Poetry as Unique Communication

Near the edge of Lost Cove.

[This week–a #TBT throwback Thursday that has not been printed on the blog before. In 2003 I was teaching British Literature and serving as Dean of Faculty at Asheville School in Western, NC. The piece below the brackets appeared in the Monday, October 20, 2003 Asheville Citizen-Times as the guest commentary.  The headline, which I did not write, was, “Poetry can reveal to us insights that no other form of communication can.” It came back to mind for me yesterday  as I am working on my own poetry at the Rivendell Writers’ Colony this week over Spring Break. It snowed a bit early Monday morning, making my morning walk around this place even more beautiful than usual. I wrote about it last year when I visited HERE. Unfortunately, despite its remarkable success over the years of its operation, it is closing at the end of this month–the owner of the property has some ideas about how to make better use of it. I can’t think of one–neither can the large number of writers around the region and indeed the country who have benefitted from being here. It has become a remarkable hub of connection for writers of various genre who so often work in isolation. Selfishly, I will miss it. The photographs come from Brinkwood, next door to Rivendell and formerly the Sewanee home of the Percy family where Walker Percy spent a great deal of time–it is now, at least until the end of the month, connected to the Rivendell Writers’ Colony. I included Brinkwood as part of my walk yesterday.]

Apparently the search is being called off (at least in this location) for the the Rivendell Writers’ Colony.

From 2003 (please don’t go looking for Edward Hirsh at UNCA tonight!):

In sonnet 73, Shakespeare asks us to look out into autumn, a particular moment in autumn, mind you, in order to see inside the heart of his speaker—a neat trick, particularly in iambic pentameter.

Soon my students and I will focus our attention on Sonnet 73.  We have to wait for just the right day, and unfortunately for an English teacher trying to work with some sort of course plan, I cannot identify that day until it arrives on the lawn, buried in an assortment of leaves.  The timing must be perfect.   The speaker begins matter-of-factly: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold,/ When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/ Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,/Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”

Among the many reasons I love Sonnet 73 is that I remember reading it at different stages in my life.  Indeed, we must bring the context of our own lives to poems we read: we cannot avoid it.  Edward Hirsh, who will be speaking about poetry and reading his own poetry tonight at 8:00 p.m. in Lipinsky Auditorium on the campus of UNCA, notes in his bestselling book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry that, “reading poetry is an act of reciprocity,” meaning the relationship of poet and reader is, “a highly concentrated and passionate exchange… .”  Just as Shakespeare uses this “exchange” to challenge us to look outside to the natural world in order to see inside his speaker, so too does great poetry challenge us to look out into the world in order to see inside ourselves or, perhaps even better, inside something greater than ourselves.  The truth is both simple and profound: I am different than I was when I first encountered these fourteen lines; however, the lines will be the same as “long as men can breathe or eyes can see” (Sonnet 18).

Hirsch argues that “perhaps poetry exists because it carries necessary information that cannot be communicated in any other way.”  Here, Hirsch makes a statement not only about the relevance of poetry, but more importantly, about the necessity of poetry—it can reveal what no other form of communication can.   To place this statement in the context of our sonnet, we understand some things about the speaker in Sonnet 73 that we cannot come to understand about another human being in any other way, or even more notable, we can understand something about ourselves or others that we could not apprehend without this poem.

As a complement to Hirsch’s book and visit to Asheville, Rick Chess, Literature Professor at UNCA and recipient of the 2002 North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence, has been leading a reading and discussion series at the West Asheville Library for the last two Tuesdays.  The group will meet two times after Hirsch’s visit as well.  Chess, a fine poet himself, expertly guides discussions of poems, including a number by Hirsch.  The idea that poetry can provide us a kind of insight that no other means of communication can is often at the heart of the discussion of an individual poem.  Hirsch quotes Percy Shelley to make a similar point; Shelley states in his Defense of Poetry that the language of poetry “is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension.”  In my course, Sonnet 73 will provide an apt platform upon which my students can discover that truth for themselves.

One day (many years into the future, I hope), in a moment as brief as late Fall, I will be the perfect speaker for Sonnet 73.  I will be the embodiment of autumn, and my students might just see “that time of year…in me”—but not yet.  Hirsch reminds all of us that the poem will forever be what Osip Mandelstam calls “the message in the bottle,” waiting to provide the solace of sound and meaning even when “that time of year” is beheld in us.

I hope you will take time out from the hectic daily schedules that hold us to hear Hirsch speak and read this evening.  By the way, you can find all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, including the rest of Sonnet 73, at http://www.ludweb.com/poetry/sonnets/. 

Foggy early morning at Pondview at the Rivendell Writers’ Colony


From the early morning of my last full day at Rivendell
Sunset from the west facing bluff of the Cumberland Plateau the last evening of my visit.

#TBT Role Models are Teachers Who…

[For #TBT this week, we are headed way back into the archives to something I wrote in October 2011. The topic of what it takes to be a great teacher in a fine independent school remains an important subject for me, particularly as we head into the hiring season. While we will not have many spaces to fill at St. George’s Independent School, it is imperative that we get it right in order that we fill our school with the sort of teachers who allow the school to best serve its students and its mission. So…there are two things I have included here: first, the blog post from 2011 entitled, “The Role Models We Need for our Students”, and second, the text of a document I wrote just over a year ago to make our expectations clear to both veteran teachers at SGIS and to teachers who may be interested in teaching at our school. It is titled, “The Right School for Teachers Who…”]

The Role Models We Need For Our Students

I have always looked and continue to look for role models. By the time I reached my senior year in an all-boys school, the teachers that seemed to have found a way to create their own space within and somehow separate from the school itself fascinated me most. Nothing seemed to surprise them; they had seen it all. I was someone who spent much of high school surprised and appalled, so they represented an attractive contrast. By placing themselves apart, they placed themselves above the rest of the school community–at least that is how it looked to my sixteen year old self.

My admiration expressed itself every time I parodied the way they talked or the way they rolled their eyes at the disappointing behavior of their charges. Perceptions are funny things though, and I have come to see this kind of teacher quite differently.  I now believe that their approach to our profession will only leave them tilting at windmills. If this teacher-as-silo approach was ever a good teaching strategy, those days are gone.

These days I admire a different kind of teacher most. Great teachers have the ability to reveal to students that we all should be in the process of becoming—becoming thinkers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, speakers, listeners, challengers and leaders. The self-isolating teacher is by this definition handicapping him or herself because he or she becomes merely an artifact of learning. Students deserve more than that.  Great teachers must be willing to embrace the process that may lead to change in their practice; they must ask the hard questions; and they must take the steps necessary to ensure that the change is in fact progress. Our students are fortunate to go to a school where there are many such teachers, and as we take steps toward creating more and more dynamic learning experiences for our students, we are going to need every one of them.

We will be the right school for teachers who…

  • Put the needs of each student dead center, every day, every class, every interaction.
  • Want to challenge their own practice whenever there is an opportunity to serve students better.
  • Model the characteristics of great collaborators by participating in departments, grade levels, and divisions.
  • Are ready to be the reason that a student and family should choose our school.
  • Are deeply aligned with school’s mission and vision and are earnestly committed to moving it forward.
  • Reach out not only to the students who make it easy on them, but also to all those who don’t.
  • Pitch in when they can, however they can.
  • Strive to be the sort of people we describe in the Portrait of a Graduate.

The Annual Fund–A Vital Expression of School Affiliation

Annual Fund words provided by the faculty at St. George’s Independent School

In the photographs I have included here, I have written the words our faculty wrote when asked to pick a single word they associate most closely with St. George’s Independent School. They picked their words at the same time they made their pledges to the Annual Fund. They are a powerful collection of words, and together they describe the place I want my child to go to school.

Giving to an Annual Fund challenges families and friends of independent schools because they have already sacrificed so much to send children to our schools. That sacrifice is real in every case for every family no matter their relative wealth. The “sticker price” of a great independent school is already high, and it is getting higher, so to give more in addition to that is hard to say the least. But we do ask. We must. And we should.

To provide some context, I have gone to and worked in independent schools since I was four.  I make a gift each year to each school where I have either attended or taught. While my gifts are modest when taken in isolation, they represent a significant portion of my family’s giving. For me, this giving is both sacred obligation, as well as expression of appreciation for the ongoing work of these rare places that challenge, care for and support the young people in its classrooms, hallways, stages, and athletic fields. The best of our institutions do valuable work in outstanding environments that provide unmatched value to young people. The value of a great school is lifelong and serves our graduates every day as they step into lives of challenge, impact, and contribution. I am fortunate to have gone to and taught within exactly such places. I work in one now–St. George’s Independent School.

Annual Funds play a vital role for independent schools. Essentially, they help schools to cover the gap between what we call Net Tuition Revenue and the overall cost of educating our students. While this gap varies in independent schools (usually between ten and twenty-five percent of the operating budget), it is essential in every school.

Some of the doubt about the role of the Annual Fund traces to a lack of understanding regarding its purpose related to the funding model of our schools. Some facts:

  • The tuition a family pays does not cover the full cost of educating an individual student (hence the gap to which I refer above). To repeat, no family that pays tuition is paying a price that covers the actual cost of the child for whom they pay tuition.
  • There are a couple primary resources that provide the funding that fills the gap: Endowment draw and Annual Fund.
  • There are other resources that fund a smaller portion of the gap between Net Tuition Revenue and the actual needs of the Operating Budget of the school. These resources include things such as: Auctions, and individual fundraisers for specific purposes (i.e., baseball parents raising funds for a Spring Break trip).
  • Tuition does not cover the capitol needs of the school. Tuition Revenue does not build buildings–it covers the yearly cost of educating young people. Capital gifts build buildings and facilities.
  • Capital gifts, the gifts that increase an endowment, and payment of tuition are separate types of funding. They are each essential to the overall funding of an independent school.
  • Gifts to an Annual Fund send a message more significant than the total fund alone. Percentage of giving sends a message to potential Capital and Endowment donors. Foundations that are likely to consider giving to an independent school look to percentage of Annual Fund participation as a barometer of school community engagement.
  • Percentage of alumni donors, parent donors, past parent donors, grandparent donors, and faculty donors each send discrete messages to the philanthropic sources independent  schools court for Capital and Endowment gifts. Each dollar and each donation given to an independent school’s Annual Fund has a value significantly greater than the number on its face.
  • Giving to an Annual Fund at whatever scale is a vital way to demonstrate affiliation with the school. I believe it is an obligation as it clearly facilitates the school’s effort to provide the best possible education to its students.

One of the first questions I ask whenever I have taken a close look at an independent school is, “what percentage of the faculty gives to the Annual Fund?” As barometers of school health go, this is an unusually accurate one. When the people who know the most about a school, the ones who know best how the sausage is made, give to the Annual Fund, it is a strong indicator of school health.

So, when the institutions that serve your kids, or that you attended, call between now and June 30th, say, “yes.” Take action. These invaluable places and their current student bodies need you.

Detail of Faculty Annual Fund words

The Adult’s Challenge after the Tragedy in Orlando

I had a different #tbt planned, but once again my plans were thwarted by current events–this time at a High School in Florida where, as it stands now, seventeen people have lost their lives. It is not OK. We are failing. Please read through the full link–particularly parents who want to find a way forward in your conversation with your children. While the event in Florida is a school shooting, not a terrorist attack, it is yet another mass killing. I repost this recognizing these events are not at all parallel except that they represent stunning loss of life and that they present a unique challenge for parents and adults in lives of children. 

Ross All Over the Map

From CNN.COM June 6, 2016 From CNN.COM June 6, 2016

Last November I wrote a piece the morning after the Paris terrorist attack. (I have copied it below). Much of what I wrote seems sadly relevant to the Orlando attack at the Pulse Night Club where there were forty-nine victim mortalities and even more injuries, many critical. This latest attack is just that…the latest attack.  Even though it has its own very specific context—in Orlando, at a Gay Nightclub, a single attacker—it seems to be not only identified by its specific details and scale, but by the fact that it is the most recent. There is a growing resignation and accompanying corrosive angst that the next incident of mass murder is inevitable and not that far in the future. That combination—resignation and angst—does not serve us well. It diminishes us. As parents and as adults in the lives of young people we should rise to…

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