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OPINION: How my Poetry class learned what really counts

A student in Mary Van Milligen's Poetry class holds up the simile he wrote for a class video wishing the best for a young girl battling cancer.

In the spring of 2013, I eagerly waited for my department chair to post the teaching schedule for the following school year. Every seasoned teacher recognizes that this is a crucial moment.

In an academic sense, this begins the churning of lesson plans and unit calendars, but there’s another part others may not realize, because teaching involves such a crazy schedule:

1. You begin to consider your meal plans for that year. If you’re scheduled to have lunch during third period at 9 a.m., you’re going to pack an afternoon snack.

2. You must plan the best time for bathroom breaks.

When I saw the chair surreptitiously post the Excel spreadsheet of course schedules on the side of a filing cabinet, I scanned it to see how the following year would unfold for me. During first semester, I would continue to teach 20th Century Literature, and I would tackle a new class for me, Composition and Communication. So far, so good.

Then I looked at the second semester and tensed up. I was scheduled to teach Poetry. Poetry?!?

WINTER SEMESTER: This essay is part of an ongoing series in which Chicago area teachers weigh in on the big challenges facing education.

I’ve written poetry as a hobby, but I didn’t think Poetry was the right course for me. I would never achieve the iconic status of Mr. Keating from “Dead Poets Society.” I didn’t possess a rehearsed script embedded with perfectly timed crescendos of music whenever I blurted out a metaphorical epiphany to entice my students. I also didn’t want to ruin this beautiful art form for them in some way.

Worse yet, my Poetry course was 1st period. Teaching second-semester seniors during first period is like opening for The Rolling Stones. No one cares.

However, a few weeks into the course something beautiful ignited. I pushed the important academic skills, but I also tried to allow the humanness of the subject material to prevail. Within days, my class began to pour their struggles into poetry.

One student unveiled her tormented spirit regarding her relationship with her mother. Another allowed rhythm and rhyme to voice her ongoing struggles with dyslexia. Poem by poem, stories of charitable acts, drug addiction, mental disorders, nostalgia and hope filled their blank pages. I found myself honored to share their reflective journeys. In a time when anxiety and pressure seep into our culture minute by minute, the class came to understand there is never isolation in struggle, and they experienced honesty in a safe environment — a lesson obviously transferrable to life.

In the winter of 2015, I learned that my former high school Health and Consumer Economics teachers’ daughter, Megan, had been diagnosed with stage 4 alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma cancer. I adored these two influential educators and yearned to do something for the family. I turned to my Poetry class, who excitedly extended their community of compassion toward a girl they had never even met.

During the next week, they wrote wonderful poetic similes that touched on joy and sadness. They brought in supplies to decorate posters. They recruited a media student to film the project.

Please watch on YouTube, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nS_txLBLFQU. Consider, as in the examples below, the perfect ways my students wished this girl joy during a difficult time:

“Like your favorite lead guitarist giving you his pick.”

“Like the crackle of vinyl records infused with the incense of a vintage best seller.”

“Like the sound of sizzling bacon on a scorching hot skillet.”

Both the senders and receiver of this video gift walked away with hope.

In my poetry class, I believe, I have taught my students a way to cope. I have taught them empathy. I have taught them poetry. They have taught me perspective.

These are not lessons that can be measured in a timed test. But this is knowledge that will stand the test of time, and I wish it for students everywhere.

Mary Van Milligen, is an English teacher at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville.

The Illinois Writing Project is the Sun-Times partner for this teacher essay series. The essays reflect the views of the individual writers only.

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