Interview with Phyllis Meshulam, editor of Poetry Crossing: 50+ Lessons for 50 Years of California Poets in the Schools
Mary: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Phyllis. Before we start talking about Poetry Crossing, the new California Poets in the Schools Lesson Plans book, could you please start by telling us in one or two sentences what California Poets in the Schools does?
Phyllis: Children learn by doing. So, although we usually start the conversation by introducing children to stunning poetry from all time periods, we primarily get them to appreciate poems by writing their own. We are a multicultural team of published poets, more than a hundred strong, working with students K – 12, in schools, hospitals, juvenile halls, and community settings in 33 counties around California.
Mary: Who are some of the well-known poets who have taught in California Poets in the Schools over the years?
Phyllis: Of course we are particularly proud of the fact that California Poets in the Schools poet-teacher emeritus, Juan Felipe Herrera, has just been promoted from California Poet Laureate to US Poet Laureate! But there are a host of other outstanding California Poets in the Schools alums: Jane Hirshfield, Al Young, Francisco Alarcón, Dorianne Laux, Genny Lim, Tom Centolella, Molly Fisk, Susan Wooldridge, Jack Grapes, Opal Palmer Adisa, devorah major, Eleni Sikelianos, Terry Ehret, Richard Garcia, Cecilia Woloch, Carol Lee Sanchez.
Mary: What do you think poetry has to offer students K – 12 and their teachers?
Phyllis: All of the arts are important to students, to all human beings. Paraphrasing violinist Joshua Bell, they’re what make us human. Poetry has a particularly important role to play in school, I believe. “Language Arts” and “English” are universally taught subject matters. But the art part is often insufficiently cultivated. I usually start off a residency asking my students “Who likes poetry?” and then “Who likes art?” Art always wins in numbers of hands and amount of obvious enthusiasm. “But,” I then go on to tell them, “poetry is art – art with words.” I ask what they love so much about art and get answers like, “it’s fun,” “you have a lot of freedom,” “it’s okay to do things your own way,” “it’s okay to be different,” “I like the colors.” “Well,” I say, “all of those things are true about poetry, too.” We are often so busy teaching children the mechanics of written communication that we forget that these young people have a lot on their minds and unique ways of viewing the world.
Students gain a tremendous amount of compassion when they see feelings like their own expressed in the words of others, and confidence as others appreciate the words they have written. Their words encapsulate their feelings, life experiences, what they want to celebrate, lament, the sheer joy of creativity, rhythm, music of language, etc. This is a tool that can grow with these students forever. Teachers gain profound new perspectives on children in their classes who have sometimes been viewed as difficult to reach. Even though we emphasize that poetry has no rules that aren’t meant to sometimes be broken, the importance of the skills of language, the importance of being able to communicate with language are also being taught and reinforced.
Mary: Let’s talk about Poetry Crossing. Where did the idea for a lesson plan book for California Poets in the Schools come from?
Phyllis: About ten years ago I had a trainee who asked me if California Poets in the Schools had a lesson plan book. I had to say no, even though the annual California Poets in the Schools student poetry anthology has routinely included a handful of lessons. I mulled over this absence of a go-to collection for several years. Then, as the 50th anniversary of the founding of our organization loomed¸ I proposed that we seize that opportunity to make such book a reality.
Mary: How will Poetry Crossing help teachers achieve some of the goals of Common Core?
Phyllis: We find it disappointing that Common Core scarcely calls for creative writing as such. But over and over the document asks that students learn to use “precise words and phrases, relevant descriptive details, and sensory language.” It calls for children to understand “figurative language, word relationships and nuances in word meanings.” It calls for them to comprehend literature at an age-appropriate level. It asks that children read poetry and prose aloud with accuracy, at a pleasing pace, and with expression. It asks that they plan, revise, edit, rewrite, and that they write on a regular basis. Now can you tell me a better way to accomplish these goals than with the practice of poetry? In the table of contents of Poetry Crossing, the poetry skills addressed are identified after the lesson title. So if a teacher needs to teach a particular figure of speech, she or he can scan the table of contents and easily find the appropriate lessons. The introduction to the book includes suggestions on helping children to read aloud successfully.
The skills of metaphor, and of appealing to the five senses are so important that we have special terminology for them – the “magic wand of metaphor” and the “star of the five senses.” Again and again the “advice to writers” sections include reminders to children to use these special tools, very much leading to the descriptive details and sensory language prized in Common Core. Poetry Crossing lessons also straddle curricular boundaries into Science, Social Studies and more.
Mary: Can some of the lessons and writing prompts in this book be used by people teaching at the undergraduate and graduate level or is the material limited to K-12?
Phyllis: Oh, most definitely, these lessons can be used for older students. Many of the lessons are marked “for all ages,” and most could easily be adapted. A lot of us are getting feedback that teachers, friends and family members are finding the book to be a catalyst for their own writing. My daughter who, at 29, is developing her poetry writing practice, declared the book the most useful resource in participating in National Poetry Month’s poem-a-day challenge. One of our poet-teachers is leaving soon for Cambodia as a Peace Corps volunteer. She says that Poetry Crossing is one of only two workbooks she’s taking with her, because “the lesson plans and examples work wonderfully well for poets of all ages.”
Mary: In putting this book together, you and the other editors sorted through fifty years’ worth of lessons from hundreds of poets who taught more than a million student writers. How did you decide what to include?
Phyllis: Well, we reached out to all current poet-teachers, and emeritus ones that we could connect with, and invited them to participate. We had open submissions for a couple of months. We also combed through old anthologies and asked for recommendations of memorable lessons from teachers who are, “alas, no longer whinnying with us.” We prioritized submissions that had outstanding sample student poems, lessons that would represent the cultural diversity of California, and lessons with adult sample poems that were stunning but kid-accessible and for which we were likely to be able to get publication rights. In addition to all the remarkable alums of the program whom I mentioned earlier, there are many illustrious poets whom I consider to be friends of California Poets in the Schools who would want to help us out. These include Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Gary Snyder, Ellen Bass, and more. So we encouraged poet-teachers to look through their files for lessons making use of the work of artists like those or ones whose work is in the public domain or ones whom they might personally know. One teacher had a contact with Ted Kooser, for example. Then we reviewed submissions, mindful of balancing age-level interests, and providing a varied palette of poetic tools, skills and styles.
Mary: How is this book different from other poetry instruction books?
Phyllis: There are many absolutely amazing poetry instruction books out in the world. What is unusual about our book is that it combines rich resources and ideas with a very convenient format. Fifty lessons in this workbook follow a simple two-page template. One page is directed to the teacher, with the rationale for this particular instruction and a recipe for teaching it. A second page is addressed to the student with sample poems by adults and children, prompts or an “advice to writers” section, and usually an engaging illustration. This page can easily be projected or copied as a handout so that students interact with it directly. Poetry Crossing is ideal for busy teachers because it is an action plan, ready to deliver.
Mary: Please describe the experience of teaching one of the lessons from this book.
Phyllis: We had a bit of an emergency when we discovered that getting permissions for the student poems originally in “The Fish” lesson was impossible. A deadline was looming and the plan’s author was up to her eyeballs in commitments teaching at the community college level. “All right then,” I thought. “I’ll teach it myself on Friday.” I had a seasoned class of 5th graders, many of whom had already turned in blanket permission slips, so I thought I’d have a pretty good chance of provoking some poems worthy of the book, but then, who knew?
I got out my stash of wildlife pictures from old calendars, then did as the lesson suggests and printed a copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” from Poets.org. Armed with these items, I arrived at school. I told the children a few of the vocabulary words but that they didn’t have to know them all to be able to appreciate the poem. I mentioned that Bishop liked to travel, and had been on a fishing trip in Florida. I mentioned that she might have been a nurse during World War II. Then I read her poem to the class and asked them if they had any favorite parts.
They were pretty fascinated by what the inside of the animal might look like and how she might know this. Somebody suggested she might have cleaned a fish before, and someone else thought because she had been a nurse. Somebody liked the tinfoil eyes. I asked why there were pieces of fish-line coming out of the fish’s jaw and why they were like medals on ribbons. At least one of the children understood the metaphor and translated for the class. We talked
about why the speaker might have made the choice to let the fish go, and what that felt like for her, not to mention the fish!
I put a picture of an egret on the board and someone said its little “braid” feather in back was like a mullet and we made a nice group poem using the prompts. I had a few more pictures than children in the class, so they had some choices, and they could also share with neighbors. Then they went to work writing their poems. Students expressed a great deal of empathy for these animals that they imagined capturing and then letting go. Almost everyone was dying to share their work out loud. I left the class with a bunch of rich, new poems, and three of them are in the book.
Mary: What skills do children learn from writing poetry that helps them in life?
Phyllis: Learning to confide in a piece of paper, sometimes even more trustworthy than a best friend, is a tool for self-knowledge. Painful experiences, and even happy mistakes in the writing process, can turn into something beautiful, comforting, and inspiring to others. Then gaining the ability to stand and speak your truth in front of your classmates or the city council, this is a tool that can change the course of the world.
Observing; brainstorming; experimenting with language; discovering mysteries you didn’t even know were in and around you; re-vision. Many of these elements of our creative process are parallel to the scientific process. Putting oneself in the shoes of others, writing poems based on historical events or movements – these build bridges across time and between disparate cultures. I just successfully tried out a new lesson based on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen with 6th graders in May. This is a book of poetry that could be used to address the racial divide that we are still struggling with in this country. It is an example of the power of poetry to transubstantiate us into someone else’s body, mind and experience.
Mary: Tell us about a child whose life changed because of poetry?
Phyllis: I have witnessed so many transformations – bullies showing a tender side, and shy children finding voice and poise, juvenile hall children showing vulnerability and also pride. My colleagues have shared stories of homeless youth building their dream home/ ideal world with language, and students sending poems to incarcerated parents. Poet-teacher John Oliver Simon related a remarkable story that illustrates the long-term possibilities. John said he first met Carmen Jiménez in a bilingual second-grade class at Lazear Elementary. He noticed her insight and her attentive questions. It was hard to miss her lovely poetry and the fact that she was trilingual, English being her third language. Spanish is her second; her first language is Mam, a Mayan language from Todos Santos Cuchumatanes in the Guatemalan highlands. Carmen participated in a year-end reading wearing traje típico: a purple huipil in the pattern of her family’s village.
John taught poetry to Carmen’s class at Lazear every year through fifth grade and then she participated for a year in an after-school poetry class John taught in Berkeley. The group created a documentary in which Carmen was one of the stars. She said, on film, “Poetry is a light that came to save me.” John has kept up with Carmen through Facebook. She read at the Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival as a high school junior. In May, Carmen posted that she is accepting a full scholarship to UCLA.
Mary: That’s a wonderful story. Before we go, could you please tell our readers where they can get copies of Poetry Crossing.
Phyllis:I’d be happy to. Here’s a link to the California Poets in the Schools website: www.cpits.org Poetry Crossing can also be purchased from amazon.com. And here’s a link to the summer issue of Teachers & Writers, which has a feature article on Poetry Crossing.
Phyllis Meshulam is a poet, and a veteran teacher and coordinator for California Poets in the Schools and Poetry Out Loud. As California Poets in the Schools approached its 50th anniversary, Meshulam encouraged the organization to publish a lesson plan book of “greatest hits.” She was appointed editor and, after much collaborative effort, the volume was released in the fall of 2014. Her work has appeared in many literary magazines, as well as in Tikkun, Teachers & Writers, and in Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, winner of a Northern California Book Reviewers’ Award. As local coordinator of the nationwide program Poetry Out Loud, Meshulam has helped to make Sonoma County the most active one in the state of California in terms of numbers of participating students and she led a panel on POL at the 2012 AWP. With a B.A. from Pomona College, and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, Meshulam is also the author of Valley of Moon from dPress and Doll, Moon from Finishing Line Press.
For writing advice; course syllabi; resources for Women’s Studies, Women’s Visionary Fiction, Women’s Visionary Film, Women’s Visionary Poetry, and Advanced Composition, Lesson Plans for California Poets In The Schools, and more information about writing and teaching, you are invited to visit my Educators Page and use my novels and collections of poetry in your courses.