Martin’s Poem

by Mark Lewis

It is 3:00. Writing time started about 20 minutes ago. We are studying poetry. Martin has his paper and pencil at hand, but they have not yet touched.

A day of classroom teaching is filled with brief, hopeful opportunities. Hoping, can I make something good?. Will my students learn, do, create, think? Sitting down with Martin, I hoped I can make something out of what I knew–about writing, poetry, second graders, education, and Martin.

“Martin, what are you thinking about?”
“Nothing.”
I lean in close. Oddly, I feel no hesitation about what to ask him.
“Martin, would you like to write a poem about nothing?”
A pause. Martin and I make eye contact.
“Yes! I’ll call it… NO NAME.”

Finally, stunningly, pencil on paper.

NO NAME
By Martin
When you Here Nothing you Here
a wisel is beping! in your err?
like a train. screming.

I love this story. It has a happy ending, almost a punchline. I tell it often. For this project, I’ll tell the longer, more Swarthmore-reminiscent version.

What a ridiculous question, right? “Would you like to write a poem about nothing?” Martin crafted a jewel that day. But the question could have backfired. Frowning, sulking, despondency. Rage, destruction. Confusion. The dreaded specter, boredom. All possible from a second-grader, trust me.

Had this opportunity passed, another would have presented itself. But really, how did I justify such an approach? Well, you’re getting the long version here because upon reflection that afternoon, I was soon recalling my work in Swarthmore’s education department. So much work, thinking, questioning, theorizing, and grappling led to one ideal. Not the only ideal, but one that has become a dependable asset for my teaching. Radical imagination. All children capable, all learning magnificent, all moments teachable. I honed it at Swarthmore. Other educators I’ve met have clearly developed it elsewhere. I think I try to rub it off on other of my colleagues. I’d be a far different teacher without it.

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3 Comments to “Martin’s Poem”

  1. Wow, Appleseed. This is quite inspiring. I would love to read more from you about radical imagination. You’ve already got me thinking about how I can make English language study more imaginative and real for my kids.

  2. Oh man that is a good poem.

  3. I’ve been thinking more about this lately, trying to figure out more examples, and more ways I can apply it. One important factor is a kind of readiness, for whatever weird curveballish idea or statement comes your way. I try to imagine that what I get from the students might be an amazing insightful seed of learning, instead of gibberish or disruption or idle chatter. Sometimes it’s not, but when it is, I’m glad to be prepared.

    Yesterday we were talking about solids, liquids, and gases. They were writing in a worksheet to list some of the solids, liquids, and gases they knew. One student called out to me, smiling, “Mr. Appleseed, farts are a gas!” In an instant, I’m thinking — that’s true, is this a revelatory connection to science he’s making? is he just performing silliness for other students around him? both?

    My radical imagination stance tells me, even if he’s just messing with me, I can imagine he’s just said something brilliant, and treat him like it, maybe he gets to see himself like that, too. So I said, “Yeah! So, make sure to write it down on your paper.” (Later I saw he had also added “burps.”)

    Of course, now I wish I had said, “Yes, because farts spread out to fill any space they are in, and they don’t have a definite shape.”

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