Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Cleveland Elementary School Day 7 teaching notes: Neruda’s Odes, journal

When I joined the class, the fourth grade students were talking of difficult math and how they were having trouble getting it, how they felt so rushed. They have not learned how to ask for help. I said that I really sucked at math but my math teacher was extraordinary man. We talked about favorite teachers. I have worked with many teachers, I said that Mr. Sugarman, who is teaching you math, is a really great teacher, like Ms. Loeser. These are the people that will stick with you all your life. Then I told them the story of my math teacher, Archie Williams, a long distance runner who didn’t succeed in turning me into a math whiz— which is ironic because so many people in my family are math wizards. But not me. But I remember his stories. And that’s equation enough.

Archie was an athlete from Oakland who broke many barriers, not only did he break racial barriers, he broke a track record with Jesse Owen in the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. He also broke records in the sky, he was a Tuskeegee pilot and he taught pilots how to fly fighter jets. In those days, African-American men could not be pilots but Archie came along and he changed things, so I asked this, what is important to you? What juices you? Asking them if they understood what the term juicing means and they said yes. I asked, where does time stand still for you? Or disappear completely? 

One student said that when he plays video games, he completely forgets about time. Many similar electronic devices were rabbit holes, or wormholes of time. I asked them to identify a place where they lost time and to do a freewrite on it. I said it doesn’t have to be a poem. I asked them what are some other things they did during the course of a day, where they lose track of time? Another said that she loved to watch the timer ticking away, knowing when something would end. Boundaries, a different approach to time.

We got into a lively discussion about sports. Ms. Loeser mentioned a story about baseball. We talked about baseball, how time stands still. I asked Ms. Loeser what does it mean when I say it’s the top of the ninth and the bases are loaded? We add more data, the teams are tied, it’s ball two, strike two. Like poetry, baseball is a specialized language, and it’s really about suspended time. When Archie told us about winning the 440 m race, he said the time stood still. It was as if he was in suspended animation.

One thing that’s amazing about this distance-learning teaching process is that you can bring extraneous things in, like this old poem which I would totally never be prepared to share. O Brave New World. We are Caliban lurking in the cave, we are Miranda discovering the treasure. 

We read a bit from Casey at the Bat and I asked about what do we know of this culture, through this poem written in 1888? Team spirit, identity, mud. I tell them, as poets, we are archaeologists mining the past. As poets, we are anthropologists examining culture. We are observers examining everything. We are sleuths looking for clues. We put on our poetry eyes. They notice that the poem is written in paragraphs, I tell them the word for it is a stanza in poetry. We also note how it rhymes. I say that poems don’t have to rhyme, but that was the style in the 1880s.

I talked about what I’m working on right now—the short biographies that I’m writing on Irish American women for Women’s Herstory month. And how in the morning, whenever I read or write—even something boring or banal, like correcting typos, I lose all track of time where 20 minutes becomes 45 minutes—just like that. Sometimes I look down and read for five minutes and the next thing I know, I am late for class, I’m late for appointments, I am late for everything. 

Creativity juices us, it makes us forget about time. That’s the happy place where we want to be. Someone talked about his piano, how he loses time playing it. I say music is like that, it makes us lose track of time. I also tell them that today we will be talking about odes which are a kind of song but in poetic format. Next time I think I will bring in the Salvador Dalí painting with all the melting clocks, The Persistence of Memory.
We do a five-minute freewrite. I explain how the process of freewrite prepares us for the real writing, it’s like stretching before yoga. It clears our heads, cleanses our palates so we can be ready for the real work.  I also tell them that freewrite doesn’t have to be a poem. There is also something called the prose poem. It’s prose. but it uses poetic imagery. Try to use comparisons. Sometimes you just don’t know where a poem is going to come from. As a David Meltzer said, sometimes you just have to be ready to reassemble the parts.

During freewrite you can also visit last weeks lesson if you want to. You don’t need to, but the opportunity is there to look at it again. We talked about last week’s I am poems, and I said you could start a poem with Once I was, you could begin a poem or freewrite talking about the past, the present or the future if you wanted to.

After freewrite, I talk about Pablo Neruda, and read his Ode to My Socks. I tell students to use the chat box in order to record those lines that they love. Many students took advantage of the chat box and shared lines. I asked them, what can you learn about Pablo Neruda’s culture from this poem? They talk about the sheep herder’s hands. How Maru Mori gathered the wool and made the socks by hand. 

I tell them the story about how he won the Nobel prize for poetry but he was a man living in exile because his country was at war. He was living in Italy, and he wrote entire books based on odes to ordinary every day things. I tell them that he wrote in Spanish and I read an excerpt from the tomatoes so that they can hear both languages. I quickly transliterated a student poem from Mexico City, on onions, how their beauty made him weep. I tell them how Spanish is extremely suited to writing poetry as is Chinese, I don’t want them to think that English is the only idiom for writing poetry.

We talk about ordinary everyday things. When they use the chatbox to repeat Neruda’s images that they liked, or were weird, I tell them that this process is called active listening. They are always welcome to use the chat box and talk to me directly if they don’t want to share aloud. They like that idea. A kind of anonymity.

Many students did not bring an object to share, which was their homework, so we did not get to the sharing portion of the lesson, which is unfortunate, as one of the strengths about the sharing process—something they’ve done since kindergarten—the language they sometimes use to share often delves into the poetic realm, because the sharing is often the place where poetry lines come. I am teaching them how to listen to their own speech acts and show them how to hunt down those automatic lines generated from ordinary everyday speech—words or phrases that becomes something more than ordinary. Poetry should surprise and delight the senses. Ms. Loeser hold up her glass teapot and said it reminds her of her family and the good times they shared around those cups of tea.

We looked at the Neruda worksheet again, and read the student samples. I said see that last page? It has room for three more poems, perhaps one of yours will be featured there, I talk about our upcoming publication at the end of April. I talk about expectations. I also tell them how some of the students published on my worksheet also were chosen to have broadsides made of their work which will be shared with the public. Poems travel to other realms, they affect lives where you least expect it. 

They write an ode in class and their homework is to write two more odes. I said junk drawers are a good place to look for objects. I tell them that if we were in the regular classroom I would be walking around and holding up objects, a stapler, a pair of scissors. And I would be making them move and asking students what the noises remind them of. I would hold up a potato peeler and say it secretly wants to be a rocket ship and travel to the moon. 

I tell the students many stories as I teach because I know that what they will remember in the end are the stories. I share my object, I tell them of the little wooden chair that I found on the side of the road, something an old man had once built by hand, and the perfect little rowboat which I did not take, and regretted not taking it, with its perfect little oars and rudder. Clearly these were models made of balsawood. But then the old couple sold their home and had to get rid of everything, these were deemed useless, the detritus of their lives were untold stories—like the junk drawers on our homes. Then I tell them that I made the story up. The object suggested a story to me. I also have a wooden fish in my car, hand carved. These ordinary things hold stories waiting to be told. The unconscious assemblage of our lives.

Ode to the Adirondack chairs 
that hunker down on my bookshelf, 
toy models dreaming of a past 
where a young man constructed them,
another facsimile, 
still he choose each board carefully 
for grain warp and and texture
as if he were building a sailboat.
Place-holders for other chairs 
that once graced summer porches 
say, at the cabin by the lake 
where the afternoon wind 
ruffled and knitted the lake
into a frothy shawl,
and the family reminisced, 
told stories threading the past.
And the occasional slap and splash of fish 
leaping skyward toward the clouds, 
interrupted daydreams 
of summers long lost, 
where the family once gathered. 
But the cabin was sold 
when the grandparents died, 
and the family, 
once united by those chairs, 
scattered to the four winds,
set sail for other realms.


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