Day after day,
Alone on a hill,
The man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still
But nobody wants to know him,
They can see that he's just a fool,
And he never gives an answer,
But the fool on the hill,
Sees the sun going down,
And the eyes in his head,
See the world spinning 'round
This poem was on the blackboard when I walked into Mr. Cooper's fifth grade classroom in 1975. Soon we were listening to the Beatles sing the Fool on the Hill and interpreting the poem as a class. This brief introduction to contemporary poets was the hook for a project that transformed my future: the Personal Poetry Book Project.
Over the next few weeks my classmates and I studied different genres of poetry and began writing our own poetry. We paid close attention because we knew that we would be compiling the best of our poems into a homemade book that we would present to our parents at an afternoon poetry reading.
We revised and revised our poems and selected poems by theme -- I chose seasons as my theme. When we had our collection of poems we crafted a homemade book from our favorite wrapping paper, cardboard, construction paper and Elmer's white glue. At Mr. Cooper's urging we paid special attention to detail and craftsmanship. With our blank books completed, we transcribed our poems in our best penmanship, as these books would be shared with our parent audience.
When the day of our poetry reading came, we transformed our classroom to a café with tea, sandwiches without crust, and small cookies; we felt so sophisticated!
Many years later, I was a seventh grade humanities teacher in the North Beach of San Francisco and faced with the challenge of teaching my first poetry unit. It was a no brainer -- I revived the Personal Poetry Book Project, but with a local twist. The students knew from the beginning that we would be inviting a local North Beach poet from City Lights bookstore to join us to read her poetry too. My students not only felt sophisticated they felt like they were part of the Beat Generation -- 30 years later.
When people ask me how I learned about project-based learning or how I decided to become a teacher, I tell them about Mr. Cooper. As teacher, I used several of his amazing projects that I experienced as a student. I can only hope that my students who have become teachers and parents carry on Mr. Cooper's legacy.
I still have my book of poems from Mr. Cooper's class and Mr. Cooper's spirit permeates my life as an educator everyday as I try to recreate the same transformational experience for as many children as possible.