STEEP TEA: Sarah Josepha Hale

Do you know who wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb"? She's Sarah Josepha Hale, a remarkable New England woman who lived from 1788 to 1879. The nursery rhyme, originally titled "Mary's Lamb," appeared in her book Poems for Our Children. Before that book, she had published a collection of adult verse, titled confidently The Genius of Oblivion. She was one of the earliest American women novelists, publishing her anti-slavery, pro-union novel called Northwood: Life North and South in 1827. By the end of her life, she had written nearly 50 books, while bringing up five children and editing a national women's journal. As the editor of, first, the Ladies' Magazine, and, then, Godey's Ladies' Book, she was an influential arbiter of the nation's taste and a powerful advocate for change. Though she did not support the vote for women, she believed fervently in equal education for them. She helped found Vassar College. Her 17 articles and editorials about women's education prepared the nation for the establishment of a women's college.

Her passion for women's education lends a vital context to my poem "Paragraph" written about teaching in an all-girls, K-12 school in Manhattan. The poem describes one of my favorite lessons at the start of the sixth-grade Language course, which is, despite its name, not about French, Spanish or Chinese, but grammar. In that lesson, I ask the students to write a paragraph describing their favorite word. This assignment is not only pleasurable but also revealing, of their temperament, interests and language ability. To help them get started, I would reel off a paragraph about my favorite word off the top of my head. The students are usually lovely enough to be impressed. "Paragraph" is not, however, about what a teacher can do; rather, it is about what a teacher cannot do. One is the flip side of the other.


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