Category Archives: order

home-grown haiku 2


arrangements crawling with ants

life is everywhere

This is a zen haiku–because of the ants and the poem’s perception of them. (I use the popular, rather than the faithful, sense of the word “zen.”)

The syllables of the first line fit nicely.  In addition, as in the previous haiku, the first line runs on to the second.  The first line’s label stands alone, as an announcement of the event.  At the same time, it marries the next word in the next line.  This marriage signifies the flower arrangements seen in the attached photo.  Our mother arranged these flowers, as she has been doing professionally and personally for many years.  She loves finding the colors, shapes and sizes that fit the occasion and the table.  Some of my enjoyment in arranging words surely comes from her artistry.  As we tried out these several arrangements  the morning of the dinner, little black ants began emerging from the vases.  We tried brushing them away, squashing an occasional one, but they kept coming, kept crawling out of the ferns and flowers.  We decided to set the vases aside until evening, so that the insects could get their exercise somewhere other than on the dinner table.  As it happens, our plan worked.  The dinner was ant-free, as far as we could see.  The  image, though, stayed with me and crawled into line two of this haiku.  Yes, the ants appeared to spoil the table that morning, but this is my favorite line of the poem.  The phrase “crawling with ants” we hear often, and it fits here because it describes what we saw.  At the same time, the whole line captures the larger idea of arranging or planning anything, only to be disturbed by an unexpected presence.  The word “crawling” does not exactly match the number of little black feet parading across the table cloth–we saw an ant here and there–but it captures the oh-no feeling we had.

The last line, I used to think,  is my least favorite because it seems vacuous.  What does it mean, if anything?  The line actually grew from my wife’s suggestion that we move the vases aside that morning.  Her idea reflects the poem’s zen element.  If the arrangement is causing problems where it sits now, move it over and give it time.   To quote a favorite statement of hers, “If something is not working, change it.”  The ants, as the only concrete image, anchor the poem.  Flanked by an abstract label and an empty statement, their line moves the poem forward.  (Outside the poem, my wife’s suggestion brought a sensible, productive pause into the morning by recognizing the ants’ energy and moving it to another spot.)  This last, seemingly meaningless, line, though, invites an appreciation for all life, even the challenging parts.  This invitation suits the occasion of a marriage that has lasted sixty years.

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home-grown haiku 1

For my parents’ sixtieth wedding anniversary, I wrote several haiku to honor the event.  Since several of them need  explanation, which I gave during the anniversary dinner, I  offer that background here–for people who could not attend the dinner, for myself as writer, and for anyone else looking in.  While these posts repeat some of my impromptu comments, they also include thoughts surfacing since the dinner.

In the order of original composition (15 June 2013), here’s the first one:

Two together still

              Moving furniture pieces

                             To where they belong

Many who know me also know that my parents recently moved after having lived in the same house for fifty years, the house in which I grew up from age nine through high school.  Changing homes after that much time is hard, in several ways.  For example, it tests the relationship between those who are making the change.  This test is reflected in the first line.  The word “still” carries the idea of sixty years, which includes the recent struggle of picking up, packing up and re-locating.  The same word also means calm, as in “Before the sun rose that morning, the lake was as still as glass.”  Placing the word “still” at the end of the  haiku’s line reveals this second meaning more effectively than would, for example,  “Two still together.”

Although part of a haiku’s challenge is to create a total poem while allowing each line to read independently, as a kind of mini-poem,  I enjoy the run-on (spill-over) effect of “still / moving furniture,” which is what my parents were doing on the day of the anniversary dinner.  So, the stillness suggested in the first line contrasts in several ways with the lifting, carrying, placing, transporting and other move-related activities.

The third line, then, echoes the initial suggestion of stillness by claiming that things are as they should be, are where they belong, need no more moving.  The move that looked daunting several years ago has put in place not only furniture pieces, but also the realization that change is often both hard and rewarding.  Such realizations come more readily, when we can share the struggles and rewards with someone we love.


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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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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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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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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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empathetic models

Yes, we teachers are, or we have that potential.  In a recent department meeting, I described the three stars of my guiding constellation as imagination, empathy and expression.  A brief word here about the middle term.

Trust and fairness drive lasting relationships between students and teachers.  Incidentally, face to face contact fosters fairness and trust more readily than online communication.  This I believe.

To build trust and fairness, I try to write student assignments, or pieces of them, as often as I can.  Not only does this practice help me anticipate and reflect on their experience, but it also presents an empathetic model to them.  In other words, they see me walk in their shoes.  I can describe my own struggles and successes with the assignment.  Additionally, as in the sample below, I can use my work to show them tricks for theirs.

Yesterday, before they started writing on the topic of true character, I showed them my brief piece on a related passage from Hamlet, the story we are studying.  They were asked how Hamlet’s “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy helps determine the level of his genuineness in telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he has lost all of his mirth.  I projected, and posted online, my short analysis of the structure of this lost-mirth speech (2.2.278 ff.).  The sample also show students various ways to punctuate the inclusion of quotations.  Enjoy this draft–a draft, mind you.  To present empathetic models, we occasionally need to show drafts.  This reminds some students that we do not have to be perfect always.

Heaven and Earth: the structure of Hamlet’s lost-mirth speech

When Hamlet explains to R & G the likely reasons for their being sent by Claudius to test him, he structures his speech in an hourglass shape.  At the top of his speech, he begins with this broad (general) statement: “I have of late . . . lost all my mirth” (2.2.280).  From there he moves into a specific demonstration of this lost joy, in order to show how deep is his despair.  “This goodly frame, the earth” seems to him “a sterile promontory” (2.2.282-3).  In this section of the speech, he expounds on the beautiful majesty of the heavens.  This paean to the skies leads to the majesty of mankind.  Here lies the hinge.  As the lower part of the hourglass descends, Hamlet exclaims, “What a piece of work is man.  How noble in reason” (2.2.286-7).  As above, he finds several ways to express the glories of human beings.  Alas, at the bottom of the glass, he returns to another broad statement: “Man delights not me” (2.2.290).  Even this magnificent creature mankind brings him no joy; he can find no light in his dark world.  Everything has fallen to the bottom, where it lies still and sterile.


In another class, students are examining specific ways in which Julia Alvarez humanizes the Mirabal sisters, legendary heroines in her Dominican novel, In the Time of the Butterflies.  More than one student has argued that showing a character in her moments of unguarded emotion brings her to life, down from her legendary pedestal.  Alvarez shows the sisters struggling to make decisions, reacting to making mistakes and needing to care for other people.  I believe that we humanize our teaching, and therefore the learning process, when we show students this side of us.  Projecting our version of an assignment can move us this direction.  To borrow from the Hamlet exercise above, such movement shows our true character, which, in turn, encourages students to do the same.  This seems like a fair exchange to me.

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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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Seeing the Stars from a Submarine

In a section of his most recent book, Through the Year with Jimmy Carter, President Carter writes about the symbol of light.  He begins by explaining the importance of the stars to him and his navy crew aboard a submarine.  I was struck by the paradox of navigating by stars while deep under water, before my brain realized the solution:  the submarine must surface to see the stars.

This paradox reminds me of how I sometimes feel as a classroom teacher, looking for dependable guidance while submerged in daily activities. (Not to mention coming up for air.)  At regular intervals, I must surface to use the sextant, if I want to remain safely on course.  President Carter describes the navigational details for people, like me, who need reminding.  He finds three stars, and measures their altitude.  From these measurements, he ascertains his ship’s position on the map.

This description makes me wonder by what three stars I measure my course, and the course of the various groups of students with whom I work each year. Enter Robert Evans, whose recent article in Independent School magazine—shown to me by a generous colleague—describes concrete ways in which teachers can move their professional exchanges from congenial to collegial.  Among his suggested vehicles for such exchanges is the time-tested Critical Friends Groups (CFG).  In other schools, I have participated in such professional in-school groups and found them productive.

President Carter’s chapter about light helps me imagine a particular kind of CFG—one centered on the participants’ three guiding stars.  How does each group member find his or her three stars?  What are those stars?  And how, in terms of students’ daily experiences and accumulated learning, do the adults ascertain their position on the map?  I think of this professional proposal as a Constellation of Colleagues.  We often encounter published frameworks, grids and tables of principles, outcomes and designs.  As helpful as these have been for me and for students over the years, I think it could be fun and productive to explore a natural version, which grows from the participants’ finding, describing and using their own three stars.  When you look to the sky for guidance, what do you use?  Ideally, individuals’ three stars align with the school’s official stars.  Where they do not, people have an opportunity for meaningful discussion.  One advantage to this Constellation of Colleagues idea is that it can cut across traditional disciplines.  People of various backgrounds, interests and training can gather to share basic values.  They can even, as a final creative project, draw and name their group’s constellation.

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