Tuesday, August 23, 2011

for me, a new and shocking way to teach...

An experiment in teaching "Those of you who brought Solly Ganor's Light One Candle to class, please come forward.”

You'd think that, after teaching a course titled Humanities 165 for more than three years, I'd have it so well organized that I could deliver my lectures without notes. You might think that my lesson plans look more like familiar recipes, laminated and slightly faded. You may even think that my students share old exam questions with incoming students to guarantee better grades.

Or you may know me better than I think. If so, the correct answer, if this were your test, would be none of the above.

Although I remember a master English professor (now Dean of Arts and Sciences) who kept a three ring notebook for lectures for each course he taught, I was more impressed with than envious of his organizational skills. Especially after I've tried to keep similar notebooks. Unfortunately, I've had to use a new one each term.

And none of them is current. In fact, I had a noteworthy challenge this semester when, for the first time, I had to teach a class on the solemn anniversary of September 11th. To my surprise, it turned out to be fascinating, both an exhilarating achievement and a relief to complete. Classes like that allow me to feel that I have earned my keep.

The same was true of today. Coming to my class was professor emeritus, Dr. John Guzlowski, a most worthy poet, novelist, and former Professor of English and Creative Writing. He is known for his Holocaust poetry based on stories that his Polish father had never stopped telling once he and his Polish wife and family had left one of America's Displaced Persons camps where they'd been for six years after immigrating to America.

What concerned me was that my students and I hadn't spent much time with poetry. Yet, for homework, I had assigned two striking poems, chosen by Dr. Guzlowski.

But, when class began, I chose five puzzled students who had brought their required book, a Holocaust memoir by Solly Ganor, Light One Candle, to class to surround me at my podium. Instructing each of them not to say a word, I handed them a paper that told each of them they would read to a small group assembled from the still seated students a part Light One Candle, from page XIX to XXI in the Prologue. "First I'll turn the lights off, then, when I flip them back on, you'll begin reading."

They sat down, and I motioned to the remaining students. We gathered outside in the hallway. "After you gather in groups of two or three, I want each of you, when the lights are turned off, to put your head on your desk, and be completely unresponsive. Stay that way when the lights are switched on." Each seemed to understand. All of us returned to the class. I paused until the readers took their seats by their groups, then switched off the lights.

Five voices, none of them in synch, started reading. Determined to finish, they tried to ignore the unresponsive students they were reading to. Finally, it was over. I asked each of them to write how they felt about their reading as I again took the others into the hallway.

"How did you feel while you were being read to?" I asked.

Each told me how difficult it was to be frozen in place. "How do you think the readers felt?" I asked.

"Like we didn't care," said one. Another agreed.

"But what if you weren't able to respond?" I asked.

"You mean,..."

"Yes. As if you were no longer alive," I said. My chatty group grew silent. They understood what I was trying to do. "Maybe you have some ideas about how to make this work better. If so, let me know. Also, when you go inside, please write a sentence or two about how you felt while they were reading to you."

In earnest, all of them did that. "What did you write?" I asked Lauren, one of the readers.

She told the class that she felt very strange, like something was wrong. And she didn't know what to do about it. I couldn't have asked for a better answer.

"Imagine," I said, " how the Jewish students in Nazi controlled territory felt when their friends and siblings went missing, when, unexpectedly, they could no longer talk to people they knew and loved. Imagine having to live like that. It was almost that bad for Dr. Guzlowski's parents, Polish Catholics made to work as slaves for the Nazis.

"This is what it looked like," I said, as I started playing an award winning documentary by Boston's WGBH, Master Race. It revealed what Hitler had done to capture the loyalty of most Germans. About midway, John Guzlowski joined us.

I stopped the documentary so that we could welcome him to read and talk about his Holocaust poetry. Following polite applause, the intensely gentle Dr. greeted us. For the next hour and fifteen minutes, he read his poetry, explained its origins, and deftly steered each of us to consider what had been our most poignant (and soul shaping) "objects of memory."

For his Dad, he explained calmly, there was the story of the Nazi soldier who his father had watched "cutting the breasts off of a women" his Dad had known. "He told me that story again and again." Some of us gasped at the thought of having to witness such a gruesome atrocity.

When John told of his stoic mother who refused to talk about the horror she had seen, he explained that it seemed to him that one person in every family "is the designated story teller. Not until my father died did my mother tell us what she knew." However, although she had been remiss to talk, as a child he had been curious, so curious that he would put an ear to her door when she shut it to read a letter from a relative. That's when he would hear her weep.

"Some ask why I continue to write these Holocaust poems. Others who, like me, spent their early childhood in Displaced Persons Camps refuse to read what I've written. They feel as if they must move on, must put that past behind them." Our discussion continued; the question he raised was whether any of us could put our past behind us if we didn't express rather than deny the most poignant objects we remembered.

At that time, I was standing near the back of the room. Seated next to me was a quiet student who surprised me by tapping my arm. I almost didn't hear him ask me to read a paper he was handing me, a poem he had written about his painful childhood. Turning my eyes away from John, I read his emotional and poetic survey of troubling experiences, an introduction to memories he seemed ready to write about.

"This is a very good beginning. Please write more," I told him, "and, "as Dr. Guzlowski did, please delve deeper. Thanks for letting me see this."

I wondered how many others would write similar poems and essays, how many would never forget the day they met the master teacher and poet, Dr. John Guzlowski.

B. Koplen 10/18/09

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