With Apologies to the Rainforest

In my classroom my students think twice about asking me for an extra piece of paper unless they’ve filled both sides of their first piece, or a clean, new sticky note. They know my tirades.


Example: I keep a box of used sticky notes handy, so that if a student wants a note with which to mark a page in a book, or a favorite passage in a long poem, they can take a “used” note.


These young women, for whom hand-me-downs are a source of shame, akin to wearing a sign that says “I can’t afford new,” don’t so much appreciate my zealous environmentalism. Still, I can’t resist.


“Can I have a new sticky note?” a student inevitably asks.


The rest of the students collectively suck in their breath and roll their eyes while they wait for my retort:”Sure,” I say, “you can have a new sticky note if you really want, but in this classroom we’re saving the rain forest one scrap of paper at a time. Do you really want to take a new sticky note and perpetuate the wholesale destruction of the rainforest?”



Truth is I have no idea what impact sticky notes are having on the rainforest in particular. I don’t even know exactly where the rainforest is. I do know that mindlessly using the earth’s resources is not working, and I want to do my part. I want my students to consider doing theirs, as well.


It’s become a bit of a joke; a good-natured way for my students to rib me about my passions and for me to coax them to think twice before squandering the earth’s bounty.


But now, the day is fast approaching. Tomorrow I get on a plane and off I fly to South America (yes, yes, I know, leaving a massive carbon footprint in my wake) … for a vacation on an eco-resort, where I’ll be hiking and kayaking in … the rainforest!


So, I told my students: “For those of you who have been re-using sticky notes and writing on both sides of your papers, I will be sure to send the rainforest your regards and good wishes. As for the rest of you, I will carry your apologies with me and offer them up on your behalf.”


Pura vida …

Poetry or Bust

In my afternoon class we are reflecting on poetry, what it means to us, and why it should (or shouldn’t) be taught in school. Students have been interviewing one another on this topic. Among the questions they are asking each other are these:

 Should people write and learn about poetry in school? Why or why not?

 H. answered this way:

Interviewer: Should people write and learn about poetry in school?

H: Yes!

Interviewer: Why?

H: Because I would go crazy without it. I would go on strike!



Vocabulary Lesson II

A teacher in my school, hearing about my latest efforts to increase our students’ vocabularies, shared with me how she is trying to crack down on swearing in her classroom. She told her students they can’t use the word B**ch anymore.

 “That’s great,” I told her.

 “Except now they’re all just calling each other female dogs,” she replied.

 Well, you know what they say, one step forward …


Vocabulary Lesson

As I was introducing a poetry lesson this week, S. was calling across the aisle to C., who was removing the foil from the shish kabob she’d bought (but not eaten) during her lunch break. Another student was working on an assignment for her next class, and still others were passing notes and whispering loudly.

“Ladies, could you please conduct yourselves with a bit more decorum!” I shouted above the din.

This caught S.’s attention. “Why you always have to use such fancy words? It gives me a headache.”

“Good question,” I said. “Why do I use such fancy words?” I wrote the word decorum on the board. “But first,” I asked, “what does it mean?”

“How should we know?” R. muttered.

“Because even though you may never have seen this word before, you know what I was asking you to do just now. What does decorum mean?”

“Acting respectful,” S. offered.

“And being polite,” C. added.

“Good behavior,” someone else added.

“See, you know what the word means.” I said. “Don’t worry if a word looks unfamiliar, you can still figure out its meaning.”

“But why should we use big words?” S. persisted. “I don’t like all those big words.”

“Because that way you can tell someone off and they don’t even know what you were saying,” one young woman suggested.

Fair enough. “Also, the more words you know, the more thoughts you can think. The more thoughts you can think, the more possibilities you have for what you can do with your life,” I offered.

Thus, this week during poetry class I’ve been focusing on vocabulary. For many of my students, who, shall we say, have not exactly felt welcomed into the hallowed halls of academia, new words sting, slap and burn. They’re evidence of what they don’t know. They are like signs that say, “No Trespassing.” “Do Not Enter.”

But for the poet, I told them, words are like treasures. They offer new ways of saying old things. They are new tastes. New experiences. Each one is a doorway into a new world.

I read somewhere that the late, great, poet Stanley Kunitz had the first hint of his calling when, as a child, he would skip through the woods repeating a new word again and again because he loved the sound it made in his ears.

When I took a poetry class with Lucille Clifton, she insisted we all stand up, hold hands, and each share one word we love the sound of.

Meanwhile, as my poetry class with S., C., R. and the rest continued, we added words to our list: gnash, unperturbed and ambiguous among them. I invited students to try to use at least two new words in their poems. C. wrote:

Inside the forest …

leaves gnash against each other

they feel like war

is coming toward them …

S., however, remained unconvinced. She didn’t finish her poem that day, and kept crumpling one piece of paper after another. But she did write the word “ambiguous” in big blue letters across the top of her page. Perhaps that was her way of having the last word on the subject. At least it was a brand new, multisyllabic one.


Poetry Diet

Today was my first day of poetry class with a new group of students. As I always do, I started by asking the class to brainstorm possible benefits of writing poetry. Usually we come up with the usual suspects: Telling their stories in their own words, stress relief, practice reading and writing which will help when they take their GED exams, etc. But today’s group came up with something novel: Weight loss.


“Weight loss?” I asked. I wasn’t following.


“You know, you hold your stress in your stomach, so if poetry helps to relieve stress, you get it out of your stomach.”


That was a stretch, but hey, I’m willing to stretch. Stretching is part of any good work-out plan, so maybe that would be part of the Poetry-for-Weight-Loss program, after all. 


So while students wrote their poems, I played with the idea. Here’s what I came up with:



Jenny Craig has endorsed it.

It’s the reason behind Oprah’s new svelte silhouette.

Try it!

Put an end to stress eating, by instead putting your pencil to the page.

Release that rage!

Watch the ounces melt away

as you let go

the pain of your first heartbreak.

Sweat away pounds as you lift verbs, press nouns into service.

Lose those ugly pounds of bitter regret.

Say goodbye to the weight of sadness –

the confounding poundage

of a heavy heart.