lindsayillich

You Mean She’s Alive?

This post is written by member Lindsay Illich. 

I get this question from students often when I share a poem in class by a living writer. For some students, poems are historical, discrete things that come to them by way of textbooks,  anthologies, or riddles of dead writers come to haunt them. Or worse, poems are inflicted on them as assessment instruments in standardized tests where students are asked to dissect the poems’ meanings (you can read about Sara Holbrook’s horror after discovering two of her poems were used on standardized tests in Texas). It does not always occur to them that the poet might be a contemporary who could be writing poems on this very day, or even right now.

The poems writers are sharing right now are beautiful and devastating, shimmering in their perfect singularity. Poets ask us to consider what it must be like to love a brother who is an addict (Natalie Diaz), to see a flower that might have been planted by the hands of Eric Garner (Ross Gay), to love someone more than all the windows in New York City (Jessica Greenbaum), or to be getting an MRI to monitor the spread of your cancer (Leilla Chatti). Not only do these contemporary poems and poets show students how poetry is uniquely suited to address emotional complexity, but also they demonstrate how it is poems build invisible bridges that connect people across time, space, and experience.

Poems overcome our separateness.

“Good Bones,” a poem by Maggie Smith, garnered a worldwide readership after it was published just after the Orlando Pulse shooting. Although the poem was not written in response to the tragedy, its sentiment resonated. Many felt that it gave a collective voice to how hopeless we feel in the face of violent tragedy. The poem was named poem of the year by Public Radio International and was featured on the April 9 episode of the CBS TV series Madam Secretary.

So where do you find these alive poets? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Subscribe to the “Poem-A Day,” sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, and get new (and some old) poems delivered to your email.
  2.  If you have the resources available to you, request institutional subscriptions to a few print poetry journals (like Gulf Coast, 32 Poems, or Prairie Schooner).
  3. Follow online poetry journals like Waxwing or The Shallow Ends on Twitter, where they post links to newly published poems.
  4. Finally, find some poets you like and follow them on Twitter. Poets love poems; they will share links and even pictures of poems daily (you should start with @KavehAkbar, a prolific lover, sharer, and writer of poems).

Another reason to read and connect with contemporary poets is to offer your students the opportunity to ask writers questions about their work. After reading a poem by Adrian Matejka, my students wondered why the poet identified with the boxer, Jack Johnson. It occurred to me that with Twitter, we could just ask him. So we did, and he graciously replied.

Yes, the poet is alive, and students will love her work if you share it with them. And, perhaps, reading the current work of living writers will serve as reminders to students that writing as a way of expression is a thing that people do, that even they could do.

Lindsay Illich is an associate professor of English at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts. Her first book, Rile & Heave, won the Texas Review Press Breakout Prize in poetry. 

English Teachers as Contemporary Shamans

I am always behind in my reading, so today, I finally picked up the Winter 2017 edition of The ALAN Review. The issue’s theme is “Story and the Development of Moral Character,” and it begins with the printed words of Jandy Nelson’s 2015 ALAN Workshop Keynote Address.

I need to stop here and say that I hope you’ve heard of ALAN (the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the NCTE), NCTE’s first assembly and the sponsor of that two-day book and author extravaganza on the Monday and Tuesday after the NCTE Annual Convention each year.  If you teach adolescents, you’ll want to join this group, and if you’re lucky, one day you’ll be able to join 499 other book and author loving English teachers for the ALAN Workshop, schmooze with YA Authors, and build your muscles carrying that 40-pound box of YA books you’ll receive.

But back to Jandy Nelson who started off her address by explaining “this belief I have that English teachers are our contemporary shamans: the wakers of sleeping souls, the planters of dreams in heads, the imparters of some of life’s most valuable gifts: compassion, empathy, humanity, ambiguity, wonder, joy.” She went on to describe a few of her own deep learning experiences with English teachers.

There was her 14th year of

“Man’s Inhumanity to Man”…books that explored genocide, poverty, oppression, racism, human cruelty and brutality, existential angst, social alienation, loneliness, moral bankruptcy, spiritual impoverishment…

“Audre Lorde said, ‘The Learning process is something you can incite, literally, incite, like a riot.’ This is what happened that year. We read and talked and disagreed, and the world, so very much world, began to shake inside us as we found our humanity in all this inhumanity, found empathy and compassion, found moral compasses, as we learned to hold history accountable, to hold the newspaper headlines accountable, to hold each other accountable. And all this in English class, not at home, not at church or temple or mosque, but from reading novels with Ms. W. In one year, she turned us into thinkers. I began to understand reading and writing as a revolution, thinking as being a profoundly active verb. I began to understand that a person writing quietly in a room might be burning down the world. And then rebuilding it, word by word, into something magnificent.”

Words worth contemplating this week before NCTE Advocacy Day, and all the weeks of your years as shamans for students preK-16+.

By the way, please enjoy the columns from this issue (and others) of The Alan Review. To read the full and future issues, join ALAN.

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christinagil

What Does Cherry Picking Have to Do With Literary Analysis?

This post is written by member Christina Lovdal Gil. 

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot recently about the various ways that people convince themselves that what they believe is true, in spite of whatever evidence might contradict those views.  Now that I seem to live in a time of fake news and alternative facts and hyper- partisan politics, it has become increasingly important to me to figure out how to help teenagers to avoid following in those deep-rutted tracks of flawed thinking.

Analyzing poetry might not seem like the best way to deal with current situations, but in fact, whether students are talking about America’s greatness, or about death and old age, or about the immigration experience, I believe that teaching them to analyze poetry by looking at all of the evidence is a great way to help them develop their critical thinking skills.

Here are a few terms that I have learned in my research:

Confirmation bias or cognitive bias is the tendency of human beings to ignore any evidence that refutes already-held beliefs.

The backfire effect is the name for what happens when human beings hold those possibly flawed views even more strongly when they are presented with evidence that refutes them.

The illusion of explanatory depth is the belief that we know more than we really do.

The fallacy of the single cause is the belief that there is one, simple reason for a phenomenon when it might have been caused by number of factors.

The cherrypicking fallacy is the tendency to choose evidence that supports an argument while ignoring that which disputes it.

I have recently learned these terms, but I have been fighting these biases and flawed ways of thinking for years—in the way that I teach my students to analyze poetry.

The steps that I instruct my students to follow when analyzing a poem are the same ones that they can follow when attempting to understand any kind of complex idea or issue.  My biggest goal here is not for students to create a smooth-sounding thesis or for them to identify poetic elements by name.  What I most want is for them to embrace the parts of the text that are confusing or ambiguous or contradictory.  Those are the pieces that scare the human brain the most, and they are also the places where the meaning happens.

This process could be followed for any kind of examination or analysis.

First, you examine the evidence.  Notice that I didn’t say that you start with a thesis or an idea that you want to prove.  Doing that will only encourage cherry picking and flawed ideas.  Instead, you look at what’s there and notice everything you can.  For poetry, this might mean that you annotate all of the interesting words or images, for a science experiment it might mean that you take notes on the effects of a catalyst, and for a history analysis it might mean that you read multiple accounts of an important event and analyze data about the outcomes of that event.

Then you come up with an idea based on the majority of that evidence.  Looking for trends or causes or reasons is a good way to make sense of complicated information, but we also have to watch out for the old fallacy of the single cause.  I like oversimplification as much as the next person, so this is one that I have to be especially cautious of.  But a good first step towards understanding evidence is to come up with a way to explain the majority of what you’ve found.

Then, you look specifically for the pieces of evidence that contradict that idea.  When you’ve lumped together data in order to make sense of it, there will always be something left out.  Rather than see that as a minor drawback to your thesis or as a piece to quickly identify in a short paragraph about the counterclaim, you’ll need to recognize that evidence is very important.

Finally, and this is the hardest as well as the most important part, you create a new thesis that incorporates the evidence that seems to refute your idea.  The best way that I know to train your brain to let go of all those tendencies to ignore evidence or alternative ideas is to embrace the stuff that is subtle or ambiguous or hard to fit in a nice neat mold.  Ideas that incorporate it all are far superior to ideas that are based on cherry picking evidence.

It’s not that every human being is subject to these tendencies towards biases in our thinking all the time, but we have them in our brain chemistry.  And when you put all those fallacies and beliefs together, what you get is a room full of people, screaming their heads off about their own ideas, listening to no one except themselves and those who repeat their thoughts, and refusing to acknowledge any evidence that doesn’t support what they already think.

I want to do anything that I can to get those people to quiet down and start listening to each other.

Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.

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Poetry and English Leadership Quarterly

During National Poetry Month, we will be posting poems that originally ran in one of the ten journals published by NCTE. This poem “For the students” by Emilie Lygren comes from English Leadership Quarterly:

For the students

Sometimes we sit in circles with these questions-
What are you afraid of?
Who are your heroes and why?
What do you do in your free time that really makes you free?
My students answer-

I have no free time. It is all full of work, then I take care of my little sister.
My hero is my brother because when there are guns he pushes me to the ground.
Sometimes I am afraid my mother will work so hard she will die.

They are ten, maybe eleven.

I cannot follow them home
and ask their fathers
to stop leaving,
take their books and burdens
for an hour a day
so they can go be children again.

I can listen when they speak.
I can turn their heads towards the sunrise,
then to the dragonflies hatching by the creek.
I can hold their packs while they run shouting
towards an ocean they have never seen.
I can dump the watering can on their heads
on the hottest day of the year.
I can honor their courage, and their joy.

I cannot change the world they are living into,
but I can change the world they live in
for the tremor of a moment,
the same way we all can for each other with a
small smile or knowing sigh
and the fierce act of living in the world with an
open heart.

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National Poetry Month – Dramatic Poetry

dramaticAfter looking at narrative poetry and lyric poetry, let’s look at dramatic poetry! Dramatic poetry can be thought of as any drama written in verse which is meant to be spoken, usually to tell a story or portray a situation. This type of poetry appears in varying, sometimes related forms in many cultures. Here are some resources on dramatic poetry from NCTE and ReadWriteThink.org

Arguing that analysis of the musical qualities of poetry is often avoided, the author of “Learning to Listen, Listening to Learn: Teaching Poetry as a Sensory Medium” presents strategies teachers can use to help students understand how these elements contribute to constructing meaning. He relates the musical qualities of poetry to similar features of popular music. A poem from Ben Jonson is used as an example. “Finding Poetry in Prose: Reading and Writing Love Poems” from ReadWriteThink.org also highlight’s a Jonson poem.

In “Masters as Mentors: The Role of Reading Poetry in Writing Poetry” the author shares how to present well-known poems andsuggests ways students can pen their own poetic responses to them. “This technique is a wonderful way to prompt student creativity, as it gives children specific guidelines without limiting their
spontaneity.” A piece from dramatic poet Christopher Marlowe is used as one of the examples in the article.

A classic example of dramatic poetry is “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. “Reimagining Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ through Visual and Performing Arts Projects” invites students ti incorporate film, painting, performance, and other arts in their imaginative and innovative responses to a classic work.

How does dramatic poetry play out in your classroom?