Monthly Archives: September 2011

Names, Lists and Inspiration

I feel so guilty that we’ve had seven full days of classes and I don’t know all my students’ names yet. I’m getting there, but I think it always takes me longer than other teachers to learn their names. One teacher at our school gives out chocolate bars to students when he gets their names wrong… I’d have to buy Hershey bars by the case if I did that. I’m sure he thinks it helps him to learn their names faster, but I’m pretty certain it wouldn’t help me at all.

It was the first full week of classes, and in English class that means a lot of things done to generate ideas for writing and lots of discussion around good books to get students reading. On Wednesday I took all of my classes to the school library. I think we were the first group there to borrow books. At the first of the week I did several book talks with my 9th grade students and next week I’ll do more with both 9th and 10th grade classes. I’m asking my students to keep a reading list this year. Reader’s keep lists, physical or mental, of books they want to read. I want all of my students to be readers, and getting them to keep a list of potential good reads seems like a great idea. Also, it might help the search for the next book to be a little less painful for the reluctant reader. I find books that I’d like to read by looking in book stores, checking out, looking on Amazon’s various bestseller lists, and recommendations from friends. I’d say I use all of these equally and I hope to share how I use these resources with my students. Maybe once they’ve got lists made, I’ll share some of those lists here.

I’m having my students write memoirs, and sometimes it can be difficult for them to access their most meaningful memories. I think that we have memory triggers that exist in the sensory. Just like the smell of freshly baked bread can bring one back to their grandmother’s kitchen, songs can often bring us immediately back to a time and place we thought we had forgotten. One of the idea generating things I did, specifically to help my students access their memories, was an activity I discovered by reading Penny Kittle and Nancy Atwell. I call it “The Music in my Heart”. Almost everyone loves music and has favourite songs and songs that are significant in their lives for various reasons. I have my students draw a big heart, iPod, musical note or an instrument and inside that shape or around it, list all of those songs that are significant for them. Next week, I’ll have them choose a song from that idea generating activity and write about. If they like what they’ve written, it may become the draft of their memoir. Here’s my sample:

I shared the following poems with my students this week:

  • “The Summer We Didn’t Die” by William Stafford
  • “As imperceptibly as grief” by Emily Dickinson
  • “Fifteen” by William Stafford
  • “Kidnap Poem” by nikki giovanni

I’m trying to infuse the poetry all year, instead of dealing with it all at once in a short unit. I love poetry and feel that sometimes, well intentioned, we kill poetry for young people when we force them to analyze it to death. With each poem, I simply mention one or two things to note. After we read, my students and I have ten minutes to write in our writer’s notebook. They may respond to the poem, or write about the idea expressed in the poem, or choose their own topic for writing. It is my hope that eventually they’ll find poetry inspirational for their writing as I do.

I like to read when my students are reading, and write while they are writing. That isn’t always practical, but the modeling is invaluable. Yesterday, when we read “Kidnap Poem” by nikki giovanni, I began writing the poem I’m calling “Kidnapped”; I posted it to my personal blog. I still have to revise and edit, so what I’m sharing here is my draft. I may share it with my students after we’ve read some more of William Stafford’s poems, and maybe “You Know Who You Are” by Naomi Shihab Nye. It’s her tribute poem to him. After reading the giovanni poem I thought, if I were kidnapped by a poet, who would I want it to be? The answer was, William Stafford, hands down. I began to write.

Reflecting on the week, I recall one instance where I could have better handled the situation. I spent a little bit too long trying to ‘convince’ a couple of students that they needed to participate in what we were doing. The next day, they were both absent. I’m going to choose not to believe it was a result of what happened in my class. I need to access the resource department at school for some insight into their abilities and perhaps refer them to admin if they continue to refuse working. I need to remind myself to focus on the many students I have in front of me who want what I have to teach, instead of the few who resist. I need to, in a non-confrontational manner, encourage those who resist, but I realize I need to stand firm if it turns into a refusal to work. It’s a fine balance.

All in all, it was good first full week of classes. I’m looking forward to another week of reading, writing and loving it all.


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Empty Sky – Full Classroom

The leaves are changing colour, the mornings and evenings are chilly, and school is in full swing! Back-to-school week was as good as it ever gets. I welcomed back twenty new potential 2012 graduates and 103 new freshmen and sophomore students into my English classes. This is the first year in many that I don’t have a single student that I taught last year. The dynamic is interesting. We, the students and I, are still learning about each other.

Thursday was the first full day of classes, and that day is always spent going over course outlines, reviewing policies, setting up expectations, etc. In the past, I’ve tried not spending that whole first day talking at my students. But, invariably, if I put it off, something important gets left out or glossed over. I think they get that stuff in every other class on the first day too, and it must get tiring. Plus, I know after five minutes, I’m going to start sounding a lot like Charlie Brown’s teacher. To combat that, I say all those little funny things that pop into my head. For the first three periods of the day that works, I get a few chuckles and it keeps everyone listening. Period four is a different story. Yesterday, I think they were in an after lunch  coma or something, or maybe it was me. It’s difficult to be witty all day when you’re saying the same thing four times in a row and it’s about structures, procedure, and rules.

So with most of the preliminary stuff out of the way, today we launched into the course work.

Yesterday, I started by asking my freshmen students to answer the question. “What’s not wrong?” I borrowed this idea from Gary Anderson. I follow him on twitter and he posted a blog about how he does this. I was glad that an administrator chose this part of my lesson to do a walkthrough in my classroom. I said to the kids, “If I asked you what’s wrong you’d probably have an easy answer? What’s wrong with today? What’s wrong with school? What’s wrong with society? What’s wrong with the government? What’s wrong with the ‘system’? All easy questions to answer readily. But, I’d like to begin this year with a more positive focus by asking, ‘What’s not wrong?'” They wrote their answers on little slips of paper, exit slips and gave them to me on the way out the door. Today I read back their answers. Some of them were, “My Life <3”, “I’m sitting next to Haley.”, “I haven’t got lost yet today.”, “I’m wearing new kicks, and I look fabulous.”, “I haven’t fallen yet today”, “The right answer.”, “My new English teacher is nice.” Awwwww. When I read their answers back to them, it was fun to see each student smile as they heard me read their own response. Thanks Gary, what a great way to set a positive tone for the year.

With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 coming up this Sunday, I wanted to share some of the creative writing that has taken its inspiration from the events of that day. I’d been thinking of this for a few days, and the other night my husband was playing Bruce Springsteen on the stereo and the song “Empty Sky” came on, perfect. As I listened to the song again in preparation to share it with my students, I knew that I wanted my students to also have the lyrics to read as they were listening. It allowed us to have a conversation about Springsteen’s message. I didn’t tell them what the song was about, just that I wanted them to pay attention to the music AND the lyrics. It was interesting to me that I had to lead them in a conversation about the song for a few minutes before it occured to a student in the class that the song was about 9/11. Ten years ago, there wouldn’t have been any need to do that.

Some questions I asked:

  • What does he mean by ’empty sky’? Does he really mean the sky was empty? Or, is that figurative language to stand for something else?
  • When he says “I want an eye for an eye,” what does he want?
  • Is this a religious song? No? Then why does Springsteen use biblical allusion? (Of course I explained allusion first.) Why not choose another example in history where someone wants or gets revenge?
  • What kind of mood or feeling does the music create? Does the mood of the music match they message in the lyrics?

This was a fantastic way to begin a conversation with Canadian young people who surprisingly know very little about the events surrounding that day just ten years ago. It was a tragic event of historical significance that happened during their life time and very close to home. If you think of it, in Atlantic Canada we are closer to NYC than many Americans living in the southern and the western states.

It was a good way to begin the year. I had a great first week back with students and I’m looking forward to a year full of thought provoking conversations, reading and writing with everything we’ve got, and learning together.

My next big task? Learn everyone’s name, and fast.

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