A new idea: shared poetry

If you live in or around NYC, John will be appearing in conversation with Randi Weingarten — the topic is “Unions and the Future Of Our Schools” — on Wednesday, December 14. Click here for tickets and info.

Share this with your friends on Facebook

Stop reading right now If you are a strong ‘back to basics,’ no-frills education person, because this column is about as far away as humanly possible from your notions of what should be happening in schools.

However, if you teach in high school or middle school — or if you are worried about the narrowing of the curriculum — please stay with me.

In a given month, between 30,000 and 40,000 people read this blog; I am hoping that at least a few of you are HS or MS teachers who are committed to the arts. Or perhaps non-teachers who share that enthusiasm and are in a position to help.

In a recent post about the threats to the arts in the schools, I suggested that we needed to ‘energize the 80,’ my shorthand for the need to get the 80% or so of households without school-age children involved in supporting public education.

A lot of you liked the idea, which was gratifying for a day or two — but now it’s time to do it. Or rather, for students to do it. I envision a squad of middle school or high school students, armed with a decent video camera, going door to door and persuading apartment owners and shopkeepers to look into the camera and recite poetry. A couple of lines each, to be edited together, with the speakers identified on the screen.

(For fun, we will get a couple of recognizable people — think pro sports stars, like Derek Jeter — to contribute as well)

There’s just one rule: the students must recruit adults who do not have school-age children. They are members of the 80 percent that have to be energized in support of the arts.

I ask you to imagine watching the video described below on YouTube (I’ve used characters from my Manhattan neighborhood, but you should picture folks from your world):

Mrs. Andrews in Apartment 9B:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

Mr. Young of Mr. Young’s Cleaners:
To die, to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to …

Kimberly Wong in Apartment 17C:
… ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream …

Augie Ramos at the Deli:
… ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause – there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.

Angela Packer at Equinox Gym:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office …

Jacob Epstein of Epstein Jewelers:
… and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?

Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees:
Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

Fifth grader teacher Alice Gotteswold:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought …

Richie O’Connor, 201 East 79th doorman:
… and enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

This could obviously be done for an assortment of literary elements.

Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow online video, and that has made all the difference in education.

You can be certain every one of those performers will be boasting about their roles and urging others to watch. And, even more important, they will be shaking their heads in amazement at what school kids are doing these days. They will now be the schools’ advocates.

Shakespeare can be intimidating, but because everyone can relate to passion, I’d suggest the kids bring along Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Vicki Hennigan, florist:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.

Archie Samuels, counterman at Wrap ‘n Run:
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.

Victor Reynoso, 235 East 79th doorman:
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

Peggy Sydak, age 83, in Apartment 21B:
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

And Robert Frost is a natural. Here I would break apart the verses, divide them among performers.

Alfonso Gonfriddo, postal carrier:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler …

Amanda Morales, office manager:
… long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth …

Joan Zrodowski, businesswoman:
… then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear …

Ted Bauer, web site developer:
… Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same …

Jerry Flanigan, owner of 81st Street Hardware:
… and both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Joe Quinlan, salesman:
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

The kids will quickly figure out the importance of videotaping each performer reading lines from several different poems, with multiple takes of each reading. They will figure out that doing it well will not be easy, but this is the real world, and their work product will be up there for all to see, up against lots of other student productions. A little competition is a good thing, particularly when it’s team competition.

I have stressed that these videos will build support for the arts, but it’s just as important to point out that the process will teach valuable lessons to the students. In addition to the obvious ‘soft skill’ of working on a team with a real world product, producing these videos will add to their skill set, because they are going to have to persuade the adults to relax, persuade them to ‘do it again’ quite a few times, stroke their fragile egos when they mess up (which will happen a lot), and generally persuade them to take their minds off the camera — even as they are looking into the lens.

School will be more valuable and interesting, and the enthusiasm will rub off and carry over into other aspects of their school experience. They will be become better and more discerning consumers of education precisely because they are now producers.

As they search for talent, and as they edit on their computers, I am sure that some of these young producers will start to take some chances, let their imaginations run free.

Perhaps they will have the dry cleaner saying “Out, damned spot.’

Or the local watch repair guy reciting ‘To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time…’

How about some pre-schoolers on the playground intoning “When shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning or in rain? When the hurlyburly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won?”

Just don’t ask the school principal to intone ‘it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’

I understand that at least two school groups have begun working on this. That’s a start, but this is a big country with a lot of bored school kids out there, kids with drive, brains and energy.

Learning Matters will create a dedicated channel on YouTube, and we’ll try to get the big arts groups behind this.

Long ago the novelist E. M. Forster told us what matters. ‘Only connect,’ he wrote, getting it right.

What do you say?

4 Responses to “A new idea: shared poetry”

  1. Alexis Wiggins 01. Dec, 2011 at 1:00 pm #

    Totally on board for my grade 9 class in the spring, when we read Romeo and Juliet. Does it count if we don’t live in the U.S.? Always good to promote the arts anywhere in the world, right?

    • john merrow 01. Dec, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

      Go for it. A couple of schools here have told me they are going to produce videos. We will try to make one in the office here and post it, as a bit of a guideline, but right now we are swamped with production of two major documentaries.

      • Alexis Wiggins 02. Dec, 2011 at 3:46 am #

        Yeah, I’m excited about designing this. I like your suggestion of competition — I think I will even design the project to include a viewing day with a panel of judges (perhaps students from grade 10 or other English teachers) to add a little excitement and a clear audience for the purpose of making them.

        I teach at an international school in Malaysia, which is a country made up of three cultures: Malay, Indian, and Chinese, so I think there is a cool opportunity to promote the universality of poetry and art through the many kinds of faces students will show in their videos. Essentially, for us here in this cultural context, the project can be about the unifying power of art and poetry across cultural and even language lines.

        I wonder if I could even get a version of the play in Bahasa Malaya for playing around with this…hmm….Excited. Thanks for the inspiration. Will send links to final cuts when they are done in spring term.

  2. DC parent 01. Dec, 2011 at 6:24 pm #

    Ok, I view myself as a basics type, so I don’t get your statement up front. But this is the stuff I think is missing, especially as it build crucial cultural literacy. Too much of the material I see feel like a person going through the motions in some cubicle to create some standard or other connected item for a giant publisher.

Leave a Reply

Social Widgets powered by AB-WebLog.com.