Thursday, April 30, 2015

Beginning of an End

I have been putting it off for weeks...okay, months. I knew how difficult this process of moving on was going to be, and so I delayed the first few steps for as long as I could.  Twelve years ago, I could not have imagined all the opportunities, collaborations, the families and friends that my first teaching position would connect me with. I have taught entire families, seven siblings who each had me for high school English. I have former students that I now happily, thankfully call colleagues. I have shared in moments large and small: moments of overwhelming joy at the arrival of college acceptance letters and moments of sorrow at the passing of a friend, or worse, a parent. Former students who bickered in my ninth grade English class are now happily married. I keep a folder of letters and printed emails from students and parents, letters of thanks and appreciation, and I pull these letters out to reread them on the days that try my will-power and patience, on the days that break my heart. And through it all, I call these halls home. It is the home that nurtured me, helped me grow to the teacher I am today.

So I should have anticipated how emotional I would get when I sat down with my principal earlier this semester to let him know that I was starting the process of renewing my Michigan teaching license in order to return to my home state following the close of this school year. Walking out of his office and turning the corner to see the glowing red "EXIT" sign brought me to the edge of tears. This process of moving on, of dismantling what I have built here, is heart wrenching. And I have only just begun.

Today, I shared with my advisory, a group of students that I have been with their entire four years of high school, that I would be "graduating" with them.  We are marking moments together, and I am struck by all the "lasts" that connect us.

As a first-year teacher, you focus on firsts: the first essay you give, first test, the first homecoming dance, the first pep rally, the first prom you attend, the first graduation ceremony, the first time you cry in class or break-up an argument, the first time a student is published. But my advisory students and I are taking time to revel in the "lasts": last assembly, last midterm and last final exam, last Mr. Haverford, and tomorrow night - last prom.

But I am taking a cue from my gregarious group of seniors. This is not a time to focus on what we will miss. Instead, these "lasts" are memories being built. We must live in them so that they live on as we continue on our separate journeys. I will certainly miss my chaotic classroom, filled with laughter and tears, filled with collaboration and creativity. I will miss the students and their friends that pop-in whenever. I will miss these hallways, filled with such supportive colleagues. I will miss this community. But like my seniors, I am also looking forward to the next part of my journey, wondering what new adventures are in store. And like my seniors, I have stories that I will always carry with me.

Sharing Verse

What a beautiful close to National Poetry Month! Blue skies and sunshine looked down on us as we chalked the sidewalks in front of our school with the titles and lines from our favorite poems.
We also wrote the lines of favorite poems onto strips of paper in order to make poetry ornaments to decorate our "poet-trees" outside the main doors of our school.  

And the entire time we were sharing verse. In the hallways between class, in the lunchroom, poetry slams in chemistry, and writing verse in Creative Writing - poetry was everywhere today! 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Performing Poetry

As April's National Poetry Month celebrations draw to a close, my students and I will make sure that the month ends not with a whimper, but a bang (couldn't resist the nod to poet T.S. Eliot). Today we welcomed Montgomery County Poet Laureate David Escobar-Martin into our Creative Writing class. He shared a number of poems from his book Eden to a room full of snaps and appreciative nods. His lines, full of rhythm and sound, had us mesmerized. Rich with alliteration and full of figurative language, David opened up and shared not only his poetry but shared how he crafted his art. Students were able to ask questions and later collaborate with the poet on their own writing.

I find these experiences invaluable. I know that not every student sitting in our Creative Writing class will become a poet laureate, or for that matter, even come to love poetry. However, hearing a writer talk about his struggles, his failings, and his process are applicable not just to the writers in the room but to all.  This is the value of bringing the outside in.

In this past year, many of my students, from all academic experiences, have expressed frustration in what they are asked to do in the classroom. This is not the complaint you might anticipate. In fact, quite the opposite. Many students love that they are being asked to make connections. They are asked to connect the historical events that precipitated South Africa's apartheid with those that lead to Iran's revolution. These are higher-order thinking tasks. Instead, their frustration comes in not knowing what to do with this analysis. A number of students don't know what to do with what they are learning. They are frustrated in not knowing what to do with the higher-order tasks they love to solve. How does this parlay into a career? Into a passion?

So this is why I bring as many writers, editors, speakers, poets, professors, librarians, researchers, and people from all walks of life into our classroom. It is hard to grasp possibility without having a glimpse of how people outside the classroom are engaging in their passions.  I knew that I was going to be a teacher fairly early. I have a deep desire to work with young people, to pass on passion, to inspire questioning. But I also recognize how fortunate I am. I came to know my passion for teaching early in my life. This is not the case for all. So the more that I can do to bring possibility, to bring opportunity into my classroom, the more prepared my students might be for life after the classroom.

And hear David share not only his poetry but also his creative process today was inspiring.  He encouraged students as they wrote their tanka poetry, encouraged students to take the risk and share. In sharing our words, our creativity, and passion, we inspire others to do the same. What a fantastic way to bring National Poetry Month to a close!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Celebrating Poem in Your Pocket Day

I'm looking forward to Thursday. It's one of my favorite days on the spring calendar - Poem in Your Pocket Day. And this year, my students and I are going to celebrate big!

For the past week, my Creative Writing students have been exploring poetry in all its forms.  We've looked for mentor poems to mimic, read Lawrence Ferlinghetti's piece on "What is Poetry?" which inspired the creation of our own definitions of poetry, and examined a variety of different poetry styles from ovillejos to limericks, from free verse to slam poetry. This week we'll learn lineation from poets Dana Gioia and Robert Creeley, look to the New York Times Magazine series "Picture and a Poem" for inspiration as we create visual representations of our favorite verses, and welcome Montgomery County Poet Laureate David Escobar-Martin into class on Wednesday to both share his work and help us as we craft our own lines. And then there's Thursday. Poem in Your Pocket Day!

I'll be giving my students extra credit for bringing in and sharing with the class their favorite verses, and we'll be handing out poetry in the hallways between classes to help our building celebrate the last day of National Poetry Month.  My Creative Writing class will also be using those verses to craft ornaments for our poet-tree (get it?). We'll be decorating a tree outside of our high school with our favorite verses, inspiring our learning community with well-loved lines.  And then we'll chalk those verses onto the sidewalk in front of our building.
In particular, I'm looking forward to chalking our favorite poems.  I've done this before, and the conversation that such an activity sparks, not only from passersby but from participants as well, is incredibly fruitful.  Chalking lines of poetry forces us to slow down, to examine our favorite lines in greater detail.  When I ask students to write out their favorite lines large on the sidewalk, we see them in new ways. The activity slows us down, opens up opportunities for us to consider the poem - its diction and line breaks, rhetorical choices and content - in new ways. It is rewarding to witness those ah-ha moments when students slow down and carefully consider the words they are scribbling onto concrete. They will be excited by this activity, we'll be outside and playing with chalk, but I also know that in doing so, we'll be engaging in a close reading of the poems that some of us have heard time and time again. However on Thursday, we'll be considering them with new eyes.

How will you be celebrating Poem in Your Pocket Day and the close of National Poetry Month with your students?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Hearing Voices

bringing voice into the classroom - image by
We've just stared our last quarter of the school year, and throughout the first two weeks of our Creative Writing class, we have been exploring elements of our writing voices. We’ve read and discussed the rhetorical choices a writer makes, drafted pieces on what makes our voice unique, and crafted metaphors for who we are as writers. This week we are listening to the voices of others, letting them act as mentors for our own creations.  I thought that I would share some of the writing exercises and resources that we use to explore elements of writing style and voice.

And as our study of voice comes to a close, I'm trying something new. We have been listening to interviews archived by the National Public Radio program, a program whose founder, Dave Isay, recently won the the prestigious TEDTalks Prize for his work capturing the extraordinary stories of ordinary people. Now it is our turn!

Working with partners, students in our Creative Writing class are interviewing one another, reflecting and writing about our shared stories. In the coming days, we will be using the new app to record and share our interviews with others around the country.  In sharing their interviews, not only will students make their work available for others to see, but the interview will also be archived in the nation’s Library of Congress.

It was easy to see excitement build around this culminating project. Students were listening and sharing their finds as they explored the featured essays on the StoryCorps site today. One student, as he was packing up after the bell, said in passing as he was walking out the door, "Well, I know I'm not getting thing done tonight. I can already tell I'm going to be listening to all these interviews." He wasn't dismissive or disappointed. Instead, he sounded excited to binge listen to interviews for an assignment. Wait, I need to repeat that. I have students more interested in binge listening to interviews than binge watching Netflix...okay, that might be going a bit too far.  But it does seem to hint at how important it is to bring voices into the classroom, and to open up space for students to share their stories, share their voices...literally.

And hear/here's how we got to where we are in class today (sorry, couldn't resist the word play):

Notebook Prompt: This Is My Voice
Writer Donald Murray said, “We must teach ourselves to recognize our own voice. We want to write in a way that is natural for us, that grows out of the way we think, the way we see, the way we care.”

Use Mr. Koyczan's first line as inspiration. Begin with "This is my voice..."

Notebook Prompt: What Is Good Writing?
Open up your Writer's Notebook and spend a few minutes thinking and writing about the following: What is good writing? Think about your favorite books, magazine writers, poems, or song lyrics. Reflect on what makes this a piece of good writing.

Reading and Reflection: What is Voice
The class breaks into two teams. Each team has a different article about voice, which they access as a shared Google document (article 1 and article 2). Together the teams read and annotate their article, using the comment function to add reactions, questions, and interpretations to their reading. Their purpose is to more clearly define what a writer's voice includes. After discussing in teams, each group takes turn presenting a summary of their article, a definition for voice, and a list of elements connected to a writer's voice. Then as a class, we try to come to consensus on a definition for voice.

Notebook : Hearing Voices
One of my favorite writing books is by Georgia Heard. Her book Writing Toward Home: Tales and Lessons to Find Your Way is full of ideas for how to find and refine your voice as a writer. Let's read a few passages from her work together and complete some of her prompts in our Writing Notebook.
  • "Listening to the Corn" on pages 88-89 encourages us to slow down and listen to the world around us. 
    • After reading "Listening to the Corn," let's go for a walk. Find a quite spot and open up your Notebook. Record what you see, what you hear, what you feel, what you smell. Pay attention to the specific details. 
    • Try to focus on one object - a nearby tree, a lone dandelion in the middle of the baseball diamond, the empty bleachers. Spend some time describing that object in as much detail as you can. 
    • Now give voice to that object. Use your earlier description to write in the voice of your chosen object. What would that object care about? What would it see, smell, hear? 
    • Try turning this brainstorm into a more polished piece. Will it become part of a story, a poem, a song lyric? 
Reading and Reflection: Writer's Gather
Writers collect ideas, gather them up in notebooks, on scrap pieces of paper, on napkins.  So as we explore where writing ideas come from, we too must be gatherers. We must gather ideas, gather inspiration, and gather words.

Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge has a great idea for finding inspiration in her book Poemcrazy. She suggests that writers collect words and create what she calls "wordpools".  So let's give it a try!  Here's her explanation for what a "wordpool" is:
"I borrow words from poems, books and conversations. Politely. Take polite. If I’m in a classroom, I just start chalking them onto the board. I don’t worry about spelling or meaning. Curdle. Cantankerous. Linoleum. Limousine. Listen. Malevolent. Sukulilli, the Maidu Indian word for silly. Magnet cat oven taste tilt titter
I call gathering words this way creating a wordpool. This process helps free us to follow the words and write poems." (10)
Let's take some time to read her chapter on wordpools.  After you finish reading, we'll be using the magazines, newspapers, and books on our desks to create our own wordpools.  Then we'll use our gathered words to play around with creating a piece for tomorrow.
Notebook Prompt: Finding Your Voice
We are made up of many layers - layers of memories, events, beliefs, hopes, dreams, and goals. These layers should come through not only in what we choose to write about but also in how we write. What does your writing say about you? What do you say through your writing?

Let's take some time today to explore our unique writing voices. We'll begin by reading a short selection from Georgia Heard. Her chapter title "Layers" asks writers to consider themes that continue to come up in our lives and in our writing.
  • What does your chosen object say about you. Open your Notebook and take some time to write about the object you have brought to class today. Why did you chose this object? What does this object say about you? 
  • Similarly, think about what you have chosen to write about in the past. Do you notice any patterns? Are there words, images, or themes that continue to come up? Why? 
  • Now, take some time to think about those images, objects, themes, and memories that are most important to you. Select one. Use that image, object, theme, or memory as an inspiration for a more polished piece. Write a short story, a poem, song lyrics, or an essay about your selected topic.
Notebook Prompt: Blackout Poetry
Writers find inspiration from other writers, sometimes even using the words of others to create their own works.  Check out just how Austin Kleon is taking this idea to a new level. Now let's create our own. And, as you create your own blackout poem, reflect on the choices and decisions you make in your creation process. We'll spend time talking about how your voice comes through when you use someone else's words.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Accessing Poetry

Ogden Nash is echoing in my living room. Just before him, Billy Collins. Rita Dove kicked off our poetic performance this afternoon. While at the library the other day, my little man gravitated toward poetry display, pulling down the book Poetry Speaks to Children from the National Poetry Month display at our local library. Instantly, I was transported back to my time student teaching.

While other twenty-somethings may have asked for money or a car, for Christmas I asked for the box set of In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry. Four CDs filled with poems read by the original poets - a scratchy recording of Walt Whitman reciting "America," Sylvia Plath's plaintive cry for "Daddy," Robert Frost contemplating "Birches." I would sit in the middle of the living room/bedroom/study of my studio apartment and let their voices pour over me, mesmerizing and transporting me. As a student teacher, I wanted to share this love with my students. I would bring the CDs into class every chance I could.

This afternoon, watching my little guys nestle into the couch, listening to the poetry of Maxine Kumin, Gwendolyn Brooks, and James Berry, I am reminded of the magic that poetry evokes. It's not just because they have a mom that loves poetry (okay, maybe it is a little bit of my influence), my boys are transfixed by the words of poets. They listen for the rhythm, for the rhyme. They get excited at particular images and turns of phrase. My kindergartener grabs the book. He points out words on the page, notices how some line up, others stop short. He wonders why some poems look different from others in the collection. He is noticing the choices that the poets make visually as well as rhetorically. This is what makes poetry so powerful as a teaching tool.

Poetry is accessible for readers of all ages, all levels, all content areas. We might look at Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" (one of my favorites) in English class, using it as a mentor text for our own adventures writing poetry. We'd notice the alliteration, the creative use of adjectives. We'd steal his rhetorical style for our own creations.  But we could also look at the poem from a different lens in history class. What might this poem tell us about family dynamics during the early twentieth century? Bring this piece into an art class, and how might we create different visual interpretations of the piece. What do we chose to focus on visually within the poem? How might that focus help a reader reinterpret the text? Bring poetry into science class. Bring math and poetry together for an interesting collaboration. Poetry has the power to connect us, inspire us, transport us.

Last year for National Poetry Month, I put together a collection of some of the resources I use bring poetry into my high school classes. And as you might imagine, I've added quite a few new resources over the course of this year. I've done more with visualizing poetry this year, playing with Austin Kleon's blackout poetry as inspiration and sharing the New York Times' Magazine series "Picture and a Poem" with students before asking them to pair a creative piece of their creation with a favorite poem.

There are so many ways to bring poetry into the classroom. To help get you started, here's a great place to start. These are poems that I use in with my high school classes to inspire our own writing. It is a growing playlist, and I'm always adding new favorites. Have a suggestion of a video I should add, please let me know!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Not Another Boring Book Report

My tenth grade English students just finished up their independent reading projects, but I didn't have them create just another boring book report. Instead, students used ThingLinks to curate research on their selected novels. Their task was to find a variety of visual, audio, and written pieces to act as mentor texts for the writing of their own literary reviews. I then collected the links to all of their ThingLinks and connected them to our class picture, a ThingLink of ThingLinks!

By focusing on curating research, we were able to spend time talking about responsible research and what makes a scholarly source. Students were tasked with compiling a works cited for all their links, which we used the Easy Bib Add-on in Google Docs to create. As a class, we discussed the distinction between a book summary and a literary review before students set about finding well-written reviews to act as mentor texts for their own writing. Finally, students used the literary reviews they found as models to help them craft their own reviews. Instead of giving students a set outline to follow, a set number of sentences and paragraphs to follow, students crafted their reviews to read like those published pieces they found in The New York Times' Review of Books, on the American Library Association's site, the Library Journal online, and shared on National Public Radio's Book Reviews.  And that was our goal. When students return from Spring Break next week, we'll be revising their reviews in order to submit them to online spaces like Teen Ink, GoodReads, and Amazon.

Giving students the choice to select their own novels, as well as the choice of how and where to share their literary research and reviews makes for a powerful learning experience for all involved. And it certainly means that I'm not assessing another boring book report.

Check out their work below. You'll also see my lesson materials below. Feel free to adapt them for your classroom!

You’ve spent the first quarter reading and reflecting on your choice SSR project. Now, let’s do something with your reading! We will be using your SSR book in two ways. You will be using your SSR text to complete your midterm benchmark essay. You will also be completing an interactive, research-based presentation on your SSR novel using ThingLink.

Login to your ThingLink account by first checking your district email for your login and password information. Then, you will use ThingLink to create an interactive presentation on your book, sharing reviews, research, and connections to your reading. Here’s how:

  • Step 1: Take or find a high-quality image of your book’s cover. This will be the base image you use for your ThingLink creation. If you use someone else’s image, make sure that you keep track of where you found it as you will need to give credit to the original source in a works cited document. 
  • Step 2: Create a Works Cited in your Google Doc account. Use the Easy Bib Add-on to help you easily create a Works Cited for all the research, images, and content that you are adding to your ThingLink. Under “File,” be sure to select the “Publish to Web” option. 
  • Step 3: Get researching! Here is what you will need to link to your ThingLink (though you can always connect more than this): 
    • three well-written literary reviews of your selected book. These are not Amazon reviews. Find three scholarly reviews that incorporate more than mere opinion of the book and instead analyze the literary elements and merits of your SSR text. Here’s an example
    • a well-researched source that connects to the setting/context of your book. Did you read a book about Civil War in Sierra Leone? Find a reputable source that explains the historical context of the war to link to your creation. Did you read The Great Gatsby? Find a scholarly source about the nouveau riche during America’s depression era. 
    • a well-crafted introduction to the author. If the author of your SSR text has his or her own website, this would be perfect to link to your creation. If not, find a well-written introduction to the author and his/her background. 
    • three well-produced audio/visuals to enhance our understanding of your SSR book. Consider looking for a high-quality image of a scene from the book which you can link and briefly explain in your creation. Find a podcast interview with the author to link. Locate a video of the author speaking about his/her book. Make sure you have a mix of media. All three should not be the same type of media. 
  • Step 4: Use your research to create your own review. Your book review should be written like those that you researched. Use your researched reviews as mentor texts. What do you notice about the style and voice in which they are written? Your review will need to incorporate specific details about the author’s writing style in addition to reviewing the plot and characters found in the story. You are not simply looking at why the story works but how it works. 
  • Step 5: Link it up! You will need to have your works cited, your review, and all eight of your researched links added to your ThingLink creation.

Cooking by Hand

Pull open the curtains and let the sun slip in slowly, casting warm blankets across the living room floor as you snuggle deep into the couch, little bodies crowding next to you to watch Saturday morning cartoons. When tummies start to grumble, after you've scanned the New York Times while sipping coffee black, pull the stool to the kitchen counter.  Let little hands reach up to measure and mix.

  • 1 1/4 cup almond flour more or less, measured by dumping at least 1/3 of a cup onto the counter when chubby fingers are not big enough to hold tight to the canister. Just brush the excess into your mixing bowl. It will be the perfect amount.   
  • 1/3 cup coconut flour, which smells too good not to play with. Let those little hands sift the almond and coconut flour together. 
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, measured by slipping the spoon into the orange box and pulling it tight against the lid to get the precise measure. Why is it called soda, mommy? It doesn't fizz. 
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt poured into the cupped creases of his hand. But how do you know this is the right amount? You just know. Like my mom would say.
  • 1 cup full fat coconut milk, but don't panic when you forgot to purchase it the day before.  Pull the 2% milk out of the fridge. Improvise.  
  • 2 ripe bananas, mashed vigorously with a fork. This is the best part. Those little hands and arms will smash and swirl to pull the fork through the banana mush, and you'll end up with chunks of banana on the counter and maybe in your hair. He'll look up at your with those big blue eyes and not even have to speak the words. Just one finger full? 
  • 3 large eggs but you might need 4 and a spoon as well.  That first egg will end up split entirely in two, egg shell raining down into the pancake batter and the yoke sliding across the kitchen counter. He's excited to crack the eggs. A little too excited. The spoon will help him fish out the shells and the extra egg will give him an opportunity to try again.
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract will remind him of making cookies. It's what you smell like, mommy.
  • coconut oil to grease the griddle, making it easier to slip the spatula underneath and flip the pancake. This takes practice. His first few attempts will end up crumpled and lumpy, but he will keep trying. And with your hand on the spatula to help guide, he will flip the perfect pancake. And soon, he will not need your hand as support. You will step back and watch as he becomes the master of the flap jack.
This is cooking by hand.

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