Category Archives: expression

meditation on memory: a flurry of birds

What stays in our minds, and why?

As I walked this morning, as the sunlight started to paint the tops of tall oak and pine, I heard a flurry of birds.  Blue jays gave their screech, which sounds much like that of the red-tailed hawk, towhees spouted their cup-of-TEA, and the tufted titmice emitted their little chirps.  Some mornings I am busy looking at the light arise, smelling the damp oak leaves on the ground, and hearing the various birds call.  This morning, though, I tried to focus on just the sounds, just the bird sounds.  Hence the flurry of birds in my mind.

This phrase, which also lives in the subtitle of today’s post, comes from a play my wife directed some time ago.  It’s a collection of vignettes all set during the American Revolutionary War.  The title came to mind because of the internal rhyme with “flurry” and “birds.”  Poets have been using this tool for thousands of years.  When they want to remember, and help others remember, important people and events, they employ such tools.  Devices like rhyme keep things in our mind.  Witness this morning’s walk.

Another tool is concrete imagery, meaning language that appeals directly to any of our five senses.  This morning,  my mind directed my ears to take the reins.  The flurry of birds became a symphony. I heard nothing but birds.

And here comes one of the values of concrete images like this collection of bird songs.  Now that I have returned to my desk, I will soon start a set of senior essays.  By the time I was climbing our driveway at the end of my walk, I had stored the memory of these birds– to use it as an image for my work.  In other words, the birds will help me listen to the student voices in these papers.  I have long believed that each student sings his or her own individual song.  To help these people grow, my job starts with listening.  I need to know where they are, in order to help them move into new skills and wisdoms.  So, as I grade papers today, what stays in my mind, I hope, is the image of this morning’s flurry of birds.  I am looking forward to hearing the range of ideas expressed by these high school seniors, who soon will fly off to other surroundings.



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meeting students where they are


This post concerns an encouragement I have been hearing over the past several years: let’s be sure to meet students “where they are.”  I tend to translate this suggestion in terms of technological tools.  Working with the digital natives of today, I should push myself to find points of contact and types of  exercises that use today’s technology because the teenagers are using it to to communicate with each other and the world at large.

Recently I have been exploring another way to translate the phrase “where they are”–namely the students’ emotional location.  Tools are valuable, and they evolve over time.  The astute teacher watches these developments and adapts the tools that have the greatest potential.  At the same time, however, I don’t want to neglect a core part of people young and old.

For example, seniors in my classes have begun reading Hamlet.  A student asked me why I had assigned them to memorize and speak before an audience Hamlet’s response to his mother, “Seems Madam?”  This student wondered if other schools around the country asked students to do this.  She followed up with “Is this a popular or well-known speech?”   I told her that I thought the emotional content of the speech would resonate with her and her classmates.  The speech, as I read it, scornfully laments to Hamlet’s mother: you don’t understand me.

A close friend visited our home recently.  As we were talking about writing and education, I said that one idea underlying my writing instruction is that teenagers feel this need to be understood by their parents and other adults.  Have you ever felt as if people do not understand you as well as you want?  I carry this question in my mind as I work with students and their writing.  I want them to feel more capable in expressing themselves and their feelings.

For this and other reasons,  I ask seniors to memorize these eleven lines from Shakespeare’s play:

Seems madam?  nay it is, I know not seems.

‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,

Nor customary suits of solemn black,

Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,

No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,

Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,

Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,

That can denote me truly.  These indeed seem,

For they are actions that a man might play,

But I have that within which passes show —

These but the trappings and the suits of woe.



Then I happened to read a “By the Book” interview with Gabrielle Hamilton (NYTimes BK Rev 23 Nov 2014: 8), in which she answers the question, “What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t?”  Hamilton’s response: “Some of those great books do not become available or apparent to you until you are ready to receive them.”

In other words, part of my job is to help high school seniors be ready to receive Hamlet the character.  Instead of  wanting to meet students “where they are,” I want them to meet Hamlet where he is, which, emotionally speaking, is closer to their experience than they or others may realize.  I told this year’s seniors that before they graduate, I would like them to meet a friend of mine.  His name is Hamlet, and he has taught me a lot over the years.  I value this relationship, as it has evolved over time.


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what I wish for, what I work for

penIn the days after extremists murdered magazine staff in France, I read essays from several journalists I admire.   This admiration reminds me of what I wish for and what I work for on behalf of students. The first essay was written by David Kirkpatrick, a former student from a school where I used to work.  This fact by itself occasions a certain pride.  Beyond this feeling, though, I admire the perspective he brings to the subject because he lives with his family in Cairo.  He knows his subject because he has made the commitment to inhabit the place.  As transplanted correspondent, he has credibility.  In a sense, he has done his homework.  His new home is his work.  The second essay, by David Brooks, I admire for its memorable metaphor–that and its ability to draw valuable distinctions in this challenging conversation.  For example, he distinguishes between the “adult table” and “kids’ table” of journalists.  Though I do not entirely agree with his placement of some professionals, his image remains with me.  Finally, the third essay, by Nicholas Kristof, shares qualities with the first two.  In addition, it expresses a thoughtful caution for those of us who might react to extreme intolerance with our own version of the same: “One of [the] things I’ve learned in journalism is to beware of perceiving the world through simple narratives, because then new information is mindlessly plugged into those story lines.  In my travels . . . extremist Muslims have shared with me their own deeply held false narratives of America as an oppressive state controlled by Zionists and determined to crush Islam.  That’s an absurd caricature, and we should be wary ourselves of caricaturing a religion as diverse as Islam.”  Kristof’s essay invites me to imagine the world I wish for and work for.  I wonder what extremists imagine as their intended world.  For my part, as a teacher, I wish for and work for students who can respond credibly to challenging situations, create memorable metaphors and beware of unquestioned thoughts.

p.s. I shared a draft of this paragraph with my students, as a way of showing them some of the reasons we do what we do together, in and out of class.  Periodically, I need to show these reasons to myself and to them.  The events of this past week reinforce my sense of purpose as one adult guide of their development as writers and thinkers.

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astute student explains strife and grief

“It is common throughout the history of man that the failure of individuals to respect and recognize the beliefs, culture, and commonality of other human beings leads to, or creates, strife and grief. The inability or unwillingness to understand, also known as ignorance, is a generator of strife and grief.”


Although just a first draft of an essay’s opening,  these two sentences by a sophomore boy inspire me.  They remind me that the young people with whom we teachers work have deep appreciation for life’s challenges.  The job of adults in school communities is to give them chances to express such appreciation in ways that mean something to them and those around them.


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teenagers examine A Doll’s House

In the previous post, I said that young people’s abilities to think and write richly give me hope.   Below, I have posted two such responses to their exam question about Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.  A young woman and young man wrote these, both sophomores in high school.  See if you can tell who wrote which.


In A Doll’s House, a play by Ibsen, Nora is ultimately responsible for her decisions, but other people such as Torvald, Mrs. Linde, and her father influence her self-perception perhaps more than she does herself. Torvald Helmer, Nora’s husband, plays a very large part in swaying Nora’s self-perception. Reaffirming his care for her, Torvald tells Nora that he going to help and protect her: “How warm and cosy our home is, Nora. Here is shelter for you; here I will protect you like a hunted dove that I have saved from a hawk’s claws; I will bring peace to your beating heart.” This statement that Torvald tells Nora, along with many others of similar message, provides Nora with a mask of protection. Although Torvald seems to genuinely mean what he is saying, it is giving Nora a false sense of self-perception that she is happy with Torvald and sheltered by him. This sense of security lies on the surface of Nora’s feelings and self-perception and if she were to dig deeper into herself, that superficial mask would no longer be there.  Not only does Torvald influence Nora’s self-perception but others do as well. Mrs. Linde affects how Nora thinks of herself by putting Nora below her and making her seem less important: “You are still very like a child in many things, and I am older than you in many ways and have a little more experience.” As a result of telling Nora things like this repeatedly, Mrs. Linde affects Nora’s self-perception by leading her to believe that she really is less important than others such as Mrs. Linde, and lacks many skills and experience. This shows that by persistently telling someone something, it will begin to affect how they think about themselves as they will begin to believe what you are saying is true about themselves. Admitting and realizing that others have effected how she thought of herself and lived her life, Nora expresses her suffering to Torvald: “I mean that I was simply transferred from papa’s hands into yours. You arranged everything according to your own taste, and so I got the same tastes as you or else I pretended to, I am really not quite sure which—I think sometimes the one and sometimes the other. When I look back on it, it seems to me as if I had been living here like a poor woman—just form hand to mouth. I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. You and papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life.” Nora, expressing her awareness of the impact of others on her own self-perception, shows that because of her father and Torvald she has been living an act. Nora says that she has “existed merely to perform tricks for you, Tovald” which shows that she thought of herself as being okay with simply living for others but now has come to the realization that this is not what she wants. She also conveys that this has been going on forever because of her father, which shows that others influencing her self-perception is not a new concept. Through Torvald, Mrs. Linde, and her father, Nora has formed a superficial self-perception of herself which, although seeming like it may have been correct, when she digs deeper she realizes is not fine and that it is not how she wants to think about herself. “I must stand quite alone, if I am to understand myself and everything about me.”


In Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the main character, Nora, is pushed to walk out on her family and leave her children behind due to her own warped self-perception. However, Nora is not the one who shapes her own beliefs and ideas. Instead, outside sources such as Torvald and Krogstad direct and control Nora’s self-perception. Torvald has a particularly large amount of power over Nora’s actions, being her husband. When Nora finally realizes that she has not been in control of herself, she says to Torvald, “You arranged everything according to your own taste, and so I got the same tastes as you or else I pretended to”. Torvald nearly entirely controlled her actions, how she dressed, what she said, and everything else about her public appearance and demeanor. This escalated to the point, where Nora was more like Torvald’s doll than an actual human being, at least on the outside. Krogstad, however, influenced Nora in a very different way from Torvald, indirectly. Krogstad never forced Nora to do anything or directly controlled her actions like Torvald did. Instead Krogstad caused Nora to constantly dread and worry herself over the debt that she owed him. Nora was ashamed of this debt and told no one except her friend Christine about it saying, “Speak low. Suppose Torvald were to hear! He mustn’t on any account—no one in the world must Know, Christine, except you”. Nora could not pay the debt off by herself and also could not tell Torvald, due to the fear she had of him finding out. As such, Krogstad had arguably more control over Nora than Torvald. While Torvald controlled how she acted in public, Krogstad controlled her thoughts in private. When Nora finally came to understand her situation, she realized that she could not escape the control of either of these two men by doing anything but leaving and starting over completely.

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everyday poetry

This poem from Wendell Berry’s New Collected Poems captures my feeling that poems do not have to change the world, though some do.  They can simply add a song from a person who is like no other.  That’s what we all have in common–we are distinctly ourselves.  Celebrate and develop that  unique voice by continuing to sing.


He comes along the street, singing,

a rag of a man, with his game foot and bum’s clothes.

He’s asking for nothing–his hands

aren’t even held out.  His song

is the gift of singing, to him

and to all who will listen.


To hear him, you’d think the engines

would all stop, and the flower vendor would stand

with her hands full of flowers and not move.

You’d think somebody would have hired him

and provided him a clean quiet stage to sing on.


But there’s no special occasion or place

for his singing–that’s why it needs

to be strong.  His song doesn’t impede the morning

or change it, except by freely adding itself.


p.s.  I don’t yet follow Berry’s statement, “that’s why it needs / to be strong.”  Strong in what sense(s)?  Why does not having a special occasion require this strength? I enjoy the poem because it renders one of my beliefs about the value of regular poetry.  Even so, I need to wrestle with this mysterious statement.  Any ideas, anyone?


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Growing Writers. Season 2 Episode 2. Voice and Variety

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July 11, 2013 · 9:31 am

“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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Do we really need poetry?

In several of today’s classes–two sophomore and one senior–we listened to the NPR piece about John Borling’s book of poems, Taps on the Walls.  Having heard this interview during my drive to work this morning, I wanted to share it with students, and hence with readers of this blog.  It is a remarkable answer to a question I have asked my poetry classes in the past:  do we really need poetry.

After students listened to the program, which I recommend you do (7’48” long), we literally tried our hands at composing with the code used by Major General Borling and his prison mates.  Since the sophomores are just finishing The Kite Runner, I asked them to start a poem in the voice of Amir–a poem expressing what Sohrab means to him.  Then they were to try tapping the first line of this poem for their neighbor, as one concrete way to appreciate the importance of poetry for Mr. Borling during his six and a half years of brutal captivity. You can catch a glimpse of their handiwork on the youtube video above. I hope this mini-lesson opens for them a small window on the remarkable human spirit and its need for artistic expression.

p.s. Apologies for the extra youtube videos; I am trying to learn how to post just the one video I made, without these extraneous, unendorsed connections.


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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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