I began class the other day by telling my students that I was going to be giving them a gift. There was an excited murmur. What was it? Pencils? Candy? Nope. Poetry. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I ordered a book from Scholastic called Post This Poem that is a collection of poems and pieces of poems on sticky note paper. I had been putting the poems up in the hallway trophy case, as a secret poetry project for our wing of the school, but now decided that since the art teacher needed the display case and since I had many poems left, I would give the rest of the poems away to my sixth graders.
I went through the room, passing out poems to every student. It may not have been pencils or candy (which we don’t give out anyway), but they were pretty excited about getting a poem (some were excited because of the color paper but you take excitement where you can get it, right?). “What’d you get?” they were asking. I gave them a few minutes to peruse the poems, and then I asked, “Anyone want to read theirs?”
I was expecting maybe one or two students to volunteer. I was therefore pleasantly surprised as more than three-quarters of each of my classes wanted to read their poems out loud. I also shared poems from the collection. They stumbled on some difficult vocabulary, and the Olde English in some of the poems tied their tongues up knots, and the lines and stanzas didn’t always flow the way it would with practice. Still, that didn’t matter. Wordsworth, Dickinson, Whitman, Rossetti, Tennyson and more joined us in the room that day as they read the words, and the rest of us listened, silently, to some of the most famous poems in the English canon.
It was a nice way to wrap up our poetry unit, and it was one of those lessons that started as a spur of the moment — “Let’s get rid of these poems” — and maybe touched a few students with the poetry bug.
Peace (in the poems),
PS — I still have not had any luck finding a link to the Post This Poem book online. I’ll need to grab the IBSN number off of it.
First of all, I want to thank you for being a librarian. I can’t think of a more important job. Your task is to place the right book in the right hands of the right child at the right moment, and when hundreds of kids are coming through your doors every week, I am in awe of your profession’s charge to reach every child. I also know that you need to be keeping track of so many new books each year, so that you are on top of the latest works of literature. And now, on top of all that, we are expecting you to be proficient media and technology specialists. Your role is constantly shifting. That’s a lot to ask of anyone. But librarians are nothing if not adaptable, and wise. I admire what you do.
I know that you are new to my son’s school this year, and therefore, you have to carve our your identity as the librarian. The last person in that library, an aide who filled in as librarian, did her best for many years and we are thankful for her years behind the desk. At least, the library was open for children. We didn’t necessarily like that she was so strict with our children around the books they could take out. We still don’t understand the day our niece came home and told us that when she (a second grader) tried to check out a fifth-grade level book that she really wanted to read, she was denied because it was not a “second grade book.” I have trouble getting my head around that, don’t you?
So, we have high hopes for you. You are young and energetic, and we like that you are offering after-school enrichment programs. You connected with the kids right from the start, it seems. Our son would come home, talking excitedly about going to the library. But we began to notice something strange.
He never had a single book in backpack.
All last year, after every library period, he would have a book for the week. He’d pull it out and we would read it together. Sometimes it was something new; Sometimes, it was an old classic. But he always had a book after going to library. This year, no books. His backpack is empty on library day. Instead, he has regaled us with talks of what he has been doing with the computer while in the library. He’s made little animated movies, created slideshows, played plenty of online games and more. All very nice.
But … no books.
We were hanging out with some other parents the other day and one of them noted that her child told them (and we will take this story for what it is and consider its source) that you told their class that if they could not behave themselves, they would not be allowed to use the computers and instead, they would have to spend their library time with books. “As if that is a punishment,” this mom said, shaking her head in exasperation. “If the punishment is quietly reading a story, then bring it on!”
I think I get what is going on. The push for technology in our schools (which is a priority of your principal) and the lack of expertise among your staff (which we know all too well … this child is our third) has you front and center with Animoto, Glogster and Go Animate. Sure, the kids are loving it. I get it.
But, please, in the hype to be teaching 21st Century Skills, don’t forget the power of the book. Don’t forget the quiet moments of story. Don’t forget the magic that can truly happen when the right book finds the right hands, and touches the right heart. You won’t find a bigger advocate for technology skills than me, but I want my son to keep loving books, too, and not just the ones that flash across the screen. I want his fingers and eyes and brain to move across the page, to connect an author’s ideas to his own experiences. I’m not ready to give up paper for bytes.
And it’s not just for my own child that I write. Here, in our home, we immerse our children in books and writing. You should see the stacks of books that we bring home from the city library. You should see the piles of books in our living room. As a librarian, you’d be very happy. No, what I worry about are those children who come from homes that are not immersed in literacy. Those children, and those families, need you more than ever. They need to have the love of reading and books instilled in them. You can make a difference in their lives just by allowing them time to read, and to choose what to read, and to help them navigate that experience.
Please, turn off the screens and open up a few books with the children of the school. There’s nothing more important for you to do than that.
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
for long …
not even red crates in deserted alleyways
on familiar spaces
The gaps inside
with past objects, leaving trails behind -
memories lost -
along the byways of the forgetting
If you should come upon this carriage
be gentle with me
and overflow the space with
Together, we’ll fill the emptiness
and fill the alleyways
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Have you used The Story of Stuffin 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;
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.
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.