This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, and the cover story in a recent edition of Time for Kids magazine were small vignettes written by famous people about their favorite teachers, and the impact those educators have had on their lives. I saw an opportunity to teach my sixth graders about Found Poems (and hope to do Blackout Poems some other day), of remixing words and phrases from a text to create a poem from inside the passages.
I created an appreciation poem myself as a mentor text, writing a poem about my sixth grade teacher — Mr. Dudak — who inspired me in many ways, and is one of the few teachers I still remember from elementary school. I even wrote about Mr. Dudak many years ago in The Boston Globe (but I’ll be darned if I can find a copy online … still looking, and I don’t even know where he is anymore to find him, but will keep trying.)
My students enjoyed the poem I wrote. I did, too.
Aside from making mustaches and other cosmetic choices on the magazine images with the Sharpies I gave them as I read the vignettes out loud, they dove in to find interesting phrases and words as they began to make a gift of a poem to a favorite teacher in our building as a token of appreciation.
They will be doing final versions of the poems today, and then decorating envelopes tomorrow, and I hope the found words help them express their feelings about former teachers. The few student poems that I saw being worked on yesterday were pretty powerful. I hope they send a message of appreciation from sixth graders, about to leave our elementary school, to their recipients, my colleagues in the building.
I had enjoyed Peter Brown’s The Wild Robot quite a bit, as Brown spun a story of a future time and a broken robot that comes to live and survive and thrive on an island with animals, until it is discovered and taken back to the factory.
The sequel — The Wild Robot Escapes — is also a solid yarn, where our robot, Roz, is back in action, but this time, she is trying to escape the farm where she works to get back to her island, and reunite with her adopted son, a goose named Brightbill.
Brown writes these stories in declarative sentences, an effect that over the course of the novel really brings the character of Roz to life, as she uses her robotic abilities to help others, and to find her way back home. Repeated declarative sentences creates a mechanical rhythm of sorts, although Roz is anything but robotic. And Brown inserts a narrator voice every now and then, too, as a sort of counter-balance. The result is effective story writing.
The world that Roz lives in one of our own possible worlds, where machines and robots and computers have become an overly integral part of the workforce, and where the tension between technology for good versus technology for bad plays out for Roz.
I could see these books being a huge hit for elementary students, although I suspect The Wild Robot Escapes might be seen as a little young by many of my sixth graders (even if the story has enough complexities to engage readers of any age, with a nice twist at the end). The illustrations are interesting, too, bringing a sort of metallic charm to Roz and her surroundings.
(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)
The paraprofessional in the classroom called me over to the side of the room during our writing time.
“Did you see what (this student) is writing about? You might want to see.”
Curious, I wandered over to this student as everyone was working on Digital Poetry Books — five short poems on a common theme, built inside Google Slides, with a hyperlinked Table of Contents. Some students are writing about sports, and family, and nature, and hobbies. They are learning poetic form, the way image can intersect with words, and the technological aspects of creating a digital book.
I glanced over the shoulder of the young writer. I look up. It is a deep theme for a sixth grader, an emotional one (I won’t go into details for privacy reasons) that has resonation, and it occurred to me that this student has been quieter than usual lately, although working harder than ever. I attributed it to a sense of the year ending.
Maybe it is something more, something going on outside of our school day, something that is on their mind with someone this student loves. Something that is spilling over into their poetry as a means of making sense of things.
Poetry has the ability to surface the heart in unique ways. It can tap into the heart of your world, if you let it. Poems can provide an inroad to understanding of emotion, and of the complexities of life. A poem can bring forth a difficult topic, and allow you to grapple with it. A poem won’t solve your problems. It could, however, provide you with some balance.
I looked across the room at the paraprofessional and we shared a look, and then we talked later, after school. Now we are both being a little more alert to this particular, student’s world. I am thinking of how to have a gentle conversation to make sure everything is all right, and to let this student know we are here for them, if they need it.
I’ve shared out a few collections of small poetic responses that I have done for the past few months with Networked Narratives, and the Daily Alchemy, which now ends its semester run. This is the final collection, with a few odds and ends poems tossed into the mix, too.
I’m still thinking of how to bring all of the poems — literally, in the dozens and nearly 100 since January, but each poem is only six seconds long — together. Maybe I keep it simple, and just make a YouTube Playlist …
I’m always curious about interactive books, and since my students work on their own interactive fiction stories, I’m always on the look-out for more mentor texts for the classroom. This book — The Quest of Theseus— is a new series for me, but it seems as if it is part of a set of mythological heroes, with the reader having agency to make decisions about the actions and lead the story into different elements of the hero’s tales.
Here, there are three main story paths (battle the Minotaur, go to the Underworld, or fight for the throne of Athens), with 39 different choices and 18 different endings.
While the writing is so-so and the action could have been given a bit more excitement, this interactive book was engaging enough to bring the myths of Theseus alive, and has me wondering about if I might get a few copies for the classroom.
Certainly, Theseus is one of the models for Percy Jackson, and we do cover Greek Mythology in the year. I see from the back cover that there are about seven more books in the series, including one for The Odyssey.
I got caught up in some of other things — including some intriguing NetNarr projects — and only returned to Rose’s text later in the course itself. I’m glad I waited, for I think that our discussions in NetNarr helped frame what I read in the book. Rose examines the way that digital media, and the Internet in particular, is transforming the entertainment field, through technology and other elements of immersive storytelling. He brings years of reporting experience to his insights.
I’ll admit: I didn’t ‘deep read’ this book. I power-read it, slowing down in sections that caught my attention and interest, and then pulling out quotes that seemed to connect not only with my personal inquiry around the changing nature of digital storytelling but also in connection to some of the interactions I have with folks in NetNarr, CLMOOC and beyond around technology and composition.
Overall, Rose does a nice job of exploring all sorts of terrain, mostly from the entertainment standpoint. I, of course, am curious from the education standpoint, but there were plenty of places where those perspectives overlap. In particular, knowing a bit about where storytelling might be going (no one ever knows for sure) gives teachers a bit of an insight into the skills that might be needed for that kind of landscape.
The Art of Immersion is worth checking out, if only to get a glimpse of the world unfolding for our students, particularly those who are becoming interested in media production, where the tools are both complex and simple to use, and the possibilities for bending stories through different prisms, and for different audience experiences, is fascinating to think about.
Did you know? Tomorrow (the first Saturday in May) is Free Comic Book Day? Do your students know? Many book stores take part in this event, which has become huge in my little city where a place called Modern Myths gets packed with people. My son and I will probably be there, too.
The Free Comic Book Day website has a store tracker, where you can find a business near you (maybe) that is giving away their free comics (note: these are more like short collections and teasers by the comic distribution company but they are still pretty neat.)
I usually grab some for my classroom, and use them during the year for mini-lessons around figurative language and hero’s journey themes, etc. Not all the comics work for the classroom, but I have a pretty decent collection now.
Gaw. I love the prose-poem work that Kwame Alexander is putting out into the world, and his latest — Rebound — is no exception. It’s a wonderful piece of writing, wrapping poetry and story around the life of a character (one we have met as an adult father in The Crossover, another great book).
Rebound tells the story of Chuck Bell, an inner city kid whose dealing with the grief of losing his father, and not dealing with it well at all. His mother sends him to stay in the summer with his grandparents, where he learns from his cranky grandfather lessons of life and learns to finally play basketball from his star athletic cousin, Roxie.
Alexander’s use of prose poems to tell this story works magic, as we skirt along the emotions of a young black male dealing with loss and getting caught up in trouble (Chuck even spends time in jail before grandfather gets him out) before reconnecting with his mother, whom he sees is grieving like him, and his friends, including the smart young girl who later becomes his wife (and mother of the boys in The Crossover.)
Rebound is magical, and I devoured all 414 pages of it in a single weekend, always letting Alexander’s writing pull me forward. I can see boys, and some girls, loving this book, too. It might even teach them about the power of free verse poems to tell a story.
Plus, Alexander is on a mission to bring literacy to everyone. I love his enthusiasm and insights.
We’re in our state testing season (weak, sarcastic shout of ‘yea’ to the world), and this year, for the first time, our students are doing the entire testing regime (ELA this week and Math, in a few weeks) online. Although I integrate technology all the time into my sixth grade ELA classroom as means to extend the notion of composition, this use of technology for testing is obviously very different.
And watching my students spend nearly three hours yesterday on the first of two sections of online testing for the state, as well as doing both review and practice with some of the technology tools within the testing structure, I have come away with a few observations.
First, years ago, I took part in a week-long technology seminar in Boston for the New Literacies Institute (I still have connections with some of the leaders of that institute in various online space) and one of the research focal points of this group (mostly connected to the University of Connecticut and Professor Don Leu) was the notion of online reading comprehension — of thinking of how our reading habits with screens is fundamentally different than our reading on paper.
I bring this topic up because I have some students who clearly struggle with reading the online text for comprehension, never mind the issues of source credibility and other critical items that Ian talks about in the video.
While difficulties with online reading may have to do with the lay-out of the pages (texts are first displayed as full page and then reduced to a scrollable text box when paired with questions), I am realizing that I have not done enough to explicitly teach how to read for content and information on a screen.
I remember this chart, too, which tracked eye movement of a reader reading on a webpage. A typical person on a screen reads in what is known as an F Pattern, first quickly across, and then down and then across, and then zigzagging for links and information. It’s a treasure hunt style of reading, not an act of continuity.
Now imagine a student reader, who might have attention difficulties to begin with, trying to stay focused on reading a text on a screen, and how their eyes probably jump all over the place. Reading left to the right, and then down to next line, comes into contrast with how their brains are conditioned to read screens, for good or bad. This hampers the ability to fully understand the entire text as well as find important information.
So I need to do a better job of teaching this, and not just for the test, but all the reasons that the New Literacies folks shared with me years ago: most people now read most of the texts in their lives on the screen (albeit, on the smaller screens). Online reading comprehension skills have to be part of our reading curriculum.
Our state testing system — designed by, who else, Pearson — has some useful tools inside of it, which I taught my students to use during some practice sessions. There are highlighting features, a pop-out notepad, an answer eliminator, zoom features and a layered box that allows you to focus on just small bits of reading text at a time.
There are also some questions where answer options can get dragged around the page, and I had few questions related to that (it wasn’t on the practice test), which makes me wonder how I might do some work with this (and think: paper cut-outs, perhaps, and manually manipulating chunks of text). I could only point them to the directions for the activity.
One of the biggest challenges, I think, is the planning of the longer essays and narrative stories. I teach graphic organizers all year long and my students work with them for pre-writing all year long. And they have blank paper to use for the test, for graphic organizers or notes.
But here’s what I observed: Fewer students than usual were making any kind of writing plan. If I had to guess, I would say this is likely the result of taking the test on the computer, and a disconnect between the paper on the desk and the writing on the screen. (And I can’t say a thing about it to any student during testing, even though I want to shout: Make a graphic organizer!). Their focus during testing is on the screen, on the keyboard, not on the pencil and paper on the desk, and I think either some forget, or decide it’s not worth the trouble, or whatever.
I also know, from discussions before the text, that my confident writers were anxious about the character length limits for the longer writing (5,000 characters) and the little countdown box in the corner of the writing space made them even more anxious. They worried they would get to zero, and still have things to say. I had told them, if that happens, it’s time for some editing of what you had already written, and trim for clarity and importance. Which is what I would have said in any writing activity. But the character countdown box gave it a negative gamification element that I had not predicted.
As a teacher, finding this balance of teaching students about writing and reading on the computer and reading and writing on paper, and the places where those skills naturally overlap, is important, and I will be doing more research on this.
Probably, via my computer. There you go.
Peace (on the think),
PS — I was also thinking about a fascinating book I recently reviewed for Middleweb by Troy Hicks and Kristen Hawley Turner entitled Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers in a Digital World. There, the thinking was about real-life reading, about the act of taking reading skills beyond oneself and using technology to make sense of the world. What I have written up above here seems so far removed from that. I guess that’s state testing for you.
Bud Hunt has been inspiring me to write poems all month with images at his blog site. I am grateful. Thank you, Bud. Midway through April, I wrote an update on the poems I had written for the first half of the month, and here is my second update on the second half of the collection.
I’ve been on a mission to write “small” on the Mastodon network, with small stories (a version, in my mind, of Slice of Life), small quotes (from books I am reading) and small poems, so I have been purposely trying to keep these daily poetry pieces with Bud short, to the point, evocative.
Writing a poem a day in April is a nice transition from writing a slice a day in March, with both the bit of anxiousness (do I have another poem/slice inside of me?) to success (I did have another poem/slice inside of me) to critique (that’s the best poem/slice you could do?). And while the quality of the writing varies in this kind of daily flow, the act of writing each day is powerful. I still like some of the poems I wrote this month, so that’s a good sign.
in the impossible
when the reality
is what’s always
in the imagination,
so that together,
we can experience
with hearts as wide open
as our eyes.
Your fingers run lightly
over the keys, a Sonata
in C, I believe, as passersby
hear but don’t listen.
I sit, outside your frame,
watching your body
sway in time to the rhythm
of some long-ago memory,
a postcard wrapped up
but when darkness
descends, I’ll hold
your hand, letting
the calm flicker inside
this gloom of this room,
as we move in the groove
of the dance-light.