Thursday, November 15, 2018

Flintstoning: Where Does It Start?



            Fred Flintstone dives into his car and spins his pins—the car lurches back—and only then is he on his Ya Ba Da Ba Doo way.  While he is in his car revving up his engine—himself—he’s getting nowhere.  And before he can move forward, he must recoil, like a cat, to get the purchase he needs to catapult forward.
            This is also true of any piece of writing in process.  We Ha Ya Cato (see “Chew Upon This) into the screen or page that is the vehicle for our thoughts.  Then we spin our pins—vroom vroom from our everyday banal lives into the promise and adventure of writing. We recoil from the task ahead, entertain doubts, try this and that.  Then the magic happens—we are anchored in some image or new idea—and we launch into our journey of discovery.
            Too often, though—all that spinning of the proverbial wheels—is left in.  And that’s sad, because we can lose our readers.  At best, our ideas will be diluted.  To use another metaphor, builders and window washers erect scaffolding to do their work.  They remove that scaffolding before they consider the work.  So much of an expected thing this is, that, as artists do, the architects of the Centre George Pompidou in Paris designed a building to celebrate scaffolding:

                     Image result for scaffolding building in paris

            In my writing workshops, one of the first questions we ask of a draft is “Where does it start?”  What we are looking for is that moment when the piece of writing catapults.  Let’s look at some examples:
                        The tragedy of Timon of Athens has many of the human conditions
            we find in our every day lives. Things like greed, generosity, vengeance,
            loyalty, betrayal are some of the features and emotions found in this
            Shakespearean play…

This paper continues in this vein, summarizing, listing, spinning a variety of ideas around for 2-1/2 pages and then we read this:

                        In Timon of Athens, Timon the profligate and Flavius the parsimonious
seem to be opposed personalities—one giving too much and the other holding back.
But, on delving more deeply into the text, we can see they are the same.

That’s where the paper starts—it has landed the helicopter (see Landing the Helicopter) and offered the reader a clear focus.  We know that from hereon in, we will learn something new and unexpected.

            Here’s a poem addressed to my husband.  Where does it start?

                        My father was a difficult man.
                        He was a homophobic, racist anti-Semite.             
                        He even denied that the Holocaust happened.
                        He cared more for his ideas, that he did for me.

                        My father wouldn’t lead me down the aisle—
                        you are Jew, and hadn’t asked him—
                        clinking cognac glasses for my hand…

            As you write, whether it be poems, essays, memoirs, plays, or any other form, identify that moment when the piece leaps forward.  And then be very brave—cross out that first Flintstoning line, paragraph, or ten pages.  Otherwise, in this day of Instagram and Tweets, you will lose your readers—and if it’s a teacher, your hope for a promising grade. 

More importantly, don’t clutter your mind—don’t blur your ideas with mere scaffolding and revving up.  Starting your work where it starts will inspire you to write in greater depth and length.


            And when you read, don’t tolerate Flintstoning, either—scan down the page and look for that moment of take-off.  Then read from there.  And if it doesn’t come, then the writer has not finished her/his process. In another post, we will consider the question of “Where does it end?”


Offer us an example of your own Flintstoning and where your piece actually started.






Tuesday, November 6, 2018

"Chew Upon This": Digesting Your Quotes

                           

                        Image result for chew on this


Ever watch people who, as the expression goes, “inhale their food”?  They ram in the forkful, let’s say, of mac-and-cheese, and swallow it all in one big gulp.  Often, there are sound effects—glub, ugh, doink. Their plate is clean and they’re pushing back from the table by the time the tips of your tines tickle your lips. These folks get indigestion, bloated bellies, and constipation. They overeat and are still malnourished, as they never enjoy the pleasure of savoring a morsel. They don’t do what you need to do—chew, mash, lubricate the food in your mouth.

            Similarly, I can tell without reading a word when a paper is bloated and, as it were, constipated.  Long quotes pad the paper.  The short paragraphs that follow have no quote marks to indicate detailed reference to the larger quote.  These papers are mere annotative summaries that don’t honestly reach the page requirements which all students insist on requesting. The problem is that the quotes, of whatever length, are undigested.

            Here is an example from student Danielle’s paper on Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens that does digest its quote. This excerpt starts with these words of the character Apemantus addressing Ladies dressed as Amazons at a costume party:

            They dance? They are madwomen.
            Like madness is the glory of this life
            …
            With poisonous spite and envy.
            Who lives that’s not depraved or depraves? (1.2.132-139)

             First, notice that Danielle does not—and, again, I’m trading on a cliché, “bite off more than she can chew.”  Instead of quoting all seven lines of the portion which she is considering, she places an ellipsis (…) where she has left out three lines.  She has cut a portion of her tofu steak that’s easily chewed.  As writers, it is our responsibility—and dare I use a hyperbole—our glory, to decide for our readers what’s important to consider. 

            Danielle follows her quote with these remarks:

            Notice that Timon says words like “poisonous,” “spite,” and “envy”—these are violent words that characterize the women as vile and dangerous.  He also uses “deprave” and “mad” in two separate contexts.  The word “deprave” derives from “perverse” and “crooked,” speaking about the women as if they were prostitutes.  “Madwomen” and “madness” question literally, their sanity—the cleanliness of their bodies and minds. Apemantus’s word choices all speak to his abrasive personality and his focus on all that is wrong with mankind.  Since these words are insulting, it shows the reader how Apemantus has little concern for others’ feelings when speaking to them.

Even here, I’m not quoting all of Danielle’s paper and commenting “Danielle digests her quotes” and then leaving it up to you to figure out how she does it and how you might emulate her.  I have already pointed out that she limits her quote—partially digests the play for us—to help us to better savor (yes, I’m usually a gustatory word) it.  I’m adding that Danielle contextualizes the quote by telling us several things: who is speaking, Apemantus; who Apemantus is addressing, the Ladies dressed as Amazons; and where Apemantus is speaking, “the costume party.” Danielle also quotes small portions of the quote, and offers us interpretations of the words and how they apply to her point of view on the scene.  In this paragraph, I am also illustrating how to digest quotes.

To recap, this is how to digest quotes:

(1)   Carefully select your quote
(2)   Limit the size of your quote, using ellipses where necessary
(3)   Contextualize the quote and its place in the larger text, including relevant character,
place, and story
(4)   Properly format the quote with line-endings for poetry, preferably indented for easy
reference
(5)    Explicate the quote using a variety close-reading strategies, such as binary
opposition, content analysis, diction, etymology, sound, rhythm, allusions, critical
approach, critical articles
(6)   Quote small portions of the quotation to illustrate your interpretation

Now that I have illustrated and detailed—digested—the process, discern how student Kathy employs these strategies as she compares Biblical Job to Timon of Athens. Kathy has just detailed her interpretation of Biblical Job’s humility, in order to contrast it with Timon’s ambition:

            …When one of Timon’s friends, Ventidius, is imprisoned for a debt, Timon is quick
            to pay it for him by saying,

                        My friend when he must need me
                        …
                        I’ll pay the debt and free him. (1.1.107-109)

             …Timon shows his ambition by making his charitable work all about himself.
            He does this through his use of the words, “My,” “me,” “I’ll”…to make himself
            look and feel dominant.

            To not digest your quotes for your reader is like stuffing them with a bowl of mac-and-cheese or then pouring a bottle of Mountain Dew down their throats.  At best, what you are saying is “Here!  You go back and figure it out!”  That’s not exactly courteous or user friendly to your prospective readers who want to be nourished by your wisdom, who want to relish, as in this case, our great literary masterpieces. And, I know, I know—I just asked you to digest Kathy’s excerpt, but that’s very different.  I’m asking you to digest it, not posturing that I already have.

            And now, as Brutus puts it to Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar,

                                 “Till then, my noble friend, chew upon this…”

Works Cited:

Cover Art: www.kalw.org





Sunday, November 4, 2018

Stealth, Override, Ambush, Surprise: Write Now



            In The Pink Panther movies, Inspector Clouseau arrives home from his sleuthing to guerilla attacks by his assistant—Cato.  Cato leaps out of the refrigerator and goes for Clouseau’s throat.  Or Clouseau might be closing his eyes to sleep.  Attack!  Cato pounces on the dark bed—to choke Clouseau.  Clouseau pushes him off, and, having worn his karate karategi with a black belt for pajamas, grapples with Cato—blow for blow, leaping across tables, crashing through windows, upending a cabinet filled with dishes until the phone rings.  Each time, it’s Commissioner Dreyfus.  Cato, as butler, peacefully answers the phone and hands it to Clouseau.  Dreyfus, invariably tells Clouseau that he’s back on some case and must come immediately—effectively stopping the bout.

            So why am I writing about The Pink Panther in a blog about writing and learning?  Because, too often, we need to shake ourselves out of habits of resistance. Like most everyone, in order to maintain my integrity and individuality, I have had to resist parents, bosses, toxic people, teachers, media—anyone or anything with an agenda. What I practice is what I learn is what I practice. Once the honeymoon period with writing ended for me—as much with larger concerns such as choosing it as a career, as with the smaller choices of individual writing projects—I started to resist it.  After all, resist is what I did in other aspects of my life.

            I committed to disciplines that suited my habits of resistance—making unreasonable demands on myself:  too many projects to be done in too little time with overambitious requirements for quality, pressures to publish, and no room for enjoying the process.  This would provide me with ample opportunities to practice my habits of resistance—procrastination, resentment, indecision, and addictions to television, overeating, shopping and distracting people with whom to grapple. I had to learn healthy ways to circumvent my habits of resistance to get to the beloved page.  I thought about the nature of inspiration, and realized that at its core, inspiration is about surprise.  Inspiration is about Cato!

            So, I take myself by surprise—I am the Cato to my resistant Clouseau—the inspector who navigates the world; has to respond to his boss, Dreyfus; who is embroiled with toxic people and the unknown; who is constantly in the way of other people’s problems and agendas.

Faithful Cato shows up for me.  As for example, with this post.  I hadn’t committed to a topic for my weekly post.  So, I ambushed my resistance and sat down to the computer, anyhow—without a plan other than to arrive.  And, faithful Cato was there to energize me—What just happened? Where am I? What am I going to do?  That got my adrenaline going.  With Cato at the ready, I knew I couldn’t escape unless I performed. Cato goes for my throat, each time, squeezes out the blocks, and then comes the inspiration—the breaking up of old shut doors and window; the shattering of old ways of thinking and being.  I decided to write about the element of surprise in initiating the writing process.

            These days, I don’t wait for either inspiration or “the right time” to write. If my husband is dallying when I want to get out for our walk, I sit down to my computer and start a poem.  It’s amazing how much I can accomplish in the five minutes it takes him to change his socks and retie his shoes.  If I feel I’m standing on the supermarket line behind an insistent customer with a credit card that doesn’t take, I text myself some ideas.  I trust that writing itself will create its own inspiration—because it always does.
           
            Prolific poet Anne Sexton once said that the only discipline is to write when the inspiration comes.  So, when I am inspired, I Cato myself—get off the highway and wiggle into a space in a parking lot.  Stealth! Over-ride! Ambush! Surprise!  I Write Now!
           
            Of course, what we do in our lives will determine how we are as writers.  The more I name and detach myself from those activities and people that encourage habits of resistance, the more creative and inspired and in-the-moment I am.  Name what and who makes you practice resistance.  Defang those enemies in your life. Change your habits to make way for creativity.
           
And then be creative.  Ask yourself, “How can I take myself by surprise?  In what unexpected ways can Cato intervene when I’m running a Clouseau day?  How can I stop practicing resistance to practice inspiration, instead?


Just before Clouseau leaves to return to the precinct, he always turns to Cato to compliment him: “Very good workout today!  Every day you’re getting better.” Your inner Cato is lurking in wait for you. Hiya!

Work Cited

The Pink Panther

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Metaphysics of Testing: What We Learn

                       

                            Image result for testing



            The study of metaphysics is the study of ultimate reality—What is truth? What is beauty? What is knowledge? What then is the metaphysics—the ultimate reality of school testing?  What is its nature? What are we really learning? Just as a fish is so accustomed to and dependent on water that it doesn’t need to question it to survive; and, similarly, a bird assumes the air it navigates—nearly everyone who has ever been a student—either at home or in the schools—assumes the necessity of testing.  As a teacher devoted to a pedagogy of discovery and experience, my concern is what it is that we are doing in a testing environment.  Education reformer John Dewey was right when he wrote, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” And so was Confucius when he said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”  It follows, then, that we learn what we do.  What are we doing, and therefore learning, with constant testing, tabulating, chi-squaring, and policing?

    1. Live in the Then

Fundamentally, testing is practice in living in the future—what’s important is what will be on the test—then, then, then.  “I’ll be okay, after the test…What if I fail?” The more we practice the then the less we value the now. Later in life, we find ourselves guru-hopping and self-help-reading to relearn how to come home to the present.

2. Favor Fear over Love

Although, for whatever reason I might be bored and frustrated by the readings in my American Literature class, if I know that I will be quizzed, I will grind away at the American Literature material to the exclusion of my readings in my Women’s Literature class where we don’t have quizzes.  Then, having lost ground with that class, I start to identify what I love to read with embarrassment.  If I practice this enough, I develop a world view that what I love is not available to me.

3. Give My Power Away

If what is on the test is paramount, then the test—and therefore the tester—is the arbiter of
my taste and experience.  If I buy into the tyranny of testing, the test/tester is in charge of my self-confidence, my values, my self-worth, my serenity—my life.

     4. Be Reactive instead of Proactive

     In a test-taking environment, I learn to override what is meaningful to me (and dare I say fun) to read and write out of fear of punishment.  I learn to react to others' demands instead of proactively developing and responding to my own inner promptings.

      5. Get it Over With

How many legions of students have crammed for a test the night before, come in bedraggled and exhausted, spewed answers, and then—having identified the material with duress, promptly forgot it?  But if we rappel our lives from one test to another, then we practice getting-it-over-with. What we practice we retain.

6. There’s Not Enough Time

True learning and achievement come from long practice of and commitment to what it is we want to learn or do—that takes love and attention and time—all that time-sensitive tests, by their nature, are not.  They do not allow for differences in how or how quickly students learn.

7. Learning is Full of Pain and Shame

American poet Alfred Mercier wrote, “What we learn with pleasure, we never forget.”  Testing, too often, is painful, anxiety-provoking, and shaming.  Diana, one of my superstar students who has become the most brilliant teacher, failed the Praxis exam four times.  Had the test tested her true potential, she would have passed it the first time. Had she succumbed to the shaming of the process, her students might have missed out on the experience of having her in the classroom.

8. Obey

Testing tests how conventionalized we have become: Do I think like the teacher? Am
I what I’m supposed to be?  Am I good?  Tests teach us to be robotic.

       9.  Tests Don’t Test What Matters

Knowledge, skills, and experiences are reduced to testable, discrete, disembodied units of questions whose answers can be digitalized and statistically analyzed. Tests spawn more tests and more businesses that manage the scores and generate more needs for tests.  In another post, we will further consider the important things that tests can’t test—including tests given in the normative fields of study.

10. Compete and Separate

Tests offer us scores that compare student results.  Those who are test-takers are made to feel superior to and separate from those who are not test-takers.  High-scorers feel anxious to maintain their status and become grade-junkies.  Low-scorers often drop out.

1         11. Cheat, Lie, Plagiarize

When all else fails.

What is your experience with testing?
  

Works Cited


Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan, 1916.

Mercier, Alfred.  Multiple internet sources.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Playing Literature Like Music

                                        Image result for sheet music twinkle twinkle gaynier

         A musical score, “sheet music,” is a guideline for how to play a particular piece. How a musician—singer, pianist, guitarist, flautist, drummer, or other—interprets the score is where the magic (or caterwauling) begins. Similarly, a play script provides a theater company a guideline for performance. This holds true for all literature, but somewhere between the comparison to a musical score and Schmoop summaries, we have lost the sense that literature is something to play, not something at which to grind away.


            Just as musical virtuosity takes years of practice and development, so does reading virtuosity. Watch an infant encounter her first book: she might chew on a corner, rip the paper, throw it, smear it with ice cream.  She might scream, burble; kick at it; use it as a pillow.  In time, she learns in which direction to hold the book, how to page, how to focus on the pictures.  Later, instead of drooling on the words, she’ll learn to transform the strange marks into sounds, then words, then sentences, then meanings.  She’ll replay the words as her Dad reads to her.  She’ll have an earworm of the story, which she may declaim to someone in a supermarket aisle, or just mumble to herself as she lies on her back on a beach blanket.


            It is nothing short of a miracle—with myriads of micro-decisions made—that you can read these words, here.  Without you as instrument—eyes, ears, touch; feelings, moods, needs; mind, intuition, focus—this screen or the book in your hand neither exists or means something.  A book might as well be a doorstop, a seat raiser, fuel for the fire, or a Christmas ornament:

                                                  Image result for christmas book art

            Without readers, actors and theater crafters, artists, and conversants—Shakespeare, like any writer, does not exist.  Our rewards are great, if we treat our texts as musical scores—if we remember that, as Shakespeare put it, “The play’s the thing”—the script that is any piece of literature, yes, but more importantly the playing of it.  And the instrument for playing it is the complex physical, emotional, social, psychological, and intellectual being that a reader is—the strings, brass, percussion, choir, reeds. conductor that comprise a symphony. 

The less of ourselves we use to transform the marks on a page, the duller the sound. Think of the pianist who gets all the notes right, and synchronizes the rhythms exactly with the metronome (click track), but without feeling drawn from life experience, without an awareness of the energies in the concert hall—the sonata will sound like it’s being produced by a robot.  There will not be any of the subtle shifts in tempo, the lingering on a note—and, yes, the mistake—that will make a performance human, memorable, moving.  There will be none of what makes us human in it, and we will not resonate with it.

Let’s consider an example of the difference between a mechanical and a human interpretation. “Where is the body?” I will often ask when we play a poem, as for example, this first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s poem “Wild nights”?

Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

A robotic, easily testable “interpretation” would be this paraphrase:

                        In the first stanza of her poem “Wild nights,” Emily Dickinson
                        is saying that if she were with the person she is addressing
                        they would have a wild night that, being a luxury, is rare.

Bleh!  There’s no joy in the interpretation, no erotica, no play.  Let’s see what happens when we bring the body into it:

                        The first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s “Wild nights” is
                        filled with hot, wet kisses. The repetition of the “wh”
                        sound introducing the words “Wild” and “Were,” in
                        the pronouncing, make us pucker and pucker.  The
                        “ai” diphthongs in “Wild” and “night,” open and
                        and close our mouths invitingly.  “Thee” and “luxury”
                        thrusts out our tongues.  The repetition of “Wild nights”
                        three times, is like the repetition motions of a sexual
                        encounter.

            There is plenty of joy, eroticism, giggles, on-no’s, and play in this interpretation.  And all we have done is to invite the body into the symphony of meaning.  We all bring an immeasurable wealth of experience on increasing levels to create a piece of literature—yes, we create the literature, as a musician creates music. The song “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” itself, is an interpretation of W. A. Mozart’s Twelve Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” fused with Jane and Ann Taylor’s poem “The Star.” It can be made into music in many ways—from a three-year-old singing it to her Aunt, to a jazz musician riffing it at a club, to a full orchestra embodying it as a symphony.  The same is true of literature. How sad it is that it is when it is reduced in the classroom to sawdust and yawns.

            If the teacher is the prime or sole arbiter of a text, then students are imperfect echoes of him.  If the teacher is the bassoon, then students who are violins, singers, timpani, or chimes will not be able to reproduce what the bassoon delivers.  Teachers can be conductors—but they are not the ones pounding the mallet, stroking the strings, breathing through a reed.  And students can take the baton and bring new life to a poem, story, essay, play. 


            Remember—we create the music, not the scores—not the scores that are sheets of paper, and not the scores that are marks and grades. You are the star that brings light into the night—Twinkle, Twinkle…

                     Image result for musical score
Works Cited:

Book Christmas Tree: www.creatoncraftsandgifts.co.uk

Dickinson, Emily.  The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R. W. Franklin. Cambridge: Harvard UP,
            1999.


Gaynier, Stephen.  Score of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. Twelve Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman”

Taylor, Jane and Ann.  Rhymes of the Nursery.  London: 1806.

The Singing Master: First Class Tune Book. London:183

Sunday, October 21, 2018

"Will it be on the test?": Trust and Joy in the Classroom

                       
                         Image result for trust

“Spare the rod: spoil the child.”  When I was at St. Nicholas R.C. School, the nuns smacked our knuckles with twelve-inch metal-edged wooden rulers, banged boys’ heads against blackboards, and in the case of one inventive Sister of Charity, had us place our hands on our own shoulders—right to right, left to left—and sit there in agony.  Agnes Neilley and I wore heavy sweaters, as the classrooms were cold, so we were especially tortured by the bunching of the wool in our bent elbows. 

U.S. states did not start banning corporal punishment in public schools until 1987, and, as of this writing, there are still states that consider it legal: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Texas. Check out this website for an elaboration of this Corporal Punishment Laws.

The most primitive pedagogical practices are based on a reward and punishment fear-based mentality, where the teacher is the all-powerful judge, jury, and executioner. Grading systems—tests and marks—have become the dunce caps, hickory switches, and pillories erected in the public square that keep students under control and dependent.  These more insidious, psychological power struggles destroy our students’ capacities for healthy curiosity, exploration, adventure, originality, and gratitude.

One question prevails in most students’ minds, in most classes, “Will this be on the test?” and its corollaries: “What do you want?” (on the paper); “Am I going in the right direction?” “How do I get extra credit?”  Note that these questions, ubiquitous as they are, are not about ideas, experiences, or possibilities—the underlying text of them is “How can I avoid punishment?” “How much can I get away with?” “Is there a pass to Get Out of Jail?”

If there is as sacrificial lamb here, it is Trust, itself, and in all directions:

          TEACHERS DISTRUST STUDENTS, as is evidenced by odious school faculty room carping about students, their preparation, their disrespect, their clothing, their everything.  It serves to inflate the carper’s self-righteousness and entitlement to micromanage students with daily quizzes to inspire, as it were, students to read; strict templates for papers (including the notorious “Five Paragraph Monster”); a culture of teacher’s are right/students are wrong; scantron-able multiple-choice exams;  bloodying papers with corrections; and assigning journals, which, by their nature are supposed to be private—but that will be read for a grade.

Bitter that their pupils don’t think as they do, teachers ask guess-what-I’m-thinking questions that often lead to public humiliation for those who don’t use the words required of them.  Assessment tests, discussed in another post, breed rigid linear criteria to which even the teachers couldn’t aspire; that don’t reflect the experience of practicing scholars, writers, and researchers; that make learning a chore and burden to be gotten-over-with, so...

            STUDENTS DISTRUST TEACHERS.  When everything is being graded to death, there is no room for learning for the sake of learning; the freedom to explore; the right to think or do or be other than what is required.  In desperation, students plagiarize, further contributing to mutual distrust. Students don’t have the liberty to create something new and to make the necessary “mistakes” and wobbles that originality requires.  Our greatest contributors to human knowledge and happiness have been daydreamers who didn’t fit into institutional molds.  That’s not possible for a student, if she or he must keep a wary eye on The Teacher qua Police, and who's being favored when...

            STUDENTS DISTRUST OTHER STUDENTS.  Mistrust is bred by secrecy.  For the most part, other student papers and exams are, by fiat, a mystery to students.  Especially during a time when social connections are developing—during the first 21 years of one’s life—to isolate students from each other is a disservice to all.  Those straight rows pointed at the teacher and away from each other are still a staple of educational settings.  Students don’t learn each other’s names, and they are tempted to slip their phones into their laps and connect socially through their own, very separate, means.  Without knowing how or what their peers are writing, students miss important opportunities to learn from each other—we learn best by teaching. Teacher pleasers are stigmatized and must suffer the loss of their social ties to other students.  Worst of all...

            STUDENTS DISTRUST THEMSELVES. Focused outward, toward possible punishments and abstract rewards (grades and diplomas), students don’t learn to know themselves—their tastes, capacities, talents, interests, visions.  When I ask my Senior capstone course students what they love to read, they often look at me stunned—as teachers who set agendas never ask that question. When my Shakespeare students inevitably ask me what I want, I say “I want to go home and write a poem…what do YOU want?”  Having to write to prompts and questions that test whether the student is “keeping in line,” they don’t have access to what would be vital and exciting for them.  In an environment without trust, students learn how to be inauthentic, as do their teachers because...

            TEACHERS DISTRUST OTHER TEACHERS because classes are isolated from each other.  “What is she doing with them?”  And, in a normative, assessment-geared culture, “How am I doing in comparison?  Will she get promoted before me? What is she thinking of me?”  this inevitably leads to…

            TEACHERS, PARENTS, ADMINISTRATORS, LEGISLATORS, AND MORE DISTRUSTING EACH OTHER, and

            TEACHERS DISTRUSTING THEMSELVES. 

            There has to be a way of regaining the trust--self and other--that is necessary for love that is necessary for life.  I take back my power and let my students take back theirs. I focus on what and how I love literature and writing, on what they love and how they love literature and writing. I take care of my own intellectual and emotional experience, and help students to grow into authentic, responsible, self-motivated, creative people with integrity and self-respect?

            In my classes, I teach to the experience, and not to the test. For example, when I assign journals I assure my students that I will NOT be reading them, unless they want to show me a particular excerpt.  I faithfully keep a journal, too, to foster the trust that comes from participating with them.  We bring our journals to class and talk about the experiences, the challenges of commitment, our breakthroughs.  They universally appreciate the freedom to be honest with themselves, with no fear of someone hovering like a virtual vulture over them. If someone wants to read from a journal to the class, she does.  But I don’t lavishly praise that—I don’t make it a teacher-pleasing point. We go on theatre dates without having to produce grade-able documents: showing up and our discussion afterwards is enough.

            When my Shakespeare students form groups to give presentations, I do not create an assignment for us, as their audience, to test comprehension.  Instead, we—dare I use the word—enjoy each other’s company.  Also, students do not follow a template for these presentations—I offer them the example of how creative other students have been, and invite them to find new ways for themselves.  Their mission is to make a play so interesting that we will want to see/read/perform it, ourselves.

            Mostly, I field students’ attempts to relinquish their power to me.  When a student comes to ask for permission to do or write in a way that we both know is creative and exciting, I ask “What kind of a teacher would I be, if I said No?” or “Why would that be a problem?” I look for ways that mistrust and distrust manifest in our learning environment—I name it, invite them to name it, and I write a post here inviting you to notice these dynamics in your own life.

            Tell your stories of corporal, social, and psychological punishment in school environments and how these foster fear and mistrust.  Tell your stories of educational environments that nurture trust and mutual respect.

Works Cited.

Corporal Punishment in U.S. Schools:  Corporal Punishment 
Lawshttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5766273/

Cover Image: Trust and the Future of Multilateralismhttps://blogs.imf.org/2018/05/10/trust-and-the-future-of-multilateralism/



Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Line Endings: The Acrobats of Poetry

                        Image result for flying trapeze


              Line endings (also known by the more aggressive term “line breaks”) are the primary way that poetry is distinguished from prose.  The word “verse,” sometimes functioning as a synonym for “poetry,” embodies this distinction—from the Latin versus, meaning ‘turn of the plow, a furrow, a line of words.”  The Latin word has also come into English retaining the other meanings of ‘change,’ ‘overthrow,’ and ‘destroy.’ 

            Line endings—and the white spaces that follow—are yet another way that poetry invites us to free ourselves from our normal, prosaic ways of experience, to, like trapeze artists, fly with them—into new ways to free ourselves from staid ways of feeling and knowing.

            The traditional markers for line endings have been rhymes:

                                    Hickory, dickory dock,
                                    the mouse ran up the clock.

We know when we reach the end of the line by just hearing it.  In a world where literacy was rare, and poetry was an oral art, troubadours—traveling poets and singers—remembered poems more easily if they were rhymed.  This is the trapeze artist swinging from one platform to the other, safe landing each time.  We are delighted and relieved each time we get to the next rhyme.

            End-stopped line endings are those that end a phrase, clause, or sentence, usually with a comma or an end punctuation such as a period, exclamation point, or question mark.  Here, too, there is a sense of, to follow our guiding metaphor here, safe landing.  “The mouse ran up the clock.”  Predictable, and satisfying for being so.  There is a child in each of us that likes to be secure in what to expect.

            Originally, to land on end rhymes, poets began to end lines in the middle of clauses and phrases and phrases that included the rhyming word. Here are the first four lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

The first line is a complete subject/verb clause, but without punctuation is not literally end-stopped for the line straddles the first and second lines on “behold/when.”  The word for such continuations is enjambment—which derives from the French jamb, which means ‘leg’—hence what I call “straddle.”  That “behold” ends the first line is evocative—we hold at the end of the line before swinging down to the beginning of the next.  The acrobat swings to one end, seems to suspend for a moment, twirls around on the bar and swings back to her starting platform.

            The second line divides the verb “hang” from its explanatory phrase “Upon those boughs.”  Traditional readers will read across the two lines without a pause.  But the white space at the end of line endings function as a half-comma.  The pause after “hang” hangs us up for a moment—that second when the acrobat’s leap is at its apex, before she dives for the bar to return.  Line-endings are musical rests that call for a slight hesitation before we dive to the next line.

            In her poem “Sex Without Love,” Sharon Olds enjambs some of her lines in even more radical ways.  Here’s an excerpt:

                                                              …faces
                        red as steak, wine, wet as the
                        children at birth whose mothers are going to
                        give them away.  How do they come to the
                        come to the come to the God come to the
                        still waters, and not love

It is rare enough to divide a preposition from its object to/give, but to divide the article “the” from its noun is disturbing and divisive: the line ending at “the”… makes us search for its object, and in the loss and division and in the searching we, as readers, re-enact what it is to partake in sex without love.  This is flying without a net!

            Student poet Alison Silva, crafted her line endings to recreate the difficult experience of watching her father undergo a medical exam.  Here is her first draft:

                        X-Ray Vision

                        The yellow mush
                        wedged on top of your abdomen,
                        the small white bubbles growing fast inside your liver
                        Your rapidly beating heart pumping thick blood to your veins.

By enjambing on the strong word “mush,” the first line of the poem rivets our attention. And Alison’s instinct to place “wedged” on the second line enhances the meaning of the word.  If “wedged” were at the end of the first line, the white space after it would give us a contradictory sense of freedom.  Yet, without a verb, we swing down to the second line, and are “wedged” between “mush” and the end-stop after “abdomen,” just as the yellow tissue was.
           
            These first four lines significantly increase in length as we proceed.  Sometimes, that is the aesthetic we want.  But during workshop, we considered how we might amplify the experience by introducing more line endings:

                        the small white bubbles growing
                        fast inside your liver,
                        your rapidly beating heart pumping thick
                        blood to your veins.

Now, the long line starting with “the small white,” which was weighted down by too many words, transforms, through a line ending, to a fast line “fast inside your liver.” 
“Your rapidly beating heart pumping thick” thickens that line.  The line read alone has the word “thick” functioning as a truncated adverb: “heart pumping thick(ly).  Then we realize that this is an enjambment that transforms “thick” into an adjective modifying “blood.”  Two meaning textures created by a change in line endings.

            There is much written about line endings as a source of meaning, momentum, effect. Take a look at your own poetry, and Reply here, showing how you are crafting your line endings to enhance the experiences you are embodying. 

            Line endings, hang upside-down as trapeze artists do—it is their work to keep the air of the poem moving, to give it momentum.  Are you standing on the platform, afraid to swing down?  Are you going to connect with another trapeze artist swinging upside down to catch you?  Will you twirl and spin?  Will you fly without a net?  How will you manage space?