“…To the best English teacher I never had: Joanna Fox, the real dragonfly lady.”
So says 2015 Newbery Medal-winning author Kwame Alexander in the dedication to Booked—which won’t be published until spring but can be pre-ordered now via Amazon. That’s no small praise from an author recognized for the year’s “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”—for his novel The Crossover.
Joanna Fox, creative writing teacher of Sarasota’s Booker Middle School, is the teacher you’d want if you love a challenge, enjoy words and are willing to work your buns off. For 15 years, she’s taught grades 6, 7 & 8 at this magnet school for the arts.
Aren’t those tough grades to teach?
She shakes her head. “You usually find what you’re looking for,” she says. “A sandwich is defined by what’s in the middle. Otherwise it’s just 2 pieces of bread. I help my students find what’s in the middle.”
She calls her unusual classroom the Dragonfly Café. There are mismatched tables, outdoor and “scrounged” chairs, decorative lamps, quotes handwritten on walls from famous personalities and students. A marlin hangs on one wall—a gift from her son J.D., a fishing captain, when her class was studying Old Man And The Sea. There’s a yarn tree students created to study a 12th c. Persian poem, The Conference of the Birds. And stools hand painted with dragonflies.
“Dragonflies symbolize change through wisdom or knowledge,” she says. “That’s what I want for my kids—to be the best at becoming their best.”
Having won many teaching awards, Joanna had 9 students honored at the Library of Congress for the International River of Words poetry contest. She was their Teacher of the Year in 2014. Kids who are “serious writers” can come from many miles away and study with Joanna for 3 years.
Joanna talked to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune about her approach. She said, “This is a place where…they know they are accepted, where there’s no right answer, where you have control over your words when maybe you don’t have control over anything else in your world. I tell my students, ‘Everything you do here does not exist until you do it. Only you can write your poem.’”
From Richmond, IN, Joanna, 59, has 2 grown children and 3 grandchildren. In 6th grade, son J.D. lost his love of reading. His teacher had what Joanna calls “a bad year.” J.D. suggested his mom would do a better job of teaching. At 39, cheered on by daughter Clare, Joanna went back to school. At 45, she began teaching at BMS. Her career has taken her around the country for conferences, to Prague to study for a summer, to the Hermitage Artists Retreat in Manasota, FL.
“A poet,” Joanna says, “looks over what others overlook and helps them to see it.” She views her role as helping to develop both creative artists and their audience. Student poets read their work at Sarasota restaurants and festivals and, quarterly, in Dragonfly Cafe evenings at the school.
“Animals can dance but they can’t choose their dance. Birds can only sing what they’re programmed to sing. Humans are the only animals who can create their own dance or song. When you’re engaged in the arts, you’re the most human you can be.”
Joanna insists students observe “civility.” She stands at the door and welcomes them when they arrive for class. During a fire drill, the first one out holds the door for the others. In class, students drink hot tea from their own mugs.
Joanna told the Herald-Tribune, “It’s amazing to me that I’ve had the privilege, honor and, yes, the task of helping to shape people. The world was opened up to me when I opened the world to kids.”
Readers of my blog know how impressed I am with good teachers. (See Tina Hansen McEnroe educates and inspires, old-fashioned style, in California.) If I’d been wearing socks (this is Florida, after all), this dedicated teacher would have knocked them off. Thanks, Joanna, for the inspiration.
(And thanks, Carrie Seidman, for the terrific Herald-Tribune article that introduced me to Joanna.)