14 Ways to Improve the Lives and Performance of Students

16 12 2013

There are those who like to sit around and complain about the weather. It is far too cold in winter, and it is much, much too hot in summer. A surprising amount of time is spent on variations on this theme. When these people grow tired of the weather, their next targets of scorn are “kids today,” how things are so much worse now,  and how schools are to blame.

Are they right?

Many People say our schools are failing, but I ask you—especially if you have a child in public school right now–do you believe that your school is failing your child?

My guess is that most of you reading this believe that your kids are doing pretty well, and that you like your child’s teacher well enough, and you like your district overall. Sure, improvements could (and should) be made, but overall, your child is doing fine.

That’s the general feeling in most places.

So, why are we pushing a new nationalized curriculum? Why must we have a massive overhaul of the way teachers teach and students learn? Well, one of the reasons is because some districts are not doing well. Not doing well at all.

I’m sure you know a district by you that is much worse off than yours, right? Why is that?

Do you think it is it because they are positively teeming with ineffective teachers?

Is it because they just don’t test those kids in those districts enough?

No, but that is what Common Core fixates on.

Hold your breath here, because I’m about to say something shocking.

Low performing districts usually have a population of students with low socio-economic status.  In fact, I challenge you to find one failing school in any moderate to high socio-economic community.

Gasp! I know. But, am I wrong?

I realize that it is impolite to say this.

But I’ll say it, because it is true.

A list was published in Central NY recently that rated all the districts around here. “Shockingly” the wealthiest areas were on the top and the poorest areas were at the bottom.

How could it be clearer? The problem is not in the schools; the problem is poverty.

And how do we solve poverty?

Can we?

The idealist in me (and, I’m sure, in you) refuses to believe that there is nothing we can do to help raise school performance in areas of high density poverty.

I believe that we absolutely can.

To find out how, we must look to the reasons why the students in moderate to high socioeconomic status do well and try to somehow provide those things to the students in poverty.

The following are my hypotheses.

In other words, this list is not research based, It is the result of reflection on my past 15 years teaching.


  1. You must have small class sizes, and I’m talking tiny. They should be no more than twelve in size, the size of a large family. Why? Because this creates a feeling of belonging. It creates a comfortable, safe, nurturing, and friendly environment. It is something that many of them lack, and if given this safe space, many will thrive.
  2. Time must be invested forging bonds among the students in the class. The more they know each other, the more invested in each other they become in their mutual success. Often students will be a teacher’s best tool in reaching a student who is slipping away. Any personality conflicts must get ironed out right away. Time spent building the family of learners is not wasted time. I would also suggest building class pride by engaging in good-spirited competition with other classes. They should identify with school in general and their own class in particular.
  3. Students must view their teacher as likeable and fair. These teachers do not necessarily have to be a laugh-riot all the time or one of those wildly entertaining types of teachers you see in movies. Students know when a teacher has their best interests at heart. They want to please, and these students do not want to let a teacher they like down. Please keep in mind that they can smell condescension from miles away. Don’t “feel bad” for them. They don’t want or need your pity. They want a chance.
  4. Give them a solid, dependable routine, but there should be room for a dash of spice here and there. Most of us like to know what to expect on any given day. Mondays were vocabulary days in many of my classes. They knew what to expect. They liked that, even if they complained. Now, that doesn’t mean I did the exact same vocabulary presentation every week. That’s the spice I was talking about.
  5. Give plenty of opportunities for students to express themselves. The more they develop and find confidence in their spoken voice, the easier it becomes to translate that into writing, good writing.
  6. Whenever possible, give students a touch of choice in assignments, and ALWAYS provide clear, written instructions defining each possible assignment. Students should have access to scoring rubrics that they can use to help them succeed. Scaffolding, such as outlines, etc., should be available at first, and then gradually eliminated.
  7. Never blame them for what they don’t know. Teach them what they need. Meet them where they are without creating shame.
  8. When you assign homework, which should only be a reasonable amount, always check it or quiz on it. They will stop doing their homework if they do not feel it is “worth” something.
  9. When students fail, give them a way to redeem themselves. Of course they should be able to revise their essays if they ask, etc.
  10. Know your students. Find their individual sparks and use them to your (and their) advantage.
  11. Take them on as many enrichment field trips as possible, but strive for at least one live performance each year, preferably of something you read together in class. Even if the performance is terrible, it will provide a fantastic opportunity to discuss. Plus, this is a cultural experience that they may not have previously had.
  12. They should read real literature. It should be the stuff that they have heard of and thought was way above their heads. (Oh, and they should never read excerpts.) Have them read the whole stinking text. Unless they are very limited in ability, they should not be given kiddie-lit. That’s a form of condescension. Give them real, honest to God literature that focuses on the big issues. They will complain, but they will rise to the occasion more often than not. I’m talking Shakespeare, Camus, and even Faulkner, here. Leave your Mitch Alboms for their personal reading lists or enrichment.
  13. An occasional “informational” or “fact based” text is appropriate as it helps focus another lens through which to study literature, but other than that, informational texts belong in the social studies classroom.
  14. Assessments such as tests and essays should have the purpose of assessing students’ progress and determining how to address any deficiencies. Students understand the value of them. Tests which do not serve these purposes and exist in large extent to grade the teacher should be refused.  Pretests in an English classroom are a complete waste of time.  Why in the world would it be beneficial to give them a test in the beginning of the year on things they do not know?  What a terrible way to start the year.  Instead, take a close look at their first assignment.  Even simple vocabulary sentences will reveal to the teacher areas which need to be worked on in a much kinder way, a way that wont create undue anxiety and resentment toward the teacher, school, and their own ability to succeed.

These 14 steps do not ensure a student in poverty will succeed in a class. There are so many factors beyond our control. We cannot force a child to attend our classes; we cannot experience the individual struggles they live with every day. However, it has been my experience that many more students will succeed than fail if these 14 points are taken into account.

I am completely confident that reducing teachers into script readers and data collectors will do nothing to improve the lives (or test results) of our students in poverty, or the lives of any other student regardless of socio-economic status, but test makers may skew the results to make it look that way.  There is a whole lot of money riding on the implementation of these standards, so much so that I fear that this is “too big to fail.”  But if we really care about helping all students reach “college and career” readiness, this initiative  must fail.  It is time that we take some of that money and invest it in things that teachers know will help students.

Admit it; You Hate Change, too. A reflection on Sara Teasdale’s “September Midnight”

18 09 2013


September Midnight

Lyric night of the lingering Indian Summer,
Shadowy fields that are scentless but full of singing,
Never a bird, but the passionless chant of insects,
Ceaseless, insistent.

The grasshopper’s horn, and far-off, high in the maples,
The wheel of a locust leisurely grinding the silence
Under a moon waning and worn, broken,
Tired with summer.

Let me remember you, voices of little insects,
Weeds in the moonlight, fields that are tangled with asters,
Let me remember, soon will the winter be on us,
Snow-hushed and heavy.

Over my soul murmur your mute benediction,
While I gaze, O fields that rest after harvest,
As those who part look long in the eyes they lean to,
Lest they forget them.

Sara Teasdale


Summer is all but officially over for the year.  College is in full swing, schools are back in session, football is back on television, and I have made the switch of wardrobe.  Away go the sleeveless and the shorts, and in with the jeans and the sweaters.

On this night of the big, brilliant harvest moon, I am thinking about Sara Teasdale’s poem.

There are people who like good-byes and people who avoid them.  Maybe because I was a military child and so profoundly used to good-byes and their significance, I am the type who needs those moments to bid farewell, not necessarily to people, but definitely to places and times.

I like to take that extra moment to go into an empty house before I move, going from room to room and breathing it into my memory before leaving.

Why not take a picture, you ask?  Good question.  I don’t know the answer.  I have pictures of my old bedrooms and houses, but I don’t look at them.

I vividly remember sitting crossed- legged  in my small bedroom closet as a seventh grader the day we left our house in Maryland to move to New York.  I just wanted to remember it.

Why did I care about the closet?  I didn’t sit in there before.  I had no special attachment to it; nonetheless, there I sat for while trying to sear into my memory the slats of the folding door.

Maybe it is because leaving a place or a time is much like leaving yourself behind.

Life is constantly changing, and for a young person, that’s very unnerving.  Heck, it is unnerving to think of as an adult.

Change is unavoidable, but it is even more difficult when you have very limited control over your life.  That part of childhood is definitely not one that I would ever want to return to.

“September Midnight” is about the fast approaching change of seasons.  In her poem, summer is over; there are no more birds chirping, the growing season is over, and all that remains are the insects’ passionless chirps.

There is no scent to the fields and the moon is worn, broken, and tired.

So, really, what is she going to miss exactly?

These aren’t exactly beautiful images that she creates with diction such as weeds, worn, broken, tired, passionless, scentless, and shadowy.

She is afraid of the change more than the actual loss of the season, which reminds me of that little girl who didn’t want to leave that bedroom closet many years ago and move.  It wasn’t a great place to be, but it was better than the change.

So we pause; we try to drink in the surroundings to taste them again when we want to.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, either.  That way, when the world gets too heavy, we can bring to our mind’s eye the images of what we know so well and find some comfort, even if that is just fallow fields and insect chirps.


It only becomes a problem when you spend all of your time pining away for the past and thereby missing out on the new phase of life.

When I left my teaching job, I spent many moments looking at my empty classroom.  Being a teacher was the way I defined myself, and leaving that behind to start another phase in life was a bigger challenge than leaving any house.  When my girls are in the middle of big fits, it is nice to be able to bring to mind the peaceful classroom I once had and imagine what it would be like to return one day. . . but not too soon.

We might want to make the symbolic leap that she is reflecting not on a literal change of seasons, but on a figurative change in the seasons of life.  Perhaps this is commentary on the hesitation we feel when entering the autumn of our lives.

Because we are afraid of death, we focus on the dark, heavy, and cold parts of growing older, but with that attitude, we will easily miss out on all the beauty that is found in the winter, both literally and figuratively.

Happy autumn, and I hope the change of seasons finds you well.

I Hear America Singing, but who is off key? You?

2 07 2013

I Hear America Singing.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deck-
hand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
as he stands,
The woodcutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morn-
ing, or at noon intermission or at sundown,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Walt Whitman

I’m sure you know some people who sing through their lives.

Not literally like Grease or an episode of Glee come to life, (Although that would rock.)  No, more like people who are so into what they do that it is so beautiful—it is like they are constantly singing a strong and lovely lifesong.

It doesn’t matter if a person is into high art or baseball statistics; you can always tell if she is doing what she should be doing by the intensity and spark with which she does it.  This is what is meant by “singing.”

Add to this the fact that they are singing carols.  “Carols” connotes a religious, holy feel, and it is holy when you witness people who are passionate about their work.

What a difference it would have been if instead of carols, Whitman replaced it with “ballads” or something. Let’s try it out:

“I hear America singing, the varied slow jams, I hear”

See?  Word choice is very important.

During the summers when I was in college, I worked several odd-job positions at a local copper factory.  One summer I worked in the store room, so the workers would come to me to ask for the parts they needed.

I would try to find the part in the enormous warehouse, inevitably, it would be the wrong part, and the workers would grumble and honestly not know how I didn’t know what a 3, 4, L was, or whatever, and then I would try again.

And again.

Till I just let him in to find the part his dang self.

Anyway, this one guy, who was probably a year or two younger than me, greeted me each day not with a “hello,” or anything like that.  He started the day with a number. For example, he would say (while grinning from ear to ear):  “7,642”.

You know what the number was?

The number of days till his retirement.  Every day he would come in and his number was one less than the day before.

Doesn’t that make you sick?

How can a person live life like it is a prison sentence?

When does this guy think his “life” will begin?  Who is to say he will be lucky enough to even make it to retirement?

I will never forget that, and how sad it was.  I wonder if he is still counting down.  I hope not.

This guy is the perfect example of one who does NOT sing through his life.  And that is a shame.

Take a look at who Whitman lists in his poem.  It is the laborers, really.  He doesn’t mention any “learned” people or those in professions often admired and longed for. He mentions nothing about money or wealth.  You don’t see him writing about trial lawyers, senators, or professors.

You could have the best job in the world by society’s standards but you will not be singing unless it suits you, unless it belongs to you.

Whitman knows that singing happens when people have dignity in what they do and when people are truly present in their lives, no matter what it is they choose.

This guy loves faucets.

This guy loves faucets.

People who sing through life are not waiting to live (for retirement, summer break, graduation, Christmas, etc.) They are just living.  And I don’t mean in a carpe diem way, really.  I mean they are doing what they do and doing it thoughtfully and presently, and by doing their part, they make our nation strong.

They aren’t multi-tasking or staring at a clock waiting for the day to be done.  They aren’t lost in a perpetual plan for the future. They aren’t on the phone or reading the news while they attempt to play with their children or talk with a friend.  They live artfully.

Whitman emphasizes his joy in freedom in his use of free verse—

Since his content is a celebration of the individual, it would be a bit paradoxical to fit that message into a rigid meter or rhyme scheme, right?

One of the best things about America is that, to a degree, we are able to choose our lives.  The fact that we are free to be a baker in Los Angeles when our father was a doctor in Alabama is pretty amazing.  Freedom.  We are so lucky if we have it.

american flag

So, please.  No more countdowns.  If you are feeling like you need them to get through your day, maybe it is time to reevaluate and follow that passion to make America sing stronger and more melodiously.

Be part of the chorus instead of a garish cacophonous clank.  It would make our founding fathers proud.

Happy 4th of July, everyone!

Pause and Your World May be New: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

2 01 2013

Pause and Your World May be New: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.

Pause and Your World May be New: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

2 01 2013

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.  

His house is in the village though;  

He will not see me stopping here  

To watch his woods fill up with snow.  


My little horse must think it queer  

To stop without a farmhouse near  

Between the woods and frozen lake  

The darkest evening of the year.  


He gives his harness bells a shake  

To ask if there is some mistake.  

The only other sound’s the sweep  

Of easy wind and downy flake.  


The woods are lovely, dark and deep.  

But I have promises to keep,  

And miles to go before I sleep,  

And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem.

 Robert Frost’s poetry, while not always exactly lighthearted and cheery, gives me a cozy feel.  Maybe it is because his words are so familiar to me, as they might be for you, or maybe it’s because the experiences he writes about are pretty universal and relevant to the modern reader.

 This one, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is almost like a Christmas carol in its effect on me, but don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it veers into sentimentality.

 Plus, it is a pretty good poem to start the year. 

 As he and his horse travel a familiar path through someone’s woods, he takes a moment to watch the woods fill with snow.  Who knows how many times he has traveled this same route and has never really seen things the same way he does on this trip. 

 Has that ever happened to you?  It does for me all the time, especially when I am out for a jog.  I have jogged down roads that I have driven on for decades and can still find things I haven’t noticed before.  Most recently, I noticed that a house just a few blocks down the street from my parents’ house is built sideways.  The front door is not facing the road, it’s like it got up and turned on its side, very strange.

 I never noticed that till I slowed down and looked around a bit more.  It makes me wonder what else is out there that I haven’t noticed before.  Stuff hiding in plain sight. 

 Maybe it’s the snow falling that makes our speaker hit the pause button for a moment.  Snow does that for me, too.  Especially when those giant snowflakes fall so slowly that they seem to reject all rules of gravity.

1/365 & 1/52 - Snow,

1/365 & 1/52 – Snow, (Photo credit: netzanette)

 We know it is not a common occurrence for this rider to stop in the middle of his journey from the behavior of this horse.  The horse shakes his harness bells—he wonders what’s up, this is not where we are supposed to stop.  This is not part of the normal routine.

After a moment, the rider reflects that, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep” but concedes that he has promises to keep.  He’s got things to do, places to go.  No, he can’t shirk all his responsibilities and hang out in the woods all day, even though he may want to.  There are things to do before he can really rest. 

 However, he can take a few minutes to press pause from time to time.  He can slow down, admire, and appreciate what is around him, and make his world a little newer.

 Here’s to a year full of many pauses of new appreciation for you.

Less Blame, More Peace: My Plan. (with Wordsworth’s “Ode of Intimations of Immortality”)

20 12 2012

Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

By William Wordsworth

(Note: this is a much longer poem than I usually write about.  If you don’t want to read the whole thing, you can get the flavor of it in the boldened stanza below.  However, I do hope you read the whole thing sometime.  It’s worth the read. Promise.)

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

The earth, and every common sight

                 To me did seem

            Apparelled in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream.

It is not now as it hath been of yore;–

             Turn wheresoe’er I may,

              By night or day,

The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

            The rainbow comes and goes,

            And lovely is the rose;

            The moon doth with delight

     Look round her when the heavens are bare;

            Waters on a starry night

            Are beautiful and fair;

     The sunshine is a glorious birth;

     But yet I know, where’er I go,

That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song,

     And while the young lambs bound

            As to the tabor’s sound,

To me alone there came a thought of grief:

A timely utterance gave that thought relief,

            And I again am strong.

The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep,–

No more shall grief of mine the season wrong:

I hear the echoes through the mountains throng.

The winds come to me from the fields of sleep,

            And all the earth is gay;

                Land and sea

     Give themselves up to jollity,

            And with the heart of May

     Doth every beast keep holiday;–

                Thou child of joy,

Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy


Ye blesséd Creatures, I have heard the call

     Ye to each other make; I see

The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;

     My heart is at your festival,

       My head hath its coronal,

The fulness of your bliss, I feel–I feel it all.

         O evil day! if I were sullen

         While Earth herself is adorning

              This sweet May-morning;

         And the children are culling

              On every side

         In a thousand valleys far and wide

         Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,

And the babe leaps up on his mother’s arm:–

         I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!

         –But there’s a tree, of many, one,

A single field which I have look’d upon,

Both of them speak of something that is gone:

              The pansy at my feet

              Doth the same tale repeat:

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?

Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

          Hath had elsewhere its setting

               And cometh from afar;

          Not in entire forgetfulness,

          And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

               From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Shades of the prison-house begin to close

               Upon the growing Boy,

But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,

               He sees it in his joy;

The Youth, who daily farther from the east

     Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,

          And by the vision splendid

          Is on his way attended;

At length the Man perceives it die away,

And fade into the light of common day.

Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own;

Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind,

And, even with something of a mother’s mind,

               And no unworthy aim,

          The homely nurse doth all she can

To make her foster-child, her inmate, Man,

               Forget the glories he hath known,

And that imperial palace whence he came.

Behold the Child among his new-born blisses,

A six years’ darling of a pigmy size!

See, where ‘mid work of his own hand he lies,

Fretted by sallies of his mother’s kisses,

With light upon him from his father’s eyes!

See, at his feet, some little plan or chart,

Some fragment from his dream of human life,

Shaped by himself with newly-learned art;

          A wedding or a festival,

          A mourning or a funeral;

               And this hath now his heart,

          And unto this he frames his song:

               Then will he fit his tongue

To dialogues of business, love, or strife;

          But it will not be long

          Ere this be thrown aside,

          And with new joy and pride

The little actor cons another part;

Filling from time to time his ‘humorous stage’

With all the Persons, down to palsied Age,

That life brings with her in her equipage;

          As if his whole vocation

          Were endless imitation.

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie

          Thy soul’s immensity;

Thou best philosopher, who yet dost keep

Thy heritage, thou eye among the blind,

That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,

Haunted for ever by the eternal Mind,–

          Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!

          On whom those truths rest

Which we are toiling all our lives to find,

In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave;

Thou, over whom thy Immortality

Broods like the day, a master o’er a slave,

A Presence which is not to be put by;

          To whom the grave

Is but a lonely bed, without the sense of sight

Of day or the warm light,

A place of thoughts where we in waiting lie;

Thou little child, yet glorious in the might

Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height,

Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke

The years to bring the inevitable yoke,

Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?

Full soon thy soul shall have her earthly freight,

And custom lie upon thee with a weight

Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!

          0 joy! that in our embers

          Is something that doth live,

          That Nature yet remembers

          What was so fugitive!

The thought of our past years in me doth breed

Perpetual benediction: not indeed

For that which is most worthy to be blest,

Delight and liberty, the simple creed

Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest,

With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast:–

          –Not for these I raise

          The song of thanks and praise;

     But for those obstinate questionings

     Of sense and outward things,

     Fallings from us, vanishings,

     Blank misgivings of a creature

Moving about in worlds not realized,

High instincts, before which our mortal nature

Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:

     But for those first affections,

     Those shadowy recollections,

          Which, be they what they may,

Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,

Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;

     Uphold us–cherish–and have power to make

Our noisy years seem moments in the being

Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,

               To perish never;

Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,

               Nor man nor boy,

Nor all that is at enmity with joy,

Can utterly abolish or destroy!

   Hence, in a season of calm weather

          Though inland far we be,

Our souls have sight of that immortal sea

               Which brought us hither;

          Can in a moment travel thither–

And see the children sport upon the shore,

And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

Then, sing, ye birds, sing, sing a joyous song!

          And let the young lambs bound

          As to the tabor’s sound!

     We, in thought, will join your throng,

          Ye that pipe and ye that play,

          Ye that through your hearts to-day

          Feel the gladness of the May!

What though the radiance which was once so bright

Be now for ever taken from my sight,

     Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

          We will grieve not, rather find

          Strength in what remains behind;

          In the primal sympathy

          Which having been must ever be;

          In the soothing thoughts that spring

          Out of human suffering;

          In the faith that looks through death,

In years that bring the philosophic mind.

And 0, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,

Forebode not any severing of our loves!

Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;

I only have relinquish’d one delight

To live beneath your more habitual sway;

I love the brooks which down their channels fret

Even more than when I tripp’d lightly as they;

The innocent brightness of a new-born day

               Is lovely yet;

The clouds that gather round the setting sun

Do take a sober colouring from an eye

That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;

Another race hath been, and other palms are won.

   Thanks to the human heart by which we live,

   Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,

   To me the meanest flower that blows can give

   Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Do you remember when you realized that the world was not all a perfect place, and our lives, at least our earthly lives, have ends? 

 Luckily, I do not remember. 

Obviously it happened at some point, but it must not have seared an indelible brand on my memory.  Maybe it’s hidden deep in there somewhere, but really, I don’t care to look around and find it.  One thing is definite; it was nowhere near as horrific for me as it was for many of the youngest kids in our country today.

That evil, evil man not only took babies away from their mothers and fathers and teachers away from their students and families, he also destroyed that fleeting innocence of six-year-olds everywhere. (As Wordsworth details in the seventh stanza in the Ode.)

He explains how the very young are innately joyful because before they were born they were with God.  Through this closeness to the divine, children have a natural ability to see the beauty in the world.  As we age, we become more and more “humanized” and the world becomes merely ordinary, or in worse cases, evil.    

Wordsworth says that at times, through a communion with nature, he is able to get his childlike joy back for a moment or two, but it is not the same.  He says, “ But yet I know, where’er I go,/That there hath past away a glory from the earth.”

All over the country and probably even the world, little kids are hearing the news of the massacre, even if their parents think they are trying to shield them.  Kids have ways of finding out these things, didn’t you?  They know, and their innocence is gone, all because of this one evil person. Many kids are waking up without seeing the “celestial light” in the world. 

Instead, they are scared to go to school. 

We want answers. 

Our brains can’t comprehend an evil mind who would do this; our brains crave order and good, so we have to turn to something that makes us feel better. 

We cast blame. 

We blame the guns, the mental health care system, poor parenting, security at the school. . . the list is endless.  I’m sure blame will continue get spread around pretty liberally for a long time over this.    

And YES, all these things deserve to be a part of the discussion.  As a nation, we can make improvements in all these areas, but none will not stop evil from existing. 

Wordsworth’s lines , We will grieve not, rather find/

          Strength in what remains behind; stick out for me.  What is the strength that remains behind today? That is a real question.  I don’t have an answer, but   


We need to teach peace and respect for all life. 

Here are some ways we can be more peaceful with very little effort.  I’m sure there are at least a million more ways, but these are just off the top of my head.

  • I will not watch violent shows, especially the ones that claim to be reality shows where they do evil things to each other.
  • I will not let the little ones play violent video games.  People become so saturated with violent role play, that it makes sense to me that the mentally fragile could easily get lost in the fantasy.
  • I will not play them myself. 
  • I will try to give my children the gift of faith by going to church and trying to live a good life.
  •  I will not watch television shows that, while not technically violent, belittle and exploit those who are different from myself, like Honey Boo Boo, for example.
  • I won’t seek the drama of little catty fights with anyone.  If I don’t like someone, I will just leave him alone as much as possible and limit my exposure to him.
  • I will live in a way that makes it clear that I believe every single person on this planet has worth. 
  • I will teach by action and words that every single person on this planet has worth.
  • I know that every single person on this planet has worth. 
  • I know that my life is important, but it is only one




 And I have no right to bring pain to anyone else,


How will you be peaceful and show respect for all life? 



 Merry Christmas to you all.

The Real Versus the Imagined Life: “Nothing That is not There and the Nothing that is”

6 12 2012


The Snow Man

By Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Do you ever wonder how much of your world is real and how much of it is just a projection of your interpretation? Sure, we all know drama queens who thrive on drama of their own creation, but I mean all of us, even the least confrontational.

Is it possible to regard anything the way it actually is? For example, what do you see when you see a tree? Do you see a factual tree? Don’t we have to see it through the lens of our human experience? Do our aesthetics tell us that it is “pretty” or “ugly”? Do our experiences define the tree? We think of time spent in them or near them? Do we think of the passing seasons, perhaps? Do we look at trees in full bloom and feel in full bloom ourselves? Or maybe our personal beliefs help us define the tree? Our connotations are impossible to peel off the denotations of things.

However you define a tree, it is probably not an objective tree, it is only your interpretation of the tree; it is a tree as defined by your human drama.

We create and recreate things in our world to make our lives more understandable or more palatable. This is just the way we are. No one is saying it is good or bad.

It just is, like the tree just is.

Wallace Stevens’ short, but mind-blowingly dense poem “The Snow Man” explores some of these ideas.

This poem is one sentence divided up into a series of tercets, or three-lined stanzas. It is the type of poem that you have to read over and reinterpret several times before any meaning can be extracted. I loved this poem well before I understood it, and I am still not sure that I fully understand it, but for me, it is the mark of excellent poetry when the words echo through your mind and haunt you till you make some sort of sense of them. Then, upon a later reading, you find a different (or other layer of) meaning. Maybe this is because you are a different person each time you reread it.

“One must have the mind of winter. . .”

What does that mean? At first, I read it as metaphor. Maybe a cold, stark mind? An unemotional mind? A barren mind? A mind with no imagination?

But if you look at the title, we are reminded that it may be literal, it is the mind of the snow man, and that seems to make sense to me, since themes point to what is real versus what is imagined. I am projecting myself into any other interpretation, right? If I read this as an unimaginative mind, for example, am I not saying that winter is a time when there is a lack of life?

That is not winter, that is my projection of winter.

One must have a snowman’s mind to see this winter scene and “not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind. . .”

The wind is not miserable, instead, we are miserable in the wind. One must have the snowman’s mind to think of the wind as only wind—not to consider the wind good or bad. The wind is just the wind.

“For the listener, who listens in the snow”

Who is the listener? The snowman? The reader? It is the same “one” that we identified with from the first word of the first stanza.

English: Snowman on frozen Lake Saimaa, Puumal...

English: Snowman on frozen Lake Saimaa, Puumala, Finland Suomi: Lumiukko jäätyneellä Saimaalla Puumalassa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


“For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself. . .”

At this point of the poem, whoever you interpret to be the listener has ceased projecting himself into his world. He is “nothing himself”

By doing this, he is able to see the world around him as it actually is. He “beholds nothing that is not there”

And by not reading anything of himself into the world, he sees that there is nothing there.

So, when we stop creating our own worlds, the world has no meaning. In fact, when the listener is able to view things completely factually as a snowman does, completely objectively, the poem is over. It is all over.

Again, it is interesting to note that there is no judgment here. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we create our own worlds? For Stevens, that is not important. It just is.


“I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam?” Maybe.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)