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.