5 Ways to Get Kids Excited about Poetry (Part 3 of 3)

Even though this is the last installment of this series of posts, I doubt that this will be the last time I write about poetry because I absolutely love teaching it. Nothing creates a stronger fire in me than sharing my appreciation for this art form with kids.

In this post I will share a three activities that I experimented with this week. Some of them worked better than others, but all of them ask students to think about the world in a different way, experiment, and test their own limitations.

4. Imitating Structure and Form

In the past two weeks (since I wrote my last post) I asked students to imitate two different poems: And the Ghosts by Graham Foust and Paul Revere’s Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

And The Ghosts

I ran across Foust’s poem searching for poems to share with my 8th grade students. It’s unique because it is a one-line poem with a title. I chose it because no matter the writing assignment–essay, story, or poem–they always ask the question “How long does it have to be?” Instead of giving the students a line minimum for each poem, this year I provided the following answer:

An poet is the paren of his work, so the poem is his child. Every parent does what is best for the child. (2)

  1. Take time to notice. 

    And the Ghosts

    they own everything

    Before asking the students to interpret the poem, I asked them what they noticed. Probably the most important observation they made was that the poem would not have much meaning without the title. I’ve been trying to reinforce the idea all year that the title of a work–a news article, a book, a poem, a short story, a painting–is the holy grail. It is the key to understanding the purpose and theme of a piece. This poem provides students with ann example of that truth.

  2. Look for meaning.

     After giving students time to observe the structure of the poem, I asked them to look for meaning. What does the poem mean when he states that the ghosts own everything? Some said that the ghosts symbolize the past, and your past controls controls you–it makes you who you are today. Some said that the ghosts were memories, and your memories are an integral part of your consciousness. Remember to give students time to contemplate the difficult questions. Don’t expect them to raise their hands immediately. Sometimes I find myself waiting a minute or more for students to raise their hands. When teachers give students time to think, they know the instructor is serious about the question and expects them to come up with the answer. Too often teachers give the students answers to the difficult questions if students don’t answer right away.

  3. Imitate. 

I gave students two choices. They could either:

Create a one-line poem with a title

OR

Use Foust’s poem as the start of their own.

Paul Revere’s Ride

I am not a huge fan of Paul Revere’s Ride because of its historical inaccuracies, and–I’ll be honest–I don’t really understand its purpose. The poem, however, is a part of our school’s curriculum, and I am expected to teach it when the students are studying the Revolutionary War in social studies. I needed to get excited about teaching this poem to mask my indifference from my students, so I decided to create a parody. I had the students do the same. They could choose any subject matter for the poem, but I asked them to model the rhyme scheme (AABBA) and meter (four beats per line, a mix of iambs and anapests) of the poem’s first stanza:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April in Seventy-five:

Hardly a man is now alive,

Who remembers that famous day and year.

I’ve only completed two stanzas of my parody, but it was enough to use as a model for my students. I did not require them to write a full-length poem–I just wanted them to experiment with Longfellow’s form and style. Some of them decided that they wanted to turn their drafts into poems for their portfolios that they will submit on Wednesday. Here is the example I wrote for my students:

The Ballad of a Samson’s Ear

Listen, my cats, and you shall hear

Of the awful tale of a bitten ear,

One one Fall morning when dawn was nigh

I saw Loopy Lester, sleek and sly

Turn the corner like a buccaneer.

He said to me, “This is my domain!

From trespassing here you shall abstain!

Or I’ll claw your eyes and bite your tail,

And chase you to the nether vale,

Where snakes abound to slither and maim.”

After this lesson, I received the best compliment a teacher can get from a student: “Miss Raub, I never liked poetry before, but I think you are converting me.” Boom! That’s my reason for showing up every day.

5. Creative Prompts

Good questions will ask students to think about the world or themselves a little differently. With middle schoolers, I like to ask them questions that invite students to look inward. Here are my two favorites that I used this year:

  1. If you had the money and the influence to buy a digital screen in Times Square, what message would you share with the world?
  2. What are the five things that you know to be true? (Another nod to Sarah Kay–In her TED Talk, If I Should Have A Daughter, she mentions how she uses this prompt with her students. Her version asks students to write ten truths.)

For each of these questions, I, of course, created my own answers that I shared with the students. Sometimes I share before the students create their own; sometimes I share after. When I share depends on the class. If I find that the students are struggling with the concept, I may share my example in the beginning of the lesson. If students seem comfortable or ready to create without a model, I let them. In general, I find that students are much more creative if I let them experiment before sharing my models.

My digital screen: Listening > Speaking

Ten Things I Know To Be True:

  1. I am alive
  2. The world is small and colossal at the same time.
  3. I love my husband.
  4. Kids are fun.
  5. Birds are fascinating creatures.
  6. A leisurely breakfast is happiness.
  7. I can’t imagine a world without music or books.
  8. I love new learning.
  9. I know nearly nothing.
  10. I love my pets.

If you have ways that you’ve inspired students of any age to write and read more poetry, please let me know! I don’t know yet what the topic of my next blog post will be, but I do know that the end of the school year is drawing near. I hope you all finish the year robustly and vigorously. Stay enthusiastic to the very end–your students deserve it.

 

5 Ways to Get Kids Excited about Poetry (Part 1 of 3)

I love, love, LOVE teaching poetry more than I enjoy teaching anything else, so I thought I’d share four of my favorite lessons about writing poetry with middle school students. I’ve shared two in this post, and I’ll share the other two in my next post, which will be published in about a week. All the lessons can be easily adapted for any grade level.

1. The Found Poem

  1. The whole class creates a poem based on a text everyone has read. If you are not familiar with found poems, this video from the Teaching Channel is a good tutorial. (Click on the link in the caption below the image to watch the video.)

 

Found Poem
Teaching Channel

Here is the found poem one of my classes created using My Brother Sam Is Dead.20160422_104201

2. Then students create their own found poems using their favorite books as inspiration.

3. We share our creations with partners, and then volunteers share theirs with the entire class.

2. The Photo Poem

  1. Students to bring to class a photograph or picture that they like–one that means something to them. Here is the picture that I used as inspiration.

Talking with Ghosts

First, I project my photo on the interactive whiteboard and let them react. Inevitably, a few of them say something like, “Hey! That’s you!” Then I ask them how they know it’s me. They respond, of course, by saying, “It looks like you” or “You both have short hair.”

After they share their immediate observations, I ask them to look at the picture more closely, looking for evidence that I am the one in the photo. Once they begin looking more closely (some classes need more prompting than others), they realize that the picture looks old. They also notice the clothing the women are wearing–it’s not from an era in which I was alive. Then they may notice the “28” on my grandmother’s sweater.  When they realize the 28 stands for 1928, the year my grandmother graduated high school, they can then draw some logical conclusions. Ahhhh….So who might be in the picture? My grandmother. Here is the poem I wrote as a model for my students:

Talking with Ghots

2. Some of my students need no interventions or prompting and start writing immediately after they read my poem. Other students have difficulty knowing how to begin, so we use a T-chart to gather ideas. (You can access the T-chart here.) I provide some students with copies of a T-chart that I created using Worksheets.com, but other students prefer to create one in their writer’s notebooks like this student did.

3. In the right-hand column students list the details in the picture–their observations. For example, they may list the colors they see, the objects, any shadows, the setting, the people and their expressions, the action that is obvious or assumed. In the right-hand column students list the emotions they feel looking at the picture and the emotions that may be expressed by people or animals in the picture. Once they’ve completed both columns, I tell them to begin combining the words from both columns to create a description of the picture. I remind them to pretend that the person reading the poem has never seen the picture, so it is their job to pain a vivid image with words.

Here is an example of a T-chart that one of my students created in his writer’s notebook:

20160502_140552-1

 

Yes, it’s messy–but writing is a messy process. Here is what this student created in about 30 minutes of class time. It’s one of the best spontaneous poems I’ve ever read from an 8th grade student. I included a typed, readable version below the image.

20160502_140432-1

Photo Poem

Below is the image he used as inspiration for his piece. I hope he reads it during 8th grade poetry tea at the end of May!

bicycle
Picture shared by Katy Wischow

Tomorrow my students and I will begin writing some imitation poetry, using Gary Soto’s poem “Oranges” as a model, and later in the week students will write love poems with a fun and playful twist. I will post Part 2 of this topic in the next week!

A Year Cut Short

I came home from work early today, hoping to fit in a short run. The sun was shining for the first time all day. I decided to run without my iPod to enjoy the sounds of spring. About 1/4 mile from my house, the rain started. “Stop!” I yelled at the sky, thinking today the universe would listen to me. But it didn’t.

By the time I returned home, after running for 16 minutes and 58 seconds, I was soaked: My run was cut short.

I feel the same way about this school year–it has been cut short.  Why?

  • I haven’t taught my students all that I think I should.
  • I haven’t covered everything that’s in the curriculum.
  • I should have taught a few things much differently than I did.

Then there’s the perpetual echo: Have I prepared my students sufficiently for the PSSAs?

As a teacher, I criticize myself all the time. I didn’t grade any essays today. I forgot to speak to John today. Oh no! I forgot to call the guidance counselor about Kelly’s grade. Why can’t I remember to take care of everything? Why didn’t I say this or that to a student? These are the thoughts that wake me up at night and remind me that I’m not yet good enough, and I’m not accomplishing as much I should. I am often too hard on myself. I don’t forgive myself for being imperfect, for being human.

Today I am thinking differently. Today I am taking some time to contemplate what I do well. Today I am going to transcend self-criticism. Here are a few things that I have done well this year:

  • My students know how to annotate all kinds of texts. I am not kidding about this one. I taught this skill with gusto this year, and if there were an Annotating Text Championship, my students would win.
  • My students wrote every day. Every day that I met with my students, they wrote. It may have been a reflective paragraph in their writer’s notebooks. It may have been a sentence that they modeled and made their own. Some days they wrote essays. No matter what, they had time to think, process, and record their ideas on paper. Of this accomplishment, I am probably most proud.
  • My students read books that they chose. For the first time in several years, my students chose novels that they wanted to read, not ones that were prescribed by the teacher or curriculum. They discovered new authors, new styles of writing, and I believe they also learned that they are not alone.
  • I made the choice to align myself with leaders. I decided midway through the year that I was going to surround myself with like-minded people who believed in positive change and forward movement. This decision has made a notable difference in my practice, my attitude about my job, and my interactions with my students.
  • I allowed my students to teach me how to be kinder and more compassionate. Every year I learn from my students in many ways, but since I began teaching 8th grade, I’ve gained a greater realization of the power of empathy. Empathy can move mountains.

I encourage all my colleagues to take some time once a week and think about what you do well. When you reflect on your day, forgo the readiness to criticize; take some time to praise yourself. Silence the inner self-critic until tomorrow.

Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller, and Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset

In The Story of My Life, Helen Keller recounts her struggles with deafness and blindness. Almost every American student learns Helen Keller’s story at some point in middle school or high school. I was one of those students. I don’t, however, remember exactly when I was taught her story or even if I ever read it. Helen Keller’s story is so much a fabric of our culture that I feel like I have always known about her. Because I thought I knew everything I needed to know about Helen Keller, I was not excited to begin the unit about her with my students. My decision to teach the autobiography instead of the play was based on the Common Core standards and their focus on non-fiction. I asked myself, “How can the autobiography be as poignant as the play?”

Well, until I began reading Keller’s story and sharing it with my students, I realized that I knew almost nothing about her.

As often happens when I teach an unfamiliar piece to my students, I was pleasantly surprised with their response, which, in turn, increased my enthusiasm about the unit. If you’ve never read Keller’s autobiography, I suggest you do. In it, Keller recounts her struggles in intimate and precise detail. I asked the students to record Wow! moments, questions, and connections they made while reading chapter 6. One of the most popular wow moments that the students noted was “She knows more words than I do! How did she learn them being deaf AND blind?” Helen Keller articulately explains her learning process and her relationship to Annie Sullivan, but even so, don’t we all wonder at her accomplishments? If you don’t, you need to reread parts of her autobiography. If you don’t have the time to peruse the entire book, peruse a few chapters. I recommend chapters 3, 4, 6, 7, 13, 20 and 22. Ask yourself how Helen Keller became a world famous speaker, an author of twelve books, a progressive and relentless advocate for people with disabilities, a speaker of five languages, and a world traveler?

After much thought, I’ve come to this conclusion:

Helen had a patient, persistent, and loving teacher who, as Annie herself said, taught Helen like a seeing child.

In other words, Annie believed in Helen.

Annie Sullivan had a growth mindset.

At first, when my teacher told me about a new thing I asked very few questions . . . but as my knowledge of things grew, and I learned more and more words, my field of inquiry broadened, (3)

I hesitate to use the phrase “growth mindset” because educators have heard so much about it lately, but it clearly explains what made Annie Sullivan such an inspiring teacher. I’m also reticent to use the phrase because  I think some educational leaders misinterpret the it. (I could write an entire blog post about that topic, but I’ll save it for another time.) If you are unfamiliar with growth mindset, you can watch Carol Dweck’s TED talk called “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve.” Even if you are familiar with the concept, the video is worth watching.

One of the most powerful messages that Helen’s story conveys to teachers one hundred years later is the power of a growth mindset. Annie never allowed herself to believe that Helen was not capable of learning. And guess what–Helen learned more in her lifetime than many of us could learn in two if you think about where she started, trapped in her own mind, her own darkness, with the inability to communicate how she felt or what she thought to herself or with the outside world. And please let me note that Helen did not learn because Annie told Helen that she was great all the time. Helen learned and grew because Annie believed Helen could be better, and as a result, she made Helen aware of her mistakes.

In chapter 6 of her story, Helen Keller writes, “At first, when my teacher told me about a new thing I asked very few questions. My ideas were vague, and my vocabulary was inadequate; but as my knowledge of things grew, and I learned more and more words, my field of inquiry broadened, and I would return again and again to the same subject, eager for further information.” I asked my students to analyze this quotation and think about what it reveals about Helen Keller’s character. When I reviewed the students’ responses, one stuck with me: “Why did she ask few questions in the beginning?” This  question honed my focus for a brief moment and provided me with an insight: Aren’t many of our students like Helen? Like Helen, they do not have the background knowledge or the words they need to discern what questions they should ask. It’s our job as teachers to build that background knowledge and those vocabulary skills so that our students become questioners. After all, aren’t the best learners curious? They want to know more about a subject, like Helen, whose “field of inquiry broadened” when she was finally given the words she needed.

Sarah Tantillo (who you can also find on WordPress) writes in The Literacy Cookbook that “comprehension in general, not just reading comprehension . . . applies to listening, seeing, smelling, touching–everything you do in order to try to understand.” If Helen Keller could develop an understanding of her world through Annie’s teachings with only three senses, then even the most reluctant learners can learn in our classrooms. They may have other disabilities that are not sensory-related, but they are capable of developing an understanding and curiosity about the world in which they live.

 

Control vs. Conversation

Control is the enemy of authentic conversation.

Just as perfectionism (another form of control) is the enemy of creativity, honest and productive conversation cannot occur if one party is wedded to maintaining control.

As a teacher, I think of conversations with my students. I may have a goal in mind when I enter a conversation, but ultimately, I am not the one in control. I must actively listen to the other parties and validate their ideas. If I don’t, the conversation is counterproductive, and one party inevitably leaves feeling unsatisfied. I think most everyone agrees that effective leaders are good listeners. Even if they don’t immediately act on the feedback they receive, they hear it and consider it.

On Sunday afternoon I listened to Hacking Assessment tltalkradio hosted by Randy Ziegnfuss and Lynn Fuini-Hetten. If you have not yet listened to this podcast, I highly recommend it. You can find it on the website and on iTunes. In season 2, episode 3, Randy and Lynn interviewed Starr Sackstein author of the book, Hacking Assessment, volume three of the Hack Learning Series. I have not yet read the Sackstein’s book or the other two volumes in the series, but since I am an Amazon Prime member, volume 3 will be in my mailbox tomorrow.

One of the main points Ms. Sackstein makes in the podcast is that the most difficult change for teachers is relinquishing control. (You can read more about this topic on Sackstein’s blog.) Letting go of control is uncomfortable and even distressing, but once teachers begin to entrust their students with the power to make decisions, the real magic begins to happen. When I was first learning to play baseball, my father said that every bat has a sweet spot. I believe that every classroom does as well, and it’s the teacher’s job to find it and use it. But the only way to optimize the power of the student-teacher relationship is to experiment, take risks, and ultimately, have fun with the learning process. It can be done. It requires lots of hard work, shifts in mindset for teachers and students, and support from administration, but it can be done.

The most interesting part of the podcast for me was Sackstein’s discussion of grades. She believes that ultimately she allows students to assess their own work, based on the standards, and provide the teacher with evidence to support their evaluation. Sackstein admitted that she still sometimes struggles with giving some students the grades they think they deserve, but ultimately, it’s about the process, not the grade. The grade isn’t as important as what was learned.

I intend to write a follow-up to this post once I start reading Sackstein’s book, so stay tuned.

Writing, Pacing, and Reflection

 

About me: This year has been for me, in two distinct ways, a new beginning. How cliche, right? Well, maybe so, but it’s true. First of all, I am a cancer survivor. This school year (2015-2016) is my first healthy one since 2013. Second of all, after teaching high school for over 15 years, I am teaching 8th grade again. Honestly, even though I have experience with 8th graders, I feel like I never taught them because so much has changed since I first taught 8th grade in 1997.

My Goals: I set three goals for myself at the beginning of this school year:

  1. Write on! Students are using writer’s notebooks (see Ralph Fletcher) as a repository for ideas.
  2. Pacing: Depth of coverage matters more than amount of coverage. Slow down and be present!
  3. Reflection: I vowed that I would reflect more on my practice, BUT students would also be reflecting more on their learning, particularly in the area of writing.

Writing: Overall, I feel as though I am meeting my goals. There is only one area, which I discuss below, where I am still falling short. My students are writing more, and it’s intentional and purposeful writing. One of my biggest challenges is finding the time to read their writer’s notebooks as often as I would like. I have managed to review them once a marking period so far, but with 120 students, it’s a daunting task combined with the other more formal writing assignments. If anyone has suggestions in this area, please share them! I constantly struggle with the proverbial “paper load.”

Slowing Down: In regards to goal #2, I feel as though I have mastered this art. I have learned how to focus my lessons to make learning more meaningful for students. As a high school teacher, I had the pressure of covering the content hanging over me on a daily basis. At the middle school level, I feel the pressure of the PSSA tests, but I have a bit more freedom when it comes to time. Yes, the students need to be prepared for the standardized test in April, but the ways in which I get them to that point are not as prescribed as they are at the high school level. I can be more creative, and I can also take the time to differentiate.

Teacher Reflection: Goal number three is the one that I am constantly working to improve. I have always reflected on my lessons, either during lunch, in the car ride home, in bed at night when I can’t sleep . . . You get the idea. I have never been very good at actually composing written reflections. At this point, I am failing a bit in this area. First I vowed to write brief reflections in my plan book. Then I tried writing daily reflections in a Google document. After a few days, I forgot about it. It was months before I even remembered that I had created it! Today a colleague suggested that I start a blog, so here I am.

Student Reflection: I have asked my students to reflect more. On Monday, I asked them what they learned from writing their research-based argumentative essays. Some answers truly surprised me. Here are just a few:

  • “I can do anything if I put my mind to it.”
  • “I learned that sometimes it’s better to stay off your phone and not use technology.”
  • “I can write six paragraphs, no problem!”
  • “I learned to manage my time and ask questions.”
  • “Argumentative essays are not so bad to write. They are fun because you get to write about both sides of the topic.”

The first response is the one that meant the most to me. If you knew this student, you would realize what a break-through this realization was for him. I am very proud of him and his effort. He has come a long way since he entered my class in September.

Asking students to reflect on their work has helped me get to know them better, and it has helped them get to know themselves better. As a result of reflection, I believe they are more aware of their learning styles and capabilities. As teachers, we can learn so much from our students by asking them to reflect more.