Thursday, August 2, 2012

Coursera - Week 1

The Grimm's Household Tales
In has been an interesting introduction to the free, massive open online courses offered by Coursera. I've enjoyed the experience so much that I've already signed up for two more courses - Modern & Contemporary American Poetry, set to start on September 10th, and Greek & Roman Mythology, which starts on September 24th. I'm looking forward to them, but seeing as how I will also be launching into my masters thesis in poetry, as well as two single semester courses on playwriting, and teaching creative writing around then, I'm not sure if I will be able to see those courses through. Considering the results of my first week with the two courses I am currently enrolled in, Listening to World Music, and Science Fiction and Fantasy: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, I may indeed have to be a little more on task to keep all those plates spinning.

Week 1 - Science Fiction and Fantasy

The course is taught by Eric Rabkin, from the University of Michigan. Thus far I have enjoyed the videos, although they are traditional lectures. That said, the videos do cut away from Rabkin to display example texts, illustrations, and pictures. The audio is always clear, and Rabkin has a knack for explaining complex topics in a relatable and understandable manner.

The course expectations are clear. Each week we read a text, and are expected to write an essay of between 270 and 320 words. The submissions page will not accept any entry above 320 words, which helps encourage concision. After submitting an assignment, you have to read and evaluate essays by 5 of your classmates. These essays are chosen at random, and provide no identifying information, just the text. Your job is to give them a score of 1 to 3 (1 = Terrible, 2 = Average, 3 = Awesome) for two separate categories, form and content. In addition to the numerical score, you have to write comments/critiques of between 30 to 150 words for each category, with an additional optional comments section for anything else you might have to say. In one of the videos, Rabkin explains that for each category, 10%-30% of the marks should be a 1, and no more than 20% should be a 3.

Thus far I have given scores that range between a 2 (lowest score possible) and a 4 (average).  Of the six essays I evaluated (after the first five you are given an option of evaluating more), none showed any real creative thought or effort, and only two had a (barely) university-level command of English. As the course currently has an enrollment of between the high five and low six figures, the participants will represent a broad spectrum both academically and culturally. While this might mean that I should perhaps focus more on the ideas being expressed than the precision with which those ideas are conveyed, as this is meant to be a university-level course, conducted in English, it would be better if my evaluations reflected that.

Overall I have nothing but good things to say about how Rabkin and his team are running the course so far. Based on the e-mails they have sent out to the students, and also based on what I know about the general nature of those who would flock to a course in Science Fiction and Fantasy (Remember, I'm an internet nerd too, and I know what my people can be like), I am absolutely sure that Rabkin and his assistants have been absolutely hammered by a deluge of irritating, off-topic, mind-boggling e-mails. That they seem to be taking the feedback in stride and maintaining a the integrity of the course and the prepared syllabus is refreshing.

Week 1 - Listening to World Music

I'll admit it, I was not a good student this week. I downloaded the videos, watched them, enjoyed the lectures, but when it came to the assignment, I messed up. I didn't pay proper attention to the submission deadlines, and missed the deadline. One thing I'll say is that I love the fact that these courses have hard and fast deadlines. When the deadline passes, you can't even attempt to submit a response. When I'm a conscientious student, there is nothing I hate more than seeing late and overdue submissions make their way in to the marking pile.

The course is taught by Carol Muller, from the University of Pennsylvania. The videos are also lectures, but put together differently. Muller is recorded in green screen, and the Powerpoint slides are are placed behind and to the side of her. Where Rabkin's videos featured him sitting and cutting away to show slides, Muller is standing, and always present in the videos.

Hopefully I can get my act together for week 2, and get things done on time.  

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Build Up, Don't Tear Down

I came across a post on Scott McLeod's blog, Dangerously Irrelevant, regarding a recent Washington Post article that was critical of Salman Khan, and his online education efforts.

Reading the article put my blood pressure up a mite, and I ended up leaving this as a comment on McLeod's post.

I'm of two minds on that article. On the one hand, I do agree that the aesthetics of Khan's videos leave much to be desired, but as to whether Khan's approach is inherently bad teaching? I'm not so sure.

A normal teacher is observed during a lesson around two or three times a year wherever I have worked. After an observation comes a feedback session where everything that occurred in the lesson is nitpicked.  Strong areas are highlighted, areas of improvement are pointed out, and the teacher walks away with a record of that observation. 

Generally speaking, teachers wear their Sunday best when being observed. They pull out the assessment tool, make sure to touch upon the key elements being assessed, and put on a show. While every other lesson in their day-to-day practice may still be good, it is rare for any teacher to bring their B-Game to an observation. And after the observation is over, they are left to keep on keeping on.

But that's not the case for Khan. For Khan, every lesson is an observed lesson. Every lesson has thousands of keen eyed educators assessing and nitpicking it, commenting on it, and judging it.  Imagine if every lesson you taught, day after day, were observed in the same manner? Would you be brining your A-Game each and every time? Would you be as infallible as the Pope with your facts, figures, explanations and analogies?

Probably not.

This, then, is what so irritated me about this article. It encapsulates a mindset that I find absolutely infuriating. 

So Sal Khan goes ahead and teaches a couple thousand different lessons. Some are great, some not as great. But instead of saying "Hey, this is an awesome foundation we can build upon", or "I like Khan's video, but I would add that another way to conceptualize (concept) is...", all I hear is "How come Khan doesn't explain (insert concept) as good as (insert educator's name) does?" Or they make an entire video about why Khan was wrong on some point or another.

Khan is trying to do something that few educators have tried to do. He is trying to create a broad swathe of resources that can be accessed by anybody, covering a broad span of topics, grade levels, and subjects. As Odin was the "All-Father" some see Khan as turning into the "All-Teacher," and look upon that with the specialist's contempt of the jack-of-all-trades, and dismiss his work as merely a lesser effort.

The article says "[i]n the class it's bad teaching, and online it's a revolution?" In a word, yes.

Khan's lessons, whatever their merit, are there, online. Available to one and all. You can put the greatest teacher in the world in a room and have them teach the greatest lesson ever taught, and it will still amount to less than what Khan has achieved. Why? Because that lesson, however good it was, ceased to be the moment class was over. All that would remain would be, as Tenacious D would put it, a tribute.

Serious educators do not criticize and tear down. Serious educators analyze and build upon. Don't like Khan's explanation of something? Then edit his video, add your own spin. Credit the source and make it better. 

That's the whole point of the creative commons. It's the underlying principle of the scientific method. It's the entire basis of western culture since the enlightenment.

Make, share, use, make better.

Okay. End of rant. But as a postscript...

Bad teaching? That's a first world view. I teach in Asia, and for students who study the Indian syllabus, or in similar systems in Asia (which is most of them), what Khan does is what they want. The student centered, problem solving, independent learning approach is better, but it is not the norm in the most populated areas of the world. It is only prevalent in wealthy nations, and even there these approaches are limited to the relatively privileged groups.

Teachers in North America are insanely privileged in comparison to teachers almost anywhere else. In South Asia, the average teacher barely earns a subsistence level wage, has to contend with enormous class sizes, and has little to no logistical support. Students get little to no individual attention, so resources like what Khan produces are an absolute godsend. Sure he may be just going over example after example, but you know what? That's what the they want over here. That's how education functions over here.  It's not a question of what is best practice and what is not, it is a question of what actually is. 

"[H]ow the price of an iPod changes as you buy more memory" may not necessarily work as well in Bihar as it would in Iowa. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Coursera, or Teacher Learn Thyself

As a proponent of free, open resources, and someone who hubristically believes they know a bit about online education (most likely a false belief, but we all need our illusions), I thought it might be good to jump into the world of MOOCs - Massive Open Online Courses. This week, my education began.

MOOCs are a rapidly growing area of education that has the potential to be incredibly destabilizing, at least to the current higher education model as it exists today. edX, MITx, Udacity, and now Coursera are some of the organizations, or entities, pursuing this model. At some point in the recent to mid past, I had put myself on a mailing list for Coursera, but as I hazily recall, at the time I looked at Coursera, the courses on offer were STEM focused, and thus not something I'd attempt to touch other than at gunpoint. Did I want to study computer science? No, not really. What about artificial intelligence? Possibly. It's something I am interested in, and if presented through a humanities framework, probably a something I might try. But since the course seemed to involve math higher than basic addition and subtraction, I took a pass. None of the initial courses offered by Coursera interested me, but the initiative still seemed a neat idea that I should keep an eye on.

Well the initiative turned out to appeal to a broad swath of people from around the world. Since launching, 1.5 million+ students have signed up for courses. The artificial intelligence course I took a pass on ended up having 50,000+ students enrolled. Only a small fraction of those students ended up passing the course, but then that's a good thing. Of the 46,500+ students who did not make the cut, they all learned, for free, a lesson that every debt burdened higher-ed dropout wishes they had learned - that not everybody grows up to be an astronaut (tip o' the hat to E.L. Kersten).

Which brings me to the key thing that motivated this post. Now, I love university, and the university life. I didn't do the standard four year run, due to finances, ending up finishing my B.A. over a more sedate seven year stretch, and I am currently in the fifth year of an MFA, just starting my thesis in poetry. (I know... I know... but still I like it). Yet university is a massively expensive proposition for the average person, and the ROI for almost any degree is nearly negligible at the outset. At best, getting a Bachelors, or a Masters is akin to investing in a 30 year bond. It'll pay out eventually, but you have to wait a while.

For a guy like me, who likes reading, likes writing, like wrestling with esoterica that has nothing whatsoever to do with the world of work, money, or practical and applicable skills, university is great. That's my thing, you know. I like it. I'm good at it. I can't rebuild an engine, and can barely change the oil on my car, but analyze a text? I've got six shooters in both holsters, my friend.

But then, isn't that kind of useless, in a practical sense? The humanities don't add value to the world in the physical sense. They don't build houses, or design telecommunications arrays. But isn't the point of existence in this modern age that we don't have to live as our hunter-gatherer forbears did - with each and every day focused only on practical tasks necessary for survival? Music, art, novels, and movies are all completely unnecessary for survival, completely impractical, yet they are what make the day to day of life worthwhile for so many. They are, in a word, fun.

This is the reason I signed up for these Coursera courses. I like the humanities. I like musicology. Paying thousands of dollars for these courses would be a reckless indulgence for my family, financially, and would offer no benefit to us monetarily. I may have been imprudently indulgent in pursuing a B.A. in Creative Writing, and now an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, instead of trying for an MBA or JD, but I can defend my choice of degree in that I will end up with a graduate degree, period. The credential will be something I can leverage for my family's benefit. In my line of work, regardless of experience or intelligence, the difference between a Master and Bachelors translates into a whole swathe of better job opportunities, and extra income. That I am studying something I enjoy, and am good at, is a bonus. But if not for the fact that I can use my degree for a practical purpose, and have the ability to complete it, pursuing it would have been purest folly.

I keep reading articles about millions of students in the US and Canada who enter into university, only to drop out with a mountain of debt, and these stories always upset me. I really hate the precedence of the academic credential in the modern world, because the end result is a highly destructive and self-defeating educational paradigm. Students go to high school to prepare for university, and anything less is frowned upon. Based just on the dropout rates for high school and university, there are a heck of a lot of people not cut out for higher education. Yet so many feel pressured to give it a go, and universities capitalize on this.

Anybody who has ever sat in a massive lecture hall in a first year introductory course has taken part in a scam. Where I did my B.A., at York University in Toronto, I had to take two "Foundations" courses. These were 9 credit courses (With 30 credits being a full load) where a single professor would lecture to over 500 students, while TAs (always grad students being paid a pittance) would lead smaller groups in seminars. Since I was going to school in Canada, the tuition was not outrageous. Maybe $200 and change per credit. Still, that amounted to $1800 per student, for a total of nearly $1,000,000 for the course. In the US, where the per credit course is that much higher... you can do the math.

So what's wrong with this? Well these courses are often used to separate the serious students from those who should not be at university. They are marketed relentlessly, and are usually forced upon students as a requirement, with the result being that a sizable portion of the students who paid for these classes deciding to eventually drop out. It makes sense for the university in that these courses are money-makers, and often go a long way to supporting the budgets of entire departments, yet for all those students who end up walking away with nothing but debt, the experience was anything but beneficial.

Some students will have dropped out due to financial constraints, but with the readily available, and seemingly free-flowing credit laying around for students who simply want to give university a go, it is probably more likely that those who dropped out did so because the learned that university level education was not right for them. The level of reading, the writing requirements, whatever it may be, these students ended up learning, to their detriment, that they made a HUGE mistake.

And this is where something like Coursera is a godsend. Imagine if, in the final year of high school, students were required to take a Coursera style university course. Not for marks, but just as a participation requirement, just to determine wether university education was right for them. The first, and immediate effect, I believe, would be a massive reduction in the number of students giving college a go. These students would see university level education for what it is, not good or bad, but difficult and not for everyone, and might perhaps then be open to alternatives, to trade schools, vocational programs, or entry-level positions with on-the-job learning.

This is how something like Coursera could be destabilizing for the current higher education paradigm. It pulls the curtain back on the wizard, dispelling the marketing slogans, and enticing offers. It allows those who love to learn in a community of learners to do so. For those who are not quite prepared for the university level, it offers a risk-free opportunity to experience higher-education.

Over the summer, I will be doing two courses through Coursera - a course in World Music offered by The University of Pennsylvania, and a course about Science Fiction offered by the University of Michigan. I'll post my thoughts about it from time to time, how the course operates, and perhaps posting some of my assignments and the associated lectures or texts (where copyright allows).

It should be fun!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Why are so many teachers resistant to eLearning?

I came across a great article in Slate, today - Why Johnny Can't Add Without a Calculator by Konstantin Kakaes. The argument, in simple terms, is that what we really need to teach math is paper, pens, an old fashioned blackboard, and a textbook that is at least a decade or so older than the students. As a key example of this, Kakaes points out the story of Vern Williams, a celebrated super teacher who may very well be the John Henry of Math Educators. Williams refuses to use newfangled devices, and feels they are a menace to real education. Reading this, I found myself smiling, somewhat taken aback by the utter nonsense of it all.
I'm sure Vern Williams is a superstar teacher. But Vern Williams is just a singular being, he is not legion. Of math educators, he may be the LeBron James, or Michael Phelps, but in being that, there then is the reality that there is something he is not - your everyday normal educator. Indeed, in highlighting Mr. Williams special nature, Kakaes even spends time telling us cherry picked anecdotes of examples of technology uses in the classroom he has witnessed which, no surprise, failed to blow him away. 
In a classic example of thunder without lightning, bark without bite, Kakaes ends up making three critical errors in his argument.
First, he sets up a straw man. He chooses the example of teachers who are not yet fully trained in how to use technology in the classroom, and holds their example up as proof that technology in the classroom is all just a waste of time. An argument worthy of William Jennings Bryan.
Next, Kakaes forgets something that is the root of all mathematics - logic. You cannot scale a single person. Vern Williams may be an amazing educator, but you can't clone him by the tens of thousands. The only thing that can bring Mr. Williams wisdom and methods to the masses is the very thing being demonized in the article - technology. To wit:
But drawing up a lesson plan is itself educative: A teacher who plans his own lecture is forced toward mastery of the material, but one who downloads a PowerPoint presentation doesn’t have to know anything beyond how to download the presentation. It is a mirage of efficiency: empty calories.
Drawing up a lesson plan my be educative, but using a lesson plan prepared by a master teacher is far more so. The same goes with the materials, exercises, and examples they create and curate. Great teachers can be hamstrung by poor materials, but those who are merely average to good can often be sunk by them. 
The final error in this piece is that Kakaes is essentially arguing against something he plainly knows nothing about. He tried a few programs and didn't like them? Read a few studies he didn't agree with? Saw a few teachers who didn't blow him away? Plain as day, every example he puts forth as proof of his claim is so utterly weak that it is laughable. This is not someone who knows the theory and practice of flipping a classroom, or how to leverage the interactive properties of technology to enhance engagement, or how teachers can effectively extend their classroom into their student's own homes and give students the kind of individual support that until now only the wealthiest families had access to.
What eventually brought about a final snort of derision from me was this gem near the end of the article -
Technology is bad at dealing with poorly structured concepts. One question leads to another leads to another, and the rigid structure of computer software has no way of dealing with this.
Clearly Kakaes has never heard of social networking, or learning management systems like Edmodo, which exist to promote discussion, and do not operate according to some strict, linear paradigm; tools which are as useful or not according to who uses them and how they are used. 
I don't often have this sort of reaction, but at the end of the article, I was nearly yelling at my screen. If this 20 year old math text is so great, why isn't it digitized! If Vern Williams is so great, then why isn't his every lesson plan, self created resource, and descriptions of his methodology online? Is the 0$ price tag of Google Docs too much to handle? Does clicking the "upload" button present in insurmountable challenge? And how is it not better for students to have access to the lessons and wisdom of their teachers wherever they are, over only seeing them a few times a week?
The truth is, Kakaes argument is one that I have found all too common, in my experience. In another time, Kakaes and those who think like him would react to seeing automobiles drive past by doubling down on horses and carriage makers. What is so plainly obvious to someone like me, is glaringly not obvious to those like him. Which begs the question, why?
Permit me, if you will,a few preliminary thoughts on the matter.

Why So Many Teachers Resist eLearning
1) A key stumbling block is conceptual. The vast majority of teachers I work with don't really grasp the breadth and scope of this paradigm. All our teachers were encouraged to embrace 1:1, but efforts in that regard seemed to be viewed more as a faddish bureaucratic requirement. Like putting up posters of student work before an observation. Changing this mindset is not impossible, but it does require patience, effort, time, and a plan.
2) The next issue is generational. It's like a technological KT boundary. Those that are early thirty-ish and under generally get it, and those over, generally don't. I can't remember where I took this analogy from, maybe Scott McLeod or someone in that educational travelling visionary set, but in my training sessions I generally open things up with this statement - To teachers, a computer, is a tool. It is something you use for your job. It has a purpose and a function, like any other tool. To students, a computer is their environment, their ecosystem. It is not just something they use, it is something they use for everything. Friendship, love, entertainment, school, personal exploration, commiseration, engagement, all of it, everything, is mediated by a computer of some sort. Whether it is a desktop, a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone, doesn't matter. They are all doors and windows into this world that overwhelmingly informs everything they understand about everything around them.
The average teacher doesn't have the frame of reference to truly grasp this. They talk about kids being "addicted" to their cell phones, or their computers, or their video games. They see the behavior as an aberration, a deviation from what they perceive is the norm. What they don't understand, or can't accept, is that the behavior is not a deviation, or an aberration, it is the norm.
3) The third problem, in my opinion, is behavioural. There are a variety of reasons teachers will resist change. For example, they may not want to spend their own money on buying technological tools. I used to work construction. I bought my own tools, my own gear. This is how trades work. Chefs buy their own knives. Artists buy their own brushes and paints. I buy my own microphones, and cameras, and cables. But for some reason most teachers I know feel that their employer has to pay for these things. If I walked onto a construction site and said "You gotta buy me some tools" I'd fast be finding someplace else to be. But teachers seem to see things differently. Perhaps this may be because teachers don't see these technological things as tools of their trade yet, but as esoteric extras.
Also aligned within this behavioral subset is attitude. Teachers who are burned out, or just don't care, won't bother. Teachers with ten years or less until retirement don't see a compelling reason to change their practice. Then there are the teachers who are just hanging on by their fingernails, barely able to control their classes, unsure about whether they picked the right profession, and just don't have the wherewithal to take on something that seems so alien and insurmountable.
The above are all reasons why other teachers are resistant to this model. They. Them.
But there is, strongly feel, another, bigger reason - us.
In every school there are a handful of techie types like myself, comfortable with technology, conversant with it, who proselytize constantly, spreading the digital good news. But how do we look to everyone else?
How receptive are you to the guy on the street corner telling you to repent now? Because that is how we can seem to our colleagues. The faithful, the converted, shouting out our news, our truth. The problem is that we are telling, but rarely ever showing.
I get excited about cool new tools, as many others do. We'll ohh and ahh, and just gush with effervescent imagination like a hippe Carl Sagan who'd just chugged two shots of Atomic Jello laced with LSD.
"Oh it's amazing! You could snargle! With the burgleforg! And then zaxxan the piffleburp!
Listening to us "Terds" speak (Teacher-Nerds... though on reflection perhaps that is an unfortunate amalgam...Teeks, anyone?) is like listening to Charlie Brown's teacher.
What's worse, not only will the un-digital not understand us, but we will often be impatient with them. Our every expression and action will appear to scream "What kind of moron are you? A two year old can do this!"
It doesn't matter that none of what they perceive is true. It doesn't matter if you truly are a helpful person, who holds their colleagues in the highest of esteem. The actual, bedrock truth doesn't matter. Only what is perceived to be the truth does.
I learned this the hard way. Full of energy, positivity, ideas, and a willingness to expend effort on behalf of others, I found myself constantly being sideswiped by politics in the workplace. Accusations, insinuations, lies, and some insanely mean comments. I kept being yanked into the principal's office, and more than once thought I'd be out of a job right then and there. I had to really step back, and evaluate what I was doing, and how I approached what I did.
That was when things started to change for the better. Before I suggested something to someone, I'd put myself in their shoes, and think about how it would fit into their practice and skill level. I learned patience. I kept my door open, and any time a colleague came by, whether I was teaching or not, I'd wave them in, listen, and see what I could do.
It amazed me how fast things began to change. All I had to do was wait for the right openings. Instead of pushing solutions on to others, I'd wait until someone came around with a problem. When my department started having a mess of marks as spreadsheets got fired back and forth, and people did or did not copy and paste correctly, I set up a Google Spreadsheet, shared it, and the problem was solved.
It is not a fast process, but I found that the key was to look at small things that saved others time, frustration, and effort. Small things that did not require much of them, and offered instant, observable benefits. That's the gateway drug, the gateway tech. That's where it starts.
Over time, with patience, and humility, I think we can effect the change in other teachers that we seek.
And then, once we open their eyes, we can start taking the good and the great, the best practices, the amazing resources, collecting them, collating them, and promoting their use.
We don't tell scientists to invent their own scientific method. We don't tell architects to draw up their own building codes. We don't ask doctors to whip up their own medicines. Professionals, including teachers, work best by building on what has come before, by implementing best practices, and not re-inventing the wheel each and every day.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Creating an Open Learning Network Part 1

If the video is not playing, download it!

The eLearning Workroom on YouTube

It had to be done, I guess. I've now got the knack of doing video online on my own, but there really is no escaping that YouTube juggernaut. I hemmed and hawed over the idea, but finally decided to set up a dedicated channel for my new Educational Technology initiative, The eLearning Workroom.

The idea behind this initiative is to create videos and video series focused on a broader implementation of technology in the classroom, not so much on how I might use a certain whiz-bang neato thing with a couple of students in my own class, but more on how technology and online services can be harnessed in a way that it can benefit the faculty of an entire school or board, and the thousands of students connected to them.

Teachers are dedicated, often ingenious, but not always efficient. A teacher's classroom is, in practice, an isolated fiefdom. A place where procedures and traditions develop in a bespoke manner, where assignments and collected materials are both varied, and as unique as a fingerprint, from classroom to classroom.

It's not that teachers don't share resources, because they do, but almost always in a haphazard, ad-hoc manner. I might share worksheets with a colleague I like, but perhaps not with a colleague I am on the outs with. I might pop by the classroom next door, but perhaps not beyond that. Not everyone has all the best stuff, and often a herculean effort is endlessly required in order to find, make, and organize materials, worksheets, and lessons. More often, those herculean efforts need to be repeated as documents are lost, curriculum objectives shift, or people move.

This endless waste of time, just getting stuff together to use for a lesson, is the both the bane and the ordinary condition of almost any teacher. It is just a part of the job, and always has been. But that does not mean the situation is okay, or the situation has to stay. There is, in fact, a better way.

In the second video on the eLearning Workroom blog and channel, I begin a series where I explain and explore the power and utility of the Open Learning Network. The first video takes us step by step through the creation of the initial network, and subsequent videos will explore how we can link resources to this network, and utilize technology to do things with teaching that were not possible in the past.

Ever wanted to mark 1000 tests with the click of a button?

How about having an entire year long course prepared in advance?

What if you, your students, and their parents could access every pertinent piece of information they might need to succeed, all in a single place?

What if, instead of spending a third of your day trying to get your students to quiet down and listen, and a further half vainly trying to explain and re-explain the same concepts over and over again, you could skip all that, and free up more time in the classroom than you ever thought possible?

What if you could actually be a teacher? Not a task master, or a disciplinarian, or a burnt out wreck trying day by day just to make it to the last bell. But a teacher, in the truest sense. Not the font of all knowledge, but the guide, the friendly face, the helping hand.

That would be pretty nice, wouldn't it? 

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Act of Watching TV Goes Back to the Future

I got my wife the new iPad 2 for Christmas, and it quickly became the go to device for my kids for watching music videos and playing games. Recently, however, we started using it to watch TV shows.

Hooking it up to the TV was simple, we just had to buy a little adapter, and an HDMI cable, and voila! MP4s on the big screen. For some reason, our DVD player only supports Dvix/Xvid .AVI files, so MP4s were something we only saw on the computer.

But now we could watch them in their full compressed glory.

Only one hitch. Watching a show, pausing a show, or changing to another show requires someone (me) to ponderously leverage themselves off the couch, and stumble over to the TV table to hit the home button, unlock the screen, and hit the pause button.

It brought me right back to my childhood, back when this was how I had to change the channel when I was a child (only we turned a knob back then), back before there were remote controls.

But then, in back-twinge induced moment of insight, I realized something... Remote controls were never invented. No. They have always been with us, just changing forms, is all. Remotes today have two batteries, remotes back then had two legs.

I... did have a remote for the iPad! In fact, I had three just waiting to be called upon.

Now I need only mention "Oh I better pause the show..." and make to move in order to spur six little legs into motion, all competing to beat me to it.

As my parents had trained me, so I now pass that on to my children.

Until they make a remote for my iPad, you know, the kind with two batteries.

Or maybe I'll just stick with what I've got. For as long as I can, at least.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Memo to Leafs: Thai Girl Goalie is Awesome

It'll never happen, mostly because the Toronto Maple Leafs are addicted to sucking, and they like to fill their roster like the Oakland A's from Moneyball (except that the Leafs ride high on a pile of fithly lucre, which makes their actions seem doubly insane), but if they did decide to take a leap into the unknown, and maybe whip up some excitement, I dont think they could do any better than signing 17 year old Wasunun Angkulpattanasuk.

Wha? Who? You say.

Just recently, at the Under 18 Challenge Cup of Asia, the Thailand team found themselves sans a goalie. Apparently male Thai's think being a goalie is a sissy thing, which only goes to show that they haven't seen enough footage of Patrick Roy or Ron Hextall. In any event, since none of the boys would put on the mask, the Thai team had no choice but to take on little Wasunun as their lone hope in net.

Once in the UAE, the Thai team nearly faced disqualification for this coed situation, but since the goalies don't interact with the other players, the tournament officials argued, there would be no chance of gender contamination, and therefore she could play (*Again, Roy, Hextall, et al).

Maybe they thought a girl in net would be a great opportunity to light up the scoreboard. Who knows. But what they got was a size two skate up the rear, because this little firebrand wasn't just standing around.

By the end of the tournament, the Thais has scored 47 goals, with Wasunun letting in only 4 total. A GAA of 1!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Introducing the eLearning Workroom

I recently gave a talk at the TESOL Arabia Pecha Kucha 20X20 event at the Dubai Women's College, and the feedback I got was extremely positive. So much so that I was inspired to get moving a bit, and start producing videos aimed at educators hoping to grasp the e-learning basics that they may have been struggling with as their schools, and around the world, shift to more e-focused curricula. (Gasp! That was a lot to say in one breath!)

So I set up a new website solely for educators, featuring video tutorials. I would like to introduce to you The eLearning Workroom

My first post is my talk from TESOL ARABIA 2012. There was a technology malfunction, so I had to redo the audio. Same stuff, just nicer sounding!

Talkin' with James

About a decade or so ago you would have found me rushing up and down the streets of Toronto going from one interview to the next. Not interviews for a job, but interviews with authors for my radio show "Covered & Bound" on CHRY 105.5FM, and later for my (now defunct) hand-coded-in-html blog "Engaging the Word".

I saved all those old interviews, an archive that numbers in the several hundreds, and I decided to start putting them back up online. I got to looking at Tumblr one day, and found that this was the perfect format for these interviews.

They are long form (20 minutes to 1 hour long)  interviews with authors from all across the publishing spectrum.

If you like HBO's A Game of Thrones, for example, you might want to check out the two interviews I did with George RR Martin.

I've linked to it at the top of this blog, or you can click this link here - Talkin' with James

Mackenzie's Kindergarten Graduation

My oldest daughter graduated from Kindergarten yesterday. Yes, yes, it's a long ways away from getting her JD, but still... Something to celebrate!

Kathleen's 4th Birthday

My second oldest daughter turned 4 recently. Time moves fast...

Easter Egg Hunt 2012

My wife's old schoolmate has started up a business planning weekend events for kids. She is just in the beta testing phase right now, but the kids had fun nonetheless.

Mackenzie's School Concert

My eldest daughter, at the wizened age of 5, is in higher kindergarten. One of the things I like about her school is their insistence on the arts and performance. This is a snippet of her 2012 concert.

Often Angels

I am blessed with three daughters, and friends will often remark on how lucky I am to have three girls instead of three boys.

Yes, I reply, they are often angels, but...

Dad vs. The Desert

My Dad came to Dubai recently. We hadn't seen him since 2007, but thanks to my sister getting him a ticket for Christmas, he was able to stop by.

 This is the first of a series of videos chronicling his visit.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Villanelle

vil·la·nelle \ˌvi-lə-ˈnel\
: a chiefly French verse form running on two rhymes and consisting typically of five tercets and a quatrain in which the first and third lines of the opening tercet recur alternately at the end of the other tercets and together as the last two lines of the quatrain

French, from Italian villanella
First Known Use: 1877{1}

- Merriam-Webster


No this is not a book, but it is pretty darn lengthy, so I thought I’d add a little preface in case it was late and you wanted to skip past the boring bits and get on down to the meat and potatoes of the thing. What follows is an overview of the origins and development of the villanelle form, followed by a section detailing the themes or motifs that seem to predominate in this form, followed by a short section on the structure of, and how to write a villanelle, and finally examples of the form from the late sixteenth century to the modern day.

But before we begin, a few words are in order, beginning with a question – What the heck is a villanelle?

The villanelle form is a bit of a vagabond, not so much an emigrant, but an immigrant, an immigrant akin to those who, seeking the American Dream, arrived at Ellis Island as ‘Skis, ‘Bergs, and ‘Steins, and left as Smiths or Johnsons. If you want a more contemporary, to the minute analogy, the villanelle is like Don Draper from Mad Men, a country rube of the humblest origins that found a new life in a new place with a new identity.

In practice, the villanelle is not a form of French poetry – it is exclusively an English form. This may sound odd, and seem to contradict what you are about to read, but stick with me, and in short order you will see what I mean.


It is believed that the French villanelle stems from the Italian villanella, and is related to the Spanish villancico, both of which originated prior to the sixteenth century. Derived from the latin words referring to country and house, a villanella (or villancico) was basically a country tune sung by illiterate peasants, usually accompanied by a dance of some sort.

Originally, there was no rhyme or reason (shout out!) to the villanelle, but there was a refrain. As Amanda French states,
to title a poem "Villanelle" would have been something akin to titling a poem "Blues" today. Structurally, the villanella had no rule other than that it usually had a refrain, which was-- as in the popular song forms of any era--a single refrain, not an alternating one. The terms "villanella" and "villanelle" referred to musical distinctions, not verbal distinctions; they were by no means set poetic forms, as the sonnet then was, and even as the triolet and the rondeau were. (21)
Yet somehow, along the way, the villanelle went from being the plaything of uneducated peasants, a staple of the rich oral tradition of the unlettered masses of France, to being something that conferred prestige and respect upon the highly educated elite who practiced this form on the pages of literary journals throughout the English world.

So how did this from get from A to B and only end up including A and B? (Sorry…poetry joke!)

Contrary to what Merriam-Webster indicates {2} the villanelle is over a half a millennium old. But for some reason, the form in its current iteration is believed to be nearly the same age – as if the villanelle was born fully grown, springing from the forehead of Zeus. But the truth is a little different.

That idea that the fixed form villanelle is close to half a millennium old, or older, is actually the result of an editorial decision that ended up changing the known history of the form for centuries to come. In the mid eighteenth century, the French lexicographer Pierre-Charles Berthelin, who had become the editor of the Rhyming Dictionary (Dictionnaire de rimes), got ambitious and wanted to beef up the dictionary by a significant amount, eventually adding about a hundred pages or so by including expanded definitions and exemplars of the different forms of poetry. It’s the sort of thing ambitious editors anywhere might do, and it’s where history, or at least the history of the villanelle, changed

Prior to Berthelin, the villanelle was widely known as the stuff of backwoods rubes. According to Julie Kane, writing in Modern Language Quarterly,
[Pierre] Richelet’s Dictionnaire françois (1680), the first comprehensive French-language dictionary (commissioned by the Académie Française), defines villanelle as a spontaneously improvised peasant song, rather than a fixed and written poetic form. (Kane, 433)
Richelet’s definition remained the definition of the villanelle for some time to come. When Richlet later took a rhyming dictionary created by Frémont d’Ablancourt (Nouveau dictionnaire de rimes, corrigé, 1648) and created his own rhyming dictionary (Dictionnaire de rimes, 1692), the definition he used for the villanelle was roughly the same one he’d used for the Dictionnaire fraincois in 1680 - Villanelle, vieux poëte français—sorte de danse et de poésie, which means, roughly, a kind dance and poetry.

But in 1751, when Berthelin’s edition of the Dictionnaire francois was hot off the press, the definition of the villanelle had changed. More than just changed, it had been transformed. This is how Berthelin defined the villanelle -
The villanelle is a shepherd’s song. Here is one from Jean Passerat…This little poem is divided into tercets, all containing two rhymes on elle and on oi, and the same two appear together at the end, making a quatrain instead of a tercet. One also finds villanelles with stanzas of six lines. (Kane, 434)
Nothing in this definition refers to spontaneity, lack of structure, or even dance. There is a nod to the rural origins of the form as a “shepherd’s song”, but other than that it appears to be a fixed poetic form. The entry even notes an exemplar of the form, Jean Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma tourterelle”.

So what happened? Did the form evolve and transform between 1692 and 1751? Did a revolutionary new school of poets come along, taking the villanelle out of the country and into the halls of high society, as Percy Grainger did for the folk songs of the English countryside in the early 20th Century? Nope, nothing of the sort. Instead, what happened, or is believed to have happened (meaning that until a working time machine can be built, it can’t be proven) is that Berthelin, well, got lazy.

The ‘exemplar’ of the villanelle form that Berthelin chose, Passerat’s “J’ay perdu,” was actually the only villanelle in existence with that specific form. As Amanda French writes,
…only a single poet of the Renaissance wrote a villanelle by that definition, and he wrote only one. Jean Passerat's "Villanelle," also called "J'ay perdu ma tourterelle" (probably written in 1574), has come to represent a nonexistent tradition of which it is the sole example. (French, 17)
It was a very famous and well known villanelle at the time, which is probably why Berthelin had heard about it, but it was also absolutely 100% sui generis. Like a fingerprint, or your DNA, it was one of a kind. There were scores and scores of lesser known, published villanelles in existence, but only Passerat’s had that specific form.

What is believed to have happened, and this is just pure supposition, but it makes sense in a real, human, Occam’s Razor sort of way, is that by the time Berthelin got down to ‘V’ in his reimagining of the Dictionnaire de rimes, he was getting anxious to finish. “J’ay perdu” was a well-known villanelle, and had been held up by others as an excellent villanelle, so it seemed to make for a good exemplar. Berthelin popped the poem in, and did a basic deconstruction of the form. Since the villanelle form was not being widely practiced in the cities and high society salons of the time, who was to say that Berthelin was wrong? Nobody. And nobody did, for a good, long time.

As Julie Kane notes, “[d]espite Berthelin’s audacity in having silently fixed the form of the villanelle in that year, however, no poet seems to have noticed for almost a century.” (440) In fact, it wasn’t until 1845 that Passerat’s form was ever used again, and then it was used in parody, with Théodore de Banville simply copying the poem “J’ay perdu” wholesale and adding two tercets to the length. By 1867, the total number of Passeratian villanelles totaled four – the two already mentioned, along with another parody by Banville and an attempt at the form by a friend of Banville’s, Philoxène Boyer.

Up to that point, the villanelle as described by Berthelin was not what you’d call a widely practiced form. But then something happened that changed everything.

In 1872, Théodore de Banville included a definition of the fixed form villanelle in his treatise on French poetry - Petit traité de poésie française. Shortly after that, like a twenty-first century internet meme, word of the villanelle began to spread far and wide - and was suddenly being practiced by known and noted writers in France, England, and America. From then on, the Passeratian fixed form villanelle went from being a misconception born of a mistake, to being something known, and something real.
In the first decade following the publication of Banville’s 1872 treatise, the French poets Maurice Rollinat, Joseph Boulmier, and Leconte de Lisle; the British poets Edmund Gosse, Austin Dobson, John Payne, Emily Pfeiffer, Oscar Wilde, and Andrew Lang; and the American poet James Whitcomb Riley all published original villanelles. The first anthology of fixed-form poems, Gleeson White’s Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles, &c. Selected (1887) {3}, contained an astonishing thirty-two English-language villanelles by nineteen poets. (Kane, 442)
At first glance, thirty-two does not seem like an overlarge number, but the Gleeson White anthology was the Norton Anthology of its time. That is, it represented the best of the best of English fixed-form poetry, and at that time fixed-form poetry was pretty much the only game in town. This is what makes the selection of thirty-two examples of the form so remarkable. Will the next edition of Norton Anthology of English Literature include a few dozen notable blog posts in amongst the finest short stories and essays in the English canon? It’s possible, and if it happens, it would be an indicator of how prominent the form has become.

From the late nineteenth century onwards, the villanelle assumed its place on the list of notable English poetic forms, and is still in use in the twenty-first century.

Oh, wait, did I just say the villanelle is an English poetic form? That probably doesn’t make all that much sense, considering the history that has just been outlined has been pretty much all France, all the time. But there it is, nonetheless. The villanelle is an English poetic form. Full stop. Why?

After the publication of the Gleeson White anthology, the villanelle, or at least the prescribed form outlined in the Dictionnaire de rimes pretty much faded from existence in the French literary world, while at the same time, exploded in popularity in the English literary world. Today, were you to canvas professors of modern French poetry, they would be hard pressed to come up with even a single well known example of the form in French.
As for the contemporary villanelle in French, it is not to be found: not in Claude Roy and Michel Décaudin's Anthologie De La Poésie Française Du XXe Siècle (2000); not in Alain Bosquet's Anthologie De La Poésie Française Contemporaine: Les Trente Dernières Années (1994), not in Henri Deluy's Poésie En France, 1983-1988: Une Anthologie Critique (1989). (French, 15)
Indeed, as French contends,
it does seem to be the case that the twentieth-century French villanelle is conspicuously absent—it is certainly nowhere near as thriving as it is in English. Dr. Michael Bishop of the University of Dalhousie, a respected and prolific scholar of contemporary French poetry, is at best dubious as to the whereabouts of any contemporary Francophone villanelle…No professor of Anglophone poetry would need to make such a modest reply…(15)
The 19 line, six stanza structure of the villanelle, the one English poets love and know so well, is really only used in the English language. The real villanelle, the country tune of peasants and farmers may very well still be alive and well, thriving in the countryside of France, Italy, and Spain, but that villanelle is not this villanelle, the fixed form English poem.

Common Themes and Motifs

What originally drew me to the villanelle was the gravitas in the form. My impression, I realize now, was probably entirely due to the fact that my first encounter with the form was through Dylan Thomas’ famous villanelle, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Thomas had written the poem as a response to his father’s terminal illness, and the emotional gravity of the situation is woven in every line.{4} At the time I first read it, however, I did not know the story behind the poem, and instead read it as a broader, more historical or political commentary. It seemed, to me, to be a poem that commented on civilization, and on the perceived inevitability of the decline and fall of all societies. Inspired by “Do not go gentle,” I wrote a villanelle of my own, though in my ignorance, and not fully grasping the scheme and technical details of the form, ended up writing a somewhat different villanelle, which my professor at the time generously (and quite delicately) referred to as an “O’Hearnian” villanelle.
Dawn alights upon the silent morning
Breathing relief at sight of night’s retreat
In my ear I hear the whispered warning

Contradicting disastrous prediction
The day now begins with little friction
A blackened scythe swings forth in angry flight
Then pausing only with the halt of night
Dawn alights upon the silent morning

The Lord I thank with my bellowed laughter
For the great and joyous gift of after
Looking seeing naught that’s inauspicious
Ignoring the signs as superstitious
In my ear I hear the whispered warning

Withhold your joy for this tenuous peace
For ‘tis only the shortest briefest lease
Over the horizon something still awaits
Acting in the stead of the three dead fates
Dawn alights upon the silent morning

We had thought to abide afar and hide
At faults divide we stood with bitter pride
Death and Famine and Plague and Pestilence
Have offered us too many precedents
In my ear I hear the whispered warning

Post a watch e’en though the day is bright
Prepare in advance for the coming fight
For the stout of heart there can be no sleep
Or the cost unknown we shall surely reap
Dawn alights upon the silent morning
In my ear I hear the whispered warning
For some reason (don’t ask me, I can’t fathom what I might have been thinking at the time), I thought a villanelle consisted of an opening tercet, followed by four cinquains made up of sets of rhyming couplets with an alternating refrain, and concluding with a sestet that included both refrains as the final couplet. In a strict, traditional sense as defined by Amanda French, I was probably fine in describing my poem as a villanelle since I did have a refrain (albeit an alternating one), but in terms of the commonly accepted fixed form – I was a bit off.

After learning, to my disappointment, that my villanelle was not actually a villanelle, I began looking at other, real villanelles in order to correct my lack of education about the form. Aside from learning about the proper scheme, what I found was pretty much what Ronald McFarland attests (and in a much more eloquent manner than I) in his treatise on villanelles, "The Villanelle: The Evolution of a Poetic Form." It turns out that villanelles really weren’t all that serious after all.

When English and American poets first began playing with the form in the late nineteenth century, it was more for novelty, as a way to add some exotic flair to their work. And, as all novelties generally are, it was considered to be somewhat unserious. The villanelle of the late nineteenth century was held in about the same esteem as the limerick is today – fun to write, but not really substantial.
The English poets…poems followed the point of view and tone implied by the adjectives which are prominent in [Gosse’s] comments on the villanelle: precious, delicate, dainty. "It requires a peculiar mood and moment" to compose a villanelle…and for many writers that mood and moment involved some form of nostalgia for the Golden Age (often pastoral), for past love, or for passing time (fin de siecle, as often as not). Too often, as subsequent examples will demonstrate, the result is a sort of insipid pathos, a sentimentality which is not capable of being poignant, however it may try. (McFarland, 128)
But something changed in the mid to late twentieth century. All of a sudden, villanelles began to exhibit a different mood and tone – instead of being precious, delicate, and dainty, they were far more serious, respectable, even.
I would argue that theme does not inhere in form, as the mid-century modernists proved by their complete erasure of the villanelle's previous "trifling" reputation.…After Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night," the villanelle was firmly proved respectable. (French, 180)
What happened was, on much a larger scale, pretty much similar to what happened when I tried to write my first villanelle – the mid-century modernists didn’t really know all that much about the form, and what little they did know did not predispose them to think of the form as trifling, which allowed them to take the form more seriously, the result of which led to a reinvented, re-imagined poetic form that could finally stand toe to toe with the august sonnet in the annals of English poetry.

The Structure of, and Writing of, Villanelles

The basic, fixed form villanelles is 19 lines long, and the lines “can be iambic trimeter, tetrameter, or pentameter (or, I suppose, any meter a poet can sutain).” (Adams, 93) The scheme used is A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2.

That said, you might have noted that Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle” does not actually follow a strict metre, which is a characteristic of many modern villanelles. Generally speaking, while modern villanelles might drop the use of metre, they usually attempt to keep the length of line consistent (Though a good many more recent poets seem to enjoy flouting this convention). This is just supposition, but it may be that the strict use of metre may have been part of the reason that nineteenth century poets felt villanelles lacked gravitas.

Villanelles maintain a very fixed stanzaic structure, comprised of four tercets followed by a quatrain. It is possible to add additional stanzas, which many poets have done in the past, but generally those additions follow the structure set out by the scheme, with alternating refrains in successive stanzas.

As for writing a villanelle, it is actually not that difficult. Part of the attraction of the form for the mid-century modernists was the perceved technical difficulty of the form, but as their efforts, and the subsequent efforts of many other poets have demonstrated, writing a villanelle is only difficult by reputation, not in reality.

The first thing to do when writing a villanelle is to come up with the couplet that forms the alternating refrain. The refrain is the both the heart and the backbone of the form.
While it would be unfair to judge any villanelle solely by its concluding lines, Mary J. J. Wrinn is probably correct in advising that the poet must first plan the couplet which will end the poem and will provide the refrain lines. One line, as she notes, "should grow out of the other." If the couplet does not have some peculiar force or appeal, the poem will likely fail. (McFarland, 129)
Once you have written a refrain you are satisfied with, it becomes a simple matter of scaffolding the poem, of basically filling out the lines marked A1 and A2. This takes care of 8 of the 19 lines of the poem. From that point on the poet’s job is to flesh out the story of the poem through the remaining 11 lines as the refrain weaves in and out.

Of course this paint by numbers approach may appear simplistic, but by using it, any apprehensions regarding the difficulty of the form can be shown to be baseless, allowing the poet to both feel free to use the fixed form, and, soon enough, to play with it.

Examples of Villanelles

The one that started it all – Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle”
J'ay perdu ma Tourterelle:
Est-ce point celle que j'oy?
Je veus aller aprés elle.

Tu regretes ta femelle,
Helas! aussi fai-je moy,
J'ay perdu ma Tourterelle.

Si ton Amour est fidelle,
Aussi est ferme ma foy,
Je veus aller aprés elle.

Ta plainte se renouvelle;
Tousjours plaindre je me doy:
J'ay perdu ma Tourterelle.

En ne voyant plus la belle
Plus rien de beau je ne voy:
Je veus aller aprés elle.

Mort, que tant de fois j'appelle,
Pren ce qui se donne à toy:
J'ay perdu ma Tourterelle,
Je veus aller aprés elle.
The same poem, translated by Amanda French.
I have lost my turtledove:
Isn't that her gentle coo?
I will go and find my love.

Here you mourn your mated love;
Oh, God—I am mourning too:
I have lost my turtledove.

If you trust your faithful dove,
Trust my faith is just as true;
I will go and find my love.

Plaintively you speak your love;
All my speech is turned into
"I have lost my turtledove."

Such a beauty was my dove,
Other beauties will not do;
I will go and find my love.

Death, again entreated of,
Take one who is offered you:
I have lost my turtledove;
I will go and find my love.
A nineteenth century example, Oscar Wilde’s “Theocritus”
O Singer of Persephone!
In the dim meadows desolate
Dost thou remember Sicily?

Still through the ivy flits the bee
Where Amaryllis lies in state;
O Singer of Persephone!

Simaetha calls on Hecate
And hears the wild dogs at the gate;
Dost thou remember Sicily?

Still by the light and laughing sea
Poor Polypheme bemoans his fate;
O Singer of Persephone!

And still in boyish rivalry
Young Daphnis challenges his mate;
Dost thou remember Sicily?

Slim Lacon keeps a goat for thee,
For thee the jocund shepherds wait;
O Singer of Persephone!
Dost thou remember Sicily?
Some notable mid-twentieth century modernist examples. First, Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking”
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go
Next up is Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song”
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan's men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you'd return the way you said.
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
And the last mid-twentieth century modernist example, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Now for some twenty-first century villanelles. First, Peter Cooley’s “Villanelle”
What do we take with us when we go?
I'm no John the Baptist: I love my stuff like you.
We won't have time to make a list, you know.

My favorite art tie: Self-Portrait by Van Gogh,
the spear I bought in Paris at twenty-two.
What do we take with us when we go?

Last year my parents died: I had to throw
away most of their seventy years together. Finally, I knew:
We won't have time to make a list, you know.

I lugged home family books I'll hate to read: Longfellow,
Whittier, all of Thompson's The Seasons to get through.
What do we take with us when we go?

My daughters married, moved to New York, Chicago.
They left their childhoods with parents they outgrew.
We won't have time to make a list, you know.

Oh, Love, your body, I have loved it so!
It will leave me like my own. Will you love mine risen, too?
What do we take with us when we go?
We won't have time to make a list, you know.
Next up, is Chad Parmenter’s “A Villanelle to Burn”
I used to light my sheets on fire
at night, to dare my tears to grow
and put it out before I burned.

But crying left these smoking scars.
By pouring water on the coals
I'd used to light my sheets on fire

I made a hissing steam, a storm
that dried the fire and tried to boil
but put it out before I burned.

No burns on me. What power here.
To test it, and to kill the cold
inside, I lit my sheets on fire

a final time. By nursing hurt,
we signal in the miracles.
So put me out before I burn.

They're burning down to fur. Come here
now, God, you crying ghost, before
the I that lit my sheets on fire
is put out, before your eye burns.
Now for Elisavietta Ritchie’s “How to Write a Villanelle”
If you would write a villanelle
Choose two of your most brilliant lines,
Ones you should have jettisoned.

Repeat them till you're bored
And so's your reader if he's stuck
This far through your villanelle.

Do likewise if you find a perfect rhyme.
Have no illusions that you are the first:
Whoever was, he should have jettisoned

All his favorite rhymes and lines.
So should you. Try fancy foreign forms
If you would write a villanelle.

As with new lovers: you repeat a line
Till you are bored and so is he or she,
That line you should have jettisoned,

For soon you may suspect that he's or she's
A villain/villainess who does not care
if you would write a villanelle.
This one you should have jettisoned.
And finally, making fun of the whole form, and taking a shot at Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”, is Campbell McGrath’s “Villanelle”
Bouncing along like a punch-drunk bell,
its Provencal shoes too tight for English feet,
the villanelle is a form from hell.

Balletic as a tapir, strong as a gazelle,
strict rhyme and formal meter keep a beat
as tiresome as a punch-drunk bell

hop talking hip hop at the IHOP - no substitutions
on menu items, no fries with the chimichanga,
no extra syrup - what the hell

was that? Where did my rhyme go - uh, compel -
almost missed it again, damn, can you feel the heat
coming off this sucker? Red hot! Ding! (Sound of a bell.)

Hey, do I look like a bellhop to you, like an el-
evator operator, like a trained monkey or a parakeet
singing in my cage? Get the hell

out of the Poetry Hotel!
defeat mesquite tis mete repeat
Bouncing along like a punch-drunk bell,
the villanelle is a form from - Write it! - hell.

{1} Yep, that’s right. It says “1877”. No, it’s not a typo on my part, it’s what they actually wrote.

{2} And people complain that Wikipedia is inaccurate! Merriam-Webster, owned by the same folks as what write that Britannica Encyclopedia is off by a couple centuries here!

{3} I could see Merriam-Webster picking the pub date of the Gleeson White Anthology as the date of origin for the villanelle, but even here the date is off, by ten years!

{4} Listen to it! You can hear the gravitas in Dylan Thomas' voice.


Adams, Stephen. Poetic designs: an introduction to meters, verse forms, and figures of speech. Broadview, 1997.

Bishop, Elizabeth. “The Complete Poems 1927-1979". Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979.

Cooley, Peter. New England Review (1990-), Vol. 23, No. 1 (Winter, 2002), p. 43 .

French, Amanda. "The First Villanelle: A New Translation of Jean Passerat's 'J'ay perdu ma Tourterelle' (1574)". Meridian 12 (2003): 30-37.

French, Amanda L. “Refrain Again: The Return of the Villanelle” Diss. U of Virginia, 2004.

Jason, Phillip K. College Literature, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring, 1980), pp. 136-145 .

Kane, Julie. Modern Language Quarterly, Volume 64, Number 4, December 2003, pp. 427-443

McFarland, Ronald E. Victorian Poetry, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Summer, 1982), pp. 125-138

O'Hearn, James. "A Whispered Warning," 2000.

Parmenter, Chad. Harvard Review, No. 31 (2006), p. 138

Ritchie, Elisavietta. Poetry, Vol. 179, No. 5 (Feb., 2002), p. 270