Thursday, August 19, 2010

What we should be teaching our children...


Now, to be fair, I must admit that I am not the biggest fan of Billy Collins' work, but I am a fan of teaching our children the wonder of words right from their start. Obviously, this three-year-old boy's parents feel the same way:

And here is the poem as you'd encounter it on the page:


You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine...
-Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine.

--Billy Collins

Honoree Jeffers mentioned this video to me yesterday and, when it appeared in my inbox this morning, I watched it and marveled at how precise and filled with emotion this child's recitation was/is. How many of us--even those of us who call ourselves poets--can recite poems we love this way? I'd like to imagine I can embody poems by several of my beloveds--Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, Derek Walcott, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes--at the drop of a hat, but have I taught any of the children in my life to embrace words this way? I doubt that I have. Of all the workshops and reading classes I've taught that have included poetry, I haven't once used memorization as anything more than an extra credit exercise, and I don't believe in all my years of schooling that recitation was taught to me either. But this has not always been the case.

I routinely hear folks who have come one or two generations before me talk about how they were made to memorize poems and speeches during their formative years. At one time, this was a routine part of the educational system. What happened to this tool? Surely, we can make the argument that memorization and repetition help bolster critical thinking skills, so how and why has 'progressive education' all but abandoned this technique? Being an educator, I have a strange suspicion that, because there is no room for oral presentations when administering standardized exams, this learning tool has been deemed unnecessary and a waste of properly used classroom time. But what a shame that is. Imagine what children might learn, retain and grown to love (or at least remember fondly...) if we taught them to pour over words until they stuck. The toddler in the video above gives us a small glimpse of the opportunities we're missing.