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Short But Sweet: Thinking About You

Ever sigh and say, “I wish I could teach poetry but I … a) can’t find anything good, or b) don’t have the time.”? This occasional series of posts will focus on specific poems that I like and have even used that I find to be both engaging and amazing.

I’ve shown a lot of spoken word poems in class over the last few years and this one always seems to be one of my students’ favorites. That may seem odd considering it’s unlike a lot of spoken word poetry that you would normally see, especially since that most of the poetry that I see shared, while honest, is often about pain or loss or is angry or activist.

Not that I find anything wrong with using poetry to describe pain or loss or poetry that is angry or activist. I just think that my students like this poem because it’s funny, light, and positive in a way that if you think about it is very hard to pull off.

Love songs are a dime a dozen. So are love poems. But there’s a fine line between the all-time greatest love songs or poems and the sappy sort of pap that you find printed on a poster that you’ll buy at the mall (probably from the same place that sells Successories posters). “Thinking About You” has the feel of having struck that balance in the same way that George Harrison did when writing “Something” or Paul McCartney did with “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Plus, they can relate to sitting in class with their minds wandering and then texting that guy or girl to tell them they’re thinking about them. And if that’s not a good gateway to good poetry, I don’t know what is.

Is It Easier When You’re Popular?

One of my favorite units in advanced English is a study of essays and short stories that centers around the concept of identity, and among those pieces are at least a few that deal with the universal theme of coming of age and more specifically the struggle that someone can go through during middle and high school. I’ve written about it before, so I won’t get into the content of the literature, but what I have noticed is the reaction that some of my students have to some of the characters we’re looking at.

Angela Chase, the protagonist of My So-Called Life, is one who seems to get the most interesting comments, especially when I ask my students what they like or dislike about her. Some find her to be an honest character and someone who seems much like someone that they might know. Others don’t seem to like her because of thew ay that she is disrespectful to her parents, especially her mother, and how she seems to drop her beset friend, Sharon Cherski, for the way-more-exciting Rayanne Graf. Some also don’t feel as if they can identify with her or her problems.

Now, I don’t expect every single person in the room to connect with a character from a television show that was on the air nearly 25 years ago, but as I was considering their responses, I also had to consider who was saying them. Most of the students were popular. In fact, when we were talking about other works where people expressed their battles with self-consciousness and even anxiety, those same people had a lot to say, much of which were pat responses about being true to oneself. I facilitated the discussion and stayed as neutral as possible, but the netire time, I was thinking, “It’s easy when you’re popular.”

I am generalizing here, of course, and the responses I get from my classes vary year-to-year. In fact, the previous paragraph describes last year’s class because I literally wrote a draft of this post a year ago and am just now getting around to typing it up, and the discussion in this year’s class was more stilted and borderline unresponsive (cell phones proved more exciting). But the idea of an identity crisis to someone who fits right in with a school culture that values participation in sports and (often) heteronormative conservative values is probably a foreign concept. So the idea that a main character who would stop talking to her friend because she doesn’t know who she wants to be is also going to be foreign.

Meanwhile, there is someone else in the room who may be looking at her and saying, “I get that.” Sometimes, those students have something to say as a counter point; sometimes, I will bust in with an “old man Panarese” anecdote where I talk about identifying with Brian Krakow, the show’s nerdy neighbor.

It’s only so effective, to be honest, and over the years, I have felt like the popular students, or at least the extroverted ones always try to dominate the converastion. And while I would never try and prove them wrong, I want t0 hear sometime else … something that doesn’t come from an overconfident cheerleader.

Don’t Break the Ice

I hate the first day of school.

That’s not a sentence you expect to hear from a teacher. In fact, if I said this sentence out loud in the confines of edutwitter, I’d probably get a ton of responses that wondered why I am a teacher, some platitudes that people would retweet, a few quotes in pictures, or be edusplained to by someone who hasn’t seen the inside of a classroom for more than five minutes since the 1990s (yet is a “Thought Leader” in education). So, for clarity’s sake, I’ll say it again.

I hate the first day of school.

Some teachers walk into the first day with the energy of those really chipper people who were your freshmen orientation staff at college. They want to do cheers and play games and willingly embarrass themselves by acting silly. In the lead-up to the first day of school, they burst with enthusaism about all of the money they spent on school supplies for the kids and how they’re so excited to meet all of them. And on that first day? Well, I guess you call it “teaching like a pirate” or something? I don’t know. What I do know is that they bring to their classrooms the enthusiasm equivalent of the pyrotechnics at a KISS concert.

I am not like that. It’s the second day of school and I was just in my advanced English class and we were doing some of our initial discussions of the summer reading (Into the Wild) and I was not a bundle of enthusiasm and rah rah this is exciting and teaching like a pirate but instead was just a bundle of nervous energy. In fact, the only thing that I will ever have in common with Lloyd Dobler is that when I get nervous, I have that talking thing … I just ramble on and try to fill quiet space/awkward silences with something so that the silence isn’t there. I know that I’ll settle down in a few days or maybe a week and will feel more relaxed in front of the students, especially as I get to know them more, but these first few days take so much out of me because I have to make a real effort to seem outgoing and wanting to get to know the students when my instinct is to put my head down and work quietly.

It’s not because I hate students or anything like that–I actually like spending my days surrounded by sophomores (most of the time, anyway). It’s that I’m way more of an introvert than I let on, and those people who know me well see a little more of my personality than those who are getting to know me. Not only that, I also tend to overanalyze my interactions with people I don’t know well or encounter in social settings. For instance, if I go to a party, I will spend the entire drive home replaying the entire evening and searching for moments where I may have done something stupid or embarrassed myself. And that’s pretty much how yesterday went as well. I spent my entire drive home replaying the day to see if I said anything or did anything that might have left a bad impression on my students and wondered if I handled every classroom management situation well. You know, on a day where we did introductions, went over the course guidelines and did a small activity.

Other people don’t have this issue. They will come home on the first day a little tired because they’re not reacclimated to the routine of the school day, but they will be so enthusiastic about the kids they’re teaching and feeling even more excited for the next day. I come home exhausted, with my voice shot, and wondering whether or not I have already ruined their lives because the first day was too teacher-centered or something. And yes, I realize that this isn’t all about me and it’s about my students and all of the other supposedly selfless things that teachers say, but I’m not afraid to admit that I constantly worry about what I’m doing and if what I’m doing is the right way to do it. And the time when that’s the worst? The first day of school. When we hit the middle of September and I’ve got my rhythm down and I know the students and their traits and quirks very well, I won’t have as much anxiety about all of this and I won’t feel so exhausted when I get home because I feel like I have to pretend that I’m that constantly psyched all the time.

I also won’t have to constantly remind myself that I can do this.

I have a lectern in the front of my classroom and taped to the top of the lectern are notes students have left me over the years as well as a Post-It with the phrase “You’ve got this.” Now, I wrote that and put it there, but I did it because it was one of the best things any colleague has ever said to me in my nearly twelve years of teaching. It was about two years ago and I was getting ready for our school’s Poetry Out Loud assembly; I was running around the stage area like a complete nutcase, stressing out over every little detail because I had about 600 students who were about to come in to watch eight of their peers recite poems for a contest. My partner in the assembly and someone who was one of my best friends here, saw that I was basically about to pop a blood vessel, put her hand on my shoulder, and calmly said, “Hey. You’ve got this.” And I know that it was probably just her way of trying to calm me down because I was probably driving her nuts, but it worked and any time that I am super stressed out or wondering if I’m screwing everything up, I take a moment and remember that.

Because she’s right. I’ve got this. And even though I may not be completely on point with my enthusiasm, cheerleading, or teaching like a pirate-ness from minute one of day one, I know that when it comes to the long game, I’m going to have no problems. And I guess it’s kind of my hope that someone is reading this post (not likely, I barely get any traffic here) and can completely identify with my nervous energy and the exhaustion that comes from being introverted and forcing yourself to extrovert until you are comfortable. I don’t see many discussions about that when I read about making an impression on the first day, which maybe is one we should have so that we’re not all nervous wrecks and feeling guilty about hating the first day of school.

The Object of Poetry

PHOTOGRAPH
Michael Stipe & Natalie Merchant / Night Garden Music ©1993
I found this photograph
underneath broken picture glass
tender face of black & white
beautiful, a haunting sight
looked into an angel’s smile
captivated all the while
from her hair and clothes she wore
I’d have placed her in between the wars

Was she willing when she sat
and posed a pretty photograph
to save her flowering and fair
for days to come
for days to share
a big smile for the camera
how did she know
the moment could be lost forever
forever more

I found this photograph
in stacks between the old joist walls
in a place where time is lost
lost behind where all things fall
broken books and calendars,

Letters script in careful hand,
the music to a standard tune by
some forgotten big brass band

From the thresh hold what’s to see
of our brave new century
television’s just a dream
of radio and silver screen
a big smile for the camera
how did she know
the moment could be lost forever
forever more

Was her childhood filled with rhyme
or stolen books of passion crimes?
was she innocent or blind to the
cruelty of her time?
was she fearful in her day?
was she hopeful? did she pray?
were there skeletons inside
family secrets sworn to hide?
did she feel the heat that stirs
the fall from grace of wayward girls?
was she tempted to pretend
in love and laughter until the end?
Over spring break, I was talking about R.E.M. with a friend of mine for a future episode of his podcast, and over the course of our conversation, this song that the band recorded with Natalie Merchant in 1993 (which is around the time the band was riding the success of Automatic for the People and Merchant was nearing the end of her tenure as the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs) was mentioned and while we didn’t spend too much time analyzing it, we both agreed that the song is excellent

After the conversation, I wound up listening to “Photograph” again, and while there are a lot of times when R.E.M.’s lyrics border on the indecipherable, the lyrics here are actually more clear even if they are pretty complex. My first thought, upon first hearing it, was to compare it to the Jackson Browne song “Fountain of Sorrow,” but giving it another listen, I realized that the beauty in this particular song is that neither Merchant nor Michael Stipe know who the person in the photograph is.

It all reminds me of the early 2000s when I would waste time at work by looking at things posted to Found Magazine, which was devoted to trying to tell the story of objects that users had found. Many times, they related the circumstances that led to finding and keeping the object; other times, they were more about trying to tell that object’s story, in the same way that the lyrics are doing here.

The English teacher side of me loves this song, as does the writer side, because it lends itself to such a great multifaceted writing exercise. Of course, there’s the idea that I could take the time to tell the story of the photograph and answer the questions that they’re asking, similar to how I have often used Ted Kooser’s “Abandoned Farmhouse” as a springboard for a writing assignment. There’s also the possibility of describing the photograph based on the questions–as in, what about that photograph would lead someone to ask those questions?

And then there’s the objects that we own or don’t own that have stories behind them. Granted, you don’t need to study this song in order to create that assignment, but this would serve as a great model for any student looking to write the story of an object. If it’s something a student already owns, there is description and there is reflection; if it’s something the student doesn’t own (i.e., I gave them a photograph of people they didn’t know without any context), there is indulgence of curiosity and creativity, and also perhaps some self-reflection of the way that we judge people based on what we see.

I think poetry as a genre works really well, especially in this case, because it forces a person to stretch themselves. I could provide a prompt with a journal response, but that’s too simple and might result in some sort of bland description. This song, “Photograph,” and other poetry about the objects in our lives, goes deeper than that, asking questions that may not have answers and providing answers because it’s in our nature to want to do that.

Poetry on Paper

I’m standing here at 7:15 on a Wednesday morning. I should be getting my classroom ready for the day but instead I am reading a book of poems by Billy Collins that I have borrowed from the public library. It’s been taking me a while to finish it–not because the poetry is difficult, but because I like the idea of absorbing each poem after I read it. It sounds pretentious as hell, but there is something to be savored in those moments after you read the last line and are still in that poem’s world.

As I read these poems, or any collection of poetry for that matter, I make a mental note of those poems that I think my sophomores would enjoy or understand and other poems that would make good companions to the literature we are reading. If it’s something I will definitely use, I make a photocopy and pass it out.

Now, I realize that last sentence constitutes a major copyright violation on my part, but as I stand here reading poetry, basking in its glow, and thinking that my students may enjoy it, I’m also reminded of why we still use paper in this age of Innovative Educators doing everything in a virtual, paperless world.

I was introduced to poetry what seems like a billion years ago, when one of my elementary school teachers read selections from A Light in the Attic and Where The Sidewalk Ends. From there, it was photocopies of poems by Ogden Nash, Robert Frost (who is still a favorite), and Edgar Allan Poe. As I reached high school, I found myself poring over beat-up copies of random poetry by writers I had never heard of, none of which came from a text book. In fact, I don’t think that I had a “textbook” of poetry until I had to buy a Norton anthology in college (and that’s not a bad thing–between my wife and I, we have four Nortons in our house). It sounds weird to put it this way, but I have always felt that the way those poems were shared with me made them special. Yes, we eventually read a lot of them for analysis in class, which makes it all one big inauthentic experience, but for whatever reason, those photocopies meant something more in the way that my friend giving me a mix tape and saying, “You’ll like this” always meant more than my buying a CD at The Wiz.

This is a tradition that I am happy to continue, and I am happy that I still have paper to do it. Most of the time, if I were to tell a student “You really should download this book to your Kindle” or “You should google this writer,” they won’t do it. And yes, I realize that there are many times when I distribute a poem to the class and we read and talk about it, the copies of the poem are left on desks or fall to the floor at the end of class and I pick them up and put them in my filing cabinet. But there are also those students for whom that poem is a gateway and they find themselves on the computer that night falling down rabbit hole of poetry, something that started with a photocopy of a poem from a collection I was reading one morning.

So I’ll continue to do it, no matter how antiquated (and yes, borderline illegal) it may be. And I hope it’s not too arrogant to think that maybe there are a few of my students out there who are savoring those moments after finishing a poem, then taking a sip of coffee and going about their day.

The Accountability Paradox

One of the more frustrating things about being an English is when you assign reading and students don’t read it.  What is even more frustrating is when you assign reading and they don’t read it because you haven’t assigned questions or aren’t giving a quiz.  This has been a problem over the last couple of years in my advanced English classes.  I try to have my students feel like they are not being tracked, nagged, or inundated with pointless busy work; however, instead of an invested group that comes ready to discuss whatever the day’s topic is, I sometimes find myself feeling like I’m being taken advantage of.

On some level, I get it–when everything you have ever read for the past few years as come with an assignment attached to it, it’s hard to adjust to someone who says he wants to spend the period just talking about it; furthermore, with no questions or multiple choice assessment attached, just an analysis paper when all is said and done, there doesn’t seem to be much point to actually doing the reading.  Parents even have a hard time adjusting to this style–I remember a year when one parent complained that I “didn’t have enough grades in the gradebook” and that her daughter said, “All we do in that class is talk.”

And it’s not like I just drop a book on a desk and say, “Read it and come ready to discuss.”  I set the book up with guiding questions and then actually turn most of the discussion days over to students who then run the class as a seminar.  Granted, I set aside at least a day or two so I can run the discussion in order to get to topics that we didn’t get to on the seminar days, but for the most part, the discussion is student-led and student-driven.

On one hand, it makes the class more comfortable because they spend most of the time talking to each other and not me (I literally sit in the back of the room and barely say anything until maybe the last 10 minutes); on the other hand, I often notice that the groups running the seminar wind up feeling as frustrated as I do when they are met with complete silence.  They also worry about their grades, although I do what I can to reassure them that i take into account the class’s lack of participation and look to see how they work around the problem.

So overall, the continuing existential dilemma has presented itself:  grades are not supposed to be punitive, and out of respect for my students, I try not to grade punitively.  I could give a quiz the day the reading is due, which would trap all of the students who didn’t read, but what does that honestly prove?  The paper that’s assigned comes after all of this discussion and it serves a clear, twofold purpose:  I want them to show me how they as individuals can analyze and interpret those works of literature and also want them to have the experience of writing the types of essays and papers that they will continue to write beyond my class, whether it be in AP English or in college.  Our group discussions and seminars should help with that because the guiding questions from the beginning of the unit are the same questions that can be used in discussion are the same or similar questions for the paper.  The grades are more evaluative than punitive and it should show how well students have grasped what we’re doing (if that’s the right verbiage–if not, I’m sure someone can edusplain it to me).  But again, to them, no grade for just doing the reading=no need to read.

Part of teaching literature is to enrich and grow, to take students out of their comfort zones with works they would have never considered and then to explore those works to see what they reveal about human nature or society.  We use literature to explain the whys and hows of the world and to understand that which seems incomprehensible.  However, in order to teach such understandings the literature has to be read.  I want to help my classes reach that point but refuse to lower my standards so that they are rewarded just for doing the bare minimum.

Pop Culture Affidavit, Episode 44: Can I Skip the Book and Just Watch the Movie?

Over on my other blog/podcast, I have a special guest and we talk about adapting books into movies. Check it out!

Episode 44 Website CoverIt’s literally a literary episode of Pop Culture Affidavit as Professor Alan from the Relatively Geekly Network (Shortbox Showcase, Quarter Bin Podcast) joins me to talk about books and movies; specifically, adaptation. We get into what makes a good adaptation, what makes a bad adaptation, talk about movies based on books that we love and hate, and even discuss what books we’d like to see and not see made into films (with a little tangent conversation about television).

You can get the episode via iTunes (just search for “Two True Freaks Presents Pop Culture Affidavit”) or download/listen to it directly here:  Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 44

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