Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Buy one poet get second half off!

One of the absolute best

parts of my life being a teaching artist is the travel that comes with it. I’ve worked in twenty five different countries so far and Sara and I are adding at least three new ones in ’10.


So far we are booked in January for Morocco and Abu Dhabi and then in March we’re headed for South Korea. These visits are always eye opening and exciting. Scroll down to the bottom of this blog and click on the travel tag if you want to read about some of the places we’ve been. People ask us how we get the gigs overseas and whether or not we speak all these foreign languages.

Well here’s what we do in a nutshell: Sara and I have built our careers on teaching literacy and comprehension skills using poetry and performance as a tool towards that end. This is where we differ from a lot of poets who work with kids. Our goal is not to create more poets – at least not directly. Our goal is to create better communicators, readers and writers. Quite frankly – I’m sure a lot of readers out there would agree that the world already has plenty of poets. We use poetry as an implement to teach all the writing standards as well as lessons across the curriculum. Now if our students decide they want to become poets fine and good – but we count our real successes amongst the kids who would rather be on the soccer field or taking headshots at zombies who learn expressing themselves in a bit more detail or understand the Bill of Rights a little deeper. We get kids to write better in all their subjects and teachers like that.


So, how did we end up working overseas so much? First, you have to have something to teach. We’ve written a couple professional books - a professional book is a book written for teachers to help them in their profession. Now even though the books are written and available – school systems, administrators and teachers still like to the authors visit their schools to teach the lessons within them. There are two types of visits – PD (Professional Development) where we speak exclusively to teachers and administrators explaining the research and theory backing our lessons and then there are workshop days spent actually teaching the lessons to living breathing students, sometimes with just the classroom teacher present – sometimes with a group of teachers watching the model lesson. There are links to the books somewhere on this blog…

We also have the added bonus of books published for kids. Lots of schools bring in authors to talk with their students and we have the added capability to help enhance the curriculum when we arrive for these visits. Published work is the foot in the door.

monkeyIn order to be successful we need to keep ourselves abreast of the latest pedagogy and we do so when presenting our ideas at teacher’s conferences. While attending these conferences we take the opportunity to sit in on sessions and keynotes – to listen and meet the folks behind all the research we use to back the ideas in our books. I like to consider myself an emissary for the classroom teachers who can only go to one maybe two conferences a year. Sometimes the best idea comes from a colleague over dinner – one needs to put oneself in the position to be part of these conversations. I am attending a dozen or so of these each year and I try to bring back all the best ideas and share them (giving credit to the originator when due) with the educators I work with.

Here’s a quick aside – I once had a performance poet send me an e-mail telling me how much an arts council liked the proposal sent in using the exercises from my book Outspoken. This poet was accepted into a visiting artist program using those exercises – I doubt that any credit was given to the actual developer of the lessons – but that’s one of the hazards of the profession. I am very careful to cite the source of all my lessons if I am not the originator because I know the hard work that goes into crafting them.

kazakIt is my job to be current – ideas change and evolve. I would be doing a disservice to the people I work with if I didn’t keep up with the latest studies. We are constantly updating our presentations adding new ideas. Think of everything that has changed in the last twenty years - the idea of a blog would have been unfathomable not to mention brain based learning theory or comprehension strategies. A good teaching artist keeps up with the research and then they hide it in their work like a vitamin in a glob of peanut butter.

2280681420_31aa14564cAnyway – Sara and I presented at one of these conferences being held overseas in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam. Now – the conference was for English speaking schools in Southeast Asia. See, there are English language schools all over the world. They cater to the families of folks working for multinational corporations, American Embassies, and locals looking to send their kids to the US for college. The schools are full English immersion and they are literally all over the world. These are the schools we teach in when we go abroad and that first conference half a dozen years ago is what set us on our way. We were now part of the circuit of writers who are willing to go anywhere. And the rest has been history.

International Schools in Kazakhstan, Jakarta, Bahrain, Croatia, Shanghai, Istanbul, Singapore, Bangkok, Bali, Cairo to name a few have been gracious enough to host us and we look forward to visiting many more in the coming months and years. So – just in case you are reading this from some far flung academic outpost (or even not so far flung) – Ya need a couple poets?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Could you please speak more clearly?

“I was going to tell you about the rattlesnakes.”

snake Just back from a working vacation at our editor Smokey Daniels’ Santa Fe Rabbit Moon Ranch. He and his more than lovely wife Elaine should be working on their own professional development book titled Best Practices for Hosts. Harvey “Smokey” Daniels is our editor on the vocabulary acquisition book Sara and I are currently writing and our publisher ponied up some cash to send us to confer with him giving the project a booster shot in the arm.

The first morning I was up, still living two hours in the future thanks to hopping two time zones, and took a stroll with my coffee in hand around the Daniels’ spread. Scrub grasses, tumbleweeds, wild sage and prickly pears dotted the desert along with other anonymous flowering flora benefitting from two or three days of uncharacteristic rains. I saw a couple lizards, some cottontails and a few murders of crows while the sun hoisted itself into the big sky over the mountains to the east.

santafe01 Smokey joined me outside informing me about the aforementioned rattlesnakes. Having been a bit of an amateur herpetologist in one of my earlier incarnations I had already figured we were in snake country and was already keeping a wary eye peeled to where I was stepping. A little prior knowledge can go a long way. Then again, one can know just enough to be dangerous.

Based on past experience I purchased Chuck Palahniuk’s (pronounced like two first names Paula + Nick) new novel Pygmy to read on the flight out. He is the author of the cult classic Fight Club and I have always found his stuff to be accessible plot driven and quirky. This novel promised to be more of the same. Publishers Weekly described it as: A gang of adolescent terrorists trained by an unspecified totalitarian state (the boys and girls are guided by quotations attributed to Marx, Hitler, Augusto Pinochet, Idi Amin, etc.) infiltrate America as foreign exchange students. A perfect set of criteria for occupying one’s mind while being blasted through the sky at five hundred miles an hour in an aluminum tube.

santafe16 So, the plane begins to nose up off the runway I pull my new book from my backpack read the accolades on the inside of the dust flaps and started in to chapter one. I found the book unreadable. Not that it was written poorly – but rather that the syntax Palahniuk had decided to use was impossible to decode for me. Chuck decided to write the thing in the broken English of his protagonist and in my opinion he failed. Well, let me re-phrase that – he DID write it in the broken English of his adolescent terrorist – unfortunately for the reader this prose is harder to understand than the well intentioned directions of that fourteen year old Bangladeshi trying to walk you through installation of a wireless router.

Here’s an example: "Location former chew gum, chocolate snack, salted chips of potato, current now occupy with cylinder white paraffin encase burning string, many tiny single fire."

santafe09 It never gets better – I skipped ahead to see. I am not one to shy away from complex construction: I love William Burroughs cut up work, Clockwork Orange is a favorite as is Motherless Brooklyn and Foer’s Everything is Illuminated is one of my all-time favorites but sorry Chuck – as far as I am concerned you owe me twenty five bucks. There is a difference between complex and complicated. Where these other books I have mentioned use malapropos and twisted syntax to add an additional layer of meaning on their work Pygmy’s construction wraps the story in razor wire. Not impenetrable but you’re gonna be messed up once you get inside and I just don’t think the payoff is worth the blood.

I have been rendered illiterate recently while travelling through various countries overseas. Standing on a corner in Almaty, Kazakhstan cocking my head at a Cyrillic street sign – wandering about in the death star of a fabric market in Shanghai or squinting at the oscilloscope like lines of an Arabic menu in a Cairo restaurant – but this is the first time in a long time I have had this experience with English.


This book made me mad. Mad because I felt betrayed by an author who I thought I could count on. Mad because I had wasted time and money and mad because not being able to decode this thing made me feel stupid. But, it did provide one valuable lesson. It granted me a little insight and a whole lot of empathy for struggling readers. How frustrating it has to be for that kid in the class who just isn’t getting it.

tarantula001 I passed the book on to our host Smokey who read a couple pages and apologized to me for enjoying it. This made things worse. I’m no idiot but now I was playing one on TV. I mean if Smokey could understand it what was wrong with me? I felt embarrassed. My ego was only marginally bandaged when Smokey and Elaine’s twenty something daughter – a big Palahniuk fan – gave the book a shot and agreed with my findings. Then again she may have simply been mirroring the considerable graciousness modeled by her heroically empathic mother.

So, Mr. Palahniuk, I will probably pick up your next book but I’ll sure as hell read a half dozen pages before I pay for it because after all – once bitten twice shy.


Monday, September 14, 2009

If at first you don’t succeed…

Ran my final tri of the season yesterday. The swim went a little better but I still panicked a bit – I was able to calm myself down and actually finished with a good time out of the water. I’m thinking it’s going to take a couple more times in open water with a crowd to get my composure back. That feeling of drowning (see my Lorain tri post) is a hard one to get over.

But – I didn’t want to end my season on the downer that the Lorain tri turned into so I found another race – this one down in Akron which I figured would be a nice little event to finish the year off.

Well, when we got there we found out that this race was the culminating event of a championship series that had been going on all summer. This was the biggest triathlon I have ever competed in. The swim was the longest that I had done this year in a race – the bike course was the hilliest as was the run.

In the end though – I did manage to grab third place in my division – so still no first place finishes, but as any Cleveland sports fan knows – there’s always next year!


Look at all the egg heads!


The water temp in the low seventies was higher than the air’s which was somewhere in the 60s


Smiling for the camera - (sara’s taking the pics)


Passing someone ten years younger than me right at the finish (ages are magic markered on the backs of our calves)


Suzi met a fox terrier who looked just like her minus the fur coat.