Lessons in Free Verse

Apparently I suck at teaching poetry.

Though I failed this year, thankfully the student who shared my shortcomings and his poetic discovery, also provided the solution for next year.

In my Creative Writing class, we spend the month of November participating in NaNoWriMo. Then in December, we take a break from cranking out hundreds or thousands of words each week and write poetry.

I am not a poet by any stretch of the imagination, but I do enjoy reading and sharing really great poems with the kids. All year, I try to share at least two to four poems a week, if not more.

During last December, our “poetry month,” I tried to find great poems to use as models.  I crafted lessons on imagery, descriptive details, and different types of poems. We talked about rhythm, rhyme, and word choice. We watched videos of amazing spoken word poems.

But, according to one of my seniors, I missed the mark, failing to teach one of the easiest strategies for crafting great poems.

I discovered my lapse when Erik submitted this reflective piece at the end of the semester, aptly titled “Flexibility.”

poetry teaching fail

All I needed to teach was the ENTER key?!?

I can do that. It will be one of my first poetry lessons for next year…

Free verse via ENTER

An Idea Becomes Reality

It was the last class. The last day of school. Spring 2011. The kids were done with their final and sat in small groups, chatting, glancing at the clock, waiting for the empty, long, lovely days of summer to begin.

One group sat clustered around my desk discussing their writing. One student had written a screenplay but didn’t feel it was quite done yet. One had completed NaNoWriMo and had several more pieces in progress.  Another was looking for a publisher for his newly finished fantasy novel, and the fourth had been inspired by Ayn Rand this year and had a novel outlined with one or two chapters completed.

I listened to them, stunned. They were 14 and 15 years old and had novels completed!! I had just begun mine . . . at age 40.

I suggested that they trade phone numbers and emails, so they could workshop their pieces over the summer, and I offered to help. They liked the idea, but the bell rang, summer vacation began.

I thought about this group over the summer and wondered how I could help them with their writing. I had a few ideas but the seed for a website for them, for teen writers who LOVE to write, had been planted.

The next fall, I had a new incoming group of Freshmen and within weeks, a few asked if I would be willing to supervise a Creative Writing Club. Really?!? As soon as I started writing myself, teen writers began to appear in my life, but I had no time between working, coaching Speech & Debate, and being a mom to help them get a club started. Finally, in mid-winter, I proposed my website idea – what if we had a space online where they could post their writing, comment on it, maybe even take Creative Writing Classes? They loved the idea and the seed began to take root. Silly me, I thought it would take less time than a weekly club!

I still worked on getting these kids’ needs met at school and got my administration to approve a Creative Writing class. I wrote a course description and submitted it. Unfortunately, the powers that be “forgot” to put our newly approved course in the course catalog for registration, so no Creative Writing class. Back to my website idea.

Last spring, I resigned my coaching position which freed up my time, but the school year ended with no website and no upcoming Creative Writing Class. I spent my summer and early fall fixing that state of affairs.  The process has been a three steps forward, one-step back process. I tried to design a site myself: fail. Hired a web designer: some good but overall fail. Took a web design class online: WIN! (The Girls Guide to Web Design Rocks!!) but definite learning curve there! Took an online course on running on online business/website: WIN!! (Marie Forleo’s B-School also ROCKS!!).

I started this fall with a website in the works and a PLAN. This past fall, the Creative Writing Club finally launched. We had our first meeting in November and its been going strong. We meet every Thursday to write, learn, and workshop pieces. I completed building and designing my website and shared it with them in December – they loved it and this amazing group of young, talented creative writers helped to found . . . www.whereteenswrite.com.

They have been the most excellent group of “Beta” users, finding all kinds of elements of the site that needed tweaking, posting their stories, sharing, and being overall an amazing group of kids. Last week, I decided its ready to go “live” to the world. I “un-hid” the site from google’s search engines and so far, we’ve had a few more kids find us and log on. The seed that was planted the last day of school in 2011 is finally beginning to grow.

The site is designed for teens, ages 13-18, who love to write, who spend their free time writing and dreaming up their stories. If you know any teens who fit this description, I’d love it if you shared the link with them, so they can check the site out and possibly join our little community.

My ultimate goal is to offer online Creative Writing courses through the site. Few schools offer Creative Writing, and there is definitely a need there.

If you’ve wondered why I haven’t been posting here much, it’s because I’ve been posting there! If you’d like to join the email list without joining the community, you can do that on our Facebook page. You can also get updates in your FB news feed if you “like” our page.

What can you do?

  • Share the site with teens who love to write,
  • Check it out yourself and comment below with any suggestions you have for improvement/changes,
  • Go to Facebook and sign up for “email updates” and “like” our page if you want to stay connected to http://www.whereteenswrite.com.

McWhat?!?

Faced with the daunting task of raising thousands of dollars to take five kids to the Forensics National Tournament in Indianapolis this summer, I have spent the last several weeks enconsced in fundraising activities such as sending kids out in their professional business attire to solicit (beg) for donations, running concession stands, and supporting parents who held a giant yard sale – all typical fundraising activities.

Then I got a phone call and found out my team and I had been volunteered to join forces with another team and head up the first ever McTeacher’s night in our town.

“You signed us up for what?!? I asked.

“Working at McDonalds!!” my former friend answered a little too gleefully. “We make 20% of all total sales for the time we work. It’s a great fundraiser!”

I spent my entire day yesterday dreading my shift. I put myself through college waiting tables, and to be totally honest, I was NOT looking forward to returning to the food service industry. But I gotta tell you, working the drive thru is fun despite the fact that I kept getting in trouble because I slowed down the line.  I ended up knowing way too many drive thru customers and I had to at least say hi! It’s a small town.

Did you know drive thru’s have a timer that tracks the average number of seconds it takes to get a vehicle through? I had no idea.  I didn’t do much to help the crew’s averages, in fact, I probably would have gotten fired for being a bit too chatty.

But I did get to say hi to our vet, a gal from my husband’s office, a teacher I used to work with, two teachers I currently work with, former and current students, you get the picture. I even handed one of them my phone to take this shot which severely impacted our times, but we had a good laugh – people were not expecting to see me in the drive thru!

I finally got banned from hitting the little button that said we were done with an order because I hit it too early one time and deleted the order before it was served – oops! Thankfully the customer had her receipt, so the non-McTeachers could still fill her order.

I did some fascinating people watching which is a fun exercise in terms of character development. I never would have considered the drive thru as a good people watching place – who knew? You get to see inside people’s cars which is like a little window into their world.  The best (or worst) was the lady (thankfully in the passenger seat) who had clearly just left a casino and had her cigarette and cocktail in hand.  Apparently she needed some nuggets to go with her drink. I think I’d agree that a drink could definitely make them go down a little easier.

There was the angry grandma who was not so happy to get her “happy” meals for the also not so happy grandkids in the back seat. Another family had their dog in the bed of their truck. It was his first time ever to experience a drive thru, so we had to share a moment together. He was pretty excited about the whole experience.

You could also tell the weather has been nice by the somewhat shocking number of men who were beet red sunburned.  Apparently they don’t keep sun screen in their trucks, but I was surprised to find that a ton of people keep cigarettes in their vehicles! I clearly live in a secluded tobacco-free high school world because I had no idea how many people smoke in their cars. My 17 year old supervisor assured me that actually most people do in fact smoke in their cars and her wealth of experience in drive thru’s has provided solid evidence for reaching that conclusion.

The only bad part of the experience was that it reminded me of my age. The drive thru people are in charge of filling the drinks.  This is fine but the screen that shows all the drinks is way up high which means we had to crank our necks all the way back to see it. Then, being just a wee bit competitive I kept having to look at the little second counter to see how we were doing which seriously crinked my neck.

Unfortunately, McTeacher Night might end up with McChiropractor afternoon.

On Expectations

As they say, anticipation is half the fun. We get to imagine perfect outcomes for any experience we may dream up, but when the job, book, vacation, or even the restaurant I’ve just tried doesn’t live up to my expectations, disappointment ensues.  Expectations make me focus on the outcome, not the journey, and I wonder what opportunities I have missed out on because I decided on the expected outcome before I  had the experience.  That sounds ridiculous, but its the truth.

I live in Nevada, home to slot machines in each and every grocery store. Gambling exists because of this whole idea of focusing on the outcome – players think if they just “play” one more time they’ll win big, with no attention paid to what’s happening right now which is, “OMG, I’m losing all my money!!” I tend to do this (though not with gambling) because it is often far more fun to think about possibilities rather than “what is” or “what I should be doing right now to make that possibility happen.”

This past week, I was needing some creative inspiration for a quilt, and I came across this video. It was on a site on Design Principles, which I found kind of funny, but  I loved the concrete example of people stepping up to meet expectations.  Check it out – it’s really cool!

What is the lesson here? People step up to meet expectations others have for them.  They don’t just lead to disappointment but to people achieving great things.

Last week I had a fishbowl style Socratic Seminar in two of my Inclusion 10th grade English classes.  An inclusion class just means that there are 5-10 kids in the class that struggle with the subject.  They’re generally kids who have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan ie. they require special ed. services). I co-teach it with a Special Ed teacher, so we can give those kids the support they need. It works really well because it includes kids, rather than excludes them by parking them in the “resource room.”

I have used socratic seminars in honors classes and wasn’t sure how a population of students who tend not to be quite so engaged would do. The seminar entails putting six desks in the middle of the room in a circle. The rest of the desks are set in a larger circle facing in.  Six students start in the middle and begin their discussion on whatever text we have been reading, in this case Elie Wiesel’s Night.  They then proceed to have a discussion.  If somebody wants to go in, they get up, quietly tap on the shoulder of one of the people in the middle, and the students trade spots.

The kids loved it.  I only had one student out of almost 60 (in two classes) who refused to enter the circle. They didn’t want to quit talking. Students who never speak up in class got upset when somebody “tapped them out.” My co-teacher and I were shocked.  These kids put my own book club to shame with the depth of their responses and their reliance on the text to support their opinions.

The kids were prepared. They had done the reading. They had written responses to the reading, and prepared “Big Questions” (questions that don’t have one right answer) to ask about it. I had also told them that I had only ever done this in honors classes, and it was up to them to make it work.  I set the expectation high and they stepped up.

So what’s the lesson here? I need to raise the bar, not only for myself but for my students and even my own children. Not so high that they can’t be met, but high enough that I force both myself and my kids out of the status quo where many of us (myself included) happily schlump along.

Shakespeare and Freshmen – Good Times

Think back to your freshman year in high school.  You lived through moments that defined your life . . . at the time at least.  Now, you probably can’t recall what they were.  Think back also to your English class.  Do you remember what you read? Do you remember your first introduction to Shakespeare? As a 9th grader in the USA, you probably read Romeo and Juliet.  It overwhelmed you. You had no idea what the characters were saying. Your teacher probably spent lots of time expounding upon Shakespeare’s mastery of language and all you were trying do was figure out what the hell was going on and why the nurse was so annoying.

I have vague memories of reading the play when I was 14, but now, as a Freshman English teacher, I’ve read it probably 30 or more times.  I just started my third reading so far this year.  I have to stagger them in my sections to avoid reading it with all my sections at one time.  That would be just too painful.  Not that I don’t like William, I do.  It’s just that his writing includes much more than plot and for many 9th graders, understanding the plot is difficult enough without even mentioning Will’s masterful use of language.

Some of them do get it, and that makes it worth it.  Others struggle through and ask, “Why do I need to know this?  My life dream is to be a diesel mechanic.  Will I use this?”

My answer? “Um . . . ya . . . Open to Act II.”  I wish I could say that I have some profound answer that changes my students’ lives and their attitudes toward Shakespeare, but I don’t.  The ones that get it, get it.  They borrow my complete works of Shakespeare and read several plays on their own.  I have some of these every year.  The ones that don’t get it, muddle through.  I am sure that they will live perfectly successful lives as mechanics or engineers, and they will not feel a gaping Shakespearian hole in their lives.

In any case, I shared the following video with my students this year.  They loved it, totally got the story and began to understand the differences in language between the Elizabethan era and their Texting world.  It ended up being a pretty good introduction to the play.  It made me laugh and reminded me what it might feel like to read the play for the first time, rather than the fortieth. Even “The Three Little Pigs” in Elizabethan verbage would be tough to understand without knowing the story first. Enjoy.

Five Reasons why State Proficiency Exams Suck

1)      The terrified looks on the seniors’ faces as they walk into the room to try to pass the math portion for the 8th time.  I am always shocked at some of the kids that come in because some of them are excellent students.  One came in yesterday who I had as a freshman.  She can write beautifully and often shared her short stories, poetry, and drawings with me.  She wrote for fun, loving the creative process, and earned solid A’s in English.  Is this a student who should be denied a diploma? She’s passed her math classes but higher level algebra (yes, it’s on the “proficiency” test) is incredibly difficult for her. I’m not sure that’s right.  Does she truly lack “proficiency”?    If the point of these tests is to strike terror into the hearts of students, our legislature who mandates these tests have been wildly successful.

2)      The cookie cutter approach – similar to the above comment, the test requires that we all have the same strengths.  Who decided that math, science, reading, and essay writing are the four areas that an educated person must excel in in order to be considered educated?  What about music? Creative Writing? Poetry? Drawing? Drama? We all have different strengths, and I think one of the most basic and frustrating aspects of working in the public school system is that the entire system does not get this. I get that basic skills are important, but the tests go above and beyond that.  They are also required for a diploma.

3)      The level of difficulty – I doubt that many adults, even those with college degrees, could pass it, especially the math portion.  I think it would actually be fun to give it to the legislature one day, score it, and see how they do.  I can guarantee there would not be a 100% pass rate, though I’m sure they consider themselves quite proficient.  Yesterday at lunch, one teacher, who had to read the math test aloud to students with special needs (who are also required to take the test), was shocked at the level of difficulty and commented that the language is not language that is used in the everyday workplace.  Why integers and not numbers?  I know there is a difference but is it crucial to know that to be proficient in math?  Maybe it is but I’ve earned a master’s degree, a good job, and a passing grade in college calculus, and I couldn’t tell you. What exactly is “proficient” and who decides?  I would like the legislators who think these tests are the answer to be the ones who have to read it aloud to a student, one who is trying not to cry, when he asks, “can you please just read the question one more time?”

4)      Scoring makes no sense.  Last year, the state lowered the requirements to pass the math and raised reading.  My high school had an 85- 90% pass rate on the reading test on the first time the kids took it until they lowered the scores.  Last year it dropped to about 65%.  Why did they do that? Were too many kids successful? Nobody was able to answer that question.  Now, I not only have my kids read great literature and free choice novels but also boring articles, just to practice.  Most of them say the reading is not that hard, it’s staying awake and focused for the two hours it takes to read random, boring passages about fascinating things like pyramids and deep sea ocean creatures that is the most difficult part.

5)      Lost Instructional Time – we have to test for four days, two hours a day.  Only the 10th graders and those who haven’t yet passed take this test.  Those who have passed, sleep in.  Lucky them.  They also aren’t in school, learning anything.  It’s over six hours of lost time, not including all of the class time we spend discussing test taking strategies to try to calm and prep the kids.

Now that I’ve had my rant, I will admit I do not know the answer.  I don’t know how to fix the educational system, but I do know that it must start with the individual students.  We MUST figure out a way to offer students choices and recognize that all of them have different strengths and interests.  I am not saying that students shouldn’t be able to read, write, or perform basic math functions.  They should.  I am saying that we need to have a variety of paths to achieve success, not just the one size fits all approach we have now.  It clearly doesn’t fit.

And the winner is . . . NOT YOU! Deal with it

I’ve spent this weekend like I spend a majority of my weekends, watching kids compete. This weekend I watched my Speech & Debate team competing Friday night and all day Saturday, and then on Sunday, I watched my own son compete in the final day of a hockey tournament.

When I got to the hockey tournament, all the other parents asked me how my debaters did.  Did we win? How many trophies?  That’s all anybody cared about.

Late Sunday afternoon as we drove home while the rest of the country watched two football teams compete, I listened to my husband ask for at least the hundredth time, “who the hell did the hockey schedule this year? Why was there a tournament TODAY?  It’s the SUPERBOWL!”  He banned all radio or access to anything that might give away clues as to the game’s outcome as he and my son had  recorded it and wanted to pretend to watch it in real time when we got home.  Despite the fact that he’s a devoted Cowboys fan, he wanted to watch the game, to see who won the season.

I did cheat on my husband’s rules a little bit as it is a five hour drive home, and I checked my twitter feed.  I found out that the commercials are great and some people found Madonna’s half time show tasteful and well done while others found it boring and lacking in Madonna swag. My verdict?   After finally watching halftime at ten o’clock last night, it was a little dull.  I also found out that I follow people on Twitter who cared about the game about as much as did . . . not much.

More than anything, I find it fascinating how obsessed our entire culture is with competition.  For many, winning really is everything. Even if you’re not into sports, the nation is currently obsessed with who is going to win the republican nomination.  Competition is virtually impossible to escape.

As a coach one of the most difficult skills I’ve had to coach kids on is not how to improve their speaking skills, but rather how to lose.  When they lose in real life, they don’t just get “another life” to start the game again like they do in their favorite video games.  They don’t have any idea how to lose despite living in a society which values competition almost more than anything else.  In some ways it’s unfair.  In many youth sports, the motto is “everyone plays” and a score is not kept.  I get that little guys should just play for the fun of it, but then we send them into a world where they compete, they lose, and they are expected to know how to deal with appropriately.

My team has come a long way on this front as have my own kids.  They know that if they need to pitch a fit after losing, they better do it off by themselves where nobody else sees it.    They know to congratulate the winner, hold their heads up, know they did their best, and no matter how painful, paste a smile on their face.  They need to show some class: no showboating if they win, no hysterics if they lose.

As a coach who hates losing as much as my team, I’ve had to learn to do this too.  It’s really hard.  Winning is much more fun, and it’s also what keeps us going.  We hear about businesses that fail or writers who got hundreds of rejections, but then we hear about that one business that some kid developed in his dorm room and is now worth billions or that one story that a woman wrote in a café with her infant son in a stroller and we think, “if they can do it, maybe I can just achieve a half of one percent of their success,” and we keep going.  Competition does that for us.  It drives us. Even though somebody has to lose, somebody also has to win.

While I’m not sure that turning everything into a competition is the best approach to life, I still want to win in the publishing game and the business game, and I’ll keep trying, holding my head up and pasting a smile on my face if I need to until I do achieve the levels of success I want.  I’ll get there someday, even if I lose a few times along the way.

And in case you’re wondering, my speech and debate team won eight trophies (six in speech and two in debate), and the hockey team went 2-2, placing third overall.  I’m guessing you know how the superbowl ended up.