Empowerment through Language...

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bearing Witness to the Different Styles of Teaching

I am on the last leg of my work in classrooms for this academic year, with the joy of my final two residencies being in elementary schools, predominantly with 3rd grade students. As I said in a recent post, I love 3rd graders and partially because I am really a 3rd grader in an adult body.

I have completed the first 3-day set of visits with five classes and tomorrow I start over with five new classes to initiate the process. I will shake hands with another 100+ students during the course of the day and indoctrinate them into my realm of the virtual video game, Poetry Detectives.

I also will be sharing the students with five more teachers and a number of teaching assistants. It is the teachers who show me the way to success in my work. I have learned from every teacher I have ever taught with, both those many talented educators who invite me to their rooms, and those few who demonstrate teaching in a way I will always attempt to avoid.

One thing I understand well after all these years: screaming at students as a general practice for classroom management is not a successful model. I have lost my patience occasionally while working with students and never has that been anything for which I was proud. I felt horrid, defeated, and embarrassed. I also felt very manipulated into losing control.

Recently I have been in classes with teachers who have a strong identity but a quiet presence in their rooms. In those classes, I experienced students who were attentive, listened well, and were generally very polite as well as engaged in my lessons. In those classes, I did not find myself reprimanding anyone or bordering on taking a stern tone, nor did I have to resort to any lecture on expected behaviors.

I have also been in a class or two in which the students were so used to raised voices that they no longer responded. These classes were the definitive minority but there I was. These were the classes where the students were constantly harangued for their lack of discipline, their inability to listen and respond appropriately. These were classes where the students talked constantly, even when being reprimanded for talking out of turn, they had difficulty staying in their seats, they were wired and argumentative with each other, and generally spinning through an existence that was out of touch with anything but their own impulse in the moment.

I have also been in very orderly classrooms with bright, clean surroundings, lots of positive images, and a seating layout that encourages easy movement through the room, etc. On the other hand, I have been in classes that reflect a similar chaos to that of my home office, which is shockingly crazed. Some rooms look like Charlie Brown's friend Pigpen has entered the teaching field and project a general air of confusion.

I cannot help but believe there is a direct correlation to student behavior and learning. Although every teacher I know goes through a year in which the students are supremely challenging at some point or another, in general, kids achieve when they feel safe and valued, when the environment is organized, and when the expectation that this is a place of importance is reflected. The majority of teachers I have met and worked with, and this is an astounding total, provide magnificent spaces for learning and achievement. Those who do not provide models for me of teaching styles I will do my best to avoid.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Being a Lifelong Learner

This past couple of weeks I have been in a residency with 3rd graders, 13 classes of 3rd graders, in fact. They are lively and Spring is evident in their energy levels. They are also very engaged in our work together.

I selected a new poem to use in my lesson plan, since I have worked with many of the teachers in previous years. My goal is not just to bring a reading and inference approach to the students that creates enthusiasm and understanding while building sound learning habits but to provide more resources for my host teachers.

I sought a poem that would meet the widest range of diversity with a common experience, a poem that permitted nuance in inference and connection, and that maintained an air of play, as well as strong craft of poetry and challenging language to boost essential vocabulary. My choice this time is "Skating in the Wind," by Kristin O'Connell George.

In the poem, there is a health ambiguity that leads to very animated discussion among the students around the mystery of the poem. The skater is not identified as an ice skater, or  rollerblading, or a standard roller skater. In most classes, we had even decided that it was possible that the skater was a skateboarder. The poem seemed to allow for that last interpretation, particularly since many children refer to skateboarding as skating also. 

So after a week and a half of teaching the poem, yesterday morning, one boy raises his hand to say he has made an important observation. "Ms. Popoff, I figured out that the skater can't be skateboarding." He then cited one crucial line halfway through the poem: "My skates clattered."

He went on to explain that it could not be a skateboard because a skateboard is one thing and "skates" is a plural word. Again, poet does a happy dance in delight of the student awareness. Not only that, but the student discovered a key piece of evidence that had not really occurred to me yet. He showed me something new in the poem I had not noticed, a nuance that was very significant, while he also pointed out something important to his classmates and reflected his retention of a key component of his knowledge of grammar to his teacher.

We can always learn from our students. I live by the motto "Teach what you want to learn." This young student helped me see more clearly, as well as his classmates, and then all of the students I will teach in the future when I use this poem. I already did in the remaining classes of the day and will in the six classes left for me to teach this week.

I love this work!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Finding the Middle Ground for Students

This week and next, I am working with twelve 3rd-grade classes, several of which are self-contained special ed. rooms, at least one bi-lingual class of Spanish-speaking students with various levels of English language proficiency, and all a host of kids who definitely have cabin fever after a long winter in the Northeast. Teachers too...

In the years that I have been practicing my skills in K-12 education, I have developed an ever-growing base of resources for poems that have a multicultural foundation so I can present students and teachers with poems that reflect the cultural experiences they know. In the world of poetry according to the dead white guys, this has been a valuable endeavor and many teachers have appreciated the resources. Students enjoy seeing their own image in the poems, recognizing their own language at times, feeling that they can relate to the message and experience in the work.

This is vitally important, I believe, in middle and high school, where the conversations can take on levels of critical thinking and empathy that are very profound.

However, in elementary schools, I find that I am searching for a different kind of poem to teach. I strive to find the poem that is so universal that every child, no matter what their heritage, lineage, socio-economic class, or geographical location, can relate to the words and draw a conclusion, develop an image to reflect back in their own words or drawings. I am also always looking for poems that have a little bit of ambiguity to debate and that are not based on rhyming couplets.

This is not an easy endeavor. I teach a wide demographic throughout the school year. I stand before very diverse classrooms. I am not always in front of a class that is predominantly White or Black. I may be teaching a class with as many as 10 nationalities and ethnicities represented. I am not alone with this. So where are the poems that are not too simplistic but not over the heads of my students, that employ language that invites the students to stretch and ponder, that either base a rhyme scheme in a more complex form or that do not rhyme at all?

I have a few that I rely upon: my beloved "Knoxville, Tennessee" by Nikki Giovanni is probably number one. In fact, after teaching this poem for nearly 4 years, only a handful of students have come to the conclusion that the poem was written by an African American poet (no matter where I am teaching or what the skin tone of my classes). Kay Ryan's "Bear Song" is probably second on the list for all the reasons I outlined above. William Carlos Williams' "To an Poor Old Woman" is a wonderful opportunity for conversation.

This week I added another poem to my list of favorite tried-and-trues, discovered in Poetry Speaks to Children. The poem is called "Skating in the Wind," by Kristin O'Connell George. This poem is so clear and concise yet it permits many perspectives, all valid. It is perfect for illustrating that we can have many interpretations of a poem and it mirrors experiences that most children can relate to either by their own actual experience or experiences they have witnessed. And still we can discuss the poem for 3 days and not be bored, we can discover answers to the mystery.

If you know of other examples of poems with universal themes and fascinating language and image, I would appreciate the recommendations. I will certainly have more kids to share the magic of poetry with and more reason to read.

Monday, March 07, 2011

And Now, Time for Some Poetry...

After being fully immersed for more than a year in drafting, crafting, thrashing, revamping, revising, and fine-tuning Our Difficult Sunlight, in general, I left poems by the wayside. I had initiated four cycles of poems, many of which will be united into book entities once the cycles are complete; however, once there was a contract with a hard deadline looming for the book project, it had to be a priority.

I found that I enjoy the process of writing prose as well. There is a very different experience with prose. For one thing, I do better at prose if I work directly on the keyboard. Poetry needs to first be drafted by hand. It has a delicate nature to me in that early stage. But prose is a streaming that allows me to rely on my nearly 15 years of clerical work and my role as a "document technician." In other words, I can type quickly and my fingers are more able to keep up with my thinking on the keyboard for the prosaic expression, just as it is I blog these thoughts.

Also, I am accustomed to the concise form of a poem as I have held in my view for many years. Having developed the habit of keeping poems to a single page, and particularly to 40 lines or less, since many literary journals ask for that length to fit their magazine size and limits, essays give me a range to investigate and postulate. I am able to develop a thought in a much different manner, which entails more words.

So the poems were stalemated. The words were still flowing...and gushing...and flooding. Then the project was complete, the edits (many, many slash-and-burn trips through the manuscript) accomplished, and the book is now heading into print in its final and, hopefully, blemishless form.

A few weeks ago, I was traveling back home from Chicago and the first launch events for ODS. The book launch itself was heartwarming and it was wonderful to be welcomed into the community of artists, writers, students, and educators that embraces Quraysh and the work he does. The in-service workshop was profound as well, as the very diverse group that attended worked together to meet a common goal of deepening their already rich connection to poetry in ways that will support their own teaching in whatever setting they work.

As I waited for my flight, my pen was demanding attention. I opened my journal for the usual rundown of activities and emotions that fill volume after volume of these little books charting my moods and movement through life. Instead, a voice started narrating a perspective on a tale that was fairly new to me, shared by my mother's cousin at a family gathering this past summer. The voice continued through the waiting, and once we boarded, the voice started up again. My fingers transcribed as quickly as possible for the first part of the flight. Then I needed a nap so I closed the journal for a little while.

There was a brief layover in Philadelphia, when the voice completed her story. I was amazed at how seemlessly it all unfolded.

As soon as I could, which turned out to be a couple of days later due to the insane pace of my life the first quarter of 2011, I typed up that rendering, starting the whittling and tweaking that I love so much. The poem's second draft was two and a half pages! I was shocked.

I worked that poem and returned to a draft from the summer that was buried in the last volume of my journal. Once typed, it was two pages long as well.

Then, prompted by Jennifer Pashley after she read the first of these pieces, I have drafted a third poem, almost four full pages long.

I have clearly broken some barrier within myself. I attribute the new work and the length that these poems are striving towards as the response to all the expository writing I have done over two years. It took that third poem to cause me to examine the trend and draw the correlation.

After a brief moment of celebration that the poems were happening again, I started to panic. Who will publish these? They are so long! I don't know where the market will be for these pieces. What am I going to do with them?!

After indulging myself for a brief span of time, reason resounded, "Just write them, dammit."

I collected myself and developed a level of clarity I have not had in a long time. The important issue is that I am writing, and that I am producing poems. I need to be concerned with these poems first and foremost. Identifying a home in print is entirely secondary to the work at hand, rather than being my motivator. If I am diligent and astute enough, the poems will find homes. Right now, it is the poem that is important, not the repository for it. That will be determined at a later date. I can liken it to the parents who are researching colleges while their children are cutting their first teeth. Revel in the fact that poems are emerging. That is cause for celebration and massive word play of its own accord.