A Lesson for British Literature or Creative Writing Class
Title: Stephen Spender and the Senior: Both in Reflection
Michael T. Duni, Ph.D.
Hot, tired, and impatient with one another, both senior (infected, most usually, with senioritis) and teacher (exhausted and longing for summer) wage subtle war against one another beginning around May 1st. But soon, according to the curriculum calendar, it is time to study the British Moderns. Any constructive activity in the classroom is to be cherished at this time of year, and the teaching of Stephen Spender's "What I Expected" proves one of these valuable lessons.
When specifically teaching this poem I emphasize both Spender's expectations in life yet the unforeseen developments in his life. I have found that my seniors become willing to share their own reflections on their past expectations and subsequent realizations during their sojourn in school K-12. At a time when graduation is upon the student, this creative writing assignment proves well timed for the senior to work towards closure and a coherent appraisal of his or her last twelve years. I have the senior entitle his or her poem "My Last Twelve Years" and borrow from Spender those words
and phrases from lines 1,9,24, and 25.
During this reflective writing activity the student is not only asked to understand what he or she had expected at an earlier age but also is encouraged to identify and to analyze the unexpected events and moments of awareness during these last twelve years of life. Furthermore, by imitating Spender's last stanza, the student is able to identify that which he or she still holds true and most valuable in life despite youthful expectations and possible disappointments.
This assignment, which is most suitable for academic students, may be as short or as long as the student wishes. However, each of the four sections ("What I expected was" "What I had not foreseen was" "These I could not foresee" and "Expecting always some") need attention. And the student should be encouraged to develop each section as thoroughly as possible. The activity may be either an in class or homework exercise.
This assignment has produced many fine poems. I received one poem that stressed a student's youthful wish for popularity but then her disappointment of rejection during her middle school years. Another verse emphasized the fun expected as a fourth grader yet his later heartache caused by a terminally ill parent. Yet both poems ended with the speakers' undying trust in friendship or family respectively. Still one more successful verse traced a student's expectation of "parents happily living . . . together forever" to her later disappointment in their divorce that caused upheaval in the family. In her final stanza, however, the senior credited her perseverance to endure such a hardship much as Spender trusts "Some final innocence . . . Like the created poem. Or the faceted crystal."
Certainly, while borrowing and giving due credit to Spender's words and thoughts, the students and I truly enjoy this reflective writing exercise that becomes both instructive about Spender as well as personal and enlightening about the student poet.