Teaching Trayvon

Common Core standards drafters want inner-city students to reach high standards, but don’t want teachers to “link literature to our students’ strengths,” writes John Thompson in the Huffington Post. That doesn’t show respect for students, he believes.

If he was back in the classroom, Thompson would be playing Bruce Springsteen’s American Skin:

41 shots, Lena gets her son ready for school
She says now on these streets Charles
You got to understand the rules
Promise me if an officer stops you’ll always be polite
Never ever run away and promise mama you’ll keep your hands in sight

The song always sparked discussion, Thompson writes.

In the first verse, Springsteen wrote from the perspective of the white New York City cops who shot a Nigerian immigrant, Amadou Diallo, 41 times thinking he had a gun, even though it was his wallet. “Forty-one shots, and we’ll take this ride, cross the bloody river, to the other side.”

The second verse was from the perspective of a black mother warning her son in case he was racially profiled. The third verse was from a universal perspective as we are “baptized in each others’ blood,” and a crucial change is made in the chorus, “Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it in your heart? Is it in your sight?”

Asked the source of Springsteen’s image of “the river,” a girl replied, “Langston Hughes!”

“Great,” I answered, throwing a copy of Hughes’ poems to her, “Support your answer.”

Kesha read, “I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers….”

When “curriculum alignment became the district’s gospel,” Thompson played the song during orientation to illustrate issues that would be studied in Government and help English teachers teach “repetition, point of view and metaphor.” A high level administrator objected. “Our kids don’t have time for Bruce Springsteen.”

Poetry by heart

Memorizing poetry has gone out of style, writes Brad Leithauser, a professor of writing and literature, in The New Yorker. His students have trouble memorizing a Shakespearean sonnet. They’re not used to memorizing anything. (I took a theater class at the University of Michigan as a 40-year-old journalism fellow. We were given a week to select and memorize a Shakespearean sonnet. I was the only person in the class who could recite the full sonnet.)

Leithauser’s mother paid him a penny a line to memorize poems.

The first one I mastered was Tennyson’s “The Eagle” (“He clasps the crag with crooked hands”), which brought in a haul of six cents. Opportunistically, I moved on to the longer “Casey at the Bat” (“It looked extremely rocky for the Mudville nine that day”) and Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” (whose title I mispronounced for decades), which netted me fifty-two cents and twenty-four cents respectively. Some Longfellow, some Frost. I straggled through Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and enough of his “The Ancient Mariner” to purchase a couple of candy bars.

In the heyday of memorization (1875 to 1950), there were many rationales for verse recitation, writes  Catherine Robson’s new Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem.

. . .  to foster a lifelong love of literature; to preserve the finest accomplishments in the language down the generations; to boost self-confidence through a mastery of elocution; to help purge the idioms and accents of lower-class speech; to strengthen the brain through exercise; and so forth.

She looks at three classics often required of students: Felicia Hemans’s “Casabianca”  (“The boy stood on the burning deck”), which Tom Sawyer had to learn; Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” and Charles Wolfe’s  “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna.”

“If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat,” writes Robson.

Leithauser adds: “You take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen.”

Here’s The Burial of Sir John Moore After Corunna.

Old school: Teach word roots, math facts and …

Kids Should Learn Cursive (and Math Facts, and Word Roots), writes Annie Murphy Paul in Time. New researchsupports the effectiveness of “old school” methods such as “memorizing math facts, reading aloud, practicing handwriting, and teaching argumentation,” she writes.

Suzanne Kail, an English teacher at an Ohio high school was required to teach Latin and Greek word roots, she writes in English Journal, though she abhorred “rote memorization.”

Students learned that “sta” means “put in place or stand,” as in “statue” or “station.”  They learned that “cess” means “to move or withdraw,” which let them understand “recess.”

Her three classes competed against each other to come up with the longest list of words derived from the roots they were learning. Kail’s students started using these terms in their writing, and many of them told her that their study of word roots helped them answer questions on the SAT and on Ohio’s state graduation exam. (Research confirms that instruction in word roots allows students to learn new vocabulary and figure out the meaning of words in context more easily.)

For her part, Kail reports that she no longer sees rote memorization as “inherently evil.” Although committing the word roots to memory was a necessary first step, she notes, “the key was taking that old-school method and encouraging students to use their knowledge to practice higher-level thinking skills.”

I learned Latin and Greek word roots in seventh grade. It was lots of fun.

Drilling math facts, like the multiplication table, “is a prerequisite for doing more complex, and more interesting, kinds of math,” Paul writes.

Other valuable old-school skills:

 Handwriting. Research shows that forming letters by hand, as opposed to typing them into a computer, not only helps young children develop their fine motor skills but also improves their ability to recognize letters — a capacity that, in turn, predicts reading ability at age five. . . .

Argumentation. In a public sphere filled with vehemently expressed opinion, the ability to make a reasoned argument is more important than ever. . . .

Reading aloud. Many studies have shown that when students are read to frequently by a teacher, their vocabulary and their grasp of syntax and sentence structure improves.

I’d add memorizing and reciting poetry as a valuable old-school skill. What are some others?

The miracle

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.

Carnival of Homeschooling

Alasandra’s Homeschool Blog is hosting the gemstone edition of the Carnival of Homeschooling.

Homeschool Bytes writes on poetry my boys loved and my daughter hated.

The wrong word

Poet Robert Pinsky praises memorizing poetry badly.

Learning by heart

Memorization — or “learning by heart” — is underrated, writes Justin Snider on HechingerEd. As an English teacher, he makes students memorize poetry.

First, it’s a challenge, and one in which those who succeed can take pride….

Second, it’s good exercise for your brain….

Third, and most importantly, new insights are gained in the process of memorization. You see things to which you were previously blind; you uncover a play on words, assonance, alliteration, analogies.

With multiple readings (or viewings or hearings), “we actually begin to understand, see and hear,” Snider writes.

I memorized Wordworth’s The World Is Too Much With Us in high school English 42 years ago. I still know about half of it. I say it to myself sometimes.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

“Hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn” always gets to me.

He clasps the crag with crooked hands …

From This Week in Education, a young Superman recites Tennyson’s The Eagle.

Art as salvation or education?

Arts education is being sold as a way to “save” unmotivated students, writes Mark Bauerlein, a veteran of the National Endowment for the Arts,  in Education Next. If the arts aren’t valuable for their own sake and for all students, they’ll lose out.

If you want to advocate a field, you have to justify it as a discipline. It has to form a body of knowledge and skills that students study at least partly for its own sake. In the case of the arts, a graduated curriculum would incorporate technical skills and art history and theory, just as English language arts integrate literacy skills and the lineages of English, American, and world literatures. Yes, arts learning may have social and moral and professional benefits, but if people don’t value the materials of the fields themselves —if they can’t say that if High School X doesn’t acquaint students with Renaissance painting, classical music, and modern dance, its graduates will be undereducated — then arts educators lose in the competition for funds and hours in the day. Arts education remains an extracurricular, and school administrators focused on math and reading can push it aside: The arts are fine, so let kids who are interested in them study in an afterschool program like band practice.

As head of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia told staffers that  arts education should enable students to encounter “lasting works of force and beauty.”

Gioia insisted that “Learning in the Arts for Children and Youth” grant recipients must “apply national or state arts education standards,”  and assess whether students were learning those standards — not just whether they enjoyed themselves or participated.

Gioia also developed initiatives such as Shakespeare tours,  American Masterpieces and Poetry Out Loud, a competition in which high-school students memorize and recite a poem from a list of classic and contemporary poets.

The content of art and artistic tradition was at the center of each initiative. When Gioia first unveiled Poetry Out Loud, some state arts officers protested because it didn’t allow students to present their own compositions. Gioia’s reply was, in effect, “That isn’t what the competition is about.” With this particular effort, he wanted to encourage more reading of great poems, not more writing of adolescent verse.

As editor of my high school literary magazine, I applaud the last sentiment. (When I was in college, the editor of  the literary magazine, Dana Gioia, rejected my submission. Still a little bitter.)

In my school days, we didn’t study works of force and beauty. We drew bad pictures in art class and sang in music. There was no dance class. Drama was a high school elective, though we all read lots of Shakespeare.

My daughter had a dab of cultural history in a humanities class. I vaguely recall her writing about how a work of art — Kandinsky? — made her feel.

With the exception of music, which still requires hitting the right notes, the arts are seen as a way for kids to be creative — with no “wrong answers” — not as a discipline to be mastered.

Politicizing the arts is the easiest way to kill arts education, Bauerlein writes in a blog post.

Musical, truthful poetry for children

Children’s poetry shouldn’t be hammy, condescending or “artificially sweetened,” writes Robert Pinsky in Slate.  In addition to praising Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, Pinsky lists (and reads aloud) poems by Edward Lear, Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter de la Mare that exemplify musicality and truthfulness.

Their poems are tough, not cloying. Stevenson’s “The Land of Counterpane” associates illness with imagination in a way that’s disturbing or mysterious as well as engaging. The change from past to present tense in the last stanza — “I was” the giant who “sees”—evokes the imaginative or delirious trance of an extended moment. De la Mare’s grotesque “John Mouldy,” “Miss T,” and “Jim Jay” engagingly conjoin the comic and the sinister.

Edward Lear’s “How Pleasant To Know Mr. Lear” inspired an adaptation by T.S. Eliot. The wildly playful, reckless, insouciant, and what-the-hell quality of Lear’s limericks have also been widely adapted or imitated—but rarely matched.

Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses was one of my favorite childhood books. I still have my copy.  Pinsky quotes:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
….
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
….
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
….
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
….
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.

 These poets “respect the imagination, including its elements of mystery and dread,” Pinsky writes.