Friday, September 17, 2010

High Definition Vocabulary

Four years in the writing, more in the research. So much time and yes, fun, in the making. Finally!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Teaching Kindness?

Book smart = street dumb

This thinking is ubiquitous in too many of our upper schools. Smart is stupid, dumb is good. To mark the depth of this river, all you need to do is walk in the door. Ivory towers. Sissies. Nerds. Society just doesn’t give that much respect to the pocket protector sub-group, treating them more like a sub-species until they get out of school and star in a movie elevating the underdog to greatness or invent something that even bone heads can use, like an I Touch.

In an environment where weakness can get you teased and bullied, why risk showing off your book smarts? Bullies are often the most insecure of cowards and they can smell easy meat. Somewhere around 6th grade kids start to learn this and too many begin to stop learning in school. What’s the utility of engaging in a practice that’s going to get you socially ostracized? Nothing drains the enthusiasm out of a classroom faster than the skinny-eyed stare of the kid a silent majority has voted most likely to slam you into the lockers. My experience with adolescents is that it isn’t so hard to get them to buy into the lesson, it’s getting past the fact that they don’t want to show that they are interested. It’s hard on a teacher, but for some kids, it’s a life or death choice.

Nowhere is this worse than in my home district, Mentor High School. It’s been in the news lately since that rough patch couple years back, a two-year period in which five (5) students committed suicide due, at least in part, to bullying. Now a second set of bereaved parents has filed suit. They had complained, talked to the administration, withdrawn their daughter (a recent Croatian immigrant), and even hospitalized her for depression due to the abuse she was receiving daily at school. Like the gay boy before her and the three other children (children) in Mentor schools, she was the victim of what one commentator has labeled an atmosphere of “aggressive conformity.”

Are we teaching the wrong stuff? Is the increased pressure on schools to teach by the book toward measurable outcomes not only making teachers nuts, but driving kids crazy too? By increasing the pressure through testing, are we doubling down on the wrong things? I picked this list up from a cheery piece of reading you might want to add to the stack on your bedside table (you nerd you) entitled On the Death of Childhood and the Destruction of Public Schools by Gerald W. Bracey, Heinemann 2003.

Critical thinking
Sense of beauty
Sense of wonder

This is a list of what proficiency tests do NOT measure. Isn’t it also a list of characteristics you would want in a neighbor, parent, or co-worker? Characteristics of a successful person?

I’m not sure all of these qualities (motivation? kindness?) can be taught, but I think we can do a better job of not discouraging those traits by handing over control of our school communities to muscle-headed and spike-heeled bullies, ignoring the human needs of children.

So, I would suggest the following if asked (I decidedly was not asked being a poet, which makes me bottom-line suspect from jump). First, make it a legislative imperative that teachers report when a student is being abused by another student in the same way they must report if a child is being abused at home. Teachers can lose their licenses for not reporting abuse at home, why not the abuse on the stairs?

Second, make school more interactive with small learning groups where kids have to rely on one another instead of the prevailing competitive, every kid for him/herself paradigm. I don’t care what the test scores say, if kids are killing themselves or overdosing (oh, yeah, there were 5 of those this year, too) the school is failing.

If a school fails one of its own, the group who enabled the abuser with their collective silence needs to pay a price. If it is the jocks with the thick necks and the girls competing fiercely to hang from them who are perpetuating this terrorism, how about cancelling a few football games? Suspend the cheerleading squad? Oh, not fair to the athletes vying for scholarships? How about the nerds vying for scholarships who are afraid to participate in class because they might get teased to death? Let’s work to level that playing field.

One good thing kids glean from sports is that you don’t let the rest of the team down. They can also learn it from band, plays, poetry readings or their chem. lab group. But in order to succeed in the workplace, kids need to learn it, whether or not they can throw a ball.

Finally, suspending the abusers individually is not a remedy. Doesn’t work. Just causes more kids to feel isolated and angry. We need to listen to kids. Give them a forum to talk (I recommend poetry performance, naturally) and listen. Give them an audience. One of the most powerful moments in my teaching experience was when a mentally challenged student read a poem to a warm around the collars group gathered in a Michigan middle school library about what it was like for her to be chased to and from her locker every day. It made a difference. The talking and the listening. We all learned something that day.

Street smarts. The hand-on-a-hot-stove kind of learning that doesn’t come out of a book, but is both meaningful and memorable. The kind we get from talking to one another. We need more of that.

Saturday, September 04, 2010


When doing a poetry reading, it is always best NOT to take yourself too seriously. Prepare, yes. Have your papers in order, yes. Rehearse a little. Know your audience. But all of us who read our words aloud have grown to appreciate nobel prize winner Wislawa Szymborska's sentiment:

Poetry Reading

To be a boxer, or not to be there
at all. O Muse, where are our teeming crowds?
Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare
it's time to start this cultural affair.
Half came inside because it started raining,
the rest are relatives. O Muse.
The women here would love to rant and rave,
but that's for boxing. Here they must behave.
Dante's Infemo is ringside nowadays.
Likewise his Paradise. O Muse.

Oh, not to be a boxer but a poet,
one sentenced to hard shelleying for life,
for lack of muscles forced to show the world
the sonnet that may make the high-school reading lists
with luck. O Muse,
O bobtailed angel, Pegasus.

In the first row, a sweet old man's soft snore:
he dreams his wife's alive again. What's more,
she's making him that tart she used to bake.
Aflame, but carefully-don't burn his cake!
we start to read. O Muse.

Okay, so I did Vertigo Xi'an Xavier's Canton First Friday! The Poetry Spectacular last night. Beautiful night, fun arts event for families and galleries. Highly recommended. Don't wait for a written invitation. The streets were hopping. It wasn't raining at all and some of the crowd even came inside for the poetry reading.

In the theater, the opening act was the local HS forensics team. They wept, screamed, and scratched their skin through three performances. The audience clapped politely as one watched her kids drown on the Titanic, one drank bleach, and one (even more frighteningly) attempted humor. Then they all stood up with their entourages and noisily discussed how well they did as they departed and as I was being introduced. Michael mentioned to a couple of them that my poems have been used to win several state forensic oral interp competitions. Perhaps one kid shrugged.

Then a young woman came to the stage as I was putting my folder on the music stand.
"What time is the open mic?"
"After the feature," answered Vertigo, the emcee (who is working overtime to build this event and sincerely seems to be a great guy).
"What time is that?" She asked.
"Are you leaving?" He asked.
"Yes. I’ll come back to read. I’m first on the open mic."
"You should stay for the feature," he nodded to me, standing at his elbow.
She looked me straight in the eye and said, “most poetry bores me, no offense.”

How could I take offense?

The rest of the evening went much better and we were treated to energetic performances by Mary Turzillo and Geoff Landis among others. Will the poetry gods forgive me for cutting out for the first poet in the open mic and then returning for the rest of the evening?

As I departed, the young woman (who had returned to chat her way through the last couple of my poems and take cell phone pictures of her friend) called to me, “you’re leaving? I’m crushed.”

My reply, “no offense.”

(cross-posted at cleveland poetics)

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Orwell in Bed

I read Animal Farm as a kid, maybe third grade or so. It was on the bookshelf by my bed. I remember slipping the slim, green volume in and out surreptitiously to read with a flashlight in bed. Mom didn’t know I was reading this book without pictures in which pigs talked, which definitely made it more attractive. I’m not sure if mom would have censored the book from me if she had known.

Mom would have arranged the shelves in the bookcase to look nice, not as some kind of plot to expand my mind. Besides being fiercely intelligent, she liked things to look nice, not like those ratty looking children’s books with the torn covers that she sent to the Goodwill as soon as I learned to read. In fact, she trashed the book jackets on all books. Messy looking. I’m not sure it even occurred to her that I might be reading those Book-of-the-Month Club selections carefully aligned by height and color. That I didn’t truly understand the meaning of Animal Farm, the story within the story, didn’t matter. I liked the book and the words weren’t too hard.

This narrow bookcase sits in my office today; it holds a disorderly mishmash of my ragged old journals. I’ve kept it around, just like my love of reading in bed after the lights go down. This habit has been greatly enhanced by being able to read from my back lit little ITouch. The words are newspaper column-width and just as exciting or disappointing as they would be on the page. Yes, I still like books with covers, but under the covers, I love my ITouch enabling me to read in the dark.

Surreptitiously? Not so much.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is my latest read. It is a rich book set in Ethiopia in which some of the descriptions are so graphic that the words on the screen seem to bleed (the main characters are surgeons). In fact, I’ve had to self-censor a few passages. Though, like Animal Farm, the book doesn't contain pictures, some of the images are powerful and fully capable of causing nightmares. Humble compliments to the author.

This book was recommended to me by my friends at Amazon who know I like books set in foreign places. You think elephants have a memory? Amazon never forgets. They know every item I have looked at from school bus tents for Thomas to books on stalking/window peepers (eight years ago I ordered a paperback on this topic to help understand the mentality of these people, it’s a long story), to those little ankle high boots I thought I couldn’t get through the winter without and which now follow me onto every single site I visit on the internet, scrolling across the top, flashing at the side. Amazon remembers such things. Forever, it seems. And sometimes they are spot on. I like this book, in fact.

In Cutting for Stone I found this little story within the story that I liked. The story was about a miserly Baghdad merchant who had a battered pair of slippers everyone teased him about. He finally decided to get rid of them, threw them out a window, they landed on the head of a pregnant woman, she miscarried, and he went to jail. The second attempt to get rid of the slippers he dropped them into a canal, they choked up the drain, and again off to jail. A listener to the story observes, “He might as well build a room for his slippers. Why try to lose them? He will never escape.” All kinds of cool inferences can be drawn from this little story, an imbedded mini lesson. Everything in your experience (the slippers) becomes part of who you are. The author sums it up saying, “the key to happiness is to own your slippers.” Love it.

Loved it so much I tapped the passage with my finger and up jumped a little window on my ITouch that said, “1247 people also liked this passage.”

How Orwellian is that?