This week I decided to teach a poetry unit to a group of students for whom English is a second language, and one not yet very well mastered. To say there is a wide range of abilities, motivation, effort, and home support would be a gross understatement: some of my students are near fluent, while others are still working on reaching conversational comfort. I wasn’t sure how this would go.
So I started off with Emily Dickinson, for a very simple reason- if someone were to come across an Emily Dickinson poem printed on a wayward slip of paper, wholly out of context from anything else, the sparse style, disregard for grammar, and liberal use of Capital Letters would clearly mean that this was no letter or page from a book or notes from a speech. It’s visually, in an immediate way, something that looks like poetry. It’s foreign and strange compared to ESL textbooks and even the novels we read in class. And so we started with Emily, and specifically, with this one:
I dwell in Possibility – (466)
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
Look, plenty of native speaking American kids struggle with poems like this. Plenty of adults do, too. So I asked them to close their eyes, and just listen first. They did. They opened their eyes. I asked them if they understood. Not a single hand. That’s fine, I said, that’s part of the work. I paused for a second, and then promised them they would understand. Are you ready to take some notes? Yes? Okay, get out your dictionaries. Let’s dig in. We will understand this together, but you’ve got to stay with me. What is the definition of dwell? Let’s start there…
And so, together, with all my tricks and hints and leading and support, and with their dogged insistence on hanging with me and following along, we got it. They understood. Their pages were marked and annotated with definitions, and with my plain speak translations of the words. We had cracked it open, sifted through it, and put it back together. Okay. Read it again now that we’ve explained it.
They all read, and the room was so silent that I could hear the electric hum of my laptop. Not a single student, not one, didn’t read. All I saw when I looked out was the white shine of light on the tops of black hair as they bent over their papers. This was no perfunctory glance down and glance up. It was a good two or three minutes before they raised their faces again. And they were lit up. The air in the room felt different. I asked them to shout out words that they felt, just the first thing they thought of.
Full! Large! Happy! Big! Strong!
What does it mean to you, to dwell in possibility?
It makes me feel like I can do anything, one said.
Do you feel proud right now?
Emphatic nodded heads all ‘round. They looked at each other and grinned like they shared a secret.
I feel proud of you, too.
The bell rang and they slowly packed up, telling me thank you and have a good day and a good weekend and see you on Monday. And then- Teacher, can we read more poetry next week? Can we write our own? What is your favorite poem? They stayed a few lingering minutes into their break clustered around me. The air still felt different. I felt like we had gone on a journey together and seen something new and were remembering it together.
They left and the room was filled with that quality of discovery even after they had been gone several minutes. I stood in the middle of the room and found that I was crying. So I sat at my desk and thought about how I would never have seen that in them if I hadn’t tried to do something hard with them. I’m in the habit of writing down observations throughout my day, and I wrote the following, while it was fresh on my mind:
How many challenges in the classroom come from the teacher not having enough faith in students' abilities to do difficult and demanding work? If a teacher has never comprehensively tried to support students in performing at a higher level, that is base laziness; it dismisses out of hand students’ possible abilities. High expectations without adequate support is counterproductive, but a lack of expectations borders on willful oppression of potential. Even if students cannot accomplish what is set before them, higher expectations and more challenging work will show them what they can do when they are required to do more than they think they can. A failure, in this context, is still a success, and a success in this context is a gift of confidence and motivation that has few rivals.
This isn’t just about teachers and students in a classroom though; this is about what we do to ourselves as well, when we choose our paths and actions. I know there have been many times in my life when I haven’t attempted something because I was afraid to fail. So I aimed for something easier. Something safer. Sure, I had to work. Yes, it was hard. But I went into it with at least a kernel of solid faith that I could do this thing and probably do it well. And that’s not really learning. Or experiencing. That’s recycling, or re-doing, or re-working something I already have. To truly learn, in a classroom or in the world, requires a moment when you just admit that you’re not sure if it will work, or if you can do it, or how it will turn out. You might not even know where to start. You start anyway. You don’t know where to go next, but you keep going. You can fail at a lot of it. You might not get exactly what you want. But you can want so much more than you are currently allowing yourself to try to have. And if you try, even when you fail you can have so much more. You can feel large, and happy, and big, and strong, if you let go of safe- if you let yourself accept also the possibility of what others deem failure.
After days in the classroom like I had on Friday, days that leave me jittery with happiness and stunned by the humanity and will of my students, I’m deeply moved by what I’m doing right now. Teaching has, up to this point, been the most transformative and humbling experience of my life. Days like Friday remind me of the potential I have to open windows and doors in my students, not because I’m doing something magical, but because I’m helping them see what they already have inside of themselves. I’m just pointing it out- hey, look here. You know what that is?
That’s you. And you are filled with possibility.