One of those classes: children on top of my greenhouse

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Child on Top of a Greenhouse 

The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,

My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,

The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,

 Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,

A few white clouds all rushing eastward,

A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses, 

 And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting! 

 Theodore Roethke 

Thursday was one of those days. One of those classes that just clicked and a group of 12 year olds, without knowing it gave their teacher the belief that good things can come from throwing the plan out the window.

We were reading Theodore Roethke‘s Child on Top of a Greenhouse, having spent the whole month on poetry. We started by linking Bruegel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus with poems by William Carlos Williams and WH Auden about the painting. Looking at paintings is a great way into a poem, the visual, the narrative, the surface and the depth of a painting are great mirrors for how I want them to see a poem: what comes naturally in reading a painting can be taught quickly for a poem. You have to present them with the limitless possibilities in a piece of art: I tell them there are no wrong answers and no judgement but we’ll move ahead when we’re all happy with a suggestion. I like to introduce ‘the maybe’, ‘maybe he’s saying…’ maybe it shows…’

We wrote some poems, haikus about what we saw.

We moved on to First Steps by Van Gogh. I didn’t link this to a poem but used it for a writing exercise for homework and built on the still moment in a painting so we could discuss the stillness in a poem. I didn’t talk about it that way, but talked about a snapshot, or a selfie that captures a fleeting thing forever.

Then we went ‘under the surface’ The Road Not Taken: we discussed the ending first, where is Frost when he tells us the story?, how does he feel about it ?and then the choices he made, the choices we make. All very structured, me taking less of a lead, but still prodding their ideas along, them getting more confident.

Last week we tore into Blackberry Picking by Seamus Heaney to look at the senses and emotions in a seasonal poem that has all the heartbreak of youth, but still an adult’s view, looking back. The haikus they wrote, edited and tweeted in response are here.

So it was all going pretty well before we even got to Roethke. I wanted to do a mirroring exercise: take the poem and rewrite for yourself. That had to wait.

I opened with a joke in the first line, how does the wind billow out the back of your trousers? They smile but set me straight, it’s not flatulence it’s how high up he is! We talk about the onomatopoeic cracks under his feet as he realises how high up he is, we look for other onomatopoeic words. I explain what putty is (the generation gap!) and it’s all going fine. I think it is when we get to chrysanthemums that things take off. I say they are sometimes symbolic of death but I don’t know if that’s what Roethke has in mind. Someone says they’re half grown like the boy. Someone else says he’s going to get killed, not literally but throwing forward to the end, killed ‘like parents do'(!). Then we talk about sunlight and streaked glass, ‘the place the child was in’, ‘he’s up high, he can see stuff he doesn’t see when he’s down low’ and the transition into my favourite part of the poem is ready, so far: 90% their work. Look at those clouds, look at those trees, I say. ‘He can see new things’, ‘maybe he hasn’t noticed this stuff before’, ‘maybe he’s very still, because he doesn’t want to break the glass and everything in the sky is moving’ (no homework for you!), ‘the horses’ manes are like the trees in the wind’  ‘when you said about the chrysanthemums, they were half grown, maybe he isn’t going to be the same after this’, ‘maybe this is when he grows up’ (no homework for anyone!).

‘I think he mightn’t care about the adults pointing up’, ‘they aren’t just adults, it’s everyone’, why does he repeat everyone?, I ask, ‘for emphasis’ (love that), ‘but maybe it was a barbecue and all the neighbours are there, even his grandparents are pointing’ (beautiful). And then this clincher: ‘I don’t think he cares about them being angry.’ I push here, and they divide into two groups, some say ‘he does care, it brings him back down to earth’ (I don’t acknowledged this because I’m floating on air at that stage), some others say ‘maybe he’s a man now, writing this and he knows being up on the greenhouse is the right place to be’.

And I tell my students, twelve year old girls who rode the crest of this poem and didn’t blink an eye, that this has been the best class in my room for years. and as they’re leaving one turns to another and says ‘that was good, wasn’t it?, ‘yeah,’ comes the reply, like they can do this all the time.

And while this doesn’t happen every day, or even week, I’m the better for it, because it makes me reach, and they’re the better for it because it makes them think. I didn’t think once of outcomes, or objectives or process, but I was a teacher in the middle of it all.

 

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Reads of the Week #47

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First post in this series for 2016 has a New Year feel: things to read, Christmas memories, reflections on the year gone by, the best photos of 2015 and the start of a new sporting year. 

Here are 50 Great 21st Century Novels For 6th Formers

These are the books James Wood of the New Yorker loved in 2015

Harper Lee’s Christmas in New York

This is Katie Coyle’s year in reading and grief
Two sets of photos: 2015 in photos from the White House, and the New York Times best photos of 2015

And finally two great sporting reads: Paul Rouse on the glorious disease called Hope for GAA players, and PM O’Sullivan’s interview with Shane McGrath is powerful too.

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Reads of the Week #45

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More great writing, an extract from each should whet your appetite. (I reckon that’s the first time I’ve written the word whet.)

How much thought and effort do you invest in making sure you look good, popular and happy on Facebook or Instagram, asks Michael Gonchar

Oliver Burkeman says young people today, along with their Snapchat and their selfies and their sexting, apparently engage in a practice known as “phubbing”. According to Sherry Turkle, the American sociologist of digital life, this involves maintaining eye contact with one person while text-messaging another.

How unusual is it for a gun owner to have two AR-15 assault rifles and 2,500 rounds of rifle ammunition—the “arsenal” police found in the possession of Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik, asks John Weiner. 

Donal Fallon writes about a  funeral procession without a corpse: the Manchester Martyrs and Glasnevin Cemetery
When it comes to teaching poetry, Andy Tharby asks how much should I tell them and how much should I elicit from them?
As a child, Freya McClements had 16 library tickets

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Reads of the Week #44

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This week I’m going to let some extract speak for the exceptional writing I’ve picked speak for themselves. 



There are plenty of ways to help children who have miserable lives but making excuses for them is not one of them, says Heather Fearn here.

Let us not make people at the margins into scouts or spies for the mainstream. Let us stop asking people to speak for the entire cacophonic segment of humanity that shares their pigmentation, genitalia, or turn-ons. Katie Coyle is insisting we do better.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were killed at sunset on 19 June, 1953. It was their 14th wedding anniversary. A few days earlier, they had said goodbye to their children, Michael and Robert, who were 10 and six. They were young parents. They were people who loved. Their fate was awful. This is Sam Jordison on EL Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel.

The first poems I read by a poet who was not dead or a writer of hymns were by Ted Hughes, writes Anthony Wilson, discussing Hughes’ impact on his life.

This is an except from “Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories” by Rob Brotherton on autism, vaccines and why some people believe Jenny McCarthy over every doctor.

In this year alone, Russia has seen the appearance of a new Stalin museum in Tver Region and a monument to the ‘Big Three’ (Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin) in Crimea in memory of the participants of 1945 Yalta conference. Statues to the Generalissimo have been unveiled across the entire country—in Lipetsk, Mari El, North Ossetia, Stavropol, Vladimir and in the Kuban region. Stalin is back writes Dmitry Okrest.
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Reads of the Week #43

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This week we have quiet in the classroom, linguistics, poets and their public, the myth and reality of being Celtic, memory and fiction, and Jimmy Fallon.

Kenny Pieper on the sound of silence in the classroom.

Ana Menéndez asks: Are We Different People in Different Languages?

Clive James: ‘Poets in the free countries don’t get famous’.

Mick Heaney: Cúchulainn, Roosevelt & what it means to be Celtic.

Isabelle Cartwright: Chinese whispers, or reshaping memories to create fiction.

Jimmy Fallon Does Not Have to Cater to Anyone, says Scott Raab.

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Reads of the Week #42

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This week I have a poet on poetry, Joe Hill’s centenary, the stories of migrants to Ireland, Irishmen in Workd War I, the curious language that is English and Prufrock: the comic.

Here’s why poetry matters by Anthony Wilson.

Lily Murphy explains the importance of Joe Hill, one hundred years after he was executed.
Sorcha Pollak’s #newtotheparish series for the Irish Times is well worth reading.

Ronan McGreevy writes on the often forgotten Irish volunteers who marched to certain death in World War I

From Aoen Magazine, this is John McWhorter on why English is so weirdly different from other languages

And  here’s Julian Peters’ comic version of TS Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
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Reads of the Week #40

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Milestone upon milestones: forty posts and 250+ articles now collected, keep reading:

First Laura Kennedy on Essena O’Neill: a normal 18-year-old: self-obsessed and narcissistic

Next Dawn Cox on Twitter, Secret Teacher and where the truth lies in education

A powerful piece by Binyavanga Wainaina on how to write about Africa

Completely different but equally compelling, Sarah Boxer on the exemplary narcissism of Snoopy. (Two articles on narcissism this week? Better watch myself [in the mirror!!!])

History choice of the week is Dave Hannigan’s piece on Fenway Park and Irish history.
And finally, Xan Brooks interviews Cate Blanchett, it’s great, she’s great, but you knew that.