Poetry / The English Teacher

Something New

A few years ago, I learned about Austin Kleon. A couple years later, someone reminded me of his ‘blackout poetry.’ Many of the great teachers I’ve met readily confess to being unapologetic thieves, taking fantastic teaching methods, sometimes tweaking them a bit — making learning happen in their classrooms. No surprise then that when teachers discover Austin Kleon, they also discover a great way to engage students in creating meaning with writing. As a writing teacher myself, I have found myself a bit worn out lately — struggling to help my kids discover the joy in working with words. Then, a sort of light dawned. Blackout!!  (ah, irony)

Because teachers steal ideas, the newspaper blackout that Kleon creates gets a tweak or two along the way. My endeavors are in good company — Kleon’s creative genius blends with a novelist’s compelling story and professional inspiration from the best group of teachers I know — suddenly, my students are creating again, and loving it.

Inevitably, analogies help us illuminate a sometimes obscure idea. C.S. Lewis used them all the time. I’m in good company. Of COURSE I’m flattering myself by linking the creator of Narnia to anything I might do, but in this case, I can make my case. As my students have been delving into the Chronicles, and, as Lewis masterfully explains a difficult concept with a more familiar one, I thought I’d do the same…

The ‘Language Arts’ really are not so very different from any other artistic expression. Paints, marble, the 88 blacks and whites of a Steinway, charcoal, plaster, film, words — the artist chooses his medium and creates something new from something already existent. I read Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy as I traveled a bit in Rome. I picked up the book in a Vatican bookshop, I think. How prosaic, right? to read the biographical fiction of Michelangelo’s life as I explored the Sistine Chapel’s frescoes and ‘the David’s’ towering presence in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence! Nonetheless, I learned that Michelangelo could already see the statue hiding in a massive piece of Carrara marble. He merely (ha!) uncovered the glorious David, chip, by chip, by chip. Like the artist’s piece of  marble or an ice sculptor’s frigid block of ice, the words imprinted on a novel’s page invite a chiseling away. Blacking out lines with a freshly uncapped Sharpie, word, by word, by word, until a new idea that was hiding between the lines peeks out, changing us forever.

As I traveled about my classroom, peering over shoulders or crouching low for a preview of coming attractions, I found my breath catching in my throat. A precisely rendered ampersand placed delightfully over a printed ‘and’ — a link from lion to prince.  A willowy treetop hovering over ‘tree-nymphs swaying’ in poetic rhythm. A lion’s mane surrounding ‘trembling’ and ‘roar.’  Such delight! Still, I must wait for finished products — and patience has never been my long suit. I already know the reward awaiting me. Like Michelangelo (there I go again, linking myself to greatness!), I’ve seen glimpses of the hidden glory being uncovered. Precious marble chipped away, or thoughtful words fading to black — the result is the same: a masterpiece. “Minds enlightened. Hearts enflamed. Lives transformed.” The power of words bring life change. Our common chapter.  How fitting that we all write it.

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