The Playfulness of Poetry

April is National Poetry Month. As we consider online learning opportunities, I’ve been thinking about how we might get our students to play with words through poetry!

Ask students to write a poem by choosing one of the following constraints:

  • two words per line
  • fifteen words
  • three-syllable words
  • only verbs
  • words that do not include the letter ‘a’
  • one word on the first line, then two on the second, then three, etc.

Rather than dictate which constraint your students should use, let them choose from a list like the one above. (You may decide to change the constraints based on the grade level you teach.)

As an example, I have included my latest creation. I gave myself the constraint of two words per line and began each stanza with the same two words: These Days.

These Days by Karen Filewych

These days
I am
at home
self-isolating
working here
writing here
waiting for 
the world 
to return
to normal
or a
semblance of.

These days
I am
walking daily
with Jak
through puddles
and muck
and grit
happily though
despite needing
daily doggie
baths upon
arriving home.
 
These days
my walks
have become
my only
ventures out
during this
world pandemic
not expected
days home
yet needed
to keep
everyone safe.

These days
will help
me appreciate
regular life
hugging family
meeting friends
shaking hands
working together
with teachers
with students
in the
same room.
 
These days
will end
we’ll be
stronger happier
more generous
likely more
appreciative too
relishing in
a sense
of normal
a return
to routine.
 
These unusual
unprecedented days:
life lessons
if we
let them…
these days.

(Thanks to the The Writer magazine for inspiration this week…)

A True Test of Leadership

We’re hunkering down to keep each other safe. In these uncertain days, with an ever changing reality, strong leadership is essential.

In Alberta, our Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Hinshaw, has risen to the occasion and been the leader we need: calm and compassionate, reassuring and real.

I also appreciated Justin Trudeau’s message this morning: he took the time to thank Canadian kids for making sacrifices to keep others safe in this far-from-normal time. Missing out on play dates and spring break plans. Helping their parents work at home and keeping up with school work as best they can.

How are you being a leader in your home or for your class or school? How are you reassuring the children in your life at this challenging time? Are you modelling healthy habits: limiting screen time, taking daily walks, diving into a good book? Are you checking in on those more vulnerable and finding ways to spread some cheer?

Brian Tracy once said, “The true test of leadership is how well you function in a crisis.”

So today, remember: lead with courage, be truthful and transparent, inspire acts of kindness. We’re all in this together.

Time to Write

There’s no denying it: this is an unusual time.

Events cancelled: major and minor. Businesses and facilities closed. Precautions taken. Misinformation spread. Panic buying. Potential long-term school closures.

It’s been a far from typical week.

Let’s face it. Our students are hearing bits and pieces of the news. Their events and extracurricular activities have been cancelled. Many are watching their parents stock up on supplies. Some families are voicing fear and concern. And in Alberta, as of a few hours ago, classes have been cancelled indefinitely.

If this is a scary time for adults, imagine for our students.

I am putting together some language arts suggestions for remote learning. (Stay tuned…) One of the first things to consider is the opportunity for students to (continue to) write in a weekly journal: the opportunity to reflect and respond, to sort through their feelings, especially given these unprecedented and confusing circumstances.

The platform might be different, but the purpose remains the same.

Take the time to write short notes back to reassure your students. Respect the emotion and perspectives that emerge. We may not know what the upcoming weeks and months will bring, but this is certainly a way to stay in contact, and provide our students with authentic reasons to read and write.

Changing Attitudes

Do any of your students have negative views about reading or writing? Likely someone, admittedly or not.

My fundamental goal as a teacher of language arts is to change these attitudes. How?

First, take time to discuss illiteracy. I tell students about my encounter with an illiterate adult, a parent of two former students, in fact. We brainstorm all the things this adult would not be able to do in her daily life. We also consider the feelings associated with illiteracy.

Then we discuss the opposite! How empowering to be able to read menus, field trip forms, ingredients, prescription labels, and job applications. How empowering to communicate through emails, letters, poetry, stories, or social media. How empowering to learn about the world and the experiences of others, to find comfort and connections, through books. How empowering to participate in the literate world.

Second, it is essential that we make the teaching of reading and writing strategies explicit and accessible for our students. We cannot merely tell them to be better readers and writers. (Oh, if only it were so simple!) We must empower them to become better readers and writers through the strategies we teach: one by one… step by step… day by day…

Flip your students’ negative attitudes. Open their eyes to the wonder of words!

The Uses of Adversity

Teachers’ Convention. How is it that a common message emerges each year regardless of the speakers I hear?

Gerry Brooks, Temple Grandin, and Jann Arden. What could these three – a principal, a professor of animal science, and a singer, song-writer – possibly have in common?

All three spoke either directly or indirectly about the inevitability and usefulness of hardship. Gerry Brooks reminds us that “ervybody ain’t gonna like you” and that’s okay. But while these folks are challenging us or confronting us, he reminds us to consider any truth to the claims being made. This honesty with ourselves will ultimately make us better and stronger.

Temple Grandin has faced adversity because of perceptions about autism. As she proved in her keynote, her diagnosis is not a disadvantage. It is because of autism that she thinks differently. It is because of autism that she is able to educate others about the need for (and the incredible contributions of) different thinkers in our world.

Jann Arden has faced considerable hardship in her life, and yet, she is grateful for the experiences because of the learning that followed. While telling her story, she said repeatedly, “Good from bad.”

If I hadn’t yet caught this message, it was reiterated at the theatre last night by dear ol’ Shakespeare: “Sweet are the uses of adversity.”

How does this translate into what we do in the classroom? Quite naturally, I think. As we read about the stories of others, as we discuss the origin of an invention, as we study history, revolution and change, as we try to establish a growth mindset within our students, this lesson endures: Sweet are the uses of adversity.

To teach. To write. To read.

The last few days at Reading for the Love of It in Toronto (where I met teachers from across the country), I was reminded that teachers are teachers are teachers. Regardless of our geographical locations, we are connected by a love of children, a passion for literature, and a desire to make a difference in the world. Regardless of the communities in which we teach, we are united by both the stories of our students and the stories on our bookshelves.

Stories help us learn about the world, about each other, about ourselves, about our place in the world. Stories keep the past alive and implore us to contemplate the future. Stories expand our perspectives and stir emotion. As Madeleine L’Engle once said, “Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.”

I leave this conference with new stories to tell, new connections to nurture, new books to read. (My suitcase is quite literally weighed down by books… books that were not yet with me when I ventured east.)

Most importantly though, I leave inspired to continue my own story. To empower students with the skills of reading and writing. To assist teachers in their endeavors to teach these skills to their students. To teach. To write. To read for the love of it.

A List to Love

Are you a list person?

I am. I create a daily to-do list and take great pleasure in crossing things off. (I’ll admit: I’ve even gone so far as to put something on the list just so I can cross it off.) And if I can’t sleep because I’m thinking of what I need to accomplish the following day, I make a list to give myself peace of mind in hopes of slumber.

Last weekend we saw a play at The Citadel Theatre called Every Brilliant Thing: humorous, heartbreaking, and heartwarming all at once. A young boy begins a list to help his mom, suffering from depression, recognize the good in the world. As he gets older the list is abandoned and returned to a number of times.

The play inspired my own list of brilliant things, things that make life worth living. It’s already much longer than this, but here’s a sampling:

A houseful of family.

Snuggles with my pooch.

Sunlight.

Card games with my brothers.

A book that makes me ugly cry.

Writing.

Exchanging manuscripts with Mom.

Throwing the baseball around with Dad.

A day with limited back pain.

Teachers.

Grandparents.

The universality of story.

The innocence, joy, and spontaneity of children.

Well, what about it? What would be at the top of your list?

Stand Back

Last Tuesday, the staff in our district had the pleasure of listening to David Wells. In the middle of a busy school year, it was an opportunity to reconnect and rejuvenate, pause and reflect. Turns out, David Wells wants us to do more of that. His advice?

“Stand back from the picture that is your work, your life.”

He suggests that perhaps we are consumed by the details, the trivialities, the never-ending to-do lists of our days. Sometimes even, at the expense of joy.

He’s right, in my case at least. It’s easy to fixate on the frustrations, the problems to be solved, the negativity of some. And yet, as educators, we are surrounded by the greatest joy of all: children.

When the pressures threaten to dishearten you, or crush your enthusiasm, stand back and appreciate the whole picture. Recognize the goodness and the beauty that is present within each day.

“Despite trials there is always beauty.” Stand back and have a look.

Writing Paragraphs: Hamburger Style?

I have a confession to make. I have never taught my students to write a paragraph using the hamburger method. You know, the one with the topic sentence, three sentences each with supporting details, and then a closing sentence.

Never. Not once.

Do I teach my students to write in paragraphs? I do… but not in the way you might think.

Content dictates form.

When I teach narrative writing, I teach students to begin a new paragraph when a new character speaks. When we revise our freewriting, we find natural breaks in topic. When I teach students to write persuasively, we find an effective place to stop, using our paragraphing to add emphasis to our arguments.

Consider the paragraphing choices I made in this blog. Intentional? You bet! Hamburger style? Far from it.

Student Clues and Cues

Last week when I finished a lesson on writing in a grade five class, a student blurted, “I want to keep learning!”

I smiled in the moment and probably said something like, “I’m so glad.” But even now, five days later, his comment has stuck with me. As a teacher, perhaps there’s no better compliment than an exclamation like his.

So what was it that had him so engaged? What did I do on that particular day that motivated and excited him?

I think my use of mentor texts and the intentionality of the lesson contributed. I also think the students felt empowered as writers because I gave them specific tools to help them revise their work. That day, writing became manageable for those grade five students.

When do your students express the most excitement over their learning? How do you know that a lesson has been effective? What clues and cues do your students give you?