Thursday, December 31, 2009

Poetic Interlude: Whitman

Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much?  have you
   reckon'd the earth much?
Have you practis'd so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the
   origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are
   millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand,
   nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the
   spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things
   from me,
You shall lilsten to all sides and filter them from yourself.

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the
   beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

from Whitman's "Song of Myself"--the end of section 2 and star of section 3
bold font marks my favorite lines today

Despite Whitman's warning about spectres in books, Happy New Year, Happy Inception.

In a future post, I will explain what some of these lines have meant, and still mean, for my work with students over the years.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Imaginative Literature and Mr. Abdulmutallab

Subtitle: Who wants to waste time reading fiction, when people are trying to bomb airplanes?

An acquaintance of Mr. Abdulmutallab, who studied Arabic with him in Yemen and lives in Orange County, California, is quoted in today's New York Times (A14) as urging people to "try and understand what is going on in our own backyards."  He claims that "It's pointless trying to pin the blame for this on those in far-off lands. . . .We have to ask ourselves why a young man like Umar Farouk would do this, what the factors were in London that drove him to violence."

If the claims of this California acquaintance resonate for you, I recommend John Updike's novel, The Terrorist (2006).   The novel, centered in New Jersey, maps the transformation of a young man who becomes the terrorist.  While the book's suspense is well-crafted, the novel addresses the question posed by Mr. Abdulmutallab's acquaintance:  why would a young man do this.  If you like, here is a link to a book review:  Although the reviewer may discourage you from reading the novel, I do not.  I understand the criticisms, but I still think the book worth reading; it drew me in well enough to consider some dynamics that must part of stories like today's Detroit news.

On a personal note, for many years I have studied literature with students in the context of an English Department.  More recently, I have worked as a member of a Humanities team.  As such, I have had to ask myself what literature brings to a course that also includes History, Art, Religion and Philosophy.  I believe one of literature's primary gifts is its representation of the individual human life.  Imaginative literature, like Updike's novel, leads us into the life of another, while painting the cultural context in which that person lives.

Empathy, therefore, grows out of this reading experience.  Ironically, given these terrorist acts, empathy--the ability to imagine and know the life of a fellow human being--is what the world's major religions have been trying to teach us for thousands of years.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Composing the Whole Page

Our son sent us a new woodcut of his.  As I kept admiring the purple dove on heavy white stock, I began to appreciate the symmetry of the print.   The beak points gently down to the right, while the extended wing and tail feathers point up to the left at a similar angle.  The large single white eye--we see the dove's profile--is echoed by white circles and stars in the body.  The round-bellied breast is echoed by the shape of the up-thrust wing, itself striated with purple and white.

My wife reminds me of Dan's ability from a very early age to see the whole page.  He has had a seemingly innate capacity to compose and arrange in the space provided.  In the context of his visual-spatial intelligence, I wonder about teenagers composing essays.  When and how do they gain the intelligence to see the whole "page" of the piece they will construct?  At his young age, Dan had a sense of satisfying placement.  Granted students' composing an essay involves an array of word-based skills, but I can't help but wonder how to use parts of what Dan has been showing me over the years with his woodcuts.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Philosophical Interlude: Cultivating Discipline

" 'Correct discipline' and 'enough time' are inseparable notions.  Correct discipline cannot be hurried, for it is both the knowledge of what ought to be done, and the willingness to do it--all of it, properly.  The good worker will not suppose that good work can be made answerable to haste, urgency, or even emergency.  But the good worker knows too that after it is done work requires yet more time to prove its worth.  One must stay to experience and study and understand the consequences--must understand them by living with them, and then correct them, if necessary, by longer living and more work.  It won't do to correct mistakes made in one place by moving to another place, as has been the common fashion in America. . . . Distraction is inimical to correct discipline, and enough time is beyond the reach of anyone who has too much to do."

from Wendell Berry's essay, "People, Land and Community"
in Standing by Woods: Essays (Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 1983)

This passage resonates with me as a teacher of today's high school students, especially those in an urban environment.  Both they and I need to cultivate this kind of discipline.  Berry's passage comes from his description of farming the same hillside for many years.

Poetic Interlude: Neruda

Granted: one poet's experience
with manual metaphysics
doesn't make a poetics;
but I've pared my nails to the quick
to temper my craft
and these shabby prescriptions
I learned for myself, at first hand:
if you find them uncouth
for a poet's vocation,
I agree--no apologies needed!
I smile toward the future
and am gone before you can give me your reasons.

last stanza of "Ars Poetica (I)"

translated from the original Spanish by Ben Belitt
in New Poems (1968-1970) by Pablo Neruda
Grove Press, 1972 

Poetic Interlude: Garden Variety Metaphor

A friend sent pictures of her vegetable garden and berry patch--lush with green growth.  Sometimes I think of this blog as a garden in which I plant thoughts about education, writing instruction and poetry.  If some of these thoughts feed you, as they do me, wonderful.  If not, that's OK, too.  My Oklahoma friend with the garden and Wendell Berry have helped me learn the satisfaction of the soil.  Working the ground is both productive and pleasurable.  To quote a related quatrain from Marge Piercy's poem, To be of use:
     I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
     who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
     who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
     who do what has to be done, again and again.
Although composed with heavier imagery than a berry patch, these lines capture the satisfaction of working to produce.   In other words, I enjoy tending this garden-blog.  As you pick a tomato thought or a blueberry observation, or as you simply wander through the dirty leaves, I hope you enjoy the time, too.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Scientific Interlude: Neuroscience

An enriched educational environment comes from matching teaching practice to the nature of how the brain learns. Basically, it learns in six ways:

a. by associating—e.g., in sensory cortex; it links new information to existing knowledge; it uses power of personal associations

(cf. difference between learning as information-processing and as transformation)

b. by shaping associations into patterns (sometimes forcing patterns that do not exist?)

c. by making meaning

d. through emotions (the limbic system works as a relevance-detector)

e. through the body

f. mostly beneath the level of awareness

(personal notes from “Teaching to the Teenage Brain” conference leader, Gessner Geyer, 25 July 2005, Sierra Nevada Mountains)

Poetic Interlude: Concrete Imagery

Poetry teaches students the value of concrete images.

For example, it teaches us to look beyond the abstract term "nature," in order to see the tall redwood growing between two buildings. It trains our eye down the thin alley between two long apartment buildings in a San Francisco neighborhood. It stretches our arms such that our finger tips rub the stucco on either wall at the same time. At the back of the buildings, we see that the fifty-foot tree, first noticed from the sidewalk, actually grows out of the soil at its feet--just as Blake's poison tree and Whitman's live oak have done. Poetry, in other words, leads us down that dark alley to see the strength of this single evergreen. It instructs us to look past the facades and see the roots taking hold in someone's, yes someone's, backyard.

Philosophical Interlude: Change

From the introduction to one of my early teaching bibles:

"It is the thesis of this book that change--constant, accelerating, ubiquitous--is the most striking characteristic of the world we live in and that our educational system has not yet recognized this fact."
Postman and Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York: Dell, 1969.

As sciences and technologies continue to evolve, the first half of this sentence still resonates. I like to think that in the last forty years a larger percentage of people who work in educational systems--i.e., learning communities--understand this "striking characteristic" and have applied the understanding to their daily decisions.

Friday, December 25, 2009

For most recent online publication, see this article about William Kennedy's Ironweed:

Poetic Interlude: Yeats

Hands, do what you're bid:
Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.

from The Wild Swans at Coole (1919; Yeats age 54)

Language Study #2: the power and the beauty

Ideally, students learn to appreciate the power and beauty of artistic language.

John Wray’s first novel, The Right Hand of Sleep, comes to mind—partly because I recently finished it (July 2002), but perhaps even more so because it paints a remarkably wise, patient and compassionate portrait of Austrian life between the wars. I am not only grateful for his history and geography lessons, but also indebted to his sentences, many of which I admire for their grace alone. The sounds and rhythms impress me as carefully crafted pleasures. So, too, do the turns of phrase that capture persistent emotions of the novel. Most memorable, in part because I have described it to friends, is the protagonist Oscar’s reply to his girlfriend when she relays her Austrian cousin’s complicity in ruining an Austrian Jew’s business. Without apparent disapproval, she reports that while the German SS destroyed the man’s shop, the cousin was there but did nothing. Therefore, she says, he bore no responsibility. Oscar replies in a tone that characterizes much of his disheartened, resilient repugnance. He says that she will have to explain her statement to him sometime when they are both feeling quite patient. As my friend, Doug, pointed out, it is the second half of Oscar’s remark that distinguishes it from other iterations of this wounded, angry incomprehension. John’s beautifully powerful language recognizes the role of time’s cumulative effect. He finds several ways of capturing initially vague images that resolve themselves as writer and reader approach them.
July 2002

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Language Study #1: clear, full expression

First in a series about what students ideally learn to do through language study in schools.
In July 2002, I hand-wrote the first six of the series in a MiniComp notebook (6 x 31/2"), limiting each mini-essay to one page front and back.  For numbers seven through ten, I have just the topics.
Ideally, students learn to express themselves clearly and fully.

Children, teenagers no less than other children, need to be understood. Even adults who have lived together, talked together for years, struggle to express themselves clearly to one another. Writing instruction during the teenage years gives students focused work on consciously narrowing the gap between emotions, thoughts and perceptions on the one hand and verbal expression on the other. Our ideas and feelings are constantly changing. The process of expression does not apply to a static content longing for effective form. What does remain steady is the challenge of identifying and articulating one’s perceptions and interpretations at any given moment. The specific nature of the moment changes, but not the general chemistry. In this sense, verbal expression always contains an artistic quality. “How best to capture my view” is the writer’s question. That same question moves, for example, Eiko and Koma in their performance piece, “The Offering,” last night in Battery Park City, across West End Avenue from the World Trade Center site. The artists’ tools included: orange-yellow artificial light (morning-sun color); an altar of sticks, earth and flame; human movement and poses of three dancers—two Japanese and one East Indian; and music of a clarinet. The writer also has tools, a vision and an audience. Teenagers need regular practice with various tools, in order to express their vision to a particular audience.
July 2002