Nov 10, 2015
“You cannot give your students what you do not give yourself:” A Conversation with Raymond Antrobus, Jacob Sam-La Rose, and Toni Stuart
There is a graceful, introspective essay by Nick Ripatrazone at The Millions where he considers the peculiar contradictions and relentless devotions which charge his teaching as a current does. I’ve thought about “The Last English Teacher” often since reading it, remembering my own first years at a high school in New Jersey—my own grappling with getting by, navigating the straits of percentiles and rubrics and laboring to make sense of myself.
He says: “I have learned that my purpose is to pause the lives of my students for long enough that a line of poetry is the loudest sound they encounter during the day. I am uninterested in studies that assess the cognitive worth of reading poetry for future engineers. I don’t teach engineers. I teach people. My master is not a test; it is the belief that minutes reading beautiful language will stir souls.” And he says: “I hate how teachers are portrayed by politicians and education reformers; I hate how we are reduced to caricatures. But I keep that frustration from my students. After all, it is for them that I am here. I believe in them, and I believe in words.”
Yes and yes. Let us now praise that stubborn commingling of faith and delusion, that near-adamantium allegiance to what poetry and stories and language taught with heart can do.
And let us trust a teacher’s essential hopes and buckling-downs, those daily affirmations.
Because these hard-won promises and recognitions mean so much to me, I’m curious: how do tensions between pedagogy and practice, assessment and expression, show themselves outside of American schools? How might different kinds of teachers respond to pressures from the culture around them? Is there a kind of convergent evolution at play?
I reached out to three gifted educators based here in London, Raymond Antrobus, Jacob Sam-La Rose, and Toni Stuart. I’ve had the opportunity to watch them in their classrooms and on stages, in workshops and in lecture halls. I’ve read with awe the anthologies their young writers have published. I’ve heard their students rehearse, experiment, battle the line.
Under the influence of my own fascinations—and Nick’s meditations on education—here are my questions and their responses:
What initially brought you to into the classroom? Was there an experience, a teacher in your past, or a text that feels, in retrospect, like a provocation?
Raymond Antrobus: In 2010, I was the London Slam Champion and won a trip to Chicago to perform at the Green Mill. After that show I was introduced to Peter Kahn. It was the first time I’d seen so many young people interacting with poetry. I came to my love of literature and poetry outside the school environment so had this feeling that it’s something to be developed outside of any institutions with biased reading lists and useless assessments. There were about 80 kids in that class that wanted to show me their poems and asked for my feedback. After the class, Peter said he’d keep me in mind for future work in education.
Two years later, I’m enrolling to do the world’s first MA at Goldsmith University in Spoken Word Education. Peter was a teacher himself—someone passionate and pragmatic about how poetry can be used as an educational tool in a space as political as a classroom. So it was that chance encounter when I was 22 and not even thinking about education that brought me to it.
Jacob Sam-La Rose: For me, it was as simple as receiving an invitation. I was approached after a reading by a teacher who'd just seen me read, and was interested in having me work with his students. I'd never taught a lesson at that point, but the opportunity to do so was appealing. And that's maybe something that's been passed down. My mother was a teacher, and I was always very much aware of the work she put in on behalf of her students. Of course, when I gained some initial experience, there was something that kept me coming back to the classroom. Part of it was the sheer joy of transformation— being able to offer the students I worked with the opportunity to engage with poetry as a valid and valuable form of creative expression, which was a world away from most of their preconceived notions of what poetry could be.
Toni Stuart: “Have you ever really had a teacher? One who saw you as a raw but precious thing, a jewel that, with wisdom, could be polished to a proud shine? If you are lucky enough to find you way to such teachers, you will always find your way back. Sometimes it is only in your head. Sometimes it is right alongside their beds…The teaching goes on.” —from Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
As a child, the school classroom was the one place where I felt truly seen. I was blessed to have incredibly passionate, caring and dedicated teachers throughout primary and high school. I think that rubbed off on me. Growing up, a teacher, was the first thing I thought I wanted to be, but the process of life led me to being a writer first. Writing poetry was the first place that allowed me to see myself. When I first started working with young people, it was as a facilitator rather than a teacher, and the intention was always to create spaces where young people can see themselves and in turn be seen by each other. When I work in more traditional school settings now, is still the foundation from which I work.
What’s been the most surprising thing your students have taught you? Or, what have they accomplished that’s shifted, or deepened, what you thought you knew?
RA: I could talk a long time about this. It’s not easy being a teenager, working in schools helped me re-assess my own childhood and schooldays. I go into some classes already recognising the kind of student I was and the kind of person I wanted to be. My school days were complicated. I was involved in a gang, the teachers said I was articulate but aloof; I struggled to care about school because I didn’t understand why it mattered. What was more immediate to me was earning the respect of peers and not getting robbed or stabbed in the streets.
I’m in front of students now who are going through variations of that and I want them to know I understand that and I want to use that understanding to help them feel included in a school environment. Working in schools has helped me make peace with a lot of things in my childhood because I now feel my experience has a use. Although teaching is a tiring job and sometimes my judgments aren’t helpful, I never want to deny a student the opportunity to surprise me.
JS-LR: Teaching always reminds me to get beyond myself and whatever it is that I think I know. It's a joy to be able to pass on knowledge— to serve as a guide through territories, perspectives and ways of working that the people I work with as students may not yet be familiar with. Of course, it almost goes without saying that part of that joy comes in celebrating everything that the students themselves bring into the room. I've found myself teaching less and less from the front of the room, and much more alongside, within. And I'm mindful of time, in the sense of the long span. I've seen some of my students grow from early teens into adulthood, and how poetry has remained an important part of their lives. My own focus has shifted from working predominantly with high schools to spending more time working with undergraduates and graduates, a number of whom have the intention of teaching or facilitating participatory initiatives, if they're not already engaged in that work. There's the constant reminder of being a part of something larger, something that extends beyond the individual lesson, the semester or academic years.
TS: I think it’s the first group of students that I worked with in South Africa in 2009, who have had a significant impact on how I approach my work. Years later when they had left school and started befriending me via social media. I was able to follow their progress. It was the unexpected messages I would receive saying, “thank you,” or “you changed our lives because of…” that genuinely stunned me.
It made me realise that while we are working with a group of students we actually do not realise how great an impact we have on them—either for the positive or the negative. It is such a fragile and fraught relationship, there is so much they look to us for, and so much of what we teach them is unconscious—it’s in our behaviour and how we treat them, more than in what we teach them. As a result, I’m more aware of how I connect and build relationships with my students. What messages are they receiving about themselves and the world, and their place in it, through the way I carry myself and the way I treat them? First and foremost, teaching is about connecting with our students—and being intentional about this is paramount for me.
What are some of the misconceptions about teaching poetry in the schools? Or of “spoken word” as form of/entry way into “education?” Asked another way: what would you say to those who question the virtue of—or “value” of—teaching the humanities?
RA: I’ve overheard teachers in staffrooms pass off what I do as “gangster rap trying to be down with the kids.” I’ve had to work at not bringing the assumptions of others into the classroom. I always wanted my lessons to be about a discovery of what we think we know and what we can explore. Spoken Word as a form is one of the body: it is how your words move and shape the space you are in. This is something that compliments traditional forms of poetry and teaching; it doesn’t need to rival it.
In an institutional setting, it can get rigid. You listen to a 2-hour talk on “teacher training” and no one even mentions a student. Instead, they’re obsessing over “systems”. My practise in a conventional school has to acknowledge those parameters, but I do encourage them to be challenged, this is where it can get tricky, even if what you’re rooting yourself in is a love for your art and your students…actually…especially if you’re rooted in that.
JS-LR: The misconceptions are many, familiar and well-worn: that poetry offers few practical returns within the educational system; that it's difficult to derive or determine tangible results from an engagement with poetry, and thus any such engagement should rank lower on the list of educational priorities; that spoken word lacks academic rigour. And so on. And to be fair, there's more we can do to provide hard evidence to challenge some of the arguments. The truth I know is that the spaces we create for poetry and spoken word can offer opportunities for our young people to communicate the workings of their minds with a degree of confidence in the fact that their work will be rigorously assessed according to the strictures of those spaces, but moreso, that their words will be valued and heard; that the art they create can have weight and meaning; that they can be empowered and be authors of change.
TS: “Teaching the humanities”—I think that phrase says it all: teaching our students to consider what it means to be human. Spoken word enables students to understand and own the power of words: reading and listening to them, understanding and engaging with them critically; writing and speaking them, students learn how to create and directly experience how words have the power to create their worlds. It enables them to interrogate who they are, their place in the world, and at the same time question and engage with the world around them. These are vital skills for each young person to have, skills that will translate when they leave school and become adults.
Talking to teachers here in the UK, the most frequent verb I hear when they characterize their relationship with writing is “carve.” As in: “I need to carve out more time for ____.”
Borrowed from the sculptor’s studio and the abattoir, there’s something beauty-seeking and primal about that word, “carve.” As if they’re chipping rock or parceling-out portions of a body as a necessity. Has that been your experience? How do you describe the relationship between your teaching and your own creative work?
RA: Well, another buzzword is “balance,” and that looks different to everyone. Sometimes my teaching and my own creative work operate together. I’ve written quite a few poems inspired by students and three years and reading and watching and feeling how a young person (some of whom were illiterate when I started working with them) pulled through after engaging with poetry and Spoken Word, that changed me too. I used the words “care” and “useful” earlier, this work has developed my own care and feeling of usefulness as both a teacher and a poet.
It’s important to know when you need to say no, when you need to protect that time to be on your own and think and write, but it’s a challenge when you understand how much of yourself you need to give.
JS-LR: The ideal is that they feed each other. A lot of my teaching stems from where I am in the moment, from what I'm investigating, fascinated by or learning myself. And it's always a matter of negotiation. They draw from similar spaces, sometimes like the opposite ends of a seesaw— the more centred your practice, the less the ascendence of one side disturbs the other...
TS: I work within what I call “a pedagogy of wholeheartedness”—where my creative work is at the centre of what I do, and this informs and feeds my teaching practice. I prioritise and schedule time for daily writing and reading. I have chosen not to work as a full-time poet-in-residence at a school, so that I have the flexibility to determine my own schedule and to ensure that I am feeding my “writer-self” first before expecting my “teacher-self” to support my students.
I framed our conversation with an essay by Nick Ripatrazone. Here’s another one I want to share with you: “55 Thoughts for English Teachers.”
Could you add two more thoughts? What would you contribute as your #56-57?
56. Read the room. If your students need to stretch or need a few minutes to discuss something before feeding back to the class, give them that.
57. You are not here to save anyone.
58. (Here's one extra) Showing your students form before content is like showing them a cage without an animal in it.
56: Know when it's appropriate for you to be the conductor of the orchestra, and when it's more important for you to be a member of the jazz band (WRT John Maeda)
57: Attention is love.
56. You cannot give your students what you do not give yourself. If you want to inspire them to write, what are you doing to inspire yourself to write? If you want to instill courage in them to take risks, how are you supporting yourself to take risks?
57. This one is particularly for writer/teachers—those of us whose lives are split equally between these two activities: Find ways for your creative practice and teaching practice to directly feed into and support each other. Protect the delicate balance. Protect your writing time fiercely.