Though Walt Whitman’s poem, When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, can be accessed for free on many public domain sites online, I recently found it in a picture book format, beautifully illustrated by Loren Long. I loved using this poem in my classroom for its value as poetry, as an accessible and motivating introduction to Walt Whitman, and for its ability to inspire students to write with feeling about topics of particular personal interest to them. Clearly the poem can stand alone, but the illustrations in this edition provide audiences of all ages with a deeper “context enriched by emotion.” (Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind, 2005. See my April 5, 2012 post here on Sixtraitgurus.) This format helps readers both with interpreting and connecting personally with Whitman’s words. Helping students learn to interpret and connect to poetry/literature is a good thing—a really good thing.
The purchase of this wonderful book and two of Vicki’s recent posts, “Breaking Bad Writers Provide Lesson in Collaborative Writing” (the poem and the poet’s initials play key roles in episodes in Breaking Bad seasons 3 and 5) and “Crack the Common Core with Multigenre Writing,” reminded me why I loved this poem and how it energized my student writers.
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer. 2004. Words by Walt Whitman. Illustrated by Loren Young. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 32 pages.
Genre: Picture book
Ages: Grades K and up
Loren Young’s richly colored painted images provide a story frame for Walt Whitman’s short poem. With his toy rocket in hand, a space-loving young boy, uncomfortably dressed in jacket and tie, is taken to a lecture hall to hear grown-up talk about something he dreams about—space, stars, the heavens. The eight pages containing the text of Whitman’s poem are enhanced with simple line drawings done by the illustrator’s two young sons, reflecting the innocent wonder of space in a child’s mind. The boy with the rocket listens to the expert drone on but his interest in the academic’s musings soon wanes. He slips outside, sheds his coat and tie, and immerses himself in the twinkling of the stars in the night sky and his dreams of space.
The suggestions below are focused on students creating two pieces of writing, both inspired by the Walt Whitman poem. One piece is explanatory/informational, the other is an original poem. The focus will be on a single, student selected topic, yet the outcome will be two pieces, each in a different genre and a different voice. Though technically (as imagined by Tom Romano—see Vicki’s post, Sept. 11, 2013), not multi-genre writing, students will be exploring their topic from different angles, and it’s the juxtaposition of these views that will stretch the thinking of both writers and readers.
I really do recommend this book, regardless of the grade level you may teach. To quote an Amazon reviewer of Young’s illustrated edition, “I wish I had this book when I was teaching 19th –century American literature to college freshmen.” But to make it easier for you to follow my suggestions below, here is the poem.
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
By Walt Whitman
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were arranged in
columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add,
divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured
with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
In the Classroom
1. Reading. As with any material you are going to share with students, take time to preview, read and become comfortable with Whitman’s poem in the context of Young’s paintings. A document camera would be a perfect tool to help you share the book with students, enabling you to zoom in on illustration details or individual words. You might choose to share only the illustrations first, encouraging students to imagine/predict/interpret the story being told. This could be followed with a sharing of the book as a whole—Walt Whitman’s words and Loren Young’s illustrations. This would naturally lead to a discussion focused on connecting their initial imaginings with the poet’s words seen/heard in the context of the illustrations. This isn’t about whose ideas are right or correct. In this kind of discussion, I want students to explain/defend their thinking by referring back to the poet’s words, the details in the accompanying illustrations, and tapping into any personal experiences that guided their thinking.
2. Reading Part II. I believe students should read poetry (I could stop here) aloud individually, with a partner or small group, and whole class. Both the readers and the listeners benefit from multiple readings from a variety of readers—different voices and rhythms broaden the scope and depth of interpretation. Provide students with a copy of the poem with extra space between the lines, allowing for notes—definitions, words to emphasize, comments, etc. I have even offered students the opportunity to act out the poem silently as a classmate reads the words aloud.
3. Central theme. An underlying purpose of the readings and discussion is for students to uncover the author’s message or central theme and any personal connections to their own life experiences. Ask your students: Does When I heard the learn’d astronomer have a central theme or message? If so, how would you express that message and defend your thinking? Is it as simple as becoming bored with a lecture and leaving for some fresh air? Is the writer suggesting something about the differences between facts and feelings?
4a. Writing #1: The Lecture Room. For this piece, students will need to choose their own topic, something of particular interest to them, a subject they may already know a bit about. The catch is that their topics needs to be factual—something that can be researched. The last time I did this with students, I was working on a team of four teachers—science, math, social studies, and language arts—who shared the same group of students. Geology—rocks, minerals, formation of natural features of the earth, etc.—had been a recent area of focus in their science class. Their teacher had gotten them energized and interested, so I suggested that this might be a place for them to find a writing topic, though they weren’t limited to science. Their topic could have come from history, math, or something outside of school.
To begin this piece, we went back to the poem and book. The speaker in the poem (and the boy in the book) attends a lecture by the “learn’d astronomer,” who fills the room with proofs, figures, charts, diagrams—the facts/research—on a topic he cares deeply about. My students chose a variety of topics: the Grand Canyon, rubies, gold, Antartica, the Leeward Islands, the Andes Mountains, Crater Lake, the Giant’s Causeway, the Barringer Crater, the Amazon River, the Dead Sea, and even poison ivy. Following this, the students’ mission was to search out the proofs, figures, charts, diagrams specific to their topic and create a one-page (approximate) report/lecture quantifying their selected topic. I urged them to load up their piece with interesting minutia—to both intrigue readers with their choices but also, following the poem, to eventually drive their readers to become “tired and sick,” to the point of “rising and gliding out.” The idea was not to bore readers but to almost overwhelm them with details and information. The one page limit (including introduction and conclusion) was to make the reports readable within a short time frame. Here are a few “highlights” from three of the students’ pieces:
Glaciers By David
“…What are glaciers? Well, Glaciers are large masses of mobile, permanent ice, formed on land by the process of consolidation and re-crystallization of snowflakes. Basically, the snow that falls on the glacier, and is still there after a year, is compacted or added onto the glacier. Glaciers may move down a slope by Gravity or spread outward because of its own thickness. These large masses of ice can terminate on land, in the ocean, or any other body of water. Glaciers can range in size from one kilometer to the ice sheet in Antarctica which is 12,500,000 square kilometers…”
Rubies By Dena
“…Burma rubies are typically medium to medium dark pinkish-red to red. Rubies from Thailand are generally darker in tone and tend to have a more purplish-red color. African rubies are similar to Burma stones in color. Vietnamese rubies are usually a bright pinkish-red…”
The Amazon River By Khalid
“…This river starts 17,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes and 120 miles from the Pacific Ocean. The Amazon River has so many turns that it is 4,000 miles long. The mouth of the river is about 200 miles wide. Those 200 miles are between the Brazilian highlands and the Guyanan highlands and crossed by the equator…”
4b. Voice—of the Lecturer. What is the appropriate voice for a piece of informational/explanatory writing? Regardless of genre, it’s important for writers to know both the purpose of their writing and its intended audience. With informational/explanatory writing, it’s important that the writer’s voice demonstrate the confidence and authority that comes with being an “expert” on the topic. In the case of Writing #1, described above, student writers were instructed to create a fact-overfilled “lecture” in the form of a one-page report. Students were trying on the voice of expertise, pushed up a notch to the point where readers are overloaded with facts. The student writers, in this case, are actually trying to push readers out of the “lecture-room.” One result of this exercise is that writers will become more aware—every time they write—of the choices they make regarding what to include and what to leave out. Every choice affects readers. Are you trying to keep your readers in the room or are you forcing them to sneak out and get away?
5a. Writing #2: The Mystical…Perfect Silence. This part of the writing is about the writers taking a second, fresh look at their topics by leaving the lecture room, getting out in the “mystical moist night-air,” and looking up “in perfect silence at the stars,” and taking their readers along with them. It’s poetry time! (Important note—This was not the first time my students had read, interpreted, and written poetry. I probably wouldn’t have this be a student’s first experience with poetry.) At this point, it’s time to put away proofs, figures, charts, diagrams, and like the rocket carrying boy in the book, take off your coat and tie and dream. This poetic response to the topic is meant to be a chance for the writer, in full possession of the facts, to share with readers their personal joy, passion, wonder, for their subject. These poetic responses may or may not deal directly with the topic. The poem on the topic of rubies might be focused on a ring worn by a favorite grandmother or it could be about the natural forces that make a ruby, a ruby. Rhyming? Free form? All possible as long as the writers are giving readers an inside view into why they even care about their selected topic.
Here are a few moments of poetry from the same three student writers’ poetry:
Glaciers By David
“…A ship had better change its bearing
When large, ancient ice moves.
It crushes anything, powerful force without remorse.
But slowly, over time
The Glacier will move.
It will slide into warmer weather.
It will slowly wither
Returning to what it was before—
Rubies By Dena
“…A union of love,
a symbol of faith.
And the ever powerful
The Amazon River By Khalid
rustling leaves, swirling rapids, a parrot’s squawks.
a spray of water and warmth from scattered spots of sunlight across your face.
the peace and untouched glory of centuries.
All within reach of a continuous line of ants parading across the loamy soil.”
5b. Voice–of the Star Gazer. The idea here is for the writer’s voice to change as the purpose of the writing changes. As described above, the poetry’s purpose is different from the one-page report. The poetry isn’t about quantifying with facts and figures; it’s about qualifying the subject in a personal way with feelings and connections. To create this voice, the poets need to think about their topics through a different lens—Why did they select their topics? What about their topic really interests them? What life experiences/connections bring them closer to their topics? Maybe writers will want to use a zoom lens to bring readers in for a close-up or a wide-angle lens to offer a bigger picture. In her book Writing to Change the World, Mary Pipher describes voice as the “…offering of the library of self.” The library should always be open, but perhaps each time offering readers a view into a different room.
6. Juxtaposition of Voices/Genres. To “publish” these two pieces of writing, I asked writers to display them side-by-side. I wanted both writers and readers to discover the power of the two voices and genres juxtaposed, experienced one after the other.
Here are Ben’s two pieces, for easy reading, and a photograph of Khalid’s to show how they were displayed.
The Grand Canyon
Arizona’s famous Grand Canyon is truly a wonder of the world. Its incredibly immense depth, size, and age has awed some, terrified others, and caused still others to feel sick.
The canyon covers two thousand square miles along 277 miles of the Colorado River. On average, it is a full mile deep, and up to eighteen miles across. From the canyon’s start to its end, the river descends 2200 feet.
The ancient Colorado River began carving out the Grand Canyon about ten million years ago. This process actually started around sixty-five million years ago, when the plateau began rising from internal pressure. (Perhaps this was caused by the same meteor that supposedly killed the dinosaurs.) This “upwarping” caused rivers to flow faster and cut deeper in to the ground.
The Grand Canyon itself is only two million years old, but the rock it is carved through is much older. Its top layer of Kaibab Limestone is two hundred fifty million years, and the bottom layer of Brahma and Vishnu Schist goes back two billion years.
Of course, the first humans to see the Grand Canyon were “Native Americans,” migrating from Asia. The first white men to see it were Spanish soldiers headed by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, on an expedition from Mexico in 1540.
To sum it all up—the Grand Canyon, one of the largest and oldest rock formations in the world, is also one of its most amazing sights.
I looked a the pamphlet, and all that I found
Was the length, depth, and breadth of this trench in the ground.
It pointed out once that the canyon was great;
Besides that, it did not even try to relate
The immensity! This canyon truly is grand.
I don’t care that its coloring ranges from sand
To red dirt, to the color of stale apple juice
(Pardon me if I sound a bit like Doctor Seuss.)
But its beautiful hugeness is what makes it great!
Not its age, or the name of its tectonic plate,
But the towers, the river, the vertical walls
With a scale so enormous that here the mind stalls
And can’t comprehend. But that’s how it should be.
Not to know facts and figures, but simply to see
This wonderful natural gigantic rift…
So I’ll just toss this pamphlet right over the cliff.
6. Sharing and Reflecting. Having students share their writing is important. These could be bound into a class book, shared in small groups—or any way your students will find valuable. I displayed these around the classroom and involved the students, armed with post-its and pens, in a sort of gallery walk/read. I asked them to leave specific comments for the writers—this wasn’t the first time students had been asked to comment on their classmates writing. This may take some practice getting used to, both in terms of being positive and specific enough to be meaningful.
After doing something like this, I want my students to reflect on both the process and the products. Some possible questions for reflection: What part was most difficult for you? What part challenged you the most? What did you learn about yourself as a writer? Is there anything from this experience that you know you will use/think about the next time you write? Do you have a poet you enjoy reading?
7. More Walt Whitman. I do want to mention a book/series you may be interested in if you are looking for more Walt Whitman specifically, and student friendly poetry in general. The Poetry for Young People series published by Sterling offers collections by Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Edgar Allan Poe, and many others.
Coming up on Gurus . . .
I’m not sure if I’ll only be preaching to the choir, but after a recent discussion with a school administrator, I feel the need to share some thoughts in defense of picture books. Please don’t forget, if you’re thinking about professional development in writing during the current school year, we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches to dealing with genre, and the best in literature for young people (including emphasis on reading to write). Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.