Harvard Educational Review
  1. Teaching with Fire

    Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach

    Edited by Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner

    San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003. 225 pp. $14.95

    Teaching with Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach brings together the voices of treasured poets, including Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Adrienne Rich, Nikki Giovanni, Pablo Neruda, Mary Oliver, and Billy Collins, with the voices of teachers and educators who are inspired by their words. The volume’s editors, Sam M. Intrator, an assistant professor of education and child study at Smith College, and Megan Scribner, a freelance editor and researcher, set out to find “poems that mattered to teachers” and wanted to know “how [teachers] make use of poems to plumb the deeper waters of their work” (p. xiii). Grounded in the belief that powerful schools need strong, inspired teachers, Intrator and Scribner use their call for reflection to capture the inspiration and passion that keeps teachers engaged in their profession. In so doing, they not only offer a practical set of suggestions for how teachers can and do use poetry in their work, both with students and behind the scenes, but also tap into the joys, challenges, and battles that define the life committed to teaching. Presented side by side is each contributor’s reflection on the role that poetry plays in his or her work, either personally or professionally, and a poem that speaks to his or her identity as a teacher or educator.

    Intrator writes, “I invite you to traipse through it as if you were strolling the beach” (p. 194). Though he extends the invitation in the final chapter, where he details the different ways that teachers use poetry in their lives and work, the analogy to a stroll on the beach captures an approach that suits the book as a whole as well. Each page presents a teacher’s reflection with his or her poem of choice. For example, Betsy Wice, an elementary school teacher from Pennsylvania, writes,

    Teaching consumes me. At night I grind away my teeth over the previous day’s events and the next day’s possibilities. . . . Weekends, summers, are barely long enough to restore an even tempo to my walking, my breathing. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. (p. 76)

    With her thoughts, she presents “Everything That Man Esteems” by William Butler Yeats. Chip Wood, an elementary school principal, writes, “Drive around your neighborhood. Where have all the children and their bicycles gone?” (p. 54).

    On the facing page is Billy Collins’ “On Turning Ten.” Each contributor weaves his or her thoughts around a chosen poem and shares something about his or her experience as a teacher, leaving the reader suspended, almost like a voyeur, within an otherwise personal reflection. Many of those reflections touch themes common to educators across the field, such as sharing oneself with others (p. 116), getting to know students as people (p. 124), managing arduous schedules (p. 86), and meeting external dictates (p. 56). The volume uniquely presents these reflections hand-in-hand with the poetry that helps to give them voice.

    Although each discrete entry can stand alone, themes addressing broader societal issues emerge within the collection as a whole as well. Responses address issues such as the No Child Left Behind legislation, education for political change, teacher education and development, September 11, 2001, and the attrition rate of teachers due to the challenges associated with the work. For example, with Marge Piercy’s “The Seven Pentacles” on the facing page, Sally Z. Hare, a teacher educator, writes, “We feel affirmed by the line ‘You cannot always tell by looking what is happening’ because we know how often learning takes place in ways we cannot see — and that tests cannot measure” (p. 100). Sonia Nieto, a college professor, writes,

    I too had my share of demeaning, disparaging, and uncaring teachers. . . . And Mr. and Mrs. Fied, high school French teachers, who made me proud that I spoke Spanish and showed me that knowing one language can help with a new one. (p. 38)

    Nieto presents “I Remember” by Lydia Cortés, a poem that speaks to the experiences of a Puerto Rican student in predominantly White, English-speaking schools. Lesley Woodward, a high school English teacher, reflects on the events of September 11, 2001:

    Like every teacher in this country, I struggled with how and what to teach the following day. My answer was to dig up [There But for the Grace, by Wislawa Szymborska], which was given to me by my students when I left after a year of teaching English in Poland. (p. 106)

    Intrator and Scribner organize the book according to some of the themes that emerged from the collection. They include “Hearing the Call,” “Cherishing the Work,” “On the Edge,” “Holding On,” “In the Moment,” “Making Contact,” “The Fire of Teaching,” and “Daring to Lead.” Overall, Teaching with Fire is a volume dedicated to teachers’ reflections on the joys and challenges associated with the work and the role that poetry plays in helping them create a space for such reflection. All royalties from the book will provide scholarships for teachers to participate in Courage to Teach, a program of the Fetzer Institute in support of public school teachers.

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    Book Notes

    Why Is It So Hard to Get Good Schools?
    By Larry Cuban

    Losing My Faculties
    By Brendan Halpin

    Teaching with Fire
    Edited by Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner

    Troubling Education
    By Kevin Kumashiro

    The Promotion of Social Awareness
    By Robert Selman

    Affirming Diversity
    By Sonia Nieto

    City Schools and the American Dream
    By Pedro Noguera

    Adolescent Lives in Transition
    By Donna Marie San Antonio