In my A.P. English class, we just finished Robert Bolt’s wonderful play, A Man for All Seasons. Frequently, after we finish a major work, I have them write an in-class essay, but we’ve already done three in-class essays, and I wanted to wrap up this play differently.
I didn’t want them to write another essay.
What I did was to divide the class into five groups of six or seven kids, and then I gave each group an A.P.-style question to answer for the rest of the class as a panel presentation. Each of the questions asked them to relate some part of the play to the play’s overall meaning, so I knew I was going to get a different meaning from each group.
My plan was to give them a half hour to come up with their answer to the question before they presented to the class. I envisioned putting the class in a circle so they could all face each other, and my intent was that the lesson would broaden their understanding of the play by seeing the different approaches the groups used to discuss the play’s overall meaning.
I took the class to the cafeteria to spread them out for their initial work because 34 kids in a small room trying to do group activities is ridiculous. When I brought them back, though, I decided that I didn’t have enough room to do the circle discussion. I went with a panel-style format instead. I had them move six desks to the front of the room and face them the other way.
The first group to present had this question:
In our attention on the fate of the major characters in a play, we often overlook the role the minor characters play. They, however, frequently exist to focus and direct the major characters' actions. Using minor characters from the A Man for All Seasons, discuss how they contribute to the work’s overall meaning. Characters you might consider include Roper, Norfolk, Margaret, Alice and/or Richard Rich.
What happened next, though, is where the lesson veered off. Remember my plan was that what we were going for was just multiple approaches to the play and to deepen their familiarity with the work.
The first student read the question and lead to their statement of the play’s overall meaning. The second student talked about Roper. The third, Norfolk. The fourth Margaret and Alice. The fifth, Rich. And the last summed up their argument, relating the characters to the overall meaning.
While they presented, I realized what I was watching: it was a human representation of an essay. Each student was a paragraph! Brilliant! So I pointed that out to the class, and our entire focus changed. The student who discussed Roper, for example, related his character to the question and the group’s overall meaning. The next three students, though, only talked about their characters without relating them to the overall meaning. What was cool was that the class suddenly saw the paragraphs of an essay as each having a task to do. If they thought of an essay as being like a team of presenters, where each presenter was a paragraph that could be weak or strong, they saw the entire essay differently.
All the groups that went after that first one were much better. I could see each kid reaching the end of what he wanted to say and then going on to tie his portion of the presentation back to the play’s overall meaning.
No one wanted to be the weak paragraph in their group essay!
So, my plan went awry. What I intended to happen only happened in a minor way. My intention, which was to avoid writing a 4th essay in four weeks, turned into a great session on writing essays.
The lesson was great, accidentally.
Have any of you had that experience, where what you planned didn’t work out but what happened instead was great?
She was a nut, of course, but I’ve never forgotten it (ironically, as you will see).
At the time, I was working on a fantasy novel with a character in it who was effectively immortal. He wasn’t invulnerable, but, barring accident, he didn’t die. He didn’t age.
Immortality has always fascinated me. I’d like to achieve it, personally, or at least have a solid five-hundred or six-hundred years to consider it. But how would a character deal with that incredibly long memory of life events?
The way I handled it for the character was memory loss. My character really only held twenty years of so of clear memories. Old friends, old loves, previous family, all faded away. He could have become an expert in a field of study years before, but if he didn’t continue using it, he would lose that expertise.
I have some experience with this. First, I graduated with a B.A. in history and English. I had intended on being a history teacher. I student taught in history and my teaching license says I’m qualified to teach it. But I’ve been teaching English for thirty years now, not history. I would be useless now as a history teacher. I believe I’m barely more knowledgeable than someone who never studied it.
In a similar sense, I was married for five years, starting when I was 27. That’s twenty-seven years ago now. My memories of that marriage really feel like they belong to someone else. I think there are books I recall better than that marriage.
I’m becoming my immortal character. The memories fade.
My classmate in grad school worried that I wrote about memory loss. She felt that by writing about it I was inviting it into my life.
Sometimes, sort of, I think she might be right. Memory loss truly is one of my great fears. I have had Alzheimer nightmares pretty much my entire teaching career. I dream about not being able to read to my kids because I don’t remember what the words mean. I have bad dreams about not remembering where my room is or that I’m standing in front of kids I don’t recognize.
This is a long lead up to sharing my fear that I’m not as mentally sharp as I used to be. I occasionally will retell an anecdote to someone I’ve already shared it with (and, sometimes, tell it back to the person who shared it with me in the first place). I have had loved ones tell me about conversations I can’t remember (sometimes recent ones). I can’t remember lessons that I’ve taught, sometimes the day before. I have to look at my lesson plans to see what happened. I can’t keep names in my head, although to be fair, I’ve never been very good with names.
My dad’s Alzheimers is no doubt pushing my fears. If nothing else fells me first, Alzheimers seems like a fair genetic bet for me. So, when does it start? How would you know?
Mental acuity is of particular interest to me because I write. As a writer who occasionally manages to sell stuff, my plan has been that when I retire, I will write full time—sort of like summer vacation, but year-round. However, I’ve always felt that I’m a just barely publishable writer. The difference between my work selling and being rejected is knife-edge thin. If my mental sharpness slips even a little, then I’ll never sell again.
Don’t laugh! I actually think about stuff like this.
If I retire at 60, which seems possible, how many good writing years will I have left? If I follow my dad’s path, it’s not as many as I would like. Dad quit volunteering at the high school to help with the math students when he was in his 70s because he said he didn’t feel like he was handling the math as well. He said he was worried he’d misinform the kids.
And writing hardly seems like it is the most important worry. Will I recognize when I shouldn’t drive anymore, or turn a stove on? Is memory and cognitive loss like a fog that the person doesn’t even know they are in? Will I be conscious of the change? Am I already losing it?
These are troubling questions.
This is, of course, not constructive criticism. It is recognition that they have written, which is what I think is the most important feedback I can give a high school poet.
But this student wanted more. Her request provoked me into thinking about how could I respond.
She got the long reply from me for her efforts:
Thanks for asking me to look at the poem. I’ve probably given you WAY too much response here, but your poem pushed me into thinking about how I read poems and how I try to help poets.
So, let’s dive in. There are a ton of ways to respond to a poem. I’ll try three approaches.
Poems as inner revelation: For many people, a poem is about saying what someone is feeling in a format that fits it. An essay or short story, for example, just wouldn’t be the right form. This poem expresses the persona’s anxiety that what they appear like on the outside is a lie when compared to the inner reality. The persona is so isolated by this split in appearance vs. reality that she can only share her concern with the mirror, and the mirror responds at first by “cracking,” a sort of going away which really upsets the persona. The persona repairs the broken mirror, hoping it will repair herself, but the mirror distorts her and laughs at her, which causes it to break again. The persona ends up apologizing to the mirror. That’s a complicated poem! On this level, I think the poem works well. Your poem is the strongest on this level. It relates the persona’s feelings of fear, confusion, neediness and loneliness. It’s the kind of poem that some people would read and wonder if the poet were in crisis.
Poems as vehicles to make the reader experience life: For many readers, the measure of a poem’s excellence is how deeply it makes them feel something. For these readers, poems divide themselves into two groups: the ones that make them as readers feel something (they do this by presenting vivid, compelling images that make the readers feel like they are there), and the ones that just tell them that the poet felt something. This is the difference between a sad poem that makes the reader cry and a poem that the reader says, “Oh, the poet is sad,” or one that makes the reader feel what love is like and a poem that the reader says, “Oh, the poet is in love.” Although this poem does make some appeals to the senses, it mostly reports that the persona is feeling things and probably doesn’t make the reader feel those things. Certainly it doesn’t make the reader feel these feelings with the same intensity that the poet says she feels them. The readers most likely to get the most out of a poem like this are the ones who say, “Oh, that exactly captures how I feel some times,” but for most readers it would be less effective. They didn’t get to feel anything. The poem just tells them that the poet felt something.
Poems as artistic expression of language used in interesting ways: For some readers, what attracts them most to a poem is its artful use of language. What they are looking for is that “felicity of language” that we said the best writers have. They respond to unique turns of phrase, unexpected organization and surprising observations. They want the poet to say the things they are incapable of saying themselves. This poem is not particularly noteworthy for its artistic expression or language used in interesting ways. The idea that a mirror doesn’t show the real person, for example, isn’t surprising for an experienced reader, nor are there unique turns of phrase or other surprises. The strongest part of the poem in this area are the lines, “Mirror, why don’t you help me reflect/on my past instead of burying me in/my present?”
This poem’s strengths and weaknesses as I see them:
- Strength of reported emotion
- Cleverness of the idea (a one-sided argument with a mirror)
- The lines I pointed out
- Reliance on abstractions and reported emotions rather than strong appeals to the senses.
- Unsurprising language
- Vagueness instead of specifics
Overall thoughts: Judging poetry is a deeply personal effort. Every teacher/poet/reader brings their own prejudices to a poem, as I have here. A different reader could give you a very different interpretation. My tendency is to judge poems by how an editor of a poetry magazine might judge them, by how strong of an appeal they would have to the readers of the magazine. I would want to choose poems that move my readers through their originality and craft. Many readers, though, judge poems solely on how “honest” they feel, by how deeply the poem seems to reveal the inner poet. Craft matters that I pay a lot of attention to are less important to them than emotion.
Also, I judge poems somewhat by where the poet is. High school poets are growing as writers. The poems they write now are nowhere nearly as informed as the poems they will write in ten or twenty years. If you are interested in where I think this poem sits among other high school poets, I’d say it’s way better than many (it doesn’t rely on obvious clichés, for example, nor is it simplistic), but it’s not as strong as the ones by your peers that write with the same honesty but with more specifics and more attention to interestingly crafted language.
My advice on a rewrite would be to explore in the poem more specifically what provoked the poem. What real event or events can you share with the reader that would make them feel what the persona is feeling? What connections to the real world through specific appeals to sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell can you bring into the poem? I think this would improve the content of the poem and make it more original (who else could come up with your specifics, after all?).
I’d also advise looking at the language you use. Is it possible to be more figurative in your language choices? Stronger, evocative verbs, too, would help. One way to judge whether the language in your poem is interesting is to identify the parts you hope a reader would notice. What you want is for even a reader who didn’t like your poem to say, “But I really liked this line.”
Thanks again for giving me the chance to (over)respond to your poem. Often times my response is gentle encouragement and a pat on the back for the effort. Anything more is too much, so maybe the best way to take the feedback on this poem is that it’s really an encouragement to write more.
The best strategy you can follow for improving your poetry is to write a lot of it, read a lot of it, and continue to pay attention to the world with the heightened sensibilities of someone who wants to make sense of it.
Mr. Van Pelt
As part of my sponsorship of the Write-a-Book-in-a-Year Club at the high school, I have established a club blog. Our librarian, Ira Creasman, will contribute articles to the blog too. We want the kids to have a place for advice and writing resources that are aimed at them.
Here is my blog entry for this week:
I love starting a new story. There’s something special about a blank sheet of paper. It feels like beginning a long hike into unexplored forest.
There seems to be a continuum of approaches to starting a writing project, from the I-have-no-idea-where-I’m-going writer who starts anyway, to the writer who can’t begin a project unless there’s a completed outline (and the outliners start with nothing too, remember).
Certainly there are many ways that a writing project can go awry (although successful writers hardly every think of a project as going “awry.” They think of writing projects that have taken a new direction), the surest ways to not succeed are not starting, not working consistently, or not working at all.
For the Write-a-Book-in-a-Year Club, a great way to be sure that you are behaving like a successful writer is to have completed work every week.
Make a goal for yourself to always send in a WIP, and to always be able to tell the group that you’ve made real progress on your project.
Benjamin Franklin said, “Energy and persistence conquer all things.” I believe he was right.
Student Sentence of the Day:
My 10th graders did an in-class essay last week that asked them to identify which of the three articles we read on literacy was the most inspiring. The articles were by Frederick Douglas, Helen Keller and Malcolm X. One of my students produced this lovely first sentence:
"Of the three narratives we read, I found Helen Keller's story the most inspiring and compelling because even in a world of darkness she was able to find her light through the beauty of language."
I spent several hours in my classroom this weekend, doing the final prep. I'm probably as ready for the first day as I have ever been. It doesn't help with the nervousness.
The janitor said an interesting thing to me this morning. We had our teacher meetings in the library last week. He said that when they moved the tables that we'd used aside for student photographs later, he found eight fresh drink spills on his newly shampooed carpets. He was irritable about it. Teachers are the worst for spills, he said. In our defense, as a part of our meetings, the assistant principal was throwing stuffed toy fish to people if they answered questions correctly (some metaphor about fish and schools). He nailed a couple of drinks. The worst was a coffee that he dumped on one teacher's all-white outfit.
I'll debrief at the end of the day.
Here's the first day's board:
Here's something else, tomorrow we will go over the state testing numbers for the school. Rumor is that we looked pretty good, with improvements nearly everywhere, but I don't feel a sense of accomplishment. Last year we busted our butts to do a good job with the kids. The year before, when we didn't improve, we also busted our butts to do a good job. The year we focused on reading, reading went down, but writing improved. The year we worked like crazy to improve writing scores, the scores stayed flat, but reading ticked upwards.
One year, while changing nothing (we did the same bust-our-butts effort we do every year), the scores soared. When we looked at that group of 10th graders, they also killed the tests as 9th graders. They'd been rocking the scores since they started testing in 3rd grade. They were a good group.
The point is that we have no idea why our testing numbers go up or down. The changes seem independent of our efforts and changes that we make in how we're teaching. I'm certainly not going to feel the flush of success because our test scores ticked up a percentage or two.
We will bust our butts this year too. Our scores may go up, stay flat, or drop. No one knows, and when we do know, we won't know why, other than to say that it wasn't because we busted our butts. That's what we always do.
I've sold to editor Andy Cox before (I used to do a column for him), but I've never appeared in Interzone.
It has been a weird summer. I started with pneumonia, which booted the first couple of weeks out from under me. Then both Tammy and I took classes before I went to California to visit friends for a few days. Then I spent a week in Denver helping out with my parents (Tammy stayed home). After that, I did a three-day A.P. Lit seminar in Denver (once again without Tammy).
It hasn't felt like I've had any extended off time, darn it.