At Hyper Bole this year, I attended a poetry teachers’ breakout session and got great ideas for making poetry accessible to all my students. One coach shared a whole-school cloze activity her poetry club members lead during lunch. Cloze is a strategy typically used in reading instruction: words are “rationally deleted” from an existing passage, and students use their comprehension skills and reasoning to select a word to fill the blank (click the link for examples and rationale).
The coach at Hyper Bole explained that asking kids to fill in the blanks is a lot less intimidating than giving them an open-ended prompt. The mad-lib-style exercise also makes silliness and fun possible. Although humorous answers may feel transgressive to students, it’s exactly the point of the exercise: kids are having fun with words, word order, and sound.
We tried this out today during Advisory, and it went well. Here is how we prepared.
Finding the Poem
I chose a section of a poem that I thought would offer a broad array of options to students: from straightforward, literal, or autobiographical to whimsical, abstract, or figurative. Audre Lorde’s “Movement Song” seemed like a great choice for the following reasons:
the use of a first-person speaker is accessible to most students
the lack of rigid rhyme or meter leaves everyone free to complete the blanks as they wish
the parallel grammatical structure provides an appealing, impactful rhythm
the opening sentence of the second stanza is interesting (“Do not remember me as a bridge nor a roof”)
anytime I can get students to read Audre Lorde, I will take the opportunity
Preparing the Poem
I decided to eliminate most of the noun phrases but retain prepositions and some verbs. What remained of the poem became an open-ended skeleton that could become what the student wanted it to be.
To make the exercise less daunting, I placed most of the blanks at the ends of the lines.
I retained only part of one visual image (“hanging on the edge of…”). Students had to supply the rest through their imagination.
Getting Student Buy-In
For this to feel like a fun writing game instead of classwork, students needed to lead the exercise.
In advance, our poetry club read my example cloze poem and then created their own. We put all three exercises together in a two-sided handout.
Then we had to test it: we spent about a half hour trying to complete each cloze poem, retooling the blanks as we stumbled. When we felt like we had the wording right, we discussed how to make the exercise successful, and students wrote the instructions in their own words.
Of all the advisory writing prompts I’ve tried to orchestrate this year, this was by far the most successful. Tessa, our poetry club leader, led the whole thing with poise and graciousness.
Kids wrote with enthusiasm and focus for over ten minutes, and six willingly shared their work aloud in front of the whole school. Our English language learner students were able to complete the handout (in part by using Google Translate), and kids produced really cool work. Even though we all started with the same poems, everyone’s pieces were unique.
It seems to me that the scaffolding, the whimsical and nostalgic nature of Mad Libs, and the student-led structure of the activity were the main reasons kids did such great work today.
It’s always helpful to be reminded that learning does not occur in a vacuum. Students define their classroom roles in relation to their peers and their teachers. So if I want active students, I need to be the kind of teacher who makes space for students’ self-efficacy.
Adam T. Rosenbaum, a professor at Colorado Mesa University, offers one vision of what that could look like: teachers doing homework alongside their students. He explains in a recent piece for the American Historical Association that completing all assignments with his senior thesis students increased the quality and timeliness of student work. He submitted all major components of his “senior thesis” a week before the class, and used his work to spark discussion and model expectations.
Rosenbaum observes that by doing the work, he was more attuned to the roadblocks his undergraduates faced:
When discussing our drafts collectively, I noted that many of us were struggling with our introductions, spinning our wheels at the beginning of the paper. I also acknowledged that many were successfully engaging with primary sources, but I warned against the temptation of making the paper a series of annotations. In general, I reminded the students that writing history was storytelling, and that our papers should contain preliminary exposition, clearly identified characters, a plot, and a climax. On some level, I was also reminding myself.
Writing teachers have long advocated the use of models in effective composition instruction – student work, the work of professionals, and the work of teachers themselves. Students need to have a strong sense of what’s expected before they can write well and with confidence.
But Rosenbaum goes beyond the mere use of models. He shares in the collective experience of classwork, positioning himself as a student and very candidly sharing his imperfect progress. This changes the whole dynamic of the classroom — indeed, he terms it a “think tank” rather than a seminar. By willingly taking on the role of the student, he inspires students to take on roles traditionally identified with the teacher: inquiry, feedback, assessment, reflection.
More than anything, what he describes is a bold (and time-consuming) act of empathy. The assumption is that to become a better teacher, one must understand the student’s experience.
Coincidentally, I’ll be undertaking exactly that goal in advance of the Deeper Learning conference in San Diego next week. The conference organizers have asked participants to complete the “Shadow a Student” challenge – experience a school day by following a student’s schedule, and then reflect with the goal of retooling instruction and assessment. I’m excited to see the extent to which my assumptions and values are challenged by the experience.
Social and emotional learning, like reasoning and other worthwhile educational goals, is an abstraction. This makes it tricky (and all the more necessary) to clarify the specific ways teachers can guide students toward competency.
In this 1969 footage of Fred Rogers’ defense of federal funding for educational television, Mr. Rogers identifies at least three things he tries to do for kids through his show:
He makes it clear that “feelings are mentionable and manageable”
He offers models of people – especially men and boys – working out feelings like anger in constructive ways
He consistently presents a “meaningful expression of care”
That simple, alliterative formulation — feelings are mentionable and manageable — is a powerful, clear vision of what we undertake when we make social and emotional learning a goal.
His words offer teachers lots to think about. There are implications for how we design instruction, relate to students personally, and manage interpersonal conflicts between students. This is also just a really moving speech.
And I feel that if only we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger. Much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire. I am constantly concerned about what our children are seeing. And for fifteen years I have tried in this country and Canada to present what I feel is a meaningful expression of care.
The new “Creative Writing Bookshelf” in the student lounge.
Anne Lamott offers lots of wisdom in her memoir/writing advice classic, Bird by Bird. The title refers to advice her father once gave her brother, who had procrastinated completing his long-term research report on birds. “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird,” Lamott remembers her father saying. She goes on:
I tell this story again because it usually makes a dent in the tremendous sense of being overwhelmed that my students experience. Sometimes it actually gives them hope, and hope, as Chesterton said, is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate. Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong. It is no wonder we sometimes take ourselves perhaps a bit too seriously.
In the interest of not taking ourselves too seriously with the sometimes-overwhelming work of writing, I’ve been trying to create spaces outside the traditional classroom for experimenting with language. This creative writing bookshelf is one of those attempts.
Over the weekend, I nerded out and ordered a bunch of creative writing books and materials: writing prompt books like Start Where You Are, Rip the Page, The Daily Poet, and 3 AM Epiphany; writing advice from Annie Dillard, Steven Pinker, and William Zinsser; genre-specific advice for screenplays, novels, and short fiction; and two kits of magnetic poetry (full list with Amazon hyperlinks below).
A couple of students from NEHS helped me arrange everything in the student lounge, a high-traffic area (thanks Meghan & Tessa!). We also left pens, scraps of paper, and (forthcoming once it’s dry) a decorated box for submissions to our literary magazine. We’re hoping this encourages kids to try out new ways of using language outside the confines of the classroom.
I’ll update this post noting which books are the most popular with students. So far, Magnetic Poetry is the clear favorite. It’s pretty amazing how this kit of tiny magnetic words inspires kids to write poems during their free time, just for fun.
Shyla (7th) writing a poem during independent study
Langston (6th), Taz (7th), and Sten (7th) making poems for fun with Magnetic Poetry
A list of books and resources currently on the Creative Writing Bookshelf:
Slam poetry attempts to dissolve snobbish barriers between “artist” and audience by knocking pomposity off its perch and making poets recognize their humble yet noble role– as servants to their culture and community. Slam poets learn early that they had better be tuned into their audience’s sensibilities to have any hope of surviving their stay onstage, let alone winning a competition.
Over the past two years, I’ve watched Tessa and her poetry club recruits use their love of language to engage the world around them. For these kids, poetry became a way of working out the human condition, of creating space in the day (and on the page) to reflect on what they find urgent or worthy of care. Just as important, poetry also became a way of working out how to enlist an audience in these acts of reflection and care: how to get people to listen, wonder, rage, and rebuild alongside them. Poetry’s public function — its power to compel a recognition of our shared humanity — was at the center of students’ workshops each week as they crafted deeply personal and broadly resonant pieces.
Last weekend, Split This Rock brought together adults and youth from the DC, Maryland and Virginia area to share in poetry’s public function. Tessa (and 15 other teen poets) took the stage to perform works engaging issues of social justice and personal experience.
Tessa’s poem reflected on her grandfather’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Her performance was flawless; to watch her was to watch a young woman who found her voice and wields it with power. Her careful control of her tone and gestures, along with her bold sensory images and alliterative monosyllables, all demonstrated a well-crafted and strategic ability to engage the audience. She was just mesmerizing.
Every time I hear the poem, these lines stand out to me most:
there’s time for goodbye but never the right time no second or minute big enough to tuck a farewell into
Her pauses and breaking voice around these words perfectly exemplify what poetry can do, because every time I hear them, I’m knocked out of my complacency and reminded of all the things I don’t give myself time to say.
I’m so glad spaces exist like the ones Split This Rock and Poetry Now DMV create, and I am even more thankful that young people like those sixteen poets exist – kids who are willing to use their voice to invoke our shared humanity.
Thirteen semifinalists stand in front of the stage with educator and Split This Rock administrator Joseph Green.
Students model the directionality of RNA polymerase, to understand which strand of DNA is used as a template during transcription.
When it comes to student work, audience matters. My students simply care more when they know they’ll share their work with the school community or outside experts instead of just with their English teacher. They think more purposefully about what they say and how they say it. The extra effort and thoughtfulness show in the quality of their work, and education research bears out my anecdotal experience.
But authentic audiences also provoke fear and anxiety. What if my ideas are wrong? What if I seem stupid? These nagging questions keep students from taking risks in public. In her study of behavior in a girls-only middle school math class, Janice Streitmatter observes:
without taking academic risks, asking or answering questions in the classroom, a large part of students’ lives may be excluded from their conscious or subconscious deliberations during this period of identity.
Chase Mielke echoes this insight with a provocative question:
Imagine the growth potential if 100 percent of our students attempted to answer 100 percent of the questions we asked 100 percent of the time. But they don’t—at least not at the secondary level. There’s no physical danger in raising your hand in class, only social danger.
I remember well what that social danger felt like in high school – the knotted stomach and fluttering heart, the loud voice in my mind warning me what others might think. I stayed silent far too often.
Useful resources abound suggesting interventions to make classroom culture or assessments more supportive of risk-taking. But I was reminded last week when I sat in on my colleague Ashley Gam’s biology class that instructional delivery can make or break students’ willingness to share out their ideas.
Ms. Gam structured her lesson so that student thinking moved in stages from entirely private to increasingly public, first using individual writing, then small-group discussion, small whiteboard visualization, and finally, whole-class presentation with peer feedback. At every step, she moved through the classroom, peppering individual students with Socratic interrogation to refine and extend their thinking. Below, I look at each step and offer some thoughts about why this model is so effective at getting kids to take risks in class.
First, it always bears repeating that well-planned instructional delivery is purposeless without meaningful learning goals. Ms. Gam’s lesson forms part of an ambitious study of evolutionary history inspired by the quirky, award-winning book Your Inner Fish by vertebrate paleontologist Neil Shubin. By the end of the unit, kids will have produced a timeline tracing human biological adaptations back millions of years — and they might also come into class fully costumed as some of our evolutionary ancestors in a culminating exercise (can’t wait!).
Using trade texts instead of textbooks helps students see that what they’re learning is part of ongoing conversations by researchers and academics. By engaging this material, students are participating in the ongoing production of scientific knowledge.
Stage 1: Individual Writing
Class began with the outward appearances of a conventional high school biology class: students grouped at lab desks to record short responses to prepared questions. But as Ms. Gam walked around the classroom, I noticed that she used Socratic-style questioning to tailor this exercise to each student’s abilities. I tried to transcribe a representative exchange:
Ms. Gam: “In the nucleus, when MRNA is produced, what’s the process called?”
Student: “Transcription. But what’s the purpose?”
Ms. Gam: “What do you think?”
Student: “It’s just a copy.”
Ms. Gam: “Yes, it’s just a copy. Why do we need a copy?”
She continued prodding the student until it was clear the concept was fully understood. Ms. Gam’s parting words to the student were, “You already knew the answer.” That’s exactly how these exchanges felt: like each student was uncovering knowledge that was already hanging around somewhere in their mind, and Ms. Gam’s questions were just helping them call that knowledge up.
Perhaps best of all, Ms. Gam was visibly, genuinely excited as students happened upon new understanding.
Ms. Gam helps students construct their own knowledge in one-on-one conversations.
Stage 2: Work in Small Groups
Once she felt everyone had a working familiarity with the lesson’s key concepts, she directed kids to confer in small groups about their responses. She told them:
I’m going to assign you one of these questions to diagram and share with the class.
Ingeniously, though, she didn’t tell groups which question they’d be assigned. It seemed to me that this ensured two things: 1) students felt responsible for discussing and understanding each question, just in case; and 2) Ms. Gam was able to listen in on the group conversations and assign questions based on student ability.
Because everyone had received candid, immediate, and kind feedback from Ms. Gam already, kids were more willing to share their ideas with one another. It’s a small detail, but I was struck by how frequently students looked up from their papers at each other’s faces.
Students discuss their answers and use textual evidence to refine their ideas.
Stage 3: Small Whiteboard Visualization
Students work together to prepare their model on a dry erase board.
In his published work on the acquisition of expertise, Anders Ericsson argues that superstar athletes and musicians develop their skills by creating sound mental representations, or structures that help people encode information into their long-term memory. (Here is an interview in which he discusses potential pedagogical applications).
As Ms. Gam’s student groups discussed their answers, she handed them whiteboards and asked them to represent certain concepts visually. Their whiteboard work actively engaged students in the task of constructing mental representations for the lesson’s key concepts.
This is one of those times when tools matter. I’ve done variations of this activity with posters, graphic organizers, and post-it note parking lots. But by using a whiteboard, Ms. Gam minimizes student anxiety: mistakes can be erased effortlessly and completely, at any time. Knowing that, kids can put their ideas down with little risk at all.
The whiteboard makes student thinking even more public: it’s large enough for anyone walking by to see, and its size accommodates easy collaboration. By this point in the lesson, most of the students are confident enough in their understanding to make their ideas visible.
Groups were at various stages of the process by this point, and the classroom was a bustling and dynamic space. Some kids needed to go back to the text to rework their models; others were ready to share their work out with the class. (To the latter group, Ms. Gam suggested “If you want, take this opportunity to add to your notes in your notebook.”) Everyone was busy doing something.
The classroom was a bustling place, with students at various stages of the process.
Stage 4: Whole-Class Presentation and Workshop
Students respond to feedback on their models of key genetics concepts during a whole-class workshop.
Forty minutes into the hour-long period, Ms. Gam called the class together and asked the first group to present. She gave explicit instructions to the class to make sure everyone knew this was a workshop: everyone will be responsible for accurately constructing knowledge. She said:
The purpose of this is to review and make sure everyone’s on the same page. While you’re listening, make sure that what is being talked about is consistent with what your group identified. If there are any discrepancies between what you found and what the group is presenting, that’s your opportunity to ask questions to either help the group come to a better understanding, or to improve your own understanding.
As students shared their ideas, she’d prod the class: Do you guys agree with that? Did others have different ideas? The presenters made changes to their model in real-time.
Ultimately, Ms. Gam consistently pushed her students into an active role throughout the lesson, but she also started with lots of support and scaffolding to ensure kids felt comfortable trying. Her lesson plan methodically removed layers of support as students became ready.
Here are some ways I can imagine using this four-stage process in my English classroom:
For teaching vocabulary or literary terminology (students start with a list of words from a text or unit of study, work individually to research and understand their denotation, work together to extend their knowledge, and visualize one or more words on the whiteboard)
For studying poetry: same process, but groups are assigned stanzas
For analyzing text structures: how particular paragraph examples from genres are organized (I’ve seen a great visualization of the standard academic essay here, for example)
AP Physics students moved back and forth between theory and practice today in an exercise inspired by physics educator Eugenia Etkina, and I got distracted from Writing Lab by their awesomeness. After reading and discussing models for understanding force and circular motion, the students moved to the center of the school with a rope and some roller skates. One student stood in the middle, holding an end of the rope firmly. Mr. Romero, on skates, held the other end of the rope and directed a second student to push him at varying speeds. Kids took time experiencing both roles.
Toward the end of the exercise, Mr. Romero explained how the force toward the center causes circular motion. He reminded students:
When people hear this explanation, they hear “science science science” or the sound adults make on Charlie Brown. But the purpose of this exercise was so that you feel it in your bones. This is how the universe works.
Isn’t that the ultimate learning goal — to have such a personally meaningful experience with a concept that your understanding becomes lodged “in your bones”? What would instruction look like if we placed those kinds of experiences at the center of our planning?