Category Archives: joy

GISA ATL 2017: Poetry Fridays

Link to my presentation at the Georgia Independent Schools Association annual conference in Atlanta on Monday, November 6.

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the play’s the thing: fun and joy in learning

Will_Kemp_Elizabethan_Clown_JigDuring a recent senior class, I was reminded of the value of play.  In lieu of viewing some films, I decided that student troupes would rehearse the opening of Hamlet.  And I’m glad I did.  The troupes traveled to nearby areas outside of the classroom, in order to prepare  the initial fifty-one lines.  This was the very first time we all held these books in our hands, and the players paid memorable tribute to the riches in the text.  Plus they had fun.  One group decided to go outside, using a patio’s walls as Elsinore’s battlements.  When I went out to check on them, I saw three of the boys tilted back in their chairs with feet up on the table.  As I approached, ready to reprimand, the ghost suddenly drifted into view from upstage right with someone’s blanket draped over her head.  The boy actors fumbled in fear to escape the ghost.  Then I realized that I wasn’t catching them goofing off, but was watching their rehearsal.  On the way back to the classroom, when I explained my first thought and subsequent realization, one boy actor exclaimed, “That’s how good we are as actors.”  Indeed.  Another troupe made an artistic choice that stayed private until one of the players delivered their prologue.  Given the appearance of a ghost, they set their scene in Charleston, South Carolina–known for its heavy ghost traffic.  All the players spoke in dialects of the region, lending a special resonance to particular lines and to the scene as a whole.  One girl player, after the performance, when I asked if she had grown up in Charleston, replied that her father had.  From her first lines, her accent rang as true as any in the group.  Each of those players had her or his own version of the regional dialect, which reminds me of Shakespeare’s many voices.  Speaking of dialects, yet another troupe had a boy player who relished the chance to tour the English-speaking world with his performance.  I don’t remember which character he played, but I clearly recall that across the span of his lines he guided us from London to Cork to Johannesburg and finally to Sydney.  In other words, whether consciously or as an accidental linguistic tourist, he entertained us with his expressive exploration.  In all, we had fun while playing.  I was nervous, as I often am, when we hit day one of our study of this most majestic of plays.  These seniors reminded me to trust the power of this text, and to trust them to have fun.  It was the final day of Winterfest at school, and what better way to enjoy the day.  Such moments convince me, if I needed convincing, that with a bit of guidance about theatrical tools like speech, movement and props or costumes, and with clear encouragement to have fun interpreting and inventing, students come away from the experience having learned these opening lines at a visceral, bodily, emotional level.  They heard and responded to lines much more than if they had watched someone else, like Olivier or Jacobi, render those same lines.

Postscript: Play presumes fun.  Play also exercises confidence at several levels. When students play together, they build things together–memorable things.  This building looks like collaboration to me.  Finally, I was recently part of a faculty discussion that touched on these subjects.  For example, we were considering Physics students who face the idea that a given problem has multiple solutions.  What to do?  Can’t I have just one way to produce the answer?  The recent Hamlet class suggests that something similar faced these student actors, and they enjoyed finding the solution–the interpretation–that worked best for their troupe.  Fun, I contend, played a role.  As did joy.  They enjoyed the work of interpreting the lines.  That joy took them deeply enough into their rehearsal that they came out and up onto the stage with more confidence, and confidence matters when students face a challenge, whether in the lab or on the stage.

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reading other lives #1: lessons in humility

double-voicing: writing simultaneously for professional colleagues and college-bound students–i.e., the first of my biography blog posts, as a sample for seniors starting their own independent reading in our April Biography Project.  Soon they, too, will post reflections (of similar length and depth) on their blogs.

Now that I have read the first two chapters of my chosen biography, Philip Levine’s Bread of Time, it’s time to reflect on the questions I brought to this project.  I chose this book because it stretches my conception of the memoir/biography genre and because it discusses two of my passions, poetry and teaching. I have been committed to both for a long time.  When I read Mr. Levine’s obituary in The New York Times, I noticed this book because of the seniors’ reading project and the book’s subtitle, Toward an Autobiography.  I like the subtitle’s statement of intent.  It suggests a shade, an aspiration.  It communicates the author’s working toward something that readers recognize.  I just now realize that this notion of working towards something  rather than declaring a victorious achievement echoes my first impressions of Levine.  His first two chapters run more topically than chronologically, and I have been struck by the theme of his humility.

As I read, I am watching for the influences that inspire and define his poems.  I am also interested in his human teachers–people who shaped his worldview, people from whom he knows he has learned.  Finally, since I enjoy writing, I have already been struck by the joy he admittedly experiences in writing lines and sentences.  I wonder where that started and what sustained it.  I have a sense that his joy is sustained–not necessarily generated but sustained–by his “teachers” and mentors.   By the end of chapter two (about holy cities), he is already humble in my eyes.  He acknowledges that he has many people and places to thank for his growth.  Although he has reason to be proud of his accomplishments, his stance so far, as I read it, is a humble, grateful one.  No doubt some of my colleagues, acquaintances and friends who know him personally, or more deeply than I do, may disagree with my early impressions, but to paraphrase part of Neruda’s “Ars Poetica I,” these are my own manual metaphysics and I am moving on to the next chapter.





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Poetry Fridays and Islamic Art: they shall not hurt nor destroy

reindeer lampAt the start of this school year, back in August, I introduced an experiment: Poetry Fridays.  Now, as March approaches, the benefits of sustaining this practice are blossoming.

At the end of each week, sophomore World Literature students celebrate with poems.  We study some and write some.  I believe strongly in mixing reading with making.  Typically, the poems match the material we are studying during the other days.  For example, last week we began reading Henrik Ibsen’s  A Doll’s House, set in Norway.  On Friday, I introduced students to Tomas Transtromer, Swedish winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature.


During February, while reading Khaled Hosseini’s novel, The Kite Runner, which revolves around Afghanistan, we studied and wrote ghazals.  This traditional form began in Arabia with the qasida. Persian culture then adopted the qasida’s opening section, turning it into what poets know as the ghazal.

In a later post, I can describe the various benefits of Poetry Friday.  For now, let me say that more have emerged than I expected.  For example, students and I look forward to Fridays–as much for the material as for the end-of-week signal.  We have come to expect fun discoveries–made by being open to surprises–for instance,  in Transtromer’s poem, “The Open Window.”  We mine poems for warm-up exercises.  In this case,  students each wrote lines that give life to an inanimate object.  Then they shared objects and wrote more lines.

Last Friday, one student selected as his object a leaf of grass–presumably a dead one to fit the instructions.  His choice allowed my brief comments about Leaves of Grass and  about finding Whitman’s poems under our boot soles.  Poetry is always underfoot.  It is everywhere.  Not in a designated unit (typically in spring), but everywhere.  Committing myself and the students to poetry every Friday embodies the ever-presence of the art.  Poetry does not hibernate.  It is not a special-delivery package at holiday time.  It is in you and me, every day.

So, you cannot knock it down with a sledge hammer.  You can’t murder it then share the video of your destruction. It’s not going away–not this week or next week.

I’d like to end with a student ghazal from last month.  This poem is part of our cultural inheritance because it borrows from pre-Islamic Arabic poets, Medieval Persian versifiers and modern American high school students.  Here is her poem.


Stays in Motion

We cannot see, but we are collections of echoes.

We think we know the real jurisdiction of echoes.


When we think, our thoughts bounce each other like echoes in a cave.

The thoughts we decide on are final productions of our echoes.


Our parents may seem completely different than us.

Keep in mind we are imitations of their echoes.


There is a vast future and a dead past to an echo.

We all die, but we are the never-ending echo.


Some think you can’t change an echo once it has begun,

Keillor, it can be done, the revision of an echo.


art work by Franz Richter, from cover of Tomas Transtromer: Twenty Poems. trans. Robert Bly (Madison, MN: Seventies Press, 1970)






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Reflecting Students in Novel-Journals



Since I am just starting to read several classes’ worth of student journals, I thought I would share the watercolor work on one of the journal covers.

For each of the five chapters in Gail Tsukiyama’s novel The Samurai’s Garden, students recorded passages, analyses and personal responses that focus on one character.  Their main goal was to see new sides of this character, as the light changed around him or her.

I am enjoying reading these journals even more than I expected.  The pace and tone of the novel, reinforced by this journal exercise,  encourage the students to slow down and reflect on slight developments of character.  I am happy to see how many can sustain such reflection over the course of the whole story.



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flying kites and writing essays

This morning my wife told me about the upcoming exhibit of Seamus Heaney materials at Emory University.  A kite will fly above the spiral staircase near the exhibit because the last poem in his last published book (Human Chain) features a kite.  The poem reminds me  of students who are learning to write for themselves, from themselves.  On their behalf, I have copied Heaney’s poem below.


After “L’Aquilone” by Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912)

Air from another life and time and place,

Pale blue heavenly air is supporting

A white wing beating high against the breeze,

And yes, it is a kite! As when one afternoon

All of us there trooped out

Among the briar hedges and stripped thorn,

I take my stand again, halt opposite

Anahorish Hill to scan the blue,

Back in that field to launch our long-tailed comet.

And now it hovers, tugs, veers, dives askew,

Lifts itself, goes with the wind until

It rises to loud cheers from us below.

Rises, and my hand is like a spindle

Unspooling, the kite a thin-stemmed flower

climbing and carrying, carrying farther, higher

The longing in the breast and planted feet

And gazing face and heart of the kite flier

Until string breaks and–separate, elate–

The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.

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bibs, diapers and pacifiers: Macbeth’s apparitions

armed head Nov 2013The tenth graders and I had fun last week with the opening of Act Four in Macbeth.  We had been bearing down on (finding, recording and analyzing) various passages from Act Three, and it was time to move our sedentary bodies and creative minds.  We had not yet read any of Act Four.  When the students filed in, they saw, on two desks in the front of the room: a stack of blank white paper, several pairs of scissors, some tape, and colored markers.  On the whiteboard, they saw our characters  for Scene One: 3 witches, 1 Hecate, 3 apparitions, 8 kings and Banquo.  After everybody’s name went under one of the lists, they had twenty minutes to make a prop identifying them as a distinct individual within their group.  I played–i.e., let the laptop play–period music to accompany their constructions (Sting singing songs of John Dowland and others).

In such moments, I often recall the problem-solving scene from Apollo 13.

Also, our fun time last week reminds me that students understand more concepts than I sometimes realize or acknowledge.  For example, in Act Four Scene One, the second apparition, which advises Macbeth he need fear none of woman born, emerges as a “bloody child.”  The students could create props that capture the “bloody” part of this vision, but how to handle the “child” part?  Three students, each from a different section, produced three different solutions: a bib, a diaper and a pacifier.  In other words, they understand what a symbol is.  I do not need to explain the concept to them; they naturally chose an object that is itself and that represents something.  They KNOW what symbols are.  I see that they do, and I am glad that our activity reminds me of this knowledge they carry with them into class.

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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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“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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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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