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Leaving Home

I posted Taylor Mali’s poem, Undivided Attention, the other day and found my way to his website. He taught for several years in the New York City school system and he has lesson plans on the site. I tried one with the students that examines the difference between the literal and figurative on Thursday.

Mali posed provocative questions and students wrote short paragraphs. Examples of these questions are “What happens to the dreams you don’t remember?”; “Which letter of the alphabet is the most intelligent”; and “Do leaves look forward to falling in autumn? Or do they hand on for dear life?” Students struggled as one of the instructions was to not explicitly name the thing in the question. They were to artfully describe their letter, the leaves, or what happens to dreams and present them in figuratively and not literally. There was a lot of conversation and some writing.

I took matters into my hands and wrote a short paragraph. I wrote on the fly so the language is a bit passive and words i.e. visage were not the right ones. Visage is French for face so would not have glanced around. When I model, I find the students make more progress.

“He frantically clung to life fighting a losing battle against nature and her forces. At wit’s end, he valiantly, vainly hung on not submitting to a cyclical reality. He sensed loneliness and not solitude. Assisted by gentle breezes his discoloured visage glanced furtively around. He was in this alone. His colleagues humbly had moved on ahead of him finding their way to become humus and rebirth in the next spring. What to do now? He realized this was not the end he had planned for and took his leave that autumn day. His job done and he wafted towards his destiny.”

Today, I crafted this into a poem. The language is a little more active and I hid the topic. The answer is in the tags.

Frantically he clings to life,

He wages a futile battle versus Nature,

Against all her marshaled forces.

Valiantly, he struggles,

Unwilling to let go,

He wages this vain battle.

He senses loneliness;

His, a solitary stance–

Sans ally.

Today, a gentle breeze rustles only him;

His discoloured visage turns–

And, he glances furtively about.

Colleagues, long departed

Humbly headed home

They add a new, rich layer.

Silent humus and rebirth whispers,

Come, ready Mother Earth

Help prepare Her new garden.

Not the end he desired,

But, this past season’s calling is complete,

Wisdom speaks and he lets go.

Downward, he gently falls

And, his job is complete

Gracefully, he alights.

Undivided Attention

We set out tomorrow for a short trip tomorrow through the mountains and, hopefully, no snow. There will be snow. I hope it is not snowing.

A colleague recently introduced me to the poetry of Taylor Mali. He is better known for the poem What Teachers Make. That was a poem I had heard several times before, but could not have attributed it to a poet. Mali has great wit, clarity, and creates powerful imagery through his words. He was a teacher for several years and I think he would have been fantastic in the classroom building relationships with young people. I wrote about Sam Intrator several months ago and I think Taylor Mali is the kind of teacher he was describing in his book, Tuned In and Fired Up.

This poem by Taylor Mali spoke as the day unfolded. I need to be present for my students to learn. I need to give them my undivided attention so they can give their undivided attention to the subject at hand, perhaps that piano hanging eight stories up across the street. What could we learn that day?

A grand piano wrapped in quilted pads by movers,
tied up with canvas straps—like classical music’s
birthday gift to the criminally insane—
is gently nudged without its legs
out an eighth‐floor window on 62nd street.

It dangles in April air from the neck of the movers’ crane,
Chopin-­‐shiny black lacquer squares
and dirty white crisscross patterns hanging like the second‐to­‐last
note of a concerto played on the edge of the seat,
the edge of tears, the edge of eight stories up going over—
it’s a piano being pushed out of a window
and lowered down onto a flatbed truck!—and
I’m trying to teach math in the building across the street.

Who can teach when there are such lessons to be learned?
All the greatest common factors are delivered by
long‐necked cranes and flatbed trucks
or come through everything, even air.
Like snow.

See, snow falls for the first time every year, and every year
my students rush to the window
as if snow were more interesting than math,
which, of course, it is.

So please.

Let me teach like a Steinway,
spinning slowly in April air,
so almost-­‐falling, so hinderingly
dangling from the neck of the movers’ crane.
So on the edge of losing everything.

Let me teach like the first snow, falling.

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