Asymptote for Educators

In Conversation: Cristina Serverius on Teaching and Translation

It is extremely important for education to be rooted in place, and for children to learn about the world through their immediate surroundings.

As a postdoctoral research fellow at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Education, Law, and Society, Cristina Serverius continues her lifelong quest to “understand humans, understand the self, and understand community,” while promoting educational environments that encourage all its participants to thrive. Native to Belgium, she earned an M.Ed in Contemplative Inquiry and Approaches from SFU and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Brown University. Cristina currently works as an educational consultant. Asymptote for Educators Lindsay Semel interviews her about the questions driving her interdisciplinary inquiries and how they manifest in the classroom.

LS: From the perspective of a border-crossing scholar (in terms of discipline, country, and language), can you speak about the extent to which education is or isn’t a field/practice rooted in place? How does your foreignness impact your relationships within the schools?

CS: I think it is extremely important for education to be rooted in place, and for children to learn about the world through their immediate surroundings. We do children (and the environment!) a great disservice by denying them an intimate knowledge of their surroundings in favor of studying the world “at arm’s length,” as physicist Arthur Zajonc calls the learning enforced in many schools, which adhere to a rigid barrier between self and object of study. How are we supposed to learn to care for a neighbor or a local marshland when we are taught in a context of separation; how can we examine the far-away before we explore that which is close by? In Belgium, we call secondary school “humaniora,” a place where one becomes a human. Most schools, for a variety of structural, systemic, and societal reasons, have forgotten their role in this process and have been reduced to places where (a certain kind of) knowledge transfer either happens or, frustratingly, doesn’t happen.

Obviously, when looking at place-based education, we have to consider that places (and the communities that inhabit them) change over time. Place-based education in Belgium, for example, must include exploration of the large Maghrebi communities; the village church and the mosque are both opportunities for place-based learning. As such, it is representative of contemporary society for Canadian schools to have staff who did not attend Canadian elementary or secondary schools, and a great deal of the children attending school now are first-generation Canadians. Bringing in staff who do not have a Canadian background can lay bare and put up for debate some of the things we do “because they’ve always been done this way,” and that can only be healthy for any organization. My (or any other foreigner’s) learning about the school system starts a conversation that necessarily leads to self-reflection for those who have been embedded (in this case) in the Canadian system. Those are wonderful conversations that advance learning for both parties.

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In Conversation: Natasha Wimmer on Teaching Translation

Teaching translation feels like I’ve been lifting weights, and then I go to my own translation and it's like, whoa, these weights are so light!

What does it mean to teach translation? Many translators are self-taught, having honed their skills in careers as writers or editors, academics or language experts. But some universities in the United States also offer seminars in the craft of translation. The teacher-translator, then, takes on the unique challenge of developing new pedagogy for a field in flux, one that exists at the intersection of language study, theory, and the instructor’s own experiences in the creative practice of translation.

Today, translator Natasha Wimmer sits down with her former student and Asymptote Editor-at-Large in Brazil, Lara Norgaard, to discuss her approach to teaching translation. 

Lara Norgaard (LN): How did you begin teaching translation? What made you interested in education?

Natasha Wimmer (NW): Princeton approached me, actually. I had never taught a class. Not only that, but I also only have an undergraduate degree, so I had never even taken a graduate class. I was a little bit nervous about taking the job. A few years later I started at Columbia. In that case, I did a panel discussion with the other Bolaño translator, Chris Andrews, and the department heads enjoyed the discussion, so they asked me to teach.

LN: Was there a particular class you took or text you read that influenced the way you approached teaching for the first time?

NW: I actually imagined the course as the class I wish I’d taken before I became a translator. I had no formal education in translation at all. I had never taken a translation class and, in fact, I hadn’t even read anything about translation until about eight years into my translation career. When I was asked to give a talk about translation, I realized I had avoided reading about translation because I was afraid that I would discover that I had been doing it wrong, or that maybe I would mess with the instinctive approach that had somehow been successful so far. But then I found reading about translation really stimulating. I discovered that, not surprisingly, there was a conversation about the questions I had and about the things that I hadn’t articulated but had been working through as a translator.

I worked really hard the first year I taught the Princeton class. I spent a few months just reading translation theory and translation essays for material that I thought was interesting and put together a reading list. The first semester I taught at Princeton was very experimental. In retrospect, I’m surprised I survived. The format of the class changed a lot from the first year to the second.

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Teach This—Banned Countries Special Feature

Simon Fraser University’s Cristina Serverius on Understanding Identity in Oral Storytelling Traditions

Welcome to Teach This, Asymptote for Educators’ answer to the current issue’s Banned Countries Special Feature. We believe that the classroom is the perfect setting for young people to be exposed to diverse, contemporary voices, both allowing them to challenge their assumptions and to engage them with living literature… a conversation in which their own voices matter. To that end, Asymptote for Educators has launched this weekly blog series in which global educators share how and why they would teach the feature’s articles. We hope you and your students enjoy!

Are you an educator with your own lesson plan ideas? Teach This – Banned Countries Special Feature is currently open for submissions. Email education@asymptotejournal.com for more information.

While the work of Ubah Cristina Ali Farah is always situated between two cultures—Somali and Italian—it provides a point of access for students to learn about oral traditions, because despite the author’s long residencies outside of Somalia, these traditions remain present in her writing. Their ubiquity is testament to the very nature of oral stories, which creep into our lives unannounced and perhaps unnoticed, and travel with us. This is how they survive; this is how we survive.

The activities below focus on Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s use of the Somali oral tradition and the question of personal identity in the context of stories that are passed down and retold, and which have become part of the socio-cultural fabric of our being. Besides offering an introduction to these topics, the lesson provides practice for analysis of a literary text and use of a secondary source to enrich our understanding of literature.

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Teach This—Banned Countries Special Feature

Imagine Dallas’ Amos Hunt on Thematic Analysis through Identifying Choices

Welcome to Teach This, Asymptote for Educators’ answer to the current issue’s Banned Countries Special Feature. We believe that the classroom is the perfect setting for young people to be exposed to diverse, contemporary voices, both allowing them to challenge their assumptions and to engage them with living literature… a conversation in which their own voices matter. To that end, Asymptote for Educators has launched this weekly blog series in which global educators share how and why they would teach the feature’s articles. We hope you and your students enjoy!

Are you an educator with your own lesson plan ideas? Teach This – Banned Countries Special Feature is currently open for submissions. Email education@asymptotejournal.com for more information.

By paraphrasing a poem, we discover other choices the author could have made. If a paraphrase is possible, then the author could have said the same thing a different way. Why did they choose to say it the way they did? When we focus on this question, analyzing the effects of the author’s choices and considering how these choices contribute to the meaning, we get closer to the art of the poem. By doing so, we have the opportunity to recognize that poetry does not divide so evenly into form and content. The poem’s way of saying is essential to what it says.

This lesson plan is a rung on the ladder toward that insight. Pedagogically, we have to draw lines between form and content in order to draw attention to their special interrelationship in poetry.

Course Level: Middle School

Student Objectives:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.2

Determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.4

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone

Materials:

One copy for each student of

A projector or Promethean board

Preparation:

For homework, ask students to read all three poems and complete brief, written paraphrases of their literal content. (This assignment assumes that they have already been trained in literal interpretation of poetry). Encourage students to infer the meanings of words they don’t know from context clues.

Be prepared to divide the students into groups of three or four.

Be prepared to explain the terms jilal (a severe, arid season in Somalia from December to March), tusbax (Islamic prayer beads), guntiino (traditional Somali dress), and jinni (a supernatural creature in Arab and Islamic traditions). Though you have assigned students to infer what they can from context for homework, you should share this information with them as the need arises.

Exercise:

Review of Literal Interpretation (5-10 minutes)

Before discussing the theme, meaning, and tone of a poem, it is important to have a common interpretation of its literal content. Tell the students you’re going to do the same thing together with Edil Hassan’s “Origin Stories” that you’ve practiced before in previous lessons: read it one line or sentence at a time, paraphrasing its direct, surface meaning. They can and should refer to the written work they have done to prepare.

For each line or sentence, ask one student to tell the class what they think it says. Another student paraphrases this reading. As needed, address questions to the class to elicit closer reading. Be clear that no one is entitled to speak to these questions who cannot show that they have listened to what the other students have said. You can even ask them to repeat or paraphrase previous remarks before they speak. This requirement helps to ensure that everyone has the same basic read of the poem and reinforces the understanding that interpretation is a communal activity.

Some difference of opinion is possible, but everyone should at least agree that the speaker is telling the story of how her parents met, and that the afternoon light colors the mother’s skin with the gold of her earrings. (It’s not melting them down her neck; a likely misreading!)

Introduction to Thematic Analysis (5-10 minutes)

Tell the students you’re now going to read the poem again, this time with a new question: not just “what does it say?” but “what is it doing?” Be explicit about the interpretive strategy you are about to demonstrate: you’re going to think about other choices the author could have made, other ways they could have said the same thing, and try to see how the choice they made has a unique effect.

Read “Origin Stories.” As you read the title, and each line or sentence, stop to point out to the students the choices the author has made and to briefly consider them. (e.g., why not “How My Parents Met?” How does the allusion to superhero stories tell us what to expect?) Keep each choice and its effects in mind as you analyze the next choice, and reach a conclusion about what the poem is doing as a whole.

It may be helpful to use a graphical organizer to represent the choices and their effects. For example, in a table, you can list interesting choices in one column, and analyze their effects in a second column. (Variant: an additional column with the heading “Alternatives,” presenting other choices the author could have made, can help to highlight the choice as a choice.)

In this part of the lesson, do not allow the children to interject or ask questions until the end. Just politely ignore all those eager raised hands.

Check for Understanding (5 minutes)

Ask a volunteer to explain the meaning of the poem and the theme to the class. Encourage them to use the choices identified earlier to support their interpretation of the theme. If they make an error in literal interpretation, do not correct them but ask questions based on the text. If they present a thematic analysis different from yours, encourage this exploration.

On the other hand, if other students want to help the volunteer, this should be permitted.

Don’t allow this segment to continue for too long.

Small Group Practice (25 minutes)

Tell the children that they will repeat the same exercise in small groups of three or four, with the longer poem “The Drought.”

Each group should work through the poem to identify decisions made by the author, and analyze the effects of those decisions. If you demonstrated a graphical organizer for this process, they should use a similar organizer. You don’t need to hand it out. It’s better if they draw it up themselves.

Tour the classroom, checking in with each group. If students are struggling to analyze a particular choice, ask them to compare it to the alternatives. What difference does it make?

Independent Practice (in-class or homework)

Ask the children to read Omar Youssef Souleimane’s “In the Foreign Land,” and write two or three paragraphs addressing the following prompt:

What is the tone of this poem? What effect does that tone have on the way we read the poem? What choices does Souleimane make to create this tone? Refer to particular lines, describing the effect of the word choices.

Teacher Follow-Up

You can continue the discussion of student analyses by having representatives of each discussion group report their results and allowing other students to pose questions and comments about any of the poems. Encourage students to support their conclusions by providing textual evidence.

Students may wish to respond to each other’s analyses of “In the Foreign Land.” You can act as a facilitator in this discussion and avoid interfering too heavily, except to insist, that the students demonstrate diligent attention to each other.

 

Amos J. Hunt‘s mission in life is to cultivate a discerning mainstream readership for poetry. As the founder and executive director of Imagine Dallas Literary Arts [imaginedallas.org], he designs and delivers in-class poetry appreciation tutorials for public schools in Dallas County. He also edits the literary magazine Grub Street Grackle [grubstreetgrackle.com].

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Asymptote for Educators wants to see your students’ creations! Submit them to education@asymptotejournal.com for the opportunity have them published in a follow-up to this blog post.

Teach This—Banned Countries Special Feature

UT Arlington’s Gabe Mamola on The Meta-Poem

Welcome to Teach This, Asymptote for Educators’ answer to the current issue’s Banned Countries Special Feature. We believe that the classroom is the perfect setting for young people to be exposed to diverse, contemporary voices, both allowing them to challenge their assumptions and to engage them with living literature… a conversation in which their own voices matter. To that end, Asymptote for Educators has launched this weekly blog series in which global educators share how and why they would teach the feature’s articles. We hope you and your students enjoy!

Are you an educator with your own lesson plan ideas? Teach This – Banned Countries Special Feature is currently open for submissions. Email education@asymptotejournal.com for more information.

Technology is changing the way we think about information. We not only collect data, but we collect data about that data, i.e. meta-data. By thinking about the patterns, concerns, images and word choices that we find not only in one poem but across several, we can use the language of information technology and meta-data as an intriguing and topical portal through which to access poetry. What does poetry or a poem become when we subject it to the kinds of processes we use to organize other kinds of data? Do we learn more about the poets or poems by comparing them to other poets and poems in this way? And what (if anything) is lost when we do so?

Underlying these questions is the more fundamental fact that all our thinking and talking and writing about poetry is itself a kind of meta poem: a new thing we construct with our insights, our speculations, our assumptions, and yes, the words and contexts of the poems. This exercise is an attempt to make this fact clear and accessible to students in a way that also touches on our current digital concerns about anonymity, technology, and data.

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