January 24 – The Teacher/Poet or Poet/Teacher?

by Lisa Rizzo

Today a funny thing happened in my middle school classroom. The teacher stopped “teaching” and became a writer being interviewed by her students. We were watching a video about an author of one of the stories in their textbook. When it was over, someone asked me what my writing routine was. I’ve told my students that I write poetry and have always written poems with them for classwork. But I’ve never really just talked to them about who I am as a writer, what I do and why I do it.

This day was different – I put aside the set curriculum for 20 minutes and just let them ask questions — and they had some really good ones. One boy asked if I thought it was better to start writing when you were still young or was it okay to wait until you were older. That is something near and dear to my heart because I never really wrote when I was a child even though I “wanted” to be a writer. I told them that I always loved reading books which had as the main character a girl who wrote – Little Women and the Betsy/Tacey books in particular – and that although I dreamed I’d be like them I didn’t do anything about it until I was an adult. I had to admit that I thought it would have been better for me if I had started sooner, if I had taken myself more seriously, if I had worked harder. I asked them to think about whether they wanted to create art in some way – to write, paint or play an instrument. If they did, I wanted to encourage them create a space for it in their lives when they are young, to feel the joy of creation now.

Who was more affected by this whole conversation – the students or myself? As with all middle school teaching, it may be years before I know if any student took this to heart enough to start on their own writing career. That’s the wonder and the ache of teaching adolescents – I must have faith that I am touching their lives even though they may never tell me. However, I do know that their genuine interest in me as a writer, their desire to understand me just a little bit more touched my heart in a way I won’t forget.

Lisa Rizzo is a poet and middle school teacher who lives in Northern California. Her work has appeared in such journals as 13th Moon, Earth’s Daughters, Bellowing Ark and Calyx and her chapbook In the Poem an Ocean. Rizzo blogs at Poet Teacher Seeks World. She won first prize in the 2012 BAPC Poetry Contest.


8 responses to “January 24 – The Teacher/Poet or Poet/Teacher?

  1. Loved the Betsy Stacy books when I was a little girl!!
    I like the way the teacher connects to her students by sharing who she is outside the classroom We all have our own lives separate from our jobs and I think students want to know about their teachers. Genreations ago teachers were so private we knew nothing about them, often not even their first names. I have a JHS yearbook with only Mr or Mrs so-and-so for each teacher’s photo. I had a teacher for a high school creative writing class who shared how he wrote short stories and even shared old issues of The Writer magazine with us. It was my first real glimpse into the life of a real writer. I have been writing since I was a child but he really launched me into a lifelong obsession with it.

    • I’ve never known anyone else who loved those books — I read them over and over. In fact, as an adult I bought the complete set so I could read them again. Thank you for your encouragement about sharing with my students. I know I didn’t have any teachers like that in my life — I have often wondered what would have happened if I had more encouragement myself.

  2. Lisa,

    I enjoyed this post when I first read it on your blog, and I’m enjoying it all over again here.

    Little Women kept me afloat when I was just coming into adolescence. I love that you encouraged your students to create a space in the present, so they can experience “the joy of creation now”–how lovely to encourage them to start that listening in and that creative process if they are drawn to it, and not to wait. Why wait. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Yes, Lisa, have faith. My seventh grade teacher taught me to love history but she never knew it. Maybe one student will come back someday and let you know, but if not be assurred that you did touch them. If for no other reason than you talked to them honestly and set aside other things to let them ask questions. What a gift!

    • Jinni, thank you for your kind words. I’m happy that your seventh grade teacher touched your life. Sometimes it seems like a thankless job, but it’s encouraging to hear stories like yours.

  4. Barbara Ann Yoder

    Lisa, I wish I’d had you as my English teacher when I was a kid! You gave your students a great gift by answering their questions about your writing process. They’ll remember your encouragement! Great post!

  5. Barbara, I hope I can be as good a writing teacher to my students as you are to those around you. Thank you for sharing your support.

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