This morning my Keurig decided to break. I have a single-serve Keurig that I have to fill with a cup of water each time I use. Only half a cup came out. I knew there had to be water trapped inside, but I wasn’t able to open it to see. So I turned it upside down over the trash can, and super-concentrated coffee went everywhere. Including the legs of my chinos. I knew they’d dry fast based on the kind of material they’re made out of, and my previous experiences getting them wet taught me I could try to wash the coffee out of my pants in the bathroom, and they’d probably be dry by class time.
I sat down and checked Blackboard. I started my doctoral program yesterday, and we are introducing ourselves to each other in both of my classes. I also wanted to see if my professor had answered my question. She had.
Then I thought to check my plan book to see what my AP Lit classes had on the docket for today, and I realized with horror that I’d made a big mistake. I had actually finished a project with them a day earlier than I had anticipated when I created my plans. I didn’t have anything for my students to do.
I knew I wouldn’t have time to create a meaningful lesson out of whole cloth, and I couldn’t move ahead because I had given my students until tomorrow or Thursday (depending on which class they are in) to finish Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. It wouldn’t be fair to tell them they had to create seminar questions today when they might not be quite finished reading.
The project my students had just completed was to learn how to use a literary analysis tool (one was TPCASTT) and teach it to their peers in a presentation in which they also share their analysis of a literary work using the tool. In past years, I’ve been frustrated that the tools have been introduced early in the year and haven’t gained any traction. The students thought they were useful, but later on, they simply didn’t return to them when they were analyzing literature. We fall back on habits and methods that we know. We forget.
I thought fast. What if my AP Lit students worked in groups to choose a poem in one of my new collection of books by (mostly) living poets, chose a literary tool they learned last week (not one they themselves presented), analyzed a poem, and shared their findings with the class?
I tossed my poetry books in a box and made my way across campus. It was just starting to rain. I was glad I had remembered my umbrella so the books would stay dry.
All went well in my first class. After you’ve taught for a while, you come up with some handy go-to techniques you can use to stretch a lesson.
As I made my way back across campus slowly and carefully in a torrential downpour that was the remains of Hurricane Florence, I tried to keep the books dry and succeeded in making my pant legs wet all over again—the puddles were unavoidable—and arrived back at my office about ten minutes late for my “office hour” ( really half-hour). Thankfully, no one was waiting for help. I dried off my shoes with a paper towel from the bathroom and prepared to do the lesson again in my second class.
What started out as a mistake turned out to be serendipity. The students dove into the poems and presented thoughtful analyses. They considered which tool to use thoughtfully, thinking about what their chosen poems included in terms of diction, literary devices, imagery, symbols, and other elements. It was brilliant. And I think it may have helped me along the path to achieving my goal of convincing students to use these tools to analyze literature.
Thank you to #TeachLivingPoets, and thank you to generous AP teachers everywhere who share their ideas. In spite of me, I had some great classes today.
Slice 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.
Literature is a powerful means of helping us understand things we don’t understand otherwise. It can offer us new perspectives. It can reflect ourselves, certainly, but it can also help us understand others who are not like us. It offers us an opportunity to see things from a perspective besides our own. It’s incredibly obvious to me that our current president doesn’t read because he lacks that important perspective.
We have all, at one time or another, been blind to others’ perspectives. For instance, I have been thinking a lot lately about homelessness. I have held some beliefs about it that I am questioning, and I’m also questioning why I believed these things when I admit now that I didn’t have certain information. My information about who becomes homeless and why was woefully incomplete. I have had an opportunity to get to know some young people who found themselves homeless, and not for reasons I would have thought.
I was watching some videos last night when I was having trouble falling asleep. Because I went to a U2 concert on Thursday night, my ears are still full of their music, and I’m still feeling that post-concert energy. (I had a really hard time going to sleep Thursday night after the concert.) I was really just clicking through different videos, feeling 80’s nostalgia big time with some of them, and I happened upon this short interview with the Edge in which he describes working on a documentary about homelessness and how he had begun interrogating his feelings about homelessness. It’s fairly candid. It’s hard to admit you were not open-minded about something in the past or that you held political or social beliefs in the past that you now disagree with. Watching that video, in which someone I admire a great deal admits to a certain blindness about a situation—I blindness I shared—helped me figure out what I wanted to say about the current crisis at America’s southern border. We all change. As Taylor Mali says in “Like Lilly Like Wilson,” “changing your mind is one of the best ways / of finding out whether or not you still have one.”
As I have learned from others, I have changed my mind many times. It’s not “waffling,” it’s adjusting based on information you didn’t have before. In order to adjust, you have to be open to that information. Many people reject information that conflicts with what they believe. Cognitive dissonance is not a rare phenomenon. People confronted with information that contradicts beliefs they have held will do one of several things:
Change their mind or their behavior based on the new information.
Justify it in some way.
Ignore or dismiss the new information.
We should interrogate the source and strength of the information, of course, but if the information is both strong and comes from a reliable source or data, we are lying if we do anything except change our minds or behavior. Climate change is a good example. A lot of people are choosing either to justify not doing anything for the climate or to ignore it and say climate change is made up.
A long time ago, I believed every person coming into our country should follow the legal channels. What is the big deal? If you want to become an American, I thought, fine, but do whatever paperwork you need to do. I changed my mind after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Bean Trees. What made me change my mind is that Kingsolver opened my eyes to the fact that a lot of people cannot follow legal channels and come to America for a variety of reasons: their governments are so corrupt that they will never be able to complete the required paperwork and go through official channels or their lives are in danger (often because of their corrupt government). Obviously, there are a host of other reasons.
In The Bean Trees, the protagonist Taylor Greer meets a couple, Estevan and Esperanza, who are undocumented immigrants from Guatemala. Taylor’s friend Mattie runs a sort of “underground railroad” for undocumented immigrants out of her home. Kingsolver allows Taylor to stand in for the uninformed reader. Her naivete about what is happening in the world around her mirrored my own, despite the fact that I watched the news, and I knew about the rampant corruption and violence in Central and South America. I didn’t see it because I didn’t know anyone who had experienced it, and one thing novels allow you to do is live vicariously through the characters.
Getting to know Estevan and Esperanza changed my mind about undocumented immigrants. They were fleeing a civil war in Guatemala. Their lives were in danger. Their child was taken from them in Guatemala. Kingsolver gets at the heart of the issue many Americans have with refugees and undocumented immigrants through Estavan. After the character Virgie May Parsons declares that immigrants should “stay put in their own dirt, not come here taking up jobs” because “before you know it the whole world will be here jibbering and jabbering till we won’t know it’s America” (143), Taylor feels she should apologize to Estevan for Virgie’s comments. Estevan says, “I understand . . . This is how Americans think. You believe that if something terrible happens to someone, they must have deserved it” (157). We blame victims of oppression instead of looking at policies and systems that created oppression.
Later when Taylor learns that Estevan and Esperanza’s daughter Ismene was kidnapped because Estevan was a member of an underground teachers’ union in Guatemala. Esperanza’s brother and friends are also in the union and are killed in a police raid. Ismene, Estevan and Esperanza’s daughter, is abducted as a form of “ransom.” If they will give up the information they have about the union, the government will return Ismene to them. Giving up the information they have will mean death for union members. Taylor is horrified when she finds out that Estevan and Esperanza had to choose to leave their daughter behind, and she says, “I can’t even begin to think about a world where people have to make choices like that.” Estevan replies, “You live in that world” (184).
I lived in that world, too, and like Taylor, I didn’t know. I didn’t know because I had the privilege not to know. The way I handled the cognitive dissonance that came with learning that not everyone can follow the proper channels when they are seeking to come to America is that I changed my beliefs. I don’t feel threatened by people coming to America to seek a better life, but I understand that for one reason or another, many people do feel threatened.
I had the opportunity recently to hear Clint Smith speak as part of the Multicultural Teaching Institute in Weston, MA. I didn’t attend the entire institute; I have attended in the past. The only part of the institute I attended was Clint Smith’s talk. One thing he said really resonated with me. It isn’t indoctrination to teach the truth. Present the information to the students and let them decide what to do with the information. For example, he cited the statistic from a Southern Poverty Law Center study that found that only 8% of high school seniors name slavery as the cause of the Civil War. This, despite the fact that many primary source documents written by secessionists name slavery as their reason for wanting to break from the union. Smith says that it’s not our job as educators to convince students to agree with us. Present the information in its totality, however, and let them grapple. It is our job to complicate the narrative, to show the complexities and contradictions. But the students will need to cope with the potential cognitive dissonance. And they have a few options. They can accept the new information and change their minds or behavior. They can justify it in some way. Or they can reject it. But we need to make sure students have the information they need to make that choice. They need to read books like The Bean Trees. Check out the work in #DisruptTexts on Twitter to learn how to share multiple, diverse perspectives with students.
“Home” by Warsan Shire seems appropriate to share.
My AP Lit students read Tim O’Brien’s story “How to Tell a True War Story” from the novel/collection The Things They Carried for today. I used the ideas O’Brien expresses in his story “Good Form”—that there is “story-truth” and “happening-truth” and “story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth”—as the center of my class’s discussion of the story we read.
I began class by showing students Eddie Adams’s iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photo Saigon Execution.
I asked them what they thought the story of this photo was. I gave them a few minutes to think (and write, if they wished). Then we had a class discussion. The students generally came to the same conclusions that many people do when they see this photo: that it depicts the execution of a civilian, that it represents the brutality of war.
I used this introduction to set up O’Brien’s ideas regarding “story-truth” and “happening-truth,” and then we discussed O’Brien’s story, starting with the students’ own selections for lines they found particularly powerful. They had many lines to share, and we took the conversation where they wanted to go for a while. I shared a few of the notes I took at Tim O’Brien and Lynn Novick’s session at NCTE last November, mainly his ideas regarding the obscenity of sending young men to war and condemning them for their use of language when a student noted a line that really stood out to him was Rat Kiley’s description of Curt Lemon’s sister as a “dumb cooze.” Why does that word work so much better than “bitch” or “woman,” which O’Brien says Rat Kiley did not say? I asked them. Because it’s truer, they said.
They totally got it. Tim O’Brien would have been proud.
We talked about Rat Kiley torturing the baby VC water buffalo. They argued it was somehow important that it was a baby. That it was VC. That it never made a sound. Somehow, if it made a sound, the story becomes something else. I read them “Good Form,” and we discussed the ideas he presented in that story.
I showed them this interview with O’Brien:
We came full circle at the end of class with the image Saigon Execution. So this image’s “happening-truth” is that the man holding the gun was a South Vietnamese general named Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. He executed the young man because he was a VC terrorist or guerrilla fighter, for lack of a better word, named Nguyễn Văn Lém who had participated in killing 34 people that day.
But the “story-truth” is that the man is a civilian caught up in the brutality of war.
And in a way, that story is also true. Maybe, because it’s the narrative that won the day, it’s “truer than happening-truth.”
As they were packing up, students expressed how much they enjoyed the story. “I liked it so much I read it to my parents,” one student said. Another said, “I could talk about this story for a week.”
The Scholar Academic believes a “teacher’s job is to transmit information deemed to be important by the academic discipline.”
The Learner-Centered teacher believes a “teacher’s job is to see children as individuals and provide opportunities for them to make meaning of their own experiences.”
The Social Efficiency teacher believes a “teacher’s job is to prepare students with skills they will need in the future to be productive members of society.”
The Social Reconstructionist teacher believes a “teacher’s job is to push students to interpret the past, present, and future in order to reconstruct and create a more just world.”
This tool may not be new to you, but I hadn’t seen it before. I was a little bit surprised by my results, but not entirely. I scored highest, uniformly and without a single deviation, as a Social Reconstructionist teacher, meaning issues of social justice are at the forefront of what I do in the classroom.
Social reconstructionism is a philosophy that emphasizes the addressing of social questions and a quest to create a better society and worldwide democracy. Reconstructionist educators focus on a curriculum that highlights social reform as the aim of education. Theodore Brameld (1904-1987) was the founder of social reconstructionism, in reaction against the realities of World War II. He recognized the potential for either human annihilation through technology and human cruelty or the capacity to create a beneficent society using technology and human compassion. George Counts (1889-1974) recognized that education was the means of preparing people for creating this new social order.
As a beginning teacher, I can’t say I had enough models of this kind of philosophy, so it took me some time to develop my approach to teaching, but if I examine which books I read in my early education courses that spoke most to me, it’s obvious I was always thinking along these lines: Dewey’s Experience & Education, Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Trillin’s An Education in Georgia.
Quite possibly anyone who has examined my American literature curriculum is unsurprised by this result. My colleagues at work certainly affirmed it sounded like me. One of the reasons I threw out chronological teaching of American literature is that I wanted to focus on social justice, and all the themes and essential questions I created for that course tied back to ideas about social justice, from starting with Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” and reading the voices of Americans to understanding the pervasiveness of the American Dream and who gets cut out of achieving it with The Great Gatsby. If I were teaching American literature this year, you can bet my students would be writing about the NFL controversy around “Taking a Knee” in connection with Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and the writings of MLK and John Lewis.
Time to admit something. I haven’t actually read Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Yet. I just ordered it. I feel ready to embrace my identity as a Social Reconstructionist now that I know I am one. Might also be time to dust off my Dewey. No wonder Henry David Thoreau is one of my most important teachers.
Which leads me to a final thought. If these young women were my students, I would have felt I had been a successful teacher.
Slice 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.
On the spur of the moment Sunday, I decided to visit Walden Pond and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, about 45 minutes away from where I live. It was a beautiful fall day, and I was hoping to see the leaves. This weekend will be too busy, and before long, it will be cold up here in Massachusetts. I took my son and daughter. We walked all the way around Walden Pond.
The trees are indeed beginning to change color, but they are still pretty green because we had a warm spell in September and early October, and I think it confused the leaves.
We visited the site where Thoreau’s cabin once stood, and my kids indulged my request to pose.
It is quite a small space, which I suppose was the point, but I think Maggie, in particular, was surprised to learn Thoreau lived in a cabin only a little larger than her bedroom.
There is a marker where Thoreau’s chimney foundation was.
But perhaps most striking, next to the site of the cabin is this large cairn and sign.
It looks a bit more haphazard in the picture, but there were several very orderly stacks of rocks. Of course, we left stones in remembrance.
There are two main paths around the lake. You can go through the woods, or you can walk on the beach. We tried both.
The leaves were gathering in the shallow water near the edge of the lake. It’s hard to capture in a photo.
We made sure to visit the replica of the cabin, which is near the parking lot and gift shop. Dylan found a friend. He’s got a huckleberry-flavored lollipop, which you can buy in the gift store.
My children didn’t know who Henry David Thoreau was, which did not surprise me. I wonder if I knew who he was when I was their age. So I told them about him—why he lived at Walden and what he wanted to do there, about his act of civil disobedience, about his last words to his Aunt Louisa, who asked him on his deathbed whether he’d made his peace with God, “I did not know we had ever quarreled, Aunt.”
He was two years younger than I am now when he died of tuberculosis. But what an amazing mark he has left on the world. Maggie was particularly interested in Thoreau’s night in jail, as she had read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” this year in her English class.
I am not teaching American literature this year. I am sad about it in some ways because I loved teaching Thoreau, especially sharing “Civil Disobedience” with my students, and I always pair it with King’s Letter when I teach it. It’s the introduction to my favorite unit, which involves nonconformists and voices of the “other.”
We grabbed some pizza at a local place, and my children once again indulged me with a visit to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellery Channing, Louisa May Alcott, and of course, Henry David Thoreau are buried.
It’s quite a beautiful cemetery, and the authors’ graves are easy to find. The Thoreau family are buried in a large plot together.
I was surprised by how moved I was when we saw Thoreau’s simple marker. I actually felt tears start.
I love the fact that visitors leave him pencils. I left a stone behind, but it didn’t occur to me to bring him a pencil.
Thoreau speaks to me in some weird ways, and I’m not sure why because truthfully, I didn’t enjoy reading all of Walden. I like parts of it. Thoreau might actually frustrate the heck out of me if I really knew him. Even Emerson said, “I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all American, he was the captain of a huckleberry party.”
Oh, Waldo. But he was engineering for all America. You all just didn’t see it at the time. I don’t know that it’s true that Thoreau had no ambition. I think what he wanted to accomplish with his life was just different from what Emerson thought he should want to accomplish.
I have been thinking a lot about Thoreau’s wisdom as captured on the sign near the site of his cabin.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Mainly because I am preparing to do something fairly big—and as much as I hate to be cagey, I can’t talk about it on my blog yet. I have been thinking a little bit lately about what I want to reflect on at the end of my life, what I hope to have done. One of the best reasons to try something you’re afraid to do is to think about how you might feel about not trying when you die. I don’t think that’s necessarily what Thoreau meant, but I do think he would approve of the sentiment that if we do not take risks and see what happens, we aren’t really living. I just realized this as I was writing, but I think I went to visit my friend Thoreau to obtain his blessing on my plans. I think I got it. There was a was a transcendent moment when the sun came out from behind a cloud and threw sparkles all over the lake, and I could have sworn I felt his presence. You can roll your eyes if you want. I know what I felt.
If Thoreau taught me anything, it’s that sometimes you really need to “go confidently in the direction of your dreams.” He might add, if we were in conversation for real instead of just inside my head, “if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” After all, “there is no other life but this.”
Slice 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.
I had weekend duty at my school on Labor Day. For those of you who might teach in other settings, weekend duty is fairly common in boarding schools. When we have students living on campus, making sure their needs are taken care of takes many hands, and the faculty living on campus cannot always meet those needs on their own. We are often given choices about which types of duty we might prefer. Sometimes we are not able to have our first choice. I was lucky, however, and was able to monitor the school library during my four-hour shift. I like working in the library, as it’s quiet, and the only real travel is checking on students who might be working downstairs.
A small group of junior and senior girls came to the library and worked for most of the four hours I was there. As I prepared to close the library and they were packing up, I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. One girl was finishing up their summer reading text, The Scarlet Letter. She remarked that the book was “horrible,” and that she felt like she had to “translate almost every sentence.” A senior girl remarked, “Wait until you get to Huckleberry Finn.”
I happen to love both of those books. I didn’t read either one until I was in my 20’s, and perhaps I came to them at the right time. I don’t always think we teach books when students are ready for them, when the time is right. On the other hand, I have had some success teaching both of those texts, or at least it seemed from my perspective as if students were engaged. Every single student? Honestly, no, but it’s fairly difficult to achieve 100% from any class. Enough students that I could see value in teaching the texts? Sure.
I don’t necessarily think these texts have no place in high school. I also don’t think we should do entirely away with teaching the whole-class text in favor of all student-selected books. There are a lot of reasons to read, and the whole-class text can be taught successfully. I am curious about the approaches to these two novels, The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn, in the girls’ classes. These are both hard-working, bright girls who are invested in their education, so I don’t think it’s the girls here. I’m sure if you polled more of our students, mine included, they might have similar stories.
I do independent reading in my classes because students need to make time to read, and they need choices about what they read. They need to learn what they actually like to read, and like anything else, the more you read, the better you are at reading. Having said that, I remain convinced that the whole-class text study also still has a place in English classes.
So what do we do? If we see value in teaching a text, how do we engage the students? What choices do we offer about studying the text?
Stay tuned. I feel a blog series manifesto coming on.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We also were able to see a lock of Emily Dickinson’s hair. The color may surprise you.
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.
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?
We saw so many manuscripts that I will not share them all here, but I will share one last one that you will recognize.
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.
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?
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.
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—
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—