Category Archives: Poetry

Lessons By Design

I like expanding the condensed meanings in poetry, especially with the help of my students. But my students don’t always feel the same way. For some, poems  — and poetry lessons —  are like labyrinths with pathways to nowhere. Which is why, after teaching a poetry survey for nearly two months, and listening to various complaints, a colleague and I decided to put a design challenge to our high school seniors: to build a better high school poetry lesson.

The challenge we set our students to solve was actually twofold: learn Design Thinking (not easy, actually) and use it to design a better way to teach poetry (not easy, at all). In groups of 4, students had about a week to design a 10 minute lesson on a 21st century poem that would be better than or different from the traditional lessons on traditional poetry that we gave them in the fall.

I gave myself a challenge as well: to watch and monitor rather than teach or participate during this time. I saw groups that immediately got to work and others that sat in prolonged silence. There was one that, at least at first, bickered back and forth. I really wanted to intervene. I mostly didn’t.

I’m glad I held back because given a little space, they got more and more comfortable with the project. They conducted interviews of others students to learn what their experience learning poetry was like. Then they brainstormed ideas. Then they prototyped, revised, and finally delivered their lessons. Voila, Design Thinking!

Were their poetry lessons better than the gold standard method I and other teachers tend to use (assign poems for annotation, read aloud, listen to others read aloud, break things down by line and stanza, look for figurative language, consider author’s purpose, etc)? I don’t think so. All of their ideas and lessons were sound. But none of their lessons resulted in the class really understanding the poems they taught, and they all recognized that fact.

As many of them wrote in their reflection, the 10 minute time limit was, in the end, the greatest challenge of all. It wasn’t nearly enough time to teach a poem effectively, no matter how innovative they had been in the attempt.

Understanding poetry, like so many other challenges we face in our daily lives in and out of school, takes time. But what my students learned during the Design Thinking challenge transcended all of these particulars. Through working together, listening to one another, delegating tasks, meeting deadlines, and speaking publicly, they came to a better understanding — not of poetry — but of themselves and their teachers. That’s what the project was ultimately about.

Ode to the Passage of Time

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I’m about to teach a unit on Romantic poetry by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. There are many other noteworthy Romantic poets, but these four stand out for me as favorites, not only because I love their poems, but also because their poems remind me of some of the best moments in my life.

My mother introduced me to William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge when I was a girl. Mom was an English professor who shunned media other than the New York Times. She earned a PhD in Victorian Literature and I have her to thank for an almost intuitive connection with the words of 19th century writers. She read me the very strange “Kubla Kahn” by Coleridge and the image-laden “Tintern Abbey” by Wordsworth as I fell asleep in my parents’ bed.

In contrast, I learned to love Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats not by listening but through teaching their poems to boys at Collegiate School in New York in the late 1990s. My students were surprisingly receptive to the messages in such formidable odes to autumn, to a grecian urn, to a nightingale, and to the west wind. Working closely with my English department chair Susan, who meticulously annotated each and every poem for us to use in our respective classes, I gleaned deep and lasting understandings of the Romantics that serve me to this day.

Upon realizing this past weekend that I would need to brush up on my lesson plans for class this week, I panicked for a minute before remembering that I am an almost religious keeper of notes and past learning. I pulled open the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet and plucked out my folder on 19th century poetry. Inside, I found pages and pages of photocopied notes on William, Samuel, Percy and John. Interspersed among my own much neater notes from long ago were notes written in the dark black, looping letters that I will always cherish — my mother’s — followed by notes penned in precise, thin lines. These were Susan’s notes, her annotations on “Bright Star” by Keats and her rivers of questions cascading down the side of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”

I took a picture Susan’s notes on “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and texted it to her in Seattle, WA, where she now lives. And I thought about how much time, space, and thought had just been covered in the ten minutes I spent looking over my nearly 20-year old notes.

In revisiting the Romantics, and in preparing to introduce them to my students in 2016, I traveled back in time to the 1800s, to my mother’s graduate work, to my childhood, and to my early years as an English teacher. The legacy that words create is the legacy that I cherish most.

 

Our Warm Planet

I didn’t love Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

Yes, I was struck by the dystopian aspects of life on earth – the rolling waves of dirt that blot out the sun, the futility of working an arid farm – but that was less significant to me than a single moment on the cold and distant planet that the hero, Cooper, travels to.

Cooper and his colleagues voyage on the spaceship Endurance to the outer reaches of the galaxy searching for a new home for humanity. They believe that an astronaut from a previous mission named Mann may have found a hospitable place, but – spoiler alert – they are wrong. It is a barren world of ice and wind.

When Mann is awakened from the chemically induced sleep he’s been in for years, he is so happy to see another human face that he cries.

I was reminded of countless literary heroes – Odysseus and his more modern iteration, Leopold Bloom, for example – who fall to pieces in the presence of the people or places they have been pining to see. Indeed, many of the best stories have both adventure and homecoming.

In his beautiful poem, “Birches,” Robert Frost paints a different picture of an iced-over world. For him, it is a playground for a young boy who doesn’t yet know the cares or woes of adulthood. But even so, at the end of the poem Frost says that while he’d like to climb to the top of a birch tree again, he’d want to be sure to be able to get back down.

“Earth’s the right place for love,” he concludes.

Like the boy in Frost’s poem, we want to travel and explore, but perhaps our ability to do so depends on our ability to remain connected to our warm planet, and each other.

Start with a Single Thread

One of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems is “The Spider Holds a Silver Ball.” I’ve had some good discussions with students over the years about the poem’s meaning, most of which stem from a disagreement about the character of the spider who creates a web, something substantial, if ephemeral, from what appears to be nothing.

Is the spider devious in his design, enlightened as to its inevitability, or neutral to his art? Does he delight in surpassing our human incapacity for such meticulous and mysterious beauty, or is he oblivious to us, even after we destroy his work?

Dickinson often used nature to get at larger issues, such as in this case the issue of authorship, and what control, if any, an author has over his or her work. Dani Shapiro captures this issue beautifully in Still Writing, when she says, “writing… is an act of faith.” Like the spider, “we writers spend our days making something out of nothing.”

My students felt this acutely over the past month as they wrote their own dystopian short stories. As is often the case, I found that the simplest advice was the most resonant. I said, choose something small that, if different, would fundamentally change life as we know it. In Shapiro’s words, “build a corner.”

Or, in Dickinson’s, start with a single thread.

The spider holds a Silver Ball
In unperceived Hands –
And dancing softly to Himself
His Yarn of Pearl – unwinds –

He plies from Nought to Nought –
In unsubstantial Trade –
Supplants our Tapestries with His –
In half the period –

An Hour to rear supreme
His Continents of Light –
Then dangle from the Housewife’s Broom –
His Boundaries – forgot –