As it often happens, I was looking for one thing (Google’s expansion into creating maps and navigation tools) when I came upon another. I had clicked my way to a story map of the folk tale hero Paul Bunyan. I had followed a link to the Osher Library Map Cartographic Southern Maine University website and soon was down an Internet rabbit hole, digging around in their map collection.

There I found Paul Bunyan’s Pictorial Map of the United States Depicting Some of His Deeds and Exploits created by Handy, R.D. 

screenshot-2016-09-11-12-13-58A screenshot of lower left corner of Paul Bunyan’s Pictorial Map of the United States Depicting Some of His Deeds and Exploits by Handy, R.D. (1935); 22 cm X 32 cm; Image No: 4000166.0001

As the literature in Grades Two and Three centers on folk tales, I was thrilled to find this map. I thought this combination of pictures and text would be something to share with teachers.

I spent several happy minutes zooming in on the map. There in the lower right corner was the boast of authenticity: “This is to certify that all the facts on this map are without any change or exaggeration,” with several witness listed below. It was just the sort of hyperbole that goes with the stories of Paul Bunyan.

Some of the stories on the map explained:

  • In school Paul used a slab of lime stone for a slate and a big white pine tree for a pencil.
  • The 10,000 lakes in the State of Minnesota fill the footprints of Paul’s gigantic Blue Ox, Babe who measured forty-two ax handles wide between the eyes.
  • The Mississippi River was the result of water leaking from one of Paul’s water storage barrels.
  • Paul’s briny tears filled the Great Salt Lake of Utah.
  • When Paul sat down for a smoke to think about his problems, he set off the Great Smokey Mountains.
  • When Babe when digging after a field mouse, he created famous Mammoth Caves.

My delight, however,  came to an abrupt halt when I got to the upper left hand corner of the story map. There were two small characters in the upper left corner (not pictured) of the map that changed everything.

In this upper left corner was a small illustration of what the text described as “two small colored boys.” They were drawn to show how Paul Bunyan’s cook, Sourdough Sam, made “pancakes  on a griddle so large that you couldn’t see across it.” The drawing of these two boys who “greased the griddle with bacon slabs tied to their feet” highlighted their simian-like features. The illustration on the map looked like an artifact from a Jim Crow exhibit.

Suddenly, my lesson in sharing an American folk tales with elementary school children had turned into a lesson on the history of racism in America.

Up until that moment, my familiarity with Paul Bunyan was with his exaggerated prowess as a lumberjack in Northern Minnesota. Some might argue he was a creation more of “fakelore,” a literary invention passed off as an older folk tale. I had never considered that Paul Bunyan was racially motivated.

Environmentally unfriendly? Yes. But a bigot? No.

Furthermore, research on other sources of the same story of those cooks who greased Paul Bunyan’s griddle yielded accounts that did not mention the race of the cooks.

On this R. D. Handy story map, Paul Bunyan was not funny. I was not going to share this story map with 7-9 year olds.

The use of this R. D. Handy story map would be limited at best a to high school U.S. History class where students could have the opportunity to discuss America’s cultural past and how that past impacts both the present and informs the future.

To be fair, R.D. Handy, author of the map, was no doubt responding to cultural norms of his times. During his tenure as a cartoonist for the News Tribune in Duluth, Minnesota, the Great Depression had hit all Americans very hard. The economy nationwide struggled to improve. The competition between all races for the few jobs available brought added hostility.

According to an entry in Encyclopedia.com titled “Black Americans, 1929-1941, “there was migration of southern rural blacks seeking employment in the industrial centers of the North.” In traveling north, Black Americans could escape the racial violence of the South, and some “400,000 made the journey during the 1930s.” This was the historical context when the map was released to the public.

The R.D. Handy story map illustrates an American paradox. The story map contains the promise of American exceptionalism in a folk tale, combined with the exploitation of a race in building up that hero. The story map captures the charisma of American bravado stained by American bias.

Perhaps the lesson now will be to challenge the second and third grades to give Paul Bunyan’s folk tales another chance.

Paul Bunyan needs a new map.

15 years ago the World Trade Center Twin Towers in NYC were struck by terrorists. When they collapsed, many students at Brookfield High School in Connecticut watched them fall -75 miles away-on television screens set up along the walls of the school’s library media center.

Those students did not attend classes. Instead, they had the opportunity to be witnesses to history. They were given this opportunity to stand as witness to the tragic events that happened because of a decision made by the school’s library media specialist (LMS), Sydnye Cohen.

The role of the school librarian had radically changed beginning in the 1980s and Sydnye was a library media specialist who had trained to be at the forefront of that change. I was an English Language Arts teacher at Brookfield in September of 2001, and I had developed a great respect for her. She had encouraged me and other members of my department the previous year to incorporate technology in our lessons. She had guided us to embrace a broad range of digital tools and instructional materials.

Sydnye was confident. She was knowledgable. She was fierce in her convictions.

I remember that on that morning of September 11th, the students who had heard about the attack gathered in the school library where Sydnye had decided, with support from the school administration, no doubt, to set up the school televisions.

She had set up several different televisions along the outside walls broadcasting news; the center of the library was open space. The students sat quietly on the floor in the center of the library surrounded by the images of smoke and flames. They watched small screens that sat up high on metal stands.

That morning, Sydnye did not waver in her role to provide critical information to the high school students. I remember that she did not appear to be concerned about the impact her decision to stream the live footage into the school might have. I believe I may have said something about what parents might think; I believe she shrugged off my remark.

The students watched minute by minute, even as the Twin Towers burned and then crumbled into rubble on the NYC streets.

Her conviction to have students witness this event was based on her desire not to shield students from this man-made disaster, but to give them first-hand information.

Fifteen years later, I have noted a number of posts and news articles that ask the question:

SHOULD STUDENTS SEE THE GRAPHIC IMAGERY OF 9/11?

Several of these articles mention concerns raised by secondary school teachers today. Many high school students in 2016 could be seeing the raw footage from 9/11 for the first time. Our current 24-hour news cycle was just beginning, and Fox News and MSNBC were only five years old. Their coverage of the event streamed into the school live….unedited. Years later, the recordings are difficult to watch.

When today’s teachers tackle the topic of 9/11 in the classroom, they may feel a personal responsibility to educate students about the event, but they may also feel concerns about the impact of these videos.

cnnThe students at Brookfield High School had their LMS take on that responsibility that morning. Sydnye Cohen had every confidence that giving students the opportunity to see the events of 9/11 was historically important.  She was fierce in her conviction that witnessing this event would be important for them to become critical thinkers.

The students who sat in the library media center in Brookfield High School will clearly remember 9/11, because their library media specialist gave them that opportunity.

I recently underwent a hip replacement surgery for my left hip. This has meant that during the past several weeks of recuperation, I have had to relearn how to use my left leg and unlearn any movements that required me to bend more than 90 degrees in order to reach down and pick up something on the ground.

This period of recuperation has made me think about relearning and unlearning. Both should be used by teachers, especially middle and high school teachers, to teach writing in ELA, or any other content area, during the school year.

Relearning: What do the students already know

Students who had been out of the classroom for several weeks due to summer break will begin the year doing a lot of relearning.

The German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus was a pioneer in the study of memory and learning which led to his discovery of the forgetting curve and the spacing effect. In 1883, he determined that

“Relearning is supposedly the most efficient way of remembering information.”

I can attest. While I had to relearn to use my left leg to step up the stairs or to put on a pair of pants, my relearning was not very difficult. I was already proficient at these tasks before the hip surgery. According to Ebbinghaus, relearning is faster when the information is already stored, and the brain needs only to revive these memories and refresh them for use.

The level of relearning for each student will differ depending on the level of proficiency a student was originally able to attain on a task. That means the amount of time/attempts that a student took to meet a specified level of proficiency can be compared proportionally to the time/attempts he or she later needs to attain the same level.

Once school begins, teachers should take advantage of relearning by finding out first what students already know. While this may seem a statement of the obvious, a student does not come to class as a “blank slate.” They may already be familiar with information; what they may need is an opportunity to relearn.

There is ongoing relearning in English Language Arts classes at most grades because the literacy anchor standards for writing are almost the same for all grades. The difference in the relearning is directly related to the increase in sophistication required for reading (ex: character, plot, setting) and for writing (ex: noun, question mark, phrase).

Students have already been introduced to the rules for writing, those standard rules of English, at the earliest grade levels. They may need only “to revive these memories and refresh them for use.” That ability for a teacher to differentiate between students who need to relearn versus those who need to be retaught from the beginning can guide the framework for effective instruction for the school year.

Unlearning: Letting go 

Unlearning is harder. During this recuperation from hip surgery, I would repeatedly have to stop myself from reaching down to the ground to pickup whatever I dropped (and I dropped many items!) I had to “unlearn” the reflex action of bending.

“Unlearning is about moving away from something—letting go—rather than acquiring.”

In the same way, students may need to unlearn or “let go” before they can learn new information or try their own strategies in order to develop new skills.

Unlearning or letting go plays an important process  in learning how to write for grades 6-12. By the time students have reached the middle and high school levels, they will have been taught a number of writing formulas, mnemonic training wheels, designed to help them learn how to respond to a writing prompt. Some examples include:

RACE: Restate the question. Answer the question. Cite evidence. Expand/Explain.
TREE: Topic sentence. Note Reasons. Examine reasons. Note Ending
DIDLS: Diction. Images. Details. Language. Sentence Structure.

While many of these mnemonic devices are generally helpful to students, they are designed to be training steps or preliminary checklists. These formulas are meant to stir, not replace, the kind of good thinking that leads to good writing. As noted writer an editor William Zissner said in On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction,

“Writing is thinking on paper.”  Screenshot 2016-08-14 12.47.32

That is the goal teachers want their students to meet…to put their thinking on paper.

To turn their thinking into writing, students should be encouraged to “unlearn” and move away from the checklists and formulas.

Good writing does not follow a prescribed outline where student fill in the blanks, often without generating the important thinking they need to do for comprehension. Even more dangerous is the impression the outlines give to students that writing is neat and easily organized. Good writing is neither neat or easily organized, instead:

Writing is messy.
Writing takes time.

Unlearning the fill-in-the-blank outline can give students new opportunities to develop their own strategies in order to deepen their own understanding. And while students are unlearning the writing formulas they were taught in elementary school, they could also unlearn some of the myths or general misinformation that still circulate in high schools about the writing process:

  • myth: essays have 5 paragraphs;
  • myth: a paragraph has at least three sentences;
  • myth: “I” should never be used in a response.

The end result of misinformation and formula writing has generated years of sameness in student responses. While these same kinds of responses may be easier for teachers to compare and to grade,  the sameness in responses will never truly reflect an individual student’s writing ability.

Encouraging writers: Relearning & Unlearning

For students to become better writers, they may need to relearn some of the general rules for writing and unlearn many of the prescribed ways that writing has been taught to them in the earlier grades. Students will need to be encouraged to drop those outlines that were put in place to guide them -like training wheels- towards the goal of being good writers.

Two areas of focus for the ELA classroom this new school year can be relearning the standard rules for writing, and unlearning the formulas, the checklists, or misinformation that stop student thinking.

Students will need those teachers who are willing to support them as they experiment in the more sophisticated, but very messy, art of writing.

Relearning to remember and unlearning to let go; important goals for the school year in the grades 6-12 classrooms… and for post-hip surgery recuperation!

I had four large bags full of young adult fiction, and I stood waiting for the volunteers to tally the total.

“$60.00,” one told me.

I looked at the pile. I paused, “OK, Wait here….I’ll get more!”

rooster-booksUsually I attend the Newtown CT Book Sale on one of the opening days when the books are full price. I have waited in the early morning hours on a long line for first crack at the trade paperbacks. But, this was 1/2 price Monday, and I was getting TWICE the amount of books for classroom libraries. To be honest, I had never shopped on the 1/2 price day, assuming that there would not be any books left.

I was wrong.

After the weekend crowds had had there full, there were still hundreds of young adult (YA), “tween,” and upper elementary chapter books laid out on the tables. I could keep shopping!

I had also assumed that any remaining books would piled chaotically from the book shoppers over the weekend.

I was very wrong.

Once again, the volunteers for the Cyrus H. Booth Library in Newtown, Connecticut, had kept up with the steady stream of shoppers. They had alphabetized the books by author. They had kept the genres separated on tables for easy navigation. They kept signs visible: “Chick Lit” or “Classic Fiction.”

But I was right about the amount of help I would get from volunteers. One of the volunteers noticed the titles I had selected, and the logos on the bags I filled: Scholastic, Penguin Young Readers, Lakeshore Learning, Heinemann.  I was returning home from the International Literacy Association Conference (#ILA2016) in Boston, MA, and I was already using the “swag” that had been handed out by the different education book publishers in the conference exhibition hall. I was, quite literally filling these literacy tote bags with literacy books.

“You must be a teacher,” she noted, “I used to be a teacher.” So was her fellow volunteer.

Of course, it is not surprising that several of the library book sale volunteers were former educators; they know the power of getting books-these piles of gently used books-into the hands of young readers.

They tallied my piles, and we chatted about what students read, what book covers attract readers (dark and spooky, we agreed). Then, they loaded my purchases on a cart, and one former teacher helped load my car with the four bags plus two additional boxes of books.

In total, I spent $103 dollars. Shopping on 1/2 price day yielded 184 book titles, some of which included student favorite titles by Sarah Dessen, Rick Riordan, Sarah Weeks, Gary Paulsen, and Andrew Clement. These books will be going into classrooms, grades 5-9, for independent reading.

The School Library Journal published (2000) study Independent Reading and School Achievement by Bernice E. Cullinan, New York University. The study explained that “Independent reading is the kind students choose to do on their own; it is not assigned or assessed, but it has a positive effect on learning and school achievement.”

Thank you, again, CH Booth Library volunteers. Your book sale will help to have a positive effect on student learning and school achievement!

On occasion, I hear a statement that captures how much the classroom differs from the real world.

Such was the case at the International Reading Association Conference in Boston (July 9-11, 2016) when literacy consultant Mark Overmeyer noted that in the real world:

“Our most skilled writers have editors…the more skilled the writer, the more editors”

Then he pointed out the obvious,

“So why do we expect our 10-year-olds to write perfectly?”

Editors in the Real World

Overmeyer was speaking at the session to a roomful of educators, attending the session on “Grammar Matters: Promoting Engagement, Strategic Instruction, and Reflection Using Mentor Texts.” His statements highlighted the contrast between the support the best professional writers receive and the support an average student-at any grade level-receives is worth looking into for a moment.

First, in the real world there are different roles editors who specialize in stage of writing. Here is a description of editors, and how these roles are represented (or not) in the writing process in schools today.

  1. Acquisition Editor: This editor selects books for a publisher, and stays with an author in prepping a book for publication.
    Counterpart in education: The teacher may submit a piece for “publication” in a literary magazine, a writing writing contest, or hang student work on a bulletin board.
  2. Developmental Editor: This is the writing coach, or in some cases, the ghost writer, who supports the writer in moving the writing forward.
    Counterpart in education: Could be a teacher 
  3. Content Editor: In large publishing houses, there are Content Editors who review all writing.
    Counterpart in education: A teacher
  4. Copy Editor: This editor reviews grammar, punctuation, fact-checking, spelling, and formatting. There are Copy Editors for the different forms of publications: newspaper, brochures, books, etc. Some publishers use a line editor as well.
    Counterpart in education: teacher, student or student peer
  5. Proofreader: A proofreader reviews writing after an editor.image
    Counterpart in education: teacher grading the final product.


In the real world, there is an editor for every stage of the writing process. A book will go through an editorial review by a different specialist at LEAST four times before publication. In contrast, a student will receive editorial feedback from one single source….the teacher.

In making his observation, Overmeyer pointed out the fallacy of autonomy that is often seen in schools:

“We [teachers] purposely do not help,” he noted, “They [students] are on their own!”

He argued that there is an assumption by educators that the students should be able to produce “perfection”.

Writing Towards Improvement

Overmeyer’s point was that student writing should not be used to measure perfection, but used instead to measure a student’s improvement.

Contributing to the drive for perfection Is graded writing. Grading is a diagnosis, an informal or formal assessment of a particular skill set. Because graded writing is diagnostic, students are expected to perform without assistance in order to produce quality writing. More often than not, teachers do not step in to help with writing because they want to know how well a student can perform on his or her own.

Overmeyer’s comment, however, points out this fallacy of autonomy, the false assumption that because a student has been taught particular skills in writing, they should be able to produce correct writing independent of support.

Overmeyer’s reference to the enormous amount of support an adult writer receives in the real world stands in sharp contrast to what students are expected to do. For those adults wishing to enter the field of writing, there are a number of professionals willing -often for a price- to help anyone to become a published writer.

For example, consider the positive support offered by the site, NY Book Editors:

“[Our] editor’s goal is to make your story more engaging. Editors may correct spelling and grammar here and there, but that’s not their role. It’s the job of a copyeditor to fix your grammar, and he steps in at the final stages of the editing process.”

For multiple reasons (time, budget, teacher buy-in, etc.) however, this specialized editorial support is missing in the classroom. Instead of the supportive instruction available to adults, the teacher’s role may shift from developmental editor to copy editor or “corrector-in-chief.”

“Be Human”

The best way to improve student writing is through conferencing, and Overmeyer has detailed how to integrate the different kinds of conferring that can happen in the classroom in his recent book, Let’s Talk.

During the presentation, Overmeyer promoted the role of the teacher as a writing coach, reminding teachers to “be human” when they do provide their feedback to students. He provided an example of a student who chose to wrote about the recent death of a relative.

“That’s not when you correct his paper,” Overmeyer noted. “You need to be human…read the content.”

#ILA16

The International Literacy Association (ILA) Conference in 2016  brought together numbers of like-minded literacy educators and gave them the opportunity to share in order to move the education profession forward. This conference gave also teachers a opportunity to hear one voice -in this case the voice of Mark Overmeyer-pose the challenging question:

“Why do we expect our 10-year-olds to write perfectly?”

We can’t….and we shouldn’t.

It is summer, and most elementary classroom walls have been laid bare for repainting or for cleaning. Their empty exposure reminds me of a classroom from an earlier age, from my own elementary school. From grade 3 on up, I could count on one singular decorative element….the cursive alphabet that hung over the chalkboard:

Cursive

Of all the letter companions, neatly penned in upper and lower case, the most fun to practice, the most enigmatic, the most beautiful-and the most confusing if not done correctly -was the letter Q q or Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 6.01.18 PMScreen Shot 2016-06-27 at 6.01.05 PM.

Nothing else hung in the room.

Today’s elementary classrooms are markedly different. There are classrooms that receive Pinterest-inspired wall, door, or window treatments. There are multiple software programs that let teachers create posters or infographics chockfull of facts for every content area. Inspirational posters are ready to be to copied, to be downloaded, to be printed for every grade level. Once school is back in session, rainbow-brite colors combine messages with eye-popping fonts in a competition for attention.

And that’s the problem...competition for attention.

Apparently a supersaturated color and text-rich environment is not good for learning.

Beginning as early as preschool, classrooms may be decorated to an extreme. In many cases, “clutter passes for quality,” a  sentiment expressed by Erika Christakis in her book The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups (2016). In Chapter 2 (“Goldilocks Goes to Daycare”) Christakis describes the average preschool the following way:

“First we’ll bombard you with what educators call a print-rich environment, every wall and surface festooned with a vertiginous array of labels, vocabulary list, calendars, graphs, classroom rules, alphabet lists, number charts, and inspirational platitudes – few of those symbols you will be able to decode, a favorite buzzword for what used to be known as reading”(33).

In addition, hanging in plain sight, Christakis notes, are a myriad of mandated regulations: hand washing instructions, allergy procedures, and emergency exit diagrams:

‘In one study, researchers manipulated the amount of clutter on the walls of a laboratory classroom where kindergarteners were taught a series of science lessons. As the visual distraction increased, the children’s ability to focus, stay on task, and learn new information decrease” (33).

Christakis’s position is supported with research by researchers from The Holistic Evidence and Design (HEAD) which assessed hundred fifty-three U.K. classrooms to study the link of classroom environment to the learning of 3,766 pupils (ages 5-11).  Researchers Peter Barrett, Fay Davies, Yufan Zhang, and Lucinda Barrett published the The Holistic Impact of Classroom Spaces on Learning in Specific Subjects (2016) and reviewed the impact of different factors on student learning measured by progress in reading, writing, and math.

The principle of stimulation included the measure the impact brought about by color and complexity:

“The scientific research into color is extensive and color can affect children’s moods, mental clarity, and energy levels (Englebrecht, 2003). The measure of complexity here relates to visual impact from both architectural and display elements in the classroom. For example, Fisher, Godwin, and Seltman (2014) found more distraction and off-task behavior in children in more visually complex environments” (Barret, et al).

Their results showed that both reading and writing performances were particularly affected by stimulation.

Stimulation in the form of posters has
 the potential 
of
 overwhelming
 a student’s working
 memory. According to Michael
 Hubenthal and Thomas
 O’Brien
 in their research Revisiting 
Your Classroom’s
 Walls:
 The 
Pedagogical
 Power
 of
 Posters (2009) a student’s working memory uses 
different components 
that
 process 
visual
 and verbal 
information
. The “
visual 
complexity 
caused
 by 
an abundance
 of
 text
 and
 small
 images” can set up an overwhelming visual/verbal competition between text and graphics for which students must gain control in order to give
 meaning 
to 
information.

In contrast to overwhelming posters, there are good choices for classroom decorations. Education reformer Alfie Kohn published suggestions for decorating the classroom in his article Bad Signs  (2010) fall issue of Kappa Delta Pi. He listed several “Good Signs” that a classroom could be decorated as a model learning environment:

  • Walls covered with student work;
  • Evidence of student collaboration;
  • Signs, exhibits, lists created by students (not the teacher); 
  • Information and personal mementos from the people who learn in the classroom.

Kohn also stated that the best classrooms, regardless of age level or academic discipline, have a different approach to decoration, one that is distinctly non-commercial. The best classrooms:

“….often feature signs, exhibits, or other materials obviously created by the students themselves.  And that includes students’ ideas for how to create a sense of community and learn together most effectively — as opposed to a list of rules imposed by the teacher (or summarized on a commercial poster)” (Kohn).

Just as too much color or text complexity will have a negative impact on student learning, a sterile classroom with too little decoration may not help to activate the students’ brains. Therefore, teachers should be prepared to decorate a classroom to make it an active place to learn. They could ask the following questions:

  • What purpose does this poster, sign or display serve?
  • Do  these posters, signs, or items celebrate or support student learning?
  • Are the posters, signs, or displays current with what is being learned in the classroom?
  • Can the display be made interactive?
  • Is there white space in between wall displays to help the eye distinguish what is in the display?
  • Can students contribute to decorating the classroom (ask “What do you think could go inside that space?”)

These six questions can help teachers to create classrooms that can engage students without overstimulation.

Speaking of questions, the word questions starts with the letter Q…and thanks to that singular decoration in my elementary classroom, I know how to script a  capital and lower case letter “Q”:q

It is still a beautiful letter in cursive.

 

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s gift to high school social studies teachers is Hamilton, his Pulitzer and Tony award winning play.  Using musical theatre, he rescued history from the mind-numbing facts listed in textbooks and gave students an alternative narrative, a hip-hop lens to view the tumult of America’s creation.

His gift to English teachers came on Sunday, June 12, during the Tony Award Ceremony in NYC. These awards were held the night after a mass killing in an Orlando, Florida, nightclub, and throughout the broadcast actors and actresses paid tributes to the victims.

When Miranda’s name was called for Musical Best Score, he bounded on the stage. He began this acceptance speech (the first of 11) with an apology, “I’m not going to free-style” (note: he is famous for his free styling poems) ….”I’m too old (note: he is 36)…”

He opened a folded paper:

“I wrote you a sonnet instead.”

A sonnet!

One can imagine the heads of English teachers nationwide snapping to attention.

A sonnet!??

That 14-line poem with a variable rhyme scheme that originated in 14th Century in Italy? (Yes!)

Sonnet? As in...Shakespeare? (Yes!)

Miranda began to read:

“My wife’s the reason anything gets done
She nudges me towards promise by degrees
She is a perfect symphony of one
Our son is her most beautiful reprise.
We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers,
remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.
I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story
Now fill the world with music, love and pride.”

Of course the sonnet was his choice to connect the joy of winning a Tony Award to his love and inspiration, his wife Vanessa. The sonnet was his poetic choice to contrast the heartbreaking tragedy of a massacre in a gay nightclub with the more powerful forces of music and love.

Why the sonnet?

Here’s a quick refresher on the sonnet:

  • it has 14 lines (could be stretched to 16 lines…and this sonnet was s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d)
  • it is written in iambic pentameter (a rhythm that sounds like 5 “heartbeats”)
  • it has a rhyme scheme:
    • Italian (Petrarchan): ABBA ABBA CDECDE or ABBA ABBA CDCDCD 
    • Shakespearean: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG (note: this sonnet is more Shakespearean)
    • The word sonnet means “little song.”
    • A sonnet traditionally settles upon a single sentiment (love, anguish, friendship, etc)
    • A sonnet has a “turn” (also known as the volta) where the question or problem posed in the first part of the poem is answered or solved in the concluding lines.

Miranda’s Sonnet

Like most poems, Miranda’s sonnet was filled with word play: allusions, metaphors, figurative language. Contained in the first quatrain of the sonnet was a musical conceit (extended metaphor), consistent with an award for “Best Score”; his wife and son are the “symphony” and “reprise” in this “little song.”

The next quatrain directly referenced to the Orlando shootings and the arbitrary violence, or “senseless acts of tragedy” that can happen at any moment.

Miranda then cited his play Hamilton as “proof that history remembers,” claiming that “hope and love last longer.” He then launched into eight (8) successive “love is,” an emotional refrain  (rhetorically, an epizeuxis: repetition without any words in between). He “sings” this symphony, just as the character Eliza Schuyler Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton.

And then came the volta or turn; the reason he “wrote you a sonnet, instead.” In the last line Miranda offers his answer, his solution to tragedy. His last line is a command, a command given to his audience watching the awards “to fill the world with music, love and pride.”

A Sonnet Instead

Tickets for the musical Hamilton will probably still be at a premium this coming fall, but this sonnet by Miranda is available-(and free!)- now.

English teachers can take this opportunity to share with their students these three points:

  1. That a poet who excels in free style rap chose a sonnet, instead;
  2. That a lyricist who reimagined American history through hip-hop chose a sonnet, instead;
  3. That an actor trained to gain an audience’s empathy through prose chose a sonnet, instead.

In making a choice in art to combat tragedy, the playwright Manuel Lin Miranda chose a sonnet, instead.

The term ekphrasis is Greek in origin, meaning “writing inspired by art”.

So, what better excuse for ekphrasis than Greek statues of antiquity? And where better to find Greek statues, than in a museum?

This past week, the Seine River that bisects the city of Paris ran over its banks, cresting at 21.3 feet. This flooding has meant that the curators of the many art museums and galleries that line the Seine scrambled to save works of art that had been stored below flood level. The Louvre Museum closed to the public as masterpieces were relocated to higher ground.

The lead story for the June 3rd, 2016 NYTimes, “In Paris, the Seine Rises to Highest Level Since 1982” (by Lilia Blaise and Benoit Morenne), reported on this disruption:

The evacuation of artworks from the Louvre, which was closed to visitors, has attracted particular attention…

…An estimated 150,000 artworks in storage rooms and an additional 7,000 pieces in galleries were vulnerable to flooding, and a large portion of those were moved to higher floors as a precaution, officials said.

 

6/3/16 NYTIMES: Staff at the Louvre scrambled Friday to move artworks to higher floors as Paris experienced its worst flooding in 30 years. Credit Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

 NYTIMES: (6/3/16) Staff at the Louvre scrambled Friday to move artworks to higher floors as Paris experienced its worst flooding in 30 years. Credit: Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

 

Here, then, is my art inspired poem-an ekphrasis

 

A Collection at the Louvre

 

Ancient visitors, unearthed from the basement,

fix their gaze on pieces from the collection

of 21st Century office furniture

in the famed Louvre’s Salon de Files.

 

They are stolid, polished rock, 

marveling at the smooth steel geometry:

a maze of files and crates;

appraising the nuanced shades of black:

obsidian, charcoal, onyx, jet;

admiring the asymmetrical shapes:

tall, narrow, wide, short.

 

They note the detailed inset pulls on metal drawers;

they puzzle over the labels on such Decorus artem,

translating into Latin or Greek

the names, dates, and numbers.

They pose and ponder in thought

as they have seen others do.

 

Sculptures who tilt an antique head

(if there is one)

or raise an antique arm

(if there is one)

to point and question, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?”

something they have heard others say.

 

Far in the background, 

a suspicious guard keeps watch

on this underdressed crowd.

 

They stand still, 

breathless,

as if poised to hear,

with their cool marbre ears,

the stories contained in these modern repositories.

“Si haec lima loqui. Quod si dixerint ad fabulas ?”

(“If only these files could talk. What stories would they tell?”)

 

This week’s Poetry Friday is hosted by Carol Varsalona on her blog Beyond Literacy Link. Stop there to visit some of the other poetic submissions for June 10, 2016.

The Memorial Day Parade in my town of Bridgewater, Connecticut takes 11 minutes.

Newcomers to town are told to “get there early, or you’ll miss it….and you had better get there early, because it begins at 8:15 A.M.”

Every year, there is a ceremony that follows the parade. The boy scouts lead the pledge, and students recite The Gettysburg Address. Small American flags are clutched in the hands of children, volunteer fireman in uniform stand at attention, and there is always a small puppy in the crowd.

The reason we gather together, however, is always for a more somber tribute. The names of those recently deceased residents who served in the military in defense of the country are read aloud. Then, there is a guest speaker.

Memorial Day

Bridgewater resident John Kracen telling his real war story

This year, resident John Kracen told a real war story.

He began his war story with the date: July 29, 1967, a “date that would change forever the lives of 5,000 men.”

He described the location: Gulf of Tonkin, during the Vietnam War.

He named the ship: the USS Forrestal.

As Kracen began his real war story, he described the ship, a Forrestal-class aircraft carrier: 990 ft at waterline, steam turbines, 33 knots. He then described the aircraft on board, and included the F-4B Phantom II that accidentally fired a Zuni rocket on the flight deck that July morning. He described how that misfired rocket hit another aircraft’s external fuel tanks leaking jet fuel, spreading a fire across the flight deck.

Kracen described how one of the Composition B bombs detonated minutes after the start of the fire, tearing a hole into the ship’s hull. He described how the shrapnel from that explosion pierced the water hoses of the fire crew and that the burning jet fuel drained into a lower bay of the ship.

Near me, a small boy sitting on the curb of the Green listening to Kracen turned to his mother. “What is happening, Mom?” he asked quietly.

“It’s a story,” she whispered back.

The boy turned his attention back to Kracen to listen.

Kracen continued telling the story of his friend, Stephen L. Hock, who had gone to help put out the fires that continued throughout the night. He described Hock’s kindness and his camaraderie.  He then told us that his friend Stephen Hock was one of the 134 men killed on the USS Forrestal because of the fire.

For a small town, 1,727 residents, Bridgewater has significant connections to history. During the morning’s Memorial Day Roll Call, there was “survivor of Iwo Jima” from World War II who had his name read aloud.  Now, his neighbors stood in the soft rain listening to a survivor from another historical event tell his story from a different war.

A war story has power when it is a first-hand account. The poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892) was a first-hand witness to events of the Civil War and his auto-biographical accounts of the Civil War were collected in several volumes. He spent time in the hospitals that were filled with the casualties from both sides, and the carnage led him to conclude,

“I now doubt whether one can get a fair idea of what this war practically is, or what genuine America is, and her character, without some such experience as this I am having. “

Whitman wrote of his difficulty to produce an “authentic” portrait of the war and in the essay titled “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books” (1875)  in Specimen Days, he wrote

Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors…

….Think how much, and of importance, will be—how much, civic and military, has already been—buried in the grave, in eternal darkness.

John Kracen shared his own story with a crowd on Memorial Day to commemorate the sacrifice his friend Stephen Hock made, a sacrifice like so many other American soldiers who now lay buried in the grave, in eternal darkness. Kracen’s emotional account of the disastrous fire on the USS Forrestal was compelling because it was his first hand, his authentic account, his own story.

Research proves that our brains are hard-wired for such stories. We tell our children stories to explain how the world works; our children learn the quality of empathy through story.

This past Memorial Day in Bridgewater, the small boy sitting on the curb, the students in the school’s marching band, and the parents in the crowd heard Kracen tell his story of his experience during the fire on the USS Forrestal. They heard a powerful real war story, one that may never, as Whitman said, get in the books.