Stacked in Our Favor


Thoughts about libraries, education, children's literature, writing, art and being connected







Saturday, April 16, 2011

Heart of a Poet

 National Poetry Month has been a delightful surprise. The children have inspired me more than ever. We have talked about the “heart of a poet.” They fall in love with that concept. They also fall in love with the idea that words can be beautiful, can show emotion and that choosing the right word is the work of a “word artist.” These are entirely new thoughts to most of them and they grab onto them tenaciously. I am seeing poetry in the words we speak, write and carelessly bandy about. And they do too.

After rewriting Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Swing” with quite a few classes it became clear that there are many more ways to solve a poetic challenge than I thought possible. While many of the ideas/words/images the children came up with were the same, there were also many unique visions from each class. After brainstorming, each class chose a different focus to finishing their poem. I hadn’t expected this. I mean the view from the swing is simply the view from the swing, isn’t it? Absolutely not. How could I have been so na├»ve?

In most classes, I needed to really shepherd them the process. One class, however, took charge early. They delighted in beating out the rhythm, and finding words to fill the beats. They refused to be limited by our brainstorming. In the end the children grabbed scrap paper from my desk and feverishly jotted down their suggestions for amending our poem. I have a stack of entries and multiple submissions from most of the class. It is important to note that the scrap paper part of the lesson was entirely their creation.

Meanwhile, a class that had not yet done their three minute rhyme showed me something which tore at my heart. One child could think of just one word and started to weep. It’s not that this child is not used to challenges or cries when he doesn’t win. It was just that he was so inspired by the poetry. He was afraid that if he could not rhyme he could not be a poet. A wonderful thing happened. His classmates circled him, hugged him and affirmed him. They said things wise beyond their years and said them, dare I say it, poetically. His tears dried and he bravely joined us to find out how others did.

I gave my regular spiel, which starts by asking children to raise their hands if they have one or more rhyming word on their paper. Almost all children do. I congratulate them for being one step on the road to being a poet and compliment them on their poetic hearts. I then tell them that the children who were unable to rhyme may be the next stars in the world of non-rhyming poetry. This class actually cheered, jumped out of their seats and clutched their poetic hearts. They were so happy to be told that they already were something. Guess who smiled the broadest? You could not have stopped them from rhyming the rest of the class period. Nor could you have stopped them for looking for beautiful combinations of words.

What did I learn from this? Children love to be told that they are something. Aside from loving to get good grades or get praise, developing an identity is inspiring to them. Writing a sentence may be looked at as a chore. Being a poet seems like an honor. Writing is what poets do. Writing becomes a way of validating who they are. The assignment may be the same – write two sentences that rhyme. But the result is different. Way different. Even if the sentences are identical. When you inspire a vision, an identity and a passion, you inspire so much more.

I no longer think of myself as merely a teacher but more of a ringleader, mentor, inspirational coach. Yes I am a teacher, but I want to be even more. I hope I can do it poetically. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Writing Poetry with Robert Louis Stevenson

It’s National Poetry Month and I’m all agog at the different ways to share poetry. You all know by now that I went wild in January writing a poem every day for Kat Apel’s Month of Poetry. It was such a good time I didn’t sign up for a poetry challenge this month. Instead I’m challenging myself to think of new ways to share the poetry of other people.

Last week I challenged students to a rhyming contest. I gave each student a piece of scrap paper, gave a word to rhyme with and set my timer for three minutes. They wrote down as many rhyming words as they could in the time given. The person with the most rhyming words was given the accolade “King or Queen (insert name here) of the Land of Rhyme” written on a paper crown. You could not imagine how they set themselves to the task. The winner was often a dark horse candidate. Naturally, we read some rhyming poetry afterward.

This week I am working with classes on rewriting a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson to reflect the realities of the scenery from our playground swing set. I shared the poem with students and asked them about the content. Not a single child knew what “cattle” are.

We talked about the beauty of the scene, but how it doesn’t reflect our experience. We then made a list of what we can see from the swing set of our small city school. Though not an inner city, we certainly cannot see a single farm animal from our environs.

We then carefully cut out the sections which didn’t reflect our reality. I had the children clap out the beat of the original poem so that we could replicate it’s cadence. We then adapted parts and added in the vocabulary we had listed on the board. The finished product is a wonderful mix of Stevenson and Students.

The Original Poem
The Swing
By Robert Louis Stevenson

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside –

Till I look down on the garden green
Down on the roof so brown –
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!

The Swing
Robert Louis Stevenson & Kindergarten Class

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so far,
Buildings and toys and sticks and sand
I feel I can jump on the car.

Till I look down on the school building
Down on the roof so brown –
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!

(their  vocab list - cars, trees, sky, a person, grass, a fence, a bird, a building, the school, sand, a leaf, toys, sticks)

The Swing
By Robert Louis Stevenson and First Grade Class

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the fence,
Till I can see so far,
Children and playhouse and sand and slides
Everything till the cars.

Till I can see the sandy ground
Down on the roof so brown –
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!


(their vocab list – the woods, the road, the fence, the school, trees that are knocked down, sand, slides a factory, the playground, cars, a building, trees, the windows, the wind blowing, children, playhouse, the driveway, the door.)

I’m quite delighted with the results. They liked the poem on first reading, but they owned it when we were through. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Six Degrees of Separation



Art by Deborah Davidson
http://etegamibydosankodebbie.blogspot.com/



This week seems to have been a test of the theory of “six degrees of separation” for me. If you aren’t familiar with Frigyes Karinthy’s theory, it states that people are so connected that there are only about six threads between any two people in the world. I can see how Karinthy’s background could lead him to this conclusion. He was an author, playwright, poet, journalist and translator. Not only would the type of activity he engaged in provide a life of voluminous contacts, but the types of activities he engaged in were those which consisted of making connections. If the only activity in his biography was “translator” that alone would explain his belief in the nature of connection.

Debbie Davidson read the poem I included in my last post and asked permission to create art for it. Imagine that! In fact she made two versions. I like them both so much that I included one here and the other at the head of the last post. Debbie is one of those marvelous people who can take a less than perfect situation and mill what positive there is to be had from it. I know I said this in the last post, but I’ll repeat myself. If you haven’t checked out her blog, Etegami by Dosanko Debbie and her series on “Humanizing the Quake” you are missing out on pure beauty. I feel so humbled to have such beautiful artwork inspired by my writing and to read her thoughts on my poem. Heady stuff.

I also heard from Ann Dixon, Alaskan children’s book author. Amidst the back and forth of catching up with each other, I found out about her blog, Kid Lit North: Where Ravens Roam and Writers Dream It introduces books about northern climates and sheds light on places and events I can only dream about. Years ago during an emergency landing in Anchorage and subsequent surprise overnight stay there, my eyes were opened to the beauty of Alaska. I had always wanted to return, though I prefer to make it a planned visit next time. Through Ann’s books, website and blog I catch a glimpse of the trip I would like to take.

Last Sunday, I headed into Boston to the Boston Museum of Science to see the exhibit “Race: Are We So Different?” It was a thought-provoking exhibit questioning the notion of race. Though many of the things I saw and heard were issues I had given thought to and pursued through reading, the way the exhibit was put together brought ideas together in a powerful way. It is clear that we are all more closely related than we may think at first. The reflections people offered about the richness of their heritage was inspiring, moving and sometimes humorous. The lines between us blur. There are only 12 letters between I and U. I would highly recommend this exhibit.

I also saw the movie “Australia” in the IMAX theatre. The film focused on how Australia and Antarctica were at one time joined and how one became a cold barren land while the other became a harsh desert climate. I learned plenty from the film, including the surprising information that kangaroos and koalas are descendants of the same animal. I also learned about the profusion of pelicans during years of plenty. The connection between life and the land is intricate and integral.

Still, I was disappointed not to see more of the vibrant wildlife that fellow participants of MoP (Month of Poetry) featured in their poetry or conversations. In the evening, I spent time chatting with Australian children’s book writers Kat Apel and Jo Hart about the wildlife they see where they live. I should have known…how can a continent so large and diverse be introduced in a mere 50 minutes? Granted, there is much truth to what the film asserts, but I was looking for a more inclusive view of Australia. One which included the gamut of climates, flora and fauna.

Later in the week, I had an experience that really ties it all together. The power of the internet in connecting us is something we take for granted, but sometimes it is borne out in ways that delight and amaze. When Debbie sent me the first illustration I asked her a bold question – did she know a friend of mine who was rumored to live in her neck of the world. Turns out she didn’t, but a friend did and so after many years I’m back in touch with a dear friend. It was a delightful and awe inspiring experience. I’ve never met Debbie. Just made her acquaintance on twitter a month or two ago. The world is a small and big place. We are connected to each other. Thank goodness. Thank goodness.