Category Archives: Poetry

The Power of Song, or Is It Really the Lyrics?

Close-up a Heap of dirty utensil in the kitchen sink.He leaves his dishes in the sink, thinking leprechauns put them in the dishwasher. She wants to talk during the football game and stalks off when clearly that play is more important to him than listening to her.

Imagine if couples “sang” their arguments rather than actually fighting. Such is the theme of the hilarious film Band-Aid, which premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. A squabbling couple create a band, invite their neighbor to be the drummer, and proceed to sing their irritations and frustrations to each other.

While strumming their guitars, the couple have to dig deep and really think in order to convert their frustrations into poetry and song. In doing so, they de-escalate and temper their anger while at the same time creating music that others can relate to and enjoy.

In a tribute to Frank Sinatra, who could not read music, George Will wrote, “Before a song was music, it was words alone. He studied lyrics, internalized them, then sang, making music from poems.” So, for Frank Sinatra, the words mattered first, not the music. Will continues that Sinatra sang songs from the “Great American Songbook,” a compilation of songs written by Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, and others. He compared the lyrics of Mercer’s “Summer Wind” (“Then softer than a piper man, one day it called to you; I lost you, I lost you to the summer wind”) to the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” I would argue a better comparison would be Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (“As the miller told his tale/that her face, at first just ghostly/turned a whiter shade of pale”) or Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” (“Remember me to one who lives there/She once was a true love of mine.”)

Poetry has a natural musical cadence and demands to be read aloud, particularly William Shakespeare:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Does that phrase stand alone in its beauty? Does it need music? Or is the human voice, with its own modulated tones, sufficient? Music, however, enhances poetry and words and add a new dimension.

So, on this Valentine’s Day of sonnets and roses and crooning club singers, let us remember the power of words and lyrics and song and how important they are to each other. Or not.

POETRY CELEBRATION

This post, written by former Chair of the NCTE Elementary Section Ted Kesler, was presented at the session, “Poet Advocates: Using Poetry to Advocate for Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century” at the 2016 NCTE Annual Convention.

tedkeslerMy current positions include director of the graduate-level preservice program at Queens College and staff developer in several New York City public schools. Queens County is the most diverse county in the country, in terms of races, nationalities, languages, religions. And yet, I’m always surprised how often I hear both preservice and inservice teachers state that they have students who don’t speak “proper” English or lack language or don’t have language. When they say that their students lack or don’t have language, they are referring to emergent bilinguals who are in the process of learning English. But all these statements take a deficit view of students’ home language(s) that are so innately connected to their social and cultural lives.

Here, however, I want to focus on the first statement, that these teachers have students who don’t speak “proper” English. The teachers then provide corrective instruction that emphasizes the proper way to express their ideas. For example, they mark up students’ writing with correct syntax and correct their English as they speak in class. Inevitably, students become reluctant writers and speakers, and consequently, reluctant readers and listeners. My goal becomes to teach pedagogical instruction such as code-switching and contrastive analysis.

These teachers also express a bias toward the dialect of English that is most closely connected with school, Standard English. Standard English is “good” English, and nonstandard dialects are “bad.” These assumptions generate harmful sociopolitical conditions for students who have home dialects that don’t match this standard form. As Geneva Smitherman has stated: “When you lambast the home language that kids bring to school, you ain just dissin dem, you talkin’ ‘bout their mommas!” These teachers are not yet realizing that dialectical differences are just that: differences, NOT deficits.

They are therefore surprised when I show them the Common Core State Standards. For example, one of the 4th-grade language standards is:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.4.3.C

Differentiate between contexts that call for formal English (e.g., presenting ideas) and situations where informal discourse is appropriate (e.g., small-group discussion).

And one of the 5th-grade language standards is:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.5.3.B

Compare and contrast the varieties of English (e.g., dialects, registers) used in stories, dramas, or poems.

So to begin a more just approach to language diversity, I begin with all the wonderful celebrations of language in poetry. Here’s one example:

Mother to Son by Langston Hughes

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’s still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

After simply reading aloud and responding to the music and imagery in this poem, we then delve into its language. Why did Langston Hughes choose this dialect rather than “standard” English? In a contrastive analysis exercise, the teachers write this poem in standard form and read it aloud to each other. What does it lose in this form? Teachers begin realizing that authors and speakers might choose dialects to communicate powerful messages to intended audiences. That perhaps bi- and multidialecticism is a strength.

This begins our journey of delving into all the wonderful children’s literature that uses diverse dialects and pedagogical practices for empowering all students in our diverse classrooms.

Ted Kesler is the outgoing chairperson of the Elementary Section. He is an associate professor in the Elementary and Early Childhood Education Department of Queens College, City University of New York. You can reach him at @tedsclassroom and www.tedsclassroom.com

Where Do I Get My Ideas?

This guest post is written by author Marilyn Singer, who won the 2015 NCTE Excellence in Poetry for Children Award. 

Marilyn Singer
Photo by Laurie Gaboardi/The Litchfield County Times

The snow monkeys at the Central Park Zoo.

The exhibit hall at an American Library Association convention.

My cat sitting on the living room chair.

What do these things have in common?  They all provided inspiration for several of my books.

Most writers I know are happy combinations of the sedentary and the peripatetic.  I am certainly in that camp.  I get some of my best ideas while sitting on my stoop or sofa in Brooklyn, New York.  I get others when I’m traveling or wandering about, keeping my eyes, ears, and even nose open (if you don’t believe me about the latter, take a peek at my book, What Stinks? about plants and animals that smell bad, inspired by the gingko trees dropping their malodorous nuts on my street).  I have a great sense of curiosity about the beings, behaviors, and situations I see, hear, and smell.  That curiosity leads to detective work, which in turn, leads to writing books.

The snow monkeys were responsible for my poetry collection A Strange Place to Call Home: The World’s Most Dangerous Habitats & the Animals That Call Them Home (ill. by Ed Young). So was Usher—not the singer, but an adorable Humboldt penguin I met many years before at the Rode Tropical Bird Gardens in Bath, England. Snow monkeys don’t live in rain forests, but on cold Japanese islands. Humboldt penguins are not found in Antarctica, but on the hot and dry coasts of Chile and Peru. These animals made me wonder how many other creatures survive and thrive in inhospitable environments. I put on my detective hat, learned the word extremophile, and produced a series of poems that became a book.
Conferences are great book nurseries. The wealth of literature on display at NCTE, ILA, ALA, BEA, and other conventions makes a writer want to … well, write. At one particular ALA conference, when I was strolling around the exhibit hall, checking out the forthcoming books, I noticed that there were plenty about Christmas, but none featuring New Year’s celebrations. Back at home, I checked out library catalogues and booksellers to reveal that there were very few New Year’s books, period. I knew that there’s a Jewish New Year, a Chinese New Year, and a Russian New Year, which are not celebrated on January 1. Could there be other celebrations at different times of the year? More detective work led to the discovery that some cultures celebrate in March or June or November—in fact, depending on the lunar calendar, there can be a New Year’s celebration every month of the year. I’m delighted to say that, as a result, next year, my poetry collection, Every Month’s a New Year (ill. by Susan L. Roth), will be published by Lee & Low.
And what about that chair-loving cat? She has the honor of inspiring a poetry form, the reverso. A reverso is one poem with two halves. You read the first half down as you would most poems, and the second half with the lines reversed, with changes only in punctuation and capitalization. That second half has to say something completely different from the first. When I saw my cat on her favorite chair, a little poem came into my head:

A cat                                             Incomplete:

without                                          A chair

a chair:                                          without

Incomplete.                                   a cat.

It got me so excited that I wanted to see if I could write more.  So I did.  They were on a variety of topics, but a number were based on fairy tales.  A wise editor suggested that I base the entire collection on fairy tales.  I did—and the collection became Mirror Mirror (ill. by Josée Masse).  Subsequently, I’ve written two more books of reversos, Follow Follow, based on more fairy tales, and Echo Echo, featuring Greek myths.

Editors have made many helpful suggestions and sometimes given me ideas for books, including my Tallulah picture books, about a young ballet student, and Rutherford B., Who Was He?:  Poems about Our Presidents.  I may never have come up with these concepts myself, and I thank the good folks who gave them to me.

Then there are the articles in newspapers, online, and on TV; the encounters with people and other beings; the day dreams, night dreams, and other fantasies that have led to more books and stories.  I could go on and on—but I won’t.  The point is, when folks ask the time-honored question, “Where do you get your ideas?” I can honestly answer, “Everywhere!”  I just need to go out or sit still to find them!

Winner of the 2015 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry, Marilyn Singer has written over 100 books in many genres.  She lives in Brooklyn, New York and Washington, Connecticut with her husband and several pets.

A Reflective Glance at a Digital Writer and Her Students’ Writing for Change

This post is written by NCTE student member Kathryn Caprino and guest Melissa Davenport. 

Caprino-pic-200x300
Kathryn Caprino

We met when Melissa agreed to enroll in a six-week online study group about the connections between digital writing and critical literacy I (Katie) was facilitating. An avid digital writer, Melissa wrote frequently on her blog. When I observed Melissa and her students, one thing I noticed was that Melissa’s students were given time in class to write.

Work commitments prevented Melissa from finishing the entire six-week study group, but she believes her time in the study group has informed her writing pedagogy greatly.

M Davenport
Melissa Davenport

It’s been a year since the online study group, and Melissa and I want to share a few tips that might help you think about writing instruction in your classroom.

Be a digital writer. One of the requirements for teachers to participate in the online study group was that they were active digital writers. We cannot overemphasize the importance of teachers being digital writers. An active digital writer, Melissa blogs regularly about running.

During the online study group, Melissa talked to me about her need to have time to write herself. She also emphasized the importance of writing for an authentic audience. It is no surprise, then, that her students are provided time to free write and have opportunities to create solutions for problems and share these solutions digitally with a real audience.

Let students have time for free writing. We often think about giving students time to read in the ELA classroom, but how often do we provide time for students to write? Melissa’s students love to write, but she’s noticed that sometimes writing time can be too structured or too focused on a particular purpose or receiving feedback. So she’s given her students this year more time to free write, and there have been some positive outcomes.

Some of her students ask to free write more. Right now students have about 20 minutes of free writing built into their weeks, but some students elect to have more because they want to write on Independent Reading Day.

What’s more, Melissa has noticed that as students are given more time to write, they explore genres and topics that they may not have explored in the past. Students write lots of fiction, especially fantasy. This is important to Melissa since fiction writing is not a large part of the curriculum. Students also produce a surprising amount of poetry during their free write sessions.

It seems that if we want our students to be writers, we need to provide them time in class to develop as writers. If we have our way, more students will have independent writing time during their ELA classes.

Have students write for an authentic audience. We know that too often the teacher is the only audience for students’ writing. This year, however, Melissa has committed to helping her students have authentic audiences.

Her Change the World project is one of her favorites. A collaborative endeavor with the math teacher on her team, the project encouraged students to explore a real-world problem. Students had to collect data about the topic and develop a way to solve the problem. Melissa and her colleague wanted students to have an authentic audience, so students posted their problems and solutions in a digital space to convince community members about the nature of the problem and their responsibility to get involved.

Students selected topics based on changes they would like to see made. Students were put into groups based on the topics they originally formed. Melissa was shocked during this process. Kids who never ever speak to each other raced across the room, saying, “You have to work with me,” because they had similar ideas for their research. Topics ranged from equal access to education to gun control to Black Lives Matter. Once they were into a particular topic, “students’ eyes opened,” says Melissa. “Just a little reading, research, and writing about gun control meant they suddenly had all sorts of critical questions.”

There were some topics that were more challenging to approach. Melissa and her students talked about the sensitivity of the materials they might come across and how to search safely by using Google Safe Search, filters, and very specific search terms. Overall, Melissa was impressed at the level of maturity students showed throughout.

Melissa and her colleague were impressed with the ownership students took in the project. Some students followed up with organizations to see about how the issues they chose for their projects were actually being addressed. Melissa and her math teacher collaborator worked with the students on this project. Whereas Melissa helped students spot bias in research, use key search terms, and how digital content differs from content in a standard essay, the math teacher helped students learn various ways to represent data. Future directions for the project might include a collaborative effort with the World History class in order to deepen connections for students.

This Change the World project meets one of the central goals of the online study group: to help students use digital writing to take action.

What is intriguing about this reflective look into Melissa’s classroom is I really do not know exactly what to attribute to the online study group about critical literacy and digital writing and what to attribute to Melissa’s effective writing pedagogy. But I do know that Melissa is firm in her conviction that middle school writers should be given time to write and writing projects that have authentic audiences. And the first step she took in this direction may have been to become a digital writer herself.

Melissa Davenport is an English Language Arts teacher at Cary Academy in Cary, North Carolina. After spending five years in Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools and completing her Masters in K-12, she joined Cary Academy in 2012. In addition to being a classroom teacher, Davenport coaches middle school tennis, advises the Writing Club, and serves as seventh grade team leader.

 Kathryn (Katie) Caprino is a clinical assistant professor in English education at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. She teaches courses in English methods, children’s literature, and technology and media. She researches teachers as digital writers and preservice English teachers.

Teaching Writing: A Real Love Story

This post is written by NCTE member Caroline Brewer. 

CarolineHeadshot122011“I can’t.”

“I won’t.”

“I got … nothing!”

“I hate myself.”

“I wanna jump out this window.”

“Kill. Me. Now …  Aaarrrgh!”

Reading over these quotes now makes me laugh, and yet they are the serious protests that recently had become too loud too often from too many of my students.

When the children were challenged to learn—especially when they were challenged to write—the shouts, cries, and refusals spewed like blood from a fresh wound.

I diagnosed a crisis in self-love.

So, just in time for Mother’s Day, I invited my students—who are in grades 3–6—to explore love in poems. I began by sharing interactively a poem I had written about things I love. After each stanza, they had to respond: “Love.”

They were inspired! Pelted me with all kinds of flattery. So I asked them to write a poem for their mothers.

They did so well and enjoyed it so much, I was inspired! I paid them back with heaps of praise, and the next day I offered the chance to write about self-love. Gasps, growls, and howls of protest smacked me like an angry god. Then came the meltdowns. One child flooded her desk with tears, jumped up and stamped her feet, and yelled that she just couldn’t do it. It was “stupid!” she concluded. She sulked for a good 20 minutes.

And then an angel appeared in the presence of a student who technically has the lowest writing skills. In recent weeks, she has welcomed every opportunity to learn. And for the second day in a row, she offered to model a poem about love. Once she opened herself to scrutiny—and succeeded wildly because of her honesty! —the other students quickly followed. The last student to surrender was a student who had for an hour insisted that she loved herself only when she was “fighting,” as in “punching and kicking people.” She, too, has very low skills technically but a vivid imagination.

We used an excellent prompt by poet Bruce Lansky that I tweaked a bit (for this post). It requires students to complete these statements: “I feel love for myself when . . . .” “I feel love for myself because . . . .” ”It feels . . .  to love myself.”

The first writer wrote:

I feel love for myself when I read books at home.
I feel love for myself because I’m reading a book by myself with no help.
It feels wonderful to love myself.

Without my nudging, the fighter eventually erased her paean to pugilism and wrote:

I feel love for myself when I dance.

I feel love for myself when I dance because it makes me feel happy and mad. It also helps me get all my anger out.

It makes me feel confident to love myself.

Last week we wrote wacky rhyming stories, and the love continues to flow—for writing and for self.  The results are improvements in spelling and punctuation, invitations to be edited (as opposed to howls of dread), and a lot less resistance from the get-go.  Our experience is proof that, like love, writing is a power.

That my students are discovering this truth is most of all is what I love.

 Caroline Brewer is a children’s book author, literacy and education consultant, and author of books on education, including Parent Power: How to Raise a Reading Superstar (now on CD), Why I Teach: A Guide to Re-Discovering the Love of Teaching, and The Happy Teacher. Follow her on Twitter @BrewerCaroline and Facebook at www.facebook.com/happyteachertraining.