He may be right; I may be crazy

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He is late again today. In fact, despite my repeated warnings, he’s been coming to class later and later as the semester nears its end: 30 seconds after the bell rings has become 1 minute, 2 minutes… today it is closer to 5. He tries to slip into his seat when I’m not looking – as if I won’t notice with only ten kids in the class. Then, like most days, a few minutes later he casually saunters up and asks to use the washroom during our reading time. He’s driving me crazy.

The EAs I’ve worked with over the years have told me that I am too slow to respond to these minor transgressions, that I should send kids to the office earlier and more often. I need to be more strict. I hear this. I hear, too, what these kids are asking “How far can I go? What can I get away with? How much does she care?” I care a lot. And I should be strict, but I want to know the why behind the transgression. I’m a sucker for the why.

“I’m worried about you,” I tell him.
“Don’t be,” he shrugs. “It’s not like I miss anything at the beginning of class, anyway.”
I bite my tongue and wait.
“What’d I miss?”
I raise my eyebrows.

See, the truth is, he’s kind of right: he doesn’t miss much content in that first minute, though I pretty much always start on time. We use the beginning of class to connect, to set the tone, to share, and, of course, to talk about books. But he’s not interested in being part of the class, and he doesn’t want me to know him. If he’s late, he doesn’t have to learn about his classmates and he can stay disconnected.

“Why do you care so much about 2 minutes?” He eyes me warily.

I have to think about this. I mean, I knew the answer before he asked, but now I need to answer for him. Why do I care so much about him being in class on time?

“Well…” I hesitate, and my voice trails off. “I’m worried.” Hmm. I already said that. I’m not making a good case for myself. His chin juts forward and up, but his eyes go down. I take a deep breath and the truth tumbles out.

“I know you’re bored. But you’ve got a good brain. And I think you might be bored because you’re not engaged in the work we’re doing, or in school, really. I see you skimming around the edges, cutting corners, breaking little rules to show that you don’t have to do this. That you’re not involved. And I’m worried. Because I want you to be interested in something. I want your brain and your heart, and you’re not sharing either. You think it’s about a few minutes; I think it’s about you learning.”

He’s not impressed. I’ve said shorter versions of this before.
“What are you even talking about? I was, like 2 minutes…”
“5 minutes,” I really can’t help interrupting.
“Ok, 5 minutes late. Like 5 minutes.” He’s shaking his head.
“Today. And yesterday. And last week. And what about tomorrow? And you don’t put your phone away when I ask. And you do the writing I ask for, but you don’t share it. And you read when we’re talking and go to the washroom when we’re reading. You have a lot of ways of making it clear that you are not following the rules, that you aren’t one of us.”

He is quiet. I may be right, but he thinks I’m crazy. I’m asking for something way beyond just following the rules. I’m interested in more than just his compliance, and he knows it. We both wait.

“Do I have to stay after class?” His question is a whisper.
I know how much lunch means to him. I know how he needs his friends, how he needs to move. I know I should be stricter earlier with these minor transgressions. I know that punishment rarely leads to engagement. We appraise each other. I see such potential in him, such possibility. I wonder what he sees in me?


Finally, I sigh. “I guess I don’t know anymore. Can I think about it?”
“Yeah,” he says. And then, as he’s turning around, “Thanks.”

It’s the “thanks” that gets me. I don’t keep him in at lunch. And I hope he’ll be on time tomorrow, but he probably won’t be. He may be right: I may be crazy.

Update, Wednesday morning: And… he was late again today. But he was in a good mood, and he sat down to read without complaint. Baby steps?

 

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Sink Holes and Lava Flows

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On Mondays, if I remember, I ask my class how their weekend was, though sometimes by last period the weekend seems far away. I don’t have any research on this, but somehow it seems like talking about their weekend honors their life outside of school and says that what they experience matters. Also, sometimes I glean interesting tidbits about them, and pretty much always I can get a sense of the class energy from the way the discussion flows. So I ask.

Today, before I even finished the question, one girl was shaking her head and making a face. It was not a good weekend. She wants to move. Uh-oh.  I looked at her hard – I know of several reasons why she might want to move, so I wanted to tread carefully, but I also knew that if she spoke up, she might make connections in the classroom, and she might find support, so I took the plunge: “Anything you can share?”

There was a shooting just four doors down from her house; she had heard the shots. She didn’t feel safe. “It was a homicide!” called in a boy across the room. Then he added, almost casually, “I live around the corner. A guy got killed.”  I was shocked, but my students were not. Most of them live in the neighborhood, and they had lots to share. They talked about gun violence in their lives: they have heard it, seen it, been affected by it. I wanted to ask questions, find out if they were scared, know what they have seen, but I also didn’t want to push them or puncture the fragile veneer of safety they had created. One boy said he was not afraid because he wasn’t home when the shooting occurred. One girl said most of the shootings are on the 8th floor of her building, and she doesn’t live on that floor. As they talked, I realized that I didn’t know what to do.

I struggled to figure out my next steps, but my students didn’t hesitate. “Miss, did you hear about the sink hole in New Zealand? It’s GIANT!” “Yeah, and the volcano in Hawaii – you can see the lava!” I shook my head – I hadn’t followed any news this weekend, so I knew nothing. They were really proud that they knew things I didn’t. And just like that, we were talking about the changing world. We searched for articles, collected interesting words (“gigantic cavernous void”), talked about potential found poetry, watched videos. I complimented them for being so aware of the world – they weren’t doing this when the semester started. Most students participated in our discussion; everyone looked at the sinkhole video over and over. We couldn’t believe that it just opened up overnight, that the farmer just happened upon it. We couldn’t imagine having lava flow down our street. We decided that if we were in Hawaii we would NOT be dumb enough to go near the flowing lava to try to take pictures (though I’m pretty sure some of the boys were lying). And then we moved on to the rest of the lesson.

Now it’s evening, and I can’t shake off the shots that my students buried in that sink hole, that they burned beneath the lava flow. In case I had forgotten, my students reminded me today that they lead real lives that can sometimes make school seem beside the point. As we talked in class, we tried to imagine what it would be like to walk somewhere we knew well and happen upon a giant sinkhole in ground that had seemed solid just the day before.  I think that actually happened to me today. Their world is not mine. I am shocked, overwhelmed, embarrassed again and again that I can think that I know who they are. I love them, but I know nothing.

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?

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.

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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)

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.

A blessing for my students

 

Several of my students are in crisis. I feel almost false as I write about everything but them but, though my head is a-swirl with their situations, I cannot write about what is happening. Their stories are theirs; I cannot share them here. Even if I could, I wouldn’t know how to share because the pain, the hardness, it’s too much for me to process right now. I can support, act, think, but I can’t feel this all yet. It’s too much. I am spent, and I don’t know what to write. How do you slice someone else’s pain?


I keep thinking about the Irish blessings people wrote about on St. Patrick’s Day. If I cannot write their stories, perhaps I can write of my hopes instead. Maybe that will lift some of this weight. What can I offer these young people?

A teacher’s blessing

I wish for you…
the strength to continue to speak the truth and to believe that your truth matters;
the understanding that adults are neither always good, right or kind nor always mean, wrong or vindictive;
the ability to continue to believe that the world is generally good, even when that is not your current experience.

On your journey, may you find…
ideas that nourish you;
friends who support you;
dreams that propel you forward into the world.

May you see, as I see…
your friends, who hold you close and support you, even when you are unsure;
your family, who love you, even when you cannot believe this;
your self, who shines brightly, even when you feel unseen.

May the path that lies before you be smoothed by the choices you made today.
May the love that awaits you be deepened by the emotion you experience now.
May the adult you become be shaped by the child you are in this moment.

For all that you think you are broken, you carry within you our dream of the undiminished future.

Oh, my students! Tonight, I wish you peace.

 

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Slice of Life, Day 22, March 2018

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for this wonderful month of inspiration.