“So much depends upon…” “…my page for English B”: Writing Assignment by Michael Dickel

I had the pleasure of meeting Michael in Salerno, Italy, in July of 2015  when we both participated in the 100Thousand Poets for Change Conference.  Michael joined me, along  with Laura Shovan and Debby Kevin, my travel companions, in sharing a gourmet Salerno lunch in a wonderful ristorante.  Michael also served as the emcee for one of our poetry nights. His work speaks of struggle and peace, and he is committed to using the arts for social change. Welcome, Michael.

MIchael Dickel
MIchael Dickel

The Red Wheel Barrow

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens

William Carlos Williams 

A couple of years ago, I taught an English as Foreign Language (EFL) creative writing course at one of the top education colleges in Israel. The students were in the Excellence Program, an Israeli version of an honors program, where they receive full tuition if they keep their GPAs up, and also take additional courses each semester to enrich their learning and prepare them for professional life and graduate study. My course helped them get more comfortable with their English writing and their creativity.

The students had had a few writing assignments at the point in the semester when I introduced a poetry one. They had written to introduce themselves, practiced descriptive writing from observation (non-fiction), and developed a short narrative (fiction). For this assignment, I had them write a poem in response to another poem.

The assignment

I gave them two different poems to read and respond to, both of which have straight-forward language accessible to English-language learners. The poems involve observation and description, but in very different ways. One tells a story. They share a deceptive simplicity, but that surface simplicity also allows students to access them and to use them as a model for their responses.

One poem I used was William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” quoted above. It owes much to short Japanese poetry forms and Williams’ insistence on the image over ideas. Despite the simplicity of what is, in the end, only one sentence, the poem conveys a mood, and with its opening lines, the sense that something significant waits, an outcome, and that what it depends upon is beyond us—beyond our understanding or control.

Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B”, on the other hand, is more involved. It includes narrative. It opens:

The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?

In fact, I chose it because it begins with an assignment, and the persona of the poem responds by questioning the assignment (it is not Hughes speaking—the biographical details that come later are made up). The speaker of the poem goes on to ask what is true for him, as he describes his walk from New York University to the cheap housing at the Harlem Y, where he, “the only colored student in my class,” lives. He describes what he likes, what he does, and wonders if it is different for him as a “colored” person (the poem was written in the 1950s) than it is for his “white” instructor. He wonders if his paper will be white or colored, and suggests it will be both. He engages both the similarities and differences of the two of them—white instructor and African-American student—and their mutual resistance to be too much like the Other.

The poem ends with:
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.

I often use this poem when asking students in a course to write a poem, as a way to invite them to use any resistance that they might have to writing a poem, or to writing any assignment, for that matter. I also like that it suggests the fact that students and teachers learn from each other (I think this happens when classes go very well). Finally, the poem shows that we often give assignments without fully knowing or understanding the material- and cultural-realities of our students.

For the assignment, I asked the students to read the poems first, and then to choose one and write their own poem in response. Most, but not all, of the students responded to the shorter poem by Williams. Some responded to Hughes’ poem. A couple of the Excellence-Program students wrote two poems, responding to each.

How I respond to student writing

When I respond to students’ poems in my courses, especially in the EFL context, I don’t focus on issues of correctness in English. I mark spelling and grammar mistakes, of course, but without a written comment in almost all cases. I write comments, though, about poetic suggestions. Often, these poetic suggestions transfer to other forms of writing as well.

For example, one student wrote a very powerful poem using the image of an empty velvet chair by a window. However, she wrote it as a sentence, without line breaks. So, my comments suggested using line breaks, and where they might add drama or power to the reading of her “sentence.”

The students seemed to enjoy the assignment. Almost all of them took it seriously, from my reading of their poems. Many of them wrote good poems—that could be made better, which I hope my method of commenting helps them to see. And I believe commenting on content and poetics (while still marking errors) focuses on the students’ strengths and the potential of their writing. They still learn about their mistakes in the language, but they also see that they wrote something that their instructor took seriously as a draft poem.

Final thoughts

For this assignment and others, I choose strong examples to share with the class—both so that other students see good examples, and so that they see (for later, when they respond to each other in small groups) that even good writing could be improved, with the help of thoughtful commentary. I tell them that I revise my own writing all of the time. And, I think most importantly, I emphasize that the writing process is not about how to write perfectly the first time, but about how to perfect writing over time.

Often students tell me that they “can’t write” because it is so much work, that they struggle to write what they mean, and that they can’t just write it out the first time. I usually turn these narratives of “failure” as writers around and congratulate them on being “good writers” (or “good potential writers”)—writers who already realize that writing takes work, that it is a messy struggle, and that even the “best” results often don’t quite say what we are trying to say with our writing. I believe that providing students with content comments, alongside modeling for them in class how to use those comments to serve their own purposes, is a process that helps students learn how to negotiate the messiness and arrive at, if not perfect writing, at least writing that they feel comes closer to speaking for them.

Bio: Michael Dickel, a poet, fiction writer, and photographer, has taught at various colleges and universities in Israel and the U.S. He co-edited Voices Israel Volume 36 (2010). He was managing editor for arc-23 and 24. Is a Rose Press released his new book, The Palm Reading after The Toad’s Garden in 2016. His previous books are War Surrounds Us, Midwest / Mid-East, and The World Behind It, Chaos… With producer / director David Fisher, he received an NEH grant to write a film script about Yiddish theatre. Dickel’s writing, art, and photographs have appeared in print and online.

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