Friday, December 27, 2013

Incarnadine by Mary Szybist: A Poetry Book Recommendation

So already, I write today to recommend Mary Szybist's National Book Award-winning collection of poetry, Incarnadine.  I first learned of this book through John Freeman's Boston Globe review of it and immediately added it to my holiday wish list.  The back of the book, in my opinion, gets it just right:

"Mary Szybist’s richly imagined encounters offer intimate spaces and stagings for experiences that are exploratory and sometimes explosive. Through the lens of an iconic moment, the Annunciation of an unsettling angel to a bodily young woman, Szybist describes the confusion and even terror of moments in which our longing for the spiritual may also be a longing for what is most fundamentally alien to us. In a world where we are so often asked to choose sides, to believe or not believe, to embrace or reject, Incarnadine offers lyrical and brilliantly inventive alternatives."

Viewed in terms of its dominant biblical motif, this book of poems invites us to imagine from so many viewpoints not only the encounter between Mary and Gabriel, but also the experience of Mary as she both anticipates and actually experiences the moment when "the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee."   But "invites" might not be nearly a strong enough word for what this book does:  through its varied forms; its allusions to and meditations on events, individuals, and groups past and present; and its use of imagery and perspective to create paradoxical voices and states of being, it just plain yanks us into the center of those extraordinary moments -- and other moments that disturb us and don't let go.

Check out these lines from "Knocking or Nothing":

     Knock me or nothing, the things of this world
     ring in me, shrill-gorged and shrewish,

     clicking their charms and their chains and their spouts.
     Let them.  Let the fans whirr.

     All the similar virgins must have emptied
     their flimsy pockets, and I
     was empty enough, 
     sugared and stretched on the unmown lawn,

     dumb as the frost-pink tongues
     of the unpruned roses.

     When you put your arms around me in that moment,    
     when you pulled me to you and leaned

     back, when you lifted me
     just a few inches, when you shook me

     hard then, had you ever heard
     such emptiness? (Szybist 62)**

Szybist's Mary is hardly meek and mild, hardly blandly submissive.  She's got edge, intelligence, and curiosity. I don't think I ever took the time to imagine the different tones of voice the biblical Mary might have used when she responded to Gabriel's announcement, "troubled at his saying," with her very sensible question, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" Though she's relatively quick in the moments following to identify herself  as "the handmaid of the Lord," she's already thinking "how me" if not "why me." In Szybist's poem, she gets to to the "why me" -- and sounds hardly elated as she ponders the question.

As a former "Bible as Literature" teacher, I've always been fascinated by Mary -- and all of the biblical "go-to girls," the ones who move religious history forward and who, in my opinion, are chosen for their roles quite deliberately.  I've always loved that it's in the context of the woman-to-woman encounter of Mary and Elizabeth that Mary pours out her feelings and faith in the Magnificat, a prayer that is so significant to Christians and so Jewish in form, imagery, and spirit.  In 1994, when I visited the Church of the Dormition in Jerusalem, I was so pleased to see six very important earlier biblical women -- Eve, Miriam, Jael, Judith, Ruth and Esther -- hovering above the life-sized statue of the "sleeping-in-death" Mary, courtesy of the mosaic-tiled domed ceiling above her.*** 

But don't be misled by how excited I can get about the connections between biblical texts and IncarnadineSzybist's focus on "annunciation" does not matter most as an amplification or interpretation of the biblical narrative. If Szybist's poetry, in the fashion of midrash, fills in scriptural blanks, it does so in order to move us, her readers, beyond the doctrinal, decreed, and narratively recognized and accepted to a more immediate, personal experience of the problems and possibilities of spirit and meaning in our own lives. The power of Incarnadine resides in the respectful yet inventive way Szybist makes use of an imagination-and-faith-stretching biblical moment as a stimulus for exploring, understanding, and perhaps even accepting her own spiritual emptiness and fullness, and, by extension, for motivating us to strive to encounter our own. 

But as I think of it, perhaps she wields that biblical story more as a catapult than a stimulus. We've entered a falling rock zone in Incarnadine: despite her craft and control, the steadiness of her beautiful language, the rocks hurling themselves onto our path are real, so we must pay attention to them. In "Entrances and Exits," the poet is examining a book of paintings in her office when the news of the day -- the rescue of an older woman who had been missing in the wilderness for two weeks and the death of Pavarotti -- collides with the unexpected visit of a friend's six-year-old daughter on the prowl for snacks.  These random events intertwine to inform the poet's response to Duccio's Annunciation.****  There is other news of the day at the heart of "So-and-So Descending from the Bridge"; you can listen to Szybist read it by watching the bottom video embedded in the National Book Award web site. Prepare to be haunted.

And so I leave you with a paragraph-stanza from one of the book's few prose poems, entitled "Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary":

     It's not enough to say the heart wants what it wants.  I think of the ravine, the 
     side dark with pines were we lounged through summer days, waiting for 
     something to happen; and of the nights, walking the long way home, the 
     stars so close they seemed to crown us.  Once, I asked for your favorite 
     feeling. You said hunger. It felt true then. It was as if we took the bit and bridle 
     from our mouths.  From that moment I told myself it was the not yet that I 
     wanted, the moving, the toward -- (Szybist 22)

If you read this book, listen to Mary Szybist read her poems, or read any of her poems in other places that they're published, I would love to hear your thoughts. 

*Szybist includes the text of Luke in her notes so we know that the King James version of Luke plays a major role in her thinking and writing.  I am writing about Mary's experience in the present rather than the past tense because I'm dealing with it more as an experience in religious literature than in religious history; no offense intended to those who view it as history.
** Szybist, Mary. Incarnadine. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2013. Print. 
*** Interesting that none of the matriarchs -- Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel -- make it onto the dome ceiling; interesting that most of the six portrayed are for all intents and purposes woman warriors who actively defend Israel against enemies that would destroy it.  The photo web address is <>.

Monday, December 23, 2013

"Saving Mr. Banks": Thinking About The Stories Behind The Stories

So already, last Saturday at midday -- pretty much on a whim because I had known almost nothing about the movie until the day before -- I went to see Savings Mr. Banks at the Kendall Square Cinema. 

I went in part because it was the first day of school vacation, and seeing an early movie seemed like the perfect way to dismiss "ordinary time" and assert "holiday break time."  I also went because Emma Thompson portrays P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, and is receiving accolades for her performance. Having had Emma Thompson on the brain for many months, courtesy of Howard's End, it felt right to go see her being her masterful present-day actress self -- and to remember that she really isn't Margaret Schegel.

But what most compelled me were my wonderful childhood Mary Poppins-related memories.  First, there was the experience of actually going to the movie theater to see the movie.  On Christmas Eve in 1964, in typically "Jewish Christmas" fashion, "the cousins" (with parents) piled into one of the station wagons that were a fixture of our childhoods, and went to see Mary Poppins at the Gary Theater (pictured here* when another Julie Andrews blockbuster was playing)We came out of the theater as a jubilant mass of singing-and-dancing energy; the muffled silence that might have been created by the snow that had begun falling lightly didn't have a chance against our euphoric outpouring.

Second, there was life after the movie --  because seeing the movie was just the beginning of our love affair with Mary Poppins, courtesy of the joy that the movie had let us experience and the music that helped us hold on to it. As quickly as we could, we got -- and inhaled -- the Mary Poppins soundtrack. We must have played that album as many as ten times on many days, but my mother never complained:  I think she wanted to sing the songs, too.  

In all of this, I never thought once about reading any of the Travers books -- I'm not sure I even knew the books existed -- and no one ever suggested that I read them.  I also never thought about how the movie was made:  that some bunch of adults had created it with intentionality and care. But I would have gladly gone to see that movie every day. Maybe a lot of childhood** is about not worrying, and not needing to worry about the back-story.

After seeing Saving Mr. Banks last Saturday, I met up with a trio of friends and shared with them some of the above.  As we were talking about Mary Poppins, one of them who had read and loved all the Mary Poppins books long before the movie was made reported that when she first saw Mary Poppins, she had thought it was all wrong.  Among the movie's violations of the novels, she said, was the casting of Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins:  Julie Andrews was pretty; Mary Poppins was not. My inner nine-year-old, feeling very much alive in my fifty-eight-year-old movie-going self, had never considered that someone might not have loved Mary Poppins. I was reminded of something one of my current students had said a few days earlier in class when we were talking about the difference between a film version of some novel and the novel itself: "It's like that apples-and-oranges thing. Film versions and the novels themselves just aren't the same thing.  When they're both good, they're still two really different good things with some connections between them." 

But we might be better off talking about apples and pears, not apples and oranges, if we're going to talk about Saving Mr. Banks. Because one of the first overt and mysterious things that Travers does in the movie is strip a lavish fresh fruit arrangement of its pears and dispose of them dramatically.  Though she acts on some kind of principle, we sense her desperation, take note, and develop a preliminary theory that negotiations around the evolving script and rights to Mary Poppins will be difficult if not maddening.  What soon becomes evident is that while Saving Mister Banks, as advertised, portrays the back-story of Mary Poppins the movie, that back-story cannot be separated from another powerful back-story with which all of the characters must ultimately contend -- the one behind Travers' Mary Poppins books.

But unlike the movie's characters -- Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) and the creative team he has assembled to create a Mary Poppins script and score that will satisfy both Disney, Inc. and Travers -- we in the audience are privy to Travers' childhood memories.  We understand that Travers' journey to the crass, uncivilized outpost of Hollywood (and the abomination of Disneyland) and her ornery "engagement" in the collaborative combative/creative process that just might lead to a movie version of one of her beloved books are resurrecting her personal back-story. Travers has come to Hollywood with a problem:  she needs money -- but insists on having complete control over how the story of Mary Poppins will be told and understood; it can't be ruined. Herein lies the irony of it all:  as much as Travers haughtily asserts that she does and will control the Mary Poppins story, her enigmatic behavior suggests that her personal story is much in control of her. 

Probably because I had just finished teaching Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony in my AP Literature and Composition class, the stories of Travers' difficulties and Tayo's struggles connected in my mind. Mary Poppins didn't heal the world or completely liberate Travers from the emotions associated with her childhood, but I'm unwilling to say that it didn't do some kind of good.  Similarly, Tayo's efforts to complete the ceremony, the challenging process of bringing to a constructive conclusion a story begun long ago, minimally created a new phase of life for himself and his community based on his deeper understanding of his world and his place in it.

Silko talks about stories in the set of poems that opens the novel:

I will tell you something about stories.
[he said]
They aren't just for entertainment.
Don't be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off illness and death.

You don't have anything 
if you don't have the stories.

I can't blame Ceremony's view of stories for the large number of tissues that I sniffled my way through at the Kendall Square Theater; I can explain them by saying that I was feeling for Travers who was mid-ceremony, strangely untethered and uncomfortably adrift in the tense space between two connected stories but needing to persevere in that space in order to get to the point that she could decide whether to permit Disney to make the Mary Poppins movie. Conflicting desires and contrary narratives create terrible loneliness when our lives are structured around them.  Sometimes we're carrying a destructive story that comforts us because it's familiar.  In theses instances, if we re-imagine it or hand it over to another, we risk a feeling of disorientation that is more frightening to us than the pain to which we've become habituated.  I sometimes think that when we first re-interpret a story we've long told ourselves, when we first imagine another way of making sense of it, especially a way that defines us more as victims than we were in our original interpretation -- or less as victims than we were in the original -- our feelings are so mixed! New villains, new heroes; no villains, no heroes:  all of these, even when our own liberation is for the first time in sight, make the child within us cry with loss -- or is it mourning rather than loss, since maybe that loss happened a long time ago?

Travers' situation led me to revisit some of the questions I raised in a blog post from last summer about why we do and don't share our important stories:
  • Do our stories feel especially private to us because they're so personally important? 
  • Do we fear that we can't do them justice in the telling? 
  • Dwe hold them back because they're precious to us -- but also still a little too mysterious to us to be shared just yet
  • Do we fear that others won't treat them as the precious things they are -- and might even jump in and assign them particular meanings that are more about who they are than who we are? 
Having just seen Saving Mr. Banks, I am now wondering if we sometimes don't share our stories for fear that in revisiting them ourselves, we'll need to understand them in a new way and perhaps even tell them differently, and we're not fully ready for those stories to change -- because that will mean we'll have to give up cherished notions of the roles we played in them -- and the persons we were then and are now.

Of course, Mary Poppins is fiction, not memoir, but from Travers' point of view, at least in some important ways, it's just as Chief Bromden says in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest “But it's the truth even if it didn't happen.” Thinking of Travers' decision to create a work of fiction with autobiographical influences rather than a memoir reminds me of a student I taught many years ago in "Reading and Writing on Human Values":  when it came time to write and share the spiritual autobiographies towards which all the semester's coursework led, she explained to me that she could only complete the assignment if she could write about a very significant life experience from a third-person limited omniscient point of view. Unlike Travers, she couldn't choose to make some of what was wrong right by employing some fictional techniques, but she could begin to grapple with the underlying realities of her own story in a way that afforded her some protection.

My relationship to Mary Poppins the movie has been completely, joyfully unexamined -- and I say that without any kind of regret. That said, I loved watching Saving Mr. Banks -- and  thinking for the last few days about stories, back-stories, and the efforts we make through stories to get and make things right and to know better ourselves.

** I suspect freedom from childhood worry is an early form of privilege.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Unfolding and Becoming at The Newman Junior High School

So already, as my teacher days wind down, I find myself thinking a lot about my student days.  While I've always understood the critical role high school played in my development as a person and educator, only recently have I understood that my junior high school experiences may have been even more pivotal. I owe this realization to a number of long conversations with my very good junior-high-school-then-high-school friend Betsy Hoffman (now Betsy Sugameli). Sometimes Betsy's and my memories and interpretations align perfectly; other times, her recollections and perspectives fill in gaps and challenge my ideas about what we all were thinking and feeling back then.

In the late 1960's, Needham had two junior high schools, the Newman and the Pollard.  Since then, the Pollard Junior High School has become Needham's only middle school, the Pollard Middle School, while the Newman Junior High School has become an elementary school called simply the Newman School. I attended the Newman Junior High School for grades seven through nine, from September 1967 to June 1970.

The Newman School, pictured here, looks much like our junior high school did, except our school lacked the decorative murals you can discern on the right-hand side of this photograph.  What you can also see here is the front courtyard part of the school where we hung out after our school buses deposited us in front of the school each morning.  It was here where we processed the news that Martin Luther King had been killed, where two months later we processed the news that Bobby Kennedy had been killed -- and wondered who would die next, and where two years later we tried to understand why the National Guard had shot to kill at Kent State. This we did against the backdrop of the steady stream of images from the Vietnam War -- gruesome deaths and hollow-eyed, exhausted soldiers -- provided to us by the evening news and Life magazine. 

Still, most of the time, despite these moments of consciousness and confusion, we were just busy being early-adolescent kids with activities to participate in, homework to do, and subjects and teachers to study. 

So first for the subjects and then for the teachers. There were definitely some important learning firsts for me at the Newman that shaped me as a learner and teacher both.

The "new curriculum" that threatened to ruin my eighth-grade sanity was IPS, or Introductory Physical Science. I remember the turquoise book with its grid-lined cover -- the seventh edition, which I found online, still features  that graph-paper motif that warns students to expect that graphed experimental data will be central to their daily learning endeavors. And that was the problem:  an excellent memorizer, I had powered my way through school up to that point by my ability to swallow and regurgitate minutiae.  And now I was confronted by inquiry:  each chapter consisted of roughly six pages of reading followed by many more pages of problems; who had ever heard of a textbook with more problems than pages of facts that I could memorize?  Disoriented and displeased by this shift in the learning world order, I fretted over every lab.  But Mr. Soucy was always patient, always quietly excited about the science itself, and always there after school when I or anybody else wanted to stay late for extra help -- which was often.  I admit that to this day, I still become anxious when I walk by a science lab and recognize the familiar smell of the "Distillation of Wood" experiment, but I learned from that experience that I could learn in a new way.

Gym class was another place where I gained some learning confidence -- probably because my natural non-athleticism was a complete non-issue.* In seventh grade, our teachers wanted us to have positive, safe experiences of the gymnastics equipment that we were encountering for the first time and that called for new skills and new strengths.  I wasn't good at gymnastics, but I loved it -- how it felt to do it and what it looked like when it was done right.  Most importantly, I didn't fear it.  In fact, I was willing to try to do almost anything we were learning because I was always flanked by at least two "spotters" whom I trusted to guide me or break my fall if necessary. Junior high gym class taught me the importance of spotters no matter what one is trying to learn.  Consequently, as a teacher, I've always tried to create classrooms in which students grapple with new and intimidating learning experiences in the supportive company of spotters, peers stationed very nearby to help them take learning risks without fear of serious academic injury.

While I can't recall if the choral group I was in was part of the Newman's music curricular program or an extra-curricular activity, I can remember being electrified by Vincent Persichetti's choral setting of e.e. cummings' "Sam Was a Man."** It was my first experience of both hearing and singing anything that seemed to defy in the most haunting, arresting way every expectation my fourteen-year-old self had of what and how people could sing together beautifully and movingly.  I was so taken by the way the different parts combined, divided, and moved that I learned to play them on the piano at home*** just so I could figure out how the piece worked rhythmically and harmonically as parts and a whole.  So began my romance with twentieth-century (and now twenty-first-century) choral music. 

Meanwhile, math served up new computer-science-related learning experiences. As junior high school students, we were supposed to master flowcharting in preparation for learning FOCAL and BASIC, two computer languages, once we got to Needham High. So one of my math classmates and I became pretty proficient at creating flowcharts that potentially solved problems -- though not as proficient as we had hoped.  As the co-founders of the Female League of Nostril-Flairers (FLONF), we created a flowchart (not the one you're seeing here) to help the flair-challenged learn how to flair their nostrils so, as members of the organization, they could participate successfully in flairathons.  Unfortunately, those who couldn't flair got caught in an inescapable loop that relegated them, like Tantalos or Sisyphos, to an eternity of futile effort.

Our math teacher, and our other teachers, were aware of FLONF -- just as they were aware, we came to find out, that another one of my classmates had created a religion around herself, and even a temple to herself called "The Marthenon." When my classmates and I had our teachers sign our ninth-grade yearbooks -- I wish I could find Zodiaction! -- I realized how much they had been paying attention. Though I don't remember it verbatim, I still remember the gist of the comment written by Mrs. Helen Rees, my Western Civilization teacher:  You've started an organization; now go start a school.  It was the first time any adult had invited me to envision myself as an adult capable of doing something creative and important.

It seems important also to talk about the one harmful teacher we had amidst the numerous caring and competent ones, lest you think the Newman Junior High School was an educational utopia. Steve Seidel often talks about the "apprenticeship of observation" -- the kind of learning that people do simply by watching, analyzing, and reflecting; Howard Gardner talks about "tormentors" -- the people whose contribution to our development is their capacity to model and embody everything we don't want to be, and that we commit to not being. We learned important lessons from our "bad" teacher, too.

One of my English teachers, who will remain nameless, was that "tormentor." I was one of her favorites whom she "let" do certain tasks for her. For example, after arriving late to class, coffee cup in hand, Mrs. Tormentor routinely had me administer quizzes after saying to me in front of the class, "You give the quiz, since you'd probably get a 100 on it anyway." Whenever I whispered, my aforementioned friend Betsy was accused of disrupting the class.  But there were more even more strange and dangerous things going on. During our study of To Kill a Mockingbird, Mrs. Tormentor forbade the use of the word "rape" during class discussion, and regularly pronounced "Negro" as niggero. Luckily, Mrs. Tormentor was so consistently lazy, mean, and prejudiced (African-Americans were not the only group about whom she generalized while teaching literature) that our class was united in despising her. Years later when I ran into her in a lecture hall at Harvard, she quipped, "Well it's good to see that at least one of you amounted to something," confirming what we'd all always known:  that she had had nothing but contempt for us. 

But while Mrs. Tormentor had little interest in teaching us English and no interest in us, Mrs. Ruth Winters, our math teacher, loved math and loved us.  As a matter of fact, this blog post primarily exists because she has been much on my mind over the months -- probably because I recently realized that I must be about the same age she was when she was our teacher.  I now recognize that hers was the first class that I hoped my own classes might feel and be like. 

Though she was my math teacher in both eighth and ninth grades, I first became aware of Mrs. Winters when I was a seventh grader. She was tall and formidable as she monitored the first-floor hallway in between classes. Her loosely styled hair and white frilled blouses gave her an old-fashioned look that intimidated me. It wouldn't have occurred to me back then to describe a woman as handsome, but Mrs. Winters was.  At some later point when I was reading or rereading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I realized that some the language Huck uses to describe Charlotte Grangerford**** seemed just right for Mrs. Winters: "Then there was Miss Charlotte, she was twenty-five, and tall and proud and grand, but as good as she could be when she warn't stirred up; but when she was, she had a look that would make you wilt in your tracks, like her father."

But that was the great thing about Mrs. Winters, we quickly learned as her students:  she took no pleasure in making anybody wilt.  That hallway mask that silently commanded "Don't you dare run down this hall or even think about poking anybody" was replaced in the classroom by an easy, welcoming smile and a deep, ready laugh. Her eyes sparkled whether she was reporting on her progress making her daughter's wedding gown or explaining to us how the quadratic equation was derived and what it could be used for. Always the message about math was that it was hard, interesting, worthwhile, and do-able.  And born and raised in Kentucky, Mrs. Winters had memorable regionalisms to assure us that we could master the math at hand:  some techniques were "as easy as falling off a log backwards," while others were "like going around Kelly's barn -- and I knew Mr. Kelly."

There were two other things that happened during math class that had nothing to do with the learning of math content associated with Algebra I and Algebra II.   

The first involved two boys in our class who were regularly truant from school -- and who routinely got the highest marks on math tests. When B.B. and W.D. arrived on test days, they could easily prove while they were taking the test the theorems that the rest of us had been laboring over for the last two weeks, and they could also readily apply them. Mrs. Winters refused to fail them, despite what I now recognize must have been some administrative pressure: her job was to assess whether they had learned the math, she explained, and they had. It was important to her that we understand her thinking -- her belief that different students learned in different ways and that those ways needed to be acknowledged and respected.  Did she think there should be no consequences for the boys' truancy? No. But was a failing grade in math the right consequence? No.

The second involved several days in mid-June 1970.  At one point, Mrs. Winters announced that we had learned all the math we needed to learn for the school year, so we were going to play softball for the last few days of class.  Though I'm terrible at most sports, softball was by far my worst sport:  in sixth grade during our Presidential Fitness Tests, the legacy of JFK, I had thrown the softball the shortest distance of anybody in my class. But none of this mattered in June 1970:  we were going to spend an hour together for each of the next few days at the softball field that abutted the grounds of the high school with our real focus on simply being a group that had learned enough together and enjoyed being together.  Our softball skills didn't matter; our connections to one another did.

The spring of 1970 was an intense time.  On April 22, two weeks before the Kent State shootings, we celebrated the first Earth Day at the Newman by planting trees on the barren stretch of land between the softball field where my math class played in June and the grounds of the school. I like to go over to the Newman School every April during school vacation to check on those woods that we planted -- which you see here to the left. One year, I brought my mother with me, and she asked if I knew which tree was mine.  I told her I didn't know whether my little tree had survived to be among those standing and reaching toward the sky, but I still knew that I had helped to create those woods.

This year, I went over to check on the woods the day after the Boston Marathon bombings. It comforted me to be there. Things are different at the Newman School -- a daycare center abuts the area we forested, and several daycare teachers eyed me suspiciously because I seemed to be hanging around for no reason. Meanwhile, a series of nature trails have been added to the school grounds. So on that mild Tuesday morning, every sun-warmed pool was bursting with new green life.  In particular, skunk cabbage was blatantly and beautifully unfurling its leaves wherever I looked, reminding me how at this very same spot many years ago, I had been allowed and encouraged to unfold and bloom.  As a student at the Newman Junior High School, I overcame fears, developed new skills and knowledge, learned new ways to learn, was encouraged to imagine and act, and felt cared about.  It's so interesting to me that only recently have I realized how much my own values and commitments as an educator have been a direct reflection of my student experiences at the Newman Junior High School.

[If you haven't looked at my blog lately, please note that you will now find that you can scroll down on the "Comment as" menu to "Anonymous" and elect that option if you don't have an existing online identity that this blog-host site will recognize.  Your post will be ascribed to "Anonymous" unless you sign your actual post in some way that identifies you as the person commenting.]

* Gymnastic URL:  <>.
** The Cummings poem from Kennedy, Richard. Ed. E.E. Cummings Selected Poems. New York: Liveright, 1994. 58-59. Print.

rain or hail                                  heart was big
sam done                                   as the world aint square
the best he kin                           with room for the devil
till they digged his hole              and his angels too

:sam was a man                        yes,sir

stout as a bridge                       what may be better
rugged as a bear                      or what may be worse
slickern a weazel                      and what may be clover
how be you                               clover clover

(sun or snow)                           (nobody’ll know)

gone into what                          sam was a man
like all them kings                     grinned his grin
you read about                         done his chores
and on him sings                      laid him down.

a whippoorwill;                         Sleep well

*** "Sam Was a Man" music URL:  <> 
**** One of the original E.W. Kemble illustrations of the Shepherdson-Grangerford section of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Recalled to Life: The Gift of the CRLS Ninth Grade History Teacher Team

So already, "This is no country for old men," William Butler Yeats said in "Sailing to Byzantium." And nobody likes a crone.  Even though I'm probably too young for technical crone status, and it's more institutions than individuals that marginalize crones (and sometimes downright banish them from places of respect and influence), I couldn't resist that last declaration.  The minute that anyone declares that s/he is retiring by virtue of having been an educator long enough to qualify for the maximum pension, s/he begins to be perceived as "departing elder" rather than as "veteran teacher and colleague." 

So first of all, a warning:  this blog post is going to ramble.  It will begin with reflections of the experience of edging toward retirement, vent a bit, offer some thoughts about reading instruction, and and then offer thanks to a group of my colleagues -- very appropriate during the Thanksgiving weekend -- who may not know that they did me a great kindness recently.  The above image -- I've taken a screenshot of an image on the "Birthing the Crone" Home Page -- represents my understanding that an illuminating blog post could be a croning achievement. So let's hope, and here goes.

By Yair Haklai (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia CommonsSince announcing officially my intention to retire from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, I have felt institutional invisibility encroaching:  no more invitations to workshops and trainings, far fewer administrator solicitations of my opinions about potential policies, programs, or resources.  Even my Learning Community R mailbox has been positioned so that when I leave in January, the alphabetized flow of my colleagues' mailboxes will not be disrupted by an empty gap in the "S" area.  I think I often feel the way Eurydice might have after Orpheus turned around and looked at her, and she found herself slipping gently backward into the underworld -- and into the permanent status of "shade," as so many translations of The Odyssey refer to the underworld's inhabitants.

While I continue to feel valued by so many individual colleagues, from an institutional perspective, I have already passed on.  Interestingly, James Joyce also uses the word "shade" to refer to those who have come and gone in "The Dead," the culminating story of his collection entitled Dubliners.  This story, which will be the last piece of literature that my AP Literature & Composition students and I will explore as a class text -- I'm timing it so that our discussion of the story will take place on January 6, the same date that the characters in the story are celebrating Epiphany -- is so much about who matters for how long and to whom, and about all the petty vanities and misconceptions that accompany our alternatively prized and despised conceptions of ourselves.

I love "The Dead" more than I can tell you -- the book; the movie; the heart-wrenching details of place, food, and thought; the dialogue that sometimes becomes heartfelt communication; the attempts and failures to "only connect" musically and personally over the course of a sometimes excruciatingly long dinner; the last paragraph (I'm hardly alone in loving that paragraph). One of my favorite moments in the book occurs when, amidst the general praise of Aunt Julia's singing, Aunt Kate interjects her angry opinion about the Pope's not-recent decision to replace Aunt Julia and other female singers in the church choirs with boys:  ". . . I think it's not at all honourable for the pope to turn out the women out of the choirs that have slaved there all their lives and put little whipper-snappers of boys over their heads."

I mention this line and Aunt Kate's anger because I often feel that education, especially the business and policy of education, is often dominated by "little whipper-snappers of boys" and girls who bring energy, skill, commitment, confidence, and business cards to the endeavor of improving learning and schools, but whose limited experience in actual schools -- and that means with students, parents, teachers, and administrators -- is more significant than they believe.  That they are so often in the company of others with similarly limited experience may be what prevents them from recognizing how their own lack of experience undercuts their efforts to be persuasive not of business-people and policy-makers, but of people who actually work with children on a daily basis.  I suspect that the marked professional certainty that a number of them exude is in part a reflection of their characters and needs -- most specifically, the need to be influential and important and the need to be successful, even though no teacher always succeeds.

This is my way of saying that I don't take kindly to being treated like a shade by twenty-eight-year-olds, whether they are on the payrolls of the Cambridge Public Schools, the College Board, or any big educational foundation, who indulge me by pretending to listen to my counter-experience or counter-suggestion while thinking that I "once" must have been a good teacher. Luckily, we have few of those people at CRLS since, as people who work in an actual school, most of us are daily humbled by our classroom experiences. 

And all of the above is why I am so grateful to the whipper-snapper-free CRLS Ninth Grade History Team, the teachers who meet every Friday during first period to figure out how to better serve our school's ninth-grade history students, and their very competent and thoughtful dean of curriculum for asking me to come to work with them on helping ninth graders become proficient readers of primary source documents and other texts. With their invitation, the ninth grade teachers pulled me out of the pre-retirement shadows -- and gave me the opportunity to synthesize a lot of the thinking I'd been doing about the companion processes of reading, writing, speaking, and listening since I returned to the classroom as a teacher of AP English and recognized how much my high-achieving juniors and seniors struggled to make sense of long, syntactically complex sentences.  And if they were struggling, didn't it stand to reason that other CRLS students were also struggling?

My most intensive literacy-related learning experiences occurred  ten-to-fifteen years ago when, as a CRLS teacher, I had multiple opportunities to work closely with staff of WestEd's Strategic Literacy Initiative/Reading Apprenticeship Program.  When I was the literacy specialist at English High School in Boston during the 2001-2002 school year, my Reading-Apprenticeship-related know-how grew in leaps and bounds through extensive training and collegial learning opportunities, usually under the always thoughtful and always responsive guidance of either Randy Bomer or Margaret Ciardi. The district focus on implementing the reading and writing workshop model in all Boston classrooms meant that we spent many Saturdays in trainings in which we learned as both teachers of students and teachers of other teachers.

The challenge of helping others to read better is that all reading is essentially on some level an individual and invisible meaning-making process, even when we scaffold it, coach it, and externalize the thinking processes associated with it.  Fortunately, in the years between my specifically cross-disciplinary literacy-centered work at both EHS and CRLS, and the development of the Common Core with its emphasis on various kinds of literacy, other important professional learning experiences presented themselves and contributed to my and my colleagues' efforts to improve student reading.  Project Zero's Making Learning Visible project provided many ideas for how and when to capture students' thinking processes so that students themselves could see and hear, and therefore examine their own thought processes while reading, and then develop their own theories of and action plans for how they personally could read more strategically and successfully. My colleague Jennifer Hogue's "Slugs and Cherries" documentation gave many of us tools, guidelines, and hope -- a prototype that we could replicate in our own classrooms and embed in reflective discussion allowing students to guide themselves.

The Making Learning Visible work, which is based on the insights and practices developed in the Reggio Emilia pre-schools and infant-toddler centers, contributed another important approach to my reading arsenal.  Long ago, I learned from Project Zero MLV researchers that Reggio teachers almost never asked students to draw something, describe something, or extract the properties of something without placing it next to something else that it could be seen in relation to: in other words, I would have a much better shot at describing an apple if I could think about how it was and wasn't like the orange next to it. So didn't it make sense that I would be able to make more sense of a text if I could compare and contrast it with another different yet related one? When my students were struggling to make sense of both "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," responding to true-and-false questions that required them to compare and contrast the two poems helped them to understand both poems better. When they were struggling to make sense of Marge Piercy's "A Work of Artifice" and Billy Collins' "Bonsai," they helped further their collective understanding of both poems by crafting true-and-false questions in small groups and then asking them of one another.

The Question Formulation Technique, courtesy of the Right Question Institute, became another important knife in the reading comprehension drawer -- one that challenged some of what I'd been taught by our WestEd trainers. Like a number of reading comprehension approaches, the QFT stresses the importance of developing students' capacities and confidence not only to raise questions, but to recognize their questions' relative usefulness for a given purpose, be it reading or something else. WestEd provides a number of tools and resources for helping students to generate questions in various categories as a way to penetrate a text.  In contrast, the QFT specifically forbids the judging and classifying of student questions during the question-generating process, whether it is focusing on a text passage or another kind of QFocus, out of concern that doing so will predispose some students both to remain quiet (for fear of "doing it wrong") and to look to their teachers rather than to themselves for the validation of their thinking and questioning efforts.  The good news:  once the QFT process is complete, a teacher can choose to have students return to the questions they generated during the actual multi-step QFT process and categorize them according to any number of frameworks aimed at supporting and promoting critical reading and thinking. Such an activity, and such a sequence of activities, properly framed, should remind students of the worth of all of the questions they generated during the QFT process because of the authentic nature of all of those questions.  

Now add to the mix a couple of articles I read in the last year that made a huge impression on me, most notably "The Writing Revolution" in the October 2012 issue of The Atlantic Monthly and a very brief article in an ASCD Education Update entitled "It's Complicated:  Common Core State Standards Focus on Text Complexity."

The Atlantic article reminded me of important work we did in the early 2000's in CRLS' Learning Community 4 in conjunction with our reading of parts of The Thinking Classroom by Tishman, Perkins, and Jay: through some initial classroom research, we learned that our students confused the language of some thought processes -- for example, they thought "to describe" meant "to explain," and vice versa; and frequently they had indefinite understandings of what oft-used connective language -- words like "although," "furthermore," and "despite" -- meant in reading contexts. Generally, they lacked the language to express the thoughts and ideas they were having -- which is just what the teachers at New Dorp High School also discovered. New Dorp teachers, the article reports, explicitly taught this language of relationship among facts and ideas, and had students express their understanding of content by using it:  for example, a science teacher had students write discrete sentences beginning with "although," "if," and "unless" to describe the properties of and relationship between hydrogen and oxygen. When I read this, I immediately had thoughts about how such an approach would help my AP students, who tended to present all of their thinking in compound sentences that structurally made ideas within the sentence equally important, to write sentences that both subordinated lesser ideas and spelled out the precise relationships between the main and subordinate ideas.  I also began to wonder if my students' relatively infrequent use of subordinating conjunctions and common transitional phrases might signal their difficulties using these to aid their reading comprehension.

"It's Complicated" told me something I have known for several years as a result of listening to my students describe what they were thinking as they tried to make sense of long sentences, especially ones written before 1900:  most of my students do not have the language of syntax at all available to them as something they can use to talk to themselves or to one another.* The article also told me something that flew in the face of what I had been taught about bridging students and texts -- and that actually made total sense on the basis of my classroom experience: "text-to-self" questions, and other techniques that ask students to initiate their exploration of a complex text by making a personal connection to it should be avoided for reasons of "Instructional time," "Equity," and "Rigor" (7).** Reading this article brought me back to a number of classroom experiences during which students had identified strongly with less-than-major facets of texts and had been so emotionally caught up in their own related stories that they were unable to refocus on the texts that elicited them.  "Text-to-self" was not a bad thing:  it just needed not to be the first thing.

So where did all of this lead me?  To a series of "what if" questions that changed my practice around reading?
  • What if I taught syntax more deliberately?  And what if I came up with strategies for constructing and deconstructing long sentences that would work for students who know the terminology associated with grammar and syntax -- and for those who do not?
  • What if I had students do more writing about the texts that we read -- much briefer writing about the texts, perhaps even single-sentence writing about a given text -- but writing that needs to employ certain words or exhibit prescribed grammatical structures? 
  • What if I sequenced documentation-supported reading instructional activities, including the QFT, so that students could play a leading role in generating questions and identifying those that best promote textual understanding? And what if we used our QFT-initiated work to help students themselves to understand better what kinds of questions increase their reading comprehension, as well as when and how their personal connections to the content of a text at hand help and hinder their efforts to understand it?

The result was the Friday morning session I had with the Ninth Grade History Team on November 22. Because at least one of the group was the veteran of some of my old literacy-support professional development efforts, I framed my major points in terms of how they represented changes in my own reading-related instructional practice as a reflection of current reading best practice and research, and my own classroom experimentation.  We spent a good chunk of our time together talking about how we might help our students -- who might not know that Kate Middleton is the Duchess of Cambridge, and who might be unfamiliar with the words "togs," "vestments," and "perambulator" -- to make sense of the following two sentences:

        Because she was at school, of course, being that it was a Monday, 
        Marian missed the opportunity that Regina had to see Kate 
        Middleton’s newest togs, provided by the House of Alexander 
        McQueen, which had also designed and created the Duchess 
        of Cambridge’s much-admired wedding gown.  Audibly gasped 
        and oohed the crowd as they beheld the exquisite vestments that 
        so became their future queen;  obliviously napped Prince George 
        in the nearby perambulator.

I shared with the teacher group that the last literary place I could remember a perambulator's having figured prominently was The Importance of Being Earnest, so it was likely our students wouldn't know that word.  We discussed the messages of colons and semi-colons; we rewrote sentences that were in inverted order; we talked about breaking the sentence into many short, factual sentences and then recombining them in conjunction with a classroom discussion of the "connecting language" the original provided. There was hope; there was laughter.  I promised to come to at least one teacher's classroom to model the deconstruction/reconstruction process, perhaps based on some of the sample Accuplacer Exam questions we also looked at together.  As a classroom teacher, I often feel that I do right by my students. But as our session concluded on that Friday morning, I felt I had DONE something right by my colleagues.

And they had absolutely done something right by me.  In truth, the CRLS Ninth Grade History Team, like so many other working teacher groups at CRLS, is marked by their commitment to do the best they can for their students, by their desire and willingness to keep learning professionally, by their assumption of one another's good intentions, and by their affection for one another. A number of them have helped me out when I've needed teachers who would willingly be observed, or even videotaped so that other individual teachers and co-teaching pairs could benefit from their instructional skill and commitment, as well as their exemplary collegial relationships. A few weeks before our session together, they had welcomed me to "listen in" and had happily taken the time to answer my questions about the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) and the stimulus-based questions they were designing as their common end-of-the-term exam. They were confident that I would come up with something that would meet their needs.

Truthfully, I had a wonderful time pulling together the resources I shared with this group.  It was a privilege to HAVE to crystallize all the purposeful yet somewhat random thinking I had been doing about linking reading, writing, inquiring, and discussing to support reading comprehension in the content areas.  And so two literary references came to mind for me.  The first was the famous line from "Ithaka"*** by C.P. Cavafy:  "Ithaka gave you the splendid journey"; and truthfully, working the Ninth Grade Teacher Team felt like both a journey and a homecoming. The second is the one that gives this blog post the first part of its title:  "Recalled to Life" is the the first book of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, which I taught many, many times between 1981 and 2001, and which refers to the status of Dr. Manette once he is discovered in an attic in Paris and "returned" to his home and family, at least to some degree and for a while. The Ninth Grade History Teacher Team recalled to life my inner literacy specialist and invited me to share what I learned in the process.

So many people I know view November as a month of short days and shades of gray, but I have always loved November as the month of golds -- and I wasn't disappointed on Thanksgiving morning when I took a walk along the Black's Creek salt marsh and watched the rising sun transform it from gray to gold.  While anticipating retirement is often joyful, there are hours of the school day when my increasing invisibility, even though it signals a certain liberation from responsibility for the future, weighs on me like a slight.  And so I thank the Ninth Grade History Teacher Team for providing me with a golden moment -- for making me very visible to myself and for reminding me that I still have much to share.

[I've changed the settings on my blog, so I hope those of you who want to post a comment will be able to do so without difficulty.  You will now find that you can scroll down on the "Comment as" menu to "Anonymous" and elect that option if you don't have an existing online identity that this blog-host site will recognize.  Your post will be ascribed to "Anonymous" unless you sign your actual post in some way that identifies you as the person commenting.]
* The article also points out that a lack of vocabulary is the other major source of trouble with reading complicated texts.  
** "It's Complicated: Common Core State Standards on Text Complexity." Education Update:It's Complicated:It's Complicated. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.
*** Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard