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Iowa Writing Project

Frog Voices

Posted on Friday, December 9th, 2016

A version of this segmented essay was presented at NCTE Atlanta, 11/19/2016.

Ozarks; late summer; early 1960s.

Introduction: You roam the hills and hollows. An intense summer followed the trouble you got into at the end of junior year. In this respite between double shifts at the chicken plant and your senior year, you need to be outside and alone. You have wandered south from the house, as you often do, across other farms, past the cabin site where the confederate soldier was killed, along the stream by the bluff where you no longer explore the old mine shafts, since one of them caved in. Just heading west up the valley, you jerk left toward the creek when you hear the scream. Terrified, mortal, too human, it echoes against the bluff and rebounds, but you can’t locate the source. You walk the creek bank a bit, hear it again, this piercing cry in an otherwise somnolent day, and then you see. Across the creek a frog, as big as your fist, is being swallowed from behind by a snake, its cotton mouth showing around the frog’s body, by now only the head and front legs protruding, feet paddling in a futile effort to escape. Screaming…

But is it too late? You could intervene – startle the snake to release its catch – kill the snake if necessary. But wait, isn’t this nature? Snake being snake, frog being frog? What right have you to intrude? What authorizes human intervention here? Of course, you have not met Wendell Berry yet, nor Paul Gruchow -  not cultivated an ethic as part of nature, not separate from it… have not read Lewis Thomas’ assertion in “The Lives of a Cell” that “Man is embedded in nature.” You leave. The screams fade…

*****

Eventually, as a teacher, you learn how crucial it is to “bear witness” to crises in context, whatever their nature, and wonder how to prepare future teachers to do so.

*****

In “The American Indian Wilderness” (essay, 1994) Louis Owens, a seasonal ranger for the US Forest Service, is sent to burn the White Pass shelter which has stood for 80 years below the shoulder of Glacier Peak in the Cascades of northern Washington, part of a plan to “remove all human-made objects from wilderness areas.” On his way down the mountain he encounters two elderly women – “dark hunched forms” climbing the snowy ridge – silver braids hanging, pausing often to “lean on their staffs and look out…” – going to White Pass.

“Our father built a little house up here” one called Sarah said, “when he worked for the Forest Service.”

“We been coming up here each year since we was little,” the other added.

“A long time ago this was all our land,” Sarah said. “Our people had houses up in the mountains for gathering berries.”

Owens wants to say that he, too, is Indian, but only says “The shelter is gone.” Cravenly I add, “It was crushed by snow, so I was sent up to burn it.”

The women will stay, a plastic tarp for shelter…Owens says, “They forgave me without saying it – my ignorance and my part in the long pattern of loss they knew so well.”

Hiking down, Owens ponders: “Before the European invasion there was no wilderness…only a fertile continent where people lived in a hard earned balance with the natural world.” Treating the shelter as a shameful stain upon the pure wilderness, I had succumbed to a 500-year-old pattern of deadly thinking that separates us from the natural world. This is not to say that what we call wilderness does not need safe-guarding… [only that] the global environmental crisis…has its roots in the Western pattern of thought that sees humanity and “wilderness” as mutually exclusive.” He recognizes, we are “intimately and inextricably related to every aspect of the world” we inhabit…

…as I am in a classroom, and as my students will be. Parker Palmer wrote, “Authority is always granted to people who are perceived as authoring their own actions, their own lives, rather than playing a scripted role at great remove from their own hearts.”

While recovering from surgery for a brain abscess, and working to recover use of my left side, I watch “The King’s Speech” – this helps me appreciate what I have not lost. Prince Albert (Bertie), a second son becoming King George VI as England faces World War II, struggles to speak. Teased, punished, subjected to corrective devices for his pronounced stammer, in his own eyes, as he prepares to give his coronation speech in Westminster Abbey, he stands in contrast to Winston Churchill. Key to Albert’s life narrative at this time, however, is Lionel Logue, a teacher.

Following their first session, Lionel says, “He’s scared. Afraid of his own shadow!”

His wife asks, “Isn’t that why they come to you?”

Lionel brings to bear practices he developed in Australia with shell-shocked soldiers following World War I. His stance – “My job was to give them faith in their own voices and let them know a friend was listening” – derived from acting and teaching actors, engenders perseverance and fosters recovery. His relationship with the King, of whom he says “Bertie has more guts than the rest of his brothers put together,” results in a speech nearly as memorable as is the accomplishment it represents. Along the way, however, Lionel’s unconventional practices are challenged as are his credentials – he is not a Doctor – though he never said he was. Lionel vigorously defends his practices based on their success – they give voice - and his credentials as earned through experience. In essence, his pedagogy works to achieve significant ends, proving the theory on which they are based, not the other way around. I know my recovery must be earned the same way, and sustained through comparable, continuing effort.

*****

In The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (1983) Donald Schon wrote of “a crisis of confidence in the professions” and a corresponding “decline in professional self-image,” possibly because “professional knowledge is mismatched to the changing character of situations of practice – the complexity, uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and value conflicts” increasingly central to the contexts of practice. Shon advocates, as have we in writing projects, for a different kind of research, for teacher reflection in action, not just on action – a way of grounding practitioner learning in experience, in thoughtfully documented actions and consequences. As I use my journal to strengthen my physical and emotional recovery, can my students find strength in teaching as reflective practitioners?

*****

Sometimes research reveals the obvious before exploring nuance. An early 20th Century observation by a French doctor working in a noisy hospital became the Lombard effect: humans raise their voices in noisy environments. In the Nov. 10 2014 New Yorker, Emily Anthes follows further research showing that “in noisy conditions, we do more than just amplify our voices – we also raise our pitch and elongate our vowels” to make our speech more intelligible, to make our species form of “acoustic signaling” more effective. Many of our fellow creatures, from whales to birds – and some we never hear – demonstrate the Lombard effect. Indeed, more than 800 species of fish vocalize!

A recent line of research explores effects on acoustic communication of anthropomorphic (human caused) noise, a common concern of ecologists as global population booms and our planet becomes louder. American air and road traffic has roughly tripled in less than 50 years; power equipment for everything from lawns to energy production add to a cacophony on land and in the oceans. Studies show urban birds singing louder and at higher pitches than rural ones. Some fish get louder, especially when trying to attract a mate. Scientists have not found evidence of the Lombard effect in frogs… the physical mechanics of frog vocalization may make it impossible for them to croak any louder than they already do.”

Some species of frogs, those contributors of a special music to a “quiet” evening, shelter in ponds and streams near increasingly populated, thus trafficked, areas. They vocalize to connect, to warn, to locate a mate. Unable to raise their voices, their survival – individually and collectively – is in doubt.

*****

What of teacher voices, too often drowned in the noisy public rhetoric about schools and schooling?

*****

Teaching Writing, a methods course for English teaching majors, explores professional information on a scaffold of 6 topics. Two of them, Writing as Process & Writing to Learn, elaborate on an assumption, a tentative definition:

“Writing is an idiosyncratic, non-linear (recursive), psycho-social linguistic process, one result of which is a text.” 

Some questions for reflection, leading to synthesis, include:

How will we characterize writing to our students in order to invite & enable them to learn to write? To use writing as a way to learn?

How do we want our own actual writing processes and practices to influence what our students learn?

When we ‘learn to write’, what exactly do we learn? When we ‘teach writing’, what exactly do we teach? What are some implications for our teaching?

When we ‘learn by writing,’ what happens?

*****

My goal is for future teachers to build their beliefs and practices on the century+ of scholarship undergirding their profession more than to align with a couple of decades of corporatized, politicized statements of what they must teach.

*****

According to a 2015 Teacher Voice Report, 11% of teachers, over 1 in 10, Sid they are afraid to try something because they may fail. As revealing, 15% fear peer resentment of their success, and 1/3rd appear unwilling to share their successes with peers.

In “Loyalty Does Not Mean Silence!” Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers explored the tenuous relationship among truth, loyalty and followership in schools and districts, especially since only some teacher leadership will be overt, positional, even recognized. For those who choose quieter, subtle roles – even following – will truth be part of loyalty? Will they find room to express “constructive dissent” and to engage in “honest exchange”? Will they fear speaking out less than they fear complicity in keeping “truth silenced”? Will they speak what the system wants to know but also what it needs to hear? The authors assert, “When the discomfort of not speaking up is greater than the fear, courage arises… Too often in our organizations we learn that we are not powerful enough to cause change. But often we can.” Can teacher leaders open doors for the hesitant to walk through and speak?

In “Walking Moral Tightropes is NOT a Reform Strategy, Bill Ferriter wrote: “When our best hope for change in education depends on individuals willing to completely subvert a dysfunctional system, it’s not teachers who need to change. It’s the policies and practices that govern their work.”

*****

At an NWP meeting a speaker explored writing, especially 1st year college writing wherever encountered, as potentially “gate opening” rather than “gate keeping.” Knowing that is not traditionally the stance of many others in higher education, I like the idea of “gate opening” as a metaphor for leadership/stewardship as well, and suspect powerful opportunities for it occur in those moments on a “moral tightrope.” Will their time with me help future teachers keep their balance in their own morally perplexing moments?

*****

In Teaching Writing we begin a unit with a cluster of short pieces on writing, and school itself, as sanctuary. Prose and poetry show us teachers and students “in relationship” – home, family and community finding their way into classrooms. This leads into our work with Climate and Response (the 2nd pair of topics on our scaffold), in which one staple is a little article by Russell Hunt entitled “Could you put in lots of holes?” Modes of Response to Writing, drawing on Randall Jarrell’s children’s book, The Bat Poet (1963). A small bat, unable to sleep during the day and inspired by hearing the mockingbird, writes poems. A keeper poem concerns his own night world and the terrifying owl. He says his poem – “The owl goes back and forth inside the night, and the night holds its breath.” - to the mockingbird, who responds to the rhyme scheme, to the technical aspects of the poem. Later, the bat says his poem to a chipmunk, for whom it resonates differently –

“It’s terrible, just terrible!”

“Is there really something like that at night?”

“I’m going to bed earlier.”

“I don’t have enough holes!”

The bat offers to write a poem about him and the chipmunk asks, “Could you put in lots of holes?”

For Teaching Writing students, who began the course with a writing workshop featuring much peer response, the mockingbird/chipmunk metaphor rises readily – What is the nature of the response they have received, earlier in their student & writer lives as well as in this class? With what effect? To what kinds of response do teachers seem especially “given”? Why?

We discuss whether chipmunk responses affirm and provide impetus, momentum necessary for writers to continue writing, and what happens if mockingbird responses are all writers receive, or are even the first responses… We get to whether mockingbird responses are the chosen mode sometimes because they feel safer – putting studied expertise on display instead of making deep connection…

*****

Many of these future teachers will need “lots of holes…” They came from forests in which predators, sometimes including them, were advantaged, forests which will have changed too little when they return as teachers.

*****

When Birds Squawk, Other Species Seem to Listen – a title in the May 18 New York Times caught my attention! Biologist Erik Greene had listened to “a whole set of acoustic stuff … associated with predators.” Specifically, “seet” calls by small songbirds seem crucial in the forest dance of predator and prey. Most animals have evolved alarm signals to warn of danger, but some bird species play major roles. Chickadees, for example, raise their volume and extend the call – more “dees” – to warn of raptors, and sometimes to call other birds to “mob” – to harass the predator until it leaves. The more nimble the raptor, the more strident and urgent the warning. Some other vulnerable species – squirrels, for instance – understand bird-ese and are themselves understood by birds. The resulting party line stretches across their landscape, nuance in their sounds comparable to nuance we hear in human language…thus making them mutual sentinels of the forest.

Again, anthropomorphic noise becomes a problem… traffic noise as a major pollutant affects birds, their condition, their overall health, perhaps because it demands a tradeoff between eating and being vigilant. When they cannot hear predators or alarms well, they must invest more time and effort in listening. Similarly, noise affects migratory birds, in decline worldwide. Non-migratory birds in harsh climates live on the edge and face a stern choice: you can feed or you can watch for predators.

*****

I wonder how Teaching Writing students will learn to cope with proliferating “unannounced walkthroughs” and other practices in their pending forests? Are we building their strong foundation in a professional network? For a party line? Will they quickly become attuned to – and eventually become – astute sentinels? Birds are not denied their autonomy or signal systems because they are “bad birds” or because they don’t “sing” high enough scores, but they are endangered by human (and often unenlightened) noise permeating their worlds.

*****

Teaching writing teachers, much of my life’s work, carries special responsibilities because of all writing can do for teachers – especially enabling them to find and sound, even raise, their voices in a hostile environment. Dag Hammarskjold said, “Never for the sake of peace and quiet deny your own experiences or convictions.”

Entering winter 2017, I know that, facing death, some frogs can scream –    I still hear that piercing, kindred wail across half a century, my accumulated past underscoring my shrinking future, far more profession invested than remaining to be invested. At the end, I do not want to hear screams, loud or faint, of teachers, of former students I did not help learn to use their voices.

Sources Cited

Anthes, Emily. “When Fish Shout.” The New Yorker 2014/11/10.

Berkowicz, Jill and Ann Myers. “Loyalty Does Not Mean Silence.” blog 5/19/2013.

DeWitt, Peter. “What’s Worse…Failure or Success? Finding Common Ground blogs.edweek.org 2015/04/06 re: Teacher Voice Report 2015 (QISA).

Ferriter, Bill. “Walking Moral Tightropes Is NOT a Reform Strategy.” blog 5/15/13.

Hooper, Tom (Director). The King’s Speech. Momentum Pictures UK: released 2010.

Hunt, Russell A. “Could you put in lots of holes?” Modes of Response to Writing. NCTE: Language Arts, Vol. 64, No. 2, February 1987.

Owens, Louis. “The American Indian Wilderness.” In Literature for Composition: Essays, Fiction, Poetry and Drama.

Schon, Donald A. The Reflective Practioner: How Professionals Think in Action.  New York: Harper Collins Basic Books 1983.

Solomon, Christopher. “When Birds Squawk, Other Species Seem to Listen. nytimes.com/2015/05/19/science

 

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