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)