We used two poems as an opportunity to challenge a very significant norm at many schools--the lack of interaction among students in different levels/grades. Students in two classes--one an AP senior class, the other a grade-level junior class--analyzed both poems, asking questions of each other and answering as many as they could.
Two Poems–Two Teachers–Two Classrooms: Creating a Collaborative “Howl” for today’s teens.
Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1954) railed against the destruction–through marginalization and madness–of those who do not conform to the insatiable demands of Moloch, “whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!” Nearly one hundred years earlier, Emily Dickinson–living a different kind of rebellious life–challenged the idea that conformity should determine one’s sanity in her “Much Madness Is Divinest Sense.” We used these two poems as an opportunity to challenge a significant norm in many schools–the lack of interaction among students in different levels/grades of English literature. Students in two classes–one an AP senior class, the other a grade-level junior class–analyzed both poems, asking questions of each other and answering as many as they could, before exploring the role of conformity in their world today. What is destroying the best minds of their generation? Who seems to be “handled with a chain” simply because they live their lives differently from the norm? As they generated their lists, students imitated Ginsberg’s poetic techniques to create their own “howl” on a hallway bulletin board, with Dickinson’s lines forming the border of the piece. Faculty and students were invited to add their own “howls” to a submission box, which were typed up, and added on a rotating basis.
Although we used Dickinson’s “Much Madness is Divinest Sense” as an introduction to the overall theme of the loud, intense “Howl,” we focused more time on analyzing Ginsberg’s poem. In teaching “Howl,” we gambled on whether or not our students would understand this elliptical, rambling, sprawling, difficult poem that symbolized a break from social, political and artistic conventions of the mid-1950s. We risked student confusion and struggle, for sure, especially with the junior class, but even more importantly, we risked the position of authority that teachers of poetry all too easily assume–as if a teacher holds the singular interpretation or understanding of a text. Many English teachers shy away from teaching poetry, especially the more messy, sprawling poems filled with allusions and personal references, and stick to a canon of accessible, neat poems such as Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” In so doing, they deprive their students of the diversity of poetic voices and forms, and of the possibilities of personal expression. Students might find that poems such as “Howl” speak to them in ways different from the typical canonized set of poems “perfect for high schoolers!” We risked teaching a poem that is perfect in unexpected ways, and due to its censorship history and length, has been seen as too difficult for high school. We excerpted the poem to make it appropriate and also to make it more digestible for students, but we expected our students would struggle with the language, the meaning, and the references.
We invited our students to create their own conversations about “Howl” across classes, and acted as true facilitators and coaches in our teaching roles. We risked the ability to satisfy our students’ appetite for a clear narrative within a poem, and their need for a maestro to guide them through the terrain of this strange beast of a poem. We risked our sanity literally by opening up our rooms to struggle, failure and confusion; instead of giving our students answers and thus embodying the very structures of conformity and authority which Ginsberg decried, we provided opportunities for students to ask questions, document poetic techniques, and produce video interpretations of the poem across classrooms.
In flipping the classroom(s), we allowed our students to create their own dialogue through Google docs and videos and Post-it notes, and thus explored together (rather than silenced with a single interpretation) the meaningful ambiguity, chiastic structure, surrealist imagery, and additive quality of adjectives and nouns in Ginsberg’s long poem. In so doing, we believe we preserved the “howl” in “Howl.” Finally, we invited a much more public risk in providing our students a space in our school building to speak out against the pressures of conformity, the fear of failure, and the dangers they face. Yet, we saw this fear of the unknown (what will they howl against? What if it’s us, their parents, the school, religion, all authority?) as an impetus to hear and to listen to our students’ howls so that we can best mentor and coach them to be their best, most authentic selves–not just as robots of standardized testing or future college grads, but as self-aware, empathetic, and well-rounded individuals.
With our modern “Howl 2017” bulletin board, we provided a safe space for students to express their own fear of failure, the pressures they feel to conform, and their own Ginsberg-esque prophecies that technology is destroying their creativity and connectivity to community, and that standardized testing has the same effect, creating unnecessary pressure and competition. We knew many students would express the anxiety and pressure they face in school: we saw the anxiety that high-achieving AP-level students feel as well as the anxiety that 11th-grade students feel in always being compared to older siblings or upperclassmen in the more advanced classes. We were pleasantly surprised that using shared Google docs elevated the levels of the work for all students, as the 11th-graders wanted to join the conversation (some even writing the very first “howls”) and the AP class took pride in work that they knew would be displayed publicly. One junior commented that he revised his own line when he saw the AP senior examples–pushing himself to achieve a higher level of sophistication. Once the bulletin board was up, students from other English classes started asking if they would be participating–the beginning of what we hope will be a full-school interaction with the text.
Step One: Students in Dr. Saltmarsh’s AP Literature class read and analyze Dickinson’s “Much Madness Is Divinest Sense,” using Post-its to pose thought-provoking questions and note observations about style and content. They also create two videos with the poem as a voiceover, exploring the work’s claim that the majority have the power to define “sanity.” Dickinson Post-It Activity Much Madness Student Video
Step Two: The teachers set up a bulletin board in the junior/senior hallway, with the lines of Dickinson’s poems as the border, a “How Do You Conform?” headline in the middle, and questions about conforming to others’ expectations, actions, and opinions. This will become the location of the collaborative “Howl” created by the two classes. Conformity Teaser Bulletin Board
Step Three: Students in Ms. Plaza’s junior English class read through “Much Madness” twice, then watch the senior videos and read through the Post-its–using all of the material to create their own notes on the poem’s form, purpose, and techniques. They then read a brief biography of Allen Ginsberg, followed by a “whip-around” reading (each student reads a line going around in a circle) of an excerpt from “Howl.” (The excerpt focuses on the more appropriate content.) Before reading, students noted the longer lines, in contrast to Dickinson’s poem, and predicted how that form might contribute to the poem’s purpose, as well as signify an actual “howl.” Although the meaning of each description (ex. “and rose up to build harpsichords in their lofts”) intimidated them at first, they zoomed in on vivid images they could act out in a video. They filmed one section of the poem for the AP class, excited by the challenge of competing with what the seniors had produced (“Oh, we can definitely do a better job!”). “Howl” Excerpts
Step Four: Students in the AP class also read the Ginsberg bio, followed by a whip-around reading of the first section excerpt. They discuss as a class the images and lines that resonate with them, even if they feel they cannot “translate” the image or meaning, noting especially how Ginsberg creates the motion of the poem using parallelism and other forms of repetition. After watching an excerpt from the silent movie Metropolis, in which “Moloch” represents the industrial god that demands regular human sacrifices, they read the second excerpt. Images of conformity and robotic human automation in the movie scene create a clear connection to Ginsberg’s Moloch as the source of the destruction he sees all around him. In groups of two, they annotate sections of both excerpts for the junior class, again focusing on both poetic techniques and content. Metropolis Moloch Scene
Step Five: Students in the junior English class watch the Metropolis scene and read the Moloch excerpt aloud. They brainstorm today’s “Moloch”–the forces preventing bright, young people like themselves from achieving their full potential. They write short statements about what they see destroying the best of their generation, statements they will expand to Ginsberg proportions. Metropolis Moloch Scene
Step Six: Students in the senior AP class look through their Post-it comments, focusing on any that identify techniques used by Ginsberg in the poem. They create a chart with the techniques and samples from the poem, a chart that will provide a guide to creating their own Ginsberg-like lines. The chart will be shared via Google Docs with the junior class, too, as a resource for own howl creations. “Howl” Technique Chart and Line Composition Instructions
Step Seven: Students in both classes create their own individual “howls” against the forces they must fight against in order to be their true selves. The lines are posted on the bulletin board, along with information about Allen Ginsberg, Emily Dickinson, and the two poems that were the inspiration for this project. Students are invited to write their own ideas about what they must battle or what they see others battling as they journey toward adulthood. Students in both the senior and junior class will take these suggestions and transform them into new lines to be added throughout the month, creating an “echo” that hears and holds the howls of other participants. Student Draft “Howls” Collaborative Howl Bulletin Board