I didn’t start my day thinking I was going to get involved in a massive Twitter discussion about TKAM. I have mostly been silent about the debate I’ve seen online as I thought about my own experience with the novel. Reading Dr. Kendi’s words, however, helped me figure out what I wanted to say about the book.
In the accompanying Twitter thread, I talked about how I devoured this book when I read it in high school. I actually read ahead of the required reading homework, which I really never did. I was a huge reader, but I didn’t like much of anything my teachers asked me to read in school. Sometimes I didn’t read and faked my way through. But that was not true of To Kill a Mockingbird.
When I had my own classroom, my first year as a teacher, I asked for a class set of TKAM. My students were predominantly Black, and I could tell they didn’t love the book. I taught the book for several years, however. I thought it was antiracist. It is not.
I cringe so often thinking of my early years as a teacher. I want to apologize to those students every day. Not that I’m finished growing, but when I think of all I didn’t know and the harm I did in ignorance, I have so many regrets. However, I need to be honest and say that my teacher preparation program, while it was amazing in many ways, was seriously lacking in teaching social justice. Lisa Delpit and Beverly Daniel Tatum were writing when I was in undergrad. So were bell hooks and Geneva Gay. We were not exposed to any of their writing. I went into a classroom with no idea what I was doing in terms of culturally responsive teaching, and yes, I blame my English education program for that. They must have known we needed this background. It should have been woven through our entire curriculum.
In the Twitter thread, I explained that I would not teach the book again.
Electing not to teach a book is not the same thing as banning it.
I have been thinking about this book for a little while. I haven’t read it in years, but it kept cropping up in discussions online. This seems to be the book that teachers, especially White teachers, really get upset about when someone suggests maybe we move on and teach something else.
If you have to teach it, you really need to interrogate it. The Black characters in the book are props for White children to learn about racism. They are not centered. They are silenced. We can do better. If someone is making you teach it, share your concerns. Open a conversation. And definitely disrupt it (thanks #DisruptTexts!)
Think about your purpose. If you are teaching TKAM in order to teach about racism, this book is not helping you reach that goal. In fact, it’s getting in your way.
I have been recommending Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy instead. Bryan Stevenson is actually a real lawyer doing some amazing work. If you’re teaching TKAM to middle schoolers, then you might see if the version for young people suits your student population better.
There are so many options before you! What about Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give? Samira Ahmed’s Internment? Jason Reynolds’s books? Ibi Zoboi’s books? We have so many options, and if our goal in teaching a book is to discuss a text about racism, we need to center the voices of people who actually have experienced it.
I’ve been a little bit frustrated by my first unit in AP Lit. since my first year teaching it. Since this year is my fourth, it was time to make some changes or scrap it altogether, and since I felt it had some real potential, I decided to rethink the selections I was using to introduce literary analysis tools and critical lenses. I’m a little embarrassed it took me three years to figure out the solution. Even more embarrassing? I stumbled on this solution by accident after forgetting I was a day ahead of where I thought I’d be in my lesson plans. But after that serendipitous change went well, I knew what I needed to fix the rest of my unit: student agency.
I put all these collections in a box I called my Box of Books by Living Poets. Of course, Miłosz and Symborska are not living poets, but they are at least 20th-21st-century poets. I carried the box with me to class.
The books that generated the most interest were Counting Descent and Citizen Illegal, though students also looked into Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Electric Arches, American Journal, Miracle Fruit, and The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. To be honest, no one cracked open either Miłosz and Symborska. Some students elected to focus on poems they knew and loved by poets as diverse as Rupi Kaur, Allen Ginsberg, Dr. Suess, Eminem, and Emma Lazarus.
The first thing students do with the poems is learn how to use one of several literary analysis tools to help break down the poem. In my AP Lit workshop a few years ago, I learned about DIDLS, TWIST, and SIFTT (video). Lisa Huff had already introduced me to TPCASTT (weirdly, this TPCASTT post on my blog is the one that consistently receives the most traffic). If you know who invented any of these strategies, let me know so that I can give proper attribution. I do not know who created them, but they’re widely shared.
Students worked in groups to use the literary analysis tool to analyze a poem of their choice, create a presentation using Google Slides explaining how to use the analysis tool, and demonstrate their application of the tool to their own poem analysis.
Students created a second presentation using critical lenses to deepen their poem analysis. They could use the same poem as before or a different one. Most students chose a different poem, again from the Box of Books by Living Poets or one of their own choosing. Again, students analyzed the poem using one of the literary analysis tools and added the layer of the critical lens.
Some of my takeaways from the change:
Students were much more engaged in this unit this year. It’s probably obvious, but the reason why I think they enjoyed the unit more was the selection of poetry. They had an opportunity to either analyze poetry they really like or they were introduced to poetry by living poets, with the immediacy and relevance of those voices bring with them. Students were really enjoying Clint Smith’s poetry. They were excited by the fact that José Olivarez’s book had been released just weeks ago, and they were probably some of the first students to analyze his poems.
Students were reading more poetry than they had in previous years. They had to find the poems they wanted, which in itself was a process. Students also shared their poems in presentations, reading the poems they were analyzing before sharing their analyses. Because of the large variety of poems available, students were simply reading more of them.
Students were able to bring in literature that was important to them. One student lamented in a recent discussion that she didn’t feel represented well in our school’s curriculum. She had read one major text by an author with her background, and to quote her commentary, “It was weird.” Because of these projects, she was able to bring in poets with backgrounds similar to her own background and share those poems with her classmates. Another student brought in her own poem to analyze. Two other students brought in a poem by a student their age at another school (video).
Students understand the literary analysis tools better. They are better able to articulate why they selected certain tools. For example, they noted the diction was interesting, and it prompted them to use DIDLS. If tone seemed really important, they chose TWIST. They loved TPCASTT for its versatility.
Students understand the critical lenses better.Purdue OWL has revamped their pages on critical lenses, and they are amazing. Having really good introductions to the critical lenses made a huge difference. Also, I think choosing their own poems asked students to think more about which lenses could be used to interpret the poems. For example, students with experience reading Clint Smith’s poems for the first presentation knew he would work well for critical race theory in the second. A student who loves Eminem knew his song “The Monster” was ripe for a psychoanalytical analysis. As a result of having to select their poems, students had to use higher-order critical thinking skills of application and evaluation to do their analysis as opposed to the past, when I selected poems I thought would be good to use for the critical lenses.
I was more engaged in the classroom, too. No, it’s not about me as the teacher, but I was way more interested during the students’ presentations because their own engagement and interest showed through in their work. Watching the presentations this year was really a lot of fun.
My prediction is that students will use both the literary analysis tools and the critical lenses more this year than they did in past years. I am hoping to grab a few minutes to ask their feedback on the unit in the upcoming week, but one student remarked as she left class Friday that “this is fun English.”
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.
A note about the images in this post: The Emily Dickinson Museum gave me express permission to take photographs in the Museum for distribution on my website and social media with the caveat that I do not use the images for material gain. I cannot control what happens to these images if you use them, so you do not have permission to duplicate them on your website, social media, or any other place.
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.