Poetry and Pets: Teaching During COVID

Cat Walking Across Laptop

By Graham Isaac 

There are seven open zoom windows, including my own. A student, in the middle of a poem about returning home after being absent a long time, darts her head and glares at something out of frame. In a second, a grey-black blur whizzes by.

“I’m sorry-- I need to get my cat out of here.”

The rest of the students disagreed.

“No! We want to see your cat! What’s your cat’s name?”

“Oh. Okay. I guess Pickles can stay. Everyone, this is Pickles. Pickles, this is everyone.”

With that, she restarted her poem.


Teaching during COVID 19 has presented a unique set of challenges and scenarios. The online format has provided some downsides and upsides, perhaps the most noticeable being the presence of people’s pets in their zoom windows. This serves as an instant bonding moment for students who are often zooming in from different parts of the city, or even country.

Poetry, being a written form, is more suited than a lot of subjects for the online treatment. While there were some growing pains the first quarter that I transitioned to teaching online, I’ve found myself used to, and even preferring it. For one, the online format allows people to participate regardless of their distance from school; in Winter 2021 we had students in Wisconsin and Tumwater as well as various Seattle neighborhoods.

During this last year of isolation, teaching the Introduction to Poetry Workshop has been a much needed source of connection and expression. Every Saturday for seven weeks I get to talk to people from different ages, walks of life, levels of writing and life experience about Poetry, and through that, life. 

Some writers have been diving deep into their own COVID experiences, detailing anxiety, loneliness, and uncertainty. Others have delved into their past, embracing memories of better times and drawing hope from those experiences. In Introduction to Poetry workshop I aim to assign prompts that inspire self examination and literary growth without stifling imagination. 

Each week I send out a prompt due by Friday afternoon and writers email the group with their work. This is another advantage of the online format; we all get more time with the poems in question. Writers read their work in the chat, have their work read by a second writer, and the class discusses them, often heaping both praise and constructive criticism at the same time. It’s been revelatory to see my students offering advice I wouldn’t have, or catching things I didn’t. 

Each quarter features a different mix of students-- some repeat performers, others brand new-- and a different dynamic. One thing that remains consistent, however, is that these weekly workshops have been a bright light during dark times. Every Friday afternoon my inbox starts filling up with poetry, and every Saturday I get to pretend I have a cat.

Learn more about Graham Isaac and his class, Poetry Workshop