Friday, December 17, 2010

"The Rocks of Recklessness"

The last day before vacation presents challenges in a building teeming with teenagers.  The writing exercise described below engaged students more than I had anticipated.  

In an upper level literature elective, "The Drama of Math and Science," we had first read Inherit the Wind.  As preparation for Marlowe's Faust, we read the morality play, Everyman.  

To end the week, teams of students wrote a short scene in the manner of a morality play.

A scene from the Moral  Play, “The Rocks of _____________”

After their ship has narrowly escaped shipwreck on the Rocks of ____________,
several shipmates discuss why they almost crashed their vessel and how they can avoid such danger in the future.  (Fill in the blank with a noun that reflects the mindset(s) or behavior(s) that caused the ship to nearly shipwreck.)

Choosing two or three characters from the lists below (at least one from each list), write a page or two of the shipmates’ dialogue.  Follow the formatting used by our text of Everyman.



Saturday, November 13, 2010

Wired for Poetry

 This piece originally appeared in the BAY School of San Francisco's monthly newsletter (April 2009).  Given my recent letter to The New York Times, I decided to re-publish the essay here.

Wired for Poetry

Poetry is an art form—that started a long time ago.  It is still an elder among the creative arts.  We can also say that the essentials of poetry overlap significantly with the basic ways the human brain learns.  According to our modern and blossoming neurobiological understandings, the human brain is a natural poetry machine.  I can’t help but recall the time my three-year-old nephew held up high a peeled banana at breakfast and exclaimed, “Look, the moon.”
In July 2005, after Bay School’s first academic year, faculty members attended a conference called “Teaching to the Teenage Brain.”  Ever since, notes from that week have informed my work with students.  According to the conference leader, Gesner Geyer, an enriched learning environment matches teaching practice to the nature of how the brain learns. Recently, I have come to understand how well humans are wired for poetry.  Geyer’s summary of recent scientific knowledge proposes that, fundamentally, the brain learns in six ways:

By associating (linking, connecting) new information to existing knowledge
By shaping those associations into patterns
By making meaning (e.g., from these patterns)
through emotions (that work as relevance detectors)
through the body
mostly beneath the level of awareness

    As just one example of alignment between poetry and the brain, consider metaphor, a basic building block of poetry.  Through metaphor, we associate something unknown, unfamiliar or puzzling (like love or separation) with something our brain knows (like the scent of a rose or the stacked stones of a wall).  This year’s sections of the Poetry course focused on three essentials: sound, imagery and metaphor.  Through both reading and writing poems, students regularly circled back to each element in order to build an understanding of its special potential.  They read poems from the ancient Near East and Far East, from medieval Europe and from the modern Americas.  They wrote in meter and free verse.  They analyzed published poems and reflected on their own original compositions. Each student was responsible for leading a class on a poet of his or her choosing.  In these sessions, classmates learned about subjects such as World War Two’s effect on Tadeusz Rozewicz (Poland), modern industrialization’s impact on Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (England) and the playful criticism of Billy Collins (United States).  As a final project, both sections of the course produced a book for the school’s library.  These books contain separate chapters from each student.  The first half of each chapter contains two published poems and that student’s analysis of how these two poems “talk” to each other. In the chapter’s second half, each student includes an original poem, as well as an essay explaining plans, discoveries and final reflections from the process.  The samples in this newsletter come from the class presentations and the book chapters.  As always, it has been a pleasure working with the students, as they study and create poetry.

Becoming Our Brain: New Web Browser Unleashed

 Earlier this week I mailed this letter to The New York Times.  Now it can safely appear here.

To the Editor:
Re: “Web Browsing Takes Social Turn” by Miguel Helft (news article, Nov.8)

To paraphrase a main idea in Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows (Norton, 2010), the internet is increasingly doing our thinking for us. This momentum is causing important parts of our brain to atrophy. For example, we learn largely through our capacity to associate new information with prior knowledge. If you ever wondered “what the internet is doing to our brains” (Carr’s subtitle), look no further than Miguel Helft’s article about the new web browser being launched today. RockMelt not only searches the web for you, “but also fetches the pages associated with these results, so a user can preview those pages quickly and decide which to click to.” Beautiful—now the internet browser makes associations for you. You don’t have to exercise that part of your brain anymore. You, the “user,” are now being used, while becoming less able to think for yourself.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rediscovering Books and booklets

Oh, the power of the pamphlet. (full post forthcoming)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Poetry, Hamlet, Humanities and Heaney

Several months ago, I began writing about Literature and History.

As our sophomore Humanities students are about to meet Hamlet and his play, I find myself thinking of Seamus Heaney's 1995 Nobel acceptance speech, "Crediting Poetry," especially its last paragraph.  Throughout my years as a Humanities teacher, I have had to keep asking myself and articulating to others what literature distinctively brings to the table.  How does the literary enterprise differ from the historical one, and what primary values come from experiencing a text like Hamlet?  Answer: the human experience generated by the text.  While Shakespeare's play, as an artifact (art made), has historical value, it is not primarily an historical text.  It is art designed to be felt and lived.

Enter Seamus Heaney.  I have italicized a portion of the excerpt that particularly resonates for me.  After the passage, a brief explanation.

"Poetic form is both the ship and the anchor.  It is at once a buoyancy and a holding, allowing for the simultaneous gratification of whatever is centrifugal and centripetal in mind and body. And it is by such means that Yeats's work does what the necessary poetry always does, which is to touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic reality of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed.  The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry's power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry's credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being."  [emphasis added]

As we question the spirit who appears during the night watch in Act One, Hamlet's experiences of fear and curiosity are ours, too.  So is his anger at Gertrude's o'erhastey marriage.  When we act, or imagine acting, in these scenes, "the base of our sympathetic nature" is touched.  The form of the language, says Heaney, touches that vulnerable part of ourselves; it connects us to the experience of another person, and in so doing recognizes us.  Part of our job as teachers of literature is to help young people understand that a play written four hundred years ago and set a thousand years ago CAN have relevance for us today.  Such plays CAN teach us valuable lessons about ourselves as individuals and communities.  Our own vulnerabilities and sympathies DO matter, and literature recognizes this claim.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

At times the stars align

At times the stars align, as they did this past week.

During the Writing Workshop class, required of all freshmen at our high school, students were embarking on their first essay of literary analysis.  They were trying to identify a viable main idea for their essays.  This early in the year, many of the new ninth graders struggle to create an interpretive statement on which to base the two-to-three-page analysis.  They start by writing a brief reflection called a "thought piece," which is basically an extended  journal entry about a line, incident or issue from the text.  Our text this time is a recent novel by Markus Zusak, called The Book Thief.  (By the novel's mid-point, the story continues to engage the students, which is welcomed news to my colleague, Ellen Greenblatt, who suggested the novel for this class and who introduced us to the label "thought piece.")

From three of these thought pieces, I read sample sentences aloud in order to show everyone the routes some of their classmates had taken to a workable idea.  I put these routes into three different categories.  Since that demonstration, I have noticed that these categories align with basic ways  the brain learns.  Sometimes the stars align.

The first student's idea grows from a question, so we used the label "Q."  She wonders what the novel's various colors mean, or more specifically, what Death's use of colors means.  This question reminds me of the brain's primary function of handling new information.  As I understand the process, when the brain receives new information, it has to do something with it--put it somewhere.  For example, it tries to associate it with something it already knows--i.e., with prior knowledge.  Or for another, perhaps better, example, the brain tries to make meaning from the new information.

The second student is building her idea on the feeling of surprise.  I offered the label of "Resonance"--with the label "R."  She had not expected the mayor's wife to invite Liesel into her home to see the library.  This unexpected gesture just "goes to show" the reader that people who first appear uncaring may turn out to be a source of comfort.  This essay-start aligns with the claim that human learning involves our emotions.  For this student, the path to an idea and analysis begins with an emotional response to one character's seemingly simple invitation.

The third student has noticed a pattern ("P"), specifically in the growing friendship between Liesel and Rudy.  He sees their relationship becoming richer, and plans to analyze what this growth tells us about both characters, as well as about the nature of friendship.  As for alignment in this case, pattern-making is the connection.  Once the brain has linked incoming information to prior knowledge, the brain shapes those associations into patterns, which, in turn, helps the brain make meaning, or so I learned some years ago at a workshop called "Teaching to the Teenage Brain."

In sum, from student reflections I took three examples that showed successful starts to the process of finding a meaningful interpretive statement.  After having named each path and explained each case to the kids, I see the natural match between those students' successes and cognitive scientists' descriptions of basic ways the brain learns. 

NEXT POST: RECOGNIZING RESONANCE (framed quotes and Seamus Heaney's Nobel speech)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reading Reflections: Carr's THE SHALLOWS #1

This general series contains personal reflections on my current reading.  

Having recently started Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2010), I offer some initial thoughts, several of which came up at this morning's (delicious quiche) breakfast with my wife, brother and sister-in-law. 

The cover of a teacher monthly--I think it was called TEACHER MAGAZINE--maybe twenty years ago or so, featured a sturdy young Marlboro man of a teacher (in jeans and a t-shirt) standing in a desert.  Knee-high sage brush dotted the sandy floor. The camera angle made the man loom large, with the desert vista stretching behind him.  At his feet sat a tiny Mac Plus, tilted slightly to one side as if disoriented or tired.  The He-Man teacher showed viewers that he was in charge--man and his chosen tool.  He would decide how and when to use this machine.

Four years ago, our faculty held a week-long summer institute focused on technology. Our discussions produced the consensus that we best serve students by reminding them that "technology" means "tool," and that we all should develop the habit of first asking what we want to do.  Then, we choose the tools that suit the purpose.

In Carr's opening chapters, he appreciates this popular conviction that we are the tool-users, but he introduces the core of his apparent thesis:  the tools themselves use us.  In other words, they change us.  Specifically, the internet changes how we think, not just what we think.

Our family breakfast discussion touched on social-networking tools, like Facebook.  I think we agreed that such tools are training teenagers (and their brains) to move away from empathy at an important stage in their development.  The appearance of anonymity or distance, among other features, lures them into "communicating" without understanding the receiver.  The technology itself produces the effect.  In the opening chapters, Carr has not addressed this social networking topic, but his main idea seems related insofar as empathy presumes depth and his title is The Shallows.

At the breakfast table, I could not help but put in a plug for reading literature because as teenagers move outside themselves, literature helps them develop skills of empathy by inviting them to imagine other people's lives.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Language Study #6: enjoy writing

Ideally, students learn to enjoy the satisfactions of composing and comprehending.

Satisfaction takes time; digestion proceeds across minutes, hours or days.  For students to experience satisfaction in composing or comprehending, they need time to feel it.  Recognition of accomplishment plays an equally important role in this process.  Teachers promote this satisfaction by giving students time to compose, alongside the burgeoning ability to recognize accomplishment.  These are quiet joys, internal joys amid today's spectacularly visual and electronic culture.  [Ed. note, I wrote the first pieces of this series eight years ago, but have chosen to keep their original wording.]  In terms of composition, students can feel satisfaction, for example, at overcoming an obstacle.  How will they begin a letter, essay or poem?  How will they find a word or sentence that says what they want, that, according to Tolstoi, infects the audience with the writer's feeling?  In terms of comprehension, students can feel satisfaction, for example, when detecting a pattern.  While reading The Age of Innocence recently, I was made impatient by the narrator.  I began to think Wharton was cheating me with her omniscient narrator.  From the beginning, again influenced by Tolstoi's What is Art?, I asked which character Wharton cares about.  She sides with no one, except perhaps Countess Oleska.  Her criticism runs so close to anger that she exploits the narrator.  She uses it as her own personal tool.  As a result, moments of Archer's thoughts in the narration ring less true.  I enjoy comprehending the story to this degree, and wish similar enjoyment for students.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Conducting Class.Series Introduction

In this series, I reflect on the dynamics of the learning environment's basic unit, the class.  Several years ago colleagues and I created a template for classroom observations.  The topics in this series come from that template.  I chose the series title, "Conducting Class," because it reminds me of an orchestra conductor.  I like to think of groups, like students or faculty, as playing their individual instruments in service of the whole song.  I thought of calling the series "The Learning Environment," but wanted to focus the writing more than that.  I can still refer to the general idea of a complete environment, while using the musical analogy to focus on specific dynamics of a class (lesson) and the location in which the learning takes place.

In keeping with the musical theme, the term Opus (Op.) will refer to a general category, with its own introduction.  Under that introduction, I will use the term Number (No.) for reflections on specific dynamics within that category.  For example, the initial post in this series will introduce the first general topic: "Conducting Class Op.1: Engaging Students."  That will be followed by "Conducting Class Op.1 No.1: students aware of task," "Conducting Class Op.1 No.2: students are engaged," and so on.

n.b.  As I develop a new series in this blog, I imagine a primary audience.  In this case, for example, as a more experienced (not better, juts more experienced) classroom teacher, I imagine those of you who have come to the profession more recently.  I hope that some of these posts give you fuel for developing and enjoying your work with students and colleagues.  You are the primary audience I imagine, but, at the very same time, I imagine others like myself who can use these pieces to continue reflecting on our practice.  The river can run deeper, if we allow that to happen.  When I left the school where I began full-time teaching, people asked my why I was leaving.  I said my rate of growth was slowing.  I still believe that we can keep growing in our jobs.  Not only is this growth energizing and productive, but also we have a responsibility to keep remembering what growth feels like first-hand, since we ask students to experience this, too.  It is fun and fair, therefore, for experienced teachers to regularly reach and reflect.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Literature and History in Stegner's ANGLE OF REPOSE

As noted in the post about ancient Celtic Culture (01 July 2010), I will be exploring the relationships between literature and history.  Since I began teaching Humanities six years ago at a brand new high school (The BAY School of San Francisco), I have been challenged and intrigued by these relationships.  Hired as a Humanities teacher with primary experience in literature, I have had to identify, for myself and colleagues, the core benefits of studying imaginative literature.  What distinct gifts come from this study?  What do poetry, drama and fiction bring to the table--for example, when studying modern China, ancient India, Renaissance England or the contemporary Americas?  These posts help me articulate what I am coming to see as the enduring values of the literary experience.

As also noted in the recent Celtic post, sometimes literature and history overlap--as with the master-poets who served as historians.  Even with the overlap, the differences seem worth exploring.  I have enjoyed what my new teaching assignment has shown me, and the challenge has sharpened and deepened my appreciation for the primary values of imaginative literature.

With these comments as preface, I offer an excerpt from Wallace Stegner's novel, Angle of Repose, for which he won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize.  If you have read the novel, you know that Lyman, the narrator, imagines the life of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward.  At the same time that he is working on this writing project about the past, he has present-day encounters with his son, Rodman, who helps care for his wheelchair-bound father.  In the father-son discussion about Lyman's work, some of Lyman's distinctions emerge.  For example, where one finds primary meaning figures in his definitions.

Here is the brief exchange, which occurs about half way through the novel.  Throughout the novel,  Lyman fights what he sees as Rodman's history-deprived need for "zing."  (As in earlier posts, I have used bold font to emphasize certain ideas.)
      "I'm not going to put any of that [information about Lyman's grandfather's Deadwood days] in," I say.
     "You're not?  Why not?  You know all about it.  You're writing a book about Western history.  Why leave out the colorful stuff?"
     "I'm not writing a book of Western history," I tell him.  "I've written enough history books to know this isn't one.  I'm writing about something else.  A marriage, I guess.  Deadwood was just a blank space in the marriage.  Why waste time on it?
     Rodman is surprised.  So am I, actually--I have never formulated precisely what it is I have been doing, but the minute I say it I know I have said it right.  What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in.  What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them.  That's where the interest is.  That's where the meaning will be if I find any.

Stegner, Wallace.  Angle of Repose.  Doubleday, 1971. Penguin, 1992. 211.

Picture.Student Writers # 1: Invite your audience


 First in a series of architectural analogies meant to help student writers. 
  Walk my neighborhood, as I do daily with our dog, Sybil, and you will see a variety of interesting buildings.  The photographs in this series help me remember some basic principles of successful writing. 


Invite your audience.
I like this doorstep because of the two pots of purple flowers, the strength of the purple against the gray steps, and the clean lines of the whole entryway.  This house elegantly invites my eyes up the stairs to the arch at the top.  For example, since the pots sit against the house rather than on the street-side ledge, my eyes move from left to right--from unadorned to adorned ledge.  Simplicity also plays a role.  These steps have just two pots, and that's it.  This simplicity, in turn, establishes contrast between the gray steps and purple flowers. (Incidentally, the plant's leaves are dark purple.)  Finally, whoever painted these steps did a careful job.  The painter has applied the paint evenly, without any stray swatches or splatters.  The resulting clean lines complete the inviting nature of this entrance.

In writing, carefully paint the entrance to your story, poem or essay.  Invite your readers by giving them something to look at--something towards which their eyes will naturally move.  Start simply, with clear lines.  A cluttered stairway haphazardly composed may send them down the street looking for a more inviting entrance.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Literature and History in ancient Celtic culture

Woven into the fabric of the following passage from Alwyn and Brinley Rees's book, Celtic Heritage, is an idea I first explored in an earlier post (Literature and History, 26 March 2010) and will likely keep addressing in order to assay the validity and value of this distinction:  what literature does best and most distinctly among the written genres is evoke for us another world in which we can empathize with the people who inhabit it. Literature brings that world alive for us, re-creates it in us, and through that experience we enlarge our selves and enable connections between those selves and others.  Whereas history helps explain these other worlds, literature finds artistic ways to embody or enact them.

In the following passage, note the part in bold.  Ancient Celtic story-telling masters carried audiences with them into the world they were re-creating, re-inhabiting.  As an aside, I cannot help but also notice the legal status enjoyed by these master-poets.  In the West we no longer have kings as did the ancient Celts, but wouldn't it be nice, and smart, to elevate master-poets in a modern fashion.  We have made a mild start with poets at Presidential inauguration ceremonies and the naming of national Poets Laureate.  Thank you, Kay Ryan, and congratulations, W.S. Merwin.  
For a brief commentary on Merwin's path, see Drew Brachter's "Capital Comment Blog" (01 July 2010).  For fuller treatment, see the always-rich Poetry Foundation site (William Stanley Merwin).

There is evidence from the Celtic countries and from India that the poets were also the official historians and the royal genealogists.  The poet's praises confirmed and sustained the king in his kingship, while his satire could blast both the king and his kingdom.  There was a tradition that the learned poets (filid) of Ireland were once judges.  They were certainly the experts on the prerogatives and duties of the kings, and a master-poet (ollam) was himself equal to a king before the law.  Such priestly functions as divination and prophecy also came within the province of these early Irish poets who, it may be added, wore cloaks of bird-feathers as do the shamans of Siberia when, through ritual and trance, they conduct their audiences on journeys to another world.  It was the initiates with this power and authority who had the custody of the original tales, and they recited them on auspicious occasions, even as the priests of other religions recite the scriptures.

Rees, Alwyn and Brinley.  Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales.  New York: Thames and Hudson, 1961. reprinted 1991. 17.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ha Jin on evoking empathy

In and earlier post, Language Study #3: empathy, I wrote about empathy's allowing people, including students,  to work alongside each other successfully.  Literature exercises one's empathy.  It has the potential to do so more than other kinds of writing (see Literature and History).  Students, I hope, come out of each encounter with more ability to imagine and, therefore, to empathize.

In his essay collection, The Writer as Migrant, Ha Jin remarks on this literary capacity.  The excerpt below comes from the chapter called "The Spokesman and the Tribe," in which he criticizes Chinese novelist, Lin Yutang.  For now, I offer this excerpt without further comment--except for the parts I have put in bold to emphasize Ha Jin's descriptions of the difference between novels and essays, and between successfully and poorly imagined literature.

There are two other weaknesses that must have stemmed from Lin Yutang's vision of himself as a cultural spokesman of China.  First, the narrator tries too blatantly to present Chinese culture to a Western audience.  There are passages that read like miniessays about Chinese women's education, Chinese medicine, and Chinese belief in the balance of the Five Elements in making marriages.  These passages are not blended into the dramatic context, block the flow of narration, and result in prose that feels crude and unfinished.  Such crudeness is not merely a technical blunder.  It reveals the novelist's inadequate vision.  Just as a creative writer should aspire to be not a broker but a creator of culture, a great novel does not only present a culture but also makes a culture;  such a work does not only bring news of the world but also evokes the reader's empathy and reminds him of his own existential condition.  If a novel by which the ambitious author will stand or fall, he should imagine what kind of cultural order the book may enter into should it succeed.  Lin Yutang obviously did not entertain such a vision and indulged himself too much in explaining China.  Throughout Moment in Peking, the narrative reveals that the book was written only for a Western audience.

Jin, Ha.  The Writer as Migrant.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 17.

Language Study #5: "details" of language

Ideally, students learn to understand details of language well enough to shape it themselves and see how others shape it.

The "details of language" occur in words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, stanzas, pages and books.  They involve vocabulary, semantics, syntax and grammar.  The more students understand how to identify and use these details, the more they can shape language to their desired ends.  Important to instruction is recognizing both publicly and privately the satisfaction derived from such shaping.  That satisfaction does not come automatically, even in this particular sketch.  At times, the desired end or audience grows foggy and the writing gathers lines in a journal but little else.  Recognizing the trial-and-error, the drafting, the eventual nature of successful composition has become perhaps an even more important ingredient in today's writing instruction.  The fastfood/electronic/digital culture tends to reward instantaneous action.  The faster the better.  Writing, though, at least the kind that brings personal satisfaction to me, involves several stages of invention, re-invention and polish.  The shaping occurs over time.  Consider a book like John Wideman's novel, Philadelphia Fire, which sports across the page like one of its street ball stars on a West Philly basketball court.  Even such apparently free-wheeling approaches demand forethought, first runs at the basket, responses from fellow reader-writers, then a "tedious" return to the detailed choices about words, phrases and sentences.  What do you want to convey about the bombing of a West Philly neighborhood?  And to whom?  What style and arrangement of words will work?  What's available to me.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Language Study #4: be open to discovery

Ideally, through analysis and expression, students learn to appreciate the building blocks of individual and community health.

People see roles and identities for themselves.  For example, in NYC this summer [2002] with an unusually high number of guests, my natural interest in the city's transportation systems has blossomed into a heavy flower sometimes bending the stem of sociability.  I see my role as primary street guide who can scout and propose routes routes that, especially in this heat, will produce the least wear and tear on the group.  Knowing which bus or subway goes nearest which location saves people physical and psychological energy they can use to watch people, explore buildings or just enjoy the rhythms of the city.  As with most compounded interests, these led me to take my role and identity into unrelated arenas.  Here personality and its general inclinations overlapped with my perceived role this summer and my year-round identity as responsible one.  Ann's speaking to me about being "teacherly" served as a primary catalyst to seeing the guide-gone-awry phenomenon.  My own willingness and ability to consider my actions complement her expression.  These, then, are the building blocks of individual and community (i.e., family) health.  In schools, where students and teachers  enter a  prescribed learning environment, appreciating such dynamics allows the educational relationship to grow in healthy directions.  An openness to discovery characterizes genuine learning.  Teenagers face the challenge of recognizing this while forming their roles and identities.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

mystery and metaphor: Anne Michaels's novel about grief, poetry and healing

A Greek Jewish stevedore from Salonika tells Jakob's father that "the great mystery of wood is not that it burns, but that it floats."

For now, let's just say I am grateful for having discovered Michaels's 1996 novel, Fugitive Pieces.

Jakob Beers is a young Jewish boy who buried himself to escape the fate of his sister and parents during the Nazi violation of Poland.

He is uncovered, discovered and recovered with the help of Athos, a Greek geologist, who teaches him love and poetry.

After having finished the novel, I told my wife that I would like to start reading it again right away.  During the first reading, I had to balance savoring with progressing; I could easily return, but want to let the images, lines and intuitions settle before I do.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Literature and History

     People schooled and practiced in history, look at artifacts and listen to contemporary accounts, in order to learn about present and past human activity.  From these specifics, historians develop general descriptions and theories.  For example, they ask, “What patterns are emerging from this study?”  Their answers help everyone see the past, understand the present and navigate the future.
    People trained and experienced in literature, encounter stories, poems and other forms of literary art—in order to understand the individual human.  From these literary expressions, students build knowledge of our common experience.  For example, they ask, “Who is this person?” and “What does it feel like to be this person in this world?”  While using the artist’s guidance to answer such questions, literature students need to imagine precisely.
    In some literary circles, people discuss artistic merit.  Through scholarly debate, they try to establish the better or best story.  For example, they may claim a story has too much unnecessary detail or is too predictable. How elegantly, in other words, does the author sew together the various artistic threads?
    Such literary debate, however, has its limitations.  The more enduring value comes from conjuring, comprehending and appreciating the lives of individuals—for example, Gogol in Jhumpra Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake.  Although this first generation Bengali-American is named for the Russian author of “The Overcoat,” not until the final moments of the novel does Gogol begin reading this short story.  It has taken him thirty years to open the book—the book given to him by his father, the book that saved his father’s life, the book that gave him his name.  Lahiri’s novel helps readers understand why it took Gogol so long to turn to page one, and how his experiences mirror those of other individuals struggling to make a new home in a new country like the United States.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Poetic Interlude: Du Fu

reflecting on friends and form

When an understanding deepens, reflect on its origin.  Some days ago, I found comfort in the form practiced by Du Fu, the renowned 8th c. poet from China.  He practiced a traditional form which, in one rendering, uses a total of eight lines.  Two lines set the scene, the middle four advance the poem and the last two conclude.  I find peace in the structure, not unlike Wordsworth’s “Nuns Who Fret Not” find peace in their confinement.  This Chinese form depends heavily on concrete images, as well as on syntactical and semantic parallels.

In this peace, I remembered the friend who introduced me to Du Fu’s poetry.  This friend had recently returned from China.  From his visit to Du Fu’s house, he brought me a book of poems.  He also gave me small commemorative plates, each with its own wooden tripod-stand.  Atop our poetry bookcase at home, we have put the larger plate and its portrait of Du Fu in the center—flanked by two smaller ones that contain the original text of a famous poem.  The comfort and energy I draw from Du Fu’s poetry make me want to regularly remember the friend who introduced me to this glorious gift.

For now, without comment or historical context, I offer one translation of Du Fu’s poem that appears on the commemorative plates.  Afterwards, I include one of mine.  I have helped students write these, too.  They follow a series of steps, starting with a grid into which they insert individual words or phrases, trying as best they can to capture the English equivalent of a Chinese character.  This exercise particularly suits the more visual learners.

Gazing in Springtime

The empire is shattered but rivers and peaks remain.
Spring drowns the city in wild grass and trees.
A time so bad, even the flowers rain tears.
I hate this separation, yet birds startle my heart.
The signal fires have burned three months;
I’d give ten thousand gold coins for one letter.
I scratch my head and my white hair thins
Till it can’t even hold a pin.

                    Du Fu
                                c.757 C.E.

Barnstone, T. and C. Ping. Eds. The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry: From Ancient to
    Contemporary, The Full 3000-Year Tradition
.  NY: Anchor, 2005.

While Waiting for the Storm   

Deep blue-gray clouds hover far away.
A gleaming school building, white as clean, weathered bone, sits contentedly atop the neighborhood hill.
Students stand and wait, while trucks rumble past.
Sometime in the future, a bus will be arriving, stuffed with people holding on.
A soft, salmon pink appears on the eastern edge
of clouds directly overhead, accompanied by a quiet, still song.
Canadian geese nibble grass by my feet, so close that I can touch them.
The Golden Gate Bridge burns bright orange, reflecting this morning’s sun.

                        Bill Brown
                                       December 2007

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sketches for Students

In an earlier post (Graphing the Gap, 07 Jan 2010), I wrote about the need for teachers to keep learning.  This means that teachers have a responsibility to periodically put themselves in the student's place. 

Now move your imagination to my walking our dog in the early morning fog.  I often plan classes and exercises while walking Sybil; she's a 35-pound, ten-year-old terrier mix from the Tulsa animal shelter.  When people ask what kind of dog she is, we proudly declare, "She is a Long-Haired North American Gopher Hound."  She has caught one gopher in her lifetime, but that is another story.

On this morning, I was struck by how quiet the streets were.  Haiti was also on my mind.  It was early enough that only some people had turned on their apartment lights.  I began to imagine these people in their homes, while listening to the raindrops left over from the night's rain and while thinking of the Haitian people, whose streets are anything but quiet.

As I began to listen to the drips and watch the lights, I started composing in my head.  In Poetry class this past week, we have been studying early Hebrew and Anglo-Saxon traditions, especially the two-part line structures.  As I composed in my head, I found myself using  principles from these two traditions.  I started using these tools in part because I wanted to show students how they might apply the principles to their own poems.  Incidentally, if you want to learn more about early Hebrew poetic traditions by reading the Psalms, I highly recommend Robert Alter's Introduction to his translation of the Psalms (Norton 2007).

Now, back to the lead idea of this post.  Although I will show my sketch (draft) to the students for  reasons just cited, I also want to post the draft here--as a reminder to me of the situation in which I often put students.  In other words, I am publishing a work that still needs work.  In my experience, it is not uncommon for students to have to produce multiple assignments in multiple classes according to a series of sometimes-rapidly-recurring deadlines.  Ready or not, students, put your work out there.  We teachers must periodically remind ourselves what this feels like.

SO, with a degree of professionally valuable trepidation, I offer this draft:

Quiet Morning (17 Jan 2010; draft)

As I walk the streets in the softness of morning,
I hear only drops of water dripping
From the gutters above and the ghostly trees.

I am struck by the quiet and stilled by the darkness.

My dog and I stroll the neighborhood sidewalks,
Before the morning twilight begins to mold the day.
The cotton swabs of fog lurk in the corners,
And the edges of houses blur on the periphery.

It rained hard in the night.  I can hear the raindrops still
Build to such a size that they spit on the cement.
Distant, alley drops only.  Otherwise quiet.

Back at our apartment, I pick up the blue
Plastic bag with the new day’s newspaper—
And its stories of Haiti’s struggle to survive—
Wrapped safely inside, out of the rain.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Follow-up: Concrete Imagery (with student view)

In an earlier post (26 December 09), I wrote about details and poetry's ability to demonstrate their value.  In a comment on that post, I mentioned a student who had successfully explained her understanding of this value.  I have since received her permission to publish her explanation.

First, some context for her writing.  She and her classmates, in the Poetry class, had written an original poem, as well as a required commentary called a PDF.  In this commentary, students describe what they Planned, as they began and proceeded with composing.  Next they explain what they Discovered about the subject or their plans.  In the last section, they express Final Reflections on the subject matter, the specific poem or poetry in general.

This student wrote a poem ("Details of the Stars") about a simple car ride back from a basketball game.  In the final reflection, she explains how the details have benefited her, her poem and other people.  Below, you see the unedited text of her reflection.  I am grateful not only for this student's permission to publish, but also for her carefully considered insights.

"I now understand a reward that comes from writing a poem:  the process of writing can make an experience richer, more valuable, and, if written carefully, can capture the moment.  I believe that in order to represent the emotional center of an experience in a poem, it helps to remember as many details as possible.  For instance, I was able to include dialogue, specific feelings and even actions that I remembered from the car ride.  These details gave rise to the contentedness I feel encompasses the center of the poem.  I am proud that I was able to convey what the experience meant to me for others, as well as enrich the experience for myself."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Scientific Interlude: Graphing the Gap

The first "Education Life" magazine of 2010 in The New York Times (January 3, page 10) contained an essay about adult learning.  Barbara Strauch wrote it, and it is called "How to Train the Aging Brain."  What first looks like a sidebar is actually, as I discovered after combing the essay, the essay's subtitle: "To keep a middle-aged mind sharp, shake up what you already know.

People with middle-aged minds or beyond, listen up.  Those of you tempted to move on because you have younger minds, please stay with this. 

First of all, I recommend Strauch's article for all educators of any age.  In describing how a particular group of people can use their minds richly, the essay helps all of us consider the dynamics of the student experience in school settings.

Secondly, the essay reminded me of a graph I drew for myself once I had been teaching for several years.  I wish I could remember what experience or idea sparked my drawing, but I wish many things.  In any case, I plotted points and drew lines.  The X axis represented the year, say 1980.  The Y axis represented the age of a person.  I plotted points for the students' average age, and then for my age.  As I connected the dots, two lines took shape--one for them and one for me.  Theirs looked like the horizon in just west of Oklahoma, while mine resembled the approach to Mount Shasta in northern California.  Now that I think back on creating this graph, I suspect that I had felt a distance between me and my students and wanted to visualize this gap as a way of keeping it in mind.

Back to Strauch's essay itself, and its implications.  All teachers, and especially the more experienced ones, need to remember what it is like to learn.  Strauch claims that an essential part of this remembering comes from shaking up what we know (or believe we know).  In an earlier post, I described how joining a Humanities team in  a brand new school helped me explain to myself and others the values of imaginative literature.  Although at times I have felt confused and tired, I have come out of those times with a more clear and confident sense of purpose.

Finally, in terms of my work with students, shaking up what I know is a responsibility.  Periodically reminding myself of the disorienting part of learning earns me trust with the students.  I think it is only fair that what I repeatedly ask them to do I do, also.  In other words, I need to keep remembering what it feels like from the inside.  Then I can be a trusted guide who remembers the details of the trail we are walking together.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Language Study #3: empathy

Ideally, students learn to work and live beside other people.

We all arrive with our own agendas, like Mr. Mouth on yesterday’s M1 bus.  The lower Manhattan subways had shut off after a Con Edison explosion in their plant at 15th and Avenue C.  We had been touring the Brooklyn Navy Yard with Dan.  After he showed us his office, he took us to Grimaldi’s Pizzeria on Fulton Street, just a block from the East River.  The ample tour of a spacious work environment preceded a wonderfully flavorful meal at a no-nonsense, friendly neighborhood restaurant with a well-deserved reputation.  After lunch we ate ice cream down by the docks.  The metal railing displayed a passage from one of Whitman’s poems.  He loved Brooklyn and NYC.  He saw most people as his companions and co-workers.  He empathized with common workers.  The man on the M1, however, provides a sharp contrast.  Although all of us on Church Street heading north from City Hall were either flagging cabs or watching for  buses, he somehow felt, once the bus did arrive,  that his need to board the bus outweighed everyone else’s.  Although the bus stopped ahead of his spot, he pushed past others as he reprimanded the driver for not stopping in front of him.  Once on the bus, he never stopped voicing his anger, suspicion or insults at strangers.  Sometimes teenagers, like all of us, have the potential to act this way.  They, we, need to learn Whitman’s empathy.  He loved to ride the Fulton Street Ferry to be with the other travelers.
July 2002