HACKENSACK, N.J. —  As the coronavirus pandemic reaches a health crisis of epic proportions forcing millions of Americans to stay indoors for our safety, there’s one important lesson such setbacks teach us about life: the power of self-reflection. And with that comes self-expression. 

Many children (and adults alike) are all too often consumed with the uncertainty tied to the prognosis of this virus and adjusting to what has become the new normal of staying home and donning masks and gloves before heading out to the grocery store. Entertainment has been reduced to Netflix and FaceTiming with friends. While the idea of having to “stay home” from work or school once seemed gratifying, having to do it every day has no doubt turned us stir-crazy and missing the company of our friends and colleagues. 

As we all try to process our feelings about this predicament, one Hackensack educator has joined forces with other teachers throughout the Garden State to take their lessons to the television screen. Beginning April 6, students in Grades 3-6 throughout the state put away their electronic devices for an hour and flipped on their TVs to “Learning Live” on NJTV to watch their teachers school them on everything from fitness to fractions and figurative learning. Hosted by Kimberly Dickstein Hughes, New Jersey’s Teacher of the Year, the initiative is the result of a partnership between the New Jersey Education Association and the New Jersey Department of Education as a means to advance learning in the midst of statewide school closures.  

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Toney Jackson, a fourth-grade teacher at Nellie K. Parker Elementary School in Hackensack, brought his love of poetry in a lesson he called “Poetry Rules!” to his English Language Arts segment, which aired on the television network April 7 and will continue until at least mid next month. In it, he reinvigorated the minds of his viewers as a kind of catharsis, encouraging students to keep a notebook handy in which to jot down spontaneous ideas that come to them throughout the day, concepts and themes that could be used to form the crux of a poem. Making a list, he asserts, is indeed the seed in the dirt to what he hopes will blossom into a literary masterpiece.

This list included five emotions about how students were feeling during the pandemic. The best way to express yourself? Don’t overthink it; just let your ideas flow. 

“Remember that with poetry, you make the rules,” he offers in the episode, adding that even the most seasoned of writers can suffer from a bout of writer’s block. (Apparently, it happens to the best of us.)

“Sometimes, I know exactly what I want to write about, or sometimes I rack my brain trying to think of something — me,” he said in the video. “Even though I am a poet, even though I’ve written books, I write poetry. Even I have trouble sometimes coming up with what it is that I want to say, or what is it that I want to write about. So for me, sometimes I will plan it out.” 

Jackson, for instance, told the students of the bevy of negative emotions that plagued him in the last two weeks: from sad to hungry to bored to scared and inspired. While one would think his feeling inspired by what he said are the health care workers risking their own lives at the front lines to treat the Covid-19 patients was the emotion he chose to base his poem, he picked the least likely one: boredom.  

That’s right. He places the focus on ennui. The result? A surprisingly intriguing list poem entitled, “I Am Bored”:  

I am bored when I’m stuck in the house. 
I am bored when I can’t hang out with my friends.
I am bored when I have nothing to do.
I am bored when my teacher gives me a boring assignment.
I am bored.

Jackson even found inspiration in the mundane squawks of birds as he recorded his lesson from his home, which was enough to rouse some poetic justice.  

Please be quiet
, he read aloud as the first two lines. 

In between two-minute writing exercises after schooling students about haiku, onomatopoeia, stanzas, couplets, alliteration, and sonnets, he engaged students in some bibliotherapy by reading them poetry from his own book he authored from 2013 entitled, “There’s a Button in My Belly,” a collection of illustrations and poems in the forms of haiku and hip-hop.

Jackson’s most recent freestyle is a rhyme he wrote as a bookend to his notebook of random thoughts that never materialized. The product? A literary masterpiece, “Mental Sentence:”    

“I end mental sentences with periods of sporadic commas that calm my karma when beginnings of thoughts run distances and can only be redirected/ because streams of consciousness cannot be stopped like unconscious wishes or clots made of fire that burn time and turn rhymes into endless rhythm riders riding on the river of emotion manifested... I inhale thoughts so my words get congested and split syntax until sentences get dissected, then I end them.”

To view this show and more from Learning Live, go to NJTVonline.org.