An Interview with WITS Duo John McCartney and Arianne True
May 20, 2020
By Gabriela Denise Frank
Poetry tills the soil of our hearts.
By till, I mean cultivate. By cultivate, I mean poetry works the earth of our humanity. By work, I mean it disturbs the fallow routines of everyday life. Poetry breaks the crust of habit. It loosens old roots, amends the spirit with language, imagery, metaphor, assonance, alliteration—nutrients by which poems feed the loam of our thinking. Poetry teaches us to perceive and engage with the world anew.
I spoke about the connection between poetry and the body with John McCartney, a Writers in the Schools (WITS) teacher at Hamilton International Middle School, and poet and WITS Writer-in-Residence Arianne True. John and Arianne work with eleven- and twelve-year-old students to explore this link, employing physical movement in the reading, analysis and writing of poetry. Chance brought John and Arianne to the same classroom; their shared values as educators and a desire to experiment with learning modalities has blossomed into a magical collaboration. Today, the strength of their mutual respect and friendship affords students a safe space to learn, play—and even dance—with poetry.
John and Arianne’s enthusiasm for teaching is infectious. We spoke about how they met through WITS, how they combine forces to teach poetry to youth and the challenges of working in education without the physical community of a classroom. Both expressed hope that our current stay-at-home order yields awareness, change and support of the diverse needs of young learners. John and Arianne’s passion brought to mind my own favorite teachers—those whose sensitivity and faith in my abilities guided me towards learning yet encouraged me to navigate my own growth, meaning the lessons I came away with were mine.
Education, in its truest sense, is about cultivating curiosity, thoughtfulness and confidence. To learn something is to risk failure, even ridicule, but it is in trying and wobbling that we build muscle memory. We don’t have to be perfect to be good—or to grow. I was so inspired by watching John and Arianne’s poetry dance lesson (with help from Chance the Rapper) that I tried it in my living room. It felt good to stretch and move, to link my limbs (achy from gardening) with my voice and the words of a poem. To ache, to laugh, to move, to reflect, to teeter, to breathe—that’s what it means to be alive.
At the end of our conversation, I asked Arianne what poetry we should be reading now.
“No matter what—if you’re happy or sad—read Ross Gay,” she said.
In his poem, Thank You, Gay advises us not to take cover from fear but to, “curl your toes / into the grass, watch the cloud / ascending from your lips. Walk / through the garden’s dormant splendor / Say only, thank you. / Thank you.” Thank you, John and Arianne, for your caring and tireless work in fostering meaningful connections—poetry, body, spirit, discovery.
The following conversation has been excerpted from a longer interview. Read the interview in its entirety here, or listen to it below.
Frank: Tell us how you met through Writers in the Schools and how your professional relationship has blossomed into a collaboration.
True: I was asked to take over John’s residency, which was very exciting.
McCartney: We met briefly—very briefly. The first day clinched it. We had natural similarities in how we approach interacting with students and what we wanted to see in a classroom.
True: John was so excited about doing dancing and poetry with the students that I thought, Okay! We can really take off.
McCartney: We’re usually coming off of a fiction unit when we start with spring residencies. At our school, we read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. After learning how to analyze fiction, then we move into poetry. This year, we tried a lot of new things. I coordinated with Arianne ahead of time on a common language around terms, and I assigned a range of different kinds of poems from different backgrounds. I had some poetry by San’yō, the Japanese poet from the 12th century and pieces by Langston Hughes. A pretty broad survey.
True: I found it helpful going in after the students developed an understanding of terms like stanza and line. Having the foundation of basic concepts meant that we could jump in more easily and play more.
Frank: How do students engage with poetry during the WITS residency?
McCartney: People don’t often think of a language arts class as kinesthetic. Our work gives students who might not prefer doing things on paper another way to interact with poetry. It’s the best chance to get all kids engaged and involved.
True: Writing poetry isn’t the only way to interact with it. Getting kids to put it into their body and manifest it is fun—and it’s fun to watch. Last year, a kid who was fairly quiet busted out these sick moves on our dancing day, and was the energetic center of the room. People respond differently. Some struggle with it. Some get it right away. But everyone was willing to try. The dancing day is one of my favorite days.
McCartney: In one exercise, we have the class watch a video of Chance the Rapper, who is not a trained dancer, performing one of his songs. Seeing somebody who is recognizable and not necessarily great at dancing makes it safer for a lot of kids.
True: He dances with someone who is a trained dancer and choreographer. I’m a trained dancer, and John is a fantastic dancer but does not have classical training. I like how that mirrors it. Whatever level of dance or whatever level of dance training that you have is a great level to start engaging from.
Frank: What have you learned from each other and from working together?
McCartney: I’ve become more confident in where my body fits into poetry. I’m willing to stand in front of a crowd of students and be as weird as possible.We have lots of conversations about student experiences, from that far-out-there philosophical level to the details of learning about new poets, and we go and see poets speak at Town Hall events together.
True: For me, it’s more about confidence. It’s all the experiments I want to do with students that John welcomes and I do not have to sell. For someone else to jump on board with that and say, Yes—and let’s add this thing to it, was very empowering for me. I come from an experiential and facilitative background as an educator, and that is how I like to teach. Having John reaffirm and build on that has helped me realize I do know what I’m doing and what I have to offer is really cool.
Frank: What does it feel like to be a teacher now? How are you helping your students navigate change?
McCartney: The day of the closure, which we thought would be two weeks, we sat down and said, “Let’s talk about continuity. That’s we’re going to try to reach for.”
True: The curriculum John and I developed is much better done in person, however all of us WITS teachers are recording lessons so that students can access the videos online. John and I recorded the lesson that we wrote together.
McCartney: When we were talking earlier about having similar priorities and values when it comes to education, I’d say Arianne and I both look at school as community first. Our job is to guide students through their own learning, to address things that would keep them from being able to grow the way that they want and need to. Our tools for taking away many of those obstacles—we don’t have those things right now.
Frank: What do you see coming in terms of future adaptations or change from an educational perspective?
McCartney: There’s a real opportunity to notice inherent inequities in the system and try to address them with policy before we go back. I think there’s valuable potential in asynchronous learning, if there is a framework to support that. My concern is the students who are going to need backup—not technological, but emotional and social.
True: I also teach at a private school where most students have internet at home. There is financial aid to help them with access to technology, if they need it. There, we’re thinking about collaboration because our work together was originally supposed to be highly collaborative, but here, we can’t promise that people have the materials at home to make it happen. The current situation keeps pointing out, over and over, glaring access issues—things that were already happening—but this situation holds up a magnifying glass.
McCartney: It’s hard to communicate the broad range of needs that students have. We start with, do they have a computer or not? But you also have students who have to help take care of a sibling or a needy pet. I also think of the type of parent who will ask their student a question and then answer the question. How do I ensure best teaching practices for them? Social and emotional needs are not only acute crises. There are lots of different aspects to mental health that kids need addressed. The different ways teachers have traditionally been able to reach out to those students are not available right now.
Frank: If you could tell your students anything right now, what would you say?
True: I think they’re the best and I miss them. I’m so bummed we didn’t get to have our whole residency together. They’re really cool.
McCartney: Same. I have the benefit of seeing them a little bit. If this was reaching the kids who I haven’t yet been able to see, I would want them to know, it’s cool, if they haven’t been able to make it. Do what’s best. Don’t be down on yourself.
True: I would say to the kiddos—and everyone else—whatever you’re doing to get yourself through this is fine. As long as you are not harming anyone else, whatever you do is a fine thing.
Frank: What is keeping each of you buoyant?
True: A lot of things. I’ve been getting back into things I loved when I was younger—a lot of video games, like Pokémon Let’s Go Eevee. I’ve been playing since elementary school, and I’m still having just as good a time.
McCartney: I paint Dungeons & Dragons miniatures, and my wife and I are avid birdwatchers. When it’s really quiet, you can stand under a tree and get to know the voices of all the little hopping and flittering creatures and figure out who’s who and who says what, and where they like to build their nests. That’s been really great.
True: There’s no traffic sound anymore where I live. I’m hearing things I couldn’t hear before. I live near Carkeek Park and I can hear the train on the tracks and I can hear birds I couldn’t hear before. That’s been a joy.
Frank: Is there any poetry that we should tune into right now?
True: Anytime people ask me what they should read, I say, “You should read Ross Gay.” No matter what—if you’re happy, read Ross Gay; if you’re really sad—same thing.
Gabriela Denise Frank is a literary artist whose work has appeared in galleries, storefronts, libraries, anthologies, magazines, podcasts, and online. Her essays and fiction have been published in True Story, Hunger Mountain, Bayou, Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, Pembroke, The Normal School and The Rumpus. A Jack Straw Writer and Artist Trust EDGE alumna, Gabriela’s work is supported by 4Culture, Mineral School, Vermont Studio Center, Jack Straw, Invoking the Pause and the Civita Institute. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com