Friday, April 12, 2013

Poetry Post #2: Artistic Expression = Students Love Poetry

In both my English and speech classes, students are working with poetry and completing a variety of projects. The big take-away from the work my students are doing is this: Artistic expression of literature, both the classics and contemporary texts, results in students loving poetry. That excites my geeky English teacher heart to no end.

My teaching partner, Debbie Greco, and I assign our seniors a "Poetry to Art" project. The link is to a Google doc, so feel free to use the project or components of it.

I first became inspired by a display of art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson by the artist Leslie Dill, who uses Dickinson's words as inspiration for her sculptures. I've lost track of the details and images of the MET exhibit, but Dill's website I Heard a Voice: The Art of Leslie Dill has equally inspiring images of the artist's works. I really like the allusion to Dickinson's "I Heard a Fly Buzz when I Died" in Dill's website's name.

Debbie found the Cube Creator at Read Write Think, and we had our students choose the "Create Your Own" option. Even though we gave them step-by-step instructions, many students struggled with the assignment at first. As with most teachers, we struggle to make space for creativity with our ever narrowing curriculum.

Once the kids got the hang of the cube, many decided to decorate it, too, although this was not one of the requirements.

On the handout I included several images of art I found on the internet, just to give kids an inspirational boost. Debbie and I both created "art" last trimester just to get a feel for the assignment.

The heart of the unit, and the assignment that really helped students hone in on the poem's subtext, is the "rewrite." In my class, I wrote my poem in front of the class, which I often do for essays, too. I am uncomfortable writing original poetry, so it's really good for kids to see me sweating it out as I write. My original poem is "Eating Poetry" by Mark Strand.

We also asked the students to create a "Museum Placard" for their poem, and gave them freedom to get creative with this task, too. Here's my placard. I gave students a copy to use as a model and walked them through my process and thinking in writing it.

Ludo's Poetry to Art



In each class, we spent two days presenting the students' work. We followed this procedure:

1. Read the original published poem.
2. Discuss the poem, using the cube information.
3. Show your art to the class.
4. Present your original poem.

Overall, students did a fabulous job, although a few have yet to finish the art piece. Even so, I heard some fabulous poems, a couple of which I'll share.

Melissa used Margaret Atwood's" Backdrop Addresses Cowboy" as her inspiration. First, here's Atwood's poem:

"Backdrop Addresses Cowboy"


Starspangled cowboy
sauntering out of the almost-
silly West, on your face
a porcelain grin,
tugging a papier-mâché cactus
on wheels behind you with a string,r home with your eyes,
in pure serenity,
but we know better,

Here is Melissa's poem, which I am using with her permission:

"Fish Addresses the Scuba Diver"

Deep sea diver
sinking into the 
very cold depths, bubbles
trailing from your mask,
pulling your scuba gear 
and all its buttons on your back,

you are as fast
As a tortoise on a Sunday swim.

Your open eyes, your
gloved hands, and you
touch all living things in sight
as you move, they sway 
to the current and you watch them.

You leave behind you 
a trail of bubbles,
and stirred water,
disturbing the sea's peace
and the ocean's calm,
leaving a mark.

We should stay still,
and believe we are safe,
while you probe our home with your eyes,
in pure serenity,
but we know better.

Then, why should you care.

and who are we? 
The small fish
staring as you swim and ignor us

We are ignored;
we are not as big as the sharp-tooth, big-finned predator.

We are also around you,
in the dark of the sea,
broken by your breathy bubbles
and machines upon you back.
Your alien form ripples the water.

We are the almost invisible fish
you ignore, the disturbed unseen fish. 

In writing about Atwood's poem on her cube, Melissa identified a possible theme of the poem as the need for people to realize their affect on "organisms and people around them." She mentioned the line "I am the space you desecrate/as you pass through" as important to the poem's theme. 

One question on the cube is "Which line speaks to you?" Melissa chose lines 1-2 in the fourth stanza: "and you leave behind you a heroic/trail of desolation." Melissa says, "I really like this because it is a [sic] oxymoron and it opens my eyes to a new perspective." 

Another side of the cube allows students to pose a "big question." Melissa asks: "Do we affect the objects and beings around us?" She follows this with an answer: "We do and in more ways than we think and we should try to look around and see how we do and if it is positive or a negative influence." 

Melissa's Poetry to Art


On Monday students will complete the final part of the project, which is an in-class essay. This will be a reader response essay based on the students' personal connections to the poem. 

The opening lines of "Eating Poetry" read: 

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

We've been enjoying a heaping helping of poetry in my classes this month, and it's a serving of literature student love. How do I know? They have been telling me with words and art. Pass the poetry, I'm ready for another helping. 



Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Poetry Post #1: Illuminate Poetry with Performance Poetry

This month I'm celebrating National Poetry Month with some fabulous poetic presentations.

First, two TED talks, one by the immortal Billy Collins and the other by spoken-word poet Lemon Anderson will inspire even those students who gird themselves with what Billy Collins describes as "poetry deflector shields."

Additionally, the prolifically talented John Green chimed in last week with a fabulous e.e. cummings poem and commentary about spring. Additionally, the Green brothers, Hank and John, have a marvelous Crashcourse video celebrating Emily Dickinson.

In his 2012 TED talk, Billy Collins reveals animations of five of his poems and reads a poem about adolescence. It's a real gem that I'd love to share with parents, too.




Spoken-word poet Lemon Anderson recites the classic Reg E. Gaines poem "Please don't take my Air Jordans." Those teaching in the 1990s will recall headlines about teens being murdered for their designer sneakers. Importantly, Anderson challenges those who want to be poets to study and read poetry.




This morning we awoke to a riot of snow. Spring snow, unfortunately, signals the arrival of spring soccer! My friends in Colorado shoveled out of 14 inches of the white stuff. With lines from Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, and A. E. Houseman, John Green reminds us that wherever we get to live, spring will eventually spring forth. In the meantime, we can embrace spring through the poet's words.


Also form the Vlogbrothers and coming to us from their YouTube channel Crash Course, John Green offers an entertaining lecture on the poetry of Emily Dickinson. From a discussion of paradox, symbolism, and biography, Green unravels many of the mysteries that shroud Dickinson's life and poetry. I particularly like the commentary on the dash, a punctuation mark Dickinson used liberally and that students often struggle to understand. Those who want to emphasize meter will embrace the discussion of iambic pentameter and its variations.

Enjoy "Before I Got My Eye Put Out: The Poetry of Emily Dickinson." Sadly, it's the last in the Green brothers' Crash Course series.


To quote Dickinson's "I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died," when reading poetry, there have been times "I could not see to see." With these fabulous resources, we can hold poetry up to the light with 21st Century illuminated texts.

Monday, April 8, 2013

"X" Marks the Spot: When students can no longer write in cursive, how will they sign their names?

A recent article in The Washington Post describes the demise of cursive writing, noting that 45 states have removed instruction in cursive from the elementary school curriculum. According to the article, the anti-cursive trend began in the 1970s. That surprised me. 

What doesn't surprise me is that in many states cursive has been squeezed out of schools to make way for more test prep, and since cursive is not inherent in the CCSS, it has all but been removed from life support. 

That's too bad. 

When students no longer have the ability to write in cursive, they will no longer have the ability to sign their names. Just as Huck Finn made his "mark" with an "X," we are on our way to creating a generation of students who will have no option but to print their "signatures."

Why does this matter? 

Simply, a signature is an identifying mark, much like a fingerprint or eye scan. Although I'm not aware of specific research to support this contention, a signature is required on official documents because it's far more difficult to forge than printing one's name. 

Other reasons for keeping cursive in the curriculum exist: 

1. Knowing cursive benefits dyslexic students. Deborah Spear is an academic therapist in Great Falls, whose work with students learning cursive is described in the WP article: Cursive writing is an integral part of her work with students who have dyslexia. Because all letters in cursive start on a base line, and because the pen moves fluidly from left to right, cursive is easier to learn for dyslexic students who have trouble forming words correctly.

2. Learning cursive takes patience and perseverance, both skills necessary to learning difficult and complex tasks. Regardless of the increase in technology for communication, eliminating cursive removes an important critical thinking skill. There is a logical progression to learning cursive and in learning to form words with script letters. Already, critical thinking has been greatly displaced by test prep. I'm thrilled my state legislature has decided to mandate instruction in cursive. 

3. An inability to read cursive marginalizes history. Many historical documents were first penned in cursive. Those who argue that they never read the constitution in its original form fail to understand the importance of primary research, not only in history but also in English. It's rather ironic that history teachers are encourage to include more primary documents in their instruction at the same time cursive is being eliminated from the curriculum. 

Knowing how to read, write, and communicate involves more than obviously practical considerations. Just because we no longer need a particular skill every minute of every day, doesn't mean it has no value. 

Policy makers should think about their frustration when a sales clerk can't do simple math, the consequence of increasing technology and marginalizing a basic skill many of us learned without the use of calculators. 

Those who no longer want cursive to take a seat in the classroom should attempt a little experiment just to see whether or not they want to give up their ability to compose the wiggles and squiggles: Stop signing your name. Don't sign the debit card receipts, the credit card receipts, the pen pad in retail outlets, your tax forms, etc. Stop using cursive. Let "X" mark the spot.