I whipped this together while watching football.
And if you’d like a gentle poke in the ribs and good procedural mystery, try this:
Last week I spent two days at a conference on standards based learning, hosted by the New England League of Middle Schools and run by Rick Wormelli.
Wormelli’s writings are well known, but his live show is just that–a show. If you liked Robin Williams in “Aladdin” or “Dead Poets Society”, this is two days of that. A tad distracting from the main ideas, with lots of 80’s references (his analysis of a clip from “Song of Music”, though, is priceless). This is not to take away from the content or ideas, but know that if you get a chance to see Wormelli you’ll a) be subjected to that type of performance, b) if you have a decent background in standards based teaching and grading much of it will be review. So, be prepared before you sign up.
It got me thinking, though, about the use of rubrics and our system of instructing and assessing rubrics. One of the exercises I do with kids–and adults–is something called “Clapping University”. Here’s the procedure, and I think you’ll see the point:
You can talk to your students about their experiences with each kind of teacher (judge); they love to share their horror stories.
But what of Stevens?
There are, apparently, a host of interpretations of this poem. You can read them here, at Wikipedia.
But I like to imagine, and my students come to this conclusion year after year, that placing the jar down creates order to the wilderness. It becomes a fixed point–made by man–that all else relates to. Much like creating a rubric and taming the wild that is student work.
There is probably more there, but I would recommend going outside and placing a jar in the field or wild near your school. Read the poem. Ask, “What’s with the jar?” Have them defend it.
Anecdote of the Jar
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
Last week was the first day of school, so, belatedly, I’d like to remind you of this old post: 105. First Day at School: Roger McGough. As these posts tend to be more-or-less timeless once posted, this might not make sense in your time-scheme, but the video is worth the click.
Along with the start of school, our superintendent kicks off our supervisory union’s annual gathering with a poem. I hate this, but that’s because I have a knee-jerk reaction towards anything calculatingly twee. You’d think I would be glad–poetry!–but I don’t believe our super is a fan. I suspect there is an intellectual cache involved, but that says more about me than her, I suspect.
But the poem she chose was quiet appropriate: Marge Piercy’s “To Be of Use”. Some of the audience scoffed a bit, noting that, as our boss, she WOULD like us better if we put our shoulder to the wheel every waking moment. That, I feel, is a misinterpretation. This is not about work, but attitude.
My career has been spent trying to deflect negative energy. As a skeptic and critic, I tend to be the one who sits in meetings and hacks at initiatives. Oddly, it comes from romantic impulses–I want things to succeed, so I attack the weak points before the roll-out so that fixes can come earlier and in private. From the outside, it can seem negative. I’m the teacher who makes a paper bleed, and when a student asks why I hated it I reply, “You got a B-plus–above the standard–and if you fix these things you’ll attain greatness.” Misunderstood, and perhaps with reason.
We are, though, surrounded by negative people.
Deeply negative people.
One sort are the truly negative–nothing will work and they are practically insulted that anyone would even try to make things better. The more insidious ones, though, are those who generate positivity, yet see any criticism as a torpedo. Recently, our Essential Skills program came under fire from the board and they were asked to demonstrate success. I suggested pulling some data that showed progress, but the mere suggestion that the success of the program even needed defending was taken as betrayal. What makes these people so dangerous is they make any questioner into an enemy, poisoning the goodwill of a group.
I know it comes from fear, but sometimes don’t care. Who has the energy? It’s bad enough batting down a hundred negative students and their parents–I don’t need it from my colleagues!
Here, Piercy writes about the lightning caught in a bottle. I see it like that. Energy. Potential energy, ready to spring, but even before you let it out it’s clear that there is probably more energy in that bell jar than anyone has an ability to harness.
It’s something I’d like to aspire to.
With your students, you might talk about their “hopes and dreams”. In my head, it sounds sappy whenever I use the term. So be it. By returning to “hopes and dreams” time and again, I find classroom management problems are mitigated because a) there is a focus, b) students feel I am listening. Why, after all, are they here? Hopes and dreams provides the start of an answer.
More direct to this poem, who are the models for their own lives? An idol is one who has blazed a path a person wants to travel. What are the characteristics of those people? Do your students see them in this poem? Is it any wonder why Ms. Piercy loves them the best?
And that energy is contagious.
Note: Two good links you might want to pursue. First, a look at Maslow and his “Hierarchy of Needs”. Check out the Wikipedia entry here, but, basically, he modeled it after healthy, successful people (like Ms. Piercy looks to here). Second, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code–I can’t recommend this book enough. It dovetails off of Gladwell’s “Outliers” book, but is more applicable and less scattershot (in the end, I found little in Gladwell that would guide me towards a growth mindset classroom).
To Be of Use
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
What do you do with texts that may or may not be sexual?
I’m not talking about handling clearly sexual material, like a Judy Blume book or a racy poem. This is more about innuendo, and not clear innuendo but what a reading might interpret from the text.
For example, a very good professor I had at SUNY Cortland was fond of gender criticism. It was the lens he saw literature through, and he would always share a gender–often homosexual–interpretation of the text. By having most of the action happen on a boat, for example, the author was able to explore male relationships without the reader wondering why no one had a wife. This isn’t even sexual, but a look at how males interact with each other without women about. He never pushed it, but made us think about the author’s intent and what, as T.S. Eliot notes, we, as critics, bring to the text. I benefited from it greatly, even as I thought some critics pushed things a bit far.
It is not something I would even mention to my students, but what do you do when you know it’s a possible reading? I teach Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, but stop short of talking about the “wolf” wanting to “Eat you up.”
See, now it’s in your head. And while I have no doubt the Brothers Grimm did not have that in mind, gender criticism would argue that the deeper lessons about the dangers that prey on young women in society underlie many of the cautionary and horrific stories we tell each other. The Grimms were just collecting established folk tales, after all.
And I would not touch it. But, every time I do this unit, I get some boy who snickers when that line comes up. As a scholar, I can’t deny anything. Not wanting the topic to dominate the lesson–and it would–I give the “joke” a nod and move on. The child is, after all, acting immature and not providing an alternative interpretation of “The Story of Little Red Riding Hood.”
My wife came home from a week-conference on Emily Dickinson that was held at Amherst College, the holder of most archival information you might want on her and a stone’s throw (literally) from her house. She had a great time. But one of the professors there looked at all of Dickinson’s work as being sexual. I can see it. She’s an intelligent women who explored passion and life in great depth.
But then the professor examined “My Life had Stood–A Loaded Gun.” The link to my post on that poem is here.
My argument is that Dickinson was experimenting with point-of-view and giving an inanimate object a personality–a soul. Simple. Looking at the development of American literature, and her groundbreaking work, it seems the obvious answer. Occam’s Razor and all of that.
But the more I talked about it with my wife, the more I thought it might be both. It’s certainly an interesting idea, which was fleshed out through discussion. I’m skeptical, but the door is open.
So what do you do when something else might be there? As Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” And certainly, a gun is often just a gun. This was written long before Hemingway and the cliche of phallic symbols existing on every page. You CAN find sex everywhere, but where does that get us? I think it diminishes greatness. But I also don’t want to be naive. And we seek truth.
That professor tipped her hand, a bit, when she kept emphasizing the loaded gun was dangerous. Not only was it sexual, but Dickinson, the professor argued, saw that topic as to be handled with kid gloves because guns are dangerous. But that’s a modern view of guns. At the time Dickinson wrote, guns were useful tools. Powerful, but not seen as inherently dangerous as we often see them in our post-Columbine world. Again, I defer to T.S. Eliot’s concerns that the critics sees him or herself in the poet.
My solution, as I’ve noted, is not to raise the issue. I tend to steer towards safer poems and push interpretation in all sorts of directions. Still, we know that even innocent children’s stories often have deeper allegories and symbols.
I leave with a link to a post written by Professor Lilian Milani for a course she taught at CUNY Brooklyn on Emily Dickinson. It offers a balanced look at the many interpretation of this Dickinson poem. One is sexual, but several are not. Her final thoughts are worth noting, but she’s also writing for mature adults.
Looking at my old post for “Loaded Gun”, I noticed I had used Milani there, too. For a better analysis of that poem, and an argument for it being Art, read this analysis.
Milani’s final thoughts bring around, for me, a point I’d raised earlier: Where does that get us? I cannot imagine Dickinson’s be-all landing on sex, although I can see it being a stepping stone to several deeper themes. Perhaps I’ll just skip that stone as I make my way down the path.
In fact, I’d skip this poem and focus on her other works. But my wife doesn’t feel comfortable with “Loaded Gun” now that her professor’s argument is in her head. Don’t get me thinking about “A narrow fellow in the grass”, an old staple of my classroom which has only a kid’s snicker of underlying sexuality (it’s a nature poem!)….
How would you teach this poem, if you’d teach it at all?
Update: When I mentioned this post to my wife, and the water imagery and its possible sexual nature, she looked at me and said, “No, she just really loved that dog and went for walks with him every day.”
I started Early – Took my Dog -
I started Early – Took my Dog -
And visited the Sea -
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me -
And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands -
Presuming Me to be a Mouse -
Aground – upon the Sands -
But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe -
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Bodice – too -
And made as He would eat me up -
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve -
And then – I started – too -
And He – He followed – close behind -
I felt His Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle – Then my Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl -
Until We met the Solid Town -
No One He seemed to know
And bowing – with a Mighty look -
At me – The Sea withdrew -