Poem created by Katie (9th) using MagneticPoetry.com
I hated teaching poetry until I finally understood that poetry’s grand function is in reminding us that our lives and our world can be different. By using language in new and unsettling ways, poets confront us with new ways of experiencing; they denaturalize us from the ordinary and shake us into a keen awareness of our vast, terrifying, beautiful possibilities.
In her 2013 address to the Yale Political Union, Meena Alexander tells us that
language that is used all the time and all around us—in sound bites, advertisements, political rhetoric, newsprint—needs to be rinsed free so that it can be used as the stuff of art.
So even language itself — or especially language itself — can confine us to the familiar, seemingly settled order of things. Poetry exercises refresh our minds like a palate cleanser. Words expose their power anew. Relationships between apparently unrelated concepts become clear, opening up original insights and challenging questions.
Magnetic Poetry offers a free online version of its popular word kit. I hooked it up to my projector and let my AP lit kids play around. Some worked in a group to build collective poems with the projector; others used smartphones or laptops to work quietly where they sat. I offered Telescopic Text, blackout poetry, and Boutes-Rimes as other possible activities. Most gravitated to Magnetic Poetry since we had never done that as a class. I think lots of the kids viewed it nostalgically, remembering the magnets in elementary classrooms or on their own refrigerators.
Sometimes, the structure or confinement of being limited to certain words, syllable counts, or rhyme schemes can paradoxically free us to create in new ways. I saw that happening in my classroom during this activity.
Here are a couple of the collective poems my students authored:
I’m at home in abstraction — words, ideas, symbols — but it’s invigorating when English class becomes something we do with our hands.
Our essential question in World Lit yesterday was, “Why do writers sometimes tell stories out of chronological order?” We had read Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” a story that hints at the ending in its title and opens in media res – in the middle of a tense, unspoken conflict between the titular character and his wife. The narrative flashes back and forth to reveal the deep roots of their unhappy marriage and the more recent catalyzing incident: Macomber’s seemingly unredeemable cowardice at the lion hunt.
I use this story to introduce ways of talking about narrative temporality, including Russian formalist terms that distinguish between the order in which events are narrated and the “actual” order of the story. (Provocatively, Russian formalist theorists call the latter the “fabula” because it only exists within the reader and writer’s minds).
These theoretical abstractions require concrete examples if they have any hope of sticking with students beyond the class period. I almost always start with an anecdote from a few years ago when my husband and kids got in a car accident: he called and told me what happened, in chronological order, rather than beginning with the comforting ending (“everyone is fine!”). If his purpose was to calm me down, his narrative techniques decidedly did not support his purpose!
Past lessons then proceed to some physical act of restructuring the text under consideration: index cards with key events rearranged on a timeline, for example. But the amount of time kids spend identifying and summarizing those events takes valuable time away from our analytical discussion. In short, the lower-order comprehension questions (what happened in the story?) squeeze out the higher-order analysis (how does the story’s nonlinear structure develop its impact?).
Yesterday, four pairs of scissors solved that problem. I printed out four copies of the story and asked groups of kids to physically separate each scene from the next: make a cut where the temporality shifts to flash backwards or forwards. Then, rearrange them chronologically along a series of desks or cubes. This was a get-out-of-your-seat-and-work-with-your-hands activity.
Students in 8th-11th grade beginning to decide how to rearrange the story chronologically.
Discussions were, of necessity, grounded in textual evidence. This was the first time I didn’t have to remind students to support their ideas by referencing the story.
Michael (10th) and Alex (11th) decide where the flashback ends.
The classroom was full of energy the day before final exams began: a rarity during this period of high stress and scant sleep.
Students moved around the classroom to share ideas and piece together the story’s chronology.
This took around 30 minutes. We spent the remainder of class time discussing the impact of Hemingway’s nonlinear temporality on the story’s meaning.
After this activity’s success, I’m thinking about several questions:
- Like the summarizing discussed above, what are other unnecessary components of instructional activities I can trim and discard?
- What are some other ways I can create hands-on work to deepen students’ understanding of abstract concepts?
- How might this cut-up approach work for informational texts?
Angela Peery’s recent article on engaged reading challenged me as a parent and a mom not to lose sight of what matters most in English language arts education: creating capable and enthusiastic lifelong readers. I want my kids to have enduring access to (and desire for) the accumulated knowledge, inquiry, and pleasure of the printed word. In short, I want them to read well and often.
As I observe my students this semester (and when I peer into my sons’ rooms), I’ll remind myself of Peery’s questions:
What does being engrossed in reading look like? What does it sound like? What evidence exists that true, engaged reading is taking place?
These questions call to mind the words of my principal at the beginning of this school year: “the classroom is a sacred space.” I want my classroom to be a place that privileges “true, engaged reading”, and I want that priority to be palpable when we open our books.
Peery draws on Nancy Atwell to identify three things we must provide to young readers: time, ownership, and response. Students need sufficient time for sustained study; they need the freedom to choose their texts and set their reading schedule, and they need a teacher to model, coach, and provide feedback as they work through their text.
In this kind of classroom, engaged reading becomes both the means and the end, and all of my instructional choices follow from that priority. Peery describes what this looks like, and in doing so articulates one of my core #teachergoals:
I responded to him as a fellow reader, not as a teacher checking off specific objectives on some kind of record of his reading achievement. When one’s teacher and one’s peers are also engaged readers, it’s hard not to partake in the community.
A triceratops made out of pipe cleaners by Jaddus (my 8th grade student and my son)
My Eighth Grade Writing Lab course is my big pedagogical experiment this semester – a real departure from the typical seminar discussion, common readings, and essential questions that anchor my classes.
In Writing Lab, students choose a topic of study, set a project goal that includes a major research and writing component, and use class time to work toward that goal. They keep a journal to plan, learn, and reflect throughout the process. Along they way, they learn how to identify reliable sources, take notes that distinguish important information from extraneous details, communicate with various audiences, cite their sources, give and respond to feedback, and solve problems. There are also more individualized skills kids pick up based on their projects: Eric learned that showing a character’s thoughts and feelings can be crucial to crafting a memorable story; Austin learned how to use paraphrasing and summarizing to simplify his PowerPoint slides, etc.
I didn’t anticipate this, but one of the big skills they’ve come away with is also a more audience-aware approach to this perennial problem: when crafting an article, story, or speech, how do you make other people care about your narrow passion or interest?
Here is the syllabus (feel free to use or modify): MSWritingLabSyllabus
A predictable consequence of letting kids choose what they study and produce is that kids tend to go well beyond basic requirements and expectations. Elling and Jaddus, two eighth grade students in the class, already completed presentations on the possibility of alien life and the Hell Creek ecosystem of the Mesozoic era, respectively.
Here is the handout Jaddus wrote to accompany his presentation: JaddusPresentation (I’ll attach Elling’s science fiction story after his final revision).
Instead of riding out the end of the semester with short reflective writing and choice reading, they’ve decided to extend their research by producing a stop-motion video to communicate what they’ve learned to the school community. They want to create a compelling visualization that engages the viewer in a short, illustrative narrative.
Neither has any experience with filmmaking, stop-motion animation, or dinosaur-themed sculpture. Elling downloaded the free Stop Motion Studio app to his iPhone. After a week of reading tutorials, writing their script, and crafting biologically-accurate pipe cleaner figures, they made a few five-second trial videos to test their skills.
Elling and Jaddus take dozens of photos to test their stop-motion animation skills.
I won’t know how this experiment turned out until the semester ends and I’ve had time to reflect. However, I do have some preliminary observations:
- I have less control of the content, structure, and direction of this class than any other I’ve ever taught before.
- I also know less than ever about the texts and fields of study that make up the class’s “content.” On many occasions, I’ve sent kids to my colleagues in biology and physics to get feedback and ideas. Most of the time, I haven’t read the books or articles they’re reading.
- Certain kinds of students (my son included) learn way more under these conditions than they do in a more traditional English course. This is probably due both to the intrinsic motivation that comes from student choice and the responsibility students must take when the teacher is not the expert.
- Peer feedback happens more naturally in this class than any other I’ve taught before. Kids have meaningful things to say to each other about their work, and they listen attentively to others’ suggestions. They also are very self-aware (“I have the same problem you’re having: I try to include too much information in my presentation”). I think great peer feedback is a natural outgrowth of the students’ actually caring about their work. I’ll need to think more about how to incorporate these lessons into my more traditional courses.
There are also definitely some improvements I’d make if I re-teach the course (the list will likely grow as the semester ends):
- Increased structure for students who struggle to find a project that inspires them. In this kind of course, if the student isn’t in love with her project, class time becomes unbearable and pointless.
- More writing opportunities during the process. If kids came in excited to work on their project, I excused them from writing far too frequently. There should have been more journal entries.
- More interdisciplinary connections. I worked closely with two science teachers, but there were additional connections that could have been made.
- Required handout for non-written products: students who made a presentation should have also been required to produce a handout. Writing in multiple formats would have extended their learning and given them additional composition practice.
- A core set of readings to model the kind of work they could do. Some inspirational articles, TED talks, etc. to energize those without intrinsic motivation. Basically, more scaffolding for kids who didn’t arrive with a project in mind.
Here are the stars of the stop motion film. I’ll update with the video when it’s finished.
The best part about my job is that the administration actively encourages us to do what’s best for our students — to recognize and prioritize kids’ humanity in all our professional decisions. To my mind, giving teachers that kind of power constitutes a radical experiment in American education.
This article by teacher Kelly Lagerwerff reminds me of what it’s like for most kids in private and public schools that prioritize order, compliance, and test scores over human dignity. Lagerwerff problematizes the disconnect between classroom management and instruction, noting that a student’s behavior and emotional needs are inextricable from their intellectual development.
Over and over, I have seen teachers ignore children’s natural curiosity and interest in learning about the world. For whatever reason, they are reluctant to let students’ experiences and feelings—the intensity of which is constricting their ability to move forward—become a door to learning. Instead, they use prizes to buy compliance. And, to be truthful, the kids love the prizes.
She also challenges us to think about the social-emotional “lessons” we’re inadvertently teaching our students through our approach to discipline.
“Worry about yourself” and “mind your own business” are refrains that I hear incessantly at my school. When kids are dragged off to the “break room,” the padded cell we have for children who become violent, the others are told to carry on with what they are doing. Human relationships, especially the way that teachers treat children, are inescapable lessons of every education. They occur regardless of whether or not they are written into the Common Core standards. Watching a classmate being carried kicking and crying to a padded room and being told to ignore it is a lesson.
I am free to place human relationships at the center of my classroom in response to my students’ needs; this article poses the question of what such a middle or high school English class would look like.