"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Friday, April 22, 2011

DIY is authentic

Mark Frauenfelder in THE ATLANTIC :

Imagine a school where kids could do the following: clone jellyfish DNA; build gadgets to measure the electrical impulses of cockroach neurons; make robotic blackjack dealers; design machines that can distinguish between glass, plastic, and aluminum beverage containers and sort them into separate bins; and convert gasoline-burning cars to run on electric power.

No such school exists, but in August I went to Detroit and met the kids who did all these things, and more. They—along with 22,000 other people—had come from all over the United States and Canada to demo their creations at Maker Faire, a two-day festival of do-it-yourselfers, crafters, musicians, urban homesteaders, kit makers, scientists, engineers, and curious visitors who congregated to present projects, give performances, and swap ideas. Having attended eight Maker Faire events since 2006 (they’re put on by the same company that owns the magazine I edit), I’ve become convinced of two things about children and education: (1) making things is a terrific way to learn, and (2) schools are failing to teach kids to learn with their hands.

My son attended a technical high school and while he has a natural proclivity for physics, he struggled at first with chemistry. His chemistry teacher suggested that the problem may have been that he thinks with his hands. I don't know if that's true, but I know that the men in my family have an engineering-tinkering proclivity.

The challenge is to come up with some Language Arts DIY -- I mean beside the annual literary magazine and the increasingly irrelevant monthly newspaper, which are only semi-authentic as it is. They really only serve as a function of the school community without any direct outside use or application. But surely students can produce work of more general application. Perhaps they could develop a sustainability plan for the district, which would be a cross-disciplinary project with the Science Department. Or work with the police department and write a safety plan (although that may involve confidential matters which makes student participation impossible).

How about online wikis for the general community; job or recreation resources. Create study or discussion materials. Develop a One Book plan for the entire community. The municipal library may be able to steer students towards needs it or its patrons have.

But the point of these projects is not to look at them as something to earn Community Service points toward graduation. They each have literacy education value of their own. Remember, when our parents and teachers saw us acting out in frustration, they would tell us, "Use your words." Why not use our words to actually make stuff?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Don't celebrate National Poetry Month

Those "Special Months" - Black History Month, Poetry Month, National Widget Month - are a tempting trap for a teacher. Focus on this topic or area for this specified period of time and it will be "covered." It's a little frightening how many English teachers I talk to who freely admit not knowing much about poetry and/or not really liking it.

First of all, not knowing about something is NEVER an excuse not to teach it. It is an invitation to learn more. From my own experience, the most exciting things to teach are the things you are learning at the moment you are teaching. Much better than the stuff you've known for ages and ages. I didn't know much about poetry when I started teaching it, but I think I know something about good writing and bad writing and the difference. The trick is not to be sucked into the craft issues around verse which can smother an appreciation for poetry. If you're teaching English, you should have developed some personal taste, and that's all you really need. Teach what you respond to and/or what you believe your students will respond to.

The idea is NOT to teach "all about poetry." It's to teach poetry. I face this problem in general music courses all the time. Students come in at the beginning of the year with all sorts of facts about how many children Bach had and how old Mozart was when he died, but trivia about the lives of musicians is not music. Similarly, English teachers sink into a swamp of Robert Frost's New England roots, the use of anaphora and how a triolet is put together without ever developing a taste for poetry, either in themselves or in their students.

You know, like this:

In fact, these analytic habits are so ingrained that your students may assist you in killing poetry, like this:

And so poetry becomes a "unit," which is defined as "something we have to work on right now but soon you will be able to forget completely." To read and write poems for one month in an academic year is like only listening to music in the fall. If poetry is going to get under your skin and that of your students, you need to make it part of your routine, at least on a weekly or perhaps biweekly basis -- but no less frequent than that.

WHY should you care about poetry? Your students just need to be able to pass the HSPAs, write a resume and a college essay. They're never going to "need" this. If that's how you feel, stop, step back and remember that you are teaching literacy. Language and its uses. And poetry is language at its most assertive and vigorous, doing what only words can do. It's the same reasons you don't teach art by looking at book illustrations or teach music by studying Muzak. Most of the time we put language to work serving some other master -- typically, persuasion or narrative. (Both of those tasks can be performed by other means.) But poetry is lacuna pro lacuna, words on display, leaping and pirouetting as only they can do.

Step One: Find a whole bunch of poems YOU LIKE that you can explicate with energy and enthusiasm.

Where to look? Here's a few suggestions:

Poetry 180 A poem a day for high school students and teachers at this website created by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins. There are two versions of this collection in book form, if you're still attached to those old-fashioned things.

A note about anthologies - you can always look at the big ones, the Norton and the Oxford being the best. But they are rather anonymous and extremely over-inclusive, and you will have to slog through or pass over a lot of poems that mean nothing to you to find one that does. My advice is to find an editor you are comfortable with, or at least understand their point of view, and see what kind of poems they like.

She Walks in Beauty by Caroline Kennedy, an anthology organized around the stages of a woman's life.

Good Poems by Garrison Keillor. There's a no-frills title for you. It's based on a daily radio feature, so you can be sure these poems are good for reading aloud to people who don't go to poetry readings. Read Keillor's preface about poems that are clear, direct and communicative, rather than dense and literary.

An Invitation to Poetry The third volume of the "Favorite Poem Project," which are poems selected by actual humans (not college professors or literary critics) because they are significant to those people. I like this third volume for the classroom, because it comes with a DVD of 27 different people talking about their poems and their lives and reading or reciting the poems aloud. Many of these videos can be seen online at the link above, too.

Editor Robert Pinsky also has a fine collection, Essential pleasures: a new anthology of poems to read aloud, which is a great place to start looking for poems to commit to and recite from memory. I've written before about the virtues of memorizing of poetry, and I am making a resolution to learn a new poem by heart each month, as a challenge to my students.

(If you respond to poetry that's over 90 years old and out of copyright, you can check out this list of public domain anthologies on Bartleby.com. And of course there is a lot of poetry online, so you can simply follow your nose - but that can be very time-consuming.)

Step Two: Learn how to SAY the poem. Not read it, because if a poem is still a thing on a page to you, that's what it will be to your students. You don't have to memorize it, but you should know it well enough to spend most of your time speaking making eye contact with your students. Here's a poem I like to start the school year with, performed by its author, Taylor Mali:

I like this one because it not only notifies students what I expect of them (keep an open mind) but lets them know that I have aspirations and feelings as their teacher, that their progress means something to me.

Step Three: Repeat. Repeat regularly. You'll get better at this, if you only just start by presenting a poem you really like, opening up an issue or two or three that the students can talk about -- that is, be sure it's interactive and not just a performance by you. Don't worry about filling up a period. A few minutes at the start of one class each week would be awesome, as long as it's regular.

The advent of Taylor Mali raises the topic of Slam Poetry, which deserves its own post, especially in terms of incorporating slam into a regular middle school or high school English course, as contrasted with starting a club or a special group. But since I raised the subject, there are a couple of good anthologies and descriptions of the slam phenomenon, Poetry Slam by Gary Glezner and The Spoken Word Revolution by Mark Eleveld.

And I need to write yet another post on the use of writing poetry in a regular course. But I will tell you this from experience: Do not allow them to use rhyme at all for the first half-dozen assignments. Students will disappear down the hole of doggerel. They get obsessed with rhyming and, unless they are skilled and experienced, will not give you anything from the heart or the head, but just string together rhymes and syllables of padding in between. But I do recommend using poetry as a way of teaching ALL KINDS of writing. It teaches students to be economical, visual and precise. More of that another time.

And one MORE additional post I need to write. You need to assign students AND yourself to create an anthology over the school year. I highly recommend creating a class-wide wiki. But that's for another time. Soon, I promise.

So forget Poetry Month. My students know I celebrate Poetry Tuesday. If it's not regular and repeated, it's just "extra" and you will communicate the message that poetry *doesn't count.* And frankly folks, if you are an English teacher and you don't have anything to say or teach about poetry, you might be in the wrong line of work.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Fear eats the soul

I live and teach in New Jersey, where we are still living in the shadow of the suicide of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers just-freshman for whom leaving this world was easier than dealing with the shame that had been put on his sexuality. Obviously, this is difficult for parents -- but it is even more difficult for students, especially those students who feel they may be homosexual, and particularly those from ethnic backgrounds which heap extra disgust and humiliation on anyone who even doubts.

R&B singer Marsha Ambrosius wades into this territory. What do you think -- can this video be an appropriate leaping-off place for discussion, or will it provoke too much anger, fear, ridicule or shame in the classroom and in the hallways afterwards?