Dear readers, do any of you believe that that the January 6th rioters were made up of citizens who had had a rich education in the arts? I don’t. The arts humanize us. They teach us empathy. I believe that if the arts were deeply embedded in K-12 education throughout our nation, those riots would never have happened and our states would be vastly more healthy and united.

Here I’d like to recommend ”’: Necessitous Men Are Not Free Men‘: Ruskin’s Influence on the New Deal via Settlement Houses,” an insightful lecture by the historical geographer Gray Brechin. He had seen a piece I posted about arts education in Settlement Houses and my parents’ involvement in the Works Progress Administration, which was founded in the late 30s to address the ills of the Great Depression. He sent me this valuable contribution. Although John Ruskin is in the title, a principle subject of the lecture is Eleanor Roosevelt.

Today the primary financial backers of the arts are foundations formed by the super-wealthy and chiefly benefiting audiences from the middle and upper classes.

But it wasn’t always that way.

My postcard of a true patron of            arts: arts for everyone

The WPA was a federal program included in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. It expanded the work of the Settlement Houses into a national program to address poverty. One of its most famous components was Federal Project Number One, which employed musicians, artists, actors, directors, and writers to bring the arts to struggling communities all across America. My father started his theater career in the project, and my mom taught theater at the Henry Street Settlement House in Greenwich Village.

Because I can’t seem to insert an in-focus image above, I will write out the quote by Holger Cahill, the national director of the Federal Art Project, an arm of the WPA:

“FDR was more deeply interested in the arts than any president since Thomas Jefferson and it is doubtful that any head of state since the  Renaissance equaled him as a patron of living art.”

But Cahill fails to point out that FDR’s interest in the arts was chiefly nurtured by his wife, Eleanor.

Eleanor Roosevelt was the best known of a number of remarkable women influenced by the ideals of John Ruskin. She was teaching social dance at the University Settlement House on the Lower East Side of New York City when she met Franklin. Later in life she wrote about the experience, remarking that she would walk to work instead of riding in a carriage like all of her peers. “It terrified me, but I had to learn the conditions of this neighborhood.” When she became the First Lady, this inspiring passion for serving the neediest in our nation by encouraging their engagement in the arts had a huge influence on her husband. And she walked the walk. With her friends, she established an arts and crafts colony at her house on the Roosevelt property. She made her own bedroom furniture there. She promoted arts education for young children in schools and community programs.

According to Brechin, the New Deal was a comprehensive moral vision that embraced:

*    Dignity of Labor

*    Social security

*    Crafts, self-sufficiency, and self-respect

*    Resettlement in new towns

*     Integration of the arts into life

*    Public education

And this vision was very much the result of the influence of Eleanor Roosevelt.


We’ve had other presidents since Roosevelt who have advanced the arts. Kennedy and Clinton established national programs. Currently there are substantive murmurings from Jill Biden, and if it falls to the wives of Democratic Presidents to carry us forward, so be it! She’d be stepping into the shoes of the greatest first lady ever.

This is on the FDR memorial in Washington DC:

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough to those who have too little.”

Let the arts again be a part of the advancement of those who have too little. Let’s bring back the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt.






I haven’t posted in awhile, but the work continues. The two publishers who “absolutely loved” my book last year, but whose editorial teams passed on it, have both agreed to let me submit a revised version that will convince them of its currency and topicality. I’ve been hard at work on that. The working title […]

Sam Bardwell of Upstart Crow

I truly believe that all drama teachers who work with children and adolescents are going to heaven. I was one myself and I’ve been privileged to know dozens of them and to have seen the work of still more. I haven’t yet met one who couldn’t claim to have saved a life or redirected a young person away from a bitter or perilous path.

Meet Sam Bardwell, the founder of Upstart Crow in St. Paul, Minnesota.

With a name like Bard-well one would think he was born to perform Shakespeare with dexterity, and indeed he does. But he isn’t satisfied with acting roles: he wants to share his love of performing Shakespeare with others. He has worked with inmates in prison, with seminary students, and for the past seven summers he has held three-week programs, one for children and one for adolescents, outdoors, in city parks. The children work with monologues and short scenes, and the teenagers perform entire plays.

I was drawn to know more about him because I am also a Bard-lover from the midwest, and I know how Shakespeare’s poetry can spark color into that world. In fact, interviewing him, I found much in common between him and my dad, who produced the entire canon of Shakespeare’s plays in Ohio, in the 50s. They both  discovered their love Shakespeare on their own, as lonely, searching adolescents.

Titania and Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

When speaking of how Shakespeare’s poetry resonates with teenagers, Sam quoted from Macbeth: “How full of scorpions is my mind.” I spent many years teaching, and I’ve always scoffed at the phrase “troubled” or “at risk” when applied to an individual teen, because I have never met one who was not troubled or at risk! The adolescent mind is often full of scorpions. It’s just a very troubling and risky time for youth. But poetry speaks to teenagers, connects to to their joys and fears, and heals. Teens are young enough to respond without barriers to artful language of all kinds, and, indeed, are ever inventing artful language of their own. As Sam says, “they invent it because they need it!” But the poetry of Shakespeare’s plays is especially compelling. Sam attributes this to “the liveliness of speech,” “the fresh minted language,” and “how the speech moves through your body.” I couldn’t agree more. Iambic pentameter is the heartbeat.

To quote Sam speaking of Shakespearean poetry: “It is a language with the powerful potential to wound or to ennoble.” “Shakespeare’s gift is to sense the water that we’re swimming in.” The language is full of “binary explosions of meaning.” It constantly evokes “the beautiful ‘ahas!'”

Taking their bow!

Sam’s process with students is to get them to do the detective work for every character, to figure out all of the who’s, what’s, when’s, where’s, and, especially why’s. His method is “somewhat like Stanislavsky’s.” The actor explores each character’s point of view, need, circumstance, and obstacle and then plays with the language until it best expresses what they find.

When you think about it, this is a vital approach to teaching young folks in just about any subject you can name. I’ve heard it called “the isomorphic match,” which is a term for when two patterns match. It is when the content being taught exactly matches the receptivity, the point of view, and the need of the learner. To me it speaks to my belief that every lesson should involve some form of presentation, and that the arts are at the best way to teach everything.

So, here’s to music teachers, dance teachers, visual arts teachers, and, especially, drama teachers!



Pleased to announce!

Now that the pandemic is subsiding and schools are reopening, I’m moving forward with the publication of my book. The working title now is Learning the Way Shakespeare Learned: Classroom Dramatics, Physical Rhetoric, and a Generation of Genius. I’m working with Susan Shankin, the publisher of Precocity Press, and the book will be illustrated by my brother. We hope to have it out by the fall.

In the meantime, I’d like to feature some of the truly amazing drama teachers I’ve worked with over the course of my career. I have a deep and abiding love for them all. They teach so much more than drama. Just as drama is an art form that incorporates all other art forms, teachers of drama incorporate everything that every student brings to the class.

To get us going, here is “Jenny, Drama Teacher” from Zadie Smith’s Intimations. The book is her profound and insightful reflection on the pandemic, definitely worth the read in its entirety, but what I want to share here is from her appendix: “Debts and Lessons.” There she credits 26 individuals with escorting her on her voyage into wisdom, with a brief and lovely homage to each one.

(I’ve loved reading Zadie Smith ever since my mom handed me a copy of White Teeth some twenty-five years ago and I read a book that exploded in my mind. I couldn’t fathom that an author so young could produce such an epic! Presumably her experience with Jenny was a spark for her genius.)

13. Jenny, Drama Teacher

A task is in front of you. It is not as glorious as you had imagined or hoped. (In this case, it is not the West End, it is not Broadway, it is a small black box stapled to an ugly comprehensive school.) But it is a task in front of you. Delight in it. The more absurd and tiny it is, the more care and dedication it deserves. Large, sensible projects require far less belief. People who dedicate themselves to unimportant things will sometimes be blind to the formal borders that are placed around the important world. They might see teenagers as people. They will make themselves absurd to the important world. Mistakes will be made. Appropriate measures will be pursued. The border between the important and the unimportant will be painfully reestablished. But the magic to be found in the black box will never be forgotten by any who entered it.



“My conviction is that education must be about thinking—not training a set of specific skills”

I need to gush a bit about this book! It is wise and witty, and it says much of what I say in my book, but from a completely different angle. My book is from the point of view of a practitioner who has spent many years teaching children and adolescents, so it’s very hands-on, with an emphasis on the formative role of drama, dance, and music in the Elizabethan classroom. Newstok looks at thinking from a much more theoretical and academic perspective, and he does it with delightful charm, humor, and insight. I’ve already read it three times, partly because it is dense with information, but mostly because it is fun. And of course it helps that his opinions, like mine, forcefully counter the prevailing gobblety-gook of current educational theory.

Actually, this may be the first of two or three posts because Newstok covers a lot of territory in fourteen brief chapters focusing on fourteen areas of cognition. This post will look at the first three: “Of Thinking,” “Of Ends,” and “Of Craft.”

What, he asks, are the ends of education? In Shakespeare’s day it was the training of capable and critical citizens  able to function “for the benefit of the commonwealth.” Today it seems to  be test scores. He tells a poignant story about his seven-year-old daughter who, upon being asked if she had learned any new words at school responded, coldly, in a whisper, “Assessment!” He goes on to say, “The reflexive call for educational ‘targets’ in current jargon makes me feel as if we adults have become like William Tell, cruelly aiming arrows at our own children. Our means (passing the test) have overtaken our ends (human flourishing).”  That is to say that if you take the long view of current trends in education, we are, in fact, participating in child abuse.

Here is Newstok on thinking:

“Thinking like Shakespeare untangles a host of today’s confused—let’s be blunt: just plain wrong—educational binaries. We now act as if work precludes play; imitation impedes creativity; tradition stifles autonomy; constraint limits innovation; discipline somehow contradicts freedom; engagement with what is past and foreign occludes what is present and native.

“Shakespeare’s era delighted in exposing these purported dilemmas as false: play emerges through work, creativity through imitation, autonomy through tradition, innovation through constraints, freedom through discipline. I stand with the contrarian view that to be a political progressive, one needs to be an educational conservative. Preserving the seeds of time enriches the present—call this heirloom education.”

And more:

“I’m not against testing as a way for teachers to gauge progress within the domain of their own classrooms. But our fixation on tests as target, as the end of education itself—that shoots an arrow right through the heart of thinking, for when the measure becomes the target, it ceases to be a good measure.” 

And a final quote, there’s that nasty fact about the cost of testing real, substantive, intrinsic, and individualized achievement:  “Rather than measure what matters, assessment measures what’s easy to measure.”

The chapter “Of Craft” I would compare to the current theory of practice devoted to developing “habits of mind.” One develops craft through practice. There are practices, or habits, that value critical thinking, creativity, exploration, reflection, and collaboration. I want to highlight one example, for what should be obvious reasons. Newstok highlights “the scope of collective practices that suffused skilled labor in Shakespeare’s world, where craft was not merely a mechanical process, but also communal, intellectual, physical, emotional. Craft required discipline, enforced by people as well as the object itself. Its practitioners habituated themselves to ever-evolving patterns. While playmaking was never formalized as a recognized London guild, key features of the theater aligned with craft’s dynamic thinking practices.”

My take on much of the above, from my book: “Maybe I’m a bit like Erasmus. I like old ideas.” We have so much we can learn from Elizabethan pedagogy. Strip away the fact that it was only for propertied boys, that it could not be accessed without fluency in Latin, and that it was  excessively punitive (I would argue that one, but not here), and there is a wealth of knowledge about how to train better makers and thinkers.

John Lithgow and Susan Angelo read a translation of “Abattis et eruditae,” a colloquy written to teach Elizabethan schoolboys conversational Latin

It was in my favorite biography of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate’s “Soul of the Age,” that I first read about the use of colloquies to teach Latin conversation in Elizabethan schools. He mentioned that those by Desiderius Erasmus were especially popular, and he noted that they were funny.

I looked on the Internet and found a couple of old translations. I ordered them both, and eventually they arrived—dusty old books, falling apart with age. I read them, and wow! They were hilarious! To me they were clearly the source of so many of Shakespeare’s clowns, gossips, bar flies, corrupt clerics, comical town folk, and, especially, his sassy women! These were the colloquials who were my favorite characters in the plays I saw growing up. Had nobody else ever noticed that they came from Erasmus!?

Colloquies were short, scripted conversations, like little plays, to be performed by school children to practice conversational Latin. You can see one here read by my brother and Susan Angelo for a workshop I did last year at the home of the Susan Cambigue Tracy, teacher trainer from the Music Center’s education division.  Shakespeare would have performed”Abattis et eruditae,” or “The Abbot and the Learned Woman,” and many others in school when he was about ten or eleven years old.

Colloquies go back hundreds of years, to a time when the lack of printed books meant that education was mostly oral. They were still very much in use in Shakespeare’s day, and there were several collections commonly used in schools. Most of them were a bit moralizing and preachy. They were supposed to be educational, after all. But the “Colloquia familiaria” by Erasmus were something else all together! They were hilarious! Erasmus was a great believer that there should be delight and laughter in education, and he made sure that he provided it in exercises he designed to teach fluency.

My dad produced the entire canon of Shakespeare’s plays in the fifties, at the Antioch Shakespeare Festival in Ohio. I saw them all, from the audience and from back stage, all the way through the rehearsal process to the finished performance. Lucky me! I was only a kid, and the poetry, the history, and the literary significance of the plays went right over my head—but oh! the comedy! Christopher Slye, Grumio, Gobbo, Touchstone, Feste, Peter Quince, Mistress Quickly, Doll Tearsheet, Falstaff! What fantastic company I kept. And then there were the brilliant women! For me, growing up a girl in the fifties, Shakespeare’s bold, opinionated women empowered my imagination. Reading the colloquies of Erasmus, I felt like I was back with my old friends.

It was the discovery of the colloquies that set me off on the research that led to the writing of “Good Behavior and Audacity.” Realizing that as a schoolboy Shakespeare and his entire generation attended schools where elevated language, recitation of passages from the classics, and the performance of light hearted colloquies were a part of every single day in their schooling made me wonder. Is that what made them so smart? Is there something to be learned from that rusty old pedagogy? Is there something missing from schools today that we could bring back, to light up the genius of a new generation? For me the answer is obvious.

Pesha Rudnick’s TedXTalk: Live Theater is Dangerous

Is anyone out there missing audiences as much as I am? I don’t miss being in front of an audience: I miss being in an audience. I miss sitting in the dark with total strangers and sharing intense delight or catharsis with scores of people I don’t know and will never see again. I miss standing up after the applause and looking around and feeling a moment of intimate recognition with anonymous individuals from all walks and worlds. Live theater is nearly a religion for me, and I never realized how vital it is to my well-being until it was taken away for an entire year! Theaters gone dark, concert halls silent, museums empty. Wow. It’s been hard!! The flu pandemic in 1918 took my dad’s father and two siblings, but he was too small to be aware of its impact on theater. His entire life was spent as an actor and director, so it seems odd that we never discussed what that pandemic must have meant for those in theater or for those in the audience who can’t (or at least don’t want to) live without it.

This blog, too, has gone dark for awhile. Like many of us, I’ve been kind of frozen in time since the pandemic began, trying to figure out what role theater and drama in education might play in the new world that emerges from it. I’m wondering how my as-yet-unpublished book might need to be adapted to a new reality. The teachers I hired and trained for the elementary theater program in LA Schools have continue to teach on-line, and, being extraordinarily creative, have developed captivating lessons; but take the communal experience out of theater and what is lasting? What endures? What cognitive benefit is there, interacting in the world of Zoom?

Most of my book, Good Behavior and Audacity: Humanist Education, Playacting, and a Generation of Genius, focuses on the cognitive, social, and emotional benefits enjoyed by students participating in dramatic activity, linking Shakespeare and his generation’s dramatic performance in school to the brilliance of the age. But Shakespeare’s audience—the Elizabethan audience— was also extraordinary. It was likely the most sophisticated and critical audience in history,  and I believe that too was a product of the humanist curriculum in the Latin grammar schools of the time. You will hardly ever talk to a theater teacher who does not have a story to tell of a student’s life being turned around, even saved, by a drama class. They could fill a book! But look at the other side of the curtain: the audience side. There you’ll find yet another compelling story of the growth of emotional intelligence.

Because I had such a conviction that my own experience as a child growing up in a theater family was responsible for my love of learning, I connived to get my own children to see lots and lots of plays. Of course they loved them, and you can watch my daughter’s TED talk at the University of Colorado where she connects her childhood of theater-going to the development of empathy. I wanted the same experience for my students. For much of my career I taught English in a small span school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, with many students bussed in from the inner city. Many of them had never seen live theater, so I took my classes to as many plays as possible, building a curriculum around each of our trips. The Music Center, the Los Angeles Theater Center, Topanga’s Theatricum Botanicum, and UCLA’s excellent theater department offered student matinee programs to schools, and because I taught in a span school and had students in more than one grade, my students had the opportunity to see as many as eight fine, classical and/or modern productions by the time they graduated. They loved the trips and would chase me down in the hallways whenever there was a rumor of another one planned, begging to be included. Whenever possible, I would also wangle low-priced tickets to offer students and their families to go to evening performances. Honestly, it felt like feeding students pure joy, and it had the added benefit of lighting up their curiosity, their focus, their agency, and their caring.

Theater (and all the arts) will survive the pandemic, of course, because they satisfy a profound human need. I for one can’t wait to see what theater artists make of what we have been through—once we can all share our experience together again, as a living audience .

I’m back.  This pandemic shut me down for awhile.  I mean, what could be more antithetical to ‘social distancing’ in education than drama?!  On both sides of the curtain!

I haven’t stopped completely.  I’ve been reading great stuff and monkeying around with my book.  When the world shut down I was right on the brink of a possible deal with a one of couple of wonderful, small publishers.  Since then….silence.  No surprise.

But I have a several subjects for posts, so I’m going to get back to it.

But just for starters: here’s a podcast I was invited to contribute to: Jacke Wilson’s “The History of Literature.”  Jacke is a delightful interviewer and he edited a lot of my babble into quite a fun listening experience.  If you’ve been following my blog, you know my book is about the huge amount of highly skilled performance required in the classroom experience of Elizabethan schoolboys, and my belief that that contributed to the cognitive brilliance of the Age.

Click on the picture and enjoy:



This from the Washington Post yesterday: Leading public education advocates write open letter to Joe Biden: Your ‘statements encourage us’

If Biden stands by what Diane Ravitch quotes him as saying in her letter, every public educator needs to get out and work for his election.

When “The Death and the Life of the Great American School System” was published in 2009 I devoured it in one sitting. It was a palpable relief to have  such a credible authority give voice to the frustrations of an entire generation of veteran educators. I found an email address for Diane Ravitch at NYU and sent her a thank you, and, remarkably, she responded. Since then, with “Reign of Error,” published a few years later, and her daily blogs posted relentlessly over the past decade, I have watched her almost single handedly succeed in what ten years ago seemed impossible: pushing back against the tide of the delusional reform ideas funded by corporate privatizers. For that she joins my short list of truly courageous heroes.

A half century ago, after my first disastrous and ego-shattering semester teaching first graders, with an emergency credential that required no training, and having no legitimacy besides what was (at least in that situation) a worthless BA from an ivy league school, I fled to San Francisco. It was the summer of love and I just desperately needed to dance in the streets with the hippies. One evening I found myself sitting with friends in a coffee shop, in a booth next to a group of policemen. Their caps were hanging from the rack above me and I could see little John Birch Society pins stuck into the inner rims. I had heard of the Birch Society and had a vague idea that it was a megaphone for the right-wing, but I had never actually spoken to a member or paid any attention to their doctrine.

When the policemen left, they left a booklet on the table. Out of curiosity I took it home and read it. I was astounded. The first page, the first chapter, in fact the entire booklet was about doing away with public education. The arguments had the resonance of outrage: “Why should people with no children pay taxes to pay for other people’s children to be educated?” “If people want children they should pay for their education themselves!” “Parents of children in private schools should not have to pay for education the children of the poor,” etc.

At the time I just wrote it off as crazy talk. What about the bedrock of democracy? What about the benefit to the commonwealth? What about humanism, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment? Did these guys actually want to throw us back into the middle ages? I wrote it off as the work of lunatics and tossed the booklet in the garbage.

How I wish I had kept it!

Within a year I had entered the Los Angeles school district’s new intern program and began training and teaching with support and guidance. I got a job at a school with an exuberant principal named Kathy Henry, who would come into my chaotic classroom and shout over the noise, “Oh, you lucky children! Your teacher is so creative!!” and I would think, what???? I’m dying here! But I didn’t die, I got better and over the years I think I became a pretty good teacher, at least some of the time. (And don’t let anyone tell you great teachers are great all the time and were born that way.) Kathy Henry gave me the courage to stay in a profession I grew to love, and I will always be grateful.

But I was in the classroom and then in administration for long enough to see wave after wave of educational “reform” sweep through. I sat through one in-service after another, and countless men and women in suits sold us products and programs designed to improve our practice. I and most of my experienced colleagues just watched each wave go by, taking the good parts and discarding the rest with an “uh huh, been there, done that” attitude. But I couldn’t help watching the upheavals they caused through the lens of that booklet. I was too busy teaching and raising my own kids to dig deeper into what was happening around me. I had never heard of the Koch brothers (whose father was a founder of the Birch Society) or the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was busy pushing bill after bill through legislative pipelines designed to undermine the work we teachers were patiently and expertly doing in our classrooms.

When I started teaching, most every school in Los Angeles had a full-time music teacher and a full-time visual arts teacher. My second graders had a music class and a visual arts class every week. To finish my credential I had to take two classes in teaching the arts: one in music and one chosen from dance, theater, or visual arts. That was 1970. Within ten years that was ancient history. Within another twenty years I had started teaching high school English and Drama, and the entire focus of education had shifted to “accountability” e.g. test scores. We teachers were expected to teach to the test, the arts were seen as extra curricular electives, not core, and the crucial role of the arts in education had become a footnote.

So when Diane Ravitch came along and explained clearly and brilliantly exactly why and how this travesty had happened, starting with the free market champion Milton Friedman in the 50s, everything became clear. Why had I not seen it?

Initially, at the administrative level in the district, “The Death and the Life of the Great American School System” was well received in LAUSD. Our instructional leadership welcomed it. I remember that Jim Morris, who was the fine head of instruction at the time, purchased copies for every one of the administrators reporting to him. But Morris soon moved on and was replaced by leaders who bowed to the pervasive pressure (and the money behind it), and for a painful era test scores ruled.

And then there came the charters and yet another flood of money. After I retired I worked on the agonizing campaign to re-elect our visionary board president, Steve Zimmer, and watched as the charter schools association poured over twelve million dollars into the coffers of his opponent: a young man in his early thirties who never attended public schools himself but had one disillusioning year teaching with Teach for America in one of the district’s most challenging middle schools. They won. Zimmer was defeated, and we lost a true champion for our students. It was the same year Trump was elected and I think I was more horrified by Zimmer’s loss than Clinton’s, only because I watched it happen from the inside—watched their strategy—watched them field four opponents in the general election to drain away just enough votes to force a runoff, and then flood the field with expensive, negative, and dishonest ads targeting Westside voters. Very few voters come out for a runoff elections, and they must have spent hundreds of dollars per vote to pull of that scam.

But now I think that was the nadir, and Ravitch’s new book, “Slaying Goliath,” is full of examples of hope. Here in Los Angeles and across the country, new public school advocates are being elected to school boards, teachers unions are making a powerful resurgence. When our schools finally reopen and, we have new leadership at the national level, I hope we will see a flood of new and better policies, and the arts will be back in full.

Fingers crossed!

I’ve just finished a riveting memoir titled What You Have Heard is True, by Carolyn Forché. It is about the lead-up to the civil war in El Salvador in the 80s. I recommend it highly because of the perspective Forché gives on our troubling history with Central America and our current concern for immigrants and separated families at the border.

But that’s not the purpose of this post. I’m writing about it here because the author is a poet. I’m intrigued by the fact that a charismatic and mysterious coffee plantation owner named Leonel Gomez Vides, the protagonist of the book, would drive all the way from El Salvador to San Diego in 1978 just to ask a young poet to visit his country and bear witness to its struggles.

Why a poet?

If you read the book, you may understand why poetry might be needed to weave such a vivid and painful narrative. It reminded me of something I learned working with the Office of Multi-cultural Studies during my time in the Arts Education Branch at LAUSD. We were developing a professional development for our elementary dance, theatre, and visual arts teachers, incorporating the arts to focus on the La Llorona (the weeping woman). La Llorona is an oral legend known by virtually every hispanic child in our schools but only vaguely familiar to many of their teachers. In fact, some of our arts teachers were weirded out by the workshop. This is understandable. It’s a terrifying story about a woman who drowns her own children and then spends the rest of her life mourning them and snatching other innocent children away from their homes. Hardly an uplifting tale! But we thought it appropriate that we were drawing on a legend from deep in the cultural consciousness of the children we teach, and, like Euripides’ Medea, as a piece of literature it has the powerfully emotional resonance of a poem.

Here is Carolyn Forché in her own words in an interview with Robin Lindley at George Washington University. explaining why Leonel Gomez Vides chose her to write about his country:

“He came to visit me as an American poet. And of course, I tried to dissuade him from imagining that a poet could accomplish the task he imagined, explaining to him that poets didn’t have a great deal of exposure or credibility in the United States, and that we weren’t consulted on matters of foreign policy. We were considered a subculture or a fringe element. He was surprised by that because, of course, in Latin America poetry is very important and taken very seriously, so he decided that one of my tasks was to change the role of poets in the United States, which I thought was very quixotic and probably more impossible than anything else he was asking me to do. 

“I was touched by his faith in poetry and by his regard for it…”

Reading this I remembered that I’ve heard this twice before. Barbara Kingsolver said the exact same thing about her book The Lacuna, which tells the story of Tolstoy’s time living in Mexico. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves describes a time in ancient British history when poets sat next to kings in government. Poets are, and have always been, valued in other cultures far more than they are in ours. They interpret, clarify, and vivify the times to which they are witness.

One of the experts I worked with in the Multi-cultural Office explained it to me this way. “In Mexico,” he said, “We have the phrase ‘flores y canciones’ (flowers and song) deeply embedded in all aspects of our culture.” The arts not only entertain, explain, soothe, and edify: they contextualize and they teach.

Just as the poet Euripides had to write the story of Medea, a poet had to write the story of El Salvador. If you are not convinced, read the book.

Plato said that children should be exposed from a very young age to the best of what our language has to offer them. We need to teach them the power and the beauty of language: listening to it, speaking it, reading it, and writing it with skill and truth.