The teacher still teaches – Part III

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.

Author: Susan

This post has 4 Comments

  1. Written Not With Ink on December 17, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    Susan, thank you for sharing this interview of your h.s. English teacher with your readers! I feel I have been blessed and given some insightful tips to think about as I venture on in my own writing. I love what I learned from the 'Eye, I, Aye' and purple balloon examples…such simple ideas but they have the potential to help in grand ways.

    Frank Barone…I wish I'd had a teacher like you when I was in school! Thank you for being you and for letting Susan shine the spotlight on your very noteworthy career.

    I'm so glad to have “met” you. 🙂


  2. Milo James Fowler on December 18, 2010 at 12:22 am

    “For the first ten years of my teaching career I didn't have a writing life” — me either. I put it on hold, unfortunately; but I'm trying to make up for lost time now! Thanks for these inspirational posts, Susan.
    in medias res

  3. Susan Meissner on December 21, 2010 at 12:41 am

    Thanks for your comments, Barb and Milo!

  4. Bob McHeffey on April 10, 2021 at 10:58 pm

    Susan–I just ran across this blog post. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this and honoring Frank (and all of those other inspirational, life-altering teachers we have). I am a poet, and teacher because of Frank. I was changed by Writing Seminar at PHS. And now I teach Writing Seminar, and my students sit in a circle and I am lucky enough to share in their stories every day. I have been thinking about his legacy a lot recently as my students are mostly home and going through school virtually. And it is somehow profound to me that his influence on my in 1981 still impacts my students in 2021. I have been teaching for 34 years. HIs legacy continues.

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