Salt and the stagecoach

Stagecoach

Western Stagecoach 08. Robin HallCC BY

The third graders were having a hard time.

“We’re writing pourquoi tales in this unit,” explained their teacher, “which have to be based on the students’ research of frogs. We practiced writing one together and now they have to write their own, but they keep coming up with stuff that doesn’t quite work. I’ll end up with twenty stories about ‘Why Frogs Have Eyes’ or something.”

She sighed.

So, as extra practice,  I agreed to come help the children write pourquoi stories on topics of their choosing. I modeled writing one of my own composition, “Why People Wear Shoes,” incorporating their artistic contributions along the way (my main character meets a talking owl and the kids said it needed to be huge so that my character could ride on its back, which greatly enhanced the story).

Then we brainstormed ideas that they might write about:

Why there are stars

Why there are oceans

Why the ocean is salty

Why zebras have stripes

Why there are colors (challenging!)

Or anything else in the universe that might make a sensible pourquoi.

“Remember,” I told them, as they settled on their ideas and started to write, “you can have fun with this. You can make animals can talk, you can make mysterious things happen, but your stories have to clearly explain why or how something is the way it is.”

When I returned the next day, the teacher said, “You’ve got to hear this!” She asked a boy to read his draft to the class. A quiet boy who hadn’t seemed especially interested in writing.

I sat down and listened. He’d chosen “Why the Ocean Water is Salty.” A man working in the mountains delivered salt to people in a stagecoach. Thieves threw a stick of dynamite into it, which frightened the horses. They drove over a cliff into the sea, where the dynamite went off, dispersing “billions of salt” throughout the water.

Oh, and the driver survives, retires, and decides he’ll just fish and hunt for the rest of his life.

He finished reading. His classmates applauded enthusiastically.

Must have been a full minute before I thought to close my gaping mouth.

“Amazing!” I finally managed to say. “What made you think of a stagecoach?”

“Well, first I wrote that the man was breaking up rocks on the mountain and hit one accidentally with his foot. It rolled down a cliff and knocked other rocks in, but then I thought, that doesn’t make sense. Rocks won’t make the ocean salty. So I thought about a stagecoach with salt in it. Then I needed something to explode in the water . . .”

—Makes perfect sense to me.

The moral of the story:

We can show them the stagecoach

but if we never let them load it as they please, 

they’ll drive only so far.

Set the wheels in motion,

hand over the reins,

jump out of the way.

See what astonishing routes they take.

Writing teacher rhapsody

Globe with gold suspended in water

Writing time.

Expectancy painted on their faces.

They know something’s coming,

just not what, yet.

But something.

Ideas.

Their own.

In this moment

I’m just the crossing guard

from the unit 

to the universe.

Ever expanding.

They do not know, yet,

that they’re made 

of the same stuff as the stars.

That the stuff without

is always calling

to the stuff within.

They are children

but not too young to discover

they’re oceans

containing more than simply

water 

and salt.

But I know 

there’s millions of pounds of gold

infinitesimally dispersed

throughout the oceans.

Here is where

those priceless grains 

rise to the surface

take shape

become substance.

Now is when they start spilling

onto the page

to shine

with a light of their own.

The whole of my task

is to stir

release

and be swept away.

Metaphor

For metaphorMorning glory. Jason BolderoCC BY

Following a poetry unit in fourth grade, the teacher invited me to collaborate on arts-integrated assessments. We set it up by having students choose 1) Poetry concepts they learned and 2) The vehicle for conveying their understanding, one of the multiple intelligences: arts smart, math smart, music smart, body smart, self smart, people smart, word smart, science/nature smart, and one extra that we added, tech smart.

Students could collaborate if they’d selected the same “smart.” They were free to think and design as long as the activity or product defined or represented the selected elements of poetry – imagery, personification, alliteration, simile, etc. Some students chose to make games and puzzles (math smart) with their poetry concepts. Some went straight for Chromebooks. Some preferred sketching and drawing (later in this process one student who struggles with academics will show me how she intentionally incorporated perspective and 3D elements in her art smart visual representation of imagery). A team of body smart students began choreographing a dance to define three concepts. One student wanted to write a song. 

So much excitement, so much brilliance, yet no one picked “metaphor”— the word sat all alone on the chart where students placed their names beside the poetry elements that they wanted to demonstrate.

And no one chose “word smart” as the mode. They had, however, written their own poems during the unit.

I pointed out that word smart is naturally interwoven with music smart in writing a song, and with body smart in the chants accompanying the dance. Words play their part in slideshows, in the puzzles and games, and in all the conversation the kids were having about how to best represent the concepts in these ways.  

As for metaphor . . . the students grinned. With lots of teeth. “You said you’d give us a model.”

Ah. So I did. Is that why no one picked “metaphor” and “word smart”? Was this a conspiracy?  A throwing down the gauntlet?

I smiled inside myself. I would have chosen metaphor anyway (I think). And what better “word smart” way to convey its meaning than through poetry?

When I returned, rough draft poem in hand, I posed a question: “First, I need to make sure you know for yourselves what metaphor is. How would you define it?”

Their responses:

“An image that stands for something else.”

It helps paint a picture in the reader’s mind.”

You can’t say ‘like’ or ‘as’ because that’s simile. You have to say something IS something else.”

A comparison.”

Wordplay.”

Really, guys? And none of you picked metaphor? Seriously?” I asked in mock exasperation.

Giggles. They sit gathered round my chair, on the rug at my feet, these young sages waiting for me to read.

What is metaphor?

Metaphor is the sun behind the clouds

the heavens reaching long, shining fingers

down to the earth of our minds.

Metaphor is the moon on the ocean of knowledge

bits of silver smiles shining on a dark surface

that’s always moving, moving, moving.

When I say that home is the velvety warmth of my dog

and the laughter of my family around the dinner table

that’s metaphor.

What is metaphor for?

Well, meta means beyond.

Metaphor is understanding

in a deeper way.

Without metaphor

imagery is a just a strange skeleton

without flesh and color

something we don’t recognize.

Metaphor is what we know

helping us to see better.

Metaphor is new glasses.

Metaphor is the cloak

thrown over the invisible

to make it appear

and have shape

and make sense.

Without metaphor

poetry would shrivel

and maybe die.

Metaphor waters the poet-tree

and keeps it alive.

That’s meta.

That’s what it’s for.

Metaphor.

In one motion their hands went up to flutter or “sparkle” in silent applause; I had a fleeting sense of being in a beatnik coffee house, minus the sound of finger snaps. Of course these artists, mathematicians, scientists, all, will be chomping to give me specific feedback with the rubric that I helped them create. They’ll do it thoroughly and gleefully, rest assured.

Such a jewel-encrusted, double-edged sword, teaching.