STANDARDIZED HELL BY ANY OTHER NAME IS SOL

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

T.S. Elliot so eloquently wrote in The Waste Land, his words describing how the promise of April is subverted through acute and seemingly irreconcilable tensions, and one can’t help but wonder if the possibly prescient Thomas Stearns could have fathomed just how applicable his opening stanza would be to the April that we, heedless participants in our great and at times schizophrenic country’s system of education, must endure.  Welcome, my friends, young and old, elementary through senior high, to the month–rife with memory (or, more accurately, memorization) and desire (for it to end, to please just end)–of relentless standardized testing.

Don’t get me wrong, I most certainly am not suggesting that I am anything less than grateful to have such finely honed and reliable learning assessment tools right at arms’ reach.  I mean if it weren’t for the careful administration and scoring of yearly standardized achievement and aptitude tests, we–as a society, as a community, and, frankly, even as a family– would never be able to accurately separate the really stupid sub-par kids from the ones worthy of our time, attention, and focus.  In addition, the public, and even many private, schools would have no idea at what point in the year to stop channeling their efforts into the dissemination and memorization of information, and instead use the vast array of resources at their disposal to better diagnose the disruptive boys–I mean children–with ADHD.  But I digress…

Because I have such a vested interest in the outcome of such testing–being the ever loving and often cranky mother of three energetic boys–I knew that shock and more shock was the only appropriate response to my middle son’s–self-proclaimed math and science geek–perfect score of 600 on his writing SOL.  In fact my unwavering though to this point non-committal belief in the entire education system was seriously, and perhaps irrevocably, shaken.  The child couldn’t write…really…

“So,” I asked him, nonchalantly, not wanting to seem skeptical of that which had become a source of pride, and confusion, but mostly pride, for him, “what was the SOL writing prompt?”

“I had to describe a time I was responsible,” he responded, seriously.

“Oh, that’s a good prompt,” I encouraged, “what did you write about?”

“I wrote about how I have to take care of my little brother,” he responded, eager to recount the tale that had earned him such a coveted accolade.  “I described how, you know, when you are in the bathroom, I have to play with A, and how when you lock us out of the house and tell us to play outside, I entertain him even when he wants to go inside, and I included the time that we both came in covered in mud, and how you screamed at us because you had just cleaned the floor where we dropped our muddy clothes.  Oh yeah, I got a bit carried away and wrote about how I feed A lunch and dinner when you don’t feel like giving us food,”  he finished, proudly.

I wondered how long before Child Protective Services would come a knock, knock, knocking at our door.

“Um,” I began, trying to think of an appropriate response, “did you also mention how your parents disappear for weeks at a time, and how you have figured out how to drive the family car, so you can take your little brother to preschool?” I asked, hopefully getting my extremely literal middle son to see his story through my eyes.

“No one would believe that,” he laughed.  “And the essay was 468 words long; when I began to run out of space, I wrote really, really small, so I could fit it all in.”

I couldn’t help but think of how Hank, my college boyfriend and eponymous hero of a chapter in Broken Hallelujah:  notes from a marriage, once remarked that standardized tests merely measure the extent to which one could be controlled.  I had always enjoyed thinking that there was perhaps some truth to his theory, but now my son’s stellar performance in a subject that, shall we say, had never been a strong one disproved that appealing notion for me once and for all.  “Maybe,” my insightful sister had suggested, “they felt bad for him because of his, you know, the home life he presented, and the test scorers wanted to give him something, some shred of hope, that something good could come from his burden.”  Uh, yes, perhaps…

And, so, my test weary friends, we find ourselves once again, in the cruelest of all months, “like a patient etherized upon a table, ” but that is another T.S. Elliot poem entirely.

GINSBERG AND BURROUGHS BOOK(S) PORN PUBLISHED POST!

As I have written in a previous post, I just love the Tumblr site, Book Porn!  AND not just because it combines two great tastes that taste great together (just go with me here), though that is what initially had me take those first tentative steps into the picturesque (pun intended) montage of Tumblr.  There is something just so damn gratifying about using my limited (bordering on inept, actually) computer skills to submit to a social media site that caters to, values even, that bibliophile of the past, the lover of the printed word (on paper, in an actual book, with pages, and a library due stamped in the back, which will no doubt be forgotten, so that said book will have to be “purchased” for an accumulated fine equivalent to something like eight times its cover price……from 1951.  Don’t ask…).

My latest published submission features two of my most prized signed books:  White Shroud by Allen Ginsberg and Junky by William Burroughs.  White Shroud is especially valued, as Ginsberg signed the copy pictured below after the MLA convention in New York City, where he was the featured speaker at a symposium on his seminal work, Howl.  His scribbled message and playful drawings on White Shroud’s title page remind me of that magical night when my friend, Chris, and I were his invited guests for dinner on the lower east side…the hours we spent afterwards in Ginsberg’s apartment…the inimitable Peter Orlovsky, in all of his effervescent and lovable looniness, scrawling our names in magic marker on the apartment’s walls…So, without further ado, ENJOY this scene along the rough and Tumblr road: <br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
nhornby: Ginsberg signed at the MLA in NYC after a symposium on Howl.  Burroughs signed in Boulder, Colorado at Naropa University…1986<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
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<blockquote><p><a href=nhornby: Ginsberg signed at the MLA in NYC after a symposium on Howl.  Burroughs signed in Boulder, Colorado at Naropa University…1986

GO TO THE HOLE, Y’ALL

Winter basketball season has once again come to an uneventful end.  Without fanfare or regret, we bid adieu to another four months of family togetherness, a time of covertly disparaging our own children’s apparent lack of athletic giftedness, while overtly blaming their inadequacies on the poorly prepared coaches and obviously half-blind refs; and–like that storied Shakespearean favorite, Iago–we find ourselves embracing our own tendency towards schadenfreude, through the surreptitious whispering in one friend’s ear our keen–though somewhat reluctantly delivered–observations concerning the athletic “challenges” of another friend’s child…who just so happens not to be present.  Just as Lauren, thoughtfully philosophical and somewhat sex-crazed protagonist from Broken Hallelujah:  notes from a marriage, recognized the stages of one’s life which come around full circle, the basketball courts’ sidelines afford us the indulgence of nostalgia, so that we may once again revisit that inimitable middle school era when we first learned to simultaneously befriend and denigrate the popular crowd, while, at the same time, hiding our own budding eating disorder behind the pretense of adhering to a sophisticated yet little known health trend.

Of course, one can’t help but reflect upon the myriad of emotions, the inevitable highs and lows (if you will) inspired by an entire season in which one’s life is inundated with game play and team spirit.  Happiness (“Yes!  There is only one game I need to watch on Saturday”) can quickly shift, the very next week, to horror (“What??? four basketball games on Saturday???  Well, there goes my plan of eating through our 12 boxes of Thin Mints while binge watching House of Cards“).  And, then, invariably…confusion (“Why can’t they just make the league more competitive, so my kids can get cut before the season even begins?”).  I imagine the actual players experience their own unique–yet no less significant–range of emotions as well…

So why do we do it, you may ask; why do we commit ourselves and our progeny to the relentless pursuit of relentlessly Democratic equal-playing-time house league sports?  Well, I suppose the answer lies in all that our children reap from those sports-lesson seeds that are sown.  For example, I literally get teary eyed witnessing the way in which my eldest son, a young teen, becomes practically subsumed within the collective spirit of his basketball cohorts.  It is as if the coach, through his maniacal screaming, during each and every game, of:  “TAKE IT TO THE HOLE” and “GET THAT BALL TO THE HOLE,” is expressing his implicit understanding of just what it is that constitutes the actual driving force, the unequivocal motivation, for each of these young boys now, and–most likely– for the rest of their lives.

Although both parents and players have now been granted a much needed three week reprieve before the rigors of spring house league are thrust upon us, I for one find myself once again looking forward to the staunch directives delivered to that team that has in its own way become, in the season’s few short months, practically a family:  PENETRATE THE FRONT END, FOCUS ON YOUR BALL, and STUFF THAT HOLE…

LAPSED PARENTING

I recently found this essay I had started writing a couple of years ago in response to an editor’s early reading of my manuscript (then entitled The Adulterer’s Notebook) Broken Hallelujah: notes from a marriage.  “I think,” she had begun, “you need to talk more about being a parent.”  Really???  My reaction now is the same as it was then:  but the book is about the intimate inner life of a woman in her forties; the kids certainly are not at the forefront of that carefully carved out space–right???  They do seem to be at the forefront of just about everything else though, and so, I share this hopefully humorous essay with you, dear reader, that I started oh so long ago, and finished rather recently…

LAPSED PARENTING

“Why should I make my bed,” my oldest son asks, “when you don’t even follow the laws of the Torah?”  The kid’s got a point, though recognizing hypocrisy, whether relevant or not, certainly won’t keep the house tidy.  Of course, I can only blame myself for his pre-teen challenge; he hadn’t asked to go to Jewish Day School, he had been sent.  I had hoped our children’s foray into the world of the observant would fill them with a rich sense of cultural and religious pride, as well as successfully ameliorate our family’s fundamental, not to mention historical, and—at this point—habitual, inability to even light Shabbat candles on Friday nights.  Unfortunately, the reality fell somewhat short of the expectation, as my sons left their two years as Jewish Day School students, with its daily T’fillah, its kosher kitchen, its partial emersion Hebrew, essentially as skeptics who questioned why such a just and forgiving G-d would have unceremoniously and without consult, sentenced them to while away their childhoods in our lax non-observant traiffe-ridden home.

In fact much of what the boys took away from this experience proved counter to what I had hoped:  “We learn the importance of diversity and giving to the poor in our homogenous expensive private school,” my youngest son proudly explained, when asked about how his private school education differed from his public school one, “AND,” he had continued excitedly, “there are so many Jewish holidays right at the beginning of the school year—most of them my parents have never even heard of—that we get to go to school for only a handful of days before it is time for Thanksgiving break!”

Of course the boys’ congenital contrarianism couldn’t be fully sublimated into the rigors of daily prayer and davening.  Our middle son, especially, never met an assignment he couldn’t subvert, a rule he couldn’t rewrite, a fact I was painstakingly made aware of at my first parent-teacher conference.  “The directions clearly state to find one path for the apple to reach the honey,” Jared’s nonplussed second grade teacher told me disapprovingly as she showed me the offending Rosh Hashanah maze.  “Your son,” she spit out, as though my progeny were venom, “thought it would be clever to figure out three possible paths.”

She then treated me to an example of what I have since coined–to describe the degree to which my middle son could just not be bothered–“Jared’s red rule.”   “This week we have spent completing various activities designed to reinforce the students’ understanding of the adjective.  And Jared, it seems, thinks this joke-worthy,” she complained, producing her piece-de-resistance, a packet of no less than eight pages of adjective work sheets, the last four of which had the word “red” scribbled in as the answer for each of the 20 or so questions per page.  It seemed “red baby,” “red house,” “red mountain,” and “red siren wail,” were not adequate demonstrations of adjective proficiency.

Where had I gone wrong? I wondered, shaking my head, as I shamefully left the school building, stunned with the knowledge that not only was our home a kasher-free zone, but I had parented a child who could at once condemn his parents’ non-observance and flout his disregard for his teacher’s directions through assignment non-compliance.  Of course, I was to blame. I would be better, I vowed; I would light candles, attend services, scrub our home before Passover, clear every last bit of shrimp from the fridge.  I did wonder, however, whether the freezer was exempt from such a harsh directive…

“Dammit,” I exclaimed, “do as I say not as I do, just won’t cut it with these boys.”  I wanted more for them; I wanted their take-away from their childhood to resonate with purpose and personal identity. And then it hit me—unlikely as the sight of a burning bush in the wilderness—so much of who they are, who they are becoming, is what has happened while I wasn’t even trying (and thank goodness for that, because not trying is my parenting strong suit).  For example, my boys’ absolute reverence for books rivals only, well, my own.  Every one of them is not only a voracious reader, but a book collector, a book-by-the-bed stacker, a bookstore prowler, a family-reading-party regular, a true believer in the transformative power of the printed word. I taught them that, not by intention but by example.

Just a couple of months ago, my oldest son, now 14, texted me from a library used book sale. “Look, just look, what I got for only three dollars!”  The attached picture showed no less than eight gently loved books, including James Patterson, Harper Lee, and Erica Jong (Fear of Flying??? OK…we will have to have a discussion about that one) “Dad,” his text continued, “said not to buy so many, but I knew you would get it…”

And I think, well, they really are their mother’s sons, these independent, outspoken, funny, well-read boys, and I only hope, expect actually, that they will find something bigger than themselves—perhaps even a rule or two by which to live, or the clever antics of a lovable character (even one who may be a bit  hypocritical) to whom to relate—between the dusty covers of a well-loved, heartily devoured book…maybe even one recommended by their mom.

Celebrating Similes: A Poetry Slam With Elementary School Students (written for Children’s Week on Tipsy Lit:)

Celebrating Similes: A Poetry Slam With Elementary School Students

11TuesdayFeb 2014

My basic attitude towards volunteering in my children’s schools can be summed up in three words.

Less is more.

Perhaps it is considered a bit selfish that I routinely ignore sign-up requests for volunteer jobs, like classroom work folder organizer, event flyer maker, or glue gun enthusiast. As a mom of three rambunctious boys, I have absolutely no desire to spend the time that they are in school meandering my way through rote–albeit teacher helpful–jobs. My rule–perhaps a bit non-altruistically–is that I agree to do the things at their schools that interest ME. So, when an Inspirational Museum was being organized at my youngest son’s school, and the call went out for a writer in residence to organize a poetry slam, I readily offered my services. I have been teaching creative writing, in one capacity or another, to children and adults for years, and I wholeheartedly believe that teaching writing in a meaningful and fun environment is one thing at least that I am able to do well. Would I be willing, I was asked, to teach the entire second and third grades to write poetry that they would then perform at an evening “slam” as part of the school’s yearly Inspirational (and interactive) Museum? I must admit I briefly paused when considering that the nine classes included in the request meant many, many more than several hours of my somewhat selfishly hoarded time. But I was being asked to participate in something about which I couldn’t feel more passionate–and the task did fall within the parameters of my volunteering rule–so I agreed.

TEACHING KIDS ABOUT POETRY: CAN I REACH “NEW HEIGHTS”?

From the outset, I realized the importance of creating a lesson plan that would both inspire and delight. I also knew I had to move the kids beyond some of their misconceptions about poetry, such as the necessity of rhyming. Most of the classes I would be working with had completed a poetry unit or two, but these had routinely been taught by teachers who had more experience with reading and math than the nuances of poetry writing. Additionally, I wanted to introduce a simple concept with which the kids could run wild! Consistency was a final consideration, as I wanted the slam to be somewhat easy to interpret for the less poetry-oriented members of the audience. The theme of the Inspirational Museum – “Soaring to New Heights” – lent itself rather nicely to a poetic interpretation, so I felt pretty confident that a carefully chosen and executed lesson would yield a desired result.

Hmmm…which lesson plan would satisfy all of my requirements? As I had so often done in the past, I looked over my notebook full of notes that had been inspired by Kenneth Koch’s 1970 seminal work on teaching children to write poetry, Wishes, Lies, and Dreams. AND then it hit me, quick as a flash of light and sudden as a rainbow in a storm: SIMILES!

poetry slam similes

THE PLAN: POETRY IN ACTION

After establishing the classroom mood as one of excitement and experimentation, I introduce similes as comparisons using “like” or “as,” and encourage the kids to use unexpected non-cliché language while brainstorming their own comparisons. Using unlikely objects and sounds – a piece of chalk, a garbage can, the view outside the window, a book slammed shut, a whisper as compared to a scream – I help to facilitate this process. I then read examples from past workshops to establish the wide open use of language for this exercise: “Wooden desks are like woodchucks” and “I am smart as a butterfly” are two examples. I have compiled a good list of similes, and I generally hand them out and have the children take turns reading and reacting to them. This both gets their creative juices flowing and stems their inhibitions, so that they feel more inclined to take linguistic risks.

poetry slam2; Mary OliverNext, I ask the students why they think a writer would use similes in his/her writing. As a group, we discuss how some of the best writing enables a reader to see something—even something everyday or ordinary—in a new and perhaps surprising way. To illustrate this point, I hand out Mary Oliver’s lovely and vivid poem, The Snakes. After having two children read the poem aloud, we locate the similes that Oliver uses to describe the snakes as they “hurr(ied) through the woods.” “Two black whips” is certainly more obvious than “love affair,” and the students really enjoy thinking about how the description moves from the concrete to that which is less tangible.

Additionally, I read a couple of pages from the gorgeous Caldecott medal-winning book Owl Moon by Jane Yolen (illustrated by John Schoenherr). Not only is the story’s text written in stanzas, but the language used is at once beautiful and accessible. I like for the class to see that similes are used by many writers writing in a variety of genres, that figurative language—when used well—can bring all sorts of writing to life, that their use is not just reserved for the rarified world of “Poetry!” The children are treated to:

owl moon

Owl Moon; illus. John Schoenherr

Then the owl

pumped its great wings

and lifted off the branch

like a shadow

without sound.

If there is time, especially for very young or very reluctant writers, the book, Quick as a Cricket by Audrey Wood is a good and focused introduction to similes. Each page’s text is a single simile, describing the young child about whom this book is written (and what young child—or adult for that matter—doesn’t enjoy writing about him/herself), and the illustrations are both bright and engaging.

poetry slam3

Quick As a Cricket by Audrey Wood. Illus. Don Wood

Weather permitting, I then take the students outside to complete their actual writing, either a series of similes about one thing or a collection of similes describing what they see and hear around them. I have always found the natural world conducive to thinking and writing and hope that this will be true for the second and third graders as well. Also, the excitement of conducting class outside is generally a novel one, and—after establishing some ground rules—I have found that a change of scenery produces original and unique ideas. In fact, in class after class, the students were so excited with their creative comparison thinking, that I spent the entire 20 minutes allotted for the writing going from one to another, as they excitedly read their new way of perceiving their familiar surroundings. “The sky is like water;” “flowers are as bright as words;” and “the spider is as still as a silent tree,” are just a few of the wonderful examples they shared.

SUCCESS!

Finally, I end the lesson back in the classroom, allowing those who want to to share their poems with their classmates. I am pleased to say that almost every lesson I taught in preparation for the poetry slam went beyond the scheduled time, because the now young writers’ enthusiasm proved greater than the need to adhere to the class schedule—a definite indicator of success!

Over the next couple of weeks, the second and third grade writers will revise and “publish” their simile poems, so they are performance ready for the Inspirational Museum’s first ever poetry slam.

STAGING A SLAM

So many students opted to read their work, that the audience was informed that the performance would not be a short one. Wanting to keep the focus on the poets and their work, the slam organizers and myself decided to go minimalist with costumes and stage design. Also, we tried to be cognizant of the evening’s overarching theme: “Soaring to New Heights.” Because many of the poems focused on the natural world (a product no doubt of our writing outdoors), a blue sky backdrop seemed appropriate. The children dressed in earth/nature tones, such as green, yellow, and red, suggesting that standing on stage each was representative of the earth meeting the sky; their reading would then suggest a “soaring” of sorts, an elevation…an inspiration.

We had two microphones set up on the stage, and the poets filed in, one line from the left and one from the right, one after another they stepped up to the microphone and–proudly, confidently, enthusiastically– read.

Leanne TankelLeanne Tankel studied poetry writing as a UC Berkeley undergraduate and was fortunate enough to work with the inimitable Thom Gunn.   She earned her M.A. in Creative Writing at Boston University, where she held a teaching fellowship. Currently, she is writing prose, and her manuscript, Broken Hallelujah: notes from a marriage  (originally titled The Adulterer’s Notebook), was a 2011 short-list finalist for the Santa Fe Literary Awards program. Leanne lives with her husband, three sons, and two pugs in Northern Virginia.

 

 

 

MUFFINS WITH MOMS (or MOMS WITH MUFFINS)

In the spirit of, “you just can’t make this stuff up,” I share with you–potentially perplexed reader–that, at 8 a.m. on Monday morning, I will be at an elementary school sponsored event which no less than glorifies the greatness, celebrates the sanguineness, authenticates the awesomeness of this learning community’s many moms, with a diverse and no doubt delectable offering of muffins.   AND students are invited to attend as well…odd…

ImageAs a mom with a long-standing vested interest in muffins, I can only imagine the delicious delight that will be mine early Monday morning as I witness the chaotic chatter of women crowded together for the sole purpose of sharing…perhaps splitting…muffins.  AND our children will be there, which is–you know–odd.  But, nonetheless, I expect, even if a bit surreptitiously due to the proximity of my progeny, that I will–to the best of my ability–experience something akin to that which the event flyer’s illustration suggests, something similar to the sheer unselfconscious ecstasy displayed on the faces of the three pencil-sketched women, as those tantalizing muffins tease from below, their hungry mouths seemingly savoring that which is just out of reach…not to get carried away here, not to overstate that which can be described as (and, yes, oddly so )  just an elementary school event, but I for one plan to proudly participate, and I pledge–right here right now–to stem that hubristic impulse which would have me boast, though perhaps at an earlier time and in a less crowded place, that my muffin, and by whom I will not say, has been deemed as “melt in your mouth.”