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Poet: Why I would never tell a student what a poem means – The Washington Post

Poet: Why I would never tell a student what a poem means

Source: Poet: Why I would never tell a student what a poem means – The Washington Post

Sara Holbrook, the author of books of poetry for children, teens and adults, as well as professional books for teachers, wrote a piece on this blog earlier this year that was, to say the least, jarring, if not entirely unexpected by those who have been paying attention to how poorly many standardized tests are constructed. That post, “Poet: I can’t answer questions on Texas standardized tests about my own poems,” started this way:

When I realized I couldn’t answer the questions posed about two of my own poems on the Texas state assessment tests (STAAR Test), I had a flash of panic — oh, no! Not smart enough. Such a dunce. My eyes glazed over. I checked to see if anyone was looking. The questions began to swim on the page. Waves of insecurity. My brain in full spin.

[Poet: I can’t answer questions on Texas standardized tests about my own poems]

Now Holbrook is back with a piece about why she never tells a student what a poem means. Why is that a big deal? It is in direct contrast to a good deal of literature instruction today, which is designed to ensure that students take away not their own meaning but what a standardized test would consider correct.

Holbrook also visits schools and speaks at educator conferences worldwide, with her partner Michael Salinger, providing teacher and classroom workshops on writing and oral presentation skills. Her first novel, “The Enemy: Detroit 1954,” was just released.

By Sara Holbrook

Seems fitting that April is poetry month, a season brimming with blossoming possibilities and longer days. Like jolly jonquils, in April poets are released from our winter hibernation, we shed our black attire and start popping up at readings, sprouting bright colors and (presumably) speaking in stanzas. Not sure how April came to be poetry month. Maybe because at the time of its designation, April didn’t already belong to women’s history, colon cancer awareness, or toenail fungus.

Of course as most of the educated world knows, April mostly belongs to taxes and school testing. Still, poets who chew pencils and chase cursors every day all year wait for this month for a little acknowledgment. It’s not too bad of a deal, really. The five-paragraph-essay is still waiting in the wings for its month.

The poem below was not written as a poetry month challenge. I wrote it while sitting in the back of a summer poetry-writing workshop. Mostly, I was biding my time for my turn to present. The instructor began by asking us to write the words, “I remember” and write for five minutes, not letting our pen leave the page (actually a writing exercise conceived by Natalie Goldberg, I later found out). If we got stuck, we were to write, “I remember” again and keep writing.

But I’ve always been a little ornery. I began with “I don’t remember,” and went from there. The image that came to mind was of my mother and the big family secret the entire neighborhood knew. Mom drank too much and took too many pills. I don’t think she would mind my telling this story now since she was sober for the last seven years of her life, and she was really proud of that. But believe me, we had our moments over the years.

A poem is a snapshot in time. Not an entire movie. A focused moment. I do remember the time she brought me brownies as an apology, but I can’t for the life of me remember what she was apologizing for. Memory is a pegboard punched with holes. The older I get, the bigger the holes become.

Still, I remember the brownies, the hug, my forced smile.




I don’t remember the first time,

how it started

or when.

But I remember

the night you brought me brownies

and said

it would never happen again.


I remember,

your hair was longer then

and how your eyes swam over to mine.

I remember,

my smile stuck to my teeth.

I knew it wasn’t the last time.


My eyes were sealed with tears

and it was hard for them to wake,

but that didn’t seem to matter.

We hugged.

And the brownies tasted great.

©1997 sara holbrook “I Never Said I Wasn’t Difficult,” Boyds Mills Press


Forty years after the brownies were delivered to my bedside, four or five years after the writing and publication of the poem, I was visiting a school in the rural Midwest. It was April, and in preparation for the poet/author visit, kids had been asked to respond to one of my poems with: one their own poems, a hand-drawn picture, or a paragraph. What a display!

Hundreds of responses were posted in the hallways. There was an entire wall in the foyer devoted to my poem, “The Dog Ate My Homework.” Middle-school kids love to laugh and the student poems told tall tales of dogs, goats, and chickens munching on math problems and swallowing spelling words. One, as I remember, involved no eating but did reference cat pee.

But down the hall, around the corner, out of the florescent glare of the reception area, on the tiled wall by the room where (before inclusion) they used to keep “those kids,” I found Paul’s interpretation of my poem, “Remember.” While his classmates were having fun with poetry, he was evidencing his understanding that all of life is not a sit-com.

Paul was 11 years old when he wrote this. I know. I asked. When students are 11, the topic of sex doesn’t come up in the classroom. Teachers and parents make sure of it. What Paul brought to the text of my poem is background knowledge he had acquired somewhere other than school. We can only speculate.

Paul and I are both more than 25 years older now. Still, that spring day is sealed in my memory. I visited two schools, Paul’s in the morning and then I moved on at lunch break. But I took time to make a big deal out of Paul’s response, taking it to the office to have it photocopied (era before cellphone cameras). The secretary read it and wearily sighed, “Yeah, there’s a lot of that ’round here.” I took it to the guidance office. I took it to the vice principal. I don’t know if Paul, age 11, ever got the help he needed. It haunts me.

But one thing I do know, I am not the one to tell Paul what the poem “Remember” is about. Paul knew and probably still knows what this poem means. In my mind, this is not even my poem anymore. It belongs to Paul, age 11.

Famed educator, guru, and overall smart person Louise Rosenblatt wisely distinguishes between interpreting expository writing (journalism, nonfiction) and aesthetic writing. “A novel or a poem or a play remains merely inkspots on paper until a reader transforms them into a set of meaningful symbols.” The reader creates meaning, I heard her explain in a talk she gave at the National Council of Teachers of English in November 2004 at the no-nonsense age of 100. She was peeking over the podium giving a roomful of academics what-for, explaining that the meaning of a poem floats somewhere between the page and the reader’s mind because each reader brings a unique experience to the piece.

A few months ago I wrote an essay, “I Can’t Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions About My Own Poems,” in which I questioned those of unknown academic distinction who anonymously compose proficiency test questions. Many teachers wrote to tell me that they too are unable to answer these vaguely written test questions being used to evaluate their students. One teacher reported that her kids had to endure 17 days of testing this year. Considering there are only about 20 days of school in a month and that every test requires preparation on the devices and manner of testing, that’s a lot of lost instructional time.

Parents wrote. I did a few television interviews and radio programs. It was my 15 minutes. Additionally, I took some heat from a (very) few academics who jumped to inform me that authors do not own the meaning of a poem, it is up to literary critics to make this determination. Good grief.

It was not my intent to kick off an argument on of the relative merit of learned literary analysis. I’ll leave that to those with letters after their names. But friends, parents, educators, learned folks, please remember, middle-schoolers are not just short college sophomores. They are not lit majors. These are kids like Paul. Kids who are often grappling with a world of unseen and sometimes unspeakable challenges.

As teachers and parents, our main goal is to get them to love learning, to be curious, and grow to understand the difference between fact and fiction. Writing poetry can help with this by the way, poets are into facts, and not just in April. But how can testing help with this? Geez, Louise! Proficiency test questions don’t even have to be fact-based!

One industrious Advanced Placement student wrote to walk me through two of my poems and each STAAR standardized test question, dutifully explaining how to determine which of the right answers on a multiple choice test is the most right. Clearly he has mastered the game of analyzing minutia. A smart, articulate kid; I found his dedication to compliance, well, disconcerting.

“Big can’t get you if small’s got you,” civil rights leader Rep. Elijah Cummings said recently, quoting the wisdom of his sharecropper father.

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I worry we are raising a generation of students who view success as the ability to focus on marginal minutia while (too often) missing the big ideas in a piece of writing. Worse, children are learning to disregard their own instincts, their histories, their cultural references by devoting themselves to predetermined interpretations. When we tell students what to think, we short sheet their own thought processes.

What if, in that long ago April, some test had told Paul his interpretation was wrong?

I stick to my contention that if a child reads a poem or a story about a red house, it is fair to test the kid’s reading mastery by asking, what color was that house? Once we ask, why did the author paint the house red, we’ve slid off the pedagogical sidewalk. It may be a good question to stimulate rich discussion, but the answer, particularly when it comes to poetry, is not a right or wrong equation. Deciding why the house is red is where we meet, reader and writer as the reader brings a unique experience to the interpretation. This is how we nurture thinking in students.

Besides, if the author hasn’t told us why the house is red, we just can’t know. In fact, the author’s perception of her intent in writing, of the very meaning of her own poem, may in fact change over time.


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Filed under 2017, poetry

What our tales tell us

What fairy tales tell us about where we came from

By Sarah Kaplan

Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/01/21/what-fairy-tales-tell-us-about-where-we-came-from/

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm weren’t trying to get famous writing stories for kids.

Grimm's Fairy Tales_The brothers were trained philologists, serious young men who grew up in poverty and wanted to make a name for themselves doing something important. They had a cause (German nationalism) and a mission: to uncover the origins of the German language. If they spent a lot of time reading fairy tales, it was because they believed those stories revealed something fundamental about German language and culture. They aimed to trace the evolution of their nation — which, in the mid-19th century, was still so fragmented and in flux it barely warranted the title — via stories about talking animals, clever children, evil stepmothers and tricksters of all sorts.

So they searched old book collections, chatted with friends, sought out some peasant mothers with a few good yarns up their sleeves. And they found something a lot bigger, and older, than the Germans.

According to Sara Graca da Silva and Jamshid Tehrani, authors of a study published Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, many of the fairy tales we associate with the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Anderson and Disney are thousands of years older than the people who first stuck them in a book. Some of them are so old that they predate modern languages and religions — one is even older than writing itself.

Rather than being unique to certain cultures — “Snow White” as essentially German, for example — these stories evolved from a common ancestor, much the same way living things did. And in the same way biologists understand evolution by comparing animals’ DNA, da Silva and Tehrani say they can elucidate mysteries about the origins of cultures by looking at the stories they tell.

Not all of this is new. For more than a century, folklorists have been grouping tales from disparate parts of the world according to shared themes, many of which are charmingly (and perhaps disturbingly) specific — “The Obstinate Wife Learns to Obey” for example, or “The Lecherous Holy Man and the Maiden in a Box.” The Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) classification system, the standard of such groupings, includes more than 2,000 kinds of stories that can be applied to fables from all over the world. Clearly, the tales we use to tease, terrify and lull our kids to sleep share some common cultural DNA.

Indeed, the Brothers Grimm wouldn’t have been surprised by da Silva and Tehrani’s finding. Way back in 1884, Wilhelm Grimm asserted that people who spoke languages that shared Indo-European ancestry — the idea of an Indo-European language family had recently become mainstream — might also share folklore and that the contents of his “Children’s and Household Tales” weren’t simply German but also part of a much broader tradition.

Yet many folklorists dispute this notion. If disparate cultures share stories, they argue, it’s because they’ve been passed through societies by trade, conquest, migration and war. You can’t chart two tales back to a common ancestor because there’s too much cross-contamination.

“The consensus was that these processes would have destroyed any deep signatures of descent from ancient ancestral populations,” Tehrani explained to the Atlantic magazine.

And even if stories bear traces of their ancient origins, theories about their evolution are difficult to prove. Before the printing press, folk tales were transmitted only orally — no medieval monk was going to spend decades illuminating a manuscript about Rapunzel and her unwieldy hair. And however influential they might be, stories don’t leave much in the way of a fossil record. If “Little Red Riding Hood” existed several thousand years ago, the story didn’t leave any physical proof of its presence until someone thought to write it down.

Which is why da Silva and Tehrani approached the task of tracing stories like geneticists, rather than fossil hunters. If a researcher can figure out the relationships between species by scanning their DNA and pinpointing their last common ancestor, why can’t folklorists do the same?

According to Tehrani, an anthropologist at the University of Durham, in Britain, they can.

Folk tales “evolve through similar processes as biological species (variation, selection and inheritance),” he wrote for the Conversation in 2013. Mapping their evolutionary history can fill gaps in the literary record “by using information about the past that has been preserved through the mechanism of inheritance.”

In biology, such mapping is part of phylogenetics, the study of evolutionary history and relationships among organisms. Tehrani published his first phylogenetic analysis of a folk tale in PLOS One in 2013, using “Little Red Riding Hood.”

The story exists in countless forms across Europe, Asia and Africa. There’s the one most Americans know — about a little girl in a red cloak who gets eaten by a wolf dressed as her grandmother. But there’s also a version from East Asia in which a leopard disguised as a grandmother persuades a group of sisters to let him into the house, eating one of the girls before the others escape. Then there’s the story from central Africa of a girl who is tricked by an ogre pretending to be her brother, gets eaten, and is only released when her brother tracks the ogre down and kills the impostor. All of them share traits with another type of story known as “The Wolf and the Kids” in which a group of goat kids are devoured by a wolf who tricks them into thinking it’s their mother.

By analyzing the language, characters and plots from these tales — the stories’ “genes,” so to speak — Tehrani constructed a family tree of the type you might see in an exhibit at a natural history museum. Starting with a single shared ancestor that arose somewhere between Europe and the Middle East about 2,000 years ago, the stories branched off into the groups that would be classified as ATU 333 and ATU 123. The 333 family line would give rise to the familiar Grimm version of Red, while the African version is actually more closely related to the 123 family. The East Asian version, he concluded, is a 333 relative that borrowed some traits from its 123 cousins.

The research offered an interesting look at how stories evolve, but Tehrani argued that its effect is more than just academic.

“Folktales, more than any other type of story, embody our shared fantasies, fears and experiences,” he wrote in 2013. “Understanding which elements of them remain stable and which ones change as they get transmitted across generations and societies can therefore provide a unique window into universal and variable aspects of the human condition.”

Tehrani tackled his next project with that goal in mind. Along with da Silva, who studies intersections between evolution and literature at the New University of Lisbon in Portugal, he pieced together phylogenetic trees for 275 story types from the “Tales of Magic” category in the ATU system.

In 76 cases, the duo was able to trace the story back hundreds or even thousands of years. The oldest of them is a tale about a blacksmith who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for unmatched smithing powers and who uses them to pin the Devil down, allowing the smith to keep his soul and his new abilities. That tale dates back 6,000 years, to the beginning of the Bronze Age.

If true, this finding may clear up some confusion about the origin of the Proto-Indo-European language speakers who first started telling that story. Very little is known about the people who launched the language family that would come to encompass everything from Sanskrit and Urdu to Latin and English. As Mark Damen, a historian at Utah State University explains it:

“There is still no unequivocal evidence from either historical or archaeological sources for exactly where, when or how the original speakers of Proto-Indo-European lived. No site, no technology, no extant historical text, no particular past event has as yet been definitively associated with the people whose descendants would later spread Indo-European culture and language across the entire globe. The Indo-Europeans are at present in strictest terms a linguistic phenomenon, which is not to say their culture never existed — there is overwhelming evidence it must have at some point in history and, without doubt, somewhere in Eurasia — but that’s not very precise.”

Still, there are generally two schools of thought about where a huge number of the world’s cultural origins might have been. One proposes that Proto-Indo-European language speakers were Neolithic farmers living 9,000 years ago in what is now Turkey, while the second argues that they were pastoralists from the Russian steppes who knew how to work metal.

If it’s true that “The Smith and the Devil” — a story now told in numerous Indo-European languages — really does date back 6,000 years, it could be a boon for the latter school of thought. The 9,000-year-old Turks lived before the invention of metallurgy and were unlikely to have told a story whose hero was a blacksmith. Those Russian pastoralists, on the other hand, fit the bill perfectly. Reconstructed versions of the Indo-European vocabulary include a possible word for metal, according to da Silva and Tehrani’s study, and the fact that these people lived at the beginning of the Bronze Age “suggests a plausible context for the cultural evolution of a tale about a cunning smith who attains a superhuman level of mastery over his craft.”

But this detail was also a sticking point with some other researchers who read the study. John Lindow, a folklorist at the University of California at Berkeley, told Science News that the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary for working with metal was fairly limited. It’s not clear that the term “smith” even existed, he argued, which casts doubt on the claim that “The Smith and the Devil” is as old and significant as Tehrani and da Silva say.

But Tehrani rebutted that argument. And speaking to the Atlantic, he was already envisioning future research into why some tales are told for thousands of years, and what plot elements or motifs seem to persist through the various retellings.

“We think this is the start of a much bigger project using oral traditions and storytelling as windows into the lives of our ancestors,” he said.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who started that same project 150 years ago, would probably be proud.

Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/01/21/what-fairy-tales-tell-us-about-where-we-came-from/


Filed under 2016, fairy tales