Slamming poetry

Can this story really be true? According to a column by Bill Hill in the Daytona Beach News-Journal, a New Mexico high school principal fired teacher Bill Nevins, sponsor of the poetry club, and banned poetry classes and the poetry club because a girl read an anti-war poem on the school’s closed-circuit TV channel.

Nevins has filed a lawsuit. According to the Student Press Law Center, Nevins claims the trouble started with a visit to his class by the assistant principal of Rio Rancho High, Sue Passell, as students were reading their work aloud.

Two months later, in February, Passell told Nevins his classroom activities were not meeting instructional goals and that his students were showing a lack of respect.

Shortly thereafter, a Slam Poetry Team and Write Club member read her poem “Revolution X” over the school’s closed circuit television system. An excerpt from the poem reads: “You drive by a car whose bumper screams God bless America. Well, you can scratch out the B and make it Godless because God left this country a long time ago…”

After the reading, the lawsuit alleges, the school military liaison complained to Tripp about the poem’s “disrespectful speech,” and school administrators demanded a copy of the poem to look for obscenities and inferences of inciting violence.

Nevins was put on paid leave without an explanation, the lawsuit says. “Nevins was later notified that Rio Rancho High School administrators were investigating incomplete field trip forms from a Slam Poetry Team public reading.”

Well, sure. If the guy can’t fill out field trip forms properly, he’s not fit to teach.

Update: Volokh Conspiracy updates the story, including the school district’s response and a letter from the girl whose poem started the controversy. Officials deny that Rio Rancho High has banned poetry; the girl says her free speech rights were not violated. She also complains her poem has been misquoted on the Internet.

About Joanne


  1. Walter Wallis says:

    When poems are outlawed only outlaws will have poems.

  2. “You drive by a car whose bumper screams God bless America. Well, you can scratch out the B and make it Godless because God left this country a long time ago…”

    It occurs to me that if this is considered poetry, then maybe the principal does have a point about instructional goals not being met.

  3. Laura,

    Maybe the article left out the all-important line breaks in the poem:

    You drive
    by a car
    whose bumper
    God bless


    and maybe there was
    dickensonian Capitalization
    with a Dash of
    e.e. cummings-style
    in the Article

    you get
    the Idea

    If Nevins is so wrong, what would this principal do if he were in charge of a university?

    As for the incomplete field trip forms, maybe the destinations were missing – and you never know where such anti-American activists are going to take The Children ™.

  4. I mean, everyone knows its not poetry if it doesn’t have iambic pentameter and end rhyme! What’s wrong with that particular passage?

  5. Walter Wallis says:

    Sure – just run a paint drenched chicken across the canvas a few times and it’s art.

  6. Walter Wallis says:

    And how did the bumper sticker go?

    If you can read this, thank a teacher
    and if it is in english, thank a soldier

  7. The administration is concerned about conformity, not literature.

  8. Is it typical for high schools to have “military liasions”? I know mine didn’t. One day a year they let military recruiters come around and bother us during lunch, but that was it.

  9. What is it about educational administrators? They mostly seem to have a sense of arrogance not seen since the Divine Right of Kings went out of style. They need to learn that we, the people, have delegated them *strictly limited authority* for particular purposes, and nothing more…maybe it will take some firings, and even, in some cases, prosecutions, to drive home the lesson.

  10. Man Walter,

    That chicken thing was my idea…………

  11. Raymund says:

    Isn’t Rio Rancho the yuppie suburb of Albuquerque?

  12. Richard Brandshaft says:

    Sounds like that school needs a strong teacher’s union.

  13. Nina D. says:

    I’m inclined (or hopeful) that this article was greatly exaggerated. Another disturbing passage:

    “Posters done by art students were ordered torn down, even though none was termed obscene. Some were satirical, implicating a national policy that had led us into war. Art teachers who refused to rip down the posters on display in their classrooms were not given contracts to return to the school in this current school year.”

  14. S Grogan says:

    This school and this principal have also engaged in some zero-tolerance stupidity:

  15. John from OK says:

    Let me suggest a possibility:

    The principal is trying to remove stupid, ineffective, teach-self-esteem-because-you-dont-know-math teachers. These tend to be the same teachers that encourage students to defy authority; to view the world as “us vs. them”; to view the classroom as a microcosm of the “world community”; and to downplay acedemic achievment because that would expose the teachers’ own incompetence.


    Could it be that the article is biased and we are not getting the whole story? Read the last line: “Are book burnings next?” Typical.

  16. Frankly, with all the shit I’ve been watching at my own institution this last week, I wouldn’t have had a problem with this guy getting fired for using his classroom as a political platform instead of using it to teach the students about poetry.

    Same with the art teacher.

    Political indoctrination is not the job of the teacher. EVER. Tell this bozo to go get a job with the DNC and leave other people’s children alone.

  17. blamanj says:

    If Mr. Smith-from-1984 isn’t just a troll, the question of “indoctrination” doesn’t really seem to be the issue.

    Nevins, who has a son serving in Afghanistand, says “I was not protesting the war in my classroom. I presented a very balanced position. I don’t believe in putting forward my own political prejudices in front of students. I do that in my private time.”

    According to Edweek, the balanced view he refers to was inviting classrooms speakers on both sides of the war issue. It was, after all, student poetry, that caused the flap.

    Nonetheless, the claim is that he was fired for a technical offense, not for poor teaching, but apparently the principal had signed off on the required permission slips. Should he have been fired for the same technical mistake?

  18. Rita C. says:

    I have a stack of short stories and poetry sitting in my grading pile right now. I’ll bet I have stuff in there that could positively kill off this principal. I haven’t looked at any of it yet, but I always get something hair-raising (and no, I don’t ask for it — kids just write stuff).

  19. Me must insist that when students write poetry in school that they glorify the flag, show support for Our Troops and reaffirm the infallibility of our leaders.

    We haven’t been doing that and now there’s gay marriage.

    It’s time to get tough again.

    America for Americans!

  20. Mr. Smith is not a troll. Perhaps you’d know that if you’d clicked on the link, Mr. Poorly-Spelled 80s band.

    Why is this man addressing the war AT ALL in a poetry class? I don’t give a rat’s ass what his stance is on it, or what his students think. What I want to know is why a poetry class, which presumably has a lot to do, given how little students know about poetry (and this student seems to know very little about how to write anything more than banal blank verse), is taking time to address the topic of the war.

    When you watch teacher after teacher abandon the subject matter which has been entrusted to them in order to talk about the war–regardless of their stance–you get more and more angry each time you hear about it.

    Not everyone who simply states what they think your opinion be damned is a troll, my friend.

  21. Rita C. says:

    I don’t see how it is political indoctrination. The students were free to write pro or anti war poems. War poetry is a fairly easy way to teach poetry because so many very good examples are out there, and it tends to be a subject that hooks both boys and girls. You can do Homer, Sappho, Walt Whitman, Appollinaire, Jarrell, Steven Crane, W.B. Yeats, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Thomas Hardy, Charles Bernstein, and a huge number of more contemporary poets. It’s just a fantastic theme for a survey of poets and forms.

    And the excerpt quoted is free verse, not blank verse. Blank verse has formal meter without end rhyme, while free verse has neither meter nor rhyme.

  22. Sorry. Inaccuracies in poetic description can be chalked up to irritation with the desert item/80s band. Regardless, the poetic value of this student’s work is nil.

    At any rate, this guy may be part of the reason so many of my students don’t know anything at all about poetry when they get to college. Regardless of whether he is indoctrinating them or not, he is using the poetry as an excuse to talk about the Iraq War, and it sounds as if his colleague over in art is doing the same thing.

    When you teach in a rather large English department and watch pretty much every class, regardless of its catalog description, turn into a class about the Iraq War and/or the Bush Administration, you tend to be automatically suspicious of this sort of thing. The fact that it was not just this one student in a poetry class but a number of people in the art class who produced political statements rather than poetry or art makes one suspicious of the faculty at this instituion and their goals.

    Despite the posts of others here, I don’t want to see them writing mindless patriotic verse or painting pictures of the American flag, either. I want to see them learning about poetry–not just the bullshit that pretends to be poetry in post-Beat MTV era, either–and about art. Both subjects require a full-time classroom commitment to cover; there isn’t time for a discussion of the Iraq War, nor is it the place of an English or Art teacher to lead such a discussion.

  23. Rita, what’s the difference between free verse and prose? I’m asking.

  24. Rita C. says:

    Winston Smith: In general, I find poetry instruction at the high school level to be very weak. The materials available to us in many cases are lousy, and many teachers aren’t comfortable enough with poetry to create their own curricula. Having a poetry club would seem to be an improvement on the typical situation. Don’t be so hard on the kids. You have to write a lot of bad poetry before you can write good poetry.

    Laura: free verse should have an economy of language that prose doesn’t have. The line should also have a purpose, to speed up or slow down the reader, for example, and there should be some sort of musicality to it. The beat poets used jazz, for example. Yusef Komunyakaa also bases his lines on jazz to very good effect. This isn’t to say there isn’t a tremendous amount of bad free verse out there. Free verse shouldn’t be undisciplined verse.

  25. If English teachers aren’t comfortable enough with poetry to create their own curriculum, then they shouldn’t be English teachers.

    Sorry to take such a hard line on this, but if you have a piece of paper that says you’re qualified to teach literature, then you’d damned well better be.

    If English majors who were getting the credential were (1) required to take more classes in the their major and less bullshit credential courses and (2) required to take more classes outside of 20th century hyphenated American literature, then they probably learn enough to be able to do better jobs.

    There’s no excuse for this. You can’t just become an English teacher just because you’ve read the collected works of Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Sandra Cisneros every semester for four years.

  26. Rita C. says:

    I dunno what undergraduate education majors take. I have an English degree. My experience is that courses in poetry tend to be options, not requirements, in English literature programs, though. I know I didn’t take any courses in poetry as an undergraduate. I think I hit a few of the romantics in a survey course, and of course Shakespeare’s sonnets in the Shakespeare course, but that might have been about it. I’m mostly self-taught when it comes to poetry. I never read Morrison, Angelou, or Cisneros in college, either, though.

  27. Rita, that makes sense.

    I did chemistry and math, so I probably look at this all wrong. But if I were to teach poetry, I’d start by introducing structures like sonnets, limericks, villanelles, and so forth, with examples, and make the students write those before I’d countenance any free verse at all. Otherwise I doubt the kids would learn anything. It would be too easy to write a bunch of stream-of-consciousness crap and say “It’s poetry because I said it is.”

  28. Rita C. says:

    I start with figures of speech, imagery, etc. rather than form. But bear in mind they’re going to write crap no matter what you do. If you’re lucky, some of the poems will have a good line or two. Poetry is hard to write, and it takes years of practice.

  29. >

    Exactly. If teachers demanded perfect sonnets, villanelles, couplets, or other forms on a student’s first draft, we’d never get anywhere.

    I often compare writing to music. It takes a lot of rehearsals (rough drafts) to make a good “recital”.

  30. “Poetry is hard to write, and it takes years of practice.”

    I meant to copy this onto the top of my previous post.

  31. I can’t imagine anybody expects perfection on a first draft. But I’d rather hear a half-a. limerick than the drivel quoted in this article, pro-war, anti-, or otherwise.

  32. They should be required to work within forms first, and for quite some time before being allowed to write the garbage this girl submitted as “poetry”.

    No one’s demanding that they write perfect poems on their first go–what I am demanding is that they learn something about poetry before they try their hand at writing it and that they be asked to write something other than free verse in order to appreciate the difficulties of working within a structure and the ways in which one must become a master of language in order to do so.

    This girl has evidently learned nothing, substituting prose sentences and what she thinks are clever turns of phrase for actually working with the language.

    These students appear to be learning little about poetic form, and I resent the fact that were they to come to my institution, I would be forced to teach them all of the stuff they were supposed to have learned in high school, plus get all the “poetry as rebellion” shit out of their heads. Plus, “Mr. Cool” would have provided them with a nice dislike for the past by giving them so much “slam” poetry (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean, beside shitty Bukowski-esque nonsense) and not enough poetry that’s actually difficult to read.

    Of course, Rita C. helps me make my point by admitting to the paucity of her training in poetics and in earlier eras of literature. No offense to Rita, but this is why high school literature courses are such a joke–there is an entire generation of teachers out there who are “trained” almost exclusively in contemporary American (again, generally hyphenated American) literature (save for the requisite Shakespeare course, which some institutions no longer require), meaning mostly lots of novels and short stories, and those delivered in such a way as to allow for discussion of the politics of the day rather than actually being taken apart as literature.

    I took a credentialling class once in which we talked only about adolescent literature–most of it about the experience of minorities during adolescence–and were encouraged to allow students other ways to express themselves save writing a paper, such as a collage, a diorama, etc. Bullshit self-esteem crap.

    Schools of education need an enema, and this “poetry” teacher needs to learn more about his subject than ways to use it as an excuse to talk about other things.

  33. Eugene Volokh posts links to the “other side” of this issue. The allegation is that the original article’s relationship to reality is tenuous.

  34. Rita C. says:

    Winston Smith: although I appreciate that you have an axe to grind, please do not use me to do it. In point of fact, you know nothing of my education and misread what I’ve stated of it. In fact, my undergraduate degree program was quite heavy in the classics and completely devoid of adolescent lit. and almost anything modern. And although I studied little poetry as an undergraduate (for which I place the blame on the shoulders of the ENGLISH department from which I received my degree), at this point I probably know more than you do about poetics if your posts are any indication. Rail away at the departments of education if it tickles your booty to do so, but since I didn’t major in education, or indeed take a single education class as an undergraduate, leave me out of it.

  35. Wow, Volokh’s post is quite an eye-opener. Don’t believe everything you read, esp. when the reporter is the friend of the guy with a grievance. Even the hapless student who wrote the “poem” got involved to try to straighten this mess out.

  36. Well, Rita, since you’ve said you did not take many poetry classes as an undergraduate, I used your statement to illustrate a point, not to comdemn you for what classes you did or did not take or to assume that this was because you chose not to take said classes. You also said that many high school teachers are uncomfortable with poetry; well, this is inexcusable, because poetry is supposed to be part of their job. I didn’t say anything about you personally lacking knowledge of poetry, as you will clearly see if you go back over my comments.

    If you want to take what I have said personally, that is your right, but an attack upon you was not my intention. Rather, I felt that your undergraduate experience is all-too common among undergraduates, particularly those who are on a high school teaching track, which at many institutions substitutes too many education courses for courses in the core subject.

    I was not trying to blame you for this situation, but it is true that it is a vicious circle. Yes, English departments offer little early British literature (read: poetry) anymore, but part of the reason for that is that undergraduate majors balk at taking them. Most majors I have taught at the three different universities I have taught at took only as many British lit courses as were necessary to get the degree, and filled the rest of their schedule with 20th century American lit, most of it prose and most of it hyphenated. In response to this, many British lit positions went unfilled after professors retired, and the British lit requirements were watered down because there were fewer and fewer sections offered. Thus fewer undergraduates were exposed to British lit, fewer were afforded the opportunity to actually come to like it, and the demand for British lit decreased even more, etc., etc. This is my experience; nowhere have I said that this is true of you. If it seemed I was including you in this observation, I apologize.

    Finally, I’m so glad you know more than I do about poetry. I’ll remember that as I’m handed my doctorate, earned by writing a dissertation that focuses heavily on poetry.

    Don’t judge a person by a slip of the keyboard.

  37. Rita C. says:

    Winston Smith: good luck with your doctorate. I can only judge by what you post. FWIW, I took at least 6 or 7 courses in Brit. Lit. I never claimed a “paucity in earlier literature,” only poetry. I am all for more rigor in teacher training and getting rid of most education classes. But don’t blame teachers for what the universities do to us; we take enough blame as it is. Since you’re the college teacher, you teach the English majors properly, and I’ll take care of my little darlings.