oh my classroom! my wife!

Oh my Russia! My wife! 
                 Aleksandr Blok 1908, quoted in Lyric Poetry and Modern PoliticsLyric Poetry and Modern Politics
In Chapter 1 of Clare Cavanagh’s award-winning Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics, Blok and WB Yeats are paired as poets who employ the lyric, a language art of the middle class, to represent the peasants, the common people. Both Modernists used for their art a literary tradition alien to those they claimed to represent. In this I identify with them. Much of the material my students read is alien to them at first, though much of it part of our literary tradition.
This short week has borne witness to their sorties with the sonnet, tussles with Twelfth Night, and naunachies with the nineteenth century novel. How did they fare, you ask? What seems important to me is not so much how they fared, but that they engaged the alien forces at all. The moment a reader engages with a text, a transaction occurs with another living being. What I am pondering this morning is that perhaps the teacher’s job is to keep these living encounters frequent, numerous, and suited to the reader.
On the way to maturity as readers, our students are like subjects rebelling against the tyranny of alien texts, like the common people of a nation, divided against its gentry. Cavanagh writes,  “This divide between the gentry and the people is articulated in terms of an endlessly thwarted courtship between the poet and the elusive, beloved nation embodied in feminine form.” The relationship she describes between the poet and his country feels very personal to me, because it mirrors the one I have with my own classes. At the same time as I am courting a class, teaching it to dance to the rhythms of traditional prose and poetry, I am asking it to listen to its own voice, traditions, and folk rhythms, and to assert itself confidently and resistantly in the dance of ideas and action. I need them to write and perform their own music;  when the courtship ends, they will have become an independent people and I will be
Clare Cavanagh writes that “once achieved, this artistic nation will have no further need of the bards who helped to herald it s ascent or bring it into being.” Ha, I am in the business of planned obsolescence! Like lyric poetry in the hands of Blok or Yeats, the art and craft of teaching literature for democracy ought to terminate with a revolution. “Practiced properly, the genre should lead inevitably to its own extinction.”
I hope the analogy between the political poet and the literature instructor who shares authority with students hasn’t worn out yet. If by engaging in transactions with living texts students learn the democratic habits of exercising freedom and responsible action, then we teachers must offer maturing  readers and writers access to traditional and nontraditional texts and genres.
 Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing
Peter Elbow, in Vernacular Eloquence (acknowledgments),  mentions people well-known to this blog through their work: Craig Hancock, Sheridan Blau, and Tom Newkirk–active crusaders in the fight to offer all students equal access to their own language, and to the traditions of that language. Also mentioned is playwright AR Gurney, who not only uses language poetically, but simultaneously employs and questions traditions of theater and this American  life.
Engagement with text in a democratic classroom may produce democratic reading activities and, one hopes, a nation of students who choose to become involved not only in reading and writing, but in thought transformed into right action. Thoreau writes:
      For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever. But we love better
      to talk about it: that we say is our mission. Reform keeps many scores of newspapers in its service, but not one man.
      (On Civil Disobedience)
No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems
Liu Xiaobo, imprisoned 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, sings democracy in the pages of No Enemies, No Hatred.
     “If you yourself believe that you have a human conscience and are willing to follow it, then expose your conscience to
     the sunlight of public opinion and let it shine there for all people to see, especially for the dictators to see. (27)
Both he and Thoreau are describing ordinary people who become a “force that undermines the system of enslavement” – whether in China or Massachusetts.
How do we teachers carry on this liberating, life-changing work? Well, for a start, as Sherman Alexie said at Garcia Street Books in Santa Fe at his Absolutely True… signing, “Books, books, books, books, books, books, books, books, books.” He was speaking of the liberating effects of reading on readers. Do all we can to help students engage with books. But a second aspect of engagement is more puzzling to me. When I open the reading and writing notebooks students keep for class, I see a trail of evidence that I have tried to engage individuals by responding directly to their journal entries, asking a question that might extend the comment into an authentic dialogue. It has become disheartening to consider the minuscule percentage that actually continue this dialogue without further prompting.
If what I said at the outset is correct: that the moment a reader engages with a text, a transaction occurs with another living being, then even the few words we write down for our students in notes, letters, and comments may hold transformative power. I asked if the teacher’s job were to keep these living encounters “frequent, numerous, and suited to the reader”. The fear, I admit, is that even after having learned its personality, its academic needs, its reading likes and dislikes, my courtship is being “endlessly thwarted” by the “elusive beloved”, my classroom, my “wife”. Because the intended learning is never actually realized in such a case, then, my job is not made obsolete. Rather, its relevance increases. An element of trust is necessary from here. We must trust that into each students hands will fall the appropriate words, the note or poem or book that resonates within, awakening that reader and writer to the other living beings out there desiring to communicate with and even to set them free.
Maybe it is time to think back and recall the most vivid memories of writers who called us to action. That love note in a first grade lunch box with the Disney characters on it–the shock of seeing “OMIGOD” written across the page-top balloon in a sci-fi comic book in fifth grade–the jolt of Sikes’s dog’s brains being dashed out–Thomas Hardy’s description of Clem Yeobright–the first valentine from my real wife, Sara. And what were out responses? Imitations, replies. I also remember questioning my tenth grade teacher’s assertion that a symbol in Jane Eyre meant what she claimed it did. Somehow Charlotte Bronte had reached across time and given me courage to act on my question by posing it during class. To this day it is one of the only high school lessons I recall.
What are you doing to engage your students in fresh encounters with language and living beings? What are the words summoning you to action? Do you share these with them?

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