Book Review: Teaching with Fire and Leading from Within, both edited by Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner
By: Caroline Griswold
Date: August 2008
Summary: Caroline Griswold reviews Teaching with Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach and Leading from Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead, and finds that the books succeed in their intention to sustain and inspire those in serving professions.
"Take a moment away . . . and speak to us about who you are, why you do what you do, and how you keep your heart and commitment alive in your work."
This is what editors Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner asked of the contributors to their two collections of poetry and reflections, Teaching with Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach and Leading from Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead. In both books the editors have gathered poems that speak to individual teachers and leaders in a range of disciplines, as well as brief reflections or vignettes from the contributors on why these poems sustain them.
Both Teaching with Fire and Leading from Within are conceived and produced by the Center for Courage & Renewal, a nonprofit organization originally created by educator and activist Parker J. Palmer and the Fetzer Institute to support public school teachers. The center has since expanded its reach to encompass "those in serving professions" like clergy, health care practitioners, and legal professionals. The center's goal is to "help people reconnect who they are with what they do."
Reading the collections together also brings home a concept that the National Writing Project values deeply: recognizing teachers as leaders in their schools and communities. While Teaching with Fire offers a personal look at teachers' experiences and inspirations, Leading from Within provides a broader perspective on what it means—and takes—to be a leader.
As Madeleine K. Albright writes in the Foreword to Leading from Within, "true leadership comes not from the sound of a commanding voice but from the nudging of an inner voice—from our own realization that the time has come to go beyond dreaming to doing."
There is joy to be found in reading these collections for many reasons, but one of the most rewarding aspects of both books is that they offer us a rare glimpse at something both personal and profound: the piece of writing that, above all others, sustains us as well as our friends, co–workers, and fellow teachers.
Both collections present the poems in the same format: an approximately 300–word reflection from the contributor, with the favorite poem itself on the opposite page. The books, with their square shape and accessible layout, can function almost like books of daily meditation; as I read them over a period of several weeks I found myself flipping randomly to a page and reading the vignette and poem I found there. Some pieces evoked a reflective pause in my day; others made me laugh out loud. Quite a few brought tears to my eyes with their courage and sense of hope.
True leadership comes not from the sound of a commanding voice but from the nudging of an inner voice.
As someone who has always read poetry not only out of personal love for the genre but also to find poems that might speak to my students, I expected to enjoy reading these collections purely because I looked forward to seeing which poems the contributors had chosen. Would they choose any of my favorite poems? Would the books introduce me to some new favorites?
As I expected, I enjoyed both books for these very reasons—old and new gems were uncovered with each reading. However, I was surprised to realize how much I looked forward to reading and rereading the collections for the contributors' personal stories. One of the strongest aspects of both collections is that the contributors' reflections are often as compelling as the poems they write about.
Many of the poems found their way into these collections because they inspire or bring strength to their reader. However, some of the poems—in Teaching with Fire in particular—serve as inspiration for both the teacher and the classroom. Betsy Motten, a fourth grade teacher in Pennsylvania, writes about her passion for using poetry to pass along to her students a greater awareness of the natural world. She turns to Marcie Hans's poem "Fueled" to do this:
by a million
wings of fire—
the rocket tore a tunnel
through the sky—
and everybody cheered.
only by a thought from God—
urged its way
through thickness of black—
and as it pierced
the heavy ceiling of the soil—
and launched itself
up into outer space—
Motten uses this poem to frame an outing with her students where they "clapped and cheered for tiny seedlings, patted crayfish on their backs, sketched May apples, and met insects eye to eye." Motten's piece is almost a lesson plan in itself—another idea to take back to the classroom. And yet it also functions as a reminder that, rather than waiting for rockets that tear tunnels through the sky, teaching can sometimes be an exercise in clapping for the tiniest seedlings.
When It's Hard
Poetry can also serve to remind the contributors why they continue doing what they do—teaching, leading, fighting for a cause, even waiting—as it did for Hanna B. Sherman, M.D., whose piece on David Whyte's poem "The Opening of Eyes" appears in Leading from Within. Whyte writes that life is
...the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.
Sherman writes about yearning, like many of her colleagues, to rediscover her personal connection with her work. She says that she found Whyte's poem "at a critical juncture in [her] work, a time when [she] could have turned to the call of [her] heart or let its whisperings fall deeper into silence."
One poem that appears in both collections and is particularly good at helping us to reflect on what it takes to maintain the connection between who we are and what we do is "Fire," by Judy Brown. Brown writes,
What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
In her vignette on the poem in Teaching with Fire, Maggie Anderson, a middle and high school science teacher in Montana, reflects on her realization that in her life she "was piling on too many logs too tightly and the flame inside [her] was beginning to wane."
This poem is perhaps the greatest reminder in the two collections of our need as teachers and leaders to find the breathing spaces in our work in order to keep our passion and dedication from waning. In writing about the same poem in Leading from Within, Becky van der Bogert writes about working "to focus on 'being' rather than 'doing,'" and reconciling that with her realization that "[her] being is 'doing.'"
The contributors' reflections are often as compelling as the poems they write about.
In addition to inspiring us personally, these collections explore the notion that poetry can inspire us to work as a community to effect change. Jim Kielsmeier, the founder, president, and CEO of the National Youth Leadership Council, turns to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s poetic sermon "The Drum Major Instinct" when he needs inspiration for his work with students. King declared that "everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. . . . You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. . . . You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. . . . You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant."
Irene Martin, a writer and Episcopal priest, finds strength and a call to action in Louis MacNeice's poem "Snow." MacNeice writes: "World is crazier and more of it than we think / Incorrigibly plural." Martin's reflection on the poem offers strength to anyone who has felt the burden of a world that can seem "incorrigibly plural." For her the poem "is a reminder that things may appear 'various,' 'collateral and incompatible,' but through careful listening there may be a bigger picture that will come into view, an action to take, a way to serve. Or a poem."
Solace and Strength
In the introduction to Teaching with Fire, the editors write that "poetry has forever helped us remember what it means to be human." Reading and reflecting on these personal pairings makes it easy to believe the truth of this statement, and to feel that, despite our differences in profession or background, we all at times have a need to find "solace and strength" in our work. The best poems and writings in these two collections do these two things beautifully.