Dear Books with Pages:
Dear Books with Pages:
Today I bring you the last installment of my interview with my now-retired high school English teacher, Frank Barone. You’re in for a treat. . .
Me: You’re known for your talks to very young writers that include a purple balloon. What is the purple balloon?
The Purple Balloon is my Friend. One of my students who taught as an aide for K-5th graders asked me to introduce her students to metaphor and poetry. Because of the wide range of grades, I tried to think of something I could use to gain and keep their attention and jump-start their imaginations. I decided on a balloon, an immediate eye-grabber and purple, my favorite color.
When I met with those students, I asked them to say “Hi” to my Friend. All of them immediately shouted, “Hi, Friend.” They had made an instant metaphoric leap from object to idea. Then I asked them to tell me what else my Friend looked like, what else it could be. The range of their quick responses amazed me: a globe; an Easter egg; an ice cream cone; a bald head. When I altered the position of the balloon by moving it sideways or holding it upside down, they said: a fish; a rocket ship; a grape; a raindrop. Then I told them they had just spoken poetry and that poetry would be easy for them to write because poetry uses the language of metaphors to make pictures for the reader, and they had just spoken metaphors.
Some of her early grade students could not yet write, so my student had copied their responses onto a blackboard, and by putting the words “Poetry is,” or “Poetry is like,” in front of their responses, that became their first poem, a group poem that they could continue to add other metaphors to and increase their images by also including what those metaphors could do. Example: “Poetry is a rocketship that can fly to the moon.”
The Purple Balloon succeeded so well in making poetry easy and fun, I continued to use it with students of all ages, K-adult. Years later one second grade girl wrote: “Poetry is a mermaid swimming into your imagination.” Recently I used the Purple Balloon at a local community college when a friend of mine asked me to help his students open up their imaginations. And this summer I led a poetry workshop for about fifty elementary and middle school students at their Young Writers Camp at UCSD. Naturally, I brought My Friend with me.
Me: You began in me my love affair for metaphor. I still haven’t recovered. What can metaphors do that ordinary concrete word choices can’t?
What can metaphors do? Metaphors help the writer play with language, to make language leaps of faith, to make pictures for the reader that “show more with less,” and to create multiple levels of meaning for the reader. Metaphors involve the reader by getting them to use their own imaginations to recreate the pictures the author paints for them.
Me: Your five favorite quintessential authors?
Unfair question. Especially for a literature teacher. So I’ll respond as a long-time reader. At the head of any list I would have to place the Divine Author of The Bible, then William Shakespeare, and I wouldn’t even count or include them within the list. They would stand above any ranking, so that still gives me five choices. 1) Alexander Dumas. The Count of Monte Cristo captivated my imagination when I read it as a teenager. I’ve reread it a few times since and it continues to impress me. 2) Victor Hugo. Les Miserables pulled me inside the life of a man redeemed by the power of love, both received and given. 3) Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Epic and unforgettable. Also, poetic. Enough said. 4) Feodor Dostoevsky. The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment. Both take us on intense journeys through the minds, motives, and behaviors of their characters. 5) Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird. For any number of reasons. She only wrote this one book, but she did it right the first time.
Obviously we could spend a few hours at our favorite coffee shop discussing other authors of merit, and maybe that would lead to another interview. But let me add this. I usually browse through bookstores about twice a week looking for the next “quintessential” writers. I continue to discover perhaps lesser known yet powerful and poetic authors whose books lay open the humanity of their characters and whose writings “sing into my eyes and touch my heart.” Some of these books I have read over again because they continue to disturb, haunt, impress, please, and speak to me. While these authors do not enjoy the recognition of more famous writers, I still consider them “good reads,” like your own The Shape of Mercy, and continue to recommend them to other readers.
Me: You humble me. So, if you could do one thing over again in your writing life, what would you do?
For the first ten years of my teaching career I didn’t have a writing life. If I had known then that writing could be used to create pictures and touch the heart instead of for testing and grading, I would have started sooner to put the writing process at the center of the curriculum. But, again, thank God that I did learn how to do it differently.
Susan: You should write a book about that! Just think how many English teachers would be able to revolutionize the way they teach what is sadly for so many kids their least favorite class. You gave your professional life over to the care and education of young minds. Was it worth it?
Whatever I gave to my students, they gave much more back to me. When I showed them I could take risks and change, they found it easier to risk as well, to change and grow and learn. And I grew and learned along with them. I could not have achieved what I did in my educational life, getting published, presenting at workshops and conferences, along with awards and recognition from peers, without their help and encouragement. And I would not have grown in my personal life without them showing me the importance of caring for them as individuals.
On one occasion, before going to a workshop for teachers, I asked a class of supposedly low ability learners what would be the one thing they would want me to tell those teachers. That class gave me only one answer: tell them they have to care for their students, each one, no matter what their ability. That response became the bottom line for me whenever I presented a workshop. Teachers have to care for their students. If not, they shouldn’t be in the profession. And if they want to stay young in the profession, they should listen to and learn from their students. It has made all the difference for me. And at eighty-one, I still do an occasional workshop on poetry for students. To see them recognize and use their imaginations to create metaphors continues to keep me young.
Me: Thank you, thank you dear Frank for spending this time with me and my friends here on the Edge!
Susan, thank you for giving me this “assignment,” and for giving me time to think about my responses and to put them in writing. I found the task both challenging and enjoyable. I hope they achieve what you wanted, and that they may help your writer-friends.
Your grateful student, Frank.
ME: What did you learn about life by teaching teenagers how to interpret life on paper?
FRANK: I learned to look at and treat students as individuals, to give them choices and let them make decisions to involve them in their own education. I also learned the value of creativity and encouraged it as much as I could. Writing gave me confidence on how to select words to express not just ideas but also feelings that would satisfy me and my audience. My students did not just write for the teacher or for a grade, but for themselves and a wider audience since we all shared our papers for comments and editing. Editing became an important part of our writing process. Students knew the criteria for a piece of writing and could rewrite their papers as many times as it took to meet the criteria. I never put a grade on a paper, just comments. When students met the criteria, they received credit for completing the assignment.
So I would say the life lessons I learned could be these: treat people as individuals; be creative since it helps you to see and enjoy more of life; have confidence and know that with a little more time and work you can reach your goals.
ME: I love it that you wanted us to write for ourselves first, not for the grade or even for you. That’s brilliant. What did you mean by “Eye, I, Aye” and the affirmation “This sings into the eyes.” You wrote these words on my papers and they made me feel like I was a writer!
FRANK: I found those words a long time ago in some professional journal by an author whom I can’t remember. The words impressed me because they summed up the qualities a good poem or piece of writing should express: “Eye.” The poem must appeal to the senses. Its words must create pictures for the reader. “I.” The voice of the writer must come through to the reader. The words the writer chooses must be unmistakably his or hers. “Aye!” When the reader finishes reading the poem or piece of writing, he or she must be able to say, “Yes! This is true. This is just the way it is because your words lead me to conclude that it is true, or that it is new because your words have shown me something I already knew, but differently.”
This “Sings into the eyes.” I also found those words a long time ago in the title of a collection of poems by Arnold Adoff. Those words showed me that a successful poem must first appeal to the senses, and then the emotions. That became another criteria in my class, that poems should make pictures for the reader, and touch the heart. When I first read Susan’s Oatmeal Story,” it made me smile. Her story made pictures for me, and touched my heart. And her writing still “sings into my eyes” and touches my heart.
ME: MY eyes are singing in the rain right now. I am undone. These are words we must contemplate today, I think. I know I must. We stop for now. More on Friday.
I’ve a real a treat for you today (and the coming days, actually.) Today I begin a series of interview questions with my high school English teacher, Frank Barone. He is retired now but still lives in San Diego and he and I get together now and then for coffee and book talk.
At nineteen I left
I became a teacher for practical reasons. I needed a job and I needed to make some money to survive. With the one education course I had in the seminary, two degrees, and with my training to work with and for people, I decided to apply for a teaching position. A Catholic boys’ school hired me, to teach Latin and English, mostly because of my experience of working with young people at a summer day camp. After one year there I accepted a teaching position at a similar school in
In 1963 during a summer vacation to visit my younger brother I met my future wife. I knew after just one date I had found someone special. After returning to
My teaching career spanned eight years in
Me: I LOVE that! “
Me: I LOVE that! “Someone once told me it did not matter why we entered the profession, but why we stayed in it.” Okay. First question: What was the best part about teaching high school students? Worst?
Frank: The best part came for me came ten years into my teaching career when I put my students’ desks in a circle, sat down with them, and listened to them. That one change made a significant difference in my career and transformed my classes. Now the students talked and I listened, participated with them, and served as a resource person for their individual and group needs. My classes changed from teacher-directed to student-centered. I could see not only how much more relaxed they were, but also how much more involved they became with their education and with each other. That change also relaxed me and helped me to get to know them better as real persons and learners, not just names in a roll book. And they came to know me better as well since I shared myself with them, wrote and did assignments along with them. We all learned more by listening to each other in the sharing circle and by working together in groups during the workshop time. I became a better teacher from listening to my students and learning from them. Many of them became, and remain, my friends.
No worst part. Yes, I had some difficult days and difficult students, but so does every profession. My training and experience and the support from my teacher-friends helped me to cope and to turn some of those down times into positive experiences. I am always grateful that
Me: I fondly remember that circle! And I am glad to be one of the students who is now, thirty-five years later, a friend . . .
More on Monday . . .