Thursday, April 7, 2011

Transmediation in Action: Drawing, Talking, Listening and Performing to Comprehend Literature

In order to facilitate comprehension of poetry, I engage students in a drawing activity to enhance their understanding of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “The Haunted Oak” and to ready them to read Marilyn Nelson's A Wreath for Emmett Till. To facilitate the drawing, I distribute an 11” x 17” sheet of white paper and a drawing pencil to each student. I then ask students to fold the sheet to make 8 equal size boxes. I already had divided the stanzas to Dunbar poem into eight sections and will use a PowerPoint to display each section. I explain to the students that I will show the PowerPoint slides and read aloud the stanza or stanzas from the poem and that they should quickly sketch what they image in one of the boxes.  I remind them that goal here is not to create stunning art, but rather to try as quickly as possible to represent what they visualize.  I model this process on large posted sheets of paper with a marker for the first stanza and invite students to work along. We then work through the whole poem: I project the words, read them aloud, and students and I each make drawings. My drawings remain public. In total, each of us makes 8 drawings.
At the conclusion of that process, I give each pair of students a copy of the poem and ask them to reread it.  Students work with their partner to reread the poem and to view one another’s drawings.  I invite students to discuss their emerging understanding of the poem. After discussion and viewing, I ask the students to flip their sheet of drawings to the blank side and to draw one scene that best illustrates their understanding of the poem. I let them know that we will be posting these drawings in the classroom as soon as they are finished. Students work for about 5-7 minutes to draw and then post their work. We tour this gallery of images and I ask students to notice what is similar across the drawings.  Students indicate that most often there is a leafless oak tree, a hanging body of an African American man, & the presence of the judge, doctor, minister, and child. 
I next play a video of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” for the class. 
Students quickly make connections between Dunbar’s poem and Holiday’s song. These connections give rise to questions such as: How prevalent was lynching in the U.S.?  Who is lynched? Has lynching ended in this country, or is it still going on? Have “pillars of the community” been the ones who lynch, as Dunbar portrays them in his poem? 
I conclude the class by having students practice reading chorally the second sonnet in Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till.  Each students is assigned a part and given a copy of the poem that I had arranged for choral reading. 
The next class, students practice individually again and then as a large group.   By the second reading the choral quality of the work is significant and powerful.  Each pair of students is assigned a number 1 from 15.

Students assigned #
All Read
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
by the screams
11, 12, 13, 14, 15
of a shortened childhood,
my heartwood
13, 14,15
has been scarred
14, 15
for fifty years
by what I heard,
8, 9, 10, 11
with hundreds of green ears.
That jackal laughter.
12, 13
Two hundred years I stood listening
9, 10, 11
to small struggles to find food,
7 ,8, 9, 10, 11, 12
to songs of creature  life
13, 14, 15
which disappears and comes again
1, 2, 3
to the music of spheres.
1, 2, 14,15
Two hundred years of death I understood.
3, 4, 12, 13
Then slaughter axed one quiet summer night,
1, 2, 5, 6, 7
the deep silence
1, 2
of the stars.
A running boy,
6, 7, 8, 9, 10
five pale faces in moonlight.
One match,
6, 7, 8, 9,10
five cigars.
Emmett Till‘s name
1, 2, 3, 4
still catches
in the throat.

Students quickly see the allusions to the Dunbar poem and the Holiday song that are present in the sonnet. As we have previously done work related to Emmett Till, students are familiar with who he is and what happened to him.  I ask students to work in small groups to prepare a choral reading script for one of the sonnets they chose, to be performed in class. It is in this manner that we enter A Wreath for Emmett Till.

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

    PRAY why are you so bare, so bare,
        Oh, bough of the old oak-tree;
    And why, when I go through the shade you throw,
        Runs a shudder over me?

    My leaves were green as the best, I trow,
        And sap ran free in my veins,
    But I saw in the moonlight dim and weird
        A guiltless victim's pains.

    I bent me down to hear his sigh;
        I shook with his gurgling moan,
    And I trembled sore when they rode away,
        And left him here alone.

    They'd charged him with the old, old crime,
        And set him fast in jail:
    Oh, why does the dog howl all night long,
        And why does the night wind wail?

    He prayed his prayer and he swore his oath,
        And he raised his hand to the sky;
    But the beat of hoofs smote on his ear,
        And the steady tread drew nigh.

    Who is it rides by night, by night,
        Over the moonlit road?
    And what is the spur that keeps the pace,
        What is the galling goad?

    And now they beat at the prison door,
        "Ho, keeper, do not stay!
    We are friends of him whom you hold within,
        And we fain would take him away

"From those who ride fast on our heels
        With mind to do him wrong;
    They have no care for his innocence,
        And the rope they bear is long."

    They have fooled the jailer with lying words,
        They have fooled the man with lies;
    The bolts unbar, the locks are drawn,
        And the great door open flies.

    Now they have taken him from the jail,
        And hard and fast they ride,
    And the leader laughs low down in his throat,
        As they halt my trunk beside.

    Oh, the judge, he wore a mask of black,
        And the doctor one of white,
    And the minister, with his oldest son,
        Was curiously bedight.

    Oh, foolish man, why weep you now?
        'Tis but a little space,
    And the time will come when these shall dread
        The mem'ry of your face.

    I feel the rope against my bark,
        And the weight of him in my grain,
    I feel in the throe of his final woe
        The touch of my own last pain.

    And never more shall leaves come forth
        On the bough that bears the ban;
    I am burned with dread, I am dried and dead,
        From the curse of a guiltless man.

    And ever the judge rides by, rides by,
        And goes to hunt the deer,
    And ever another rides his soul
        In the guise of a mortal fear.

    And ever the man he rides me hard,
        And never a night stays he;
    For I feel his curse as a haunted bough,
        On the trunk of a haunted tree.

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