Teaching Jane Johnston Schoolcraft

This fall, I’m teaching an upper-level literature course on nineteenth century American women writers. It’s a big class, full of mostly English and Gender Studies majors and minors. This is the second time I’ve taught this course, but the first time I’ve included Ojibwe poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft.

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(Note: in the 19th century, the Ojibwe people were variously known as Chippewa, Ojibwe, and Anishinaabe. Anishinaabe is the name that is most in use now. Schoolcraft used the name “Ojibwe” to describe herself, so, following scholar Robert Dale Parker, that’s the word I’ll use too.)

Born in 1802, Schoolcraft (whose Ojibwe name was Bamewawagezhikaquay, or “Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing through the Sky”) was one of a large métis (French for “mixed”) population in her hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, located on the border of the Michigan Territory and Canada. The daughter of an Irish immigrant and an Ojibwe mother; a bilingual speaker and poet; the métis wife of a white man, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the first U.S. Indian Agent in the Michigan territory; highly educated and among Sault Ste. Marie’s social elite; possessing both Romantic and Ojibwe sensibilities; married to another literary writer but not publishing in her lifetime; writing within the poetic conventions of her time—Schoolcraft is a complex figure, and because of this I thought she’d be a great writer to begin the course. I wanted to get students thinking immediately about nineteenth century women as not easily categorized, to get them used to holding contradictions and complexities in their minds without trying to oversimplify these women’s lives or their art.

sound the stars make

Robert Dale Parker’s excellent scholarly edition of Schoolcraft will give you everything you need to get going with this poet: a thorough and engaging introduction to her life and work; all of her known poems and prose; and extremely helpful notes on each poem that detail, as best as can be known, when it was written, in whose handwriting (Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s or Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s) it was found, whether it is a translation, and if so, if it was translated by Jane or by Henry. Often, it’s not clear who wrote or translated what (something Parker does not gloss over but lets be, in all of its complexity).

I asked students to read all of the poems from the Parker edition for the next class period (but to focus on a handful of poems I wanted to make sure to cover in class discussion). Each day, I asked students to reread all the poems while focusing particularly on the poems we’d be discussing in class.

A three-day Schoolcraft plan

I had three days for Schoolcraft, though I wanted more. (Our terms are ten weeks long at my school, so pretty much every writer gets about three days, unless they’ve written an exceptionally long novel—looking at you, Harriet Beecher Stowe.) I tried some different strategies each day to shake things up—and also, since it was the start of the term, so students could quickly get used to the kinds of things I like to do in my courses. This term, I’m ditching the short weekly papers I usually assign in favor of daily informal writing: one or two paragraphs due each class (done mostly outside of class, but sometimes in class) which I am hoping are low-stakes enough to encourage students to play around more, make more of a mess, and take more risks with their ideas. In addition to daily writing, we are using a variety of multimedia, looking at other 19th c. texts and visual materials to provide context, and diving into literary criticism.

Day 1: The Way In

Writing focus: Personal response

Thematic focus: Nature

Poems discussed: “To the Pine,” “To the Miscodeed,” “On the Doric Rock, Lake Superior,” “Pensive Hours”

It makes sense to me to do a more personal writing assignment on the first day of a new writer, particularly with nineteenth century poetry, which may at first feel old-fashioned and off-putting to even the perkiest English major. I think it’s good to encourage students that any way into the poems they can find is a good way in, and that they don’t need to be intimidated by this poetry.

On the first day of class (the syllabus-introductions day), toward the end, I put the names of four Schoolcraft poems—none of which the students had read yet—on the board and asked students to choose one. Then I asked them a few simple questions, which I adapted from an exercise by Lynn Hammond that I first found in the always useful Engaging Ideas, by John Bean:

  • Why did you choose this title over the other ones?
  • What in this title would draw you into the poem—would make you want to read it? (Or conversely, is there anything in this title that causes resistance or makes you not want to read this poem?)
  • Based on the title of the poem, what do you expect this poem to be about?

From here, I told students to keep what they had written and, for next time, to write about whether their expectations were met once they actually read the poem in question.

I learned that for many students, familiar nature imagery (pine trees) was the draw, although a few brave students made their choice based on their lack of familiarity with title words (like the miscodeed flower, also called “spring beauty”). Other students chose a poem set on Lake Superior because we are in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula isn’t that far away from us. Many students were surprised at what “miscodeed” was (they guessed all kinds of things). Others were comforted by the simple fact that Schoolcraft felt such a connection to pine trees (as one student said, “I have a thing for pine trees”).

spring-beauty-splash

This first day on Schoolcraft, we talked about her as a Romantic poet and a nature poet, as well as how her métis identity and geographical region may have influenced her writing. I supplemented this lecture with lots of visuals: pictures of the miscodeed flower, 19th century maps of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and photos of Lake Superior so students could get a visual sense of Schoolcraft’s relation to place.

doric rock

Day 2: Form, Genre, Contexts

Writing focus: Annotation

Thematic focus: Motherhood

Formal focus: Elegy, child elegy

Poems discussed: “Elegy: On the death of my Son William Henry, at St. Mary’s,” “Sonnet,” “To my ever beloved and lamented son William Henry,” “Sweet Willy”

Our second day on Schoolcraft, we discussed her wrenching child elegies, written after the death of her oldest child, William Henry, from croup at the age of two. I wanted students to really dig into the poems’ formal qualities, so the informal writing assignment due in advance of this class was an annotation. Since Megan Ciesla has recently discussed annotation in detail on this site, I won’t say much more about this except try it—it’s old school, and that’s part of the fun for students. I, too, asked students to do the annotation by hand (either in their books or on a photocopy of a page if they don’t want to write in the book) and then take a photo and upload it. I printed them all out (speaking of old school) and then graded them by hand (my usual practice). There’s something really interesting in seeing where students will go when they’re not typing and not thinking “Essay! Must write essay!” I found that most of them uncovered much, much more about the poems’ formal qualities than they might have mentioned if I had had them write a few paragraphs of analysis instead. There was no opportunity for summary, so they had to jump right in and analyze.

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To give students context during class, I put up slides of other poets’ poems from the period: Lydia Sigourney’s “To a Dying Infant,” which allowed us to talk more about the child elegy genre of the period; and Ann Taylor’s “My Mother,” a poem that directly influenced the form of Schoolcraft’s poem “To my ever beloved and lamented Son William Henry.” Because students had thought so much about the craft of the poems in their annotations, they were better able to make connections between stylistic commonalities: similar imagery in Sigourney and Schoolcraft, for example, or similar use of refrains and questions in Taylor and Schoolcraft.

taylor my mother
Courtesy of Florida State University’s Special Collections and Archives blog

Day 3: Criticism, revision, and translation

Writing focus: Taking a position

Thematic focus: Identity, authenticity, ownership

Poems discussed: “Invocation,” “The Contrast,” “Song of the Okogis, or Frogs in Spring,” “On leaving my children John and Jane at School”

Like Corinna Cook, I also assign critical works in class, and I also have students in charge of leading class discussion on those critical works. In the past, these sessions have really fallen flat, but I was trusting to the power of daily informal writing to help us along this time around. Because the discussion-leading group would be outlining the larger points of the article with us, I decided to focus the informal writing assignment a bit more tightly. For this class, I asked students to choose one small point from the article they read (Bethany Schneider’s “Not for Citation: Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s Synchronic Strategies”) and to make one of these argumentative moves with it: to say “No,” to say “Yes,” or to say “Maybe, but” (which I am again stealing from Bean! Y’all see what I was rereading this summer). Students then had to write 1-2 paragraphs explaining their response.

This article proved extremely difficult for students (it’s quite dense and complex), but that didn’t prove a deterrent to class discussion. I was surprised and thrilled that our class discussion on this article lasted nearly the whole class long (I had only budgeted for half the class, but students had so much to say that we just went with it). This is a big change from how these article discussions have gone in the past, and I attribute this directly to the targeted informal writing I had students do. They had taken a position on the article and they were ready to share those positions!

Much of Schneider’s article asks readers to consider the interplay between Schoolcraft’s poetry and the writing of others, whether that be husband’s translations of her poems, her own allusions to Romantic poets like Shelley and Keats, or her response to the language of letters she received from acquaintances. So the poems selected for this class were in multiple versions: multiple English versions all written by Schoolcraft; poems Schoolcraft wrote in Ojibwe and translated into English; poems Schoolcraft wrote in Ojibwe that were translated by others. It’s not always clear, as Parker makes evident in his wonderful notes and introduction, when an English translation is Jane’s and when it is Henry’s. Our discussion, then, revolved around what we perceive as “authentic,” which typically also involved questions of identity (i.e. how do we “read” Schoolcraft as a person, and how does this affect the way we read her poems? how do we read a Schoolcraft poem if we’re not totally sure she wrote or translated it?).

We spent a long time on the poem “On leaving my children John and Jane at School,” discussing (as Schneider also does) the differences between the three versions that are provided in Parker’s edition of Schoolcraft: Schoolcraft’s Ojibwe version, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s “free” English translation, or a contemporary translation by Dennis Jones, Heidi Stark, and James Vukelich. This is a perfect poem to talk about translation and authenticity. How does seeing these three versions on the page next to one another force us to compare versions and ultimately color our readings of all three versions? Do we believe that the literal version by modern scholars is the one Schoolcraft herself would have made had she chosen to translate this poem into English? Would Schoolcraft’s version have looked more like Henry’s, strictly rhymed and metered and adhering to the conventions of early 19th century poetry—since this is how she writes all of the rest of her English language poetry? Or is there something important (we thought that there was) about the fact that Schoolcraft never translated this particular poem into English?

To end our session on Schoolcraft, I played a recording of Margaret Noodin, an Anishinaabe poet and scholar who is the founder of ojibwe.net (an Anishinaabe language site with recordings of Anishinaabe songs and poems—an amazing resource), singing the Ojibwe version of “On leaving my children John and Jane at School.” Although no one in the class speaks Anishinaabe, we agreed that we were all moved by the beauty of the song. I liked ending the section on Schoolcraft in this way, with an acknowledgment that with any writer we read this term, there will be things we can’t access and can’t understand—but that makes these writers from another time more interesting, not less.

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Using Multimedia in Teaching Contemporary Black Women Poets

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Poet Nikky Finney

This term, I have been teaching a new course on contemporary Black women poets. I developed my course as an intervention in a literary canon (and a college course catalog) where Black women are under-represented—perhaps particularly Black women poets, and definitely contemporary Black women poets. I also selfishly wanted to teach a course in which I could teach some of my favorite books. Most of all, I wanted students to get a sense of what Black women are writing about now, and how they’re writing about it. Because of this, I wanted the class to be very contemporary—so instead of beginning with the Black Arts Movement and going forward, as I think many classes like this would do, I decided to impose a ten-year radius on the books I chose for class. Thus the books we read could not have been published before 2007. I reasoned that that students could learn about the Black Arts Movement in another class, but might not have another chance to read, say, Ashley Jones’s 2017 collection Magic City Gospel. In limiting the books in this way, I wanted to explore a couple of questions: What does our current poetic moment have to say to our cultural and political moment? How do issues of subject and form and language in poets intersect with issues of gender and race now, rather than 20 or 30 or 40 years ago? These are a couple of questions we have been exploring this term.

Here are the books I ended up teaching (in this order) in our ten-week course:

  • Monica Hand, me & nina (2010)
  • Natasha Trethewey, Thrall (2012)
  • Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus (2015)
  • Erica Dawson, The Small Blades Hurt (2014)
  • Ashley Jones, Magic City Gospel (2017)
  • Patricia Smith, Blood Dazzler (2008)
  • Nikky Finney, Head Off & Split (2011)
  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen (2014)
  • t’ai freedom ford, how to get over (2017)

(My original list of possible books for the course had about twenty more books on it! Let me know in the comments section if you’d like me to send you this list. This list represents a great deal of formal variety, which is the main reason I chose this particular slate of poets. There are also some other great choices here and here.)

A class like this is so different from the nineteenth century American literature courses I often teach. In those courses, our interactions with the authors are literary-critical and archival. There are established critical lenses we can look through, but what we can know about the writers themselves is limited to their works and to the archives they left behind (or didn’t, in many cases). In a course on contemporary poets, however, I knew that while our biggest challenge would be finding good critical sources, given that the work is so new, we would also have particular opportunities. We would be able to find resources that would give us the poets themselves, speaking aloud to us, reading their poems to us, and in some cases even directly answering our questions! It seemed a foregone conclusion to me that I would be making great use of multimedia in the classroom.

Video

Discussions of Black women’s invisibility have permeated the classroom all term long. I knew it would be powerful for all of my students, particularly my female students of color, not just to read but to see and hear Black women poets, so with this in mind, as I put the class together, I knew I wanted to emphasize the poets’ performance of their own poems. (An even more excellent idea, which I have not yet tried, is Howard Rambsy II’s idea about using the poets’ performances as primary texts! Thanks to fellow PALS blogger Shelli Homer for sharing Rambsy’s blog with me.). One thing poets take for granted (but that students may not always consider) is that the performance of our poems is important. Performance adds a layer of meaning to the poems printed on pages. Using video resources, then, is an obvious choice for a class on contemporary poets.

For example, as our class read Natasha Trethewey’s stunning poem “Miracle of the Black Leg,” from Thrall, we did not fully tap into the rage undergirding it until we watched this video of Trethewey reading the poem at Rutgers University:

After playing the videos, I would ask questions like, “What nuances did the poet bring out in the poem as she read it? What words did she emphasize? Where did she grow louder or softer, faster or slower? Where did you notice rhymes or changes in rhythm? What new things did you notice in the poem that you didn’t notice before? What surprised you about her reading of this poem?”

While most of what you will find online are videos of poets giving readings, you might also find, in some instances, poets who have created art videos of their poems. Claudia Rankine is the best example of this, since her “Situations” videos (collaborations with her husband, filmmaker John Lucas) are all available on her website. These are easy to find, but in my experience, students don’t go looking for them, so they are an excellent resource to bring into the class. Students who had imagined Claudia Rankine’s voice as loud (one student said, “I imagined her giving a spoken-word poetry delivery until we watched the video”) were surprised by her calm, even, and therefore exceptionally chilling delivery in the video for the poem “Stop-and-Frisk” from Citizen. (Go to “Situations” and choose #6 for the full video.)

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Poet Claudia Rankine

This video is one among many videos in which Rankine reads sections from Citizen and other works but does not appear in the video herself. The videos are, however, all intimately tied to the text of the poems. Watching these videos allowed us to go from a discussion of the poem’s text to a discussion of the many ways Citizen demands a discussion of how words and images interact.

I was able to find videos online of all of the poets on the syllabus giving readings, and I incorporated these videos into my daily lesson plans. Students were also responsible for leading discussions in pairs, and I was gratified to see that nearly all of them incorporated videos of the poets reading into their discussion-leading sessions.

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Poet t’ai freedom ford
Audio

Although students love having something to look at, don’t discount audio. There are some excellent poetry audio resources online. More and more poets are posting sound files of themselves reading poems on their websites. I’ll be playing some audio of t’ai freedom ford reading from her book how to get over in class this week, and since there’s no video, it will force the class to really focus on the words and the words only.

You might find other interesting audio online if you dig around. For example, when teaching Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, I found a 50-minute craft talk called “Boarding the Voyage.” In it, Lewis discusses her process in creating the long, experimental title poem.

I assigned this as homework one day, asking students to take notes as they listened and to come to class with a quotation from the craft talk they wanted to discuss, as well as the time at which the quotation occurred (so it would be easy for me to go to different spots in the lecture). They also had to tie the quotation from the craft talk to a part of the title poem. Students put the quotations and times on the board (there was definitely some overlap), we listened to the relevant portions, and then students would point us to portions in the poem they wanted to discuss.

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Poet Robin Coste Lewis

The transcript of this is not available online; audio is the only format available. This is a good thing, even though it means as an instructor I had to listen to the craft talk three times, stopping many times to take notes, to be able to teach it. While this was time-consuming, it was also powerful. Lewis’s lyrical reading style mesmerized us as a class, making her words that much more powerful. Also, because we had to take notes on the talk, we listened much more carefully than we would’ve otherwise—always a good skill to work on.

Keep on the lookout for audio in unexpected places, too. One of my students, a classical musician, had recently attended a concert by a capella group Roomful of Teeth, which features an adaptation of Rankine’s “Stop-and-Frisk.” (Scroll down to listen to “You Are Not the Guy.”) This student shared this recording with the class when she led discussion on Citizen. None of us were prepared for our reaction to the music (I won’t spoil it for you), and we had a great discussion about how setting a poem to music can radically affect our experience of a poem.

Skype

In teaching this course, I wanted the students to have as much interaction with the poets as possible, but my budget only allowed me to bring one poet to campus for a reading. This is what Skype is for. I scheduled a Skype session with poet Erica Dawson, whose book The Small Blades Hurt we read in class. I know Erica, so it was easy for me to set this up, but even if you don’t know any poets personally, you can still make this happen.

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Poet Erica Dawson

If you’re teaching contemporary poets, you can always reach out to the poet via social media or a contact form on their websites (most poets are reachable by one or another of these avenues) and ask them to Skype with your class. If you have a tiny budget for poetry readings, you could offer a small honorarium for this. I always pay the poets a little bit for their time, but if you don’t have the budget for that you could ask anyway and see what they say. (Especially if you know the poet, or know someone who knows the poet.) There are three keys to a successful Skype: either 1) ask poets you know; 2) ask a poet who is a friend of a friend (and get the friend to help you set this up); or 3) ask younger or less famous poets who would have more time than, say, Claudia Rankine or Natasha Trethewey, and who would really appreciate the publicity. If you teach in a department with creative writers, use them as a resource to help you find poets!

I found a good way to structure the Skype was to do a brief reading plus questions. I asked Erica to read a couple of poems (I gave her the choice of what she wanted to read, but then she chose to take student requests, so the class voted on two poems for her to read). I also asked students to choose, close read, annotate, and prepare a question for Erica about a particular poem from The Small Blades Hurt. (I had students turn these in to me to ensure they did them!) This made discussion quite lively. This advanced preparation is key for a Skype session, I think, as otherwise there might be a lot of long, painful silences—boring for the poet and not helpful to the class, either!

Twitter

Now, I’m not on Twitter (or actually any social media), but of course my students are. In one class discussion about a Patricia Smith poem from Blood Dazzler, the class could not decide who the speaker of the poem was. We debated for about twenty minutes. Then finally one student asked, “Can I get out my phone and see if she’s on Twitter? And then just tweet her the question if she is?” I thought, why not? To our surprise, Smith responded to the tweet a few days later, confirming one of the three possible speakers we had been debating. The class loved this informal interaction with a famous poet, and it was a nice moment (since their research papers will be due soon) for me to reiterate that when you’re working with living poets, you have to get creative with tracking down information.

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Poet Patricia Smith
. . . or a good old-fashioned poetry reading

The last type of multimedia I’m advocating may not seem like media at all . . . although it’s the oldest poetry medium around, that of an oral reading. It’s where poetry began! There’s no substitute for the electricity generated in the room when a poet steps up to the mic and begins reading her work. This obviously requires a lot of planning ahead (I booked Ashley Jones a year in advance), but if this is financially possible for your department to arrange, I would highly recommend it.

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Poet Ashley M. Jones

If you are a creative writer, you may run a reading series yourself, as I do on my campus, or you may at least have a hand in planning each year’s roster of readers. If so, reach out to your literature colleagues as you plan, letting them know what poets you are considering (and who knows, they also might have ideas about poets for you to consider), as they might be interested in teaching these poets in their own classes. (For example, a couple of years ago, I brought poet John Murillo to campus. I taught his book Up Jump the Boogie in my creative writing class, and my colleague taught his book in his literary analysis class.) This kind of overlap is great because it exposes more students to the work of contemporary poets, and it also ensures a good turnout for the reading!

If you are not involved in scheduling poetry readings on your campus, find out from the creative writers in your department if there is a budget for bringing poets to campus, and if so, see if they would like to collaborate. Perhaps they have their reading list set for who they’re bringing to campus next year—perhaps there’s a poet on their list who would be perfect for a class you’re teaching. Alternately, perhaps they would be open to hearing from you about which poet(s) you might like to bring to campus. See if there might be room for a visiting poet to visit your literature class. I brought Ashley Jones to campus to work with both my creative writing class and this literature class on Black women poets I have been discussing in this post. Both sets of students flipped out when Ashley Jones came to class—there’s no other way to put it.

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I have loved teaching this class, and I can tell that really seeing these poets has been meaningful to my students. You can of course use any or all of these approaches when teaching any contemporary poets—not just Black women poets. If you teach any of these poets or try any of these tricks, let me know how it goes!

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This blog post is written in loving memory of my friend, the amazing poet Monica Hand.