Category Archives: beauty

choosing haiku verbs

Sun plays on the stream

and reflects on every tree

its shimmering dance.

–J. W. Hackett (Haiku Poetry: Volume Two, Japan Publications, 1968)

I want to help students choose valuable verbs, and I see guided practice with haiku as a way to aid them–a fun way to challenge young writers in this poetic microclimate, where choice especially matters  because of the tight-fitting form.

For example, I see the first verb in Hackett’s haiku.  What else might work in place of “play,” I can ask students.  What does this verb give us, by way of description and potential?  What does it mean, and how can we build on it, with it?

A note on adjectives: when recording this haiku from (imperfect) memory, I wrote “brilliant” in the last line.  This mistake shows me the value of “shimmering” because it includes the movement implied in “play,” as well as the brilliant reflections.

Therefore, as students, including myself, sharpen a verb, they build a skill that transfers across parts of speech.  In turn, they can more clearly see connections among elements of their descriptions.  They open themselves and readers to ever-more-shimmering sentences.


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“And at times the fact of his absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep.”

A family tribute to our good friend who died suddenly several days ago.

“And at times the fact of his absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep.”.

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two simple stories: Glock and Bach

Without judgment, I offer two personal stories from this past week.  They occurred within a day of each other.

First story: At lunch–during a discussion of guns, death and violence–a colleague described his neighbor’s reaction to the death of Sandy Hook students and teachers, as well as to the possibility of additional regulation of guns and ammunition.  According to the colleague’s reasonable, and in my judgment sympathetic, report, his neighbor already owned an AR-15, and since the Sandy Hook deaths has purchased several more.  When asked why he had purchased these additional guns, the neighbor responded that he wanted to be ready when they, the government, came to his house.

Second story: At our high school’s weekly chapel service, two senior boys played a concert to benefit the Youth and Family Services of Newtown, Connecticut.  The seniors themselves requested the opportunity, chose the music and provided the commentary between pieces.  During their performance, which they entitled “Reflection and Outreach,” they explained that it can be hard to find words at such times, and that music can express emotions in these situations.  When I asked one of the boys about why they asked to do this concert, he said that the feelings expressed in the music could serve as one way to empathize with the Sandy Hook community.

To me, these two stories represent significantly different ways of seeing the present and future worlds.  I am also reminded of the two essential questions that guide my work with high school sophomore classes:  Who am I?  What are my primary responsibilities to myself and to the communities in which I live?  Most of our reading and writing focus on a student’s, character’s or author’s answer to these two questions.  I wonder how the neighbor and senior boys would answer these questions.  And I wonder what those answers mean for us–today and tomorrow?  Finally, I wonder how my responses to the colleague and the students defines my answer to these essential questions.


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The Art of Translation

The Art of Translation.

I wanted to share this recent reflection by a girl in one of my high school senior classes.

She typically writes with such clarity and depth.

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a borrower and a lender

I thought readers of this blog might enjoy a recent assignment described for my seniors.  They have started writing reflections on poems they find in our text, and I gave this guidance for their first piece; these instructions grow from a sentence in Seamus Heaney’s introduction to his Whitbread-Award winning translation of Beowulf.  Enjoy.

For this first reflection, base your writing on a single poem from chapter one of Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Gioia’s Introduction to Poetry.  In the previous assignment for this week, I asked you to pick a poem on which you would like to reflect.  As you consider this poem, use the quote from Seamus Heaney, seen in the photograph above.  His brief statement comes the introduction to his translation of the Old English narrative poem, Beowulf, which we will start reading in several weeks.  I posted his passage in a prominent place because I admire and value the thought and feeling behind it.  In his introduction, he describes a particular struggle he experienced during the translation project.  He struggled to reconcile apparently disparate parts of his past.  His perseverance eventually led to a discovery that produced the statement above our door: “my heart lifted again, the world widened, something was furthered” (xxvi).  I would like to use this statement as guidance for your first reflection.

In other words, use any or all of the statement’s parts as guides for writing a reflection of approximately 200-400 words; this will be the typical length for reflections posted on your blog.  Let me explain my thinking about how to use the parts to Heaney’s statement.  “My heart lifted”: Consider a poem that lifts your heart in a small or large way.  Perhaps the poem as a whole does this, or maybe a single line.  You can read “lifted” loosely.  In other words, something about the poem satisfied you, or rang true, resonated, or made you say “yes” in some fashion.  It made you feel fuller.  “The World Widened”: As a result of your heart’s lifting, your understanding of the world, which includes yourself and other people, has widened.  To borrow from Rilke, another poet, your orbit has grown wider.  You see more because of this poem or this line.  “Something was furthered”: This sounds like the previous part of the statement, but it also suggests that the world evolved in some way because your world widened.  Some problem was solved, some insight gained.  Some larger value was added to the world because of this thinking or feeling you are doing.  Admittedly, this last part is probably the hardest to apply, but feel free to give it a go, if you are so inclined.

As you write your reflection, use my explanation of Heaney’s passage as guidance–rather than as a set of questions all of which you must answer.  The fun and beauty of such reflective writings is that they give you a chance to notice and follow your responses.  Let the associations happen, while challenging yourself to be as clear as possible–to yourself and your blog readers.

Have fun.  Enjoy the writing.

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Regular Writing #1

Making things is harder than destroying them.  Who do you know who is a successful builder?  What does this person build or make—houses, clothes, food, friends or something else?

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Today’s title comes from an epigraph to Stanley Kunitz’s book, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, written with Genine Lentine and photographs by Marnie Crawford Samuelson (Norton, 2007).

Here’s the full epigraph, presumably written by Kunitz:

I associate the garden with the whole experience of being alive,

and so, there is nothing in the range of human experience

that is separate from what the garden can signify

in its eagerness and its insistence,

and in its driving energy to live–to grow, to bear fruit.

Not so much because of this verse, but concurrent  with its spirit, I started sketching a poem about the papyrus that sits in a pot on our deck.  As I was writing the poem, Kunitz’s word insistence, which I italicize in the epigraph for emphasis, found its way into my verse.  I had started the poem by noticing anew what I have known for some time–that the papyrus reproduces itself by leaning heavy fronds into neighboring waters, which means, in this case, that it plants itself in the next pot over from the mother pot.

Here’s a draft of my poem:

Bowing towards the river

Like the papyrus,

heavy with new growth,

a few of my fronds bend,

forming right angles,

bowing to sip from the river–

all from insistence to sprout yet

another draft of myself.

In the background,

in the young dogwood

slightly taller than myself,

two chickadees dance among the branches,

barely hidden,

watching for their turn at the bird bath.


Note:  After finishing this draft, I turned the sprinkler on the dogwood and bird bath because not only the chickadees, but also the cardinals, wrens, titmice and sparrows were all clamoring for their morning ablutions.  As I write at the window inside, which overlooks the deck and the dogwood, what started as a little chickadee dance has become a full-fledged aviary extravaganza.


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to live on the hillside

As has happened more than once–ask my wife–while walking through a room in our house, I spotted a book.  This time it was Wendell Berry’s Standing by Words: Essays (Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 1983).  I pulled it from the shelf mostly because of yesterday’s post–about not wasting chances to grow something.  Passages from Berry’s book have fed me ever since I found it in Durham, NC some years ago.  One of its passages I have framed; it hangs in my office at work. It describes the value of discipline.  Yesterday’s post about saving radish sprouts made me want to review a few passages I had tagged in the book.  I found two to include here.

As some readers may know, Wendell Berry likes to write about farming. In fact, the following excerpts come from his essay called “People, Land, and Community.”  I enjoy and appreciate his descriptions of agricultural rhythms, especially in this our increasingly digital world.  I find comfort and value in his discussion of time.  It simply takes time to grow things, and discipline to stay with the same soil.  I am starting to hear echoes of the teaching profession in passages like these below.

“But to think of the human use of a piece of land as continuing through hundreds of years, we must greatly complicate our understanding of agriculture.  Let us start a job of farming on a given place–say an initially fertile hillside in the Kentucky River Valley–and construe it through time.

“1. To begin using this hillside for agricultural production–pasture or crop–is a matter of a year’s work.  This is work in the present tense, adequately comprehended by conscious intention and by the first sort of knowledge I talked about–information available to the farmer’s memory and built into his methods, tools, and crop and livestock species.  Understood inits present tense, the work does not reveal its value except insofar as the superficial marks of craftsmanship maybe seen and judged.  But excellent workmanship, as with a breaking plow, may prove as damaging as bad workmanship.  The work has not revealed its connections to the place or to the worker.  These connections are revealed in time.

“2. To live on the hillside and use it for a lifetime gives the annual job of work a past and a future.  To live on the hillside and use it without diminishing its fertility or wasting it by erosion still requires conscious intention and information, but now we must say good intention and good (that is, correct) information, resulting in good work.  And to these we must now add character: the sort of knowledge that might properly be called familiarity, and the affections, habits, values, and virtues ((conscious and unconscious) that would preserve good care and good work through hard times” (71-72).

There you are then.  One of my marked passages from Wendell Berry’s book.  Living on the hillside is like living with the students.  Knowledge and memory, affections and patience–we depend on these for results that emerge later, sometimes much later, in time.

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banking on growth, or helping seedlings sprout

This morning before driving to work, I thinned out the radishes, again.  Several weeks ago, I started the seeds in small fibrous cells, letting them sprout in the house–on a tray and under a thin plastic sheet.  Once they were ready, I moved the seedlings outside to our wall garden.  More than once now, I have thinned them, so that just one plant grows in its own space.  Last summer, when we had less garden space, I discarded the thinned seedlings.  Now, with the newly prepared larger space, as I pull out and separate tiny strands of radish plants, I can walk them a few feet to my left–to open ground.  I enjoyed realizing that I did not have to waste these tiny plants.  They have potential to grow into full, pinkish red bulbs that eventually we can rinse, slice and eat.

associative leap (using as a connection the idea of not wasting potential)

Moving the slender plants this morning made me think of today’s school schedule.  The spring vacation starts after today, and, as in many schools, we struggle to make the day worthwhile.  We try to spend our time together productively, without wasting it.  I have occasionally told students that as I age, I become less interested in wasting time.  So today, in my sophomore classes, we did an exercise I had been imagining for some time, not sure when or how I would implement it.  I will briefly describe it, along with a few fun discoveries.

Basic exercise

As newly appointed interns in the US State Department, prepare a map (with four basic features) of the Dominican Republic for Secretary Clinton and the rest of her staff.  I can send you, readers of this blog, the one-page instructions, if you like.  For now, just know that we had just finished reading Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, set in the DR during Trujillo’s oppressive thirty-year rule.

Several discoveries

1. As with most such exercises, the main challenge, especially the day before vacation, was to engage all group members in the map-making process.

2. As groups worked, I monitored progress with Photo Booth, an application on our MacBooks that let me film interactions in each group.  During the last five minutes, when I projected the video for everyone, I began to see this filming as a fun, natural way for the students and me to assess varying levels of collaboration within groups.  Also, I have a new tool for my assessing the kinds of questions they ask, and just as important, how I answer those questions.  Among today’s discoveries, this one excites me the most–partly because I have started reading a book about student questions and partly because I see a natural way to mix student engagement, technological tools and my own self-assessment.  The book, incidentally, is called Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions and written by Rothstein and Santana (Harvard  Education Press, 2011).

3. The wording of the assignment’s instructions, appearing below a copy of the State Department’s official seal, gave me license to inject a realistic feel to my interactions with the students.  In my role as Special Assistant to Secretary Clinton, I could make sure they understood the need to work efficiently together.  State Department staff members often need to work on short notice.  They need to find, understand and communicate information with efficient collaboration.  I like to think that today, when some wish they could waste time, we had fun playing roles and learning more about another country.  As one of the team leaders was packing her backpack, she explained where the country’s two major airports are.  Out of genuine safety concerns, this student wanted to make sure that Secretary Clinton landed in an appropriate location.  You will have to believe me that this girl, on the day before spring break,  sounded as if she had suspended her disbelief.  Her imagination had taken her authentically into this assignment.  What a joy it was for me to hear her speak in this tone, in these terms.  We took one person’s potential and planted it in fresh soil.


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stars, squirrels and birds

Since I am cleaning house and grading papers, I will make this short.

This morning, while walking our dog–incidentally, I recommend walking with or without a four-legged friend–I saw several squirrel nests high up in the bare winter trees.  The squirrels wedge sticks and leaves into the junction of multiple branches.  Usually they need just three to start.

This idea of building on a foundation of three reminded me of an earlier post about constellations.  I proposed that teachers talk with each other about the three guiding stars of their work.

Then–meaning this morning– my balloon of a mind drifted to a memory of a bird’s nest I saw while visiting family in North Carolina last month.  In an eight-foot dogwood, a bird had added a small twig to form a triangle.  Part way out on one of the young tree’s branches, a “Y” had formed.  This bird, knowing the strength of triangles, lay his twig across to form an equilateral.  On that foundation, he placed the pine needles, oak leaves and plastic bits of his nest.

I suppose it’s just simply fun sometimes to notice such connections.

In addition, frameworks–conceptual, celestial or domestic–help us two-leggeds and four-leggeds to build things.


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