Blacking Out Robert Frost

You know when you’ve done a lesson so many times, it’s become muscle memory? You can just walk into class, set-it-up and then just go-! Poof! Wonderful lesson, wonderful class period, etc. etc. We all have those, right? Right?

I have been teaching this Robert Frost Unit for the last few years; a couple times in the UK and every year since I moved back to Ohio. I’m not an aficionado on Frost by any means, but I like that he’s an easy gateway to other 20thCentury American Poets. We can compare his traditional writing to other “traditional” poets, and contrast it to non-traditional poets like Ginsburg, Stein and Cummings.

Changing poems and approaches are not too difficult when there is a plethora of Frost texts to consider. However, each year, I seem struggle to tie in creative writing. It’s often set aside so we can analyze each piece (insert Billy Collins “Introduction to Poetry”) in order to prepare comparison and contrast. My students do get the option to write a Robert Frost Parody Poem, but few ever take me up on that.

Two years ago, after looking through the 2017-2018 Pages Anthology I noticed how many examples of black out poetry there were. An obvious popular piece or workshop that year! I’d remember doing something similar with essay writing and summarizing of YA chapters during my English Education Capstone, but had never experimented with it in my own teaching practice.

This is where the issue of muscle memory comes in; you can get bored. I was bored. Enter black out poetry. How do you do a black out poem when your original text is a poem? Was I over-complicating it? Would my students find it too difficult to create something that felt original with words that they’d already “beat [ ] with a hose”?

I took a step back and thought about last year and the poems they struggled with. Each year and even class period of the same year are so different. Ah-ha! “Birches”. It’s a beautiful poem, but there is a lot of detail spent in the figurative, and we usually end up having to split it up over two days, with group work and mini presentations.

This year, instead of doing any of that, we had a mini-lesson on black out poetry. Surely they had done it in another class. Nope! Excellent. After it was clear they knew what it was and how to do it, they opened up their RF Anthologies in their iPads and started reading and blacking out, circling, underlining what spoke to them. There was lots of hesitation, “am I do this right”s, but once they realized there were no wrong answers and it didn’t matter if they understood Frost’s words, I had 100% participating, fully focused for 25 minutes straight.

The next day we discussed and analyzed the poem, which took far less time than it ever had, with far fewer comprehension questions. Who knew approaching the poem in such a different way would make it so much more accessible!? You’d think after thirteen years of teaching I would have known that.

Sometimes you forget, when you’re relying on that muscle memory

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The Cailleach Béara

Even though this is West Liberty-Salem’s sophomore year of Pages, this is the first year I am navigating an actual class through the program. Mythology may not have been my first choice of class to use for Pages, but so far, I have absolutely no regrets.

During our planning meeting in September I was really struggling to think of ways to link the program to the Mythology curriculum I had planned. Anthropocene was the real struggle, but I think we have that covered now. (Stay tuned for a future Blog Post to see how that turned out!)

However, at some point the word Perspective came into my mind. Mythology is full of different perspectives, missing perspectives, abundantly repeated perspectives, and so on and so on. Those stories, which were passed down from generation to generation, were interpreted, reinterpreted and modified depending on the storyteller and the perspective that was presented.

Who is telling the story and how is perspective affected? These are questions we have been pondering since the beginning of September in Mythology.

Enter our study of The Cailleach Béara. She is commonly known as the Hag of Béara, coming from West Cork out of Ireland. Having spent two weeks studying Celtic Mythology, specifically around Ireland, we started reading a selection of poems from Leanne O’Sullivan’s “Cailleach”. It’s a beautiful anthology of poetry written by O’Sullivan, who is herself from the West Cork region. She spends the anthology referencing different aspects of the myth of the Hag, as well as writing from the Hag’s perspective as she longs after her missing lover. Here we have yet another storyteller, presenting another perspective

I attempted this part of the unit two years ago when I took over Mythology. While I liked the analytical outcome my previous students came up with, it felt flat. Upon reflection, I changed the assignment as my students were just starting to embark on their Pages journeys. Instead of just asking them to analyze one of the poems, I gave them a second option to write a Hag response poem and then analyze their own work. Their own analysis would be halved, since they wrote a poem from the Hag’s perspective.

This allowed for some students to approach O’Sullivan’s work in a critical manner, while also incorporating their new knowledge of the Mythology around the Hag. But it also gave a taster to some of my students to the creativity and freedom I hope they can embrace during our Pages workshops.

These students are ready for Pages.

Here are a few extracts from those who went for option B. These are all extracts of works in progress.

“For years, staring at the horizon
Seeing the color go from blue to red.
From red to green and finally
Green to gold.”Т Sam

“Waiting, waiting, waiting.
Seasoned in waiting,”Т Hailee

“I travel the lands and moors in solitude
The chilling weight of my destiny heavy upon my back
Like a never-ending frostbite devouring my joy.”Т Cheyenne

And if you follow my Instagram page @haney.ms you may have already seen this one.

“Long ago, the ocean sighed into your skin-
it once parted your lips, and exhaled your breath;
but the zephyrs borrowed your sail, and now
wind threads fingers once threaded by you.”Kienna

We haven’t even had our first Pages workshop. Why was I apprehensive again?

Hag of Beara sign, Beara Peninsula, Ireland