My friend Ann McCutchan posted this poem on social media, and today I needed it. Thanks be to her.
Visions of Apocalypse: Collapse
The world is always ending, but through poetry it is born again and again and again.
When I say “world,” I mean not only the macro-world—the world outside me, currently devastated by contemporary viruses such as COVID-19, racism, sexism, climate change, poverty, etc.—but also the micro-world, the one within me, crafted genetically and epigenetically, over countless generations in conjunction with my own meaning-making machine: my imagination.
The American modernist poet William Carlos Williams “make[s] two bold statements: There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and:
A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant.
Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.
Regarding Williams’ ideas about this imaginative machine of poetry, I promise that nothing has helped me suffer these apocalypses more than poems. Their power to sustain me through different darknesses lies in their “intrinsic, undulant and physical […] character.” Williams implies that poetry’s essential leanness, its concentrated form, catalyzes us to physically and emotionally move out of our confusing, “ill-defined matter[s]”—such as physical loads (debt, strained relationships, meaningless work) and spiritual loads (illness, addictions, catastrophic and ordinary losses).
How does poetry’s character help us do this?
Similar to classical tragedies and some types of therapy, poetry helps unstick us from these tricky places, places that like quicksand may appear stable, but are actually traps where we sink. But of course, we sink! We sink, we fall—regardless—because we’re human; however, if we stay sunk or fell, we’re doomed. Poetry’s “perfect economy” will not save us from collapse, but it has the power to drive us out of collapse. Poetry liberates us from the bondage of our habits, our “comfortable” ways of feeling, doing, being. It reveals our authentic hidden selves to our false selves so that we can be reborn.
If I sound melodramatic or too Romantic, fine. Go elsewhere and live in the multiple apocalypses occurring in the worlds without poetry. Take science as a cure; take religion; take money; take—God forbid!—conspiracy theories. See how things go for you and yours.
Poetry—made by humans / inspired by muses (aka divine powers that are greater than ourselves)—speaks to the still small voice within us, the one too vulnerable to speak for itself. A good poem (and there are so many, and they are everywhere; they come in all shapes and sizes, and they have the longest shelf life of all literary genres) lances a festering emotion; it names our particular furies so that we can move beyond them, so that we may understand our rage. For what is rage but a dustcover for grief?
And grief is the golden emotion.
Fundamentally, poetry is born of grief. As contemporary American poet Robert Hass writes, “All the new thinking is about loss. In this it resembles all the old thinking” (“Meditation at Lagunitas”).
If, through reading poetry we can penetrate the surface of our experience to fathom our grief, then we might heal our selves faster. In sharing our particular griefs with others, we may heal our world/s.
Featured Image: Design by Giulio Romano; painting Rinaldo Mantovano. Battle of the Gods and Giants, detail showing the collapse of the giant’s hall. 1532-1534. Artstor, library-artstor-org.kinkaid.idm.oclc.org/asset/SCALA_ARCHIVES_1039778916
WCW quote from: Williams’s introduction to The Wedge, in Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams (NY: New Directions, 1969), p. 256. Accessed via writing.upenn.edu, June 11, 2020.
West, Kanye and Kid Cudi. “Reborn.” Kids See Ghosts. Topic, provided to Youtube by Universal Music Group, June 8 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQC8COGQ4BM. Accessed June 11, 2020.
Visions of Apocalypse (3.2): Cracks
As a young poet, I craved a question that would crack open the world. Everyday, I would wake up, literally, with the plan to create it. The world needed cracking—the world needed breaking—and I would dedicate my life to crafting this question.
By this time, I had devoured a lot of books, but my palate was not sophisticated enough to comprehend that the world does not burst from one question alone. No—the world collapses under the weight of a thousand questions, a million questions, presented persistently over time. One book can finally force a rupture, but no one question can sate the appetite for apocalypse on its own.
I enjoyed enough literature to appreciate my error; in this literature, I encountered questions that ruined my taste for anything lacking complexity:
- How can I plan my world in a sane and thoughtful way? (Homer’s Odyssey, Book 18)
- Is a single man in possession of a large fortune in want of a wife? (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
- Are all happy families alike, and are all unhappy families unhappy in their own way? (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)
- Is life full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? (Shakespeare’s Macbeth).
These questions, these stories, wrecked me, cracked me apart so that I could begin again.
So that I could begin again.
This is what apocalypse allows us to do: begin again.
I grew up in Southern California near the San Andreas Fault, which cracks California in two from Mexico to Mendocino.
I’ve witnessed the consequences of major earthquakes and lived through minor ones. When I was ten, I awakened in the dawn-dark as my bed swayed toward the center of my room. At twenty-two, I moved to Northern California, San Francisco, pulling into the city on October 18, 1989, one day after the Loma Prieta 6.2 earthquake. For the next several months, I commuted to my job at the Exploratorium in the Marina District, passing homes whose facades had fallen off, looking like giant devastated dollhouses.
In childhood, I dreamed of living in San Francisco because, when I visited with my family, I could not believe the combination of cold air, bright sun, colorful houses, the dramatic shoreline, the bridges cloaked in fog, the green carpet of Golden Gate Park. The year I lived there (1989-1990), I learned that despite the wreckage affecting the city and its inhabitants, life went on. Some days, I felt so lucky to live there, I’d pinch myself on my way to work.
In 1999, my job as a high school English teacher nearly destroyed me; the job demanded so much creative, critical and physical energy that I felt used up. Adding insult to my psyche’s injury, some of the faculty at my school liked to suggest that the arts were “insignificant.” During one English Department meeting, a colleague (a college counsellor) stated that “the Arts classes don’t count; the A’s are so easy, colleges just throw those grades out.” I felt like barking and retching and screaming hearing such trash talk: I had never struggled more in school than during the years spent earning my Masters of Fine Arts. What I did not say in that department meeting, and it’s hard to say even now, is that if a teacher finds it hard to grade creative work, then that teacher might want to leave higher levels of learning. Among my peers, I was known as “the creative teacher,” a reputation that for half of my colleagues meant I was of no serious account. The other half thought I might redeem the school.
Because I would give up a steady paycheck if I quit, I needed serious help deciding whether I should stay or go, even though I knew that if I stayed, I would lose my mind. Magically, I found the serious help I needed in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Hecate, in Act 3.5, reprimands the weird sisters, demanding to know why they had trafficked with Macbeth at all, “a wayward son / Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do / Loves for his own ends.” Nevertheless, Hecate allows the sisters to ruin Macbeth completely: “by the strength of their illusion / [they] Shall draw him on to his confusion. / He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear / His hopes ‘bove wisdom, grace, and fear / And you all know, security / Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.”
I left the security of that full-time teaching job in 2003.
Teaching With the NYTimes
On Wednesday, 9/27/17, I’m co-presenting a webinar with Katherine Schulten and Michael Gonchar of The New York Times Learning Network. The webinar illustrates how to use NYTimes photographs, videos and infographics to teach critical thinking skills.
Here’s the link to more info about The NYTimes Learning Network’s Webinar Series for Educators.
Visions of Apocalypse: Part 3.1
Since the time I last reflected on the design and creation of this new Senior English course, Visions of Apocalypse: from Dante to Dylan to Dr. Dre, a couple notable things have occurred.
- The class commenced; it features eleven young men and me. In the first few days, there was one young woman, but she dropped the course last week.
- The apocalypse occurred. It had a “local habitation and a name”:
Before Harvey interrupted our learning, I assigned the seniors Book 5 of The Odyssey with this guiding question: “How can a close reading of this book help us understand the concept of ‘apocalypse’ with more nuance; how might it provide us with a wider definition of ‘apocalypse’?” In an earlier post, I explained why Book 5 and apocalypse are intertwined in my mind: the word “apocalypse” stems from Calypso, whose name means she who hides. Apocalypse, by extension, means the unhiding.
I instructed the students, “we are searching….” Several of these young men read The Odyssey with me as their teacher when they were freshmen, so we were also researching.
We didn’t have to search long. The apocalypse found us before we could meet back up and discuss the reading.
In book 5 when the hurricane hits, Odysseus exclaims, “Wretched man—what becomes of me now, at last?” As we in Houston waited out Harvey’s rain, watching the news or checking Space City Weather relentlessly for updates or watching the water rise on our street or in our house, we asked the same question: what will become of us?
At some point during the days after the rains stopped, it occurred to me that my students might be reading (I hoped) about Odysseus surviving a hurricane and weathering a flood, as, simultaneously, we were surviving the dirty side of Hurricane Harvey and weathering a flood. Weirder and weirder. Wyrd in its Anglo Saxon origins means “fate.”
Here is the first thing that a close reading of Book 5 of The Odyssey (800 BCE) clarifies about apocalypse, and it’s a thing that relates to the current situation in Houston (2017).
Material preparation will not protect us from apocalypse.
When Odysseus learns that Calypso is letting him go (apocalypso-ing him), he immediately sets to crafting the raft that will sail him home to Ithaca. Lines 259-287 present a near-precise blueprint for building a seaworthy raft. Despite Odysseus’ deft and speedy building skills, despite his thorough preparation and divine Calypso’s aid—she provides him with tools, timber, cloth, fragrant clothes, a nutritious and filling meal, and even memorable sex on the evening prior to his setting off—he still is unprepared to handle the real-time waves, churning into chaos, “whipping all the gales from every quarter, / shrouding over in thunderheads the earth and sea at once” (5.322-324). Within moments of the hurricane starting, “the brawling galewinds [strike] full force, snapping the mast mid-shaft / and hurling the sail and sailyard far across the sea” (5.350-351); moments after losing his sail, “Poseidon god of the earthquake launche[s] a colossal wave, / terrible, murderous, arching over him, pounding down on him, / hard as a windstorm blasting piles of dry parched chaff, / scattering flying husks—so the long planks of his boat were scattered far and wide” (5.403-407). For all his preparations, he still loses everything, finally even the clothes divine Calypso gave him.
Likewise, in Houston before Harvey hit, many of us did our best to prepare.
Because I had freaked out in a previous hurricane season, our disaster supplies kit was well-stocked; we just needed extra water, which my husband got on his way home from work on Thursday. On the other hand,
- We did not have flood insurance, nor could we get any because the storm was literally upon us. What can I say? We live in “the Heights,” 52 feet above sea level; we didn’t think we’d need it.
- Our “family disaster plan” was to stay together—god forbid disaster should strike while we were at our respective schools/jobs; in this case, we knew Harvey was going to hit Rockport on Friday night, so we’d most likely be home together over the weekend.
- We knew that, regardless of the situation, we weren’t going to evacuate: we’d tried to evacuate at the last minute during Hurricane Rita and ended up creeping west along State Highway 1093 (Westheimer) for ten hours with our then-nine-month-old daughter, a garbage bag full of clothes and diapers, and our polydactyl cat Ginger. Before we ran out of gas on that evac attempt, we made it to a friend’s parents’ house in Jersey Village, weathering that non-event for the next three days with them. I’m in total agreement with the mayor’s decision to NOT order evacuation of Houston for Harvey, as I shudder to imagine the thousands who might have drowned while waiting for traffic to move.
As it turned out for my family during Harvey, we did not flood; we did not lose power; we did not lose property. Like so many in Houston, we breathed a deep sigh of relief, grateful for our good fortune, and then, driven by extreme survivor’s guilt, we set to figuring out how we might help those who were not as fortunate: we donated money, did flood-related laundry for others, made emergency-related phone calls for people, cooked food and delivered it to first responders, showed up to volunteer at the GRB, NRG, Meals on Wheels or any number of other places that provided people with desperately needed help: shelter, diapers, food, water, towels, bedding, shoes. The lists were long and ever-shifting.
A week and a half after the flood, after the waters receded in the inner loop, but not in some areas outside the loop (i.e., Houston’s suburbs), I met a man from Meyerland, and he told me about how he thought he was so well prepared, buying a generator and a new swamp cooler, stocking up on disaster supplies and extra food. His home flooded in a matter of seconds, he said: “at first, there was only a foot of water inside, but then I opened the door to see what the flooding was like outside, and three to four feet of water rushed in. I couldn’t even close the door. All of my preparedness was underwater in moments.” He continued telling me how he and his family spent the day and night in the attic, how he built a makeshift toilet for the girls to use in privacy by cutting a hole in the seat of a lawn chair and taping plastic bags to it, how he was already searching for furniture to put in the house they rebuild. “It is what it is,” he said. “It was so traumatizing; all we can do is keep going.” I felt grateful that he was willing to share some of his story with me.
Here’s one of the first lessons we have learned from poetry (and from our personal experiences with Harvey) about how to survive the apocalypse: we can’t prepare physically or materially to avoid apocalypse, but we can prepare mentally to endure it.
How to prepare mentally for apocalypse.
Hint: it involves cultivating and transforming our awareness.
Today my work with 10th graders at The Kinkaid School was featured in The New York Times. I wrote the piece as a lesson plan that could be implemented by other teachers. The NYTimes Learning Network is a fantastic resource: I highly recommend their site. I’ll be co-presenting a webinar with them on September 27th, and I will post details as the date approaches. I’m looking forward to using the resources they recently compiled for their Vietnam War education archive; I start teaching Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried next week!
In other news, I witnessed the nearly-total solar eclipse today, too; from where I stood, coverage reached about 65%.
Tomorrow, I get to meet my 2017-2018 students for the first time. I am looking forward to beginning again.
Visions of Apocalypse: from Dante to Dylan to Dr. Dre (part 2)
What do I mean by “apocalypse”? What are the apocalypses being envisioned by Dante, Dylan, Dr. Dre?
I stand in the back of the Recital Hall and watch and listen as my colleagues (veteran Senior English teachers at the Independent School where I’ve taught for the past seven years) “pitch” their courses. The AP Courses get pitched first: “Gods and Monsters,” “Shakespeare in Tandem,” “Critical Approaches to Literature,” “Gothic Literature.” Several of my colleagues have visual aids: a wooden Buddha, a hand-held mirror, even a baby! (My colleague on maternity leave returned to campus for the day to pitch her class). Even though we’ve been given a three-minute time limit to “sell” our courses, most of my colleagues miss the mark by about two to three minutes. Understandable—each of us has designed our course around our passion and expertise, those questions we most care about as readers and writers (eight of our department’s faculty are working, publishing writers). I want to enroll in all their classes. After each pitch, the students whisper and throw meaningful looks at each other; “That’s the one I want to take,” they say to each other through their eyes and body language.
Now it my team’s turn to pitch, the on-level teachers: “Human Beings: Heroes or Beasts?”; “Rebels and Outcasts”; “Visions of Apocalypse: from Dante to Dylan to Dr. Dre.” I have a little under three minutes to present my course before the bell rings, sending students to their D period classes. I have no notes, no visual aid, but I have my title, “Visions of Apocalypse: From Dante to Dylan to Dr. Dre,” and I’ve spent the previous class period trying to gather my ideas in writing, so I feel prepared enough not to flub it. Here is what I’ve written in prep:
The world is always ending, but through poetry it is always being remade.
In this course, we explore how poets translate the harsh truths about the human condition into an energizing, even beautiful, force. Poetry is like a crucible—a transformative container, wherein the writer transforms life experiences through the forge of language, tempering grief, love, joy, loss, rage, hope, longing through devices such as image, meter, rhyme, etc.
Poetry endures. It’s the most powerful form of literature because of its flexibility: it slays whether a Bible verse, a Shakespeare play, a Greek epic, or a Rap song. In this course, students explore how poets give people language for experiences and ideas which seem unfathomable—for example Hell (Dante), racial and class paradoxes (Bob Dylan), street violence in Compton, California (Dr. Dre). Day to day, students read and analyze poetry (lyric, narrative, epic, dramatic, rap); they read essays and books and articles about poetry, and they write their own essays and articles about poetry. Additionally, they experience first-hand the world of the poet as creator, attending at least two poetry events (readings, slams, workshops) and writing poetry themselves.
My actual presentation to the students does not go as smoothly as my writing, but I stumble close enough to my original thinking, and, as I do, I notice the looks on students’ faces: they’re incredulous, confused, bemused, even happily shocked; some of them laugh at me and roll their eyes. Their skepticism is palpable, and it’s also reasonable: here I am—a seemingly middle-aged white lady proposing a class that sounds bizarre, and, to those in the know about Dr. Dre and rap lyrics in general, iconoclastic (or, in the parlance of high school students, “WTF?”). I bank on the fact that the students who know me already through my 9th and 10th grade courses are giving me the benefit of the doubt because they know that I’m “the kind of teacher who likes to have fun,” as one student wrote in one of my favorite evaluation comments ever.
Fast forward several months. The course selections are complete and the classes have been populated (mine “made”); I’m starting to be asked by colleagues and even a few parents, “What do you mean by “apocalypse”? One parent, who also teaches at the school, admits to me gently that the course was not his son’s first choice, and that when they went to pick up the summer reading, Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin Manuel-Miranda, the Barnes and Noble clerk was flummoxed: “You’re reading this for a class called what?!! How is Hamilton apocalyptic?!”
“I’m wondering the same thing,” my colleague confesses.
“I mean apocalypse in its original sense; I mean it in its etymological sense,” I explain to him, and I trust he will understand because he teaches Latin.
The word kalyptô in Ancient Greek means “hidden, veiled.” We find this root in a word like, “eucalyptus” (a fast-growing evergreen Australasian flowering tree that dominated my childhood in Southern California). The prefix eu means “well”; add it to the root kalyptô, and the word evolves, referencing the well-hidden seed pod that conceals the tree’s flower.
So, the word in question, broken into its Greek etymological parts—apo (un) and kaluptein (to cover)—I hope clarifies that I do not mean the word in the sense of “the complete final destruction of the world, as described in the biblical book of Revelation,” which is what people initially think I mean. No: what I mean is more along the lines of “unhiding,” and “uncovering” — of revealing that which has been concealed.
Calypso — In Ancient Greek, this goddess’s name literally means, “she who conceals” (Oxford Living Dictionary, online). In Homer’s Odyssey this “bewitching nymph, the lustrous goddess held [Odysseus] back, / deep in her arching caverns” (Fagels 1.13-15). In other words, she hides Odysseus in her cave “across a salty waste so vast, / so endless [there is] no city of men in sight” (5. 112-113).
True, Odysseus has sex with Calypso, losing himself in love in her arms on a nightly basis; however, also true is the fact that “the nymph no longer please[s]” Odysseus. He has grown tired of her. Her ways have worn out on him (or worn him out). Homer describes Odysseus as an “unwilling lover alongside lover all too willing…” (5.172). He is being used; Calypso is using him. Calypso wants to keep Odysseus with her because he gives her immortal existence pleasure and meaning and power; in exchange, she offers Odysseus immortality (eternal youth). However, in order for Odysseus to enact his human destiny, he must not remain concealed by Calypso. According to Zeus, Odysseus must be apo-Calypsoed.
Thus, when he leaves Calpyso’s island, his apocalypse begins, and even though Calypso prophesies that “pains are fated to fill [his] cup,” even though Poseidon has in store for him “a swamping fill of trouble” (5.229 and 320), this journey is, nevertheless, the one he must undertake in order to arrive home.
Visions of Apocalypse: from Dante to Dylan to Dr. Dre
Our worlds are always ending, but through poetry they are remade.
Next fall, I start teaching an English course I have designed for on-level high school seniors (“on-level” means not Advanced Placement). I came up with this course title, “Visions of Apocalypse: From Dante to Dylan to Dr. Dre,” after the curriculum committee rejected my initial title—Poetry and People. “Very few high school seniors will sign up for a course called ‘Poetry and People,'” the committee agreed.
My revised title possesses more verve and vigor, yes, but the humbleness of my first title, Poetry and People, pleases me, too. I wanted my students to know that poetry is for people: high school seniors and iron workers and moms with three children under seven and priests and bus drivers and office workers and business owners and migrant workers and fast-food servers and voice coaches and football players and anime lovers. It’s not exclusively for rarified folks—for example, AP English teachers and AP English students (although, full disclosure, I did fall hard for poetry in my own AP English class at Capistrano Valley High School—T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” being the poem that stopped me from living my life in the same way as I had been before).
Here’s the thing I’ve discovered that I want to share with my students: More than any other type of literature, poetry survives. Homer’s epics, Shakespeare’s plays, The Bible’s verses—all are examples of the enduring power of poetry. The essential question of the course, when the title was Poetry and People, was “why does poetry survive so much, and how can it help me survive?”
It’s risky to design a course for high school students that centers on poetry, but W.H. Auden’s poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” inspired me to do so because, in addition to being the most enduring form of literature, poetry is also one of the most subversive forms, and high schoolers are totally into subversion (defined by my Macbook dictionary as the act of undermining the power and authority of an established system or institution). Auden hints at poetry’s subversive power when he says,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Auden’s line “poetry makes nothing happen” often snags readers’ attention and keeps it there, but his word “executive” must be understood as the contrast to this “nothingness” that poetry makes happen. The word “executive” comes from the Latin “exsequi,” meaning “carry out,” “follow up,” or (according to Macbook’s dictionary), “punish” (as in execute). These executives do not dwell in the valley made by poetry while they’re carrying out, following up, or punishing; they are up in their steel-and-glass towers, cutting labor costs to increase their companies’ profits, strategizing how to maximize exposure for their products or services and therefore consumption. These executives work so hard to make money make more money that they are always up in the air. For those of us who live down on the ground in “ranches of isolation,” “Busy [with our] griefs”—turning fifty, losing a parent or a child, paying taxes, coping with illness or addictions, working and living paycheck to paycheck, feeling unrepresented by our representatives—in our “Raw towns that we believe and die in,” when the mouth of poetry speaks, we are more likely to hear it.
In Auden’s poem, poetry is a river that flows through the valley it has made. It may be out of view or irrelevant (why “tamper” with it?) unless we’re on the brink—of loss, of falling, of going down—or unless we already exist down in the valley somewhere near this river. Maybe we live close enough to this river that we can hear its rapids; maybe we can see the cottonwoods that grow along its banks, this river called Poetry that has the power to refresh us, to sustain us. Let’s wade in the water, why don’t we? Perhaps we’ll give ourselves over to the current and be borne along.
Poetry is not merely soothing. It’s energizing and invigorating—even scary. Poetry’s power to frighten was the force that stopped me on purpose. This stanza that opens Eliot’s “Love Song” changed my life:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.”
Auden argues that “poetry makes nothing happen,” and this is true: it has the power to make us do nothing, to stop us long enough on purpose that we notice that something more, something deeper is calling us not just to notice, not just to follow up, but to follow it down.
What is it in poetry that calls us? Who is the Caller?
Tanguy’s image, “Neither Legends nor Figures” is taken from The Menil Collection website: https://www.menil.org/collection/objects/5146-neither-legends-nor-figures-legendes-ni-figures
My students have been writing rhetorical analyses of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In an attempt to help them compose their paragraphs more mindfully, coherently and logically, I repurposed an idea from Viktor Shklovsky, the Russian Formalist critic: I instructed my students to take their paragraphs and make them strange.
They undertook Shklovsky’s concept of Ostranenie by rewriting one of their analytical body paragraphs on index cards, parsing the paragraph’s sentences out card by card. I provided each student with the number of cards he or she needed; post-it notes could work as well, although index cards are slightly easier to move around and manipulate quickly, and I happened to have a lot of them on hand!
As students wrote out their sentences, which took 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the number of sentences in their typed paragraphs and the length of their quotations, I fielded questions.
“Can I put ‘dot, dot, dot’ in the middle of a long quote so that I don’t have to write the whole thing out?” a sweet 16-year old boy called out.
I responded firmly. “No.”
“But this quote is so long!” he whinnied.
“Hmmmm,” I answered, “maybe you don’t need the whole thing?”
It was working! Students noticed things that normally are hard for them to notice; for example, the process slowed them down enough to recognize that maybe they didn’t need the WHOLE quotation to support their idea — maybe they only needed a part of it.
I emphasized that students should pay attention to any awarenesses and thoughts they had while they wrote their sentences out on the cards. “Maybe you’ll see a grammatical error that you didn’t see before, realize that you’ve mistakenly tried to make a dependent clause stand on its own. Maybe you’ll notice that one of your sentences can be broken into two sentences, or that one of your sentences doesn’t really belong logically in this paragraph.”
Students continued to work; their engagement inspired and thrilled me.
Once they’d finished this part, I gave them ten minutes to read and annotate a handout about paragraphs from The Little Seagull Handbook. Any grammar and writing handbook would work for this part of the lesson; I pulled from my bookshelf the book closest at hand, but I could have easily pulled the Hodges’ Harbrace College Handbook or Easy Writer: A High School Reference, both of which are in my bookcase, too. These types of handbooks provide concise instructions for writing issues (like “Developing Paragraphs”) and provide examples for students to examine. Aimed at beginning writers, the lessons from these handbooks can be read and comprehended quickly.
After they read the lesson on paragraphing, we discussed it briefly, reviewing the functions of a paragraph and the suggestions for how to make them more coherent using strategies like repetition, parallel structure, transitions. I spent a few extra minutes showing them examples from the Purdue Owl website of non-parallel and parallel structures, because in my experience, the importance of using parallel structure is the greatest challenge young writers need to master.
I asked them to shuffle their sentence cards before spreading them out before them again in the appropriate order.
“Based on what you just read, take some time to see if any of your sentences might benefit from the repetition of key phrases, from parallel structures, or from transitional words or phrases.”
“Wait,” a girl with braids said, “I can’t remember the order of my sentences! Can I look at my typed paragraph?” (They’d been told to put their typed drafts away).
“No,” I said, firmly again. “My hope is that you are able to tell which sentence goes where.”
This was one problem I had been hoping for. I wanted students to understand that no matter how strange they made their analytical paragraphs, the techniques they employed could make the order of ideas so apparent that they — or anyone else, for that matter — could reconstitute the paragraph from the index cards, based on the component parts (topic sentence, evidence, analysis of the evidence, etc.) and the logical flow (coherence).
Once they had finished finessing the sentences on their cards, I asked them to shuffle them again and then give me their stacks. Then, I randomly reassigned a stack to each student.
“Now let’s see how well you can reassemble your peer’s paragraphs!”
They were not allowed to talk at all during this process, to ask the paragraph writer which sentence went where. I gave each student a large post-it note and told them to write any comments or questions they had for the writer on the post-it. I gave them about 20 minutes to do this part of the activity.
At the end, I asked students to number their peers’ cards in the order they thought was correct and to return the cards and the feedback sheet to the paragraph’s owner. I overheard them giving great feedback to one another at this point, telling each other what had made it easy or difficult to reassemble the paragraphs.
One student asked, “What if my peer put my sentences into a different order than I meant them to be, but her order works better than mine?”
“Fantastic!” I beamed.
This lesson worked really well for all the students and they had a great time doing it.
“Doing this made me realize how I needed to make my paragraph stronger,” one student said.
“While writing out my paragraph on the cards, I felt really bad because I could see how bad my paragraph was,” another student said.
“That’s okay,” I consoled the latter. “It happens to the best of us.”
Inspired by Shklovsky, I hoped that by making their paragraphs strange, my students would see them in a more mindful, vivid light (instead of numbly recognizing them), and in seeing them more clearly — five days before final drafts are due — they could make revisions that would help them become clearer, stronger, sounder writers.
Want to be happy? Slow down
I enjoyed this read.