Building on Prior Knowledge & Skills - Seeing Ourselves as Writers in Progress
As Natalie Goldberg makes clear in
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
, it is not that one can learn to be writer, it is that one must seek to release the language artist lurking inside oneself. The task, then, is to commit to that writer within and to consistently engage in the often frustrating yet rewarding act of producing a poem or other piece of writing. Towards that end, I intend to emphasize participation and production more heavily in the poetry half of the year than in the first half of the year. The students will listen to spoken poetry, read their own and others' poems both silently and aloud, respond to read poetry both verbally and in writing, and write poems. Each session, or lesson, will follow the same basic format: first we will read or listen to some poetry, then respond to it, and finally write our own, somehow connected, pieces of poetry.
Upon completion of the first half of the year, the students will have developed a daily (or every session) writing habit through the use of dialog journals. I intend to rely on that habit throughout the poetry unit so that the students come to see poetic language as what Kenneth Koch calls it - "an extension of everyday language" in which the meaning of language (sense) is augmented by its music (sound). I have often used dialog journals to encourage ESL students to write, and they have proven a very effective method. A dialog journal is a private, two-way conversation between the student and teacher in which the instructor responds to the student's written work, but does not correct it. Although it can be very difficult for the teacher to refrain from marking the students' errors, the improvement in sheer production achieved with this type of journaling is worth the effort. At times, when a student consistently makes the same error, I have made a suggestion in my response such as "Americans usually say 'There were three of us' instead of 'We were three,'" thus avoiding possible fossilization of the error without actually red marking it. The basic technique is simple: present each student with a marble cover "Compositions" notebook and ask them to bring it to every session. Tell them that no one but yourself will read the entries and that you will not discuss the contents with anyone. Provide space in a locked filing cabinet or closet in the classroom, so that those who wish to may safely leave their journals in between class sessions. Assign the students to write a journal entry in the first ten minutes of each session, either on the suggested topic you write on the board, or one of their choosing. (Sometimes, I have had the students tape a photocopied list of possible subjects onto the back cover of their notebooks, which is then used to make up missing entries from days absent or tardy.) Require or suggest a specific length - half a page, one paragraph, a full page, etc., depending on the age and ability level(s) of the students. With prose journaling, especially for teenage and adult students, controversial opinion statements, such as "Abortion is murder," often provoke a veritable flurry of writing, even in the most reluctant students. In any case, collect the journals promptly at the ten minute mark, as this helps the students train themselves to buckle down immediately upon entering the classroom. Be sure to respond - even if only with one sentence - after each entry is turned in, and hand the journals back to each student as s/he enters class for the next session. In addition to providing invaluable writing practice, the journal's daily non-critical back and forth with the teacher helps the students develop a trusting relationship with him or her. That trusting relationship in turn leads to fewer discipline problems and a greater openness in the classroom over all.
The journals will continue to form an on-going conversation between teacher and student regarding participation, writing process, and progress in the second half of the year, with the change of using them towards the end of every lesson for poetry-related writings, rather than for prose practice at the beginning of class. Throughout the year, I will ask students to copy in a few checklist-style assessment questions at regular intervals, as well as requiring that they "talk" to me in prose about how the session(s) are going for them. Additionally, during the poetry unit, I will ask the students to carry their notebooks with them at all times (rather than storing them with me) so as to jot down poem ideas, interesting images, and language fragments as they appear on a day-to-day basis. I will then need to review and respond to their writings less frequently, perhaps weekly on the same non-session day, returning the journals at our next meeting. As with the prose activities, I will not correct or criticize the students' pieces, simply comment on them in a positive way (for example "You seem to really be interested in dogs-have you tried writing about an animal you hate?") or make suggestions as to further reading that might interest the student (such as "Langston Hughes wrote some great poems on themes that seem to interest you-have you read his work?").
During the initial ten to fifteen 50-minute poetry sessions, I plan to rely on the students' previous experience with nursery rhymes, song lyrics, and poetic fragments (such as aphorisms) to inspire full class and small group discussions as well as the writing of original pieces. In addition, I intend to have them read about and write on themes common to all young persons, such as family life, childhood experiences, and emotions. We will focus on an expansion of vocabulary and an improved understanding of language terminology, such as part of speech, image, and description. I think that a number of the students will enter the workshop thinking that they cannot understand, much less write, poetry. I intend to use techniques such as class collaboration, in which the students each contribute a word or line to a "poem" written on a given subject, to lessen that resistance. During the first five weeks of the twenty devoted to poetry, I plan to work the students away from any self-perceived lacks regarding poetry towards a braver, more self-accepting attitude. Another way in which the students will gain confidence is to emphasize the poetic elements of language they already know well. I plan to have the students write out and bring in copies of their favorite song lyrics. We will then discuss what appeals to them about the song, how it changes from the page to the ear, if it's different recited versus sung, if the most important element is the tune or lyrics, and how sound elements such as rhyme, repetition, alliteration, assonance, and consonance, etc., enhance the lyrics. We will also spend quite a bit of time on writing exercises in their journals, such as writing (in prose) about the ugliest, most beautiful, scariest, most enjoyable experiences they have had, and then closing trying to put that experience into a ten-word poem. In order that the students focus on the sound of the words they are putting together, I will use some lines of my own and others' poetry and have the students discuss why one draft is "better" than another - why a poet might choose the word "clam" over "shell" or vice versa in a specific situation. In addition, we will do some silliness exercises, such as constructing nonsense lines of alliterative nouns and adjectives (for example "Six simple sheep swam sillily") so that the students will relax and have fun with language. I plan to introduce formalized poetry (with limericks) at this point, as a segue into a five- to ten-week long set of sessions on reading great poetry and writing after it. Once the students have discovered that every day experiences expressed in simple language can become "poetry," their resistance to "literature" will lessen, allowing their own creativity to come to the fore. After their resistance has lessened, I will slowly introduce poems, or sections of poems, by published poets, both contemporary and classically canonical. Kenneth Koch's experiences teaching the reading and writing of poetry to New York City's public school children have shown us that even very young children can understand, enjoy, and respond to works such as William Blake's "The Tyger" or Emily Dickinson's "I Never Saw a Moor" when given "poetry ideas" (Rose xxii). I will generally follow Koch's lead in these poetry sessions, asking the students to write pieces which are somehow related to what we have read or heard read, without analyzing the pieces to death or becoming overly caught up in drafting and revising (Rose 336). I plan to employ Koch's concept of poetic language as being that in which sound and meaning work together to create something more than everyday speech (Making 20-21), and we will spend a good deal of time in the sessions listening to one another read aloud, and perhaps, listening to published poets read aloud (via audio cassette) as well as discussing what makes a poem.
In anticipation of planning this unit, I did try some simple poetry writing activities late in the past academic year, and my students generally responded well. Most had previously worked with Acrostic poems and Haiku in English and enjoyed it, so they were excited to try those forms in Spanish. Learning that many "professional" writers often struggle to overcome the same difficulties and blocks encountered by everyday people (an insight from the Goldberg book mentioned above) surprised nearly all of the students and encouraged them to continue forward themselves. I therefore plan to include "tips" for writers from Natalie Goldberg's
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
, Ray Bradbury's
Zen in the Art of Writing
, and William Higginson and Penny Harter's
The Haiku Handbook
, in my presentations and individually with students as appropriate. In terms of the work my students produced this year, even though we did not do much reading or discussion of poetry before writing, the students were undeterred from writing. They produced a number of nice pieces, and some students went beyond the requirements, producing extra poems and decorating their final drafts with artwork.
I am intrigued, however, by Koch's method of teaching the reading and writing of poetry as one subject (Rose xxi) and intend to follow his lead in my own poetry unit. Towards that end, I will begin with three William Blake poems - "The Tyger," "the Lamb, and "The Sick Rose," as Koch suggests in Chapter One of
Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?
(3-35). I detail this lesson plan below as a mid-semester class possibility, after the students have gained some practice reading and writing pieces closer to their own everyday lives - pieces based on nursery rhymes, song lyrics and observational exercises. We will then read some of the "great poets" and write poems somehow similar to theirs. The lesson on the Blake poems, for example, asks the students to write a poem in which they converse with an animal. After the Blake, we will read Marianne Moore's "The Wood-Weasel" and write about animals (including birds and insects) that we like despite others' dislike of that same beast. Continuing with the Nature theme, I plan to have the students read a number of Japanese Haiku and then write their own (282-4). This lesson should work well with Spanish-dominant and bilingual students, as the five-seven-five syllable pattern essential to this form is easier to manage in Latinate languages than in English. Another poet whose work led Koch's students to a burst of creativity is William Carlos Williams, so I will attempt to do the same. I will have the students read "This Is Just To Say," pausing afterwards to have the students write an apology poem. We will then read "The Locust Tree in Flower," followed by a class collaboration poem and then individual pieces with one word per line about something seen. And finally, we will read "Between Walls" and then each write a poem about something we find beautiful although it isn't supposed to be so (100-2). I plan to use Walt Whitman as another inspiration for poems about everyday occurrences. We will read two sections from Song of Myself (numbers 15 and 26) and write about either all the actions that the students imagine people are doing at the moment they are writing or about all the sounds they imagine are being made. The directions for these pieces will include the suggestion that the students make the pieces as long as they possibly can (227-233). In the following class, we will read and discuss Emily Dickinson's "I Never Saw a Moor" and write poems about things we have never seen, but are nevertheless certain we know in some way (234). To end up this section of the workshop, we will read some Shakespeare. Koch suggests three of the Songs, so I will start with "Come Unto These Yellow Sands," "Fancy," and "Where the Bee Sucks." We will then write poems inviting someone to a place full of interesting sounds and colors and happenings (60-63). Perhaps, depending on time constraints and the students' abilities, we may work with some of the Sonnets as well. I want the students in the writers' workshop to see that the effort they put into their reading and writing projects vests in both them and the product an intrinsic value entirely separate from any potential "literary" value. The sheer fact of completing a poem project is a very important step for the students, and one whose difficulty I hope will diminish with each completed assignment.
Pair and Group Work - Making Cultural Connections & Reducing Prejudice
Despite the fact that the New Haven Public Schools are integrated - in my building approximately 45% of students self-identify as African-American, 45% as Hispanic, and 10 % as White/Other - most students appear to spend the majority of their "social" time with members of their own racial or cultural group(s). The classroom is, therefore, the place where a student can most readily get to know another's culture and perhaps come to see that "other" as a teenager more similar to than different from him/herself. The use of pairs and small group work in this poetry workshop, particularly with regard to brainstorming of ideas, discussion of themes, and collaborative poems, will help the students to see each other as human beings in need of understanding and with valuable contributions to make. Much research has shown that getting to know someone from a cultural or racial background different from one's own opens the door to lessening prejudice. It is difficult to maintain negative prejudgments against someone who has become a respected classmate, a valued group member, or, perhaps, a friend. Social interactions are of extreme importance to teenagers, and I intend to employ that to my benefit, and theirs, by establishing and maintaining the workshop sessions as a safe space where students can express themselves without fear and work together towards the mutual goal of understanding and producing poetry. I hope that the combination of high interest activities, low (or non-existent) grade pressure, and the chance to mix academic pursuits with social interaction will prove successful in helping the students lower cultural barriers and genuinely bridge differences.
Active Participation - Reducing Fear and Raising Confidence
I will use active participation as the main assessment criterion for success in the workshop sessions. Since the sessions are not part of their regular classes, the students need not concern themselves with getting the "right" answer and can let their creativity flower. Similarly, the individual "grading" system I use for class participation encourages the students to take part consistently while the journaling system discussed above offers them an outlet for thoughts and feelings they may not wish to share with the group. Active participation will be assessed in two ways - via a participation calendar and a series of assessment checklists.
Participation calendars are an evaluation tool that I use in my classes for two reasons - they hold the student responsible for his/her active participation in the lesson and they help the teacher maintain a balanced pattern of calling on students. Essentially, students construct a two by three grid on a sheet of landscape-oriented paper, which is then used to keep track of class meetings, absences, day and date information, and individual answers given. The teacher circulates among the students while teaching and presents opportunities for participation by asking questions about the material presented, requesting suggestions from the class, having the students offer items in use in the lesson, etc. When a student answers correctly, even if prompting or other assistance is required, the teacher "stamps" the student's calendar on the appropriate day's square. I have previously used a permanently red-inked star stamp from an office supply store but am presently using the readily available flower, insect, dinosaur, spaceship type of marker stamps meant for scrap book activities. The students love to be "stamped," and the calendars provide a simple means for the teacher to assess who is speaking too frequently and who not enough. In my classes, I only award stamps for individual, oral participation in Spanish, but I will vary that formula somewhat for the writers' workshop sessions. First of all, the students receive only an "attendance and participation" grade in the after school and Saturday academies, so the calendar score will not be calculated into their averages as it is in class. I will use it as a way to help the students self-evaluate and to maintain balanced calling among the participants when we are in large group situations. Secondly, with a mix of ability levels, language backgrounds, and varied individual goals, I will vary what type of response qualifies for which quantity of participation stamps. For example, reading one's own poem aloud might result in two stamps per line read versus two stamps total for reading a similar-length poem out of a book.
The use of the calendars also helps more introverted students participate by visually reminding them that they need to raise their hands and answer aloud a specified number of times per session or week. In my classes, that is an average of twice a day for a passing grade of 60 and an average of three times a day for an A- score of 90. The daily scores are totaled across the whole ten-week quarter and then averaged by the actual number of class days that included stamping activities. In the fifty-minute workshop sessions, I plan to ask each student to participate a certain number of times per lesson, varying the number from session to session depending on the specific activities I have planned. Absences and tardiness are also recorded on the calendar, so the student can see when s/he has missed something and should ask a classmate for that specific day's work. In doing so, s/he will also see the number of stamp opportunities missed, thus encouraging promptness and consistent attendance. At first, the more introverted students are often intimidated by the idea of having to participate aloud in every class. After explaining that speaking is an essential part of a language class, I often make arrangements with the more shy children to help them feel more comfortable. We usually agree that I will not call on them unless their hands are raised, but they will raise their hands every time they suspect they have an answer. I expect that this shyness difficulty will be further ameliorated in the poetry workshops by the lack of grade pressure, as well as the nature of many of the activities, which have to do more with creative or original responses than with "getting the right answer." Another way in which calendars help both the teacher and students is by encouraging the students to attempt otherwise onerous or disliked tasks, such as oral reading or recitation in front of the class, call and response activities like dialogues or rounds, and rough and ready brainstorming or defining of terms. When I offer double or triple stamps to the first student who can find a needed item in a glossary or dictionary, it is amazing how many students will go for their books. Similarly, I will often offer one stamp per line for students willing to read aloud or participate in a dialog in front of the class. Nearly every hand will be raised, and some students actually prefer these opportunities, gaining several sessions' worth of stamps on one more brave-feeling day. Finally, my planning is pre-organized to support the objectives of high student participation and teacher vigilance. Since I know the students will be expecting to get stamped, I always figure in lots of student-centered activities and find myself constantly walking around the room, observing the students' work, and speaking individually with the quieter ones. As Koch points out (Rose 334), the teacher must be actively involved with the material and with the students as they write. Above all else, I have found that the students genuinely enjoy the calendars, and they provide a simple fairness system for the teacher.
Assessment checklists are the final tool I will use to evaluate the students. Each week (every three sessions), students will have at least one activity that requires the use of a checklist. I use a variety of these in my classes presently, as they allow the students to self-assess both process and product, clarify and organize the peer review process, and help keep everyone on task. For example, in a poem-writing activity, the assessment checklist might be made up of questions with No, Somewhat, and Yes answers, with two columns given--one for the student's self-assessment and one for the teacher's. Items to be evaluated might include adherence to directions, length of piece produced, use of peer review, etc. I also plan to employ assessment checklists in conjunction with the journaling process, primarily in order to help the students make a commitment to writing as an everyday, or at least every session, part of their lives.
Putting It All Together - A Final Class Project
For a culminating project, I plan to have the students put together their own favorite poems anthology, a la Pinsky. During the final five weeks of the year, I will ask each of the students to select two of his or her favorite poems from the workshop. One will be from the student's own writings and the other from the poets we have read or heard in class or in outside readings. The students will write explanatory "blurbs" like those in
Americans' Favorite Poems: The Favorite Poem Project Anthology
, explaining why they have selected that particular piece. In class we will discuss some of the submissions in Pinsky's Anthology, hopefully discovering some of our own reasons for liking or disliking a poem as well as finding some rationales we perhaps had not thought of previously. We will use the school's computer facilities to design, word process, and publish our anthology, with each student responsible for his/her own two-page spread of poems. I will write an introduction and assemble an index. In addition to providing each student with a bound, laminated "book" to keep, I hope to publish the students' pieces on our school's website as well. One of the fifty-minute lessons I have planned for this part of the workshop series is detailed below.