I think one of the most challenging parts of teaching is the teaching not of what, but how.
How to read. How to write a thesis statement. How to identify an unclear pronoun reference.
It’s easy enough, in many ways, to define rules or to explain whens and whats and even–sometimes–whys. But hows are tough, because as teachers we ourselves don’t often remember how we learned the things we know.
For example, right now I am (re)introducing my AP Lit kids to poetry, and many of them have all sorts of negative associations. It’s boring, it’s confusing, etc. But I suspect the real problem is that most of them don’t know how to read a poem. They do not know how to enjoy it. (I, for example, feel the same way about football.) As Marianne Moore observes, “we do not admire / what we cannot understand” (“Poetry“).
Normally, I teach a simple process of how to read a poem in class by modeling it for the kids. I “think aloud” through a poem with them, usually with an overhead projector. This actually takes quite a lot of time usually, however, and does not leave much time left over for the kids to try it themselves in the classroom.
So this time, I am going to try something a bit different. After this past week of not analyzing poems– (maybe I’ll do a post on that later)– I am going to do a bit of a “flipped classroom” approach where my students will watch short videos of me “thinking aloud” through that same process I always teach. That way, the direct instruction part can be something they observe and think through at their own pace at home, and I’ll have more time in class to give them in-person assistance.
They’ll watch the video once without taking notes, then watch it again, pausing it wherever they like in order to take notes and jot down ideas on the steps I am suggesting. I’ll give them tips on what to try before I assign the homework, and I will try to get them to focus on the how, the process I am teaching, that can work with any poem.
Then, when they come to class next time, they will try doing this process for themselves with a poem of their choosing, but with me available and present to coach them through it.
Here’s unedited, stream-of-consciousness videos #1 and #2 I think I will be assigning this week:
Video 1 has students first read the poem out loud, and then track where the poem seems “positive” or “negative”.
Video 2, below, has students then determine what kinds of “positive” or “negative” tones the speaker is employing. I’ve called this developing a “tone map” in the past.
What I’m trying to do here is to teach the “how” — to unpack, for students, how I go about reading a poem. I also am trying to model for them that it is okay to be uncertain, to explore, to make guesses.
In the meantime, I’ve just finished teaching a poetry unit and thought I’d share some ideas.
The first time I taught a poetry unit to high school students a few years ago, I knew I was in for a rough time. I remembered how much I hated poetry when I was in high school (even though I loved reading challenging prose like Augustine and Dostoevsky). Indeed, from the moment I uttered the word “poetry” in connection to our next unit of study to my kids, I got so many groans and eye-rolls that I briefly considered skipping the thing altogether.
What helped me most was reflecting on the reasons I used to hate poetry. They were pretty straightforward and can pretty much be summed up by one idea:
I hated that poets were being difficult and obscure on purpose.
As a relatively open-minded high school student, I could forgive Shakespeare for the fact that his language reflected the 16th century and even Hawthorne for his interminable sentences and hopelessly flowery diction – he was a 19th century Romantic, after all. Charles Dickens was making money to support himself for every unnecessary descriptive paragraph he wrote in Great Expectations, and I could even forgive Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner for their mysterious and disturbing characters and plot twists.
I could not, however, forgive Emily Dickinson for her inexplicable dashes.
Nor e. e. cummings for his annoying rejection of simple capitalization and punctuation.
Nor Sylvia Path for her confessional whining.
Nor, especially, William Carlos Williams for his infuriating wheelbarrow.
What made things much worse was the fact that I felt like my high school English teachers were demanding that we find the “deeper meaning” of these stupid puzzles. But of course I had no idea what Emily meant by her “Certain Slant of Light” nor what “One Art” Miss Elizabeth Bishop was referring to nor why Edgar Allan Poe was so obsessed by some lady named “Annabelle Lee”. And yet my teachers seem to think the answers were obvious.
Like many other high school teachers, several of mine insisted upon psycho-analyzing the poets and explaining their weird defiance of all common sense writing by praising them for their “revolutionary” challenge of the “patriarchal norms” of the English language. Apparently, I was supposed to appreciate poetry and like the fact that these dysfunctional people called poets couldn’t just say what they meant like everyone else.
After thinking about my own hatred of poetry as a high school student, I saw at once that I would have to develop a different approach with my own kids.
I must not demand that they appreciate poetry, nor that they be expected to know what Wallace Stevens was up to, nor even understand it in the common sense of the word “understand.”
But my University of Dallas Junior Poet educated self, who had fallen in love eventually with Emily Dickinson and Richard Wilbur and W. H. Auden, was also unwilling to let them just rhyme along with Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss.
The key to teaching poetry is answering the question how.
How can we help our kids get inside a poem?
How can we help them admire (even if they do not necessarily like) the games poets play with language?
How can we help them respect poetry even if they do not understand it?
Marianne Moore, in her famous meta-poem “Poetry,” observes that “we do not admire what we cannot understand.” So how do we help them understand without demanding that they tackle the impossible?
I start with this poem by Billy Collins, which says better what I am getting at than anything else I have read:
Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry” from The Apple that Astonished Paris. Copyright � 1988, 1996 by Billy Collins. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Arkansas Press.
So I’m finishing up my unit on short stories with my sophomores. Our last lesson has a relatively simple goal, but it gave me a lot to think about: SWBAT analyze the effects of setting on plot in short stories.
We define our terms first:
Plot = what happens (in a story, movie, play, novel…)
Setting = when and where the plot happens (in a story, movie, play, novel…)
This is what Eudora Welty has to say:
Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else… Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?…
I don’t think we often think about this potential power of place over character and action. Setting is one of the things all teachers talk about in English class, along with plot, characterization, exposition, climax, resolution, etc. But I think it is sometimes left in the background.
(Pun intended. Go back if you didn’t notice it… )
Yet Welty insists upon the importance of setting, and even that events and characters somehow depend upon it. Or, as my students had to write down in their notes: setting defines the logical possibilities and limitations of plot.
It defines what can or cannot happen in a story.
I think Southern writers have a particular sensitivity to the importance of place or setting. The setting IS the story. Think of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or The Sound and the Fury. Or Katharine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” (the setting is both exterior, the rural South, and interior, the wandering mind of Granny). Or Flannery O’Connor in “Revelation” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” O’Connor, largely due to her sacramental view of reality, expands the traditional notion of setting so that it transcends the physical:
The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location. (O’Connor, Mystery and Manners)
I gave my kids a different example that I thought might work better for them. The reason why the Harry Potter series works so well, I believe, isn’t so much because of the plot and the characters (although of course these are important). The plot and the characters work because Rowling spends so much time in the first book carefully developing her setting, creating her place, defining the possibilities and limitations of the Muggle world and the Wizarding world.
Think about the detail given to describing Privet Drive, and Diagon Alley, and of course Hogwarts itself. Her world is magical but consistent – it has it’s own logic and it’s own rules. Indeed, really what made me read book two, and three, and all the others was this sense of wanting to return to that place. Yes, I cared about Harry – but I cared about returning to Hogwarts even more.
I think one of the very best examples – that really sets itself apart from any type of comparison to other stories – is Tolkien’s Middle Earth. What is so good about The Lord of the Rings isn’t just the wonderful characters, the stirring struggle between good and evil, the languages, the recalling of myth. Rather, it’s the fact that all of these things are at home in Middle Earth itself, – a world we believe in, and want to return to, or learn about, because it feels like our own history. I don’t know about you, but I spent a lot of time when I was little just looking at the maps in the opening pages of the book.
There is Narnia, too. What we really desire, why we keep reading, is because we want to go back to that place created by Lewis. I checked every closet in my house, several times, just to be sure. “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.”
I was thinking about all of this as I sat in my empty classroom during 5th hour, normally the seniors’ class. I was sitting in one of the student desks in the middle of the room. I like to sit in the student desks sometimes so I don’t get completely locked into my teacher-desk perspective. The room looks pretty different out there.
And I realized that teachers are engaged in world-making, too. We create a setting – our classrooms. And, in a way, we help define what is possible in our classrooms by creating a particular environment, unique to our personalities and our teaching style, but also hopefully open to our students’ personalities and their learning styles.
This year I have worked hard to make my classroom more accessible. Places for papers, folders, essays, are all labeled. I try to keep the space as clean and organized. This is a setting for listening and discussing and writing and reading and writing and revising and writing and writing and writing… and the classroom has to reflect that just as much as my words and actions do. My kids need to know that as soon as they walk through my door they have entered a place for learning.
I have substituted this year in many rooms where there a papers on the floor, dirty desks, and bare walls. I remember my own classroom last year – “disorganized” is a gentle way to describe it. And I think such classrooms limit the possibilities for students. Carelessness, even in the details, suggests a lack of thoughtfulness and purpose. A question I found myself unable to answer a lot last year was, “Ms. Shea, where do I put this?” “Um… I’ll just take it for now…” This year, I love when the kids don’t have to ask me that any more. They know where to go, where to put things, when to do it… setting setting setting.
To what extent does the setting affect the plot in your favorite stories… in your classroom… in your home?
If you really want some tough but tasty food for thought on setting, you should go read O’Connor’s story “The Displaced Person.”