Vibrant Poetry Curriculum Guides Jesuit High School Students in Their Quest for Empathy and Justice

Editor’s Note: Joseph Ross, a poet who taught English for 33 years, is now in his 10th grade at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. His most recent book of poetry is Raise the King. Ciaran Freeman, an art teacher at Gonzaga, interviewed Mr. Ross. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What role can poetry play in helping to form men and women for and with others?

Reading and writing poems slows us down. It forces us to look deeply at the world around us. Poets who take their craft seriously develop a way of seeing. I try to develop this vision in my students, so that they see more than what is in front of them, so that they see the “why” of what is in front of them. Langston Hughes once wrote that “poets who write chiefly about love, roses, and moonlight must lead very quiet lives.” It’s bold. He saw poetry as a way to transform the world. Me too. This is exactly how the poet should be in the world.

Joseph Ross, an English teacher at Gonzaga High School in Washington, DC, says poetry forces us to look deeply at the world around us.

Of the commitment to justice in Jesuit education, former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, once said, “When the heart is touched by direct experience, mind can be challenged to change. Which poets have touched your heart?

My patron saint is Langston Hughes. I keep coming back to his work for insight into my own life, for the truth about my country, and for the hope of changing our society. A living poet who has been a mentor and friend to me is Martín Espada. His new book, Floats, just won the National Book Award. It’s a burning look at immigration. I have used his poems in my classroom for years and they continue to inspire my students and me. Naomi Shihab Nye is an American-Palestinian poet who has a way of seeing the beauty of the world without ignoring the suffering. I come back to them a lot.

How have you seen the hearts of your students touched by direct experience with poetry?

I get to see this all the time. “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks is the perfect poem of empathy. She walks past a pool hall during school hours and sees seven boys playing pool. I would have written a judgment poem: Why are you skipping class? But she wants to know what they thought of themselves. She writes this beautiful poem: “We are really cool. We/ left school. We / are watching late. We / strike straight. We / sing of sin. We / light gin. We/ jazz juin” – then that devastating last line – “We/ die soon”. They know. They know what their life is going to be like. We have students who will read this poem and see some of their own attitudes about it. They see people they know there. It happens every year. It’s powerful.

“Widening the circle” is a phrase often used today in Jesuit education. How have you worked to broaden the circle of your course in recent years?

We must continually seek authors in which our students can identify. At the same time, I look for authors who will push our students to see beyond themselves. I have already mentioned Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Martín Espada and Naomi Shihab Nye. I would add Frank X. Walker, Lucille Clifton, Danez Smith, Leslie Marmon Silko, William Archila, Joy Harjo and Edwidge Danticat.

Poets are often seen as recluses, but at Gonzaga one of the fastest growing student clubs is Poets & Writers. What is the relationship between community and poetry?

Poets definitely need silence and solitude. This is where a lot of the work is done. The poet should sit alone and face the page or screen. But the poet also needs community. We have a wonderful community of poets here because our poets are humble and generous. We use a workshop process which almost always improves the poem. We sit down with a poet’s draft and go through a detailed process. The poet hears others read and discuss his poem. He simply listens and learns how others understand his work before talking about it. Then the poet joins the conversation and the fire really starts!

That’s what literature does. He consoles and confronts.

In 2018, Poets & Writers published Garden: Gonzaga Poets Respond to Slavery Research Project.Can you tell me more about this book?

Some of our students, led by history professor Ed Donnellan, discovered Gonzaga’s history with slavery and spent two summers researching it in the Georgetown University archives. When our poets learned of this, they did not stop talking about it. What changed us dramatically was discovering the name of Gabriel, a young slave boy who worked here. We would later learn the names of more slaves, but finding out Gabriel’s name changed everything. They had to react. So we took several months and created a collection of poems by students and teachers. It transformed us.

What lessons have you learned while working on this project?

I learned to listen to my students! I also learned that the slavery research project affected our black students differently than other students. Some of our black students have said things like, “I didn’t know words could do that.” For some of them, it was a comforting experience. For other students, it was sometimes a confrontational experience. That’s what literature does. He consoles and confronts. When I saw these two movements in action, I knew we were doing the right thing.

What do you find yourself coming back to from this body of work?

I keep coming back to Joseph Wete ’19, who wrote in Gabriel’s voice and told how Gabriel worked while others learned. It is a powerful example of empathy. “I wiped dirty tables/ you sat and laughed… The garden grew/ I couldn’t.” Its alternate description may move a reader eager to enter into this courageous poem.

More recently, you and your students published Who is really free? Gonzaga Poets Respond to Call for Racial Justice. What motivated this project?

After the summer of 2020, when George Floyd and others were murdered, racial justice protests took place across the country. When we went back to school in August, that was all our poets were talking about. I realized that almost all the poems we did in our club had to do with race. The book began to take shape, and it changed us.

One of our seniors, Kevin Donaldson ’21, wrote a poem in three sections, using the colors of the American flag. He described the red of “America’s rage”, the white of “privilege”, the blue of “grief and sadness/filling the face of every citizen”. He concluded with the question we all ask ourselves, “But in America, / who is really free?” This is one of the most moving and best written poems I know. It was written by a 17 year old.

About Christopher Rodgers

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