Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Local Treasures

Many of us, myself included, are eager to seek out historic homes, museums, art galleries, and other places of interest when we travel but rarely, if ever, do the same when we’re at home. Of our local treasures we think, “They’re right here, so I can visit them anytime,” and yet we never go.

Recently my partner, a friend, and I decided to change that by spending a wet, wintry Saturday visiting the presidential home of Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis. None of us had ever seen it. Now I might be excused, having lived in Indiana only nineteen years, but the other two are lifelong Hoosiers. This house museum turned out to be a delightful local treasure, well kept and fascinating, with a knowledgeable docent on hand to point out otherwise easily missed items and their interesting history.

In 2010 Bloomingonians will have an extraordinary opportunity to tour another local treasure, even closer to home, as the Lilly Library on the Indiana University campus celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. At the time of its dedication on October 3, 1960, the library holdings — more than 75,000 books and 1,500,000 manuscripts — represented the combined resources of the university Department of Special Collections and the private library of Josiah Kirby Lilly, Jr. (1893-1966). The latter had been given to IU during 1956-57. J.K. Lilly, Jr., (above) was a grandson of Colonel Eli Lilly, founder of the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company. Since 1960 the library holdings have grown to nearly 400,000 books, more than 100,000 pieces of sheet music, and more than 6,500,000 manuscripts.

Items range from major rare books, for example, the New Testament of the Gutenberg Bible and Audubon’s Birds of America, to famous manuscripts, such as Robert Burns’s “Auld Lang Syne,” and J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World.

According to Bloomington’s Herald-Times newspaper, residents and visitors to the Lilly Library in 2010 will have much to enjoy:

The year will begin with the exhibition ‘Treasures of the Lilly Library,’ featuring such rare treasures as William Shakespeare's ‘First Folio,’ George Washington's letter accepting the presidency, Albrecht Durer’s ‘Apocalypse,’ and the first edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales,’ printed between 1476 and 1478. There will be a celebratory open house to view this exhibition and the newly renovated Reading Room from 5 to 9 p.m. Jan.22.

The celebration will continue with a summer display of more of the Lilly Library’s treasures, including a copy of ‘Hamlet’ printed on cork, Rita Hayworth’s makeup case, medicine show signs painted by James Whitcomb Riley and pencils made by Henry David Thoreau’s family pencil company. The year will end with an exhibition of 100 Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, curated by scholar Christopher DeHamel.

This trove should give local folk — and discerning people everywhere — pause to consider their local treasures, those perfect destinations for stay-at-home vacations.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Real Books in Real Bookstores

In “Loggerheads,” his piece for the December 7, 2009, New Yorker, David Sedaris writes admiringly of a family he describes: “Their house had real hardcover books in it, and you often saw them lying open on the sofa, the words still warm from being read.”

“Words still warm from being read” — what a wonderful image! I can conjure that from “real hardcover books,” and yet it eludes me when it comes to reading on an electronic device, whether this computer or one of any number of recently released handhelds. Kindles, Sony E-Readers, iPods — you name them. The latest one brought to my attention is called eDGe, whose dual screens open like a book with one side to display text and the other full-color images. It’s being touted as the brightest and best for the textbooks of tomorrow. Maybe it is. And maybe, for the sake of economy in a world where textbooks can cost a mint and weigh a ton, it is needed for economic and utilitarian reasons.

But none of these electronic devices, as yet, can compete on an aesthetic level with a “real hardcover book” — or even a good trade paperback — when it comes to look, feel, and readability. Try reading a book on a iPod Touch, for example. The eccentric word spacing alone, because it’s cheap just to slap already printed text into electronic form, is enough to drive anyone with an ounce of visual aesthetic bonkers.

As books migrate to the electronic world, so do bookstores. Recently I went for the last time to OutWord Bound Books, the only gay bookstore in Indianapolis, which is now closing. The shuttering of any independent bookstore is cause for lamentation in this age of corporate mega-stores. But even Barnes & Nobles and Borders are struggling against the online giant Amazon.

Part of the loss in any bookstore closing is that buyers are deprived of browsing rights — touching, feeling, mentally tasting those warm-from-reading words. Even with all its electronic bells and whistles, Amazon’s and other online booksellers’ websites ultimately are mere catalogs. Fancy technological catalogs to be sure, but viewing them is nothing like browsing real books in a real bookstore.

The loss of a gay bookstore is even more heartbreaking. In a mega-store, what passes for diversity often is only a shelf or a little more worth of gay or lesbian books — fiction, nonfiction, what have you, often all jumbled together — but nothing remotely approaching the scope of an entire store, however un-mega. And what about books from small independent or specialty publishers? Try finding those in any mega-store.

Gay bookstores always have been few and far between. Now, with the closing of OutWord Bound, not only has the population of Indianapolis gay, lesbian, or simply interested straight readers lost a significant resource. The loss extends to the whole of central Indiana.

Technology, whether online bookstores and e-reading devices, simply cannot replace the experience of real bookstores and real books with “words still warm from being read.”

Monday, November 23, 2009

An Innovation Too Far?

Here’s a question: How much is too much when “tweaking” a classic to give it a new spin?

Quite a number of years ago I bought tickets to a production of one of Shakespeare’s popular comedies. The show had been touted for its all-male cast. Naturally enough I thought it would be a highly traditional, even close to authentic staging, given that female roles in Shakespeare’s time were played by males.

Alas, traditional was it not. The acting might have been good, even excellent. But it was wholly obscured by staging that used metal and transparent plastic sets, and the voices of the actors could scarcely be heard over the din of atonal jazz. These elements, designed no doubt to refresh the classic play, instead rendered it obscure and frankly unbearable.

This past week I attended two productions of classic works at Indiana University. The first was put on by the Theater Department, a rendering of Shakespeare’s As You Like It; the second by the Opera Theater, a new production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).

As You Like It was rather delightfully “tweaked,” with casting adaptations that one-upped even Shakespeare’s penchant for gender-bending. But somehow setting the frolicking finale to the Beatles’ classic version of “Twist and Shout” jarred. It was rather like seeing one too many pies in the face — farce ad infinitum. Plus, the speech that followed it was anticlimactic and, while standard, was all the more incongruous after everyone had been twisting and shouting.

If anything, Die Zauberflöte was even zanier: Mozart meets the Muppets. Mozart himself put in a few appearances, red frock coat, powdered wig, and all. Sometimes he materialized in Disneyesque boxes that opened in the scenery. Opera goers of a certain age must have been reminded of the TV show Laugh In or perhaps Hollywood Squares.

Mozart’s opera is juvenile and funny as it is, but apparently for modern audiences the childishness must be more blatant, with puppets reminiscent of Broadway’s The Lion King and an enormous dragon right out of a Chinatown parade. Still, the Queen of the Night’s aria resonated, and Papageno was brightly acted and sung in spite of the enormous puppet birds with their black-clad animators cluttering up the stage.

So, how much is too much? One viewer’s happy innovation well met is another’s over-the-top flop. There are times when I would like to see a play played straight. Fortunately that happens often enough that I can appreciate when Shakespeare’s, Mozart’s, or some other classic writer’s or composer’s work is “tweaked” — even when the tweaking overreaches at times.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Berlin Wall Graffiti Was Protest Art

Monday, November 9, 2009, marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the physical and symbolic barrier that divided West and East Germany during the post-World War II era. The wall was erected in 1961 and torn down in 1989.

As a youngster, I lived in Germany in the late 1950s before the Wall was built, in the mid-1960s and later in the early 1980s during the Wall period, and have visited Germany a number of times since the Wall came down and Germany has reunified. This long span has given me time to reflect on the Wall from various aspects.

One of the most interesting aspects is the artistic. On the Western side of the Wall, the German people used the concrete ribbon that divided their country as a canvas for graffiti art that protested the grimness of the Wall as much as its geopolitical reality.

Graffiti have existed since ancient times. The Greeks and Romans used this type of street art. Though often considered merely a form of vandalism, graffiti often have served higher purposes, mainly to convey social or political messages, such as protest. Today such art often is associated with urban hip-hop culture and gang “tags” (or logos). But there also have been efforts at commercialization of graffiti, and the artform has been used as an element of community building, especially for disaffected youth.

More than mere street art decoration, on the Berlin Wall graffiti protested the political and social conditions of the postwar period that forced Germany to remain divided long after the thunder of World War II battles had died away.

Fragments of the Wall can now be seen in institutions around the world, including the Museum of World Treasures in Wichita, Kansas, where a section of the Wall has been placed by the American Overseas Schools Historical Society (AOSHS), on which board of directors I happen to serve at the moment.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Staring at George Clooney

George Clooney is more actor than star, though the latter title is equally apt; he’s been compared to Clark Gable and Cary Grant. Clooney can be suave, sophisticated, serious, intense, and, well, loopy. He seems at ease in all modes, doing whatever it takes to nail a role.

Loopy takes center stage in his latest movie, The Men Who Stare at Goats, directed by Grant Heslov and based on a book by British journalist Jon Ronson. In this thinly plotted, deadpan comedy, Clooney plays a psychological warrior named Lyn Cassidy, who has been trained to kill by staring at the enemy. While the story jars somewhat against the realities of the current war in Iraq, mostly it’s just a romp. New Yorker critic Anthony Lane referenced Road to Morocco, the classic Bob Hope-Bing Crosby buddy flick that was part of a franchise of “Road to” movies made mainly in the 1940s. It’s a worthwhile touchstone. Clooney is supported in the new film by Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey.

Clooney has been able to balance a career that combines work on blockbusters with more commercially risky ventures, several of which reflect Clooney’s liberal social and political activism. Along the way he also has taken to screenwriting, directing, and producing.

From playing Roseanne Barr’s boss in eleven episodes of her sitcom (1988-1991) to winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the political thriller Syriana in 2005, Clooney has explored a range of roles and delivered solid performances. Syriana also netted Clooney a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor to complement his 2000 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor for the satiric O Brother, Where Art Thou? Like his goat-staring Cassidy, his Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother is loopy — and hyper — in this popular film loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey.

My personal preference is his comedies, including those above and films such as Leatherheads. Then there are the adventure flicks that combine sleek sophistication with tension and action, including Batman & Robin, Oceans Eleven (Twelve and Thirteen), and the black comedy Burn After Reading. The serious dramas, such as Michael Clayton and Good Night, and Good Luck also vie for attention. With George Clooney, the question that always hovers in the air is, what next? Given his track record, it’s likely to be something interesting.

(Photo by Nicholas Genin)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Some Traveling Music, Please

This afternoon the choir of First United Church here in Bloomington, Indiana, presented a special concert, titled “Viva Vivaldi!” Accompanied by a chamber orchestra, the choir sang Vivaldi’s “Gloria” and “Magnificat,” The “Gloria” is Vivaldi’s most familiar piece of sacred music.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), a Venetian priest and violin virtuoso, was a popular baroque composer. He is probably best known for a series of four violin concerti, “The Four Seasons.” Decades ago (I don’t remember precisely when) I adopted “The Four Seasons” as my traveling music. Whenever our family or I alone embarked on a long car trip, we took up the tradition of inserting an audio tape of the concerti into the car stereo and set off to the magnificent strains of Vivaldi’s violin masterpiece.

My late wife was the musical one, as is my current partner; I’ll lay claim to some better knowledge of the other arts. But my musical sensibilities, though broad, are not deep. Nonetheless, even I could discern that “The Four Seasons” as performed on our original audio tape sounded “muddy.” I have mercifully forgotten the artists. In any case, my wife subsequently surprised me with a recording on which violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman (whom I would later see in performance) played. The difference was astonishing! Such crispness, such liveliness — it was a world apart. It is the Perlman tape that I still play today whenever I set out on a long car trip, though I should soon replace it with a CD or simply download it to an iPod.

I cannot claim that “Viva Vivaldi!” today was as thrilling as Itzhak Perlman’s concert at the Indiana University Auditorium a few years ago. But it was a sumptuous feast for the ears and a fine way to cap All Saints Day, despite the small audience. Those who missed it should be envious.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Explore Writing on BookRix

Ever wanted to try your hand at writing outside your usual genre or comfort zone? Some time ago I discovered an interesting and easy-to-use website to do just that — and get feedback from readers. The site is called BookRix. It’s hosted in Germany and so you can post stories or poems in English or German. Here’s how the site operators describe it:

BookRix is an internet portal and the first book community where anyone can place their own books, short stories, poems, etc. to be promoted on the web, just like a published piece. The massive Web 2.0 - Projects, which have been hugely popular with music, video and photography fans, now have a sister platform, which will delight literature fans around the world: BookRix.

BookRix provides an online destination where authors can showcase their work. Registered users will get to design their own personal profile page. This gives users the opportunity to create their own books, recommend their favorite literature and promote themselves as authors and/or readers.

To date I’ve posted four short stories: a straight mystery, a gay mystery, a suspense tale, and a gentle comedy of manners. And I’ve read some interesting works in various genres. By the way, I use the site under a longstanding pen name: D.J. Reid. As of this writing the most popular of my stories has been “Corpse in the Kitchen,” about an off-duty police officer who comes home from the grocery to find a dead man lying on his kitchen floor. So far the story has garnered 755 “clicks” (readings) and a potpourri of comments. It can be read at

For interesting reading and fun experimenting with writing, I recommend BookRix.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Celebrating Mendelssohn and the Organ

Shortly after noon today I joined a scattering of devotees to enjoy a brief recital by four organ students from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. The venue was the 3,200-seat Indiana University Auditorium; the instrument, a massive 4,543-pipe organ built in 1889. Originally called the Roosevelt organ for builder Hilborne L. Roosevelt, it served the Auditorium Theater in Chicago until the 1940s, when it was sold to William H. Barnes of Evanston, Illinois. Barnes donated it to IU, where it was installed in the Auditorium in 1944.

Among the composers whose works were performed during the recital, the name Felix Mendelssohn stood out — for good reason. This year is the 200th anniversary year of the composer.

Felix Mendelssohn, as he is known in English-speaking countries, was born February 3, 1809, in Hamburg, Germany. His full name was Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Though recognized as a prodigy, his parents did not capitalize on his talent but allowed him to develop. He was well received as a composer, conductor, and soloist; and his fame spread across Europe during the Romantic Era.

His tastes in music were rather conservative. In fact, he founded a conservatory at Leipzig, which became a bastion of anti-radicalism. Mendelssohn composed many and varied works, including symphonies, concerti, oratorios, and piano, organ, and chamber music. Mendelssohn played and composed for the organ from the time he was eleven years old. His primary organ works are Three Preludes and Fugues, Op. 37 (1837), and Six Sonatas, Op. 65 (1845).

Mendelssohn died young, at age thirty-eight, on November 4, 1847. His body of work is thus all the more remarkable for having been produced over such a relatively short life span.

The Bloomington, Indiana, chapter of the American Guild of Organists has organized a number of celebratory recitals that will take place locally, including a “progressive” concert called “Mendelssohn on the Move.” Organ students will perform in a succession of three churches on the evening of November 4, 2009 — exactly 162 years after the composer’s death.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Spaces to Explore and to Excel

Recently our church choir extended an offer to the rest of the congregation to come to rehearsals only for the first thirty minutes — anyone who wanted — so that they could join in preparing to sing Vivaldi’s “Gloria.” The choir would thus temporarily expand, and people who did not want to commit to full-time participation in the choir could join in for this special event.

A similar principle used to be more common in schools. After-school clubs, for example, existed to allow students to sample activities and to participate in some that they did not have time or inclination to take as classes or full-scale extracurriculars. Unfortunately, in many schools these types of “sampler” activities have fallen victim to funding cutbacks or simply the crush of other activities that fill the lives of teens, preteens, and even younger students. Creating spaces within classes for exploration thus becomes even more important.

I well recall a unit on demonstration speeches that I taught in a ninth-grade English class. Students were encouraged to choose as their topic something that they really did and for which they felt as though they had some expertise. They would explore the topic, one they already knew and liked, to such an extent that they could then explain it to their classmates. Virtually any topic was fair game to sample.

One boy, who struggled with most class assignments, if he did them at all, and seldom participated in class discussions, chose skateboarding as his topic. And he did a fantastic demonstration speech. He not only showed and talked about skateboarding techniques but also explained the technology behind various types of boards and wheel assemblies. He truly was an expert, and his demonstration speech showed it. Moreover, the new approval he received from his classmates (and me) raised his self-esteem. Thereafter, though he never excelled in the class, his work improved and he was more willing to take part in discussions.

The point is this: Students need opportunities to explore and to excel. When their explorations are validated, that positive energy spills over into other areas — and the boost to self-esteem builds confidence to tackle new learning. Schools may not be in a position to reinstate or revitalize lost activities, but individual teachers can ensure that, in their classrooms, spaces exist for students to explore and experiment by focusing on topics that are meaningful to them and at which they can excel.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Art of Controversy

Today the Associated Press is carrying a story about German artist Ottmar Hörl's (or Hoerl) installation in Strauburg, a city in southern German, of 1,250 small plastic garden gnomes, each with its right arm raised in a Nazi salute. While Germany still outlaws the display of Nazi symbols, the courts ruled that Hörl’s artwork, titled “Dance with the Devil,” was clearly “satiric” and therefore allowed.

According to Hörl, “The fascist idea, the striving to manipulate people or dictate to people … is latently dangerous and remains present in our society.”

The installation is bound to cause controversy, both in Germany and elsewhere, because it is designed to provoke introspection and discussion. (Indeed, it already has.) The gnomes, all dressed in business suits, are mostly black, though some twenty are gilded. The iconic garden gnome could easily be taken to represent a common humanity, and the massing of 1,250 of them evokes the mass rallies of Nazi supporters preceding and during World War II. This juxtaposition seems to ask, Could such mass manipulation happen again? Is it, in fact, happening or brewing somewhere? Should we be aware?

To an extent all cutting-edge artwork is thought-provoking, but some artists bring a specific social or religious intentionality to their images. Another example that springs to mind is Andres Serrano’s controversial “Piss Christ,” a photograph that showed a small crucifix submerged in a container of the artist’s urine. When it was exhibited in 1989, it drew howls of protest. Detractors included U.S. Senator Jesse Helms and then-New York City Mayor Rudolf Giuliani, who attempted to have the exhibit shut down. Detractors were outraged not only by the image’s seeming religious blasphemy but also by the fact that Serrano had received public funding for his art through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. A campaign subsequently was launched to limit the endowment’s ability to fund controversial art.

Support for the work also emerged. The piece was a winner of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s “Awards in the Visual Arts” competition. Freedom of expression was the subject of countless editorials. Art critic and Catholic nun, Sister Wendy Beckett, said in a television interview that she regarded the work not as blasphemous but as a statement on “what we have done to Christ,” a commentary on how today’s society regards Christ and traditional Christian values.

Hörl’s garden gnomes have provoked controversy when exhibited elsewhere, such as in the German city of Nürnberg, once a Nazi stronghold and where the artist is now president of the Nürnberg Academy of Fine Arts, and in the Belgium city of Ghent. Doubtless it will continue to do so. Artworks such as “Dance with the Devil” serve a vital purpose, as controversial works often do, to provoke serious consideration of important ideas and to generate meaningful discussions about issues that truly matter in the social and religious lives of people everywhere.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Arts and Sciences

The arts and sciences were far more closely intertwined in the past than they are today. Among the artists who were fascinated by mathematics was the Northern Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Like his somewhat older counterpart, the Italian Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Dürer was interested in the theory of human proportions, perspective (an emerging “science”), and technology of all sorts, particularly machines of war. He undoubtedly was familiar with Leonardo’s studies, having traveled in Italy as early as 1494.

About 1508 Dürer started to collect information on mathematics for a book, which in its complete form would never be published. But portions of this work were used in other books, such as his Course in the Art of Measurement, an introduction to geometry and perspective, and the postumously published Four Books on Human Proportion (1528).

One of Dürer’s most famous engravings is Melancholia, in which the winged figure of Melancholy symbolizes the depressed state of mind that robs artists of enthusiasm for work. Aristotle observed that such depression often afflicts talented people. Dürer surrounds his Melancholy with other symbols, many having to do with geometry, such as a compass, a polyhedron, and a sphere. This engraving is justly famous for a unique element: a magic square.

A “magic” square is an arrangement of integers in the form of a square, such that each column and row and each of the two major diagonals adds to the same sum. The figure shows Dürer’s magic square from Melancholia. It is interesting to note that the center cells in the bottom row give the date of the engraving, 1514.

The magic square dates back to ancient China. According to legend, the first magic square appeared on the back of a sacred tortoise that crawled from the Yellow River about 2200 B.C. Knowledge of magic squares spread to India about the eleventh century, and they were written about by the Japanese during the sixteenth century. Emanuel Moschopulus, a fifteenth-century Byzantine writer, apparently introduced magic squares to Europe. But it was Albrecht Dürer who is believed to have created the first original European magic square.

In the past, magic squares were supposed to possess mystical powers. Some were constructed to represent aspects of the zodiac. Carrying a magic square engraved on silver protected a person from the plague. Interest in magic squares revived during the past two centuries, and algebra and calculus have been applied by more recent square makers. Indeed, there are several different types of magic squares, each with its own rules of construction.

This bit of information is adapted from Visual Knowing: Connecting Art and Ideas Across the Curriculum, which I wrote to help teachers make connections that can enhance students’ acquisition of content knowledge and understanding in all areas of learning. (More about this book at

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Authenticity and the Self

One’s art is always, in some sense, autobiographical. This is not necessarily intentional. Visual artists, musicians, dancers, actors, writers — all who create — are to a degree inimitable if their work is authentic. Such work is like a fingerprint. Fosse dances like Fosse; Martha Graham dances like Martha Graham. The brushstrokes of Van Gogh cannot be mistaken for those of Renoir and vice versa.

Style is one aspect. Content is another. What an artist displays in his or her work reveals interests, concerns, thoughts, feelings, and so forth. For example, Picasso’s Guernica is the artist’s reaction to the bombing during the Spanish Civil War of the town of Guernica by German and Italian warplanes in 1937. Joan Miro’s 1938 Black and Red Series of etchings is this artist’s response to the Spanish Civil War. These artworks are at once similar but remarkably different and distinctive.

Actors in their own way put a personal stamp on their stage or screen portrayals. Some are able to submerge themselves to a high degree. But nonetheless their characters are nuanced by the individual personality beneath the makeup. Likewise, composers create works for many and varied purposes and yet retain, from composition to composition, a unique sound. Mozart sounds like Mozart; John Williams sounds like John Williams.

Of course, some artworks are specifically autobiographical. Rembrandt was a prolific self-portraitist. His life is documented through a succession of self-portraits, which served him as a way to study portraiture through the examination of his own visage but must also be read as a display of ego. Playwrights, novelists, and poets also often are specifically autobiographical, even when they chose to fictionalize their lives. Even then, the disguise may be rather thin. Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms are noteworthy examples of the autobiographical novel.

Education in the arts sometimes results in students trying more to imitate than to create, and so it is a necessary instructional strategy to help students rediscover themselves, to become authentic. Picasso put it this way: “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Multiple Writing Processes

If Howard Gardner’s ideas about multiple intelligences have done nothing more, they have at least pointed up the commonsense notion that everyone learns in his or her own way. It follows, therefore, that those who write also approach that task in a way particularly suited to their own learning/idea-processing styles. About twenty years ago in a small publication titled Model for Teaching Writing: Process and Product, I argued that there is no single “writing process” but many processes, all equally capable of producing successful writing when suited to the individual writer.

Despite my efforts and those of others, the teaching of writing in many classrooms is codified as a linear/logical process. This ignores, in particular, students who are visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners. Consequently, a couple of years ago I published a book specifically to address the needs of these students. Titled Teaching Writing to Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Learners, this book offers strategies for teaching students who learn best by seeing, hearing, or doing/moving. (More about this book at

William Zinsser, in his classic On Writing Well (2001) said this: “There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say is the right method for you. Some people write by day, others by night. Some people need silence, others turn on the radio. Some write by hand, some by word processor, some by talking into a tape recorder. Some people write their first draft in one long burst and then revise; others can’t write the second paragraph until they have fiddled endlessly with the first” (p. 5)

It’s a good idea to keep this sort of diversity in mind in other fields of endeavor as well. A wide range of work and idea-processing styles also can be found among visual artists, from painters to filmmakers; composers; dancers and choreographers; and others who strive for creative expression.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Poetry as Performance Art

Poetry, with few exceptions, is intended to be read aloud. It is literature and spoken art. Teachers who ask their students to read poems silently to themselves rob their students of the richness and resonance of the poetic experience.

When I was an undergrad at Emporia, my professor for several writing classes, including one soberly titled “Versification,” was Keith Denniston, who taught this lesson by example. My spine tingles still, some forty years later, when I recall his reading of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” It was made more piquant at the time by the knowledge that Plath had killed herself only two years before the publication in 1965 of Ariel, which contains that powerful autobiographical poem. I attended Denniston’s versification class only a couple of years after that.

We have been fortunate over the past century or so to have access to audio recordings of poets reading their own work and sometimes the poems of others. Not all are great readers. Some read in stilted cadences; others have voices that grate on the ear. But what the listener hears is the real deal, poetry as its author presumably intended.

There are, of course, other poets who are wonderful readers. Last year Maya Angelou, now in her 80s and walking with some difficulty, nonetheless held a capacity crowd in the cavernous, 3,200-seat Indiana University Auditorium spellbound with her resonant reading of her own poetry and some other favorites. Recently I had the pleasure of editing a short essay by Angelou. The task I set myself was to ensure that her distinctive voice resounded from the printed page as clearly as it did across a lectern.

Whenever poetry is read aloud, it becomes multidimensional. The poet’s words are made concrete as nuanced by the reader/speaker. A new poem is thus created each time a work is read. And so there is the reality of an event or a thing, the poetic interpretation of it in text, and the oral interpretation of the reader. All of this is the essence of performance art.

For example, over the past three decades I have visited the memorial at the site of the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany. Films and television programs, books and articles, and other experiences, such as touring the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. — all of these have modified that firsthand experience of Dachau. A few months ago I tried to set down an impression distilled from this mishmash of sensory and intellectual input. The result is the poem below.

As the author I would read it aloud in a manner that attempts to convey my intention, my self-interpretation, if you will. Another reader would bring his or her own experiences to my words, interpreting them through his or her own lens, thus creating, in essence, a “new” poem.


Weighted by human freight of history in this place,
Shoulders bear the burden, eyes draw downward.
Dust powders shoes under autumn’s leaden sky,
Lowering to compress collective memory: shoes.
So many, many shoes; owners long, long dead.

The iron gate reminds us still: “Arbeit macht frei,”
But can we free ourselves from this grim, gray past?
Ghost barracks count off into seeming infinity,
Years of imprisonment and death, soundless now,
No scream or whimper or footfall or thudding boot.

Now, in faithful humanity, “Hier steh’ ich”:
I survey this sanitized apocalypse and ponder
Human ashes mingled with anonymous dust.
“Ich kann nicht anders.” Like Luther at Wittenberg,
Principles are at stake. I cannot do otherwise.

But look, say you, past is past and doesn’t alter.
I agree. I am neither German nor Jew but only human;
Cannot resurrect those whose ashes powder my shoes.
I can — I must — but wear smudges smeared from ovens
As an ensign: never fully to understand,

But never to forget.

Dance Education for All

Lately, because of some recent discussions with the board of our local Windfall Dancers school and company here in Bloomington, Indiana, I’ve been thinking about the nature of dance education and, to be frank, its general absence from the public school curriculum. Dedicated dance classes are a rarity, and dance departments are virtually unheard of (though, of course, there are exceptions).

One reason for the absence of dance in the curriculum is lack of recognition that dance is a kinesthetic art form from which all students would derive benefit. In most schools, if dance is touched on at all, it is in the context of physical education. The physicality of dance gets it lumped in with dodge-ball and track. Indeed, acrobatics have long been a part of the dance repertoire. Take a look at the Nicolas brothers, Donald O’Connor, or contestants on the popular television show, “So You Think You Can Dance.”

But dancing and dance education are about more than physicality. Poet John Dryden called dancing “the poetry of the foot.” To Martha Graham, dance was “the hidden language of the soul.”

Isadora Duncan summed up the art this way: “There are likewise three kinds of dancers: first, those who consider dancing as a sort of gymnastic drill, made up of impersonal and graceful arabesques; second, those who, by concentrating their minds, lead the body into the rhythm of a desired emotion, expressing a remembered feeling or experience. And finally, there are those who convert the body into a luminous fluidity, surrendering it to the inspiration of the soul.”

Thus it always has been difficult to situate dance in the school curriculum, and this difficulty often has relegated dance education to the fringe — and add-on rather than a core subject for all students.

Merce Cunningham, the renowned dancer and choreographer who died at age 90 in April this year, spent much of his life as a teacher of dance and as a strong advocate for dance education. But he also recognized the challenges not only of dancing but also of teaching others to dance. Dancing is movement, and movement by its nature is ephemeral. Cunningham put it this way: “You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive. It is not for unsteady souls.”

And so the challenge for educators who believe, as I do, that the arts — all of the arts — are fundamental to our development as holistic beings, is somehow to capture the ephemeral that is so much the reality of dance and situate it in the core of schooling. Dance should not be merely an add-on, an occasional lesson in P.E. class, an after-school activity, or something a few students do in the context of other activities, from glee club to show choir. Dance is something that all students need to experience.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Latest Book Published

Corwin Press this month published my latest book, Writing for Understanding: Strategies to Increase Content Learning. It is intended for upper elementary, middle school, and high school teachers of subjects other than language arts. The goal is to help teachers use writing as a tool to improve their students' acquisition of content knowledge and understanding. Writing often is neglected as a learning tool, even in some English/language arts classes because teachers fear that it will be more work and may demand more expertise than they possess. This book shows teachers how to use writing as a teaching/learning tool, rather than expecting all teachers to become teachers of writing. (More about this book at

From the Introduction: "The goal of effective instruction is more than acquisition of information. We want our students to be able to use the information they gain, to apply it in both familiar and unfamiliar contexts, to manipulate it, to distill it, to roll in it mentally until it becomes part of the fabric of their minds. Until this higher level of understanding is reached, students cannot truly use content knowledge."

A Philosophical Grounding

From time to time education philosophy cycles from the instrumental to the holistic and back again, particularly in terms of public policy. To be clear at the outset, I believe the holistic is of greater value, and I suspect that most educators also believe this.

Some years ago I approached John Goodlad about bringing out a second edition of his 1979 book, What Schools Are For, because the essential discussion is so sound. He consented, and I acquired his old mentor Ralph Tyler’s last piece of writing (before his death at age 92) to serve as a foreword. In this book Goodlad hearkens to the precepts articulated by John Dewey and others early in the twentieth century, namely, that the central purpose of education is individual self-realization. Along this journey there are, of course, instrumental purposes, such as learning to read, to compute, and to work with others.

Dewey averred that “the criterion of the value of school education is the extent to which it creates a desire for continued growth and supplies the means for making the desire effective in fact.” Almost sixty years later, Lawrence Cremin paraphrased Dewey, saying that “the aim of education is not merely to make citizens, or workers, or fathers, or mothers, but ultimately to make human beings who will live life to the fullest.”

Whenever education is narrowly prescribed, it loses value. Goodlad refers to “educational bankruptcy” in schools “when certain groups take literally and seriously the notion that the primary goal of schools is to teach the three Rs.” Effective schooling is much, much more. I embrace Goodlad’s notion of the “educative society — one in which the whole culture educates.” And, for me, that culture cannot be defined by one geopolitical designation but must be international. At the core of all education should, indeed must, be the arts writ large.