This week guest poets Irene Latham and Charles Waters will be visiting East Grand Rapids Middle School to share their new book Can I Touch Your Hair? — Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship. Anticipating conversations around these truly honest poems, I wasn’t sure how best to prepare middle school students. I wanted to expose students to the poets’ work, but I’ll admit, I was concerned about how the poems would affect certain students in my classes. My school has a predominately white population with a smaller group of minority students. I did not want to create any discomfort for students, particularly those of minority backgrounds. But of course if it is our belief as human beings, and especially teachers, to prioritize comfort over dialogue, we will never hold open discussions about difficult topics. After all, I told myself, it was the opportunity for this exchange which had prompted my grant proposal to invite Irene and Charles.
Deeply aware of the discussions I had taken part in at NCTE in November, my head was full of thoughts. During session, a diverse group of teachers had the opportunity to meet Irene and Charles and take a peek at, Can I Touch Your Hair?
“What is the age group the book targets?” some wondered, “Which point of view feels validated?” inquired another. “Should we introduce some of the topics which our students have not been exposed to, or should we wait?”. In other words, teachers felt they needed to be prepared to share this book.
Rather than attempting to solve all of these questions in advance, I decided to have some fun introducing the book with my students. Instead of reading the work aloud myself, I split students into partners and gave each pair a set of poems to present to the class. (For teachers unfamiliar with the book’s format, the poems are presented in groups of two, one written in Irene’s voice, and the other in Charles’ voice.) My seventh grade students began by re-reading the poems they had been given, looking through a particular lens each day. For example, one day students were asked to discuss the settings of their set of poems, another day they looked for connections they had with the poems. Each day they practiced how they would present to classmates at the end of the week.
At times we may underestimate the quality of “openness” our students are capable of, even middle schoolers, but as Irene reminded me through email after I’d shared the picture below: “Poetry is fun.” There is so much power in laughter. I watched my students’ faces as they observed one another performing. Every student was engaged and smiling. While we as teachers might be uncomfortable approaching these challenging topics, when we let the kids enter the poems, they prove able to both acknowledge the weight of the subject matter while also having fun. I am looking forward to seeing what further layers Irene and Charles will add to this conversation this week.
Please notice “Irene” in the blond wig!