YourWords STL

STEM to Sestina and Back Again

Feature Blog by Program Director, Anna Ojascastro Guzon


A game of name that horror movie soundtrack, a reading of “The Buffy Sestina,” by Jason Schneiderman, and “The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People” by David Ferry, a rainy autumn afternoon, and some pattern detecting put us in the mood for composing some sinister sestinas. Sonnets and haiku are frequently taught in high schools but why not sestinas? According to The Poetry Foundation, a sestina is:

A complex French verse form, usually unrhymed, consisting of six stanzas of six lines each and a three-line envoy. The end words of the first stanza are repeated in a different order as end words in each of the subsequent five stanzas; the closing envoy contains all six words, two per line, placed in the middle and at the end of the three lines. The patterns of word repetition are as follows, with each number representing the final word of a line, and each row of numbers representing a stanza:

1 2 3 4 5 6
6 1 5 2 4 3
3 6 4 1 2 5
5 3 2 6 1 4
4 5 1 3 6 2
2 4 6 5 3 1
(6 2) (1 4) (5 3)

I’m not sure if I could repeat this definition, word-for-word, and if I did, the students would likely rebel or fall asleep. So I read them, “The Buffy Sestina,” and asked the students to detect the word pattern on their own.  Fortunately, two students were feeling competitive so they raced to figure out the puzzle first. Each threw out several guesses until I numbered the last word of each line in the first stanza.  Before I could finish numbering the lines of the second stanza, one student caught on to the pattern.

The student who detected the pattern first, has an A in his chemistry class, and looks through catalogs of computer parts for fun. He was able to predict the word pattern, had we continued past six stanzas, and one could see his face light up when he was presented with a puzzle to solve. And this young man, a junior at a North County high school, has Marygrove as his only home.  I was impressed with his logic skills and, without my saying a word, the other students explained to me that “he’s really good with computers.”

A couple weeks ago, I was teaching biology to two fifth graders, at a North City grade school.  It was six weeks into their school year and they were assigned the chapter review questions of Chapter 1 of their textbook.  They didn’t know any of the answers so I asked, “Didn’t you go over this in class?”  They said that they don’t learn science in school because it’s the last subject of the day, and they always run out of time.  So I taught them the chapter and as I explained the different biological kingdoms…bacteria, protists, fungi etc….one of the students presented several questions.
“You mean bacteria are inside us?”
“Can they kill us?”
“You’re saying that I’m touching bacteria right now?”
“What’s the difference between bacteria and viruses?”
“So viruses aren’t alive?”
“You’re saying that plants have babies?”

I had been tutoring this student for over a year and I had never seen him so interested in his schoolwork.  His eyes were wide, his eyebrows were raised, and one could imagine tiny sparks, flashing throughout his brain.

“Man, I’m happy to be learnin’ science,” he said with a slight head shake.  Implied in that statement was, “I know school is supposed to suck, but I don’t care who makes fun of me… I think this stuff is cool.”

My point is that students with the most difficult circumstances can still develop an eagerness to learn.  The parents of many of the students that we tutor have gone to prison, abandoned their family, been overcome by addictions or psychiatric illness, or been killed.  Yet, the ability to learn, and become contributors or leaders in society still exists for their children.  One key to helping these kids is one-on-one tutoring, engaging them in a setting that doesn’t involve 25 to 30 other students.

While my stories are personal experiences, just in the past five to ten years, several longitudinal studies, conducted in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles among other cities, involving thousands or tens of thousands of participants, have concluded that after-school tutoring increases standardized test scores, improves attendance, and decreases the drop-out rate (Evaluations Backgrounder: A Summary of Formal Evaluations of After school programs’ Impact on Academics, Behavior, Safety and Family Life). And graduating from high school directly correlates with improved health and longer life-expectancy.  Kids staying in school means communities becoming safer and saving billions of dollars.  For more details (and more STEM) check out For the Sake of All, a multidisciplinary project, from Washington University in St. Louis.



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