Picture this

Mr. 10 had to write a quatrain for school. Not just any quatrain, mind you, this quatrain had to be focused on one topic, have a distinctive rhyme scheme, at least 12 lines and alliteration. Reasonable enough, I suppose, but he was having trouble keeping all those things in his mind at the same time. The task seemed impossible, so he had put it off for several days. Now it was late.

Last night, he reluctantly agreed to let me help him. We looked at the list of potential topics and he chose ocean. “Great!” I tried for enthusiasm. “Let’s brainstorm a list of words that you think of when you hear the word ocean.”

He glared.
“Oh, the ocean,” I sighed. “What does that make you think of?”
Nothing.
“Why did you choose the ocean as your topic?”

By now his arms were folded across his chest and his leg was jumping. He has big emotions, this kid, and when they swell, they can quickly drown his rational brain. I tried to calm him, but the undertow was almost inescapable. When I thought we were on firmer footing, we started again: what are some synonyms for ocean? His eyes shifted; his brow lowered; his mouth pressed shut. He wasn’t really ready to talk, but it was already 8pm; he’d put this off as long as possible. Bedtime loomed and he didn’t want synonyms. He wanted something else, but I had no idea what. Finally he spit out, “shark.” Delighted, I slid into my spiel, “ooh, ‘shark’! What a good choice! Let’s see… sharks are gray…”

“Shark, bird, ocean,” he interrupted, then clamped his mouth shut again.

He is not stupid, my boy; he is, in fact, loquacious. When school is open, he regularly gets in trouble for talking. He reads, tells stories, is enthusiastically goofy. But not now. “Sharks eat birds from the sky?” I guessed. This, of course, made no sense. “Sharks eat birds on the ocean? Like seagulls?” He shook his head. I was really trying , but I had no idea what he was thinking. He stamped his foot and I saw tears brimming in his eyes. As gently as I could, I said, “Lovey, I don’t know how to help you write poetry if you don’t use words.” I lowered my eyelids towards my cheeks. Breathed deeply. Prayed for patience.

On Saturday, Chris Cluff had asked, “What stops you from writing?” My answer came quickly: “No space of my own; Virginia Woolf nailed it. I’m ready for our family to go back into the world! Also: fatigue, fear (of failure, of success, that my ideas aren’t good/original/interesting enough); too much time thinking about commitments to others rather than to myself.” Chris’s response was, as always, interesting: “i love what uwrite with flowers. its a very cool fluency”.

I was taken aback. I mean, I walk every day, and take pictures of flowers, but I had never thought of this photography as writing. Barring a photo essay, what would it mean to write with flowers? Flowers as fluency? I needed time to mull this over, to consider, but it was a long weekend and my brain was full of teaching and covid and family and life, so I hit “like”, put the comment in the back of my mind, and imagined I would come back to it later.

It turned out that later was now. Mr. 10 was still not ready to speak. “I don’t know to help you write poetry if you don’t use words” and as the phrase flitted between us, Chris’s comment came back… what u write with flowers.

“Want to draw a picture?”
No.
“Want to look at pictures?”
No.
“Want to tell me a picture?”
He said, “sharks are birds of the ocean. They fly through the water. Their fins are wings.” And I was momentarily speechless.

I wish I could say that was the breakthrough, but it wasn’t. No line of this poem came easily. Often his rhymes were internal, not at the end of lines. He would get caught up in his pictures and lose his words. He fell in love with ideas that didn’t work. He struggled through synonyms and rhyming dictionaries. At one point, both of us nearly cried as we looked for a rhyme for “depths”, a word he was unwilling to let go of or even move. It would be “depths” and it would be at the end of the line. No discussion. I tried not to lose my cool, not to write it for him, not to let him off this hook.

We finally finished, exhausted. He had used almost no alliteration, but he’d written 12 lines with a clear rhyme scheme and a focus. And honestly, I don’t know what we learned, but we did it, and some day – maybe when this school year ends – I’m going to figure out what it means to be fluent in flowers.

[the poem – the flying, the strings, the hemming – that’s all him. I *did* teach him a little about enjambment, but just to tell him that it was ok.]

Sharks of the Sky

I dream of the deep dark sea
The best place in the world to be
The water around me is the sky
Sharks, like birds of the ocean, fly

By me. They glide with fins like wings
The trails they leave in the water are strings
Hemming patterns in the depths
Accepting creatures’ last breaths

Striking fast and leaving no trace
The shark must race,
A streak of grey
Hunting for its prey.

“You want too much” #SOL21 30/31

Today is the second-to-last day of this year’s challenge. It’s been, well, a challenge and yet… I have an awful lot bubbling up – but that’s tomorrow’s post. Today, I want to try my hand at poetry one more time because it’s my blog, so I can.

First, I jumped onto the Golden Shovel theme that started a few days ago, I think, when Fran wrote about it and then Sherri picked it up. Next thing I knew, Peter tried one (in one of his quintessential two-for-one posts) and on and on it went. Heck, something must have been in the air, because even the New York Times got in on the game. The Times article explains the origin of the form, but the quick version is that poet Terrance Hayes created it in homage to Gwendolyn Brooks. He used the words from epigraph of her poem “We Real Cool” as the final word in each line of his own, new poem, “The Golden Shovel”.

Basically, it’s a lot of fun. I’ve tried these before and don’t know that I have any particular gift for them, but they definitely get my brain going.

First, I took one of Sherri’s six-word stories and tried that: Tell me a sorrow you’re hiding.

Don’t tell.
It’s mine. Leave me.
Let me share a
Version of my sorrow
Even when you’re
Sure I’m hiding.

Hmmm…ok. Then I started thinking about a line that’s been echoing in my head a lot lately, “Oh, you want too much!” Yup, that’s Daisy in The Great Gatsby.

We sit in Mrs. Burch’s class and – oh,
how we are bored. “You
must realize that the rose bush represents…” when all we want
is a single red rose or a dozen or a garden because the world is too
alive, too present, too redolent of our sweaty desires. We are too much.

Meh… not terrible, but…now I’m thinking of the prose poem that Kimberly Johnson introduced in EthicalELA’s Open Write challenge earlier this month. So, on the second-to-last day of this challenge, I offer a slice as a list poem, still working from “Oh, you want too much”

Oh, you want too much

Some of the things I had not yet tasted when I was 14 and 120 pounds and my mother said I should probably weigh about this much for the rest of my life
Carrot cake
Caesar salad
The hint of apple on left on his tongue the first time we kissed
Brie cheese
Sea salt
The dirty salty flavour of cuts, kissed better on my children’s fingers
The slippery sweetness of fresh papaya
Soft boiled eggs
Tiramisu
Cum
The heavy warmth of Belize’s damp jungle air
The chalky morning realization that he did, in fact, just want sex
Truffles
Macarons
Sacher torte
Fresh eggs and tomatoes, scrambled in a shallow metal bowl over an open fire in China
The metal tang of rage
Coconut water
Lemon souffle, impossibly light, tangy and sweet, a little like heaven


I feel like this one could go somewhere, but not right now. Right now, it’s going to have to marinate a little (hahaha) and I’m going to bed.

Many thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org/ for giving teacher-writers a safe place to experiment and learn

Something nice #SOL21 26/31

“I want to write something nice,” I say. “I’ve written so many negative things lately.”

My husband nods. He suggests a haiku. I reject this. I declare it “not good enough.” He gives me a knowing look, “Not hard enough?”

I protest: “Good haikus *are* hard.”

“Not long enough?”

Harumph. He knows me too well. “Let’s just watch tv with the kids and I’ll write later.”

Now it’s later. I need to write. “Something nice,” I mutter again. My darling husband says, “Here, I’ll help” and he begins to dictate a poem.

“It’s an acrostic,” he tells me.

Hunk
Unbearable
Salacious
Bodacious
Astringent
Nefarious
Devious

I try to convince him to change some of the words. Astringent? I suggest admirable instead. He tells me that it doesn’t “fit with the tone.”

By now I am laughing and, for no discernible reason, he has begun to sing “Domo arigato Mr. Roboto…” I have no idea when I last heard this song. One child has come back downstairs and asks what domo means. Now they are discussing Japanese. And I’m writing and laughing and it’s Friday night and even though I’m tired this is better, this is good.

Tomorrow is his birthday. When I don’t know what to write, he gives me ideas. He has both an excellent vocabulary and a good sense of humour. And at the end of a long week, he makes me laugh. My son, who is sitting next to me, says I should add “he’s really good with the kids” – high praise. I don’t write about him enough because his stories are not my stories, but he’s the best partner I can imagine.

And here: I’ve written my Friday slice – and it’s something nice.

Thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org/ who welcome writing whether or not it’s nice.

Done #SOL21 25/31

I might be done. I am definitely done for today. I’ve already cried & I think I will just go take a bath and go to sleep. It’s not even 7pm.

The school board just took away our last day of classes for this quarter – which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is because each class is four hours long plus (supposedly) an hour at home, and we only had five classes left. So now we only have four classes left which means we’ve lost four or five *hours* of learning – the equivalent of nearly a week! – and, as it turns out, I can’t squeeze all our plans in without that day.

It means that I will only see the students I saw today, cohort A, two more times. Ever. That’s it.
It means that even though they class (minus two students) *asked* for Hamlet, I can’t fit it in. Which means that I will have to spend my weekend and/or next week replanning the final week, which is now only three days.

I’ve already cut so much. We’ve already lost so much. I am trying to bring joy to the classroom – I really am. Even in the middle of chaos, I am trying to teach the kids the joy of exploration, of risk-taking, of the kind of learning that allows for failure and success. I want my classes to feel compelling and important and personal. And, honestly, even in the pandemic, even in this truly crazy school schedule, most days I think I’m managing or at least coming close. But that kind of teaching doesn’t just happen. I have worked a LOT and now I’m losing four precious hours with them.

I only just learned their names.

In all of March I haven’t even written about my students because I’ve only just started to know them. This is a real loss because they are magnificent, these students: passionate, daring, creative, curious, funny. They wanted to write essays and study Hamlet (minus those two kids – but we need those two, too) and they so desperately want to learn something real, something important. For this whole year I will only see any of them 12 times because the year is a quadmester and the quadmester is every other day, every other week. And now we’ve lost a whole day together.

And I get it, I really do. The school board is trying to help students feel less overwhelmed. Everyone is doing their best. But they keep forgetting that teachers plan and dream and hope. They keep forgetting that every hour with my students is another hour to build a relationship, to remind these people who are on the cusp of adulthood that they are allowed to join the world of intellectual discourse and that even in a pandemic – especially in a pandemic – their voices matter.

So today I’m done. I can’t take anymore today. A bath and a good night’s sleep will help.

And if we can’t do Hamlet, we can do poetry. I bet some Mary Oliver will be balm for their souls. And Jericho Brown will call them into being. And maybe Adrienne Rich and – yes! – Naomi Shibab Nye. Maybe we’ll talk about Chen Chen.

It appears that I have written my way to something new – and maybe my students will, too. But the bathtub calls. Here, read this and we’ll all feel better: Kindness by Naomi Shibab Nye

You didn’t click, did you? No worries – I’ll just give you the final stanza; then you’ll want more:

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

In the playroom #SOL21 14/31

This month’s poetry prompts on EthicalELA have blown open my writing brain. I think it’s the combination of the book that Dr. Kimberly Johnson chose for mentor texts – Nicole Stellon O’Donnell’s You are no longer in trouble and Kim’s gentle guidance on form (which I find comforting when I’m writing poetry). This, of course, makes me think about what I can take into the classroom: perhaps some of my students will also appreciate some structure, a gentle form to help them corral their wilder thoughts right now. I am inspired to offer that during our writing time this week. Until then, here’s a slice of memory as a pantoum.

In the playroom
for my sister

You no longer need to hide
with me behind the old blue armchair
where we hold each other so tight our memories mix
as the storm blows through.

With me behind the old blue armchair,
our words create worlds where little girls reign
until the storm blows through,
until we can come out and play again.

Our words create worlds where little girls reign,
your emotions are mine, mine yours
until we can come out and play again
I hold your fear.

Your emotions are mine, mine yours.
We hold each other so tight our memories mix.
I hold your fear.
You no longer need to hide.

Grief #SOL21 6/21

The first time I understood someone else’s grief was the second time I fell in love with a poem. The day after our beloved Calculus teacher, Doc, died of cancer, the principal announced her passing over the PA.

Doc loved teaching and, I think now, loved us. After her diagnosis, she had taken a summer trip and then decided to keep teaching for as long as she could. We would be her last class – not something we understood at all.

Sometimes, when we were struggling with a concept or deep into a problem, she’d order pizza to be delivered to the school’s back door & sneak it up to the classroom. We’d stay in and do math through lunch. No one ever complained.

Once, when my home life was falling apart, she asked me to come to her house and babysit her granddaughter. I still remember the long quiet afternoon away from home, swaying with the baby as Norah Jones sang “Don’t Know Why.”

After the principal’s dry announcement, Mrs Jackson – 9th grade Algebra – came on. In a voice that quavered at first, she began: “Do not go gentle into that good night”

With each line, each verse her voice grew stronger, until the end: “Do not go gentle into that good night./ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Was there silence then? It was high school; experience tells me that most of the students went right back to talking. But that’s not what I remember: I remember silence. I remember Dylan Thomas’s words reverberating through homeroom, through the hallways, through the school. I remember knowing that I would cry when I got home.

I had no idea that a poem could stop the world like that. I had no idea that grief could echo in empty spaces. I know now.

Now I know.

Thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org for hosting this annual challenge

Tritina: Fall

The more I become a teacher who writes, the more I realize how important writing is to my teaching. When I started this blog, writing expanded my ability to reflect on my teaching practice. When I wrote, I saw details more clearly. What had once been fuzzy, partly-formed thoughts or observations became more firmly fixed. I still held my ideas gently because I wanted room to grow and change, but they became more clear – kind of like dew on a spider web.

Next, writing (and especially publishing) forced me to confront the complexity of what I was asking my students to do. For the first while after I started sharing my writing, I continued to assign mostly analytical essays, but the more I wrote, the more I realized the importance of practice, of revision, and of voice. Obviously I *knew* all of those things, but I hadn’t lived them for a while. The more I wrote, the more I realized how much more space I needed to offer my students in their own writing lives. These days we write all kinds of things and I strive to offer assignments rooted in purpose and audience.

Recently, I’ve been trying my hand at poetry. For me, this feels like the ultimate writing challenge. I mean, sure, I can write a good email and tell a good story, but POETRY? That’s for *real* writers. Like any good English teacher, I have poems I love, but secretly I’ll tell you that I find some completely confounding. And yet… I teach poetry, and I *want* to teach poetry. My blogging buddy Glenda Funke said once (in a comment? a message? I can’t find it, but I remember it) that writing poetry really helped her understand it and teach it. I believed her, but I wasn’t ready to do it. And then… well, I’ve been messing around with it during the pandemic, using poetry to let myself play, let myself write badly, let myself get frustrated and work it out. I start things and abandon them, then come creeping back. I hack away at it, and I have to admit that it’s kind of fun. So, in honour of my students, who regularly share with me work that they hate, that’s half-finished, that’s outside of their comfort zone, who turn in word after word, line after line, paragraph after paragraph , I’m going to write and share poems. (Not every week – don’t get excited.)

Today, inspired (as I often am) by Ethical ELA’s monthly Open Write, I have tried a Tritina.

Fall

Mid-October and still no killing frost.
The tomatoes still strive towards red,
heedless of the Fall.

Around the vine, leaves fall
As the trees, preparing for the inevitable frost
shed yellow, orange, gold, red.

Earlier and earlier every evening the red
sun descends toward the horizon, its fall
portending what is to come: frost.

Nightly, I beg the frost to allow one more shimmer of red before white death falls.

Thank you to https://twowritingteachers.org/ for hosting this weekly blog share

Haiku moments

This week, I am attending the virtual Digital Pedagogy Lab 2020 conference. I’m in the “Critical Visual Dialogues” stream and, after only two days, my mind is full of images and my brain is questioning them in all sorts of ways. One of yesterday’s assignments was to “choose an image that is significant to you in some way and write a poem or some creative writing in response to it.” Despite having approximately a million photos at my fingertips, I could not choose an image. I got myself all wound up in what any choice would say about me. To make matters worse, we are sharing lots of our work on Twitter and Instagram, so there’s a public nature to it.

We also had to (ok, we *have* to do nothing: our leaders, Daniel Lynds & Francesca Sobande have been very clear that we are driving the course. That said, they offer us activities every day, and the activities are really interesting, so I want to do them.) “share some form of a visual self-portrait… anything from a memoji or selfie to a painting or photograph that you feel tells us something about you.” I was startled at how long it took me to choose a picture. It’s been a while since I felt out of my depth at a conference, but that’s what I’m feeling. I know this means good things in the long run, but right now it’s uncomfortable.

I’m a slow thinker – or at least a slow synthesizer of information – so I’m not quite ready to put all of my thoughts about this into a blog post, but I did try to write about all this for a while this morning. I found myself getting frustrated – my ideas were swirling too fast to catch, and everything I wrote seemed trite even though my thoughts feel complex. I was ready to give up. Then, I read Jessica’s blog post, Glitter, about a moment when one of her daughters’ observations about the ocean in the morning turned into a haiku. Jessica’s ability to bring the joy of words into her children’s lives is inspiring. Her ability to see those precious moments & capture them in writing, even more so. Her post was like a deep breath of love.

Suddenly, I knew what images I wanted to use: pictures of my children. And I knew what I wanted to capture with my words: the sense of the fleeting nature of their childhood. Images capture moments – slices of life, if you will – and haiku does that, too. Both photographs and haiku can leave us with a definite, though unstated, emotional response. Perfect. So, here’s my response to yesterday’s assignment:

T underwater
Underwater boy
caught between the elements
who will you become?
E plays with fire
He controls the fire
his power barely contained
on a glowing stick


Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for hosting this weekly blog and to Digital Pedagogy Lab for organizing a conference that is shaking up my thinking.

Behind closed doors

Every month Ethical ELA offers a 5-day “Open Write” for teachers. Various teachers and writers “host” and share one way to write poetry. I often lurk there, but have only written a few times. Today Mo Daley & Tracie McCormick shared the monotetra, a form developed by Michael Walker. When they challenged us to write from headlines and ideas in the news, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about.

Last night, I lost sleep after reading an article that said “The Ont Ministry of Ed says teachers who stand at the front of the class, keeping two metres away from their students, don’t need PPE.” I kept tossing and turning, trying to figure out how in the world I’m supposed to teach effectively while remaining two metres away from my students. And yes, I know I teach high school, but, no, I don’t stand in front of them and lecture. I literally woke up at 2 in the morning thinking that maybe I could conference from behind a plexiglass screen.

So this morning when I saw the prompt, well, my sleepless night spilled into daytime cynicism. At first, I was horrified that my poem was so DARK. Then I thought, heck, it’s playfully dark – right? At any rate, now I have a great poem to show my students where the speaker of the poem and the author of the poem are not necessarily one and the same. Plus, I can teach them the monotetra and possibly link that to our media studies… but only if I bring my own PPE.

Behind Closed Doors: The Ministry of Education talks about teachers during COVID19

Teachers are a dime a dozen.
They get sick, we bring some more in.
There’s no reason for their dudgeon.
Bring some more in; bring some more in.

Who says they need those PPEs
to keep them safe from this disease?
No teacher gets those guarantees.
They’re employees; they’re employees.

And while we meet safely online,
we’ll tell the teachers they’re “front line”,
that classroom teaching is designed
to help mankind, to help mankind.

Tell them that, though school is scary,
online classes were temporary.
Now we know teachers are very…um
necessary (yes!), necessary.

PPEs are too expensive.
Teachers mustn’t be apprehensive:
If we provide them no defences,
It’s inoffensive; it’s inoffensive.

The parents must return to work 
So we’ll explain that teachers shirk
And PPEs are simply perks
Get back to work! Get back to work!

Convince the parents they’ve been had.
Remind them that the Spring was bad.
You were not scared, you moms and dads.
Not scared, but mad; not scared, but mad.

Workers need to be productive.
Children need to be instructed.
Our plan is purely reconstructive
Don’t obstruct it; don’t obstruct it.

Th’economy must be maintained
We knew those teachers would complain.
Did they expect us to explain?
Their loss; our gain. Their loss; our gain.

And if a few good teachers die?
We’ll sigh on screen, we’ll dab our eye,
Then we will find a new supply.
And who will cry? And who will cry?

Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting the weekly Slice of Life

I heard a Fly buzz

Emily Dickinson’s poem “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died -” is one of the mentor texts in Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell’s anthology Sleeping on the Wing. I love the anthology and often use it to pique my students’ interest in reading and writing poetry. It’s a new way of looking at poetry for many students. The poems are interesting, the prompts intriguing; I often write from them myself as I teach.

Normally, I would pause here to quote the prompt that I’m thinking of, but today I can’t because my book is in the school, and the school is closed because of the Covid19 pandemic. I’m at home, teaching without most of my books. We’re making do.

Dickinson’s poem begins like this:

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –


And the prompt says something like “write a poem where you intentionally set a very big thing next to a very small thing” and it says something like “consider capitalizing some words and using short phrases and dashes.”

I can’t stop thinking about this – the giant thing: death – and the small, everyday thing: the fly. I can’t stop thinking about how often even the most important moments get all wrapped up with the mundane, even the annoying. I feel this intensely as I continue to live a pandemic-normal existence in Canada, watching from a distance as my country, my home, seems to be ripping itself apart. To use another literary reference, I am, like Nick in The Great Gatsby (one of the texts my students have chosen to read) “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

I am repelled by the way President Trump is behaving, how he is inciting increased violence and calling for violence against Americans. I should no longer be shocked by his abhorrent behaviour, but I am. I am repelled by the actions of some police officers, by extremists who take advantage of protests to foment increased discord.

I am even more repelled by the history that has brought us to this moment – though my revulsion itself is a privilege because it implies that I see this racism, this horrible foundation, as something outside myself. I can be repelled because I do not experience racism against me. I can look at this from the outside in not only because I’m in Canada, but also because I am white.

I *am* white and I am in Canada, so despite the pit in my stomach, I am dealing with every day things: the cats want to their food, the children have school work, the bills must be paid. The persistent buzz of every day of life interposes between me and this larger moment. And I can’t ignore it. Thus it is, with rueful gratitude to Dickinson, who understood that the sublime and the mundane are never entirely separate, I offer this:

I mark Essays – as they Protest
As their Voices plead for Air –
Their Silence – it surrounds me –
As I comb – my youngest’s hair

Police have turned on protesters –
Though Some strive to protect –
We all breathe in the tear gas
Of a President – unchecked

Our racism goes back – Centuries
Though now – the White man cries –
“Not me! I’m anti-racist!”
Without Action – it’s a lie.

And here I sit – in Canada –
My White skin – lets me choose –
How much I want to be involved
I sit – and watch the News.

Here’s Dickinson’s whole poem:

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

Emily Dickinson