That’s Milton’s Sonnet 23 performed by Ian Richardson. When Michelle Kerr showed this clip to her humanities class, a bunch of ninth graders, some of whom can’t read past a fifth grade level, she was stunned:
When [Richardson’s] voice faded away, I opened my mouth to instruct them to write their response….and then closed it again. The kids were just sitting there, stunned.
A good twenty seconds passed before Luke spoke. “Holy crap. That was…..”
“Sad,” Sadie finished.
“Devastating,” Melissa added.
“Tragic,” said Kylie.
“Beautiful,” from Narciso.
“I’m depressed,” said Frank, in astonishment. And….
“Play it again,” said Daniel. The class murmured assent.
I played it again. When it was over, twenty-three heads bent down to write. Many students struggled to tell me that yes, the poem was sad, but that wasn’t the point. What mattered, to each of them, was they got it. They understood suddenly how loss can be so crippling that the dream of its return, the mere memory of happiness, can “bring back the ‘night’ of grief during ‘day’,” as one of my strongest students wrote, when the respite of the dream ends. I still remember another student’s sentence: “Being happy in your dream only makes pain worse.”
And then I told them that Milton was blind.
“Auggghh,” said Annie , holding her head. “So he was dreaming of two losses that came back to him.”
“…and then left. Again,” Armando finished.
The comments came fairly quickly; I jumped in a few times to define “paradox” and point out that the “day” brought back at least two “nights”–that of grief, and that of sightlessness, but for the most part the kids carried the conversational load on that poem for 10 minutes.
I always think of those minutes as the miracle.
Read her entire post. If it simply stopped at the recollection of this classroom moment, it would be worth your time. But Kerr uses it to launch a terrific rant against the mentality behind the way we educate kids today. Here’s a portion of it:
Yet not a second of that moment had anything to do with test scores, with measurable academic outcomes, with improved reading ability, or the correct spelling of “wife” or “grief.”
Do truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks need to write compare and contrast essays on sonnets? Probably not. But surely, at some point in the past, our educational system gave truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks a sense of the beauty of the world, our heritage, the history of our country–and, ideally, the ability to spell “wife” and “grief.”
Today, our educational system has no interest in truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks. All students must perform as if they are college bound. Since most of them can’t perform at that level, regardless of their desires, teachers must spend all their time getting as many students as possible close enough to understanding to fake it on a multiple choice question, to get those test scores as high as possible, even knowing that many students will never gain a real understanding of the demanded material. We can’t teach them what they need to know, and we can’t spare any time to give them knowledge they might find actually interesting, or experiences they can enjoy without forcing them to process it into analysis.
Implicit in the expectations for all students is the belief that truck drivers, manicurists, retail clerks, fire fighters, and all other occupations that aren’t driven by intellect, simply aren’t good enough. They don’t matter. These aren’t lives that might benefit from beauty or poetry, an opinion about the Bill of Rights or, hell, even an understanding of why you should always switch if Monty Hall gives you the option.
You will benefit greatly by reading the whole thing. After this, it’s hard not to get mad over the way we process kids through the system. Thanks, reader Jen, for sending me the link.