The Conservatory

In a normal year, the Summer Institute meets in person, but this past year it was forced to go virtual.  This was a blessing for me, as I had moved from South Carolina to New York, but could still participate in the Upstate Writing Project Summer Institute.  However, as many teachers know, this virtual learning blessing also posed a large problem in terms of community.  How do you build community when your community is spread across the country?

One of our solutions was writing Collaborative Poetry.  This involved flooding the chat with bits of our own writing, then combining them into a formal poem.  Our first poem was ‘as is.’  It was disjointed, and while I jumped at the chance to put it into sensible stanzas, I changed nothing.  Not even a comma, not even a period.  This is to be expected the first few times if you try this in your own classroom.  Students will not be comfortable manipulating or giving feedback on each other’s work unless there is a strong and open community of learning.  And that doesn’t happen overnight.

However, over the course of a year the comfort level within the class will increase, and so will our students’ comfort level with language.  At the end of the year, our Summer Institute community of learning expanded beyond anything we could’ve imagined.  We had group texts.  We had inside jokes.  We had monthly Zoom meetings.  And we had writing.

At our last meeting, as we reflected on the year, something magical happened.  The words we came up with, the words we chose, were filled with magic.  They reflected the tears, and the threat to our sanity, and the threat to learning, but they also reflected our perseverance to our students, our perseverance to learning, and our ability to be mindful observers within a global pandemic.

During our last meeting when I was chosen to edit our final poem, I knew I had to go all out.  By this time I had become comfortable manipulating the punctuation and repetition like a puzzle.  Our final poem was written just as the first: by the group of us.  Without our community it wouldn’t have felt complete.  Finally, what arrived was “The Conservatory.”  So without further adieu, enjoy our poem.

I called my classroom “The Conservatory.”
We would grow, together, protected and enclosed.
But the explosion was imminent
With students’ minds like sponges,
Soaked in gasoline.
I wondered who it was they would see:
A teacher with a mask and shield
They can not see the Rest:
The wiggles and the bounces that shake
the chair screws loose,
the fidgets and the nervous giggles trying to make
the suffocating mask loose.
They can not see the Rest:
A year of challenges, hopes and inspirations that will never be forgotten.

I called my classroom “The Conservatory.”
We are the oak tree,
Always steady,
Always there.
This unexpected exposure,
Of a fragile fluorescent fault line,
Must be made to grow us all.
We unmasked parts of ourselves
never shared with a class before.
Instead of hiding,
We forged community.
We found new ways
to be human to one another.
The love; The laughs; The Tears;
A walk to remember in spite of all our fears.
Sweet students excited to be in school eager to learn and please
A year of trial, a year of doubt,
a year of challenges, and a constant change of routes.
We just want to breathe.

I called my classroom “The Conservatory.”
One breath.
Conspiracies still wafting through the air,
Two breaths.
Intent on contempt.
Three breaths.
Circle icons filled with initials,
Four breaths.
They slowly turned into real, live fifth graders.
Real, live middle schoolers.
Real, live high schoolers.

We won’t remember the defeat or the failures we felt, but
We were here.
We saw.
The teachers.
The oak trees.
Forced to sway and bend,
We did not break—
We excelled!
I called my classroom “The Conservatory.”

This poem was written by members of the Upstate Writing Project Summer Institute 2020-2021, and was edited by Kyle McHugh.

Contributors (alphabetically by last name): Kathy Berry-Burns, Shavoyae Brown, Gina Collins, Meredith Dantzler, Kimberly Edwards, Amanda Ferguson, Lindsey Finley, Rebecca Kaminski, Michelle Lynch, Kyle McHugh, Michaela Mitchell, Tobi Pirolla, Renee Rogers, Heather Sox, James Stitt, and Leigh Tuell

Photo is of the Lincoln Park Conservatory from the Chicago Park District.