Teaching at College Prep
: 30 years
You’ve been teaching poetry, and a wide variety of English classes, at College Prep for 30 years. Has poetry always been a part of your life?
Poetry’s been my thing since I was a child. Of all the teaching that I do at College Prep, I feel as though I’m at my best in the Creative Writing: Poetry Seminar because of my orientation toward poetry and the way it speaks to me. When I was young, my dad used to read me poems at bedtime. I still remember lines from certain ones, like those by Robert Browning, which didn’t put me to sleep, but left me wide awake because they were electrifying. One of my jobs as a kid was to be the family poet, and it was a serious job. I wrote poems for all the things we did together as a family. I loved it.
How did poetry become an academic interest for you?
In high school I distinctly remember going into the library and pulling poetry books off the shelf. I found a poem by A.R. Ammons called “Reflective.” It’s a short poem about allowing yourself to not be perfect, to simply be yourself. The poem left a deep impression on me, so I cut it out and put it on my mirror at home. Then, when I got to Cornell I found out that A.R. Ammons was on the faculty! I studied with him for several years during college, and kept in touch with him for a long time. He was my academic poet mentor.
How do you structure your Creative Writing: Poetry class?
The poetry seminar is completely different than teaching a literature class mainly because the text of the poetry class is the students’ own writing and the subject matter is highly personal. At the beginning of the semester, I ask my students to sign a contract with me, agreeing to basic ground rules. The most important rule is that the workshop process is positive, the classroom is a safe space, and they should strive to be experimental and take risks with their work. After they sign the contact, students are issued a laminated “Poetic License.” This entitles them to freely invoke the muse, and it starts the class off with something playful.
Each week I share different authors and styles with the class, and they have to write their own 20 lines of poetry. There is a lot of enthusiastic and supportive participation in peer workshops. Students also choose a poet’s work to appreciate, analyze, emulate, and present to the class. It’s such fun for me because every year I get introduced to so many new poets. The writing workshop culminates in students producing a portfolio of their own poetry. Then they choose which to read at the poetry reading at the end of the spring semester in May.
How did the poetry reading tradition get started?
Years ago, my students started it because they wanted to share what they’d written with their friends. Our first reading was in the amphitheater, which is where the Scott MacPherson Stapleton World Languages and Cultures Center is now. Each year the attendance grew as word got out. Now it’s a school-wide event—even alumni come back to listen. The poems range from funny to moving, and all are extraordinary.
How has your teaching style evolved during your tenure at College Prep?
I was originally hired to teach poetry, but I also teach ninth grade English as well as seminars for juniors and seniors. Teaching freshman is really interesting and fun. In my freshman English courses we work on demystifying things. I want students to understand the “why” behind everything I’m asking them do so that they understand it’s not just busy work. I like to have fun in my classroom, too. For example, learning something as seemingly rote as grammar, we’ll play with writing preposition poems. In my seminar classes my feedback is in the form of a letter, and I ask that the students compose a hand-written letter back. It gives them an opportunity to explain their thinking, and often the letters are very thoughtful and end up being better than their papers. These letters/reflections are a sneaky way to get students to do more writing as well as to focus on my comments instead of on the grade they received. I prefer to do a lot more listening than talking. I have to be focused on what students are saying in order to tease out a comment or get another student to pick up and extend an idea. When the discussion is good, it just flows in an organic way. In every class I teach, I always work toward that, keeping it lively, creative, and fun.
The student poetry and literary magazine The Steele is a legacy of Nancy's work.