Friday, December 16, 2011

Poetry Friday -- Education

To David, About His Education
by Howard Nemerov

The world is full of mostly invisible things,
And there is no way but putting the mind's eye,
Or its nose, in a book, to find them out,
Things like the square root of Everest
Or how many times Byron goes into Texas,
Or whether the law of the excluded middle
Applies west of the Rockies. For these
And the like reasons, you have to go to school
And study books and listen to what you are told,
And sometimes try to remember.

Read the rest of the poem here, at The Writer's Almanac.

I struggle with the idea of keeping "the grand confusion of the world / Under (my) hat... / and teach(ing) small children to do this in their turn."

In my opinion, "the grand confusion of the world" is all of the good stuff in the world -- all the mystery and wonder and magic in the world. And instead of teaching my students to quantify and qualify and categorize all of their fresh amazement about this incredible world that is so new and wonderful to them, I try to teach them to savor learning, to even savor the feeling of learning. For example, we started long division yesterday, a particularly perfect time to teach a child to stay in a place of patience with themselves and the process, rather than giving up and feeling defeated on the first try. 

Here's another example. Yesterday, for the 28th time in my teaching career, we decorated cookies. And while it wasn't "the mean annual rainfall / On Plato's Republic," I do believe that what I teach in this afternoon spent away from papers and books and standards and curriculum is just as important: 

slow down, 
pay attention to the details, 
sing along to the music, 
share, cooperate, compromise, 
wash the spoon after you lick it, 
enjoy the one you made for yourself but 
make three times as many for others.

Kate has the Poetry Friday roundup this week at Book Aunt.


  1. Lovely, perfectly lovely.

  2. I would have loved being a student in your classroom yesterday! Thanks for continuing to allow students to savor learning and reminding us to do the same in our own classrooms.

  3. Some of the best moments in my teaching career had very little to do with the textbook. Thank you!

  4. Your students have been given the best gift this I can almost taste those cookies, and those children will always remember! (My mom used to dye eggs with her class every year until she retired.) Thank you, once again, Mary Lee, for the poem and story and reminder of the goodness of life. A.

  5. Still, I love the flavor of the poem and that line 'Though I don't know /What you will do with the mean annual rainfall' I thought showed a mother trying hard to understand what she really didn't, yet she knew her child had to be successful at school. I loved the way you connected to your classroom, and that ending poem of what you believe is wonderful, good for teaching young teachers.

  6. Yes! What a beautiful post. Please please please, may I be in your class?

  7. Mary Lee, you've shared so many lessons today. And yes I echo what Jama just said, I'd love to be your student even for just a day. It's a gift to teach them patience - and to feel their learning and enjoy it - not for the numbers - but for the exhilaration of pure knowing for it's sake. :)

    Cookies look too good to eat. :)

  8. I know I'm repeating myself here, but you have very very lucky students....

  9. just about summed up my reasons for doing what I do every day. Thank you.

  10. Mary Lee,

    Some of the most useful lessons I learned from my mother took place in the kitchen, as she showed how to make coconut macaroons and Christmas gingerbread cookies and other such sweets.

    So count me in that group that thinks that baking cookies belongs in the classroom.

  11. I love this post. Thanks for continuing to be strong and do the things that matter with kids. Thanks for inspiring me to do the same.

  12. I'm with you on the nonquantifiable, Mary Lee, and yet also on learning long division for its extra-mathematical purposes: the learning to love the feeling of learning, the feeling of being a powerful grasper of the invisible through the experience of grasping the real and sticky.

    I love knowing that while WE were somewhat frantically making two gingerbread men each in my classroom with the dough that we somewhat frantically made on Thursday, your big 4th graders were decorating cookies halfway across America at the same time.

    I hope your lovely snippet at the end becomes a whole poem, a companion to Nemerov's poem.

  13. Mary Lee, I love your poem and those cute cookies! I think so many teachers are made to feel that every single thing has to be answerable, explainable, knowable, and that's one reason so many of them don't embrace poetry with its ambivalence and ambiguity. I love the way you acknowledge ALL the important things you teach, not just the facts. Learning to learn, and learning to love learning, that's one of the most important things you give kids!


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