Friday, June 17, 2005

Glum and Glummer

Who's glum? Not your humble blogger--I have a brand new Larivee Parlor Guitar just itching to be played once more! (The glorious octave mandolin I had my eye on when I headed into the shop turned out to cost, not the $425 I had remembered, but $4425, which was a bit out of my price range.) No, the glum ones are the middle school students I've been reading about on a listserv for teachers, whose exposure to literature--for a summer school class!--will take them from the romantic / sci fi / fantasy world that underwrites so much great poetry, later.

Consider this exchange. First, this request for suggestions:

"My goal is to do things the kids really like and have fun with...this shouldn't be torture and full of drills and test prep. They are at a variety of levels, but none that are very low. Some are very high and some are average. I had the kids write me a letter today where they told me what they liked and are interested in doing and what they absolutely hated and didn't want to do at all. I didn't get a ton of ideas from them, though, and the responses that they did give were pretty general, such as, "I like short stories." I responded to each of their letters asking some speciifc questions, so hopefully I will get some even better ideas, but I thought I would ask you guys for ideas as well.

There is really nothing I HAVE to do...the director of the program would like some focus on non fiction since that is a huge defecit for most of the kids. Any good ideas on ENGAGING non fiction for kids at this level? Any fun, hands-on activities that have really worked well for you? We will also have access to the computer lab, so if anyone can direct me to some good sites with activities, games, etc, I would be very grateful."

Sounds good so far, right? Now comes the first suggestion:

"Why not have them do a research project on the topic of their choice (important for buy-in) where they produce a mulit-genre project for the final project. You could do mini-lessons on different genre styles, how to research & MLA documentation, work with them on reading their non-fiction research, help them with determining what would be the best genres to use to present their findings, etc. That would certainly allow them choice in what they research, and encourage primarily (but not totally) non-fiction. They could still choose to use fiction as part of the project."

Still good, right? It's wide open, it pairs genres--could be fun! (That was, you'll recall, part of the plan.) I wonder what sorts of topics they might want to read about this summer, though? Let's see--something fun, something interesting, something with an engaging literary tie-in. Maybe something like this:

"I paired a fiction and non-fiction book on teen problems--issues that affect teens--pregnancy, drugs, gangs, cutting, cheating, steroids, etc. that was really successful at the end of the school year. Students did research on their problem and reported to class via PowerPoint presentations. I had 165 students and had each student select their own fiction book after they selected a research issue. Permission slips were required for controversial topics like abortion, pregnancy, self-mutilation, sexual assault, etc. Only 1 kid out of 165 was restricted by a parent. I worked with my librarian to pull over 300+ fiction books in our MS library dealing with about 15 teen problem / issue categories. There were few duplicates in fiction titles (ex.: only had two title about cutting, so had multiple copies of those books) so way too many titles to list."

Now, I don't mean to dismiss this project out of hand. The teacher who suggested it says it was "really successful," and I'm in no position to say it wasn't! But what a sad, sad, narrow vision of fiction these students must have. 300+ novels about teen problems? "Jesus Crisis!" as my daughter used to say.

All of which is just to say, let's not give ourselves too much grief over how difficult poetry seems to our students, whether those difficulties be (in George Steiner's list, glossed a few entries ago) tactical, contingent, ontological, modal, or anything else. The amazing thing is how well they read it at all!

P.S. A few minutes after drafting the above, I started leafing through the introduction to that fat anthology of Pablo Neruda that FSG published a while ago. In it, Ilan Stevens recalls encountering Neruda first as a boy in Mexico, as part of his 5th grade curriculum. The text? 20 Poems of Love and a Desperate Song. Damn! I want my son coming home from 5th grade reciting poems like this:

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example, 'The night is starry
and the stars are blue and shiver in the distance.'

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is starry and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight tries to find her as though to bring her closer.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another's. She will be another's. As she was before my kisses.
Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.

And if that's not a poem about "issues that affect teens," then I don't know what is.

No comments: