love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
less frequent than to fail
Friday afternoon, and I have only three students in my fifth period American Literature class. It is language field trip day, when the French class drives to Dijon, the German class flies to Berlin, and the Spanish flies to Madrid. It is also the first away soccer game. By my scientific calculations, approximately 76% of all Black Forest Academy juniors are either taking these upper-level language classes or playing soccer. Leaving, in my fifth period, only these three, who do neither.
The options for what to do with a three-person class are admittedly limited, typically dwindling down to:
- Watch a movie. Perhaps one related to your class, or perhaps not. But definitely nothing too critical, that will require endless filling-in when the absent students return.
- Go out for ice cream. Instructionally, not the best option, but perfect for the odd choir or team sports class, where proceeding meaningfully with the material is impossible.
- Plan an elaborate lesson, with many moving parts, that is not repeatable and may not even work, but for three students it’s worth experimenting a bit.
Though options 1 and 2 have served me well on other sparsely-studented days, today I went for 3, spending half an hour after school yesterday setting my classroom up as an experimental typography laboratory. On the tables are piles of words–most of them of the useful, vaguely poetic type like divine, vision, or violin–on colorful squares of paper. Each table contains a different challenge:
- Arrange the words using experimental syntax (“Brilliant violin I have played the divine.”)
- Use the words to create five new compound words, then use them in a poem. (“But marbleyou, my puzzlefriend, arted across the room.”)
- Break up a least two words, arranging them in a non-linear way to give them new or enhanced meaning. (see picture right)
- Experiment with spacing and line breaks to highlight specific words or phrases in your poem.
I have no idea how this will go. Experience whispers both jeers and encouragements, as echoes of other failed lessons elbow me away from risk-taking, and memories of unexpected victories urge me onward. I grasp the irony of risking an experimental lesson about experimental poetry, and realize the risks are the same. In the poetry, Cummings risked his readers not understanding or bothering with his work. In the lesson, I risk the same, that my students will look at the carefully cut-out words and scoff the dreaded, “Do we really have to do anything today?” They might not understand.
As it happens, they do. I spend three gleeful class periods with the remnant students, pushing words around on tables and playing with their meanings, trying for once to shake of the chains of convention to recall the joy we once took in the words themselves. My non-native English speakers are scrambling for prepositions and articles to make grammatical sense of their creations, and I’m telling them it doesn’t matter. Today. And, swimming in paper words, poetry happens.
It strikes me that a good activity, for me, is as unexpected as a poem, and as serendipitous. After eight years of practice, I can string together the solid prose of instruction and assessment with fairly predictable ease. But these moments apart, odd and marvelous, still take risk and adventure. I’m thankful to work in a place where such risks are rewarded, from both administration and students willing to keep an open mind, and thankful for this quiet day of creative space, peaceful and delightful with my three remaining students.