Saturday, August 04, 2007

Becoming a Bard

“The training to become a bard or file (an Irish poet-seer) was long and arduous: it could involve lying in a dark hut for hours, or sitting in cold water to force inspiration to come. But a poet had to have natural talent before he could be trained. There are many tales of the favoured one receiving his gift from a woman of the Otherworld, as in the Scottish border ballad of Thomas the Rhymer:

Then they came to a garden green,
And she pulled an apple from a tree:
“Take this for your wages, true Thomas;
It will give you the tongue that can never lie.” *

Can we be a bard and still be a teacher? Can we speak the truth as a bard, showing the mysteries of literature, and, in the very next move, pass out a test on the text or switch to a worksheet on reading comprehension skills? We are not honest with our students if we just go along with a curriculum set before us with no real concern for students but only for content. Submissive students file into classrooms, plop into seats arranged in rows like assembly lines, many willing to have content poured into their vessels, convinced that they are learning. Teachers follow guidelines set forth by district office personnel and turn learning opportunities into testing procedures. There is no real investigation of an issue, discussion often consisting of a question answer session with three or four students as the rest of the class hangs their heads, sleep, sneak peaks at their cell phones. The thing one student remembers most about school was the clock. It never moved.

How can we go through training and forget about or ignore how students can find their voices in authentic writing, not repetitious literature essays? Have we forgotten our own voices and no longer write anything, not even literature essays? We ask them to do it but we don’t do it ourselves. Are we hypocrites, lying to our students about what is good for them? Have we found passion in our own voice, our own writing? Have we told them, “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader?” Is their writing voiceless because ours is voiceless? When was the last time our blood boiled as we wrote something or we cried at the memory of a lost love, or at the slippage of time and our fear that we haven’t done enough?

We are free to choose our own books but are our students? Are we afraid that they will read trash and won’t be exposed to the rigors of the great works? When was the last time we decided to read Othello or Twelfth Night on our own for our own enjoyment and not as preparation for a lesson? How about the works of Thoreau or Emerson? If we read, do we reveal the truths of our reading lives to our students? Do we even know if they have reading lives or whether they would know how to find a good book if given the chance. Do they have favorite authors and genres? Can they learn this in our class or do they have to do that “on their own time?” We say reading is important but do we truly honor that by setting up our classrooms to foster reading or do we lie there too?

Until we return to being bards and being honest with students about their reading and writing, providing genuine opportunities for time in class to read and write, ownership of books and topics, and in-depth responses from us as well as from their peers, we are living out the lie of education in the 21st century. Have we become slaves to NCLB, simply giving in and then giving up, collecting our pay checks, taking our summers off “to detach and oil our prosthetic psyches,” going through the motions, following the curriculum?

I vote for the life of the bard.

* Lyn Webster Wilde writes in Celtic Inspirations—Essential Meditations and Tests, (Duncan Baird Publishers, London, 2004)

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