If a student asks for poetry…

If a student asks for a poetry book that’s not in the library, you buy it.

I didn’t know this rule existed, but as soon as she asked, I realized it was clearly a rule. After all, how often does a student ask to read a book of poetry? How often is the poetry by a poet I don’t know, a poet the student discovered on her own? How often is that poet a refugee, born in a camp as her parents fled the Khmer Rouge regime? How often is the student who is asking a newcomer herself?

After class, we looked up Lang Leav so at least I would know a little about what we were getting into – but, to be clear, I was always going to buy the book. Leav’s style reminds me of Rupi Kaur, whose books are so popular that they regularly disappear from my classroom, leaving me to buy them again. (It’s ok; another unspoken rule seems to be “If a student needs a book of poetry to become theirs, they should probably have it.”)

In April – National Poetry Month – I usually read a poem out loud every day. We don’t study it or anything fancy like that: we just read it. For a few minutes, the poem simply exists with us; the students simply meet it. I choose all sorts of poems, often with the students in mind but sometimes just because I love them. Usually a few students will start to share poems they love after a week or two. Often someone brings up something that a poem reminds them of. Sometimes, like this year, we find ourselves talking about one poem, which leads to another and – oops! – we’ve read four and are accidentally talking about Robert Browning’s Meeting at Night and Parting at Morning and somehow we’re talking about sexual imagery and I’m blushing and then… well, then class continues. And the next day we read another poem.

On this day, the student wasn’t sure which of Leav’s books was “best”, so we looked at the covers and the previews, and then I bought two. Thanks to the miracle of modern shipping, I will put them in her hands tomorrow. I cannot wait.

Two books of poetry: the lefthand one is red and is entitled "Love"; the right hand one is cream and we can see the word "September" in the title.

Because you know what? If a student is reading poetry and falls in love with a poet – well, I buy it.

(Also, I just realized that Rupi Kaur is missing again. I know I spend too much on books for my classroom, but how can I say no?)

Lit Test Prep

Over thirty students signed up for today’s literacy test prep session, but only a desultory handful are actually here. They dot seats around the library, mostly far from one another, some with their heads already on the table. My job is to make sure they feel prepared for tomorrow’s lit test. I suspect we are all more or less equally excited about this.

The Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test is a graduation requirement which, like many standardized tests, is touted by some and reviled by others. You can guess where the teachers lie on this scale. For both of the last two years the test was waived because of covid, but now it’s back, and anyone who is not graduating this year must pass it before they receive their diploma. And this time, the test is fully online.

As a result, this test prep session involves almost no literacy: it’s all about how to navigate the electronic test. First, I show the students how to put their Chromebooks into “kiosk mode” so that they will not have access to the internet during the test. Then, we return to “regular” mode and find the practice test. I explain why there is a “Minds On” page on the test and that no, there is nothing to do on this page. I go over the general directions so they will not have to read them tomorrow. I explain how to use the various electronic tools – the line by line reader, the highlighter, the “side by side” view that allows students to see the reading while they answer the questions. I show them how to flag a question they might want to come back to. We practice doing these things. We play with the online highlighter and the underline tool. I show them where to find the word counter for the writing section and where to see how many words they have left. I tell them to try to get close to the maximum number of words. We spend easily 40 minutes simply practicing with the tools.

Kids today are tech savvy, for the most part, but some are savvier than others, especially if by savvy you mean “has regular and effective access to technology both at home and in school.” Or “doesn’t have to overcome a language barrier simply to access the test.” Our school has one of the best school-provided Chromebook-to-student ratios in the school board – and one of the worst for BYOD (bring your own device) because so few students have Ds to B. Offering the literacy test requires gathering Chromebooks from all over the school and using them exclusively for the test for three days. Not only will no other classes have Chromebooks, but we’ve also been asked to plan lessons that involve no wifi – because who knows if our broadband will hold up. We pretend that these preparation challenges are not due to structural inequities. We pretend that the literacy test will not reveal who has computers and internet at home or who only recently arrived in Canada.

Luckily for our prep session, the students perk up once we start playing with the various tools. Everyone likes the side-by-side view. The word counter is daunting but effective. They like being able to flag questions that they’re not sure about and that the test reminds them to double-check those before they move on. This is good.

I offer a few tips because some of the students have never taken a standardized test before: restate the question in your answer; if you’re not sure, make a guess and move on; write simple, clear sentences; think about something positive before you start to stay calm; it’s only a test; you can always try it again.

After this, a few students stick around actually practice the test and ask me questions. There’s only one practice test available in this new format, so I hope it’s good preparation. As I move from table to table, from student to student, I think about the fact that it’s still Eid, that many students just finished fasting, that most of the dates for this test fell during Ramadan. I try to ignore the fact that one of the articles is about the marshmallow test – and that these same students who cannot eat most marshmallows. The students laugh off my observation; they’re used to it.

Tomorrow, they’ll take the test. Some will know how to navigate the interface, how to “do” standardized tests. Some will be ready. Some won’t. Nevertheless, as they leave the library and head back to class, each student says, “Thank you, Miss” and I cross my fingers that we’ve done some good.