Monday, February 16, 2015

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Anchorage City School - Louisville Kentucky

Getting lucky in Kentucky with our first school visit of 2015.

Anchorage kindergartners BEFORE poetry.
Sara and I drove down to Louisville at the invite of Mellisa Sangster to work with the K-8 building of students at the Anchorage schools.

As Sara said - it was nice to blow away the cobwebs at what is obviously a writing school. No worksheets for these students that we could see.

And we worked with just about all grade levels from K to 8. We wrote refrain poems about the playground and birds with some enthusiastic kindergartners, point of view pieces with third graders, personification with 7th and extended metaphor with eighth.

I like when we get to meet a swath of grades on a visit.

Then at the end of the second day we had a PD session with all the teachers.

A perfect way to get back into the swing of things!

AFTER poetry.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Bozeman's Simplex

Your brain is keeping secrets from you – and that’s a good thing.

One of the tips I give student writers is to start with a list – to come up with a catalog of details about whatever the subject is and then to pare that list down to the most important details as we write and revise. I always start with more information than I am going to end up using is a mantra I offer.

Poetry is a natural genre for this practice of precise and concise writing – but any and all preconceived communication can benefit from editing. If I had to boil all my teaching into a single sentence I would say: it is the prioritization of information. That’s it in a nutshell – thank you good night, try the fish I’ll be here all week…

I’m a fan of brain science books; a couple of my favorites are Incognito by David Engleman and Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnman among others. Anyway somewhere along the way (most likely in one of the aforementioned books) I picked up the notion that one of our brains most important functions is deciphering meaning from the onslaught of continual data avalanching down on us from all directions. This along with the ability to learn patterns and sequences and then to internalize them into shorthand is what allows us to function in the world without being reduced to quivering mounds of protoplasm either too overwhelmed by stimuli or paralyzed by the uncountable number of steps necessary to open a jar of pickles.

Just use the important stuff.

So while details are important to good image driven writing – distilling those details to the strongest is what makes for potent communication. Get rid of the unnecessary. Reportedly after marveling at Michelangelo’s statue of Goliath-vanquishing David, the Pope asked the sculptor, “How do you know what to cut away?” Michelangelo’s reply? “It’s simple. I just remove everything that doesn’t look like David.”

Editing and revision are your friends.

There is such a thing as too much information (and I’m not talking about a Kim Kardashian video.) We do not want to overwhelm our readers or listeners minds into stasis.

But we need to have something to pare down so we have to start with a glut of information – notes – details – facts - descriptions and then winnow them down as we revise. 

You can’t pick the best option without options. Easy as that.

Remember an overabundance can be as debilitating as lack.  Let’s not infect our audience with David Lynch’s fictional malady, Bozeman's Simplex. Make sure your details deserve the space they are taking up on your page or in your talk.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Poetry Prohibition

Poetry is a gateway drug.

So – Sara and I are finally home for a couple weeks – over a month straight with no travel. We’ve been overseas speaking at conferences and visiting schools and stateside we’ve been to a couple of conferences since Halloween.  As much as I enjoy going places and meeting up with new and old friends – just waking up in my own bed for an extended period of time sure has it’s upside.

Here’s something I’ve come to realize.  People (especially those in the educational world) use poetry in much the same way folks might use illegal drugs. They pretend that they don’t.

I’ve heard every excuse for shoving poetry into the shadows – It’s too hard – It’s not relevant – it’s not in the common core – it won’t sell – teachers won’t use it in the classroom. I’ve even had a past editor cluck their tongue looking dolefully at me and say, “God knows we’ve tried”, shaking their head as if speaking to a disappointing child. To which I would reply - "Well, try a little harder."

BUT – the very same folks who swear poetry isn’t pertinent will open up a PD session with what? A poem of course! How do they teach the dreaded concept of  - dum dum dum – CLOSE READING – why with a poem! I received a tweet at NCTE gushing over the fact that a presenter was wowing the attendees in a session by performing a Jane Yolen poem to music.

Got a presidential inauguration going on? – Whip out a poem – your only daughter getting married? – Whip out a poem – Uncle Spike passed away? – Whip out a poem! Poetry is out there folks – quit pretending it’s not. It’s reminiscent of prohibition – everybody acting like nobody is drinking yet those coffee cups are just short of flammable.

If poetry is so irrelevant when are people gonna stop abusing it?

Poetry is suffering from false advertising being perpetrated by those who should be its very champions. But, like a speakeasy owner, it seems they want to keep the goods under their control – deciding when, where, at what price and who may deliver it.

Over and over again Sara and I have had rousing success using the genre in classrooms as a learning tool – when our lessons and strategies are presented they receive the highest accolades. To the naysayers I say – “You know why poetry doesn’t sell? – Because you refuse to sell it!” All these closet users of poetry have to do is recommend it.

Instead we get textbooks and lessons written by non-poets that ARE daunting or irrelevant to classroom goals. We are told poetry is a great way to express our feelings or to create cartography of our souls turning the genre into this ephemeral wisp, to immerse students in it then set them loose without teaching craft guaranteeing its literacy utility to disappear like smoke from a chimney.  When in reality almost all poetry is creative non-fiction and every single reading and writing standard ever conjured to sell a pre-packaged pedagogical program can be taught through poetry. 

All the policy makers, the curriculum advisers, the PD bookers, conference proposal panel reviewers have to do is recommend its use - poetry will do the rest. A little informed advocacy goes a long way – give it a chance to get its foot in the door and poetry will surprise even the most reluctant with its effectiveness. But, the will to take this little risk has to be there.

So think about it – do you use or abuse poetry?

Monday, November 17, 2014

I didn't see THAT coming.

I never did get a bill for the ambulance ride home.

So what do cyclocross racing, software engineers, data collection, education policy, and immovable objects in the form of telephone poles have to do with each other? Well I’ll tell ya…

Sara and I have just returned from the Young Adult Literature Association’s symposium in Austin Texas. Generally I love Austin, good food, funky town, warm weather, great place to ride a bike, All were true this time except for the weather – freakishly cold – but still better than the blizzard we left behind us in Ohio.

It was at a dinner thrown by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong – publishers of the Poetry Friday Anthology series that the germ for this blog was first conjugated.

First: Cyclocross.

Cyclocross is a form of off road bicycle racing that is kind of like a steeplechase on wheels.  There are obstacles that one must dismount their bike and hop over, sand pits, sets of steps etc. My son Frank and I have taken it up this season – a season that runs from the Autumn into the Winter. It’s a raucous sport that encourages heckling and cowbells from fans as well as beer and food. It’s the rugby of bicycle racing in my opinion.

Okay, Frank and I are doing a little training – we’ve set up a course that shares two parks about a mile apart – we complete a circuitous course around one park then book like mad down the sidewalks to the second park, run that course and then back again for a predetermined amount of laps. Between the two locations we get a pretty good rehearsal for what we might be encountering on race day.

As we add up the laps though, Frank adds to his lead on me. By our final lap he is around a quarter mile ahead of me or so. I bear down, stand up on my pedals and hope he doesn’t notice my sprinting behind him. I have an idea of my threshold exertion and I stare at my Garmin GPS device on my handlebars. I note speed, rpm, and time. I want to exert the most effort I can without bonking and try to close the gap that my wiry son has opened between us.

It was while I was collecting this data that I did not notice the singular telephone pole that was edged 8 inches more into the sidewalk than the rest of the domino line down the street.  Rather, I didn’t notice it until I hit it dead on with my left shoulder at full speed. I spun off my bike twirling like a boomerang into oncoming traffic. The air whooshed out collapsing my lungs like an empty toothpaste tube. I dizzily rolled myself out of the street onto a nearby tree lawn staring up in the sky and waited for the pain to come raining down new year’s eve confetti style. Which, it did.

I’ve often relied on the kindness of strangers:

Fortunately some concerned citizens stopped to assist me and called the ambulance. I remembered every detail of the accident, so I knew that I most likely didn’t have a concussion. Frank had circled back and looked on with concern as the paramedics checked me out. I didn’t seem to have any broken bones and my pupils looked fine so the EMS team gave me a ride home and Frank wheeled my bike home like a combat solder helping a comrade off the battlefield. I have since made almost a full recovery and even went on to race three days after the accident. But what I really want to talk about is education policy.

My mistake on this ride was paying too close attention to the immediate data in front of me and not looking up to see what was coming down the road.  This is, I believe, the same mistake our high stakes test driven education scheme is taking. We miss what is coming down the road in the long run when we teach to the test, to the point where in some districts a 4th grader can expect to spend over a quarter of their learning time just taking tests.  We’ve got our kids heads buried down and pedaling as fast as they can blind to real world obstacles to success.  We swap out short term graphing of test results for real critical thinking skills.

Context is everything:

Why? Software engineers (see this is all coming together now.) and one in particular, Bill Gates. His billions of dollars have way too big an influence on what is happening in our public schools. He was one of the loudest voices in the smaller school campaign – the one that busted large schools into smaller entities –oftentimes in the same building. Well, this idea crashed and burned in the end. Gates himself has admitted as much. So you’d think we would have learned from the lesson of taking education advice from non-educators? No way.

Now the money is flowing into test taking, data collection, and private enterprise charter schools – sounds more like a computer corporation than a school right?  That’s because data-collecting systems is what software engineers know – and when trying to solve a problem one will go to what they know right? Unfortunately what one knows is not always applicable to the task at hand.

Knowing my exact speed, rpm, watts exerted did nothing to keep me from popping like a water balloon against a utility pole. Data collection was not the route to success for me at that time. Now, had I collected the data and used it later as part of a training program instead of my sole focus during the process I might not be waking up as stiff recent mornings.

Similarly – how do you think a software writer might feel about me asking him or her to go back and rewrite the code for that skyscraper’s climate control system with an eye more toward character development and foreshadowing?  Right tools for the right job.

Just because a guy made billions in business doesn’t mean he should have a seat at the head of the table when education policy is being discussed. Kids are not lines of code and I think the there are a lot of folks messing with education policy that need to get their heads out of their – well lets just say they need to look up.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A circuit is a Hula-Hoop.

Here's a video from Pasir Ridge International School of Theresa Marriott's 3rd and 4th graders writing about electricity.

This is from our definition poem exercise where students (working in pairs)  first list attributes about their vocabulary word - what the word can and can't - would or wouldn't do. They then select from their pre-write items to prioritize the information they will presenting their first draft which is then immediately revised.

Gather information - prioritize - visualize - then revise - nifty little format providing deep thinking and then quick assessment if I say so myself.

This was one of the younger bunch of pupils we have run this clinic with and we think they did us proud.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Pasir Ridge International School

“A small school that is big on learning.”

Seamus Marriott, the head of school here, reminded me that - that is how I described the Pasir Ridge International School when Sara and I visited two years ago. It is probably the smartest thing I’ve said in a long time.

Well two years later my comment is just as true. Sara and I love coming to this little knowledge factory on the east coast of Borneo. This school runs grades pre-K through eight and totals in the area of 75 students so everyone knows everyone. At PRIS lunch is an inclusive affair with 2nd graders sharing the table with 8th graders; a 4th grade girl may be organizing a game of “kick the cone” for the Kindergarteners at recess and a parent jumps up to volunteer to lead the birthday commemoration at Monday morning assembly. 

At Pasir Ridge they teach thinking not subjects. Oh sure there are Science, English, and Social Study classes and units – but it’s the atmosphere of inquisitiveness that permeates the humid jungle air that grows the accomplishment here. When asked about test prep Seamus says he tells the kids to get a good night’s sleep and have a breakfast the day of. It seems to be working – this school consistently tops the charts on standardized tests – most recently every single student scoring well above average.

PRIS is a writing school where the students evidence their learning through their writing. We wrote about electricity in 3-4 with the kids and their teacher Theresa Marriott, about good citizenship in K thru 2 (Don’t break stuff, follow the rules and don’t pick flowers in other people’s gardens!) We personified emotions in the middle school as well as extending a few metaphors. Everyone participated and everyone shared and everyone took risks. We did writing clinics we usually reserve for grade levels a year or two beyond and these guys ate it up – taking on the challenge and coming through with success.

What makes kids willing to go out on a limb for a couple crackpot poets from Cleveland, Ohio? It’s feeling safe in their classroom, knowing that individually they and their education are really cared about and important to all the teachers and administration at PRIS.  It really is an extended family and one that Sara and I appreciate getting play the role of the little off-kilter Aunt and Uncle who show up to talk writing every now and then.

So, if you are lucky enough to be headed to Pasir Ridge International School get a good night’s sleep, eat your breakfast and be ready to be inspired.