TeacherVision (TV): You originally wrote the poem "What Teachers Make" in response to a callous comment about the teaching profession. Why do you think it elicited such a strong response from other teachers?
Taylor Mali: One of my favorite definitions of poetry is "what oft' was thought but ne'er so well expressed," and I like to think that's why the poem spread so rapidly: I was finally putting into words what people had always thought to themselves but maybe had never quite been able to articulate. I touched a nerved.
TV: Who did you write your book for, predominantly: teachers or the general public? What do you want each audience to take away from your writing?
Mali: I don't think that way, like a marketer, with angles and pitches; I just write. I just tell stories. But I think the book has ended up appealing equally to teachers and non-teachers alike. To teachers, certainly, because they'll recognize the vignettes and might come away with a couple of new ideas to try in their own classrooms or at least the feeling of having their wells replenished. But non-teachers are responding well to the book also because I think it gives them a sense of challenges and the joys that come with teacher, the "thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" (if you grew up in the '70s).
TV: You mention in your book that teachers often see students' potential objectively, in a way parents cannot. What advice would you give teachers who are working with uninterested/uninvolved parents to help them fulfill students' potential?
Mali: That's always a tough one—when parents are cavalier about the progress or behavior of their children—and I don't have a lot of experience with it because I guess I've just been lucky. But I would ask such uninvolved parents to sit with their children every night and review the work that they intend to turn in the next day. Ask a lot of questions. Get the children to explain what they're working on.
TV: You show a tremendous amount of passion for your work. What advice would you give to teachers who have lost their enthusiasm for teaching in the classroom, not because of the students or the work, but because of the administration they deal with, or the increased focus on "teaching to the test" in certain school districts?
Mali: Don't let the bastards grind you down. And "teaching to the test" doesn't work! Except anyone who has been forced to do it doesn't need to be told that. Curiosity is the flame that needs to be fed and fanned. We should be teaching students to creative slake the urgings of curiosity. But I know I'm preaching to the choir. Amen.
TV: Here's a two-part question: In your Muslim Internet Buddy project you discuss in your book, you pair your students with various Muslim-practicing friends and acquaintances around the world as a lesson in knowledge overcoming ignorance and bigotry. This sounds like a great lesson plan for any classroom; for a teacher that may not have Muslim contacts to call upon for this exercise, do you have any suggestions for how teachers can set up a lesson like this?
Mali: Well, I guess you'd have to make one Muslim go a little further by sharing him or her! I've never tried this, but if I didn't live in New York City, I would have gone to the nearest mosque and spoken to the imam there to see if he could put me in touch with the right people or maybe even come to my class himself.
TV: Secondly, students are often very willing to change their pre-conceived notions about race, religion, sexual orientation, etc., especially in diverse areas such as New York City, as you describe. Do you have any advice for teachers receiving negative feedback from parents on lessons like the above, particularly in more homogenous areas of the U.S., where students and parents might not be exposed to such diversity?
Mali: You're basically asking, "That's all well and good for you up in Liberaltown, but what about the rest of us who live in Amuhrica?" Big inhale. Slow exhale. It's no surprise that tolerance and diversity usually go hand in hand, is it? Live with a lot of people UNlike you, and you learn to listen a little better, that maybe your way is not the only way (I've written a poem called "Every path to God is always the ONLY one."). I recently gave a keynote lecture at a conference of English teachers in Minnesota, many of whom described the areas they came from as being "the deep back woods of the far north." One of them reported that a parent had criticized her lesson on world literature by saying "This is a democracy, and we shouldn't be exposed to that!" I make no secret of the fact that I am very liberal. But anyone who talks to me quickly realizes that I am also very charming, respectful, and incisive. And as long as my interlocutor is all of those things as well, we should be able to have a decent conversation and perhaps agree to disagree without being disagreeable. But if you think socialism is the opposite of democracy or don't know the meaning of the word xenophobic, then there's reading I'd like you to do before we meet next. And I'd be happy to read anything you suggest if you suspect my experience possesses a concomitant lacuna. If none of this makes sense to you, then there might be some ugliness in our future.
TV: Clearly poetry is a huge part of your life today. Did you write poetry as a young student?
Mali: I did. I was editor of my high school literary magazine, Prufrock. And my dad wrote wonderful rhyming toasts that he would [recite] at family gatherings.
TV: What advice would you give teachers who are teaching poetry to reluctant students in the classroom?
Mali: You need to disabuse students of their erroneous notions of what poetry is or needs to be first. I have no single definition of poetry; I collect them. When I write, I try merely to be either honest, musical, or artful in my writing. Preferably all three at the same time. That's all. It's no big thing. It's easy as long as you can forget that it's hard.
TV: You recently completed your "1000 Teachers Program," a mission to inspire 1,000 people to join the teaching profession. Do you have any thoughts or updates on the project, now that it's over?
Mali: I've registered the domain name "TenThousandTeachers.com" and several variations of it, but I get overwhelmed even thinking about starting something like that. So, no. People are still signing themselves up on my list, but I haven't written back to them yet.
TV: Do you miss being in the classroom every day?
Mali: Yes! But never before 8:30 am.
TV: What's next for you?
Mali: It's time I put out another book of poetry. I have a small collection about the death of my first wife that I'm sending around discreetly. Then there's all the other poems that I've been writing in the last three years since The Last Time As We Are was published in 2009. Then there's the secret project that I'm not talking about yet. You'd have to follow me on Twitter (#taylormali) to be in the loop!
Want more from Taylor Mali? Check out his original lesson plans for your next poetry unit.
What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World by Taylor Mali, published by Penguin Putnam. Copyright © Taylor Mali, 2012. Author Taylor Mali's viral poem "What Teachers Make" got people talking about the importance of the teaching profession. What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World in an impassioned defense of teachers and why our society needs them now more than ever.