Posts Tagged: adult learning

e. e. cummings, jimi hendrix’s guitar, and the power of a metaphor

…or another Ken Long story.

One of the things I learned in doing my adult education degree is that people process new information based on their individual experiences and accumulated knowledge. Each of us absorbs (or rejects) information in a different way, and if we reflect on new information against our own life experiences, we can come to a more meaningful understanding. If new knowledge is meaningful to us, it changes us somehow. In education circles, that’s called transformative learning.

I didn’t know or really care about any of that when I went to university the first time. All I knew was that I was ten years older than most of my lecture hall peers, and I felt out of touch and out of place. But my first English professor, Ken Long, taught me about transformative learning a most impactful way.

So there are my classmates and me, wearing all manner of perplexed expressions as Long tries to get us to analyze this poem by E. E. Cummings:

"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

Most people are shifting in their seats, trying to translate the disjointed sentences and punctuation that was, if not absent, used in odd (wrong) ways. Surely the thing is derogatory. Or, maybe it isn’t?

But Long is trying to get us to look deeper– what is the *point* of the disjointed sentences used together? What emotions are evident in the poem? How many voices is the poem reflecting?

Silence.

So then he turns to that most powerful conveyor of meaning, metaphor:

“Think about Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solo of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock.”

Long looks back out to the sea of blank faces – and maybe he saw mine in the midst of them, smiling under the light bulb that had been switched on above my head. Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!

In one instant, because of my awareness of that historic rock and roll moment, I could see that Cummings is satirizing false patriotism created by catchphrases and concepts, and I see him suggesting that his beloved country is less free because of those that blindly ascribe to those phrases and concepts while calling those that don’t, unpatriotic.

I wasn’t old enough to remember Woodstock directly, but I knew all about the event, I had seen the video and heard Hendrix’s controversial solo many times, and I knew he was playing to an audience that was critical of the Viet Nam war in particular, and questioning of the “establishment” in general, and were often called un-American for it. I had felt the emotion in that solo, and could tell that it reflected both love for his country, mourning for lives lost in war, and a critical disdain for an administration’s use of a bunch of symbols wrapped up in a national anthem to form such a narrow definition of loyalty and patriotism.

It was with mild amusement that I saw that none of the 19 year-olds in the room seemed to have any idea of what the professor was talking about. If they knew who Jimi Hendrix was, or if they’d heard of that solo, the connection sure wasn’t gelling.

For me though, that professor shed light – again – on my power as an adult learner, showing me how my own experiences and life-acquired knowledge framed my critical perspective, and could make new learning richer and more meaningful.

Oh, and there was that other little writing/art/life lesson too – the power of the metaphor. I must say, to this day that particular metaphor of a most beautiful guitar player reflecting the meaning in an e.e. cummings poem, is still my favourite. Let's call it beautiful thing number 36.

 

I'm finding beauty – are you?

one of the turns in the road to here

I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of the personal story these days.  Not that such thoughts are exactly new – anyone who’s read the stuff on the other pages of this space will know it’s exactly why I develop and deliver courses in writing stories and why I’m here.  But in the past few days I’ve read some stuff by some fellow bloggers who have illustrated again how the personal story can take something – something  so big, so out of control that we feel powerless to understand it, let alone do anything about it – and make it, well, understandable.  The personal story gives you cause to experience something like, say, a tanked economy or a major flood disaster, through the eyes and mind of the storyteller – and through that experience you find a bit of yourself reflecting back. 

Most semesters, I wind up telling my class about a couple of students I had when I worked for a short time in a small private “school” teaching English as a Second Language.  Ronaldo* and Michel* were required to spend six hours a day in this little class because they had been injured on the job and were receiving workers’ compensation benefits.  In order for these benefits to continue, these guys had to be enrolled in a school like this to learn some alternative skills so that they could go on and find different jobs and get off the benefits. 

I can tell you it wasn’t much fun for them.  Michel had been in Canada for more than ten years, Ronaldo more than twenty; both employed in labour jobs since soon after their arrival.  Ronaldo injured his back when he fell down a hole.  He found it difficult to sit in the classroom for six hours a day, and sometimes would take his book to the back of the room and rest it on the top portion of a computer desk so he could stand up during the lesson.  Michel had a repetitive stress injury and suffered substantial pain doing small tasks, like writing and using a computer. 

They would talk about how they’d loved their jobs.  Ronaldo worked in the Public Works department, and he told me he felt such satisfaction when he got ready for work every day.  He loved the physical work, the look and feel of the hardhat on his head and the “good” tired he felt when he got home at night.  Michel had always felt a great sense of pride in that he came over to Canada alone, worked long enough to eventually send for his family, and ultimately start his own business. 

You might, then, imagine how drilling through pages of ESL grammar workbooks every day didn’t mean a whole lot to these guys.  Each was competent, intelligent and hardworking, and would have much preferred to be out working than stuck in a classroom plodding through sentence structures and verbs and tenses and collecting compensation benefits.  They were allowed a few sick days a year, and no vacation.  No vacation.  Collecting worker’s compensation benefits precluded them from the meagre two-week vacation the rest of us are allowed by law.

Knowing that adults have meaningful learning experiences only if they are able to apply what is being taught to their own lives and circumstances, I took every chance I got to apply their personal lives to the lessons.  Thus I heard many stories – about their favourite meals, fishing and camping trips, family gatherings, soccer matches, weddings, boyhood games and the challenges they faced when they first came over to a new culture. 

At the time I was participating in a minor travel writing competition – and it occurred to me that these guys could learn to write English much more effectively if they were writing their own travel stories.  At first they said “NO WAY….I don’t have that kind of education….I can’t write a story….I couldn’t even do that in my home language!”

“Pffft” I said.

I assured them that we would work slowly – sentence by sentence.  Each would prepare an outline and that turned out to be not so bad.  Then they worked one paragraph at a time, present that paragraph on the board, wherein we, as a group, would critique it and make grammatical and spelling corrections.

They were empowered.  They found pleasure in it.  And then magic happened – both Ronaldo and Michel purposefully went after bringing out the beauty in their minds’ images with techniques that were way ahead of their appointed learning schedule, according to those dreaded workbooks, things like metaphor and symbolic language – naturally and without prodding by me.  They closed their eyes, saw the images and put them down on paper.  I’ll never forget those images – Ronaldo’s sand that looked and felt like fine sugar, or Michel’s soft moon hanging heavy over the spruce forest.  Mostly I won’t forget the pleasure of living the stories through them.

The best thing learned was this:  One story, down on paper, meant it belonged out there on the stage with all the others.  And after being sequestered in a small classroom to plod through meaningless grammar lessons as though they were being imprisoned and punished for their chance injuries, these guys managed to turn the language into something that mattered to them. 

I had to leave this job not long after because it just didn’t pay me enough to live on, and I’d found another one that did.  But I’ll never forget Ronaldo and Michal for showing me what I’d sensed all along – that personal stories are not only important documents of the lives of people and their families, but they invite us to look at ourselves and others and find elements of our experiences that are shared.  I suppose that’s the humanity part – there even when we’re seemingly worlds apart.

*Ronaldo and Michel are pseudonyms.