Introduction to Poetry

by Matthew Koslowski on July 7, 2010
in Essays

I often wonder why people think reading a poem is different than reading other works of fiction. When you pick up Tinkers by Paul Harding or Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk or A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, you just start reading. You do not aim to discover the meaning of the work until you have worked through the story.

But with a poem people start trying to figure the meaning from the minute they read the title. If you are trying to determine the meaning of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” from the moment you begin reading it, you will miss the horror of picturing a raven flying into your house and speaking to you. If you are trying to discover the meaning of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” you will miss the woods, lovely, dark, and deep.

My friend lent me Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins.

I sat in a Dunkin’ Donuts reading through it and I nearly spat out my coffee in surprise. (I am sure she’s glad that I didn’t: she lent me an autographed copy.) One of his poems echoes what I wrote in Diving into Poetry two weeks ago.

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Opting In

by Matthew Koslowski on June 30, 2010
in Anecdotes

I have an imperfect memory from the beginning of a middle school — was it sixth grade? Seventh? — science class. But it stands out singularly in my memory of my schooling.

It was the beginning of the year, perhaps even the first day of school. He called on me. I don’t remember what the question was. But I do remember how I felt.

I sat there, uncomfortable, searching. I felt my body growing tense. I felt first embarassed and then afraid.

“I don’t know,” I said, little more than a whisper.

He smiled. “That’s the correct answer — for now. You don’t know, but you will learn. Why else are you in school?” He turned to the rest of the class, “Does anyone else know?” And then he continued with the lesson.

Until that point in school, things came naturally to me and I remember feeling dread and panic that I didn’t already know something. How can I not know this thing? I felt relief and gratitude.

I don’t know that the teacher knows what a gift he gave me that day. I hope that he knows — that he intentionally asked something we unlikely to know, to remind us why we are in school — but I continue to wish that I could tell him. But I think the greatest gift I can give is to learn from his example and give that gift to my students.

Although I still dislike being wrong, I have carried this lesson with me. I know now that being wrong and being ignorant is not a permanent state.

Scientific Literature

Medicine, law, business, engineering are necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love are what we stay alive for.

–John Keating, Dead Poet’s Society

She said, “I didn’t take any literature courses in college. The only courses I took were in technical writing for the sciences. They were in the English Department, even though writing for the sciences isn’t literature.”

I grew sad thinking that scientific writing is no longer literature.

One of the first essays I published on Literature&Literacy was about this very topic. There was a time when the word “literature” was used to encompass all of the written word and the word “poetry” was used to encompass both prose fiction and verse. At that time, being literate included having a knowledge of the scientific writing of the day.

But I cannot fault what she said. I do not read Scientific American nor Nature. I do not read Popular Mechanic nor MAKE Magazine.

And that also makes me sad.

While I am not wholly ignorant of contemporary science, I am nearly so. I chalk this up to the sciences becoming increasingly specialized. Little seems to be written for the popular audience, though want of finding might be from want of looking.

I remember sitting with friends in college for dinner. They were all scientists of some sort — physicists, biologists, astronomers — and they each knew enough about the others’ work to understand the conversation. I believe they were talking about string theory. But what they were talking about was so beyond the physics I had studied in high school that I just felt stupid.

And perhaps that feeling of ineptitude, of stupidity, of a dumbness kept me from studying the sciences.

The sciences that interested me most were the brain sciences. Although I finished with degrees in the humanities and the history of art, I chose schools based on whether they offered undergraduate degrees on neuroscience. And I do occasionally read some on neuroscience. Some of the most useful ideas I’ve encountered about our minds and how they function came from reading Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. And Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time left me with a sense of wonder.

My interest has always lain in how to live in this life, how others live in this life. Technology interests me only so far as it is part of my life and people engage it. In some ways, I dislike technology because it removes a human element from our life; yet, I do not want to see people’s bodies ache from back breaking labor like in Millet’s The Sower.

Science does not answer these questions.

For that reason both the sciences and the arts are necessary. They have different domains and do not work to answer the same questions.

Special Announcement

by Matthew Koslowski on May 28, 2010
in Announcements

I am now a licensed educator in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts!

Yesterday morning, I received an email notification that my application for a Preliminary Teacher License for Grades 5-8 and for Grades 9-12 has been approved.

I will be seeking a classroom for the fall. In the meantime, I will be seeking students to tutor this summer. If you have would like me to tutor your child, or if you know people seeking a tutor for their children, please contact me.

Assessing Whole Students

by Matthew Koslowski on May 19, 2010
in Essays

“When I become a teacher, my students are going to look at my syllabus and say, ‘You expect us to do what now?’” my friend D. said. “I believe in the multiple-intelligences theory.”

We talk about the freedom that the Digital Age has given us for self-expression.

But has it really? The Internet is, largely, a text-based medium. Yes, we do have websites that are visual galleries but, for example, the website of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston — and even the galleries themselves — are filled with text.

Writing is becoming an ever more important skill. Kara Miller wrote an op-ed in today’s Boston Globe, “Failure to communicate“, in which she discusses how weak are the writing skills of incoming college students.

To some degree, it’s a mathematical problem. If it takes me all weekend to correct 40 papers, how can a high school English teacher begin to tackle 120 papers (four sections, 30 students per section) in a detail-oriented way?

–Kara Miller

I have thought about this problem myself as I pursue becoming a teacher. Robyn Jackson in her book Never Work Harder Than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching suggested if students are weak on developing opening paragraphs for essays, give them assignments just on opening paragraphs; if they are weak on topic sentences, give them assignments on topic sentences; if they are weak on the structure of an entire essay, give them assignments to write entire essays. I think of the hundreds of students I will have and how long it will take just those shorter assignments.

I admire D. She’s very passionate about challenging her future students and encouraging them to think for themselves. I admire that she wants to use a portfolio system — requiring tests, essays, presentations, and class participation — rather relying solely on one channel. In fact, that is the kind of assessment system that I want to use. But I wonder how much of our time employing that is going to require.

I have thought about giving students two grades per paper. The first for their grammar and the second for their arguments. Reading Kara Miller’s op-ed article, I wonder if I can really separate the two. If the student does not clearly spell out what he or she meant to say, then the teacher is just guessing at the meaning.

D., by her own admission, did not get the best grades in high school. She was not interested in the history she was taught and only rarely in the books. Her interests were more attuned to what she’s now studying, philosophy and psychology. She did not feel engaged with the work and as such did not care about the assessments she was given.

“Middle and high schools do not teach critical thinking,” she asserts.

I remember feeling that way as well. Disagreeing with the teacher in an essay was often a recipe for a bad grade, even in honors and advanced placement classes. And this was before the institution of high stakes testing in Massachussetts.

How can the MCAS assess critical thinking?

It cannot, and we should not expect it to measure that. The MCAS presents the items as if everything can be categorized as right or wrong. We can agree that Shakespeare wrote sonnets and plays, that his works were written in iambic pentameter, often rhyming; we can agree that Thomas Hardy wrote novels and poetry, perhaps we can even agree that it was the poor reviews of critics of his poetry that pushed him to writing novels; and we can call facts forms in which authors wrote, works that are attributed to them.

But on the meaning of the work, on the interpretation of the works, there is plenty of room for disagreement. You may think this passage was parody, was an ironic comment on something; I may think the author meant it as stated. The author cannot tell us and, in truth, I wouldn’t want him or her to clarify.

Ambiguity is good for thought.

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