Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A First in Performance Poetry

Stephie is Katie's daughter and like her mother, she likes being first. She likes to walk first when we go to the woods or the beach. She likes to cartwheel the fastest and swing the highest. Stephie loves first grade.

Her teacher has a great plan for helping kids with reading -- every week the children are assigned a poem to read, re-read and then perform. Then the kids take the poem home and perform it for parents who record their written applause in a response journal. It's about the funnest approach to homework I've ever heard of. AND a true assessment of her knowledge of word mastery. Stephie is great at this and reads with intense drama and expression.

I will have to ask Stephie's teacher if there is a source I should cite for that classroom idea, but it is a fabulous one for primary kids.

And oh so much better of a way of assessing her reading fluency than taking a stop watch to her reading nonsense syllables, where reading with expression and drama only slows a reader down. And how much drama can a reader put into sounds with nothing attached to them? No bugs, no pumpkins, no mystery, no enchantment? Just sounds. Where the only skill being tested is speed, as if speed could ever equate to interpreting the real meaning of words. This testing practice is inflicted on her, a political mandate by the federal government, every other week so that there is a score to write next to her name, so that people in suits can brag that her building's scores are up. Not the children's reading, not their happiness, not their love of learning. Their scores.

Ask yourself sometime: what motivated you to read? What excited you? What made you want to learn new words. Now ask yourself -- was it a stopwatch, a list of nonsense syllables and a stranger keeping score? Was it you sweating it out every other week to read sounds with no meaning faster and faster? This is DIBELS, "the worst thing to happen to the teaching of reading since the development of flash cards," according to P.David Pearson in Ken Goodman's book, What's the Matter with DIBELS. (Heinemann, 2007). Yesterday I was reading this book with my lunch and it gave me an upset stomach. Seriously, I couldn't finish my salad.

Thankfully, Stephie's teacher has not allowed this test to totally dictate her methods of instruction. Thankfully, Stephie wound up in a class with an experienced teacher, not a newby who was trained to believe that this bogus assessment plan has any impact on actually teaching kids to read. Thankfully, Stephie's teacher is countering this testing madness by leading a group of "firsts" in performance poetry.

Now there's a medium that can really get kids jazzed about reading!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Travel dreams

It was a big event in my life when the National Geographic came every month. I can't recall ever seeing my mother reading one, or my dad. I suppose they did, or maybe the subscription was just something they did for the kids. I didn't come home from school to video games or online chats. I came home to snack on pretzels and apples, maybe some peanut butter spread on whatever was handy (just the tip of a knife if mom wasn't looking) and avoid my homework by either making up dance routines involving chairs and stools in the living room to the accompaniment of Rogers and Hammerstein or reading my mail. How much mail could a 10 year old kid get beyond the $5 card from granny on my birthday? Let me tell you -- boxes. I got mail almost everyday.

On the one day a month when the National Geographic came I'd snatch it up immediately. I'm sure I gleaned some educational benefit from the magazine. I looked at the pictures of the volcanoes and hummingbirds, the camels with flies on their eyes and oh yes, the naked indigenous people. It was there that I read about the space shots which lead me on a wild goose chase to find space food at the grocery store. That was before you could find your wildest desire on the Internet and Kroger's had yet to stock food in flavor saving pouches.

After a quick flip through, I would get down to studying the last few pages in the magazine where there were columns of 1 x 2" ads for countries all over the world beckoning American tourist dollars. They wanted those dollars so bad that they offered travel brochures, maps, coupons and other enticements to anyone for (get this) FREE.

Free was just what I could afford. Some of the poorer countries asked for a self addressed stamped envelope, but stamps were only a nickle and I could sneak one of those out of the middle drawer of the desk easily enough. I'd spread out my clipped coupons from the back of the magazine on my bed and slip them into envelops, guaranteeing a continual stream of mail. I dreamed of traveling to all those places.

Last night Micheal reports that once again I was dreaming of travel -- spouting numbers in my sleep. We have three big trips in various stages of planning: Kazakhstan in Jan., Jakarta in Feb., and Istanbul in March. Figures and itineraries were dancing in my brain all night.

One thing I never dreamed when I sat down at the kitchen table to write poems for Katie and Kelly was that those poems would take me to places like Vietnam, China, Italy, Croatia, Sumatra, Vancouver, Toronto, Bahrain and Tell City, Indiana -- to name a few.

All I know is that this travel dream has been with me since I memorized every word to South Pacific. I just never dreamed it would come true. And I NEVER dreamed that the coupon that would get me there would be a poem.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

jack kerouac's words turn 50

I never liked the man. Personally, I think the beat poets were a self-absorbed lot both in their writing and their lives. Pumped on drugs, alcohol, and their own selfishness -- the myth surrounding the beats collective genius still makes it hard for a sober female to be taken seriously. These words are spoken with tongue firmly planted in cheek and squinty eyes -- half serious because to be otherwise is to invite an avalanche of are-you-freaking-kidding-mes from all those who have been inspired by Kerouac and the rest of the beats to write, explore, and at least dream about casually abusing the emotions and intellect of women. Substitute broad and dame for B* and ho and Jack is the misogynistic rapper of the 50s.

Maybe it's because I never studied him in high school in my formative years when the natural instinct to go on the road yearns in the adolescent soul -- to leave all responsibility behind -- when it is a comfort to read affirmations of self-centeredness. I'm not sure I EVER would have identified with his relentless pursuit of women, but I can see how many an adolescent male has. Instead, I was introduced to Kerouac in a modern literature class in college during the decomposition of my parents marriage due to the anguish of my mother's alcoholism and drug abuse and in the midst of my own struggles to shed that pain and become a responsible adult. When the professor popped the top on ol' Jack's writing, I took one whiff and fled. Rendering humor out of drinking, drugging, and ridiculing the ones left behind to clean up the puke and keep the lights on was not my idea of a good read.

So, my rejection of Kerouac is personal. I know he influenced a generation, that his writing style spoke for a literary time period and went on to influence the next. And let's face it, literary icons are often people you would never want to ask to dinner -- Hemingway would have torn the place up and insulted everyone before using the table cloth as a bull fighter's cape, Dorothy Parker would have passed out in the powder room, and Byron slept with his sister -- I've read and enjoyed all of them. I was in a bad place when Kerouac and I were introduced, like meeting someone when you are a little cranky -- we just made a bad impression on one another.

Which is all to say, I went to two events this weekend commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road expecting to be, well not really expecting to be anything. So many people spoke of how Kerouac had touched their lives. Cavana said he read him in HS and asked himself, "could poetry be like this?" Ray has spent residency time at the Kerouac house and spoke in jazz rhythms of the vibe. Kisha never read the man before and gave an appropriately sardonic interpretation. Nina Gibbons lived in San Fransisco in the 50s and was THERE for readings at the City Lights Bookstore. Salinger alternately growled and blasted through 35 sentences from the text that contained the word "window" in his very best Burroughs impersonation. I was thoroughly entertained. And maybe (maybe) a little tempted to see if perhaps time has enabled me to acquire a taste for vintage Kerouac.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Take my mike -- PLEASE

Ah, the bold, the reluctant, the hesitant, the seventh grade poets take turns at the mike at Oakwood Middle and Glenwood Middle in Canton. We wrote, we projected, we loosened our minds and our voices and finally the few, the brave, the wordsmiths came to the mike to read their poems of personal conflict. This poet, after bravely reading his newly written piece into the mike, couldn't wait to get rid of that thing. But you know what? I think he'll be back.

I wish I had more pictures from the day, but the fact is I bought a new camera and experienced as I am with my old PhD (press here dummy) camera, this one actually has a manual (yet unread) and comes with a class (yet untaken). Obviously, I had the wrong setting on because this photo was not photoshopped, that's the way it came out. But I love the action of it. You can almost read the "OMG what was I thinking" in his eyes.

After visiting both schools, I spoke at a reading at the HS which houses the public library (now there's a concept!). A woman came up to me and asked if I could remember her. Like the poet in the picture above, I could read her eyes, but she had to remind me of her name . . . Cindy Horne is retired now, but she is one of the very first educators that took a chance on a self-published poet and invited me to her school (we estimated) in 1991 and then was kind enough to pass my name along to others. She graciously accepted a thank you hug oh these many years later. How often do we get a chance to thank someone who really made a difference in our lives?

Big thanks to the friends of the community library for sponsoring my visit and for all the writers and performers in Canton. Great day.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Up North -- The Upper Peninsula Reading Association

Traveling from Florida to the Upper Peninsula is like going from the nation's left ankle to its eyebrow. When I was a kid growing up outside of Deeetroit, we used to call everything above Flint, "up north." But this trip took me REALLY up north, about as north as you can go without taking a dip in Lake Superior. In between the airport and the car, I got my first whiff of winter. Believe it or not, it smelled pretty good.

But inside was all was warm and cozy. Loved listing to Marc Brown and his tales of Arthur and the gang -- most interesting was his story of tangling with Bill O'Reilly who misrepresented and detonated an episode of his PBS series on tolerance in which one of the characters came from a home with two mommies. The entire right wing media machine came down on his head, funding dried up and perhaps most frightening -- 5 large envelops arrived in his mailbox from the IRS. He and all of his companies were being audited.

We live in frightening times. But as long as we keep speaking out -- the poets, the kind hearted aardvarks on PBS, and all the teachers spreading peace and tolerance, there is hope that calmer, more just philosophies will prevail. That's what all this testing is about if you ask me -- it's putting restrictions on teachers so that kids can't find independent voices -- so that they are trained to reiterate only limited information, and in the case of the dasterdly DIBELS, nonsense syllables. More on that topic later. Anyway, all of this drilling threatens to murder a kid's natural sense of curiosity and love of learning -- the tests loom over their heads like a relentless continum of IRS audits.

But Up North I met a lot of teachers and student teachers dedicated to helping kids find their own voices. A group of U-ppers are studying my book, helping kids develop their own poems in response to learning across the curriculum. Thank you thank you to Mandy, Sandy, Lucy and all the teachers who are putting my meager poems and ideas to Superior use. And this picture, with all the post-its sent me through the roof!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Fern Creek Elementary

This picture was taken at the end of the school day. Notice who is looking tired and who is looking bright as sunshine.

I LOVE visiting the classrooms of my friends (that goes for Katie aka Mrs. Lufkin, too). You know someone in a certain setting. You can see him/her as a person who empties the dishwasher or drives a car or likes to order steak. You may even know how that person likes the steak. But nothing prepares you for watching how that individual steers a classroom of kids toward learning. It is like trying to organize lint in the bathtub -- every kid comes in with a separate agenda. How a single teacher gathers the group and gets them focused is like watching a magician -- the polar opposite of how I felt when I once saw my algebra teacher at the movies with a date -- OMG, she had another life outside of school!

I loved visiting Steve Czerniejewski's fifth grade classroom. I have known Steve for 12 years as part of the traveling troop of teachers working with the Janet Allen Literacy Institutes. As a group, we've hiked in Alaska, picnicked in Arizona, sweated in Baltimore, swatted mosquitoes in Florida, watched the sunset in San Diego, toured in D.C., sucked down lobster rolls in Maine and gotten lost in more cities than we can count. But, I'd never been to where he does his teaching thing. As soon as I arrived, I knew it was going to be good.

The kids all checked themselves in, committed themselves to learning by moving a clothes pin on a chart and set to work solving a math problem on the board that had me stumped. Okay, here it is:

What number is a multiple of 80 and 100.
It is a square number.
It is less than 500 and more than 100.

Solve that, and you are officially as smart as a fifth grader. The kids worked independently and then discussed the possibilities, solving the problem and setting the stage for a successful day.

Decorating the widows were poetic reflections -- pictures and textual responses to my poems where the kids used crayons and words to make connections. They were ALL great -- much better than my ability to take pictures into the light -- here are just a couple that came out clear enough to see. Click on the pictures to see them up close.

Extra bonus: I got to meet Steve's gorgeous, charming, smart family. I always thought he was just flashing around the pictures that came with his wallet -- but Kim and Carissa are real and they are really wonderful.
To Kim, Carissa, Mr. CZ and all of his students -- xxoo

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Atlantic High School, Daytona, FL

Two photos -- both taken by teacher Meg Roa who was kind enough to invite me to her school. Although this is common place in Southern climes, it still seems odd to me that the school hallways are on the outside of the buildings, the classroom doors opening to the elements like Motel 6. Atlantic HS circles its classrooms like Conestogas. Within the inside courtyard students lounge on planters and gather in clusters, same as in Cleveland -- except with a whole lot more sunshine. So when we began to write our poems of conflict and an "almost fight," I had to ask, "What do you call that area where you pass between classes?" Answer: They call it the hallway. A remnant of the old days -- kind of like calling an ITunes release an "album" when hardly any kids around have ever laid their hands on one of those giant CDs.

Great visit, great writers. Wish I had had more time to hear more of the poems. Time goes so quickly. Whoosh. We wrote some, performed some. Hope some more poems are loosened up by the exercise. Hope hope hope.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

IUP -- which is not in Indiana

This is Dr. Lynne Alvine's adolescent lit class at IUP (that's Indiana University of PA) where I had the privilege of speaking on Thursday. Not only were they patient enough to sit through my poetry, they even sat through readings from unpublished manuscripts and in one case a rejected manuscript. On Friday night at Dr. Lynne's house one student teacher asked me if I had any advice for her as a new teacher and my answer was YES. YOU HAVE TO STAND UP FOR YOURSELF! Believe in your own intellect and abilities no matter what. It's a tough time in teaching today, but happily new, dedicated teachers are still following their hearts into the profession.

The next day on Friday IUP played host to 17 local high schools who sent students there for a day of writing and learning. It was fabulous. I spoke in the morning with some help from Michael and he hosted a sharing session at the end of the day where students shared their writing. In between they were treated to break out sessions on everything from Diary writing to poetry to Harry Potter fantasy -- and stacks -- I MEAN STACKS of pizzas.

Thank you to my dear friend and inspirational mentor Dr. Lynne and to Sue Johnson and the Northwest PA Writing Project for all their hard work and dedication to making this a terrific day.

I can't imagine having an opportunity like this when I was in HS. Had I, perhaps I wouldn't have waited until I was 40 to launch a writing career. There really are so many opportunities for kids these days, but too many don't even know the opportunities are out there. A day like this widens horizons beyond the cafeteria table and the bank of lockers in the hall. Truly valuable.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Ben turns 8

Ben had his 8th birthday today.

He is the oldest of Kelly's three sons, a sportsman, football player, soccer player, basketball player who has electric guitar dreams and a GREAT imagination for stories. I love Ben's stories and for his part, he is patient with mine. He seems to take my idol worship in stride and just goes about the important business of second grade.

Last weekend Michael and I traveled to D.C. to babysit for Ben and his brothers Dan and Thomas while Kel and Brian went to Houston for a wedding. Thomas is potty training -- been a long time since I been there and done that! Danny is obsessed with Tom and Jerry, playing soccer and his favorite drink: chocolate milk. All the boys like a good turn on the playground equipment.

Danny is 4 and Thomas is 2.5 and both need more attention than Ben these days. He's pretty self sufficient in the food, shower, brush your teeth department. I came home wondering if he felt shortchanged while we were visiting because the younger ones (aka the diaper boys) issue a continuous stream of mandates totally appropriate for boys their ages. I wish (as I always do) that Ben and I had more time together.

Today when he arrived home from school there was a new bike in the driveway, a combination gift from grandparents and parents. A really nice bike. I can't wait to see him ride. Oh, the places he'll go.

I hope he sends back word.