Introducing Slam Poetry to the High School ELA classroom

Introducing Slam Poetry to the High School ELA classroom

I’m late to the slam movement, but I am fast falling in love.  I introduced two of my classes to it this semester, and several students and I now share new poems that we find with each other.  I’ll be honest though, slam poetry is risky.

slampoetrygraphic4 - CopyPart of what defines it is the fact that it is raw emotion about painful events–and such raw emotion is rarely pretty or grammatically correct or edited for polite society.  Slam poetry is equal parts performance, metaphor, pacing, story-telling, and advocacy.  It will sucker punch you when you least expect it, either with its painful honesty or its biting ironic wit.

Below are five of my favorite slam poems, all of which I have played in my classroom. Yes, the language is often sailor-like and salty, but that’s part of their power.  Slam poetry is about letting go, and letting people who don’t know your pain or frustration share it.

(1)  Taylor Mail:  If you’re a teacher, and you haven’t been privvy to Taylor Mali’s taylor mali“What Teacher’s Make,” you’ll want to bookmark this and watch it about halfway through test season (what we used to call ‘spring.’) It’s statement of what teachers really do, and what we really make.  Mali’s other work is great, but as a middle school teacher, he sums up why we do what we do, and does it with power and pizazz. Here’s the text of it, but you MUST watch him perform it.   Goosebumps. I promise. (You can find Mali on Twitter at @

(2)  Janette McGhee Watson:  If you’ve ever wanted to wander through a woman’s head janetteand find out what heartbreak and weak and absent fathers do to our psyches, “I Waited for You” by Janette McGhee Watson will take you there. Unapologetically and artistically, her poem is her wedding vows, and they are forceful and brutally honest.  I have so much respect for her; it’s a ten minute treatise on why she is who she is, and why she is marrying the man in front of her, and it is as beautifully painful as anything you’ll see in a long time.  You’ll need to watch this a few times to get all of it, as her rapidfire word play is sometimes difficult to catch, but oh, is it ever worth it! You can find her and more of her work here.

(3) Jesse Parent“To the Boys Who May One Day Date My Daughter” jesseparent.jpgis just flat funny. Teenagers will love it because it’s a dad’s message to boys who, as the title says, may want to date his daughter.  It’s a message every parent has thought at some point, and as a teacher, I think it’s a very cool thing for our kids to know that this is how we feel about them. Funny, threatening, loving, and hopeful, it’s great fun, with only a little bit of controversial content. (Jesse tweets @jesseparent.)

(4) Amina Iro and Hannah Halpern (@hanhalp), the two girls who perform this poem, have taken their personal experiences and differences and made the point that those things aren’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. With the Middle East still (always?) in the forefront of the news, their poem is and likely will be, timely for a long time. Check out their take on the Arab-Israeli conflict here.

(5) As a trans-racial adoptive mom, Javon Johnson’s “cuz he’s black”   broke my JavonJohnsonheart, and forced me to look at my son differently.  Every person of color in the room will nod and agree, even if their white peers don’t.  With so much talk about racism in the media today, it’s important to remember that you cannot dictate to another person what their own experience is.  This poem helps teach that lesson. You can connect with Johnson on Twitterat @javonism.

 

6.  Kai Davis:  This last one might require special permission to use in the classroomkai depending on where you are because of the ferocity of the language, but it is so worth it.  Kai Davis’s “I Look Like” has a lot of f-bombs and n-words, but the message and the performance and the wordplay are near perfection. It’s about the judgement faced by smart kids of color by both their white and black peers, and how this one spunky young woman refuses to sell out to anyone.  Kai tweets at @KaiDavisPoetry.

 

Slam poetry’s increasing popularity makes it an amazing classroom tool, and because of its tendency toward performance, self-evaluation and clever phrase turning, can appeal to a wide range of people. However:  as a teacher, be cautious.  These poems and their honesty and salty language are not for every classroom.

If I’ve missed a good one, let me know in the comments!

 

The Seven Best Love Poems of all Time

The Seven Best Love Poems of all Time

It’s time we had the talk.   The love poem talk.

As a teacher, I love to encourage my kids to write, but Lord help me when they bring me their love poetry to look at .

When I make them write poetry, I tell them that they can write about anything they want, as long as it isn’t romantic love.  “If you can out-sonnet Shakespeare, then go for it; if not? Pick a different subject.”  Then I tell them that if they give me a teenage love poem to read, I will make confetti out of it.

If the poem has the phrase “there for me” in it, I’ll add glitter and use it at their next parent conference.

So, this being National Poetry Month, we’re going to get the obvious out of the way.  If you love poetry, there are love poems you love.  This is not complicated, unlike love itself, whose complication is infinite and ever-changing.

Here are my favorites, and why I love them so much.  Can I use the word ‘love’ again? I’d love to, thanks.

shakes

(1) Shakespeare’s sonnet 114.  Otherwise known as “Let me not to the  marriage of true minds admit impediments.”  One of Will’s best known, it basically says that love isn’t going to break if things get in its way. It’s not going to change for the worse when bad things happen.  If it’s real love, it’ll get stronger, and the fact that you’re reading the poem is proof of it. The fact that we study it is proof that The Bard was right.  When it comes to love poems, he wrote more than a hundred of them, and they are all worth reading, especially if you are both in love and a poetry geek.

 

(2) The Seafarer–This poem may seem like an odd choice for a list of love poems, but the Anglo-Saxon Bard who wrote it was no stranger to the heart ache love can cause, especially if the thing you love does not love you back.  The speaker’s one true love is the ocean, which we all know is capricious and unrelenting.  Not great traits for a lover to have, but we don’t pick who or what we love, do we?

(3)I Love You, by Roy Croft  This poem has some dubious origins if Wikipedia is to be bettermanbelieved, but regardless of who wrote it, it maps out why we love the people we do. It’s not just about them, it’s about who we become when we’re with them. Remember Jack Nicholson’s “You make me want to be a better man?” speech?  That’s essentially what this poem is.  It’s simple, free verse, and doesn’t require much reading between the lines to understand. I think we had it read at our wedding, because it’s just that awesome of a poem (and my memory is just that out of whack!)

(4) Annabel Lee, by Edgar Allan Poe  My favorite poem of all time, bpoey one of my favorite writers. It’s a sad fairy tale love story about love that goes on beyond the “sepulchre there by the sea” into eternity.  When I was in 6th grade or so, I figured out that “Annabel Lee” rhymed with Tracy Marie, and that made my little heart explode. Even now, when I recite it, I have to sub my name for Annabel Lee’s name at least once. And it still gives me a goose bump or two. Like much of Poe’s love poetry it mourns the loss of his love, but does so in a beautiful lyrical style with sound effects and rhythm as only Poe can do.

 

(5) 1st Corinthians 13:4-8.   These are the “Love is patient” verses, and might be the most recited passage in the history of modern weddings.  It is a Biblical definition of what love is and isn’t, and no matter where you are in your spiritual life, you have to admit that the definition is pretty spot on. Now, there are about a gazillion different translations for the Bible, and while some are better than others, your choice as to a favorite is exactly that.  The link I added here allows you to choose among MANY translations.

(6) Sonnet 43, Edna St.Vincent Millay  Many might argue against this choice for a great love poem, but hear me out.  Each of us has a lost love story.  A broken heart is good for someone because of all the lessons that come with it, but most sad love poetry is all “please come back, baby.” Millay is wise enough to know that such wishes only create more problems, and that broken hearts and loves that didn’t work out should stay in the past, sighing and tapping on the window pain.

(7) To Althea, From Prison” by Richard Lovelace. Love doesn’t hold us back, cage-gravure-2400pxaccording  to Richard Lovelace, it gives us the freedom of flying angels.  Perhaps best known for its “Stone walls do not a prison make” line, most people have at least heard of this poem.  He admits to loving the physical relationship with his beloved Althea, and offers the idea that true love is the most precious kind of freedom.  Plus, he uses the verb tipple.  How can you not love that?

 

 

Worksheets for some of these poems are in progress, and will be posted in my Teachers Pay Teachers Store when they’re done!

What’s your favorite poem?  Comment with a link below!

Introduction to Poetry

Introduction to Poetry

 

Part of the frustration of any literature teacher is the groaning chorus of poetry haters who are not excited about the poetry unit. To help this, I try to introduce poetry via song lyrics and fun poems.  One of my favorite fun poems is Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry” which presents the problems of teacher expectations running into students.

It is perfect for teaching assonance, metaphor, and free form structure.  And it nails #thestruggleisreal feeling teachers get when trying to get students to read beyond the surface of a poem.

I’m in the process of creating a worksheet for this poem geared toward high school students.  I’ll email the first five requests in the comments a free PDF copy of it when it’s done!  Everyone else will be able to buy it from my Teachers Pay Teachers store when it’s done.

Enjoy!

Introduction to Poetry

BY BILLY COLLINS

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Too Much Water in the Kool-Aid

Too Much Water in the Kool-Aid

Clear-Out-the-Dead-Wood-Thats-Holding-You-BackToday’s lesson on writing in 10th grade ELA was on eliminating unnecessary words and phrases.  My favorite high school teacher called it “eliminating the deadwood,” and in today’s class, my standard, “Don’t waste your reader’s attention span on words they don’t need to read” was not explanation enough for one of my students.

At issue was my admonition: Don’t say “I think.”  Don’t say “I believe.”  Say what you want to say like it is fact, and people will take your argument more seriously.  Z. kept insisting that there had to be more to it, a better reason.  And I couldn’t think of another reason or another way to explain it.  Then M. piped up.

“Do you ever make Kool-Aid?”kool aid.1

That got my attention.  “Yes ma’am. What does this have to do with writing  a paragraph?”

“Well, it’s like when you’re making Kool-Aid, if you put too much water in it, it loses its flavor.  You don’t want your paragraph to lose its flavor by cramming it with too many extra words.”

Best metaphor on revising ever. Good thinking, M.

Extra credit for you!

 

Testimony to the State Senate Education Committee

Testimony to the State Senate Education Committee

Tomorrow, the GA Senate Education and Youth Committee is meeting to discuss the Student Protection Act, the 355 Substitute Bill, which addresses the following:

  • tests will not assess personal attitudes or beliefs
  • test reports will identify specific skills not just general domains.
  • school readiness assessments can be ITBS
  • paper and pencil tests upon parent request
  • school system must have policies for student learning activities during testing if the child is not to take the exam
  •  no child is to be punished for non-participation
  •  2% cap on testing time as part of total instructional time
  • parent refusal for any child who is disabled or seriously ill
  • physician refusal including therapist
  • a student who fails the first time may take a different retest (ITBS) and/ or may be retested at functional level.
  • if a schools rating is affected by refusals that fact will be indicated in final report by DOE as well as the score the school would have received if not for the federal 95% mandate
  • no teacher or administrator will be penalized by any refusals
  • promotion may be determined by ITBS scores.
  • DFCS attendance policies will not include days during testing where a parent keeps their child home.  (copied and reformatted from FB post in a closed group)

Here is my testimony, which will be read by a stand in for me, tomorrow at the hearing.

 

To the Education Committee of the State Legislature of GA:

As both a high school ELA teacher and a parent in the state of Georgia, I have seen both sides of testing:  I’ve seen what it does in my classroom, to my students, and I’ve seen what it’s done to my children.

As a teacher, I am ever so tired of saying, “You might see this on the test like this…,” “On a test your options might be phrased like this…,” and “When you do this on the test you’ll only have this many minutes.”  I used to be able to connect the content to future careers and real life scenarios, or to art and music and college.

Now, it’s all about the Test.  This is capitalized on purpose, because it doesn’t matter what manner of alphabet soup they’re called, they all do the same thing. They mostly check to see how a student does on a small range of skills in a stressful set of timed circumstances. Then the scores are stacked up against all the other kids in the state unfortunate enough to have to endure up to a month’s worth of testing at the end of the school year.

This doesn’t take into consideration the practice tests or the benchmarks given based on the district’s need for data, or the school’s determination to produce the best results possible. I don’t fault the teachers in my school or my administration, because we all have to earn our paychecks.  But the policy makers? The ones who have never taught a day in their lives?

Here, have some blame.

Many of my students are brilliant writers, but can’t do math very well.  Some have math smarts, and do ok in ELA. Others can take apart, repair, and reassemble a robot with their eyes closed, but don’t handle test pressure very well.  Some are fairly balanced in their academic skills. Some have serious deficits. Some can sing, draw, paint, connect with little kids (or the elderly, mentally ill, homeless, etc) and work wonders.  They are all expected to pass the same tests in the same amount of time, despite their differences.  Teachers have been told to differentiate, but the tests don’t.

Most of the things we want kids to be able to do to be successful adults aren’t things that can be measured on tests, but they are the things that have been removed from our classrooms to make room for testing and test prep.  I wouldn’t complain so much about it if the things measured and reported actually meant something. But they don’t.

By the time we get to the GMAS, my kids have pretty much decided the following:

  1. They hate writing because the only kind of writing we focus on is constructed response (paragraph long answers structured by a formula that must be followed to earn the points on the test) short narratives, and argumentative essays. The three types of writing on the GMAS test.
  1. They hate reading because it’s always followed by multiple choice questions that are stacked so if you miss the first one in a set, you’re likely to miss the follow-ups.
  1. They don’t know what they want to be when they grow up, but they know they don’t want to teach.

None of this is good for students, teachers, or the future of public education.  It’s not good for parents who want their kids to be successful, but realize that the current environment created in our schools by corporate testing and data crunching is creating physically damaging stress for everyone.

I’m extremely lucky, blessed, and happy to be at a specialty school, where our students have to apply to get in, and keep their grades up to stay.  Testing at our school starts in mid-April, and ends about two days before school lets out.  Between end of pathways testing, GMAS, AP, etc, our school is in test mode for about a month.

This means that we can’t teach new content because on any given day, we’ll be missing half our students for a test, and the ones missing on Monday may or may not be the same ones missing on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.  And if they haven’t tested for another class yet, most of us are willing to share our students for last minute cram sessions because we know what’s at stake. 20% of their grade in up to five classes at a time at my school.

What if 20% of your paycheck for a year was determined by one day’s worth of your work?

For my own kindergarten-aged daughter, N., I have seen the push to learn to read in kindergarten destroy my daughter’s love of school.  She used to get excited and yell, “Yay!” at bedtime when we said, “Yes, school tomorrow!”

Her big grin has been replaced with a deep sigh.  She spends a lot of her time at school drilling sight words in preparation for her next DIBELS test. She has a speech impediment, and that stopwatch is a mortal enemy.

How would that make you feel? The thing you have struggled the most with in your six years of life and someone is clicking a stop watch off and on in front of you as you try desperately to sound out an answer?  I work with my child daily, as does her awesome teacher (whose hands are tied by this craziness), and we can both tell you where N’s progress is in reaching the kindergarten goals.  DIBELS is unnecessary to our knowledge of her progress.  If you’ve never seen a DIBELS test, please consider looking up the test on YouTube.

I’m writing this tonight and emailing you because I couldn’t take the time off work to come see you in person; I have students and children who need me here, four hours away.  I seriously considered taking a personal day, and driving a total of eight hours in one day to come, testify for three minutes, and return home because I know you need to hear from real people, who are experiencing the real consequences of the direction our state’s education system is heading.  But I can’t.

So I’m pleading with you, asking you —one professional, one parent to another— pass the Student Protection Act.  It’s not the cure, but it’s a start; the children, parents and teachers in this state need it.

And, as much as I’d like to believe that you, as my representatives have our best interests at heart, I’m not sure I believe that.  You scheduled a hearing on an education bill at 1:30 on a Wednesday.  That speaks volumes.

 

 

Teachers, Timing, and Testing

Teachers, Timing, and Testing

It makes sense to me that if I test my students on the first day of school and the last day of school, that I’d get a pretty good understanding of what they’d learned along the way.

So it always bothers me that the measurements that are used to evaluate my effectiveness as a teacher are done so late after the start of the year.  As we begin the second full week, I have begun teaching both skills and content.  We’ve covered the processes and procedures needed for classroom management, and are on our way through the curriculum.  And yet, no pre-test yet.

As we move further into the school year, it will get worse for my evaluations, because the kids will score higher on sections of the pre-test that we’ve already covered.

This bothers me for a lot of reasons.

First, if I weren’t a high-road kind of girl, I could just show movies, or play games, or do puzzles the first weeks of school while waiting on a pre-test to show up.  Good for me, bad for the kids.

Second, I could tell my kids to Christmas tree the test, thereby guaranteeing lower scores to start with.  But, again, there’s that high-road, and I like the view from up there. And I don’t want to teach my students to skew data.  They’ll figure that out soon enough in the long run.

Third, I really want accurate, timely feedback on whether my kids are learning anything.  To do that the pre-test ought to come prior to the content.  But it doesn’t, it comes when it comes, on it’s own schedule.  I could be really grumpy and point out that the school calendars are published about six months prior to the new school year, but that might be petty, so I’ll keep moving.

Finally, if there continues to be so much money made in education by corporations who are looking for more data to mine, then the tests, the data we need, and the information most prescient to our classrooms will be completely out of our hands.  Oh wait. Haha.  It already is.  Nevermind.  Forgot where I was.

So, if you’re a teacher, or teacher friendly, I’d like to encourage you to get involved somewhere, and start speaking out against the craziness that is all of this money being spent on tests and testing instead of our students.

Have an awesome week, people!

Dear New Teacher,

Dear New Teacher,

Hi, I’m Tracy.

I was once where you are: happy to be in a job, but exhausted from the first week and already feeling behind.

And sadly, not much has changed in 18 years. My room wasn’t as ready as I wanted it.  I didn’t get to read or plan as much as I would have liked to. But there wasn’t enough time, there never is, and I have finally, after 18 years, realized you have to let that stress go.  If you don’t, it will eat at you.

There are some things that I have learned over the years that have made my professional life better.  And if it please my readers (all four of you), I’d like to share some tidbits.

First, find a good mentor. If you’re lucky your school system’s new teacher induction program will find you one.  If you aren’t, ask three people for recommendations:  the media specialist, your AP, and your department chair.  Best two out of three wins.  I was lucky in that my first few years were spent with the amazing Rachel; we were fast friends, and she had a few years classroom experience in her pocket.  If it weren’t for her, I’m not sure what I’d be doing right now, but it darn sure wouldn’t be teaching.

Then, get more sleep. It’s a cliche, but it’s a seriously accurate one.  You can only run on coffee and energy drinks for so long before the bags under your eyes start shopping for luggage, and you are getting snippy even with your best students.  You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of other people.

Order a yearbook.

Let your students take the lead on some things. Contrary to all the media gripes, students in general like to be trusted to do things, even if it is just dusting the bookshelves, and emptying the recycling. Assign volunteers to help in your classroom–passing out graded work or handouts, making flash card sets on Quizlet (one of my all-time favorite apps), or spot cleaning the area where the hole-puncher played snowstorm again.

If you read no other book about education, read “The First Days of School.”  It is the single best classroom management book ever. Period.  I’m serious.  Go get it.  It’s important enough that my district gives copies of it to new teachers.  And for a district to part with money for nearly 400 copies of anything, you know it’s got to be good.

Drink water.  Really, really ice cold water.  It’s refreshing, and it’s good for you.

Don’t be afraid to play music in the classroom.  Pandora has become one of my favorite websites.  The Piano Guys channel, with Lindsey Sterling added in, is great classroom background music.  Not quite classical, and just funky enough to keep the kids awake.

Keep it simple.  In decorating, projects, expectations, lesson plans, documentation…  It doesn’t have to be museum quality to keep your classroom going.  It does need to be thoughtful and age-appropriate, but if all you have time and money for is cleaning it, then go with clean.  You can’t go wrong with that.

Always keep a folder with a review packet or a set of articles on the same issue from different perspectives, copied and ready for the whole class.  Just in case you need a back up plan.

When all else fails, look to Pinterest for a journal prompt, or a grouping activity.  I’m convinced there has to be a way to get professional development for time spent on Pinterest, but no one I know has figured it out yet.

At the end of the year, have your students make scrap book pages. The years I haven’t squeezed this in, I have regretted.  Make them use their full name on it, so you can say you knew them when.

Ask for help when you need it.  It’s not embarrassing, and it doesn’t mean you aren’t good at what you do.  I still need help, and I’ve gotten better at asking for it when I need to.

And that rule about not smiling?  Forget it.  Smile with, and at, your students.  It counts for something.

Here’s how I know.

Every night before bed, my five year-old, N. asks hopefully, “Do we get to go to school tomorrow, Mama?” And when the answer is affirmative, she does a fist pump with an excited, “Yesssss!”  I know it’s in part because every teacher I’ve met there smiles at their kids.  Even the ones they don’t teach. You have to work for N. to like you, and even more so to keep her attention.  Once she’s smiled at you, you’re in.  And for her to be so excited about school, it’s made a huge impression on her. So smile if your personality allows.

As long as you can stay one step ahead of the students, you’ll be ok.

And on the days you aren’t, you’ll improvise.

Finally, look back to your favorite teachers, and choose one.  Remember those “WWJD?” bracelets that used to be so popular?  Insert one of your favorite classroom teachers in there, and ask what that teacher would do.

Hang in there, Newbs.  It might not always be awesome, but you can almost always make it good.

Sincerely,

tracy

PS: Breathe.