Mass Poetry's Professional Development Course Made Me a Better Teacher

by Shannon Janovitz, English teacher at Burlington High School | April 2017

Teaching writing, especially creative writing, can be scary. Faced with students who are sometimes eager to dig deep into the complexities of language and sometimes less than thrilled with the prospect of using that language to create something of their own, educators need to be ready. They need knowledge, enthusiasm, and resources to help them make writing a vital and accessible part of all students’ education. Perhaps even more importantly, they need to be reminded of what they themselves love about writing and why it is necessary work to empower students to find that love. Mass Poetry’s Summer Seminar led by Regie Gibson offers all of that and more.

Undoubtedly one of the best professional development courses I have taken in my 19 years as a teacher, this three day workshop left me inspired and prepared. I walked away with a notebook brimming with poetry and a plan-book full of lessons and activities to bring to my students. I left the classroom on the last day of the session disappointed it was over. I wanted more time in the program - more time to listen to him connect traditional scholarship with contemporary teaching practices, more time to play with the exercises, more time to explore and discover and reflect and write. This session changed the way I teach poetry as well as the way I write poetry.

Though much of Gibson’s workshop centers on what we do in the classroom, it is his focus on what we do as individuals, as people, that makes the seminar so impactful. What happens in the classroom has much more meaning when it reflects who we are. When teaching poetry, we become poets. We are creators. By example, Regie reinforces that teachers of writing are most effective when they engage in the creative process alongside their students. He exemplifies teacher as creator as well as facilitator by sharing his own writing while giving participants the opportunity to practice the craft we are teaching. He shows teachers both what is possible and how to make it happen.

I have mimicked his style in my own classes, introducing techniques and exercises by sharing my own verse. Much like it did in Gibson’s workshop, I found that sharing my work with students had a powerfully unifying effect and served to build community in the classroom. Students learned about me, about what I value and fear and find funny. They saw me struggle and laugh through the writing process in the same ways they do. It freed them to be honest about their writing and to engage in the work without fear of failure. What a wonderful reality to see unfold in your classroom!

No longer daunted by the task of introducing a poetry unit, I now thread poetry analysis and creation throughout my entire course. I look forward to poetry days, and so do my students. Like all of my experiences with Mass Poetry, this session had a transformational effect on me. Practical, immediate, and rejuvenating, the Mass Poetry Summer Session reminded me of what I love about being a student and an educator. It taught me that writing is fun, spirit-lifting play. It showed me the power of credibility in the classroom. Most notably, it made me a better teacher and mentor to my students.