“When our deep plots do pall….”

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It is tempting to imagine, in teaching and elsewhere, that the more you plan and prepare, the better things will turn out. Up to a point, this is true, but too much planning can go awry, and a bit of spontaneity can set things right. When you plan too hard for something, and it doesn’t turn out the way you intended, the overplanning is partly at fault. I don’t mean that teachers should improvise all the time–but we should be willing to adjust course. We say this continually but still forget it.

For weeks I had been planning a lesson on poetic song verse (for a twelfth-grade English class). It didn’t go as I had hoped. I had meant it to be part planned, part spontaneous: I would present some songs, and students would too. We would see what came out of the combination. But four students were absent; of those present, only a few offered comments, and no one presented songs. I found myself speaking rather stiffly about the songs I had brought; I don’t think I conveyed much. We have only one class left, and then the students graduate–so I wish I had done better somehow. I understand, though, that they are ready to move on with their lives.

But another class that day turned into song. We went over a test that the students had taken the day before, and then I taught them the song “Today,” which I sang at my high school graduation and which I thought they would enjoy. (I think they did.) Then they asked to sing songs by Abba and Queen, and I happily went along with that (and introduced a couple of songs too). Day after day, we have been preparing for their school-leaving exams, so this was a nice way to spend time with them before the end.

The contrast helps me see something else as well. In the lesson on poetic song verse, I wanted us to talk  about the relation between a song’s lyrics and its music. I thought I had brought memorable examples (Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen, and others) that they might not otherwise encounter. I realize, though, that it’s a mistake to talk analytically about a song before actually absorbing it. It’s hard to talk about songs at all, but it’s especially difficult in a rush. The students needed time that wasn’t there. If we had had the semester ahead of us, and if it had been a course on songs, then there would have been time. But we are at the end.

Also, songs have a visceral effect. You can’t persuade others to like them–or maybe you can, but only under the right conditions. I remember how others introduced me to various songs over the years–in class, in conversation, at concerts, etc. Some of these songs became favorites; others I never grew to like. Liking isn’t necessarily the point–but when I share a song with someone, or when I teach it formally, I hope that the person will ultimately find it worth hearing. Even that can’t be guaranteed.

Maybe the lesson went better than I thought. Maybe there was something interesting in it for someone. But if it did flop, it’s partly because I had planned something that didn’t match the situation–and didn’t fully realize this until the lesson was over.

So the lesson is not “don’t prepare,” but rather “don’t stake too much on your preparations” and “attend to the situation at hand.”

Otherwise this was a profoundly good day–but more about that another time, when it is not so late. There is a lot to say. At the end of the day I took part in the Holocaust memorial run–from the sugar factory to the synagogue–and then danced with many others in the evening light.

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  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

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