28 April 2012

Anecdotes from Poem in Your Pocket Day 2012

Top favorite anecdote:  My 11 year old son carried Falling Up by Shel Silverstein in the front pocket of his jeans and then proudly read the poem to his 5th grade class at the end of the day. 

Sentimental anecdote:  My sister shared a poem about mothers in honor of our mother who recently suffered a heart attack. 

Marriage anecdote:  Robin gave a poem to Kevin on their wedding day; he has carried the poem in his wallet every day for the past nearly 20 years.

Mary Oliver anecdote:  Two friends separately mentioned poems in the days preceding Poem in Your Pocket Day 2012 —Jackie shared a youtube clip of The Summer Day or The Grasshopper  and Mary shared Wild Geese.

No Title anecdote:  Cindy shared Emily Dickinson’s  I taste a liquor never brewed.

Epic anecdote:  The never ending joke of the day regarding what one is carrying in his pocket included Milton’s Paradise Lost

War anecdote:  My cousin shared a poem written by my uncle while he was in Vietnam

Facebook friend anecdote:  Carie shared my request for poems with others  on her facebook page and listed  Wordsworth’s  I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud as the poem she would carry.

College Roommate anecdote: Amy carried a Sara Teasdale poem in honor of her 1992 college crush and husband.

Colleague anecdote:  Mikkaka listened intently as I shared my poem of the day  and then she shared with me Mad Girl’s Love Song by Sylvia Plath.

Twitter anecdoteNew York Times Learning Network retweeted #pocketpoems all day

Kentucky Women Writers Conference anecdote:  Julie and Vaughn shared their pocket poems through the conference listserv, a great way to promote the September conference.  Julie shared  [As for me, I used to be a bird] by — Alda Merini, translated by Susan Stewart.  Vaughn carried Pocket by Julia Johnson, a presenter for the upcoming 2012 conference.

26 April 2012

Poem in Your Pocket Day: Ode to a Book II

For the past several weeks I have been asking friends, family, and colleagues what poem they plan to carry for Poem in Your Pocket Day.  While poetry is desirable to me all year long, it’s lovely to have one month a year where we see an extra emphasis on poetry.  Adding to the pleasure is a day of carrying and sharing poems for Poem in Your Pocket Day.

Today I am carrying Ode to the Book II by Pablo Neruda.  I selected this poem because I really love Neruda’s poems, and I’m ruminating on a summer when my husband and I enjoyed reading Neruda’s poems together and drinking fine beverages from Chile.  Since neither of us read Spanish, we were careful to select translations we thought would be reliable and settled on The Essential Neruda:  Selected Poems edited by Mark Eisner.  A City Lights Books publication, the selection includes the poems written in Spanish on one side of the page and in English on the other side.
Our Neruda reading summer bled into the fall when we returned to school, and I found myself sharing Neruda’s poems with my students.  Because a large number of my students were bilingual, I enjoyed listening to them read Neruda’s poems in Spanish and then in English prior to our vibrant text-based class discussions.  This classroom memory obviously stayed with one student because she spent last semester (her senior year of college) in Chile studying through an exchange program at the University of Kentucky.  She posted a picture of Neruda’s home on facebook and considerately tagged me in the post; she actually thought of her former high school English teacher while she was in Chile!

Tomorrow I plan to share poem titles and thoughts on Poem in Your Pocket Day 2012, so if you are reading and carrying a poem today, please tell me, so I can add you to my list of people who shared their pocket poems with me.

20 April 2012

Why I Left Teaching

Yesterday I had an opportunity to interview students while on a visit to a high school in the eastern region of Kentucky. My colleague and I asked a number of questions to capture a snapshot of life for students at this high school. The students were very impressive, and they praised their teachers for providing challenging course work. They mentioned the research papers being written for English class; they emphasized the literature they are reading (Heart of Darkness); they conveyed the importance of studying literature to “better understand people.” They talked about the pig they were dissecting in science class and the challenging work required in pre-calculus.

 Following the interview with students and the subsequent conversation with our team, another colleague asked me: “Why did you leave the classroom— It’s clear you are passionate about teaching?” Coincidentally, I have been asking myself the same question and was even preparing a blog post on the topic a couple of days before her question. So, why did I leave the classroom?   Difficult to answer but important to ponder (and I ponder it often).

What I love about teaching

 Interacting with students
 Helping students make connections in learning
 Advising students about life after high school
 Designing and delivering engaging and effective instruction
 Collaborating with colleagues in other disciplines
 Establishing a positive and safe classroom with high expectations for all
 Coaching, mentoring, and learning with new teachers
 Reflecting and refining the art of teaching and learning

 What I don't love about teaching

 Lack of respect for profession
 Pressure to practice for “the test”
 Hoards of papers to grade
 Lack of time to plan, grade, meet with parents
 Rigid daily schedule (no time to sit, eat, use the toilet, attend events for sons)
 Constant interruptions of instruction from outside sources (walk-throughs, intercom requests for   students, etc.)
 Lack of funding for attending professional conferences and other events that invigorate
 Lack of time to spend with my own children because I spent so much time with my “other kids”

 No one item had any more impact on my decision to leave than another item, but after eleven years, I grew weary and needed a change. I certainly never thought leaving the classroom was a permanent choice, just an opportunity to try something new in the field of education for a few years.  I’m often asked if I will ever return to the public school classroom. It’s hard to say, but with many of the impending changes in public education I don’t imagine my list of what’s tough in teaching will become any shorter. That’s why I persist with a commitment made to myself when I left—I aim to raise the voice of teachers and students in public education.

13 April 2012

Connecting Poetry and Experience

An exciting day of exploring and hiking at Mammoth Cave with 100 curious fifth graders leaves me thinking about the poem which awaited me in my inbox last Monday morning. Robert Frost by George Bilgere was listed in the The Writer’s Almanac on Sunday, April 8th. My friend sent it to a bunch of teacher friends, and he included me in the group of people to receive the poem, fitting given that I spent spring break musing on my teaching days. I related well to the essays stacked on the table waiting to be assessed and evaluated and the Sunday evening blues that sometimes crowd the thoughts of an overworked teacher. 

Now, you might be asking—what does a poem about teaching and Robert Frost have to do with a cave in Kentucky? Perhaps it’s the notorious ambiguity of Frost’s poems and the stories we heard today on the historical tour. Perhaps it’s the differences between the learning experiences referenced in the poem and those of the 100 fifth graders today. Which student would you rather be—the one writing an essay about ambiguity in Frost’s poems or the one exploring a 4000 year old cave?
Thought to be the largest cave in the world, with over 350 miles of interconnected passages, Mammoth Cave’s rich history includes uncertainty about the real reasons Stephen Bishop led adventurous expeditions in the cave. To learn more about this uncertainty, next on my poetry reading list is Ultima Thule by Davis McCombs.

06 April 2012

O Captain! My Captain!

I was never one of those wildly popular teachers who stood on desks, ripped pages out of textbooks, or spoke with a bellowing voice (think Dead Poets Society).  My approach was less showy but equally compassionate and filled with high expectations and a love for poetry.    In fact, I used to say poetry was part of the reason I chose to teach English over social studies.

There are two times each year when I become especially nostalgic for the classroom—in the fall when it’s time to welcome back former students and greet new students, and in the spring when it’s close to graduation and students are all a buzz with their minds focused on life beyond high school.

Inspired by a college graduation invitation received in the mail yesterday, I dug out old notes of appreciation from former students.  I still have some notes and pictures from my early days of teaching on the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina, and of course, there are notes from my students right here in Lexington, Kentucky.

One of those notes was from a student who addressed me--O Captain! My Captain! Now, if that isn’t one of the most honorable ways to address a teacher, I don’t know what is.  

Today’s Favorite Text Friday is the poem by Walt Whitman O Captain!  My Captain! 

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done, The ship has weather'd every rack,
      the prize we sought is won, The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
      While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring; But O heart! heart! heart!
      O the bleeding drops of red, Where on the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.
      O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells; Rise up- for you the flag is flung- for
      you the bugle trills… keep reading  

Walt Whitman may be one of the dead white authors, who garner much criticism for being part of the Cannon, but it’s still important to read authors like Whitman, and it’s essential to me that I share this poem with my young sons, who enjoy poetry along with me.  They like to hear me recite it, read it, and they like to read it to me as well.  Last night we read Whitman’s poem as a tribute to the interest my 8 year old has in Abraham Lincoln.  But, we also read it so I could relive a nostalgic memory of my days as a high school teacher.  

Spring break adventure to Lincoln Homestead in Springfield, Kentucky.

04 April 2012

Memorizing Poetry & Preparing Students to be College and Career Ready

With all the work around preparing students to be college and career ready, one today might say a student like my grandpa, who never finished high school but went on to fight in World War II and then to own and run a successful excavating business in Michigan, had no reason to memorize poetry.   I disagree.

One of my favorite memories is of my grandfather reciting for me The Chambered Nautilus by Oliver Wendell Holmes.  I last heard Grandpa, at the age of 86, recite this poem, a couple of months before he died.  I asked him what inspired him to learn and remember that poem; he said it was his tenth-grade  English teacher.   Because he had committed The Chambered Nautilus (and other poems) to memory,   he gained an opportunity to share that memory with me, his granddaughter; I gained an experience of a special time with a great man.  Since I was a high school English teacher who, for many reasons, asked students to memorize poetry, I liked to share with my students this story of my grandpa reciting poetry at the age of 86.  This story was also inspiring to some of my speech and debate students who competed in  poetry interpretation.

True our world today is different from the days when my grandpa was in high school in the 1930s.  Workers need to be better educated to fill new jobs that don’t even yet exist, and they need to be flexible and adaptable to be literate members of a 21st century society.  However, let’s not forget the soft skills associated with being successful in the 21st century and beyond.  As conversations continue about the economy and the bottom line, we cannot lose sight of the important benefits one can reap from memorizing poetry.  The practice of memorizing poetry can even help us prepare students to be college and career ready. 

Memorizing poetry can…
  • provide you an in-depth understanding of a poem (if memorized thoughtfully and with repeated readings)
  • help you through a hard time (important if you don’t especially want to wake up and go to school—or stay in school)
  • provide an occasion to celebrate (important in life to celebrate one another, achievements, life itself)
  • help you survive heat (literally and figuratively—and another post on that coming soon…)
  • help you remember history (We need to learn from history, right?)
  • move you beyond your comfort zone—a learning place
  • help you build memories
  • improve analytic abilities (Obviously, one must be taught how it can do this—not just told to memorize)
  • improve comprehension and learn vocabulary (Again—one must be taught)
  • help you learn about culture
  • keep you in touch with ideas and experiences
  • allow you to enjoy the beauty of words aloud (Think of all the poetry aloud and speech team competitions that continue.)
  • help you think about the world in which you live
  • provide you interesting party conversations
  • help you learn about language, grammar, syntax
  • help you make sense of life
  • help you tell a story (Stories are still important, right?)
  • provide you opportunities to connect with others
Maybe we could even consider connection the 5th C in 21st century learning because it is an integral part of being a globally aware and responsible citizen.  

01 April 2012

Kentucky Fan Reflects on Sports/Test Prep Analogy

True sports fans Beware!  A Kentucky fan who doesn't know much about basketball is about to explain why she doesn't buy the practice for tests/practice a game sports analogy.

Sports have never really been my passion, but when I moved to Kentucky almost nine years ago, the contagious Kentucky Wildcat fever was difficult to shake.  In the high school where I taught, sports were as important as they are in most high schools.  Our administrators commonly used sports analogies to explain why they thought we should practice for the state assessment.  It never really made sense to me—was that because I wasn’t a true fan? Or because I wanted to do more than practice for tests?

Me:  “Why do we have to force so many practice tests on our students?”
Administrator:  “We wouldn’t ask the players to go on the basketball court after practicing football all year, would we?  Test practice is the same thing…we have to practice the tests so the students will score well and our school test scores will improve.”

I didn’t buy it then and I still don’t.  Students will not have a passion for learning if all we ever do is practice for tests and if we measure the success of students and teachers based solely on summative test scores. 

As I watched the big Kentucky Wildcats versus Louisville Cardinals basketball game last night, I listened to the sports commenters and the coaches talk about skill associated with effective play.  I didn’t hear—they should have practiced more.  I did hear— “A summer in the weight room and that player will have what he needs.”  What if we equate the conditioning and muscle building a player does in the weight room to the critical thinking and creativity that sharpens the brain when we engage students in meaningful learning in the classroom. 

Let’s celebrate the wins of students who can make plays that can’t be coached just as Kansas Coach, Billy Self, suggested when asked about the Kentucky players his team will face Monday night for the National Championship.  As quoted in the Lexington Herald Leader “…They're terrific. They're great. They have guys who can make plays you can't coach."