Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Little Poem, who made thee?

A poem written by a contemporary American author is being taught in schools across the United States and England as the work of one of Britain’s most famous scribes.  This innocent verse is escaping the detection of experienced educators because an error exists in a lesson plan circulating many web sites, from loosely monitored forums to highly reputed and authoritative resources including some run by government agencies.

Teachers searching the Internet for examples of poetry to use in their instruction are finding a poem entitled “Two Sunflowers Move into the Yellow Room”.  A great number of the suggested web sites claim the poem was written by William Blake.  Rather than being composed around 200 years ago, it was written by the poet Nancy Willard for her 1981 book A Visit to William Blake’s Inn which won America’s highest award for children’s literature, the Newbery Medal.  This book shows Ms Willard’s appreciation for the work of Blake and her poems make many allusions to his verse, in this case “Ah Sunflower, weary of time” from Songs of Innocence and Experience.  Ms Willard’s prowess as an author is easily proven from her large amount of published works, collection of awards and career as a teacher of writing, but attributing any work from the 20th century to one of the best known and most studied poets of two centuries previous is a sizeable blunder.  So, how did it happen?

The error began in 2001 on Oracle Education Foundation’s web site ThinkQuest, a collection of online educational resources designed by students from around the world.  A group of students contributed a project called “Poetry as We See It” which defines certain elements of poetry and gives samples to illustrate those concepts.  As stated in their introduction, the boys and girls looked for older poems which would no longer be subject to copyright law.  Amongst books with works by Robert Browning, Emily Dickinson and Robert Louis Stevenson, the students found Ms Willard’s homage to Blake.  But, as attested to on their bibliography and a page of examples (see following images), they thought the poems were actually written by William Blake.

With this mistake now in public view on a site that specifically promotes itself to be visited by other school students and their teachers, one would think within a matter of days or at most months either a reader of Blake or of children’s books would have spotted the fault and called for its correction.  Instead, some people began linking to this page as a resource and a few others clearly copied the sources these children had gathered and presented them online as a lesson plan of their own creation.  The misattribution began to spread.  The following images are from online lesson plan banks, Q&A web pages and other wiki-style sites.

There are many other types of web sites reprinting this mistake.  These are mostly personal blogs and websites created by individual students and whole classes that have all posted the poem for various reasons.  At the time of posting this entry, a reader would merely have to type “two sunflowers” and “blake” into any search engine to receive a lengthy list of such sites.  These results will also include a sufficient number of links that correctly mention Ms Willard’s book as the accurate source of the poem, too.  Hopefully over a short amount of time, the list of inaccurate sites will decrease sharply as the correct information begins to disseminate across the Internet.  However, the more teachers use the consistently re-copied lesson plan, the more accepted the mistake becomes.  The more accepted the mistake becomes, more users reprint the error.  The inaccurate data has even appeared in books printed for teacher use and other resources touted by reputable educators.

A survey conducted by the writer of this post of primary schools in three UK counties reveals the possibility that one out of every four schools is using the poem “Two Sunflowers” as attributed to William Blake.  The ratio is hopefully much less as the results were tallied from the first hundred replies of over 300 requests sent.

This error has now floated all the way to the top of authority and could be exponentially repeated by more teachers than ever but could also finally be noticed and identified.  Remarkably, it remains uncorrected in spite of its growing use and replication.  The following screenshots are from university based education programmes encouraging the use of the poem as written by Blake and from four US state government school boards.

Two of the last three images are from the resource bank of the Times Educational Supplement and from a site entitled Read, Write and Think which is promoted by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association.  These are very dependable and effective sources of data, but this little slip-up shows how all too easily such an inaccuracy can slip into authoritative places without more cautious moderation.  Even an Ofsted inspector had to accept “the fact” of William Blake’s authorship of “Two Sunflowers” when it was presented to her by a group of young students via a project on their display board.

When told of the scope of this misinformation Ms Willard replied, “Blake must be turning over in his grave.”  She also added, “Do not put ALL your trust in the Internet.  Go to the firsthand sources.”

But what do we do now the Internet has become a firsthand source?

The amount of information on the Internet and the speed with which it can be accessed are two of its strengths as a resource.  But what use is quick data if it is wrong?  And yet, the acceptance of misinformation is hardly new and sadly neither is its intentional use.

In less than ten years a simple, rather innocent and easily fixable error has evolved into school policy and good practice simply due to the blind acceptance of quick and easy “research”.  Hopefully it will not take that long to repair.

Until next time - Read, Care, Create
The Library Spider

[Disclaimer - The use of screenshots in this post is in no way meant to be a breach of copyright law.  The images are being used to validate the text of this post.  All text and images are the intellectual property of their individual creators and this writer makes no claim to their authorship and will receive no financial gain from their clearly evident educational and journalistic use.  Images have been altered to show only the detail needed to verify the facts of this post.]