Modern Language Association
Viewing convention Program information from 2009

Session Details

Monday, 28 December

275. Reading as a Teacher: A Workshop for Teachers of Literature

3:30–4:45 p.m., Liberty Ballroom Salon C, Philadelphia Marriott

Program arranged by the MLA Office of Research

Presiding: David Laurence, MLA

Speakers: Sheridan Blau, Columbia Univ.; Mark C. Long, Keene State Coll.; Stephen Olsen, MLA; John Ottenhoff, Associated Colls. of the Midwest

For materials to be read in advance, visit

Author Comment
Subject: Steve Olsen's On First Looking into Bishop's Moose
Hi, My name is Steve Olsen.

I was happy to be invited to join this panel. The question of how we read to teach seems a juicy one to me, fun to discuss, valuable to consider. I also knew that David Laurence was sure to pick a piece of literature I hadn’t read and would not like—at least at first. And I figured that’s what we ask our students to do all the time, so it would be easy to channel a reluctant student as I read. All I had to do was report on what happened as I read the poem. And I’ve always suspected that the most valuable thing I do in a literature class is to model a reading practice for my students, to show them my moves, my mistakes, tell them how I keep going at the places where they stop.

And so it came to pass: “The Moose.” I didn’t like the poem – at first. I was very irritated in fact that David had conned me (so it now seemed) into taking on this assignment. The workload in the office was increasing exponentially with each day the convention approached, my apartment renovation had begun and thrown my home life into disarray, my kids’ afterschool program was inexplicably closed the last week of school. I was busy! This had better be worth it. And then it didn't help when I read the first sentence of the poem: 26 lines I had to wait for a subject and a verb. And it turns out to be a bus.

I guess I was not in a poetic state of mind. But I bet I was in a student state of mind. So I persevered. It’s what I do. I model a reading practice for my students and invite them to come along.

So, as assigned, I dutifully noted my “internal dialogues, processes, and strategies.” Which is pretty much what I do anyway when I read to touch – oops, I meant to teach. And it’s the first thing I ask students to do as well.

I’m looking for points of entry into or engagement with the poem. Anything goes first time around. Anything.
• I noted points of confusion, uncertainty, surprise – even irritation.
(What is Bishop up to with that first sentence? That progression of prepositions I have to labor through just to get to the bus? Too much grammar!)
• I noted connections of any kind
(I know buses: I’ve ridden one away from home, I remember Rosa Parks, the Merry Pranksters, Marilyn Monroe, Odysseus – even though that was a boat and he was going home.)
• I noted questions
(Is this a true story? Five minutes on Google reveals and confirms that that Bishop did take a bus ride in her youth, and met a moose, and then took 20 years to finish the poem.)
• I noted hints, allusions, intuitions
(When I saw that word “eternity” I just knew Emily Dickinson was on the bus; Robert Frost got on when we got to the impenetrable wood. And I looked out the window wondering if Hemingway was out there somewhere, with a rifle.
• I noted the goosebumps
(That moment when it seemed to me that maybe we’re not in Nova Scotia anymore Toto, and the bus’s head was pointed toward Eternity. And then that Moose appears and the bus stops.)

The list goes on, and the bus ride was starting to get pretty interesting for me. Just those notes could sustain me for a week of class: following any or all those threads, fleshing them out, going back and reading the poem again, and again. And in my experience, students always find the same or similar and even more ways to engage the poem and take it in a multitude of fruitful directions.

Now I like the poem. Thank you David.

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