Poetry is when you make new things familiar and familiar things new. ~Rory Sutherland
At this point, we hope you’ve moseyed on over to The Modern Story’s video page, taken a stroll in Rainbow Park while pondering a girl’s struggle for education, and eaten birthday biryani on a rainy day. Our final batch of photo stories comes from the 8th standard class at Railway Girl’s High School, an extraordinary school in Lallaguda that was been partnered with The Modern Story program for three years. In a unique departure from the traditional photo story format, this year marked the first time that a TMS project counted towards students’ quarterly exams (representing 25 marks total). Through a collaboration with the 8th class English instructors, Mdms. Shimla and Vimala, the photo story assignment asked students to create a visual interpretation of William Wordsworth’s “A Spring Morning.”
“A Spring Morning” is fourteen lines in length and describes the beautiful day that emerges after a rainstorm:
There was a roaring in the wind all night;
The rain came heavily and fell in floods;
But now the sun is rising calm and bright;
The birds are singing in the distant woods;
Over his own sweet voice the stockdove broods;
The jay makes answer as the magpie chatters;
And all the air is filled with pleasant noise of waters.
All things that love the sun are out of doors;
The sky rejoices in the morning’s birth;
The grass is bright with raindrops; – on the moor
The hare is running races in her mirth;
And with her feet she from the plashy earth
Raises a mist; that, glittering in the sun,
Runs with her all the way, wherever she doth run.
A Spring Morning is also first poem in the English Reader textbook for all 8th class students in the state of Andhra Pradesh and between the five schools where we teach, it is one of the few common denominators. Nearly every student has some working familiarity with this poem and especially its resounding introduction: “There was a roaring in the wind all night.” A few have even copied a verse or two in their homework and claimed it as their own. But that’s another issue for another blog post.
More pressing in early July was the challenge of interpreting a remarkably straightforward poem in an imaginative way. “A Spring Morning” is fourteen lines long and featured Wordsworth at his descriptive best. Read it again and you’ll see. The poem is constituted entirely of images. It describes the beautiful day that emerges after a rainstorm, pregnant with the sounds of birds chirping, water flowing, and a hare bounding through puddles. This hare is the closest thing the poem has to a protagonist and his splashy journey the extent of the poem’s narrative, leaving those hungry for a plotline (or a story to digitize) wanting. And while the other TMS photo stories drew from the personal lives of the students, ranging from the everyday of cooking biryani to broader themes of caste division, and had clear narrative conventions (a main character, a beginning, a middle, and end), the story that landed in the lap of Railway was a snapshot of the English countryside written over 120 years ago. What possible connection did Wordsworth’s pastoral paradise have to their personal lives?
It was a question the three of us thought about for a long time, as we read and re-read those fourteen lines in search for creative wiggle room and a story to conceptualize. We had the students choose their favorite line of the poem and draw it. They wrote poetry for homework and read poetry in class. Kelly wondered if we could represent the emotional arc of the poem, showing the ascension of family calm after a storm of domestic violence. As a warm-up, she and Dana choreographed an expressive dance around the poem’s major images, which 8A enthusiastically memorized by heart.
Over in 8B, the girls turned the poem into a play – “acting out” what they read, roaring like a lion, chattering like a magpie, and raining like a flood. Neha and I were the costume department for that day, furiously scribbling “tree,” “sun” and that famous “hare” on pieces of computer paper and taping it to the front of their uniforms.
While these exercises helped the students in isolating the major “characters” of the poem, they didn’t generate a more profound interpretation than the literal fact of a spring morning after a rain storm. At first this disappointed me. Years of schooling had coached me in the “seek-and-ye-shall-find” methods of literary analysis, in which a careful reader cannot in good faith leave any symbolic stone unturned, but must dissect any verse with a mental scapula, extracting the meaning hidden by the all-knowing poet/creator/mastermind. If our students wanted to represent the hare as simply that – a hare – would we be allowing them to settle for a superficial interpretation?
Maybe. But maybe not. For there is another kind of wealth to be found in poetry that operates on the pure level of language, of words. And meaning revealed by the simple stringing of several words together. “All things that love the sun are out of doors.” To read these words on page, to understand them, and to represent them artistically is an accomplishment for anyone, let alone students whose second language is English. Any deeper meaning lacquered upon the simplicity of Wordsworth’s words does not indicate a more meaningful understanding of the words themselves. And the more we worked through the project, the more I realized that our earlier fixation on finding a deeper meaning distracted us from the beauty of its delivery. We changed focus from questions of message (What do we think Wordsworth means by a spring morning?) to questions of medium (How shall we recreate a spring morning? How shall we evoke the feeling of a spring morning?), recognizing the ample inspiration in this spring morning to produce a photo story of substance.
And that’s when the fun began. 8A brought the outdoors inside, hanging raindrops from the ceiling and birds from the window, and embodying Wordsworth’s menagerie by turning their cheeks towards Kelly’s face paint brush, grinning hugely beneath rabbit whiskers, chattering like jays and magpies with cut-out speech bubbles, and forming birds wings with their adjoined thumbs. With a little help from Dana and the Electric Light Company, they learned to read expressively, to make their voices rise calmly and brightly like the sun, matching the cadence of Wordsworth’s iambic pentameter.
After breaking into three groups, 8B received blank story boarding sheets.”You choose. Its your choice,” Neha and I kept saying when they asked what to do next and after some initial discomfort, each team attacked the project from a different angle, with a different story board to show for it. Velankanni and Shanawaz took digital photographs on the school grounds and created rain where there was none, sprinkling “dew” on grass blades, draping leaves in puddles, and commissioning a few of the Tiny Tots students to pose with umbrellas. When a downpour did come, Srilekha and Ramya Sree bolted outside with a video camera and returned triumphantly to class with a sound recording.
Other teams delved into mixed media collages and stop motion animation, condensing a series of 30 still pictures of a run rising upward or a hare moving forward into a four second clip. While teaching them these techniques, their application and execution was entirely up to the students. It seemed that the more free they were to experiment with different media and represent the poem as they wished, the more personal responsibility they developed, as they recognized this project was in some way an extension of themselves and there was no “right” way to complete it. “A Spring Morning” may have been written by Williams Wordsworth, but “A Spring Morning” photo story was all theirs.
Their burgeoning sense of artistic ownership culminated in a showcase of the photo stories for their parents during the annual Parent-Teacher meeting and for the head administrator of the Railway schools on Teacher’s Day (see video below). Our students spoke proudly about their work and what’s more, seemed astonished that they themselves (rather than another adult or teacher) were speaking on their own behalf and representing their original work. Watching them from the side, I realized it mattered little in the end whether we were in England or in India. These students were resourceful enough to illustrate “A Spring Morning” poem on the moon provided they were given the moon rocks to do so. And therein lies the true success of Railway’s photo story project: that the students experienced the thrill of creation and just how personal it can be.