American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 29
Poetry In and Out
of the Classroom:
Essays from the ACLS Elementary and
Secondary Schools Teacher Curriculum
The Overwhelming Question:
Integrating The ACLS Curriculum Project,
Teaching for Understanding, and
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Joan S. Soble
So how should I presume?... And how should I begin? J. Alfred Prufrock asked this, and so did I when I found myself wondering how I was using my sabbatical year. My plan as a teacher-scholar had been three-fold: to work with my colleagues to further their understanding and implementation of the Teaching for Understanding curriculum framework;1 to enrich my Bible as Literature class curriculum through a combination of travel and study; and to read about religion and comparative religion with the idea of developing a religion and literature course for next year.
Almost immediately, the original plan changed when I had to figure out how to ensure that my Reading and Writing on Human Values students would not be educationally shortchanged while I was traveling in Israel. When I realized that Betsy Grady, last years teacher fellow, was free during the class period that Reading and Writing on Human Values met, I began to speculate: what if Betsy and I were to work together to devise an interdisciplinary unit around The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock? Because our ACLS seminar had already begun to instill in me the notion of the inseparability of the historical moment and the work of literature, I had realized that I did not want to teach Eliots poem again without deepening my own understanding of industrialization and World War I (Betsys favorite war!). Furthermore, I saw in Betsys and my collaboration the chance to model for our colleagues the way in which the Teaching for Understanding framework could help one to plan and implement an interdisciplinary unit that (1) showed the importance of looking through a number of disciplinary lenses in order to create deep, personal understandings of complex materials and ideas and (2) honored and demonstrated the particular questions, conventions, and concerns of the separate disciplines. On the most practical level, my work with Betsy would afford my class the chance to work with an excellent and inspired humanities teacher rather than a substitute teacher who might have many overwhelming questions about The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
So over a period of about four weeks, Betsy and I met regularly to discuss the meaning of the poem, develop understanding goals and the understanding performances that the students could create to show their understandings, select the most generative readings and videotapes to establish the historical moment, and devise the freewrite assignments (ongoing assessment pieces) that would enable us to know what the students were understanding.2 Because both of us were intrigued by the notion of students as scholars, we designed a mid-unit research project: through the examination of primary and secondary texts, pairs of students would become authorities on single important allusions in the poem and would ultimately grapple with the question of how their specific allusions affected their overall understanding of the poem. In addition, the class as a whole would create a Prufrock exhibition: as a final demonstration of their understandings, they would produce a huge, annotated version of the poem which would be displayed at the Pilot School Arts Open House in the middle of January. Needless to say, we were very excited to be creating a series of student activities and performances which would give students the experience of being scholars and yield a memorable product representative of individual and collective student academic achievement and reflection on meaning.
As we were working away at this, I began to realize that I wasnt doing very much reading about Islam. Did this constitute a failure on my part? Was I making the mistake of sacrificing my sabbatical experience, my chance to explore a particular academic area for the sheer joy of it? I struggled with these questions because even though the books in my bookcase beckoned and the quiet of the library was enticing, my conversations with Betsy and the time I spent listening to Brittens War Requiem were at the moment more exciting. Did I dare to give myself permission to delve into Prufrock really deeply? The last time I had done so was during my junior year of college when Id written my junior tutorial paper on it. And yet this interdisciplinary, interpersonal experience was nothing like that.
My trip to Israel created an upheaval in both my spiritual and professional lives. I left Cambridge with great curiosity about how the class would initially receive Prufrock and then became completely immersed in the contiguousness of the ancient and modern in Israel and the diversity and primacy of religious life as symbolized by the deliberate ways in which many people dressed. But the clothes that most haunted my memory were the military uniforms worn by so many talking, laughing young men and women who are not much older than my own students. A day or two after my return home, I wept as I read the World War I materials Betsy had assigned to my class. Young soldiers are young soldiers anywhere, and I understood that I knew something about war that Id never known before, even if there was much I had to learn.
And then there was my Reading and Writing on Human Values class with which to contend. No matter how artfully a unit is planned and how well students know and respect the substitute teacher, theres always a re-entry process when the real teacher comes back after an absence. The fact that Prufrock was proving elusive and even more complex daily did not further endear me to them. But we plodded on. During my first few days back in school, figuring out how to present the student-as-scholar piece of the curriculum proved to be so time-consuming that I opted not to attend the lectures I equated with being on sabbatical. What was I doing with my time, and what was I supposed to be doing?
And then there were my colleagues, many of whom were working on creating understanding performances and the units associated with them. Because their drafts of their understanding goals, understanding performances, and related ongoing assessments were due within the week and because I was somewhat out of touch with their progress and their understanding of the Teaching for Understanding framework, I decided to meet with each of them individually. I hoped to work with them on their pieces-in-progress and then allow myself adequate time to reflect on where they were and what they needed next. A conscientious plan, no doubt but still none of the sitting in the library that had characterized my sabbatical time in early October.
In my bookbag was The Word of Islam, but I was sitting at the computer in the Pilot School office writing up my notes on my conferences with my colleagues. I wasnt resenting it, though. The geometry teacher was developing materials that would require her class to create reflection drawings, so wed spent time talking about the power of reflection and the many possible and all relevant meanings of the word reflection. The first-year Spanish teacher was struggling to find ways to make his students see the interrelatedness of culture and language and the centrality of language to meaning-making. A Language Arts teacher was crafting a project which would allow his students to explore the relationship between multiple voices and individual identity, first in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water and then in their own lives. All of my colleagues were deeply involved in helping their students to understand themselves, others, and the many worlds in which they live. If I was helping to facilitate any of this, wasnt I doing at least some of the work of someone who has been given the opportunity to participate in a humanities curriculum project? And wasnt it good to feel connected to my colleagues and the commitments of my school even if I was on a partial sabbatical?
Still, I dont think Id be recording any of the above reflections had it not been for two conversations I had with students one morning. It was the first day of student research into the assigned Prufrock allusions. Id imagined that my role would be to facilitate learning: if I provided students with adequate materials, theyd come to the understandings Id already achieved. So I was surprised when I learned something from one of my students right away. Id directed Maris attention to part of a chapter in Ecclesiastes which Id thought most important to the poem; shed read further than Id suggested, however, and asked me if Prufrocks assertion that he should have been a pair of ragged claws might be Eliots reference to the the 3:19 statement that a man hath not preeminence above a beast. And I, whod always seen those ragged claws only as a reference to Hamlet, saw them anew and recognized in them the human quest to understand ones place in the universe.
About an half-hour later, I was standing with Louisy, another student, at the photocopy machine, where I was copying both the canto from Dantes Inferno from which the epigraph of the poem is drawn and an essay about Dante in his own time. When I mentioned that the essay included some discussion of Beatrice, whom our whole class had discussed in relation to Demian, her comment was, So weve got a love poem that is happening in hell. Maybe love is hell. And war is hell. I wish Betsy, whod been asking me all week if the kids had understood what shed taught about the historical moment, had been standing there. As for me, I realized that Id been so caught up in my own view of Prufrock as the figure of Dantes fraudulent counselor that Id totally neglected to wonder if perhaps Prufrock was the lovesick Dante himself.
So I wish to thank Betsy, Mari, and Louisy for teaching me how to read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. When I began my sabbatical, I hadnt imagined that part of my work would be to explore this poem I believed I already knew so well. And yet here I was embroiled in this intersection of old voices, new voices, and numerous texts, learning right along with my students and my colleagues. As I write this, its only November; so Im hoping that Prufrocks assertion that There will be time, there will be time proves for me to be a truth rather than an indication of procrastination and lost opportunity. I still hope and plan to read widely about world religions and biblical interpretations, but its time for me to stop feeling that Ive been neglecting my sabbatical and to honor and recognize the new understandings that have come my way through the collaborations, conversations, situations, and reflection time that this grant-program time off has fostered and even created.
Just the other day, I was talking about personal narratives and autobiography with Rob Riordan, a teacher fellow during the first year of the ACLS K-12 project, and Paul Fideler, one of the university fellows whos been part of the Harvard-Brookline-Cambridge collaboration since the project began. As I spoke to Paul about how my students were studying The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and how theyd eventually be writing spiritual autobiographies, Paul commented that in writing and sharing their autobiographies, my students were being asked to do precisely what Prufrock was doing: To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet. This piece of writing is my attempt to prepare my sabbatical face. And while I dont believe Ill have time for a hundred visions and revisions, I firmly believe that this face will and must change many times over the course of this sabbatical journey. I hope I have the courage and imagination to let it happen.
1. Wed begun to work with the Teaching for Understanding curriculum framework last spring in a five-session mini-course. Our new schedule this year allowed us to continue this exploration during the school day once every eight days. [Return to text]
2. The terms in quotation marks are the four key concepts of the Teaching for Understanding curriculum framework. [Return to text]
Joan S. Soble, a language arts teacher at the Pilot School at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, was an ACLS fellow in 199495. She was a research teacher with the Teaching for Understanding project in 199394.