The project will combine two classes. One is a set of honors-level ninth graders who are chatty (in a good way), focused, and very high-functioning but who also have all of those silly freshman tics. The other contains college-prep-level eleventh graders who are more sedate yet less sure of themselves academically. The eleventh-grade class also includes a contingent of students who do not speak English as a first language. Both classroom teachers are fully involved in all aspects of the project.
Yesterday there were about thirty kids in the room. In this first meeting I gave them copies of the Whitman excerpt that follows. I told them I was going to read the excerpt aloud, and I wanted them to circle every word that stood out to them: words that were interesting, strange, ugly, beautiful, heartrending, irritating . . . simply, every word that they particularly noticed as I read.
from Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving
his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous’d words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.
Then I told them I would reread the poem, but this time, whenever I came to a word they had circled, they had to say it along with me.
They started off shyly, of course, but soon their voices strengthened, and we could hear the chime of voices rising and falling, sometimes with many people speaking a word, sometimes with only a few. Whitman's biblical resonances make this a compelling activity . . . everyone in the room begins to hear what their eyes or their logic cannot quite make sense of. And of course the result is very beautiful.
When we had finished with this choral reading, I gave students a writing prompt: I very quickly fed them the first words of every line in the Whitman excerpt and told them to write their own lines as fast as they could, without thinking too hard but just letting their artist brains do the work. Now, if you look back at those first words, you'll see that nearly all of them are prepositions . . . dull little words, and naturally students had chosen none of these words to circle. So after we finished the writing exercise, I talked a bit about the way in which Whitman had chosen that subtle grammatical strategy to push him into the far-more interesting words that appear later in the line. This writing prompt also gave students a good dose of poetic obsession: look at the number of times that "from" appears as a line opener in Whitman's poem. Having to replicate that repetitive pressure in their own work really made a mark on the students.
So then we listened to some first drafts, and they were stunners. One boy wrote with great and tender affection about his best friends since babyhood, both of whom were sitting in the room with him, both of whom were beaming. One girl wrote about the way in which her brain was figuring out how to write a poem as she was writing the poem.
Moments like these are why I love to teach.
But I had to assign homework as well, and I wanted to choose something that would be easy for the teachers to assess and easy for every student to do as long as he or she focused on the task. During the in-class writing exercise, some of the ESL students, for instance, were barely able to do more than write down the prompt word; they couldn't move further at that moment to create a line of their own because they just didn't have the syntactical facility. So I needed to create homework that balanced both ends of the seesaw: students who are deeply at home with the language, and students who struggle to manage the surface elements of English. Here's the assignment, and I'm looking forward to hearing what the teachers have to say about the results:
1. Change at least two words in each line of your first draft.
2. Add a question to the middle of the poem.
3. Create a one-word title that answers that question.The students will need to submit the in-class draft along with the homework draft so that the teachers can compare them.
On next week's agenda: dictation, commas, and writing about the way in which a body moves.