The Sky Is Blue Because Grass Took Green

Confession: I've told my students to abandon, completely, attempts to make sense.

Why? Because the most common thing I hear whenever I've given a writing prompt, or invite a student to share their work, or share a poet's work with students, or a student wants to run an idea by me or has to turn something in, etc., is some variation of the phrase "...I'm not sure this makes sense..." I've told my students to give that up because "sense" hamstrings creativity and risk for them, and when it comes to the arts, the phrase "this makes sense" is way less commonly cited as a reason someone became an artist as is the phrase "I love doing this." This is super clear to me with the 3rd grade right now, with whom I shared Susie Mee's poem "My Father's Coat", a poem that ostensibly makes sense overall. They were clearly not excited by how much sense the poem makes, but some of them were excited by what the poem depicts. And when I told them to write about an ordinary piece of clothing with magic powers, I didn't get the question "But how does that make sense?" but instead got "Can I write about my fluffy underwear?" At this age, excitement is a much more important access point into creative writing than is "sense". So yes, tell me all about your fluffy underwear. We'll worry about sense later.

So that's my long preamble to this blog which I actually started months ago and am just now revisiting. I'm trying to tie a lot of things together that are important to me right now, and much like my students encountering their own poetic selves, I'm not sure this makes sense. But I'm publishing it anyway because I'm confident readers will at least see the direction I'm going. And also because these things excite me, and that's what counts, right?

 The report card that one of my 5th graders gave me showing where I'm doing well and where I need to make improvements.

The report card that one of my 5th graders gave me showing where I'm doing well and where I need to make improvements.

Recently I watched a TED Talk concerning mathematics as a way to understand the world. Anyone who has met me knows that math is not my strong suit, to put it mildly. But this TED Talk transcended my shortcomings in the subject and spoke to so much more than numbers and equations. I recommend taking the seventeen minutes to watch the video and then coming back here.

Finding patterns, representing patterns, making assumptions, and doing cool stuff—these are the four concepts that start off the video, and though Roger Antonsen invokes these in relation to mathematics, he goes on to illustrate how these are much bigger than math alone. For me these ideas are analogous, if not identical, to art—particularly poetry.

For instance, Antonsen refers to an equal sign as a metaphor. Initially this notion was jarring to me since my understanding of the function of an equal sign is to state that two things are indeed the same. It took me a second to appreciate what Antonsen means here, which is exactly what I've known all along, just stated differently—that an equal sign is just the symbol that lies between two abstract expressions of the same value or same thing; that the symbol is just a stand-in for the relationship, and that two things are essentially the same single thing, which again is to say "a metaphor." Phew...can you tell that blew my mind a little?

 A dodecahedron a 5th grader in my novel group made while we read The Phantom Tollbooth. He went the extra mile to color code it too.

A dodecahedron a 5th grader in my novel group made while we read The Phantom Tollbooth. He went the extra mile to color code it too.

One of the cool parts of being back at Falk School teaching poetry is that the very reasons I love poems were instilled in me at this school when I was a student. I often tell people about being in 3rd grade and having story time with Mr. Ross, my then teacher and now Assistant Director. Mr. Ross is a fan of folktales and fables, and enjoyed reading them to class. We had small woven mats we would pull out to sit on, gathering around him amphitheater style to listen. Even though the books he read from had illustrations, Mr. Ross almost never turned the book around to us to show the pictures, instead relying on his own voice, enthusiasm, and reading style to make story time successful. This was deliberate (as he has since told me) in order for us kids to develop images of our own in our minds. These stories are some of my earliest memories of listening to someone and being fully engaged, hair on the back of my neck standing up at times, that excited and warm feeling falling over me. It was almost like theater, in that the story felt alive before me, happening in real-time.

As I've grown older those moments happen less often, and I've learned to really cherish them. There's a magic to those moments for me, whether it's hearing a really engaging story, watching someone perform a specific task in an expert fashion, or having someone teach me to do something. The feeling of being fully present with moments like these have formed a sort of pedagogy for me, or at least a sort of aspirational organization that I apply to writing. I break it down like this:

People who write - This is the large swath of people who use their literacy day-to-day, whether it's as small as a reminder on a post-it note, to a routine company email, or a text message, to a term paper at the end of a semester. This is even the novice creative writer who likes to make up a story or a poem once in a while, or a blog or review of something. At this tier writing is mostly casual, and communicative in most regards.

Writers - This is the next tier up where I place serious writers and artists who have mastered a way (or ways) of writing and do it deliberately, many of whom as a career: essayists, novelists, poets, journalists, scriptwriters, playwrights, etc. These are people who revise, whether by heavy editing or continually generating new material. When students ask me what makes a person a poet or writer, this is the distinction I usually go with.

Storytellers - This is the highest tier, a tipping point of sorts, where writers can occasionally ascend, or where the world's greatest writers reside more permanently. This is the tier where a writer's/artist's work becomes engaging in a transcendent way. I often describe it as the "campfire" moment, an intimate feeling of connection to story. And that can mean a folktale keeping you on the edge of your seat, a poem with turns and language resonating deeply with you, a film or play done so well it transports you into its world. I believe that "story" is deeply rooted in how humans function, and the people who can tell them best are the ones I call storytellers.

 Key books I've been leaning on to teach this year.

Key books I've been leaning on to teach this year.

While this is only my personal and current method of thinking, it's one that I find really useful; more importantly I think it's a practical spectrum to help students understand creative writing. What I as an individual deem as writing worthy of being labelled "storytelling" doesn't necessarily have to be the same as another person's. All that person needs to know is the distinction of feeling between different kinds of writing—to know when they are fully engaged. Of course there can be consensus, but more importantly it allows a lot of latitude for people to aspire to different kinds of storytelling, to their own pictures of that campfire moment. The idea is not to push in any particular cardinal direction of writing as the one way, but to keep pushing for stronger, to keep pushing for better, and that perhaps we recognize—more innately than we're told—just what it is that we find truly enjoyable.

In Ben Lerner's book The Hatred of Poetry he points out that one of the paradoxes of poetry is that it's very much like a litmus test for social aptitude. Having a knowledge of poetry and being able to do it, or not, determines a sort of who's-in-who's-out culture around it. And since poetry can be so hard to define, any inability or struggle to be on the "in" of poetry becomes fraught. Most people end up "out" of it, and in response they then discredit it, invalidating the whole art form in order to restore social balance. As Lerner says, "Whatever we think of particular poems, 'poetry' is a word for the meeting place of the private and the public, the internal and the external: My capacity to express myself poetically and to comprehend such expressions is a fundamental qualification for social recognition."

Lerner claims that this is an inescapable fact about poetry, but my own suspicion is that maybe with a different approach this could be more avoidable.

 A short essay that I would recommend to anyone, no matter how much you love or hate writing.

A short essay that I would recommend to anyone, no matter how much you love or hate writing.

The kids at Falk already have had wonderful teachers and parents introduce them to poetry. By 5th grade I'm not adding a ton to the foundation, but more of the middle of the structure that is their poetry knowledge. I recently did one of Kenneth Koch's lessons using the first two sections of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," discussed it with 5th graders, then asked them to write a poem inviting ("us") readers on a journey where they (the student) show us things and explain the true or secret story behind them. One student, M, shared his poem at the end of the lesson which included the line "Why is the sky blue? The sky is blue because grass took green..." I smiled immediately when he read it. It's such a simple and clever line, but even more impressive was how much he owned that idea in his poem and in the moment. Nobody in the class was worried about whether or not it made sense. Or, put another way, his social recognition was not put at risk because the goal was to imagine, not to assess.

One of my 7th graders wrote a poem after the election, called "Trump Poem," that opens with the lines "The earth / is an artist's palette / and Trump / is the color / no one can agree on" and I think the beauty of this speaks for itself.

 Poet friends who came to read and discuss poetry at our "Art as Power Collective" assembly.

Poet friends who came to read and discuss poetry at our "Art as Power Collective" assembly.

Whenever I speak with parents about my role at Falk I basically tell them I'm not there to teach poetry. I don't literally say this of course, but I imply it through what I do say: my goal is to help kids enjoy words, to have fun with them and be creative, to explore how word-sounds can go together, and use that knowledge to then play with ideas, generate ideas, and create ideas; almost all of my lessons involve sharing a poem, hearing it read aloud prior to or along with reading it on the page, then discussing "What did the poem make you think? What did the poem make you feel?" which are the two questions I ask to 1) foreground their experience rather than putting the text up on a pedestal they must reach, and 2) acknowledging that impressions of and reactions to poetry are more broadly expressed than can be articulated "academically" and that these reactions are also valid (another version of this question I've also asked is "What did the poem make you want to do?"); in the ensuing discussion I allow them to respond freely, which often times leads to some central aspect of the poem, and if they do not get there on their own I nudge the conversation as close to it as I can, and then I introduce what Kenneth Koch calls a "poetry idea," a question or a statement that bring some key aspect of the poem to life (i.e. What would you say is the secret of life? If your parent's coat contained a magical world inside it, what would it be like? What do trees dream about? How do you write a sincere apology for something you're not actually sorry for?); with older students my concerns and emphases become more focused around the interconnected ideas that "your words matter" and "your voice is important," which is my way of showing them that choices with language have an effect and that that is something within their control, along with encouraging them to speak up/out in order for them to be vocal about the things they care about and to express themselves in the process.

For me, poetry is what happens around the stuff I am teaching the kids. I don't think I can teach anyone to be a poet, but I can teach them the things that poets do and how to do them. Kids know a lot of things, and are very often eager to share what they know or believe or wonder.* By dumping only history and forms and rhyme and meter on top of this, that eagerness is snuffed out and we get to where Lerner begins. My goal, rather than dumping all this on them, is to instead set it all around them like a mental jungle gym and then "teach them the ropes" so to speak. Eventually they'll be eager to show me how to manuever through it all, and that is the point of investment in poetry that I want them to get to—that ownership, mastery, and sense of authority.

(*It is important to note that this certainly is not universal, with many kids also being more introverted with their ideas and feelings. So far in my experience this hasn't been a tremendous obstacle to my approach, but it is there and I am continuing to learn and figure out tweaks to be more accommodating of various learning styles and needs.)

 A 5th grade drawing of a tiger during a poetry lesson on William Blake's "The Tyger".

A 5th grade drawing of a tiger during a poetry lesson on William Blake's "The Tyger".

Finding patterns, representing patterns, making assumptions, and doing cool stuff. These same four values that Antonsen brings up in relation to mathematics are present—even intergral—in the imaginative space of  storytelling/"campfire" moments; in the idea that your voice is important and your words matter; and in the larger point that all these things build empathy, which is so key to all sorts of writing. This is important for adults, obviously, but I'm not teaching adults. I teach kids who are slowly trying to make sense of the world, of themselves, of knowledge and all its subcategories, and poetry is my method of choice to do so.

If you can transform poetry—a space where children (and most adults, too) feel expected to be innately brilliant and "in" on what's happening, where complete fluency and wisdom feels like the minimum expectation of the realm—into a space of exploration, of permission to create ones own explanations and rationales, to assert one's voice as an authority on its own self, then you create a place children naturally want to be in. Children love to know things, and they also love to be knowledgeable about things. Letting them have a space where they can be an expert is a mental playground they deserve. Letting them have such a space may help them continue to see each other (and the world) more fully. If such a space can be nurtured, encouraged, and promoted, I believe the positive consequences for their lives are tremendous.

 Another "Tyger" drawing from another 5th grade classroom.

Another "Tyger" drawing from another 5th grade classroom.

So, stop worrying about making sense and start worrying more about what your fluffy underwear can do.

Cameron BarnettComment