Sunday, October 08, 2006

Teaching talk

One of the projects coming up soon for me is a workshop talk I've been invited to give at another regional school not so far from here. Why was I asked, you ask? Evidently, the organizer talked to someone here who suggested me. And I was stupid enough to feel flattered and say yes when asked.

I talked to the organizer about what sort of thing might be of most interest to the participants, offering up the opinion that I was best at teaching Shakespeare or poetry, and the participants chose poetry. The goal is to help people do a really good job getting students to understand why learning poetry matters, to learn about strategies for reading and understanding poems well, to begin to talk and write about poetry, and to learn some poems.

Anyway, I've been spending a fair bit of time thinking about what I'm going to say. I've written an introduction, and more, and rewritten.

I want to talk about getting students to think about reading poetry as a way of practicing close observation skills because I think good reading comes first from close observation. So I want to start by talking about practicing and learning observation of poetry.

I'm thinking of starting my talk with a short narrative to set up the observation issue.

In a time long ago, in a galaxy far far away... wait, that opening's been done.

Hwaet! Not quite original.

Whilom... oh, yeah, that's not gonna work, either. Why have all the good openings been taken?

Back when, I used to be a science major, the type of science major who focused most of my classwork on animals, especially mammals and birds. I was by no means a stellar undergraduate, either. My major required a little flexibility, so at one point I ended up in a botany class about local plant communities, and off I went on a botany plant community field trip with assorted other students, mostly botany types.

We basically hiked in a line along a trail in single file, with the professor at the front of the trail, pointing to a plant, identifying something about it, and the rest passing on that information in a sort of chancy game of post office. I was sort of near the end of the line, in a bunch of botany students. As we'd walk along, various students would point to whatever plants, identifying them by family, usually, and then moving along, all very easy. I would dutifully draw whatever plant was pointed out, and label it with the family name they told me. I didn't know enough to care about the plants, and the whole day was going pretty miserably for me.

Then we passed a large skull nailed to a fence post. One of the botany students said with confidence, "it's a horse" and I corrected with even more confidence, "no, it's a pig." The student looked at me and asked how I knew. I pointed out the teeth, the area for neck muscle attachment at the back of the head, and so forth, and explained why the skull belonged to a pig.

I'd been trained pretty well about what to observe in a vertebrate skull, so I wasn't paying attention just to the size, or the fact that it had some age or sun cracks. I was able to use what I knew of the local vertebrates around to limit the possibilities, but mostly I knew what I was supposed to care about when I looked at a skull: dentition, muscle attachment areas, and so forth. I knew how to observe what we all saw, and how to make it meaningful, how to interpret it. But only that day did I really realize that I'd learned about observing vertebrates in quite that way, because I also realized that I hadn't worked very hard to learn how to observe plants yet. I saw the same plants those botany students did, but I didn't observe them with the same skills or attention.

Similarly, we all see the words when we read poetry. What I seek to teach students are skills in paying attention, observing what's important. The nice thing about poetry compared to skulls, is that we can use those observational skills honed on poetry to read the written word wherever we find it.

Well, that's the new revised beginning. What do you think? I'm hoping for something not too long, but something that will help make the point that observational skills are my primary focus in teaching poetry.

If you hear a really familiar talk like this in the near future, please don't let on, okay? But I'll buy anyone a cup of coffee who says something to me!


  1. Now I want to hear the rest of your talk! I love the opening. I live too far away to attend your workshop, alas.

  2. I really like it. It'll intrigue the audience.

  3. As a science major who needs to use the powers of observation every day in my job, I like it. I'll try to keep it in mind as I read various works.

    I'm playing catch-up here -- congrats on the overseas job!