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.


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.