By Isaiah Moore
As I started my Zoom class on January 20, 2021, the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration, I told my students today would be the only day I’d allow them to have something on in the background while I taught. Yes, I know they probably have music, games, and the television on every other day as well—but this time, I endorsed it. And I’m glad, because when the first Youth Poet Laureate took the stage in her prismatic yellow coat, accented by the harmonious red headwrap that floated atop her braids, she emanated royalty. No wonder that at the mention of her name two days later, one of my students blurted out, “Our Queen!”
While I was impressed with her ability to unite words that she ultimately meant to unite people, I didn’t see her as my queen. That’s when I remembered that students and teachers often see situations differently. Neither perspective is better than the other. Nevertheless, one usually prevails over the other. Observing my students’ reaction to Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” was a reminder that, while I may be the teacher, and while I’ve been trained to transmit specific skills to my students, there is knowledge outside of my carefully plotted lesson plans.
The short-notice lesson I prepared around Gorman’s poem consisted of individual copies of the poem for students to annotate while they heard and saw Gorman recite her poetry. We had discussed poetry prior to this lesson, so the kids knew we were to read the piece three times: the first time is to familiarize ourselves with the piece; the second time is used to look for repeating phrases and words/lines that seem odd to us; and the third and last time is when we read for figurative language. As they read Gorman’s poem, my students used different colors to highlight each of their three read-throughs. Next, we used a premade Padlet with questions like: “What do you wonder about the writer?” “What was your favorite line in the poem and why?” and “How did she speak to your future?” The kids were free to choose which questions they wanted to answer.
I intended to be the sole teacher of my class that day, and I came into the lesson with my own objectives. But Gorman took over—and it was important that she did. In doing so, she illuminated key comparisons and contrasts between what many educators—myself included—tend to focus on in school, versus the lessons and messages students are often hungry to learn, digest, and discuss. Consider those contrasts, and how they might inform your own teaching:
Educator Objective: When I saw Amanda, I immediately wanted to research her. In fact, that’s what I always tell students to do with the authors they read. I learned that she’s a highly intelligent young woman who received her Bachelors in Sociology from Harvard University. Like the president at whose inauguration she spoke, she battled speech impediments in her youth. Because poetry lends itself to creative liberties with words, she took to the art form. That’s just a bit of what I gathered in my research. Yet by jumping straight to her background, I missed the most poignant lesson.
Gorman’s Lesson: In the words of my students, “Age doesn’t matter. The younger generation is taking over!” In focusing on semantics, I initially didn’t notice how empowered students were simply by seeing someone of their generation assume such an important role. Gorman’s educational accolades were inconsequential to my class. Representation is what mattered.
Educator Objective: Once we got into the rich words of Gorman’s poem, I quickly noticed her use of an inclusive tone. She exclaims, “We’ve braved the belly of the beast.” She mentions that “The dawn is ours.” This was a technique I’d explored with my students in our persuasive writing unit, and I wanted to see if the kids had picked up on it. But that’s not where the conversation led when I focused on those lines.
Gorman’s Lesson: This time the kids and I exchanged positions and they went straight for the deeper meaning. “It was like she was telling us to unite,” one stated. And soon after that comment, another voice shouted, “And rebuild. With all this mess going on, we need to rebuild.” I was astounded at just how much they’d been able to unearth.
Then, in a voice that was anything but brittle, the first student pronounced, “And this is why we need to rebuild. Look at the line that says, ‘quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what just is isn’t always justice.’ Those are some of my favorite lines.” Without explicitly stating it, my student had just correlated the breakdown of societal relations with the unfair treatment of Black Americans and other people of color.
The same young lady then asserted “That’s why we need to be doing something. Things aren’t right just because people aren’t making noise. We have to use our voices.” That’s when in chorus both participants unmuted themselves and verbally lined up their contributions as if it were a premade slogan: “Unite. Rebuild. Use Voice.” They were inspired to, as they say, “build bridges and work together” to repair our country with the necessary action. This was a far cry from my original teaching point.
Educator Objective: Gorman masterfully uses the repetition of certain phonemes in her inaugural piece, especially in the lines “And, yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect./We are striving to forge our union with purpose.” There is perfect symmetry in how she ends her poetic lines with words beginning with the letter “P.” Not only is this alliteration, but her words are poignant and calculated, constructing well-thought-out ideas with function.
Gorman’s Lesson: For my students, the impact of Gorman’s words was broader and more emotional. With a faithful murmur one student agreed. “Yeah, the country will never be perfect. No one can be. But our purpose should be progression.” Voices started to overlap as ideas from different kids shot back and forth like electric circuits. It was a bit noisy, but that was in large part due to the still somewhat strange use of Zoom as a discussion platform. Most physical cues as to who is speaking are eliminated when cameras are off, or video lags, and passionate kids just want to express their opinions. So I let the verbal clutter remain for a while longer.
And, in true form, the babble proceeded to become a literal representation of the young woman’s interpretation. Video started to clear up, voices were heard more clearly, and the different chatter of many settled into one harmonious line: “Not perfection, but purpose and progression.” I can imagine this message ringing particularly loudly for my students who may lose confidence in themselves after mistakes. I can just as easily see it impacting those of my students who once judged others because of mistakes. Now perhaps they’ll see that it is not the mistake we should be preoccupied with, but the redemption from those missteps.
Educator Objective: As the poem reached its end, I sought to call attention to the uplifting repetition Gorman employed. Though she referenced the imagery of differing localities throughout our nation, she also reiterated the notion that “We will rise” a total of four consecutive times. This was not by happenstance. I wanted to stress that authors are purposeful when they write, and she did this with the intent of ending on a positive note. A note that despite our nation’s rough history—particularly the unseemly events of the past year—we will overcome them. I thought that was a magnificent way to end a presidential inauguration poem, but it turned out my students had even more to say about this.
Gorman’s Lesson: I said my piece regarding Gorman’s use of repetition, and the kids seemed to receive it. Then, as we were preparing to close, a particularly keen insight came from the throngs of my virtual classroom. A student who rarely speaks murmured, “Repetition is good in poems, but not in life.” I immediately asked him for clarification, knowing there was meaning in the comment that we all needed to hear. “Well, if we’re moving forward, we can’t do the same things we did this past year. We ain’t going nowhere with that.” I was dumbfounded. He was so right. Through his comment, my students saw that in order to move society forward, we must learn from mistakes. I know they’re ready to make that happen, because they’re brave enough to see the light, and as the youngest inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman, penned in such an amazing way, they’re “brave enough to be it.”
Like my students, I was unfamiliar with Amanda Gorman before her brilliant inaugural poem. And as a teacher who has taught “school lessons” and “educator objectives” for my whole professional life, the way I wrap my mind around the unfamiliar is by comparing to something that is familiar. So I immediately sought to compare Gorman’s address to the man we had honored just a few days before, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King.
Both Gorman and King displayed an uncanny ability to prepare and modify public addresses under societal pressure. Both voices for justice rang out on the steps of our nation’s seat of democracy. And both made history through poetically enthralling the nation in a state of inspiration. Yet, that’s my teacher brain again, seeking to make things familiar instead of accepting the unfamiliar and learning from it. Amanda Gorman’s words and style are atypical and unique; they can stand on their own without being compared to others. Her piece was so expressive that it not only roused my intellect, but the emotions and intellect of my students. (These are the same students who often do their best Big Bad Wolf rendition of huffing and puffing when I mention other poems.) Her words were, quite simply, soul stirring. So, while I am glad that I was able to use this poem to touch on academic topics with my kids, I am even more grateful that Amanda Gorman was able to touch their hearts. It is my hope that they carry her words with them and that the knowledge they gleaned will seep into the soil of their souls. Those are grounds from which true change sprouts.
Isaiah Moore is an eighth-grade English teacher in Virginia Beach who’s had the pleasure of speaking to crowds of over 1,000 but still becomes nervous when conducting a 45 minute session for 30 students. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t show it.) An Albert Einstein quote guides his life: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather a man of value.” Through word and action, this quote was taught to him by four Black male teachers in high school. Because of their impact, he decided to pursue education in hopes of impacting others the same way. To do so, he attended Morehouse College and became an Oprah Scholar while receiving his undergraduate degree in English. Afterward, he obtained his Master’s of Arts in Education from the College of William and Mary’s School of Education. Isaiah believes that education should be relevant, so he prides himself on developing lessons that incorporate real-world topics. This shows students their education extends beyond the four walls of his classroom. When Isaiah’s students apply these concepts to their daily lives, it is at this point that he sees his value. Here is where he becomes a man of success. Isaiah writes about his daily life in the classroom at his blog, Running Thoughts . . . Can’t Let Them Get Away.
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