Because a School Said Yes to Writing

At 8 AM June 2, 2016, at Mott Hall Science and Technology Academy, a public middle school in the South Bronx, the students have gathered for their daily assembly to hear Dr. Patrick Awosogba, the principal and founder of this International Baccalaureate World School, conduct his usual morning address. When he announces it’s Writer’s Odyssey Day, a wild cheer erupts.

Within minutes students who have signed up to write mysteries are plunging their hands into black boxes to guess their gooey contents; those who have selected math how-to guides are combing their notebooks for topics to explain to next year’s students; those who have opted for advice columns are watching hilarious videos as models. They are in the flow and will continue so for hours as they pre-write, draft, exchange feedback, revise, edit, present, and celebrate their work.

I see no student disengaged as I visit workshops throughout the day. Students I know to be troubled– and in turn to cause their share of trouble – concentrate intensely. One has been allowed to listen to music on his ear buds as he writes his handbook on solving for X.

In my peregrinations I see science fiction writers hard at work on their stories under Mr. Davenport’s tutelage. Elizabeth and Jenefa share theirs with me and I notice elaborate plots, tense suspense, dramatic titles (My Parents are Aliens!) Their use of detailed and accurate science terminology is a pedagogical miracle, a meaningful resuscitation of content that would otherwise have been lost to time. I can easily see these young ladies’ names on the covers of best sellers in the not too distant future.

Students in Ms. Christian’s class have adopted the points of view of individuals from different castes and religions in India, to write richly evocative list poems. The atmosphere is monastic with concentration. During share time, Kareem reads the thoughts of his Dalit persona and it is emotionally forceful with the stems, “I will…I love…” A student offers a critique, “I think you should show, not tell…” and provides concrete examples. Kareem goes right back to work using the new ideas.

In another class, Genesia is working on a billboard to counter the racism that oppresses her generation. She is using an image from a recent news reports, found on the internet. Nearby, their teacher, Ms. Guido, is conferring with a student to make his political billboard more credible by finding a quote. “What words will grab people as they drive by? I think you need to do a little bit more research.”

Apprentice writers in Mr. Kantor’s info-graphics workshop are making graphs of the data from their student surveys of features of teen life: “How many sneakers do you own? How many animes have you seen?” A boy says, “This is actually interesting.” Mr. Kantor points to instructions and exemplars on a carefully prepared power point when the students hit roadblocks in their work.

Teacher preparation is evident everywhere: well-chosen exemplars, step-by-step instructions, stimulating resources. Each teacher has laid out a purposeful agenda for the day. For their breaks, other teachers have been not only been scheduled to cover them, but have been given plans to carry projects forward. It’s clear that the teachers are as enthusiastic as the students.

This is one well-oiled voice-producing, meaning-making, community-enriching machine, with a hefty byproduct of teacher satisfaction. It’s hard to avoid the impression that the best that public schools have to offer is being realized here.

How did it come to be? I give credit to the word yes.

In the fall of 2014, Principal Awosogba identified writing as a high-impact skill in need of development. In response I proposed a creative writing initiative that would involve every teacher as a master writer. After an assessment of the interest of the staff, Dr. A. (as he is known) said yes and the project was initiated.

I proposed that we develop capacity through a series of rigorous workshops that would take up hours of professional development time. Dr. A. said yes.

During the workshops, when teachers were asked to reflect on their experiences as writers and build new experiences, they embraced the challenge with an unhesitating yes.

When the teachers recommended that a design team for the initiative be assembled, Dr. A. said, once again, yes, even though this would pull teachers away from other “core teams” at the school.

When the design team, under stalwart guidance from the beginning by IB Coordinator Yoshie Otomo with Special Advisor Miriam Ruiz, proposed that teachers experiment with using genres as performance tasks to assess content learning and provide feedback for future PD sessions, the teachers, as was becoming their habit, said yes.

And so it went: Use genres twice a year in every classroom as a summative task? Yes. Have each teacher become master of a genre? Yes. Dedicate two entire days per year to the initiative, with all the planning entailed? Yes. Use valuable time at school retreats to learn new genres, share inspiring student work, and plan in teams? Yes. Create an anthology of teacher-written exemplars? Yes. Set aside days from Language and Literature units to polish writing? Yes. Devote energy to a continuous cycle of data collection, feedback and adjustment? Yes. Dedicate summer days and per session funds for the design team to create a handbook? Yes. Create a contest for the students to name the project? Yes. (And what a perfect name they crafted: “The Writers’ Odyssey!”) Set aside PD time for teachers to plan their Writers’ Odyssey workshops? No problem. Request that Writers’ Odyssey Day be extended by a half day to allow more time for revision and presentation? Go for it!

Educators from schools in other cities and even from abroad have come to witness The Writers’ Odyssey in action, and have begun to say yes as well. I am still working on the word why, as in, “Why does everyone, including the students, embrace this project, given the time and effort required?” But yes is a gratifying word to live with until I figure why out.

Learning in Present Time

In my last blog post we reversed the flight path of education to focus on the students in our classes as members of a community worth connecting with now, not in some speculative future. That satisfied me for a few minutes…but pedagogical malaise soon set in again. We can connect to the kids all semester long, but about what, exactly?

Too often, particularly in our high schools, we march through ideas like tourists through museums on a tight itinerary. Give the exhibit a glance. Listen to a short curatorial spiel. Test it. Forget it. The Zeigarnik Effect. Backwards planning is the solution I’ve always used to address this problem.

I applied principles from backwards planning at a workshop recently. I was asked to lead sessions with high school teachers on “engaging students intellectually in the curriculum” and “having them explain their ideas.” I set up a simple graphic organizer to illustrate how teachers could themselves explain the big ideas of their curricula and how these ideas could invite student investigation. But I couldn’t just throw it at the teachers. I had to model it. I put myself in the place of a Living Environment teacher, and this is what I wrote at first, the graphic organizer in bold, my modeling in italics:

The biggest idea of my curriculum is evolution. Important details to keep in mind about this idea are:

(a) It explains the many forms of life we see around us.

(b) It explains how life forms adapt – or don’t – to their environments.

(c) It is useful to know in many fields, from psychology to medicine, where, for instance, we have to develop vaccines to combat newly formed viruses.

It invites deep investigation because of its ability to illuminate so many things of importance to us and because of what it has to say about human nature itself – historically, physically, emotionally, socially…. Without an understanding of the mechanisms of evolution, we wouldn’t be able to make good decisions about how to protect our environment or be healthy in an ever-changing world.

Okay. All right. Good enough. But I was still feeling uneasy.

As I delivered my workshop repeatedly to small groups of teachers throughout the day, I wrote while they wrote, and this came out:

“Actually, it’s because evolution is such an amazing and mysterious idea, and its discovery was so revolutionary. We were just sitting around being our species with all of our traits that we assumed were just given to us straight up by a supreme being, until we looked closely at the interconnections – similarities and differences – between species and we took a closer gander at the fossil record and we went, ‘Whoa, Doggies, there’s a pattern here! So many similarities between forms, differences explained by environment, increasing complexity through the eons!’ The light bulb lit up. (A gas light, in Darwin’s time.) An idea was born!”

With that, my worry dissolved. Why? It was as if I were having the ideas myself. In my own vulnerable voice. An apt quote from Goethe reads: “All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in our personal experience.” I understood now that students need more than rationales. They need the opportunity to experience the discovery as if for the first time. They must have that light bulb moment for themselves.

Ponder the benefits. Having wise ideas injects dopamine into our neural networks, allowing us to feel pleasure when we make discoveries. (A fortuitous product of natural selection, speaking of evolution.) Solid neural structures are built, producing a long-term love of learning, and, no coincidence, better standardized test scores. (Less teacher burnout, too, into the bargain.)

The driving question thus becomes, “How can we change the structures of our students’ brains by engaging them in the discovery of important ideas as if for the first time?” (Imagine the horrible and all-too-common alternative: structuring young brains with other sensations: boredom, frustration, fear….) Doubtless there are many possible answers, but the one I favor is writing: repeated, ungraded, exploratory writing. Look back at my own experience: while it may have seemed the discovery came in a flash of insight, it actually emerged during a process. I had time to inquire, to explore, to let the connections make themselves evident.

Writing is a great way create the neural “flow” that, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is necessary for students to build intrinsic and long-lasting motivation for learning: “The flow experience is when a person is completely involved in what he or she is doing, when the concentration is very high, when the person knows moment by moment what the next steps should be…” (http://www.edutopia.org/mihaly-csikszentmihalyi-motivating-people-learn) Daniel Goleman, in Emotional Intelligence calls it “The joy of flow.”

No boredom, no fretting when you’re in such flow. As teachers we can escape the trap of time that makes ideas from the past smell musty and that alienates students because we’re focused on their futures instead of their present-time experiences. The past and future take care of themselves when students write to discover great ideas as if for the first time.

Imagine this scenario: In a backwards-planning process you articulate what makes the central concept of your course or unit so interesting and worth investigating. You hook the students through a provocation. As you “uncover” the facts of your unit lesson after lesson, you routinely give the students class time to connect, explore, discover and reflect through writing-to-learn exercises like “directed freewrites”. All of this in the context of a project or some other meaningful summative assessment.

Giving students opportunities to “go with the flow” of their own minds and discover for themselves the world’s great ideas – the notion makes me rest easy…for the time being.

Wrong-Way Corrigan’s Message to the Modern Educator

Lately I’ve been breaking out in a sweat at night, wondering if we have it all backwards. Like Wrong-Way Corrigan, the aviator who flew from Long Beach, California, to Floyd Bennett Field in New York City in 1938. He was supposed to fly back to Long Beach. Instead, he took off in the opposite direction to Ireland. Because of a dense cloud fog. (So he claimed.) There he is, halfway across the Atlantic when the clouds part and the whitecaps loom below. “Oops! And exactly how much gas do I have left in my tanks?”

Here’s the nightmare that’s ruining my peaceful rest: we’re all in this fog, preparing kids for the future – a test, a graduation ceremony, to “be ready for college and career,” as we Yankees put in our country, and we aren’t preparing the kids for RIGHT NOW. We’re heading out over the sea when we’re supposed to be soaring over the hills of Pennsylvania. What happened to our compass?

Think about it, how clever we are the way we chart our course: we design curriculum chock full of everything an adult will need to find work and be a citizen, all laid out in a neat ladder from Pre-K to Grade 12. We hire companies at rates that would bankrupt Fort Knox to make diabolical examinations for every rung, and for good measure throw in dozens of tests of our own design – to, you guessed it, prepare these pre-adults for the tests. Then, at worst, we just drill the kids so they pass the tests. At best, we develop instructional palaces to rival the Taj Mahal in their beauty, complexity and ability to excite wonder and engagement. We differentiate, we technologize, we personalize…you name it, all to get kids up that ladder that disappears into the great cumulus of college and career in the sky. And we do collect the data, making sure every inch of progress or shameful lack thereof is recorded, published and agonized over.

Meanwhile, what about our students right here right now? Are we with them while we crunch their numbers? In 1969 I was a Peace Corps volunteer strolling down the dusty street of a barrio in Guayaquil when a handful of excited Ecuadorians rushed out from their shanties to congratulate me, as an American, for landing a man on the moon. As soon as I got home I turned on the radio and heard the announcer declaring that the moon rocks gathered by the astronauts would be “analyzed to their total destruction.” Wait! I thought. What about the poor rocks? Now here I am again, wondering, “What about our poor students? Are they even there anymore?”

If indeed we’re heading to Ireland instead of Long Beach, as my gut and my insomnia tell me we are, I recommend a reversal in our thinking: Let’s not get to know the students so they’ll learn their algebra better, let’s teach the algebra so we know our students better.

It’s a matter of mindset. Here are two examples that might give us a bit of hope that this course correction can give us some collective hope:

My friend Tom Lynch, teaching Chaucer to his high school students a few years ago at the New York City Lab School for Collaborative studies, was getting frustrated. The students had been writing rap poems so they could understand The Canterbury Tales better. But they saw through his ruse easily enough. Yeah, right Mr. Lynch, “The Friar’s Tale.” Finally it occurred to him that he was cruising the wrong way. The students should be studying Chaucer so they could write rap poems better. A few weeks later, the kids were enthusiastically performing Middle-English-infused pieces for an audience in the school cafeteria.

At George Westinghouse High School, we showed Living Environment students David Attenborough’s You Tube video of the promotion for his “What a Wonderful World” BBC series. Beautiful images of the life on our planet dreamily flash by while Attenborough sings the Louis Armstrong song of the same name. Students were invited to pick something from the film that interested them and research it in the context of the various units throughout the year, not because it would be on the test, but because they liked it, not in the future, but now. We threw in a You Tube video of Louis Armstrong performing the song as well, which had them applauding. They were studying the curriculum to better understand what it was that interested them! Yes! Victory! Until the Darth Vader of “coverage” took over and they were lost in the miasma of meaningless memorization again.

I have more examples that provide rays of hope that we can actually be present with our students using the curriculum as a way to connect with them, rather than using our connections with them as way to learn the curriculum. Who knows, maybe I’ll delve into them in future blog posts. For now, though, I’m just wondering, What would it take to change direction?

In my reveries, I am seeing a social studies teacher teaching the students to annotate a letter from a US Civil War soldier so she can get to know them better through the “visible thinking ” (as the Project Zero people, among others, like to call it) that their notes provide. Sure, they’re learning about the civil war and will pass the New York State Regents exam with a higher score because of their human connection in the moment, but that’s not why she’s doing it. She is doing it because they are right there, fellow primates on the planet, and there isn’t a whole lot of time for them both to enrich their lives from what they learn of each other.

Ever deeper into my insomnia-quelling dreams, I see every teacher in a whole middle school (which happens to be called the Mott Hall Science and Technology Academy) using poetry, fiction…all forms of writing, so that the kids can use the content of their courses as the ingredients of self-expression, which will be published — the better to have the whole community know them, not for later, but for now. Imagine – an ode to photosynthesis that lets us know exactly who little Juan is.

My restful fantasies continue, with human fellowship blooming below me for its own sake in the gardens of a thousand classrooms as I fly over Appalachia on my way home to Long Beach, with plenty of fuel to burn.

Education Vacation

I learned a lot on this summer’s vacation to the North Island of New Zealand, but the biggest thing I learned was a lesson I had failed to learn earlier in my informal schooling.

First, a few of the things I learned:

1. How to drive on the left side of the road, which meant slow and dangerous unlearning about driving on the right. (I never would have made it without my daughter’s coaching, “Dad, you’re drifting. You’re DRIFTING!”)

2. How, once appointed to be the great chief of a tribe of confused Chinese tourists, to follow the nose-rubbing rituals of the Maori leaders and to lead my people in a vigorous, fierce “haka” dance.

3. The interesting history of the land, the sea, the wildlife, the Maori and the British, which features the usual depressing wars and extinctions but also redeems itself in hope for this mystical, emerald place.

4. The tastes of fine New Zealand wine.

5. What the world looks like ziplining through the canopy of a primeval rainforest.

6. The look and feel of swamp kauri wood, 4,000 years old.

7. The habits and personalities of whole new genera of birds: prions, gannets, kiwis, fantails and the virtuosic tui, a honeyeater that shakes the feathery bells on its neck to inspire the exquisite dance of Maori women.

8. The honeyed sound of Kiri te Kanawha’s voice singing traditional Maori songs.

9. The ways volcanoes continue to shape the landscape while providing free heat and healing mineral baths to the people of Rotorua (“Rotovegas” to some).

10. What my lunatic wife and daughter looked like in free-fall from a height of 1,076 feet above the concrete in Auckland, when they gleefully jumped from the top of the Sky Tower there.

There was so much more. I wished constantly that I had New York students with me, the ones whose explorations had been limited to the handball courts in their local parks. Your identity and sense of potential do, I am now certain, expand with your geographic horizons.

But I was glad they weren’t there to see me learn the lesson that I had failed to learn, which, like most worthwhile lessons, is embodied in a story:

Returning my family’s rental car to the Auckland airport, the Avis attendant in the parking lot noticed scratches on the front fender that I hadn’t noticed before. They hadn’t been recorded on the rental agreement form. A trip through the airport to the manager’s office was required to see if the damage should be assessed to me. The manager quickly cleared the issue up. Seeing the scratches in a photo in the car’s electronic files, I was not to blame. Driving back to the lot to be reunited with my family, I began a conversation with the attendant, who said his name was Roger, and who was a South African of Indian descent. He told me how in South Africa he had been a photo lithographer. He obviously took pride in his identity as a professional who had mastered such unusual skills. He was rueful that his entire profession had died out with the advent of modern information technology. From his demeanor I could tell that he wasn’t bitter, however. Somehow, philosophically, he had attained the equanimity that comes with accepting an unavoidable downturn in one’s destiny.

Roger asked me what I did. When I revealed that I was a staff developer in the schools, he wondered if I ever got involved with Shakespeare. “Sure,” I said,” thinking of the several projects I had designed in collaboration with English teachers. The work had been successful at exciting even the least literate of students in Shakespeare. As a byproduct, research projects had been kindled, into the psychology of love, of greed, of altruism, of sociopathy. I was as proud of my accomplishments as an educator as Roger was of his as a lithographer. Roger and I had formed a fellowship over our shared sense of occupational mastery. So much so that Roger felt free to quote, eloquently, Shakespeare’s sonnet “Let Me Not Into the Marriage of True Minds.”

I hadn’t really expected to delve this deeply into the literary arts with an attendant in a car return lot, but here I was, and it was a marvel. Roger finished the sonnet as we pulled into the parking place. I turned in the passenger to share the one Shakespearean sonnet I had memorized, “My Mistress’s Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun.” I had committed it to memory after working with poet Carol Conroy, who advocated “learning poems by heart” (not “memorizing”) because (a) you never knew when you would need them, (b) your life would be infinitely richer for owning them, and (c) they work like prayers to center and calm the spirit.

But the poem wouldn’t come to mind. It had, like the fish that got away, descended deep, without a trace – not an engram to be found – into the murk of my hippocampus. I was embarrassed. Me, a teacher of teachers and professor of writing and literature, mute in the company of a parking lot attendant? Who was the better learner, the better educator here? Why had Roger been able to call up his sonnet and not me mine? Was it the product of the English system, where bullying pedagogues hammered literature into their pupils’ long term memory with their yardsticks? Was there something wrong with my system, based on gentle inquiry?

I was an embarrassment to my guild.

On the long plane ride back to the states, I began to learn my sonnet by heart again, and, on the use-it-or-lose-it hypothesis, have been mentally rehearsing it every day when I brush my teeth, wash the dishes, walk to the subway. Last week I quoted it to my wife Elizabeth on a drive to have dinner with friends upstate. She seemed to appreciate it. I have it back, Carol, so not to worry. Those questions about learning, though – they still linger. I will be inquiring into them for a long time, I suspect.

Reaching Alicia

After the teacher had placed his class of eighth grade students at their computers to work on their electronic reading program, a cluster of five sat inactive on stools at high slate lab tables to the side. I approached the group, introduced myself, and fell into conversation with a despondent girl named Alicia (not her real name).

“Why aren’t you reading at the computer?”

“I don’t feel like it today.”

“Do you like to read?”

“A little. Sometimes.”

“When you like to read, what makes you like it?”

“If the book has something that grabs me at the beginning.”

“Can you tell me about a book that grabbed you like that?”

“The Diary of Anne Frank.”

I said I thought that could be a tough book to read by yourself. She said she had read it in a literature circle the year before.“What was it about the book that drew you in?”

“The way she wrote about the Jews.”

“What do you mean?”

“I felt sorry for the way they were treated.”

This was an Hispanic youngster from one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, in a school with few if any Jews among her fellow students. Where did this empathy come from? I asked why she thought the Jews were treated that way.

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out, why the Nazis hurt them.”

“Have you looked into this?”

“Yes. I rented movies about it. I saw The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I made my mother watch it with me so she would learn something about history. I want to go to the Jewish Museum. I’m going to take her with me so she can learn some more. I want to buy some books on World War II.”

If it had been a seemly thing to do, I would have hauled her immediately to the library to check out the books she wanted. I happened to have with me copies of a poem called “Maps” by Wislawa Symborska. (It was “Poem in Your Pocket Day”.) I handed her one of the copies. “This is not an easy poem to read, but I bet you would like it, since you’re so interested in history. Have a look.”

Alicia read the poem top to bottom.

“What’s it mostly about?” I asked.

“How she likes maps.”

As I probed into her understanding, it turned out she wasn’t getting the meaning of the many images, so I helped her visualize them. Then I asked, “What lines in the poem tell you her feelings about maps?” Alicia smiled as she pointed to the lines “I like maps because they lie. / Because they give no access to the vicious truth.”

We discussed the poem a bit more, then I explained who Szymborska was, and rehearsed her in saying the name, so she could say it to others who might ask her for a poem from her pocket. Would she like to write a poem like Szymborska’s, where she could talk about her own views of history. She said she would. I pointed out that Szymborska used a sequence of images, and maybe that would be a good strategy.

“When you think of history, what do you see, Alicia?” She told me. I wrote down what she said, then typed it up later:

 

When I think of history…

 

I see black and white movies:

Bonnie and Clyde driving in their old-fashioned car.

They are laughing at the cops chasing them

as they escape with the money.

 

I see Hitler, bald with his moustache,

saluting people saying, “Heil Hitler”,

the gray uniforms with red swastikas

attached to their shoulders.

 

I see Abraham Lincoln trying to free the slaves.

He’s sitting in a red chair

on stage in an auditorium,

speaking to a crowd of politicians.

 

After the class was over, her teacher agreed that I could work on it with her some more next time I visited his class, which I did a few days later, but I didn’t see her. Afterwards, I told him I was disappointed Alicia had been absent. He said, “Oh, she was here. She was the one with her head on the desk, covered by her jacket.” I vowed to find her next time, and did. While the other students worked on a “Do Now” I was able to get a couple more stanzas out of her. They flowed easily:

 

I see Gandhi giving advice to the people

that he helped, making their lives

and their living environment better,

their houses and huts in India.

 

I see fighting, houses and cars blowing up

during World War One. People begging for help.

The men shooting at men, army tanks riding around,

the nurses helping injured children who got hurt.

 

In the meantime, I had alerted the librarian that I wanted to connect her with Alicia, and she was game, but it was a practical impossibility. There were no structures in place for visits to the library, or independent student research. I put it in the back of my head to see if I could instigate an I-Search unit, so that not only Alicia, but other students could research what they found personally interesting in the context of a solid curriculum.

I also showed Alicia’s poem to her 7th Grade teacher, who had set up the literature circle that supported Alicia’s understanding. The teacher complimented her in the hall one day, and Alicia smiled, proud to be recognized.

At this point I haven’t had a chance to confer with Alicia again. It’s been a couple of weeks. I want to have her continue her list poem, with new stems: “I think…I feel…I wonder….” And, because of the success I had using the poem with her, I have developed a structured “performance task” to support others in reading the poem and emulating the amazing Nobel Prize-winning Wislawa Szymborska, who in her life found a way to look hard at human suffering through the lens of art.

I have seen Alicia in the hallways, walking with a boy who has been held back from getting into high school, and who does no work in his 7th Grade ELA class. He is defiant and uncooperative. Two years behind…this doesn’t bode well for a shot at graduation.

I think: Alicia needs a chance, some structures that will help her show what she can really do. I feel: A sense of dread that her potential will be lost. I wonder: What the future holds for this intelligent, sensitive young lady.

 

The News from Poems (Part 3)

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

                    with craters.

 

                    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

                    so fast

                    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

                    so fast

                    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.

The News from Poems (Part 2)

Aside

 

Remember, we are on this theme from the last blog post of the power of poetry to lift our spirits when storm clouds rain on our school days.

Is all the testing getting you down? Try Gary Snyder’s “For the Children”. The opening stanza lays out the problem:

 

                   The rising hills, the slopes,

                    of statistics

                    lie before us.

                    the steep climb

                    of everything, going up,

                    up, as we all

                    go down.

 

At the end of the poem, Snyder delivers his advice:

 

                    stay together

                    learn the flowers

                    go light

 

Yeah, we’ll never make it alone. A veteran teacher at a struggling school of poverty showed up half sick to meet with her colleagues one day and said, “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my team.”

Sidebar: Snyder has an essay, “Language Goes Two Ways”, in which he argues for wildness of language as a self-organizing force of nature. Teachers weary of teaching the ever-shifting rules of grammar as if they were fossils would enjoy this essay. “Languages were not the intellectual inventions of archaic schoolteachers, but are naturally evolved wild systems whose complexity eludes the descriptive attempts of the rational mind.” My response: Poetry has the power to embody the mysterious relationship between the wildness of our thoughts and the discipline that makes art.

Step back in those moments of confusion and darkness, too. Read Nazim Hikmet’s poem “Things I didn’t know I loved”. Here are redemptive lines written with memories of prison in mind:

 

                    it’s 1962 March 28th

                    I’m sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train

                    night is falling

                    I never knew I liked

                     night descending like a tired bird on a smoky wet plain…

 

Hikmet goes on to list some of the other things he forgot that he loved:

 

                    I didn’t know I loved the earth

 

                     and here I’ve loved rivers all this time

                     whether motionless like this the curl skirting the hills…

 

                     I didn’t know I loved flowers

                    friends sent me three red carnations in prison…

 

                    I just remembered the stars

                    I love them too…

 

So, yeah, try making a list of those things you love, right around you in the classroom, like Hikmet did on his train. Maybe the magic markers or the little grooves in the desk tops or the wadded up paper in the waste-basket, those white carnations enshrouding ideas never to be read again.

Since we’re on the subject of paper wads: How many times have I unfolded one of those wads to show a student they were trying to be perfect and nothing is perfect, especially the first draft of a piece of writing? In her writing manual Bird by Bird Anne LaMott has a section called “Perfectionism”. “Perfectionism is the enemy of [bleepy] first drafts,” she says, those unruly drafts being, in fact, desirable. Let those wild thoughts spring forth before channeling them into elegant forms!

And so we have stirred up a major learning demon: perfectionism. How much misery has that disease caused? At every level of the system. Leaders who demand the impossible. Teachers who lose sleep pursuing the illusion of the seamless lesson plan. Students who freeze in examination headlights. Mary Oliver, where are you? In her poem “The Ponds” Oliver admires the seeming perfection of lilies before she bends a little closer and sees…

 

                    How this one is clearly lopsided –

                    and that one wears an orange blight –

 

and she goes on until she decides to “cast aside the weight of facts” and to believe…

 

                    …that the imperfections are nothing –

                    that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum

                    of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

 

She pulled it off! And so can we! Now we are free! As free as Rita Dove in her poem “Geometry”:

 

                    I prove a theorem and the house expands:

                    the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling,

                    the ceiling floats away with a sigh.

 

I think there is more to be discovered on this theme of the redemptive power of poetry. We’ll see. Maybe my windmap will lead me to it.