Sunday, March 27, 2005

"Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so"

It's Easter and the fourth day of our five day spring break. That's a bummer. And now we have two solid months left of school without a single day's break. I'd better get a good rest now while I can. Though how can that be, considering it is spring and considering this is New Orleans? Today, for example, there are four Easter parades -- old uptown money, old downtown money, new downtown money, and the queens of Bourbon and St Ann. That last is where the best hats will be, I'm guessing. Tonight the great poet Yousef Komunyakaa is giving a reading at a bar in the quarter. He's from Bogalusa, and grew up when the Ku Klux Klan was spray-painting hate slogans on the highways there. I remember being scared of Bogalusa. Now he's a professor at Princeton and a famous poet. Talk about rising above.
On Wednesday, the day before the holiday, my first period writing class wrote two sonnets in one hour, in iambic pentameter. I just decided on the spur of the moment that they ought to know what a sonnet is. I wrote the numbers 1-14 in a vertical row on the board and told them, in the language I understand, what iambic pentameter is: da DUH da DUH da DUH da DUH da DUH. And that each line had to have that rhythm and I told them about the abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme as a possible way to do it and I told them that the last two lines, the couplet, had to convey some kind of big picture or understanding or something, something bigger to bring the first 12 lines home. Something profound.
That whole explanation took about one minute, because it was Greek to them. They didn't understand until we began writing.
I suggested we try a love sonnet. I read one of Shakespeare's to them (I tell them, every time I read something to them, that they do not have to understand every word, just that they should relax and get what they can from it). Then someone who is grappling with love issues (who's not?) came up with an idea, and another kid came up with a first line, and we took it from there. Five of us were involved directly, and the other three stayed aware peripherally. One girl, PB, who never talks (sometimes I've thought she was deaf because she didn't even look at people who were talking), loved what we were doing and so I asked her if she wanted to take the chalk and she did and she ran the show. Sometimes we'd come up with a good line and then think of words that would rhyme with the end word of the line and write it at the end of the line where it would go, and we'd fill in the line based on the rhyming word we'd picked. It was so cool. I've honestly never had much luck with group work, either for myself as a writer or myself as a teacher. But this one was so spontaneous, I guess that's why it worked. It was natural. In fact, I didn't give anyone any orders, they just scooted their chairs in a semi-circle in front of the chalkboard and wrote a poem together. And when a line didn't fit the rhythm, for example, it ceased having to be me reminding them; the other writers did that once they caught on.
We hammered one out and then went back and did a little revising, but only a little. I'd like to see us revise it again and again, like real writers do. But it was too soon for too much of that. They needed a chance to revel in themselves. They loved what they wrote and they deserved to be left alone for a while, just to love it. Here it is:

Love Sonnet

Love is a word that always comes and goes
People say that love's a powerful thing
Love is like a show, no one really knows
Love just makes you wanna laugh and sing
It also brings an awful lot of pain
Love sometimes makes your heart sadly cry
Sometimes love makes you go insane
Love just sometimes makes people ask why
If you find someone that really cares
A person who is constantly on your mind
Someone that you will never want to share
That person you thought you will never ever find
Love will completely take over your heart
It will bring your life to a whole new start.

It's a beautiful first draft (which I equate with "opportunity") and could lend itself to some great practice at revising, and could open the door for a lot of lessons. I did bring up that I thought the first two lines both sounded like first lines and we toyed with that, but by the time we got to the end of the sonnet, it wasn't so glaring an issue. But again, it was too soon for a lot of that. The looks on their faces told me they believed they'd done something fine. Most of the kids copied the poem into their notebooks. Several kids from other classes copied it down too. All day I could see people reading it.
So then I suggested we write another one, a life sonnet. Here's that one:

Life Sonnet

Life carries a box of ups and downs
One minute you feel like the world's made of gold
The next minute you feel like no one's around
Life sometimes feels like you're left out in the cold
Life brings you through a lot of changes
Sometimes life is like Spring, full of flowers
Life is like a memo book, full of arrangements
Or sometimes feels wet like a rain shower
Life will not go on forever
But while you're here you can make it last
If only people will pull together
Do not bring up old grudges from the past
Life is like a game you must play to win
But like every game it has to have an end.

And then the bell rang.

Shoot, it might be fun just to bring in all the poetic forms I can find out about and show the kids the parameters and let them choose topics and just write and write and write. And I could slip in little lessons (which they'd want because it's their writing to which they'll apply the lessons) like parallelilsm, metaphor, simile, rhythm, repitition, rhyme, word choices, etcetera to the nth degree. Damn, I think I'm figuring out a way to "teach" poetry here, and maybe even how to construct an entire year's lessons! And I'm using writing to figure out a way to teach poetry, and that way is through writing. There's something of a revelation in that, I think.
Speaking of revelations, I had one this week. The children come into our classes, I hate to say this because I don't want to dwell on the irremediable past, but with very little education. What I realized this week is that it's the best place in the world for a teacher who loves to teach. Because the children have so little education and need so much, I can choose whatever I think it would most behoove them to know.
With that in mind, I have decided to teach Hamlet to my American literature students. It doesn't matter that Shakespeare's not in our textbook. They don't know Hamlet and they want to know Hamlet, and I'm going to help them read it. I think they understand what I mean about relaxing and getting what they can from written texts. They'll need to be able to. Hamlet's going to be the hardest thing they've ever read. But the thing is, Hamlet is so important, as we all know, though we mostly don't exactly know why that's so or how to say what we intuitively know about its significance. (I won't carry on about Shakespeare just now, though, as usual, I have a lot to say about that too.) It's not fair that these kids aren't given the chance to read these difficult but hugely important texts. Not giving this to them is yet another little way in which the system is keeping them on the outside. Being naysayers, forever mindlessly repeating that they can't or they're woefully under-prepared or they won't read or they don't come to school or they're clowns or they just don't care is the way we excuse ourselves from getting down with their education.
I feel a rant coming on.
I just decided that if school cannot provide me with a set of Hamlet that I'll find them or buy them myself. Or maybe we could start a Shakespeare club and have a fund raiser and buy books with that!
You may laugh, but I know what I know: children love Shakespeare.
Excuse me, but there's a parade I have to attend. Happy Easter!

Melanie Plesh


Blogger Clay said...

Have you heard of Project Gutenberg?

It makes freely available (downloadable) texts who's copyright has expired.

Several versions of Hamlet are available:

Of course, you may need to PRINT them (which may cost a bit). But, hey that's what school copiers are for, right?

If you do copy it for the class, do a double sided copying to save paper.

12:30 PM  
Blogger marg said...


For one semester I was privileged enough to teach a Survey of Shakespeare course. I was so excited until the semester started, and I realized that my dream class had become a dumping ground for the children who had no where to go. Bummed at first, I learned to love it…to teach conflict resolution, decision making skills, leadership skills – you name it. It was the best class I think I ever taught, and I think it was my best as a teacher. Since then I’ve tried to convince any principal who will listen to offer a Shakespeare course for children who get in trouble every where else. The teaching moments are endless!

Your students totally deserve to read Hamlet. Honestly, your father is murdered and you are deceived by your uncle…many will be able to relate a little too well.

PS - I copied Macbeth for my 8th graders on double-sided, legal sheets for about $45 at Kinko's. Not ideal, but it's doable.

Also - Disney's The Lion King is a great place to begin. (You probably already know that.) It also makes for a good (and easy) comparrison contrast paper after you've seen The Lion King and read Hamlet.

8:21 PM  
Blogger Sharon Gerald said...

Why don't you set up an Amazon Wish List for things you need for you classroom and link it to your blog? You never know.

9:27 AM  
Anonymous Emily said...

Thank you. That was just the post I needed to read before I headed off to student teaching. My kids don't know much - we've spent the last two weeks working on fractions and that's "way too much time" on the fifth grade level. But in so many ways it gives me chances to teach what I want to teach. Because they need to know everything. I love it.

Would you mind if I used the second sonnet your kids wrote for a lesson on prepositions? We are currently working on identifying prepositions in writing so they can use them with more fluency in their own writing.

Thanks for the pick me up before a long day.

6:32 AM  
Blogger Melanie Plesh said...

Yes, you can definitely use the sonnet.

7:03 AM  
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12:46 AM  
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3:27 AM  
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12:41 AM  
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9:05 AM  

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