A Poison Tree

I was angry with my friend.

I told my wrath; my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe.

I told it not; my wrath did grow.

William Blake

My English 1 classes just finished a comparative study of “A Poison Tree” and Amy Lowell’s “Fireworks”. As I always do when I teach Blake’s poem, I wanted to give the kids a chance to “tell their wrath” in a safe setting. What happened as a result was truly humbling.

(Teachers, if you would like to use this in your class, feel free to steal the idea.)

1. I had an artistic student from another class draw a bare, dying tree on the board (in previous years, I’d had them on paper).

2. I distributed paper cutouts of leaves, one to each student in the class.

3. We discussed Blake’s poem, particularly the consequences of not telling our wrath. I reminded my students of Ephesians 4:26 and how the Bible commands us to live in peace as much as we are able. (We are a Christian school, so we are free to incorporate Biblical principles into our lessons.)

4. I asked students to think of a situation about which they had not told their wrath for whatever reason. Perhaps a friend had ditched them, someone had died, or something else happened, and they still needed to get some things off their hearts.

5. Students wrote their names on one side of their leaves, and on the other side, they wrote out their “wrath”.

6. I stressed to the students that what they wrote would be completely confidential; that no one else could read their leaves without their permission.

7. Once each student finished writing, he/she came up to the board, picked up a piece of tape, and taped the leaf somewhere on the branches of the tree, with only his/her name showing.

My class was amazed when they recognized the symbolic nature of their actions. We talked about how that once-dead tree came alive as we let go of our anger and hurt. After letting the tree stay up there for a few minutes, I told the students they could take their leaves down and keep them if they wanted. However, I said that if they wanted me to read their leaves, they could leave them up as a silent permission (we have a solid enough relationship that I knew they would take them down if they really didn’t want me to read), all with the understanding that I would not share what they wrote.

All of my students left their leaves on the tree. Every single one.

As I read their writing, I was enlightened and deeply humbled, both by the situations in their lives and by their trust in me. These kids peeled off their masks and shells and let me see who they really are. Through this, I was able to understand them better and have more insight with which to deal with them daily and with which to pray for them.

Today was one of those days when teaching made sense, when I really felt like I’d gotten somewhere, at least with a few students. We teachers often give off the appearance that we have it all together and that we always know what we are doing, but in the back of every teacher’s mind is always the nagging question, “Is what I’m doing day to day really going to make a lifetime and even eternal impact on these kids?” (Come on, teachers. It’s okay to nod your heads in agreement.)

Yes, teacher. It is.

Yes, teacher. It is worth it.

Yes, teacher. THEY are worth it.

And so are you.