Michele Kerr wanted her students to hear five sonnets, starting with Shakepeare’s Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day and Donne’s Death, Be Not Proud. Students listened politely to each, wrote responses and discussed them.
Then she played Ian Richardson reading Milton’s Methought I saw my late espoused saint, a “poem drenched in grief, loss, and longing, a poem I’ve loved since adolescence, a poem that I thought, perhaps, they wouldn’t entirely understand.” A miracle happened, she writes on Larry Cuban’s site.
The kids were just sitting there, stunned.
A good twenty seconds passed before Luke spoke. “Holy crap. That was…..”
“Sad,” Sadie finished.
“Devastating,” Melissa added.
“Tragic,” said Kylie.
“Beautiful,” from Narciso.
“I’m depressed,” said Frank, in astonishment. And….
“Play it again,” said Daniel. The class murmured assent.
I played it again. When it was over, twenty-three heads bent down to write. Many students struggled to tell me that yes, the poem was sad, but that wasn’t the point. What mattered, to each of them, was they got it. They understood suddenly how loss can be so crippling that the dream of its return, the mere memory of happiness, can “bring back the ‘night’ of grief during ‘day’,” as one of my strongest students wrote, when the respite of the dream ends. I still remember another student’s sentence: “Being happy in your dream only makes pain worse.”
She told them that Milton was blind.
“Auggghh,” said Annie , holding her head. “So he was dreaming of two losses that came back to him.”
“…and then left. Again,” Armando finished.
. . . I jumped in a few times to define “paradox” and point out that the “day” brought back at least two “nights”–that of grief, and that of sightlessness, but for the most part the kids carried the conversational load on that poem for 10 minutes.
Some of her students spelled “feel” with an a, “wife” with no e’s, and “grief” with two, she writes. No more than five could have analyzed Milton’s use of metaphor in an essay. And she hadn’t provided a vocabulary list, a pre-reading guide, learning objectives, a writing template or a sonnet by a non-white, non-dead person.
But they got it.
. . . in that moment, all of them understood—some for the first time—that they could understand and empathize with great poetry. They realized intuitively that art could explore themes and ideas using metaphors so powerful that artists return to them time and again over centuries. They learned, too, that this knowledge had value and meaning to them—not because it made them better readers or writers, or got them better grades, but simply because that knowledge led them to a better understanding of beauty….and so, of life.
In the quest to send all students to college, regardless of their ability, “teachers must spend all their time getting as many students as possible close enough to understanding to fake it on a multiple choice question,” knowing many will never really understand the material, Kerr writes. Pushed down the college path, students are “doomed to years of boredom” and failure.