Book Review: Practical Poetry (across the curriculum)

Just in time for the push of Common Core curriculum alignment by our state, and many other states, Sara Holbrook’s Practical Poetry: A Nonstandard Approach to Meeting Content-Area Standards is, well, practical and useful and full of interesting ways to merge poetry with math, science and social studies. I was lucky enough to receive this book from Lisa, thanks to a poetry contest she held at her blog (Effective Teaching Solutions), and the other night, as my son was in basketball practice, I dove in.

Holbrook is a poet who has gone into many classrooms to work with students, and her insights are valuable around the ways that poetry can engage and connect writers with various elements of curriculum, without making it boring. This is creative learning.

She notes that poetry is one of those topics that seem to be left out of discussions around curriculum change, particularly as we move into more expository writing (ie, the Common Core) and leave more narrative writing behind. But she lays out a strong case for keeping poetry alive and well in our schools.

She argues that writing poetry:

  • jogs the memory
  • demands keen observation
  • requires precise language
  • stimulates good communication skills
  • encourages good organizational skills
  • encourages reading fluency
  • helps us learn about ourselves and our world
  • is a powerful language all of its own

While she begins with a look at the Language Arts classroom, she then shifts gears into how to bring poetry ideas into math, science and social studies in meaningful ways. While she acknowledges that some might scratch their head on these connections, she patiently lays out her rationale for each subject area, gives specific lesson plans and provides many student and her own exemplars.

When it comes to math, for example, she notes that both mathematicians and poets have similar intent: “We look for patterns in the world. We attempt to find a pattern that we can apply in order to define the unknown. We first look at nature as a whole and then attempt to break it down into parts. We use symbols to represent the unknown while we are in the process of defining terms, and we use comparative techniques to communicate with one another (58).”

I love that.

In science, she does something similar, but with physics. “Poetry’s mission is to understand the universe — physics’ mission is the same. Both condition the mind to search for an answer, to stimulate imagination, to look beyond the status quo. The arts and sciences are intertwined more than either side seems to want to admit (92).”

Again, I love that.

And in the field of social studies, she notes that the lens at which we make sense of the social and political and geographical contours of our lives and the lives of others also connects with poetry.

“And nothing gets a poet’s pen twitching quite as quickly as a good controversy. At the heart of every change or conflict in the written history of the world has been some bothersome poet spouting off on one side or another. The personal quality of a poem makes all those dates and events not only more interesting but more memorable. Poems are letters and snapshots from the past – ‘original source documents’ ; they’re like reading someone else’s mail versus reading a telephone directory. And memorable is definitely an advantage when test time comes around. (128)”

Yes, she hovers around our testing society and what that often means for creative writing, and again, she strongly makes the case that poetry is another way to help students achieve on standardized testing by moving beyond the drill-kill methods. There are ways to meet curriculum standards AND still spark creativity in our students. We need to remember that.

My sixth  class will soon be moving into poetry and I am going to have Holbrook’s book of ideas right on my desk. I also will be bringing it to meetings I am sure we are going to be having next year as we re-configure our district’s curriculum map to align with Common Core. I don’t want to lose poetry, and Holbrook’s Practical Poetry may help me make my case.

Peace (in the poetry),

Kevin

Making My Illuminated Text Poem

(an updated version — with audio)

A Warning: An Illuminated Poem from Mr. Hodgson on Vimeo.

I was asked by a few people yesterday how I created the illuminated poem I shared yesterday. So, I am trying to step back a bit and reflect on how I went about it and the choices I made in the composition process. A version of this post will also be on the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site.

First of all, I began my day at Bud’s site, where he had an image of warning signs and a few lines of a prompt for a poem. I also had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to explore how to do a simplified Illuminated Text project. As I mentioned yesterday, it was through some colleagues at the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site that gave some insights, some inspiration and a direction for me to proceed into this unknown terrain.

The writing came first, although I wrote the poem knowing that I would be using the text in some sort of animated project. I worried less about more poetic elements such as meter and rhyme and flow, and more about the message of the poem. The theme put forth by Bud was a warning, and I knew I wanted it to be about shaking up life to get to the things that are important. The lines came fairly easily, and I was revising them as I was creating the project. The last line was most important to me, and I changed it a few times to get it to how I wanted it.

Next, I opened up Powerpoint. I’ve done lessons around animation with Powerpoint before with my students, although it has been some time since I dabbled in there myself. I decided to use a plain white background, and to use just one single slide. This narrowed my working space and limited some choices, but that was fine. I debated the black-text on white-background, and even tried some other colors. In the end, I liked the simplicity of the design. I wish I had more time to spend with font, though. I feel as if that area of text choice might be more deliberate than I was.

I then slowly added each line of the poem as text boxes. Here, though, I made some decisions about which words should be separated from the line — which words should be their own individual block of text.  The word “go” seemed to need to move, right?  And I wanted to make the word “door” its own text, as if it were a doorway of sorts.  The stacking idea came later, as the text became the door. I knew that later, these planned separation of text would give me more flexibility in the animation. I didn’t want too many words like this. Instead, I tried to break off pieces that had meaning on their own in the lines of the poem.

Once the words were there, then I began the rather difficult task of animating the words and lines. There were about 20 pieces of animation in the poem, and synchronizing them to work one after another, or in tandem, took some time and trial-and-error. I wish I could say that I was very, very deliberate in every movement that I chose. For some lines, I was very purposeful.  The line that ends “shake it up” was a line I wanted to shake up — connecting the visual to the words. For others, I wanted it only to look good. I’m not sure why I made one line vertical, and then added multiple “open it” texts around the piece. I had some vague concept of the phrase making connections with the poem. I don’t think it worked, even though it looks cool, visually (although I should have staggered it more). In fact, not every animation here is completely in sync with the meaning of the text it animates.

More than once, I made some mistakes in the animation design and had to step back in time, and rework the sequence and flow. This is where the structural weakness of Powerpoint came into play — it is not designed for this kind of project, I concluded. The management overview of my workflow was weak. But I always like the idea of using a platform for something other than what it was designed for.

I knew I wanted to convert the Powerpoint into a video, and I have this software program that I bought a few years ago to do that. But I guess I hadn’t updated it recently, and it would only create a video with a watermark. I didn’t want that, and so I turned to the web. I found the AuthorStream site, which converts slides to video and then kicks out an embed code and hyperlink. I wasn’t happy, to be honest, because I didn’t want to the poem to be silent. But I could not find a way to add audio with the site.

Later in the day, I finally figured out how to update my Powerpoint conversion software. I took that raw video, and dumped it into MovieMaker, where I added some music from Freeplay Music. Then, I added in a narration audio track, which is what I wanted all along. I want voice in my poems. The result is pretty decent, and I could not host it myself at my Vimeo video site, which I am now doing.

Given the limits of the tools I used, I am pretty happy with the results. I think the technology helped make the poem very different than I would have been as just lines on the page. The animation, and the choice of words that get animated, and the sequencing of animation — plus the audio tracks — really make this a very different kind of poem.

Could I replicate this in the classroom? Yes. It would require time and mini-lessons around the deeper levels of Powerpoint — particularly around structuring a page of animated text (which requires organizational skills) — but on a smaller scale, this is doable. And there is no real need for the conversion to video, either. You can add audio right into Powerpoint slides and share the project out as a PP Show. The quality is not as good, in my experience, but it is workable.

What do you think?

Peace (in the poems),
Kevin

Dear Reader, We Write the Book of our Times

The latest activity in the Edublog Teachers Challenge is to consider our blog readers (that would be you, by the way — we were talking about you. We only said nice things). It’s easy to get wrapped up in the writing sometimes and forget that there are readers out there (have I mentioned how nice you look in that shirt today?) who read and sometimes write (make sure you keep a smile on today, even if it gets rough) at our blogs. We’re partners, often — the writers and the readers (so thank you for visiting).

I woke this morning thinking of this idea of visitors here (again, that would be you and don’t worry, the dream was purely platonic) and how nice it really is that anyone spends time to write with me. I do write for myself — I would write even if this blog were unplugged — but there is something nice knowing that there are a handful of folks who wonder what I am up (sorry if my wandering brain gets you dizzy, reader. It’s the writer in me).

So, I wrote you a poem, dear reader. I wrote you a poem to thank you for being on this journey with me (here, have a cup of coffee and a muffin and stay for a minute) and to show some appreciation for your end of this conversation (sometimes, you are silent, thinking, but that’s OK — I’m like that too, sometimes, on my own journeys).

Thank you.

Writing the Book of Our Times
(listen to the podcast)

Imagine my surprise in finding you
arriving here, so unexpected,
bundled up against the flow of ceaseless information,
seeking a place to land as temporary shelter,
seeking out a conversation.

Come in, dear reader,
and share this fire with me;
I’m tossing sparks into the flames
in hopeful optimism that change is afoot
out there –
it’s something we can feel, if not always see,
and it needs to be named.
I need your help, so perhaps your arrival is fortuitous,
a breath of air on the embers.

Ignore the rapping on the basement door.
I’ve locked up the Spam King and all of his cronies
trying to sell me their trinkets and lies
while scraping my blog for ideas –
they are thieves and scoundrels,
and I am sorry
if you have ever found yourself in their company.
Dear reader, you deserve better.

Take off your coat and grab an idea;
Feed the fire with me,
and tell me a story of your journeys
as I will tell you of mine;
Combined, we’ll write the book of our times.

Peace (in the poems),
Kevin

Sunday Morning X by X Poetry

Each weekend, over at our iAnthology network for National Writing Project teachers, Bonnie or I or a volunteer post a writing prompt. It’s always sort of a challenge to find an idea that will engage as many of the close to 400 members as possible (on average, about two dozen folks will contribute to a prompt each week).

Yesterday morning, I was trying to come up with an idea when I got a link shared to me by Ira Socol, who was responding to my post about 25 word stories. I loved the poems he shared, which are structured poems. I didn’t see a name of the style, so I called it X by X (X being the number of lines and then X being the number of words per line).

The response has been pretty wonderful, and I have been using Cinch to record audio responses to everyone’s poems, giving some voice to my reactions to their writing. I love the simplicity of Cinch and how easy it is to embed into our site. And since it a site where geographic distance is everything, having a voice connected to your writing gives it a certain power of response, I think.

Here are the poems that I wrote and shared:

2×2

Coffee cup

filled, steaming

3×3

Dog walking, cold

fingers, cold toes,

silent morning frost

4×4

Four balls bouncing loudly

against the garage floors

echo like a shotgun –

can’t take it anymore

5×5

Lying here in the silence

of the night, no movement

in the house, save me,

and my own restless thoughts

6×6

The smiling face is silently mocking

the reason why I am crouched

on the floor, with my youngest.

I hold the plastic action hero

in the air, as if fighting,

when what I desire is peace.

7×7

“Seven” is what I said when asked

what is my favorite and magical number.

We sit, elbows touching, at the table

where his fingers hold a crumbling cookie

of fortune and mystical numbers of chance.

I expect the next question: “Why seven?

but it never comes; only quiet munching.

And here is my podcast, via Cinch:

Peace (in the Sunday poems),
Kevin
PS – If you are a Writing Project teacher looking for a supportive space for writing, drop me a comment and I will invite you into the iAnthology network.

Pop-Up Book Poetry Project

One of the units my student teacher took over was poetry and she had this great idea (from her own sixth grade experience) to have students create a pop-up book of their poems. It was pretty fascinating to watch (from my distance) the kids work on creating 3D books and they came out pretty neat. She used this site of pop-up creation techniques from Robert Sabuda.

I grabbed some images from some of the books and made her a video for her portfolio.

Peace (in the pop),
Kevin

Emily Dickinson Lives!

Yesterday, thanks to the work of our school librarian, we had a special poetic visitor arriving from the Great Beyond. An actress who performs as Emily Dickinson (who lived in nearby Amherst) spent time with my students yesterday morning, talking and acting as if she were Emily Dickinson. She talked of her life and of her writing, and while it is hard to keep sixth graders in Spring in their chairs for (for them) an obscure poet, they were mostly attentive.

My student teacher is doing her unit around poetry (ack, I really miss teaching poetry this year), so the timing was right. As the librarian and I agreed, our kids need a variety of styles of performances (we had Mordicai Gerstein not too long ago and he was drawing, and laughing, and energetic with them).

And plus, who better to bring back from the dead than Emily Dickinson?

I’ve always like this poem of hers:

AFTER a hundred years
Nobody knows the place,—
Agony, that enacted there,
Motionless as peace.
Weeds triumphant ranged, 5
Strangers strolled and spelled
At the lone orthography
Of the elder dead.
Winds of summer fields
Recollect the way,— 10
Instinct picking up the key
Dropped by memory.

Peace (in the poems),
Kevin

Glogging Some Multimedia Poetry

As readers of this space know, I have been writing poems every day over at Bud Hunt’s blog, where Bud has been posting images to inspire writing. We’re almost at the end (which is fine — I’m feeling a little poetry burnout right now) but I wanted to find some way to collect some of the poems together.

I decided to use Glogster because I could easily add the video poem I did, as well as upload a few podcasts from the month of poetry. I tried to find a good design, and I worry that the page is a bit busy (always an issue with Glogster), but I made this as  sort of “Thank You” card to Bud for inspiring me to write this month. I was always glad when others joined along, although I wish more folks would do it.

I also like that this glog is part of my classroom glog, so my students have a chance to read some of my poetry and see some of the multimedia work, too. It’s another way of sharing and showing.

Here is a direct link to my poetry glog, which I am entitling: “Inspired by Images.”

Peace (in the poems),
Kevin

Writing Poems with Bud

I’d like to toss out some thanks to Bud the Teacher for giving me daily poetry inspiration with his photographs. I’ve been enjoying the experience. Here are a few poems from the past week that I have written that I still like a few days later:

Nighttime Cleaning
(listen to the podcast)

Some nights,
I’d like to hang you out to dry
with the clothes
when you come home all wet
with whiskey and beer
and laughter from your podium at the bar
while I console the kids in their nightmare deliriums
and use the remote to talk with
as the wind brings in life from the streets
through our open windows.

Oh, Golden Saxophone
(listen to the podcast)

Oh, deep moaning gold
you delight me with your voice
gentle spirits pushing up from within
blasting notes begin
to tell the story of dancing ideas
that can’t remain on the page

Your reed tastes of the forest
your keys click with rhythm
your pads hold in and let go
like a heartbeat to the pulse of time

In the hands of some, you shimmer
along the tops of the melody lines
in a freeflow improvisation tapping into something unknown;
In others, you follow the rules –
straight, narrow, perfect –
and deviate not one iota from what the composer
has envisioned.

Oh, saxophone, you are a wild beast
in my hands
and I mull the possibilities of what might emerge
when I place you to my lips
and blow the world a kiss.

Infinity Feelings
(listen to the podcast)

The blue hue of swirls
forces my hand -
I must admit:
doubt;
fear;
longing inside me where the facade crumbles –
the only voice is mine
and it only knows truth.

i am the white blanket
(listen to the podcast)

i am the cold:
the chill that comes with spring;
the frost that covers you
so that you lay quietly dormant,
expectant for release,
only to be told to wait, wait, wait;
i hesitate,
knowing that once the snow has melted,
the ice removed,
you will come into your own without me
and our roles reversed — i will be gone,
no longer necessary –
and that, i cannot even begin to fathom
beneath this white blanket
we share together

I hope you find time in your days to write or read poetry, and not just this month but throughout the entire year.

Peace (in poems),
Kevin

The Red Sled


This photo is from my backyard and it reminded me of the imagery from the William Carlos Williams’ poem, Red Wheelbarrow. (The photo is part of the Photofridays project, too)

Remember?

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

What about:

so much depends
upon

the red plastic
sled

covered with white
snow

beside the children’s
tracks.

Peace (in a poetic mood),
Kevin

To Obama: A Poetric Thought

Wishing on a star: Senator Barack Obama speaks at a town hall meeting in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

(photo by Getty images)

Here is a poem for President Elect Obama.

To Obama
(listen to poem as a podcast)

I don’t know who they think they are
carrying on about Change
when the reality is that change comes so fast to us
that it’s never visible until the aftermath
when the shadow of reflection is cast upon the landscape
and we understand how everything is different now
and the old order,
come and gone.

Yes, I am one of those,
the guilty many who is doing all of this carrying on,
with hopes in my heart that the course will be altered
by fresh ideas and fresh faces and the intellect
that guides you
even as I refuse to let my dreams shackle you
to my own expectations.

No, it is my children who speak through me
to you
and whose nightly whispers you must heed
in your head as you sit through briefings
and meetings and dinners with dignitaries
and consider the World from your seat up on top of the mountain.

Will others do the same?
Will they temper their expectations
and accede to reality?
Or will they claw at you with visions
of how it should be, how it could be,
how will it never be
even as you hold them off with a misplaced word
to soothe the lions outside the fence
whose only instinct is for blood.

Change us, perhaps, but don’t change yourself
and let us look back in ten years time
to finally understand that our path was forged amidst all of this chaos
in such a way that we never even knew
we were moving.

Here’s hoping for the best in the next four years ..

Peace (in the world),
Kevin