Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place: Part 4

This post is the fourth and final in a series about my experiences at the NEH summer program, Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place. If you haven’t read the first three, you can find them here, here and here. My experiences on the fourth day may differ slightly from those of other participants as we divided into groups. Because the fifth day was a short day, this post will include my reflections for both the fourth and fifth day of the workshop.

As was the case on the previous days, we began with Bruce Penniman’s “Writing into the Day” reflections. On Thursday, we wrote in response to “What is ‘Paradise'” (Franklin 241) and our inferences about Emily Dickinson’s Amherst as she lived it. On Friday, we wrote reflections for the week in response to our choice of two poems, Franklin 930 or 1597.

After writing, my group headed to the Jones Library, Amherst’s public library, to work with artifacts in the special collection. My curriculum mentor Wendy Kohler was one of our guides for this activity. I chose to examine artifacts connected to Amherst’s history of education, as I was intrigued the previous day by Emily Dickinson’s writing instruction. My group examined an 1822 autograph book belonging to a girl, and we were struck that her classmates wrote so frequently on weighty issues such as death and often wrote poetry. It’s a long way from “have a great summer.” There was a great deal of material connected to Mt. Pleasant Classical Institution, which no longer exists. I couldn’t find any evidence any of the Dickinsons attended the school, but Henry Ward Beecher and one of the Roosevelts, James Roosevelt, attended the school. I didn’t find a lot of answers, and I am still curious about the kind of writing instruction students were given. If you read Dickinson’s letters, you can see improvement in her expression and clarity of thought in the letters she writes during her adolescence.  Clearly, Amherst citizens valued education and took great pains to make sure good schools were available to their children. I would also have had the option to explore science and religion, the Civil War,  or gender/women. There was one other option that I have forgotten—my fault for not writing it down. I wish in some ways I had chosen to explore the artifacts connected to either the Civil War or gender, but we only had so much time. I might be able to go back and see these artifacts in more detail some other time. The library also has an exhibit on Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, including several interesting Dickinson family artifacts.

Emily Dickinson’s calling card

Emily Dickinson didn’t sign her first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson but slipped one of her calling cards inside. I like to think it was from the same batch of cards as the one above.

If you look closely at this notebook, you’ll see Emily Dickinson’s birth recorded on December 10 under her father’s name.

Emily Dickinson’s birth record.

Next, my group joined Christanne Miller for a discussion of Emily Dickinson’s Civil War poetry. Miller encouraged us to select the poems we wanted to discuss. The Civil War was Dickinson’s most prolific period, and it was also during this time that Dickinson spent almost a year in Cambridge recovering from a problem with her eyes. We discussed how the death of Amherst native Frazar Stearns at the Battle of New Bern affected Dickinson and her family. Of course, Thomas Wentworth Higginson was in command of the 1st Carolina Volunteers, the first black regiment. Dickinson’s brother Austin was drafted in 1864, but he paid for a substitute to go in his stead. There is a family story my grandmother used to tell me about having an uncle (probably a great- or even great-great-uncle) who went to war as a paid substitute several times. I need to do a little research and find out if such an individual existed. She did have at least one great-grandfather who fought in the Civil War but not as a paid substitute.

Basically, there were three reasons why someone might not serve in the war after being drafted: 1) they had enough money not to (Austin Dickinson), 2) they were the sole financial support of an extended family, or 3) they offered crucial community support (one could argue this also applied to Austin Dickinson). We can’t say for sure why Austin didn’t go, but we did discuss there was less support in general as the war dragged on. Miller pointed out the Civil War was the first war with a quick communication of the events of the war and with a highly literate, informed population. She remarked that one can find Civil War letters all over the country because so many people were writing during the war.

Near the end of our discussion, I shared the following passage from The Catcher in the Rye with my group. It’s a passage I often like to discuss when I teach the novel.

I remember Allie once asked [D. B.] wasn’t it sort of good that he was in the war because he was a writer and it gave him a lot to write about and all. He made Allie go get his baseball mitt [with Allie’s favorite poems written in green ink] and then he asked him who was the best war poet, Rupert Brooke or Emily Dickinson. Allie said Emily Dickinson.

That passage always struck me, but the experience I had this week has convinced me that Salinger was thinking on a very deep level about personal experience and writing. We don’t think of Emily Dickinson as a war poet, but she really was, and she wrote quite a number of poems that are definitely about the war and more that might be about the war, depending on interpretation. It was such a pleasure to be able to discuss poems with Miller, and if you don’t own a copy of her edition of Dickinson’s poems, definitely get it.

After lunch, we spent some time working in our curriculum groups, as our lessons or units were due by 6:00 PM. Our group was in favor of working quietly. I had about an hour before the next agenda item on our schedule, so I headed to the Frost Library on Amherst College campus to work on my lesson. I needed to consult a copy of the Variorum Edition, as my lesson deals with word choice, tone, and mood, and I wanted to compile a list of poems with variant word choices. I didn’t finish the work. In fact, I only made it through the first volume (there are three volumes in the Variorum Edition). None of my nearby Worcester libraries, including the college ones, seems to have the Variorum Edition, and I was ready to consider a pretty hefty purchase (the Variorium costs over $130), when I checked to see if I could get it through our library system, which offers free inter-library loan among all the system libraries. I was lucky. Some of the other libraries in my public library’s system have the Variorum, so I have placed a hold on it, and last I checked, it was in transit to my public library. I always forget about this great service offered by my library system. If I were a Dickinson scholar and likely to consult the Variorum regularly, I would definitely purchase it, but it’s a bit steep for creating a single unit.

The Emily Dickinson Museum typically does not allow photography as it’s too hard to control people making a profit from the photographs they take. We were offered the opportunity as NEH scholars to take photographs in the museum as long as we didn’t intend to profit from them. We were given permission to post the pictures on social media or blogs. I was really looking forward to taking photos as Emily Dickinson’s bedroom, in particular, is a really magical place, especially since the recent restoration. I have been sharing a few of the photographs from the museum in previous posts, but here a few of my favorites that I haven’t shared yet.

The writing table in the corner is a replica of Dickinson’s actual table, which is at Houghton Library at Harvard. The dress is also a replica.
Emily Dickinson’s actual bed. The shawl belonged either to Emily Dickinson or her mother.
Emily Dickinson kept a few favorite books in her room. I can’t tell what the titles are, but I’m going to do some research and find out. These are probably not her actual books but rather the same editions. The Dickinsons’ library is at the Houghton Library at Harvard.
A close-up portrait view of the replica of Emily Dickinson’s dress
A view of Mains St. from one of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom windows.

I spent some time reflecting on the incredible week over a cup of coffee downtown. One worry I expressed in my reflection is that the future of the NEH is precarious, and it’s possible that other educators will not experience the wonderful close study of Emily Dickinson in Amherst like I was able to do. Do what you can to make your feelings about programs like this clear to your representatives in Congress, especially if this series of posts has made you want to go, but even if it hasn’t because we should be helping teachers have these experiences. Trust me my NEH stipend didn’t cover all my expenses, but it made it possible for me to go, for sure.

Thursday evening, some of us attended an optional program called Dickinsons in Love in which we were able to participate in readings from Dickinson family letters, including those of her parents Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross when they were courting, Austin’s letters to Susan Gilbert before their marriage as well as letters to his mistress Mabel Loomis Todd, and Dickinson’s own letters to Judge Otis Phillips Lord. I hope the Dickinson Museum will revive this program for regular guests, as it was most entertaining, and I learned a great deal.

Our final day was a shorter day, and the main event was visiting Emily Dickinson’s grave and reading our favorite poems. I shared the poem I read at my grandmother’s funeral. I was much more moved than I expected to be when one of my fellow workshop participants led us in singing one of Dickinson’s poems to “Amazing Grace.” Because Dickinson wrote in ballad meter, many of her poems can be sung to songs written in that common meter, and “Amazing Grace” is one of them.

Emily Dickinson’s grave. I left the flat stone on the far left to mark my visit.

We concluded our workshop with a picnic on the lawn at the Dickinson Homestead, complete with gingerbread, for which Emily Dickinson was famous. I bought a small Dickinson recipe book in the museum gift shop and tried out Emily Dickinson’s gingerbread recipe this morning.

Gingerbread made from Emily Dickinson’s recipe.

It’s pretty good.

I would do this week all over again. It was an amazing experience, and should the NEH be spared and willing to offer this program again, I highly encourage you to apply. Thanks to Emily Dickinson Museum, Amherst College, and all the visiting faculty from whom I learned so much.

Related posts:

Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place: Part 3

A view of the Dickinson Homestead facing east

This post is the third in a series about my experiences at the NEH summer program, Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place. If you haven’t read the first two, you can find them here and here. My experiences on the third day may differ slightly from those of other participants as we divided into groups.

Once again, we started by “writing into the day,” considering “The Brain—is wider than the Sky” (Franklin 598) and the elements of Dickinson’s craft.

Next, we a heard a lecture from Dickinson scholar Christanne Miller from the University at Buffalo. As I mentioned in my previous post, there have been three major editions of Dickinson’s poems since the 1950’s. Thomas H. Johnson’s was the first to make an attempt to date the poems chronologically and restore some of Dickinson’s intentions. Ralph W. Franklin’s Variorum edition has been widely influential in Dickinson scholarship. Christanne Miller has a new edition called Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them. The organization of Miller’s book differs from Johnson’s and Franklin’s precisely as the subtitle describes. The first section of Miller’s book includes Dickinson’s fascicles; the second, Dickinson’s poems saved on unbound sheets joined together with a fastener (Dickinson may or may not have fastened the manuscripts); the third, loose manuscripts in Dickinson’s possession; the fourth, others’ transcriptions of her poems with no extant manuscripts; the fifth, poems given away to others. The concept is really interesting, and I really wish I had brought my copy of this book for Christanne Miller to sign. I considered packing it and decided not to in order to save space. I hope I run into her again so I might get it signed. It’s a beautiful book with images of manuscripts.

Miller’s lecture was on “Editing Dickinson.” From everything I’ve learned in this workshop, editing Dickinson is difficult because of all the variants in her manuscripts, but we also have a large body of well-preserved work, and we can’t say that of every poet. One big takeaway from Miller’s lecture is that there is always more than one way to edit an author, and editors make decisions largely based on the tastes of the eras in which they are working. She said that no edition is neutral; each edition is a lens into the times in which it was created. As such, while our modern audience might see Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson as heavy-handed editors, changing slant rhymes and word choices, a case can be made that they knew their audience well and were editing the poems to suit their audience. Dickinson was ahead of her time. I can’t remember if Miller said it or if someone else did, but someone remarked that Amy Lowell believed Dickinson to be a “precursor of the Imagists.” In any case, Todd and Higginson’s editions of the poems were wildly popular, and we have much for which to thank them.

Miller also argues that Dickinson may not have distinguished much between poetry and letters. Most tantalizing for me as a teacher was the fact that there is evidence Dickinson was instructed to select alternative word choices in her school compositions. I love to think of Emily Dickinson’s writing instruction in school. Another issue that Miller acknowledged is that Dickinson made many typographical errors, often over and over. For instance, I had noticed she almost always uses the contraction “it’s” when she clearly means the possessive “its.” In the manuscripts, the mistake is clear, and it’s not a word choice variant. Franklin retains these typographical and spelling errors in his edition of her poems. While Miller points out that spelling and punctuation were not rigidly fixed or standard in Dickinson’s time, I have always found the kinds of errors she makes interesting. Most interesting regarding punctuation was Miller’s comment about the ubiquitous dashes in Dickinson’s poetry. While Dickinson does use a lot of dashes, some of them may be commas and periods. If you examine the manuscripts, it is hard to tell whether or not the marks are dashes. We all do such things when we are writing, especially in our drafts. Here is an example of a manuscript I saw in which it’s hard to tell if we’re seeing dashes or something else.

The mark after “several” could be a dash, or it could be a period.

One last comment about Miller’s lecture and I’ll move on (we’re already at nearly 700 words!). Miller believes that Dickinson composed at least the beginnings of her poems largely in her head. The last stanzas often include more variant word choices (not that the beginning stanzas never do, but you see a lot in the last stanzas). Also, the last stanzas are sometimes the most problematic. I know as a reader, I have more difficulty understanding the last stanzas of her poems. Also important for teachers: Dickinson tries out a number of speakers and perspectives. We are usually so good about asking students to think of the speaker as separate from the poet, but I think we might be guilty of forgetting to do that with Dickinson’s poetry. One way to help students with her poetry is to ask them to read it aloud and to look for natural “sentences.” Don’t worry about the dashes and enjambment.

Next, my group joined Martha Ackmann for a discussion of Dickinson’s poetry. She is delightful—funny, knowledgeable. She quoted Dickinson’s letters and poetry frequently, and without consulting notes. Ackmann suggests that we can look at many of Dickinson’s poems as Dickinson’s philosophy of poetry—ars poetica. We did a close reading of “I reckon—When I count at all—” (Franklin 533). Ackmann reminded us as teachers to slow down when we are reading and teaching Dickinson. She also reminded us that Dickinson’s schooling largely consisted of declaiming lessons and memorizing, and she had an encyclopedic knowledge of many texts, including the Bible. When Dickinson is ambiguous, she intends to be. Ackmann also said we must acknowledge the “primacy” of Dickinson’s imagination. We tend not to give her credit for being able to imagine experiences she never had or places she never went. My favorite quote from our discussion was Ackmann’s argument that “She lived in her own mind, and what a place to live.” Ackmann also argues that Dickinson didn’t care about publication, but she did want her poems to live on. She wanted to do more than publish; she wanted to be immortal, a subject discussed in many of her poems.

After lunch, we took a self-guided landscape tour, which is something you can do yourself if you visit the Emily Dickinson Museum. You can even use your cell phone and either call into a number to follow the tour or use the QR code provided. They also have wands you can use to listen to the tour if you don’t have a cell phone or don’t want to use one. The tour was narrated mostly by poet Richard Wilbur. After the tour, we met with our curriculum groups to discuss how the essential questions and key understandings for our lessons or units were shaping up.

We ended the day with a reading from Martha Ackmann, “Mary Lyon, Emily Dickinson, and Women’s Education.” Mary Lyon founded the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where Dickinson went to school at the age of 16. Ackmann is writing a book tentatively titled Vesuvius at Home about ten monumental days in Dickinson’s life. Ackmann is a narrative nonfiction writer, which means her books are all factual but use the techniques of storytelling. She fictionalizes nothing. She described how she writes each chapter, and the amount of work she puts in is incredible. She mentions enjoying Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, especially praising the way he begins the book, but she dislikes the fact that he invented dialog. She will not read narrative nonfiction that doesn’t have footnotes. Her book should be out in 2018, and I will be getting it for sure after the chapter I heard, which was about Emily Dickinson’s decision to continue to question her religious beliefs. You can see this questioning over and over in the poems. Ackmann is a Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies at Mount Holyoke College, the institution that grew out of Mary Lyon’s school. I understand the Emily Dickinson Museum has plans to host an author event when Ackmann’s book is published, so keep your eyes on the news, and I will see you there.

Related posts:

Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place: Part 2

Manuscript of Franklin 1286
Manuscript of Franklin 1286 “There is no Frigate like a Book”

This post is the second in a series about my experiences at the NEH workshop Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place last week. If you haven’t read the first post, you can access it here.

The second day of this workshop was one of my favorite days. We opened, as usual, with some time to write and reflect on an Emily Dickinson poem—Franklin 729, “The Props assist the House.”

The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House supports itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter—
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life—
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness—then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul—

We were invited to think about the poem through the lens of teaching, and I liked the prompt so much that I plan to use it in a department meeting early in the school year.

Next, we divided into smaller groups, and though the sequence of events differed depending on the assigned group, all workshop participants had the opportunity to engage in the following experiences in some order.

My group first went to Amherst College’s Frost Library to hear a lecture from Marta Werner, an Emily Dickinson scholar—”‘She does not know a route’: Reading Emily Dickinson’s Manuscripts.” Werner invited us to think of the manuscripts Emily Dickinson left behind almost like maps, where we can see a topography and travel from one continent to another, and even from one world to another. Werner noted that she believed Dickinson’s handwriting became more ungendered over time. Her earliest manuscripts are written in what Werner describes as a more feminine hand. There is certainly a lot to think about, but regardless of whether or not one agrees with this assessment (I can actually see it, having looked at some manuscripts both in person and online), I found it fascinating to learn that her handwriting changed so much over the course of her life that it is often through her handwriting that her manuscripts are dated.

I feel I should stop and explain something you might not know anything about if you haven’t engaged in a study of Dickinson’s poetry. I mentioned in my post yesterday that the first real attempt to date Dickinson’s poetry and arrange it chronologically as well as restore, as much as anyone can, Dickinson’s intentions free from the heavy editorial hands of Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was a publication of her complete poems in the 1950’s by Thomas H. Johnson. There have been two more recent publications—Ralph W. Franklin’s Variorum Edition of the poems in three volumes, which is an attempt to show all the extant manuscripts, including variants, and also variant word choices Dickinson considered on single manuscripts. There is a reader’s edition of this same work, which was our main text for the workshop, and therefore why I refer to her poems by their Franklin numbers. Franklin set out to date the poems as accurately as possible and differs from Johnson somewhat. I mentioned there have been two more recent comprehensive editions of Dickinson’s poetry since Johnson’s, but I will save discussion of the second for a future post, as later in the week I had an opportunity to study Dickinson’s poetry with the editor of that third collection.

Dickinson left behind a variety of manuscripts in many stages of development. Some were mere scraps with ideas.

Scrap Manuscript
Scrap manuscript of Franklin 1286 “There is no Frigate like a Book”

In the above example, it seems clear Dickinson was playing with the phrase that would later be used in Franklin 1286 “There is no Frigate like a Book.”

Dickinson also has drafts that seem to be in a clearly unfinished state. She has fair copies and also gift copies sent to friends and family. Just because a manuscript is copied out in a fair copy or gift copy, however, does not mean that it was a final draft. Dickinson often continued to change words and lines even after making fair copies and gift copies. In addition, there are also intermediate copies that Werner describes as “worksheet manuscripts” that show the continued consideration Dickinson was giving to a poem.  Some of you may know that Dickinson bound some of her poems together in what Mabel Loomis Todd first described as “fascicles.” These were manuscripts sewn together with a needle and thread. Again, just because the poems were bound in fascicles does not mean Dickinson considered them final drafts. Dickinson was comfortable with a great deal more ambiguity and a lot less fixity than most of us. As such, we can’t really talk about her intentions with any sort of authority in some cases. We spent the remainder of our time with Werner discussing some poem variants. If you really want to go down a rabbit hole, looking at Emily Dickinson’s drafts is both interesting and maddening. You can examine many of her manuscripts online.

After Werner’s lecture, my group headed downstairs to the Frost Library’s archives. This was a real treat. We were able to examine several artifacts connected with Emily Dickinson, including the famous daguerreotype that is the only definitively authenticated picture of Emily Dickinson. It was very hard to photograph in the lighting.

Emily Dickinson Daguerreotype
Emily Dickinson daguerreotype

We also were able to see a lock of Emily Dickinson’s hair. The color may surprise you.

A lock of Emily Dickinson's hair
A lock of Emily Dickinson’s hair

In addition, there were also some daguerreotypes of Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin and George Gould, who may have been an early suitor of Dickinson’s and sent her this invitation to a candy pulling.

Candy Pulling Invitation
George Gould’s candy pulling invitation

On the back of this invitation, some 25 years after receiving the invitation, Dickinson wrote the poem “I suppose the time will come” (Franklin 1389). She saved the invitation all that time, and it’s tantalizing to think she was inspired by it when she wrote the poem and to wonder what she was thinking. Was she regretful about not taking him up on it? Or was she just making use of a scrap of paper she saved out of a sense of Yankee frugality?

"I suppose the time will come"
Manuscript of Franklin 1389 “I suppose the time will come”

We saw so many manuscripts that I will not share them all here, but I will share one last one that you will recognize.

"Tell all the truth but tell it slant"
Manuscript of Franklin 1263 “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”

I promise I’m not trying to be cute by sharing a slanted photo of the poem. There was a bad glare from the lights, as you can see, and I was attempting to take a picture in a way that would not cast a shadow on it and also reduce the glare. As you may have already surmised, we were not allowed to touch any of the artifacts. I don’t know if you can see it well enough in this image, but she actually wrote this poem on graph paper. Who has a sense of humor?

After lunch, we returned to the Emily Dickinson homestead for an object workshop. My small group headed over to the Evergreens, the home of Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin and his wife Susan Gilbert Dickinson. Nan Wolverton of the American Antiquarian Society (here in Worcester!) allowed us to examine two objects. I partnered with my friend Whitney, and we were given a small hearth broom and wastepaper basket to examine. We learned that the objects were both made by Native Americans. The broom was probably bought from a Native American peddler who traveled door-to-door selling wares, and Dickinson describes such events in her writing. The wastepaper basket was of a Penobscot design and probably bought as a souvenir when the family vacationed in Maine. It’s weird to think that people have always bought such things when they travel as mementos.

My group had some time to reflect, which Whitney and I used as a much-needed coffee break. At 4:00 PM we returned to Amherst College for a tour of the Beneski Museum. I have to admit I was wondering why we were doing this, but our guide, who is the museum’s educator, Fred Venne,  made some intriguing connections between Dickinson’s poetry and the museum’s focal collection of dinosaur footprints. Venne is extremely funny and a great explainer. I learned that Dickinson might have studied with Edward Hitchcock, an early president of Amherst College and geologist who discovered the many examples of dinosaur tracks in Western Massachusetts. Though plate tectonics had not yet been discovered, Hitchcock apparently realized the Holyoke Range was formed through some kind of volcanic mechanism (because of the kinds of rocks he found, I imagine). In fact, had Pangaea not separated to form the coast at Boston, it might have split close to Amherst, and the coastline would look a lot different. In any case, the Holyoke Range was formed, and Emily Dickinson wrote this poem that seems wildly ahead of its time scientifically (Franklin 1691):

Volcanoes be in Sicily
And South America
I judge from my Geography
Volcano nearer here
A Lava step at any time
Am I inclined to climb
A Crater I may contemplate
Vesuvius at Home

I asked Fred Venne how on earth she could have known the Holyoke Range was formed through plate tectonics and vulcanism—it seemed like such advanced science for the time, and he told me it was because Edward Hitchcock was so advanced. He was the first to surmise that the footprints he was finding, the dinosaur tracks, were left behind by a large bird. It would be a very long time before paleontologists began thinking of dinosaurs as early birds. It was absolutely fascinating, and if you can visit the Beneski and talk to Fred Venne, you should. In the meantime, you can check out the museum’s new website. If you go to Special Features and look under “Voices,” you’ll see Emily Dickinson referenced.

I will write more about the rest of the workshop in future posts, but I hope at this point I’ve convinced you of a few things: 1) write to your representatives and senators about preserving the NEH; 2) if this workshop can continue because the NEH continues, please apply to be a part of it; it’s amazing, and 3) Emily Dickinson is a bottomless well, and one could devote a lifetime to scholarship of Dickinson and her world and always learn new things.

Related posts:

Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place: Part 1

Emily Dickinson's Bedroom
Emily Dickinson’s Bedroom

This week, I had the great fortune of participating in an NEH workshop in Amherst, MA at the Emily Dickinson Homestead and Amherst College—Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place. The experience was so meaningful and rich that I know I won’t be able to capture it in one post, but I will try to do it justice in several posts. I plan to write one post about each day of the workshop. It was not my first visit to Amherst or the Emily Dickinson Museum, but it was the most meaningful and personal.

The first evening, we gathered together for dinner and conversation. I was delighted to be able to reconnect with Whitney, whom I met at the Kenyon Writing Workshop for Teachers, and also to make new acquaintances (and by the end of the week, I called them friends). Early the next morning, we met at Amherst College. A new friend and Massachusetts teacher Bruce Penniman, whom I first met through the New England Association of Teachers of English and the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, led us each morning in contemplation of an Emily Dickinson poem and a writing prompt. “Writing Into the Day” soon became one of our favorite activities, and it’s a great way to start the day with your own students.

Our first lecture, delivered by Emily Dickinson scholar and author Joanne Dobson was “Emily Dickinson: Why She Matters.” While Dr. Dobson’s answer to this question initially seems glib, it’s actually an excellent answer to the question of why any writer (or anything matters): “She matters because she matters to me.” Dobson described the first time she felt an Emily Dickinson poem “read her.” I found the concept of a poem reading a person revelatory. It is new language to describe that visceral reaction to a poem, that wonderful definition of a poem that Emily herself gave Thomas Wentworth Higginson:

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?

I recall feeling one of Emily Dickinson’s poems read me when I discovered it after my grandmother died last year.

The lecture opened me up to new ways of thinking about why Dickinson didn’t publish. Friends urged her to do so. In her way, she did publish—manuscript circulation or social circulation was common in her day. She actually made no provision for her manuscripts upon her death. Her sister Lavinia burned her correspondence, which was customary in the era, but saw to it that her sister’s poetry was collected, edited, and published some four years after Emily Dickinson’s death. Lack of publication allowed her to be incomplete, to defy closure. People are uncomfortable with a lack of closure. Her poems can be uncomfortable, particularly as many of them contain varietals, and we do not know what her final word choices might have been.

After this lecture, we walked over to the Emily Dickinson Museum and toured both the house and the Evergreens, home of Austin and Susan Gilbert Dickinson, next door.

Emily Dickinson's Bedroom
A view of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom from the doorway

If you are in Amherst and can take in this tour, you definitely should. The tour guides are knowledgeable. I have toured the home three times and the Evergreens twice, and each time has been a great experience.

In the afternoon, we learned about expectations for creating our curriculum projects, which I was happy to see were grounded in backward design. I’m still working on my unit plan, but I feel really good about it in the draft stage, and I believe it will be a great learning experience for my students. I’m considering trying to find a way to bring my students to the Dickinson museum.

Our final lecture of the day was “What Happened to Emily Dickinson’s Stuff,” delivered by Jane Wald, who is the Executive Director of the Emily Dickinson Museum. The history of the publication of her work is a fascinating family drama. Initially, Emily Dickinson’s sister Lavinia asked their sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson and Dickinson’s friend and correspondent Thomas Wentworth Higginson to publish Dickinson’s poetry. Susan Dickinson seemed disinclined to move forward with the project in any productive way, and Higginson said he couldn’t undertake the editing at that time. Lavinia turned to Mabel Loomis Todd, who was a writer, a correspondent of Emily Dickinson’s, and most infamously, their brother Austin Dickinson’s mistress. She persuaded Thomas Wentworth Higginson to help her edit Dickinson’s poetry, and together they produced the first published (and heavily edited) volume of Dickinson’s poetry by 1890. They were so popular that two more volumes of poetry and a collection of Dickinson’s letters were published in the 1890’s.

Later, Lavinia had a falling out with Mabel Loomis Todd over a property dispute, and Lavinia filed a lawsuit against Mabel. Todd lost the lawsuit, so she locked away the Emily Dickinson manuscripts in her possession in a camphorated trunk, and no one touched them for thirty years. Dickinson’s niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi was the next person to publish a volume of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, but because of the family squabbles between the Dickinsons and the Todds, it wasn’t until the 1950’s when Thomas H. Johnson returned to the manuscripts and made the first attempt to establish a chronology for the poems. The history of Dickinson’s publication (as well as her own feelings about publication) is fascinating, but I’ll save more for future posts.

It was raining buckets, so our walking tour of Amherst was converted into a virtual tour. The delightful Martha Ackmann, a Dickinson author and scholar (you’ll hear more about her in future posts) used maps and visuals to take us to Emily Dickinson’s Amherst. We considered the landscape and the soundscape. I knew from being in the Emily Dickinson homestead that Dickinson could hear the train from her bedroom. I discovered on my last day of the workshop that Emily would have been able to see the train as well.

As you can see (I’ve written over 1,000 words already), our days were full—too full to recount in a single post.

A new poem I learned of (one of many) in this workshop seems appropriate to share to close, given what we learned about Dickinson and publication on this first day.

Publication—is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man—
Poverty—be justifying
For so foul a thing

Possibly—but We—would rather
From Our Garret go
White—unto the White Creator
Than invest—our Snow—

Thought belong to Him who gave it—
Then—to Him Who bear
It’s Corporeal illustration—sell
The Royal Air

In the Parcel—Be the Merchant
Of the Heavenly Grace—
But reduce no Human Spirit
To Disgrace of Price—

Franklin 788

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The Myth of the Digital Native

 student computer photo

I came across this article by Jenny Abamu for Edsurge on Twitter the other day (I apologize for forgetting who tweeted it). It articulates something I have been trying to tell teachers for years in my work as a technology integrator and workshop and conference presenter. Too many adults still assume that students can figure out how to use whatever technology they are given, and while they do generally seem less afraid to try something (especially younger students), they frequently don’t know how to use their devices to do some of the most simple things, such as document formatting. The article captures this knowledge gap well, along with a reminder that the digital divide is still an issue we need to contend with as educators.

Some time ago, I wrote a post regarding my disagreement with a comment I see shared a lot at ISTE (not sure if it still makes the rounds every year or not, but it used to): What’s Wrong with Asking for PD? One thing I didn’t mention in the post is that often when students don’t know how to do something, such as format a Works Cited page or put information in a header, they simply turn it in without bothering to find out. Of course, a long time digital friend left a comment to that effect on the blog post, and further discussion took place in the comments. I do take time to show students these skills, but sometimes learning takes several exposures before it sticks—I know that’s true for me as well, and probably for most people—and students often don’t want to ask twice. I have found the best method is to require students to fix such errors before it’s assessed, or else they will tend not to bother. They will actually accept the points off rather than ask for help. Obviously, this observation doesn’t apply to all students, but it applies to enough of them.

The bottom line is that whether we are working with teachers or students, we shouldn’t make assumptions about what they know and what they don’t. People who don’t know me might be surprised that this gray-haired English teacher knows anything about technology, and the truth is, I didn’t know anything when I started teaching. In my early career, I was definitely in an anti-technology camp.

Abamu’s article includes some really helpful videos you can share with students (or teachers) on a blog or learning management system (or just email links directly). I plan to post the videos in my Resources and Study Skills board on my class pages in our school’s learning management system.

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Twelve Years

twelve candles photo
Photo by Pewari

Today this blog is twelve years old. I originally envisioned this blog as a place where I could write about what I was thinking and where I could share my teaching ideas. It hasn’t changed a lot from that vision over the years, though posting has grown less frequent. I have been looking over some of the posts I wrote years ago, and it makes me wish I had a little more time to write—aside from summer, when I seem finally to be able to catch up and write.

I just finished my twentieth year of teaching, and such an important milestone has made me a bit reflective. It’s hard to believe I have been blogging here for more than half of my career now. Sometimes I don’t even feel like I was a teacher before this blog. Perhaps because I wasn’t reflecting or journaling about teaching much until this blog, my memories of my teaching career up until this blog are fuzzier. It’s hard for me to articulate what this space has meant to me over the years. I have said it many times, but I’m not even sure I’d still be teaching if not for this blog because I no longer felt alone, and I was able to share what I was thinking with an audience who cared. Two years ago, when I wrote my tenth anniversary post, I thanked many supportive friends who helped me early on. I’m not sure what more I can add. Thanks to those of you who have been readers, whether for many years or a few days.

For the curious, here are some weird stats:

  • I have written 1,086 posts on this blog. That works out to 90.5 posts a year or 7.5 posts a month.
  • I have received 3,989 comments. That’s about 332 comments a year, almost one per day.
  • I only have statistics for the last five years, but it looks like my best day for visitors was October 1, 2012. I can’t figure out how to drill down into the statistics and find out how many viewers that was.
  • Most of my visitors today were from the United States, although I checked my stats for all time, and it looks like I have had at least one visitor from, well, almost everywhere. See below.
  • The average number of views ranges from a low of 206 per day for this month of June 2017 up to over 1,000 per day in September 2012. I don’t have statistics older than 2012, but five years is long enough to have a fairly good range. I’m not sure if at one time, I had more views than 1,000 per day, but it boggles my mind that so many people were checking into this blog. Thank you!
  • My blog gets the most traffic on Mondays.
  • I have a combined total of 3,145 subscribers from WordPress and email. Thanks, and I hope I made subscribing worth your while. Since Google shut down Google Reader, I haven’t found an RSS reader I like much, despite trying a few, so I am afraid my own blog reading is really haphazard. I used to be so much better at checking other blogs.
  • My most popular post describes how to use TPCASTT to analyze poetry. I didn’t come up with this technique, but somehow, my page is the #1 Google ranking when you search TPCASTT, which likely explains why the post is so popular. Plus it’s a really good tool, and I can’t take credit for it. Thanks to whoever invented it. My students still use it all the time. As of today, the post has had 47,243 views. The most popular posts seem to have remained pretty steady over time. Rounding out the top five (with number of views) are Understanding by Design: Essential Questions (41,856), Interactive Notebooks (33,325), Teaching “A Modest Proposal” (31,836), and Teaching Romeo and Juliet: Part One (29,253). Many of the most popular posts are among the oldest posts.


Thanks for coming along for the ride.

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Comments and Change

blogging photo

I was going through blog posts I wrote almost ten years ago, and I noticed something interesting. Back then, blog posts—and I don’t think just mine, either—tended to generate comments. It was typical for my average blog post to receive at least two or three comments back then.

I know one issue is that I don’t write often, so perhaps newer posts are not being seen. Then again, there are over 3,000 people who subscribe to this blog via email updates. I have often had someone leave a comment that mentions they have been “lurking” for years but never commented.

I’m not bothered by the lack of comments, but I am curious as to why commenting happens less frequently now. It it just being too busy? Do people really still read blogs anymore? Despite predictions to the contrary, blogging seems to be thriving again, though it looks different now than it did when I started nearly twelve years ago now. The lower number of comments is something I am seeing not just here but also on other blogs I read.

I am also seeing a trend I don’t really care for on social media, both on Twitter and Facebook, to made threads or longform updates. I suppose it’s your social media account, and you can do what you like, but I see Twitter and Facebook to be most useful for quick updates.

Without this blog, I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today. I made so many friends through this blog. I learned so much and thought so much about teaching in this space. I was not as reflective as a teacher until I started blogging. Now I find I don’t even need to blog to reflect, which may be why I don’t blog as much as I want to.

Back in the days when my boss was a bully, and I was contending with feeling like a failure as an educator, this space saved my self-esteem. I was validated by commenters agreeing with my ideas and challenged by those who didn’t. I needed this space to think through what I believed.

I suppose I’m just curious about reading habits. Do people still read blogs? Why? What do you think is behind the lower numbers of comments on blogs?

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FAQ: Teaching American Literature Thematically

american books photo
Photo by Curtis Gregory Perry

Over two years ago, I wrote a post about my approach to teaching American literature thematically. I close comments on posts once they are a year old, but this post continues to generate some questions, so I thought I would post an update in answer to the questions people most frequently ask me about teaching American literature thematically.

Can I use your essential questions for my own unit?

Feel free. I hope they are useful. If you are using them somewhere online, however, I request that you give me credit. If you want to learn more about creating essential questions, I can recommend no source more highly than Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s book Understanding by Design. They also have one focused just on essential questions called Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding.

Are you still teaching thematically?

Yes, right up through the school year that just ended. I would continue to do it next year, too, if I were going to be teaching the course, but my schedule does not allow for me to teach it next year. I would never go back to approaching any literature class I teach chronologically anymore.  The only way I could see teaching chronologically is if the chronology was an important underpinning of a course, such as the development of a particular genre or theme over the course of a given period of time. Even our American history teachers have begun to take a thematic approach to teaching American history. One unit, for instance, covered the black experience from the abolition of slavery to the Black Lives Matter movement.

But what about understanding the literary movements?

When I taught American literature (and for that matter, British literature) chronologically, I thought this point was important, too. Seeing how writers collectively influence movements and how movements influence and push back against one another is important… to English majors mostly. To most of our students who are critically in danger of not developing the reading and writing skills or engaging with literature, chronology can sometimes kill their interest by putting the material they are least likely to enjoy reading—in the case of American literature, it’s Puritan writers—at the beginning of the year when we are trying to “hook” the kids.*

Early British literature has the advantage of being a bit more exciting, but nonetheless, it is interesting see how writers across eras are in discussion, too. For instance, if I were teaching chronologically, I might teach “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman around the time I am teaching Romanticism or perhaps a transition to Realism. Then I would teach Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” during the Harlem Renaissance/Modernism. Why? Hughes’s poem is directly talking back to Whitman’s. They should go together. Likewise “Civil Disobedience” and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Likewise Crèvecoeur’s discussion of “What is the American?” and voices of immigrants from the 20th and 21st centuries. I care that students make connections and see the relevance of what they read far more than that they grasp that literature periodically shifts around into what we call movements. Controversial, maybe, but I stand by it. I think movements are mostly constructs anyway. No one was looking around and saying, “Well, enough of this Romanticism. Let’s start Realism now.” We can’t agree on whether we’re still in Postmodernism right now or not, and there are plenty of writers who are still writing what we define as Postmodern literature and probably even more who are not. Movements are convenient for organizing literature later, and I would not disagree with people who think English majors should know literary movements, but I disagree that everyone needs to know them (or even cares about them). Writers don’t even necessarily find themselves influenced by what is happening around them. They might hearken back to an earlier writer for inspiration. Or they might be so radically different from everyone else writing around them that it’s difficult to classify them (which is why Whitman and Dickinson are often thrown into a unit unto themselves in literature textbooks).

Can students really get a complete overview of American literature if we don’t teach it chronologically?

That’s sort of up to you. One might accuse thematic teachers of picking and choosing, but chronological teachers do the same thing, only they do it in chronological order. What I have seen typically happen when teachers approach literature chronologically is that students don’t study anything remotely contemporary until the end of the year… if then. I know when I taught chronologically, I often finished the year some time in the 1940’s, if I got fairly far. That’s completely cutting out a good chunk of some of the best American literature there is. If you are building a thematic curriculum, you should choose wisely. I tweak each year when I realize something I really liked doesn’t fit very well and takes up time from other works that will be both engaging and more representative. One freeing aspect of teaching where I do is that we don’t have a textbook. We have novels the students purchase, but we don’t have an anthology because they are expensive, and we found we didn’t make good enough use of them to justify their expense. If you have an anthology, you can still use this approach. You will just need to survey your book and determine what themes jump out to you as important. Then you can move around the book. In fact, you might find you do a better job with the overview if you approach teaching the literature thematically than you would have if you stuck to a strict chronology.

Can you give me your syllabus?

I actually think it’s much better for you to create your own syllabus (and essential questions). You know your students. You know your school. You may have required texts that must somehow fit into the framework. You would know best which contemporary poems and short stories might pair with longer texts. I realize it’s a lot of work to create a syllabus from scratch, having done it, but I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t because I created my own syllabus and tweaked it each year. Taking someone else’s syllabus and using it like some kind of script won’t work for you. I’m not trying to be stingy. In my way, I’m trying to be helpful. Handing you a syllabus that reflects what works for me might result in failure for you.

What questions do you have that I missed? Leave them in the comments, and I will update this post with answers.

*I had a student tell me in a course evaluation this year that he/she learned so much about him/herself this year. I was really proud my course enabled that student to learn more about him/herself. Do students see themselves in predominantly white, male writers of European extraction? I’m not saying they can’t relate to those writers. I’m saying if we approach literature chronologically, that’s pretty much all they will read for the first few months. I don’t think that’s right in our diverse society.

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20 Years of Teaching

Dana's Teacher Stats

This month I finished my 20th year as a teacher. A few years into my career, I almost left it behind. I had finished my fourth year, and it was particularly bad for both professional and personal reasons. I had a really hard time finding a job. I finally found one about October—teaching preschool. The kids I taught that year are in college now, but I think of them often because they brought me back into the profession. Teaching them somehow rejuvenated me and helped me figure out why I do this job. For a while, I thought perhaps I had chosen the wrong age group and considered teaching younger children. I taught two years of middle school after that and went back to high school, this time in private school, and I never looked back. I have now spent 13 years teaching in private schools.

I saw the above teacher stats meme going around, and I had to do some estimating, but the only figure I’m not really sure about is the number of students. I would estimate I’ve taught anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 students. Some years in public school, I taught five sections and most of them had 20+ students, but I have now spent the bulk of my career teaching 4 or 5 sections with fewer than 18 students in each section (also an estimate, as sometimes the number is higher, and sometimes it’s lower… by a lot). As a ballpark, it’s not bad. Those faces come swimming back years later, even after I have forgotten the names. I wonder about many of those faces. Some have kept in touch with me.

I was feeling quite frustrated a few weeks ago. You know how it is at the end of the year. Everyone’s nerves are frazzled, and we forget to be as kind and thoughtful as we should be. I include myself. I had a particularly draining experience toward the end as well, and I have to really thank my colleagues for their moral support at that time. It’s remarkable what difference some time, perspective, and rest can make. The ending of the year was particularly good for me, as my colleagues nominated me for a prestigious teaching award at my school, which in itself was a huge honor. My colleagues then voted among the nominees, and I was selected for the award. I can’t articulate what it means to me that my colleagues recognized me for my teaching, especially after I had been feeling so down on myself as a teacher. For those colleagues of mine who read this blog (and I know there are a few), thank you very much for such a tremendous honor. You really made my year.

I keep trying to make more time to reflect on this blog because I really miss it. Some post ideas I have in the offing:

  • I wrote about ditching chronology for thematic design in teaching American literature, and I get emails about how it has gone, as the post is now old enough that comments on it are close. It has gone very well. I plan to write an update.
  • One of the most enriching experiences of my career has been a collaboration with my fellow 9th grade World Literature I teachers and 9th grade World Civilizations I teachers (history). I want to reflect on that collaboration and share how we planned and what the year looked like.
  • I brought home several professional books to read, and I will write reviews here once I’ve finished with them.
  • I have now taught AP Literature and Composition for two years. I always contend it feels like year three is the year when things start to feel really good, whether it’s working at a school, teaching a course, or whatever else might be new and different. I have lots of thoughts about how this year went (much better!) and ideas for next year.
  • I went to some excellent professional development at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education with three of my colleagues, and I haven’t written a thing about it on my blog.
  • I am also becoming more involved with my local NCTE affiliate, the New England Association of Teachers of English (NEATE), and even though it’s early days, it has been great establishing local connections like I had in Georgia with GCTE.
  • My students have done some great work this year, and I haven’t shared it.

Stay tuned!

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Frustration Time

frustration photo
Photo by e-magic

It’s frustration time. I know this is a bit of a pattern with me, and maybe it is with most teachers, but I find I’m at my most frustrated this time of year.

I keep thinking of the things I wanted to accomplish but didn’t. I keep thinking of the students with whom I tried to establish a rapport and a relationship but failed. I keep thinking of discussions and disagreements. I focus almost exclusively on everything that went wrong. I wonder sometimes what it would be like to be the kind of person who wasn’t bothered by such things. I suppose I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t, but this time of year can be agony for me until the summer arrives, and I find myself wondering if my fellow teachers commiserate.

One thing I wonder is whether I care too much. I realize that’s a loaded sentence. One never wants to be accused of caring too little unless we know it’s something we shouldn’t care too much about. For instance, I believe that as a colleague and teacher, I have earned a fair amount of respect—even some appreciation. So why do I focus on encounters in which I have felt disrespected to the exclusion of the large number of encounters in which I have felt respected and perhaps even truly appreciated? Why does the negative weigh so much more in my mind than the positive? Why is the negative so much louder than the positive? I seem to be especially vulnerable to this kind of thinking at the end of the year. Perhaps it’s because I’m clinging to the end of that frayed rope, hoping I can hold on for a few more weeks when I can decompress and get rid of the stress.

The end of the year is so stressful. I think a lot of teachers—perhaps all of them—feel it. Is it just my perception that everyone else seems so much better able to cope with the stress without being upset? Are they just hiding it really well?

I value reflection a great deal. I think it is a helpful practice to examine myself and determine how I might do better. Sometimes, it ventures into the realm of being unproductive, however, and I feel like I beat myself up more than it seems like others do. Is that just a perception? Do we all kind of beat ourselves up?

I have been bending my poor husband’s ears for two days on my end-of-year frustrations, and he’s been a great listener. I know he would like to figure out a way to help or to say something that would make me feel better, but at this stage, I feel like the only thing that will help is a break. And I know it’s coming soon enough. I know I have only a few more days with students, and then just a few more after that with colleagues. I will have some wonderful things to look forward to this summer. A trip or two with family. A U2 concert. The opportunity to study Emily Dickinson and her poetry at her home in Amherst. Most of all, time to read, learn, and relax.

I’m wondering what coping strategies other teachers have for making it through the end of the school year, especially when a pile of frustrations regarding everything from personnel issues up to angry students or parents seem overwhelming. If you’re so inclined, I would love to have a discussion here.

How are you feeling?

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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