After English Class: Some Thoughts On Reading Poetry

Last week I had the privilege of leading a three-day workshop on the Foundations of Writing Workshop in Bangkok for middle school teachers from NESA schools. We explored the structure mini-lessons, the role of mentor texts, the thinking behind unit planning and the art of conferring. We also looked at writer’s notebooks, where I introduced the participants to the idea of quickwrites as a strategy for generating notebook entries.

For those of you unfamiliar with quickwrites, it’s a practice whereby a teacher reads aloud a short projected text then invites students to write something inspired by it for no more than three minutes. Like flash drafts, which they’re often confused with, the point is to write fast, though the purpose of quickwrites is not to get a first draft of something you’re planning to write down on paper in one fell swoop. Rather, as Linda Rief explains in Read Write Teach, a quickwrite “is writing to find writing, not planning or thinking through the writing before the words hit the paper. It is writing for the surprise of not knowing you were going to write what you wrote.” And to give the teachers a feel for the power of quickwrites, I shared the poem “After English Class,” from Jean Little’s Hey World, Here I Am!, then asked them to write about whatever it brought to mind.

The range of writing this poem inspired was nothing short of stunning. Some wrote about themselves as teachers and wondered if they’d inadvertently killed poetry for their students. Some wrote about texts they’d decided to “drive by” because they’d grown complicated, too. Some wrote about the stillness of winter, others about the magic of snow. And I wrote about my mother, who, for reasons I couldn’t remember, once shared with me the moment she felt defeated by a poem. It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Evangeline,” which she was required to read in high school—and it seemed so impenetrable to her that she stopped reading poetry.

Ancient Mariner & AlbatrossThat made me remember my own undoing with poetry in high school, which came by way of Mr. Loudon and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” First there was all the thee‘s, thy‘s, may’st‘s and haths‘s, and then there was the albatross—a symbol of Jesus, Mr. Loudon said—which was tied like a weight around the Mariner’s neck, like the poem felt tied around mine.

Fortunately, though, at some point in my thirties, I discovered poems by poets who spoke to me, like Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds and Naomi Shihab Nye. That made me realized how important it is for kids to be able to find poems that speak to them and to follow Billy Collins’s advice in “Introduction to Poetry,” and ask students “to take a poem/and hold it up to the light/like a color slide,” rather than “tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it.”

But . . . as is clear from the title of my new book, I also believe in helping students become deeper readers and thinkers. And that makes me think that the problem for Jean Little’s narrator, my mother, and me wasn’t that the poem we each read had hidden meaning, but that the meaning didn’t belonged to us. It belonged to the teacher.

Consider, for instance, what happened in a fifth grade class who’d been studying poetry. The students had had lots of opportunities to find poems that delighted or spoke to them, but instructionally, we focused on interpreting poems that used figurative language to convey their meaning, using a strategy I wrote about in “Figuring Out Figurative Language.” At this point, they’d read several poems that used a central metaphor, including Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son,” which uses the metaphor of a crystal stair. And you can see the class’s thinking about the crystal stair below:

Crystal Stair K:W Chart

We’d also focused on using talk to deepen the students’ understanding of poems and decided to celebrate the end of the unit with a formal grand conversation that the kids would conduct themselves. And for that, we chose the poem “Inside” from Nikki Grime’s wonderful Bronx Masquerade, which also uses a central metaphor.

Inside Bronx MasqueradeAfter reading the poem out loud twice and giving each student their own copy, we invited the kids to turn and talk first to ensure that everyone was thinking. Then they formed a circle for a whole class discussion.

Right from the get-go everyone agreed that the coconut was figurative, not literal, and many thought that, as one student put it, “this is a bullying poem.” Building on that, another student said the poem reminded him of the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” which made him think that the bullying involved name calling, not pushing or hitting, because of the phrases “booted words” and “wicked whispers shaped like knuckles.”

The poem also reminded many students of Rob in Kate DiCamillo’s The Tiger Risingwhich they’d read earlier in the year. Rob, they recalled, was physically bullied, and he tried to deal with that and other problems by holding all his feelings inside, locked in an imaginary suitcase. But there was disagreement about whether the poem’s narrator was also holding her feelings inside, with some thinking she does because she keeps her sweetness inside, while others thought not because she expresses her feelings directly to the bully.

Amid all this, though, one student shared that she was confused about how a coconut compared to bullying—and hearing her admit that helped others acknowledge Coconutthat they were also confused. This opened the door to others to explain how they made sense of that. One student, for instance, said, “Bullying isn’t like a coconut, she is. Outside she’s hard but inside she’s soft. You could push her and she won’t get hurt but on the inside she might be hurting.” Another saw it slightly differently. “Everything like the outside of the coconut,” she said, “keeps her from being bullied, but inside she’s sweet. So when she’s bullied she doesn’t care because in her heart she knows she’s sweet.” And that led another student to this ‘aha’ moment: “And when she says ‘Your loss is someone else’s gain’, she means that she could have shared her sweetness with the bully if he hadn’t been so mean.

With the period almost over and everyone nodding as they let these ideas sink in, I drew the conversation to a close and noticed and named what the class had done. Right away they’d gotten that the coconut was figurative, but they had to keep talking to figure out what it truly meant. They also connected this text to another, which also helped them out, for by comparing how Rob and the poem’s narrator handled a bully, they’d realized that the authors had different things to say about how to deal with bullying.

Finally, I asked them how they thought it went, and many said just what the students who’d read “Louisa’s Liberation” did, “That was hard, but fun.” Many also wanted to keep the poem, because they liked it so much. So perhaps what happens after English class depends not just on what poem you choose, but how you choose to teach it—and who truly owns the meaning.

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What’s in a Word: Some Thoughts on Learning & Achievement

whats-in-a-word-1

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to work with teachers at the American School in Doha, which is located in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. The school belongs to an organization called NESA (the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools), whose mission is to “serve member schools by facilitating sustainable and systemic school improvement to maximize student learning.” And whenever I work in a NESA school I’m struck by their use of the word learning, rather than achievement, which is far more often the world of choice in Stateside schools’ mission statements.

As I’ve written about other words (such as rigor, grit and productive struggle and evidence and claim), I think there’s something worth exploring about these words. To me, learning has to do with truly understanding something deeply enough to be able to apply and transfer the concepts from one setting to another, while achievement is focused on skill-based goals that can be measured by grades or scores. And Merriam-Webster’s online thesaurus echoes this distinction, with enlightenment popping up as a synonym for learning, while words like performance, execution and success show up for achievement.

To see how this difference can play out in life—and why it’s important to think about—consider this anecdote from Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better TeacherAt some point the fast-food chain A&W attempted to compete with McDonald’s Quarter Pounder by offering a burger with a third-pound of beef. Strangely though, customers “snubbed” it, wheres-the-beefdespite the fact that it was cheaper than McDonald’s Quarter Pounder and preferred in blind taste tests. Turns out the problem was that customers believed they were getting more beef for their money at McDonald’s, because they’d reasoned that one-fourth was greater than one-third since four was larger than three.

My hunch is that in grade school many of these customers had been able to answer questions about fractions well enough not to fail math. That is, they managed to achieve a passing grade without having understood the concept of fractions. And unfortunately this doesn’t just happen in math. In Doha, for instance, I worked with teachers on ways to more deeply teach grammar and conventions, and right off the bat, the teachers acknowledged something Mary Ehrenworth and I had shared in The Power of Grammar: Students could often correctly punctuate or fix grammatical mistakes on worksheets, but they weren’t transferring that to their own writing. So before we headed into classrooms, we looked at some ways of helping students not just learn rules but the concept behind them in more meaningful ways.

When it came to punctuation, for instance, I shared something I’ve been doing for years: showing students a retyped unpunctuated chunk of text, like the one below from The Watsons Go to Birmingham. Then I ask them to read it, as I invite you to, paying attention to when you’re confused or do a double take because there’s no punctuation to guide you.

the-watsons-go-to-birminghami couldnt believe it the door opened in the middle of math class and the principal pushed this older raggedy kid in mrs cordell said boys and girls we have a new student in our class starting today his name is rufus fry now i know all of you will help make rufus feel welcome wont you someone giggled good rufus say hello to your new classmates please he didnt smile or wave or anything he just looked down and said real quiet hi a couple of girls thought he was cute because they said hi rufus why dont you sit next to kenny and he can help you catch up with what were doings mrs cordel said

This activity brings home to students the concept that punctuation isn’t just about rules; it serves a vital purpose, helping readers navigate uncharted seas of words that otherwise might not make sense. And that, in turn, invites students to consider what might happen to their readers if they failed to include these signposts.

Similarly, to more deeply learn—and understand—the role of verb tense in writing, I shared the following two versions of a nonfiction text, one in the present tense and the other in the past, and asked the teachers to consider if and how the tense affected them as readers:

octopus-verb-tenses

 

As you may have felt, the present tense seems more immediate and suspenseful—or, as kids often say it makes you feel like you’re there. The past, on the other hand, can feel more authoritative but also more distant. With students, once students have noticed and felt this, you can then give them a choice: Which effect do they want their readers to experience, the suspense of the present or the authority of the past? And once they’ve decided, their job as writers is to make sure the tense is consistent.

alfie-kohnLike the inquiry work I shared earlier, these kinds of lessons help students not just know the rules, but more deeply understand their purpose in ways that support the transfer of learning. Of course, letting students wrestle with concepts takes longer than explicitly teaching rules through direct instruction, which might not make it seem like the most expedient path to achievement. But as Alfie Kohn wrote in a blog post, there are costs to focusing on achievement over learning, beyond forgetting what was learned. According to Kohn, when we overemphasize achievement, five things tend to happen: “Students

  • come to regard learning as a chore;
  • try to avoid challenging tasks;
  • tend to think less deeply;
  • may fall apart when they fail; and
  • value ability more that effort.”

It’s worth noting that Kohn wrote this post before the concept of growth mindsets took hold. But a survey taken just last year by The Princeton Review shows that high achievement-vs-learningschool students care far more about achieving good grades than they do about learning. This is truly unfortunate because the thing about learning and achievement is this: If we focus on deeper learning, achievement tends to happen as a natural by-product. So why would we choose the word achievement when learning supports application and retention and increases the likelihood of achievement?

My hunch is that it has to do with our fear and obsession about competing globally, in a way that’s also tied to our culture of testing. Most American overseas schools, however, have adopted the Common Core Standards but not the standardized test apparatus that comes it here, which helps them to focus on the higher goal of learning. But I think it would do us good to remember these words of Marilyn French (as quoted by Kohn) and consider which word we want to embrace:

Only extraordinary education is concerned with learning; most is concerned with achieving: and for young minds, these two are very nearly opposite.

On Conventions, Conferences & Other Great Adventures

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I’m not quite sure how it got to be November, but for those of you who’ll be in Minneapolis for NCTE later this month, I wanted to offer a heads up that I’ll be presenting with the Kathy Collins in a session called “Becoming the Teachers of Reading Our Children Need Us to Be,” which will look at a variety of ways to help students become the curious, engaged and passionate readers and thinkers we all want them to be. The session will be chaired by Katie Wood Ray, who along with me and Kathy contributed to the new Heinemann book The Teacher You Want to Be, and it will take place on Sunday, November 22nd, at noon. My hunch is that some of you may be heading home by then, but if you’re still around and looking for one last hit of inspiration and some new ideas, please come and join us.

For all my international blog readers and friends, I also want to share that I’ll be presenting at two NESA (the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools) events in the early part of next year. First, I’ll Bangkokbe in Muscat, Oman, on February 5 and 6 for NESA’s Winter Training Institute, where I’ll be exploring “The Power of Grammar” for two days with teachers and administrators. Then I’ll be in Bangkok from April 1 – 4 for NESA’s Spring Educator’s Conference, where I’ll be facilitating a three-day Foundations of Reading workshop for Grade 6-8 teachers. And while I’m already excited beyond belief about these two opportunities, it would truly make my heart sing to see and meet any blog readers out there who are in that part of the world.

Back in the States, I’ll also be presenting at the New England Reading Association’s yearly conference in Portland, Maine, on May 20 and 21. There, I’ll not only facilitate a session but I’ll participate on what promises to be a very special panel comprised of folks who contributed or worked on The Teacher You Want to Be. While plans for that are still being finalized, I have no doubt that it, too, will be both inspiring and thought provoking—and a great way to connect with other like-minded educators who believe that first and foremost we teach children, not curricula or standards.

Finally, for something completely different, I want to share an amazing non-teaching opportunity for any photography and wildlife enthusiasts out there. As some of you may already know, I was in France last summer with my partner David, who’s both a photographer and an Adobe Lightroom expert. Most of our time was spend cycling, but David also arranged a two-day photo shoot for us through a company called Create Away.

© D.A. Wagner 2015, http://lightroomguy.com

© D.A. Wagner 2015, http://lightroomguy.com

Create Away is based in the south of France, in an area called the Camargue. Situated in the delta where the Rhone River splits and spills into the Mediterranean, the Camargue is a regional park that’s home to an ancient breed of white horses, one of Europe’s few colonies of pink flamingos, the kinds of black bulls you’d find in bull rings, and an intriguing mix of French natives and gypsies. In fact, the musical group the Gypsy Kings are from the Camargue. And if you read The Da Vinci code, you’re already familiar with the Camargue town of Saintes Maries sur Mer, where as legend (and author Dan Brown) would have it, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the sister of Lazarus, landed, along with the Holy Grain, after being cast our of Judea.

As you can see, the shoot was spectacular—so much so that we’ll be returning at the end of August, when David is teaming up with Create Away to offer a special one-week photo tour of the Camargue with between-shoot (and great French food and wine) Lightroom classes. If this sounds like the kind of bucket trip you’ve always dreamed of taking, you can find out more at David’s—a.k.a. Lightroom Guy’s—website.

Wild Horses in the Camargue

© D.A. Wagner 2015, http://lightroomguy.com

So here’s hoping that between Minneapolis, Oman, Bangkok, Portland, and France  some of our paths will cross. And now I really need to dig into my NCTE Convention Planner!

On the Road Again: Upcoming Events

Coming Up

Last week I got to hangout on Google with Fran McVeigh, Julieanne Harmatz Steve Peterson and Mary Lee Hahn to talk through the session we’ll be presenting together at this year’s NCTE conventional at National Harbor, just south of D.C. The talk was deep and rich and energizing, and it made me want to share a few details about that and other places I’ll be presenting over the next several months, where, as always, I’d relish the chance to meet blog readers in person.

PrintBefore jumping on the Bolt Bus to D.C., however, I’ll be heading half-way around the world to the city of Doha in Qatar. In addition to working for several days with teachers (and my Reggio-Emilia comrade, Katrina Theilmann) at the American School in Doha, I’ll be facilitating a two-day workshop on “Teaching the Process of Meaning Making in Reading,” as part of the NESA (Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools) Fall Training Institute, which will be held on November 7 and 8. I know it’s highly unlikely that I’ll run into any stateside blog readers there, but I’m hoping to touch base with a few overseas ones as well as reconnect to some of my other Reggio-Emilia trip colleagues as well.

Next up will be NCTE where I’ll be chairing the session that was mapped out in that Google Hangout last week on Friday November 21 at 4:15. Titled “It’s Not Just for the Kids: Stories of What Can Happen When Teachers Embrace Curiosity, Openness, Creativity and Wonder in the Teaching of Reading,” each presenter will share work they’ve done—some with students, some with teachers—that grew out of questions they wondered about and pursued with passion and curiosity. And I’ll be there to connect the pieces together and share the story of how we all discovered each other, from New York to National Harbor mapOhio to Iowa to California, through the blogosphere.

I’ll also be presenting the following day, November 22, again at 4:15 with two of my favorite people in the world, Mary Ehrenworth and Katherine Bomer, in a session called “Embracing Complexity: Helping Students (and Ourselves) Become More Complex Readers, Writers and Learners.” While we’re still ironing out the final details of that session, we’ll each share classroom stories and student work that show what can happen when we move away from more teacher-directed procedural ways of teaching to something more messy and complex.

Greetings from PortlandAfter that I’ll be in Portland, Oregon, December 9 and 10, presenting a workshop for educators sponsored by the Portland Children’s Museum Center for Learning and the Opal School. Called “Extending Our Image of Children: New Possibilities for Readers,” Opal School teachers and I will share stories and ways in which we’ve invited children to enter texts as authentic readers. And I’ll also have the amazing opportunity to model some of the approaches I’ve developed in an Opal School classroom—though I imagine the kids will steal the show (as well they should).

Toronto MapAnd finally, after what I hope will be two balmy days in Los Angeles in January working with LAUSD’s wonderful Education Service Center South coaches and teachers, I’ll be heading north to wintery Toronto for the Reading for the Love of It Language Arts Conference on February 9 and 10, 2015. Along with other amazing presenters, such as Ruth Culham, Pat Johnson, Tanny McGregor and Linda Rief, I’ll be doing two sessions, one on “Helping Students and Ourselves Become Critical Thinkers and Insightful Readers,” which will focus on fiction and “What’s the Main Idea of the Main Idea: From Scavenger Hunting to Synthesizing in Nonfiction Texts.”

So much to see, so much to plan for! Here’s hoping I get to see some of you, too!

See You soon