Meet Joanna Fox, creative writing teacher at Booker Middle School in Sarasota, Florida. When I think of Joanna the phrase “once in a lifetime” comes to mind. Once in a lifetime creativity. Once in a lifetime inspiration. Once in a lifetime teacher. In middle school, Joanna’s poetry room became a haven for me and the students in my class. We wrote poetry about found objects, like old shoes and crumpled soda cans. We wrote about photographs and art that inspired us. We wrote about our adventures wandering around campus as a class looking for “magic” and what we saw when we all laid down in the grass and stared at the clouds. In addition to writing, we read poetry, (while sitting in dining room chairs and sipping tea I must add!) every class. Sometimes we would notice structure, form and rule, while other times we were told to close our eyes and “just listen.” We were taught that poetry was, above all, about expression. It was a tool for us to express our feelings and emotions to each other in a way that felt safe. At the end of each quarter Joanna and our class hosted an event called the Dragonfly Café, where parents were invited to come and hear their children read poetry- it was magic! To this day when I think of Joanna’s classroom I think about a second home.
In honor of Teacher Appreciation Day I am thrilled to share my conversation with this inspiring educator, mom and writer!
The greatest educational experience of my life was being a student in your classroom. Share the journey that led you to pursue a teaching career.
My son, J.D., had an unfortunate experience with a teacher in 6th grade. He came home from school rather glum one day. He complained about his ELA class, which had always been his favorite. In the course of our conversation he said that I would be the best teacher a kid could have. He pointed out how the neighbor kids loved for me to tell stories, the magic we found along the river and woods, and museum visits. Well, after praying about it, I started university at age 39. My daughter, Clare, sustained me through my studies by slipping encouraging notes in my flash card pile and my textbooks. She spent many Saturday mornings drawing and reading in the back of a college classroom when my babysitter fell through. School is much harder when you juggle children, studies, and other adult responsibilities, but I can't imagine not being a teacher now.
Tell us what a day in your classroom looks like and share some of the ways that you inspire your students to think about words.
My writers come in, mingle at the teapot while fixing a cup of tea, grab their steno books and free write for 5 or so minutes based on the word, phrase, or scenario on the board. Recent prompts include: 'the color green has been outlawed', 'yes, and', 'hidden in this pencil.'
Anyone who wants to share does. This is followed by reading a poem or short piece of prose. Some days we determine the best line or identify all the verbs and decide the weakest and strongest or most unexpected of the verbs. Sometimes they draw what I read and we compare pictures. We regularly enter writing contests, so we tend to refine our entries or work on a component of each quarter's project. Since writers are also readers, we carve out time for pleasure reading, always sleuthing for examples of metaphor or imagery that causes a pause to share. We continue to use the 500 frequently occurring SAT words for our vocabulary. Believe it or not, Harris Tannenbaum still sends us the bonus word of the week! He has been doing so for at least 14 years. He is now married and living in Istanbul, but is still part of Dragonfly Cafe! I am honored by his dedication to us. The first word he sent was petrichor, which us the smell of the earth after a rain. Doesn't that just beg to find its way into a poem?
Middle school is a notoriously challenging time of life, yet you connect with your students masterfully. What do you love about working with this age group?
Think about it; a sandwich is defined by what's in the middle. That's where the good stuff is otherwise, it's just 2 pieces of bread. So much of who we come to define ourselves as begins to emerge during middle school.
Through engaging my students in philosophical pursuits of time, beauty, purpose or even a relationship to a pet or other living things through language, they begin to recognize possibilities of who they will become.
Questions arise that lead to more questions that lead to more questions. As I see it, better to engender many questions than one right answer. I love that the middle school brain is receptive to such noodling. I also love that we get to spend three years together in such endeavors.
Let’s talk about your classroom for a moment! Tell us about the environment you create in your room.
Ahh, Room 130. It is a special place. One of my girls told me that it is her sanctuary from technology and then added that it was a sanctuary from everything! I couldn't agree more. I want my writers to know that they deserve a special place and that they are worth it. I think that is why they plumb the depths of thinking to try new forms of expression and possibilities. For example, I recently conducted a joint workshop with New College, Ringling, and USF students on curating a collection of poetry. I included my kids' writing and in a blind selection seven of the fifteen selected pieces were dragonflies! The tea serves to calm and relax. If a student is feeling a bit under the weather, is dealing with a tough reality or needs reviving of the spirit, we have something on the shelf for them. With all the research available on the brain with regards to natural lighting, color, and sound I would be remiss if I did any less for them and for me.
I have written all over the walls. Kids try to say something beyond wonderful that moves me to say "that belongs on the wall!" I am running out of room. One of my favorite quotes and the one that generates the most conversation is, "Get drunk on words and high on poetry." I can't think of a better anti-drug than poetry.
Even before you enter the room, you know you are in for something special. I have painted the entry floor dragonfly green, put down a bright welcome mat, a profusion of flowers and a garden gnome. (Google Vivid Verse-Wedu and a story that public TV did on our classroom will come up.)
What would you say to kids or adults who say “but I’m not a writer…”
Everyone is a writer. Writing is evidence of thinking and that is why we spend so much time in arousing curiosity. Of course, one must exercise the thinking muscle and also spend sound quality time with those whose writing you enjoy.
Play with words. Color is a good place to start. For example - red like a strawberry not the outside but the sweet memory of summer hiding inside. Sounds like a poem to me.
Let's make metaphor, that unexpected combination that entices the reader to look at the ordinary in an out of the ordinary way. Not everyone can be an exceptional writer but everyone can be a writer. Everybody has a story and every story is important. The beginning is in you. Our Family Writing Nights have revealed a number of parents who thought they couldn't write but were proven wrong.
What’s your favorite word?
My favorite word is 'nourish'. The sound of it is soft and comfortable. To nourish and to be nourished is an ongoing gentle endeavor. A well timed smile. A pat on the back. A spot of honey. Just the right word at just the right time.
Who is your favorite poet?
On this day my favorite poet is Mary Oliver. Tomorrow it may be Naomi Shihab Nye or Pablo Neruda. The poet that I loved best is the one a student discovers and can't wait to share with the class.
Tell us about the Dragonfly Café. What inspired the name?
Dragonfly Cafe started as a way to show what we had been doing all year. My principal had probably expected a book of our poetry but I had fond memories of a place called the Goldrush Cafe in Muncie, IN where they served the best tea and poetry. I wanted that for my students. So on the last Thursday of each quarter we host a poetry reading. It used to be just our class but now we have people of all ages from the community join us. One night we had a four year old step up and an 84 year old step up.
Yes. We do wear berets and snap! Yes, the kids are amazing! Think about it; a poem is the thumbprint of your soul and at 12 years old it is pretty intimidating to step up and share that before strangers.I have had kids cry in fear beforehand but they overcame and stepped up. They don't know it at the time, but that is the biggest gift they give themselves. I love when I hear that one of those kids has gone on to become a newscaster or a public voice in one capacity or another. They started as a dragonfly.
The name for cafe came from a dragonfly necklace from my sister (see how family has played a key role in my story). Mr. Green liked that first cafe so much that he said we had to do it again and asked what would it be called.
The first thing my eye fell on was my necklace and thus the Dragonfly Cafe was named. Since then I have learned about the lore of the dragonfly in cultures around the world. It fits perfectly. The one I like best is that a dragonfly represents a change through wisdom and is of two worlds - the wind and the water.
I remember my first Dragonfly Café like it was yesterday! Even though it was nerve wracking to share poetry in front of my classmates and family, I felt entirely supported and incredibly empowered. What feedback do you get from students and their families about the experience of participating in the Café?
The feedback on Dragonfly is always positive. Parents are surprised by the strength of their children's words and by the feeling the evening creates. Parents often step up to the mic now. Some nights we have music in the form of poetry jazz. We now have Cafe Away during poetry month on Lido Beach. What a magical combination - words, waves, sunset. The afterglow on such nights is not just from the sunset. The Education Channel filmed our first one that captured the fun.
Now the Cafe has gone beyond the walls of Booker Middle and beyond Sarasota. It was featured in Newbery Award author Kwame Alexander's recent book, Booked, which is dedicated to among others, "...to the best English teacher I never had: Joanna Fox, the real dragonfly lady."
What advice do you have for children, teenagers and adults who want to start a personal creative writing practice but don’t know where to begin?
One of the best places to begin is by generating a list of: Firsts ( bike, kiss, make-up, pet) Favorites (food, season, place, friend, book, tree). Become a collector of words- save fortune cookie slips, make little word tickets with words you find around town or on menus, copy phrases from all the reading you do because the first thing a writer should do is read. The second and third things a writer should do is read. Get my drift? A writer reads ! Listen- a writer listens to the story in their head, you never know what the next word in your story or poem will be until it appears at the end of your pencil! Write everyday. Create metaphor. Engage in ideas of personification.
Words of wisdom you live by are:
The first quote I wrote in the wall is the one I live by, "Never limit yourselves, my darlings ."