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

Finding my joy

“Listen,” I say softly, “there are a lot of things that you can’t control right now, but there are also a lot that you CAN control. I need you to focus on what *you* can control.”

I’d swear I can hear this child nod. We pause, silent for a moment, letting this idea settle.

“Let’s make a list,” I say. “I’ll start. You can control when you take breaks. Are you taking breaks?”
“Um. Yeah, I guess.”
“So let’s start with that.”

We talk for over half an hour. I cradle the receiver to my ear and help one child take back a sense of agency, a sense that they are capable of learning even in a system that seems designed to take advantage of every weakness inherent in their learning disability. I hang up, exhausted but content. I know that the problems aren’t actually fixed – both parents and teachers are spiralling as they try to figure out how to help – but I also know that I’ve helped give this kid a little shelter from the storm. Hopefully this will be enough to allow him to find his footing, remember his strengths, and forge ahead.

This is the Special Education work I want to do. This is the work I’ve been missing at the beginning of this pandemic-infused school year. Lately, I’ve found myself remembering the words of my Spec Ed mentor from years ago: The kids always come first. The system will tell you that the paperwork comes first, but it’s wrong. Miss every deadline you need to in order to support the kids.

The last few weeks have exhausted me. I thought I was embodying my mentor’s words, but I’ve realized that, in fact, given the restrictions on seeing students and the system’s insatiable need for accountability, I have actually been putting paperwork first. Most of my phone calls have been about IEPs, not about helping. Oh, I thought I was asking about the kids, but I was actually working through a list, making sure I had checked all the boxes. I’m embarrassed to realize it, but the kids were coming second, the myriad phone calls really in service of a form.

What’s important to me are relationships and people. What’s important is listening, believing and creating space for growth. If I am going to thrive in this moment, I am going to have to find my joy – because my joy is what allows me to reach out, is what allows me to support, to help, to encourage.

I lean away from the phone and find solace in my lonely office, away from the colleagues and students. What can I control?I ask myself. Am *I* taking breaks? I stand up, stretch, don my mask, and head across the hallway to make myself a tea.

I can control how I interact with students: I will use the phone to connect with students who might not otherwise ask for help. (In fact, I am astonished by the kids who are reaching out now compared to the kids who came to the Spec Ed room before.) I will make time for long conversations when they are necessary. I will proactively reach out to students who I hear may be struggling. I will put students first.

I can control how I interact with teachers: I will use our new, complicated school day to offer a different kind of support for teachers. I can share Google classrooms with them and offer ideas for UDL when teachers ask me about this. I will offer breaks so they can breathe during these long days. I will find ways to teach that are not dependent upon having a class.

I love being a teacher. Teaching is written into my very being. I know what brings me joy. Now, even in the midst of this most unusual time, I can decide to pursue the joy available in this moment and remember that the deadlines are about systems and I am about people.

Later in the day, I learned that my student’s parent had called the principal. The storm winds continued to blow, but the parent also reported that my conversation with their son had been really helpful: “I don’t know what she said, but it’s the first time I’ve seen him smile in days.”

Ah, there’s the joy.

I’m on the phone

Photo by Alex Andrews on Pexels.com

The cellphone lights up on my desk. I glance at it: my colleague from down the hall has a question. I type in “I’m on the phone” while I continue to “mmmhmmm” my way through a conversation with a parent.

I don’t have any students assigned to me this quadmester. My colleagues are muddling their way through a convoluted teaching schedule that involves teaching one class for 225 minutes per day (plus a 75 minute at-home work period) for one week during which half the students come one day while the other half are online; then the two cohorts switch. As if that weren’t enough, teachers must deliver both synchronous and asynchronous instruction for the students at home while remaining masked and socially distant from the students in the room. Then the next week they do the same thing with a different class. And then they start again. While all of that is happening, I have been assigned to Spec Ed, and I am on the phone.

We have about 225 students at our school who have IEPs. Usually, we send forms – thorough, if impersonal – home to parents to ask for input; I would guess we average about a 25% rate of return, maybe a little more. Usually, we meet face-to-face with every student. We sit with them for five or ten minutes and look at their IEP, showing them what accommodations they have, asking what works, what needs tweaking. Usually, the Spec Ed room is full of kids coming in to pick up a Chromebook, get some extra explanation, figure out how to study more effectively. Usually, I interact with my partner, EAs, other teachers and guidance counselors every day. I squeeze in the occasional phone call and respond to email as quickly as I can, but usually my focus is on the students in front of me. Usually Spec Ed is the kind of job that asks me to juggle a knife, a fire stick and a teddy bear while standing on a beach ball. But 2020, as we all know, is not a usual year. So I am on the phone.

My partner and I are calling every family and every student about their IEP. We call on the days when the students are in the cohort that is working from home. We cross our fingers that we aren’t interrupting their parents’ workday, that we aren’t waking the student up. We leave messages, send emails and, most of all, we talk on the phone.

This is a completely different way to support students. I am simultaneously lonely and overstimulated. I find myself exhausted from listening – really listening – to the way each family and each child is experiencing our education system during this crisis. They are thoughtful about their needs, their child’s needs. They are alert to what changes have happened this year, how their students have responded, what might come next. They are hopeful and fearful and mostly they just want things to be good enough. Mostly they are hoping to muddle through. Almost always they are surprised, delighted, impressed that we are calling – as if this is entirely unexpected amidst the chaos of the school year. Most of the parents are kind. Most of the kids are upbeat. Almost everyone understands that we are part of a team that works best when we work together.

Of course, it takes time to build those teams, and right now I’m spending that time on the phone. I jot down notes as I listen, little memory jogs to help me remember what information to email teachers, when to call my administrator, when to give Guidance a heads’ up. I give out my email, my phone number again and again. I say, “don’t hesitate to call as soon as you sense a problem; this year classes are moving very quickly.” I say, “If you’ve tried to get in touch and I haven’t gotten back to you, please send me a gentle reminder. Sometimes I just get overwhelmed.”

I’m overwhelmed. I long to be in the classroom, juggling through the chaos of the class schedule created for us. I long to be reading and writing and talking with students as I try to convince them that their voice matters. I miss the physical presence of people in a room, of my colleagues and my students. I imagine that sharing their overwhelm will feel better, more present, than these voices on the other end of the phone.

But I am on the phone. And I am convinced that their voice matters. “I know this year looks different; please call or email right away if you’re struggling. We can work together to fix just about anything.” I listen for the silent nod on the other end of the line. I say goodbye. I hang up.

Then I turn to the computer and pull up another IEP. I read through the assessments, the accommodations, the transitions. I find the student’s timetable. Deep breath. I look at the student’s picture, call up a memory of the child from years past, hold tight to that connection, and then I pick up the phone. “Hello, this is Amanda Potts, calling from Canterbury High School. I’m your child’s Learning Support Teacher this year. Is this a good time to talk about their IEP?”

The cellphone lights up on my desk. I type “I’m on number 8. You?” and continue to “mmmhmmm” my way through a conversation with a parent.

Fragmented

6:30 am
Just going to try to get this written before the kids get downstairs. Don’t expect it to be my best slice, but things are *busy* these days. Nothing like taking over a class mid-semester (and supporting the two teachers who are picking up the other ones) to keep me on my toes. If I can squeeze out 10 minutes, I’m going to call this my slice because today will be full.

[The kids woke up. Breakfast. Out the door.]

10:30am
Ok, so I didn’t finish this morning. Maybe I can edit this afternoon & cobble something together. One good thing about teaching writing is that, if I write alongside them, I get a little writing time, too. This week & next we’re looking at integrating music and writing. Today’s prompt is Beethoven’s Minuet in G & they’re supposedly thinking about atmosphere. I don’t know what they’re writing, but at least m
ost of them are physically writing. Of course, some are not. Some stare, almost defiant. Two are chatting.

[Another teacher came in, looking for my advice about a student with an IEP. Turns out that IEPs don’t go away just because I picked up an extra class…]

2:10
Now’s my moment. If I slice now I can do a quick edit when I get home & up it goes. Hmm… what to write about ? Book Sale – we’ve collected used books all year long to sell at the kids’ school’s Book Sale. This weekend we sorted a boxed hundreds of books. Maybe describe the physical feeling of books – the handling of them. But easier and easier for me to give away (though not my own)! Today we took 624 books (well, more or less: we fudged the numbers a little so that they were even) to the school at 8am. We ferried them out of the gray minivan, across the street, up the steps, through the front door, and into the lobby. Pause. Into the gym and onto the stage. Box after box. Sorted and

[Another teacher came in with a question. Then the principal swang by with a question. Then the Guidance Counselor called.]

7:02pm
Here I am. I have 13 minutes until the boys come tearing into the house & we start the bedtime routine. I promised a friend I would return her call 12 minutes ago. One of the cats just yowled in the backyard (where a skunk sprayed last night). The only edits I’ve managed are to add the interruptions.

Today I’m fragmented. Reflection is hard to come by. Story is escaping me and even the details slip away. I need to get my head wrapped around this new course, need to get to know my students, calm their parents, help my sick colleague, pay attention to the students I already love, play with my own boys, laugh with my husband… I need to feed the cats, make the lunches, wash the dishes. All these little pieces of my life & I’m just going to have to enjoy them as they go by because that’s all I’m going to get right now.

Somebody in some blog somewhere [Update – this is the post I was thinking of] recently posted about kintsugi, the ancient Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold. What I’m realizing as I write is that kintsugi depends on having something that is broken, something that is fragmented. I bet the literature on kintsugi doesn’t tell about the moment the vase slipped from her hands, the way the pot hit the hard earth, how she wept when she saw the mess, how she had to take a deep breath, remind herself that the fragments themselves held beauty. No one talks about the hope she mustered as she gathered the shards and put them carefully into a safe place, fingers crossed that someday there would be gold – or words, or love – enough to create beauty from the fragments. She just has to wait.

7:15 – the door just opened (they really are good kids). I’m going to post without the Slice of Life picture or anything. And no editing. Deep breath – here it goes. Maybe I’ll edit and add the picture later.

 

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)

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:

 

Finding poetry

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It’s April, so my Grade 10 class is busy doing poetry. Many of these students are not enthusiastic about reading or writing in any form – yet. I have one semester to plant seeds that will, hopefully, sprout into a literate life for each of them over time, and if well watered. It’s an exhilarating challenge.

Many of these students are not yet poetry lovers. In fact, when I told them that it was Poetry Month, exaggerated groans erupted around the room. One boy mimed death by choking. I’ve suggested he take a drama class, but…

So why do I choose to do poetry with students who are not yet lovers of words? Jason Reynolds articulates it perfectly in this interview. The gist of what he says (if you don’t have 3:00 to listen right now) is that poetry is perfect for reluctant readers: it doesn’t overwhelm them with words; it has spacing, line breaks, and stanzas that break things down; and there is lots of white space. (It’s a great piece – not an interview exactly – but a mini-talk with a poem at the end.)

Our class started with a list poem (inspired by Richard Brautigan via Elisabeth Ellington) in part because a visiting poet had already introduced this form earlier in the semester. We had fun with it – I may have to share more on this later – but I knew I had only a few fairweather converts. Today, however, we hit pay dirt: the blackout poem.

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First, I showed the students some mentor texts – mostly Austin Kleon but also some random ones with images. (I cannot lie – I did a Google search for blackout poetry and showed the images. I like showing the students things that they can easily access without loads of specialized knowledge. Don’t know who Austin Kleon is? No problem.) They were intrigued but not hooked.

So I linked to The New York Times. We use their “What’s Going On In This Picture?” feature every Monday, so the kids are familiar with the paper. Today, we used an older post called Searching for Poetry in Prose. This pairs some NYTimes articles on the left side of the screen with a blacked-out version on the right. When you click on a word in the article, it gets un-blacked-out (that cannot be the way to say that) on the right. You get to choose up to 15 words and you can save your poem. We played with a few together, and more kids perked up.

Then – this is where things got good – I gave them actual books from our book room. You know, the ones where the spines have split and pages are falling out but someone re-shelved them anyway? Yup – I gave them those. And markers. Lots of markers. I suggested that they use pencils to outline the words they were choosing… some listened, some didn’t. If they couldn’t stomach the books, they used the website. Some were a little slow to start, but after a few minutes, the room was abuzz. They called friends over to share or used their hands to hide what they were doing. Words whipped around the room: “You are never gonna believe what’s in this one!” What does this word even mean?” “Look it up!” “Wait, no, I know that word!” (Someone learned the word “fornicating” – I nearly choked with laughter. It was a well-shared discovery.)

Eventually, a head popped up, “Are we allowed to do more than one?” Yes, yes you are. “Oh! I ripped it! Do you have tape?” Yes, I do. “Can I put mine up on the board?” Yes, you can. “Can I take this book home?” Oh, yes. Yes. You can take the book home.

I think blackout poetry won the day.

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by Simbi

 

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by Marta

 

Reading & Writing & ‘Rithmetic

As I type, my darling children are using an app called Reflex Math. They are also whining. A lot. Reflex Math is designed to help them learn math facts through the 10s. First addition & subtraction, then multiplication & division. It looks like fun to me: instead of just practicing facts with flashcards, they choose games to play, earn points for playing, and “buy” things from the online store. They can check their progress to see which facts they’ve mastered and they only need to play about 10 minutes a day to progress well. So… choice? Check. Rewards? Check. Autonomy? Check.

They hate it.

Me? I’m conflicted. I hated hated hated learning my facts when I was in elementary school. I failed one timed test after another and eventually decided that I was no good at math. I was wrong, but it took me years to realize this. I do not want my kids to have the same experience. Luckily, the current curriculum in our province includes lots of deep understanding. The kids know how addition and multiplication work. They can explain, re-group, skip count – the whole nine yards. I’m really pleased about that, and I know that this is better, harder, and more important work than the memorization I did when I was young.

On the other hand, their current teachers have not emphasized actually *knowing* these facts – you know, just being able to say 6×4=24 without hesitating. And it seems to me that when push comes to shove, you need to know the answer. I used to believe that, with practice, they would just sort of pick up the facts over time. I no longer believe this: as a Special Education teacher, I do educational testing for our high school students, and I regularly see students – some of whom are taking courses as complex as Calculus – struggling to do the testing because it must be done without a calculator. It’s not just that the work is harder to complete without the technology; they often have little number sense. They quite literally cannot add and subtract. They are hamstrung in their complex thinking because they don’t know the basics. I don’t want this for my kids. So they’re memorizing – in a fun, non-judgmental way, I swear.

And yet… today, I had a conversation with my English department that was more complicated than I had anticipated. At its heart, I think the discussion was about how best we can help the students understand the complexities of literature. Is it more important to develop readers first or is our priority to teach analysis (as if this needs to be a dichotomy – sigh)? Can we trust the students to get what they need out of books that they choose? How much direction must we provide in order for them to develop complex thinking about and understanding of the written word? We found ourselves in different places along a continuum of thinking. I was very firmly in the “trust the kids; they’ll learn it (with good guidance)” camp.

On reflection, I see this discussion as the inverse mirror of my math facts concern. I’m asking my own children to memorize their math facts completely devoid of context. Apparently I think this is important. But, if pressed, I would argue something quite different about reading. I believe that my students need to *read* before they can really dig into the depths of literature. And to get them to read, I need to talk about books, provide books, value reading of all kinds, and offer lots of choice for their reading. Then, as we read, we will begin to talk figurative language and etc. (This is an oversimplification of the process, but you get the picture. Elisabeth Ellington’s post hits at some of what I mean – and she kindly sent me on to a post by Donalyn Miller which says more of what I’m talking about but much more eloquently. ) Some of my colleagues think differently: given that the students don’t read much, we must directly teach various literary devices, methods of development, etc. The paucity of the students’ reading experience means that memorization is required. Only then will they be able to understand literature. I bet they make their kids memorize math facts, too.

Hmm… the kids have long since finished their math game, but here I sit, writing, deleting, pondering, writing again. I have to stop, but I have a lot more to say about this. For now, here’s my take away: It’s easy for me to feel strongly about how to teach reading and writing – trust the kids, let them read; it’s easy enough for me to think that the old school way is, frankly, less effective. But I don’t seem to believe that about math facts, now do I? So, first, where’s the mismatch? And, second, I’d better not be too quick to judge.

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Slice of Life Day 29, March 2018

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