Inspiration from Wynton Marsalis, James Baldwin, and My Students

Due to inclement weather for an outdoor event nearby, Wynton Marsalis showed up at my school, where his gig had been relocated. This happened on Tuesday at 11 am, and I just happened to have a coinciding off period, so I took two flights of stairs down to the balcony of The Denney Theatre. With an introduction from Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, Marsalis spoke about the fundamentals of jazz and how jazz teaches us to exercise individual rights as well as responsibility to others. “Jazz can show us how to work together,” he said, “while also celebrating our obvious differences.” The metaphors weren’t lost on this English teacher. Marsalis spoke of improvisation and how improvisation is freedom. Then he improvised on trumpet with The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and proceeded to blow my socks off. There was a call and response among the musicians. The piano and sax, the drums and string bass and trombone each had their turn. I understood the celebration of differences and left the theatre that day feeling that jazz is life.

This whole jazz experience overlapped with classroom discussion of James Baldwin’s 1957 short story “Sonny’s Blues.” I had never taught this story. I’m not sure I fully understood the nuance. I had hesitated to assign the story. It’s not exactly short. But there’s something about Baldwin. And I couldn’t have planned a guest performance of a Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winning jazz musician if I had tried.

Prior to the reading assignment, I gave my students a bookmark, ironic since The Norton Introduction to Literature is online. The bookmark, a mini-handout, included what to look for when marking the text:

  • Music and Jazz
  • Being Trapped, Physically and Emotionally
  • Light vs. Darkness
  • Grace, Forgiveness, and Salvation
  • Family Obligation
  • Characterization of the Narrator vs. Sonny

Then came Wednesday, the day of the graded discussion. I had divided the story into three parts and my class alphabetically into three groups. My students read the entire story but focused their annotations on their assigned section: beginning, middle, or end.

The students first discussed their chunk in small groups for main ideas and motifs. Then we had a class graded discussion. Everyone participated. Intelligent and sophisticated conversation ensued. In twenty-two years of teaching, what happened in my classroom this week ranks as a highlight of highlights and left me inspired.

Sonny is a free-spirited jazz musician with a heroin problem. It’s 1950s Harlem. His older brother, the unnamed narrator, teaches school and has spent time in the military. The brotherly conflict is real. Before their mother dies, she tells the older brother, “Don’t let him fall.” It seems wrong to write a story about the artist James Baldwin or his masterpiece of a story. You would be better off reading “Sonny’s Blues,” and then we can talk.

Self-Revelation

“They sat there in the fresh young darkness close together. Pheoby eager to feel and do through Janie, but hating to show her zest for fear it might be thought mere curiosity. Janie full of that oldest human longing—self revelation” (Their Eyes Were Watching God, page 7).

“There is no book more important to me than this one.” —Alice Walker

I can’t stop thinking about Zora Neale Hurston’s words. Self-revelation. The oldest human longing. At the beginning of the novel, Janie returns home after a year-and-a-half absence. Pheoby wants to live vicariously through her friend, but she doesn’t want to come across as nosy. Janie wants nothing more than to tell her story. The rest of the novel is that story.

And that’s friendship—telling our stories, sharing our burdens, gaining self-awareness and insight through processing. But what about blogging? I suppose self-revelation, regardless of form, comes from a longing to connect.

I wrestle with what to share on the blog…with oversharing…crossing boundaries…telling stories that might not be mine to tell. I’m sure I could pick up the phone and share more with my friends and family. Then there’s the part about being an introvert and exhausted at the end of my days and weeks and recharging my energy through my quiet time. And there’s the part about not knowing what to say until the words appear on the page. I often find answers inside my heart all along.

As I re-read Their Eyes Were Watching God, I’m contemplating more this time through Janie’s journey and self-discovery.

Self-discovery through self-revelation.

Wisdom through self-understanding.

Every Day Is a New Day

I don’t know how many people have jobs with built-in opportunities for do-overs. I teach school, therefore, this past Monday was a new beginning for me—in so many ways.

On my first day of school, I opted for the stairs vs. the elevator, from the lower level of the parking garage to my fourth-floor classroom. 71 steps from the garage to the second floor, 98 to the third floor, 125 to the fourth floor. But who’s counting?

One thing I’ve noticed about my co-workers who take the stairs—they’re fit. What if the stairs are their not-so-secret secret? Game on, Stairs. Game on.

Students at the performing and visual arts high school started the day in their art areas—theater, dance, instrumental, vocal, creative writing, or visual arts. Academic teachers, like me, joined one of the art areas for crowd control, so I went to the theater department. Theater, however, had everything under control, so I simply stood by in awe.

The senior thespians, thirty or so, stood center stage, one by one, in the Black Box Theater. Each offered their advice to the underclassmen, and their words were sheer power. “Be kind and easy to work with. It will open doors for you.” And so many more I can’t recount, but what I heard set the tone for my day.

And my students—each class period—were quite possibly the loveliest ever in my twenty-two new beginnings. No one complained about sitting in alphabetical order, which is my strategy for memorizing 192 new names. They folded printer paper into thirds like a brochure and wrote their name on one side where I could see and call on them. On the inside, they wrote a goal for themselves before they graduate and one piece of advice for me. Then, they worked together on a poem puzzle, fill-in-the-blank with cut-out pieces of words and phrases. (By the way, not my original idea. I borrowed the lesson from a generous giver found here.)  I had kids who pulled it off. Here’s the key to the puzzle:

Good Bones by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Students annotated the text, and then we discussed the importance of certain words and phrases and clauses. They liked Maggie Smith’s poem and the freedom to say “shithole.”

“Good,” I said. “But what’s this poem about?”  

“It’s about a mother protecting her child from the dark side of life,” they said.

“Yes,” I said, “but what’s it really about?”

“It ends on a note of hope,” they said. “It’s about the duality of life…She believes her child can make the world beautiful—We can all make life more beautiful.”

And like that, my students analyzed poetry on Day One.

“And we all bring our own experiences to our reading,” I said. “Could the speaker be a teacher? Could her children be students? Life is short and half terrible, but we have the power, especially as artists, to make it beautiful.”

At the end of my school day, I read their advice to me. One said, “Just love us. We love you already.” My heart burst a bit, broke a bit, and I breathed a prayer of gratitude. From my classroom, I walked down the hallway to the stairwell, took six flights down to the parking garage, and hopped in my car to drive home—to wait for another brand-new day.

On Sisters, Words, and Writing

Last Friday, my big sister flew to see me. From the airport, we drove thirty-eight miles to the beach, checked into a historic hotel, exchanged our street clothes for swimsuits, dashed out to the pool, and lingered, cool beverages in hand. Freedom persisted. Our feet hit the sand. The tides rolled in with the ocean breeze. Seashells appeared to be found. Fish tacos beckoned, and we answered the call. It was a weekend of sisterhood, a salve for my soul, a respite by the sea, one last hoorah before the inevitable back-to-school.

As I unloaded my deepest, darkest secrets, I heard my speech sprinkled with words like—actually, honestly, literally, ironically, hopefully…. When had I picked up this nasty adverb habit? An overuse of basically unnecessary words? (I meant to do that). When I say honestly, does that mean I’m not being honest the rest of the time? And if something is literally happening, isn’t it happening either way? And who knows if whatever seemed to me ironic was actually ironic? Even my computer (as I typed the last sentence) says: More concise language would be clearer for your reader.

Even at the beach, Steven King’s words echoed across time and place:

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Stephen King

By the way, King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is a worthwhile read. Apparently, it didn’t break me of my verbal adverb compulsion. But you know what they say—the first step is admitting you have a problem. Obviously, I have teaching on my mind.

A summer ago in my last Creative Writing class, my professor said words that resonate still. I wrote them down:

“Stories are made from words. Your story is only as good as you have command of the language.”

Dr. James Boyleston

I love words, and I love the beach. Where better place to study? These words I found online:

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart.”

Mark Twain

“Poetry is all nouns and verbs.”

Marianne Moore

Now, I can’t read without seeing how the author uses adjectives. I hope my students will see the same. This year when we read poetry in class, we’ll test Marianne Moore’s theory about the nouns and verbs. Mark Twain, I see your adverb, and I think anything in moderation works fine.

These words I found in a book about writing called, Sin and Syntax:

“A dependence on is and its family screams ‘rough draft.'”

Constance Hale

The key word is dependence. My past students have counted be verbs “am, is, are, was, were, be, been being” in their writing and reduced the number through revisions. Constance Hale suggests an 8:1 ratio of action verbs to be verbs. I think I’ll have my students test this idea with the stories we read.

And these words I found in my all-time favorite book about writing, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer:

With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.

Francine Prose

The word-studying English teacher in me notices a few adverbs above, but also the parallelism of the adverb/adjective pairs: “seemingly obvious” and “oddly underappreciated.” I also see a number of those “be” verbs, “is” and its family, and that’s okay. Sometimes an “is” makes our clearest points. Other times our writing advances with action.

And these words I found in a comment on my blog:

We wouldn’t teach piano without having the student listen to Chopin or teach painting without looking at great art. Too often, English teachers give assignments without enough models of the form first.

Evelyn Krieger

I’m betting Evelyn Krieger has read Francine Prose, but as I head back to school, I appreciate her reminder.

My big sister headed home Sunday. Goodbyes are hard. I can’t help thinking my mother conspired from on high to make the trip possible and see her girls together, beachside.

As the days of summer dwindle, part of me is grateful for a new school year beginning, and part of me is sad for the vacation ending. Such is life. For everything there is a season. The waves come and go, the moments come and go, the feelings come and go. Everything is temporary.

A World in a Grain of Sand

Photo by Dmitriy Zub on Pexels.com

This week I took a class, a class for English teachers to teach better, and I learned stuff—a lotta stuff, like the little writing trick I’m sharing today. Part grammar, part analysis, part creativity, the task at hand involved both the left and right sides of my brain along with the beginning of William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.”

To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Is to hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

I read these four lines for the first time and said to myself, “Huh?” Believe it or not, understanding takes time, even for English teachers. Lucky for me, my teacher gave me a thesis:

In his poem “Auguries of Innocence,” Blake uses analogies to convey his concept of the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm, the material world and the spiritual world.  

Yeah, I had to think about that, too.

Then she gave me a handout that said, Write an introduction that follows one of the grammatical patterns below:

  1. Begin with a sentence containing three absolute phrases, then follow it with five short sentences, each beginning with a participial phrase. End with the thesis.” (My teacher provided an example).
  2. Begin with a short, blunt statement followed by an elaborate series of balanced sentences or sentences with parallel elements.  End the paragraph with a metaphor that leads into your thesis. (Another example followed).

Then I had time to do my homework, and did I ever need time! I chose number one. I didn’t even look at number two. Directions tend to be abstract, examples concrete. I’m not sure my ideas connected to the micro and macrocosm, but I circled back to the idea of spirituality. I’m quite sure I could tweak the thesis for my own purposes, and I have no doubt I could use these sentence structures in other types of writing for a little variety. Here goes my try:

Gratitude shaped through observation of the little things, a higher power revealed through the earth’s creation, the meaning of life discovered, human fulfillment lies in the noticing and the appreciation. Toiling about our busy days, we fail to savor the wonder of our world. Worrying about the future, we fail to welcome the moment. Dwelling on the past, we fail to move on to the here and now. Yet, by taking time to truly see, we improve the quality of our lives. In his poem “Auguries of Innocence,” Blake uses analogies to convey his concept of the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm, the material world and the spiritual world.  

Had I ever taught an absolute phrase before? No. But I quite like the effect. The phrase, “gratitude shaped through observation of the little things,” could be a sentence if I added an “is” between “gratitude” and “shaped” (gratitude is shaped through observation…) However, action verbs strengthen our writing, and besides, that sentence includes the passive voice vs. active voice. (Who or what is doing the shaping? Gratitude doesn’t shape itself. Active voice example: Our observations shape our gratitude). Anytime I can eliminate linking verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being), I do. As written, the absolute phrase functions as an adjective describing “human fulfillment.” In my opinion, the first sentence is a bit long, but the structure is malleable. I could lose two of the three phases in the first sentence if I so choose. All of this makes sense in my head, but the teacher-provided example clarifies the concept. We all need examples. We need teachers to explain. In 21 years of teaching, I have never had a concrete way of teaching the skill of writing an introduction. With this example, I have a brand new tool. I suppose I should go ahead and teach a few more years. This week’s teacher has taught for 36. How inspiring!

Next, came the sentences beginning with participial phrases. The assignment asked for five. I stopped at three. The participle looks like a verb but functions like an adjective. Past participles end in -ed. Present participles end in -ing. Add a prepositional phrase, and voila, you have a participial phrase: “Toiling about our busy days…Worrying about the future…Dwelling on the past.” These phrases describe us, or the “we” above. The parallelism lends a rhythm. A facility for language develops style.

I hope you give this grain of sand a try.

Vote for Douglas

Gentle readers,

This semester has been a busy one for my students. I’ve attended performances of Dreamgirls, the All-School Black History Production, the spring dance concert, and senior shows of all sorts: recitals—vocal and piano, art exhibitions, creative writing performances featuring film and spoken word and my student the Houston Youth Poet Laureate. So many shows. I only wish I could attend them all. When I receive a personal invite, I’m there. The kids consistently blow me away.

Inside the classroom, students brought their talents and presented their understanding of Macbeth. They acted, danced, sang, performed original scripts and songs and parodies, made videos, designed sets, created visual art, poems, letters, modernized texts, and alternate endings. They connected it all to the tragedy. These kids rise to the challenge over and over.

Then there’s Douglas. He has become a national phenomenon. When American Idol saved his audition for the end of their two-hour show a week ago Sunday, I knew they had saved the best for last. Sure enough. He gripped my heart with Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and then squeezed. My tears were unstoppable, his performance iconic. I texted with my mother-in-law and my daughter. I wasn’t the only one. They felt what I felt.   

Tonight kicks off Hollywood Week on American Idol (ABC), 8 Eastern / 7 Central. When the time comes, if you’re inclined to watch the show, vote for Douglas.

With love,

His English Teacher

for Douglas

Working in a Gold Mine

This past week I’ve been mining for gold. And by gold, I mean golden nuggets of wisdom. And by mining for wisdom, I mean rereading Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. It’s a genre-bending novel with elements of magical realism, fantasy, coming-of-age, surrealism, and crime fiction. This week’s classroom reading: The Prologue titled “A Boy Named Crow” and Chapters 1-7. While introducing the book, I said, “Murakami is really good at directly stating themes, and the AP test always asks about character complexity. So as you read, look for those two things: What makes the narrator complex? And theme.”

Together we read the four-page prologue accompanied by audio. The truth is—if I assign the reading and walk away, some students will never read. The audio is my new teaching strategy for making them read. Some only listen. Then I tell them to discuss with their neighbors. Some don’t, so then we discuss as a whole class. Some things are out of my control. Some things are in.

As a theme, students identify the line, “Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions” (5). We talk about the sandstorm as a metaphor or a symbol for break-ups and death, illness and accidents. We speak of foreshadowing and a shifting point of view. We discuss how the entire plot is revealed in the prologue: “On my fifteenth birthday I’ll run away from home, journey to a far-off town, and live in the corner of a small library” (6). Finally, they write in blue books for about twelve minutes. We are practicing literary analysis.

For homework this past week and through the weekend, students are reading Chapters 1-7. I am, too. Chapter 1 reveals how the narrator’s mother took his older sister and left ten years earlier. He has no memories of them, only a photo. His father threw the rest away. Just past midnight on his fifteenth birthday, our narrator boards a night bus leaving Tokyo and believes an omen is with him, “like a shadow” (12). For now, this omen is a mystery, foreshadowing an Oedipal curse to be revealed. The book was published in 2002. Most of the story takes place in modern day.

The narrative shifts to another point of view in even chapters. Chapters 2 and 4 include U.S. military intelligence reports and investigations of an incident involving sixteen Japanese school children. The students mysteriously fall unconscious during a field trip on November 7, 1944. This mystery depicts the backstory of Nakata who sustains a coma due to the event and foreshadows an alternating storyline to come.

In Chapter 3, our narrator meets an older girl on the bus and speculates if she could be his sister. In Chapter 5, he tells her his name, Kafka Tamura. Her name is Sakura, not his sister’s name, but he thinks about how names can be easily changed, especially when running away. Kafka, a pseudonym, arrives at his destination Takamatsu, 450 miles away from home, and Sakura gives him her phone number. That day, he kills time at the library. “Some wealthy man from an old family in the suburbs had renovated his personal library into a private library open to the public” (34). At the library, Kafka meets Oshima who works behind the desk. They discuss the ancient Greek philosophy of Aristophanes (scroll to end of page for details). Oshima advises Kafka to take a tour lead by the library curator, the sophisticated Miss Saeki. Kafka thinks how it would “be great if this were [his] mother” (40). His abandonment issues are real. He seems to be on a quest for family while running away from his father. Later that day, Kafka checks himself into a second-rate hotel.

In Chapter 6, we meet Nakata, who cannot read or write since the mysterious coma in his youth, but he can communicate with cats. This is where the novel takes a silly turn. A pet detective of sorts, Nakata searches for lost cats and speaks with them for clues. One cat explains some common knowledge to Nakata—that “cats are creatures of habit…unless something extraordinary happens they generally try to keep to their routine. What might disrupt this is either sex or an accident” (49). The cat explains sex to Nakata and concludes, “There are all kinds of people in the world, and all kinds of cats” (50). Nakata agrees with the cat yet claims to be dumb due to an accident. He tells the cat how the accident made his mother cry and his father angry. He explains how his parents are dead, so his father doesn’t hit him anymore, and his mother doesn’t cry, and he lives on a government “sub city” (51). There’s so much truth in this seemingly absurd conversation. Sex and accidents also disrupt the lives of humans. I would add illness to this statement. Because there are “all kinds of people in the world,” we have varying reactions to situations, especially the ones out of our control. The cat also notices that Nakata’s shadow is faint, a motif that connects back to Kafka’s omen following him like a shadow. The cat says, “You should give up looking for lost cats and start searching for the other half of your shadow” (52). The scene parallels what Oshima tells Kafka in the previous chapter about Aristophanes and how we all search for our other halves.

In Chapter 7, Kafka goes to the front desk at his hotel to negotiate the price of his room, explaining how he is a student on a budget, collecting materials from the Komura Memorial Library for his graduation paper. Negotiation is a life skill, and Kafka is now fending for himself. He notices the girl behind the desk is about the same age as his sister. He finds a public gym and works out, then goes to the library like the day before. Each morning, like a cat, Kafka sticks to the same routine, working out at the gym, showering, eating, then feeding his brain. At the library he reads the Burton edition of Arabian Nights. “They’re full of obscene, violent, sexual, basically outrageous scenes…crazy, preposterous stories of a thousand years ago” (57). I’m curious about these stories. All I know is the Disney version of Aladdin.

I search for more information on Burton’s translation (1885-88) and find that it remains the most complete version of One Thousand and One Nights in English and was also criticized for its use of archaic language and excessive erotic detail (Wikipedia). I also find a PDF from the Trinity College Library, Toronto. I download the first volume and skim. It begins with an Arab proverb: “To the pure all things are pure.” I skim further—erotic detail, page six.

Arabian Nights stands as a solid metaphor for Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Murakami also fills his storyline with obscene, violent, sexual, basically outrageous scenes and crazy, preposterous stories. As for Kafka, “on the evening of the eighth day—as had to happen sooner or later—[his] simple, centripetal life is blown to bits” (60). I suppose whatever happened is fate. Cliffhanger.

That’s the Week One reading. I look up centripetal. Sir Isaac Newton describes it as “A force by which bodies are drawn or impelled towards a point as to a center” (Wikipedia). As Kafka inwardly searches for his own answers, something happens beyond his control.

I can’t stop reading. In Chapter 9, Kafka wakes up on the ground in thick brush near a shrine he doesn’t recognize. He is covered in blood. His shoulder hurts. Yet another piece to this puzzle.

Okay, I admit—Kafka on the Shore is not for everyone, but it will leave you thinking, and I feel richer for reading.

Prologue Gold:

“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts….Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away….This storm is you. Something inside you.”

Page 5

Chapter 3 Gold:

“In traveling, a companion, in life, compassion.”

Page 23

Chapter 5 Gold:

“According to Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, in the ancient world of myth there were three types of people….In ancient times people weren’t just male or female, but one of three types: male/male, male/female, or female/female. In other words, each person was made out of the components of two people. Everyone was happy with this arrangement and never really gave it much thought. But then God took a knife and cut everybody in half, right down the middle. So after that the world was divided just into male and female, the upshot being that people spend their time running around trying to locate their missing other half.”

Page 39

“There are many things we only see clearly in retrospect.”

Page 42

Tetrameter?

27. “Which of the following lines is written in tetrameter?”

I shook my head. I was reading a test written by a high-stakes test-making conglomerate when I stumbled upon this question. This is the type of test kids taking advanced English classes in the US must pass to receive college credit while in high school. The type of test I would give as a semester exam—as a practice test for the real deal in May. “That’s one of the dumbest questions I’ve ever heard,” I said to myself.

I suppose, if students knew that any poetry term ending in “meter” had to do with rhythms and syllables, they might have a fighting chance at the answer. If they counted the syllables of all five answer choices and realized that four of the choices had ten syllables and one choice had eight syllables, they might realize that one of these things is not like the other. As an English teacher of twenty plus years, I had never used the word tetrameter in my classroom. Pentameter. Yes. Iambic pentameter.

In Shakespeare’s tragedy about Julius Caesar, Mark Antony looks upon Caesar’s fresh corpse and says,

“Oh, par | don me, | thou bleed | ing piece | of earth…”

We could discuss the apostrophe, the personification, the metaphor, and the perfect iambic pentameter. We could divide the line into five feet, each two syllables, also called an iamb. An unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. If I put my hand under my chin and say the words aloud, my chin will drop on the stressed syllable. “Oh” is unstressed. The “par” in pardon is stressed. The rest of the line follows the same pattern. Anything beyond iambic pentameter, I must look up and study.  

And so, in preparation for the semester exam, I gave my students my best iambic pentameter lesson as a quick segue into what the test wanted them to know about tetrameter. We haven’t studied Shakespeare yet. “If penta in Greek means five, what does tetra mean?”

“Four,” they said.

“Good!”  I gestured to the line from Julius Caesar written on my white board, “So, if iambic pentameter is five feet of two syllables, equaling ten syllables total, how many syllables do you think tetrameter would be?”

“Four,” they said.

I slapped my own forehead. “No. Eight,” I said, trying not to sound frustrated over a misunderstood mini-lesson and a stupid test question. “If you see a question on your test asking about tetrameter, count the syllables and look for eight.” I paused to make sure they were listening. “I have no doubt there are exceptions to this rule, and we’ll discuss a few later. On your semester exam, tetrameter means eight syllables.” That was the best I could do aside from saying, “The answer to number 27 is C.”

They nodded their heads up and down, and I tried very hard not to tell my students this question was ridiculous. I might have anyway.

***

Flash forward to exam day. I actively monitored, walking up and down the aisles, when a book on my shelf caught my eye. Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. I grabbed it. The subtitle—How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose—called my name. The teacher before me had left it behind.

“For the writer or wannabe, Sin and Syntax is an urgently needed, updated, and hip guide to modern language and writing.” —Jon Katz, author of Geeks

I opened the book and thumbed through the pages about words and sentences and stopped at Part 3—Music. “When you get your grammar down, when you simplify your syntax, you are halfway to mastering the craft of writing,” Hale says. “Appreciate music in prose, and develop your ear for it. Devour novels. Cue up recordings of famous speeches. Fall in love with poetry. Go to the video store and check out all those Shakespeare movies. Read your writing aloud.”

“Nice advice,” I thought and flipped further.

In the last chapter on “Rhythm,” Hale says, “Metric feet can have up to five syllables, but the most common have two or three.” And that’s why a question on tetrameter twists my panties. Tetrameter could be any number of syllables. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

I don’t know Richard Lederer, but I think he’s genius.

“As a prose stylist, you don’t really need to memorize the names of metric feet,” Hale says, “but you do need to appreciate their effect….When we listen carefully to our writing and reshape its rhythms to our liking, prose can become music.” She says the verses of the Bible, especially the King James, “are so easily received, remembered, and recited because of their rhythms.”

Hale cites the iambic pentameter of playwright, David Mamet, the rhythms of Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, the repetitions of Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien, the musicality of Virginia Woolf and Martin Luther King, Jr. She writes about parallelism and a Jell-O commercial, rap and Grandmaster Flash.

And Hale’s last chapter reminded me of my last MFA class, Topics and Genres. A study of mentor texts with a focus on opening lines. Dr. Boyleston said, “Your story is only as good as your command of the language.” And he wrote Isak Denison’s first sentence from Out of Africa on the whiteboard:

“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” 

Our class discussed. I took notes. The first six words of the novel are iambic, and the “had” emphasizes the past tense conflict. The narrator no longer has the farm. The prepositional phrases, “in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” reveal a general location—Africa—and a specific location—the Ngong Hills. The repeating anapestic rhythm connects the music of language and beauty of landscape. In this simple sentence, there are only two polysyllabic words. The rest are monosyllabic, which slow you down and lend a sense of gravity. It’s almost Biblical. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” This lesson on rhythms was one of my favorites of my MFA at HBU.

And still, who cares if I can identify a dactyl or trochee by name? Uh, not me. Tetrameter. Shrameter. The technicality makes no difference. But the musicality? Now that’s another story.  

Thanksgiving in School

‘Twas Wednesday the week before Thanksgiving. An English IV student volunteered to read Gwendolyn Brooks 1959 poem…

We Real Cool

THE POOL PLAYERS. 
                   SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

(Courtesy of poets.org)

“What do you notice?” I say.

Crickets.

“What makes this a poem?”

Here they speak of the rhymes, the structure, the alliteration, the repetition of “we.”

“Who is the ‘we’?”

They speculate.

“Why do they think they’re cool?”

They provide examples from the text. 

When there’s not much more to say, we read Andrew Spacey’s article, “Analysis of Poem ‘We Real Cool’ by Gwendolyn Brooks.” Spacey takes some of our beginning ideas about the poem to the next level with sophisticated sounding words about the enjambment, ambiguity, and monosyllables along with insight on the anti-establishment and a miniature tragedy in eight-lines.

“I would love to see you all write like this,” I say. But on this day, I don’t make them write. Instead, we listen to an audio of Gwendolyn Brooks explaining her inspiration behind this poem and giving a reading. The words from her mouth and rhythms of her speech sound different than how my student had read.

Then we watch a video. Same poem another person’s thoughts. The ending goes straight to my heart. I might have seen students wiping their eyes. Students in a class later that day laughed, a contagious laugh. I’ve learned I can’t control anyone else’s reactions, only my own. 

I move on to another poet for comparison, United States poet laureate Joy Harjo. We read an NPR article: “In ‘An American Sunrise,’ Joy Harjo Speaks With A Timeless Compassion.” The article reviews Harjo’s 2019 poetry collection. Then we read along to Joy Harjo’s audio of “An American Sunrise,” a poem within the collection of the same name.

An American Sunrise

We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves. We

were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.

It was difficult to lose days in the Indian bar if you were straight.

Easy if you played pool and drank to remember to forget. We

made plans to be professional — and did. And some of us could sing

so we drummed a fire-lit pathway up to those starry stars. Sin

was invented by the Christians, as was the Devil, we sang. We

were the heathens, but needed to be saved from them — thin

chance. We knew we were all related in this story, a little gin

will clarify the dark and make us all feel like dancing. We

had something to do with the origins of blues and jazz

I argued with a Pueblo as I filled the jukebox with dimes in June,

forty years later and we still want justice. We are still America. We

know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die

soon.

 

(Courtesy of poetryfoundation.org)

 

We speak of the first Thanksgiving and how the Native Americans were later robbed. The lesson is heavy, but thought-provoking, and the students quite like the two poems side-by-side. I’m posting from my phone today and unable to format this poem as intended. Otherwise, you would clearly see that each line ends with the following words consecutively: We strike straight. We sing Sin We thin gin We Jazz June, We die soon). The students minds are blown.

“Now I want you to create something as a celebration of Thanksgiving—maybe a poem, a song, or art—and give a mini presentation. This is how it works. You entertain me, and I give you a 100. I would be so happy if someone would sing me a song. You have thirty minutes. Go.”

5th period dances to “Beans, Greens, Potatoes, Tomatoes,” also known as the Grandma Thanksgiving Rap.
These images include endangered species. The text says, “To all animals and plants: Thank you for your time spent on this earth. From all humanity: our condolences and apologies for what has been brought upon this earth. May your spirits find a peaceful life after they leave this one. To all humanity: The time has passed to repair for our crimes. Now we are obligated to make the earth comfortable in these times of strife, conflict, loss, and change.
Thanksgiving, a day we spend with family

We eat and munch like an abnormality

We sit around and argue with each other

It never stops, but we love one another.

—1st Period Mariachi

Let’s Have Fun with Jane Eyre

I teach high school English. Can I say how much I hate multiple-choice tests over literature? I never took a multiple-choice test in my college English classes. Instead, I wrote.

In a perfect world, I would teach books I love, and the kids would experience the love of story and language. Then again, the world isn’t perfect. Students have obligations and jobs, and I would be naïve to believe they’re all reading. Let me take a stab and say 50% of them, give or take, are not. Most classic pieces of literature have been made into movies. Take for instance, Jane Eyre. How many of my students watched the movie and called  it a day? Should I give up on the classics? Should I give up on reading checks?

I’m locked into this year’s general plan, but I’m rethinking for next year, my how and my what. Meanwhile, I endeavor to pull my students through a novel I love. In my classroom, I have seven table groups of four or five, thirty-two students total in my largest classes. I have a few go-to activities for literature re-cap: reader’s theatre (students act out a chapter or passage with books in hand, narrating and acting out the dialogue) and ShrinkLits (shrinking the literature or a chapter down to a rhyming summary, a concept developed by Maurice Sagoff in a book by the same title). Of course, there are times I assign specific passages to be read (hopefully re-read) closely for discussion and analysis. And of course, there are writing assignments, too. For the activities, I assign table groups  a specific chapter, as a summary (or a preview for those who have fallen behind), and they present to the class. At a performing and visual arts high school, they take their acting seriously. Our reader’s theatre was quite outstanding. However, as with anything, overdoing it loses the magic. This year when I had used all my best tricks for Jane Eyre, I confessed: “I’m out of ideas. I’m going to give your table a chapter, and you can decide how to present it. You have thirty minutes.”  

And so today I’m thankful for white board space and students with ideas. Some students presented in news reporting format, others did interviews, one group played charades, which actually happens in the novel, and my dancers danced to Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” for Chapter XVI, where Mr. Rochester tries to make Jane jealous through a feigned relationship with Blanche Ingram. (The lyrics go like this: “Hey, Hey, hey, you, you, I don’t like your girlfriend / No way, no way, I think you need a new one / Hey, hey, you, you, I could be your girlfriend…)

And you know what? Some of my students love Jane Eyre as much as I do. That makes me happy.