A Blog of Seattle Arts & Lectures

WITS Voices: If Found, Please Return to—

By Katy E. Ellis, WITS Writer-in-Residence

My first year as a WITS instructor, I handwrote each day’s plan in a small red notebook that I toted to the kindergarten classes at Broadview-Thomson K-8. This year, I referred back to those lessons and added new lessons to the notebook, which I carried like a security blanket to my fourth grade classes at Whittier Elementary.

For every class, I scrupulously calculated the timing of the lessons. I gave ardent thought to questions I could ask the students in order to spark conversations. I wrote DOCCAM when it was time to project a poem or the day’s writing mission on the big screen. Afterwards, I made notes to myself about what worked, what didn’t. At the end of these sessions I had a detailed map of my experiences in the classroom.

In February, I accepted an unexpected intensive (three week) residency with fourth graders at Broadview Thomson K-8. I can do this! I thought. My plan was to teach the exact same fourth grade syllabus using my handy little red notebook.

The only problem was that the notebook disappeared.

At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I cannot tell you how greatly this loss affected me. I looked everywhere and blamed everyone (mostly in my head) for its disappearance. The lessons contained in the little red notebook were perfect, like an absentee parent or the poem the cat (asleep on the keyboard) deleted or a favorite flannel shirt accidentally left behind at the Laundromat.

Suddenly every new lesson—even if I taught it three times before—felt doomed to be disorganized and flawed. Plagued by vague memories of seamless segues and prescient answers to unasked questions, I planned my classes with dread. I would never be as good as I was with my inimitable notebook.

After a few consecutive days in the classroom, however, I remembered that one of the best (and worst) things about teaching is the need to go with the flow, to respond to unforeseen situations or questions quickly and calmly, to adapt. These kids were not the exact same kids I’d previously taught after all. Their teachers and classroom décor were different. Even the weather had changed since I’d taught the lessons in the little red notebook.

Not without trepidation, I created new—never been taught by me before!—lessons because I’d been inspired by my WITS cohorts and by various poems I’d come across. For example, Joy Harjo’s poem Remember, a poem that begins:

Remember the sky that you were born under
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.

And with simple, loving language, the poem goes on to tell us the important things in life that we should always remember.

While reveling in reading and responding to my students’ writing prompted by my lesson on Joy Harjo’s poem, I came across these words by fourth grader Yohana Woldegiorgis:

Remember the times when you meet friends
and other people with some bumps along the way.
Remember if you lose something you can be sad
your whole life, or you can be sad but move on
and still have fun.

I’ve come to teaching late in life with a long employment history of cubical life amongst county government workers who follow a written SOP (standard operating procedure) for just about every situation. Often, I was called upon to write trusty protocols, which were then disseminated to co-workers to place in his or her Employee Manual. For the most part, life as an Administrative Specialist subscribed to a rulebook (which I followed).

A life of teaching poetry does not. I’m going to remember that.

Katy E. Ellis grew up under fir trees and high-voltage power lines in Renton, Washington. She studied writing at the University of Victoria and at Western Washington University. She is the author of two chapbooks, and her poetry has appeared in many literary journals in the U.S. and Canada. Katy also teaches writing to home school children in West Seattle.

Posted in Writers in the Schools