Spring SAVY 2017, Day 2- Writing and Reflection
We had an exciting lesson on the use of cliché and surprise in our second day of “Writing and Reflection.” First, we reviewed our last lesson, revisiting and defining the Five “Rules” of Writing and rereading the Walt Whitman-inspired poems we wrote last Saturday. Some students even felt inspired to share their promising work with the rest of the class! Next, we considered the following quotation by the great poet, Federico García Lorca: “The poet is the master of the five senses.” After thinking about Lorca’s words, students reflected upon the following difficult question: “Does a writer need to use sensory language in order to engage his/her reader?” Students recorded their thoughts on individual notecards, before working one-on-one with their peers to develop a single, nuanced response to the question that incorporated their disparate viewpoints.
After talking about the similarities and differences of their answers, we examined John Hollander’s concrete poem, “Swan and Shadow.” Students immediately noticed that, not only are multiple interpretations of this poem possible, but there are also multiple ways of reading the poem on the page! We read the words in several different orders, comparing and contrasting Hollander’s open-ended approach to reading and writing with Whitman’s multi-voiced, seemingly omnipresent narrator. Students also held a lengthy discussion about the limits of narration and interpretation, and whether our written ideas transform the moment they are read by someone else.
From there, we engaged in a paired activity designed to help students think about readership, audience, and the transformative quality of words and art. Each student sat with her back to her partner. Then, one partner described an imagined character as closely as possible, relying on concrete language and imagistic, sensory details, while the other partner drew the character as accurately as possible. At the end, some students were amazed to see that their imagistic details resulted in an accurate representation of their thoughts. Other students were amused to find that the picture diverged from the image in their heads, leading to a fruitful class conversation about a writer’s relationship to his readers, and a reader’s ability to transform a text as she reads it.
We then built on these ideas by defining and discussing the term “cliché.” After students listed as many clichéd, overfamiliar phrases as they could, they were assigned the task of rewriting the clichés to make them new and strange again. With the students’ help, clichéd phrases like “raining cats and dogs” and “silent as the grave” became “raining concrete blocks” and “silent as stone.” Next, we read the first chapter of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic book, A Wrinkle in Time, learning new vocabulary and studying how L’Engle uses imagery and the five senses to avoid cliché. Together, we thought about the question: “Are there times when a writer should use a cliché?” Students voiced many insightful answers, arguing that a particularly boring character might speak in clichés, or that an author like L’Engle might include a cliché so that she can reinvent it and unsettle the reader’s expectations. Students then composed mini-stories of their own, choosing a clichéd plot (such as “good always wins against evil” and “the big battle scene always comes at the end of the story”) and offering their unique twist on the familiar story.
I’m looking forward to our next class, in which students will have the opportunity to share their stories with their peers before learning about synesthesia and ekphrastic poetry!