River of Words Spotlight: an interview with Joanna Fox

River of Words / Kalmanovitz School of Education Teachers of the Year continue to do amazing work with students in their communities long after we recognize their service. The insight they offer also helps other educators bring environmental education and poetry into the classroom. In February 2018, ROW caught up with 2014 recipient, Joanna Fox, who brings the poetry of place and environmental awareness into her classroom every day.

Joanna Fox is renowned in her community for her work with her students at Booker Middle Visual and Performing Arts Magnet School in Sarasota, Florida. Many of her students have been finalists in past River of Words publications, including Jack Conlon, whose poem "Dragonfly" can be found below. Check out Joanna's full River of Words / Kalmanovitz School of Education 2014 Teacher of the Year profile here!

We recently had the opportunity to speak with Joanna about her work, her teaching philosophy, and her students' latest accomplishments. We began with a discussion of a poetry walk Joanna's students are creating in Sarasota.


Joanna Fox, 2014 ROW Teacher of the Year.Q: I'm very excited to hear about the poetry walk you mentioned. Will this be in downtown Sarasota? Approximately when will the poetry walk be up and open to the public?

A: I, too, am excited about the poetry walk. First, my poets will meet me downtown on Saturday morning so we can get the lay of the land and experience the vibe of the market. We will visit stores and restaurants and find their poetry. What I love about this is how it brings the poets together and relationships are formed that are different than on campus. Once the poems are written and edited, our graphic design department will design the banners with our dragonfly logo and the poems. They will be printed on 18 x 36 vinyl banners and hung on lampposts near the inspiration. I have talked with the downtown association, and we will have a poetry scavenger hunt as well as a typewriter poetry event in conjunction with the banners. We plan to get a lot of mileage and publicity out of them. After they are taken down, we want to have bags made of them to auction off. They will hang for at least a month and I hope to have some media hoopla generated around them during Poetry Month. Come visit us in Sarasota and experience it first hand.


Q: Why is access to and engagement with poetry important for students?

A: Poetry is a way of thinking, seeing, and knowing. The unexpected combinations found in poetry make you think about that subject more intently, if only for a moment. "The bony fingers of the ancient oak tree scratched the underbelly of the sky.” To read poetry for the sheer pleasure of it is like letting a decadent chocolate truffle melt slowly on the back of your tongue, exciting the taste buds that are usually neglected. All kids need a daily morsel of poetry without any testing attached to it. Taste, don't test, poetry.


Q: Why is access to and engagement with nature important for students?

A: Humans were intended to live in the garden. We all know how that story ended, but our need to connect with nature has not ended. Time to slow down, listen to the conversation of the birds, soak in the sun, and see the world first hand is needed for our students. It is easy to ignore that which you never connect with. Sadly, many students in my school have never been to the beach and have no desire to do so. They see only what they think they don't like: sand, salt water, hot sun, while those who have learned to appreciate nature recognize the many subtle shades of the gulf, recognize the bird prints in the sand, examine the ridges of the shells and the lure of the whisper of the tides. It changes a person in ways technology never could.


Q: What effect does combining poetry and the environment have on your students?

A: My writers are the most aware students on campus. Some mornings, one will stop by to make sure I saw the slash of orange across the morning sky. The finches are migrating through our area right now and more than a few kids have commented on the sound of the finches that they had not noticed until recently. I believe such experiences make my writers more in tune with their world and their relationships.


Q: How has River of Words impacted your work as a teacher?

A: I remember the first poet of mine to be a finalist, Jack Conlon with his poem "Dragonfly." Robert Hass stated that when a poem changes the way you see something, it has done its job. My goal has been to use poetry and nature to change the way my writers see the world. I use the ROW poems as a part of my curriculum and Jack's story as inspiration. In fact, Jack ended up a finalist three times. The second time we went, the keynote speaker started his speech with Jack's poem. O.K., it doesn't get much better than that for a kid and his teacher. Here is the text of his poem:



You dart and weave
Flashing your jeweled body.
Are you
A pixie?
A fairy?
Do you paint the flowers
And grow the trees?
You fly through the meadow and skim the ponds
Iridescent poet of the sky.


Jack Conlon (grade 6)


Q: What is your advice to fellow teachers and educators who want to incorporate creative expression and environmental literacy in their classrooms?

A: Never let the dark cloud of testing that looms over most schools threaten the education that your students deserve. Take the time to read a poem every day, just for the pleasure of the words. Take a walk outside regularly. Five minutes outside reaps benefits inside. Get familiar with the flora and fauna of your area and let your students see your excitement. Charles Darwin once said  that he wished he had taken more time for poetry. We are in the perfect position to take the time for poetry. Awareness of our world is the first step in caring for our world. Feed curiosity, create wonder. Wander through the clouds and acknowledge the blue between.