Putting History Into Verse
Sudbury Town Crier
By Carole LaMond / Staff Writer

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Bill Schechter has been a teaching history at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School for well over thirty years, and for most of those years he has been writing poetry as well.

But it wasn't until a year ago that Schechter realized that writing poetry and the study of history could be connected in a homework assignment.

While I have always included the reading of a few poems in my course, I had never required students to write their own poems about the material they were studying," said Schechter. :I began to wonder if such assignments might serve not only as a prism for refracting their own understanding and interpretation of the past, but also bring them into a closer emotional connection with the material they were studying."

Schechter decided to give himself the same assignment first.

He would spend the summer of 2004, with the help of a grant from FELS (Fund for Educators of Lincoln-Sudbury), writing poetry about history under deadline.

He would search for places off the beaten track, places where something significant once occurred, but places that history had forgotten.

They had to be places history left behind. It might be a marker left in the woods, or a monument on a city street that people just walked by and were never conscious of, just as I had for years passed the garrison site on Water Row on my drive to school," said Schechter. :I had seen all of these things, but it wasn't until I had the concept of Ôsomething happened here' that the poems came out."

By the end of that summer, Schechter had a book of poetry, :Something Happened Here, Poems about History, Lost & Found." The book includes 18 poems written for the FELS grant, as well as five earlier poems inspired by historical sites.

Reading and writing poetry about history brought Schechter more deeply into the historical events, but could he ask students, sophomores in high school, to write poetry as homework?

The notion of writing poems on demand seemed a bit antithetical to the spirit of poetry," said Schechter. :Could I ask students to write poems on demand, and would the poems be any good, aesthetically, that is?"

But when Schechter told his Twentieth Century American History class that, over the course of the year, they would be writing eight poems inspired by a photograph from different historical eras the sophomores didn't bat an eye.

Just walking into Schechter's history classroom, according to Carolyn LaRow, 16, shakes up the notion of history as a series of chronological events and irrefutable fact. Posters depicting people and events, often controversial, line the wall, and the hood of a Volkswagen :Beetle" and book carts are painted with pictures and slogans. A favorite Schechter saying, the students learn, is a quote from William Faulkner, :The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Mr. Schechter is a totally different teacher than I've ever had before so when he said we were going to write poetry it didn't seem so out of the blue," said LaRow, a Sudbury resident. :It seemed so creative and I was impressed he decided to do that instead of just going by the textbook."

The first poetry assignment was part of the unit on Industrialization. Students were shown a photograph of a young girl standing in front of a loom in a cotton mill.

It took me a really long time to write. I didn't know what he expected and I kept looking up things to make sure it was historically accurate," said Justine Selsing, 16, a Lincoln resident. :I realized you have to look at the facts, but you can also look at a period in history emotionally. It helps to look at how the period affected individuals instead of just looking at the bigger picture."

The poetry soon began to flow.

:It's something I wish I'd come up with, not in my thirty-second year of teaching, but in my second year," said Schechter. :I would have volumes of student poetry by now."

Olivia Soloperto, 16, writes poetry that delves into her own emotions, but the classroom assignment was the first time she wrote from another person's perspective.

It made me think, How would I feel in that situation? Would I have stood by and done nothing, or taken part?'" said Soloperto about a photograph of women suffragists. :It personalizes history. I remember the turning points in history now. That is what Mr. Schechter emphasized in the class, and in the poetry writing."

Some photographs were wrenching, like that of a Chinese child sitting in the rubble after the Japanese bombing of Shanghai, while others, such as a photograph of a smiling Teddy Roosevelt, were less emotionally engaging.

Powerful photographs evoked powerful responses," said Schechter. :There is a quotation by Emma Goldman, Unless you feel a thing, you can never guess its meaning.' That thought is kind of a spotlight on this project."

Schechter was so impressed by the quality of the poetry that he asked seven students to select poems from each of the eight units to be bound in a book, :Past Tense, Poems About History." Each section opens with the assigned photograph and quotations from the history textbook that summarize the era.

It pulled the whole thing together and made it more than just an assignment. A lot of the poems were really good, you could feel the emotion pouring out of them," said Jimmy Roach, 16, a Sudbury student. :The poetry opened up a whole new avenue that I hadn't really thought about. It gave us a way to feel the history rather than history being facts and dates you had to memorize."

On June 9, the class hosted a public poetry reading in the high school's black box theater. While the poets read, the corresponding photograph was projected on a screen.

One of Mr. Schechter's fears was, Can you get good poetry by making it a homework assignment?'" said Soloperto. It turns out you can."

All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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