Monday, November 16, 2009

A Poem a Day Keeps Canned Lessons Away . . .

According to the poet Ogden Nash, "Poets aren't very useful because they aren't consumeful or very produceful."

Or are they?

Before talking out of both sides of my mouth, let me make one thing very, VERY, VERY CLEAR. The worse thing you can do to poetry--or any of the fine arts--is make it purely utilitarian. The last thing I want to do is be compared to the worst of the worst poetry teachers according to twice-poet laureate Billy Collins: "All they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with a rope and torture a confession out of it. They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means."

If this post might tempt you into waterboarding your children with poetry, STOP READING RIGHT NOW! I won't mention any names, but you know who you are . . .

Prior Knowledge
When I develop the weekly plan, I assess whether or not Pamela has enough background knowledge to enjoy the poems. Poets, like all good writers, leave out information that they assume readers will already have.
The mainspring of comprehension is prior knowledge—the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read. Prior knowledge is vital to comprehension because writers omit information. For example, suppose you read "He just got a new puppy. His landlord is angry." You easily understand the logical connection between those sentences because you know things about puppies (they aren’t housebroken), carpets (urine stains them) and landlords (they are protective of their property). (Daniel Willingham)
Willingham, psychologist and author of the book Why Don't Students Like School, maintains that, "Kids who score well on reading tests are not really kids with good 'reading skills.' The kids who score well on reading tests are ones who know a lot about the world—they have a lot of prior knowledge about a wide range of things--and so that whatever they are asked to read about on the test, they likely know something about it." He put together a delightful video called Teaching Content Is Teaching Reading that dovetails nicely with Charlotte Mason's ideas. She understood something even more significant about reading,
'Thou hast set my feet in a large room,' should be the glad cry of every intelligent soul. Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking––the strain would be too great––but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest. . . The question is not,––how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education––but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him? (Charlotte Mason)
But, I digress . . .

Earlier in the year, we focused on Walter de la Mare's poems. When I came across Mrs. Earth, I realized Pamela would not get the first two lines,
Mrs. Earth makes silver black,
Mrs. Earth makes iron red
Before reading the poem, we polished a silver spoon and she noticed the black on the cloth. We also compared two cans of paint: new and rusted. These activities gave her the prior knowledge she needed to enjoy the poem. I did not even understand Up and Down until I consulted a map of Dicken's London, which I printed out for Pamela to highlight the street names before reading the poem. When we read de la Mare's The Window, I was not sure Pamela knew what blinds were because she might take it literally, so we sat near the window with plantation shutters. I told her they were like blinds, and looking out the window while I read set the mood.

While providing context helps, one can go overboard. If I think most of a poem is within reach of Pamela's understanding, I do not worry if it contains a couple of puzzling vocabulary words. Occasionally, a poem strikes her fancy and Pamela asks about unfamiliar words. About a week after I read Tired Tim in a bored, mopey voice, Pamela asked, "What's lags?" I explained to her that lagging is falling behind everyone because you are going so slowly. The other day, I asked Pamela what lags meant (this is two months after we read the poem). She said in her laconic fashion, "Slowly."

Sometimes, I have the opportunity to observe Pamela's ability to infer by waiting until after we read a poem to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar poem. We were studying poems in Christina Rossetti's Sing-Song. I assumed Pamela did not know what a linnet was, so I asked her to listen carefully and see if she could figure out it out. I paused after each important clue to give her time to think and guess:
Hear what the mournful linnets say:
"We built our nest compact and warm,
But cruel boys came round our way
And took our summerhouse by storm.
They crushed the eggs so neatly laid;
So now we sit with drooping wing,
And watch the ruin they have made,
Too late to build, too sad to sing."
Pamela caught the meaning easily, and we found a picture of a linnet, which we would never see in our nature studies here in the Americas. This poem set her up for another poem about linnets.

In the following Rossetti poem, I assumed she did not know the meaning of turf. After we read it, I asked her to study the poem and figure out what turf was. She guessed flowers--and I congratulated her for an excellent guess and told her it was grass.
O wind, where have you been,
That you blow so sweet?
Among the violets
Which blossom at your feet.
The honeysuckle waits
For Summer and for heat.
But violets in the chilly Spring
Make the turf so sweet.
People who read many living books naturally develop their vocabulary as they infer to distill meaning as Pamela did. They can read the dictionary or memorize definitions, but reading the best literature is a far more pleasant way to glean new words. While short and sweet poetry builds vocabulary, it also provides children with opportunities to infer. One easy way to start with a young child is to see if they can figure out the season of a poem and talk about the clues. Those who have had a steady diet of nature study and the outdoor life can figure these Rossetti poems out:
Bread and milk for breakfast,
And woolen frocks to wear,
And a crumb for robin redbreast
On the cold days of the year.
Growing in the vale
By the uplands hilly,
Growing straight and frail,
Lady Daffadowndilly.
Another interesting way to view a poem is by reading the title and trying to anticipate what to expect. Before starting de la Mare's Hide and Seek, I asked, "What do you expect will be hiding and seeking?" Pamela answered the logical thing, "Children." The unexpected appearance and disappearance of the moon, wind, and clouds delighted Pamela. I did not let her see his All But Blind. I paused after a few clues to see if she could guess the animals,
All but blind
In the evening sky
The hooded . . .
While Pamela enjoys anticipating and inferring, turning every poem into an exercise of some sort would rob her of the delights of simply reading a poem. In his program Poetry 180, Billy Collins recommends, "Unless students really want to discuss the poem, there is no need to do so. The most important thing is that the poems be read and listened to without any academic requirements."

Why read poetry "without any academic requirements"? Poetry inspires us to think about words and their meaning, to make connections, and laugh or cry. Poetry is the science of relations. According to the dictionary, poetry is "the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts." Pamela definitely derives pleasure and excitement from poetry, and it warms her imagination. One building block in vocabulary development is the joy of words, and daily poetry inspires that joy.

Pamela loves this Rossetti for its own sake. I don't know why. Maybe, it is because she loves calendars. Maybe because it is so predictable and yet unpredictable.
How many seconds in a minute?
Sixty, and no more in it.
How many minutes in an hour?
Sixty for sun and shower.
How many hours in a day?
Twenty-four for work and play.
How many days in a week?
Seven both to hear and speak.
How many weeks in a month?
Four, as the swift moon runn'th.
How many months in a year?
Twelve the almanack makes clear.
How many years in an age?
One hundred says the sage.
How many ages in time?
No one knows the rhyme.
Is this a poem that we waterboarded? No.

We simply enjoyed it for its own sake.
Poetry is, perhaps, the most searching and intimate of our teachers. . . Poetry, too, supplies us with tools for the modelling of our lives, and the use of these we must get at for ourselves. The line that strikes us as we read, that recurs, that we murmur over at odd moments––this is the line that influences our living . . . As we "inwardly digest," reverence comes to us unawares, gentleness, a wistful tenderness towards the past, a sense of continuance, and of a part to play that shall not be loud and discordant, but of a piece with the whole. This is one of the "lessons never learned in schools" which comes to each of us only as we discover it for ourselves. Charlotte Mason


Willa said...

Well said! I think you're exactly right about not torturing the poor poems. They shouldn't have to stand up to that kind of thing.

walking said...

We end up torturing the poor poems as well as the poor students! LOL

amy in peru said...

love this post. you always teach me something. :)

amy in peru