by Jean Prokott
The book cover was a black and white pixelated picture of Mr. Hoffman with long California hair, holding a surfboard at his side. Three staples were smashed into its left margin. It held my very first publication: a poem titled “Scatological” that was written in rhyming couplets, one of which ended with the phrase “for you a just a crayon.”
The poem was legit the worst.
And bless Mr. Hoffman for pretending it was good. He was my AP Literature teacher in 1999, and the book was creatively called Mr. Hoffman’s AP Literature Class, Fall 1999. Everyone had a poem in this book—and we each had our very own copy of the book—our class collection of poetry.
I’d like to be humble, but I thought my poem was the best, and I’d convinced the whole class to get on board with this sentiment. Mr. Hoffman used to make transparencies of my essays (remember transparencies? in my first year of teaching, I melted a hot number of those in the photocopier) and projected them to the class with all the best sentences underlined. I don’t think anyone cared much, except for frenemy Sarah, who also sometimes had essays projected, so the dust settled at Jean’s the best writer in the class except for when Sarah is.
I loved every single thing about writing, and Mr. Hoffman played a substantial role in that. It was only to thirty small-town kids, but he published my work. High school years were a hot mess for me, and I am grateful he offered me overhead projector light.
My nickname in high school was “English Teacher,” and even though I tried to Jocasta myself out of this prophecy, it happened that twenty years later I, too, was smashing staples into the left margins of poetry my American Literature students had written as a contemporary response to Transcendentalism. Each student, just like in my 1999 version, had their very own poem on their very own page.
If my students knew what kind of garbage I wrote in 1999, there is no way they’d trust me to be their English teacher. I cannot explain how exponentially better my students are ahead of my personal curve. Those sophomore poems are pretty damn good. People need to see.
That is, this is not a story about surfboards and scat, but rather a reflection on what it means for kids to get their work out there.
Building Confidence: forming a foundation trust for students to share on
Convincing my high school students to publish doesn’t mean in a formal sense. For some, it means sharing their personal writing (not the “peer review” of a literary analysis, but a poem, personal narrative, or short story) with a large group of classmates, and that’s enough. It takes a lot of confidence for a kid to pass around thirty copies of his poem to students who just-so-happened-to-also-take-the-class. In my classroom, this act alone is publication. It allows us to start in a place we will never get rejected.
The creative writing workshop is the groundwork of confidence, and I’ve found this works best when the class observes the one-one-one I have with a student after their workshop. It allows me to model a “confidence/constructive” dialogue. Usually, I will tell them what I love, tell them what’s “muddy” and needs some work, and then throw out a “but what if you tried this! when you revise?” because it helps them understand the effort is worth it—their teacher is stoked about their work. On the really good days, after we wrap things up, I hear one kid say to another your poem was amazing after they’re in the hallway, and I do a villain laugh: ha ha, got you to care, suckers!
Not every workshop is perfect, I make a lot of mistakes, but this is a good first step. Students who truly embrace this first publication are the ones who meet with me about more formal opportunities.
I don’t require kids to publish as part of my curriculum (I think some kids might be a bit too fragile for rejection). However, I do show everyone how to do it. And I’m successful at healthily harassing kids to send out their work. When there’s a flier for a contest, I tape it to the dry erase board and draw 40 arrows pointing to it, when there’s a student who needs an extra nudge, I’ll photocopy the flier and drop it on her desk.
Each year, Rochester holds a Martin Luther King, Jr. poetry contest for K-12, and I have had a few students win or place in that prize. I put the flier on the board with the arrows and mild threats to submit, but one year I went to each student and told them which of their poems could win the whole thing. Only some submitted, and I think a few did just to shut me up. And when the “fine, just leave me alone Ms. Prokott'' kid won, it was truly a gift to say, well, Garrett, I flippin' told you. You have to give me half the prize money.
The best way I nudge students is with secondary dialogue on their drafts, such as you need to publish this immediately, let’s talk about how to get things out there! Or on my sophomores’ personal narratives and poetry: please, please sign up for creative writing next year!
Many teachers, all of my colleagues, do this. And again, this is not to be a trick—I genuinely want the students to do these things, and I take it a little personally when they don’t.
Submitting for Publication: steps for students to get their words in print
This is a note I posted in Google Classroom before I talked about publishing with my seniors:
When it comes to formally publishing work, I take students through the process of using Submittable, which is a free website that most professional publications use. Luckily, it’s easy for them to sign up: they just need an email address. I recommend their personal one so they may access post-graduation.
My school doesn’t have a literary magazine or a newspaper, but schools with those could hold contests in a similar way; this year, our yearbook has a poetry competition and winners will be published. But in my realm, beyond Submittable, opportunities sometimes fall into my lap. My colleagues put any mail they get for creative writing contests in my e-or-mailbox; a friend will let me know of a contest at his university; an editor will send an email to high school teachers informing them of a contest; a parent will send a note.
The opportunities above led to my students publishing online and in print over the last few years. The editor of Up North Lit emailed me about their high school contest, and I convinced some students to send poems. One of my students won the contest and had three poems published, and another had a poem published. It is worth noting that I submitted to the adult contest and got a big fat rejection.
There are opportunities hiding in the community, too. Students have published Op-Eds in the local paper, students have organized or attended poetry slams. Two of my seniors were locally published because a parent emailed that she was looking for young, female, writers of color for Rochester Women Magazine. I knew a few students perfect for the break, so I gave them her information, and they published two beautiful pieces last spring. The day the magazine came out, they sprinted up the stairs, handed me a glossy copy, and told me exactly which page to turn to.
Providing a Sense of Place: being vulnerable and embracing vulnerability
Distance learning has afforded many weird opportunities, but one I intend to keep is that I have started to write letters to my students. Last year, I wrote my class of 2020 a three-page singled-spaced monster letter that included a personal anecdote about a car driving into a gas pump. I wrote my sophomores a letter about the George Floyd murder to amplify the importance of rhetoric and of Raisin in the Sun. Instead of a syllabus this fall, I wrote a letter (a “letterbus” [student eye roll]) to introduce myself. I wrote my seniors a letter in response to the Amanda Gorman inaugural poem.
I don’t know if they read these letters—it might truly be a TL;DR situation—but the ones that do, I hope, know that their teacher loves to write herself, which very much matters.
Here’s how I see my role:
It’s remarkably cheesy, but Mr. Hoffman’s AP Literature Class, Fall 1999 is one of my most important publications. I’m a bit of a pessimist—adamantly critical of toxic (and sometimes regular) positivity—but it’s one of the stories people might post on Facebook during National Teacher Appreciation Week regarding the “teacher that changed them.” (I intend to send Mr. Hoffman a copy of my poetry chapbook, The Birthday Effect, once it comes out this month, no note or anything, just to show him what’s up—something I have looked forward to for a long time. Also, why do I feel vindictive about it? That’ll show that jerk to believe in me!)
Teachers know we don’t know the long-term impacts of the nudges and notes we leave on our students’ writing. My students don’t know a lot of my praise comes from the jealousy that they are such better writers than I ever could have been in high school. It’s just not that hard to get excited about their work. I throw a few tools at them, smash a stapler, and they take it from there.