Weights and Balances

Can I hear today? Am I dizzy or is the room cooperating and staying in one place?

These are the first two questions I ask every single solitary day that I have woken up for the last 5 years—since the moment my inner ear decided to stop communicating effectively with my brain…since the moment vertigo and hearing loss infiltrated my life stealing a bit of balance, a bit more of my hearing and freedom, and all of my confidence in my body. It’s a bit of an invisible illness– frustrating to both me and my family, as all of us struggle to understand and to find inroads to health and regular life…only to find that “regular life” doesn’t look the way it used to.

It’s the hearing loss that bothers me most. At it’s worst, the sound of my children’s voices is muffled and my husband finds himself speaking louder and more repetitively than he might care to (bless him for his patience!) and I find myself having to read lips. I fear total hearing loss in my left ear every moment of every day. The thought of the sounds of this world and the words my family speak to me being muffled or stifled completely, the thought of my own clarity becoming more muffled terrifies me.

So, it’s no wonder that when the Radiolab podcast on Words aired on my local NPR station today, I found myself sobbing in my car in a Starbuck’s parking lot. As the storyteller, a sign language interpreter, herself hearing impaired, revealed the story of her interaction with a 27 year old man born without hearing who not only was without words of any kind—no way to name himself or the things of the world, let alone his feelings—but who also had no idea they existed, I found myself deeply in awe of words and their meaning in our lives. When she spoke of the emotional moment he finally discovered words, I was overcome.

No matter what happens to me, to my hearing, at least I will have words.

Words fascinate me. Just ask any tenth grader who has passed through my classroom in recent years. The class is crafted to be a study in the importance of story in our lives and we begin our workshop with an investigation into words—their weight and power, how to balance them, how they play together to create rhythm and resonance. My students look at me like I’ve lost my mind when we begin this as if to say, “Uh, Mrs. Clark, we know words…we learned them a long time ago.”

I always have to explain that this is no simple exercise in vocabulary. If my students are truly seeking to express themselves meaningfully, with clarity and voice and style, they can’t just “know words.” They have to be able to place them on the page in a way that means something, that creates movement and moments, and the only way to really understand that is to be immersed in language.

So, how do we do that? Lots of way, really. My students are always reading independently—books of their choosing that excite them, that make them want to keep reading, that feel like a guilty pleasure and not homework. This isn’t always easy. But the struggle of pairing every kid with a book they want to read is worth it every single time.

I also begin the year with a central novel that we will consider as a class (this is one of maybe two or three whole class texts for the year). Sure, we study short pieces all year, but the crux of their reading is independently driven work. However, I start this way with a purpose. I select a text that will allow me to, as Ellin Keene would note, teach the reader/writer and not the book. Sure the story has to be compelling, but there must be a larger purpose. This year we are working with All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. While I absolutely adore the story contained between the covers of this book and while it works to support our theme of “story”, I am teaching it because Doerr writes in a way that allows for intentional study of word choice and its power. We are 16 pages in and already students have noted the beauty of his craft and specifically how his choice of verbs acts to create suspense. And they have taken these observations to their writer’s notebooks for practice in their own writing.

Finally, though, it is important to note that the early days of our notebook work often center around poetry as well. This work is integral as poetry is more than just a great example of word economy, of a time when a writer (poet) had to choose only the best most precise words. It is more than the simple fact that poetry can include intense emotion or illustrative imagery.

Poets have the unique sensibility to play with rhythm, repetition and sound as well as placement on the page. Exposing students to and immersing them in the artistry of this craft uncovers newfound appreciation for the working of words and invites them to play a bit on their own—to venture out onto uncertain limbs to see what they can create and their writer’s notebook is the perfect place for this practice.

So, for example, we can look at a classic like Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” which always comes off as kind of simple and “beneath them” at first. Trust me, there are always a lot of 15 year olds with opinions about the quality of this particular poem and none of them are terribly forgiving…until we begin to discuss his word craft. After allowing them to respond to the poem in their notebooks in any way they wish (reflection, connection, illustration, etc), I ask them to go back and look for words that stand out to them and to explain why. When they have finished hunting and reflecting, we come together for some discussion. Inevitably, the conversation grows from merely a look at what it must mean to “wander” and to do so “lonely as a cloud”—my kids are always struck by the magnitude of the disconnect he must have felt—to a deeper reflection on the difference between loneliness and solitude (for in the end, he feels “…the bliss of solitude; /And then my heart with pleasure fills”). But there’s also the recognition of choosing a word like “golden” instead of yellow or the myriad words he uses to reveal the happiness of the daffodils who were “Tossing their heads in sprightly dance”.

It’s a good beginning and they start to see why we are studying words. So, we move on to other more complex examples… A.E. Stallings’ poem “Sestina: Like” is a beautiful and current poem, perfect for word study as well as for a look at the way we can use punctuation to deepen the meaning of our words and to either create or disrupt their rhythm. I also really love to have my tenth grade students study the first stanza of Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” as the imagery is stark and the whole “like a patient etherized upon a table” image always brings us to an immense discussion of how crafting comparisons can change everything in a poem…can you imagine this poem without this image? It’s the beginning of Modernism. Had he phrased it even slightly differently, maybe “like a patient asleep on the table,” its weight, its impact would have been diminished and that is an important realization for kids—all it takes is a single word and everything can change. So we take this to our own writing and begin questioning the precision of our words and playing with how we place them on the page—in any writing form (poetry or otherwise).

As the weeks go on, I am also always sure to ask students to bring in poems they find that work in this way and I further this study by bringing in the work of poets like Lucille Clifton, Naomi Shihab Nye, Joy Harjo, Terrance Hayes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mark Strand, and Rita Dove. These conversations, this work takes 10-12 minutes of class time a day before me move into our work for the day, but I would not give up that time for anything. It is some of the most important work we do and it inspires my students as readers, writers and thinkers not just in a classroom but also in the world.

All of this focus on words in my classroom has really sort of coincided with my inner ear (balance and hearing) adversity, and it brings me to wonder…is the recognition of the beauty of words working together, of the sounds they make in the silence of our minds, and how they are used to create something powerful, something important, something meaningful, really just a result my struggle to take them all in quickly, to appreciate the way they work together and to pass that along just in case one day it’s not so easy to do anymore? Or is it just where I would’ve landed professionally anyway, knowing that my young writers need this kind of study?

Hard to say really.

But in this time of volatile language, hostile tweets, inane memes and truly uncivil discourse, I can think of no more important study for my students than to dig in and truly learn to use words meaningfully, carefully and precisely… and to hopefully gain style and voice. Maybe in this way, they can begin to set the example for the rest of us!

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