Dominion?

I just finished reading David Quammen's remarkable book The Song of the Dodo. It's a tough read mostly because the writing is excellent, but the truth he reveals about species extinction is just flat-out sad. Quammen has done a huge amount of research and legwork to tell the story of the scientists who have studied species endangerment and extinction. Specifically, he examines island ecosystems and how they give rise to remarkable species diversity and yet are also hotbeds of extinction. 

This book was first published in 1996, so I know the story has changed in the past 20 years. But it still strikes me as an important read. I don't think it's possible to read Quammen's passage on the last living dodo and not cry...

I have long chafed at the Christian notion that humankind has "dominion" over all the other species on Earth. It strikes me as a ridiculously egotistic notion. For our own sake and the sake of the Earth, we seriously need to get serious about ecosystem sustainability. Our actions, as many folks have made clear, are leading to an accelerated pace of species extinction. It's going to get mighty lonely around here.

I transformed a passage late in the book into a poem. I hope this still falls under the fair-use rules. I think it gets to the heart of the matter.

 

Dominion

If it’s not the Concho water snake,
It’s the muriqui.

If it’s not the muriqui,
It’s the Florida panther.

If it’s not the Florida panther,
It’s the eastern barred bandicoot

In Australia, or the tiger in Asia,
Or the cheetah in Africa,

Or the indri in Madagascar,
Or the northern spotted owl

In the Pacific Northwest,
Or the black-footed ferret in Wyoming,

Or the Bay checkerspot butterfly
In California. Or the grizzly bear,

Which in the contiguous United States
Is now confined to half-dozen islands

Of montane forest, most of them too small
To accommodate a viable population of grizzlies.

The pattern is widespread.
All over the planet, the distributional maps

Of imperiled species are patchy.
The patches are winking.

In some instances they’re winking
On and off, but

In many instances they’re merely
Winking off.

— found poem in David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo, page 601-602

The Future of Education

In addition to doing some writing and editing for Teaching While White, I've been writing education-related blogs for Carney Sandoe & Associates, a job-placement firm in Boston that focuses on education. Below are a few links to pieces I've written with my byline.

The latest one — on the 2018 SxSW Edu Conference — is an exploration of the tensions I see in a conference that tries to cover all education bases, from public to private schools, from precollegiate to collegiate concerns, from nonprofit organizations to for-profit ed-tech companies and school management firms. It's a truly fascinating event. But it's also a bit troubling — for what it suggests about the future of education in this nation. Attending the conference and listening in on the various conversations has helped me clarify what I think matters most — essentially, well-funded locally run schools full of dedicated, well-trained, and fairly paid educators committed to education for personal growth and citizenship. But much of what I see evolving in the broader field suggests that there are some powerful forces — supported by current U.S. Secretary of Education — aiming to undo our core system of public education and turn it over to corporations. 

There's much that we can debate about American education. I hope, however, you'll agree that it's never good to earn profit on the backs of children.

I'd love to hear what you think.

March 19, 2018
The Great Education Mash-Up

March 2, 2018
Knowledge as a Private Commodity

January 8, 2018
Teaching and the Art of Noticing

December 20, 2017
Authentic Diversity: A Question of Climate and Commitment

 

Teaching While White

For the past year, I've been working part-time as the Senior Editor for Teaching While White, a website dedicated to help white educators develop the cultural competencies to serve all children well across the racial spectrum. 

For readers who have not checked out the site, I encourage you to do so — and to share the link with your friends in the field of education. 

Recent posts include "The Things They Made Me Carry: Inheriting a White Curriculum," an essay by educator Thu Anh Nguyen about both her frustrations in having to constantly teach books by predominantly white authors and the broader damage she believes a limited literary perspectives has on all students.  She writes: "How could I teach The Things They Carried [by Tim O'Brien], which is about what white men carried, and also be a Vietnamese immigrant, the daughter of a man who fought alongside Americans in the Vietnam War, and then was imprisoned for it? How could I teach Tim O’Brien’s version of the Vietnam War that actually has no Vietnamese people in it?"

Also for the blog, diversity practitioner Jen Cort wrote, "It's Not About Being Liked" — an honest examination of the tendency among some whites who engage in diversity work to expect to be thanked and liked by people of color. "Listening and learning don't come easy for those in the dominant culture," she writes. But it's essential if white educators want to serve their students and colleagues of color well.

In all, the website has uploaded 16 articles, 5 podcasts, a handful of student stories, and wide range of resources. Please join us in this ongoing conversation on how we improve education for all students.

Writing Together

There are times when, if I deeply admired a poet, I will memorize one of his or her poems as a way to understand how the poet uses words to build remarkable art. This practice started in the late 1980s when I came across Li-Young Lee’s first collection, Rose. Poet Gerald Stern, Lee’s teacher at the University of Pittsburgh, noted in his introduction to the book the combination of the poems’ humility and plain language packaged in a kind of desperate search for meaning. All of this, I think, is present in his moving poem “Eating Together.” I’m not sure if I set out to memorize “Eating Together” as much as I kept rereading it in an effort to understand why it drew me in so easily and why it wouldn’t let me go.

The mind being the mind, I had forgotten about “Eating Together,” or that I had memorized it once, until recently, when I listened to a podcast by the folks at the Poetry Foundation that includes a reading of Li-Young Lee’s poem “Changing Places in the Fire” followed by the editorial staff’s conversation about the poem — why they find it so compelling. 

“Changing Places in the Fire,” as much as anything, reveals how far Lee has traveled as a poet. I don’t mean to imply that it is better or more sophisticated or valuable that the poems in his first collection. It’s not. But it does embody the life of a poet — experiences that only come with time. From a stylistic perspective, it also moves the searching that is quietly embedded in a poem like “Eating Together” more toward the center of things. Its louder, more insistent. In fact, in “Changes Places in the Fire,” Lee invents a character — a “sparrow with a woman’s face” — that enables Lee to literally talk about his ongoing search for meaning, for the soul of humanity. As I read it again, I also feel a not-so-quiet desperation for the poem itself — maybe for all poetry — to have value.

The sparrow with the face of a woman taunts the speaker in the poem. “You call yourself a poet? You/ tame high finisher of paltry blots!/ You publish doubt and call it knowledge!” The taunt goes on for a while — jab after jab — which seems to be about the shortcomings of poetry to address all the destruction in the world, but which feels equally like the inner voice of the poet telling himself, “You can do better. You must do better.”

Maybe I’m projecting here because of the inner voice in my own head, which is almost always dissatisfied with the results of my poetic efforts. You can do better. Even after publication, I find myself revising poems. But I sense this same concern from most poets I know, too. We want our work to have greater collective impact — especially now, in a time when humanity has painted itself into a particularly difficult corner. Lee’s sparrow is like one of those hard-ass coaches chiding us, cajoling us, trying to embarrass us, to be better, to raise our collective game. There’s a sense that the world depends on us — even if the world doesn’t think it does.

For me, “Changing Places in the Fire” is one of those deeply engaging poems about the mind wrestling with life — about how we live. I’m a sucker for all such poetic journeys. And Li-Young Lee makes the journey all the better with his strikingly beautiful, surprising, moving, and challenging language. How can one not pause over his description of the body: “a mortal occasion of timeless law”?

OK. I can see that, once again, I got myself twisted up in my wish to both thank Li-Young Lee for his dedication to poetry and to acknowledge his influence on me. I love where he goes with “Changing Places in the Fire” — even if I don’t think can’t explain it well.  But here I mostly want to say that I admire Lee’s collective work. I’m glad he’s still wrestling with this art form. I also want to acknowledge the staying power in his early work. One of the poetry lessons embedded in “Eating Together” is how a simple observation of eating a meal together — with no one saying a word — can, with a turn of phrase, open up an entire life. I had forgotten about the poem until I went back to reread his first collection. But the poem has not forgotten me.

I often try to structure poems in a similar manner to “Eating Together” — convey some seemingly straightforward observation (of family or nature or relations or experience) and then find a way to open the underlying feelings connected to the observation, the heart of the matter, so to speak. Why, for instance, do I marvel at the flocks of starlings in winter, when they gather together and live through the cold, dark months as a massive group? It’s crazy beautiful and seemingly impossible how they fly in such massive flocks like dancing clouds of musical notes.

Here’s my poem about starlings in winter, “The River Is Everywhere” — from my collection, The Sovereignty of the Accidental. I can see now how Lee’s “Eating Together” has stayed with me all these years:

 

The River Is Everywhere

 

Out of the marsh, an immense

flock of starlings erupts

 

and careens wildly north, swept up

in its own invisible river of sky,

 

so many birds, night-speckled,

easily driven

 

by one small wing-beat,

then another.

 

And you, watching all this,

thought you had lost your way.

 

 

From The Sovereignty of the Accidental

 

 

Colloquy

 

The sea shifts

and the wind and the sand, 

such polyrhythms — this earthly agitation —

 

among the billion stars and stray planets

stretching out multitudes of light years, plowing

into the on-and-on emptiness, searchlighting.

 

How such a restless mess could pause

long enough to hammer out the blueprint of a cell,

then multiply it, add flagella, flippers, fins,

gills, lungs, the whole gamut of sensoria, is beyond me.

But I admire the unfailing desire to crawl out.

 

Above the sea, blustered about,

gannets circle and rise and arc across the sky,

fold in their wings and plummet —

bright white darts piercing the slate-green

roiling waves. Such a gorgeous,

 

splattering response, this

syncopated wing-dip and rise

of body and heart,

 

this

 

inhale and exhale

of pure hungering after.

 

 

 

On Education and Poetry

For more than 20 years, I gave much of my writing and editing energy to Independent School, an award-winning quarterly magazine on precollegiate education. When I first started back in the 1990s, I assumed I do this work for a few years, then move on. But I realized quickly that the field of education is one of our key cultural battlefields. So I dedicated as much energy as possible to supporting and promoting the best writers and thinkers on education, in both the public and private sectors.

Over the years, I produced more than 80 issues, working with more than 800 writers. It had been a great journey. But recently I decided to become an independent writer and editor. I'm still deeply involved in education, but I'm also giving myself more time to return to my roots as a creative writer — mostly poetry.

I imagine my use of this space will change over time, but for now I'm planning to use this blog to connect readers to my writing for other publications as well as to educational thinkers I admire — and hope will hold sway in conversations about the future of education. Of course, I'll also focus on poetry and the creative life. 

For now, I want to encourage readers to engage with another project I've been working with some talented educators on: Teaching While White — a website dedicated to helping white educators develop the cultural competencies to serve all students well. The site contains some excellent writing and engaging podcasts. And who can argue with its goal of creating well-functioning, inclusive school communities? Come join us.