Contemplating mortality: When death rhymes

This is one of those poems that demanded to be written. My father died this last March at the age of 90. He was a great dad, and he’d had a good life. One of the universal parts of the experience of losing a parent is going through their possessions and figuring out what to do with it all. My dad kept practically every document that crossed his path. It wasn’t until I’d taken on this job that I realized to what extent that was actually true. There was my mother’s elementary school diploma. Receipts from the $2 he’d borrowed and repaid from the Merchant Marines in 1947. Receipts from remittances my grandfather had sent back home to Italy in 1918, long before my father was even born. I was looking at multigenerational packrattery. It helped to explain my own issues with, let’s just call it an overabundance of paper in my life.

Of all of these boxes, bags, and piles of documents, the one that absolutely stopped me in my tracks was a small envelope that had the single word “cemetery” written across the front. It contained multiple copies of receipts for the cemetery plot my grandmother’s second husband bought in 1950. Grandpa died in 1972, and my grandmother died in 1985. They were both buried in that plot. There seemed to be very little risk that anyone would challenge their right to remain there. I felt reasonably certain that we could part with the receipts. But what really got to me was the accompanying photographs. I guess maybe it was the pride of finally owning a bit of real estate (Woody Allen’s character’s father in Love and Death running around with a small piece of turf inside his coat comes to mind). There were the two of them, Grandma and Grandpa, posing with their own gravestone. The image was jarring, and only grew more so as I studied it. Here is that photograph and the poem that grew out of it:

 

Henech and Lena Contemplate Eternity 

Henech & Lena stone

 

Behind winter bleak branches

across a narrow stretch of the Hudson River,

the low rise of the Taconic mountains looks down on Poughkeepsie,

which is where we are on this day in November, 1950.

Has there ever been a day that looked more November?

Looming in the foreground, this freshly engraved stone:

 

KLEIN

 

HENECH   LENA

 

space for dates underneath each name.

 

Henech’s left hand rests on their gravestone

loosely draped as on a comrade’s shoulder.

 

My father was their son-in-law and

faithful keeper of paper for all of the family ghosts.

I will never be able to ask him why

he would not let go of these documents

securing a place for the long-buried.

There they were, yellowed edges and age-blurred ink

in a tidy stack on dad’s work table

when he died, as if they represented

unfinished business in his unspooling memory.

 

I scooped them into a plastic bag and now here they are,

a small avalanche on my desk. This

tattered envelope marked “Cemetery” holds all records of the

transaction, and photographs to mark the day. In this one

 

Henech’s right hand loosely holds the brim of his

fedora which he might absent-mindedly let go to the wind

if his besotted gaze is any indication.

He smiles open-mouthed at Lena.

There is only Lena and their future eternal home.

 

Lena, in her fine plumed hat

rests fingertips on the stone’s rougher edge,

her gaze fixed on the distance.

She leans slightly forward as if to steady herself.

 

Having had the fortitude to emigrate

from Lodz after the Pogroms,

the good fortune to get out

before the Nazis,

she has made a home in America—

in the workaday, bustling Bronx for now, but

 

here in the valley of these unassuming mountains,

just far enough from the city for a cool evening breeze,

Henech and Lena’s hands touch the waiting stone.

Follow her gaze to the place

she goes

when she leaves her body.

 

I meet her there in dreams.

 

 

Aesthetic Inquiry: Teaching Under the Influence of Maxine Greene

This is an article that appeared in The High School Journal. I was invited for their 100th anniversary issue to write an article in response to one written by Maxine Greene in 1980, called Aesthetics and the Experience of the Arts: Toward Transformation, in which she argues for the importance of robust experiences in the arts as a means of developing critical thinking.

 

Aesthetic Inquiry: Teaching Under the Influence of Maxine Greene
Amanda Nicole Gulla
amanda.gulla@lehman.cuny.edu
In Aesthetics and the Experience of the Arts: Towards Transformations, Maxine
Greene speaks to the reader with passion and immediacy about the transformative
possibilities of aesthetic encounters with works of art. For Greene, works of art are not
to be passively experienced. They are to be “achieved” (Greene, 1980, p. 316). A
“certain stance” (p. 316) is required of us “if the sounds and the light are to become
available to consciousness” (p. 316). To take that stance of questioning and alertness, a
willingness to take the time to look more deeply and to see what is to be seen is to
understand what it is to “awaken to the ways in which the arts are grasped by human
consciousness (p. 317).” This awakening is the means through which art becomes a
force for transformation, opening the channels through which individuals are changed
by an encounter with a painting or a poem.
Fully grasping a work of art often requires curiosity, patience, and a willingness to
challenge oneself to extend one’s perceptions beyond the comfortable and familiar. In
many of her lectures and writing, Greene described the work involved in embracing
and fully apprehending a painting or a symphony as “lending a work of art your life.”
This notion suggests a reciprocal relationship between work of art and audience as
Greene writes:
In some fashion, as one attends, one lends the work one’s life. Or one brings it into the
world through a sometimes mysterious interpretive act in a space between oneself and
the stage or the wall or the text (2001, p. 128).
The work of art is not inert, and the person interacting with the art cannot be passive.
We learn to listen, to open ourselves to what the artist is telling us—this human being
transmitting a message across space and time—we apprehend a version of the subject
of the work that is mediated by the artist’s perception and voice. By taking the time to
look and look again and use language and gestures to describe what we observe, we
open ourselves further to grasp the work’s meaning.
This is what Greene describes as a “distinctive mode of literacy, an achieved capacity
to break with ordinary ways of seeing and hearing” (p. 319). Where teachers are engaged
in the pedagogy of aesthetic education, we see 21st Century classrooms come
alive through these kinds of interactions. In my own experience as a teacher and as a
staff developer, I have introduced students and teachers to the possibilities of aesthetic
education across the curriculum. In a seventh grade social studies class we used
Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs to put a human face on this distant historical
period. We asked the students to study the photographs and work in small groups to
annotate the images with observations and questions. After this activity the students
seemed to be deeply moved by the images and curious about the lives of the people in
them. We invited them to write poems based on the pictures. Instead of the usual
textbook approach to the Social Studies curriculum, these students were curious and
ã 2018 The University of North Carolina Press
1
eager to dive into their studies of American history. One soft-spoken girl named Sarah
gave voice to the battlefield itself in her poem:
I am the grass soaked in blood
The sky looking down on the field
Suddenly quiet
As the only thing moving is the
Smoke rising in the air.
In another example, a Bronx English Language Arts classroom in a high school for
newcomers, teenagers who were recent immigrants intensely studied Jacob Lawrence’s
Migration Series and wrote their own stories in response. In the midst of this unit of
study a boy named Andy jumped out of his chair and ran across the room with a book
of Lawrence’s paintings, eager to show his teacher an image of a young boy picking
cotton in a field stooping from the weight of his heavy basket. “This is me!” This
moment of lending his life to Lawrence’s paintings led Andy to write this poem about
his life in the Dominican Republic, picking crops in the hot sun while he longed to go
to school with his peers:
Working since I was a child in my uncle’s fields.
getting up when the sun rose and coming back when the sun was going down.
My heart throbbed with sadness because I could not get an education like my
friends
I could not have
the same opportunity as them.
Tired of
planting the field
weeding the field
carrying bananas in a bag bigger than me.
bending hundreds of times every day to get potatoes
feeling that my back is going to break
walking in shoes covered in mud
because we did not have a vehicle.
I went to school without books, both the school and I didn’t have any
and only one pencil
and a piece of paper,
walking into my class
with everybody looking at my broken shoes.
In these cases and many more, disadvantaged children are eager to lend works of art
their lives and respond with their own creative expressions. These are the kinds of
interactions that can lead students to read with more depth and write with more
confidence, yet they are still not taken nearly seriously enough in the culture of
schools—at least not in the schools that most American children attend. In 1980,
Maxine Greene proclaimed that “learning is forced down narrower and narrower
channels,” and that young people are “alienated from the appearances of the world,
distanced from their feelings, caught between sensory indulgence and a bored passivity”
(p. 318). Breaking through this passivity is not always easy. Even when some
teachers do attempt to bring some creativity and agency into the curriculum, students
themselves who have been acculturated into passivity can be difficult to engage. A girl
in a middle school classroom, when asked to write a response to an article about air
pollution commented that it didn’t matter to her, because she never went outside. Her
The High School Journal – Winter 2018
2
response, so deeply mired in the mundane, suggests a life that is fearfully closed off
from the imaginative world and stands in stark contrast to students in classrooms
where aesthetic encounters with works of art are encouraged.
Encounters with the arts have the power to “create occasions for new beginnings,”
leading to results that can be “unpredictable” (p. 316). Schools, like most bureaucracies,
prefer the measurable and the predictable. Since the 1980s the American education
system has devoted increasing resources to measuring competencies through
standardized testing and accountability measures (Ravitch, 2010, p. xxii.) Education
has been commodified, as Greene would say, as a single corporation owns the standardized
tests used to assess students and the text books used to prepare students for
those tests, as well as the exams used to certify teachers in many states. The value of
education in a democracy has been oversimplified to what the Common Core Standards
calls “college and career readiness” (http://www.corestandards.org/). Nowhere
in these standards is there any indication that the qualities of curiosity, creativity, or
collaboration are valued. The beliefs reflected in these standards are a continuation of
what Greene called “the preoccupation with ‘competencies’ and behavioral objectives”
(p. 318). Because school administrators tend to be so preoccupied with the
quantifiable, learning experiences full of “adventurousness linked to aesthetic encounters”
may be considered “subversive of the ends of schooling” (p. 318).
Greene continued throughout her life to advocate for meaningful and adventurous
encounters with the arts as a centerpiece of public education. In 2013, just a few
months before her death at the age of 96, she met with a class of English Education
graduate students from Lehman College, the Bronx campus of the City University of
New York, in her Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park on a rainy October
evening. “The most important aspect of learning is the child’s experience,” she said.
“A child is a person, a valuable person and each one offers their own horizons” (informal
communication). This belief in valuing the lived experiences of children
hearkens back to her urging that we “enable students to release responsive energies in
the face of actual works of art” (p. 320). To teach according to the principles of aesthetic
education is to recognize the potential for meaningful encounters with works of art to
release students’ imaginations and to help them find their voices.
What does it mean to integrate Maxine Greene’s philosophy of aesthetic education into
the workaday classroom? The practice of aesthetic education in contemporary schools
requires almost as much skill in justification and compromise as it does in drawing
insight and imagination out of students. Teachers are expected to explain how the
study of a dance or a painting aligns with the Common Core Standards. Those who
come to teaching from an artists’ perspective must learn how to interweave aesthetic
encounters with codified learning goals in academic subject areas. Classroom teachers
who take time to study a work of art that is not text-based may encounter resistance
from administrators who dismiss such work as lacking “rigor.” This view, according to
Greene, falsifies “the nature of the arts and their role in the human career” (p. 318). In
fact, teachers who incorporate engagement with works of art via guided discussion and
questioning as well as hands-on art-making experiences understand that the effort
required for students to achieve these works of art (p. 316) can ultimately serve to
develop students’ capacities to read, write, reason, and communicate. Greene references
Dewey, who writes of the necessity for apprenticeship in seeing through a microscope
as a biologist would or viewing landscapes as a geologist does (p. 321).
Similarly, learning to truly see what there is to be seen in a work of art or understand
universal themes in literature requires a kind of apprenticeship in observation.
Teaching Under the Influence of Maxine Greene
3
Teachers working in the mode of aesthetic education understand that particularly for
students who struggle with reading, images often provide opportunities for critical and
complex thought and language that help develop their literacy skills. By engaging in
prolonged inquiry around works of art and then having the opportunity to make their
own creative works, aesthetic inquiry leads students to find and channel their voices.
The ability to express themselves lends these young people a powerful sense of agency.
They begin to believe in themselves in ways they might not have thought possible
before. We have seen students transformed in tangible ways. They become better and
more confident writers. They read more deeply and make more complex connections
in their thinking. Fabilisa, a young woman at the newcomers’ high school, graduated
and went to the local community college and reported with pride being able to explain
the symbolism in a book to her classmates because she had learned to read beneath the
surface by first doing so with a painting.
In that same high school English Language Arts class of recent immigrants who were so
deeply engaged with Jacob Lawrence’s work, we started out by studying Frida Kahlo’s
painting Self Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States. We
asked the students to describe what they noticed in the painting, and wrote their
observations down on large chart paper hung around the classroom. Then we had them
discuss their observations in small groups and had each group create their own chart of
questions the painting raised for them. While no formal data was gathered about student
performance before and after these experiences, students reported that this
practice of deep observation and questioning had helped them to see more in the texts
they were reading across subjects. Their writing showed marked improvement, and for
some, even their attendance improved as those who had habitually been late or truant
began coming to school early and staying late to work on their poems inspired by the
works of art they were studying in their English class.
In this class, a student who has had to leave her mother behind in the Dominican
Republic is finally able to express the ache of that loss in a poem because she has seen
something in the way Jacob Lawrence captured similar grief. Her classmates listen and
respond thoughtfully, and it is her first experience of feeling successful in school.
Another student in the same class who is from Bangladesh shares her own poem about
missing her mother and a connection is made between the two young women across
the boundaries of language and culture. Aesthetic encounters can sometimes serve to
make us feel less alone.
To teach under the influence of Maxine Greene is to be committed to helping students
understand how and why to attend deeply to their world. It is to nurture one’s
creativity and imagination in the face of “domesticating forces” and to be “resistant
to socialization and control” (p. 319). While there have been several cycles of educational
reform initiatives since 1980, school remains a primary site of domestication.
Learning is measured and quantified through seemingly endless rounds of
standardized tests, leading to a privileging of subjects with readily measurable
outcomes.
Amid the school reform talk, one rarely hears about the need for young people to
develop the capacities that are nurtured through encounters with the arts. There
may be some recognition that studying music enhances mathematical skills, or
sometimes there is a perfunctory attempt to “enrich” an academic unit of study with
the inclusion of some thematically related poems or images, but almost no attention
is paid to the art of paying attention that can be cultivated through aesthetic
The High School Journal – Winter 2018
4
education practices. Seldom is the work of art at the center of study in an “academic”
classroom.
Engagement with the arts can activate students’ imaginations to enable them to conceive
of other possible lives.When opportunities to participate in guided inquiry into works of
art are woven into the culture of schooling, we can begin to see what Greene describes as
aesthetic education, teaching what it means to “be responsive to new vistas and new
forms. . .to move students to fresh insight and awareness” (p. 317). Aesthetic education
as a philosophy is a movement that appears to be gaining more widespread attention,
with practitioners among teaching artists, teacher educators, and classroom teachers.
Teaching and learning through inquiry that consists of questions, discussion, and handson
exploration of the arts helps to cultivate the qualities of thought and attention that can
lead students to develop the habits of mind consistent with motivated lifelong learners.
This engagement with works of art through questioning and dialogue must also be
accompanied by hands-on art making, which is necessary to enable students to
“confront aesthetic objects with a quality of attention different from what they would
have been capable of if they had not themselves experimented and explored” (p. 319).
Giving students the opportunity to create their own works of art is an essential part of
the aesthetic experience. Not only does it create an opportunity for young people to
express themselves, it helps them to understand the power of symbol and metaphor as
the vehicle for that expression. Art making puts young people in touch with “the
artistic-aesthetic and the part it plays in the human experience” (p. 317).
This is a mode of teaching that focuses on the live transaction between the work of art
and a person. We teach students to approach a work of art with an open mind when we
begin the inquiry by asking “What do you notice?” This steers the discussion toward
observation and description and away from premature opinion and interpretation. The
goal is not to become an expert; it is to become awakened to possibilities. When we
bring students into an encounter with a Jackson Pollock painting our purpose is not to
talk about what we know about Abstract Expressionism. In an aesthetic education
context, we take the time to guide them to notice patterns in the movement of the paint.
We encourage them to sweep their arms to follow Pollock’s movements to have the
sensation of this unique and muscular approach to painting, and through this movement
we observe the deliberate choices the artist made, the rhythm, the way he danced
with paint. Through guided questioning and art making experiences, we teach students
to actively encounter the work, trying to empower students to see for themselves.
Aesthetic education encourages students to see more than can be seen at a cursory
glance. It requires something of learners. Reading literature or appreciating a work of
art is regarded as a transaction in which each fresh encounter holds the potential for
new perceptions and understandings. “The point of such activities,” Greene tells us,
“would be to make people see, to break with compartmentalized viewing, to take new
standpoints on the world” (p. 318). While many educators do recognize the potential
for these new ways of seeing and thinking to inform learning in a variety of positive
ways, those unfortunately do not seem to be values dearly held by any major education
policymakers in recent years. Arts programs in schools very often lack sufficient resources
in the form of time in the school day, space, and materials. Because the arts are
not among the subjects of standardized tests, they are given a low priority. Starving
these programs is an effective way to limit their reach and impact.
Aesthetics and the Experience of the Arts was written in 1980, just a few short years
after New York City’s Mayor had balanced the city budget through drastic cuts to
Teaching Under the Influence of Maxine Greene
5
schools, laying off many thousands of teachers and cutting “non-essential” services
like after-school arts programs that had served thousands of young people who lived
at or near the poverty line. Similarly, public schools all over the country—especially
those serving poor children—still suffer from a lack of education in the various arts.
Greene argues that education in the arts, when it exists at all, is viewed by many as
“self-indulgent play” rather than the means by which to develop essential cognitive
skills. This is unfortunately just as true today, although the tide may be turning as more
teachers engage in practices that allow works of art to be “vividly present,” and not
merely “set before the uninformed—to be admired from a distance” (p. 319).
It is encouraging thatMaxine Greene continues to be a powerful voice in teacher education.
Her work remains fresh and necessary, and educators continue to be introduced to her
writings. Those who knew her recall that she was always much more interested in questions
than in answers. She often held gatherings of friends, artists, and teachers at her
home. She sat by the window and in all seasons, would discuss the view of the street and
the park, the walkers, the runners, and the changing trees. Nick Sousanis and Daiyu
Suzuki, two of Greene’s doctoral students at Columbia University’s Teachers College,
created a comic called “To See…What She Saw.” This work, begun in collaboration with
Maxine and completed after her death, attempted to represent her philosophy in visual
form, using as a metaphor a large tree that grew outside her window. She had often
expressed a wish that she could draw that tree, as she discussed its form and its dynamic
and constantly changing nature.
In an interview with Teachers College Record, Sousanis said: “Maxine’s philosophy
isn’t something that would end with her. It’s something she would give to other people
and it would grow in its directions in them” (Sousanis, 2015). By its very nature,
aesthetic education is a practice that “grows in its directions” in the practitioner as we
learn to “teach what it means to pay heed to the appearances of things, to be responsive
to new vistas and new forms” (p. 317).
When we do see aesthetic education in practice it is most often in elementary schools or
among older students in the humanities—particularly in English classes. In these classes
our practice involves helping students “see themselves as encountering the art of imaginative
literature” (p. 318) rather than reading purely for information or analysis. That is
how we begin to lay the “necessary foundation for the development of aesthetic literacy.”
Aesthetic literacy is transformative as we begin to perceive in new ways, make new
connections, and continually ask questions. This new way of being does not end at the
schoolhouse door. Rather, to “be active in the world as a listener and a beholder” (p. 319)
is to challenge the limits of perceived reality and imagine new possibilities. To practice
aesthetic education is to be aware that we are in a constant state of becoming, and to
understand that there is always more to be seen and heard.
To enact the philosophy of aesthetic education is to bring students “in touchwith their own
perceived landscapes or that which might allow them to seek out their own imageries,
symbolisms, or expressive forms” (p. 318). The challenge is to persuade educational policy
makers that imagination and creative expression are important capacities for students to
develop. These capacities are not merely “ornamental or therapeutic.” They are necessary
“if persons are to be more than passive receptors, calculators and technicians” (p. 321).
This is not about turning all students into professional artists. It is about teaching people to
observe more, tomake connections between ideas, to see possibilities they would not have
imagined otherwise. Immersing young people in the aesthetic offers them nothing less than
an alternative to the anesthetic. When young people are educated in the qualities of
The High School Journal – Winter 2018
6
attention nurtured through aesthetic education they may begin to question the surface
appearance of their world. Aesthetic education places emphasis on the role of the imagination
in education. As Greene says, “imagination permits the seeing of resemblances” (p.
320). At a time when the world seems fixated on differences rather than resemblances, the
imagination can help to foster empathy and forge connections.
Our current political climate is polarized by fear and resentment, creating an environment
that leaves us subject to authoritarian tendencies. For our students in the newcomers’
high school, the aesthetic education workshops came during a time when
anti-immigrant rhetoric was becoming an increasingly prominent issue. Telling their
stories in response to the work of such artists as Frida Kahlo and Jacob Lawrence and the
poet George Ella Lyon whose poem “Where I’m From” is often used as a model for
students’ autobiographical poems was far more than an academic exercise. It took
courage for them to write about their experiences and share them with their classmates.
The students were so invested in finding their voices that they became willing to share
their work with the wider world. We produced an anthology of their writing, called
Nobody Knows the Stories of Others, titled after a line from one of the students’ poems.
This effort was a beginning, a drop in the ocean of challenges these young people would
face as they went forth into an increasingly hostile world, but the experience helped to
empower them to be more articulate and confident in their ability to take action. Beyond
their own experiences of self-expression, the students attended thoughtfully to each
other’s work and became a true community of learners. This was no mere exercise; these
high school students were truly writing their lives. Brandon’s poem in response to
Lyons’ “Where I’m From,” vividly depicts his experience as a young newcomer:
I am a broken toy
in the factory where I am from
and the last thing a factory needs
is another broken toy.
I am from a golden heart
that is too heavy for my body.
From delicate snowflakes hugging me
during the nights
and falling on the hard ice.
I am from the world of teenagers who can’t sleep at night
because we are afraid of the future.
I am from the dreamers who carry a will
that people left behind
and the ones who keep ghostly promises.
I am from the bright side of the moon
where my house is placed in the street
I am from far far away
where kids get scared in the park at night.
I am an astronaut lost in space with no more oxygen
I am from I don’t want to go to school
I don’t know these people! Or
They don’t know me.
I am from being late to school because
“the bus was late”
Teaching Under the Influence of Maxine Greene
7
but the reality is that I got lost in my thoughts
with my head in the clouds
and my feet on the ground.
I am from a stolen childhood
where I lost all my faith.
I am from asking “Can you tell me where I am from?”
moving from one place to another without
my own home.
I am from being lost in the storm
From two different timelines
stuck
in the past, living in the future.
I am from wishing to create a bright future
from a dark past.
I am from myself
and nowhere else.
Greene begins her article Aesthetics and the Experience of the Arts: Toward Transformations
by quoting W.H. Auden’s poem“In Memory of WB Yeats” in which he says “poetry
makes nothing happen” (p. 316). Poems and works of art themselves cannot change anything,
of course. It is the transactions, the live encounterswith poetry and otherworks of art
that bring about change by changing people. People are transformed when they “wrench
themselves from their submergence in the ordinary and live for a while in the imaginary
world” (p. 316). A truly well rounded education must include such opportunities ifwe are
to be able to see beyond the horizon to imagine better possibilities for our world.

 

Works Cited
Burgos, A. (2014). Untitled poem. in Nobody knows the stories of others. (Gulla, A., Sherman, M, eds.)
Anthology of student poems and artwork from Kingsbridge International High School, Bronx, N.Y.
Common Core State Standards http://www.corestandards.org/ Date Accessed 9/8/2017.
Dewey, J. (1934). Art as experience. New York, NY: Penguin & Company.
Greene, M. Aesthetics and the experience of the arts: Towards transformations. The High School Journal, Vol.
63, No. 8 (May, 1980). pp. 316–322.
Greene, M. (2001). Variations on a blue guitar: The Lincoln Center Institute lectures on aesthetic education.
New York, NY, Teachers College Press.
Lawrence, J. (1941). Migration Series. Museum of Modern Art website. https://www.moma.org/interactives/
exhibitions/2015/onewayticket/ Date Accessed 9/8/2017.
Lyon, G.E. (1999). Where I’m from: Where poems come from. Spring, TX. Absey & Company.
Molina, B. (2014). “Where I’m From” in Nobody knows the stories of others. (Gulla, A., Sherman, M, eds.)
Anthology of student poems and artwork from Kingsbridge International High School, Bronx, N.Y.
Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Rilke, R. M. (2001). The poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. (A.S. Kline, trans.) Poetry In Translation www.
poetryintranslation.com. Date Accessed 12/21/2017.
Sousanis, N., Suzuki, D. (2015). Continuing a conversation with Maxine Greene in comics. Teachers College
Record Volume 117 Number 10, 2015, p. 1–6 http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18103, Date Accessed:
9/8/2017.
Sousanis, N., Suzuki, D. (2015). To see what she saw. http://spinweaveandcut.com/maxine-eugene/ Date
Accessed: 9/8/2017.
Tavares, S. (2004). Civil war battlefield. Unpublished student poem. Middle School 190. Bronx, NY.
The High School Journal – Winter 2018
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Poems from my Neolithic travels

For the past few years my wife Ann and I have been visiting Neolithic sites in the UK- from the remotest Scottish islands to England and Wales- sometimes on our own, and lately with our English and Welsh friends Carol and Owen, whom we met on Easter Island. So we’ve been traveling the world looking at very old giant mysterious stone things and we just can’t wait for the next adventure. This last visit was to the Welsh island of Anglesey, where Owen’s family has owned land since at least the 1500s. They have a beautiful rustic cottage in the midst of sheep roaming the hills. There are lots of Neolithic sites on Anglesey, and we had a wonderful time roaming around standing stones and burial cairns such as the one pictured below.

Here is a poem inspired a bit by some of the ancient sites in Anglesey, and a bit by a particular site called Maes Howe which we visited on our last trip to Orkney-. It is a structure built into a manmade hill- stone walls covered over with turf and a low stone-lined entrance, opening up into a large, rounded chamber tall enough to stand up inside, once you have crouched or crawled the length of the entryway to get there. It looks very similar to this one, which is in Anglesey. At Maes Howe, there is a moment in winter that everyone waits for- the sun aligns exactly with the entryway to the cairn and the inside is flooded with light. Here is a poem that is at least in part about that phenomenon, and imagining what it must have been like to witness as a Neolithic person and how seeing that stone chamber fill with light must have seemed like magic. It also made me think of being in a movie theater- a darkened chamber with a source of light and drama. 20160523_121613

Your Neolithic Life

On the day you are born

a storytelling of rooks

takes flight from the trees above your slate roof

over the low-linteled cairn whose walls

align to winter sun just for an hour’s

respite from endless cold and dark.

We raised these stones to capture the solstice—light

magic is the sacred seed of cinema.

Limestone awash from a single ray—the sun-

filled chamber promises that light will return

with or without you.

The wheel turns another click,

gravity pulls you a few inches closer to the core.

The midwinter sky settles around your shoulders,

in the creases of your palms, in your hair.

You crawl down the rock walled entryway and wait.

 

 

Poems from recent travels

This past spring Ann Sherrill and I went to Orkney and Shetland, which are technically part of Scotland but far to its north and steeped in as much Norwegian culture and tradition as Scottish. I want to describe the beauty and the mystery of this part of the world- remote, wild, and yet somehow familiar and friendly. The standing stone circles, Neolithic and Viking remains are everywhere, and some sites more ancient than that. Cliffs bear the deeply etched evidence of moving glaciers, and you can walk up into those cliffs and be among puffins (which are tiny, adorable, and surprisingly fast) as well as sea eagles with 8-foot wing spans This was the trip I took on my sabbatical this past spring. I’ve undertaken several projects for this semester. One of them is a book of poems I am (still) writing. I needed to move the writing forward by going somewhere different and having some new experiences. Ann and I both tend to gravitate toward remote, desolate islands with massive, mysterious stone monuments. Go figure. So this blog post is not directly about education (although studying schools in Orkney and Shetland might be a project for the future because of the seamless way they appear to integrate traditional folk art into their formal schooling) but it is about the way in which I made a conscious effort in my travels to be aware of aesthetic encounters with both the natural and the man made environment. Questioning, a key element of aesthetic education, is the only way to understand these ancient stone sites. The guides from Historic Scotland would qualify many of their interpretations of the ancient sites with “But we’ll never really know.”

Here is a triptych poem- one long poem divided into three parts- telling the story of one of our adventures in Shetland. It is an example of how I intend to interpret and describe the encounters that took place during May 2015 in Orkney and Shetland. This story in particular takes place on a tiny island called Mousa, off the main island of the Shetland archipelago.

Mousa Boat Man and the Storm Petrels

I. Mousa Boat Man

He speaks of the storm petrels in a hushed tone.
“Twenty-seven grams. Weight of a one-pound coin.”
His back to the dock where his ferry boat bobs,
eyes fixed on the long stretch of peaty bog
between us and the broch, the
Iron Age fortress, mysterious
tower of Norse legend.
Dark stone sentinel that
looms at the edge of this
lonely Shetland island.

Mousa boat man reaches into
the pocket of his wool trousers.
Artifact in a plastic sandwich bag
“The storm petrel flies
halfway around the world
on these wings.”

he makes an arc in the air with his
calloused fingertip

A perfect pair of peerie black wings
passed around the sturdy walkers.

Storm petrels nest in the Mousa broch.
Round, windowless tower
raised high on the cliffs and
silhouetted against the sky.
Ancient tower of double
walls and secret passages.
Witness to the ages on this
misty northern island.

Mousa boat man says
“Take your time. See the birds.
They swoop under cover of dusk
past hungry raptors, into the broch.
Careful where you step.
They nest in the stairway”

II The Simmer Dim

Early in Shetland’s summer,
dusk comes at midnight.
In the simmer dim,
night holds its breath in liminal light.
Mousa boat man waits by the dock.
Ann and I head off with the sturdy walkers.

My job is to walk and to see.
Sky slowly dims, just
enough to match the ground.
I struggle along the path
etched by sheep into mud and rocks
along the cliff edge. Ann asks if I want to go on.
I say yes.
The last few feet a steep climb,
“I’ve got you,” she says,
pulls me up by the hand.
It is night but not night.
First moon since we’ve been here.
I realize how much I’ve missed it.
Storm petrels circle around the moon,
dive into the broch. Tiny winged missiles.
We crouch beneath the low-linteled entrance,
crawl into its skylit tower.
Ann climbs stone stairs that
rise like jagged teeth
between massive double walls.
I stay below, listen for
wings beating in the shadows.

The sun sinks lower, the
moon rises higher and
disappears in the mist.

In the simmer dim, faint light lingers
deep into the night.
Tonight, the wind has knives.
The ground is unforgiving.
It’s time to find our way back to the boat.
The going is slow. The
simmer dim won’t illuminate.
Ann lights our way with an IPhone.
No time to pause to
gain or regain footing.

III. Mousa Boat Man Waits at the Helm of his Ferry.

Into the half-light with a torch and a staff,
come two of the sturdy walkers
calling out, guiding us
away from the edge of the cliff
toward the dock.
One foot in front of the other.
A doctor once told me
a foot is just a bag of bones.
I place my bones gingerly
along the rain-slick path.

Fleece-wrapped walkers
huddle quietly on benches.
Straggling storm petrels
still dive toward the broch.
Mousa boat man says nothing.
He starts his engine and
turns away from Mousa island.

Ann starts the car.
We drive home to Scalloway, village
In the shadow of a ruined castle.
Porch light on the house
overlooking the harbor
Beth and Ian’s kitchen,
stories flow deep
into the simmer dim.
A dram of whisky.
A Tunnock’s teacake.

Amanda Nicole Gulla 2015

Where does the imagination come from?

Today I came across this article about the discovery of flutes made by Neanderthals from the femur bones of cave bears in Slovenia somewhere between 43,000 and 80,000 years ago: http://voxpopulisphere.com/2015/03/15/video-2/. It is 8 minutes long- you can get the basic idea in less time than that. A musician plays a replica of this ancient flute. The way to play it came to him “in a dream.” This is imagination squared. Read this and you can’t help but wonder–who were we 40, 50, 60, 70, even 80,000 years ago? For how long have our ancestors been something that we’d recognize as humans? What does it mean to be human? Do non-human animals have what we’d describe as imagination? After all, there have been cases of animals making and using tools. Does that count as imagination? Does it have to do with what happens next? After all, apes may strip a twig and use it to extract ants from an anthill. That is clever and counts as a tool, but the ape is not likely to spend lots of time after that refining that tool, embellishing, improving, motorizing, designing or decorating it. Humans start with a twig and end up with eco-friendly ergonomically designed artisanal ant extractors on sale at Williams Sonoma. Is that what marks the difference between human and non-human use of tools? That act of imagination- extrapolating possible uses and possible improvements- drives us forward. That animals may create a tool to solve a problem but humans will then continue to find new problems necessitating an endless series of improvements on the tool- is that what constitutes an act of imagination? So then what about creatures like the bower bird, who creates elaborate interior designs for his nest in order to attract a mate? Check it out: http://www.viralforest.com/bower-bird/

Are these elaborately curated installations works of imagination or, because they are the works of non-human animals, do we relegate the impulse to create them to the realm of “instinct?” Are these distinctions arbitrary? When we hear of the writer, actor, musician, dancer or painter who cannot live without her craft, are these artists creatures of instinct? And then what about play? Like this snowboarding crow: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2k1aoLAMRMc. A simple, repetitive activity to be sure, but something led this crow to the conclusion that the combination of a snowy rooftop and a jar lid constituted a worthwhile use of time that is clearly not related to food, shelter or safety.

In trying to define the imagination I think first of Maxine Greene’s quote about “imagining things as if they could be otherwise.” This is the notion of imagination at its most basic: to be able to visualize a future based on extrapolating the results of past and present actions, and to think of ways to change events to produce a different outcome. This can range from the most pragmatic (If I hit this rock with a bigger rock I might be able to break it) to the most fanciful (perhaps there is a way to combine the power of an engine with the physical motions of birds so that one day humans can fly).

So this bear femur flute is, first and foremost, an act of imagination. We cannot know how, when or by whom the flute was used, we cannot know why or under what circumstances it was used. Solemn religious ritual? Calling the tribe home for dinner? Or a diversion to pass long winter nights around the fire? Any of these or none of these is possible. The only thing we know for sure is that some Neanderthal person (if person is indeed the correct term) somehow figure out that a hollowed out bone with perpendicular drilled holes could make sounds when one blew into it, and that these sounds were pleasing or interesting or important enough to want to create these objects with a purpose. Was that purpose somehow directly related to survival? Or was it what we would recognize as art? We will probably never know for sure, but we can at least use our imaginations to speculate.

Study In Bronx

A good hard rain

soaked the ashes left behind for

months and years so the gray streets

were redolent of wet smoldering timber on the

empty lots we passed, Keds

flap flap echoing down pavement.

The meaning of flight: pink rubber ball

soars over three manhole covers.

The long street curves into nothing.

There was too much, and now there is none.

Strangers can’t see the sparrows’

brown wings beating against the windows.

There was too much Bronx to save

so we plowed it under like a fallow field.

Cracked spoons, Matchbox cars missing

wheels, a toothless comb all turned up in the

dirt after we peeled off the pavement

to make the Bronx disappear.

A layer of peach pit rings and

rusty skate keys. The

shadows on the fire escapes and the

all-night siren songs.

Down the block they are

shoveling in the alleys,

coughing in the coal chutes,

tending their back yard roses against all odds.

A permanent limp, a

linoleum clinic. Colicky fluorescent

light, creaking down the

radiator steam hallways. The

schoolhouse rises when

everything else is gone.

Children run a concrete patch

penned inside a

chain link fence. Even cattle

get some grass.  But what is the color

green? Why does it vibrate against the sky?

I am a fugitive on the el train. Rumbling

past rain-streaked windows,

my new passport packed in haste.

Just when we think we have come to the end,

there is still more Bronx

insisting on being born, demanding

full cheeks and beating hearts.

I left the air still vibrating and

on it goes, each spring heavy with lilacs.

In the neighborhood with no name,

crushed under pillars of the interstate,

even here, we know what life is

because it pushes through the cracks.

This poem was inspired by Will Nixon, leader of an informal poetry group in Woodstock, New York. This afternoon we all met at his house over cider and scones and Will read us a  beautiful poem called To Go To Lvov by Adam Zagajewski. This was followed by a writing exercise called an Emotional Landscape. What came out was this mini-history in poetic form incorporating some of my childhood memories of The Bronx. You can do the same exercise at different times and have entirely different results. The act of listening to and responding to this poem took me on a journey today, and that is why I’m sharing this poem. I call it Study in Bronx because it is kind of a portrait, and as a play on “study in bronze,” which sounds like an awfully permanent medium for something as ephemeral-sounding as a “study.”

Some Things are Hard to Measure

…and apparently, some things are hard to write about. They must be after all- why else would it take me so long to write a new blog entry? (tsk tsk…) Anyway, I’m here now, and in the face of all of these new standards and new assessments, I find myself thinking about the things that are hard to measure- the particularly thoughtful and electrifying insight that a student may have in the course of a live class discussion and may or may not ever be reflected in something that gets tested. How do we capture that, other than to acknowledge it and encourage more of the same? I am reminded, for example, of what a student said when we read Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem. (What happens to a dream deferred…). She said “What if by ‘does it explode?’ he means an explosion of creativity and self expression?” One question can change the way you see something forever. Then, in a different class, after viewing a series of films that were loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, a student waited after class to say “I’ve seen most of these movies before, but I’d never really seen them until now.” How exactly does that get captured on a standardized test, even when that very moment is all you could hope for as a teacher?

For those of us who think the most important thing an education can do is to make kids care about learning enough to pursue it on their own, standardized assessments of any kind can pose a challenge. If nothing else, testing as the primary means of judging whether or not a child has been properly educated misses so much about the actual potential of children and, for that matter, teachers. How do we test for curiosity, persistence, and passion, especially in a school culture that increasingly squeezes those impulses out of every corner of the school day? As it is, popular culture has a disdain for school and for those who do well in it. Of course, the schools that live in the memories of people who write books and movies brought it on themselves, by allowing a stereotype of schools as places of soul crushing conformity to be just true enough to live. Whenever educators make serious attempts to craft something different from that model- especially when it involves poor and working class kids in public schools, those efforts are derided and discouraged. We keep persevering, though. Reaching students and getting them to be thoughtful and engaged is hard to measure, but so well worth it.

Here is a poem from a young former English education graduate student- she is a poet, of course. Not quite sure how I would assess this, but I know it means that this is a young woman who cares deeply about teaching and learning. When a teacher gets a poem like this she is reminded why she chose this profession, and continues to choose it.

Poem

By Karstina Wong

I had never seen anyone eat a poem

or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,

but that did not stop me from writing

word upon word, again and again

until I had made a small

four stanza poem for my professor.

 

She gave me a seat in the English Education program,

and I gave her a poem.

She showed me where Icarus drowned,

and taught me how to show others, motivated me

and lifted me from the bottomless pits of writers block,

answered my e-mails promptly

(whether they were addressed to her or not),

led me into a world where children learn by doing,

and I, in turn, presented her with a poem.

 

Here is a Masters Degree, she said,

and here is a career and a lifetime of intrinsic rewards.

And here is your poem, I replied,

which I imitated from Mr. Collins.

 

Here is a cap and a gown, the power to change lives,

how to teach poetry in a classroom, and incorporate art,

a ruler and some chalk, and let’s not forget

an invitation to join the aesthetic group,

and make sure you call Ron Link, she whispered,

and here, I said, is a poem I copied

and two books I bought from Strands.

 

And here, I wish to say to her now,

is a smaller gift- not the archaic truth

that you can never repay your teachers,

but the admission that when she took

the imitated poem and the two books from my hands,

I was as sure as any new teacher could be

that this fold up, wrinkled piece of 81/2 x 11 regular printing paper,

along with two thinly bind books would be enough to make us even.

So that’s it. If I ever have a bad day between now and the end of my teaching career (which I expect and hope is a long way off) I will be able to take out this “fold up, wrinkled piece of 8 ½ x 11 regular printing paper” and remind myself what I’m capable of. May your teaching life be full of moments like this.

Musings on the Social Imagination, or How I Became an Imaginary Friend

Musings on the Social Imagination, or How I Became an Imaginary Friend.

Musings on the Social Imagination, or How I Became an Imaginary Friend

To begin with, thank you so much for stopping by! Please sit down and help yourself to a cup of tea or, if you prefer, a glass of wine. There is so much to say about the importance of the arts in a well-rounded education. I thought I’d begin by exploring the notion of what Maxine Greene calls the “social imagination” and its relationship to public schooling.

Maxine Greene has applied a philosophical lens to the daily concerns of teachers in ordinary classrooms. This stirred quite a bit of controversy in the philosophical community who believed that philosophers should remain above the fray of daily life. But teachers are concerned with fundamental questions about the nature of knowledge and learning. What kinds of knowledge do we value? How is it that people learn? What does it mean to learn? These questions take on a particular importance in light of the Common Core Standards, the centerpiece of the most recent effort at school reform. More on the Common Core another time, but suffice it to say that this endeavor by its very nature reflects choices about what is and what is not to be valued as knowledge in our schools. The Common Core Standards focus on “college and career readiness” and therefore take a mostly analytical approach to reading. It is fair to say that these standards privilege what Louise Rosenblatt would call an efferent (reading for information) approach to reading, rather than an aesthetic (reading to be immersed in the experience) approach. Reading for information is certainly a critically important skill, as is the ability to convey that information with a degree of clarity and precision. But what about the aesthetic?

According to Greene, it is through these aesthetic encounters that young people become fully engaged in learning. They learn through active experiences. Aesthetic encounters are the opposite of passivity. It is through aesthetic encounters that students learn to ask their own questions, to place themselves in another’s shoes, to explore what motivates artists and what techniques artists use to elicit emotional and intellectual responses. Such experiences ignite the social imagination by teaching students to consider the world beyond their immediate experiences and daily realities.

I was once in a seventh grade classroom in The Bronx in which the students had been asked to read and comment on an article about air pollution. I sat with a group of students and noticed that one girl in particular seemed completely disengaged with the activity. I turned to her and asked something like “What do you think?” Her response is indelibly etched in my memory: “Why should I care about air pollution? I never go outside.” She seemed quite satisfied with this state of affairs. To consider a human being going through life with such a profound, crushing lack of social imagination was utterly devastating to me. I could not help but leap to the conclusion that if the world were populated with people who think this way, the human race would probably not last beyond the next generation. Granted, she was a twelve-year-old child, and twelve-year-old children can often be self-centered and short-sighted. Still, as I looked into the chasm of her pronouncement, I was deeply chilled. How could a kid think it was okay to never go outside? Even if that was her choice, how could anyone think that no one’s experience but her own mattered? (Never mind that even if she never left her apartment, she was still breathing the same air that was in that mysterious place called “outside.” Clearly the science teacher would have his work cut out for him). To hell with the planet! American Idol is on TV! More than the student who struggles but just can’t get it, more than disruptive students, or large class sizes, or poor curricula, it is encounters like the one with that girl that make me feel that teaching can sometimes be a truly Sisyphean task. So what do you do? If there is one absolutely futile gesture in the universe, it is telling someone that they should care about something that they clearly do not care about.

I have no idea what happened to that girl. I wish I could tell you that I devised a brilliant series of lessons that so profoundly affected this child that she has gone on to earn a Masters degree in environmental science. I can’t make such a claim. It was not my classroom, but I was more than just a visitor. I was there in a professional development capacity to work with the teacher on the pedagogy of aesthetic education. The lesson: read an article, write an essay that reflects your factual understanding of the article, was hardly inspiring. The teacher had given the assignment to help students prepare for their upcoming standardized test in English Language Arts. Test prep is seldom inspiring, and it does not even pretend to be about asking children to consider new ideas, new questions, new approaches. It is about developing a certain set of narrowly proscribed skills in order to pass a test that will allow the test takers to progress on to the next step in their schooling. Never was it more apparent that the goal of middle school is to get out of middle school.

Not all learning takes place in school, of course. I doubt that anyone in school had knowingly shaped this child’s attitude that a life that consisted of moving back and forth between the confines of an apartment and a school building was a perfectly fine life to lead. It was her experiences, or perhaps her lack of certain kinds of experiences, that had led her to this conclusion. What happens when children have a broader range of experiences? What can happen when they have experiences that allow them, as Maxine Greene says, to “imagine the world as if it could be otherwise?” Let me tell you another story.

Last week I got married. At 54 years old, I was hardly a typical bride. Neither was my wife Ann, who is a youthful 53. We live in New York State, which, as anyone who has not been unconscious for the past year knows, legalized same-sex marriage in June of 2011. Clearly, since most of the state legislators who voted for this measure were not gay themselves, it took many acts of social imagination both small and large to make this dream of so many people into a legal reality. Most of these acts originated in the stories of the lives of real people like us, who simply want to express the joy of loving another human being, and commit to that love in a way that is both public and permanent.

We had a big, celebratory wedding in the Catskill mountains, which were resplendent with fall colors. Family and friends were present, there was dancing, wine, cake, and while neither of us wore bridal gowns, we did clean up rather nicely. Among those present were our friends Julia and John, who have a beautiful three-year-old girl named Maya. Maya was fairly quiet, and seemed to prefer sitting in her mother’s lap to interacting with anyone else, but some aspect of the whole experience had clearly stayed with her. A few days after the wedding, Julia emailed Ann and me to tell us that Maya had a new imaginary friend that was sometimes called “Amanda” and sometimes “Annamanda” and that Maya and her new friend were always getting married or going to weddings. For a three-year-old girl to be fascinated by brides and weddings is not at all unusual. Brides are right up there with princesses and fairies in a little girl’s imagination; but for a middle-aged lesbian couple to be the inspiration for that small child’s imaginative play was to me, breathtaking. Presumably, as Maya grows up she will have other experiences to indicate that not all brides are middle-aged lesbians. She might well know this already, but what I love about this story is that when Maya thinks of brides or weddings, she will be able to imagine a range of possibilities that would not have existed until recently. The other thing I love about this story is that I think that being the imaginary friend of a small child is just about the coolest thing one can aspire to.

So here we have two stories: one of a child with a sadly limited imagination, the other of a child whose imagination is opening up to new possibilities. I can’t tell you whether this whole experience will have an impact on Maya’s future standardized test scores, or whether it will make her more “career and college ready,” but I can say that her imaginative play is reflective of an authentic engagement with the experience of that wedding. She was not only there, but in some meaningful way, she was fully present.

Granted, school is not a wedding, it is not a party, but it certainly could incorporate more experiences that we think of as “play.” When children play, they are often not just pretending, they are becoming. It is important to provide experiences that will not just dutifully drill them with skills and facts, but that will penetrate their consciousness with possibilities and inspire them to act independently. If school could be more like this, imagine the possibilities…

For more on Maxine Greene and the social imagination, read this: Journal of Educational Controversy: Art, Social Imagination and Democratic Education: Maxine Greene and the Unfinished Conversation Lorraine Kasprisin, Editor.                     http://www.wce.wwu.edu/Resources/CEP/eJournal/v005n001/Editorial.shtml

Greetings and Salutations

Hello and thank you for taking the time to read! The purpose of this blog is to discuss issues in public education, particularly pertaining to the arts. I would like to invite you, through comments and possible future guest blog spots into an open discussion on relevant topics. Please use this forum to share ideas, ask questions, network, request assistance, publicize good things that are going on in schools.

A little on who I am and what qualifies me to lead this discussion: I am an Assistant Professor of English Education at Lehman College/CUNY. Before that, I was a teacher in New York City public schools for 15 years, then a staff developer for Community School District One, and a Teacher-Consultant for the New York City Writing Project, which is one of the oldest and largest sites of the National Writing Project. I have been involved with Aesthetic Education through Lincoln Center Institute, and more recently through the newly formed Maxine Greene Center for Aesthetic Education and the Social Imagination. The Maxine Greene Center’s purpose is to provide a forum in which teachers, teacher educators, artists and arts professionals can network, do research together, and share resources to explore ways of improving and expanding arts education.

A brief word on aesthetic education: Aesthetic education is an approach to teaching that employs inquiry-based teaching and learning methods of hands-on experiential learning involving questioning, art making, writing and group discussion in the study of works of art across the curriculum. Teachers in all academic subjects may incorporate studies of a variety of art forms to relate to their subject not just thematically, but also through studies of the aesthetic elements of the art work. In an English class, for example, classes may visit an art museum to explore the way particular artists use composition, and then extend the study of composition as it applies to writing.

For more information, please visit the Bronx Arts Education Network at http://www.lehman.cuny.edu/academics/education/bronx-arts-education-network/index.php or email me at amanda.gulla@lehman.cuny.edu.