Category Archives: Poetry

Lift Off: This One’s for You, Teachers

“For generations we have known of knowledge’s infinite power.”

I’ve been so fortunate throughout my teaching career to work within true professional learning communities. My colleagues have been passionate, informed, and welcoming, and as a result, those dreaded professional development days have never, in fact, been days that I have dreaded.

“But I’ve always been a thorn in the side of injustice. Disruptive. talkative. A distraction.”

Today is one of those days for our team, as we meet to discuss planning concerns, student successes, and vertical alignment. To frame the day, we began by reading the transcript of a truly beautiful spoken word poem: “Lift Off” by Donovan Livingston.

This poem was performed originally at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s 2016 convocation ceremony, and on reading the transcript multiple times, I only find more layers to unpack.

“She told me that our stories are ladders that make it easier for us to touch the stars.”

As a learning community, we kicked off our day by standing and reading lines from the poem that struck us powerfully–lines I’ve italicized and woven into this post. Beginning a day with a whipshare of Livingston’s words was a centering way to frame discussions around our work with attention to equity and justice.

“Beneath their masks and mischief, exists an authentic frustration.”

I highly recommend sharing this poem with your teaching team, students, or anyone else who might benefit from rich language around learning. If nothing else, watch it just for yourself–it will help you lift off as you begin your day.

“Together, we can inspire galaxies of greatness for generations to come.”


Shana Karnes is fortunate to live and work this year in Madison, Wisconsin alongside many professional colleagues both in the Madison Metropolitan School District, as well as the Greater Madison Writing Project. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Poetry Out Loud

As a teacher, we tend to teach what we like and what excites us.  As I confessed before, poetry is hard for me to get into.  I get more jazzed up over nonfiction or an engaging book.  But this year I have pushed myself to be uncomfortable with poetry at times because my students need and deserve poetry.

And you know what, so far so good.  I have enjoyed the challenge of challenging my teaching range and comfort.

This year, aside from dissecting and discussing poems for the AP Lit exam, we have written beside poems like “Desiderata” and “Lost Generation.”  We’ve watched spoken word performances.  We have written poems about our names and heritage.  We have discussed thematically related poems in small and jigsawed groups.  We have created Book Spine poems that connected to another work of literature.  We have found and shared poems connected to our independent reading as a way of book talking those books.  We have read poetry for the sake of hearing words and enjoying them.  We have also participated in the annual Poetry Out Loud competition.  

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As a national competition sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Out Loud has been around since 2006, with the goal of promoting exposure and participation in poetry and spoken word.  Simply, it is a recitation or performance competition that begins at the classroom level with students reciting one or two poems, then progresses to the school, regional, and possibly national level. When started in 2006, only classic poets (think Dickens, Dickenson, and Front) were featured, but the program has since expanded greatly with hundreds of diverse, living choices for students to recite.

My school participates each year, starting at the classroom level.  Top performances from each period are then selected to compete among their peers in the same English class period (freshmen through seniors), with the top performances then competing at the school-wide assembly.  The winner of the school-wide assembly, which is judged by a panel of non-English teachers with Poetry Out Loud’s official rubric, goes on to represent our school at the regional level, possibly national.

While many students are shy and hesitant to perform in front of their peers, the competition has great benefits.  

  • It is a unique way to incorporate speaking and listening standards and a related performance task.
  • There are ample mini-lessons to incorporate with each student’s choice of poem you can pull from your poetry teaching archives or the website.  We researched the poets and their inspiration, examined how diction creates tone, where to place emphasis when performing, and how one creates a verbal tone that mirrors the message of the poem.  
  • The entire competition is student-centered and differentiated–students are selecting the poems, working to understand their poem beyond memorizing the words, and performing the poems.
  • The competition cultivates an appreciation for performed poetry and exposes all participants, myself included, to new poetry.  This year, I really loved hearing new poems. Some of my new favorites: “How to Triumph like a Girl” by Ada Limon, “The Delta” by Bruce Bond, “The End of Science Fiction” by Lisel Mueller, and our school’s winner, “Rabbits and Fire” by Alberto Rios.

While I still have more ideas for more poetry in the classroom–mimicking a style or genre, weaving a poem with original art, creating blackout poems, crafting poems from chapter titles or lines–Poetry Out Loud adds another dimension to poetry in the classroom. 

Check it out and put it on your school’s calendar for January 2021!

 

Maggie Lopez is currently reading “Bringing Up Bebe” and “The Coddling of the American Mind” as she awaits her baby girl in April.  She will be taking a hiatus from writing for the blog, but looks forward to reconnecting in the fall.

The Rollercoaster of a Teaching Career

Last week, I began a new teaching assignment–the seventh in my career.

As I familiarized myself with my new role, new students, and new colleagues, I couldn’t help but reflect on how many turns my teaching life has taken over its twelve year span.

RIP the Vortex, my first looping rollercoaster

I once heard Penny Kittle refer to her ideal reading life as a rollercoaster–some easy, downhill books; some tough, uphill climb books; some that make you want to puke and abandon the ride; some that make you scream with exhilaration and joy.

My teaching life has been a lot like that: a rollercoaster of good years, hard years, long years, and fast years. It’s been a wild ride of new states, new schools, new colleagues, and new subjects. It’s been difficult, and fulfilling, and exhausting, and uplifting.

My rollercoaster teaching life, as full of ups and downs as it is, is a ride that I don’t see ending anytime soon. In fact, as my personal life settles down in the next few years and my husband’s job will no longer require us to frequently relocate, I hope to see some of the bumps and hills even out.

And as much as I loved rollercoasters as a teenager, I’m getting older. I’m ready for a smoother ride.

As a teacher, this means cultivating a sustainable, healthy practice that allows me to feel comfortable and confident as a teacher, while also providing enough excitement and novelty to keep me engaged and interested.

My One Little Word for this year is curate, which I hope will keep me focused and restrained. I’ve been concerned about the health of my teaching practice for a while–my classmates in a summer NWP course noticed that I have a penchant for trying to do/read/learn/investigate/accomplish way too much when it comes to teaching. My friend Chris gave me this invaluable advice: instead of learning more, curate my inquiry process. Hone it. Sharpen it.

And it’s been so helpful, to feel allowed to do less–to make it a goal, in fact, to say “no” more often, or click “save for later” in my Amazon cart for that newest teaching book, or keep thinking about how to improve the depth of my reading instruction without worrying that I’m dropping the ball on writing.

The truth is, teaching is an unsustainable profession if we don’t give ourselves permission to curate. When I was brand new, single, and 21, I relished the fact that I beat the principal to school every day. I loved spending 12 hours in my perfectly-lit, freshly-painted classroom.

But now that I have children, a home, and a slew of other responsibilities to care for, I have to curate. I may not have the most Pinterest-worthy classroom in the future. I may not have the neatest classroom library; I may not sponsor three clubs; I may not volunteer to be on all the committees. But I will be able to do the work I love, which is having a life that allows me to take my daughters to soccer practice and read my students’ fascinating essays from the sidelines.

I hope that this year is a year in the rollercoaster of your teaching life that you enjoy–whether you’re hurtling down the big hill, looping with abandon, or slowly creaking up a steep slope. I hope that you’ve thought of one little word to help focus you, and that it helps you enjoy this year’s ride.

Shana Karnes is enjoying the ride this year with her 9th graders in Wisconsin. She looks forward to moving one last time, to Columbus, Ohio, where she hopes to curate a life that balances teaching, family, and fun. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Novels in Verse in the Senior English Classroom

I have always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with poetry. I know as an English teacher I shouldn’t admit this, but poetry has always been my least favourite genre to teach. While I loved to read poetry as a teenager, I loathed when we had to study it in class as I felt that all the analyzing destroyed it. Unfortunately, some of this mindset has followed me into my teaching career and I have often struggled to really love teaching poetry and I have found that this translated into the way my students have engaged with poetry, as well.

While trying to find a new connection with poetry in my classroom, I have found a few things that have helped. The first was spoken word poetry – the powerful performances of these talented poets sparked some of that old love I used to have for poetry in me and I found that it was easy to translate this excitement into my classes.

The second is what I want to talk about here – my discovery of the novel in verse. The first novel in verse I picked up was Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover when I was trying to find a book to recommend for a sports obsessed reluctant reader. I didn’t realize it was a novel in verse when I first opened it up, but from the moment I started to read it I was hooked. The combination of poetry with a narrative arc spoke to me and I realized that novels in verse could be an accessible pathway to poetry for not just myself, but for my students as well. Since then, I have integrated novels in verse into my classroom in many ways. Sometimes I have held book clubs where all of the novels students can choose to read are novels in verse where other times I have chosen to integrate just one or two titles along with prose novels and graphic novels.

Some of my favourite novels in verse I have used recently in my classes are the following. Some of these books deal with heavy topics (in particular October Mourning), so I would recommend reviewing them before using them with younger students.

Death Coming Up the Hill By Chris Crowe: I stumbled upon this one almost by accident and I am glad I did. It was in the bargain bin at a bookstore I was at and I am glad I discovered it. Death Coming Up the Hill is set during the Vietnam War and follows the story of 17 year old Ashe who is dealing with family issues during the backdrop of the war. The story follows Ashe as he tries to avoid being drafted for a war he does not believe in. This powerful novel in verse is even more impressive as it is written entirely in Haiku with every syllable in the novel representing a fallen solider who actually died during the war.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle: The poetry in this novel is completely compelling. Besides being a novel in verse, it is also a memoir of the author’s experiences growing up between two cultures. Set during the Cold War, we follow Margarita’s childhood as she struggles to reconcile her Cuban heritage with the American world she is growing up in.

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman: This is a hard read, but a powerful and important one. It may, however, be too much for some students. This novel in verse takes us to October 6, 1998 to tell the true story of when 21 year old Matthew Shepard is lured from a bar and beaten to death simply because he was gay. This novel in verse is tragic and powerful at the same time. 

If you had asked me several years ago if I would ever read a novel in verse, I am not sure that I would have said yes. These three novels in verse, along with several others have changed my opinion and have helped me become a more passionate poetry teacher.

If you want more recommended reads, check out my previous post on integrating authentic voices into our middle years classes.

Pam McMartin teaches Senior English and is the Senior Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Canada. She is reluctantly becoming more of a poetry fan the more she exposes herself to powerful, modern works. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin

Text Talk: Ink Knows No Borders

In American Literature this year, we are taking a “disrupted” look at the American Dream, noticing its failings and shortcomings through the literature we read as a class. 

After discussions over the summer reading titles and a gallery walk to generate our thinking around the American Dream, we watched an abbreviated version of Chimamanda Adichie’s TedTalk “The Danger of a Single Story” before identifying and discussing the “single stories” in our lives and our world.

We then dug into selections from Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Immigrant and Refugee Experience. The collection of poetry features a range of perspectives on adjusting to life as an immigrant as one tries to stay connected to their home culture while adapting to a new place. The poems are both heartbreaking and heartwarming tributes to the courage of the authors.

With a packet of assorted poems, students first processed one poem with their peers, spending time deciphering meaning and making connections.  We then created jigsawed groups where students taught and discussed their poems with a new set of peers. Together, the jigsawed groups began to track thematic connections across the differing, yet similar experiences of the authors.

The poetry offered alternative perspectives while being accessible and real. The poems about names and traditions resonated with my refugee students from Africa, while other students related to the burden of balancing two cultures, one at home and one at school. We Googled more information about the current situation at the Mexico-US border, and one student was brave enough to share his family’s story of obtaining citizenship while another student shared that she fears ICE will take away her parents every day. 

When we discussed the poetry as a full class, students came away with an understanding that often in our country, there is a single story told about immigrants. Students came to the insight that this was misguided and unfair because immigrants founded our country and the United States often promotes the promise that the dream is achievable to all. Students overwhelmingly agreed that we should be more understanding, welcoming, and helpful to people who want to make a better life because we all have stories and hardships.

This text worked well because students discovered new perspectives, connected to their lives and our world, and also gained low stakes poetry exposure, one of my goals for the year. Plus, our conversations made me so happy and hopeful to teach resilient, inclusive young people in this time of division.

Maggie Lopez is grateful for her digital colleagues and an incredibly rewarding profession.  You can find her on Twitter @meglopez0.

 

The Power of Wonder & Mentor Texts (a post inspired by Kwame Alexander)

Last week my 12-year-old son and I attended an event with Kwame Alexander at our local book store, Joseph-Beth Booksellers.

You have never heard someone read a book like Kwame Alexander reads a book. This man takes his time. He lets the words fill up the air. He chews on a pause, taking his time, stre-e-e-e-tching it out. He understands the power of pacing and performance.

I’ve seen Kwame perform before; he and his partner Randy Preston put on a show. Randy plays guitar beneath Kwame’s words, punctuating, pacing, elevating the performance. Sometimes they break into song, or rap, or they just riff.

Sharing this experience with my son was important. Reading Crossover broke him out of a reading rut a few years ago and he’s devoured so many of Alexander’s titles. I’m looking forward to sharing the graphic novel with my other children, who are big GN fans, and with the students I see, who I know will love it.

But what’s really staying with me about this experience is what I found while wandering around the bookstore. Tucked in a back corner, I stumbled across this collection of poems, Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets. Kwame Alexander, along with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth, and illustrator by Ekua Holmes, have created a beautiful book and I can’t wait to share it. 

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I flipped through the collection and while I recognized many of the names —  Giovanni, Oliver, Hughes — I realized they weren’t the writers of the poems. Rather, they were the inspiration. The whole book is a celebration of poets, full of pieces written in the style of the poets themselves. I’d found a treasure trove of mentor texts!

For example, this one by Wentworth, “(Loving) The World and Everything In It”, inspired by Mary Oliver’s poem “My work is loving the world …”

 

The collection is broken into three sections:

  1. Got Style: where the poets imitate the style of a famous poet.
  2. In Your Shoes: poets imitate the tone and voice of other poets.
  3. Thank You: poets pay homage to their favorite poets, “sharing with the world how awesome we feel about the poet and the poem.”

I love thinking about being in conversation with poets and their poems in these ways. Wouldn’t it be powerful to give kids the opportunity to find a poet that resonates with them, or to explore different poems (maybe in a gallery walk like the one talked about here in Teach Living Poets). Then to let them choose a path to enter into dialogue.

Share with us the way you have students talk back to their favorite poems. (And we hope you have the chance to see Kwame Alexander on his upcoming tour.)Screen Shot 2019-09-29 at 9.20.36 PM

 

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH. She’s in the middle of having the honor of attending several amazing author events this fall: Angie Thomas and Kwame Alexander in September, and now Bryan Stevenson, Ruta Septys and Raina Tegelmeir in October. In her spare time she likes to ask her kids’ friends what they’re reading and making book suggestions to pretty much everyone. 

Put Down Your Phone; Pick Up a Poem

Last year, for the first time in 10 years, I taught a collection of middle schoolers whose energy and hormones knocked the wind out of me every day. But there was something different about these 7th and 8th graders and the ones I’d taught in 2008: between classes, there was no physicality, no leaping across the room to gossip, no noisy giggles between huddled heads. Instead, there were searches for a phone charger, quiet smirks over the latest Snapchat, screens quietly being double-tapped as teens scrolled Instagram.

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I worry about what the constant presence of technology does to our brains. But I worry far more about what we are missing out on when we spend every free moment on our phones rather than just seeing the world around us. In line at the grocery store, sitting at a stoplight, on a treadmill at the gym, I see everyone around me on their phones.

No one looking up. Looking out. Noticing. Absorbing. Living.

I realize I sound a little old and crotchety here, but it’s a real concern of mine: that the beauty of life is fading because no one is seeing it. That at the least we aren’t noticing what’s around us; that at the worst, we feel isolated and alone, disconnected, hopeless.

Early on in each school year, I read a number of articles, poems, or excerpts from books with students. I booktalk The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr and Walden by Henry David Thoreau. We study excerpts from Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle and Brain Rules by John Medina. I ask students to look at their screen time use in their settings and reflect a bit on their habits by attempting to journal their activities for 24 hours.

More deeply, we read the poem “A World of Want” by Tina Schuman, and the article “The Eight-Second Attention Span” by Timothy Egan, together. Schuman’s poem laments “the phone[‘]s chirp” and the “conga-line of cravings” presented us by society and technology in concert; Egan’s article advocates for deep, meaningful activities like reading a book or gardening to help us focus our attention.

The combination of these readings, the journal, and our in-class discussions that spark stories of distraction help students see an authentic need for disconnecting from their phones and reconnecting with the world. We then read the poem “Rereading Frost” by Linda Pastan, which drives the point home: we talk about noticing and “decide not to stop trying.”

I then propose a resolution: putting away our phones not just in class, but beyond, when we’re reading, when we’re noticing, when we’re composing. This habit-forming feeling of connectedness spurs students to be stronger thinkers, readers, and writers, and builds our classroom community as well.

Please share any readings or practices you share with students to help them be better noticers and digital citizens in the comments!

Shana Karnes lives in Wisconsin with her children, husband, and cats. In her spare time she endeavors to put down her phone so she can read, write, and think about the world. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

A Poem to Start Your Notebook

Each morning, I receive two poems in my email inbox: one from The Poetry Foundation, and one from The Writer’s Almanac. One morning in July, I received “More of Everything” by Joyce Sutphen, read it, and thought, wow. That would be so powerful to write beside with students.

As it turns out, some pretty brilliant thinkers receive these same poems in their inboxes, and they took the same poem and ran with it in a beautiful direction:

I often have my students write beside poetry inside our notebooks, but Linda Rief and Penny Kittle have inspired me to bring poetry to the personalization process. I love the idea of having students glue this poem into their personal photos and collage pages we create: it prioritizes an individual, emotional response to literature that is valued in the workshop classroom…and the results of the thinking around this text are beautiful, too.


As you and your students begin the school year and personalize your writer’s notebooks, perhaps you’ll consider adding a text to the start of your journals. Will you share any poems or short texts you frame your year with in the comments?

Shana Karnes lives in Wisconsin with her husband, daughters, and cats. She is teaching and learning alongside amazing teachers through the Greater Madison Writing Project this year. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Q & A: What are some good poems to write beside? #3TTWorkshop

Questions Answered (1)

I think I’ve mentioned before that I used to avoid poetry. Now, I’m really not pointing fingers at anyone — okay, yeah I am — but I blame it on my teachers. Not one of them shared poetry just for the love of poetry — of rhythm and words and images often cloaked in color and emotion. Not one. Not one used poetry as inspiration for other writing. It was always analyze this and write a paper on it. Bleh. My least favorite kind of writing.

Good poems have the potential to be great teaching tools. Sure, analysis but so much more. If we want students to love language or even play with it in their writing, we have to expose them to language worth loving — and encourage them to make paper swords and sequin-shiny shoes with it. Inviting students to write beside poems with us is one good starting place.

This month Shana and I attended the Poetry Foundation Conference for teachers in Chicago. We read, talked, listened to, and explored poems for a week. (And slept on the worst dorm beds possible.)

The thing about immersing yourself in poetry for a week is this:  You start seeing poetry

GiordanoPizza

Giordano’s Pizza — so good!

everywhere. Billboards, names on shops, menus in restaurants, bikers on the path along Lake Michigan, ceramic swans cuddling on the other side of a pane glass window, and pizza!!

Poetry is like an English teacher with a brand new set of 36 Flair pens. Color everywhere!

In my workshop classroom, we share a lot of poetry. Sometimes just for the love of it. Sometimes to talk about. Sometimes to inspire us to write.

PoetryFoundationpresHere’s a few poems (and a lesson plan) my group and I collected for our project at the poetry conference. We titled our presentation Boundaries & Borders:  Exploring Poetry Beyond our Front Yard (That’s a shout out to Gwendolyn Brook’s “a song in the front yard.”) I’ll tell ya, we hashed around a topic for a long time and finally decided that reading poems that help us explore our personal and societal boundaries might make an interesting backdoor into exploring identity, which is a topic many of us develop out thematically using a variety of other texts in our courses. If nothing else, the images we collected (all found at Unsplash) might be interesting to use to prompt student thinking.

If you’re looking for other topics, take a look at the Poetry Foundation. There’s so much there! And if you like podcasts, you might like this one:  the Slowdown with Tracy K. Smith. It’s my first-ever podcast listen, and I’m hooked.

So, what are some good poems to write beside? You decide. And please share some of the poems you love in the comments!

 

Note:  This post is a part of a series. It’s based primarily on the most frequent questions about readers-writers workshop asked at our workshop trainings. For more see here.

Amy Rasmussen is a teacher, writer, artist, and house-plant enthusiast. She lives near Dallas, TX and is a believer in all things that make us better humans. Follow her @amyrass

 

So Many Great Reasons to try One-Pagers!

 

I’m always trying to find valid, fun, and interesting ways to assess different reading standards without assigning essays or quizzes. This year, in addition to conferences, graded video discussions, and “short story clubs” (instead of book clubs), I’ve assigned one-pagers to my students.

Most recently, I assigned a one-pager to my grade seven students. We have been studying poetry for the last several weeks, reading, writing, and talking about it. We developed a list of words we should use in order to raise our discussions to a more academic level, and my students created a word wall with that list.

When it came time for a summative assessment over the poetry we’ve studied, I decided to assign a one-pager.

A one-pager is exactly what it sounds like: one page of illustrations and information which demonstrate the student’s understanding or reflection of whatever the topic and learning that has been studied and practiced in the previous unit. With seventh graders, I allow them to make their one-pagers larger than the typical A4 size paper, so sometimes their “one-pagers” end up more like “three-pagers”, but the idea is that they are a cohesive unit, and taped together as one large captioned illustration rather than a series of pages that are stapled together in the corner like an essay might be.

Before assigning the summative assessment, I assigned a practice one-pager. All three of my seventh grade classes practiced with Shel Silverstein’s Sarah Cynthia Silvia Stout Would not Take the Garbage Out. It was a big hit. It’s funny and chock-full of poetic devices. Plus, it’s relatable to seventh graders and has a nice lesson at the end.

We spent a couple of work sessions practicing, talking, coloring, writing and generally having a nice time learning and reflecting on what we have learned. During the third work session, I asked my students to self-assess their practice one-pagers, using the rubric, and writing on the back of their papers what they think they earned in each of the three categories.

The rubric covered three standards, so students weren’t overwhelmed by small pieces and tasks. There are requirements for this assignment, but still a lot of room for individual choice and creativity.

This extra day of working with the practice poem paid off. I overheard students having their own “ah-ha” moments, checking the word wall for definitions and ideas, and talking to each other about things like couplets and alliteration. The conversations were really fun to overhear.

When it came time to complete the summative assessment, my students were ready. Each class was given a different Shel Silverstein poem: Cloony the Clown, Clarence, or Sick. Each of these poems contains several of the poetic devices we studied, and were written by a familiar poet. The final products were knock-out. Below I’ve included a few samples.

This is one of the many ways I’ve used one-pagers as a tool for learning and as a tool for assessing. I’ll share more later, and I look forward to hearing about how you use them in your own classes!

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

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