Category Archives: imagination

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.

cropped-cardinal-with-nandina.jpg

 

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A few haiku for you at the Paris climate talks

the moon is waning

even oak leaves are falling

sharp bright stars now shine

___

let them fall, all brown

though they cling with reluctance

let all of them fall

___

in winter the leaves

have all fallen to the ground

traffic now sounds loud

___

leaf blowers have stopped

gone are the oak leaves that were

falling quietly

___

we’re quick to move on

but the seasons each take time

may we look to this

bare trees 1

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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.

photo credit: http://www.endlessicons.com/free-icons/fountain-pen-icon/

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Growing Writers, Season 2 Episode 1: Recycling

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July 8, 2013 · 10:31 am

homegrown haiku 5

Tall tree overhead

              Trunks sprouting like fireworks

                             Green celebration

In this haiku I wanted to render a tree outside my parents’ new home.  This tree, which none of us could identify, grows just off their patio.  It rises about forty feet, or so.  Its leaves are a translucent emerald green, and this poem is one of several in the series meant to help them remember beauty that surrounds them.  The tree is in their yard and will likely be there for a long time, but I wanted to leave a reminder of what they had already told us they liked.  It seems presumptuous to write a poem that tries to give something, like an appreciation, that they already have.  I suppose that the poem shows, more than anything, my desire that they enjoy their new home.  Like most writing, these poems are meant for someone else, while meaning at least as much to the writer.  The first line of the poem begins with a suggestion of protection.   The tree is tall, and its leaves create a canopy overhead to help shield my parents from sun and rain.

The second line made me work hardest; I wanted to capture the shape and arc of the multiple trunks.  They grow from a tight beginning then flare out and up.  I don’t recall the images I tried, but I like this one, and my niece’s endorsement confirms my satisfaction with it.  I suspect that I like the fireworks image not only for its physical description, but also for its association with the celebratory event.

p.s. I have attached no images to this post because I found none that match this particular tree.  Readers will have to use the poem to imagine it.

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homegrown haiku 3

Window PanelA close friend looks in

              From outside the window pane

                             Wishing to see love

This haiku comes from a dream–a dream of some substance because it arrived just three nights before my parents’ anniversary dinner.  In this vision, a man stood outside a set of patio doors.  He peered through the sheer curtains that covered each door’s two columns of six panes, from the inside.  As I watched him wish he could pull the curtains gently apart, I saw that he was a close friend of parents, especially of my father because he and his twin brother had been born on the same day as my father and his identical twin.  My parents had known this friend for a long time; they loved to laugh with him.  I remember laughing with him, too; he always worked to include me and other children nearby.  If I had ever dreamed of David before, I didn’t remember it.  So, he, effectively for the first time in my life, appears in a dream.  He wants to be part of my parents’ celebration, but can’t.

The feeling of David’s longing lies at the heart of the dream and therefore fuels the haiku.  My initial impulse was to write a poem that brought my parents’ friend to the table.  As I wrote, though, I began to see not only that David wanted to join the celebration, and thereby be connected to old friends and the experience of love, but also that everyone else at the table had some relationship to his feelings.  All of us, for various reasons and to different degrees, have experienced and desired love–love for a companion and love from such another.

The poem’s middle line, by referring to a “window pane,” echoes the hurt that comes from feeling outside the experience of love.  Many of us around the table have known, either first-hand or second-hand, directly or empathetically, the feeling of being  outside of the patio window looking in.

And this feeling helps explain my choice of “wishing” in the last line.  I may have tried “wanting” or a similar two-syllable verb, but “wishing” captures the  spirit of David’s longing.  A wish is a kind of dream.  What I wish for is what I dream of.  So then, David’s wishing to be part of the marriage celebration becomes my dream, too.  In this way, what he wants is what I want.  As it happens, then, he does join the table–in a real sense, a sense that began with a dream but became more than that.

photo credit: http://www.eichlerforsale.com/xsites/Agents/eichlerforsale/content/uploadedFiles/Window%20Panel.JPG

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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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F F F

These three letters represent a course I have been considering for some time: “Farms, Factories and Facebook.”  In this course, students read literature, mostly fiction, that conveys the rhythms and mindsets of three ages in human history: agricultural, industrial and digital.  We might call the third “informational,” but for now I am simply collecting titles and ideas.  For the most part, this collecting has been happening privately.  Feel free to comment with your thoughts.  Feel free to launch such a course yourself.  I trust we will acknowledge each other, when occasion calls for that.

Meanwhile, an article in yesterday’s New York Times profiles a Korean writer whose work fits my picture of this FFF course.  Shin Kyung-Sook’s novel, Please Look After Mom, has made a lasting impression on my wife, since she read it  about a year ago.  When yesterday’s article appeared, we both said we want to read her other novels, I Will Be Right There and A Lone Room.  The Times article describes the  traumatic change in South Korea from an agrarian to industrial society–within just one generation.  Ms. Kyung-Sook’s stories reveal what this dramatic disruption means to Korean families.  The conflicts at the heart of the society reveal the distinct rhythms and mindsets of both eras. Therefore, one of these novels may suit the course I am imagining.

Other literature I have considered defines an era’s worldview from within–think Tess of the D’Urbevilles or Hard Times, for example–rather than across the “time zones.”  Given my experience with home-grown courses like this, I want to find good stories– ones that engage students initially and years later, for their emotional and intellectual impact.  Stories they carry with them.  Analyzing the eras we humans have navigated is part of the course, but I have learned not to impose too much of my own historical ruminations on high school juniors and seniors.  Those ideas provide a sturdy infrastructure, but individual students need to shape their own conclusions in their own way, largely through induction while reading these stories.

That’s it for now. Concerning this course, the time has apparently come to widen what Seamus Heaney calls the “circumference of understanding.”  If you want to see and/or comment on the google doc of ideas and titles, complete the following form.  Thank you.

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signifying nothing 5.5.23

This week, the seniors and I have been working on the difference between a poem’s speaker and author.  The following sequence of ideas arose this morning, while my wife and I drank coffee and talked on the deck,  and while the sunlight  touched the tops of our neighbor’s seventy-foot pine trees.

We saw his pine trees, as well as what used to be an equally tall oak, until a July storm dropped its top half.  During this morning’s coffee talk, I recalled that our neighbor, let’s call him Paul Bunyan, finally began cutting the fallen limbs with his chain saw last night.  Mention of the chain saw reminded me of Frost’s poem, “Out, Out,” which the seniors had recently read.  In fact, some seniors may be using that poem for their first essay about tone; I hope I steal none of their thunder with this post.  (Ssshh, don’t tell any  of them about this post, yet.)

Naturally, at least for us two career literature teachers, Shakespeare entered the conversation–in the form of Macbeth, whose speech after Lady Macbeth’s death includes the phrase “Out, out, [brief candle].”  When I repeated Frost’s title, my wife gave Macbeth’s next thought, “Life’s but a walking shadow” (5.5.23).  At this point, my mind returned to this week’s work with seniors; I often find my mind going there.

Here, I thought, is a fine example of the energy created by the difference between speaker and author.  My first thought on remembering Macbeth’s speech was that I disagree with his final claim that life is a “tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing”–especially as I sat with my wife during this morning’s sunrise.  Then I realized, perhaps in a freshly rich way, that so does Shakespeare.  If he agrees with Macbeth, why bother writing all of these plays?  At this point in the Scottish play, Macbeth has reached the very bottom of his despair and hopelessness.   Ever since he has told himself that he is in bloody murders too steeped to turn back, he has been pursuing an untenable human course.  He has separated himself from his most worthy being, as well as from other people.  His moral coherence, his ethical integrity has been dissolving, unlike the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands, which she cannot remove with her bootless cry, “Out, out, damned spot.”

Shakespeare, the author of Macbeth’s final desperate words, does see human life as signifying something, even while imagining a character who does not.  In fact, through his art, the author tries to lead us away from such despair by enacting the journey that led to it.  He wants to bring the lesson alive on stage.

And here, at this junction of  speaker and author, I am reminded of a critical thinking skill that appeared on my recent blog post’s list of such skills.  In this case, I am thinking of “shape meaningful schema.”  Students who understand the play’s plot, Macbeth’s decline and the speech’s words are ready to combine these understandings with the author/speaker distinction, in order to shape in their minds a pattern that makes sense, that means something, that signifies something.  With all due respect to Mr. Macbeth, I will keep making meaning–even out of his story.  I will keep helping students do the same.

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subversive activity

The title echoes one of my early teaching bibles, Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity.  The main inspiration for today’s writing comes from a paragraph in Evangelia G. Chrisikou’s recent article, “Your Creative Brain at Work” (Scientific American Mind, July/August 2012).

After quoting the paragraph, I will comment on the teacher-as-disturber, the openings of Shakespeare’s plays and of Ed Park’s recent short story–as well as the role of poetry.  Shakespeare wrote in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and I did not know him personally, except through his writing.  Ed Park, on the other hand, lives in NYC today, and I do know him, not only through his writing.  For example, my wife and I had lunch with him in NYC several summers ago.

Here’s the quote about brains at work:

Although creativity has long been considered a gift of a select minority, psychologists are now revealing its seeds in mental processes, such as decision making, language and memory, that all of us possess.  Thus, we can all boost our creative potential.  Recent studies show promise for techniques that break down people’s established ways of viewing the world as well as strategies that encourage unconscious thought processes. 

Here are the comments:

Recently, I have billed myself (sorry) as someone who likes to ask questions.  In fact, I am currently reading a book called Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.  If we are to help students by educating them, which from Latin means leading them out (presumably of themselves), we have to regularly ask thoughtful, thought-provoking questions, while giving students real practice at doing the same.  The questions drive the work; otherwise, what’s the point of all this reading and writing?

I think of these moments in literature: the opening of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, with its raucous crowd of Caesar opponents and proponents (consider present-day Cairo); the start of Romeo and Juliet, with its feuding families; the haunted tower of Hamlet, with its disorienting apparition.  In each case, the story starts with disturbance.  So the story of student learning begins with disturbance, questions and subversion.  What one has thought is tested; new theories, interpretations and understandings must be forged, shaped and tested.

Ed Park’s short story, “Bring on the Dancing Horses,” published in the journal Open City (Winter 2010-2011), begins with entertaining uncertainty.  Halfway through a sentence, I realize the need to adjust the “horizon of expectations.”*  The narrator, being ever so generous, helps me adjust my view.  Here is the story’s first paragraph:

When I call my parents, my mom tells me my dad is busy teaching a class on the internet.  That is, the class is in a classroom but the topic is the Internet.  More specifically, he’s teaching seniors–that is, old people–how to blog, write anonymous comments on news articles without panicking, poke their children on Facebook, and get away with not writing h, t, t, p, colon, backslash, backslash, w, w, w, dot before every web address.

The best poetry breaks down “people’s established views” and “encourages unconscious thought processes.”  I like to think of writing poems as a technique for doing this, with all due respect to what recent scientific studies show.  Think of Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” which asks readers/listeners to take a poem and hold it to the light like a color slide, or run their hands along its wall to feel for the light switch.  Metaphors like these, when students read or make them, turn their lens, tip an object or idea this way or that.

So, in practical terms, what do these ideas mean for work with students?  First, let’s acknowledge the role played by “essential questions” in many curricula.  I understand the rise of this organizational method.  At the same time, as indicated by my current reading,  I believe the strongest school results come from students who know how, and are given the chance or responsibility, to ask their own questions, meaning questions that mean something to them.

This year, I have experimented with broad essential questions that serve the curricula I inherited when I changed schools.  These questions have proved productive enough that I will likely use them again this coming year.  I am finding that they generate students’ sub-questions.  Here are the essential ones I have used.  The number shows grade level.

12 Where do we find struggle, internal and external?  Where do we see monsters or demons, and what makes them so?  What influences our responses to these struggles and monsters?

10 Who am I?  What are my primary responsibilities to myself and the communities in which I live?


For context, I should add that the senior classes began with Beowulf, while the sophomores opened with Oedipus Rex.   Imagine how you would apply the questions to these texts.  Also, I should add that Seamus Heaney’s introduction to his translation–the one we use–includes an account of his personal linguistic struggle, having grown up in Northern Ireland.  In patiently facing this fundamental challenge, he produces a statement that hangs above the entrance to the classroom in which I teach:  “my heart lifted again, the world widened, something was furthered” (xxvi).  It turns out that the linguistic history of the Old English word meaning “to suffer” resolved Heaney’s personal struggle.

So, let’s keep an eye on established views, while asking questions that may disturb.  We can ask such questions of the material students are experiencing, but we can also ask them of ourselves as educators.  For example, what are the “established ways of viewing the world” among today’s teachers?  Who establishes them?  How do we determine that they are, in fact, established?

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