Our friends at Diigo have experienced the devastating earthquake in Sichuan, China in a very personal way, as their research and development office is located 90 km from the epicenter. They featured this haunting photo at their blog, emphasizing the horrifying loss, destruction and upheaval (more photos here).

(Source: http://www.chinareviewnews.com)

We send our best wishes to everyone at Diigo.

When Hurricane Katrina hit, devastating our own beautiful and sultry state of Louisiana, I was teaching an Anglo-Saxon elegiac form of poetry to high school seniors. I posted a link to an article in the New York Times, so they could read stories of personal tragedy caused by the hurricane, and then asked them to write an elegy using assonance and alliteration. They downloaded photos from Google images and made posters with their poems to display at back-to-school night.


Walt Whitman’s “America”

Poems yearn to be spoken. And, how much better to be spoken by the poet, wherein we hear the creator’s intent, augmenting our understanding of words we’ve long known. The invention of recording occurred during the mid-1800s, and forever changed poetry and music, making them more widely accessible. Charge swiftly into the future,and witness the power of the internet to bring us the voice of Walt Whitman reciting from his poem, “America.” There are only 35 seconds of it, and the sound quality is about what you would expect from an 1888 recording, but it is Walt Whitman!

These are the words you will hear:


Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love . . .

Open Culture brings us the recording:

poetry out loud

Shawntay Henry from St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands is this year’s winner of Poetry Out Loud, a national competition sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Shawntay’s recitation of “Frederick Douglass” by Robert E. Hayden is whispery and dramatic, commanding her audience to reflect upon each word.

Even if your students were not among the 200,000 nationwide who participated, you can devise a competition for your own classes. The Poetry Out Loud website has an amazing list of 400 poems, both classical and contemporary, from which to choose. Here’s one of my favorites: mulberry fields, by Lucille Clifton.

In the true spirit of the actual contest, require your students to memorize one poem. They will ‘own’ that poem, and it will remain with them for the rest of their lives.

Begin by creating a Google form so that students can input their choice of poem. Create input fields for each student’s name, the poem’s title, and a link to the particular poem they have chosen. You will then have a list at your disposal to enable you to follow along with the students’ recitations. If possible, project the written poem from the links on your list to a screen for the audience to follow along as the poem is being performed.

What a wonderful way to celebrate our poetic heritage.

More articles on Poetry

tap your iambs

let them remix videos

music in the mix

tap your iambs

I ran across an article last week from a well-known educational website, touting the glorious revolution of education . . . in instructional videos. As if they were all the rage, the new thing. They are not; videos are old-school, and while they do have their place, their benefits are likely to be minimal because they are not interactive. When I looked more closely at the site, I saw that it was plastered with ads, selling software and yes, videos.

Students like videos, anything to break up their day of typical instruction, but mainly they like them because it allows them to be passive for a chunk of time while they are entertained. If the instruction is presented well, they will pick up some useful information, but they won’t know it until they themselves present.

Take a look at how this happens. Click on this first video explaining how iambic pentameter works. This is typical old-school academic instruction, done well.

Now, watch this video: highly untypical student-centered instruction, done . . . well, see for yourself!

let them remix videos

I like to think of myself as an early adopter, not of gadgets, but of online applications. I’ll try out just about anything, but I’ll only return if it’s easy to use, solves a problem, is functional on a frequent basis, is cheap, or is just lots of fun. Animoto is an online application which creates studio-quality videos from still photos, and it is definitely all-of-the-above.

The problem this application solves is helping teenagers ‘get’ poetry. The language of many old poems is accessible only to the ardently committed, and we’re talking about seventeen-year-olds. Even some college students will take the easy way out, sitting back and waiting for you to tell them what it means.

Here’s a lesson plan. Assign several poems by the same poet, pair off your students, and give each pair a separate poem. Then tell them to create a video that expresses the major themes of the poem. Sounds interesting, but too technologically challenging and time consuming? Not at all. It’s a snap, and I’ll show you how.

First, a poem:

from, Tintern Abbey

by William Wordsworth

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedgerows, hardly hedgerows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.

Wordsworth can be counted on to provide visuals that emphasize his theme of worship in natural surrounds. Have your students highlight or embolden illustrative words and terms, then set them loose online to find photos with which to capture the poem’s meaning. Save the photos (they’ll need 10-15), then upload them to Animoto, select accompanying music, then sit back while the Animoto video-making engine does its thing.

Did I mention cheap? Animoto allows you to make videos up to 30 seconds in length for free. For $3, you can create a video of any length.

My Tintern Abbey video is ready. See for yourself . . .

music in the mix

Before there were ipods or CDs, before we played albums and 45s, even before the top 10 blared from pocket-sized transistor radios, people carried their music around with them. Picture a nineteenth century scholar, steeped in the curricula of Greek and Latin, sneaking peeks at a pocketbook of rhythmic poems by Byron behind his professor’s back. Think about that the next time you chastise a student for wearing those omnipresent earplugs to class!

Even before our carry-around music manifested itself in the beats and rhymes of printed poetry in a waistcoat pocket, we had oral narratives in poetic delivery to preserve memory of words, certainly, but also to mimic music where there were no instruments or players around. In every culture, we have always had music, we have always had poetry.

Three timeless themes of poetry as well as music are love, loss, and alienation, themes which are particularly favored by teens. Two Anglo-Saxon poems which exemplify these favored themes are “The Wanderer” and “The Wife’s Lament.”

Brain-based educational theory teaches us that new learning takes place when we connect to what the learner already knows, and our students definitely know music. Two somewhat recent songs which carry the themes of the poems mentioned above are Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams, and “Evanescence’s “My Immortal.” (These have worked successfully, but I’m on the lookout for more up-to-date songs.) Consider the lyrics of “Boulevard” and compare it to verses from “The Wanderer.”

[Boulevard of Broken Dreams ]
I walk a lonely road
The only one that I have ever known
Don’t know where it goes
But it’s home to me and I walk alone

I walk this empty street
On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams
Where the city sleeps
and I’m the only one and I walk alone

I walk alone
I walk alone

My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me
My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating
Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me
‘Til then I walk alone

[The Wanderer]
“Oft when the day broke, oft at the dawning,
Lonely and wretched I wailed my woe.
No man is living, no comrade left.
To whom I dare fully unlock my heart.
I have learned truly the mark of a man
Is keeping his counsel and locking his lips,
Let him think what he will!! . . . a failing spirit
Earneth no help. Men eager for honor
Bury their sorrow deep in the breast.

And, now, these two:

[My Immortal ]
You used to captivate me
By your resonating light
Now I’m bound by the life you left behind
Your face it haunts
My once pleasant dreams
Your voice it chased away
All the sanity in me

These wounds won’t seem to heal
This pain is just too real
There’s just too much that time cannot erase

I’ve tried so hard to tell myself that you’re gone
But though you’re still with me
I’ve been alone all along

[The Wife’s Lament]
The valleys are dark the hills high
the yard overgrown bitter with briars
a joyless dwelling. Full oft the lack of my lord
seizes me cruelly here. Friends there are on earth
living beloved lying in bed
while I at dawn am walking alone
under the oak tree through these earth halls.
There I may sit the summerlong day
there I can weep over my exile
my many hardships. Hence I may not rest
from this care of heart which belongs to me ever

I present the modern songs and discuss the themes of the lyrics, then seat the girls on one side of the class, guys on the other, and have them read the two Anglo-Saxon poems to each other. When we discuss the poems the themes are already very apparent.

You can provide the lyrics to the modern songs, but playing the music is ever more effective, emphasizing the emotional impact of poetry. It will cost you to download from iTunes, but the videos for most songs are available free from YouTube.

linking intelligence

One of the advantages of technology in education is the way in which multimedia delivers literacy. This can be as simple as portraying a poem by William Wordsworth, “The world is too much with us.” This is a static rendering, similar to what we might find in a book.

The world is too much with us
by William Wordsworth
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours.
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon !
This sea, that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers–
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A pagan, suckled in a creed outworn,
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus, rising from the sea,
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

A more dynamic use of media to enhance understanding of this poem is to use links. For example, I’ve placed a link in the poet’s name in order to provide biographical background. If you allow the cursor to linger on the link without clicking through, known as a flyover, you’ll get the briefest information about the poet. Once you’ve clicked through, you’ll find a page-long biography written by a university scholar.

The flyover feature provides a very useful function in that it answers a question that may form in the reader’s mind, without the reader having to leave the ‘page.’ [Note: not all linking mechanisms are capable of producing flyovers. Google docs does.] This feature is reminiscent of books of poems that contain word definitions placed in the margins by editors.

Clicking on the link provides a deeper level of information, but it does not stop there. The linked page itself (www.victoriaweb.org) provides many further links. Conceivably, you could follow them ad infinitum to receive a wealth of information about the Victorian Age. The point is, depth through linking is almost limitless.

Now, read the poem, allowing the cursor to ‘flyover’ each of the links as you go. Even if you know the definitions, seeing them can help you to understand the meaning of the poem. By clicking through any of the links in the poem, you can gain even greater understanding. Most of the words link to Wiktionary, an online dictionary which provides etymologies and other useful information about each word. The links for Proteus and Triton take you to a discussion of Greek gods in Wikipedia, surely not comprehensive, but a start to knowledge that will help us get through the poem. The word lea is understood better through a visual, so the link takes us to a photo (from Google images).
Has our understanding of the poem been helped by these simple tools? Perhaps. What about comprehension? Probably not. However, if we learn best by answering the questions that come up in our minds as we are reading, then the linking tool certainly provides convenience. We use intelligent linking to answer our most immediate questions.