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Monthly Archives: November 2008

Poetry as Power: From Spellcraft to Statecraft

I have been asked by Craig Smith, he of “Notes from the Dreamtime” fame, to post my notes for a workshop I often teach.

He posted a blog entry called Poetry’s Power and thought of my workshop, which I am proud to say he has participated in twice.

These notes are designed not to be read at the workshop but as fodder for discussion. I tell participants that I am happy to read for an hour or two, but it is my desire I be interrupted at every turn with question, comments, poetry of their own. It is meant to create interaction and creative thought on the state of poetry, past and present. It is meant to open a few eyes and a few ears to the place of poetry in our culture.

So, imagine yourself in a group of ten, twenty or thirty people, all eager to listen and share.

These are the notes we never get through.

* * * * * * *

Poetry as Power: From Spellcraft to Statecraft
A workshop by Adam Byrn Tritt

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

(William Carlos Williams, from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”)

From as far back as there are records, poets have been by the side of the monarch in court and in battle. The words of the poet were known to be magic and an insult from the poet could sway a battle. This post was often called the Jester. He spoke the truth, did so without fear and did so in rhyme. His words had power.

Words have meaning, rhythm and sound. Their power comes from the vibration of these three. But, sometimes, the rhythm and sound are all that is needed as these impart their own meaning.

Prayers are in the form of poems and songs. A rabbi taught me . . . if you don’t know the words, hum. There is power in the tune, in the rhythm and sound.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug

 

(Twain)

Poetry is just the right word, the right sound, the rhythm that conveys just the right feeling. In a spell, we want to create just the right vibration, at a state event, at a prayer, we want just the right meaning and to leave no room for a meaning other than what is intended. Poetry is meaning, sound distilled until there is no doubt left. Anything that is unsaid is as carefully crafted as what is said. Hence, poetry becomes powerful in its economy, its concentration and its intention and all of this is built on carefully constructed meaning and sound.

Spells are often placed in the form of rhymes. Poetry has power in the natural and supernatural realm. But as important as the poetry is, the poet is a position of even greater mystery. Our Monarchs and presidents have poet laureates. Chaucer was paid in wine. Our own national poet laureate is paid less than a beginning school teacher but is expected to compose and appear at affairs of state and the position so contentious an anti-laureate is voted upon as well. Only three US poets, Piercy, Walker and Angelou, make a living from their art. Yet, despite this, poets have honours of which other artists can only dream.

We will explore the power and place of poetry and rhyme in ancient and modern culture and religion and leave you exploring for yourself how we can use poetry in both our magical and ordinary lives, as though we should be able to tell them apart.

Poetry has power. I once taught at a public high school where poetry could not be taught without permission slips being signed. One child became upset about one poem. One parent called.

I was asked to head up a poetry reading at a book night at Barnes and Noble to benefit the school. I wrote this and dedicated it to our Principal.

Gather your permission slips, parents, teachers,
All school activities possess the possibility of danger, always
An unsuspecting student may come back broken,
Different, changed or
Not come back at all. Some tender child
May come back
Not a child at all.

Children know some activities possess danger,
We cannot wholly shield them. These are undertaken by
Brave students must have permission slips during
Such activities may result in loss, or gain
Unknown results.

Read the fine-print
Parents, your children may not come back
The same tender child may not return to you
As you remember.
Sign to state your contrition
Your baby might grow up different
Than you had anticipated. Beware.

(Adam Byrn Tritt)

Poetry is not to be taken lightly. It is not for the faint of heart.

Obviously, poetry is political.

The Chinese word for poetry, shih (詩), is composed of two idiograms. One, yan (言), means “word; language” & the other, szu (寺), means “temple, monastery.” Hence, poetry is a “temple of words.” Yan itself is composed of t’ou (頭) “above” (heaven, Tao), erh (二) “two” (earth, duality), & k’ou (口) “mouth” (pass). The mouth, the sound that connects Heaven and Earth. Poetry, The Temple of Words, the Great Connector. Shakespeare must have intuited the Chinese ideogram for poetry in A Midsummer Night’s Dream V.1.12 (1595):

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

The Chinese words for culture is wen hua (文化) meaning “literary” or “transformation.” We see the Chinese looked at words, at poetry, as a definer of culture and civilization. They connected poetry to change, transformation and alchemy.

Muriel Rukeyser spoke of this as well, in her writing about the two different kinds of poetry: the poetry of the unverifiable fact, love, art, feelings, and the poetry of documentary fact, literal accounts of strikes, wars, barbaries. She said, in 1974:

The poet today must be twice born. She must have begun as a poet, she must have understood the suffering of the world as political, and have gone through politics, and on the other side of politics she must be reborn again as a poet.

And so, we have a calling. We have an art and talent with which one is born, a born magic, a way of seeing the world and words which is shaped—forged and tempered—by the world and then set out again. A natural skill honed. It is a synthesis of the gift of the gods, heaven, and the practices of men, of Earth. It is an alchemy.

As for alchemy, the poet Gary Snyder tells us:

As for poets
The Earth Poets
Who write small poems,
Need help from no man.

The Air Poets
Play out the swiftest gales
And sometimes loll in the eddies.
Poem after poem,
Curling back on the same thrust.

At fifty below
Fuel oil won’t flow
And propane stays in the tank.
Fire Poets
Burn at absolute zero
Fossil love pumped backup

The first
Water Poet
Stayed down six years.
He was covered with seaweed.
The life in his poem
Left millions of tiny
Different tracks
Criss-crossing through the mud.

With the Sun and Moon
In his belly,
The Space Poet
Sleeps.
No end to the sky—
But his poems,
Like wild geese,
Fly off the edge.

A Mind Poet
Stays in the house.
The house is empty
And it has no walls.
The poem
Is seen from all sides,
Everywhere,
At once.

Power has often been associated not with words, certainly not with Poetry, but with physical might and control over others. Again, Snyder tells us:

We all know that the power of a great poem is not that we felt that person expressed himself well. We don’t think that. What we think is, “How deeply I am touched.” That’s our level of response. And so a great poet does not express his or her self, he expresses all of our selves. And to express all of ourselves you have to go beyond your own self. The Zen master Dogen said, “We study the self to forget the self. And when you forget the self, you become one with all things.” And that’s why poetry’s not self-expression in those small self terms.

A poet is indeed a priest in a temple of words, that power is a voice linking heaven with earth. That is a poet’s real work. A poet’s work is to show us the ordinary in a way that makes it new and fresh, perhaps, even alien and to take the alien and show us how it is familiar.

Poem
by William Carlos Williams

As the cat
climbed over
the top of
the jamcloset
first the right
forefoot

carefully
then the hind
stepped down

into the pit of
the empty
flowerpot

And we value this. We value this after it is done, though we neither value the effort of the poet him or herself. How may poets make a living from poetry?

Williams still had to practice medicine. Most poets teach, or work at drug stores, newpapers. Few even work in the arts. E.E. Cummings, a staple in the cannon of American poetry, could not get his work published even. His mother had to self publish his first collection.

We honor poetry after the fact.

 

For the Young Who Want To

by Marge Piercy

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.

The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms

is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

Part of this is because we forget how powerful words are. People only faintly recall the worth and power words once possessed. Words gave order and shape to reality: To know the name of a thing was to perceive its essence and therefore to master it. To name a thing not present was to summon it into being, so that the thing itself existed in the words for it.

“I was many things before I was released, ” sang Taliesin, a man thought by many to be the Merlin of lore. “I was a word in letters.” A name could be moved and manipulated and placed in new arrangements, and all of these activities would affect the object named.

The outward sign of the inner powers of a wise woman or man was the knowledge of words and names and the songs made from them. This was true of the celts and of the native American. That is why so many shamans and workers of magic prefaced their spells with transformation songs—verses that claimed they had taken the shape of everything in creation, from raindrops and starlight to bubbles in beer, and thereby had gained infinite understanding. Words were the bricks of all charms and incantations, all spells, riddles and conjurations. Look at the words we use. Spell from the German Speilan, or story. And Incantation from the word chant. In Hebrew, the one who says the prayers is the cantor, the singer the enchanter, the one with the incantations. He binds us to god with words even if the words are unknown to us.

Our own King Authur, JFK, had this to say about poetry and the Poet Laureate at his inauguration:

Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

Poets have had the power to affect culture even while they are outside of culture and even when part of a despised minority.

Pope. Swift. Catholic, diminutive, sickly.

Mr. Pope

Mr. Pope did not demur
To attack a poet he’d scarce endure.
His whetted wit exposing flaws
With metric feet and raptor’s claws.
This wasp would sting at authors dim
Even those who feared not God, feared him.

(Adam Byrn Tritt)

Not respected. Not paid even when feared.

Not paid. But certainly valued even when reviled. Right up to, but, it may seem, no including present time, poets were outside rebuke. It was the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sasoon that helped bring what WWII was really like home to the masses and was as instrumental doing so as the verse of Phil Ochs was during Vietnam.

Suicide in the Trenches
by Siegfried Sasoon

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Disabled
by Wilfred Owen
(First and last verses)

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,—
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands.
All of them touch him like some queer disease.

There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches, carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join.—He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts,

That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then enquired about his soul.
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

Dulce et Decorum Est
by Owen
(Last verse)

 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” by Randall Jarrell, was published in 1945. What did it do? Listen.

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Prior to this, most people actually did not know how the B-17s and 24s fought and protected themselves. Jarrell, himself, thought it was necessary, but also that the people in the war with the shortest life expectancy deserved to have their fates understood by the people for whom they fought. He did this in an obvious, yet amazingly poetic and political way. It was widely distributed. Poets enjoyed an immunity.

That immunity seems to be waning. In 2003 First Lady Laura Bush canceled a White House poetry symposium in fear of finding poetry and poets critical of the administration and its policies. She feared the invited poets would recite poetry against war. Laura Bush defended her actions citing her freedom of speech. A spokesperson for the First Lady said, “While Mrs. Bush respects and believes in the right of all Americans to express their opinions, she too has opinions and believes that it would be inappropriate to turn what is intended to be a literary event into a political forum.”

Poets around the world have cried foul. Two former U.S. poets laureate, Stanley Kunitz and Rita Dove, have criticized the cancellation. The result was, instead of a symposium at the White House with one hundred poets, a backlash, anti-war symposium with over 3,600 and a collection of poetry assembled on the topic of which I am delighted to be a part.

Far from showing a waning power, this demonstrates the power of poetry is still quite understood and, in some cases, feared. Kings, and would be kings, know what a poem can do.

“What are big girls made of?”
by Marge Piercy

The construction of a woman:
a woman is not made of flesh
of bone and sinew
belly and breasts, elbows and liver and toe.
She is manufactured like a sports sedan.
She is retooled, refitted and redesigned
every decade.
Cecile had been seduction itself in college.
She wriggled through bars like a satin eel,
her hips and ass promising, her mouth pursed
in the dark red lipstick of desire.
She visited in ’68 still wearing skirts
tight to the knees, dark red lipstick,
while I danced through Manhattan in mini skirt,
lipstick pale as apricot milk,
hair loose as a horse’s mane. Oh dear,
I thought in my superiority of the moment,
whatever has happened to poor Cecile?
She was out of fashion, out of the game,
disqualified, disdained, dis-
membered from the club of desire.

Look at pictures in French fashion
magazines of the 18th century:
century of the ultimate lady
fantasy wrought of silk and corseting.
Paniers bring her hips out three feet
each way, while the waist is pinched
and the belly flattened under wood.
The breasts are stuffed up and out
offered like apples in a bowl.
The tiny foot is encased in a slipper
never meant for walking.
On top is a grandiose headache:
hair like a museum piece, daily
ornamented with ribbons, vases,
grottoes, mountains, frigates in full
sail, balloons, baboons, the fancy
of a hairdresser turned loose.
The hats were rococo wedding cakes
that would dim the Las Vegas strip.
Here is a woman forced into shape
rigid exoskeleton torturing flesh:
a woman made of pain.

How superior we are now: see the modern woman
thin as a blade of scissors.
She runs on a treadmill every morning,
fits herself into machines of weights
and pulleys to heave and grunt,
an image in her mind she can never
approximate, a body of rosy
glass that never wrinkles,
never grows, never fades. She
sits at the table closing her eyes to food
hungry, always hungry:
a woman made of pain.

A cat or dog approaches another,
they sniff noses. They sniff asses.
They bristle or lick. They fall
in love as often as we do,
as passionately. But they fall
in love or lust with furry flesh,
not hoop skirts or push up bras
rib removal or liposuction.
It is not for male or female dogs
that poodles are clipped
to topiary hedges.
If only we could like each other raw.
If only we could love ourselves
like healthy babies burbling in our arms.
If only we were not programmed and reprogrammed
to need what is sold us.
Why should we want to live inside ads?
Why should we want to scourge our softness
to straight lines like a Mondrian painting?
Why should we punish each other with scorn
as if to have a large ass
were worse than being greedy or mean?

When will women not be compelled
to view their bodies as science projects,
gardens to be weeded,
dogs to be trained?
When will a woman cease
to be made of pain?

 

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Posted by on November 30, 2008 in Culture, History, philosophy, Religion, Social, Writing

 

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Mr. Tritt’s Parent-friendly Guide to Why Teaching Didn’t Completely Suck

I taught for a long time. I don’t want to get into it. It depresses me. Yes, all you students who still write me, call me, see me, visit me – it depressed me. It affected my voice, my habits, my health mentally, spiritually and physically. Hell, I even ended up with a bladder infection because we, students too, were thought so much as mechanisms that we had to pee by the bells. See, that’s how much I hated it. You have never heard me use the word pee before. Now I’ve used it twice.

It’s ok the students know that. The students who still write me, call me, see me, visit me were generally depressed too – thoughtful, curious, intelligent, sharp and kind. People like that tend to get depressed when treated like mechanisms.

I have written about it before. Suicides, mementoes, workshop trips, field trips, those special students. I have taught classes of one hundred and thirty at a time, had an attempt on my life, been told by a principal he was tired of teachers who thought they were artists and our job was to surround, capture kill and destroy (Yoo-hoo, Mr. Johnson, how come the website blurb next to your picture, as of this publishing, is outdated by three years? ) and by other principals that Shakespeare and Homer were being removed from the curriculum because a classical education would do the students no good if they could not pass a standardized test. You have to be able to run a frialator.

I once had a high school principal, Andrew Taylor of Piper High School in Ft. Lauderdale, mandate all poetry being taught needed to have parental permission slips. Seriously. He would call teachers to stand during faculty meetings and dress them down using such language as “coward” and “useless” coming withing inches of their faces with his wagging finger. Seriously. Not long after, he abruptly resigned after the married fellow was found to have several “inappropriate” relationships with members of the faculty. But I’ve written about all that. I’m much better now.

You see, it was never the students who I had problems with. Not even the one who tried to kill me. Administrations, on the other hand, that’s another story. Really, that’s the whole story. The only story.

Still, after a while one begins to doubt oneself. This one did.

Once in a while I peruse the Internet looking for folks who have co-opted my writing. I find bits of me here and there and usually let them know they are using it without permission (which they know) and what the copyright rules are (which they usually don’t know) and that I could sue them (which I have never done but that is also something they don’t know) unless they remove it or send me something or say please and thank you. Sometimes I even find my work non-cited. I ask for that to be removed. Fair is fair.

This week I found the work copied below. It is from a school at which I taught eighth- grade Honors English. This was the school at which I taught six week workshops to the entire eighth-grade and then the entire seventh-grade all while teaching my normal classes. State assessment scores went up remarkably. I was told I could no longer do this as it was not duplicatable. It upset the department head who could not write an essay even if she were being paid to do so which, essentially, she was. When I asked her for one, to share with the students as an example that everyone writes, she balked. The principal caved. You should have seen their scores the year after that. Flushhhh…

So slow is their movement, so high their inertia or so great their apathy, I still have my web page there even though I have not taught there in two years. In the midst of state assessments, we were required to learn to make web pages on Macs. Stop everything. Build a page. And so I did. Prostitution is prostitution. They want a page, they get a page.

And it is still there. So I read through it. It was good for me. Very good for me, in fact. I’ll let you read what I found before I tell you what it means, as far as I am concerned.

Mr. Tritt’s Parent-Friendly
Field-Guide to 8th Grade
Choice team Language Arts

Ok Mom and/or Dad/and/or Legal Guardian, you are confused. No problem there at all. I understand. Like you, I’m a parent too so I spend a fair amount of my time confused as well. My son is fifteen so I also find myself addled, perplexed and confounded. Some of this is just because he is fifteen. Much of this is over his classes and what their requirements are. While I can’t belay my own confusion, maybe I can alleviate some of yours.

In the next few minutes we can answer most of your questions as long as those questions are about writing and Language Arts in the Eighth Grade Choice Program at Stone. If your questions are about anything else, we’ll see what we can do but I won’t make any promises.

First of all, let me introduce myself. I am Adam Byrn Tritt. I have a bunch of initials after my name. Some are of consequence to teaching, like my masters in Education and my masters in English and in Communications. Others aren’t. I am a writer who teaches and am a published author, essayist and poet so you know and, more importantly, your student knows I practice what I teach and teach what I practice. This adds up to an authentic workshop and class experience for your student where they learn how it is really done (no matter what the ‘it’ is we are learning).

Books. We use plenty of books. But we don’t use textbooks very much. I prefer the students pick books they are interested in and get as deeply into those as possible. I’ll check them for difficulty and appropriateness, of course. We want subjects that can be discussed openly and have literary merit. We also want to make sure the books will develop the students ability to recognize the use of literary devices and themes, have a vocabulary that will allow your student’s minds and brains to stretch and grow, question and reach.

I provide ample opportunity for this with novel suggestions as well as shorter works. Your student can choose among essays old and new, collections of short stories, plays and poetry. Many of the more meritorious of them are worth more points. When I say that I don’t mean the longer ones. Some short essays are worth extra points as well. Have your student ask.

What are they to do with these? Read them, examine them, enjoy them (we hope) and struggle with them. Most weeks they students will prepare a reading log. It consists of five entries and each entry has what book was read, how many pages, plot summary (Colonel Mustard was killed in the parlor with a candlestick. Scooby Doo is on the trail.) New vocabulary, what the student thinks it means from context and what it means when your young’n looks it up in his or her favorite dictionary. The last part is a small portion for notes of whatever your student found was of interest or even a statement of how much they like or, sometimes, dislike the book. Perhaps it mentions writing style, devices used or word choice. In the end, this reading log makes the creation of note cards and the literary analysis a breeze.

I give the students some suggested forms but they make their own. If typed, I give them extra credit for them. If they are for an extra credit book, they get even more credit on top of that.

Five entries per week from whatever novel or essay or collection he or she is reading. If there are no new words one day, this happens. If it happens more than a few times we know the book material isn’t stretching your student. Time for harder material.

Once a month we’ll be doing a literary analysis using the material your son or daughter read. We’ll start off oral with note cards. Oral presentation is mandated by Sunshine State Standards. After a few the students will have a choice to do this orally, on video, by PowerPoint, in writing or in any other creative way s/he can think of as long as the points on the rubric are covered. Of course they have the rubric and we practice hitting each point first. All this gets them ready for the FCAT and Pre-AP English.

Speaking of books, we don’t make great use to the Literature textbook, which most students appreciate. We also don’t make great use of the Grammar text. Do we use them sometimes? Sure. When we see specific difficulties in the writing we address them in small groups or mini-lessons.

We study grammar in a real-life context; in the context of writing and communications. Studies show we can give grammar instruction and tests but, when given a writing assignment, the tested material does not translate into correct use in writing. So we learn grammar while writing.

If your child doesn’t need help with comma use, we aren’t going to waste her or his time with work on comma use; we’ll save that for the students who do need that instruction.

Likewise, the Literature text is used selectively when we want a specific story or poem to illustrate a point or device.

So what will your child be bringing home? Writing and plenty of it.

We will be working on the ability to format our typed papers in any number of ways. The ability to follow a format means your student will learn his or her way around a word processor and will be able to fulfill the requirements of any class. It means he or she will be able to follow directions, enter contests, publish in the newspaper, submit essays.

Your student will also be learning how to revise and proofread and we hope we can count on your help to support this. Please read your child’s essays out loud so s/he can hear them. Help with grammar is you are able. Look at transitions and check of elaboration, organization, clarity. I have one hundred and twenty little darlings and I could sure use you to check their work at home since we often can’t check them as thoroughly as we’d like in school.

I have provided plenty of guides for your child to use as tools and add to his or her notebook. Don’t throw these away at the end of the year. I assure you your student will find these of great use next year and the years after. You can use these as well when helping your son of daughter proof essays. He or she will have sheets on transitions and transition use, on words to use instead of ‘very’ and other weak words, sensory words, color words, words to use instead of “said.” Verbs to use instead of adjectives and adverbs. S/he has rubrics and evaluation guides so you an look at the work and see, ahead of time, what sort of grade it will get before the paper is turned in. In other words, your little one has tools-a-plenty and, at home, you can help make sure he or she uses them.

Reading the essays out loud to your son or daughter will allow him/her to hear what the writing actually sounds like to the reader. This is invaluable. I assure you, if that is all you do it will be an immense help.

What will your student be writing? Essays to start. Essay after essay after essay. FCAT mandates essays. Our school has the students write at least one every week. Many of these are timed and check as first drafts.

We’ll be writing essays on surprise prompts, essays on literature, essays for Science, essays for Social Studies. Some essays will be for contests in English and we’ll be writing essays for Science contests as well. We write for FCAT and we write for real life.

We practice many kinds. We write some which are descriptive to get use to describing carefully and accurately, we practice using verbs to describe instead of adjectives and adverbs, just alike Twain did. We practice sentence combining and transition use.

We write expository essays to explain, expose and express. We write persuasive essays to convince and persuade. And all the while we practice better writing overall.

We have a monthly week-long writing workshop where the students learn not only to write, revise and proof better, but why we do this. We learn techniques, we learn reasons and we practice again and again. We even learn about the brain and how words affect us physically. We are, after all, a science program.

Students also learn the essay was, originally an art form and we treat it as such, rewarding chances taken and skills learned, creativity as well as accomplishment.

We also do journals. The students will have specific topics and will have to answer, in writing and within a short timeframe, specific questions or write to a prompt or quote. No help is given. This is graded on how well they applied themselves and stuck to the instructions (just like the FCAT) not content.

Let us have a word about homework. I dislike homework. I have to give some. After all, our classes are just 45 minutes long. But it will be minimal. If you help your student with time management and organization, it will be a breeze. We have our reading logs. That means reading a few nights a week and filling in the log.

Sometimes they will have an essay to revise and proofread. As I asked before, please help them with this even if that means only reading it so they can hear how it sounds. Rarely will homework be something they must have back the next day. Most assignments are long-term. I expect about an hour to hour and a half of homework a week.

And speaking of homework and assignments, the work due is listed on the board in our room often more than a week in advance. The work is also listed on StudyWiz so it can be accessed by your student or even by you from any Internet connection. Since your child is probably on the computer typing away in IM, just ask him or her to pull it up for you.

If there is ever a problem with an assignment, please write an email note (best) or send a note with your student. I know things happen and emergencies come up. Late work can be accepted with a note as well. If there is even a problem with a printer at home, just bring the work to me (in the morning) on a disk, flash, thumb, floppy or send it in an email and I’ll happily print it out for your darling.

In the end, no matter what your student chooses to do academically, she or he will be better of, will have the skills to write what he or she needs to, the flexibility to do so for and under any circumstances and the confidence to know he or she will do it well. With your help, we can make their grades reflect the new skills and confidence.

Holy cow. This was the teacher I wish I had. At any point. Middle school, high school, college. Anytime.

I was told once we teach the way we learn. In this case, I taught the way I wish I had the opportunity to learn. And I did my best to bring that to my students. Among them are many in Harvard and Yale and other ivy league school, the youngest Discovery Award winner on record, several students who published in magazines while still in my class instead of just writing for a grade.

Reading this I remember something important: I did good. I did the best I knew and then worked to do better than that – for my students. Because they deserved much better than just ok, deserved better than I got, deserved the best possible and I worked to the end of my strength and ability to give that to them.

I was the teacher I always wanted.

Bless them for that opportunity.

As far as Stone Middle School and their still using my material on their webpage, I get five cents a word standard. You know where to send the check.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on November 27, 2008 in Culture, Education, Poetry, Social, Writing

 

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Benjamin Franklin Broke My Alarm Dog

Tomorrow morning at 6:03, the invisible hand of Benjamin Franklin will reach to my bedside and wake me from a sound sleep.

I am in my office, the floor littered with books. I call it research. Next to me, flowing over the recliner, is a wild dog.

I had no idea she was a wild dog when, a year and a half ago, we strolled the aisles at the pound. All we knew was, of all the cages and all the pens, of all the dogs, this small fawn-coloured pup, at eight months old, breed unidentified, was the only creature that was silent. She watched us as we walked up and back, as we inspected the dogs for the one that pulled at our hearts. We passed her by. She was too old.

But my son kept returning to her, staring at her through the kennel chain-link. At that time it had not occurred to me she was the only silent pup there- the only dog not making an unholy racket.We had walked once through, looking at Corgies, Beagles, far too many Pits, Catahoula after Catahoula after Catahoula, and there was this one dog I could not identify and, still, second time through, silent, to which my son lingered closer and closer. Of course she was still eight months old so we walked again, fully planning, at least I was, on coming back to the pound once a week or so until the right dog arrived.

It was my birthday week. August of 2007, and I was about to turn forty-three. We were finally settled in our new old home, in a new practice, retired from an old job and marketing my new book. I wanted a dog.

It is never a good idea to get a dog. Never the perfect time. Just like a child, that perfect time does not exist, never comes. But the opportunity did,  my son and I were ready and, it seemed, absolutely, my wife was not. So all the stars aligned in as nearly perfect an order as they get and so we found ourselves at the pound.

And he kept going back to the fawn-coloured eight-month-old unidentified pup.

We grabbed a leash and opened the door. She sat there. We put the leash around her neck and she sat looking up at us. Silent. It seemed she wanted to be carried. She, already a bit too big for that, I, bending at the knees because I do love the sound of creaking so, we walked out to the yard—a father carrying his too-large child. Once there, once down, she walked by my side. When I ran she trotted right with me until I found myself on my back, flat, staring at the sky,head slightly ringing, my leash-arm straight behind me. Fawn-coloured eight-month-old unidentified walked over and stared into my face. Apparently, she had decided to stop mid-trot and have a liedown. At the door in from the yard, she stopped to be carried again and looked with disdain at the other dogs. Never a sound.

“What kind is the mute one?”

“We don’t know.” This was the Pound-mistress talking.

“The paper on the kennel says Lab question mark. She’s not a Lab.”

“Nope. But we have to write down something and we have no idea.”

“The paper also says she is untrainable, incorrigible, does not know her name, and is an escape artist. Can you tell me anything good about the dog?”

Pound-mistress explained to us they must, by law, write what the owners say when the dog is dropped off. But, and she moved close to my left ear, this family kept the dog out all day and let her in only late at night, never trained her, never called her by name. It was her opinion she was a good dog with no training that got stuck with a bum family.

We left, knowing what was going to happen. We should have pulled her papers and plunked the cash but I wanted my wife to see her.

And we looked back at her as we walked from her line of sight.

I planned on soft-selling the dog, working my wife up to a trip toward Eau Gallie and the pound with promise of old pottery and fresh fish. Instead, my son got to her first, with the pound open but one more hour after she got home from the practice. He told her we were going to the pound because it was only fair, Daddy says, for her to see the dog we’re getting. This resulted in the need of much more in the way of promises extracted from both I and my son.

Fine. In the car. Grab a Philly steak sub knock-off. On the way we talked about the description on the kennel door and what Pound-mistress said about fawn-coloured eight-month-old unidentified.

Get to the pound, walk in the second time that day, into the building and quickly past the cats at which my wife sneezes and itches, out to the dogs and to fawn-coloured eight-month-old unidentified.

The noise was awful. The barking, whining, howling. All but her. All but fawn-coloured eight-month-old unidentified. She sat at the kennel-front and looked at my wife.

“She is eight months old,” says Lee.

“Yup.”

“At least she’s a mutt.” My wife insists on mutts.

“No idea what she’s made of. Just random dog.”

We opened the gate and repeated the carry-out to the yard. She behaved perfectly, silently. When Lee noticed fawn-coloured eight-month-old unidentified never made a sound, that was all it took. Sixty dollars on the counter, come back in two days, a sad look back from my son and an even sadder look at him from fawn-coloured eight-month-old unidentified.

The sign on the door said her name was Dusty. A common, nondescript name. Alek called “Dusty” and fawn-coloured eight-month-old unidentified perked her ears straight, sat at attention with the widest eyes I had yet seen on a dog.

Two days later we picked her up, groggy from the morning’s spaying, and she was cuddled home.

Within a week she was housetrained. With the help of Robert at Petsmart, we got training to train us to train her. Within a few weeks she walked with us, ran with us, leash or none. She sat, stayed, came and laid down. And in this time, she still did not bark.

I remember the day she did start making noises. It was late afternoon. Someone in the house was laughing. It did not sound familiar.I peeked into Lee’s office and nothing on Stargate seemed the least funny. No surprise there. I asked Alek but he said he’d heard it too and was looking for the source. He, too, thought it was his mother laughing. Dusty followed us.

Giving up, we each went back to what we were doing, Dusty in Alek’s room this time and I again heard it. Alek, running from his room, looked up at me and said, “That was her,” pointing to our dog, “and that is the strangest sound I have ever heard.”

When she is satisfied after a meal, and she eats sparingly, never gorging, she’ll spread flat on the floor and a low, guttural sound, not a growl in any way but from someplace deeper, more bass-rumbly, will resonate the room. When she wants something, she will open her mouth and high-pitched whistle talk to us. If she could manage to make it any louder I am sure the few remaining bits of household crystal I have not already broken myself would shatter. If we forget to feed her, she will stand by her bowl and whistle. If there is low water, she will nose it and whistle. When we come home with bags, she will not jump us but will instead back off, sit at the couch and, when the bags are down, lay back over the couch arm, belly up, and whistle for us to pet her.

Once, on a morning walk, Dusty and I passed a student of mine. I had been out of teaching for some months then and my neighbourhood is full or ex and barely-ex students.

“Mr. Tritt.” I can’t get them to stop calling me that. “Is that your dog?”

“Sure is.”

“You have a Dingo?”

“I do?”

Apparently she had been studying Australia and was more than a little surprised to see a dingo walking with last-year’s English teacher. More and more people asked us the same thing. A bit of research, a check with people who should know and, sure enough, we have ourselves a wild dog. Once upon a time I wanted a wolf. I’ll take my dingo dog any day.

Far from being a baby-eater, she is the most gentle of creatures. She will instinctively sit with the infirmed, laying her head on a lap, patiently allows little ones to pet or pull or poke. She seems to have no preference for any particular member of the household and will become mopey if any one of us is away for too long. If one of us is not feeling well, she is nearly impossible to move from the sick one’s feet. When Lee had a week-long flu, Dusty was in the bedroom doorway all day and slept next to her, half under her, under the bed, all night.

She will walk through a crowd with ease and not give other dogs the time of day no matter how much they bark. She has barked on occasion but rare enough that, when she does, we listen, we get up, we see what’s there.

Dusty the Dingo Doggy went from being a good dog to great dog to wonderful companion we look forward to coming home to, one that can stay in the house by herself, will walk out the back yard when the gate is left open only to sit on the front porch and wait for us to remember we had forgotten to let her in. She plays ball with herself, tossing it into the air and catching it again on the way down.

And there is one more thing she does—Dusty wakes us each morning. As the sun rises, as it starts to colour our south windows, she walks into our room, whistles, puts her front paws on the bed and jostles Lee’s hand with her nose.

Neither of us has ever been a fan of alarm clocks. This is perfect for us. Up with the sun, more day in each day, awake in plenty of time to eat, shower, dress, do what needs to be done and get what needs to be got. No jingles, jangles, bells or chimes. A whistle and a paw.

Each day she wakes us, slipping slightly more than thirty seconds later toward the Summer Solstice and back as the Winter Solstice approaches.

And then came Benjamin Franklin and he screwed it up.

We are big fans of Franklin. My wife from Philly and I from his quotes, quips and scientific queries. There is more to Franklin than most know. Sure, he was a notorious womanizer but, as seen for the times and locations he lived, that seems to detract little from establishing libraries, the Postal Service, and newspapers as cultural standards. It does not detract from the creation of bifocals, which I steadfastly refuse every time I get my eye checked (the ophthalmologist checks them both but I’m not sure why he bothers—I think just look to see the other one is still there), the flexible catheter (which I also have no experience with), the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, the odometer, and more and more. He invented the Glass Harmonica, an instrument of ethereal aural beauty (which, in the early days gave off lead dust, but I accept that we all suffer for our art).

As people who would be happy if our televisions got only Discovery, History, and the Science Channels, that means quite a bit. “Well done is better than well said.” Ben, I agree.

But one thing he did that is fully, forever unforgivable was the creation of daylight savings time.

To be fair to Franklin, he did not really invent it. He suggested though, while living in Paris, Parisians should be awakened each morning by bells and cannonfire so the stay-ups would tire earlier in the evening and conserve candles. He published this suggestion anonymously.

But the idea was taken up again, later, by William Willett who started pushing the idea in London in 1905. While good for local business that feed from late-shoppers, the original idea of saving candlewax is no longer quite as valid as once was. Electrical savings are found to be nonexistent with usage simply shifted to the dark morning hours in summer and dark night hours in winter in an economy that does not work simply dawn to dusk. And international commerce certainly suffers, though not as much as agrarian economies still tied to daylight.

In the past, clocks were simply adjusted through the year to divide the day into twenty-four equal parts. The hours got a little longer or a little shorter and things ran quite fine that way.

We think with all our technology we can’t run that way now, but with some areas on DST and others not, we still become fully fowled up. Even in areas that do use DST, there are pockets that do not and time zones that opt out which, this month, are an hour behind and next month are not.Some US counties even opt out.

I say, make six a.m. the time when the sun comes up. We can certainly make clocks that can handle that. If the day is a bit longer, we have a few extra inter-hour minutes between five and six am. If shorter, fewer, but six comes when does the sun.

That way my dog would not be broken.

She was waking us at 7:16, then 7:15, 7:15, 7:14 and, the next day, gently, whistly, at 6:13. Daylight savings time had ended. This morning, as the sun peaked in through the windows, it was 6:04. Next week it will be before 6:00. Come DST again our dog alarm will move ahead one hour and, try as we might, we can find no dial or button to adjust her.

 
8 Comments

Posted by on November 21, 2008 in Culture, Family, History, Nature, Social

 

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Fifty Years Earlier

If I were born fifty years earlier
I would sit in a café in Paris,
Trade wit, find work writing copy
And critique, adventure in the arts and love,
Drink dark coffee and absinthe.

I would meet people in occluded rooms,
Crowded stations, and hush
Listen carefully, I will only say this once,
Pass small slips with single names,
Hide men in my attic,
Wonder about tomorrow.

If I were born fifty years earlier
I would say the proper brucha
Each morning, listen to my papa,
Go to yeshiva, study Talmud,
Marry whom I was told.

I would look toward the steppes
And one day see the horses,
My small town in smoke,
My footprints and cart tracks behind me,
Hope for a ticket of passage,
Wonder about tomorrow.

If I were born fifty years earlier
I would go to school
In the town with everyone else,
Shop in the markets,
Consider myself a citizen.

I would one day hear the crashing windows,
See the walls built, the paint flow,
The armbands and the army trucks,
Wonder what we had done,
Avoid the uniforms,
Wonder about tomorrow.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on November 19, 2008 in Culture, History, Poetry

 

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