And we’re writing!

IMG_1077I am excited to take part in Poetry Friday, where writers share their love of all things poetry. Tabatha hosts the Poetry Friday Roundup today at  The Opposite of Indifference.  She is celebrating the release of Imperfect, an anthology of poetry about mistakes for middle schoolers. Drop by and see what poetry morsels are offered this week.

In my last post I wrote about some poetry lessons that had started well but ended flat. I was worried that the learners I work with might not be willing to stick with me if I didn’t get it together. Several people shared ideas about things that might work to help keep my students engaged; one that really resonated with me was that I don’t need to separate assessment from the play we’re doing. I could go on – and I probably will at some point – but I honestly think part of our success today is because I said, “Hey, you have all these great ideas in your writer’s notebooks & it’s Friday, so let’s just play.”

I showed them some cool thing – sijos and kimos; nonets and golden shovels – things they’d never dreamed of. They loved it! They wrote for at least 30 minutes – and when I said it was Poetry Friday and I could share some on my blog… FIVE asked to be featured. Then, we ended the class by starting a group “I am from” poem. They’ve asked to finish it on Monday. My students never cease to surprise me.

Golden Shovel poem by J (Party in the USA)
So Emily and I said, “Yeah
the song is old, but it’s
a fun song to sing, a
good jam to dance and party
to, especially when you are in
the basement alone, or in the
room and partying in the USA.”

Golden Shovel poem by T (based on his own I Am From poem)
When I was young
The very best food was my mom’s chili
Then going to my uncle’s to play hockey
Those were the best days

 

Lost Home Nonet by S
A place that felt like home is gone now
Here in Ottawa is uneasy
It feels like something is wrong
Where is my freedom now?
Will I find it soon?
Sweet potatoes
With sweet peas?
Teddy Bear?
Home.

The beginning of our “We are from” poem
We are from long cold winters
Icy roads, I almost got hit by a car,
Snowball fights that last all day.
We are from snowflakes that fall with the maple leaves,
Skating on the Rideau Canal for beaver tails,
Skiing and snowboarding down the hills.
Skating on rinks, hitting the puck, cheering our teams.
Yet we live for the months of summer
Expired Ferry Express tickets,
The days we spend outside, the nights we spend with our families.
(More to come – the bell rang!)

 

And then… poetry lessons go awry

After a bit of a slow start in Grade 10 English, the poetry unit has been going gangbusters. All my plans were working! Students were engaged! They were having fun! They were playing with language, finding words, generating metaphors! I was a great teacher! And then…

Yesterday started well. We used Jabberwocky to think about how sounds create images. We listened, added images, read on our own, listened to a different interpretation, argued for our favourite, tried to “translate” it, read out loud, did readers’ theatre. The classroom was abuzz. And then… I decided to “let” the class listen to Poe’s The Raven. I had a good version with a creepy voice, the words scrolling past, the whole thing. Except that I overestimated my students’ attention span. Even with the lights out & the scene set, they got bored. Quickly. I should have pulled the plug, but I hesitated and the class ended on a decidedly dull note. Note to self: The Raven is too hard and too long for this group to listen to without a better introduction.

Today I wanted to get back to our poetry buzz. I prepped The Bells as an attempt to rehabilitate Poe after yesterday. I found multiple videos, including songs and recitations with images, that illustrated various tones. The plan was to listen, notice, discuss, then look at other poems where sound takes centre stage. I was completely ready, and then… as the students walked in, one of the social leaders said, quite loudly, “Please tell me we aren’t doing poetry again today.” Another one of my touchstone students showed up late and dragging. The Bells was not going to work. I needed something quick & engaging.

So instead of The Bells we worked with Gwendolyn Brooks’ We Real Cool. Students listened to two versions and were able to hear how enjambment can create rhythm, sound and meaning. They heard Brooks read and said it sounded like jazz. They noticed the alliteration, the “hidden” rhymes, the images and more. Great, but the dang class is 75 minutes long. We needed more and my original plans were out the window. So I read them Gertrude Stein’s Susie Asado.

Now, you might think that Stein is an unusual choice for a motley crew of Grade 10 reluctant readers, but hearing a poem where the sounds count more than the words usually completely fascinates students. This group was no different. We talked about flamenco dancing. (I wasn’t quick enough to find a video; I was teaching on the fly at this point.) We talked about the sounds words make. We talked about why Stein might write like this. It was great, and then…I moved too fast. I asked them to choose a person and try to write a few lines about them using the sounds of words rather than the meaning.

Here’s what I did not do:
1. provide more than one mentor text
2. help students sufficiently analyze the mentor text I did provide
3. offer written instructions to supplement my oral instructions
4. brainstorm ways that onomatopoeia is different from what Stein is doing
5. break the task down into chunks that they could approach
6. provide anywhere near enough structure

I could kick myself. My darling students tried – they really did – but I had set them up for failure. Only a few got anywhere near something they liked. Most were completely  overwhelmed, so they got off topic, used the bathroom (my rule of thumb: once the third student asks for a bathroom break, that lesson is done), put their head on the desk… GAH! It’s a good assignment, I swear it is, but I forgot to take into account what these learners need.

And then… I sent prayers of thanks up that I was prepped a little ahead. I pulled out a handout about Juxtaposition from Karen Benke’s book Rip the Page(Thank goodness for Elisabeth Ellington and Catherine Flynn writing about this recently.) At last: a written assignment, concrete, with clear directions. Something they could do with some success.  I guided them through it, and then… class ended before we could share.

I was feeling like a bit of a failure, but truthfully, I think we’re ok. I’ve stolen from tomorrow’s assignment, and the exercise wasn’t quite as good without the lead-up I’d planned to use, but it was good enough. In writing about these two days, I’ve realized that I haven’t ruined everything – yet – but I am still nervous about tomorrow. If things go awry again, the unit may be done for: my students preconceptions about poetry (and English) are pretty tightly held; they will happily revert to their ingrained habit of hating it. And I want them to try writing poems on their own. They’ve seen loads of mentor texts now, written lots of bits and bobs; it’s time. But generating language is hard, and now I’m nervous.

Anyone out there in the blogosphere have suggestions?

Night light

See more posts at Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life .

It’s bedtime, but he is just home from his friend’s house and full of energy. He’s not ready to stop bouncing. As I hurry him towards bed, he dances about. In the bathroom he hops on one foot and tosses a balled up sock towards the laundry basket. It misses. No matter. He switches feet and does it again. It misses again.

“You need to pick those up,” I scold.

He wiggles towards the corner to fetch the wayward sock balls, bumping things with his boogie-ing butt. One something falls, kerplop, into the toilet.

He stops.

“Uh-oh.”

An old night light. No longer necessary but it can’t stay there. He looks into the toilet to confirm what he already knows, then he looks at me. Quickly, he glances around the bathroom: he can take care of this himself. He grabs the toilet brush, gives it a disgusted look, and goes fishing in the toilet. Turns out a toilet brush doesn’t make a good fishing rod. The night light is wedged.

“Um, Mom?” His face has fallen. He is chagrined. But then, curiosity fires in him, “What are we going to do?”

My sleeve is already rolled up. Wordlessly, I plunge my hand into the toilet, fetch the offending night light, and deposit it in the trash. He sucks in his breath.

“Have you done that before?” He is impressed.

“Yes,” I say simply, as I soap my hands again and again.

“Thanks.”

Then, casually confident of his mother’s competence, he dances on out of the bathroom, pausing long enough to say, “Good thing I don’t need that night light anymore.”

Miss, this poem is trying to kill us!

My Grade 10 students are, generally, a suspicious lot when it comes to English class. If they’re having fun, they pretty much want to know when the other shoe is going to drop. As I mentioned in my last post, this stream of English is called “Applied”; I try to take that descriptor seriously. How will we use this? What do we get out of this? Why bother? These are guiding questions in the classroom.

And we had the *best* poetry class today. A while ago I found an article by Prof Toby Emert on The Poetry Foundation website. In it, he talks about “exploratory methods for interacting with poems” and details a workshop he designed to “help students respond to poetry in ways that encourage them to love the poems and to enhance the skill set they need to engage in deep readings of texts.”

Well, I happen to know a few students whose skill set for deep reading is, ahem, not well developed. And I have been reading about why poetry can be a good entry for reluctant readers, so I was committed to trying this out.

Background: We’ve already spent five periods on poetry, mostly just playing around. We’ve read mentor texts and tried out blackout poems, list poems, book spine poetry; we’ve rotated through stations of haiku, cinquain, skinny and concrete poetry; we’ve listened to spoken word poetry, and we’ve even collected words. We’re ready to go deeper.

Ok, ok, ok… but you want to know what we did today. Well, we did what Prof Emert suggested – and it worked.

I photocopied Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins, Poetry by Pablo Neruda and Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish onto the biggest paper I could find. I think any three poems on a similar topic but with varying tones would do the trick here, but Emert suggested these, so I followed.

These poems are *way* beyond what my students would normally access. Not only is the vocabulary hard (palpable, palpitating, casement, etc.) but their length and metaphoric thinking was more than we had approached as a class. That was important. I wanted them to be in over their heads a little, to react to the poem at a level beyond literal comprehension. I wanted them to do what Emert suggests: be willing to climb inside a poem and sit awhile.

I posted each poem on the chalkboard, spaced well apart. Next to each poem I wrote two sentence stems. I told the students that we don’t always understand a poem right away – and that’s ok. (I was rewarded with a dramatic eye roll.) I told them that sometimes poems just sit with us, we just feel them. Sometimes we hate them and walk away; sometimes we’re intrigued; sometimes they grow on us. I reassured them that, while they might not *get* a poem, they could still react to it. (I admit it: I talked about Gertrude Stein.)

The students, in groups of three, read the poems then used sticky notes to complete the sentence stems in response to the poem.

If I were sitting next to this poem, waiting for the bus, it would say…

If I went on a date with this poem, we would…

If this poem could fly, it would…

In this poem’s pockets are…

If this poem were a burrito, it would…

This poem is hiding…

The students started slowly. They kept looking to me for permission. I kept insisting that they should write what came to mind. “Poems aren’t burritos…” one muttered. “Why would I date a poem? That doesn’t even make sense,” grumbled another.

I tried to overhear beginning responses and encourage them.
“If it were a burrito, it would… be cheesy?” ventured one boy.
“YES!” said the extremely enthusiastic teacher behind him (ok, ok, that was me). “Write that down!” He looked doubtful, but he did it.

Once they got the hang of it, they moved quickly. The sentence stems were so outrageous that the kids felt free to be silly. Each group spent 3-5 minutes with each poem (more time earlier on, but then they got going).

“Did you understand these poems?”
NO! Not really… a little… maybe… no… they were defiant, sheepish.
“Remember that you don’t HAVE to understand it. And anyway, I think you *did* get them.”

I asked which poem was the funny one, the most beautiful, the most serious. They absolutely knew. I told them that they had identified tone. They were impressed. We read their responses out loud and, lo and behold, they (mostly) matched the poems’ varying tones. (I’ve included some of their responses at the end in case you want to see.)

Next, I distributed a copy of Nikki Giovanni’s kidnap poem to each group. I asked them to “have a little conversation” with the poem by asking a question of each line. Again, we had a slow start here, but this time, they decided to humour my odd request, especially once I encouraged them to start with any line they wanted; within a few minutes, each group was writing questions after every line.

Soon, giggles and guffaws filled the room. I heard one student say, “Ask her what lyre means” and another reply, “no, no ask the poem.” Everywhere, heads bent over Giovanni’s work. Pencils and pens marked up the lines. Shh! Don’t tell anyone that these kids were annotating a complex poem, line by line. Any group that finished took their notebooks to collect words and phrases from the posted poems.

The final magic happened when everyone was finished with the questions. Each group chose two people (future reference: I might do this whole exercise in pairs) to read the poem out loud like a dialogue: line of poetry/question. This valued their voices as equal partners to the author’s voice and moved us gently in the direction of reading poems aloud. Their questions, their reactions became part of the poem itself.

The first group read & everyone listened. Their honest and sometimes aggressive or bewildered questions were funny. Everyone laughed and applauded at the end. Groups volunteered to read next. Each dialogue was better than the last. Another teacher walked into the room, talking, and my students shushed him. The bell rang just after we finished.

Today’s exit question was “summarize today’s class in one word.” Their responses?
fun, hilarious, funny, fast, creative, effervescent(!), energetic, good.

I am not exaggerating when I say that not one of them used a negative or even a neutral word to describe their study of four complex poems. It was magic.

IMG_4682.jpg

 

 

************

Here are some of the responses to the sentence stems I used. (I’ve put some of the less effective responses are in parentheses because I want to be clear that this exercise was imperfect. In class I read all the responses but highlighted responses that seemed sensitive to tone. I wanted the students to feel success as a group.)

Billy Collins =>
If I were sitting next to this poem, waiting for the bus, it would say…s’up dude, what’s popping?; hey, wanna fight?; Boo! (bye, Felicia; Where are you going?; seal)

If I went on a date with this poem, we would… go on a game show and find a new date, make an excuse to leave, be scared go skydiving and then go swimming (go to the cinema, kiss, stop talking)

Neruda =>
In this poem’s pockets are… figures of speech, la poesie, (empty, key lime pie, memes, a Rolex)

If this poem could fly, it would… fly with broken wings, glide beautifully, be a dove (go to Ikea, fall)

MacLeish =>
If this poem were a burrito, it would…be a stuffed burrito; be too cheesy; not last long; have too much hot sauce; have guacamole

This poem is hiding… a message, sadness, its soulmate, the truth, in a Disneyland ride (seals; something; words)

We did it ourselves

Um, you all, guess what happened? Two of my students “didn’t have anything to do” last night so they went to a bookstore and created book spine poetry. Then they took pictures of the poems and brought them to class.

THIS IS AMAZING! I wish I could do a little dance right here in my blog. This is true application as implied in the moniker “Applied” for this stream of English.

Zoe and Marta said I could share, so here are their poems:

 

Standardized test answer

Today our Grade 10 students wrote the standardized literacy test they must pass in order to graduate from high school. I supervised the extended time room and silently cheered them on as they worked. I cannot encourage or help them, but I can smile, wink and even pray. I also peeked at some of the questions. I cannot share the prompts here, but I can share two of my own answers…

Short answer response (6 lines provided):

I can swiftly and easily respond to inane prompts. I can generate a story for any question no matter how banal, pull semi-believable facts willy-nilly from the air, and find the perfect example for even the most general of queries, all while employing the Oxford comma. I can write complete sentences, including participial phrases cleverly separated from a main clause with commas for extra points. I can vary sentence length. I can repress my desperate longing to throw in an effective sentence fragment for style; I can restrain myself because, above all,  I possess the skill of passing standardized tests.
(exactly 6 lines in Google Docs)

Opinion response – maximum two handwritten pages.
I’ve done a sneaky poetic response because
a) it’s Poetry month and
b) I don’t actually want to write a one page response to the question and
c) one of my students worked tirelessly on this one, and my heart broke a little for her.

Standardized Test Opinion Response – a Golden Shovel Poem

She flexes her tired hand then gets back to work, suddenly knowing that no matter what she does
Today in the library, tonight she will do the homework
Assigned by the teacher who looked her in the eyes and said, “You can improve,
You will improve” then gave her harder work because she is learning.

Endurance

Today, my students and I created book spine poetry in the library. They are not regular perusers of the stacks, but almost all of them joined in the fun. Here is my contribution to our poetry playfulness:IMG_4632.jpg

The Impossible Journey
Endurance
Endurance
Endurance
Return to Paradise

As a side note, book spine poetry was at least as popular as blackout poetry was the other day. (We had a middle day – list poetry – that I thought was less successful, though two of the the kids assured me that “that was pretty cool, too.”) Today students roamed the stacks, fingers traipsing along the edges of books. They crouched low, leaned in, turned their heads sideways to read, then pulled out books and showed them to other students. They laughed and shared and talked about books. Both students and teachers from other classes came to see what was happening. It felt joyful and fun. They even created some poems in French! I’m so grateful to all the teachers out there in the blogosphere who have guided me down new paths this month. Here, take a peek at some of the excitement:

 

 

 

Today, for the first time, I’m joining Poetry Friday. Head over to The Poem Farm for this week’s round-up of Poetry Friday posts. Thanks, Amy, for hosting our gathering!