take out the “sh”
and it’s cool

Starting is often hardest – the first gesture determines so much of what follows. This is true for poems, for personal introductions, even for blog posts! It’s also true when thinking about the school day.

At my school, like so many others, the day officially commences with a student reading of the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s a nice idea to have students read, but the readings – whether giggly or sober -- are all delivered in the same sing-song manner, as I assume they are in every other school. I don’t mean to sounds critical of these students, but the point of the pledge is often not patriotic reflection but a means of bringing the school to order. The pledge functions like a judge’s gavel, a drawn out “sh,” a pre-hypnotic suggestion that promises we will eventually awaken and remember nothing.

Unlike many schools, my current school (a large suburban public school) only re-instated the pledge as a daily duty in 2002 after a group of veterans from the community insisted that, in light of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the pledge be recited every day. (Not to be outdone, a nearby public high school began each day with the recorded voice of John Wayne reading the pledge).

2001 was also the year then-poet-laureate, Billy Collins, launched his ambitious Poetry 180 project, so named because it provided one poem for every day of the school year – to be read over the PA system after daily announcements. His goal was “to encourage students and other learners to become members of the circle of readers for whom poetry is a vital source of pleasure.” I love the idea of waiting until the other announcements are over – all the clerical, bureaucratic business – before inviting the school to hear language that can be pleasurable – and inventive and imaginative. Such language conveys an important sub-text: Today will not be the same as every other day. Today you will be surprised. Today you will hear and learn new things. Today words matter.

At my last school, a university prep school, we had no PA system, but we tried the Poetry 180 Project anyway. I can take no credit for this initiative. A student, whom I’ll call John McDevitt (because that was his name!) took it upon himself to Xerox copies of all the poems in the Poetry 180 project and invited homeroom teachers to start their day with a poem. I don’t know how many teachers actually used the poems to open the day, and I certainly don’t know how to measure the success of the project, but I do know that we had fun reading the poems, sometimes parodying the poems, and that lines from some of the poems became running jokes or enduring refrains throughout the year.

Educational theorist Jerome Bruner talks of two different kinds of school language – the legal and the literary. The former, he says, is concerned with the world as it is, the latter the world as it might be. Starting the school day with a poem really might enliven us to the possibility of the world – or at least language – as it might be.

Originally Published: October 3rd, 2009

John S. O'Connor's poems have appeared in places such as Poetry East and RHINO. He has written two books on teaching: This Time It's Personal: Teaching Academic Writing through Creative Nonfiction (2011) and Wordplaygrounds: Reading, Writing, and Performing Poetry in the English Classroom (2004). He earned his BA and MAT from the University of Chicago and his PhD from...

  1. October 3, 2009
     Henry Gould

    The trouble is, the world as it might be - without the world as it is - turns out to be sort of boring. The Pledge & the Poem, say, at two ends of a continuum. Either end, without the other, is liable to sing-song mockery.\r

    There is something poetic in the unspoken gesture of the Pledge. & there is something bureaucratic in the *****150***** Days of Pure Poetry (via loudspeaker).\r

    See RP Blackmur, "Language as Gesture" - a classic essay.

  2. October 3, 2009

    I get it.\r


  3. October 7, 2009

    But this isn't the only poetry they get, right? I tend to agree with Henry, that if they only get the bureaucratic big brother voice of the poem every morning and not the intimate voice of the poet, then I'd have to be they'll end up hating poetry as much as I hate the pledge (since I did it every morning at school growing up).

  4. October 9, 2009

    not so, not so! i read poems almost every day to start our English class with sixth graders last year and they were fascinated! they enjoyed it and asked questions about it every once and a while--they were also mystified by me being able to read a poem in Spanish, as some of 'em were Puerto Ricans.\r

    the big brother voice is only optional, and only for those who aren't trained in reading a poem. but if a teacher or a practiced reader or even a student reads the poem, the meaning becomes more solid--if they pay attention to the announcements.