Tag Archives: poetry

The Power of Metaphor

The neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran in his fascinating book “The Telltale Brain” describes the uniquely human capacity to create metaphors. It requires a sophisticated ability to juxtapose two seemingly unrelated concepts because they have some point of similarity at a deeper cognitive level.
An unopened bud is an evocative metaphor for a baby. Not because babies are green and grow on bushes, but because as babies grow they open up and reveal themselves, often revealing unexpected delights and great beauty.
To create or appreciate a metaphor we need to get below the obvious and the literal. We need to think in depth and to integrate our understanding and create links between previously disconnected bits of information.
In McREL’S ‘Classroom Instruction That Works’ we explore the powerful learning strategy of looking for similarities and differences. When we sort through new information and compare and classify it, we are making sense of what we are learning and finding sensible ways to connect this new knowledge with what we already know about the world.

The interpretation and, even more powerfully, the creation of metaphors, takes thinking to a different level of abstraction. It encourages students to look beyond the literal, to become more subtle and nuanced thinkers, There in lies the power of the metaphor in learning.
Which brings me back to an earlier blog about poets and about Einstein.
Where is our richest store of metaphor? In poetry. And how prominent is poetry in your curriculum? Is the focus on informational text relegating poetry to an optional extra?

Poetry has been a common thread running through the heart of every enlightened society. Not only because through poetry we are often able to touch the otherwise ineffable, sense the fleeting, more insubstantial but nonetheless essential aspects of lives. Poetry is the means by which we can learn to think beyond the literal and dig deeper into experience and our conceptual understanding of the world.

We deny our children much if we fail to foster their understanding of and love for poetry and metaphor.

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Where Are The Poets and Where is Einstein?

In a recent blog I was fretting about the future of poetry. The problem is    actually wider and deeper.

Einstein said:

 “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge.”

He also said of his most famous discovery:

“The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition”.

 

And so the inevitable questions are:

  • How do we test for imagination using a multiple choice Scantron sheet?
  • What are we doing to teach more than just the acquisition of factual knowledge?
  • Why is the teaching of music in decline?

A USA report by the Center on Educational Policy in December 2007 found that 62% of schools had increased the instructional time spent on the two major tested areas of English Language Arts and mathematics. It also found, unsurprisingly, that 31% of schools had reduced the time given to non-tested subjects. Another five years has made things worse. Some school systems, faced with budget cuts, have eliminated specialist music teachers from elementary schools altogether.

The reduction in time given to non-tested areas was found to be more prevalent in school districts that were considered in need of improvement. “In need of improvement” can virtually always be read as “high poverty”. If the trend continues we can expect to see the Arts become curriculum offerings for the affluent while the poor will be more and more denied the opportunity to share in these riches of our society, in the same way they are denied the more material riches.

The high stakes testing regime has been alive and kicking in the USA since 2001 and has had plenty of time to do its work on the Arts. In Australia the Federal government, for reasons known only to itself, and not to educators, is heading down the testing path of the USA – as usual about ten years later and just as the USA begins to wake up in more enlightened circles to the fact that this path leads nowhere desirable.

I was disturbed to find that although there was a weekly specialist music lesson, there was virtually NO classroom music in the school I lead in the USA. There was a smattering in the very youngest classes, but nothing more. I recall the astonishment on the faces of the kids and the teacher of one of my grade three classes when I went into the room and had them all stand up, follow me, and learn the song and actions to “A Pirate Went To Sea, Sea, Sea”.

When I was a classroom teacher my classrooms were always filled with music. The CD player was on my desk, we had quiet classical music in the background during writing sessions, we sang songs about numbers, about countries, about ideas. Music was a part of how the children learned.

Often the music was also associated with movement, so we were on our feet singing counting songs, clapping, jumping and stamping our feet as we sang our multiplication tables. I would make up short refrains to help children to learn how to spell difficult words so we could sing them as well as write them and recite them.

I interacted with the music teacher so that she could adjust her music program to expand on the things we were learning about in other curriculum areas, and so that we could sing the songs and play the music she had been working with when the children returned to my classroom.

Here is the problem. As the Common Core State Standards and the Australian Curriculum are implemented in their respective school systems, we can anticipate a flood of testing to follow close behind. Results will be made public in the name of some sort of ‘accountability’ – often more a search for someone to blame. That will increase the stakes for these tests and the inevitable slide will accelerate, as tested subjects take up more and more curriculum time and the non-tested arts subjects are relegated to the frills area of the curriculum.

We need to take at least two kinds of action.

Firstly we need to protest loudly and often if and when we see any diminution in the time and value given to the arts in our schools.

Secondly, we need to find ways to incorporate the kinds of learning that are facilitated by the use of images, non-linguistic representations, the translation of knowledge into visual media and the use of music in our classrooms, whatever we are teaching.

If specialist arts lessons are reduced, let’s bring them into all the areas of the curriculum that will be tested. Let’s teach our kids mathematics, poetry, grammar, science, social studies – the whole panoply – with color, with images, with music and with movement.

We need poets and we need more Einsteins.

 

 

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Where will we find the poets?

The Common Core Standards have many admirable features. I always like to look at the verbs, and I find a lot that refer to thinking. In mathematics students are asked to construct viable arguments, critique the reasoning of others, communicate precisely, make sense of problems and persevere in solving them and apply the mathematics they know to solve problems. All good. In Language Arts they will be asked to describe relationships, determine meanings, compare and contrast, cite evidence, analyze and evaluate. That’s great too.

But something is potentially lacking in the Language Arts curriculum. In Reading, students are expected to experience a variety of genres, including poetry. But in Writing the focus is firmly on writing arguments, informational and explanatory texts, and the construction of narratives. There is no mention of poetry in writing other than as a side bar that explains that the inclusion of poetry writing is entirely at the teacher’s discretion.

I understand the importance of making our students “college and career ready”, but I also believe our society is enriched and deepened by its commitment to the arts and to the aesthetic elements of our culture.  Poetry ought not to be an optional extra. From the ancient Greek poets to the beat poets, concrete poets, poets of the absurdist movement and voices of our present generation, poetry has been a reflection of the heart of humanity.

Poetry is a particularly important medium for children because its freedom and essentially inventive nature allows children to play with their language as they learn to master it and bend it to their uses. By writing poetry children learn to appreciate the music of language, the rhythms of words, the power of the pause, the brilliance of individual words and the unexpected power of particular word combinations. To deny our children the opportunity to write poetry is to deny them a vital path of effective language learning and an insight into one of the most important paths in our literate culture.

As assessments inevitably follow standards, school districts will keep their focus firmly on ensuring that students are becoming proficient in the things that will be measured. I profoundly hope that leaving poetry to the discretion of the teacher does not push to the margins.

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