Friday, February 4, 2011

Summarize this...

I'm back to teaching, and so happy about it. Also exhausted. But I had some medical stuff so took some time off, and now it's the new semester and I'm back! And I get to teach a writing class for struggling writers. It's an elective, so they're sort of choosing to be in it, but the administration is saying to some students, "You really need to be in this class," so that's not quite a choice. However, it does seem like most of them do want to be there. I'm so excited about it--however, the first day I didn't have all my students, and I might still not have all my students, but today was the second day of class, and I thought Okay so I don't even know who's going to show up, much less what they need--what the hell am I going to do? So today we learned about Bessie Smith. We read three brief biographies about her (which was overkill--two would have been plenty, even with some of the details different), and learned about the controversy around her death. We read part of this. Then we listened to two Bessie Smith songs and read the lyrics. We listened to "Sing Sing Prison Blues" and "Sinful Blues".

We talked about each song, and I had them write a one sentence summary of each stanza, then a one-to-two sentence summary of each song. I had a million ideas about activities we could do--write a letter to Bessie Smith, write the thesis statement for your essay on Bessie Smith, etc., use what you learned today and what you heard to write your own one paragraph biography of Bessie Smith--but this ended up being simpler than any of them, which was fine. I also found myself in the position of explaining not only that the Hudson was a river but also that "Sing Sing" came from the name of the American Indian tribe, Sint Snick, from whom the land was "purchased" in 1685. (Yes, I got this information from Wikipedia. Perhaps this makes me a bad teacher.)

But our conversation about "Sinful Blues" was pretty great. I didn't put a lot of thought into my choice of songs, honestly--I had the CD at school, and I listened to a few of them and thought these two might be interesting to discuss and relatively easy to understand/summarize. The lyrics to the songs are also really different--"Sing Sing Prison Blues" is more repetitive, more reliant on rhyme, and "Sinful Blues" is more complex lyrically and gave us a lot to talk about. The singer changes her mind about how to handle the situation in every verse. My class agreed that they know people who do that about their girlfriends or boyfriends.

The most interesting moment of the class, at least for Ms. Nelson, was when I found myself explaining the double entrendre in the second verse:

Look here folks, don't think I'm rough,
'Cause I'm a good woman an' I knows my stuff,
That's why I'm sinful as can be.
My man may look low, but I can't keep
'Cause he knows a lot of little dirty tricks,
That's why I'm sinful as can be.


Listen to "Sinful Blues" on youtube.

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