Making Writing Poetry Visible (or Maybe Audible)

This morning, as I got ready to be inspired to write poetry at Bud Hunt’s blog, I decided to do something a little different. I turned on Audacity and “talked through” the entire process of writing — from the first moments when I saw the picture that Bud had posted and his one word inspiration, and then as I was writing, I tried to verbalize my thinking.

So, if you want to crawl into my meandering mind for a bit, take a listen.

Here is the poem that came out the other end.

Red Crate, Abandoned

Nothings remains
empty
for long …
not even red crates in deserted alleyways
on familiar spaces

The gaps inside
echo
with past objects, leaving trails behind –
memories lost –
along the byways of the forgetting

If you should come upon this carriage
of history
be gentle with me
and overflow the space with
new thoughts

Together, we’ll fill the emptiness
with words,
and fill the alleyways
with ideas.

Here is the podcast of the poem itself.

 

Peace (in the alleyways of ideas),
Kevin

 

Teachers as Writers: Writing Without a Net

I almost always write with my students. If its a writing prompt, I am sitting there, in their midst, creating. And sharing my process. If it is a project, I am working on it in the days before I assign it. And I am sharing my process. Students need to see their teachers as writers if they are to view writing as an authentic experience. And they are always very interested in what I am up to.

Yesterday, I decided to make my writing even more visible. We were working on a short story prompt inspired by The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg. We’ve used the odd illustrations through the year, so they are by now pretty familiar with the concept. This time, instead of sitting in their midst, I sat at my computer that is attached to my interactive board, and I wrote. This made me somewhat naked as a writer at the board — as I was typing, making mistakes, rewording phrases, reworking ideas, shifting voice, correcting tense …. my students were watching and taking it in.

Of course, they were writing, too, but I could feel their eyes on me from time to time. I’d look up, to gather a new idea, and see about six to eight students staring at the screen. I’d smile. They’d smile. I’d get back to writing and then, they’d get back to writing. By the end of the day, after four class periods, I had the start of a story that may or may not go somewhere next week as we keep working in our notebooks. More than a few asked at the end of each class to read what I had written. Of course, I let them.

What I didn’t do this time is process what I was doing with my writing out loud. I just let my writing speak for itself, and I think it was enough for them to see a story unfolding before them to give them some inspiration. Teachers need to write because writing is not easy. A finished, polished piece of writing doesn’t just come off the fingers of authors like some sparkle of magic. There’s a lot of back and forth, crossing out, revision, reworking and stumbling that goes on, and I was doing my best to make it all visible to them on the giant board.

This is the story I came up with. It is inspired by the illustration called Archie Smith, Boy Wonder.
Archie Smith, Boy Wonder short story
Peace (in the writing),
Kevin

 

Today’s Poem: Heavenly Body

Bud Hunt had a neat picture of planets this morning, as he encourages us all month to write poems every day. His image sparked this poem from me this morning.

Heavenly Body

You’ve been outside my orbit for years now –
a floating, beautiful body in deep space.
I have been so centered around the Sun
that I barely noticed you
until little bits
– words like meteors crashing into my atmosphere –
made me wonder what it is I have been missing,
out here, in my own system of heavenly bodies
too far away to touch.

If this poem is to become a telescope,
my eyes are now fixated on the ways our gravities intersect,
and I feel your pull more than ever.
I stretch my fingers until the breaking point
only to see you fade behind the shadows
of the moon,
so I wait … wondering …. worrying …
writing so that I may never forget
what you look like.

You can listen to the poem as a podcast, too.

 

Peace (in the poems),
Kevin

 

 

The Fine Art of Losing

Permafrost symbol

We lost yesterday.

During our school’s 13th Annual Quidditch Championship, my homeroom team could not score enough points to win. Since there are four teams, only one will become the winner. We all know this going in, and as teachers, we don’t concentrate on the “winning” so much as the experience: the sense of community that forms around the game; the myriad art projects from t-shirts to posters; the writing and technology activities; the sense that as the oldest students in the school, this is their time for the spotlight; and more.

Still, yesterday morning before the games began, my class was brimming with confidence. They thought they had a shot at the title. “We’re going to get the cup for you, Mr. H,” one boy said, high-fiving me. And they worked hard. No one was holding back. They just came up a bit short during the day. Another class was just stronger and faster.

Back in our classroom room briefly at the very end of the day, I gave a post-tournament pep talk, focusing in on all that I saw out on the Quidditch floor: the teamwork, the hustle, the cheering, the sportsmanship. They listened. Some had their heads down, tired or frustrated or both. As a teacher (and their coach), it was a difficult moment. I want them all to be winners in everything they do. I am one of their biggest cheerleaders. But I know from experience life is not like that. Many times, you lose. In fact, we often lose more than win, and that’s what makes the winning so special when it happens.

So, I let my kids know in no uncertain terms how proud I was of them as a class and how honored I was to be in their midst.  I reminded them of the weeks behind us, when we came together for each other. There was a moment of silence in the room as this message sank in (I think) and then one boy who had had his heart set on winning and who was completely exhausted from his efforts, said loudly and cheerfully for all of us to hear:

“That was fun.”

And there you have it. That’s what we hope they will remember over the years. It really is not about who scores the most points, as nice as it is. It’s about the experience of participating in something special and unique (I don’t think too many elementary schools hold their own Quidditch Tournaments year after year.) And it’s awfully fun.

Peace (and magic),
Kevin

 

DVD Review: From the Sky Down (U2)


I still remember the first moment I put U2’s Achtung Baby CD on. I was in the midst of a deteriorating relationship and I needed escape. I popped the disc in, sat on the ground, put on some headphones, and leaned against the wall. The music was like the soundtrack I had been hearing in my head but could not express. It affected me deeply, through the lyrics, the sonic walls of sound and the passion that seemed to be underlying another story of a relationship about to break apart. Mine did, eventually, and Achtung Baby helped me cope. That’s what music can do, I think.

I was remembering that first time as I watched David Guggenheim’s documentary of the making of the album. From the Sky Down captures the moment when U2 was on the verge of either collapse (from the weight of The Joshua Tree‘s success and the disillusionment of Rattle & Hum) or something great. It seemed for much of the recording sessions that the band would not pull itself up.

What changed the entire recording was the emergence of the song, One. It’s interesting because the chords for that song — which anchored Achtung Baby and pushed the band in a new direction — was actually the bridge for an original version of Mysterious Ways (then called Sick Puppy). There’s this interesting moment in the film where Bono and Edge are listening to an early tape of Mysterious Ways and then, that bridge comes into play. They both go silent and you can see it in their eyes — that was the first moments of One being caught.

In the studio, the band “heard something” and quickly pulled those chord changes from Mysterious Ways and began to build an entirely new song out of it. Bono has no words, only melody, so he scats phrases and words over the chords. The producer — Brian Eno — encourages the band to move beyond expectations, adding in the changes at the end of the song that are key to it all — shifting the melody every so slightly. The words come. The song falls in place in a relatively short amount of time, and suddenly, the band — after being on the brink of falling apart — is together again. The music is magic. It’s pretty fascinating to watch.

And best of all, the rest of the album begins to finally emerge and the band remains together.

As a fan, I devoured the documentary. (I admit to loving the behind-the-scenes work of musicians, particularly as songs come together). As a writer, the film reminded me of the difficult journey many artists have when confronted with a blank canvas, and high expectations, and the need to create something meaningful. What U2 didn’t want to do was repeat The Joshua Tree. How they created Achtung Baby was through the development of ideas, from the ground up (or as the title suggests, from the sky down). It’s a great message for anyone trying to create something out of nothing but ideas.

Peace (in the songs),
Kevin

 

The Quidditch Glogster Challenge

Today is our Annual Quidditch Championship. It’s no doubt going to be a loud, energetic day. I feel a headache coming on already.

:)

Leading up to this day have been various curriculum activities (writing, art, math, etc.) but I also put out a voluntary challenge to my students. I set up a project in our Glogster account and challenged them to create a poster that celebrates our game of Quidditch. The winner will get a toy Snitch.

Here is the one that won:

Peace (in the game),
Kevin

 

The Real Costs of Technology (The Story of Electronics)

Have you used The Story of Stuff in your classroom? You should. It’s a video series about the world of consumable goods, and the impact of the “throw away” philosophy of the modern world has on the environment and our health. Earlier this week, I shared this video — The Story of Electronics — with my students as we begin to move our way into an environmental inquiry theme for the remainder of the school year.

A couple of observations:

  • There are hidden impacts from cheap goods that we never think about;
  • It brings another view to our conceptions about the positives of technology;
  • The use of “persuasive voice” and “loaded term” fills this video series (see a video critique of The Story of Stuff).

I also want to note that my Western Massachusetts Writing Project colleagues (and fellow editors of Teaching the New Writing) Charlie Moran and Anne Herrington put together a fascinating collection of resources around the topic of the “true cost of technology” (particularly around the issue of energy use) over at the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site. It’s a worth a visit.

Peace (in the stuff),
Kevin

 

The Hypocritical Me (or How Testing Changed My Teaching)

It wasn’t too many years ago that I (perhaps like you) scoffed at the idea that standardized testing would ever alter the way I teach my students. I was confident that my approaches and my philosophies around writing, in particular, would carry my students forward, no matter what kind of assessment would be thrown their way. The writers and readers in them — the things were nurtured all year — would shine through.

I was confident of this approach … until I began to see some of the data provided by our state in the aftermath of the tests. (Note: we just had state testing last week so this topic has been lingering in my head).

After a few years of looking at those numbers that come like a flood our way, and parsing them around, it became clear to me that my students, overall, were having significant difficulties in a variety of specific areas and the testing results were showing me these weaknesses, if I cared to notice. This is what the designers of standardized testing will say their system is all about, right? It is designed to highlight areas of strengths and deficiencies, and teachers need to act on that data.

But first, you have to shake off the idea that no test administered by the state can be valuable … at all. There are plenty of reasons not to like standardized testing: children may not do well on a two-day test; the assessment is narrow in scope; the stress of sitting for two hours does not bring out the best in our students; the scores come to us too late to help the crop of students we are currently teaching; the students are writing to an unknown and inauthentic audience; and so on. I still believe those are areas of concern and ones that we can’t lose sight of. The test is not the be-all, end-all of the school year.

However, if we look for trends in the data (and the testing is nothing if not full of data), then the numbers can provide a path for us to change what we do, hopefully for the better. For me, I now look with depth at the scores of the tests from this year’s class and last year’s class. I want to see this current group as a whole and I want to know if we made gains the year just gone by.

What have I found?

Non-fiction reading and writing have been sorely weak, across the board, every year. Open responses were dismal, and even somewhat alarming. We even noticed flags around multiple choice strategies, with questions left blank or answers guessed with no evidence of narrowing the field of possibilities. There has been enough evidence in the numbers that I have had to come to the realization that I was being hypocritical, in a way, if I was saying that I could not effectively use the state testing data and that I did not need to change my teaching. I did, and I have, and yet, I have also tried to keep a real balance between my philosophy around writing (that we write to learn; that we write for authentic purposes) with honing in on skills that I didn’t even know were lacking in my students or my lessons until the data showed me those gaps.

I can’t say this is always a comfortable realization, and I have struggled with how to even write this post on this topic. I imagine there are plenty of folks who might take me to task on this. (If so, please join the conversation and add a comment).

I’m still worried about the shifts in the Common Core, and what the assessments will look like (and how I might need to keep adjusting), and I often feel this internal resistance to viewing my teaching through the results of standardized testing. But I am also a realist. I know my school district places importance on those numbers. And I know that I need to be open for improving my teaching, from whatever direction it comes. I just have to make sure that I don’t lose the heart and center of why I teach. The results so far of my shifts have proved that I seem to be in the right direction: my students’ responses to reading are stronger than ever; they have a much better grasp on the elements of non-fiction;  and our scores on the state tests last year were among the highest gains in our school, and district.

Peace (in the shift),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Revisiting “The Hobbit” After All These Years

I’ve been “there and back” quite a few times in my life, as I dove into The Hobbit and cheered on little Bilbo Baggins. But it has been more years than I care to count since I cracked it open. Still, I knew my youngest son would enjoy the adventure, and sure enough, in just a few weeks of read-aloud, we ended the story with Bilbo alive (not dead, as his relatives would like), sitting and smoking his pipe into old age. (And we know Bilbo makes a quick re-appearance with The Fellowship of the Ring before Frodo goes off on his own epic adventure).

So, does the story hold up?

Well, yeah, it surely does. My son and I had many conversations about the story, and he kept peppering me with questions about The Lord of Rings series, which I danced around on tiptoes (Gollum? The ring? Gandalf?) so as not to give too much away for when we shift into that trilogy (which may be soon enough. I used to have two sets of The Lord of Rings and both are missing, given away to book fairs, perhaps. Time for another visit to the library …)

The story really does have the perfect arc of narrative. I hate to reduce a story to its plot outline, but gosh, Tolkien’s story is full of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. You’d think he had been a teacher. Wait! He was. I know this is often a criticism of The Hobbit — its predictable nature — but reading it aloud to someone who knows almost nothing about the stories that will be unfolding ahead was pure magic for me. I was shifting back in that time, too, with my son, remembering when I first discovered The Hobbit somehow or another (it may have been my mother, who was always pressing books into my hand) and how deeply I became engulfed in the story.

Yes, I enjoyed The Hobbit all over again.

Peace (in the comfy hole in the ground),
Kevin

PS — as a side note, as I was in the midst of reading The Hobbit with my son, I started noticing three or four of my students had also chosen it for their independent reading, which led to more conversations in class. Interesting convergence … or some magic, perhaps?

 

 

Diagramming Sports Plays as Visual/Information Literacy

q2

The writing prompt I had for my students yesterday tapped into their energy and enthusiasm around our game of Quidditch. They had to design, diagram, name and then explain in writing a “secret” play for their team. I’ve done versions of this prompt before, but this year, I had on the back of my mind a great video by Bee Foster around the literacies of diagramming out sports plays over at the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site. (The video — Football Plays — is part of a larger resource by Bee around Redefining Text.)

And this year, I had my interactive board, so after about 25 minutes of writing and drawing and creating, I turned the class over to my students and let them come up to the board, one at a time, and not only visually share their play, but also explain it in a sort of impromptu “how to” session in front of the class. It was pretty fascinating to watch, and I had Bee’s ideas running through my head about the learning that was going on around visual design, movement on a page, expository writing, public speaking and more.

q1

The code for positions are:

  • K: Keeper (goalie)
  • CH: Chaser
  • SK: Seeker
  • B: Beater
  • SL: Sidelines

The dotted lines indicate movement of player and the solid lines show passing of the quaffle among the chasers and keepers, or the bludger among the beaters. Got that? (if not, check out our Quidditch Tutorial video).

Peace (on the field),
Kevin