Category Archives: Professional Development

Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions

It has been a little while since I posted about professional reading here. I picked up Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana at the suggestion of colleagues at my school.

This is one of those books, sort of like Understanding by Design, that makes such a clear, compelling case in such an immediate way that you wonder how you’ve been teaching all your life without using the techniques the authors describe. You can quite literally take the Question Focus Technique (QFT) described in this book right into your classroom.

Rothstein and Santana argue that students learn better, retain more, and are more engaged if they are trained to ask questions. The way teachers can facilitate this learning is to give students a prompt, which the authors call a “QFocus” or “Question Focus.” I decided to try this out in my short Emily Dickinson unit in AP Literature.

I knew one thing I wanted my students to take away from reading Dickinson’s poetry is that word choices are important. I brainstormed potential QFocus ideas in my notebook. I started with the obvious “word choices.” That wasn’t enough, but I was encouraged by reading in Make Just One Change to start with the basics to generate ideas. Then I wrote “word choices matter.” Just to be contrary, I added: “word choices don’t matter.” In the end, this is the full list of QFocus ideas I came up with (including some quotes I found online while looking up authors’ ideas regarding word choice):

  • word choices
  • word choices matter
  • word choices don’t matter
  • words have power
  • you can use the power of words
  • “The secret of being boring is to say everything.”—Voltaire
  • “Good words are worth much, and cost little.”—George Herbert
  • You have to wrestle with word choice.
  • “I never knew what was meant by choice of words. It was one word or none.”—Robert Frost
  • “Writing a poem is discovering.”—Robert Frost
  • “Words have weight, sound, and appearance.”—Somerset Maugham

I ultimately decided on “word choices matter” as the QFocus that would best help generate questions about word choice without being too obtuse or unnecessarily provocative.

Note: I deviated a little bit from the QFT because I hadn’t read very far into the book when I already knew I wanted to introduce the idea, so I took a risk that paid off. Instead of putting students in groups to generate questions, I just wrote “word choices matter” on the board and gave the students the four rules described in Make Just One Change:

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any question.
  3. Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
  4. Change any statement into a question. (43)

Then I asked the entire class to share our their question ideas rather than generate ideas in groups. It might seem easy, but it is really hard not to try to rephrase questions, and it is also hard not to place a value on the question through encouraging students who ask good ones. If you comment on the value of a question, you are liable to shut down students who think maybe their questions are not as good. And you do need to remind students of the rules. They wanted to dismiss some of the questions. I should back up and add before we generated questions, we discussed the rules and in particular which ones would be hard to follow. Rule 2 was the one they knew (rightly) they would struggle most with because they love to discuss ideas.

They came up with the following questions (unedited):

  • Why is it word choice matters instead of word choices matter?
  • Isn’t it ironic that word choices matter in a statement about word choices?
  • Why are we doing this exercise?
  • Is this supposed to be about The Hours?
  • In what context is word choices being applied?
  • Is this about Emily Dickinson?
  • Are we still going to see her house? And get lunch?
  • Do word choices always matter?
  • Do authors limit themselves to their own writing style?
  • Do authors limit readers to their (reader’s) interpretation?
  • In what scenarios does word choice matter the most?
  • Is word choice very important to all authors or just some?
  • Do authors disagree about the purpose of word choice?
  • Are we implying that the effect of words are quantified by how they compare to one another?
  • Does word choice limit emotion?
  • What is word choice?
  • How do authors use word choice to enhance their writing style?

As you can see, some of their first questions revolved around the purpose of creating questions, but they quickly generated an impressive list. The next day, I asked students to get in groups and do three things: 1) classify questions as either open-ended or closed-ended (this is an activity described in the book); 2) rewrite an open-ended question so it was closed-ended and vice versa; and 3) prioritize their top three questions.

There was quite a lot of overlap when groups prioritized their questions, and in some cases, the rewritten questions made the cut rather than the originals. This was our final list:

  • In what scenarios does word choice matter the most?
  • How do authors use word choice to enhance their writing style?
  • Do authors limit themselves to their own writing style?
  • Does word choice limit emotion? OR How does word choice limit emotion? (The question was rendered two different ways by different groups.)
  • Why is it word choices matter instead of word choice matters?
  • In what context is “word choices” being applied?

The project students are completing in this unit is to create a video or presentation in which students explain one of Dickinson’s poems and explore her word choice variants. I asked them to choose one or more questions from this list as part of their project’s focus.

One immediate observation: All of the students were more engaged, but in particular, some students who rarely participate were participating, and not just in the question generation. They continued to participate when discussing one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, which is an activity we did after generating questions.

I will be trying the QFT with my ninth graders next week. We are reading Persepolis, and I plan to show them Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.”

As I did with my AP Literature class, I brainstormed potential QFocus ideas and also considered positives and negatives for each.

QFocus Idea Pros Cons
stereotypes short and sweet too broad
all stereotypes are bad  more specific too easy to agree with
no stereotypes are good more specific same, but negative, does reframe
stereotypes are both bad and good might generate divergent thinking might not generate a ton of questions
stereotypes are incomplete ties to Adichie, makes me wonder might be hard for kids to parse
social groups judge each other based on difference specific might be too specific?
we all use stereotypes sets up challenge to thinker negative response? argue back?

I was initially inclined to select the last one, but I showed my list to a colleague, and he suggested, “stereotypes are incomplete.” He argued I said myself that it “makes me wonder,” and that perhaps part of my concern about the statement being difficult to parse is what makes it good. The students will have to pick it apart. And it has the advantage of being a direct quote from Adichie’s TED Talk.

If you are looking for something to read that you can take into your classroom right away, no matter what you are doing, this book will offer you some great tools and advice. Towards the end of the book, the authors quote two great educational thinkers:

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi and scholar who was a refugee from Nazi Germany, asserted at a White House Conference on Children and Youth in 1960 that in a democratic society we should be assessing our students less on their ability to answer our questions and more on their ability to ask their own questions. The educator Paulo Freire was actually thrown in jail by a dictatorship in his native Brazil for challenging its authority and then spent much of his life after that challenging societies around the world to embrace questions and questioning as a fundamental democratic action. (154)

Something I actually wrote in the margins of my book on page 7, “Wonder if Parkland teachers use QFT.” It would explain the students’ activism and leadership.

All I can say about QFT is my first thought is “Why didn’t I think of this before?” and my second is “This is going to change everything.”

NCTE Reflections Part Three

Gareth Hinds delivering the Sunday keynote

I reflected on Friday and Saturday at this year’s NCTE conference in previous posts. This post is my final reflection on Sunday’s events.

Session K started before the Sunday Keynote. I attended K.06: Public Rhetoric: Agency, Voice, and Mission in the Public Sphere, a roundtable discussion. The session included three roundtable discussions. I rotated among tables led by Jennifer Ansbach, Debbie Greco, and Camille Marchand. Jen discussed the shifting nature of language in the news, Debbie discussed memes as visual rhetoric, and Camille discussed using primary source documents (letters) to teach To Kill a Mockingbird. Great first session!

After session K, Gareth Hinds delivered his keynote. I created a Storify to document my own tweets and capture highlights from other attendees.

I especially enjoyed seeing Gareth’s early work.

I captured a bit of video as he did a live demonstration, too.

I enjoyed Jim Burke’s session L.18: Seeing and Hearing Each Other through Nonfiction: For the Good of Kids and Country as well. Jim shared his resources and expertise. One big takeaway from his session:

We need to think about our students as users and design accordingly.

I couldn’t stay for all of session M because I was afraid I’d be late for my own session, but it was amazing. M.08: Breaking the Classroom to Prison Pipeline. The title might have been a bit misleading as it was really more about seeing our students and social justice. I was curious about the session because its leaders were Linda Christensen and Dyan Watson. I knew that Linda Christensen has done a lot of work in social justice in education. I recently ordered two of her books to read. It was a really great session with opportunities to write and turn and talk. I left it a few minutes early to hustle across the convention center for my session.

I presented N.18: Representing, Rendering, and Respecting Diverse Lives and Labels with Ruth Quiroa and Leah Panther. My topic was digital storytelling.

One more minor complaint: NCTE made a deal with the GO Shuttle shared van service, and it was a great discount. Unfortunately, as far as I could determine, the latest shuttle to the airport on Sunday left at 3:00 PM, which was in the middle of the last session. I tried lying about when my flight left to see if there were any later shuttles, and I couldn’t find any. Obviously, this means anyone taking advantage of the great shuttle deal had to leave early. I doubt this is NCTE’s fault, but I wonder if they took it into consideration when they made the deal with Go Shuttle. It was about three times as expensive for me to get an Uber ride to the airport, as I couldn’t take advantage of the shuttle deal. The last session of the last day is hard all the way around, but I felt bad for my fellow presenters who had prepared great presentations. I am glad I have friends who came to my session at the end of the conference on Sunday at the end of the day.

NCTE Reflections Part Two

The #BowTieBoys and their Teacher Jason Augustowski
The #BowTieBoys and their Teacher Jason Augustowski

In my last post, I reflected on Friday at last week’s NCTE conference. I decided to split my conference reflection into three posts this year, so this post will focus on Saturday at the conference, and the next post will concern the conference’s final day.

The conference guide had a misprint that stated Jacqueline Woodson’s keynote began at 8:00, and even though the app was updated to reflect the accurate time of 9:00, I didn’t check it. I honestly can’t remember anymore how I spent that time. The exhibit hall wasn’t open yet, but people were lined up to enter it. Honest question: why? The exhibit hall will be there all day. What are people lining up in order to do?

Jacqueline Woodson’s keynote was great. I created a Storify of Twitter highlights.  I found Storify and Twitter to be a great way for me to take notes and capture highlights at this conference. I’ve used it before, but not extensively. Some important questions emerged for me from Woodson’s keynote: What can we do to make it easier for teachers of color to attend (and feel welcome) at this conference? The larger question: How can we encourage more people of color to become educators? Children need to see themselves reflected in their school faculty.

I have attended Tom Romano’s sessions for a few years now, and I went again this year. Each year he makes me more excited to do multigenre writing projects. This year, I picked up a few ideas I hope to be able to use with my freshmen when they do multigenre projects later this year. Romano remarked that he is noticing more of his college students have previously done multigenre work than in the past.

I didn’t go to a G session and opted instead for a yogurt lunch and for the exhibit hall, which was pretty much the only time I spent in the exhibits the whole weekend. I picked up the free Scholastic tote (my husband has a running joke about how many totes I have), and I bought Gareth Hinds’s new graphic novel of Poe’s short stories and asked him to sign it.

I attended my friend Jennifer Farnham’s session with Brooke Eisenbach, H.30 Creating an Environment of Social Justice in the English Classroom. Jennifer and Brooke hadn’t realized it would be a panel session and thought they would be at a large roundtable session, but you’d never have known it. We had time to discuss issues of censorship and social justice at our tables. It was an excellent session. Jennifer and Brooke shared some excellent tools.

Next, I attended I.20 Recapturing Assessment: Student Voices in Aiding Our Mission which was a roundtable session led by the #BoyTieBoys and their teacher Jason Augustowski. What an incredible session! Each of the Boy Tie Boys shared an Ignite-style presentation and then rotated to a new table. One big takeaway from their session is that we need to see more students at this conference. We can learn a lot from students themselves about what works with assessment and what doesn’t work. Some themes emerged from the boys’ presentations: students want choice about how they show their learning and they want to get to know their teachers in order to learn from them. I should add also that the Boy Tie Boys’ Twitter game was top notch. They captured some great ideas while attending keynotes and conference sessions.

My last Saturday session was J.37 Fake It ‘Til You Make It: Rhetoric in the Era of Fake News. I’d have been interested in this topic even if I was not friends with most of the panel of presenters, which included Deborah Appleman, Glenda Funk, Debbie Greco, Cherlyann Schmidt, and Ami Szerencse. The panel presentation focused on how to teach students how to think critically about the rhetoric they hear and how to evaluate news sources. It was a great session, and the entire panel generously shared materials and ideas.

I didn’t stay out very late on Saturday as I was nursing a cold and would be presenting and traveling the next day, but I did enjoy a brisk walk around the corner for some delicious pizza before I curled up for the night to read, transcribe some notes, and think.

On a completely unrelated note, I changed the theme of my blog again because it bothered me that visitors had to hunt around to figure out how to comment on posts. I hate anything that interferes with the user experience. I initially changed to a new theme because I discovered the one I used did not fill up the entire screen on devices with wider screens. I didn’t realize this problem because it filled up the screen on my old laptop. However, once I discovered it, it bothered me to no end, so I changed the theme. I never could adjust to the new theme. I tried to find other themes that would work, but I wasn’t happy with anything, so I finally sat down today and created a child theme based on the old theme I was using, which is Twenty Fourteen by WordPress. I think I have successfully made the changes I needed to so that the theme fills the screen, but let me know if you notice anything weird because I have never made a child theme before.

NCTE Reflections Part One

I anticipate needing more than one post to process my learning at NCTE this year. I had a great conference, and I noticed an improvement in a few areas I’ve criticized in the past.

One complaint I’ve had in the past is that materials were not posted online. Conference organizers made greater efforts (at least I noticed greater efforts) in encouraging participants to post materials online, and in sessions themselves, more presenters explained how to access their materials online. I think this is a trend in general because I have noticed it at other conferences as well, but I am grateful for the increased ease of access.

I have expressed fears that NCTE is becoming an echo chamber and that sessions from more well-known voices in the organization tend to leech away from other presenters. Efforts were made to highlight sessions by other presenters this year, and thank goodness, the “big names” were put in the theater where everyone who wanted to hear them could fit.

I decided to focus on going to sessions with a social justice theme this year. I went to so many great sessions that it will be hard to pick out highlights.

I attended Jimmy Santiago Baca’s keynote on Friday also, and I made a Storify of Twitter highlights.

I only swept the exhibit hall once during the conference, and that was to get Gareth Hinds’s new Poe book and the Scholastic tote. Hinds graciously signed my book for me, too. I also stood in line for Angie Thomas to sign a copy of The Hate U Give for me. I recently read and reviewed that book on my book blog. I wish I had made time for Jason Reynolds to sign something, but I would have had to buy books anyway as my copies of his books are currently in the hands of students.

I walked out of some sessions when it became clear that they were not going to be interactive. If I have one suggestion I hope NCTE will consider for future conferences, and it’s that presenters who plan to read papers be required to explicitly state that they will be reading a paper in their session. I hate to be sitting in the front row and leave once I realize the session description was deceptive. I also hate to avoid sessions by college presenters on the chance they will be reading a paper. I’m sure many of them are exactly what I’m looking for, but it’s taking a risk. I don’t think I’m alone in that I attend this conference to learn and interact with teachers, not to hear papers. I am sure others DO attend to hear papers. Why not make it easier for everyone to figure out this information?

NCTE Pro Tip: For the first time this year, I made a concerted effort to rank my choices in order of preference and write those numbers next to the session abstract in the conference book. By Sunday, I had adopted a scheme that worked great. I used post-it tabs and wrote the room number for the sessions I’d bookmarked at the top of the tab, so I could see the room numbers without flipping through the book. It made my travels Sunday a lot easier, and I only wish I’d thought of doing it sooner. It’s probably just as easy to rely on the app, but I found this to be an even quicker way to double-check room numbers than the app. If I had to leave my first choice session, it was easy to flip through the book and find my second choice.

As a side note: This conference is expensive. The conference fee itself is over $200 for members, and that doesn’t include hotel and travels. I have been in the position of having to pay for it out of pocket in the past because my previous school didn’t value the experience. It has been fairly difficult for me when I’ve had to pay for it myself, too. Many people mentioned how cost-prohibitive the conference is, and how it might be preventing especially teachers of color from attending. I am fortunate that my current school has covered the costs for me to go each year I have wanted to go. If you do go to NCTE, always remember this is YOUR conference. Either you or your school paid good money for you to go. If you are not going to learn from or enjoy a session, by all means, LEAVE IT. There are so many great sessions scheduled each block. You are doing yourself a disservice if you stay in a session that is not going to help you or your students or your school. Don’t feel bad about it, either.

I’ll focus the remainder of this post on the sessions from Friday alone, and then write posts about Saturday and Sunday to make it easier for readers to digest.

Neither A session I attended was memorable, sadly. I walked out of one (reading a paper), and the other was just not executed well, though I didn’t leave it. I probably should have, but by the time I’d already left one and transversed the conference center to a second and stayed long enough to figure it that it, too, wasn’t going to be as helpful as I’d thought, a lot of time for session A had passed, so I wasn’t sure I’d get as much out of my third choice after so much time had passed.

I enjoyed hearing from Tim O’Brien and Lynn Novick about teaching the Vietnam War. O’Brien signed a few session attendees’ copies of The Things They Carried. My rookie mistake? I knew he’d be at the conference. I planned to attend his session. And I left my copy of that brilliant book of his on my shelf at school. I am appropriately mad at myself, don’t worry.

Author Tim O'Brien and documentarian Lynn Novick
Author Tim O’Brien and documentarian Lynn Novick

O’Brien and Novick presented in session B.51: The Vietnam War and the Power of Storytelling. I created a Storify of Twitter highlights from the session.

I didn’t realize the C session was at the same time as the CEE luncheon with Angie Thomas. Oops. So I wound up not doing a C session, but Angie Thomas’s keynote at the luncheon was great, and I also created a Storify of Twitter highlights from her keynote.

I left my first choice D session (which didn’t turn out to be what I thought it would be), and went to the featured D.01 session “Queering English Studies: Navigating Politics, Policies, and Practices in ELA Learning Spaces.” It was a good roundtable session. I was late, so I only went through two roundtables, but both were helpful.

The E session I went to was fantastic. It was E.30: The Fire This Time. The presenters shared a wealth of materials. They were incredibly generous. Their discussion revolved around the core texts of The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (which I finally read on the plane to St. Louis, and… wow). I particularly loved the assignment they presented called “Suckage,” and I plan to steal it for my students. Here is Coates being interviewed at the school of one of the presenters as part of his book tour; you’ll see what Coates means by “Suckage.”

via ytCropper

I am so incredibly glad I attended that session. I not only got some great ideas for writing assignments out of it, but also a great discussion about teaching Baldwin and Coates, as well as how to teach students to discuss writing in general.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how my Saturday went.

Tips for Presenters at Education Conferences

advice photo
Photo by Got Credit

I’ve been doing some thinking about things I wish I had known the first time I presented at an educational conference as well as things I observe as I continue to enjoy and learn from the presentations of others at conferences. If you are presenting at an educational conference or to teachers in general, it’s worth considering the following ten tips.

  1. Share your slide deck.
    Google Slides and SlideShare make this so easy. URL shorteners make it even easier to send a quick link at the beginning of your presentation and on social media. You can try services such as Bitly, Tiny.cc, Tinyurl, and Google URL Shortener. These services are all free. In some cases, you can customize the link in the URL shortener you use. We are in 2017, and there is no longer any excuse not to share your slide deck, presentation packets, and other materials online. People who attend your presentation will be grateful, and you will make it much easier for them to implement your ideas when they go back to their schools. Many conferences offer shared folders or sites where you can upload your materials, but it’s not enough, and it’s especially not enough if you don’t do it in advance. If I can’t access your materials when I’m in your presentation, I am not likely to go back later and try. I find it frustrating when people do not share their materials, and it contributes more than anything else to a negative experience in a conference session. On the other hand, when presenters share at the beginning, I’m really happy and I engage right away because I know I will have a tangible takeaway I can look at later, and I don’t have to furiously try to capture everything in my bad handwriting that I can’t read later.
  2. Practice with your technology and equipment.
    Make sure everything works. Test the sound. Test your dongle before you leave for the conference and make sure you can project. Run through your slides and make sure everything works. Test links. Make sure you have set up proper viewing permissions in advance. Most conferences will have a few people helping with technology needs, but in all honesty, these folks are often running all over a large convention center, and there are never enough volunteers for this job. You really can’t rely on technology help when you present. It’s best if you can troubleshoot and resolve your own issues if possible.
  3. Bring any special equipment you will need.
    It’s probably safe to rely on the conference runners to provide a projector and microphone (if the room is big enough), but make sure you check that projectors and mics will be provided if you need them. If you need a dongle to connect to a VGA cable, make sure you bring it. Make sure it works. Bring a backup dongle if possible, as these cables are particularly fragile, for some reason, and even new ones can break fairly easily. If you have a newer Mac without the Thunderbolt 2 port that connects a dongle to a VGA cable, make sure you bring a dongle that connects to the new USB C ports because no one will have a backup dongle you can borrow. Trust me on this. Bring speakers if you need them, and make sure they work for the size room you are in. If you aren’t sure of the size, it might be worth it to invest in a nice Bose mini-speaker if you present (or anticipate presenting) often. Most conference rooms still don’t seem to be wired for sound. Make sure you bring materials you need. If you are displaying an iPad or other tablet, make sure you have a dongle for a projector; I have never seen an Apple TV or similar mirroring tool at any educational conference I’ve gone to, not even technology conferences. If you want a clicker to switch through slides, bring one. Most education conferences provide very little beyond a room, a projector, and a mic, so if you need anything else at all, you should plan to bring it. If you are not sure what the conference provides, and you haven’t had communication regarding what to bring, don’t hesitate to ask someone if you are at all unsure about what to bring.
  4. Make sure your slide deck is easy to see.
    If possible, test it for the person in the back of the room and make sure everything on the slide deck is visible. Avoid using dark backgrounds, which are particularly hard to see on projectors that are not bright. There are some really cool templates with dark backgrounds, but they are just hard to see in a presentation setting. Also, think about the readability of the fonts you use. Make sure they contrast well with your background and are bold, print fonts. Avoid fonts that are difficult to read. Don’t pack your slides with a lot of text. It’s better to break information down into more slides than to put too much on a single slide. Avoid putting information on the bottom of the slide, as sometimes room setups make it difficult to see the bottom of third or so the presentation.
  5. Use a professional-looking design for your slide deck.
    Templates are absolutely fine, but make sure you avoid unprofessional looking color schemes and fonts. (Comic Sans, I’m looking at you!) Use backgrounds and images that are eye-catching. There is a lot of great advice out there for design elements. Research best practices for designing presentations.
  6. Avoid relying on conference wifi for any part of your presentation.
    While it’s a good idea to make your presentation available online, conference wifi is still (in 2017!) sometimes spotty. You can download Google Slide presentations as PowerPoints, and anything you upload to SlideShare probably started as a PowerPoint, a Keynote, or another presentation tool. Download any videos you will be playing. YouTube is notorious for buffering right when you most need it to play smoothly. While you might have the capability of pairing your laptop or other device with your phone in order to have internet access, you should make sure anything you need to access online is available to use. It’s easy to get flustered when your videos won’t play or your slide deck won’t load, so save yourself some stress and make sure you have a backup plan if the wifi isn’t working well.
  7. Keep an eye on the time.
    In many cases, you have a limited amount of time, and if you go over, you may affect other speakers’ ability to share their presentations. Know how much time you have. If you are not sure, ask. Stick to the time you’ve been allotted. When you are practicing your presentation, time yourself. Adjust on the fly when you do interactive activities. Sometimes it’s hard to predict how long activities and parts of your presentation will take. If you consider time well in advance, you will be prepared to make adjustments that don’t compromise the most important things you want to share.
  8. Give people time to talk and reflect if you can.
    Sometimes time is really tight. I have learned that I really enjoy sessions when I can think about the material through writing or discussion with other participants. More and more often, conference presentations that do not include elements of interactivity or audience participation or reflection are rejected because participants are asking for opportunities to be involved and to reflect on their learning.
  9. Leave time for questions.
    People will want to ask you questions or at least share a few ideas, so make sure you give them a platform and time to do so. Sometimes, participants think of wrinkles or problems that we didn’t, and it can be helpful to brainstorm these issues with them and come up with solutions if you can.
  10. Share your contact information.
    I very rarely contact people after attending their presentations, but I have done so sometimes, and it’s so helpful if you prominently display ways to get in touch. I usually share my email, my Twitter handle, and my website link. I think I could count on one hand the number of times people have actually contacted me, but I like to leave that door open because as a participant, I would want that information. I often do follow people on Twitter after particularly enjoying their presentations.

What would you add to the list?

Join Me for #NEATE Chat

This Tuesday, September 26 at 8:00 PM EDT, you are invited to join the New England Association of Teachers of English (NEATE) for a Twitter chat at the hashtag #NEATE. We’ll be talking about our upcoming conference on October 20-21 in Mansfield, MA.

Our featured keynote speakers include Gish Jen and Taylor Mali. We have a lot of great sessions lined up. The early registration deadline is October 3. Please feel free to join us for the chat even if you are not a New England English teacher. We would love to hear from a variety of voices.

We have planned to host a monthly chat on the last Tuesday of each month. If you are interested in hosting one of our Twitter chats, you can complete the Google form below. We’d love to have you.

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.

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.

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.

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