Yes, as it turns out, there is more to be said on poetry’s power to spring us from pedagogical traps.
Did you notice the way flowers, in particular carnations, keep creeping into this series of blog posts? I think it’s a message from the god of randomness: no worries are tough enough to kill us if we know how to stop and smell the flowers (or investigate the perfection of their flaws).
Bear with me while I work toward a connection here.
Lately I’ve been enjoying thinking about the ideas in David Sloan Wilson’s book The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time. (Which has a city on the cover being sprinkled by a watering can – like a flower.) One of my big takeaways from the book is this: Kids are adapting anyway. If you set up the right environment, they’ll do the adapting that gets them where they need to go academically, socially, emotionally, etc. Here’s where the connection to poetry comes in: Virgil on healthy environments.
Virgil, as we know, was no slouch of a poet. He not only wrote one of the greatest epics of all time, he led Dante out of the woods of despair when that 14th Century poet was exiled and had no idea where to turn. Virgil, if you want to look at this way, was the map Dante snatched from the wind. (Of course they had to wend their way through a few circles of hell before hitting the road to paradise.)
Virgil also wrote his Georgics. In Book IV, he writes in verse form a lilting how-to guide for raising bees. “First of all,” he writes (as David Ferry translates) “find a protected place for the bees….” He goes on to talk about how to keep the bees away from trampling heifers, wanton boys, bats, and rainstorms. Then he describes the kind of environment the bees need, everything from limpid streams, palm trees, stream banks for capering and playing, stones to rest on and dry their wings, you name it. At the end come the flowers:
And there should be sweet blooming marjoram near,
And the odor of serpylla spreading far,
And fragrant savory, and violets
Drinking from the trickling spring or stream.
No carnations, but the marjoram, serpylla, savory and violets will do in a pinch.
The poem is a great guide to what matters. If we keep the kids safe, happy, and producing their own academic honey, we’ll be safe too.
Virgil may be a hard act to follow, but Dante did it, and we can too. Never mind that our poetry is unlikely to soar into the stratosphere of fame as Dante’s did, it can nonetheless serve as well as famous poets’ work to heal us in the rough and tumble world of the schoolhouse.
Step back. Use your eyes and see like a poet. Use your ears and listen like a poet. Use your heart and feel like a poet. While you’re at it, it’s not a bad idea to loosen the reins on your imagination.
Once when I was sad about the way a middle-school girl told lies, I guess to protect herself, I thought about her parents, who had a reputation for lying as well. This led me to reflections on parents in general. They may not be in the classroom very often, but they aren’t out of the picture. They’re just at the far reaches of the educational solar system. I wrote this poem about that idea, and it helped me get perspective on the girl at the center of my concerns:
THE OORT CLOUD
They hover out there.
The Oort cloud, the asteroid belt,
some kind of dark matter: parents, guardians….
Who knows what kinds of lives they live.
All we see are their meteoric offspring,
who streak through our lives,
occasionally pocking our classrooms
By deduction we sort out the way they behave,
(the “usages”, as Whitman called it)
Then one comes streaming in
wearing angry lipstick to defend her wayward son.
Another comes in khakis to point out that
hidden genius behind the wandering mind.
One more might arrive and lie,
breaking our hearts for the lying child.
A last might arrive like a ray of light.
Oh, yes, a ray of light.
The rest just hover, softly broadcasting
the background noise of the system
that supports us.
Another time I was getting nervous about a student taking longer than planned to muscle through a task. This kind of anxiety can lead a teacher to prod a child along, giving them the jitters too. How can we make sure we’re being humane, really understanding the child, really doing what’s best for them? Their learning is in our hands!
PATIENCE FOR BECKY
She’s a big-eyed Botticelli painting of a child,
and do I remember a scar on the forehead,
or am I making that part up?
In educational circles, didacts talk about
the processing time that people need
to hear, ponder, and get a thought back to you.
It’s true. We all need some seconds
for the synapses to fire.
But this one – she operates on a different scale.
When you talk about the earth circling the sun in a year,
think instead of Neptune, one of the gas giants,
and the eons it takes to inch through the system.
Becky does get back to you, but you have to wait
like an astronomer, wait patiently
and wait some more.
On the opposite end of the processing speed continuum, there was Michael. A middle school teacher asked a favor, to see what I thought was up with this distracted little fellow. The school worked with a learning protocol they called “OAI” – Observation, Analysis, Interpretation. I had learned from the visual literacy folks at the Museum of Modern Art how to employ my seeing skills to paintings – you look, you look closer, you look again closer, and then even closer. Just look. Don’t jump ahead to analyze! First, just see. (DaVinci exhorted us to operate this way in his Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: “Study the science of art, study the art of science, develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”) So I went in to my friend’s room, channeled DaVinci, and just watched Michael for five minutes before I presumed to do any analyzing or interpreting. Here is my record. I consider it a poem because it took me out of the world of worry and guilt, and to learn to appreciate Michael’s nature in my transcendence.
FIVE MINUTES WITH MICHAEL
on his mind map he asks if I know what PSP stands for
I make something up: Please Save Paris
but that’s not right he has to correct me
it’s Play Station Portable
and this is a cunning victory for him
so I have him write the story and he writes the story
he’s way ahead of the class
and Shelley’s at the board explaining how to choose
so I ask him how many items he’s attached to the center bubble
and without looking he says five
I counted six
he got me again
and he’s already slipped his notebook into his backpack
and he’s playing with his ring binder click open
click shut click open click shut click open click shut
now he’s leaning back in his chair
staring with stargazer’s wonder at the overhead fluorescent
now he’s produced two quarters like a magician
and he’s rolling them around like Captain Queeg rolls
those pacifying ball bearings in his palms
now feeling the serrated edges
with the digital sensitivity of Stradivarius
oops now out comes the notebook from the backpack again
and he’s showing me with pride the checks
even a couple of check plusses
and a gold star!
and the signature of his father Peter
and I ask how many letters in the name
and without looking he says five
oh now he’s paying a little bit of attention to Shelley
who’s talking at the board about choosing this or that
so the hands slip into the tummy pocket of his sweatshirt
and push it out this way and that
the fingers feeling the texture of the cloth
for just a second
out fly the hands
and the fingers on the ring binder again
click open click shut click open click shut
now he’s standing up how did he make that transition
putting his backpack on his chair
putting his notebook in taking it back out
putting it in taking it out
how’d that pencil get in his hands
opening up the notebook crossing off categories
on a clever little hunt for special presents
not finding the kind he’s supposed to find
only having banned electronics
and caring about this for maybe a nanosecond
turning back to those checks and especially
those two check plusses
now leaning back to stargaze at the fluorescent
and leaning forward again to gaze at the gold star!
beaming at that bright five-pointed wonder
now counting the letters on those words again
and looking up to share the glory what’s next
So look and feel and listen and take a minute to make a poem out of it. This might cut you the break you need and put a bit of wonder into your day.
Blog Epilog: What’s up with these star images? They’re cropping up like the flower images earlier. Hmmm.