later, during a job interview, that I ever considered why both words came bundled together.

Her eyes moved to the next question: “What is the difference between ‘curriculum’ and ‘instruction’?” 

I stumbled, “That’s a great question…” Face turning red, reaching for thoughts that swirled without form. 

For the next five minutes I vomited up nomenclature and ed-speak, smatterings of “assessment” and “delivery” and “pedagogy” all blurring together. After the interview, I was embarrassed–how did I finish a masters degree in a field I can’t even define? When I was done cycling through the “shame and blame game,” I created a simple working definition: 

Curriculum = What

Instruction = How   

There is nothing revolutionary about this definition, but it does benefit from its simplicity–curriculum is what you are teaching and instruction is how you teach it. The simplicity is the Occam’s razor to slice through the gummed up discourse and confusion surrounding much of education. 

“Unfortunately, in the pursuit of standardization, the education system gums up the path to inspiration.”

You see, at NuMinds, we believe in the power of the impassioned educator–we use the term Inspirator. When an Inspirator is fully alive, getting his or her “teach on,” it’s amazing to watch. Whether joining the students on the rug for reading time or positioned behind a lecturn, an Inspirator uses her eyes, voice, and gestures to move about the room. The simple shift in inflection, the gleam of excitement–all adding to the magic. 

Unfortunately, in the pursuit of standardization, the education system gums up the path to inspiration. Teachers are required to write lesson plans using scripted templates, log every phone call, use the required textbooks, forego planning in order to attend meetings or monitor the cafeteria. Teachers are expected to be on the “same page” as the rest of the team–even when the same “lock step” isn’t feasible . Test data is analyzed with a focus on wrong answers, with little consideration for the individual student. 

What does every teacher (including the best Inspirator) really need? Ready for the razor? The answer is access to flexible curriculum and support with instruction. 

Provide teachers with access to curriculum (the what) 

  • Engaging questions a teacher can ask his or her students; 
  • Resources (passages, videos, websites) a teacher can pick-and-choose from; 
  • Short problems used to practice applying knowledge and making manageable mistakes, 
  • Projects that are relevant, challenging, and adaptable based on student’s interests. 
  • Assessments that demand critical thinking, 

Support teachers with instruction (the how) 

  • How to spark curiosity and engagement;
  • How to know what needs to be taught directly versus what the students can learn best by trying themselves;
  • How to monitor learning to make sure the students are getting it; 
  • How to provide feedback and encouragement that supports growth; 
  • How to get to know students and form relationships; 
  • How to foster creativity; 
  • How to support students working in a group; 
  • How to encourage students to become aware of their own behavior and choices;
  • How to help students take ownership of their own learning.  

“…the what and the how serve more as a litmus test to know if our efforts are truly supporting a teacher and the work she does in her classroom.” 

These are not some idealized lists or lofty goals, nor are they a panacea for all ills in education; instead, the what and the how serve more as a litmus test to know if our efforts are truly supporting a teacher and the work she does in her classroom. 

As a curriculum writer and a trainer for teachers, I use this list with every lesson and training we create. When creating curriculum, we need to know if the content is aligned, providing a clear pathway to learning, and at the same time, is it flexible enough for a teacher to adapt as needed? If one rowdy kid in the third row acts up, if the video isn’t as interesting as anticipated, if technology fails, or if the teacher uncovers a handful of students have learning gaps–is the curriculum flexible enough to bend to these unique demands? 

Every teacher training we create must focus on the how by sharing strategies, ideas and examples, while always recognizing that there is not one right way. Effective instruction varies by grade level, class, or even time of day; so our training must reinforce the value of coaching–real time feedback on actual performance.  

If I could turn back the clock and sit in that interview again, I would quickly use what and how to explain the difference between curriculum and instruction. And then, instead of babbling, those next five minutes would unpack exactly what teachers need in order to do their job and thrive–access to flexible curriculum and support on how to deliver. I would end my interview response by saying, “Anything else is a distraction.”