Teaching is an Act of Poetry

This post was written by Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, Mike Johnston.

You are poetry.

It’s true. If there is one thing that I have learned unequivocally as a teacher, poetry educator and advocate, slam poet and spoken word artist over the past fifteen plus years of my experience, it is that everyone around me is a constant poet. You are a poet. You are a poem. You are an act of poetry. 

Taking a minute to add historical context to where that seed was planted for me, in 2017 I was named a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow through National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. At the same time, I was in the midst of a solid slam poetry run, which is competitive performance poetry if that is a new concept to you. I travelled, competed and won internationally, which gave way to invitations to come in and work with students and educators. It was a privilege to use what I knew to try and help them create their own poetry. That privilege travelled with me to the Galapagos Islands, where part of my Grosvenor teacher journey had me running poetry workshops on the equator. 

This is one of the most meaningful poetic moments of my life; a gifted notebook on a beach in the Galapagos Islands, trying to encapsulate what being a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow meant with a sea lion and her pup as helpful editors.

This was where the book, which is aptly named You Are Poetry, grew roots for me into the idea that poetry wasn’t simply something that could be done or studied, it was a skill set and a philosophy and a way of seeing the world for me. I have tremendous respect for the fact that poetry by its definition is compressed language, a way of building with words that have emotional intention. I realized that poetry was a way in which I could take the meaningful opportunity of representing National Geographic in one of the true wilds of our shared planet – the Galapagos Islands – and make it something that others could feel through my experience. I could bring them without a passport to the beaches where I wrote poetry by the light of the setting sun with my feet in the sand surrounded by symphony breathing of dozens of big bodied sea lions wrapped around their pups. I could bring them to the cold rush of sea water lapping at my knees while ancient green sea turtles brushed their beaks and flippers against me in welcome and approval. 

But then, during a poetry workshop seeking to encapsulate the experience of the Galapagos for others, I was surprised that one of the new poets I was guiding wrote about how those same experiences that were changing my life for the better, instead gave them a sense of fear because the animals surrounding us were endangered and the spaces we were falling in love with were increasingly polluted. That expedition helped me to understand that poetry is far more than a writing style; it is something that we are all in the process of actively engaging in without always knowing how to name. 

This is the moment of unboxing a manifesto that uncountable experiences had inspired for me as an educator. My cats were more so excited about the packing paper.

So I wrote this book with the intention of helping educators and their learners and everyone in between have a deeper connection to and understanding for poetry, absolutely. I wanted it to be a manual that would help guide new poets, those who might be reluctant to see themselves as poets, and give them the step by step tools to make that who they see in reflective surfaces and reflective practice. And reflection is what I would like to offer you now. I would like to challenge you, in this moment as an educator or learner or that beautiful fusion of the two, to see yourself as a poet and as an act of poetry for all that you already do. Look past experiences that you build with poetry as the intention. Poetry, like any other art, requires an audience. It begs to be considered. It needs to be a conversation. 

I want you to take a moment to see that every inch of what you have done this year as an educator and as a learner, as a human being, is already an act of poetry. When you have engaged in science and geography learning, espousing the Explorer Mindset through curiosity, observation and collaboration, you have been an act of poetry asking others to exchange with you and with each other their unique experiences. When you have asked them to study the history of those who came before them, to explore ancient civilizations and understand the human journey, they connect themselves to the wind and the tastes and the smells and the feeling of being in those moments, in the poetry of the bones of those who came before us. When you ask them to solve math problems and calculate the physics of how our shared planet operates, when you humanize numerical interactions, you are asking them to feel that sense of meaningful struggle and discovery and seeking out ways to understand things with universal connective tissues. 

You are a poet and an act of poetry when you sit with any student, struggling or soaring, and build emotional understanding between your experiences which leads to more informed and meaningful instruction. You are a poet in every outfit you choose with jewelry that carries stories like the artifacts that we unearth to teach social studies and socks that speak volumes about how you see yourself, what you want others to see in you. Every time you really open yourself up to the meaning of the artifacts and the ways students want to be understood, you are an act of poetry. Blessed as we are as educators to be in the business of people, having, giving and modelling the tools of honest emotional literacy through all of how and what we teach is the very essence of poetry. 

So take a minute to breathe. Reflect. See and understand the infinite ways that you may not even have fully been aware of, you have absolutely been engaging in acts of poetry through all that you do as an educator. You have been a poet. You have engaged with the poet in your students and colleagues. All of which makes one thing an absolute truth; you are poetry. 


Want to learn more about how to cultivate an Explorer Mindset in your learners using innovative resources? Interested in joining a supportive community of educators? Sign up for our free, self-paced hour-long mini-course “Developing a National Geographic Explorer Mindset With Your Learners.”

One thought on “Teaching is an Act of Poetry

  1. This post is mind blowing! I demand more posts as these. This post reminded me of my of was long gone. I was very emotionally attached with him. Long live his soul.

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