The Power of Poetry

(c) haley8 under CC License
(c) haley8 under CC License

Crowded Tub

There are too many kids in this tub.
There are too many elbows to scrub.
I just washed a behind that I’m sure wasn’t mine.
There are too many kids in this tub.

– Shel Silverstein
© Shel Silverstein, reprinted from A Light in the Attic published by Harper Collins

 

For the past couple of years now, this is the poem I use to start my lecture on teaching poetry to my second year elementary pre-service teachers at McGill University.  Reason being….it makes me laugh and I can recite it by heart with lots of emotion.  It is then followed by a couple more silly ones such as this gem.

 

Falling Asleep in Class

I fell asleep in class today,
as I was awfully bored.
I laid my head upon my desk
and closed my eyes and snored.

I woke to find a piece of paper
sticking to my face.
I’d slobbered on my textbooks,
and my hair was a disgrace.

My clothes were badly rumpled,
and my eyes were glazed and red.
My binder left a three-ring
indentation in my head.

I slept through class, and probably
I would have slept some more,
except my students woke me
as they headed out the door.

– Kenn Nesbitt
©
Kenn Nesbitt, reprinted from If Kids Ruled the School published by Meadowbrook Press.

 

And then, very quietly, I change the slide and start to recite another poem. The boisterous and giddy group suddenly, as if by magic, simply stops chatting and laughing and moving around in their seats.  You can actually feel the mood change in the large auditorium.  I swear it almost even drops a degree or two.  And as they sit and listen, you can see them deep in thought.  Many of them transported to another time and place.

 

On Turning Ten

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.

Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

– Billy Collins
© Billy Collins Included in the book, Sailing Around the Room: New and Selected Poems.

 

And when I read Billy Collins’ final line, the sad, sorrowful stillness that hangs heavy in the air is broken only by a sigh or two as the young soon to be teachers consider the power that his words hold.  It is at that moment they begin to understand that there is something so special about this genre.  This is important since “poetry—merely whispering its name frightens everyone away.” They start to see and feel that poetry can affect a person and touch their very inner self in a way like no other form of writing can.

Kenn Nesbitt, the great children’s poet whose poem you read above has written five reasons why he believes that poetry is important and should have a central place in our classrooms.  Here is my take on how we can use these reasons as springboards for classroom practice.

Good poetry always makes you FEEL something.

“A good poem will give you goose bumps or butterflies in your stomach, or it will make you cry, or it will make you laugh. Or a good poem will make you feel better when you are sad or grieving.”

As a teacher, consider poetry as medicine for the soul. What ails your class, or a particular student? There is probably a poem or a poet that will help open your students to the emotions that they keep to themselves. Or maybe you want your students to become passionate or empathic about something – like peace or the environment – or make others passionate about something. Reading and writing poetry about the things that move us allow us to move others.

Poetry has power.

“How many people remember, to this day, a poem they learned as children? Well, imagine if your children became little poetry sponges. What would stick in their brains? New vocabulary. New ideas. What would be the result? A bigger imagination. More fun reading. Possibly a lifelong addiction to books. Possibly a desire to write.”

No doubt, poetry has sticking power. The sheer joy of reading poetry aloud, and of reading it well, of feeling the rhyme, meter, alliteration, rhythm wash over you, is equaled only by its ability to stay in your head. Reading poetry to your students, or allowing them to read powerful poems and learn them by heart, are the pathways to a multitude of  personal poetic experiences.

Poetry is intimate.

“With poetry, you can express your love, your disgust, your giddy elation, your mild bemusement, your wild imagination or any other feelings you have roiling around inside you.”

After a disaster or other tragedy, teachers all over the world reach for poetry and the arts as a way of getting students to come to terms with what they have experienced. Unfettered by sentence structure and punctuation, poetry allows for the immediate release of pent-up words. Writers at all levels can write out their feelings in a way that resonates with them, and share with others something deep without worrying so much about form.

500x500x3-26-13_Record-a-Poem.jpg.pagespeed.ic.t_UCrS_sch

Poetry is something you can share.

“Sharing poetry doesn’t just mean reading it aloud together either…A poem you wrote can make a better gift to a friend than just about anything money can buy.”

As learners discover the poems that move them, they can share these poems with each other, and with others in their family. The Poetry Foundation’s Record-a-poem initiative asks people to record themselves reading their favourite poem, paying hommage to the idea that poetry is meant to be shared as a way of providing insight not just into the heart and meaning of the poem, but also insight into the reader who made the choice.

Poetry will get your kids reading and maybe even writing.

“You see, kids don’t just read poetry once. They read it again and again and again.”

The immediacy and ease of writing poetry (at least, that is what it can be, if you present it as such) can lure reluctant writers into the realm of words. A gateway to self-expression with words, poetry will appeal as a genre for both reading and writing. Poems can be short, but loaded with meaning, and thus appear non-threatening and manageable.

 

The discussion in my class then goes on to recalling the way that so many of these bright eyed future teachers were they themselves taught poetry when they were so young and impressionable.  Sadly, many of them share that they were instantly turned off of this beautiful, rich genre because all they were ever asked to do was to deconstruct the poem to discover the hidden meaning.  They became so sick of this procedure, especially because they were often told time and again that their interpretations were wrong, that they simply didn’t want to ever consider bringing this delightful form of literacy learning into classrooms of their own.   I reassure them, and tell them that I understand why they feel the way they do.  I then recite for them Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, a classic from my grade 5 years that I as a student had to pull apart line by line.  They sit and nod empathetically, and then I put up this poem

 

After English Class

I used to like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
I liked the coming darkness,
The jingle of harness bells, breaking—and adding to
-the stillness,
The gentle drift of snow. . . .

But today, the teacher told us what everything stood for,
The woods, the horse, the miles to go, the sleep—
They all have “hidden meanings.”
It’s grown so complicated now that,
Next time I drive by,
I don’t think I’ll bother to stop.

– Jean Little
Hey World, Here I Am! published by Kids Can Press

Another burst of laughter and then we talk about how traditionally, poetry was introduced by analysis, and interpretation of the poem; that this dissection of the poem’s meaning and structure was meant to provide insight.  Unfortunately, we know it only alienated many people from the world of poetry.  Famous children’s poet Lee Bennett Hopkins has explained that he hated poetry in school because he was taught by this same method that he refers to as the DAM approach: dissecting, analyzing and meaningless memorization.  So many of us were taught to question why did Robert Frost stop by the woods on a snowy evening and why then did he write a poem about it. Well, who cares–the only one who knows why is Robert Frost. What’s important is that we bring our own experiences to the poem. The real question is, what does the poem mean to you?–not what it meant to him.

The first step in getting your students to read and write poetry is to choose and read poems that are immediately accessible, non-threatening, and relevant to the students’ lives.  The goal is to ensure that every one of your students has a positive successful experience with poetry.  Do not begin with the most difficult poems but rather select poems that show a range of emotions and a variety of subjects so that your students will get a sense of poetry’s possibilities.

I always end  my poetry lecture with the story of a thought-provoking piece by Shirley McPhillips where she discusses an interview of poet Robert Bly. In it, she points out that cultures other than ours have found ways to weave poetry into the fabric of both daily life and ceremony. She shares how Bly was fascinated with the little school children in Iran who would stop by the grave of the famous 14th century poet Hafez and sing his poems to him.  He then mused why we didn’t do this here.  Why we don’t bring the poets into our hearts as opposed to bringing them only into our heads.

Messengers

There is a country
where children kneel
at the graves of lost poets.
In the morning they come
to the tomb of Hafez
and sing his poems back to him.
In this way, they get associated
with the heart early on,
breathing in messages.

The pull and tear
as the outside world stirs
the linings of some inside sky,
growing orbits of fuel
and fire, outvoicing words,
they become messengers
to the world.

– Shirley McPhillips

This is the power of  poetry. This is why it needs to be in each of our classrooms; so that each and every one of our students can for themselves experience what only poetry is capable of doing to our mind, our heart and our soul.  It is indeed something to be celebrated and cherished as part of our daily lives…rather than a chore that must be endured.

 

For further reading/viewing:

A Note Slipped Under the Door: Teaching From Poems We Love by Nick Flynn and Shirley McPhillips
available from Stenhouse Publishers – http://www.stenhouse.com

Bill Moyers interview with Robert Bly –  http://youtu.be/e9by9LB-tqY

The Poetry Foundation’s Learning Lab – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/

A Mentoring Model for Professional Development Part II: Epilogue

mary_ellen
Mary Ellen Lynch (at left) in her classroom with participating teachers from RSB

Towards the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, I wrote about a multi-board professional development initiative that involved mentoring. As the year draws slowly but surely to a close, the mentors got together to take stock and review lessons learned.

The Mentors

The three teachers who acted as mentors have been involved in using ePEARL and ABRA (part of a series of tools known as The Learning Toolkit or LTK) for several years now. Individually, they have explored ways to deepen their Cycle One students’ literacy experiences and awareness of their learning process. Collectively, they have shared what works and what doesn’t and have motivated each other to keep going in spite of various hurdles and challenges. The mentors are:

  • Tanya Bell Beccat (EMSB)
  • Irene Tsimilkis (SWLSB)
  • Mary Ellen Lynch (RSB)
Ms_Beccat2
Tanya Bell Beccat from EMSB
Irene Tsimilkis (center) with V.Pillay and L.Lysenko of the CSLP.
Irene Tsimilkis (center) with V.Pillay and L.Lysenko of the CSLP.

Over the 2012-2013 school year these three teachers, along with a dozen others, worked on multiplying expertise and professional experimentation through a PDIG grant. Here is how it broke down:

The Outcome – Plus, Minus, Interesting*

*The PMI model – Plus, Minus and Interesting, created by Edward Di Bono in 1982, is a common tool used in reflecting on an experience. 

Plus

All three mentors reported having worked with the teachers from their school or board, with only one teacher leaving the project due to retirement. On the face of it, this doesn’t seem like much of a plus, but if you’ve ever been in a classroom and school, you’ll know that sticking with a project that involves a multi-month commitment is HUGE. Mentors either invited teachers into their classrooms to see how the mentors work with ePEARL and ABRA or visited teachers in their own schools. All mentors engaged in co-planning and team teaching with some of their mentees.

Interest in the Learning Toolkit increased overall. Two of the three mentors reported more teachers interested in using ePearl and ABRA in the coming school year. Administrators were also paying attention and some even visited classrooms when guests were invited.

The three mentor teachers were able to further refine their own practice with early literacy and self-regulation. The PDIG allowed them the time

  • to share skill and experience with colleagues
  • to develop healthy working relationships (proximity)
  • to team teach with other teachers and learn from them

Minus

This project in general went really well, so there aren’t huge minuses to report! However, lack of institutional support at worst or benign neglect at best often characterizes ePEARL and ABRA integration efforts. Speaking in general terms, changes in on-site administrators such as principals and vice-principals can result in abrupt about-faces in what practices are given support. If an administrator believes in your work and supports your efforts, great! If, however, the institutional focus suddenly shifts, not so great!  For a teacher whose changes in practice come about over many years of experimentation and refining, this can be disconcerting and discouraging and leave him or her emotionally drained.

Interesting

Not all teachers felt ready to share their learning process with their mentor. The best relationships were between teachers that worked in the same school as their mentors, which reinforces the idea that personal relationships matter a great deal when it comes to a mentoring model. Mentors were quickly able to diagnose problems or help out just in time. However, given that sharing of one’s learning process is not the main indicator of changes to practice, it would be wise not to read too much into quiet mentees. Just because they don’t tell you about it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. In fact, att one of the schools in this project, it seemed for a while as though the three mentee teachers were not engaged in making changes to their practice. Turns out, while small steps were taken this year, next year the WHOLE STAFF would like to explore the use of LTK in literacy development and self-regulation. It would be interesting to explore how this positive contagion occurred, but occur it did!

Future Steps

All three mentor teachers are eager to continue next year, adding new teachers in older grades to the project, and possibly creating new mentors as well. It is hoped that they can continue to work together across three boards and multiple schools!

What are your thoughts about this professional development model? I would love to hear from you!

Sylwia

 

For more:

A Mentoring Model for Professional Development

Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance

In the Eye of the Beholder: iPads, Smartboards and Visual Impairment

http://www.flickr.com/photos/philipedmondson/776492653/
Philip Edmondson, Creative Commons Attribution

I recently had a request from a resource teacher in a remote school.  She has a young student who has vision problems and great difficulty seeing what is on the Smartboard from anywhere in the room.  The student has an iPad and the teacher was wondering if there was a way that the image from the Smartboard could be sent to the iPad so that the student could view it up close and if need be enlarge the image.  In fact the student was recently diagnosed with severe Hyperopia (farsightedness).  Getting a better view from up close would be a more effective strategy for someone who is Myopic (nearsightedness).  However, in this case any way of seeing what was on the board in a closer view would be an improvement.

Exploring the possibilities

The first step was to see if there was an app for that.  Because they were using a Smartboard I started with Smart Technologies. It turns out they have recently come out with a product (Bridgit conferencing software) that seems to come close.  It is actually to interact with the Smartboard remotely from the iPad but you can see what is on the Smartboard on your iPad in order to do that.  The problem is the cost.  2700$ for the software license and the need for a server to run the software.  Not a simple or budget solution, but this led me to the search for other remote access apps.  There are quite a few out there and many are free.  Beware, you have to read the fine print.  In many cases the app is free, but to make it work you need special software for the computer that is being controlled remotely by the iPad.  That is not so free.  The software licenses cost anywhere from 200$ to thousands,  and like in the Smart solution, some require a dedicated server for that purpose as well.

Hitting on a viable solution

mochvncThere are a few remote access apps for the iPad that are free that do not require additional hardware or costly software.  One such app is Mocha VNC Lite.  It worked out really well.  Mochasoft does make a full version that costs 5.99$ but for the needs of the student in this case, the added features are not required.  Also needed is another piece of free software for the PC that runs the Smartboard.  It is used to set up and use VNC.  The one that is recommended is the free version of  Real VNC.

Using the VNC (Virtual Network Computing) settings of the host computer, the one running the Smartboard, the iPad can connect to and show what is being seen on the board.

With iPad gestures, one can enlarge the view and move to sections of the screen to see them.  Moving things on the iPad does not affect what viewers of the Smartboard see.  Being the Lite version, scrolling does not work, which in this case is a plus.  In addition, in the settings there is an option to disable mouse clicks so there is no danger of the student clicking on a link or opening a shortcut to other software on the Smartboard.  It really works as a “viewer” for the user.

The school board will be installing the app and the software shortly and I hope to have feedback as to how it is working for this young student. Hopefully, it will be helpful to others as well!

Below are links to both the app and an explanation of how to setup and use RealVNC.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/mocha-vnc-lite/id284984448?mt=8

http://www.mochasoft.dk/wizard_w2wvista.htm

Why Our Schools Need the Arts: A New Perspective

Photo by S. Bielec
Photo by S. Bielec

I recently read Why Our Schools Need the Arts by Jessica Hoffman Davis (2008), founder of the  Arts in Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Reading this book hot on the heels of Susan van Gelder’s post last week about Makerspaces, I was struck with its unique perspective on the Arts in education and its emphasis on the tangible art ‘making’ in all Arts domains: visual arts, drama, dance and music.

Like most of what I write about, I have a personal relationship to the topic. As a child, I attended F.A.C.E school here in Montreal. The acronym stands for Fine Arts Core Education and in the 1980’s it offered (and as far as I know continues to offer) its students Arts subjects every day taught by specialists. Today, I am not a professional artist, nor did I exhibit any overwhelming talent for singing, playing the clarinet or visual arts (although I was a fairly good actor). And despite all this, I strongly believe that who I am and how I see and interact with the world is in large part due to my experience at F.A.C.E.

“With an eye to what matters, along with and not instead of the teaching of subjects like science and math, arts advocates must argue for the lessons of engagement, authenticity, collaboration, mattering and personal potential.” (Davis, 2008, p. 28)
 
wosnta
by permission from Teacher’s College Press

Jessica Hoffman Davis’ jewel of a book (it’s short, an easy read at 150 pages) was for me packed with Aha! moments and unique ways of putting into words what I believe about giving arts education equal air time with academic subjects. While primarily a book intended for arts advocates, I related as a parent and educator to what she wrote about how we can interact with the art-making process and product of children of all ages (and discovered that I was of course saying exactly the opposite of what I should be saying to my own pre-school aged daughter!). But the heart of Davis’ book is her presentation of the unique features of the arts, those aspects of life that the arts bring into learning that other subjects do not. It is through these five unique features that Arts education is positioned to meet the particular needs of today’s world and the world of the future (for more on education for the future, read an earlier post on the Cross-Curricular Competencies).

“I’m not saying there aren’t right or wrong answers associated with the arts, I’m just saying they might not be the most interesting aspects of arts learning.” (p.35)
  
 

The Heart of Why Our Schools Need the Arts: The Five Unique Features of the Arts

1 – Tangible product: Imagination and Agency

All the arts offer the child/learner the possibility of making something that can be experienced, that is, seen or heard at the very least. According to Davis, this tangible product (for example: sculpture, dance choreography, musical creation or performance, skit) allows children to think beyond the given, to explore the possibilities of “what if?”. What if I put on an accent, or lower my voice suggestively? What if I pinch this clay like so? In the moment, there are no wrong answers, only possibilities. The flip side of imagination and possibility is agency – the idea that we can be agents of effectiveness and change, that what we DO makes a difference to the outcome of a piece or a performance. What power! Imagine if we all felt fully capable and fully convinced that our actions were instrumental to our workplace, community, the world?

2 – Focus on emotion: Expression and Empathy

Davis’ second point is that the Arts allow children/learners to express and recognize their feelings in a variety of modes. Making art can be about expressing one’s current feelings, or expressing a feeling: “This is how I feel, this is how this piece makes me feel.” But sharing one’s art and exploring the art of others also makes one aware of and attentive to the emotions of others, to appreciate “This is how you feel”. Children who regularly engage in art practice develop an awareness of the role of emotion, both in themselves and in others. How many of us have been on teams or worked with others and experienced first-hand the impact of emotions on the group’s ability to generate new ideas and move forward productively?

3 – Ambiguity: Interpretation and Respect

What struck me was this third one – ambiguity. The Arts lay the foundation for understanding ambiguity as children engage in interpretation of their own works and in the works of others. As they interact with a work of art, they realize: “My contribution to this art relationship matters. What I think matters”. When they listen to what others see and think when they interact with a work, they realize that there is no single answer, no right answer. The artist can have one thing in mind, but can accept that what you see is valid as well and that it adds to the conversation. This ambiguity and lack of clear-cut right or wrong answers allow children/learners to realize that what others think matters, that there is between the artist and audience a conversation that is fluid and meant to be engaged in fully. In a world where we are constantly confronted by opinions and views that differ from our own, having the ability to navigate these differences and nuances with equanimity is a valuable skill for team members and leaders alike.

4 – Process orientation: Inquiry and Reflection

Educators of all academic stripes have long championed process over product and learning from mistakes or wrong answers. Making something new is fraught with the potential of fruitful errors, of the oops! discussed in Makerspaces. When exploring the unknown (an unexplored medium, a new artist or work), inquiry takes on an added urgency as learners ask: what do I need to know in order to move forward? Because making art is tangible, students see immediately the impact of their inquiry (process) on the product and are reminded once again of their agency in directing that process. In addition, making art creates very real opportunities for reflection at each step of the process: How am I doing and what will I do next? These reflections are not just nice to have, but occur naturally as children/learners are confronted with an in-progress piece. Every addition, or repetition demands a step back and an assessment: How did that go? What do I think now? Drawing attention to this natural reflection process can certainly help learners gain self-awareness in all academic areas.

5 – Connection: Engagement and Responsibility

Here in Quebec, as elsewhere, educators strive to increase student connection to school and to life through projects and extra-curricular activities. The Arts often provide the backdrop for these initiatives, with plays, concerts, art fairs and performances common in many schools. Indeed, “the arts in education excite and engage students, awakening attitudes to learning that include passion and joy, and the discovery that ‘I care'” (Davis p.76). Caring about something, about anything, is the pathway to engagement in all spheres. Discovering that they are united with human beings everywhere in their ability to make art and to make art for a variety of the same reasons allows children/learners to be open to others across cultures and times.

***

We are fortunate that our Quebec Education Program outlines rigorous competencies for each of the four Arts – the challenge now is to make sure that the time allocation for arts is adequate to fully develop these competencies and take advantage of the five unique features that the Arts bring to education.

Jessica Hoffman Davis has written other books about the Arts in education, including the follow-up to this book, Why Our High Schools Need the Arts (2011). Her voice is compelling and her use of narrative brings to life her ideas about art education for her readers. My copy is full of highlighted passages and exclamation marks and I am sure yours will be too!

Why Our Schools Need the Arts by Jessica Hoffman Davis (2008)  is available from Teachers College Press.

To read more about the Arts in education

Quebec’s Culture in the Schools Program (to bring an artist into your school)

Why Arts Education is Crucial and Who’s Doing it Best – Edutopia

Arts Smarts – Génie Arts

To read more about Jessica Hoffman Davis

Kristen Paglia’s Review for the Huffington Post

Interview with Jessica Hoffman Davis on Tinkerlab

Interview with JHD on the Art:21 blog Part 1 and Part 2

Jessica Hoffman Davis’ website