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Chalk Talk: A teacher’s voice

KEVIN GUTTING
JFK Middle School teacher Will Bangs talks about his early musical influences before a rehearsal Friday for a faculty-led rock concert on June 4. Bangs will perform twice at the show - once with his own band and once backing up fellow teacher Terrence Haynes.

KEVIN GUTTING JFK Middle School teacher Will Bangs talks about his early musical influences before a rehearsal Friday for a faculty-led rock concert on June 4. Bangs will perform twice at the show - once with his own band and once backing up fellow teacher Terrence Haynes. Purchase photo reprints »

I am from clothespins, from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.

I am from the dirt under the back porch.

(Black, glistening, it tasted like beets.)

I am from the forsythia bush the Dutch elm whose long-gone limbs I remember as if they were my own.

So starts the poem “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyons.

I use this poem at the beginning of every school year. I ask students to write their own version.

Beyond the mini-lessons of figurative language, “Where I’m From” helps me get to know my students better. As with all of my other writing assignments, I write one too. This allows me to model the writing process and introduce myself.

When I write my own “Where I’m From” poem, I sift through a box on my desk where I keep notes and drawings from students, letters or emails from parents and other small artifacts that remind me of the high points in teaching.

Something as seemingly small as a hand-drawn card with a student’s writing telling me about how they grew throughout the year, or thanks expressed by a parent in an email, can go a long way on those rainy days when the job just seems too hard or there’s more work to do than anyone could ever have time for.

When I graduated from college, I wanted to be a musician, a documentary filmmaker, an owner of a recording studio, a world-traveler. When I tell old friends that I’m a middle school teacher, most laugh. The choice to teach is a surprise to most who know where I come from.

Middle school was abysmal for me. I got bored and gave up. I made some poor choices and had to transfer schools. In my experience, teachers were the enemies. I never had an adult look me in the eye and talk with me except for when I made my regular trips to the principal’s office.

It wasn’t until later that I had teachers who really got me. Teachers who took the time to know “where I was from.” When I reflect on my experience growing up, I can’t help but recognize the power of a teacher’s connection with a student. It wasn’t until high school that I experienced what it was like to have a great teacher.

His name was Mr. Nucci. Oddly enough, he taught my least favorite subject — math. But, he made the effort to know and understand me. I can’t think of a more crucial time in my life when I needed to be seen and understood by an adult who was not a parent.

Not only did I begin to look forward to school, but I learned so much more. I hope someday one of my students will have even half the respect and admiration for me as I have for Mr. Nucci.

It’s not so much George Ella Lyon’s singular poem itself, but the countless poems that have been inspired in my classroom because of it. “Where I’m From” makes me more mindful of my identity as a teacher, and the identities of my students.

“Where I’m From” reminds me that each of my students has their own story of where they have come from. The multiplicity of life stories keeps teaching fresh and exciting. New students every year. New groups of students to forge bonds with, new challenges, new students to watch grow and change.

Will Bangs teaches Humanities at the JFK Middle School in Northampton and is a teacher-consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. This column was drawn from an upcoming book tentatively titled “Teaching from the Heart,” to be published spring 2014 by Jossey-Bass.

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