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.]


  1. I love, love, LOVE the work you've done with this example. One of the strategies I try to teach my students is to corroborate - to verify information, as a journalist does, by checking multiple sources. But your little case study demonstrates that corroboration alone isn't enough. Kudos!

  2. Came to have a look at your blog after reading the article about the poem on the BBC news app- maybe I'm corroborating sources?! Keep up the good work, love the blog.

  3. A remarkable exposé of an astonishingly widely propagated error — I find it hard to believe that as well-known and much-read a poet as William Blake could be the subject of this misapprehension, given the huge number of teachers and Blake-lovers out there who ought to have been able to take one look at the piece in question and instantly shoot down the notion that it was written by him, yet an amazing amount of professional 'educators' appear to have just given one glance to a search engine result and swallowed the misinformation wholesale for teaching and resource use. This just goes to show the power that the internet has to disseminate mistakes and half-truths exponentially, to the point that it can become 'fact' within such a short period of time — and in a respected traditional field of study, too, not just within the realms of urban legends or political spinning. Well done indeed on bringing this to light — now to see just how long it takes for this one-man crusade to tip the balance back to the correct among the information on 'Two Sunflowers...' out there! You're currently in the top 10 most-read stories on the BBC website, anyway, so that's definitely a bit of momentum in the right direction...

  4. Thanks for taking the trouble to find and correct this, Library Spider. The Internet can be a fantastic educational resource, but only if you check everything -- there's so much nonsense circulating.

    A few years ago I found the myth that Sally Ride was the first woman in space on an educational website. I politely asked them to correct this, but was amazed when they replied that they liked to showcase students' work as it was written.

    At least reading the BBC report of your story led me to your website, which I've now bookmarked for further good reads. And I love the headline - "Little poem, who made thee?" Not god or William Blake, that's for sure!


  5. How can I say more than well done! I am so tired of seeing little errors creeping in and then being endlessly, thoughtlessly quoted by, (basically lazy) people as accurate. As an ex Library person myself, and a teacher, and a scourge of journalists, I salute you. And yes, I'm a be kind to spiders person. Cheaper and less toxic than fly spray.

  6. So, do you have any evidence linking the 2001 thinkquest page, which you claim is the original source of the error, with the 2003 publication in Ross's "Classworks - Literacy Year 6". I would assume the reason it has crept into so many lesson plans is because of its inclusion in a *book* which is seen as authoritative.

    It seems like a mistake that could have been made independently.

  7. Excellent! Thank-you so much for this splendid work.
    Of course you are right about BOOKS containing errors, and then, there is misinformation... see When Dickens met Dostoevsky | TLS - The Times Literary Supplement‎

    If you haven't read this - it is up your street!
    Kind regards -

  8. Mr. Pitchford — I want to help your fake-Blake-busting.

    Here's a falsely attributed "Two Sunflowers" on a university's web-site:

    NOTE: in future correspondence, if any, I'll likely refer to any instance of a falsely attributed "Two Sunflowers" as a "faTS."

  9. Thanks so much for this! It does seem sometimes as if there is 'truth' and 'Internet truth'

    You have researched this well- bless you x

  10. GLT would be so proud of you, as he was a stickler for "get your facts straight first." To which your wife can surely attest.

  11. Well-done, Tomas! --Dr. H.

  12. Good catch! Misattributions are one of my morbid fascinations. I have to say, though, that I'm not at all hopeful of this error being correctable: website operators are remarkably resistant to making corrections, and I can also predict that schools won't be in any hurry either (it takes work and time to recopy worksheets).