In Defense of Poetry

My employer, my state, the world demands: teach your students how to read and write. Teach them how to cite their sources, dig deep into ideas, learn and compare and contrast and make Meaning. Teach them how to argue with logos and facts as their foundation. Leave the ethos and pathos to pretty speech-makers and politicians. What we need are citizens who can think dispassionately, reason clearly, and (for heaven’s sake) write using proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

So I have. I do all of these things. These bloodless, starched-shirt, bureaucratic things. I tell my students these skills are valuable. I tell them these abilities matter. And I mean it.

For the most part.

What I don’t tell them, and what tears inside me like a growing ulcer, is that this is not the epitome of what makes a successful human being, or a dispassionate citizen, or a college-and-career-ready life. At best, these lesson amount to training in marketable skills in the business world. At worst, it’s a lesson in conformity. It subtly implies the only writing and thinking that matters is the writing and thinking we do when we work for others, when someone tells us what to do, when it’s our job and not driven by curiosity or passion or even basic interest. Cite your sources, please. Don’t think about being your own source.

Instead, in quiet defiance, I teach poetry. That fluffy-bunny writing that will doom you to a life on welfare and living in your parents’ basement. No one makes a living writing or reading poetry. Or stories. (Unless those stories become blockbuster novels turned into films. But, hey, not all ball players make it to the majors, so you’d better focus on that business degree when you’re twelve, ok?)

Poetry. The realm of dreamers and dissidents. The writing that’s for girls not boys. The kind of writing only nerds and flaky artistic-types understand. In the classroom it can mean opaque symbolism and a coroner’s quest for meaning through autopsy. Line by line, excavating, making note of figures of speech, counting the syllables, and hauling away adjectives and alliteration into neat, tidy, standards-based piles of UNDERSTANDING.

The Standards say:

  • Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of a story or drama.
  • Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning
  • By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

I am aware that these are worthy goals and “standards aren’t curriculum” but as the distance grows between what will be tested and what can never be tested, I find myself fighting to keep poetry as a vital part of what I teach and what my students learn. I feel pressure to keep it short and move on to “more important” things.

I don’t teach poetry because it’s cute or pretty or cultured. I teach poetry because it is one of the best ways for the truth and honesty of human experience to find expression. I teach poetry outside of surface measures and seek-and-find literary device games.

We read and write for real, and the work my students produce takes my breath. Instead of limp and dull, though technically proficient poems, what they write when we study poetry sends electricity up my spine.

Like this:

only In–

our dreams             when the world is wish-

magnificent the things

we wish were reality

 

fly high      and        free

 

and the princeandprincess live

happily ever after and

do the unimaginable

but we’re dreaming

 

when the world is journey-magnificent

 

the plans we’ve

held captive inside us escape

then come to be

and we hopeandpray to never wake up

 

from imagination and perfection

 

we’re

dreaming

and

                    the

                                     frightening

things real life holds make us

wish

we

weren’t

 

Or this:

Grade 7–

 

a Time where everything is Group–Separate

nerds and JOCKS as well as

those who are world–unaware

 

the crude Talk in the

room–

the Alliances and Enemies

 

the Numbers and the TEACHERS–

 

a Place that is experiment–fearful

the Whispering

                     the Giggling

                                          the “Secrets”

to think it is all bricks

caging the Mayhem–

even the labyrinth

has never been so twisted–

 

everyone has to but

eventually will

                                                forget

a place where the odds may be ever in your favor

Or this:

in Science–

where everything is lecture-boring

and the science man

goes on

and  on

and

on

sapping every bit of interest    out

 

when life around you is snail   -   speed

the distant mumble of speech

droning on — forever

endless

meaningless

 

a standardized test

the monotonous article

that puts you to sleep

at a single glance

 

everpresent is the interest

lurking

creeping on the edge of existence

living in a deep   dark slumber

searching for a time to awaken

 

but that time

has yet to come

I hear their voices clamoring to make sense of the world they find themselves in, struggling to understand how they are to become whole people in the midst of conflicting expectations and misdirection. I want to tell them that sometimes there are no arguments that make sense, no sources to answer the questions they ask, and that pushing against their fears with a poem might be the best self-defense.

Adventures in Paperless Assessment and Feedback

One of the best parts of going paperless on assignments is the ease of giving feedback digitally. Too many times when I would hand-write comments on student papers, I wound up with drained ink pens, writer’s cramp, and zero correlation between my feedback and improvement in student work habits or skills. It got to the point that I tried everything from highlighter schemes to byzantine coding just to make the effort feel worth the time I put in.  (! for a positive, ? for something confusing, * for…I forget…)

Who was I fooling?

Even those methods weren’t enough to put a dent in making feedback part of learning.  I found myself noticing patterns in the errors and wrote and rewrote much of the same advice as I dutifully marched through each individual paper–to no great effect. As I slaved away writing comment after comment, it frustrated me to know their papers were destined for the deepest, darkest, and most neglected corners of their backpacks or lockers. Students merely looked for a grade and promptly tossed their work and mine.

In the last five years, I have made a shift in my philosophy toward assessment, feedback, and measuring student progress. That shift has meant closer alignment to standards-based grading and a greater internal consistency for assigning grades. I hung a laminated poster of the district grade-scale along with the standards-based language I use in order to help students see the link between the grade and their progress.

Image

Students consult the assessment guide during a self-assessment activity.

 

Enter Paperless Assignments

This year, our school joined the ranks of Google Apps for Education, and with that giant leap forward came another shift in the way I collect, assess, and give feedback on student work. I keep experimenting with different ideas, but my paper-management past caused issues for my digital-management present. With a stack of papers, I could easily attach a rubric or checklist to the front with a stapler. I couldn’t see a way to do that digitally without altering a student’s document and potentially upsetting a carefully formatted document. Philosophically, I don’t want my grading feedback to overwhelm or intrude on a student’s work, nor do I want to bury it at the bottom of the page or otherwise “spoil” a student’s desire to improve their work with the poison of a numerical grade. Students deserve to have the integrity of their writing assignments respected.

Comment bubbles in the margins have been a great compromise for me. I still get to mark the text and call out features that either need work or are outstanding. Students have the ability to confer with me or ask questions without cluttering up their work with any intrusions that might interfere with the coherence of their writing. Students also have the capability to remove my comments from the margins while still having a record to access at any time. A side benefit of these comment bubbles is the invitation for students to engage with me in conversation. Students rarely skip over these comments without either replying, making the suggested correction, or asking a question of their own. They almost can’t help themselves! Comment bubbles in the margin are great for this kind of on-the-spot feedback, but when it comes to a final holistic snapshot or grade, it didn’t feel like enough.

Enter Autocrat, my new favorite Google script.

Autocrat, Where Have You Been All My Digital-Grading Life?

I was first introduced to Autocrat in a side conversation during a Google Cloud Camp held in our district last November. I was already using gClass Folders, Doctopus, and Goobric (three other tools that have made the switch to paperless much more painless), but I was unfamiliar with the merge tool and couldn’t picture how I might use it other than to correspond.

With a little creative thinking and a post on rubric assessments in spreadsheets by Alice Keeler, inspiration struck.

I began with a spreadsheet populated with my students’ names, email addresses, and the direct link to their documents. I then added columns for feedback scores (based on a 3-2-1 rubric for exceeds expectations, meets expectations, and approaching expectations). After collecting student work and recording their scores and feedback in the spreadsheet, I designed a separate document that would act as my feedback template.

The magic of Autocrat lies in the merge ability. I can design one feedback sheet in a document, insert tags for student names, scores, and customized feedback, and then run the script to merge the grading input from my spreadsheet with the template. Each student receives a personalized email, a pdf attachment to the assessment, and a link to their document with further comments.

Each student.

Timely, appropriate, personalized feedback.

Respect for the integrity of student work.

Efficient use of time, attention, and energy.

Assessment bliss!

This process takes less time and produces a superior output to anything I might have done by hand. I’m looking forward to hearing from my students to see if they like their personal feedback reports and see how they use the feedback to improve.

Image

 

For Those Keeping Score at Home

Today was the big composition test and in the words of my students, “It was the dumbest prompt EVER, Mrs. Leung.”

Maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic, but I am quoting twelve year-olds.

Despite the “dumbest prompt EVER,” they did it. They told me they felt capable, that it felt like they’d accomplished something. Instead of feeling lost and unsure of what to write, they told me how they broke apart the prompt, used a brainstorming tactic we’d discussed in class (be still my heart!), and even took advantage of the classroom dictionaries. A few said they were proud enough of their work that they couldn’t wait to get it back…

Oh yeah, and they were disappointed to learn that not only would I not get to read their work, but they would also never see their essays again.

“Why did we have to work so hard if we can’t even see it again or show it to our parents?”

Great question, kids. This is why I am so proud of you. Never stop asking great questions.

T’was the Night Before Testing

And I can’t fall asleep.

My seventh graders take part one of a three part test to see how much I’ve been able to develop 180 days worth of skills as readers and writers crammed into in the first six months of the school year. At one hour per day with each class, that’s not a lot of time.

I’m not worried about the scores that will form part of my evaluations next year and for years to come. Those numbers are of no use to me, coming too late to inform our work. Instead I think of individual students, homogenized as data points for easy consumption and judgment far from my classroom.

I think of the absent students who have missed ten or more hours of instruction due to illness, appointments, or family vacations. I think about students who have made incredible leaps in such a short time, but who struggle to find their confidence in the impersonal drone of “make your mark heavy and dark.” I worry about the high achievers who told me today, “I can’t help it. I’m nervous.” I worry about the anxious students who will panic or freeze and then fear letting me or another adult down.

I hurt for the students who said, “You really can’t help me tomorrow? Really? Not even if I’m stuck?” Not even, kiddo. Especially then.

My desks are in rows; my Writing Tips posters, covered; my boards, clear; my pencils, sharpened; my “Do Not Disturb” sign, hung. All that remains is the impersonal recitation and threatening jargon from the proctor’s manual.

I’ve been doing this since NCLB became law at the start of my career. I know they’ll be fine; we always are. Still, I can’t sleep. There has to be a better way.

Fingerpainting with Perfectionism

Recently, I assigned students to read a nonfiction article by art historian Richard Mühlberger called “What Makes a Rembrandt a Rembrandt?” We had spent time as a class using the Artful Thinking strategy Claim-Support-Question (from Harvard’s Project Zero) to examine Rembrandt’s painting “The Night Watch.”

The Lesson: Part 1

For the protocol, students first observed the painting on Google Art Project and we discussed what we thought we saw in the image. The levels of zoom on Google Art project allowed us to see the image more accurately than if we had merely used a full-screen image of the whole painting.

After we had discussed what we noticed, I invited the class to make a claim based on their observations. They then had to support that claim with evidence from the painting. Finally, I invited each student to ask a lingering question about the painting that we may or may not be able to answer. I collected these responses at the end of the class period, gave individual feedback, and returned their responses at the beginning of the next class.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Nightwatch_by_Rembrandt.jpg

Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, Known as de ‘Night Watch’, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 1642

The Lesson: Part 2

We spent some time previewing the Mühlberger article, looking at the embedded images, title, and subheadings. I asked them how previewing these elements might help them better read and remember.

Next, we built a KWL on the board and focused on building the K and W. My seventh graders told me they were not familiar with this graphic organizer, but they were surprised and excited to see just how much they already “knew” about the topic before they read.

Finally, I asked the class to read the article on their own and see if they could answer their W column “wonders” or “want to know” questions through their reading.

I chose three critical thinking questions from the textbook to assess both reading comprehension and drawing conclusions based on the painting, their reading, and their analysis.

Conclusions:

What makes this lesson effective are the many ways students have to use their observations to draw inferences and build a mental model of their understanding. If we had read the article without previewing the art, my students would likely have seen this reading exercise as nothing more than “something to do in Mrs. Leung’s class.” Learning how to use claim-support-question as a strategy for approaching art allows students to practice engaging with a visual “text” while drawing conclusions that are not limited to one single interpretation. This is good practice before asking students to read research or write an argument.

The students who struggled the most with reading and responding to the critical thinking questions were high achieving students who tend to worry about whether or not their work is “right” in the eyes of authority. One student in particular who is an admitted perfectionist chafed at one of the first questions.

The question asked the student to consider the painting’s incorrect, informal title “The Night Watch.” After examining the way the painting looks to a viewer and reading the background information about the painting’s true subject, the student was supposed to generate her own alternate title and support it with reasons. Since this was an open-ended response, as long as the student could support her choice of title with reasonable evidence from the painting and the article, almost any response would be considered correct. When we talked, her frustration was clear, so I asked her to try something different. Before writing a “good” title, I wanted her to write three “terrible” ones. If she was able to write a terrible one, I hoped that would help her continue to think about the painting and what would make a good title (or not). That tip didn’t work instantly, but it did offer her a strategy for coping with the paralysis of perfectionism through play. The student did overcome her mental block and wrote a new title (in addition to three pretty silly ones!)

As I continue to grow in my practice, I see a need for more opportunities for students to meet the challenge of “no one right answer” and to give themselves the permission to use divergent thinking in order to fuel creative thinking.

Cross-posted on Sanderling.

Argument: Was this in the cards?

According to the student handbook, playing cards of any kind are not allowed at school. It’s an obscure rule buried deep in the handbook and has its reasons, but isn’t on the list of top student infractions.

"Wave" by Caleb Roenigk cc Attribution License

“Wave” by Caleb Roenigk cc Attribution License

A few of my students had been using a deck at some point during their lunch break to perform magic tricks, and an adult rightly asked them to put the cards away.

This is where things got interesting.

The students came to me, their language arts teacher. We’ve been studying argument writing and my students, instead of wanting to complain or protest, wanted to write an argument to defend their use of the playing cards as appropriate and to ask for an exception to the school rules. I’ve seen this movie before. Over the years I have witnessed student petition drives, performance art, handbills plastered across every public surface, and even outright rebellion as students fought to have their voices heard. Often there was an edge of immaturity to these protests because, let’s face it, adults have the power and the advantage. The immature response is a result of their perceived lack of power or frustration due to feeling unheard. The adult reaction isn’t always as constructive as it could be, often devolving into a “because we said so” or “sorry you feel that way; too bad.”

That wasn’t happening this time. These students were calm, rational, and respectful. They acknowledged that the adult in charge who had asked them to put the cards away was following the rules and they held no grudge. They had done their research, brought a copy of the handbook rule to me with the significant parts highlighted, and simply asked: how can we have our point of view heard?

What is a teacher to do? I knew the rule and the simple thing would be to tell the students there was no point in arguing. This is the rule; we have to abide by it with no exceptions. Instead, I offered to help them put their thoughts in order. The rule is inconsistently applied with some playing cards allowed at certain times of day, including a four-table Pokémon game before school officially begins. They had been using a standard deck of playing cards and the rule assumes these cards are a distraction while the other games’ cards are not.

The students came to my room during team time to get my advice and to start putting their argument together. I will read it and likely give them advice for revision or editing, but the words and opinions will be theirs. As I listened to their thoughts, I was so impressed with the way they turned to writing and dispassionate argument as a way to find their voice and a sense of personal power. Real world writing, indeed!

Are the adults in administration ready for these voices? Are we prepared for students to take the lessons we teach them about analyzing evidence and defending a position to challenge our rules, policies, and procedures?

When a student uses close-reading strategies to mark up the handbook, are we ready for honest conversation and to possibly admit we need to change?

I hope we are. There could be nothing worse than to teach students how to become their own advocates through reason, logic, and maturity to tell them it only works when it’s for a grade.

Search Out the Enemy

There are times I have to take a break: turn off the 24/7 “news,” skip social media debates, and breathe fresh air. On dark days, it seems there are conspiracies brewing all around us. We have a culture of distrust that assumes someone out there with wealth and power is always pulling a fast one, somehow knowing exactly how the future will unfold according to their plans. “They” sit behind polished desks and plot the destruction of everything fair and just. “They” have a master plan that can only be thwarted with careful vigilance and protest–and maybe a superhero or two. If we’re lucky, maybe we will get to witness it all in its three-act glory full of explosions and beautiful people on the big screen.

Count, if you can, the number of films in the last five years that have revolved around this world view.

I fell into this trap as a teenager. I attended a Catholic high school with declining enrollment in an aging building. In the middle of my freshman year, we were told that the school would cease to operate. Conspiracy theories abounded. It must have been the neighboring businesses who wanted to raze our building and take the real estate in a land-grab. How could “they” do this to us? Didn’t “they” know how this selfish destruction was hurting us? We protested, rallied, and spoke darkly of those villains, the mysterious “they” who must have had a plan. In reality, the funding necessary to pay the bills simply did not exist. Our school had operated on a shoestring budget for too long and our financial reality was unavoidable. In our case there was a happy ending–with wide community support and thoughtful, long-term financial planning–but the narrative of villain-victim-hero still pervades too many stories we tell ourselves about the way the world works.

This poisonous fictionalization of reality can rip us apart. Once we fall into the trap of the villain-victim-hero, it can become impossible to make any rational, realistic change or progress. We pit teachers vs administrators, students vs teachers, taxpayer vs school system. Suddenly it becomes easy to spot malice or incompetence everywhere.

Does it make any rational sense to believe that an individual or group actively pursues the destruction of what we value? Yes, individual human beings can be selfish, myopic, and make poor decisions, but they can also be broad-minded, thoughtful, and creative, too. The whole purpose of democracy is to distribute the decision-making as broadly as possible so that multiple perspectives can be considered, pulling us together instead of driving us apart. When we see the process as fiction with villains who must be defeated by the forces of good, we stop listening and see any sign of compromise as a failure. When we assume the worst and leap to conclusions, we can fool ourselves into thinking that anything we don’t like must be the “fault” of an “enemy”–someone who isn’t like us and deserves to be cut off from “real” believers or citizens or patriots–someone who must be punished or “held accountable.”

This happens nationally when we demonize Common Core standards or teacher unions–not that there shouldn’t be discussion or debate–but to filter the people involved through the lens of villain/victim/hero means that we miss too much of the truth. Public schools are woven into the fabric of society, not separate from it. The schools belong to the community and are a vital part of it. When we compartmentalize, demonize, and shift into the worn old narrative, we miss so many opportunities to hear one another clearly and make real, lasting improvement.

As a teacher of English Language Arts, I feel an obligation to my students to share stories of many different kinds, to awaken empathy and broaden their perception of protagonists, antagonists, and conflict. I worry about the impact our cultural drumbeat has on my students who are awash in a world populated with the narrative of villains, victims, and heroes. How will they see themselves and their fellow citizens as the narratives warp and shift around them?

When we go looking for an enemy, we will always find someone to blame and remain locked in a trap of our own construction.