We discussed it, they said it, but they didn’t get it

by Mr. Sheehy

I guided a class discussion today on a poem, Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror.” This particular class has not always done well with discussion (in fact, it was this class I referenced a month or so back as having trouble in discussion format), but I tried sharing some guidance ahead of time that I thought would improve things. Additionally, I hoped that the topic of discussion would help us work well together: poetry often fuels great conversation.

In the end, an odd thing happened.

We read the poem and I assumed the role of discussion leader. I restricted myself to a show-host of sorts, seeking questions and answers from others, trying to rephrase answers where I detected insight but the speaker had trouble articulating the point, and generally keeping my own observations to myself. As I had hoped, the discussion was of high quality. It was not perfect and I would not say the class “broke through” the discussion obstacles they’ve had in the past, but if we continued to improve like this, in time we would certainly become good conversationalists.

After talking through just about every line of the poem (and we discussed them in whatever order they came up), I re-read the poem line by line and recapped each of the expository insights I had heard in the discussion. I was pleased because students had interacted with the images insightfully and I thought were primed to express a mature understanding of the poem.

To finish things off a student read the poem out-loud once through, and everyone wrote a half a page explaining what about the poem made it worth stopping for (“What poetry is worth stopping for?” is our guiding question for the unit). Those responses are where things got weird.

In the poem, you may recall, the speaker is the mirror. It expresses its cold control over the woman in the poem and affirms its lack of complicity in the woman’s frustration with aging. The mirror affirms that it “is not cruel, only truthful.” In the end, the poem is a powerful expression of our culture’s power over women and their concepts of themselves, as well as of our worship of youthfulness. In the mirror, the woman is searching for beauty, and in that search “she has drowned a young girl.” In my own reading, I have always found this poem haunting; it’s at least in part a woman’s cry, exposing our bondage to image.

My students entirely missed this, however. Their half page write-ups expressed comprehension of the action but missed the concept. One comment typifies the kinds of things I read:

It makes me think I should enjoy growing up cause soon enough I’ll be looking in the mirror and seeing an old lady, thinking, what happened?

This person is smart and added some nice observations during our discussion, and her comment, while explicit, is not unique. Many people in her class expressed essentially the same idea, that the woman the mirror mentions is dissatisfied with getting old, and isn’t that horrible?  Step one of that interpretation reads the poem well (the woman is dissatisfied with her aging), but step two of that interpretation reaches the opposite idea from what Plath communicates (“Isn’t it horrible to get ugly?” is what the students generally said).

I as the teacher then find myself sitting sitting in an odd spot. I constructed the class’s exploration so they could dig into the poem, so they could create interpretations. I want them to learn how to read poetry, not to learn what I know about this one poem. That is why I tried not to offer my own insight into the poem, and I am convinced that my not offering my insight is why students were willing to share theirs.

Yet, I also want them to be right. I don’t want my students to spend half an hour in discussion about a poem to arrive at conclusions that would leave Sylvia Plath shaking her head.

I spent some time today asking myself what to do–do I let it go and try again with a poem they might grasp more completely? Or do I beat this poem into the ground and potentially undercut their growth in the process by informing them that they didn’t achieve the goal?

I can’t let it go, though. I am going to bring the poem back to students the next time I see them and share what I think the poem is about. I have decided to hand back their 1/2 page write ups, present questions that I think reveal the error in their thinking (This time big ones include, “Was she dissatisfied with aging, or with her appearance as she ages?” and “So the woman in the poem feels this way, but does that mean that Plath feels that way?”), and share with them what I am convinced is the dominant emotion Plath conveys.

I don’t know if it is the best way to do it, but I’m hoping it accomplishes a little of both of my goals (One goal being students’ learning to explore on their own, another goal for them to be right).

I think I can approach the situation this way because two keys are in place. The first key is that before students returned to class, I read their interpretations. Keeping the feedback circle tight (and the assessment formative) has allowed me to discover their misconceptions in time to correct them. The second thing that is present is that while I am going to act quickly, I am not acting too quickly. I am waiting until next time to correct the errors as opposed to jumping in and telling them everything today. Today was as much about learning the process of interrogating a poem as it was about figuring out what “Mirror” had to say to us, and telling them they were wrong today might have distracted them from what they had done right during the exploration.

Ultimately, I was surprised to see students come so close to the beauty of a poem and not actually see it. Thankfully I have created a line of communication that alerted me to the gap, so I can make them aware of what they missed. If I don’t make them aware of it, I think I would not only be misleading them on the meaning of Plath’s poem, I would be misleading them about the importance of accuracy and excellence in the process of exploring the written word. And that too would be wrong.

Thanks for reading.