Today’s post is a collaboration by two guest authors: teacher Kelly Herrera and poet Nicole Tong.
Kelly teaches English at Buena High School in Ventura, California and has been an English instructor for 20 years. She has a passion for helping students of all levels find their voice through writing. Outside of school, she enjoys cooking, gardening, and spending time with her family. You can follow her on Twitter at @HerreraKM1
Nicole Tong is the recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Sundress Academy at Firefly Farms, and George Mason University where she received her MFA. In 2016, she served as an inaugural Writer-in-Residence at Pope-Leighey House. She is a recipient of the President’s Sabbatical from Northern Virginia Community College where she is a Professor of English. Her writing has appeared in American Book Review, CALYX, Cortland Review, Yalobusha Review, and Still: the Journal among others. Washington Writers’ Publishing House announced Nicole Tong’s debut collection How to Prove a Theory as the 2017 Jean Feldman Poetry Prize Winner. How to Prove a Theory is currently available at Politics and Prose, Scrawl Books, and on Indiebound. You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @NFTong and visit her website.
When I first learned about #TeachLivingPoets, I wanted to immerse myself and my classroom in poetry. Through a grant from the Ventura Education Partnership, we purchased poetry collections from many of the authors featured on this site. I also wanted to provide a video conferencing experience with a living poet for my students, but I wasn’t sure how to make it happen.
I had many questions and apprehensions.
First, how would I set it up? I had never contacted an author before. I wondered about scheduling, and what would the poet think about the idea of working with a group of high school students. I kept thinking about all the what ifs in my mind.
How would I set up the technology? I can do many things with the tech in my classroom, but setting up technology at this level was out of my comfort zone for sure.
Finally, would my students be ready? How would the poet react to their observations?
I ripped off the Band-Aid and took a deep breath as I read through Nicole Tong’s website. On her contact page it read, “Notes are Nice,” so I sent one explaining what I hoped to set up for my class. I heard back from her later that day, and over the course of few emails, we set up a video conference for the following week.
As for technology, I asked Melissa Smith what she does (she is a wealth of experience!) and I contacted my Teacher Librarian Joel Levin who is our go-to tech person on campus. There was little experience video conferencing at my school, and Joel was more familiar with using FaceTime, so we chose to use that medium versus Skype. We connected a MacBook to my projector with speakers and a USB microphone, and Nicole offered to do a test run the day before.
I quickly learned that my apprehensions about video conferencing and contacting an author were unnecessary. Nicole was accommodating and gracious, and as I hung up from the test run, I was geeking out!
We worked through How to Prove a Theory in sections. Students read and annotated on their own, and we discussed in small groups. My AP Literature students may have been hesitant to work on more academics right after the AP exam, but as they got into Nicole’s words, the stress of the exam melted away. They wrote questions, they expressed emotion, they identified with what they read. We talked about lines that stood out:
“To save anything you must risk its loss.”
“Even emptiness yearns for something.”
“Suppose happiness waits like finish lines.”
“Grief is a color you can’t see through.”
We moved onto themes that we saw emerging in the work, we started to wonder, we started to formulate questions:
- Are all of the Hypothesis poems connected? Same for theory poems? How are they connected?
- In “Marathon”, what’s the purpose of structure? Is it meant to be a concrete poem?
- Who is Anna and what is her significance?
Brainstorming covered the white boards with an insight that showed growth and confidence. We were ready for our call with Nicole.
The day of our video conference, Nicole captivated my students. She started the call by sharing her biography and how she got into writing, and then transitioned into her process with publishing How to Prove a Theory. She delighted us by reading some of her work, and after some of her poems, she shared the inspiration.
Learning about Nicole’s inspiration provided an intimate insight that answered many of the questions my class pondered.
I fought back tears as I listened and students felt the emotional impact as well. The last part of our call was a Q&A, and students had the opportunity to come to the microphone and talk to Nicole directly. Before we hung up, we crowded around the screen to take a group photo with our new friend.
As we prepare to close out the school year, one the assignments my seniors are working on is an inspiration poem where they take one of the poems we’ve studied during the year and use it as a mentor text for their own. After our day with Nicole, I have a feeling I’ll be reading about some “theories” with a personal connection.
I was so happy to hear from Kelly a short time before I met her class virtually; her request proves how the Living Poets Digital Library does the great work of expanding the reach of living poets and the “breathing” elements of the genre—the live reading, in particular. Before I met her class, Kelly provided about two pages of typed notes the students generated a class ahead of our meeting about the poems in How to Prove a Theory. From those notes, I suggested an agenda for our time together that included my background, writing habits and practices, the evolution of the book, a reading of five poems (I selected the most discussed in their notes), and live questions from students present. During our time together, I shared a few “book secrets” including a former title of the collection (and my impetus for changing it) as well as some biographical context for few of the elegies in the collection—“Grief Theory” and “How to Prove a Theory,” specifically. Because high school students move from class to class on a strict schedule, it is important to know how much time you’ll have together and to propose or request some points of focus to make the most of the visit.
While I have read to high school audiences before, it was striking to me how many students had questions or comments about “Grief Theory,” which is a poem about my dear friend dying unexpectedly. I wanted to address students’ comments and questions while also reassuring them that the manner in which my friend died was rare. Whether or not students have experienced a profound loss at their age, many of Kelly’s students could empathize with the situation of the speaker who begins, “Grief wakes me, insists I play your voicemails / in the bathroom in the middle of the night.” The pattern of their questions and their gratitude make me want to write more poems to and for younger readers!
Generally, the visit reminds me that students are ideal readers because of the ways in which they see patterns, uncover themes, ask questions, and empathize.
Specifically, since the reading, I’ve given myself the assignment to write a sonnet or ode to a living friend because, while elegy is important, it is equally important to let those who mean a great deal to us know while they are still here. I am still hashing out the ode, but if it makes it into my second collection, I’ll have this class to thank— as will a new set of readers, perhaps.
Thank you Kelly and Nicole for sharing your special experience with us. I hope it inspires more teachers to take a chance and reach out to a poet! Your students will remember this conversation and Nicole’s poems for a long time to come!
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