Things I Know 349 of 365: ‘What Teachers Make’ is more than it first appears

The first time I heard Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make” performed live, it wasn’t by Mali. One of the other students in my undergrad program was a champion on our speech team, and he delivered a stunning performance.

Later, once Youtube arrived, I was able to watch Mali perform the piece as he intended. It was every bit as impassioned and dripping with personal experience as I imagined. I remember showing it to colleagues and shaking our heads knowingly.

Finally, someone was speaking out for us.

I looked the poem up online recently. Watching the performance, it occurred to me how complicated the piece is from a pedagogical perspective. I tear up when he says, “I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:/I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,/I just wanted to talk to you about something Billy said today./Billy said, “Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?”/And it was the noblest act of courage I have ever seen.”

And I cringe when I hear the recorded audience cheer after, “I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall/in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups./No, you may not ask a question./Why won’t I let you get a drink of water?/Because you’re not thirsty, you’re bored, that’s why.”

For many teachers, on their first encounter with the poem, discussion turns to its encapsulation of how misunderstood the profession has become.

For me, the poem itself has become a rallying cry for the conversation we need to have about the relics of the professional past to which we cling to proudly and the changes we might be too afraid to make.

Mali has a new book due out March 29 with the same title as the poem. I’m looking forward to reading it – especially considering its subtitle – “In praise of the greatest job in the world.”


Things I Know 205 of 365: There’s a new poet in town

The truth of poetry is not the truth of history.

– Philip Levine, United States Poet Laureate

We’ve a new poet laureate.
We had an old poet laureate.
Digest it quickly,
Move on.

No hippy, liberal elitist.
No ivory tower academic.
He’s from Detroit.
He worked the line.
He’s gotten his hands dirty.
Some of it rubbed off on his soul.

America has a poet.
This feels right.
At it’s best,
America strives to be poetry.

At our worst,
We clunk along like prose,
In a technical manual,
From when we needed stereo instructions.

I met a Poet Laureate once.
He shook my hand.
He signed my book.

Later, before sleep,
his words filled me with the capital “T”
Only poets can tell.

If we wanted School Improvement Plans
That told us where we’re going,
That reminded us where we’ve been,
That showed us the best and worst
Of who we are and what we could do,
Every budget would include

… a Poet Laureate.

Will this be on the exam?

12 August 09
As several of the teachers attending this week’s workshops are commuting to Utimishi Academy rather than boarding here, the late afternoon workshops are optional.
Add that to the fact that subject-specific offerings run concurrently with sessions in the computer lab, and it’s easy to imagine attendance in a session on creative writing at 4:30 in the afternoon might be a bit low.
Such was the case for Moses’ session Wednesday.
Determined to make certain Moses had a full house, Silvia and I strongly encouraged the boys who remain here at school during break to join us for the session.
It was a thing of beauty. Teachers and students blended together to a crowd of learners.
Moses rolled through concrete and abstract wording, death by adjectives, vivid imagery and on into poetry.
It was when he asked the students to create their own poems that a certain hitch was thrown into his giddy-up.
Alex, a boy in Form 4 raised his hand.
“Because I am used to the Kenyan way of doing things,” he began, “is this for examination purposes? Or, is it for enjoyment purposes?”
I’ve written and thought quite a bit lately about the exam-centered nature of the Kenyan educational system, but it wasn’t until Alex’s question that its true effects hit home.
Here we were, talking of poetry and creation and beauty (Moses had begun the lesson by writing “Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life,” on the board) and Alex wants to know if this will be on the test.
Moses rolled with it, though, telling Alex that being able to understand and create poetry will surely serve him when he’s asked about literature in a more formal setting.
Still, that Alex was torn between his natural creativity and curiosity and his perceived need to regurgitated what he receives in school speaks volumes.
I worried he hadn’t taken Moses’ words to heart until the end of the session when Moses asked if the participants wanted to share what they had written.
Alex volunteered first:

Across the Indian Ocean,
Lapses of the reimental blue waves against equatorial gold shore,
Grits of sand like smithereens,
Mother Nature at her uttermost,
Golden field rays with rich viramin,
Sweet sunny weather;
A Faira fisher man rows, rows away from shore,
Boar moving mermaidously.
The white-capped wadawidan drums of goatskin fill the ambience.
Choirs of angels on earth, with beat alone.
A spotted swordfish cannabar, peony and violet essence.
The African Coast, home.

In the deep vaults of my mind.

I think things might be ok here.