In Homer and Langley, E.L. Doctorow’s novel loosely based on the lives of the Collyer brothers in New York, Langley Collyer is obsessed with tying up all the loose ends of present-day events and condensing them into the space of one newspaper.
I am strangely attracted to Langley’s crazy scheme. The universe feels like a more beautiful and less chaotic place to me when two ideas or people are knit together. And to be able to participate in that process, well, that’s thrilling, even when it’s as small as connecting one person’s question on Twitter to an answer in a blog post.
Langley’s obsession forces him ever inward, but the impulse to thread ideas together can also propel one outwards to new connections and ideas. So where does this dedication to show up in teaching? For me it means I get very frustrated with the typical division of subjects. It drives me crazy when I’m forced to pick between History and English and Political Science and Statistics and Theology and Sociology and Anthropology and Law. I’m always looking for ways to circumvent these boundaries.
My interest in connecting things also showed up in a recent lesson. Geography and mapping skills are a tough sell to many students. In an age of where the cell phone in your pocket can tell your exact location and Google Earth allows you to zoom in half-way around the globe, do students really even need to study geography?
While poetry may not seem a natural fit for a geography lesson, my hope was that it would provide an opportunity for students to make some connections themselves and to give more meaning to what might have been a tedious map-reading exercise.
We began by reviewing a map of the Middle East and then Israel, noting areas of conflict and discussing why they might be hot spots. After we looked briefly at a map of the Old City, I gave students time to explore panoramas of the Old City. These beautiful 365 degree photos were great for giving students a “feel” for the Old City. After students had some time to wander about I asked them to discuss what things they had noticed about the land, the buildings, and the people in the photograph.
Finally, I gave them the following poem by Yehuda Amichai, an Israeli poet. I had stumbled across the poem the night before.
On a roof in the Old City
Laundry hanging in the late afternoon sunlight:
The white sheet of a woman who is my enemy,
The towel of a man who is my enemy,
To wipe off the sweat of his brow.
In the sky of the Old City
At the other end of the string,
I can’t see
Because of the wall.
We have put up many flags,
They have put up many flags.
To make us think that they’re happy.
To make them think that we’re happy.
Translated by Irena Gordon
From A Touch of Grace
We discussed who the speaker in the poem might be, why he or she would refer to the woman and the man as enemies, why the groups of people might want to make the other think they were happy, and what emotions they might actually be feeling.
In the last few minutes of class I asked students to what connections they had been able to make between the poem and the maps. (They submitted their responses using a Google form, but we could have also used note cards.) A few of their reflections:
The poem helped me understand the map better because it is a perspective of somebody who had actually lived there so it helped me find a good image of how it would be like to live there. The map was basically the same as the poem just flipped around, both together made it easier to understand.
The poem helped me understand the map because I realized that the relationships between different groups was weakened by the fact that the groups are so close together. The map helped me understand the poem because if I did not know about the walls of the Old City, I wouldn’t have realized why the person felt so confined and sad.
The map helped me understand the poem because if I didn’t see the map I wouldn’t have understood the poem at all. I wouldn’t be able to understand the poem without the map because the kid with the kite wouldn’t have made sense.
If I had read the poem without seeing the map, I would of never known what the author meant about a wall. The poem helped me understand the tight feelings between Palestinians and Israelis.
“Both together made it easier to understand.” Yes, that’s it! The world is a more intelligible, rich place when we avoiding limiting ourselves and our students to subject-specific lenses.
What threads are you twining together?