Category Archives: education

A pheasant disappearing in the brush.

poem-wynken-etcI was a child when poetry was still “taught badly,” according to some people. In fifth grade we had to memorize a poem, choosing from a collection that our teacher had compiled. Before that I remember reading some poems at home, like “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” which I came to love. It was in a children’s literature anthology my grandmother had given us.

From the options my teacher presented I chose “The Children’s Hour” by Longfellow. It seems that we had some weeks to learn our poems, and the practicing and reciting of the poet’s metered verse are a very pleasant memory for me. I did enter vicariously into the scene the poem describes, of a father surrounded by his affectionate and beloved daughters. I can still hear the music and feel the happiness even if I can’t remember many of the words past the first line.

Now, when I read about that particular poem on Wikipedia, I find that it serves as an illustration of one aspect of poetry that educators debate about: “More recently, the poem has been called overly-sentimental, as have many of Longfellow’s works. Scholar Richard Ruland, for example, warns that modern readers might find it ‘not only simple and straightforward, but perhaps saccharine and overly emotional,’ though he concludes it is a successful poem. Scholar Matthew Gartner, however, uses the poem as an example of how Longfellow invited his readers into his private home life in New England to refine them and teach them lessons in virtue.”

I have been lightly musing over these questions since reading a recent article by California’s Poet Laureate Dana Gioia, who has for as long as I’ve known him been intensely interested in education, and how to restore among the populace the love for poetry that used to be commonplace.

dana-gioia-with-cat-photo-by-web-824x549In the article “Poetry as Enchantment” the poet discusses the huge changes that have taken place in the world of poetry over the last few generations. I can see how my own experience reflects some of the losses that occurred. After the one poem that I memorized (not counting lyrics of hymns and folk songs) there was to be no more reading aloud in school, or memorization. In high school I know we analyzed some poems, but nothing grabbed me. Despite this, our small rural high school retained vestiges of the past in the form of a literary magazine in which students might publish poems or stories that the student editors selected.

I tried writing some poems, of which I was of course ashamed soon after they were published in the magazine. Maybe the magazine was not actually a leftover from a previous era but a “progressive” thing, packed with material from untaught writers, screened by writers just as unqualified. And likely it was an attempt to hold on to a fuller experience of poetry than we were getting in the classroom. Gioia says that textual criticism and analysis is all well and good and can be very helpful — he does quite a bit of it himself — but that we require an encounter with poetry that engages more than our intellect. We amateurs should not be underestimated as readers of poetry:

Amateurs have not learned to shut off parts of their consciousness to focus on only the appropriate elements of a literary text. They respond to poems in the sloppy fullness of their humanity. Their emotions and memories emerge entangled with half-formed thoughts and physical sensations. As any thinking person can see, such subjectivity is an intellectual mess of the highest order. But aren’t average readers simply approaching poetry more or less the way human beings experience the world itself?

Life is experienced holistically with sensations pouring in through every physical and mental organ of perception. Art exists embodied in physical elements—especially meticulously calibrated aspects of sight and sound—which scholarly explication can illuminate but never fully replace. However conceptually incoherent and subjectively emotional, the amateur response to poetry comes closer to the larger human purposes of the art—which is to awaken, amplify, and refine the sense of being alive—than does critical commentary. The scholarly response may be accurate and insightful. The culture is enriched by specialized discourse about literary texts and traditions. But critical analysis remains deliberately outside the full experience of the poem, which is physical, emotional, subjective, and intuitive as well as intellectual.

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Less than ten years out of high school, I was teaching poetry to my children. That was when I fully fell in love with many a good poem. Maybe all the analytical skills my high school and college teachers had tried to teach me came back and helped me appreciate the art, but I think much of the good effect came from starting from the ground up: teaching toddlers the fun of a sing-song nursery rhyme; reading A Child’s Garden of Verses to older children so many times that we couldn’t help but learn several by heart (skipping a few that didn’t seem to be teaching “a lesson in virtue,” to use the words of Matthew Gartner above); working the copying and memorization and reciting of poems into our homeschool curriculum; reciting/memorizing Frost’s “The Figure in the Doorway” as a family in the car while on a camping trip. We didn’t try to analyze or figure out hidden meanings, but I think we often intuited deep things. Probably many times we missed the primary intent of the poem, but we still were enriched in our humanity and our connection to the poet, and the world.

“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”
-T.S. Eliot, as quoted by Dana Gioia

More from the article:  Poetry offers a way of understanding and expressing existence that is fundamentally different from conceptual thought. As Jacques Maritain observed, ‘poetry is not philosophy for the feeble-minded.’ It is a different mode of knowing and communicating the world. There are many truths about existence that we can only express authentically as a song or a story. Conceptual language, which is the necessary medium of the critic and scholar, primarily addresses the intellect. It is analytical, which is to say, it takes things apart, as the Greek root of the word ana-lyein, to unloosen, suggests. Conceptual discourse abstracts language from the particular to the general. Poetic language, however, is holistic and experiential. Poetry simultaneously addresses our intellect and our physical senses, our emotions, imagination, intuition, and memory without asking us to divide them. The text may be frozen on the page for easy visual inspection and analysis, but the poetic experience itself is temporal, individual, and mostly invisible. As Wallace Stevens wrote, ‘Poetry is a pheasant disappearing in the brush.’

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In the passion of 20-yr-old pride I tossed out my copies of the high school magazine, but I can remember the first line of one verse I wrote: “Must we tear apart the thing, and analyze and criticize?” Even then I had no leanings toward being a literary scholar. But I am still in the process of getting a literary education.

“The purpose of literary education is not to produce more professors;
its goal is to develop capable and complete human beings.”
-Dana Gioia

Against much resistance, when he was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia managed to implement a program he designed to restore some of the practices that encouraged a love of poetry in bygone years. Many of you are probably familiar with Poetry Out Loud, but I only learned about it in this article. High school students are having fun learning poems and reciting them in competitions, and this has been going on for ten years now! I’m hoping to attend the recitations in my area this coming January. It will do my heart good.

Get the fuller story of Gioia’s thesis and suggestions, and of the Poetry Out Loud events, by reading the entire article here.

The presence of crows and persons.

On one of our foggy summer mornings recently I was doggedly walking my most frequent loop around the neighborhood. It’s almost an hour’s outing if I don’t take the shortcut. For the first fifteen minutes I was lost in thought, that is to say, my mind in a different place and/or time from where my body was… and then suddenly I remembered to pray. Immediately as I “tuned in” to the present and His presence, I became aware of the cawing of crows nearby, and I looked up and saw them in the trees.

I think it was the fine mist, combined with the noise of crows, that made me think of Japan, perhaps a classic painting of misty mountains, like the mountains in which the character “Crow Boy” lives, in the book named for him.

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You will notice that in my mind I’d already left my body again! So why not jump back across the Pacific Ocean to a time some years ago, and to the crows that destroyed my daughter-in-law’s deck planters when she and Soldier were first married. 😦

Closer to home, I hear the crows’ harsh kind of talk on my block sometimes, but only in the mornings. Occasionally I wonder if they will descend on my garden and start pecking at my flowers as they did Joy’s. They aren’t the sort of birds I wanted to attract.P1050182

In Taro Yashima’s children’s story, Crow Boy, the birds do not themselves figure strongly in the plot. The book is about a little boy Chibi whose classmates make fun of him because he is shy and strange and not bright in the school-y way. The teacher evidently writes him off, but for five years he treks to school faithfully every day from “the far and lonely place” where he lives with his family. And it turns out he’s always learning.

Maybe because he is rejected by the other children, and ignored by the teacher, he can in his solitude really pay attention to his surroundings.

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mr sobe

 

Then a new teacher comes, someone who is able to appreciate the gifts that have been developing in the boy, because he takes the time to be fully present with Chibi for long periods. And to hear what Chibi knows from his own being present, on his journeys to and from school and everywhere, over the course of his short life.

Mr. Sobe is an inspiration to me. Some people have this ability to give you their full attention. Certainly Jesus was not distracted by random thoughts, but in being one with the Father He was always fully present with the people he met. Those rare people who have acquired the Holy Spirit to the degree that He fills their minds and hearts, leaving no room for lesser things — they also are able to attend to the moment and all who are in it to a degree I can hardly imagine.

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I could not even stay with the crows for one minute. But at least I had begun to use my mind for something productive, the creating of this little lesson for myself, and the promotion of a good book.

If the creatures I had met on my walk had been human, I know I would have kept my mind and heart on them somewhat longer. I don’t have much heart for crows yet, even though Crow Boy is one of my favorite children’s stories. I’ve already told you enough about that short book and why it is worthy of your acquaintance, so I will stop short of giving away the ending, which often makes me cry, as I vicariously experience its drama and happiness.

If any of my readers can tell me something about crows that will help me in my attitude toward them, I will be glad to hear it! Then next time we meet, maybe I will love them enough to stay with them for a whole minute.

gl crow only

A scheme for my springtime.

alphaomegaEarly on in our 21 years of homeschooling I found that my style of learning and teaching was suited to doing unit studies. Someone has explained the concept like this: “Unit studies are collections of learning activities tied to a theme. They are popular with many homeschooling families because they provide a hands-on approach to learning that incorporates subjects such as math, science, language arts, and the social sciences.”

I think the first such curriculum we used was Konos, which centered the lessons on character qualities, starting with the quality of Attentiveness. The reasoning was that in order to learn anything, we must pay attention. One part of the nature/science study for this unit was Birds, because to notice them requires associated powers of patience and concentration. Pathfinder built a bird feeder on a post outside the dining room window and ever aftegl P1030454r, as long as we lived in that house, while we ate our meals we could watch the house finches enjoying theirs at the same time.

I thought of the word attentiveness when I was developing my idea for a series of blog posts to write over the next month or so. I wish I had some simple unifying theme that would tie together the recent myriad events and thoughts that seem to demand my reflective documentation. Ah, but I do – because my theology is also suited to Life as a big unit study, with one theme: Everything is a gift from God.

That still doesn’t help me to separate my material into short blog posts, especially at this season when I have less time to sit around thinking and writing. So I am going to use a kind of easy-reader (easy-writer!) system of The Alphabet. Every day or two I will try to write, going through the 26 letters in sequence. This post is my first, using the letter A, which does stand for Attentiveness.

And also for the Alpha and Omega, which is one of the names of God. He is the Beginning and the End, as those Greek letters are the first and last of that alphabet. He and his creation comprise the totalitygl candle from DH of what there is to study and know. All the rest has no substance.

Just last week we remembered the one-year anniversary of my husband’s falling asleep in the Lord. A dear friend gave me this candle as a memorial present, with the letters Alpha and Omega pressed into it.

I’ve still been thinking about kairos a lot. It is described as that time when everything happens at once, or as eternal time, when God gathers all time together. It’s the kind of time we experience in Divine Liturgy, and I think it is the reason for the idea that “Nothing is ever lost.”

I think that is a good beginning to my springtime storytelling. And with all of that material available, who can tell what each day, or post, might bring?

How we do faith.

How we pray, how we think, how we play and learn, even how we greet strangers — many topics come together in this article by Father Stephen, which provides needed good reminders for me. I’m just going to put the whole article here, but if you’d rather read it on his site, it comes from this post: Do Faith to Have Faith

There is an adage, “Do faith until you have faith.” It is often attributed to John Wesley, who said something like it. I’ve generally ignored such slogans – bumper-sticker Christianity troubles me. But there is something worth considering beneath this nostrum.

St. Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Rom 12:2). But how is the mind renewed?

There is a very mistaken approach to spiritual matters on the part of many. The assumption is that spiritual things must happen “spiritually.” And by this people mean, “Mental things must happen mentally.” There is an almost gnostic view within contemporary Christianity that equates spiritual with mental.

The mind is not changed by trying to think new thoughts.

Anyone who has ever tried to stop thinking about something, or who is dogged by obsessions knows how impossible it is to control thoughts. It is certainly more effective to try to replace a thought than to change it. But the very nature of thoughts make them easy to become repetitive and obsessive.

How do we come to think? How do we come to know?

There are many popular ideas about thoughts that are simply wrong. We rarely choose our thoughts. When we intentionally think about something, there is a decisional aspect involved. But thoughts arise by association, by suggestion, by habit, by fears, anxieties, desires, etc. Thoughts are only occasionally the result of a rational process. We are human beings – thinking bodies – our minds are not the “ghost in the machine.”

The great learning theorist, Jean Piaget, wrote about the part that “play” has in the learning of children. In many respects, play is a ritualized activity. Children “playing house,” go through rituals of housekeeping. I have sat at “tea” before at the table of a young daughter, sharing the meal with stuffed animals and dolls. The activity might have been “play,” but it was quite serious and important.

Children do not learn in a manner that differs from adults – they just do so much more of it! Adults learn by ritualized behaviors as well. Even learning to be a sales person is an effort to learn the “ritual” of selling things to people. I bought a car recently with one of my adult children. The “ritual” at the dealership was comical when it was not insulting. The salesman had to excuse himself to discuss a “deal” he offered me. I know that he will return with the sad news that his manager thinks it should be a little more than we agreed. I’ve been around long enough to know that there was very likely no conversation with the manager. I challenged the man (and the ritual) and we settled on a “deal” that was mutually satisfactory.

Very few human activities have no ritual component. It is both how we learn, and often how we act. When we meet strangers we usually greet them in one of several ritual manners, with words that are known to be well-accepted. If we had to think of new greetings for every stranger, human contact would be tedious, difficult, and even dangerous.

The Protestant theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, has written repeatedly and convincingly about the nature of the virtues. Things such as courage, patience, kindness, generosity, etc., are almost never spontaneous actions. They belong to what he terms a “set of practices.” His favorite example is his father’s profession: bricklaying. To lay brick, one works with a master brickmason. The apprentice learns the “practice” of laying brick. He does not think his way through the process – he learns to lay brick by repeating the rituals of the trade – its practices.

Hauerwas says that the Christian faith is a set of practices. Virtues are the habits acquired through the repeated work of the Christian life. If you have to think about being courageous, you will most likely fail.

Hauerwas’ thought, like most that is good in contemporary theology, is just a restatement of what the fathers have always taught. Christ states the nature of our faith quite clearly:

Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31-32)

We imagine this process to be in reverse. Our modern misunderstanding tells us that first, we will know the truth, then on the basis of that knowledge, we will abide in Christ’s word. But it is the “abiding,” the repeated doing of Christ’s commandments, that yields knowledge of the truth. Thus it is generally useless to argue about the truth of the faith. Until someone lives it, they will often not see its truth. We come to the faith, not because we see everything – its fullness. We come because, by grace, we have been allowed to see something. But we will only know the truth of that something if we ourselves do it.

Much of the Orthodox life is marked by ritual. There is a way of praying. There is a way of fasting. There is a way that we engage in worship. There is a way that we honor the saints and the icons. This life is called the “Orthodox Way.” It is indeed a set of practices. There are no ideas that are not also embodied in the way of life. It is said, “Lex orandi, lex credendi”: The “law of praying is the law of believing.” And in Orthodoxy, “praying,” is a practice, not just an expression of ideas. It is the reason that Orthodox liturgy rarely changes, and then only in a modest, incremental manner. To engage in liturgical reform is to risk the way of life. The danger of wholesale reform has been tried repeatedly in various Christian groups, generally with disastrous results.

If you want to be a saint, pray like one. Do faith until you have faith.

          — Fr. Stephen Freeman – Glory to God for All Things