Recently, Little Patuxent Review interviewed our deputy editor, Ann Bracken, about her new book of poetry, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom. Ann has worked with LPR starting with our inception in 2006. For the past 20 years she has taught children and adults, and those experiences serve as the inspiration for this new book.
Little Patuxent Review: How have your experiences as a teacher influenced your writing? What aspect of education inspired you to write No Barking in the Hallways?
Ann Bracken: I began writing my student poems when I taught high school in a psychiatric hospital. Many of the students were there because no other school had a place for them due to their emotional distress that resulted in a lot of difficult behaviors. What I learned in that job is that there are no “bad kids,” but rather awful circumstances that cause pain and trauma. Writing poems about my students helped me to understand them better and to treat them with the compassion they deserved.
I wanted to write No Barking in the Hallways because I believe in the power of personal stories to help people understand complex issues, such as high-stakes testing. The emphasis on test scores negatively affects both teachers and students, especially those with special needs. For example, many of the young men I taught struggled with reading, but rather than accept help and move forward, they developed avoidance behaviors so they could look cool and tough as opposed to being labeled as dumb. Many of those boys were mechanically or artistically gifted, yet they were stuck in classes that drilled them on multiple-choice items so they could pass the high-stakes graduation tests. Because their grades were poor, they were not eligible for the technical classes where they could have blossomed. So for them, school was a place of frustration rather than a gateway to hope.
As for my colleagues, many of them doubled-down on rigid, practice-driven activities just to cover material that would be on tests. I also had an administrator who bribed kids with prom tickets to take the test over again, even when they had passed, just so the school’s numbers would look better for the central office.
LPR: How did this project differ from others you have done in the past?
AB: My previous book, The Altar of Innocence, is a memoir in verse that deals with addiction, depression, and the struggle to claim one’s voice. That book has a chronological framework and each poem is based on a scene from my past. My new book features the stories of students and teachers I have known since I first began teaching. The poems are in a looser framework so that the reader experiences stories of individual children and teachers who struggle to find relevance in today’s increasingly standardized, rigid world of public education.
LPR: Your poems feature the voices and stories of real teachers and students. Could you provide an example of a story that inspired one your poems?
AB: “The Voices in My Ear” is based on an article I read by Amy Berand, a young teacher in a charter school who was being trained in a very robotic, harsh method of discipline called No Nonsense Nurturing. Amy worked in a middle school, and while she was being trained, she had to wear an earpiece so that she could hear the prompting from three coaches who stood in the back of her classroom and told her how to respond to students. I was struck by Berand’s description of the method, especially because she was equipped with an earpiece to hear the coaches but had no mouthpiece to answer them. The trio of coaches gave her short phrases to say and told her to stop expressing her emotions, to stop praising the students. I found the article very disturbing on a number of levels, chiefly because most teachers know the best way to help students learn self-management is to treat them kindly and to get to know them and their interests. A teacher should form a real relationship and show respect for the students as people. No Nonsense Nurturing trains teachers to act like robots who speak with pre-programmed responses rather than to engage with students as individuals.
LPR: What changes do you feel need to be made in education to better reflect the experiences of students?
AB: First, I’d eliminate most uses of the computer for students in the classroom—see this article on the push for competency-based education for my reasoning. Teachers would guide student learning using hands-on experiences to explore a curriculum based on research and age-appropriate objectives. The curriculum would be decided on a state level, with each school system free to adapt parts of it according to local needs. Art, music, and physical education would be as important to the school experience as reading, writing, math, social studies, and science skills. The Common Core curriculum, PARCC, SBAC, and all standardized testing would be eliminated. No more Teach for America. No more charter schools and vouchers. Higher pay for teachers. Local control in the hands of elected school boards would be the norm. Most of all, we would be guiding our students to become thoughtful, kind, informed citizens and treat them with dignity and respect.
LPR: How can we better meld the arts with education?
AB: If we value creativity, and our business folks are always searching for that quality, then we need to improve the opportunities for children to be creative. You can’t foster creativity with standardization, rigid curriculums, and corporate-designed lessons. We need to keep the arts—music, poetry, dance, visual art, and theater—in the forefront of our children’s education. Not only do the arts offer a variety of ways to express oneself personally, they also offer a chance to speak to issues in new and challenging ways. Most important, the arts offer all of us a way to imagine the future, to move beyond what constrains us and to create a new vision for society. Instead of cutting the arts, we should be expanding them.
If you’d like to know more about Ann and her work, please visit her website at www.annbrackenauthor.com. Ann’s launch reading for No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom is on February 24th at Zu Coffee in Annapolis, MD, from 6:30-8:30 pm. Diane Wilbon Parks will also be featured at the event, part of the reading series The Poet Experience.