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The Soul of a Poet Award
By Donna Watson
Every year I bestow a unique award. I never plan to give it; I never know which student will earn it. I call it the Soul of a Poet Award. This award's inception began almost two decades ago, during student teaching.
As a student teacher, I found it difficult to reach struggling students, especially in the critical subject areas of reading and writing. Understandably, they feared taking risks or making mistakes in front of their more capable, and sometimes quick to taunt, classmates. Jake was one of my first challenging students. An underachiever who had been plunked inappropriately into a 'Gifted and Talented' fourth-grade class, Jake struggled daily to keep up with his precocious classmates. In a room overflowing with overanxious hand-raisers, Jake remained sullen and silent, until the day we picked up our pencils to pen a bit of poetry.
As I wrote the topic on the board, I remember thinking that this assignment might be a tough sell. 'Today we will write a single sentence using a metaphor to describe love.'
Not surprisingly, half of the class responded with a collective groan. They were, after all, nine- and ten-year-olds. Their ears perked up a bit upon learning that their responses and accompanying artwork would be submitted for possible publication in the local newspaper for Valentine's Day.
As I wandered around the room monitoring their work and commenting with a perfunctory 'Good job!' or 'Nice work!' I happened to glance down at Jake's paper.
'Love is peanut butter and jelly and all that makes me feel sticky and gooey inside.'
He cautiously glanced up at me. The words, penned in crayon, sprang out of a giant red heart. I stifled my first reaction. I had specifically stated that the words must be written in pencil. Jake, once again, neglected to follow directions. But I resisted the urge to admonish him for writing in crayon, especially on an assignment headed for the newspaper.
We shared a tentative smile. I had no idea that my next response would resound for years to come: 'Why Jake, I think you have the soul of a poet!'
Apparently the newspaper editors agreed, for when I opened the Valentine's Day issue, Jake's declaration of love burst right off the front page of the 'Features' section.
I finished student teaching not long afterward to begin my solo teaching journey, packing away more than just books and papers as I left.
I have found that through poetry writing and personal essays, students face fears, examine prejudices, and overcome personal obstacles. Annually, my students write poems about Martin Luther King, Jr., Ruby Bridges, Johnny Appleseed, favorite book characters, their families, and themselves. Children respond with gut-wrenching honesty and heartfelt integrity through writing. Even the shiest students scamper to the circle to share their individual thoughts.
Year after year, my Soul of a Poet Award is bestowed upon a most unlikely candidate. This past September, Mark rocketed into my second-grade classroom. Angry, defiant, torn from his father's home, his friends, and the only school he had ever attended, Mark opposed any form of structure. My numerous and previously effective behavior-management tricks folded as he systematically played his hand. Parent phone calls, trips to the principal's office, recess detention—nothing fazed Mark.
Bright but underachieving, Mark challenged authority at every turn. In my two decades of teaching, he held the dubious distinction as my most frustrating student. Slowly, very slowly, we established a tenuous bond. As the year progressed, Mark continued to press every nerve while simultaneously stealing my heart. Daily, he filled me with frustration and pride.
Writing seemed to allow Mark to release some of his anger and frustration in a healthier outlet. Over time, I noticed a gradual, positive shift in his behavior. When asked to write what was bothering him, Mark first just scratched the surface, but as the year went on, he placed his problems on paper rather than trying to solve them with inappropriate words or physical contact. Although I have witnessed this kind of constructive conversion with other difficult students, Mark's transformation encouraged and amazed me.
The bio-poem the students publish for open house at the end of the year remains my favorite. The format allows the students to expose their innermost thoughts and feelings. Every year I'm awestruck by the maturity some second-graders possess and project in their final poem about themselves. As Mark and the other students wrote, they asked me to spell words for their student dictionary. Mark asked for several words, each one more thought-provoking than the last. I told him I was anxious to hear his poem, knowing he had selected several 'hundred-dollar' adjectives.
We gathered in our circle to share our prized poems. Mark waved his poem in my face like a checkered flag at a NASCAR race. It seemed to torture him to wait his turn, but once he began to read, I understood his sense of urgency to share.
Mark's masterpiece was worth the wait:
By Mark, age 8
I touch God's heavenly hands.
I dream of thousands of books scattered everywhere.
I want my father and mother to be with me always.
I am Mark.
I hear the sun up in the sky.
I wonder if my dad will be with me always.
I live on planet Earth.
I am Mark, the pleasant young man I was born to be.
I see the moon light the sky.
I like when we get to go to school.
I fear my Nana's cat.
I am Mark, the generous young man I was created to be.
I pretend to be in the army.
I cry when somebody goes away.
I love my whole family.
I am Mark, the generous, adventurous American Boy I was created to be.
Mark's chestnut brown eyes sparkled as he savored my response: 'Mark, you have the soul of a poet!'
©2009. Donna Watson, Mark. All rights reserved. Reprinted from The Ultimate Teacher by Todd Whitaker. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street , Deerfield Beach , FL 33442.