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