181. Language teaching: naming: Jenny Joseph

I was at a meeting last month, organizing a roll out of the new Common Core literacy standards.  Our charge was to create a presentation that gave a unified focus and teachers left with the same message.  Because we wanted it to be useful, responsive and more personable, the audience (all K-8 teachers) were broken into smaller groups instead of a long auditorium lecture.  Grouping was by grade level.

Our facilitator went to great lengths to be inclusive, gathering over twenty individuals of different positions and grade levels.

Alas, because all of our schools are K-8 the committee skewed a bit in the following direction:

  1. Half of the participants were not classroom teachers: administrators, coordinators, special educators.
  2. Out of twenty-two participants, I was the only male.
  3. I was one of only two middle school teachers.

All I’ll say about the first point is that you shouldn’t make suggestions about implementing curriculum unless you’ve done a full load of it for a substantial amount of time.  Recently.  Or you’re a good listener to those who have and possess a knack for facilitating other professionals (teachers).

The second point is simply humorous.  Women fill every position in our organization, from top administrators and coordinators to secretaries.  I find it amusing when the discussion turns to research about male and female learning styles and a roomful of women talk at me about how boys learn.  Personally, I don’t believe in male/female learning styles.  My idea of hell would have been to learn in a “male” environment (or “girl” for that matter).  I get amused (at first) when the research is pulled out (often a single article by the author of THAT book), not only because of my experiences growing up male, but also because I’ve read a lot of the research, too, and it’s mixed (at best): Each charge can be answered by other factors.

Note: When we’ve crunched our out data, it’s been poverty that’s the difference: Success plays out in who’s passive (they do their work) versus confrontational (no work leads to no progress).  It skews male with the free-and-reduced lunch and special education students, while the middle class is overall pretty dutiful.

But the real difference was the third point: Middle school experience.

There were two of us.  As a facilitation team, we were put with a fifth grade teacher who identified herself as an elementary teacher and two literacy coordinators with a K-5 background.  It was only recently that Vermont offered a middle school license.  Many of us are old 7-12 teachers who have degrees in a specific field first (BA: Political Science, MA: English) and a certificate second (7-12).  Many of us had planned to teach high school, but took various paths to middle school (it was a job).  And our mission, we are often told, is to get them ready for high school.  Indeed, we were reminded several times that the Common Core was backward designed from college-on-down.  As our audience was 6-8, some of them had floated up from K-6, but had left their K-2 sensibilities long behind.  Our audience was deeply entrenched on the second half a student’s public school career.  Yet, our facilitation group alone was skewed towards elementary.

Everyone else was firmly planted in third grade.

Everyone’s focus was to introduce the Common Core standard on informational text.  The emphasis was on depth of analysis.  My 7-12 brain thought: Text = text = depth.  I pictured a full page(s) of text on white background.  Textbooks.  Encyclopedias.  Paper.

The larger group trotted out picture books.

Of course, when I brought this up it lead to an entire discussion of the value of picture books, who they can be used in older classrooms, tricks for using it and the complexity of a good picture book.  I get that.  And, in the end, the lesson was quite good and connected with our middle school teacher audience.  But it was one lesson; had it been two days of picture books there would have been a rebellion.  Middle school text is different.

And, of course, in the end, our group collaborated our different views and ideas to present a pretty smashing two days of in-service.  All part of the process among professionals.

The point: The middle school student brain is changing.

On the one hand, they are able to grasp (or begin to grasp) abstract ideas.  We no longer write summaries, but do a character analysis.  Our paths to the truth are varied.

On the other hand, students still require adults to be their executive function.  Study skills are a foreign language for most, yet a few years of creating habits mixed with a load of meta-cognition as to why we do it leads to successful young adults.

Both of which are served by big blocks of text.  Poetry and art allows students to practice skills with great accessibility, while still stimulating our best and brightest.  But, with difficult texts, students feel competence and find inspiration.

Okay.  What does this have to do with Ms. Joseph?

Love.  It’s a very middle school concept that’s not really talked about much.  That brain–that changing brain–is trying to figure out what friendship and love and lust and relationships all mean, often at a great emotional cost.  Indeed, the need for physical closeness and hormone and love all mix horribly, leading to a host of problems for some.

Joseph’s poem is about the power of language; of naming things.  The power of this word–love–is that students can’t say it.  Not without a giggle or a joke, because it carries so much meaning from their earlier life.  They are still young enough to remember unconditional love, and while they still might receive it, it rarely feels like it.

Everything’s a fight.  And they don’t know what for.

So, love.  More important: meta-cognition.

You might know Jenny Joseph from her most famous work, “Warning” (which you might know from its more popular misnaming “When I Am Old I Shall Wear Purple”).  This was my original idea for a post, but then I stumbled on the first line for this poem.

Find the words for it.

FYI: If the “t” and “n” in the title are supposed to be capitalized, please let me know.  I found three sources that list it as is, but the internet….  Also, WordPress spellcheck hyphenates meta-cognition, but I swear it’s one word.

Language teaching: naming
Jenny Joseph

Why are we frightened of the word for love?
We feast our eyes on eyes that light the soul.
The word is not more perilous than the dreams
We live on, poisoning the system.
We are not frightened of the acts of love.

I walked along an unfamiliar road
And all around, the birds twittered and danced
Through hedgerows blowing in a flatland wind.
I wished I knew their names and then instead
Of saying ‘small, brown, with a spearing beak,
Taking a little run then going back,
Twittering a note that rose to a whistle than sank,
You know, those birds you see in hedgerows
Somewhere along the road from Hertfordshire’
I could say ‘thirp’ or whatever the bird was,
And you would know in an instant what they were
How looked, what doing. I’d have caught the birds
In that one word, its name, and all the knowledge
You might have had that I’m not master of
Would straight away be there to help me out.
Naming is power, but now
The birds twitter and dance, change and so escape me.

Why are we frightened of the sound called love?
We talked quite freely about what we need,
We risk enormous punishment when we must.
Is this the word made flesh, rising to grasp us?
You’d think the act made flesh would impinge more
Than a tiny breath made actual through the voice box.
Grammer is power, is witchcraft, is enchantment.
Droplets and air rise from our lungs like a genie
Twisting huge from a bottle to fill a room.
Say ‘love’ not ‘like’ (changing tight voiceless sounds
Only a little to get that deep voiced ‘v’)
The iron gate clangs behind you, and beyond
The bridge in flames, swamps and no road ahead.
We only stay alive on what the word means
So why are we frightened of the name of love?


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