Brett Vogelsinger retweeted this tweet from Jose Olivarez, and I was struck dumb for a moment:
I had never read this lovely poem, but it so played the right cultural and thematic chord (a government restriction on words, apparent social isolation, simplicity in community and love and humanity) that I instantly knew I was using Jeffrey McDaniel's “The Quiet World” as the first poem in my distance learning plan.
Taking a page from Carol Jago, I wanted my students to simply experience the poem, and I wanted to give them two very simple directions. First, I invited students to tell me the line that struck them the most, something we always do in class when we first read a poem. The poem’s power is in its emotional use of language, which plays on the fact that conversation is limited to one hundred and sixty-seven words a day, so students’ choice of lines would be a wonderful entry point into thinking about the poem’s large themes of connection, love, and humanity. Once they’d chosen their line, I simply wanted them to tell me how this poem and its themes felt resonant during this pandemic where we are social distancing and distance learning.
The trick of this lesson was in how they shared their responses. I posted my own response to our class Flipgrid (click here to see my video) so the students could see and hear my own words, which felt important for the poem’s themes and for our current social isolation. I then encouraged them to record their own videos based on my two directives.
Seeing students’ faces and hearing their voices while they talked about isolation, humanity, and community—this was a win. And having a virtual discussion about the power of words and the importance of making real connections especially in the face of crises like the COVID-19 pandemic was a terrific reminder of how powerful poetry can be in shaping how we see the world around us.
Here are some student Flipgrid response excerpts about the poem’s connection to the pandemic:
“I think this [personal connection] relates to what is going on right now because we’re all so lonely in our houses so if we call our friends on the phone and we’re not even talking—we’re just doing our homework or something—like you still feel someone is there with you and you’re less alone.”
“…making sure we say, ‘I love you’ and talking to people that we love is in important. And I think that goes along with what is happening now just because we can’t really see people that we want to see, so making sure we stay connected to them through things like [Flipgrid] and on our phone is how we can stay connected.”
“Because of the coronavirus, we’re all so distanced from each other and people are always saying on social media...that we need to stick together and that’s where I feel the connection [to this poem] is.”
Will Melvin teaches tenth and eleventh-grade English at CB South High School in Warrington, PA. Follow him on Twitter (@WillMelvinCBSD).