Saturday, April 16, 2016

Nothing: How Do We Speak When We Have No Words? #AtoZChallenge Letter N


During April I'm participating in the A to Z blogging challenge.
Each day, sans Sunday, offers an opportunity to write about a
letter of the alphabet with the goal of writing 26 posts.
April is also National Poetry Month.

At times I have no words to speak. These times occur when I'm frustrated, when I'm in pain, when I'm shocked. As an articulate person, those who know me probably think I'm never speechless, but I am. 

As my AP Lit and Comp students have studied literature this year, one of our favorite topics centers on the failure of language. Modernism, and the way it expresses this failure of language and reimagines the way artists speak, is probably my favorite literary period. 


Modern writers often utilize LITOTES to articulate this loss of language. Litotes uses negatives, often double negatives, as an ironic understatement to express meaning. For example, when we say, "No too bad," we actually mean "pretty good." 


I show students a podcast from The Close Reading Co-operative as an introduction to litotes, and I encourage students in my Communication 1101 to play with litotes in their persuasive speeches. Litotes often offers these students a unique way to define a complicated concept or idea.

Sometimes saying what we don't mean works more effectively than saying what we mean. 

I took the picture above at Yellowstone National Park in the
Lower Geyser Basin. Sadly, tourists sometimes mistake the
crystal blue pools as swimming holes and dismiss warnings
not to swim.

Sometimes something is so awe-inspiring that words fail us.

Sometimes an emotion, an experience creates pain that others misinterpret. I think about the "not said" when watching my students. I think about what I can't find the words to say to those who misinterpret constant consistency as "normal." 

I've been thinking about Stevie Smith's poem "Not Waving but Drowning" for a few weeks. In it the speaker describes a drowning person, someone far from shore whose hands "wave" in the air. Those observing obviously can't hear the swimmer. They mistake the drowning persons flailing arms as waves. 

We all have times when we feel lost at sea, times when we're "not waving, but drowning," times when those on shore watch as we vanish into the horizon. 

Not Waving but DrowningBy Stevie Smith
Nobody heard him, the dead man,   
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought   
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,   
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always   
(Still the dead one lay moaning)   
I was much too far out all my life   
And not waving but drowning.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Motives: Why Do Politicians and Some Parents Think They Know Better than Teachers How and What to Teach? #AtoZChallenge Letter M

During April I'm participating in the A to Z blogging challenge.
Each day, sans Sunday, offers an opportunity to write about a
letter of the alphabet with the goal of writing 26 posts.
April is also National Poetry Month.
Yesterday Professor Robin Bates of St. Mary's College and the Better Living Through Beowulf blog penned a brilliant response to Virginia state senator Richard H. Black who sent a caustic email to AP Literature and Composition teacher Jessica Berg challenging Berg's teaching of Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved

Professor Bates argues that Black's opposition to Beloved stems from his own discomfort with women having autonomy over their bodies, especially African American women. It's an excellent analysis of Black's motives. 

Black characterizes Beloved as "profoundly filthy" and "smut." He says the novel depicts "such vile things" and tells Berg she should read "select passages" on the senate floor. That is, Black advocates extrapolating from the novel rather than examining the context and understanding the book as a complete work. Extrapolative reading and using the mechanical claw to retrieve the most provocative passages ignores important themes in the novel. 

Berg responded to Black, and received a follow-up in which he blatantly challenges her expertise: "The idea that you would oppose allowing parents the opportunity to be better informed about what their child is reading is appalling and arrogant. You do not know better than the parents."

Yes, in addition to wanting to control women's bodies, Black's book-banning agenda further undermines professional standards and expertise in teaching. That he thinks he knows more about teaching AP Literature and Composition than AP teachers also motivates the trigger laws Black supports. 

Actually, Jessica Berg does know better than politicians and parents. She and most every other English teacher knows best what to teach in an AP Literature and Composition course. 

We understand that our task as AP Lit and Comp teachers is to instruct high school students as though they are taking a college literature class. That's the design of AP courses. The benefit to students is that they have the opportunity to earn college credit while in high school. They receive an economic and time benefit. Before her students can take the AP Lit and Comp exam, which this year will happen on May 5, AP Lit and Comp teachers submit their course curriculum to the College Board for approval. 

By challenging Berg's right and obligation to teach literary fiction and poetry students could expect to encounter in college courses, Black undermines the academic integrity of all AP courses in Virginia, and such actions can have a ripple effect. 

That is, we are on a slippery slope when we allow politicians and parents who lack the requisite expertise to dictate the curriculum in high school literature classes. 

Black's incompetence to judge Berg resonates in his email. An article in Gawker describes Black's sources: SparkNotes and CliffsNotes. Please. I suspect he has not read nor studied the novel. 

Black's inability to comprehend Toni Morrison's place in American letters begs for her inclusion in AP Lit and Comp. Perhaps Black's close-mindedness results from his not having studied enough literature during his lifetime. As Berg says in her justification for teaching Beloved, 

How are you going to deny students an opportunity to read a Pulitzer-winning book, by a Nobel-winning author, who was recently given the Medal of Freedom by the U.S. president? It's astounding.

I've often referred to teaching as the only profession in which people consider themselves experts because they sat through X number of years in school. I find this attitude insulting. 

As my brilliant student Maddison tweeted to me after reading Professor Bates's post: "Yet Another Gross White Dude in Position of Authority Trying to Control Literally Everything." I couldn't agree more. 




Thursday, April 14, 2016

Little Free Library: How Can I Turn My Dream of a LFL into Reality? #AtoZChallenge Letter L

A couple of years ago I took a box of YA novels home for the summer and invited students to email me if they needed a book. I had not yet heard about LITTLE FREE LIBRARIES but wanted to help students continue reading through the summer, especially those who had only awakened their inner reader during the school year that just ended. 

My plan was completely unsuccessful, and I abandoned it the following summer. 

When I learned about LITTLE FREE LIBRARIES and the promise they offer for promoting reading, I began plotting to create one. My inspiration comes from a recent post on the NERDY BOOK CLUB blog in which Tommy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan offer their TOP 10 REASONS FOR CREATING A LITTLE FREE LIBRARY.  

I announced to my husband that I want to create a LITTLE FREE LIBRARY as he will be an integral part of implementing the plan. That is, I have delegated construction to him. He's very good with power tools. 

I asked our school librarian if she knows about any LITTLE FREE LIBRARIES in the area, and she told me about one in Chubbuck but knows of none in Pocatello. 
Little Free Library in Chubbuck, Idaho

The Little Free Library pictured above is fairly close to my home. 

To stock my Little Free Library, I'll cull from my classroom library, purchase some new books at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale, and ask for donations from my colleagues. I'd like to have three sections: picture books, MG books, and YA with an emphasis on books that appeal to boys but won't be rejected by girls. 

I plan to have a request pocket in my library, and I'm looking into getting some local Boy Scouts involved in creating and maintaining Little Free Libraries in our area. 

Chubbuck requires every neighborhood to have a park, so I've toyed with the idea of putting the LFL there so it's more visible to neighborhood kids. 

To advertise my LFL and explain how it works, I'll distribute a flyer in the neighborhood once it's up and ready for exchanges. 

I haven't done a lot of research about LFLs, but some things seem commonsensical to me: making it weatherproof; having a simple "how to use" the library document posted inside; including contact information so that I'm aware of problems; having a plan for rotating books and documenting usage. 

School will be out at the end of May, so that's the target date for opening the library. In the meantime, I need to do my homework, which includes finishing plans, constructing the library, checking zoning regulations, and collecting books. 

If you have ideas that will make my Little Free Library a success, please share them. 

Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.--Walter Cronkite







Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Kohler, Wolfgang: Can We Represent Sounds with Shapes Using the Bouba-Kiki Effect? #AtoZChallenge Letter K

During April I'm participating in the A to Z blogging challenge.
Each day, sans Sunday, offers an opportunity to write about a
letter of the alphabet with the goal of writing 26 posts.
April is also National Poetry Month.
Back in 1929 German-American scientist Wolfgang Kohler conducted an experiment we now call the Bouba-Kiki effect. 

I first learned about the Bouba-Kiki effect watching James Geary's excellent TED talk, "Metaphorically Speaking."

Which of the following images would you label Bouba? Which Kiki?



If you're like approximately 90% of people, you identify the image on the left as Kiki and the one on the right as Bouba. 

A simple explanation of Bouba-Kiki is that we associate pointed-sounding words with Kiki and rounded-sounding words with Bouba. This suggests that language functions metaphorically as well as synesthetically. 

Even lists of nonsense words show the same effect. Those with rounded vowel sounds represent Bouba in the minds of most while Kiki suggests sharper sounds such as /t/ or /k/ or /g/. 

Science Friday posted an excellent video about Bouba-Kiki in February. 

For even more Bouba-Kiki fun, try the experiment on Shape Science from Scientific American.


In the spirit of contemplating sounds and meanings, I'm including Charles Wright's provocative poem "Chickamauga" In it Wright reminds us to hear and acknowledge the past rather than discarding it as often happens when winners control the narrative: "History handles our past like spoiled fruit." 

And while a poem may offer up meaning that confounds when we see only its surface, we must acknowledge the person, the face of its creator: "The poem is a code with no message: / The point of the mask is not the mask but the face underneath..."

The final stanza resonates with the metaphorical implications of the Bouba-Kiki Effect: "Structure becomes an element of belief, syntax / And grammar a catechist..." We may find difficulty in understanding all the meanings and implications of language, but the search for words and meanings goes on. 

Here's the poem in its entirety. 


ChickamaugaBy Charles Wright
Dove-twirl in the tall grass.
                                              End-of-summer glaze next door
On the gloves and split ends of the conked magnolia tree.
Work sounds: truck back-up beep, wood tin-hammer, cicada, fire horn.

History handles our past like spoiled fruit.
Mid-morning, late-century light
                                                 calicoed under the peach trees.
Fingers us here. Fingers us here and here.

The poem is a code with no message:
The point of the mask is not the mask but the face underneath,
Absolute, incommunicado,                                                                                                  
                                       unhoused and peregrine.

The gill net of history will pluck us soon enough
From the cold waters of self-contentment we drift in
One by one
                  into its suffocating light and air.

Structure becomes an element of belief, syntax
And grammar a catechist,
Their words what the beads say,
                                        words thumbed to our discontent.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Justin Trudeau: Why am I a Justin Trudeau FAN GIRL? #AtoZChallenge Letter J #SOL16


During April I'm participating in the A to Z blogging challenge.
Each day, sans Sunday, offers an opportunity to write about a
letter of the alphabet with the goal of writing 26 posts.
April is also National Poetry Month.
Each Tuesday the team at Two Writing Teachers
sponsors the Slice of Life Story Challenge.
Head over and check out other slices.
I'm a FAN GIRL of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. I have never been as enamored with a politician as I am with the son of Pierre Trudeau, Canada's Prime Minister from 1968-1979 and from 1980-84.

Yes, Justin Trudeau is handsome, but my admiration goes far beyond surface features.

Yes, Justin Trudeau has a BA degree in English literature, but my connection goes far beyond sharing a love of literature.

Yes, Justin Trudeau has taught in Vancouver, but my admiration goes far beyond our mutual classroom experience. 

Yes, Justin Trudeau is articulate, but my fondness goes far beyond his eloquence.

Why, then am I a Justin Trudeau FAN GIRL? 

Justin Trudeau identifies himself as a FEMINIST. I love, love, love the way Justin Trudeau stands with women and men, such as my husband, as an advocate for gender equality.

Simply, anyone who values equal rights, anyone who respects women, anyone who wants their daughters to have the opportunities men have had throughout history, anyone who wants their sons to show women respect should be a Justin Trudeau FAN GIRL or BOY, too.

Justin Trudeau understands what feminism means. More importantly, he recognizes why we should all advocate for feminism.

"We shouldn't be afraid of the word feminist." That's Justin Trudeau.

"Men and women should use [feminist] to describe themselves any time they want." That's Justin Trudeau.

Justin Trudeau urges men to take a role in "demanding and supporting equality."

Not only does Justin Trudeau speak for women, he acts on his convictions by appointing a cabinet with as many women as men.

Trudeau advocates for the rights of Canada's indigenous peoples and has proposed plans to rescind government policies that conflict with the rights of Canada's tribes. He recognizes that the past isn't past and that our present circumstances might necessitate acknowledging this, which he did in apologizing for the Komagata Maru Incident of 1914.

Trudeau has led the way in welcoming Syrian refugees to Canada.

From all appearances, Trudeau mingles comfortably with people from all walks of life and shows empathy for them, too. 

I'm a Justin Trudeau FAN GIRL because he's the best political role model we have when it comes to how to treat women, indigenous people, and all humans.

We don't need to move to Canada to embody the feminist ideal Justin Trudeau advocates; we just need to import the humanity embodied through Canada's Prime Minister. 


The video above lasts about 1:14 minutes and began my admiration of Justin Trudeau.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Indigenous: Why Do Politicians Not Talk about Indigenous People's Issues? #AtoZChallenge Letter I

During April I'm participating in the A to Z blogging challenge.
Each day, sans Sunday, offers an opportunity to write about a
letter of the alphabet with the goal of writing 26 posts.
April is also National Poetry Month.
Thinking about "I" and its obvious centrality to the ego, I scratched my head ticking off a list of "I" words. None inspired. Not even inspire and its variants.

What to do about "I"?

I recently stumbled upon Sherman Alexie's list of favorite Native American poets and discovered Orlando White. Reading his poem "Finis" from the collection Letters (2015) I was struck by the image of the guilty "I" that, paradoxically also suffers: 

"a dark i slung / Is not innocent: / the i with a white noose / also around his neck, / blindfolded asphyxiated." 

The political, cultural, social implications of paper as a noose resonates with indigenous peoples. 

How often have we asked our Native American students to privilege the literature and language of oppressors? 

How many treaties has the U.S. government broken with Native American tribes? 

How often do white people insert themselves into tribal issues such as casinos on reservations? 

I have not heard one word about Native American issues during the current election cycle. Simply, politicians treat America's indigenous peoples as though they are erasures on the white page of history, something Orlando White recognizes: 

"Spaces within / words are / miniature knots / that suspend letters-- / the paper / always / tightening." 

Perhaps it's only human nature to focus on the "I" to the exclusion of the "i" Orlando White writes about.Yet this tendency to think that by ensuring others have the same opportunities and rights we have will somehow diminish our own chokes our humanity. It is a noose around our nation's neck, one many politicians continue tightening. 

I believe in the power of letters and words to free. But I know that throughout history these same letters and words have harmed many, particularly indigenous peoples. 

Each law designed to diminish the autonomy of women, of members of the LGBTQ community, of African Americans, of Hispanics, and, of course, Native Americans is "A sound-loop" that "hangs from the white gallows of the page..." 

Isn't it time we stopped the lynchings? 

Finis by Orlando White
A sound-loop hangs from the white gallows of the page:
                                                
                letter j strung up,

                                                          the crook of her foot postmortem—

                                                          leg sway.

                              Mouth retches

                                                                         a vowel                  round o

                             then from the roof

                                                                                        gasps           a dark l slung.

                Is not innocent:
                                                             the i with a white noose

                                                             also around his neck,

                                                             blindfolded, asphyxiated.

Spaces within                    words are                       miniature knots

that suspend letters—

                                                                  the paper

                                                                                                                            always tightening.

*My AP Literature and Composition students will be competing in a "Poetry Countdown to the Final Four" this April. The winner will receive a copy of Orlando Bloom's book Letters.