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Friday, January 25, 2013

Nurturing Poets

"Knowledge that is not passed through the heart is dangerous." --Georgia Heard

Poetry is a genre that, until the last several years, has intimidated and eluded me. I always felt like I was missing some secret, encrypted message from the poets that others around me understood. It wasn't until a close friend and colleague of mine introduced me to Billy Collins and his beautiful poetry that I discovered my love for the genre. Reading and hearing poetry became more about the experience and the personal sensations that accompanied the experience. As a student, it had been about finding the meaning and analyzing every line, every syllable. 

I will proudly confess myself to be a learner of poetry. I would be hard pressed if asked to identify the rhyme scheme of a poem, but I can tell you some of my favorite poets. I can tell you what it is about a certain poem that speaks to me. I can even, every now and then, squeak out my own poem that captures an emotion that no other format can express.

Georgia Heard's keynote address at TCTELA spoke to my own experience with poetry. Why poetry? Because, she explained, seeing the world like a poet requires a different sort of view. It teaches us to:

  • appreciate the small moments
  • see poetry in the everyday
  • see beauty in the unlovely
  • fill ourselves with curiosity and wonder
  • experiment with the possibilities of language
  • and examine our emotions, the good and the bad.
The problem is, as I well remember from my time as both a student and a teacher, poetry in school often teaches the opposite. It makes poetry out to be some exclusive club of snobby, erudite weirdos. Instead, as Ms. Heard urged in her speech, poetry in schools should welcome all students to the "club." She presented her three layers of understanding poetry approach.

Layer 1: Invitation
This layer is about getting students comfortable with seeing and reading poetry.
  • Use poetry in morning meanings in all content areas.
  • Introduce students to Found Poetry.
  • Display poems in the environment--make your school or classroom an anthology.
  • Invite students to write their own poetry to display.
  • Don't restrict younger students to the usual poets (Shel Silverstein or Jack Prelutsky).
  • Choose poems that are accessible and relevant.
Layer 2: Connection
This layer is about helping students connect with poetry on a personal level.
  • Have students create self-portrait anthologies.
  • Have students search through books to find a poem that connects with them emotionally. Then have them reflect in writing. Finally, let them write their own poem in response.
  • Continue the activities in layer one, giving students more power over owning the poetry.
Layer 3: Understanding & Analysis
This layer focuses on helping students move into the more complicated world of analyzing poetry. 
  • Highlight the importance of re-reading poems. 
  • Live with a poem for a week:
    • Monday-What do you notice?
    • Tuesday/Wednesday-Activities to explore (i.e. illustrate the poem, act out, read aloud performances)
    • Thursday-Focus on craft and structure (How is the poem built and why?)
    • Friday-Look at other related poems by the same author or with related themes
  • Help students understand the dual meanings present in poetry. You can say one thing and mean something completely different. 
  • Practice visualizing the poetry and get students to draw their mind pictures. 

Check out Georgia Heard's website at, where you can find information about her books. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Jeffrey Boy

"Writing is waiting for a place to happen." -Jeff Anderson

A group of hungry teachers being served plates of catered hotel food is probably not the most receptive of audiences, but it seems that nothing gets Mr. Jeff Anderson down. There is something about the combination of his height and his goofy enthusiasm that makes him inspirationally contagious  It helps that he begins his presentations with uplifting songs (a trick that I plan to remember).

Mr. Anderson connected to the conference theme (walking in others shoes) by having us reflect on the conditions we needed to write and connect that to how we create places for our students to write. The concept wasn't an especially new one among the audience at my table; they all had specific ways that they worked to create places for their students to write.

What stuck out most to me was a comment Mr. Anderson made about making our actions conscious. He said that writing is a path to this consciousness. Writing makes the abstract more concrete, and students need a place where they feel confident to explore and learn this process.

For those curious minds wondering, "What the heck was the song that he used?" It was "Some Nights" by Fun. The key lyrics he used to spur on audience reflection...

What do I stand for? What do I stand for?

Also, let's face it, this song stays with you...for days. Happy writing!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

TCTELA: Vocab Gal

This year's TCTELA conference theme was "2 Walk in my Shoes," a theme inspired by one of my very favorite characters in all of literature, Atticus Finch. I thought that I would be able to post my reflections in just a couple of posts, but as I drafted I realized that would not be the case. is post one of ?

Vocab Gal

A couple of hours with Sarah Ressler Wright from Ohio was a great way to kick-off the weekend. I was worried that I took too much of a risk in deciding to begin with a session about vocabulary, but I left feeling so much more enthusiasm towards vocabulary instruction in general.

The Vocab Gal isn't just about having her students memorize a list of words and definitions. She challenges them to use those words in and out of class. Probably her most powerful tool in facilitating this is her own commitment to using the vocabulary terms in her own instruction. It becomes a game for everyone. The list-on-Monday-quiz-on-Friday approach is gone. Students don't look up definitions in the dictionary  Instead, they are provided with opportunities to explore a word's meaning and use it in relevant contexts.

Here is a link to Ressler's presentation from the conference:

Check out her blog for great, downloadable resources:

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Tech Savvy Teaching: How Do You Rank?

Let's face it. Technology isn't going away. We can stress over what we don't know, or we can give ourselves the same learning opportunities that we give to the students. In order to find a starting point for your own learning, you have to know where you stand now. The link below will take you to a ten-question quiz to help determine where you fall on the technology spectrum.

Remember, just like our students fall into all different categories of learning, so do we. Embrace the starting-point and enjoy the journey!