Sam Intrator says he learned a lasting lesson during his early years as a public high school English teacher: “When a person and a poem come together, something special happens.”
Intrator, who is a professor of education and child study at Smith and head of the Campus School, would frequently ask his high school students to write essays about their favorite poems—to powerful results.
“When reality is refracted through a poem, people can go deep,” Intrator says. “Poetry allows people to talk about and make sense of the challenges they face.”
In a new book, Teaching with Heart, Intrator extended the poetry assignment to teachers. He and co-author Megan Scribner reached out to educators across the country, asking them to write brief essays about poems that, as Intrator says, “could tell the story of how teachers experience their jobs.”
Those jobs have changed markedly in recent years, due to education policies that emphasize test scores and data-driven instruction, the authors note in their introduction to the book. “Yet despite these challenges and the profound shifts in the context of where and how they teach, the enduring story teachers tell about their work remains constant,” the introduction states.
The 90 poems and accompanying essays selected for Teaching with Heart aim to capture the daily joys and frustrations of classroom teaching. The collection—the third in a series of anthologies Intrator has authored with Scribner—covers a diverse spectrum of poets, including Emma Lazarus, Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Maya Angelou, Pablo Neruda and Galway Kinnell.
A number of the essays were written by Smith graduates who studied with Intrator or worked with Project Coach, a Springfield-based after-school program Intrator co-founded with Smith exercise and sport studies professor Donald Siegel.
Glendean Hamilton ’13 was a student teacher for Project Coach, an experience she says helped prepare her for the challenges of her current job teaching middle school in Lawrence, Mass., home to one of the state’s lowest-performing public school districts.
Hamilton responded enthusiastically to Intrator’s suggestion that she submit an essay for Teaching with Heart. She chose Edgar A. Guest’s poem, “It Couldn’t Be Done,” with its repeating phrase, “That couldn’t be done, and he did it,” to help illustrate her desire to “get my students to dream of a life and future beyond what they know.”
Hamilton says she often uses poetry in her classroom because it lets students “be creative without having to be right or wrong. It allows them to express their feelings.”
She believes Intrator’s new book will also help inspire fellow teachers.
“It’s a book that has such restorative power,” Hamilton says. “Teaching is so much more than lesson plans; it’s also emotional work. The book offers a space to connect and reflect on those things.”
Smith trustee Alison Overseth ’80 said writing an essay for the new book was definitely “outside her comfort zone.”
“I’m not a writer, though I love poetry,” notes Overseth, who is executive director of the Partnership for After-School Education, a network of 1,600 New York City community organizations that promotes quality after-school programs in low-income neighborhoods.
Overseth said she was encouraged that Teaching with Heart includes essays from after-school teachers as well as those in traditional classrooms.
“Part of my job is spending time trying to attract really great people to the field,” she said. “It’s affirming to see people who work outside of school valued alongside people who teach in the school. I’ve been giving this book out so fast!”
For her essay, Overseth chose Jane Kenyon’s poem “Otherwise” because, she said, it “captures the hard part of life with the joy”—an important lesson for children from the poor communities her organization serves.
“I got out of bed/on two strong legs,” the poem begins. “It might have been/otherwise. I ate/cereal, sweet/milk, ripe, flawless /peach. It might/ have been otherwise.”
Among the other Smith alumnae who wrote essays about their favorite poems are Rachel Willis ‘04, director of teacher and alumni leadership development for Teach for America; Amy Christie ’01, director of college counseling for the Achievement First charter school network; and Kayleigh Colombero ’08, former director of Smith’s Urban Education Initiative, who now teaches high school English in the Berkshires.
The book also includes essays from several graduates of Smith’s master of arts in teaching program, including Will Bangs, who teaches at JFK Middle School in Northampton, and Andy Wood, former director of Project Coach, who recently taught at Northampton High School.