We are excited to be heading to Atlanta next week for NCTE 2016. We hope to see you at Booth #405 — stop by to browse our latest titles, pick up one of our fabulous tote bags, or meet one of our fabulous authors.
Download a full list of Stenhouse authors presenting at the conference.
As we neared the finish line of editing the manuscript for Debbie Diller’s Growing Independent Learners, Debbie brought up a new Big Idea: an online workshop to help teachers really dig in to the ideas presented in the book, to show how to assemble all these pieces from standards to team planning to classroom organization to whole-group instruction, small-group differentiation, and ultimately, independent literacy work at stations.
Stenhouse has never created an online course, but as we started to research and think it through, it became more and more clear that this was a perfect book to start with.
After about a year of planning, Stenhouse video editor Nate Butler and I traveled to Houston to film the video portion of the online course. Nate has done many video projects in his career; I have not. In a way my newness was a good thing: I didn’t know what to expect, so I just paid close attention and tried not to get in the way. But in the end, I not only learned a lot about video production, I also learned a lot about Deb’s teaching philosophy, her instincts in the classroom, and her gift with children. And reflecting on the experience, I see three main points that apply both to the creation of the video and Deb’s Growing Independent Learners model:
Planning and organization are critical to success – and help you make in-the-moment decisions
Deb and I spent a full year, along with Nate and our colleagues, planning the outline and structure first, then filling in details to flesh out our vision for what to capture on film. We wrote a script for Deb to follow in the scenes in which she’s addressing the camera, along with bullet points we wanted Deb and the teachers to discuss in more off-the-cuff conversations. Nate and Deb created a shot list, and from that Nate developed a shooting schedule. We had a professional crew on site – cameraman, sound engineer, and teleprompter – to bring all this planning to fruition. We shot for three full days in two locations – Deb’s house and an elementary school in Houston. All that advance planning made the small hiccups completely manageable. We all had a clear vision and direction for the project, so we were able to make decisions in the moment, and we were able to add and take away and go with the flow. Planning! It’s critical. And a big part of Deb’s philosophy of teaching. I get it now.
There’s no substitute for a good team – in school, in the workplace, during a video shoot
A big evolution in Deb’s teaching over the years has been the critical role of teachers working together to plan instruction. We see it big time in the new book, then watch teachers planning with Deb in the online workshop. As I sat behind the scenes on the video shoot, it struck me how important our team was in the process: every person had a role and a distinct skill or strength to bring to the project. I know nothing about operating a boom mic or sound board, for instance, but James knew what every dial and knob on that board controls. It’s the same in your school, too, I’m sure: You may have a knack for teaching the finer points of writing, but your colleague really shines when it comes to breaking down mathematical thinking. You work together to fine-tune how your students learn and grow their thinking.
Kids really can reach independence – and they’ll have fun doing it – within a few months
Seeing literacy work stations in action, I have to admit, was a highlight of this past year for me. It’s one thing to read about children working independently – understanding it cognitively, seeing photos, hearing anecdotes – but my understanding and appreciation reached a whole new level as I watched first graders reading and writing together, listening to books and retelling to their partner, using academic vocabulary and pretty sophisticated language…and all on their own. Their teacher, Tracy Gilbert, taught small groups during work station time, using smaller versions of anchor charts she’d created with the kids during previous whole-group lessons.
We know these kids didn’t jump right in to independent work from day one. Literacy work stations take planning, teamwork, and thoughtful scaffolding through whole-group lessons and small-group instruction.
At the end of the three-day shoot, I returned home tired yet completely energized. This has been perhaps the most collaborative and creative project I’ve worked on – and seeing Deb in her “natural environment” in front of a room full of antsy, eager, brilliant little ones was the perfect culmination of over a year of work.
Today’s guest post by Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg might sound a bit ambitious — even crazy: write an entire novel with your students during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). But Vicki, author of the new book The Author’s Apprentice, has some practical advice as you gear up for this challenging, rewarding, and possibly life-changing writing exercise with your students. Good luck and let us know how it’s going in your classroom!
Get your students writing for NaNoWriMo
October is one of my favorite times of the year. I love the sweater-weather, the changing leaves, and the pumpkin spice everything. But my absolute favorite thing about this time of year is gearing up for NaNoWriMo! During National Novel Writing Month teachers, students and folks from around the globe take part in the challenge to write an entire novel in the thirty days of November. It sounds crazy for anyone, so why on earth would you ever attempt to write novels with a class of heterogeneously grouped students who don’t even particularly care for writing in school at all?
Because it’s magical.
Much like the changing leaves, exploding with vibrant colors, so too will your students’ attitudes and efforts in writing change and explode with possibilities that even they had never imagined. I have been a middle school teacher for more than 20 years, and I can honestly say that nothing compares to writing novels together as a class. It is arguably the single most impactful academic experience that a student can share with his classmates. It builds confidence and motivation for students (in writing and in other areas of life), it reinforces what we are already teaching and makes it meaningful to our students, and it helps them to feel like they are a part of something that matters for real out in the world.
Here are a few tips for a successful dip into Lake NaNo:
Integrate it into your existing curriculum to give authenticity, meaning and purpose to what you already do in your classroom.
Participating in NaNoWriMo presents obvious benefits for our students by connecting the writing work that authors do in the real world with the writing work that we do within our classrooms. It provides validation and a wonderfully authentic opportunity for students to apply the literary elements you are already teaching such as characterization, plot, setting, and conflict in their own writing. And they get to demonstrate their knowledge of literary devices such as flashback, symbolism, imagery, and irony throughout the month in the same way that real authors do.
Additionally, something unexpected occurs inside every student who takes part in this ridiculous challenge. After writing their novels, students will never read another story or novel without knowing the work that went into developing each character and his or her actions. They will no longer casually breeze by vivid details, deliberate word choices, or imbedded symbols. Learning the skills in the reading portion of the curriculum, and then fearlessly crafting and applying them in their own writing makes an impression. This synthesis of knowledge bridges the gap between reading and writing and brings new meaning and a heightened awareness into their everyday reading and writing lives.
Write with your students.
C’mon, admit it. If you teach English or language arts, you know that somewhere deep down inside you have this dream of writing “The Great American Novel” one day. Carpe this Diem. If you truly want to make an impact with your students, you can’t just teach novel writing; you have to get in there and get your hands on that keyboard and experience novel writing side-by-side with your students. You have a writer’s voice. And the world needs to hear it.
Build a true community of writers within the classroom.
Out in the real world, writing communities serve to hold its members accountable, to provide support and encouragement when needed, and to offer feedback at all steps in the writing process. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our students could come to expect this same kind of support system within our classrooms? Now they can at www.ywp.NaNoWriMo.org . Here, teachers can create a virtual classroom so that everyone can stay connected whether they are writing at school or at home. Teachers can post announcements, assignments, and even writing challenges (such as: “Find a way to include green Jello into your next scene. Go!”) to keep everyone excited and on their toes. Many of my students will also ask for support and feedback directly in the message feed. Sometimes it’s to help them move past writer’s block, sometimes it’s to test out a line or two for audience feedback, and sometimes it’s to help their characters make tough decisions. It is so comforting to know that even when we are writing on our own at home, we are never alone. And that makes all of the difference.
Build a true community of writers out in the community.
You already know you are crazy for taking on this insane challenge with your classroom, so why not spread the word out there in your community? I’m serious; share with your community what you are setting out to accomplish for the month, and get them to join you in your efforts. Contact your local newspaper and news station to see if they’d be interested in reporting this story of your class taking on insurmountable odds to write novels in 30 days! Share your idea with local businesses and see if they’d be willing to donate goods or gift certificates for the students who meet their word count goals. (Our local ice cream parlor gave us free ice cream cone certificates as awards!) Host “write-outs” around town for your students to get together and write in the evenings or on the weekends in coffee shops, book stores, and even the mall food court! Don’t be shy. The more people see you and hear about what you are doing with your class, the more the excitement builds. No doubt that everyone you talk to will be amazed by your enthusiasm and dedication to your students.
Celebrate a job well-done.
Participating in National Novel Writing Month shows our students that we believe in them, even when they think that what we are asking is impossible. Novel writing is both messy and empowering. Through the process, students develop writing fluency and stamina, and the ability to produce higher-quality on-demand writing. And that is worth celebrating.
How would historical figures solve today’s conflicts and problems around the world? Sarah Cooper is back with a blog post about how her students researched reformers and wrote about how their chosen figures would change the world today. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine and she teaches English and history at Flintridge Preparatory School in California.
A Roundtable of Reformers By Sarah Cooper
How would labor agitator Florence Kelley, author Barbara Ehrenreich and reformer Helen Keller solve the Syrian refugee crisis?
How would Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, Supreme Court plaintiff Fred Korematsu and environmentalist David Brower address gun laws?
In previous years, students had simply presented a few facts about their reformers to the class and also played part of a song that echoed the reformer’s ideals (Katy Perry’s “Roar” for Carry Nation or “We Shall Overcome” for Pete Seeger, for example).
The songs were fun to hear, but even these short presentations seemed to drag out over several days of class time.
This year I wanted students to spend these days being more hands-on: learning about other students’ reformers and then applying this knowledge to modern-day problems, many of them similar to ones their reformers had tackled.
So I created student groups, roughly categorized by the kind of reform their person did.
For instance, Bob Dylan, Sojourner Truth, Marian Wright Edelman and Rachel Carson came together as people who used their words for change.
Here are the directions I gave one Tuesday in class, after students had read through each others’ short research papers.
Now, make a list (as long as you want!) of 3+ current issues you think your reformers would like to explore together. Feel free to flip through your current events notes and articles to help you brainstorm. Write down everyone’s ideas without judging or commenting.
Once everyone has shared ideas, go back through the list you’ve generated and talk about which issue might be the most interesting for your reformers (you!) to research tonight and talk about solving tomorrow. By the end of class, decide on one issue on which everyone will find a different article tonight.
That night, students texted or created a Google Doc to make sure they found different articles on their group’s topic.
In class on Wednesday, they first wrote individually for 5-7 minutes on why they chose this particular article and what their reformer would think about it, and then they shared the articles with their group.
After that, students brainstormed at least six solutions or approaches that their reformers might use to tackle the issue. They honed in on one approach they liked best and developed a plan with at least several steps.
The plans ran the gamut on the spectrum of intricacy, radicalism and violence.
One example came from students who thought that, if alive today, their reformers – Eleanor Roosevelt, Carry Nation and Jane Jacobs – would have fought for “women’s right to an abortion.” Their steps read:
Have strong debates all over America – in the government and in cities, through town hall meetings.
Use intimidation tactics – psych out your opponents.
Be the voice of larger grass-roots organizations.
Hold protests in front of opponents to gain awareness.
Have fundraising events.
Build upon Roosevelt’s government connections and Jacobs’ grassroots movement connections.
A group of radical reformers – John Brown, Margaret Sanger, Dolores Huerta and Carry Nation – attempted to solve the Syrian refugee crisis with persuasion and intimidation:
Start by hosting rallies and sending letters to non-conforming countries (countries that aren’t letting in refugees).
Gather a small army of protesters.
Go on a boat with an army to Syrian refugees and take the refugees to countries like Britain. Also use other forms of transportation.
Smuggle in refugees while fighting security.
Obviously these solutions are only skim the surface of how one would tackle an issue. What I liked about them was that the students really had to ponder different methods of change and figure out which historical tactics would work equally well now.
The Greensboro Four’s nonviolent sit-ins? Still a promising tactic. John Brown’s violent attempt to seize a federal arsenal? Maybe not as effective.
Next time I hope to ask students to create a longer action plan and then have their classmates vote on which one they thought would be most realistic and effective.
Such a a mini-negotiation session would imitate the process their reformers went through, creating a grass-roots feel in our own classroom.
Here is a quick roundup of recent reviews of our latest books. Be sure to check them out online — many of them are still available for full preview before you buy!
In the July 2016 issue, Midwest Book Review showcased two Stenhouse titles on the “Education shelf” of their Bookwatch List. Well Played, 6-8by Linda Dacey, Karen Gartland, and Jayne Bamford Lynch was hailed as “… a top pick for teachers who would inject play and learning into a math curriculum.”
Interactive Writing Across Grades by Kate Roth and Joan Dabrowski was found to be a “…solid guide for any teacher of these grade levels who would integrate an interactive writing program into the classroom.”
Midwest Book Review’s Bookwatch also featured Making Nonfiction from Scratch in January, calling it, “a thought-provoking critique of how nonfiction writing is taught in schools.” The “Education shelf” of the May’s Library Bookwatch also recommended Who’s Doing the Work by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, saying, “Thoroughly informed and informative, and exceptionally ‘user friendly’ in tone, content, commentary, organization and presentation, Who’s Doing the Work? is very highly recommended for professional and academic library …collections.”
A MiddleWeb reviewer gushed about Close Writing by Paula Bourque, calling it full of, “practical, easy-to-implement and innovative ideas that will enhance your Writers Workshop experience without taking time away from what our students need to do — write.” The reviewer adds, “This book is meant to be read and reread. To be read closely…To be read with a colleague…to be read at the beach…to be read here, there and everywhere!”
The same MiddleWeb reviewer also loved Craft Moves by Stacey Shubitz, saying, “I tried words like “Fabulous” and “Exciting,” but they seemed inadequate to explain how powerful and important Stacey Shubitz’s new book, Craft Moves is to middle grades teachers and students everywhere.”
Teacher’s Toolbox investigated Growing Independent Learners by Debbie Diller, and decided that, “The author does a fantastic job of coaching teachers to make learning practical and fun. …This book is full of great ideas for organization, standards alignment, anchor charts, and balancing whole group, guided groups, and independent learning! It is a must for early elementary school teachers!”
Well Played, K-2 by Linda Dacey, Karen Gartland, and Jayne Bamford Lynch was spotlighted by Meaningful Math Moments, where the reviewer said, “what impressed me the most were the points they raised around the teaching of games/puzzles; these were highly insightful!” She concluded, “I highly recommend this resource and intend to use it this coming year!”
And Franki Sibberson over at A Year of Reading blog reviewed Christopher Danielson’s book Which One Doesn’t Belong? and called it a great conversations starter around shapes and geometry. “If you are interested in inquiry based thinking and routines that empower kids AND if you want to learn more about quality talk in the math classroom, you need this book immediately!”
A Note from Ruth Culham As writing instruction continues to evolve, I’m committed to ensuring educators like you are prepared to meet their writing goals. That’s why I want to personally invite you to attend my upcoming hands-on PD workshop on October 21st in Atlanta.
Read the Writing, Teach the Writer: Smart Ideas to Transform Writing Instruction for You and Your Students is your chance to learn first-hand my latest thinking on strategies for effective writing instruction. These will empower you to teach writing in a way that really reflects how today’s students are thinking and learning. Register today!
This full-day workshop shows teachers how to:
Use assessments to help students set goals based on specific traits of writing;
Give constructive feedback to children on specific writing goals that can strengthen their writing, revising, and editing;
Connect reading quality children’s books to writing instruction and assessment;
Show students how different modes (narrative, informational, opinion) intersect and blend to form interesting student writing—that you’ll want to read; and
Teach writing in engaging, student-centered ways.
The registration fee is $269 per person, and includes continental breakfast, boxed lunch, and a certificate of attendence with contact hours. Group rates are available for as low as $229 per person. Space is limited and will be filled on a first-come first-served basis. For details and registration info follow this link:
We are excited to have Matt Renwick back on our blog today with a guest post. He has written before about his school’s efforts to develop lifelong readers. This time he is back with some pointers on getting started with action research for both teachers and administrators.
Getting Started with Action Research
We recently facilitated action research for twenty of our district teachers. They came from all areas in grades K–12. The course was led by Dr. Beth Giles and Dr. Mark Dziedzic from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Teachers met one evening a month to explore their driving questions, set up action plans, collect and organize data, and prepare their work for an inquiry showcase this spring. Here are some of the questions that were specific to literacy, and what we learned.
What happens when we provide choice in reading and learning?
Three teachers investigated this tenet of engagement. A second-grade teacher conducted Genius Hour at the end of the day, a time in which students could tinker and make things of their choosing. A third-grade teacher allowed her students to decide how their classroom should look and feel regarding furniture and resources. A reading interventionist embedded choice within her instruction, including letting the students select one book a month to keep.
What they found out was that choice affected each student in different ways. For example, the reading interventionist discovered that if a student’s basic needs were not being met, he or she had a hard time progressing. She countered this reality by bringing families into school to engage in literacy activities, such as building bookshelves. The third-grade teacher realized that some students liked working with peers regularly, whereas others needed quiet time to read and write. The second-grade teacher found that, for one student in particular, a half hour of tinkering every day led to a reduction in office referrals by 70 percent from fall to spring. Providing choice in school helped teachers better understand their students and adjust their instruction.
What happens when students are taught to ask questions and reflect about their reading?
A fourth- and fifth-grade teacher working with multiple curriculums in a split classroom realized that addressing the needs of a wide variety of learners was a tall order. Therefore, she wanted to find out if teaching her students to ask their own questions of the books they read and to reflect on their thinking in authentic ways through reading journals would lead to more independence.
She modeled these skills and strategies with her own reading. Gradually, she released the responsibility of questioning and reflecting to the students. Data she gathered were anecdotal and powerful. Students not only kept reflections of their own reading, they also noted what their peers were reading. Recommendations for what to read next led to students creating “Want to Read” lists in their journals. Also, students emulated how their teacher talked in their book discussions. This teacher later noted that she was looking forward to working with next year’s fifth graders in the fall.
What happens when teachers reveal themselves as learners?
A secondary reading interventionist was frustrated with her past students’ inability to exit her program in a timely manner. She decided to focus on how her language might promote a growth mind-set in her most reluctant readers and writers. First, she wrote in front of her students about the struggles she was having as a teacher and as a parent. These were day-to-day ordeals—ordinary issues she was sharing publicly. Students were also asked to write about their struggles. Few initially took her up on it. But as the teacher continued to model a growth mind-set, more students followed her lead.
Because the teacher was so open about her own learning, students felt safe in her classroom to take risks. They started to shed their rough exteriors, revealing frustrations about classes and their home lives. This led to exploring literature that students could personally relate to, populated with characters and settings in which they could reside. Pretty soon, her students were coming to her with improved progress reports to share and celebrate. A few kids exited her reading intervention earlier than anticipated but didn’t want to leave. This teacher eventually published her action research in the Wisconsin State Reading Association journal.
What happens when we let kids read?
A fifth-grade teacher and I teamed up to provide her students with a lot of texts to read, and we decreased the reading requirements placed upon them. I would come in once a month with a box full of high-interest books and do a quick blurb about each one. The teacher also used her allocated funds to enhance the classroom library. She taught the students how to have a conversation with peers and frequently conferred with students about their reading and goals. Her work derived from the research by Gay Ivey and Peter Johnston, highlighted in a Stenhouse blog post four years ago.
My role as coresearcher was to survey the students once a month using a tool developed by Ivey and Johnston. What we learned was that every student was different. Their reading lives varied from month to month. One student who proclaimed “I hate reading!” in February was excited about a new series he discovered in March. Other students also became more honest about reading in school. “I am SO glad to be done with my reading contract, so I can read whatever I want.” This type of data was more powerful than any screener or test score. Reading lives look more like a heartbeat than a straight line. Readers—kids and adults—have their ups and downs.
In observing these teachers’ journeys, I have discovered new truths about principalship. Just as students need to be engaged in their learning, teachers have to be engaged in their work. Not merely busy or working collegially with staff, but really engaged. We need to trust in their professionalism. We need to provide teachers the room to ask questions and grow. We need to honor the process as much as the outcomes. We need to celebrate both their mistakes and their successes, always striving to become better every day as professionals. Letting go of some control as a school leader is hard. Yet when we do, teachers are able to be the leaders of their own learning.
Tips for Getting Started in Action Research
If you are a teacher…
Ask yourself, “Why do I want to engage in action research?” If you can identify the purpose for this work in your professional life, it will motivate you to get started.
Do your homework on action research to build a knowledge base about the topic. Excellent resources include Living the Questions by Ruth Shagoury and Brenda Power (Stenhouse, 2012) and The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research by Nancy Fichtman Dana and Diane Yendol-Hoppey (Corwin, 2014).
Develop a community of professionals who also want to engage in action research. You can leverage the power of the group to persuade your principal to support this initiative as part of the professional development plan. If you cannot collaborate in person, check out online communities related to classroom research, such as The Teachers Guild.
Find a question that you want to explore and that is embedded within your current practice. This wondering should relate to your professional learning goals and offer artifacts that can serve as evidence for your evaluation system.
Include your students in your action research as much as possible. They will become a great source of information as you study the impact of your work on their learning. They will also come to see you as a learner, which enhances the entire classroom community.
If you are an administrator…
Be deliberate when considering action research as a possible professional learning experience. The phrase action research can scare off some teachers who might otherwise be interested in this approach. Start small, maybe offering it as a voluntary course beyond the school day for graduate credit or pay.
Connect with outside organizations that can facilitate a course instead of trying to host it yourself. There is vulnerability involved in action research. The more we can have others lead the initiative, the more likely teachers will be willing to open up and take risks in their pursuits of becoming better practitioners.
Conduct action research yourself. I did this, using the resource The Action Research Guidebook by Richard Sagor (Corwin, 2012). The author offers several examples of a principal engaging in professional inquiry at a schoolwide level. I would share my findings and reflections in staff newsletters and at meetings. The message you send is the same one teacher-researchers convey to their students: We are all learners here.
Prepare a multiyear plan for facilitating action research in your school or district. Teacher questions seemed to lead to more questions during the school year. At the inquiry showcase, teachers were already asking if they could conduct action research again. “I feel like I just discovered my question,” noted one teacher.
Kristin and Jennifer have a deeply rooted personal philosophy that children don’t have to fall into the categories of either “good writers” or “not‑so‑good writers.” With their approachable and down-to-earth style, they provide the specific ideas and strategies to help us become more confident and successful when conferring with writers.
—Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, The 2 Sisters
If you’ve ever sat down to confer with a child and felt at a loss for what to say or how to help move him or her forward as a writer, this book is for you. If you are a strong teacher of writing but are not seeing results from your students, this book is for you.
Authors Kristin Ackerman and Jennifer McDonough have been teaching writing for several years and know that conferring can be a murky and messy process—perhaps the hardest component of writing instruction. Conferring with Young Writers is based on what Kristin and Jen call the “three Fs”: frequency, focus, and follow‑up. They’ve created a classroom management system that offers routine and structure for giving the most effective feedback in a writing conference.
This book will help writing teachers—and their students—learn to break down and utilize the qualities that enable good writing: elaboration, voice, structure, conventions, and focus.
In her book Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers, author and poet Shirley McPhillips shows how teachers can include poetry in the daily life of the classroom and in the lives of students. Dozens of poems throughout the book can be used as mentor texts as they serve to instruct and inspire. In her latest guest post, Shirl helps us consider the importance of getting poems out into the classroom airwaves on day one, to lay a foundation for engagement and growth throughout the year.
Poems, right from the start
By Shirley McPhillips
I became a poet because of poetry’s great mystery and partly because of a second-grade teacher I had who believed poetry was at the center of the universe.
—Naomi Shihab Nye
Here’s a story:
One steamy first day of school in eighth grade, the students, still barefoot on the beaches of their minds, sat in muted reverie. The teacher, Miss Eloise, smiled, said hello, then bravely picked up her faded blue copy of Emily Dickinson. She looked at the students for a time, to let some seriousness sink in, then “introduced” herself.
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us–don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
Miss Eloise said hearing a poem once was never enough for her. She wondered if anyone else would like to read it to the class. She waited. Daryl’s hand went up. That got everybody’s attention. He tried to use the same expression as Miss Eloise, to the amusement of all. She smiled appreciatively and thanked Daryl for his “spirited” rendition.
That was it! No rules and regulations. Just hanging a poem in the air. This was my new class. My new teacher! A rare and strange feeling (as Dickinson said herself) came over me, as if the top of my head were taken off. I didn’t understand that poem really, nor some poems we read later, but I felt their power. And the power of a teacher who believed in words to instruct and inspire. Believed is us. Had faith that when we became friendly enough with poems, we would make connections. We would find out how they might work, on paper and in our lives.
I no longer recall what happened next that first day so long ago. I do recall we didn’t dissect the poem, or try to figure out what we thought it “meant.” I remember at the end of class Miss Eloise gave each of us a small packet of poems, as a welcome to the new year. Perhaps we might find one we liked, she said. If not, we needn’t worry. There were plenty of poems in the world for everyone. We would find what we wanted, what we needed. And leave the rest for others.
The waters parted.
Of course, as the year went on, no matter what other subject matter presented itself, there were always poems. We were building up a friendship with them. We opened up to talk about them, to consider our own connections. To consider our own questions, not just answer Miss Eloise’s. We collected poems in folders and began to write our own. That was the beginning of my discovery, with poet Mary Oliver, that poems can be a “life cherishing force.” That understanding has lasted to this day. Ever growing.
BUILDING UP A FRIENDSHIP WITH POETRY
Poems are short. It doesn’t take much time to read a poem and think about it. And that’s what our students who hope to live with poems, who hope to write poems, need to do. Day one / week one, we can get poems out into the airwaves, pin them up against the light. Give them a chance to circulate with pleasure. It works best if the habit of poetry is embedded in our experiences from day to day, where we live. Not just on special occasions.
To build up a friendship with poems that will be the foundation for going deeper over time, we need some foundational beliefs about what might support students in this goal. Once we say, “Yes, that sounds like something important for readers and writers of poems,” the next question becomes, “So what can we arrange that will give this a chance of happening?” Considering the first question, here’s my short list for now. You might want to revise and add to it.
Students need opportunities to:
•read and listen to some poems without an expectation to “do” anything.
Just breathe them in and out. Not to “analyze.” Just hear the sounds. Feel the rhythms. Experience. Get a “taste.” Crack open the door of fear to let a little light come in. Realize one can be moved by words without always knowing why. Just like we can be moved by music without knowing why. A little mystery is good. Not everything has an answer, in poems and in life.
•read poems more than once, the more often the better
Revisit poems they’re attracted to for different reasons. To be allowed time to “request” poems to listen to and read together again. To revisit and share poems they’ve collected, or that have been charted, or tagged.
•choose their own poems to enjoy, explore, talk with others about
(in addition to those the teacher will want to introduce them to).
Collecting poems, sharing with each other, reading poems consistently across time, students build up their own personal taste, an identity with poems and poets.
•write out lines and poems they like
For sounds of language, for image, for memories they evoke, because of an intimate connection. Writing (or typing) out a poem helps you know it more closely. You are doing exactly what the poet did, and what you can do any time you want.
•listen to and read different types of poems, by different authors, to broaden the field and welcome challenges.
Becoming more familiar with different ways poems can look and sound, we become more comfortable with tasting something new. Like a traveler who happily anticipates trying new cuisine instead of turning up her nose because it’s “different.” If we feel we have to do something “serious” with every poem we read, we won’t read enough of them to get a sense of what they can be, of finding those that stick with us.
•give voice by reading poems aloud, individually and in chorus with others.
To catch the sounds and tune the ear. To bring poems inside. And out again. Poetry is a “bodily art” says poet Robert Pinsky. Reading aloud, we can begin to intuit a feel for craft. Craft is partly what directs us how to read a poem.
•excuse themselves from the company of those who would beat a poem “with a hose to find out what it really means” (Collins 2001, 16).
“Meaning” is made at the point where a reader connects with the “voice”—some inner verbal music— of a poem. An immense intimacy is felt. An exchange takes place in which something new is created. This is a personal relationship. Mysterious and miraculous. We do want to get closer to some poems as we go, especially as writers learning craft. Also, to take pleasure in the challenges of the poem, in what the writer has done to delight or move us.
•respond naturally and openly to poems
To begin, simply “say something.” Or, “What do you notice?” “What does this make you think?” Noticing and thinking. Two actions we want to become habits. They can last all year, carry over to other endeavors, the responses and interactions becoming deeper and more extended. A good way for teachers to observe, listen, get to know the students: What is she noticing? What is she thinking based on that observation? From that information, notice how the ability to observe and think deepens with consistency, experience and the work of the community. This is a foundation for those who will be writing poems.
CHOOSING POEMS, RIGHT FROM THE START
In the beginning of the year (and always) I choose to read poems aloud that I delight in, that move me in some way, that show extraordinary craft. I also hope these poems will help set a tone of openness and thoughtfulness; will help build “community think.” At the same time, I want to encourage a curiosity for the limitless ways poems can be. We will revisit these poems along the way. Some of the specifics I list here may be helpful in choosing many other poems for read aloud and discussion. You’ll find your own.
A very few examples. Key:—perhaps older students, •perhaps younger students, **perhaps both
— “Blackberry Eating” by Galway Kinnell Luscious words, wonderful metaphor, September experience
— “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon
Anaphora (repetition of first lines), tapping into memories, things that represent a life, springboard for sharing appreciation of life’s moments, great as a model for exploring one’s own life
— “Unfolding Bud” by Naoshi Koriyama
Amazing metaphor for unfolding of a poem, for reading again and again
— “The Truth About Why I Love Potatoes” by Mekeel McBride
Different perspectives of ordinary object, touch of humor, human condition we can relate to, conversational tone, comparison to a poem
— “Deformed Finger” by Hal Sirowitz From the author’s collection of advice from his mother, funny stream-of -consciousness, identifiable, poems from the ordinary made extraordinary
** Stone Bench in an Empty Park selected by Paul Janeczko
Anthology of haiku that shows poets looking carefully at what’s around them in the city.
Intriguing images, like taking a walk and looking around.
** “Teased” from Secrets of a Smaller Brother Richard Margolis
Short, sensitive poem, few words with deep underlying emotion. Collection of typical sibling situations. Oldie but goody.
• “Dear Apples” by Takayo Noda
Speaker talks to apple, sensuous language, detail, no rhyme (the young need that too)
• “Skyscrapers” by Rachael Field
A list of all questions. Could extend to notice, ask questions of objects, standard rhyme
• “A Lazy Thought” by Eve Merriam
Strong noisy verbs, questions inside, internal rhyme not the usual, good for choral reading, provocative ending
• “Beginning on Paper” by Ruth Krauss
Jazzy rhythm, list in syncopation, repeated phrase, great images, surprise ending, nice human touch, good for choral reading. Note: Can find poem in this wonderful anthology:
And so it goes…
Shirl is Poet Laureate for Choice Literacy online. Read some of her poems and reflections at ChoiceLiteracy.
We recently asked some of our authors for their best tips for starting the new school year. In the first installment, Katie Egan Cunningham and Jennifer McDonough both discuss the importance of building relationships with students: