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Judy Michaels

Profiles in Education

Candace Braun

Name: Judy Michaels
School: Princeton Day School
Years Taught: 30 years
Subject/Grade Taught: English, Upper School; poetry, kindergarten through twelfth grade
Education: undergraduate degree in English and classics from Middlebury College, Vt.; masters and Ph.D. in English from Bryn Mawr College, Pa.
Most Memorable Book: Book of My Nights, by Li-Young Lee
Person You Admire: "Anne Shepherd; she served as an English teacher and department chair at PDS for many years, inspiring me with the individual attention she offered every student and her intense love of good literature and language. She knew how to recognize excellence and find words to praise it. A student who received a 'Dazzling' from Anne didn't forget it. And when she praised my first book, I felt a tremendous wave of relief."

Writing poetry and spending time with students is the best medicine for cancer, says Judy Michaels, artist-in-residence at Princeton Day School. After having the illness three times in seven years, the teacher is sure of two things: that having a life-threatening disease makes life seem precious, and that being around children helps bring back the energy needed to continue on with the tasks at hand. And for someone who is a teacher, a mentor, a poet, and a program organizer at the private school, that energy is always needed.

Starting out as a full-time English teacher at PDS, Ms. Michaels became an artist-in-residence in the early 90s. Her job entails being a role model for her students by furthering the cause of poetry in the classroom.

With children in the lower school, Ms. Michaels tries to work more collaboratively on poems, using imagery and sounds. In the middle and upper schools, she relates her poetry workshops directly to teachers' lesson plans. For example, she teaches Chinese poetry to go along with middle school studies of Chinese history, and at the high school level, she has American history classes read Walt Whitman's civil war poetry.

Workshops vary from year to year, depending on the teacher, said Ms. Michaels: "It's a very exciting, and sometimes exhausting, job."

Another project she supervises involves pairing up third graders with junior and senior poetry students at the upper school. The students start by writing letters introducing themselves, then they meet to discuss poetry, play games, or share their interests.

"It's meaningful for both students in a lot of ways," she said. "I had one student run to his locker and pull out his cello and start playing for his partner."

A Teaching Family

Growing up in Ridgefield, Conn., Ms. Michaels was raised in a family of teachers. Both her mother and father attended the Juilliard School in New York, studying flute and piano, respectively. They both gave music lessons to students in their living room when Ms. Michaels was growing up.

An avid promoter of education, her father started a music program in the Richfield public schools, as well as a band and glee club. He was also the choir director and organist in their church.

"My father just lived music and education," said Ms. Michaels.

The first time she was able to see the impact her father had on his students was when she was in his high school music class: "He inspired me with what a teacher could be, and how a teacher could reach kids beyond the classroom."

Taking a cue from her father, Ms. Michaels has developed a lively arts program at PDS, "Aesthetic Education," which helps students appreciate what painters, actors, dancers, and other artists do by bringing them in to demonstrate the inner workings of their particular art form. Ms. Michaels contacts local groups such as McCarter Theatre and the American Repertory Ballet to come out to the school for programs. This fall, a dance-teaching artist from ARB will come to give workshops on movement and choreography to middle school students on the upcoming ballet, Taming of the Shrew, which students will have the opportunity to see in November. Another guest artist will teach folk dancing to the lower school students, and the upper school will be able to speak with the cast and crew of McCarter's Secret in the Wings.

"The program really sensitizes and educates the students on what they're going to see," said Ms. Michaels.

A Known Poet

Along with her many other duties as artist-in-residence, Ms. Michaels is a poet and writer. Since 1999 she has written three books, Risking Intensity: Reading and Writing Poetry With High School Students, which has sold more than 3,000 copies; Dancing With Words: Helping Students Love Language Through Authentic Vocabulary Instruction; and The Forest of Wild Hands, her first book of poetry.

"One of the good things about being an artist-in-residence is that you're supposed to be writing when you're not teaching," she said.

She has also published poetry in several journals, including Poetry, Yankee, Poetry Northwest, Columbia Review, and The Women's Review of Books, and has won two Poetry Fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Ms. Michaels is also a member of "Cool Women," a group of seven Princeton-area women who meet once a month to discuss and critique each other's poetry. The group has published two books of poetry, and are now looking to start a group for high school girls, called "Cool Girls."

Although reaching each age level at PDS can be difficult at times, Ms. Michaels said that she has found similarities between her youngest and oldest students. Younger students say whatever is on their minds without feeling self-conscious, and older students are more willing to be themselves in the classroom. But it's the middle school students who are the hardest to reach, said the teacher: "It's a real challenge to break down [that barrier] and help kids take risks in front of their friends."

One way she does this is by introducing her students to a poet that they can relate to in their own way. Having had several students with clinical depression, Ms. Michaels has found that Jane Kenyon, a poet who also suffered with depression most of her life, can really touch on issues those students are dealing with.

"Moments when I can help my students 'hook up with' a poet who they can relate to are some of the most extraordinary moments in my life," she said.

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