Reading · Teaching

Skirnir the Wordsmith

There’s a myth in the Poetic Edda, the collection of the oldest Norse myths, where the fertility god Freyr falls in love with the giantess Gerd. He sees her when he sneaks in to Odin’s throne, Hlidskialf, from which Odin can see what’s going on in all the Nine Worlds.
It is not Freyr’s chair.  Sitting in it when Odin is absent is akin to the myths where Cupid sneaks in to Jove’s throne; it is a usurpation of authority.  Freyr is immediately punished by seeing the shiny-bright arms of Gerd, a giantess, and falling immediately in love. I’m not kidding.  He seems to fall in love with her arms.
But before we judge him too harshly for his improper use of authority, his lame fixation on shiny arms, or his layabout sullenness that causes his parents to send a buddy to intervene, we need to remember that this is mythic land, and having Freyr fall in love with someone whose name means (and who therefore really is) the Earth, can only go well for us on Midgard. If the god of fertility loves the earth, we all benefit.
So it’s an old myth. Really old. It’s written in a dramatic dialogue format, so maybe it was performed as part of the rites of spring. If that’s the case, Freyr misbehaving is cosmically good, like Hades stealing Persephone works out for humanity.
But this is not ancient Greece. Here there be giants.
Freyr is mooning. He’s sulky and crabby, and his parents don’t know what to do with him. They enlist Freyr’s friend to go talk some sense in to him. Skirnir, Freyr’s friend, offers to help him, and Freyr confides his love in the most dramatic of terms—no one has ever loved anyone as much as he loves Gerd. He’s so cute; he doesn’t know he sounds like every other smitten boy in the world.
Skirnir knows, though, and he seizes the opportunity. For the low-low price of Freyr’s magic sword that shines like fire and fights on its own, he’ll go “win” Gerd for him. Desperate Freyr agrees quickly.
Gerd, however, doesn’t.
She doesn’t need money or want fame, which are the first offers Skirnir tries. He has to change tactics. He pretends to curse her, by carving runes on a stick.  I love this part. (Not because I’m for coercing women in to marrying their enemies, but because of the explosive image of that rune stick.)
Skirnir claims to carve runes that will become her future, filled with images of shame and suffering.  She’ll be a guardian of Hel; only a three-headed giant will be her mate, yada yada yada–he claims to know how to effect this future by writing it. If he carves it, it will be.
This leads in to unpacking the image of the rune.  Old Norse runes were very angular.  They could be carved easily on a stick, and they could be discerned from sticks cast on the ground like pick-up sticks.  (Does anyone still play pick-up sticks?) The modern German word for “letter” of the alphabet bears witness to this: Buchstabe means literally (ha!) “beech staves.” Buch gives us beech and book, and the sticks that are cast or carved become letters.  Those letters can be combined to form words of power.
In the end, Gerd agrees to marry Freyr. Their union is a mythic promise, that the earth will be fertile always because it is loved by and bound to fertility itself. In this case (not unlike Persephone’s marriage) the end seems to justify the means. Gerd is coerced, but she is not unhappy in her marriage. And humanity gets two boons—a fertile, blessed earth and an understanding of the power of well-wrought words. After all, the title of the myth is not “Freyr and Gerd’s Fantastic Love Story.” It’s called “Skirnir’s Song.”

Teaching Reading and Feeling Groovy, I mean, Grateful

I teach in a university department that includes English and Modern Languages, and this is my grateful blog.
I am grateful that I have colleagues in modern languages, and that multiple languages are spoken and taught all around me. I am grateful that the English part of that department includes people who self-identify as Literature people, Rhetoricians, Composition people, and Linguists. Lots of schools have separated those fields in to different departments, and I feel very lucky to have us all together.
The result is that our current curriculum produces very well-rounded English majors; we even called them Linguistic samurai at one point. Our goals (which we articulated carefully as we began to assess whether or not we were meeting them) were to graduate students who read critically and aesthetically, with good attention to context, history, and language, but also who write effectively and powerfully, and who have a good understanding of English and at least one other language.
We value all these skills and attributes, and we think they are interrelated and synergistic.
But I was having a conversation today with a colleague who is a rhetorician, and we talked about different angles we take from our subfields, all sort of aiming at the same broad list of skills. I teach with a primary goal of improving students’ reading, and he teaches with the primary goal of improving their writing. (Some of this is very fuzzy, as he has a literature background, and I have a linguistics background, but it mostly holds.)
When I say I teach reading, though, it’s, shall we say, multivalent. I teach medieval (and older) literature, so sometimes I’m teaching students how to decode older forms of English: “Whan that Aprille, with his shoures soote,/ the droghte of March hath perced to the roote,” for instance. I’m literally helping students to translate Middle English, so to read in the most basic, meaning-making function.
I also help them read aloud, as performance, and that is a different set of skills–one that depends on them knowing the meaning of everything they are reading. I have them memorize and recite in some classes, and perform dramatic readings in others. This all counts as reading, even if it’s lower on the cognitive scale than other ways of reading.
When I teach reading, I also mean that I help students see the context of where a text was written, and how much that matters to the text. If we understand the context in which a text was written, we can understand it more completely and judge it on its own terms, not just ours. So I teach history, culture, the odd bit of archaeology, and some language study (mostly in the form of recognizing cognate words from other languages and understanding the development of English). All of that contributes to reading well and to transferring those skills to other books after my classes are over. I want students to leave feeling nothing is beyond their reach, or too hard/too old/too foreign to read.
I also want them to read critically and to read aesthetically. That is, I want them to be able to think about a text, explain and articulate what they get out of it, and–I think most importantly–to appreciate and enjoy texts that are foreign-sounding or off-putting at first. It matters very much to me that we learn to see the beauty in things we don’t immediately understand; that we appreciate the humor and experience the wonder of texts from cultures remote from ours in place or time.
I think good reading leads to good citizenship and rich lives, and I teach with an eye to finding connections between texts, times, cultures, and people. And I am grateful for books to read, students to read them with, and colleagues to complete their Linguistic Samurai training.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

How to Hook a Reader, and How Not to: The Fault in Our ARs

This is the second of two blogs on external reading incentive programs and why I think they can’t help but fail, sometimes causing damage as they do. AR is the acronym for Accelerated Reader, the program at use in my kids’ public schools in Los Angeles county, and the beast I fought on the way to raising readers.

There are lots of problems with reading incentive programs, and I addressed my big, philosophical problems three weeks ago: I think the system can be gamed, and if it isn’t, it can do more damage by training kids to read superficially. In this installation I raise some AR-specific (and possibly district-specific) gripes that my kids had to work around.

One problem with AR is that it depends on levels of reading, and when a child’s reading level is established, at least in our schools, kids were unable to read outside of their range. I have trouble with pigeon-holing kids in to levels in the first place, but if it means they are actively discouraged from reading widely, I think it’s doubly awful. 

What gets and keeps kids reading is letting them choose what they want to read, and if you tell them they can’t read something above or below their reading level, two bad things happen. First they lose the benefits of “comfort-reading,” where they read easy stuff that they just enjoy, and second, they are discouraged from really challenging themselves. Sometimes kids are interested in books beyond their ability, and telling them they can’t read them might mean losing a critical moment when they could have fed a passion. Kids learn by reading demanding texts, and if they choose something way beyond their ability, the higher road is to help them through it, rather than tell them it’s too hard for them.

The other loss from limiting kids’ reading choices is that they can’t always read what their friends are reading. This is a huge loss. Kids come in every day talking about what they saw on television or at the movies, and they love to talk to their friends about it. But if they happen to test in to a level way above or way below their friends, they will never be able to talk about the books they have read. We know as adults we love talking about books we’ve read—book clubs are popping up everywhere—but we deny kids that pleasure when we limit the books they can choose to read.

So much is at stake when our kids learn to read. If they love it, they do better in all their coursework. If they love it, they have a lifetime of cheap entertainment and an opportunity to grow continually as they read throughout their lives. If they dread it, they can struggle academically and psychologically. 

Why, then, don’t we do what we know works? Let them choose what they want to read? The short answer is time. Teachers with wide gaps between kids’ skills don’t have time to meet every child where they are and move them gently forward—would that they did. For instance, when my daughter was in 3rd grade, kids in her class were testing at kindergarten to 12th grade reading levels, while all the text books were at third grade level. That means some kids are bored, and some are lost and struggling every single day. (Another answer to that question is that reading programs and other testing companies are BIG business, but I am not that cynical today.)

In the absence of a private tutor, then, a kid needs someone—a parent, a librarian, a friend, just some grown-up who can discuss the books the child reads. Someone needs to listen to what they like, make suggestions for appropriate books, and discuss them afterward. They need to check if the book was too difficult, too scary, too mature, or just right, and follow up with another book.That’s how you hook a reader—show them something amazing, and then tell them there is more… lots more. (If that person could read some aloud, that would be even better, but that is a different blog.)

Ultimately, of course, every kid is different. That’s why they need different books along the way to becoming book worms. We just all need to pitch in; we can’t dump this responsibility solely on teachers. We can all help, putting the right books in to kids’ hands at the right time. That’s a sure-fire way to change the world.

Beginning the Mabinogion Again

This is an excerpt from a new project I’m working on–a reworking of the Welsh Mabinogion.  It’s just a bit–just because I’m swamped this week and need to use something here that already exists.  I hope you enjoy it; I’m having a blast.

Chapter 1: The Hunt Gone Wrong
Sometimes a hunt is nothing but sweat and dirt and waiting. Not this time. Pwyll’s heart beat in time with his horses’ pounding hooves, and the trail was hot. He was chasing a stag, fast and sleek, and instinctively elusive. But this one wouldn’t get away. This one was white, and stood out in the dark leaves like a beacon, luring his dogs on in to the woods. When something leads you like that, you follow, and you ask questions later.
In and out of trees, the stag seemed to flow like a river, without stumbling or snagging a single branch.  Later he might reflect on that and find it odd, but not in the moment.
Adrenaline pumping, he charged recklessly after the dogs. Five dogs:  there were generally four together and then Finn swerving around, herding them, faster than the others and capable of switching back and steering the whole pack.
The barking was steady for several minutes, and Pwyll’s energy was flagging. He couldn’t keep up this breakneck pace forever. His horse was tired, and so was he. They had to end it soon, or there would be nothing but sweat and dirt to take home. A dog yelped shrilly, and the barking stopped. Finn bayed like they must have cornered the deer, but when the horses caught up with the dogs, what Pwyll saw made his breath catch. The dogs were circling a small mound in a clearing that backed up against a sheer wall of stone. Pwyll quietly said a prayer of thanks that he hadn’t run his horses headlong in to the clearing—they surely wouldn’t have been able to stop in time and would have smashed in to the stone.  The stranger thing still, was the deer had vanished.
Finn looked miserable. He ran the opposite way around the circling dogs, howling, his eyes sweeping the clearing for any trace of his quarry. The dogs sniffed furiously, noses to the ground, one after another around the mound.
“Where’d it go, Finn?” Pwyll asked cautiously. “It didn’t leap up that wall, surely.” Of course not, the dogs’ noses were saying, as they rounded the hillock again.
Pwyll hopped down from his horse and joined the procession of dogs. Finn stopped baying and looked up at him quizzically. “What now?” he seemed to ask. “I don’t know, buddy.”
Pwyll sat down hard on the mound, exasperated, and a puff of dust rose up around him.
Finn sniffed the dust and sneezed. Then he backed up, growling.
“What’s up, Finn?”  The words were just out of his mouth when the dog blurred and shimmered, and the sound of running animals startled Pwyll off the mound.  As he scrambled to his feet, the stag streaked past him, and the dogs took off back in to the woods.  “Where did he come from?” he yelled to no one, and headed back to his horse. He began to swing on to the horse, and a pack of snow white dogs barreled by him, knocking him to the ground.
“There must be twenty of them! Whose are they?” This time he was asking the horse, Llewellen, who snorted indignantly. As they resumed the chase, Pwyll heard the barking, steady and loud and cacophonous, and then it thinned, like fewer dogs were barking. In a few seconds, he understood why—his dogs had been passed up and then left behind. The white dogs were faster, and they had led the quarry away.
“No!” Pwyll shouted, drawing up Llewellen in to a slow trot and letting everyone catch their breath. “And we were so close!  Where did those dogs come from?”  he hounds whined sympathetically, and panted prodigiously. They were worn out. “Let’s go get a drink,” said Pwyll, and he led them over toward the river.
Sweat and dirt again. He sighed. As he walked his horse and his tired dogs through the trees, he thought of excuses he could give for coming up short today. They wouldn’t believe his story about crazy white dogs that appeared out of nowhere. He could already hear Gwyn mocking him.
As he dipped his hands in to the river for a drink, he heard the barking start up again, distantly. They were coming back. He splashed the water on his face instead of drinking it and hopped back on Llewellen. “We might have another chance!” he called, and off they drove in to the trees.
They found the dogs back at the mound, in a pack around the deer, who lay on its side on the earth. “Hah!  Off!  Off!”  He ran his horse in a circle, hooves pounding and breaking up the dogs. Two of the white hounds left the deer and attacked Llewellen. Pwyll stabbed his spear down in to the fray, skimming one on the shoulder and piercing one through the leg.  He swung the dog around by that leg—the dog’s ears were bright red—and tossed him off to the side. He chased the other dogs away from the deer, back in to the woods where he came from.
When he returned, his own dogs were harrying the deer. They knew not to eat the body, but the deer was dead, and they were chewing on its legs and antlers. “That’s enough, guys. Let’s get this beauty home,” he called. He leaped to the ground and knelt to inspect the stag.  “It’s amazing! I’ve never seen anything like it.” The whole pelt was white, except the ears, which were blood red. The eyes, too, open in that awful, frozen stare, were red.  He closed them gently and shook his head. “I’ve really never seen….”
“Of course you haven’t,” came a stern voice from behind him. “It’s not from around here.” A tall, black-clad man on an enormous, heaving stallion stood so close to him, Pwyll jumped. How had he not heard his approach? The horse snorted, and the man leaned down, pulling his hood back off his face, enough to reveal intricately tattooed skin and sunken, fiery eyes.
“Neither am I.”
(That’s a map of Medieval Wales, by the way.)