Our “Incidentally” column shares English Teaching Resources & opinions about the state of education, from a teacher who has worked the systems for almost 25 years.
L.L. Barkat is K-12 permanently certified, holds a Masters in English & American Literature from New York University and a Master of Science for Teachers from Pace University, and has taught at every level of education preceding graduate school.
From college teaching of business and group dynamics to elementary teaching at a troubled urban district, from high school teaching at a private Hebrew day school to high school teaching at a leading U.S. public school, then on to K-8 of home educating two daughters (who are now enrolled in accredited distance learning schools for 9-12), Barkat has managed to form a few strong opinions about education along the way—and a whole lot of love for learning that she now pours into the business of Tweetspeak Poetry.
Last night I sat down to help my daughter with what I feel is one of the most misguided courses she’s yet taken in the name of “college prep”: an AP English course.
“That was not about poetry,” I said, when we were finished going through material that was going to test her up, down, and sideways on litotes, synecdoches, metonymy, and sundry points of analysis regarding “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” “Tell All the Truth,” and other favorites (of mine).
I wanted to (yet again) say some very impolite words to the creators of the online AP English course. I held my tongue. Briefly. Then I did what I’ve always done with my daughter, for the love of poetry and all kinds of English literature: I opened my mouth and read aloud. Yes, I read aloud to my high school daughter. (We’ve been reading aloud together since she was an infant, unable to hold herself up, but keenly holding the expressions of my face and the rhythms of my voice).
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
When I was finished reading aloud, I commented quite simply on a cherished phrase, “I love that: ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” And a small conversation ensued, wherein my daughter argued with the way the material was being presented…
“It can’t mean that. They’re wrong.”
And I gently offered, “Oh, they’re speaking from their expert knowledge about Emily Dickinson and her themes, and making some assumptions about the poem because of it.”
“Then they should tell you that,” she volleyed back.
Maybe they shouldn’t.
Maybe, just maybe, English teaching should instead use the “incidentally, that’s” approach, where the love for words prevails, and students find they want to discover more about Emily Dickinson (or litotes, synecdoches, chiasmus, you name it)—without being first (or ever) treated to a whole presentation (followed up by tedious testing) on the parts of the speech and the history of the writer.
Yes, I am calling for an English teaching revolution—How to Read a Poem style—where readers are permitted to love words and not compelled to torture and kill those beloved words. Yes, I want English teachers to hold their tongues (briefly), then open their mouths to read aloud (and, yes, they need to be permitted to do so by their Districts). I would like nothing better than to see hours on end spent just so in the English teaching classroom: reading aloud. And along the way, a teacher might say, “Incidentally, that’s a chiasmus.” And the chiasmus might volley back, “That’s a teacher, incidentally.”
Chiasmus (from Apple Computer Dictionary)
A rhetorical or literary figure in which words, grammatical constructions, or concepts are repeated in reverse order, in the same or modified form; e.g. ‘Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.’
Origin. mid 17th cent; modern Latin, from Greek khiasmos ‘crosswise arrangement,’ from khiazein ‘mark with the letter chi, from khi ‘chi’
Teaching Tool: What does it really matter if a student ever knows the label chiasmus? Such knowledge is useless if it is never gained at the level of seamless practice (the student naturally uses chiasmus in speaking or writing, because the student is deeply literate). True literacy is gained by hours and hours of reading, both silently and aloud—or hours and hours of simply listening (too many ‘LD’ children are denied literacy, because they are forced to try to read, when they could be spending that time listening to and absorbing the deep structures of language and story). Bottom line? Don’t teach the chiasmus. Let the chiasmus teach.