Reading, Writing, & Religion

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A Fibonacci Poem Lesson

I became the Director of Secondary English Language Arts for the Oklahoma State Department of Education in July 2018. My friends have often asked me, “Do you miss the classroom?” I certainly miss getting to teach students, and I recently had an opportunity to teach a lesson at my former school district of thirteen years.

Katy Carmincke invited me to be a guest teacher for her Creative Writing 2 students at Deer Creek High School. I taught some of these students in Creative Writing 1 two years ago. I immediately knew I would teach a poem of some kind. I landed on Sherman Alexie’s Fibonacci sequence poem “Requiem for a Pay Phone,” published in Shampoo in 2009. I liked this as a mentor text because of its surprising and strange organization of stanzas based on syllable growth and reduction. Take a read:

I wanted my lesson to be as student-driven as possible, so I developed a lesson with an inquiry approach. As far as handouts, I needed the original poem, and then I created another handout that included the poem with alternate line and stanza breaks, an explanation of the Fibonacci sequence, and some definitions for requiem and elegy.

The day of the lesson was a Friday. I arrived at the end of lunch, a couple minutes before the bell rang for class. Mrs. Carmincke introduced me to her students, and then I took over. The class was fifty minutes long.

I began the lesson by explaining that we would be studying a poem. First, I wanted students to simply listen to it, to focus on its content. (I didn’t want them to get distracted by the unique structure quite yet.) I read the poem aloud, and then asked students to turn and talk with a neighbor about what they noticed about the poem’s speaker and anything else about the poem. Then we shared out as a whole class. One student said, “So it’s gonna be one of those poems.” I nudged her to explain more. “You know, like it’s a romance thing. He likes her and doesn’t want her to get with other guys,” she said.

Then I passed out the original poem to students. Now they could see the Fibonacci structure, even if they didn’t know the formula quite yet. I wanted them to discover that on their own. Once everyone had a copy of the poem, I said we needed to hear the poem again. Since students had already heard me read, I felt confident that a student could now read it fairly well. I asked for a volunteer and got one. She was one of my former students who sometimes had a stutter, but she read the poem smoothly. Then I asked students to use their pencils, pencils, and/or highlighters to annotate the poem. “Mark anything that stands out to you, that you are curious about,” I said. Once they had had some time on their own, I asked them to compare their notes with a partner and to add any further annotations to the poem. Then we shared aloud as a whole class.

Students pointed out a number of things:

  • the way the stanzas get bigger and then smaller
  • the use of “all that” at the beginning and end of the poem
  • how the beginning and ending of the poem are the most powerful
  • the wonderful phrase “mosquito dark”
  • theories on who the speaker was–including wondering if he was a psychotic ex or if he was engaging in self sabotage
  • how the broken lines and stanzas reinforce an idea of cut-up thoughts
  • how the pay phone could be a symbol for a deep desire

Students had not gotten precise enough about the Fibonacci sequence yet, so I asked them to count the number of syllables in each stanza. I modeled a couple lines for them: “All–one. That–one. Autumn–two. I walked from–three. Now look at the bottom of the poem. Is there a pattern you see?” I asked. As students continued to count and label the stanza’s syllables, the room buzzed louder with energy and excitement. “At this point do you even need to count the syllables for the longest stanzas?” I asked. “All you need to do is some basic math: 13 plus 21 is…34.”

By this point, the class period was winding down. We had been interrupted by the intercom for the principal to announce the school’s teacher of the year. I had been so involved in the lesson that I had not been paying attention to time. We only had about fifteen minutes left. I had to abandon my plan to have students determine a definition for what a requiem was.

Now that students had investigated the Fibonacci sequences, I wanted to show them the poem in a different format. I had reformatted it to reflect a more traditional structure with relatively equal line lengths organized into five stanzas:

I passed out the second handout and asked students to compare and contrast the two different versions. Students agreed that the original poem by Alexie had more emotion and that his structure helped to create a more interesting and relatable speaker. I had had a guiding question prepared for this (How do the Fibonacci breaks affect/change/impact the poem?), but students basically got there on my own without any nudging.

Finally, I had students brainstorm some ways to use this poem as some inspiration for their own writing. I stressed to them they did not have to respond by writing a poem; they could write anything. I felt that an obvious answer would be to write a requiem for another inanimate object, but none of the students landed on that. Instead, they came up with these four ideas:

  1. Through prose, write the back story that informs this poem.
  2. Use a specific/unique form of structure to create emotion in a piece of writing.
  3. Write the scene of dialogue for the very last time the speaker called and learned to let go. (Students had decided this was a doomed relationship.)
  4. Write another Fibonacci sequence poem from the perspective of the person being called.

At some point toward the end of the lesson, as students continued to theorize about the obsessive and perhaps creepy nature of the poem’s speaker, I could not help but reveal to them that Sherman Alexie has admitted to harassing women. This news broke during the #MeToo movement, and I was absolutely devastated to hear the news. I wrote my master’s paper over Alexie. As a class, we talked about what it means to like an author or actor’s work versus the author or actor themself. Bill Cosby came up as an example.

We concluded the class with a group picture. I was struck with how very quickly the fifty minutes flew by. We didn’t even have time to write anything in response, which I really would have liked. If this were my classroom, we would have taken some time the following class period to write in response to “Requiem for a Pay Phone.” Alas, I had to bid farewell, but it was so wonderful to be back in the classroom, albeit for less than an hour.

Creative Writing 2 students at Deer Creek High School

The Monkey’s Paw Lesson

It’s October (or “spooky szn” in Internet speak), so English teachers might be selecting some suspenseful short stories and poems for their students to read and study. Edgar Allan Poe is typically analyzed around this time of year. When I taught sophomore English, my students and I read “The Pit and the Pendulum,” a terrifying account of the Spanish inquisition.

Somehow in my thirteen years in the classroom, I never read W. W. Jacob’s 1902 classic horror story “The Monkey’s Paw.” I recently worked with some English teachers to develop a lesson plan on it, so I thought it might be helpful to share my process with you.

First, I read and annotated the story. Actually, I found an audio version of the story on YouTube and treated the story like a book on tape from my childhood.

I could have predicted which objectives I could teach with this short story, but that is risky. It’s best to read the story first to determine which objectives to teach with it. The school was using a StudySync version of the story, which I discovered was different from the original text, which I accessed from CommonLit. As I read / listened to the story, I had a number of thoughts and questions, including:

  • The setting really is a dark and stormy night.
  • Does the son always beat the father at chess?
  • Sergeant-major Morris has three drinks before he tells the monkey’s paw story. I wonder if he has PTSD from his time in the army.
  • What were Morris’s three wishes? Why didn’t anyone in the White family ask him about his wishes?
  • The son (Herbert) does not believe the monkey’s paw can grant his father’s wish.
  • Why did Mrs. White so eagerly let a stranger into their home?
  • Maw and Meggins must be the name of the factory where Herbert works.
  • Why didn’t Mr. and Mrs. White cry when they learned Herbert died?
  • I would totally burn the monkey’s paw after Herbert’s death.
  • Does Mrs. White blame her husband for Herbert’s death?
  • How old was Herbert?
  • The story ends somewhat ambiguously.

By using the CommonLit version, I not only had access to the full text, but I also had access to vocabulary, twelve guiding questions, eight assessment questions, and three discussion questions.

  • There were fifty terms defined, but I picked one that was most crucial that I would introduce to students: talisman.
  • Of the eight assessment questions, two of them (#3 & #4) helped me to notice a shift in the story’s mood/tone. I began to wonder how I could make that more concrete for middle school students.
  • I liked the discussion questions okay, but I thought of another one I liked better and seemed more relevant to students and the story: How do we know when we can trust someone?
    • Should the Whites have trusted Morris’s story about the monkey’s paw?
    • Should Mrs. White have trusted Mr. White to make a wish?
    • Should Herbert have trusted in the power of the monkey’s paw?
    • Should Herbert have trusted his employer to provide a safe working environment?
    • Should Mrs. White have trusted Mr. White to make a better wish?

Standards

Since I was partnering with seventh grade English teachers, I referenced the OAS for ELA and identified some objectives that could be taught with the story. Since two of the objectives contained multiple concepts, I further narrowed the focus of the lesson to focus on plot, theme, and tone.

  • 7.3.R.3: Students will analyze how key literary elements contribute to the meaning of the literary work:
    • setting
    • plot
    • characters (i.e., protagonist, antagonist)
    • characterization
    • theme
    • conflict (i.e., internal and external)
  • 7.3.R.4: Students will evaluate literary devices to support interpretations of literary texts:
    • simile
    • metaphor
    • personification
    • onomatopoeia
    • hyperbole
    • imagery
    • symbolism
    • tone
    • irony*

*Students will find textual evidence when provided with examples.

Resources

Then I hopped online to see what other resources I could find on “The Monkey’s Paw.” 

Slate has a version of the story with some engaging illustrations that could be displayed while reading the story.

YouTube has the two segments from The Simpsons version of “The Monkey’s Paw,” which was part of its Treehouse of Horror II episode back on Halloween 1991:

YouTube also has a thirty-minute movie adaptation (2011):

I was struck by how different the ending of the movie adaptation was compared to the original text. I decide to incorporate one more objective into the lesson:

  • 7.7.R.1: Students will compare and contrast the effectiveness of techniques used in a variety of written, oral, visual, digital, non-verbal, and interactive texts to generate and answer literal, interpretive, and applied questions to create new understandings.

The K20 Center has two lesson plans:

With all of these thoughts and resources swimming through my mind, I began to brainstorm a rough outline of how I would teach this story in a seventh grade classroom over the course of three days.

Day 1

I would begin by sharing a fable from Aesop, “The Old Man & Death.” I would display it on my screen / TV or write it on the board.

The Old Man & Death

An Old Man, bent double with age and toil, was gathering sticks in a forest. At last he grew so tired and hopeless that he threw down the bundle of sticks, and cried out: “I cannot bear this life any longer. Death come and take me!” As he spoke, Death appeared and said to him: “What do you want Old Man? I heard you call me.” “Please, sir,” replied the Old Man, “would you kindly help me lift this load of sticks on to my shoulder?”

I would invite students to work with a partner to think about what the fable’s moral or lesson was. Hopefully, students would infer that that we don’t always want or get what we wish. This foreshadows the short story and one of its themes. Also, fables are on the list of genres students are to study as found on page 89 of the standards booklet.

Then we would begin reading the story. The goal would be to finish reading Part 1 by the end of class. I would provide some context about the setting (England, early 20th century), British crown rule of India, and chess. Since the text is fairly formal and elevated, I would either read it aloud myself or play the audio for students. I would occasionally pause the story to check for understanding, and I would also pause to have students turn and talk to one another about the plot and characters–to make inferences and predictions. Also, I would create a chart to keep track of the wishes when we came to that part of the story. 

We would conclude the first day by writing down a prediction as to how the story would end. After students finished their predictions, we would share some aloud. Then I would have students go back into the text to find some textual evidence to back up their predictions.

Day 2

Depending on the ability level of students, I could have them read Parts 2 and 3 on their own. Of course, I could also continue to read aloud to them or play the audio. Students almost always prefer for me to read to them. As we finished the story, we could complete the chart from yesterday. We could also have a discussion about what Mr. White’s final wish was.

To process a major plot point of the story (7.3.R.3), I would engage students in a modified version of the Four Corners activity from the K20 Center. Around the room before class, I would hang pieces of paper that read:

  • Sergeant-Major Morris
  • Mr. White
  • Herbert
  • Maw and Meggins

Then I would ask students, “Who is most to blame for Herbert’s death?” Students would reflect on their answer for a minute or so before I told them to vote with their feet and stand by the piece of paper that aligned with their choice. Once in their groups, students would discuss with one another why they voted the way they did. They would also need to decide on the best reason shared in the group. After a couple minutes of sharing, I would ask a spokesperson from each group to explain one of their group’s reasons. Then students would return back to their seats.

To teach students about tone (7.3.R.4), I would focus on the shift I mentioned earlier, which takes place at the end of Part 1 (ominous) and the start of Part 2 (cheerful). To begin, I would pass out some words from that passage to students. I could have the words on index cards or just plain computer paper strips. Working with a partner, students would perform a Card Sort to categorize the words into two different groups. I would have students share aloud what they noticed and how they categorized the two groups. Then I would invite students back into the text to see the words in better context. I would ask them what they noticed and wondered about the differences in the tones of these passages. Students could record their notices and wonders in their notebooks. I might consider asking these questions if my students did not ask something similar:

  • What is the effect of this change in tone?
  • How does the cheerful tone at the start of Part 2 fit with the rest of the story?
  • What would happen to the story if the tones were switched?

Day 3

These final two activities may not take an entire class period, but they are an important way to wrap up the story and make connections to another standard.

Reflecting back on the story, students would write for five minutes to answer this thematic question (7.3.R.3): How do we know when we can trust someone? I would want students to reference at least one character from the story in their answer, but they could also use their own life experience. I would give students time to share with a partner and then invite 2-3 students to share with the whole class. To extend this activity, I could model how to write a claim about “The Monkey’s Paw,” which answers this question about trust. This would address 7.3.W.3, an objective I did not initially plan to teach with this story.

The final activity involves a multimodal text (7.7.R.1). I would show the last three minutes of the movie adaptation, starting at the 25:00 mark. Then I would ask students to compare and contrast the two endings: the movie version and the text version. They could use a Venn Diagram to take notes on how the plot (7.3.R.3) is similar and different. After sharing aloud some responses, we could move into a discussion about the adaptation’s choices. Possible questions include:

  • Why was the movie’s ending more concrete than the text’s ending?
  • What do the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. White add to the movie’s adaptation?
  • What is gained by the ambiguity of the original text’s ending?
  • Which ending was better? Why?

You can also access my Google Slideshow here.

Time to Shout

Yesterday after work I drove to Tulsa to hear Laurie Halse Anderson speak about her new book, Shout, a memoir and manifesto in verse. I actually got a seat on the front row! It was definitely a book nerd moment. Kimberly Johnson, the Tulsa City-County Library CEO, conducted the interview.

Early on in their conversation, Johnson mentioned that Halse Anderson was a recipient of the Anne Zarrow Award. The award, presented by the Tulsa Library Trust, has been around since 1991 and was awarded to Halse Anderson in 2017. The award’s purpose “is to give formal recognition, on behalf of the Tulsa County community, to nationally acclaimed authors who have made a significant contribution to the field of literature for children and young adults.” The Zarrow website even has lesson plans and resources for the three most recently honored authors: Rita Williams-Garcia, Pam Muńoz Ryan, and Laurie Halse Anderson.

Halse Anderson reads a poem from Shout.

Lots of the conversation was about sexual violence, the basis for Shout (and Speak). It’s a delicate topic, but Halse Anderson acknowledged that America uses sex to sell dish soap. It’s time for Americans to learn to talk about sex. Besides, she said, boys as young as eleven and twelve are learning about sexuality through pornography, sometimes scenes that do not depict consent. She suggested we watch the TED Talk from Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement.

“We have a responsibility to be honest with kids.”

Laurie Halse Anderson

She told us about RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. They have lots of statistics, including this sobering one: “Every 92 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. And every 9 minutes, that victim is a child.” Halse Anderson was clear that men can be victims too. There is an even a website for them called 1in6. (1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually assaulted this year!)

Illustration by Jillian Tamaki

When it came time for audience Q & A, I explained I was a former creative writing teacher who always started class with ten minutes of silent reading because good writers are also good readers. I wanted to know some of LHA’s favorite books. She said Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 gave her inspiration for writing Speak. She enjoyed the humor in Watsons and described it as the best YA book of that decade. She also praised Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger and anything by Louise Erdrich. Kimberly Johnson told the audience that Laurie had recently written a By the Book column for The New York Times in which she goes into further detail about some of her favorite books and authors.

Halse Anderson explained that students need to read books about characters who are like them. “We can make our table bigger,” she said, explaining that expanding diversity in YA literature in regards to race, religion, LGBTQ characters, and more is becoming a reality. To help reach that goal, she explained there is an organization called Project LIT, founded by Nashville teacher Jared Amato. Project LIT is a “national, grassroots LITeracy movement, a network of dedicated teachers and students who are committed to increasing access to culturally relevant books and promoting a love of reading in their schools and communities.” [source]

As an added bonus, I learned that Halse Anderson’s father was a United Methodist Church minister. She’s a PK (preacher’s kid) just like me! I had no idea, and I’ve been reading her books for years.

Two preachers’ kids

Girls, Boys, & Reading

man and woman reading books

Photo by Zun Zun on Pexels.com

This morning I read an article in the August 27, 2018, issue of The New Yorker called “Ladies’ Choice” about the history and staying power of Little Women. Joan Acocella explains the rationale for Little Women‘s creation on page 76:

If there were tales written specifically for boys–adventure tales–why shouldn’t there also be stories about girls’ concerns, written for them? Girls liked reading more than boys did. (This is still true.)

I almost spewed my coffee. This parenthetical aside got me frustrated enough that I wrote my first letter to the editor. I emailed it earlier this morning. I wrote:

Joan Acocella in her analysis of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women asserted that girls formerly and currently like reading more than boys. Most enthusiastic teachers of reading would claim a student, girl or boy, who does not like reading just has not found the right book yet. Moreover, categorizing any book as being exclusively for boys or girls reinforces dangerous stereotypes and dissuades some students from the picking up the very book they may need at the moment.

I could have gone into more detail, but I didn’t want to be long-winded. I guess that’s why I have a blog! I can write as much as I want.

Two reading myths need to be dispelled.

  1. Girls like to read. Boys don’t.
  2. There are girl books and boy books.

In my thirteen years of teaching English, I encountered many students of both genders who liked to read. From my early years of teaching, I can still think of three boys–Leighton, Tyler, and Aaron–who were voracious readers. Leighton read Lonesome Dove (864 pages!) as an eighth grader. Tyler read the Inheritance cycle like it was nothing. Aaron could buzz through any book he found or I recommended.

I also knew a healthy amount who did not–from both genders–despite my best efforts to convert them into readers.

Perhaps it is true that more girls than boys choose reading as a hobby. It’s quiet and requires focus and maturity, traits that girls tend to have more of than boys at a younger age. Reading also tends to be feminized in popular culture, although there is a tumblr called Hot Dudes Reading. And if we’re talking test scores, girls regularly outperform the boys almost every time. In every country tested for the PISA in 2015, girls scored higher than boys on the reading section:

Screenshot (173)

Source: OECD (2018), Reading performance (PISA) (indicator). doi: 10.1787/79913c69-en (Accessed on 25 August 2018)

I was a little boy who loved books. My parents read to me as a child before I started school and continued to do so once I began my educational career at Harmony Public School in Atoka County. My second grade teacher, Miss Rice, read Charlotte’s Web aloud to us, and I was so moved by the ending, I cried. I knew then the power that books held. I soon began devouring series like Little House on the Prairie, Ramona Quimby, The Boxcar Children, and Encyclopedia Brown. So maybe I get a little defensive about boys not liking to read because I did.

The idea that certain books are for boys and certain books are for girls is very dangerous. It reinforces stereotypes and makes students feel unsafe in exploring themselves and worlds, real or imagined. A good book is a good book. Who are we to decide a book is only good for one gender? That’s why I would encourage teachers and librarians to not categorize books as “chick lit” or “lad lit/boy books” in their school or classroom libraries. This sends a message to students that something is wrong with them if they want to read a book from the opposing gender. If Nora wants to read a book about two boys who get lost on a camping adventure, let her. If Jackson wants to read a book about a girl who has a secret crush on one her classmates, let him.

Pernille Ripp has already written an excellent blog post, taking down the idea of boy books and girl books. In her conclusion, she writes:

So I am wondering if we for once and for all, can we all agree that there is no such thing as a girl or a boy book?  That kids need to be exposed to characters that inspire them, no matter their gender.  That kids need to be exposed to characters that will expand their worldviews and invite them into new worlds that they knew little of before, no matter their gender.

Reading is for everyone: girls and boys, women and men, and those caught in the middle–little women and little men–the teenagers in middle schools and high schools across our country.

Inclusive Dialogue Partners

No high school creative writing textbook exists as far as I know. That means for the past eight years, I’ve had to create my own curriculum, scavenge it online, borrow it from colleagues on Twitter, etc. One lesson I have to teach my students is how to write dialogue. Some tend to avoid it in their fiction pieces completely if they don’t know how to punctuate it. Even after having read lots of books, some students don’t seem to know the rules, so I teach those to my students. I also give them four different versions of a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and they have to decide which one was published. It really freaks them out to learn that McCarthy doesn’t use quotation marks for dialogue or apostrophes for contractions with the word not. Ha!

I’m not sure where I got the dialogue activity I’m about to discuss. It might have been from a workshop from an Oklahoma Writing Project conference. Maybe I invented it myself. But after students have learned the rules of punctuating / formatting dialogue, they need a chance to practice it. I provide a list of pairs, and students work together to write a scene with some dialogue.

  1. cop and speeding teen
  2. parent and teen with broken curfew
  3. boyfriend and girlfriend break up
  4. shy boy asking girl to dance
  5. a friend confronts a gossiping friend
  6. exes assigned as lab partners
  7. coach chews out a football player
  8. jock asks a girl to dance who hates him
  9. annoying boss and teen worker
  10. teacher and texting teen who gets caught

See any trends in that list of choices? Look again, especially at 3, 4, and 8. They all deal with straight couples.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been learning more about how to be mindful of any LGBT students I might have in class. I’ve mainly educated myself by reading articles from Teaching Tolerance, including this one: “Why Heteronormativy is Harmful.”

Heteronormative is defined as “of, relating to, or based on the attitude that heterosexuality is the only normal and natural expression of sexuality.” This definition comes from a great article from Teen Vogue about the dangers of heteronormativity, which I also suggest reading.

So when I got out my old, tried and true dialogue pairs writing activity and looked at it, I kind of gasped. I was perpetuating heteronormativy. If I was really going to take the advice of these articles, not only would I make the couples neutral, I would take it a step further and include an LGBT couple of some kind. Teaching in Oklahoma, I decided not to push the limits, but I did need to revise the three couples.

Heteronormative Chart

The writing activity still engaged my students with my newly revised couples, and I felt better not perpetuating heteronormativity. Throughout this school year, I’ll be more careful about the language I use when speaking and in the handouts and activities I provide. I want any students who are LGBT to feel like my classroom is an inclusive and safe environment for them.

Listen Up!

The first day of my summer break, I attended an English teacher conference in Texas with Gena, one of my besties. We drove down the night before, so we would be ready for a full day at the North Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts (NTCTELA) conference, keynoted by two of my teacher heroes Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. The topic of the day was speaking and listening, two important ELA skills that are often overlooked because they are difficult to assess. (And don’t we need to teach one more novel or write one more essay?! Why make time to speak and listen?) But if we want our students to grow in their thinking, in their reading and writing, we have to create a space in our classrooms where students can also speak and listen.

For years now I have assessed my students’ reading by simply talking with them about the books they choose to read. I call these book talks, and I’ve blogged about them before. If we are really going to get to know our students and their interests, we must talk to them, and we must also listen. Penny and Kelly reminded us of this in their opening keynote.

In her session “Teaching Poetry to Transform Thinking About Writing,” Penny showed us a spoken word poem by Ethan Smith called “Letter to the Girl I Used to Be.” Give it a watch:

I was moved by this poem by a trans young man. I’ve taught spoken word poetry to my Creative Writing 2 students, and I’ve written an article about spoken word poetry for the Oklahoma Humanities magazine. (Look for “The Poet Has Spoken.”) I know spoken word poetry, but I hadn’t seen this poem before, and I was a fan. I began to think how I could use in CW2 in the fall.

We made it to the lunch break, and I saw I had a Twitter notification. I had been tweeting about the conference, and I had been getting some likes and retweets throughout the morning. When I opened the app, though, I noticed I had a direct message. I opened it, and saw it was from a former student, now finished with freshman year of college.

Hey Stevo! This might seem super out of the blue, but I just want to thank you. Your presence in my high school career was so helpful to me, and I can’t thank you enough. You were always so positive and fun while still teaching me so much.

If you haven’t been able to tell yet, I’m a trans guy and I’m finally coming out and transitioning (starting June 21!! woah!!) and the whole shebang.

You’d always been such a positive influence overall, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about how, my sophomore year, we had a book talk in which I complained about straight people always getting what they want. You replied, “yeah! that’s so dumb. stupid straight people,” and for the first time, an adult was affirming to my identity, and it was so important to me after hearing years of youth pastors and parents saying otherwise. (Also, having a cool democrat as a teacher was always so refreshing).

So I’m going to school to be a teacher because I want to be there for the weird kids like me who need someone on their side. Anyway, all this to say, I can’t thank you enough for being such a great teacher and inspiring me to be one too.

I wept like a baby. I was filled with so many emotions: pride, humility, love, gratitude. It was like what I had heard that morning about listening to students and validating them, plus the video about the trans boy, had now combined full circle into my life’s reality. It was incredible. Neither the student nor I could remember what book we were discussing. And actually, I don’t even remember making that offhand comment to my student. It just goes to show that our students are always listening to us teachers, and that what we say matters.

I wrote back to my student, and shared how I proud I was of him and how I honored I was that he was would trust me with his story. On the off chance that he had not yet watched the spoken word poem “Letter to the Girl I Used to Be,” I sent it to him. He hadn’t seen it, so he watched it and told me sobbed and loved it.

I have more to write about the NTCTELA conference and what I learned, but I’ll save that for another post.

Teachers, how do you honor and embrace speaking and listening in your classrooms? What purposeful strategies do you use? How do you know your students are better speakers and listeners at the end of the semester? the school year?

 

Go Poems

muchwow

When I taught Pre-AP and on-level English 2, I devoted the start of each Thursday’s class to a poem. Nothing intimidating. Just some quick reading and discussion. Maybe a tiny bit of analysis. Once a nine weeks, I might invite students to imitate the poem through writing. Too many students (and teachers!) are intimidated by poetry, and I love discovering what poetry can do through only a couple of lines. I relied a lot on American Life in Poetry and The Writer’s Almanac for beautiful, accessible poems for my students.

My teacher buddy Brett Vogelsinger from Pennsylvania is a rock star. He starts every English class with a poem. He’s also currently in the midst of a special event blog, called Go Poems. Brett explains:

To celebrate National Poetry Month in April 2017, this event blog will present a poem and a “springboard” into a discussion, activity, or lesson plan each day.  These poems can be used at the beginning of class to essentially say “go!” to close reading, creativity, and critical thinking. Hence the title of this blog: Go Poems. 

Brett asked me to write a post for Go Poems. I ended up writing two. Today, Brett features my first post about a reversible poem by Brian Bilston called “Refugees.” Check it out!

Having a Summah

Tomorrow I report back to Deer Creek, my district since 2005 when I entered the teaching profession. I’m starting my new role as the secondary curriculum instructional technology integration specialist. I know, it’s a mouthful. The acrostic is SCITIS, which my funny friend Debbie says sounds like a back problem. In this new position I’ll be helping teachers at the high school and middle school levels improve their craft. Once students return, I’ll just be SCITIS in the morning, and then I’ll still teach for three hours in the afternoon: student council and 2 sections of creative writing. I’m happy to still be in the classroom with students. They are why I got into this teaching gig to begin with. It will be strange not teaching English, but I’m embracing this new opportunity. Since I won’t be in the classroom for the full day, I have to move out of room 136, which has been the name of my blog. I suppose I should change it now. I’ll have to think about that. I’m hoping this week I can move a lot of my things (including my classroom library) into my new classroom. I will also have an office in DCHS library, so I also need to get settled in there.

I’ve made the most of my summer, or summah, as Howard Kramer pronounces it on the Who Charted? podcast, which I started listening to this summer. My hobby of listening to podcasts continues to grow. I’ve also added Invisibilia, More Perfect, Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People, Revisionist History, The Sporkful, Freakonomics Radio, and Criminal to my list of go-to pods. It’s kind of ridiculous how many podcasts I listen to, but they help me pass the time on my walks and doing chores around the house. If I’m being completely honest with myself, podcasts also feed my need for conversation in the summer. As a single man, I get information and entertainment from podcasts as well as some companionship. As an English teacher, I feel a bit guilty for not reading more books in the summer and listening to so many podcasts instead. I tell myself this is okay, though, because by listening to podcasts, I am learning more about our world, which can in turn lead to writing prompts and lesson ideas for my creative writing class.

And I have read two books this summer (as well as various articles from The New Yorker). We started a teacher book club and met in June to discuss All the Light We Cannot See (New York Times‘ review), and we met this month to chat about The Serpent King (Kirkus Reviews’ review). Both of these books were excellent, and I’m glad to have emerged a bit from my reading rut. I find it all too easy to watch shows on Netflix and Hulu or play Fire Emblem on my 3DS while listening to podcasts. They are fun ways to unwind, but I know I should be reading a little bit more. I actually did read the play The Humans after it got so much buzz at the Tony Awards. I’m sure seeing the play is way better than reading it, which did not impress me a whole lot.

I’ve continued to meet with my writing group this summer as well. We started back in the fall at the start of the 2015-2016 school year, committing to meet every month to share a meal and share some writing for honest and critical feedback. This summer I’ve written some on a young adult novel about Oklahoma’s panhandle being sold off to a mysterious investor who will eventually open it up to all the anti-vaxxers in the nation. I’ve barely started, but it’s been fun to write it.

Speaking of writing, my summer would not be complete without some involvement with the Oklahoma Writing Project. I went through their summer institute in 2009, and I’ve been faithfully involved ever since. This summer I got to present two different workshops to the SI, speak at their learning symposium, and create their anthology for the summer institute. The final draft is now complete. These are good summer side-gigs to have. I also got to work with Norman teachers on two of the new English language arts standards, and I also recently attended the OWP stakeholders meeting.

On top of education-related things, I got to go on two trips. I traveled to Houston for my friend Liz’s wedding, which was lovely. It was good to be together with our crew of friends. I also fulfilled a tiny dream of visiting my grandpa’s hometown of Kirksville, Missouri. I initially planned to road trip alone, but then quickly decided to invite my mom since it would be her daddy’s hometown. Plus, she just works on Mondays, so it would be easy for her to get away. My dad decided he wanted to come too, so it became a family affair. We made sure to drive through Kansas City on drive there, so we could hit up some barbecue places like Jack Stack and Q39, both excellent. I had ribs at both places. I liked the meat more at Q39 and the sides more at Jack’s Stack. (Cheesy corn, you are bad but also very, very good.)

The Kirksville trip allowed me to explore my roots. We found the 1930 census records on microfiche at the Kirksville Public Library, and I set to work reading the cursive entries at a 90 degree angle. As luck would have it, I found my great-great-grandma fairly quickly. After a little more searching, I also found my grandpa and his family’s entry as well. This was all on our first day in town, and we’d already hit the jackpot. (I was only about 15-20% of the way through the microfiche at this point.) The next step was to look for the addresses of the homes listed on the census. Only one remained and was now a frat house for one of the local colleges. The other house (my grandpa’s rent house, which his family paid something like $16 per month for rent) was now gone, a parking lot for the college. Later on, we discovered the old high school where my grandpa attended as well as the gravestones for my great-great-grandma and my great-grandparents. We also visited the historical society to find out more about the shoe factory where my great-grandpa worked as a man and my grandpa worked as a boy. One of the final significant places we found was the old theater my grandpa used to attend as a boy, which was now an antique mall. The fancy tile work in the lobby still stood as well as the flash ceiling decorations.

With one day left of our trip and everything checked off our list, we drove the hour or so to Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River–the boyhood home of Mark Twain. It was a fun but hot day of exploring and visiting historic places, including Twain’s boyhood home. As an English teacher, I was grateful we got to see some sites. My parents were not up for exploring one of the Tom Sawyer caves, but we still got to see a lot. The town of Hannibal is very charming.

I guess this blog post is here to say that teachers need time to unwind and recharge in the summer but also time to learn. It’s a balance, and I feel pretty good about how I’ve spent my time. So teachers, how do you spend your summers? Anything you’re proud to have already accomplished? What’s on your summer list of things to do? Have you even allowed yourself to start thinking about school yet?

 

Oklahoma’s English Standards Ready for Classrooms

The newspaper I grew up reading is hostile to my profession of teaching. In an editorial today about the new state standards, The Daily Oklahoman urges lawmakers to reject them for revision based on inexpert opinion and little research.

Let me be up front and say that I served on the committee that wrote the English standards. I have taught for eleven years in seventh through twelfth grades. I have my master’s degree in English, and I’m a past president of the Oklahoma Council of Teachers of English. As an Oklahoma Writing Project teacher consultant, I’ve presented numerous workshops to teachers around the state.

Now, as to The Oklahoman’s critique of the standards:

Jenni White, a critic of public education, admits that has not read the new English standards. She has no authority on this issue. Her organization, ROPE, feels public education is not worth restoring. White’s children do not attend a public school. She has no horse in this race. Why listen to her?

Tara Huddleston, a teacher worried about the standards’ lack of substance, is not clear in what needs to be improved. What is so vague about the English standards?

As to the lack of exemplars which Huddleston claims are needed, they are not standards. Standards are clear learning targets. Exemplars are student samples that demonstrate levels of mastery of the standards. Oklahoma has not yet implemented the new English standards, so how can we have authentic student samples of work based on standards that have not yet been passed, let alone implemented? The Common Core State Standards included exemplars, but our state kicked out Common Core. Teacher can locate exemplars because they are professionals. If it is deemed important enough, I’m sure the State Department of Education could eventually release a supplemental document of exemplars, but the standards themselves should still be passed.

Dr. Stotsky, a critic of Oklahoma’s English standards who wanted to be paid to write our standards for us, is from Arkansas. Why are we listening to an out-of-state expert when there are already plenty of organizations and individuals supporting the new Oklahoma standards? The Oklahoma Council of Teachers of English and the Oklahoma Writing Projects are just two of dozens of organizations that support the new standards.

There are eight main English language arts standards with a reading and writing strand within each standard. The eighth standard is independent reading and writing, a lofty idea that I admit is not testable. But what is worthy and important is not always testable. Developing students into lifelong readers and writers can only create a better Oklahoma.

The exact language of the reading strand of standard 8 is “Students will select appropriate (emphasis added) texts for specific purposes and read independently for extended periods of time.” This language is the same for grades 5-12. Dr. Stotsky claims there is “nothing to suggest an increasing level of reading difficulty” in this standard, but isn’t an “appropriate” text (book) different for a fifth grader than a senior in high school?

Additionally, on page 12 of the final draft of the standards, it is explicitly stated that English language arts are recursive and thus will be repeatedly taught, grade after grade, with the idea that “the skills are repeated with an implied expectation that they are attributed to increasingly more complex (emphasis added) texts.” Therefore, reading material will become more challenging as students progress through school, according to Oklahoma’s new standards.

Even so, if one of my on-level sophomore students wants to read a book written at a fifth grade reading level (Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, a book that I did not read until I was a senior in high school), I am not going to discourage this young man. Sometimes readers need a challenge, but sometimes they just want to get lost in a story, a fine step in becoming a lifelong reader.

The Oklahoma English language arts standards are ready for the classroom. Our legislature should pass them, plain and simple.

Venn Diagram Poems

Without Twitter, I would not have discovered the concept of a Venn diagram poem. A couple nights ago before bed, I noticed that Joyce Carol Oates had retweeted what appeared to be a Venn diagram by Brian Bilston. Upon closer examination, it turned out to be a poem, which could be read three different ways:

At the Intersection

  1. him circle
  2. her circle
  3. the overlap

I knew immediately that I could challenge my Creative Writing 2 students with this writing task. I showed it to them on my SmartBoard and explained how it worked. Then I got a girl and a guy to come up and read the two different parts. They concluded by reading the overlapping section together.

To write their own Venn diagram poem, I told students to think about two characters who have something in common. This idea would go in the small overlapping section. From there, it was a matter of building off into two different characters. It seemed easier to me to write the right circle first and then write the one on the left. I cut students loose to begin their Venn diagram poem drafts.

Some struggled at first.

Squiggles

But then they started to get the hang of it. I really liked this poem about two friends, one of whom is about to move away.

Best Friends

One student captured the dynamic between a mother and daughter.

Mom Daughter

Even I got into the spirit of things and wrote a poem about school. I was having a bit of an Eeyore moment, and it felt good to write through my feelings–in Venn diagram form to boot!

Teacher Student

In order to type it up, I used PowerPoint, which has a circle maker. I wondered if I could just type the words and center them and add spaces, but my lines weren’t equally balanced between the circles, so I had to just space bar everything. It turned out pretty well.

Screenshot (106)

How will you use Venn diagram poetry in your classroom?

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