English Teaching Resources: Incidentally, That’s a Chiasmus

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 —

—Emily Dickinson

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.

Photo by Jenny Rain, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by L.L. Barkat, author of Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing (twice named a Best Book of 2011).

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How to Read a Poem by Tania Runyan 2


  1. says

    So much here… so many bells ringing in my head (and whole body in fact, loudest of all rung by your statement about LD students. So true, and not just them. The alarming trend is for teachers to tell ALL PARENTS to MAKE their child read to THEM at night once they can read. “Don’t read to them anymore- they know how- let them practice”. I feel sick when I think about it. Such a dirty trick for to be played on a child who has achieved this wonderful milestone of reading – to have it used against them now to rob them of this wonderful, intimate ritual.

    • says

      The whole issue of reading has reached crisis proportions of mishandling, in my opinion. I’m watching my nephew now have to “write about the reading” every night, to the point where he’s begun to be willing to lie about having done it.

      When children cry, lie, scream, does that not tell us something? I’m not saying they are always innocent, but really, we must pay attention to “rebellion” as a true response that maybe something is wrong with the system.

          • says

            Now that’s a long reach back! My first job was teaching 2nd grade for a year and Kindergarten for four in a Catholic school where I earned the handle “Rare Bird” from my principal. I used the required reading materials sparingly – enough to appease him, and then I did what I wanted. I approached reading as the Symbiotic sibling to writing and spoken language. We talked and talked and talked. I read a lot of books out loud and the children did if they wanted to. As far as reading readiness went I saw my key function as facilitator of language first, followed by the other language arts. Older students came and read to my kindergartners, buddy style (loved that)! The children wrote and wrote and wrote… first in invented spelling and eventually in more conventional forms. They wrote books, they wrote captions on their drawings, and they made signs to hang wherever they needed them (even people). My thinking was that they will read what they write and this will transfer… and it did. I used their writing to teach sounds, letters, etc. I also made a lot of intentional errors so they could catch me. HA! Fun! We used a lot of song, and a lot of rhyme and movement. We played a lot of stopping and starting games so they could feel beginnings and endings, waiting and going, etc. My preschoolers were also encouraged to write… they kept journals and these were sacred spaces for recording whatever they wanted to… they could draw, or write, or even dictate. The point was to express something. When we had special projects going on they wrote in special journals. I don’t know… I was considered a real whack job. But my kids were writers… and readers… and they loved coming to school. I always told parents to KEEP READING to their children aloud, even if their children could read. Sigh. I often wonder how they are all doing now.

          • says

            Seriously love the inclusion of movement and spoken word!

            I wonder if a way to “live” English in the classroom (even upper level rooms) could be to have it experienced more as dramatics. Every English class would be more like a theater class, and every student an actor.

          • says

            I should add that in my home “school”, my kids were never asked to write. Ever. They “played story” (essentially doll play, blocks play, etc) until they were almost to middle school age.

            As you know, they are, today, brilliant writers that rival even many professional writers I work with.

            Speaking language does precede. For far longer than we think. It is not a kindergarten thing. And the day I decided to home educate, btw, was the day I visited the public school where she was signed up and saw “model classrooms” where the children were all silent (and one was admonished gently, sweetly that “it’s not time for singing right now, Tommy”). I went home and made a decision that I now believe altered the trajectory of their lives in unfathomably deep (positive) ways.

            I want those experiences to be open to the kids whose parents can’t take them out of school.

          • says

            Love it. A play would be a wonderful project approach to an upper level English class – something for every learning style in a production!

          • says

            And not even a whole play, but dramatic readings of materials, where voice is learned through spoken word experiences.

            Much like the games you played naturally gave the children an experience of beginnings and endings.

            Coaching could focus on verbal expression, which would of course cause conversations about texts, because we express texts differently aloud depending on how we understand their meanings.

          • says

            That said, I think one issue in education is searching for “the one solution.” How awesome would it be to allow different “tables,” where students would be allowed to experience texts in ways they wish?

            (Thinking of the elementary classroom, where different “stations” are sometimes set up, and kids can choose which station to go to, to get the experience of the concept).

            I say this, because my daughter is just now sitting near me expressing how much she *loves* reading commentary about texts. I could see her at the “commentary table” while my other daughter would almost always be at the “spoken word” table.

            And, at some point, just to stretch people, they would perhaps need to choose a different table. :)

          • says

            I would have loved that as a student in school. It allows space for discovery, trying new things, practicing familiar things….so relevant.

  2. says

    Well, along with all the other things that resonate between us, I see we both also taught a year in an Orthodox Hebrew School.

    Perhaps we can take this angst on the road….if only someone were listening. Sigh.

    • says

      Oh, cool, Jody :)

      I took my angst on the road and listened to myself when I made the decision to home educate. I think many people who are leaving the system are doing just that. But? What of all the children still in the system?

      I believe some teachers are listening to the truth of literacy, but they also (like my nephew) end up having to cover the truth of what they are doing, to satisfy a larger system that is forcing testing or even “authentic proof of learning.”

  3. says

    Laura, for my two cents’ worth nowadays, I can only offer relief to said beleagured teachers, mired in requirements and systems, and read my books out loud when I am Guest Teacher for the day.
    I can’t turn the Titanic around, but i CAN wave a flag and play a tune along the way.

    Private Christian schools may be an answer or a help, but my first 5 years’ teaching in that environment proved they can be just as academically accelerated and fraught with a climate of ‘be quiet, don’t ask questions and just obey me’, leaving no room for differences in learning or joy in discovery.

    I do fear for my grandchildren now–ages 4-11–very bright they are, but oh, the demands put on THEM….it’s hard to be a kid who loves learning for learnings’ sake.

    Maybe our grown children can raise a ruckus of ‘enough!’ and start the revolution that is needed. I vote for that.

    • says

      okay, I say we start with the substitute teacher force then. I may need to write a manifesto for them, and they can be the subversive ones who take its tenets and begin building a better system on the side, so to speak :)

      • says

        Jody, yes we DO need a revolution!

        A Substitute Teacher’s Manifesto… and will there be an INFOGRAPHIC to go with it? Because I absolutely love the idea!

        I am a big believer in Lilian Katz idea of “Disposition for learning” being more important than almost anything else… and that “push down” curriculum/over acceleration of academics greatly damages this disposition.

        • says

          For those who aren’t teachers, can you expand the concept of “push down curriculum” and the “learning disposition”? :)

          Hmmm. Of course there should be an infographic. Maybe you want to help us determine what to put on it?

          • says

            Ah… yes. Push down would be the movement of what were once considered “higher level” academic goals “down” (in age) to the lower grades and preschool (and yes, even infant and toddler programs), most often in formal inappropriate ways which move children away from “experiencing” the world.

            Disposition, as I understand it, speaks to attitude. Imposing “academics” on early can severely damage a child’s attitude toward learning. Probably because they are not deeply ready for it and they can feel disconnected from what is going on… they may feel a sense of incompetence and frustration. Who likes that…? So it leads to resistance and defiance… the disposition to learn is tarnished.

  4. says

    Here’s a famous quote but I seriously doubt the average person would recognize it as a chiasmus:

    “[. . .]ask not what your county can do for you;
    ask what you can do for your country.”

    And even if the average person could, so what? The term is not what makes these words stirring and memorable.

    I deplore how English is taught today.

    • says

      Famous chiasmus! I love. And yes, few know what it’s called, but many know it’s particular message’s power.

      English should not be taught. It should be lived. How can we “live it” in the classroom?

  5. says

    Donna/Laura, jumping in late here. I like the idea of a Substitute Teacher revolution. Lillian Katz–wow I haven’t heard name since I was in school to become a teacher.
    I wrote an article for our (then)paper back in 1988 about academic acceleration and the sad state of Kindergarten for my own children.
    The acceleration has only increased exponentially.
    I’m still thinking if we can get converts among our own grown kids, THEY can make a difference in what becomes the norm in today’s classrooms. I can dream, yes?

  6. Marcy Terwilliger says

    Boy, that was interesting, I’ve been out of the public school system 4 10 years. Loved being stowed away in the library where good kids came 2 learn, being n charge of the computer lab was a joke. Boys! Always had away of getting around & making it 2 the forbidden sites online. I didn’t feel like a teacher, I felt like a bad cop. This was 2 b my last job but I didn’t know that at the time. Mothering, this part I loved & took care of so many High School kids. One parent, no parent, raised by a grandparent, no wonder these kids were so missed up. At 100 pounds, standing 5 feet, I was 2 break up any & all fights, really, is this what I go 2 work 4, NO! Sorry L.L. but the English teachers were the worst when they came 2 use the library, they would go, could u make me a copy, I don’t know how 2 use the machine. Most wanted u 2 wipe their !!!! What I did receive was
    seniors looking 4 Keats,& great books about plays 2 b n. Lots of hugs, my lunch time taken up by a needful ear. Rewards of kids trying hard, reading those sonnets, writing poems & taking the time 2 listen. Disabled now, I miss my kids, public school was hard & you had 2 have hard skin and a heart of gold. I’ll never forget my days, trying 2 keep kids from dropping out & the love, yes the love I had 4 each one.

  7. says

    I read this article three times and then the conversation here. I have to admit that my hands started to shake and I got all anxious about our decision to homeschool — are we capable? is my husband doing it right? — and whether our son should be back in school, public (no!) or private (is that any better?). And, then the thought of “wow, English teaching wasn’t done right! Isn’t done right!”

    Laura, I wish you were MY English teacher, and certainly my son’s.

    What I think is most important is to loosen the grip of perceived control. Our kids will thrive. They will excel. We need to just give them freedom to notice what they’re learning, space to talk about it and engage with it, and trust that the learning is happening. The rest will come. I don’t need to push writing or define the parts and structure of writing, poems, or phrases. I can just offer an environment (of life at home) where we talk and engage. (And hope and trust that is “enough” and God will fill the gaps . . . )

    • says

      Amy, you have such an opportunity in home education. Read to your son. Let him write when and what he wants. Trust that play, conversation, and real life together will do wonders. It will :)

  8. says

    I know this one–from reading Psalms! Maybe I know more poetry-things than I thought.

    And, you say you want a revolution? Don’t even get me started . . .

    But you go, girl–infiltrate the ranks of substitute teachers :)

  9. Marcy Terwilliger says

    I would like to clear the air on a few things. I’m from the south, our teacher’s are not paid well. L.L.Barkett, I’m sure u r a wonderful, caring teacher, yes, the material needs to be changed in the public system. We have had teachers use and do the same thing year after year, so unfair to the students. We had so many that would not retire but needed to. We were also a melting pot, kids even from Russia, language was a real problem, so many countries & disrespect from the males. Change is always good but we were fighting a system called Metro Schools where no one won. Homeschooling is wonderful, kids get more attention, smaller groups, the have higher scores. Our private schools hold the kids that were kicked out of public schools. The younger English teachers were great but some of the older ones walked with board up their back. In these words you must remember to look back 20 years ago, my daughter is a 3rd grade teacher, she has been teacher of the year twice in a small town. My other daughter never liked the school system in Florida so private was the only way to go for her. Four of my grandsons are in college but I worry about my last three in elementary school. They are out of the Metro System and in another city close by, I keep both of my feet in that school. They just let the principal go for stealing money from the school. Yes, I really want to scream how I feel but that will not change a thing here. I pray for my grandchildren everyday. Homeschooling is the only place you can protect a child if you find the right core of people who care. We moved one time because my daughter who was being bused across town (5th grade) had a boy pull a knife on her on the bus. People, she is 44 now, look how long ago that was. When I see my grandchildren I don’t ask “How was your day?” I ask “How are you going to change the world today?”

    • Marcy Terwilliger says

      Thanks Maureen Doallas for posting the work Jean Kanzinger is doing, it’s amazing how one person can make a difference. If only there were more people like her in every school, every city, every state. This is how we change the world.

  10. says

    “Seamless practice” is a wonderful thing. And to be “deeply literate”? I see it occasionally in a student, and it’s a wonder to behold.

    I think I’ll print this and leave it for the administrator that thinks I read to my class too much…

    • says

      Oh, this is heartening. To hear that you read to your class. Keep it up. Great literature gets into the neurons, creates patterns and pathways we learn to follow, yes, seamlessly. :)

  11. says

    At our home, we start the day with reading aloud… first the kiddos, then me.

    Miss L.L., you have no idea how reassuring this piece is to me! Along with my son, this year I’m home educating two girls who recently lost their momma, and who, prior to that led rough and hard lives. At first they responded to material in ways they thought I wanted them to, but after a few months of gentling them into being comfortable with their individuality and beauty, they are blooming!

    And we started poetry last week! They moaned at first, but after I read several aloud, they were onboard. I’m over the moon with “teaching” them – some days I feel like a big cheat because it’s so darn fun. Don’t get me wrong, we have our battles and tears, but it’s all been part of healing and learning and loving to do both.


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