Sunday, July 3, 2011

Finally I've begun to allow myself to step back and look at this past week's Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. Our group was somewhat smaller than we've had in past years, yet it retained its usual breadth and variety of experience: teachers from private schools and public schools, urban schools and rural schools; teachers from South Carolina, Detroit, Minneapolis, DC, New England. We had a young participant who'd never taught a class and a few who had been in the classroom for decades. We had teachers who thought of themselves as poets and teachers who were petrified of poetry.

Baron and I began the first day with our usual dictation project: that is, I read a poem out loud--in this case, Robert Frost's "Range-Finding"--and the participants copied it down, word for word, comma for comma, line for line. Then Baron asked, "What's the most important word in this poem?" And here's when the floodgates opened: not one person in that barn could tear him or herself away from this task or the adoration of this task, for the rest of the week. Every single year, the moment is a miracle.

We had two visiting poets. On Monday, Martha Carlson-Bradley spoke at length about grammar and syntax in poetry, with a particular focus on Emily Dickinson. On Tuesday, Teresa Carson spoke about drama in poetry, with readings from Browning, Keats, and Jack Wiler. Each morning the teachers shared their own classroom poetry projects, and each afternoon I gave the teachers a poem and a writing prompt, which they took back to their tents or rooms and used as inspiration for their own first-draft poems.

On Wednesday, for the first time ever, Baron and I reascended the dais and ran an all-day revision workshop, using the poems the teachers had generated from my writing prompts. Our goal was to guide them into productive classroom discussion of student work and to lead them toward simple, straightforward options for revision. My feeling is that this day went very well, but the participant evaluations will set me straight if I'm wrong. In any case, it was a good experience for me, as a coordinator of this conversation, to be able to help the participants collect their responses into a coherent conversation and also to step back and talk to them about how it feels to be the "teacher" who is orchestrating this conversation. It was a schizophrenic experience, in a useful way.

Every morning, before the other activities started, I read a passage or two from The Notebooks of Robert Frost; and in the spirit of those moments, I offer you this comment, originally from a talk that Frost gave at Wesleyan University in 1927, and quoted in Jay Parini's Robert Frost: A Life:

The freedom I'd like to give is the freedom I'd like to have. It's the freedom of my material. You might define a schoolboy as one who could recite to you everything he read last night, in the order in which he read it. That's just the opposite of what I mean by a free person. The person who has freedom of his material is the person who puts two and two together, and the two and two are anywhere out of space and time, and brought together.


Jean Kanzinger said...

That conference was a monumental experience for me last year - both professionally and personally. Sounds like it was another great year to be in attendance.

Ruth said...

Jean, as a participant this year, returning after 2 years hiatus, I totally agree. Dawn, I loved every minute (except my toothache!!).