Welcome to the Teaching with Heart, Fire and Poetry website! This website was inspired by our experience writing, editing, and working with remarkable teachers and other leaders, to create Teaching with Heart, Leading from Within, and Teaching with Fire.
For each of these books, we asked teachers and leaders to write a short reflection on a poem that had meaning for them in their life and work. Each day we would find heartfelt stories and poignant poems in our email inboxes. It was a privilege to be entrusted with their stories and it was a delight to work with the teachers and leaders, shaping and arranging their reflections into books that celebrate and honor those doing good work in the world. The icing on the cake has been the response to the books. Many wrote glowing reviews and even more sent notes thanking us for creating a space where these teachers’ voices, which often echoed their own, could be heard.
We also heard from many who wanted to share poems or tell a story about their work – to continue the conversation begun in the books. In looking around, we didn’t see many websites that post reflections of “every day” teachers (i.e. not well-known or published) – the core of our poetry books. So we created the Teaching with Heart, Fire & Poetry, so all teachers can share about their life and work .
We encourage you to check out all the ways you can be part of the conversation. We look forward to hearing from you and together creating a lively and meaningful community of inspiration and support for teachers everywhere.
— Sam and Megan
Below is the story for how the books came to be, including our colleagues who continue to be such an important part of this effort. We’ve also included short descriptions of the three poetry books – we also invite you to check them out on their webpages in the About Us section. And finally, to learn more about Sam’s and Megan’s other books and work, please check out our individual pages.
Our Colleagues and Partners:
We have been very fortunate to work with many individuals and organizations that are doing extraordinary work to support teachers and further the vocation of teaching. Throughout it all, two in particular, the Center for Courage and Renewal and Parker J. Palmer, have been remarkable friends and partners.
The Center for Courage & Renewal: Poetry as a source of reflection and dialogue is one of the many practices you’ll discover via the Center for Courage & Renewal. The Center sponsored many of the books on this website, including: Teaching with Heart, Leading from Within, and Teaching with Fire. A significant portion of the royalties from the poetry books go to support programs at the Center. The Center also offers professional development and personal renewal programs and a variety of inspiring resources for teachers and leaders.
Parker J. Palmer, founder and Senior Partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal, is a world-renowned writer, speaker and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change. He has reached millions worldwide through his nine books, including The Courage to Teach, Let Your Life Speak, A Hidden Wholeness, and Healing the Heart of Democracy. We are grateful for his support, wisdom and friendship – and for the wonderful pieces he wrote for each of the poetry anthologies.
Funders and Supporting Institutions: We were fortunate to have the following support in creating the three poetry books: the generosity of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for funding the writing and editing of Teaching with Fire; the Lily Endowment, Inc., and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for funding Leading from Within; and the Center for Courage & Renewal for their support of Teaching with Heart, Leading from Within and Teaching with Fire. We are grateful for their support.
How it all began:
In 2002, Megan and I were brought into a conversation that was happening between Tom Vander Ark – who was then heading up the Gates Foundation Initiatives in education – and Parker J. Palmer of the then Center for the Courage to Teach. Tom and Parker had connected and begun a far-ranging discussion about the role of poetry as a source of insight and power in their lives and work. We had written together for years and joined the conversation where the idea of producing a poetry anthology that would provide educators with solace and guidance took shape and we started to imagine what this might be.
While we were attracted to the idea of producing a poetry anthology, we hoped to create something that would capture the spark that occurs between reader and a poem. As we mulled through ideas, I floated a classic, what if?
What if instead of a conventional poetry anthology, what if we recreated one of my favorite assignments that I used to give my high school students when I taught sophomore English:
“Find a poem or a song lyric that you turn to for meaning, guidance and inspiration. Bring your poem/lyric to class along with a one-page commentary explaining how that poem matters to you.”
The assignment was magic. It invited teenagers to put into words why they would listen to “Run Around” by Blues Traveler 18 times in an evening. It provided them a forum to explain why those epic lines
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference”
spoke to their sense of wanting to influence the direction of their life and identity. It was an assignment that achieved what my good and wise friend and colleague, Jim Burke, says, “Text creates context for conversation.”
The text – normally the foreground in a high school English classroom – was flipped to the background. What mattered most was how the poem stirred an inner conversation, shone a light on something meaningful, or helped lift up or clarify a sense of what is or what is possible.”
Teaching with Fire:
We forged ahead with this idea and opened it up as a wide and broad call to educators. Here’s how it all led to Teaching with Fire: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Teach.
We asked teachers to send us these cherished poems. We asked them to write of their special relationship to the poems, to describe how they turn to them for companionship, solace, and wisdom. Through electronic mail, networks and word of mouth, we spread the word that we were seeking poems that mattered to a teacher’s life. We received hundreds of submissions from across the country. Teachers from every level — from those who teach our youngest students to those who teach professionals in graduate school — shared their poems and stories. The response was gratifying and poignant.
In our selection process, we paid attention to both the poem and the teacher’s narrative. The poems, written by many of our most celebrated poets Walt Whitman, Marge Piercy, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes and others, could obviously stand alone as an anthology. But we believe that the essence of this book involves teachers sharing how they make use of poems to plumb the deeper waters of their work. These teachers shared how poems can mark a special moment on their teacher’s journey, can help them remember and reconnect with what brought them to their work, or chide them to dare and dream dangerously about the power of their vocation. As we sat with the collection a story emerged — teachers across the country, across all levels of the profession, use poetry to keep teaching with fire. This book acknowledges this great truth of teaching — to do it well, to do it justice, requires fire.
Teaching with Fire is home to a collection of eighty-eight poignant teacher stories on poems from such well-loved poets as Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Billy Collins, Emily Dickinson, and Pablo Neruda. The poems and commentaries bound together provide a glimpse into to the power of poetry to sustain, instruct, inspire and guide.
It is said in the Confucian tradition that the mark of any golden era is that children are the most important members of a society and teaching the most revered profession. Today, fear, anxiety, overwork, and under-appreciation characterize a great many professions, but few more so than teaching. Realism tells us that the journey to regain our sanity regarding children and teaching will be a long one. Passion tells us that the path to the future is the one we tread here, now. The editors of Teaching with Fire say it is to sustain teachers. I say it is to sustain us all— for who are we at our best save teachers, and who matters more to us than the children? – Peter Senge, author, The Fifth Discipline
Teaching with Fire became a best seller, selling over 100,000 books.
And in 2012, Edudemic listed Teaching with Fire as #2 of the top 50 books best books for teachers!
Leading From Within:
The success of Teaching with Fire (TWF) led to Leading from Within: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Lead – where leaders reflect on how poetry helps them make sense of the challenges and possibilities in their work.
The contributors represent a wide range of professions including Vanguard Group founder John Bogle, MoveOn.org co-founder Joan Blades, several members of Congress, Christian activist Brian McLaren, business guru Peter Senge, and many other leaders from business, medicine, education, nonprofits, law, politics and government, and religion. In their reflections, these leaders explore how they have been inspired by poets such as T.S. Eliot, Mary Oliver, William Stafford, Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, Robert Frost, Rumi, May Sarton, Wallace Stevens, Wendell Berry, and Rainer Maria Rilke.
In addition to this remarkable line-up of leaders, Leading from Within is privileged to have a powerful and moving Foreword by Madeleine K. Albright, an inspiring and thoughtful Introduction by Parker J. Palmer and an illuminating Afterword by David Whyte.
Leading from Within is perhaps the most soulful treatment of leadership ever composed. Leadership is first an inner quest, and there is absolutely no better place to explore your inner territory than in the pages of this book. This is an evocative work of art; do yourself an immense favor, and engage with these amazing and diverse leaders and their poems.
—Jim Kouzes, coauthor of the bestselling The Leadership Challenge and A Leader’s Legacy
Teaching with Heart:
Looking toward the 10th anniversary of TWF, the publishers invited us to think about a new version. We were intrigued by the invitation because when we first began TWF, the landscape of education was quite different from what it is today. NCLB was in its infancy, the charter school movement was just establishing momentum, and the economy was growing with vigor.
For Teaching with Heart: Poetry that Speaks to the Courage to Teach, we were able to include a broad array of educators: K-12 teachers, principals, superintendents, college professors, as well as many non-traditional teachers. They range from first year teachers to mid-career veterans to those who have retired after decades in the classroom. They come from inner-city, suburban, charter and private schools. The teachers identified an eclectic collection of poems and poets from Emily Dickinson, to Richard Wright, to Mary Oliver to the rapper Tupac Shakur.
The book also includes a poignant Foreword by Parker J. Palmer (The Courage to Teach), a stirring Introduction by Taylor Mali (What Teachers Make), and a moving Afterword by Sarah Brown Wessling (Teaching Channel).
Where Teaching with Fire honored and celebrated the work of teachers; Teaching with Heart salutes the tenacious and relentless optimism of teachers and their belief that despite the many challenges and obstacles of the teaching life, much is possible.
[Teaching with Heart] is the most poignant book that has come across my desk in a long time…. When I was asked to provide a blurb for the jacket, I did so with pleasure. This is what I submitted: “I am having trouble finding the right words to describe my feelings about this book. I opened it at random and was drawn in. Hours–and a few tears–later I emerged, feeling stronger personally and more optimistic about education’s future. I wish I could afford to buy copies of “Teaching With Heart” for all the teachers I have interviewed in my 40 years of reporting. ‒ John Merrow, Education Correspondent, PBS NewsHour, and President, Learning Matters, Inc.