Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Perseus House Charter School of Excellence

I drove home from a great visit to Perseus in Erie, PA today only to sit down to watch another expose about yet another teacher engaged in appropriate conduct with a student. Purportedly.

How come the teachers I met today in Erie never make the news? The ones who attend conferences on their own dime to learn new ideas to share with their students, write grants, negotiate and cajole for supplies and motivations for kids because they really love them? Love hardly seems newsworthy. I found a lot of love at Perseus today, a school populated by kids who have not found success in school in the past, but who are working toward graduation because there are a few teachers and administrators who have not given up on them.

A car I passed on I90 on the way home had a sign in the back window that said, "I support teachers." Homemade. I don't think I've seen any of those pre-printed anywhere. I need one of those.

Thanks to Bill and his wife and the administration at Perseus for their kind invitation.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Between a rock and a melting place

Ajax (the special needs dog) is eating a pencil under my desk. I'm dressed for the gym but stalled here at the computer. I read the news -- or most of it. I'm afraid to look at the article about the melting polar cap and disappearing glaciers. I already struggled through the article about how Arkansas teachers are being forced to not mention the word "evolution" and are not allowed to state the ages of rocks. http://www.arktimes.com/Articles/ArticleViewer.aspx?ArticleID=e7a0f0e1-ecfd-4fc8-bca4-b9997c912a91. Says the teacher, “I am instructed NOT to use hard numbers when telling kids how old rocks are. I am supposed to say that these rocks are VERY VERY OLD ... but I am NOT to say that these rocks are thought to be about 300 million years old.”

What? How are those students going to compete and maintain in a world that is melting?

Some days the news is just too discouraging. What I have to fight against is not becoming so mired down in it that I stop doing positive things. Like take in a few laps at the gym.

I take the pencil out of Ajax's clench. At least he won't die of lead poisoning. Today. Okay, I'm in motion.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Don't know how to feel about this

Let's say some school district, a big district, is putting together scripted lesson plans for the third grade, a program that is destined to grow up through all the grades. It is organized into 10 minute segments so that every teacher in the district can be at the same point at the same time -- or within a day or so of one another. The stated reason for this is that there is a high percentage of transfers within the district every year, so this would allow students to transfer schools more easily.

Let's also say that the plan is being put together by caring, local teachers, not some big corporate entity in (just say) Texas. But, the end result will be a script for each teacher with mandated compliance, leaving very little room for teacher creativity.

Now, let's say, this big district comes to an arts organization and through them to a couple of poets and asks them to help in the drafting of an isolated poetry unit to be taught in April.

Say the poet in question is violently opposed to scripted anything, believes in teaching poetry across the year, curriculum and all content areas, and doesn't approve of teaching poetry in isolated units. If the poet says, no, I won't help script your lessons because I don't like how you are doing this, does that benefit the kids? If the poet agrees to work within a system she doesn't agree with philosophically, is that a betrayal of her own ideals?

How does one best work to keep poetry alive in schools as they become more and more systematized? Art is all about improvising -- do we as artists improvise our way around the system or turn our backs? What if the result of turning our backs is that the kids are strapped into a curriculum with no room for improvisation?

What is the best benefit to the kids? We can't meet them all outside of school, so we must work within the schools. But . . .

Parkside Elementary School, Goshen, IN

Goshen is in prairie country, flat and windswept. Tuesday morning dawned clear and cold -- extra cold. The reception at school however was warm and welcoming. The students from Parkside are camping out at a school called (appropriately) Praire Elementary while their own school is undergoing an extreme makeover. But before my visit the kids had been busy doing a makeover of their own -- decorating the halls and display cases with their own writing. Very impressive! At the end of the day the school hosted a poetry night for parents -- and what a turn-out! The families spilled over from the chairs set up in the middle of the gym and into the bleachers. And the event wasn't even at the neighborhood school, it was across town at Prairie, but there they were, all these parents supporting literacy by turning out and (no doubt) cruising the hallways to see their students' writing.

Many thanks to teacher Matt Cooper and the rest of the staff for all their hard work in preparing for my visit. Very cool day -- and I ain't just talkin' weather.

Poem the poem -- Parkside teacher Matt Cooper had his fifth graders rewrite some of my poems, to "poem the poem," as he describes it. Here one student rewrote "Which Way to the Dragon" as Which Way to my Teddy Bear." Posted by Picasa

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Universal peace signs and lots of smiles. Posted by Picasa

Friday, March 17, 2006

Illegal migrants -- not an issue confined to USA

In China, rules are in place that require a visa to move from one province (like a state) to another. If a family moves without this visa to find work, say from a farming community to the growing city of Shanghai, they become illegal immigrants and thus are not able to enroll their children in state supported Chinese schools.

Rather than see these children grow up uneducated, a dedicated group of teachers are working with these children under very basic circumstances to teach them basic skills. At the migrant school by the Pu Dong campus of Shanghai American School, students attend classrooms such as the one pictured. There are 50 students to a classroom, including pre-school. They students sit at their little tables and learn most of their lessons orally by recitation. The fifth graders and third graders are learning English along with their lessons and every year each class memorizes a number of classic Chinese poems. The pre-school students were in a class with not a single toy, they too were seated at tables. But, I noticed on the board that they were learning their math facts -- 5-2=3. Oral lessons.

Outside the school is state of the art playground equipment donated by SAS which has been working to help their meger circumstances. Everyone at the migrant school was anxious for me to know that theirs is not a typical Chinese school.

By the way, the reason these kids are all bundled up is not because they are ready for recess. This school has no heat. It was in the low forties the day we visited, note the rosy cheeks.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Children at the Chinese Migrant School recite poetry by heart. Then I taught them a poem in English -- my shortest poem. Everyone laughed and laughed.  Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Jammers from Puxi perform a poem for four voices. Missing in the student poetry are poems about street crime (as so many are in the USA). Maybe because there is virtually no street crime in Shanghai beyond a pick pocket here and there and even that is rare compared to other large cities. Posted by Picasa

Shanghai American School Puxi

You wouldn't believe this campus. It is like a luxury community college state side. The staff and kids are all very dedicated to learning, you get that feeling just walking through the halls. A big highlight from my four day visit there was the poetry jam hosted by the middle school where the kids performed their own poems -- one silly poem about broccoli, a poem for two voices where the sun and moon were talking to one another and a very touching poem written by a student who was close to a classmate who died -- she wrote about how she could still hear the strains of her friend's viola.

Speaking of violas -- I was privileged to hear a three piece concert by the middle school stringed symphony and I'm here to tell you, any community orchestra would have been envious of their precision and ambitious music.

Shanghai is being developed under a 100 year plan, something unheard of in this country. But I suspect one can't survive in a city of 20million people without patience. Looking out at the sky scrapers of Shanghai is like looking out over the peaks of the Rockies -- the peaks disappear into the clouds and the vista is endless.

We had so many wonderful meals, great conversations and good socializing, it is hard to even single things out. Michael and I made thank you notes to send to teachers and staff and the stack was formidable. Particular thanks to librarians Ellen, Peggy, Colleen, and Mike for all their hard work in getting us there.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Poetry Jammers from the International School at Tianjin. After they finished performing my poetry, I asked them if they knew what the next step was. "Why, you need to write and perform your own poems." And I know they will.
 Posted by Picasa

Monday, March 13, 2006

Shanghai American School, Pu Dong

A normal school day. Or so it would seem. Up at 6AM, shower, eat breakfast as fast as possible and catch the bus. Looking out the window however (at everything except the traffic, see previous post) not much seems normal to me. First of all, it's cold, Fahrenheit or Celsius, however you measure it and folks everywhere are riding bicycles to work. People are walking to work, doing marketing and picking up their breakfasts at small open air shops. (Did I mention it was cold AND raining?) The bus takes us through a small village and on to the school campus. This is a campus that is growing at an amazing rate -- 300 students last year -- 600 this year and 900 predicted for next year. The students are a mixture of many cultures, American, European, Korean, and many Chinese nationals all taking their studies in English. Just about everyone is at least bi-lingual, many have mastered three or more languages by middle school. Joining us at the school are a group of poetry jammers who have been flown in from Tenjeng for the assembly. I sat and listened to their lively performance of poems I wrote for my children a world away. It made me cry.

And get this -- at SAS Pu Dong, it is cool to be smart. Like most middle schools, I have to do a little sales talk on the importance of poetry. But here it is because the students are so serious about their other studies they may question if they can take time out for poetry. Another magical day.

Arriving in China

Imagine a city with the population of the State of Ohio. Forget it. You can't imagine it. Even when you see it, you can't imagine it. Now that I am home, I have trouble believing all that I saw. But you know what came through amazingly clear? The people are not all angry. I'm sure some are, human nature being what it is. But Shanghai is not like it's little brother New York where all the cabbies are swearing at each other and people are pounding their fists on car hoods. Shanghai just flows in and out of itself like water sloshing in a mason jar, one incoming wave moving aside when pushed by the next.

On our first day in Shanghai we were taken on a mini tour by Shanghai American School parent Cyndy O. In four short hours we visited one of the tallest buildings in the world (out of the top ten Shanghai has at least 5), the fabric market where vendors in small, open air booths custom make everything from suits to cashmere coats to silk dresses and bridal gowns. From there we went to the knock off market home of rolex watches and all kinds of impressive brand names attached to copied merchandise. And then we went to a temple surrounded by (you guessed it) more shopping. Shanghai has really taken to this free commerce thing in a big way.

I picked up one good habit I would highly recommend for anyone visiting there -- do NOT watch the traffic. Put yourself in the hands of a reliable driver, look at the buildings, the people on bicycles, the hand pushed garbage trucks, the lush vegetable markets -- but DO NOT look into traffic. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

A construction wall appropriate since all of Shanghai seems to be under construction! Posted by Picasa

"Evil travels in a straight line" Ancient Chinese saying -- which is why the bridges are arched and the path leading to this ancient home is zig zagged. Love that phrase, evil travels in a straight line. Boy, does it. Posted by Picasa

Dedicated teachers from Afghanistan. Posted by Picasa

News from Afghanistan

The TARA conference sponsored two teachers from Afghanistan to attend. The challenges they described were overwhelming. Lack of electricity, working facilities and low funding all caused by continuing wars in the region. The limited number of trained teachers are working to instruct "trainers" who in turn instruct "mentors" who are the ones actually doing classroom instruction. Girls are welcome under the new education system, but many children go to school in 2 hour increments because of their work schedules. Not the teachers -- the kids' work schedules. In a land where so many of the men have been killed and the mothers were unable to get training under the Taliban regime, the children are working to help support their families. Hamaira (pictured) works in a women's center, providing much needed support to women and children trying to cope with challenges unimaginable to most of us.

Ride 'em cowboy

Chasing camels in the desert in a hotel minivan hardly qualifies as adventure in the National Geographic sense. However, when it leads to actually petting one and exchanging smiles with his handler, that's pretty adventurous for a poet from Cleveland.

A visit to the Oil museum shows that this barren area was grass covered when the oil developers first arrived from England. Still in bloom, however is the Tree of Life. This spreading monster tree that has no apparent water source.

Over the shoulder of the camel notice the presence of tanks and the tents of an army installation. They were not too keen on having us take pictures and we were keen to eventually leave the desert, so naturally we complied.

Many thanks to Bridget Doogan and Dot for helping us on our tour of the desert. And thanks to Dr. Seith, our liguist/doctor companion who proclaimed it "A Magical Day." And it was.

One patient camel. Posted by Picasa

Tree of Life Posted by Picasa

Friday, March 03, 2006


I am in Shanghai, woefully behind in chronically my trip. The weird thing is, I can post from China, but I cannot read my blog. It is blocked. So, forgive me for any typos.

I had such a fulfilling experience at the Arabian Reading Association meeting. Again, I was struck by the commonalities. So many teachers wishing to improve their ability to teach children to read. Teachers from all over the middle east, some dressed in black and veiled, some in colorful (gorgeous) head scarves and some in blue jeans. But all with the same purpose.

We talked about writing across the curriculum -- but what was amazing to me was that we were writing across cultures and the geography of the entire world at the same time. I made friends I will never forget.

Commonalities: A desire to learn Posted by Picasa