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"Why NOT Teach Poetry?" An Interview with Poet Taylor Mali
“Why NOT teach poetry?” might be a simple, irrefutable response to the question of, “Why should we teach poetry?” But published poet, Taylor Mali, writer of What Learning Leaves, creator of game Metaphor Dice, and a TED Talk’s “Best of the Web” speaker, goes beyond that. In an interview with JEI Learning Center, he asks, “What if poetry did not exist altogether?” If that was the case, then surely his life and the whole world would be very different. In the kickoff interview for National Poetry Month, the one-time school teacher and full-time poet spoke with JEI about teaching, poetry, and teaching poetry. His love for the art, particularly poetry slam, is credited to his literary family (his mother wrote children’s books while his father channeled Dr. Seuss). They would often hold poetry recitals at large gatherings, and it was these performances that led to Mali’s interest in acting, poetry slam, and more traditional forms of poetry. This, along with his love for education, led to his work as a teacher in middle and high schools. He became an advocate for education, writing poems like “What Teachers Make” and “Like Lilly Like Wilson.” Eventually, he started a 12-year-long project to inspire 1,000 people to become teachers, saying: It took me longer than planned, but it was wonderful to have a reason to get up in the morning that was larger than myself. Early on, my standards were very high (though far from scientific). Towards the end, I’d accept you on my list if you could honestly say that my poetry had pushed you in some way to become a teacher. Ultimately, Mali left full-time teaching but continued to inspire as a full-time poet, offering both performances of his poems and workshops on the craft of poetry. He cites W.H. Auden, calling poetry “the clear expression of mixed feelings,” which accurately represented multiple situations throughout his lifetime: Poetry has taught me that nothing is ever all one thing. Everything is everything, usually all at once . . . I couldn’t decide if I wanted to write a poem that wallowed in the woe [of divorce] . . . [o]r a poem that exulted in the excitement of finding a new love. I chastised myself for not being clear about what I wanted! Then I realized the more useful thing would be to write a poem about wanting both: to be the victim and the triumphant underdog! Poetry is not only powerful for expressing complex feelings but also for understanding life through language. Mali tells JEI, “[P]oetry tries to carve a little bit of truth or beauty or both out of life’s mayhem and fix it in the mind with . . . some other measure of magic. It teaches us the power of language.” Finally, when asked the big question, “Why learn poetry?” he admitted frustration, as he feels that no answer would be satisfying to someone who needs to ask that question. He answers it anyway with a sort of dystopian fiction: [P]erhaps the best way to answer the question is in the negative. Not just by saying, “Well, why NOT study poetry?” but imagining a world where poetry did not exist. There’s another quotation about this very possibility that I love (even though I cannot remember who said it): If poetry suddenly ceased to exist, our culture would not become undone, and yet future historians would say of us, “How odd that they had none.” At JEI, we agree with Taylor Mali that poetry allows for magic, creativity, inspiration, and self-expression. That is why we created a special new poetry unit for the month of April. It is designed to show students the wonder and possibilities of language. The four-week curriculum pulls from our Reading & Writing program and is a great introduction to what this enrichment program has to offer. Come explore the magic of poetry by finding a JEI Learning Center near you, and learn more about our spotlighted artist, Taylor Mali, to get inspired.
Kimchi in Space
The story goes, Soyeon Yi could not go without kimchi in her diet, so when it came time to blast off, she packed kimchi, becoming not only the first Korean astronaut to make it to space but also the woman who introduced kimchi to the galaxy. For National Women’s History Month, JEI wants to recognize researcher, scientist, astronaut, and all-around star, Soyeon Yi. JEI Learning Center is all about empowering young children, and this includes young girls who dream of growing up as accomplished as the women celebrated in March. Before Yi was the first astronaut in 2008 to represent South Korea--as a woman, to boot--she studied her way out of a small rural village in which gender discrimination prevented women from getting a basic education. While her grandmother could not read or write and her mother stopped her education before middle school, Soyeon Yi had a lifetime of learning ahead of her. She started to assist her father with fixing machines at a young age and grew too interested in science and engineering to stop there! She started with some vocational training from her father and moved onto academic excellence! Soyeon Yi attended the specialized Gwangju Science High School before moving on to the prestigious Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), a South Korean university likened to the United States’ Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After studying mechanical engineering as both an undergraduate and graduate student, she studied biosystems for her doctorate. At KAIST, she was one of two women in her class, which is why there was not even a women’s bathroom at the time. At 24, Yi was one of the youngest and possibly the only woman presenting her research in biosystems at an event in Japan that invited a total of 30 to 40 countries. Despite this feat as an accomplished researcher, Yi still faced prejudice as people would often mistake her for the secretary or say directly to her that they preferred working with male researchers. Not letting this stop her, she continued to break many barriers. While South Korea was working on a space program, she was eager to apply despite friends calling her crazy and saying she should focus on getting her Ph.D. Even after she was accepted, she found things difficult training in Russia as a woman. She said, “It wasn’t easy [for the others] to accept me. I could feel it, I could read their faces—especially soldiers who didn’t have enough education and enough experience working with women.” At the age of 29, she was promoted from backup astronaut to Korea’s first official astronaut! In an article for Cosmopolitan, she thinks back to how much has changed since her grandmother’s time. She notes, “Within 60 years, Korean women’s history was totally changed. I am so proud to be a part of that.” During the intensive training period, Yi learned about the rocket as it would be her responsibility to fix it if anything broke in space. She also trained physically to walk in zero gravity and eventually grew comfortable working with the others. As a matter of fact, Soyeon Yi spread South Korean culture to the other astronauts! She brought Korean space food to share with her companions, who were all from different nations, and this included her own nation’s main staple, kimchi! Other astronauts fell in love with Korean food; one of them even told her, “I’m going to need Korean food for the rest of my flight.” This was the first and last time she went on an outer space adventure (she retired from the program a few years later for personal reasons), but there is no doubt she had a fun time and learned a lot from this experience. Soyeon Yi is a great example of a woman who prevailed and boasts an impressive track record as a female researcher, scientist, and an astronaut. Nothing stands in Soyeon Yi’s way, which is why she is a woman to celebrate this Women’s History Month. If you want your children to have the same resilience and can-do attitude as Soyeon Yi, make sure to find a JEI Learning Center near you. We offer a variety of programs that will build a foundation for an education and career as impressive as hers by promoting healthy curiosity and confidence in young children. Maybe someday, your own daughter will be celebrated on National Women’s History Month alongside big names like Grace Hopper and Soyeon Yi!
How to Tackle Test-Taking Anxiety
A little bit of anxiety can go a long way when it comes to an important event in life, including taking a test. This means that being a little nervous can increase mental acuity enough to get through a tricky situation. However, too much anxiety can be more debilitating than helpful. You want to have a clear head and sharpened focus, not be consumed by the jitters and nerves so you no longer function like a normal human being! How can a student keep anxiety at bay during a big exam for the highest performance possible? Here a few tips on how to tackle test-taking anxiety to get the desired results! Embrace the possibility of failure This does not mean dive headfirst into failure without even attempting to do well on the test! According to the ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America), one of the reasons test-taking anxiety exists is a student’s fear of failure. Unfortunately, this is a common epidemic. Students know what is at stake with each and every grade they receive; however, the goal here is not to be too result-oriented. Remember growth mindset? The focus should always be on the process--as in studying habits, what was learned, how to do better next time--rather than the results. Learning to live with mistakes and grow from them is one of life’s most important tests because “success” is not a tangible end game. Rather, it is a cycle of improvement through failure and resilience. It is time to come to peace with this! Prepare, prepare, and--wait for it--prepare Bouncing off that, focusing on the process rather than the result is the way to go, right? And what is part of the process? Preparation! ADAA lists lack of preparation as another huge reason test-taking anxiety exists. Study the right way for the test beforehand, and students will go in with much greater confidence than if they slacked off or crammed everything within a short amount of time. A test’s purpose is not only to see how much students know about the subject but also how much effort they put into improving themselves. Do they have a good method of learning? Have they figured out whether sticking Post-its all over their room helps more than highlighting every other line of text? Figure out the best way for your child to prepare for a test and then encourage her/him to do it. There’s nothing that can’t be tackled with enough preparation! Remember the Power of Now The renowned author of The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle, lives on this premise: “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the NOW the primary focus of your life.” This is called mindfulness, and it will help you when you are feeling anxious because guess what anxiety is all about? Fear of the future--of a possible, usually negative, outcome. Your child may be picturing a horrible, red “F” scribbled across the top. Your child may be imagining your reaction to a low score. Your child may be envisioning a huge drop in class ranking. Dear student, those scenarios do not exist and may never exist. All that exists right now is the paper of questions before you. It is saying, “Hey! You! Focus on me right now.” That is the only real thing in your life at the moment. Whisper to yourself, “The power of now!” and get on with what you need to do right here, right now. Practice relaxation techniques A good way to practice mindfulness and relax is to incorporate meditation into your child’s daily life. There are different ways to practice meditation, such as listening to a soothing voice guide you or listening to nothing but the natural sounds around you. Doing the latter will pull your child into the “now,” which will assist with the prior point. This one will also help your child in the moment if her/his brain freezes up and s/he cannot remember something. Another good relaxation technique is to journal. If your child is feeling anxious before a test, have her/him write all concerns on paper and lock it with the binding power of ink. S/he can also talk to somebody supportive in the community or partake in a hobby that puts her/his mind at ease. It is different for everybody, but doing a familiar action can put her/him into a peaceful groove, even when the heart and mind want to race ahead. Be kind to yourself Calling all students! Do not be too hard on yourself, put high expectations on yourself, put yourself down for feeling anxiety, or call yourself names. You want your best friend with you when you are going through something important, right? You do not want a bully next to you, tearing you down the whole time, right? You have to be that best friend for yourself, rather than the bully. Be kind and loving to yourself--and above all, forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for feeling bad about yourself, for not knowing a question, or if you do end up doing badly on a test. This ritual of forgiveness will get rid of future anxiety when facing a hard test because by then, you will love yourself too much to let a piece of paper or a grade tear you down! You will take on the challenge like the boss you know you are. Calling all parents! Remind your child of this every day. Say positive affirmations Going off that, students can say positive affirmations to hype themselves up for a test or calm themselves down, whichever they need in the moment. Your child should not deny anxiety by saying, “You are not anxious,” but soothe it away by saying affirmations like, “You are ready for this! You worked hard for this! You will get through this! You are strong!” (Remember, do not have your child say, “You are smart,” otherwise with any failure, your child will believe, “You are not smart after all.” On the other hand, if your child says, “You worked hard,” but fails to achieve something, your child will think, “You have to work harder.” This is much more productive and helpful.) Also, take note of negative affirmations that might be deeply embedded in your child’s own mind. They will be hard to get rid of at first, but taking note is the first step. After that, s/he can slowly exterminate these little rascals in her/his brain, creating more room for positivity! == Taking tests can be hard, but it is important to know how to handle them and how to go in with the right mindset because, the sad truth is, tests never end. They are all around us, even outside of school. Rather than letting anxiety get to your child, fight it with the tips listed above! It is important to tackle this early on as young children. JEI Learning Center helps to do this by creating the right studying environments, building confidence in students, promoting creative problem-solving methods, and teaching good study habits. Find a Center near you, and your child will be ready for any test in life!