Ithaka

Bricks
Seniors leave a final mark on their high school.

It’s only days now until graduation. The excitement in the halls of the two high schools I serve is palpable. Final exams feel like an afterthought because culminating projects, AP exams, and work/study evaluations are complete. Seniors are focused on the traditions that mark their status: Senior Breakfast, Senior Cookout, Senior Day. In the school where I taught, each senior paints a cinder block in a corridor somewhere in the building–an epitaph of sorts. Their final message to the rest of us.

My last class graduated a year ago. I miss them still. Their graduation was particularly poignant because it was the last time I knew the graduates crossing the stage, could feel I’d had a direct hand in their accomplishment. I wrote to them, just a day before the last day of school. A final message of my own, one I send out now, again to them if they are reading this, and to graduates everywhere.

Dear Graduates,

I know, I know…just one more day to go. The last few weeks went by quickly, didn’t they? That’s always the way. It seems like you’ll never reach the shore and then, suddenly, there it is in front of you, a surprise that came too fast.

That’s the way I feel, too, about your graduation. You are my very last class, and I am already bereft. I will miss you terribly–even if all we have done in glimpse each other in the halls these past few years as you have moved on from my 9th grade English class and I have stepped out of my own classroom and into the classrooms of my colleagues. But I have always known you were there. Your presence grounded me. But soon now, you will have crossed the stage and left these halls we’ve walked together.

But it is time for that. Time for you to set out on your journey. Time for you to embrace your destiny.

To that end, I am sending you a poem, a love letter really about your future wherever you sail. You will, of course, recognize Ithaka and all the allusions the poem contains. We didn’t read the Odyssey together for nothing! The last lines may be puzzling to you now, but however you interpret them, the remarkable journey, rich in adventures along the way, is what I wish for you. I am impossibly proud of you, like the proverbial button-busting parent, and I hope you will stay in touch. (You can “friend” me now, BTW.)

With best wishes, pride, joy, and love,

Mrs. P

Some of them wrote back to me, articulating the message of the poem:

-I view Ithaca not only as a place, but as a home or set of goals and opportunities…

-I have very big goals for myself…college, medical school, residency…Every day I think about them and hope that I will achieve them. This poem encourages me to believe that I can.

-I gleaned that the journey itself may be better than the intended destination…

-It may be cliche, but for me, this whole poem screamed “Life’s a journey, not a destination,” and I’ll try to remember that as I move on in life.

-When I read the “love letter,” I replaced “Ithaca” with “happiness.” It all made sense after that.

-I think that the last lines of the poem mean that if we enjoyed our journey, our destination will not be a letdown. We’ll have gained so much experience that we understand our goal, our “Ithaka,” is really a point of reference to guide us through our journey. We eventually want to arrive home, but if we constantly think about home, we’ll miss out on the lessons we can learn during the trip there. I suppose graduation is a mini-Ithaka!

-One student wrote a poem of her own, thanking me for showing her that “the path to Ithaca has not ended, but has only just begun.” She was a student in my American classroom. Now she is a citizen of the world. As are they all. May their journeys be long, full of adventure and learning, and may they reach their Ithakas, enriched and grateful for the journey.

That is how I feel about them: enriched and grateful for their presence in my life.

n.b.: If you, the reader, run your cursor over the poem, you’ll see “hot spots.” Click on those circles and see how I might have guided students through the poem had I shared it with them in class.

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Harper Lee’s Enormous Gift

For thirty-one years, my school year began with the opening sentence from Harper Lee’s matchless story of courage, compassion, and coming-of-age, To Kill a Mockingbird. It was nothing short of privilege to introduce 9th graders to Jem and Scout, their father Atticus, and their playmate Dill; to rural Alabama in the 1930s; to racism and injustice in the days of Jim Crow; and to the idea that in coming face-to-face with an unvarnished and painful reality, one comes of age.

Sometimes that moment of truth is called a “confrontation experience.”

When the trial is over and Tom Robinson is found guilty, Jem is confused and upset. He cries first, then broods, questioning Atticus intently as he puzzles through the injustice of the verdict. Miss Maudie, the children’s insightful neighbor from across the street, bakes a cake the next morning, but alters her custom of preparing three small cakes—one each for Jem and Scout and Dill—and makes only two. Jem’s portion is to come from the big cake. In this way, she signals her understanding that Jem has grown up: He has emerged from the experience of the trial, changed. Many students—as Jem himself does—miss the significance of that culinary symbolism.

So just after my students have read Chapter 22, the chapter with the cake paragraph that begins “It was Jem’s turn to cry,” I introduce this poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. I project it on the ENO board and read it aloud once, all the way through.

One Wants A Teller In A Time Like This

One wants a teller in a time like this

One’s not a man, one’s not a woman grown
To bear enormous business all alone.

One cannot walk this winding street with pride
Straight-shouldered, tranquil-eyed,
Knowing one knows for sure the way back home.
One wonders if one has a home.

One is not certain if or why or how.
One wants a Teller now:

Put on your rubbers and you won’t catch a cold
Here’s hell, there’s heaven. Go to Sunday School
Be patient, time brings all good things–(and cool
Strong balm to calm the burning at the brain?)

Behold,
Love’s true, and triumphs; and God’s actual.

Occasionally, a student will “get” the poem immediately, but the majority of my 9th graders are mystified. Why am I introducing this poem? What does it have to do with the story? Focused on the verdict itself—which they are eager to talk about even though they had predicted it—they don’t think of the impact of the decision on the children.

“Who in the story do you think this poem could be about?” I ask.

“Atticus,” someone always guesses. “He lost the trial.”

So. They got the gist of the poem. It’s about someone who is depressed.

“But Atticus knew he would lose—and he thinks they’ve taken a step forward because the jury deliberated for two hours,” someone else corrects.

“Tom? He lost and now he’s going to prison.”

“Boo.” Another guess.

“Miss Maudie.” A wilder guess.

Funny—if they’d examine their own reactions—shock, outrage, grief—when the verdict is announced, they’d see immediately that the poem points to Jem.

But Jem is not the “hero” of the story—or even an important protagonist like Tom Robinson or Boo. We’ve talked as a class about the symbolism of the mad dog and related rabies to the mental disease of prejudice. We’ve focused on character development and identified Atticus as the hero. We’ve examined Atticus’ definition of courage in the Mrs. Dubose chapter. But, besides noting that the children are catalysts for action and establishing that Jean Louise (the adult Scout) is a reflective narrator, we haven’t talked much yet about Jem and Scout. So far, they haven’t been a thematic focus.

I suggest that we take the poem apart, line by line. From this moment on, I am largely silent. I simply cover the poem and proceed to expose one line at a time. With its lovely “reveal” function, the ENO board helps me with this technique, but I used to do the same thing with an overhead projector. Baring even that, I could write the poem on the board, one line at a time. The strategy captures my students. They are good detectives, and they eagerly put their skills of observation to work.

First, the title: enigmatic, evocative, puzzling. Why the capitalized ‘One’? And then, it turns out, the title is the first line. The first line stands alone, the students notice. Why?

Then the phrase, “One’s not a man, not a woman grown.”

“So it’s not about Atticus.”

“But what is ‘this enormous business’?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“Whoever he is, he’s walking a crooked path.”

“He’s lost.”

“Unsure.”

“Confused.”

“He—or she—can’t find his home, maybe doesn’t have one.”

“Is this about a homeless person?”

“No, I think it’s about safety. Home is safety.”

“It’s about certainty. This person is uncertain.”

“Something terrible has happened.”

“Look at those words–‘if or when or how.’ Those are question words. This person’s questions are unanswered.”

“But why is ‘Teller’ capitalized in the next line?”

“He wants someone to answer his questions. To tell him the answers. A Teller.”

By this time, several students realize it is Jem’s reaction to the verdict that I am focusing on. I can barely contain them from blurting out their epiphany, and epiphany it is: They squirm in their seats; their arms pump up and down; their faces convey urgency. Others catch on. The class knows.

But what is this last stanza? Look: The font changes. And how are all those things connected?

“‘Rubbers’ are boots,” someone says. “What do they have to do with Sunday School?”

“’Heaven and hell’.” That’s Sunday School.”

“They’re opposites. Like black and white, or right and wrong.”

“Oh I get it! The new font is the Teller talking!”

“Yes! The Teller is telling the person what to do.”

“What to think.”

“How to behave.”

“That’s what he wants. A Teller.”

“Yes. A Teller makes things simple.”

But then the font changes back.

“What’s ‘balm’?”

“Like lip balm. A salve.”

“Oh! It’s ‘One’ again—questioning the Teller. It’s ‘One’ not finding an answer.”

“Not accepting an answer.”

“And the Teller speaks again, telling him everything is okay.”

“Except he doesn’t believe it. Whatever has happened is so bad, he even questions God.”

“Wow.”

And then, silence.

When we resume talking, students are quick to say—and confident now in saying—that “One” is anyone, so the poem can apply universally. “This enormous business” is unspecified for the same reason—and that means the poem can apply to many situations.

Too many of my students have already experienced tragedy, grief, and despair in their own lives. They make the jump to divorce, separation, untimely death, to betrayal by a friend, to abandonment by an adult—to myriad experiences that could force a person to confront an unpleasant truth—and come of age.

And then they know how Jem felt.

Silence again.

Quite often, someone in the class offers a final idea.

“You know, this may be about growing up, but even adults feel this way sometimes. My mom did when my dad left.”

How right that observation is. There is no time limit on innocence, no age limit on hope.

“So it could be about Atticus. He could have felt that way and then resolved his feeling by thinking the two-hour delay in the verdict was a step forward.”

It could be, indeed. Enormous business can level us all, even a hero.

I love teaching this lesson and the technique of “unveiling” a poem. As students pick out the clues, they build meaning and expand their understanding beyond the text. They see the relevance to the story we are reading, but they can apply the meaning of the poem to their own lives as well. They think deeply about an idea—in this case, the transformative effect of a confrontation experience.

What else is wonderful is that they figure the poem out for themselves.

I don’t tell them anything.

Call and Response

Once in a while, someone is gracious enough to invite me into their room, not to observe or to lend a hand, but to teach the class. To orchestrate the lesson. To set the purpose, plan the activity, lead the students, and make the close.  Last week, a colleague asked me to do just that. I’ve been singing ever since.

It isn’t easy for a high school teacher to surrender his or her classroom to the instructional coach. In elementary school, people come into and leave from classrooms all day long. The principal drifts in and out and is not just there for formal evaluations. Volunteer parents, reading tutors, paras, aides, and specialists of all kinds are constants in the elementary classroom background, and when someone else leads a lesson, it’s not a big deal. Kids don’t wonder why.

But in a secondary classroom, there are no reading tutors and parent volunteers. Aides are largely silent, and when the principal is present, it is almost always to conduct an evaluation. So if someone else leads the class, unless it’s a guest speaker with credentials to warrant a special presentation on the topic at hand, inquiring students are likely to wonder, “Why isn’t my teacher doing this?” Or the teacher may fear that the kids are wondering that.

It takes an unusually confident person–or a person who’s comfortable saying he or she isn’t an expert at everything–to let the coach model a strategy or demonstrate a technique.

It’s not without danger for me, either, teaching that class.  My reputation is on the line and so is my own self-esteem. The students aren’t mine. I have no relationship with them. Nothing to draw on if the lesson goes awry. No prior knowledge about their dispositions, proclivities, interests, or backgrounds. I don’t know their hot buttons or what might make them laugh or cry. I’ve got to establish credibility in the first fifteen seconds and maintain momentum for the whole fifty minutes. If it goes right, it feels at the end like a song.

Recently, I had a conversation with a singer-songwriter new to my town and at the beginning of her career. On a nippy Saturday morning, I watched her perform at our local Farmers Market. She was pounding the keyboard with gusto and singing her heart out. The people gathered around her were swaying back and forth, keeping time with their feet, nodding and bending in sync with her rhythm. It was as much fun to watch them as it was to watch her.

Afterwards, I remarked on the energy she expended, the connection she’d created, and the fun she seemed to be having. “Call and response” she said, using the term to describe the electricity between the performer and the audience–and I thought to myself then, that’s just what teaching, when it goes well, is: call and response. Like an old-time preacher and the congregation.

The lesson I taught last week was Robert Burns’ poem, “To a Mouse.” The class had just finished Of Mice and Men, and the teacher had asked me to model for the students the close reading technique I love so well, the one I call the “slow reveal,” where line-by-line the teacher guides the student from the beginning to the end of the poem, helping the students discover for themselves the gradual accumulation of meaning.

I had created a two-columned handout for the students, the poem as Burns originally wrote it and, beside it, the standard modern translation. I asked the students to skim the original first to find the line that Steinbeck was alluding to when he wrote Of Mice and Men, and then my colleague played an online recording of that original poem. They could find the line–The best laid schemes o’ mice and men/Gang aft agley–but the poem mystified almost everyone.

We dispensed with the Gaelic for the time, and worked our way through the modern version, focusing our attention on words they didn’t know– timorous, dominion, social union, ensuing–and the capitalized words–Man and Nature. I drew their attention to the two colons–a punctuation mark with authority, used twice in this poem, in both cases to announce a key idea. In the first instance:

But Mousie, you are not alone

In proving that foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Go oft astray

And  leave us nothing but grief and pain

Instead of promised joy!

More words to be sure we know: Foresight. Vain. Prospects. I hear a few gasps as students make the connection to Lennie and George and the collapse of their dream of a little plot of land where they could live and raise rabbits and live off the “fatta the lan’.”  I slip in the word allusion again and move to the turn, a word in a poem that signifies the poet is going to stand an idea on its head.

And Burns does. Nice as the connection of the penultimate stanza is to George and Lennie’s schemes gone awry, it is not all that Burns has to say. The last stanza features  another colon announcing another idea, the one that has propelled this poem about a mouse whose home has been plowed up by a farmer from the realm of simple and sweet to profound and memorable.

In this last stanza, the poet makes the distinction between Man and Nature, between the farmer and the mouse, (as Steinbeck implies centuries later, between George and Lennie): Still, you are blessed, compared with me!

What? The mouse is luckier than the man? How can that be?

I say: “See that word Still? What does it mean here?”

They say: “But.”

“Yet.”

“However.”

“Even though everything I have said is true, there’s more.”

I say: “Yes!”

Still, you are blessed, compared with me!

Only this moment touches you:

But oh! I backward cast my eye

On prospects turned to sadness!

And though forward I cannot see,

I guess and fear!

They say:

“The farmer is cursed by his memory of the past!”

“By its disappointments.”

“He fears the future!”

“He can’t see what will happen and he’s afraid.”

“The mouse lives only in the present!”

“So what do you think?” I ask. “Who is luckier? Lennie or George?  Don’t shout it out. Think before you answer. Relate your answer to the story and explain yourself.”

Hands everywhere.

“Lennie: He dies happy, looking across the water and imagining the farm.”

“Lennie: Because George has to live with what he’s done for the rest of his life.”

“George: Because at least he’s alive!”

“Lennie: Because he doesn’t experience regret. Or fear. He just thinks about those rabbits.”

Then my colleague played the recording again–the original.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!

Still thou art blest, compared wi’ me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But och! I backward cast my e’e,

On prospects drear! An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,

I guess an’ fear!

Ah…it makes sense now. Some of the students even prefer the Gaelic. Especially Gang aft agley. Much more expressive, much more memorable than Go oft astray.

At the end of the hour, as the class was filing out, a boy approached me. He’d been too shy to speak up in class, but he was brave enough to say to me privately, “I was going to say George because Lenny has only one emotion, really. One idea. He’s limited. George can experience things. He can do new things and feel things and see color and well…learn.”

Call and response. Like a song.

Candy in My Mouth

April is National Poetry Month, so it was a perfect time for my colleague (a middle school English Language Arts teacher) and I to plan and present a lesson on how to read a poem. I’d been talking about one of my favorite methods for unraveling meaning in poetry, and she invited me to demonstrate for her 6th graders.

Offer me a chance to teach?  It’s like giving me candy.

I selected three poems, two from the textbook, and a charming one I remembered from a  long time ago, Eve Merriam’s lovely invitation to enjoy poetry, “How to Eat a Poem”:

Don’t be polite.
Bite in.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that
may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.

You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.

For there is no core
or stem
or rind
or pit
or seed
or skin
to throw away.

I have always loved this sweet, delicious comparison between a poem and a piece of fruit—especially juicy fruits, like peaches and pears and watermelon, where the deliciousness runs like a river, all down your front. The poem seemed like a great hook.

The second poem I chose was from the text: Gary Soto’s “Ode to Family Photographs.” Soto’s poem is a list of images—descriptions of bad family photos—images gone awry because the photographer was no good with a camera.

This is the pond, and these are my feet. 
This is the rooster, and this is more of my feet. 

Mama was never good at pictures.

This is a statue of a famous general who lost an arm, 
And this is me with my head cut off. 

This is a trash can chained to a gate, 
This is my father with his eyes half-closed. 

This is a photograph of my sister 
And a giraffe looking over her shoulder. 

This is our car’s front bumper. 
This is a bird with a pretzel in its beak. 
This is my brother Pedro standing on one leg on a rock, 
With a smear of chocolate on his face. 

Mama sneezed when she looked
Behind the camera: the snapshots are blurry,
The angles dizzy as a spin on a merry-go-round.

But we had fun when Mama picked up the camera. 
How can I tell? 
Each of us is laughing hard. 
Can you see? I have candy in my mouth.

I expected opportunities to talk about the individual pictures; to notice the two switches to italics (not italics, here) whenever the narrator stops to explain about Mama; to look at the possible meanings of that last line, candy in my mouth; to examine the writer’s tone—nostalgic about those family moments, kind—even amused—in his assessment of Mama.

The third poem was Emily Dickinson’s 4-line nugget, “Fame is a Bee,” all about the allure of fame, its glamour, its backlash, its transitory nature. Perfect for kids in thrall to performers on American Idol.

Fame is a bee.
It has a song–
It has a sting–
Ah, too, it has a wing.

As I planned it, we’d do the Merriam poem first, then the Dickinson one, and end with Soto. I’d lead the students to learn and use the words ode, stanza, image, voice, metaphor, and tone. The objective—beyond making the terms a part of their working vocabulary—was to show them a method they could use on their own to figure out the meaning of a poem. What I wanted above all was to excite the students about poetry. I planned to leave them at the end with a little present—a personal poetry reader for each child—a bright yellow card decorated with a fruit sticker and the words, “Bite in!” A reminder of Merriam’s poem; a reminder of our class period together.

My sequencing of the lesson would have been good—it would have worked—but when I met with my colleague to fine tune the lesson, “good” turned into “outstanding.” That’s the beauty of instructional coaching—two heads are better than one. I knew the strategy and I picked the poems, but she had the genius to put it all together in a way that would capture the kids.

When we started talking about the lesson, we knew we’d need a hook. My colleague had just the idea. She loves games. In fact, her classroom is decorated with boxes of games, game boards, game pieces. And she had a wonderful one she had grabbed at a garage sale: Awkward Family Photographs, a collection of perfectly awful family pictures. Her idea was to have a handful of cards on each table when the kids came in. We’d let them look at the photos for a few minutes, talk about why they were funny or scary or stupid, and then launch into the Soto poem. P1020407

So that’s what we did on the appointed day. She set up the hook and after a few minutes of laughing together at the pictures, I read the Soto poem aloud. The kids followed along.

“I don’t get it,” Daniel said flat out at the end. We loved that. It was the perfect entrée to the slow reveal.

I moved to the interactive whiteboard, the centerpiece of the strategy. The “screen block” tool would cover the poem and I would expose one line at a time, asking questions of the students to show them how the poet constructed meaning, line by line by line.

And the technology failed. It had worked in the morning before class. What had happened?  No time to twist our hands, throw them up in despair. Gamely, we went on, directing the students to look at each line of the poem in turn until we reached the end.

Of course, because of the Awkward Family Photographs, the kids caught on to the images immediately. That meant a lot of fun conversation about what was happening when Mama snapped the picture—what she intended to capture with her camera and what she actually got. Favorite line? This is me with my head cut off.

“How could he take a picture of himself with his head cut off?”

“But remember the line, Mama was never good at pictures?

“What new piece of information did you get there?”

“Oh! Mama’s taking the pictures!

We lingered on the stanzas about Mama. “How does he feel about his mama?” I asked at the end of the second one. “What’s his tone when he talks about her?”

“He isn’t mad at her!”

“He thinks she’s funny. He says, Each of us is laughing hard.”

One girl said, “It’s kind of like when people say, ‘You gotta love her!’ when they mean a person drives them crazy but they love her anyway.”

And what’s this last line: I have candy in my mouth?

Silence.

Think metaphor, kids.  Poets and words…children and candy.  All sweet.

“The experiences were sweet and he’s writing about them.”

“Uh-huh. We call that ‘nostalgia,’ when you look back on something and remember it so fondly.”

“He enjoyed those times.”

“Maybe it’s just candy in my mouth.”

“Either way.”

We looked at “Fame is a Bee” next.   The poem seems so obvious that I was surprised the kids were puzzled when I read it through. But they remembered the word metaphor, could tell me it was a comparison, so I called on them to brainstorm the pros and cons of fame.

“Money!”

“Limosines!”

“Mansions!”

“Paparazzi!”

“No privacy!”

“Stuff on the Internet.”

“And what if you don’t make it on American Idol?”

“People forget you.”

And then we started brainstorming the attributes of a bee: the buzz, the sting, the pollination—good for the flowers—honey…and…

“I got it!” Clayton shouted out before we even finished. And line by line, he explained the connection. He was popping up and down in his seat he was so excited.

Alyssa, the thinker: “But you know, wings can carry you anywhere. The wing doesn’t have to mean ‘forgotten.’ It could mean carrying you to another place…”

I love an independent thinker.

Finally, “How to Eat a Poem.”

An implied metaphor, we said, when they saw there was no “one thing is another” as a metaphor lays it out.

One boy was sure the juice was from a cheeseburger, but the unraveling strategy worked like it should when someone else pointed out ripe. “Cheeseburgers aren’t ripe.”

“And ready when you are! It’s always there, just waiting for you.”

“It’s definitely not a cheeseburger. Cheeseburgers don’t have pits or seeds or stems!”

“But the poem isn’t like a fruit because there’s nothing to throw away.”

Not a word or a punctuation mark or a break in the page to spare. Yep, they got it.

My colleague and I had a ball. I did the lesson myself the first time through, but with the next class, she was asking the kids questions, too. The third time around, even more so. The technology never did work. No matter. She did the next two presentations solo (I was somewhere else in the building), but for the last period (she has six classes and 170 kids!), by which time I had returned, we decided to function as a tag team. By then we had expanded the lesson so much that we only got through two of the poems! That was okay. She would do the third the next day. The students would be reading more poetry, using their texts and the poetry readers I’d made for them. P1030329

“I wish we could always be two heads on a lesson,” she said. “What’s our district thinking, not hiring two teachers per room?”

What are they thinking, indeed?  That’s what coaching is all about.

It was sweet all day.

This Enormous Business

For thirty-one years, my school year began with the opening sentence from Harper Lee’s matchless story of courage, compassion, and coming-of-age, To Kill a Mockingbird. It was nothing short of privilege to introduce 9th graders to Jem and Scout, their father Atticus, and their playmate Dill; to rural Alabama in the 1930s; to racism and injustice in the days of Jim Crow; and to the idea that in coming face-to-face with an unvarnished and painful reality, one comes of age.

Sometimes that moment of truth is called a “confrontation experience.”

When the trial is over and Tom Robinson is found guilty, Jem is confused and upset. He cries first, then broods, questioning Atticus intently as he puzzles through the injustice of the verdict. Miss Maudie, the children’s insightful neighbor from across the street, bakes a cake the next morning, but alters her custom of preparing three small cakes—one each for Jem and Scout and Dill—and makes only two. Jem’s portion is to come from the big cake. In this way, she signals her understanding that Jem has grown up: He has emerged from the experience of the trial, changed. Many students—as Jem himself does—miss the significance of that culinary symbolism.

So just after my students have read Chapter 22, the chapter with the cake paragraph that begins “It was Jem’s turn to cry,” I introduce this poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. I project it on the ENO board and read it aloud once, all the way through.

One Wants A Teller In A Time Like This

One wants a teller in a time like this

One’s not a man, one’s not a woman grown
To bear enormous business all alone.

One cannot walk this winding street with pride
Straight-shouldered, tranquil-eyed,
Knowing one knows for sure the way back home.
One wonders if one has a home.

One is not certain if or why or how.
One wants a Teller now:

Put on your rubbers and you won’t catch a cold
Here’s hell, there’s heaven. Go to Sunday School
Be patient, time brings all good things–(and cool
Strong balm to calm the burning at the brain?)

Behold,
Love’s true, and triumphs; and God’s actual.

Occasionally, a student will “get” the poem immediately, but the majority of my 9th graders are mystified. Why am I introducing this poem? What does it have to do with the story? Focused on the verdict itself—which they are eager to talk about even though they had predicted it—they don’t think of the impact of the decision on the children.

“Who in the story do you think this poem could be about?” I ask.

“Atticus,” someone always guesses. “He lost the trial.”

So. They got the gist of the poem. It’s about someone who is depressed.

“But Atticus knew he would lose—and he thinks they’ve taken a step forward because the jury deliberated for two hours,” someone else corrects.

“Tom? He lost and now he’s going to prison.”

“Boo.” Another guess.

“Miss Maudie.” A wilder guess.

Funny—if they’d examine their own reactions—shock, outrage, grief—when the verdict is announced, they’d see immediately that the poem points to Jem.

But Jem is not the “hero” of the story—or even an important protagonist like Tom Robinson or Boo. We’ve talked as a class about the symbolism of the mad dog and related rabies to the mental disease of prejudice. We’ve focused on character development and identified Atticus as the hero. We’ve examined Atticus’ definition of courage in the Mrs. Dubose chapter. But, besides noting that the children are catalysts for action and establishing that Jean Louise (the adult Scout) is a reflective narrator, we haven’t talked much yet about Jem and Scout. So far, they haven’t been a thematic focus.

I suggest that we take the poem apart, line by line. From this moment on, I am largely silent. I simply cover the poem and proceed to expose one line at a time. With its lovely “reveal” function, the ENO board helps me with this technique, but I used to do the same thing with an overhead projector. Baring even that, I could write the poem on the board, one line at a time. The strategy captures my students. They are good detectives, and they eagerly put their skills of observation to work.

First, the title: enigmatic, evocative, puzzling. Why the capitalized ‘One’? And then, it turns out, the title is the first line. The first line stands alone, the students notice. Why?

Then the phrase, “One’s not a man, not a woman grown.”

“So it’s not about Atticus.”

“But what is ‘this enormous business’?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“Whoever he is, he’s walking a crooked path.”

“He’s lost.”

“Unsure.”

“Confused.”

“He—or she—can’t find his home, maybe doesn’t have one.”

“Is this about a homeless person?”

“No, I think it’s about safety. Home is safety.”

“It’s about certainty. This person is uncertain.”

“Something terrible has happened.”

“Look at those words–‘if or when or how.’ Those are question words. This person’s questions are unanswered.”

“But why is ‘Teller’ capitalized in the next line?”

“He wants someone to answer his questions. To tell him the answers. A Teller.”

By this time, several students realize it is Jem’s reaction to the verdict that I am focusing on. I can barely contain them from blurting out their epiphany, and epiphany it is: They squirm in their seats; their arms pump up and down; their faces convey urgency. Others catch on. The class knows.

But what is this last stanza? Look: The font changes. And how are all those things connected?

“‘Rubbers’ are boots,” someone says. “What do they have to do with Sunday School?”

“’Heaven and hell’.” That’s Sunday School.”

“They’re opposites. Like black and white, or right and wrong.”

“Oh I get it! The new font is the Teller talking!”

“Yes! The Teller is telling the person what to do.”

“What to think.”

“How to behave.”

“That’s what he wants. A Teller.”

“Yes. A Teller makes things simple.”

But then the font changes back.

“What’s ‘balm’?”

“Like lip balm. A salve.”

“Oh! It’s ‘One’ again—questioning the Teller. It’s ‘One’ not finding an answer.”

“Not accepting an answer.”

“And the Teller speaks again, telling him everything is okay.”

“Except he doesn’t believe it. Whatever has happened is so bad, he even questions God.”

“Wow.”

And then, silence.

When we resume talking, students are quick to say—and confident now in saying—that “One” is anyone, so the poem can apply universally. “This enormous business” is unspecified for the same reason—and that means the poem can apply to many situations.

Too many of my students have already experienced tragedy, grief, and despair in their own lives. They make the jump to divorce, separation, untimely death, to betrayal by a friend, to abandonment by an adult—to myriad experiences that could force a person to confront an unpleasant truth—and come of age.

And then they know how Jem felt.

Silence again.

Quite often, someone in the class offers a final idea.

“You know, this may be about growing up, but even adults feel this way sometimes. My mom did when my dad left.”

How right that observation is. There is no time limit on innocence, no age limit on hope.

“So it could be about Atticus. He could have felt that way and then resolved his feeling by thinking the two-hour delay in the verdict was a step forward.”

It could be, indeed. Enormous business can level us all, even a hero.

I love teaching this lesson and the technique of “unveiling” a poem. As students pick out the clues, they build meaning and expand their understanding beyond the text. They see the relevance to the story we are reading, but they can apply the meaning of the poem to their own lives as well. They think deeply about an idea—in this case, the transformative effect of a confrontation experience.

What else is wonderful is that they figure the poem out for themselves.

I don’t tell them anything.

Last Lesson: Love Lesson

The climax came on Thursday with the Unsung Heroes celebration in our school library. A packed room, our heroes all there, each of them introduced by the students, who were keyed up and jittery, naturally nervous to speak in public. Sheet cakes, flowers, and picture boards decorated the room. Reporters stood at attention and interviewed the students after the program; cameras followed their every move. An audience of parents and grandparents, friends, school administrators, and at least 50 other students (most of whom had completed the Unsung Hero project themselves, last year and the year before) congratulated them. Lots of attention. Lots of emotion.

It would be natural for Friday to be falling action, for the students to feel the let-down that comes when something they’ve worked on for so long has come to an end. For me, too, Friday was likely to be falling action. But I have learned that the best way to handle emotional turbulence is to hold steady—in this case, to stay focused on a goal.

Of course we debriefed for a few minutes when the 9th graders came to class, but it wasn’t long before their comments became repetitive. I brought them back to Romeo and Juliet, which we had been reading before we took time out to plan for the party. Specifically, we came back to the structure of Shakespeare’s sonnets. My purpose statement—the learning objective—was on the whiteboard: Identify these terms (rhyme scheme, quatrain, heroic couplet, turn, meter, scan, iambic pentameter) and explain the structure of a Shakespearean sonnet.

The students turned their attention from chatter to task.

So let’s review first, I said. What’s a sonnet?

The predictable, imprecise answer: A 14-line poem about love.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

I gave pairs of students 14 strips of paper—Sonnet 18, cut apart and jumbled up. Their task was to reconstruct the sonnet according to the rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg. Of course, they already knew what quatrains and couplets are, and by discovering the sonnets embedded in Romeo and Juliet, they’d already learned Shakespeare’s typical rhyme scheme. So finding the rhymes was easy. But then they were stuck. The three quatrains were out of order. At that point, I intervened.

There’s an internal structure, too, I said, a specific logic to the sonnet. A sonnet doesn’t sprawl, loose to the page. It’s very precisely organized. Shakespeare’s sonnets work like this: Condition stated (the first quatrain); Condition Expanded (the second); Reversal, signaled by the Turn (the third); Summation. Find the turn, I directed—the word that signals a shift in thought. Ah: But. Now paraphrase the lines, summarize the quatrains. Then you’ll be able to put them in order.

You are more beautiful—and your loveliness more permanent—than a summer day, and summer itself does not last long.
As the beauty of a summer day can be diminished by heat or clouds, so the beauty in everything eventually fades.
But, not you. Your beauty will not be lost nor will you die because my poetry will capture you for eternity.
As long as life persists and people read this poem, you will be immortal.

You’ve got it! But that’s not all. There are 14 lines—now count the syllables in each line. Ten. Yes, ten in every line–arranged in iambic pentameter.

What’s that?

The ENO board—the interactive whiteboard—made it easy to mark the syllables, to show them what meter is, what scansion means: unaccented, accented; unaccented accented: 5 times per line. Now read it aloud, exaggerating the accented syllables. (I modeled—imagine that!—and they joined in.)

It’s rap!

Yes! Same rhythm, but now read it the way that Shakespeare would. Draw out some syllables, elevate the pitch on others, emphasize some words, minimize others: Sheer poetry.

So what’s a Shakespearean sonnet? A 14-line poem about love, written in iambic pentameter with an abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme, composed of three quatrains and a couplet, arranged to reveal a progression of thought in which the poet states a condition, expands upon it, turns (or reverses) the thought in line 9, and sums up the idea in a concluding heroic couplet.

And then, as if on cue, the bell rang.

We’ll have falling action all next week, too, as we do what normally happens in the denouement. We’ll tie up loose ends and review for final exams. Students will wangle for points, and some will panic, a bit too late to do much good. But this was the last instructional day, my last day to introduce new material and structure a lesson to learn it. That the topic today was the sonnet is an irony that hasn’t escaped me—for teaching has been what I have loved to do since I was a child playing school. I, as much as the kids, could have been overwhelmed by emotion today, but holding steady, keeping myself focused on the objective—keeping the kids focused on a purpose—produced in the end what I wanted—what I needed—for an ending: a lesson that was a love poem all by itself.