Thursday, April 21, 2011

United Nations International School of Hanoi: Poetry Week

When librarian Joyce Miller contacted us about dishing up some poetry at the middle school in Hanoi for April Fool's Day she was not just foolin' around. She not only scheduled assemblies and a seamless week of workshops for both of us, she managed to convince French, Spanish and (gasp) calculus classes to try their hands at poetry.

Here Joyce welcomes students as they begin to filter in for the lunchtime poetry jam. The library is the heart of any school and Joyce proved it here big time as music throbbed drawing kids to words.

The poetry topics could not have been more diverse. One day the eighth grade dropped everything to break into teams to study the pros and cons of a proposed nuclear plant in Vietnam in light of the tragedy in Japan. The dangers were researched and laid out against the dangers of mercury poisoning from coal plants and the feasibility of solar and wind turbines. At the end of the day students participated in a UN style debate. Here I'm talking to one poet who is trying to find just the right word for his fortunately/unfortunately poem on nuclear energy.

But how do I write with the French students when I don't read/write French? Well, we learned together. I showed the a model of our poetry writing strategy in English, they wrote in French. What I learned is that in French, we don't say something "feels like." French don't speak in similies that way -- they go straight to the metaphor. I'm sure this says something about the French, but I'm not sure exactly what. Many thanks to the language teachers for making this a learning experience for us all.

Percentage poems. They're fun. They're specific. I've written them all over the world with kids of all ages. But I never before saw a student turn one into a pie chart in the (no exaggeration) blink of a cursor. UNIS is a one-to-one laptop school which opens up new possibilities for poetry research and composing.

Write what you know, we are told by the wordwise. Personally, I write what I know and what I wonder about. Here's the deal on calculus. I don't even know enough about the subject to wonder about it. As far as I am concerned, calculus is a more exotic language than French. At least I can mispronounce my way through good day and thank you in French, but I'm not even conversant in passing pleasantries in calculus. Besides which, it is hard (not rock hard, calculus hard) for a poet to talk her way into an IB (International Baccalaureate) high school language arts class let alone a maths class. (Yes, they call it maths)

So, I was one thrilled(and, okay, a little bit scared) poet to be invited into Melissa Griffin's 11th and 12th grade maths classes. Not only did I learn something of the language of calculus, (it's curvy), but I wanted to learn more. Isn't' that just like a good teacher, tricking you into wanting learn more. But this post doesn't do justice to our time together. For more in depth understanding of how the language of calculus can curve into poetry, visit Melissa's blog. Prepare to be astounded.

Finally, at the end of the week we relax over tea. Thank you to all the students at UNIS, the involved and engaged faculty and special thanks to Joyce who worked so hard to make it all work, including introducing us to street food dining.

And P.S. don't forget to visit Melissa's blog:


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