Monday, November 30, 2009

Curiouser and curiouser…


One of the smartest shows on television as far as Sara and I are concerned is Fareed Zakaria’s GPS. This past Sunday he had the chief poobah from Google, Eric Schmidt, in the studio for an interview.


Their conversation began around internet security and the info that Google as a company collects from its users. Then they veered into finding information on the intertubes of all things world wide webby. The web – it was postulated – has changed the way we learn and the way we need to teach because facts are no longer something that need be remembered – they are now merely commodities to be downloaded.


Schmidt commented that when he was a kid in school  he spent a whole lot of time memorizing info because that was the most efficient way to have it at hand – stored in his skull. Now – anything one could want to know is just a click away. I myself like to quote Einstein who it is rumored did not know his phone number – because he didn’t see the reason to memorize something he could so easily look up.  How many dinner table arguments have been settled with a Blackberry instead of a butter knife?


Of course the draw back to the glut of data available is the parsing and vetting of its sheer mass for usefulness. There is no editor standing between us and the info floating out there in in Cyberia. We’ve been given the keys to the warehouse that holds everything. How do we sort what’s true and false, what’s junk or treasure, helpful or dangerous?


What we need to be teaching our students is how to think, to question, to look at the world through a  critical eye. The facts are out there for easy picking – all this time spent on standardized tests preparation - let me throw out a little aside here: There has NEVER been a study that links success on high stakes standardized tests with success in life. All this time spent on standardized test preparation is time spent doing the exact opposite of what our kids need to be learning.

This sets kids up to believe that the world is black and white – right and wrong – served up as a multiple choice problem where all we need to do is fill in an oval with number two pencil. When, what we really should be doing is engaging their curiosity, encouraging them to ask questions, to check multiple sources – this information laden society has turned us all into reporters who have to do their own “fact” verification.

What are we doing to feed our kids curiosity? Well, last weekend while visiting Sara’s daughter in northern Virginia, Sara and I took the boys to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History where we ogled dinosaur bones and stuffed mammals. Turns out the museum is free, parking was easy to find, and traffic into and out of DC is not a problem at all on a Sunday morning. We felt a bit embarrassed that this was the first time we had packed them up and gone into the district. See – we thought it was going to be a whole lot harder. Guess we shoulda checked our facts a bit better. Hey – we’re still learning.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

NCTE Philly

“The security guard said these were the best cheese steaks in the city.”


This is what I overheard as I jostled and bobbed in the sea of humanity ebb and flowing in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market  – just across from the convention center where the National Council of Teachers of English were holding their annual convention.  Lucky for me as the first cheese steak joint I had stopped at ran out of sandwiches while I was in line and I wasn’t going to leave town without checking off one of these colloquial culinary concoctions from my local delicacy to do list. The market was reminiscent of Cleveland’s West Side market – only around fifteen times the size.


Sara and I were attending the NCTE conference and it was wonderful to have the market so near –crepes for breakfast are not always the fare at these things. The conference was pretty well attended this year estimates I heard ranged from six to nine thousand.  For a change we were not presenting a session even so we had trouble squeezing in all the appointments, book signings, dinners, and publisher meeting we scheduled ourselves. The absence of the stress instigated with presenting though, (technology worries, finding the room, having set up time, preparing the presentation etc. etc.) made the conference one of the most enjoyable AND productive ones I have attended.


This year poet and anthologist Lee Bennett Hopkins was honored as the recipient of the Excellence in Poetry award given by the council. Lee has edited about a kajillion anthologies of poetry for kids. It has been my pleasure to get to know him a little over the last few years and I’ll tell you – the guy is a hoot.  So there was no way I was going to miss seeing him get his well deserved comeuppance. During the award – toast – roast – ceremony, speakers gave him as much credit for his inside info gossip acumen as his prowess as a judge of poetic talent. Hopkins was the first to publish Langston Hughes’ children’s poetry and continues to produce several books year. The dais was littered with kid lit lyrical luminaries including Jane Yolen, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Georgia Heard, and Ralph Fletcher to name just a couple.


I also got to see another poetic friend and VIP, Jimmy Santiago Baca – who has been contracted by my and Sara’s teacher text book publisher Heinemann to provide stories and poems for a new series of books. I met Jimmy years ago at a poetry conference in Ohio and he has been more than gracious each time we’ve run into each other since.  He has been doing some excellent work with youth and Heinemann was smart enough to grab hold of him.


We also had time to sit down and eat with friends including one really fantastic dinner with our editor Harvey Daniels and a crew of other authors and publishers in some swanky Italian joint’s comfortably catacombed  stone walled basement.  While perusing the menu Mr. Daniels questioned the provenance of the lobster served in Philadelphia.  I suspected that the shellfish may actually be irradiated crayfish kept in a galvanized washtub in a closet – “Here take this iodine pill and grab a lobster willya?” I had the veal.

ncte004After the conference we hopped into our little blue car and headed to Virginia where we are on babysitting duty while Sara’s daughters Kelly and Katie head up to NYC to work a Rosie Broadways Kids benefit. We took the boys to the Smithsonian to scope out some dinosaur bones but that’s another story now isn’t it?

BTW - the cheese steak WAS pretty great.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The hardest working stiff in showbiz


Those of you who read this blog with any regularity know that one of my favorite artists to listen to while I run is Rob Zombie. His work is a bit hard to categorize, not quite heavy metal – not quite techno, he came into prominence with his band White Zombie back in the mid ‘80s along with the likes of Sonic Youth and the B.H. Surfers. White Zombie is the title of a 1932 Bela Lugosi movie which most experts cite as the first ever zombie movie. Yes there are zombie “experts” and I would number myself amongst them on a rising scale of one to ten at about 8.2 or so. Robert Bartleh Cummings, aka Rob Zombie, scores an eleven. Since embarking on a successful solo career – Zombie has also directed and produced a series of horror movies including the last two installments of the Halloween series.

So, when I saw that Mr. Cummings was going to making an appearance at the Akron Civic Theater I coughed up the cash for a fistful of tickets and invited my oldest son and his girlfriend to join me at the gig.

I was somewhat surprised that I was not the oldest person attending the concert in fact I would put maybe a quarter of the audience in my age range. The opening acts were a couple bands whose genre would best be described as Hellbilly music. A driving four four rockabilly beat whirred up to cyclotron speed and doused with B-movie imagery. A complimentary prelude to the main event without stealing any of the thunder (and smoke and strobe lights and giant video projections) of the main event.

The overriding impression I walked away from this show with was an admiration for the work put into it. Zombie must have covered close to a 10K running around the stage and into the audience. I’ve been to shows before where the big star momentarily jumps  into the mosh-pit to be safely returned almost immediately. Zombie waded into the audience disappearing into the throng like a victim in a black and white George Ramero film being overcome by a swarm of the undead. Like the hapless babysitter who opens the dead bolted attic door to see what that noise was instead of calling the cops Zombie seemingly eschewed good sense and immersed himself in the black clad crowd. The only clue that the singer had not been consumed  by the horde was his growling bark of  lyrics still rising over the surging power chords emanating from the stage. No lip syncing here daddio, just some breakneck and more than occasional f-bomb dropping rock and roll.

Perched in our third row balcony seats we sat back and enjoyed the spectacle.

Colossal video screens showed snips of classic horror movies, clips from the Munsters and Tales from the Crypt type animated cartoons intermixed with punctuations of song lyrics in giant graphics. A  fourteen foot tall robot/golem type monster danced menacingly on stage during “More Human than a Human” – smoke, mirrors and the copious use of strobe lights as forewarned by innumerous postings in the lobby before the show  all played into what became the funnest freak show eveh.

In the immortal words of Zombie’s song, How to Make a Monster, “Go go Zombie, go go yeah, yeah, yeah “

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hog Butcher to the World

Just back from a whirlwind of a visit to the Windy City forty hours which included three gigs in a span of twenty hours.

chf_logo_black I was invited by the Chicago Humanities Festival to speak on my new book Well Defined: Vocabulary in Rhyme.  The theme of the festival this year was humor and festival director Mary Kate Barley-Jenkins found my book amusing after someone at the Chicago Poetry Center sent her a copy. So they brought me in.

Now the life of an independent teaching artist is somewhat similar to that of an airline pilot whose vocation I have heard described as hours of monotony interspersed with seconds of near cardiac inducing panic.  As the old adage goes when it rains it pours so after what seemed like weeks and weeks holed up in my home office I found myself in a blizzard of travel and engagements.  Since Halloween I’ve been in Boston, the greater Cincinnati area, Wooster Ohio and Chicago Illinois visiting schools, signing books, taking walking tours, driving, flying and riding.

After the school work in Boston I was the guest of Christine and Larry Charbonneau who walked Sara and me all over historic Boston. We visited Paul Revere’s abode, ate lunch at the celebrated Parker House hotel where Malcolm X was a busboy and JFK proposed to Jackie, visited the grave of Mother Goose (I didn’t realize she really existed either) ,and ate some pretty damn good cannolis at Mikes bakery on the North End.

Returning from Bean Town we immediately drove to Mason Ohio as chronicled in the post below. Then it was home for a couple days and off to the Buckeye Book Fair where not only did I sell out of books but got my pic taken with Big Chuck whom I mention in the post Boom Boom Boom.  Immediately afterwards I drove to Cleveland Hopkins and hop a plane to Chicago to participate in the 2009 Chicago Humanities Festival –  the past few weeks becoming a serendipitous swirl culminating in the visit to the city of the big shoulders.

I slip into Chicago as if putting on a tailored suit jacket. The city fits me well – it’s like a bigger better equipped version of Cleveland, same basic ethnic makeup, same weather, same Midwestern unpretentiousness plus the added bonus of hotdogs that are a meal. I landed with just enough time to check into the nice suite at the Seneca Hotel provided by the festival then grab a cab to catch the final half hour of a cocktail party being held in honor of the CHF’s presenters and organizers.

edkoren I am forever finding myself in water than is a little deeper than I belong and looking around this party seeing the likes of Matt Groening let me know I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I just managed to muster the restraint to keep from whipping out my Blackberry and requesting photos with the luminaries present thus not appearing the country rube in the big city – but betraying my true lack of sophistication I do kind of regret it. I did feel a little vindicated the next morning in the hospitality suite where I helped the award winning and apparently technologically challenged  New Yorker cartoonist Ed Koren  print out his boarding pass for his flight back to Vermont after chatting about bikes and running.

My presentation the next afternoon went pretty well – I was not 100% happy with it but the organizers and attendees seemed to feel no need for violence afterward and to torture  the pilot metaphor a bit more – any landing you can walk away from is a good one. I even had folks line up for me to sign books afterwards so it must have been OK. I was especially happy to meet up with a former student of mine Jonathan Lykes who now goes to the University of Chicago and we had dinner following my presentation. That evening I was a featured performer at the Green Mill – the Mecca for Slam poets.

chf01I don’t know what it is about that club but it brings out the best in me. A lot of the credit goes to Marc Smith the man who invented Poetry Slam who has cultivated and nurtured the show for over twenty years – the audiences are smart, attentive and vocal.  No wonder I ran into such slam luminaries as Roger Bonair-Agard, Marty McConnell and Robbie Q Telfer there.  It was one of the best sets I’ve done in a long time – it was good to get back to my roots per se and somewhat consoling to know I still had some chops left. I think I kinda identify a smidgeon now of how the Buddha faced Foreman felt the last time he grabbed the belt.

The next morning I visited Von Steuben High School on Chicago’s North Side where I was joined by Jonathan and we talked about poetry and performed some pieces for an assembly of students.  The kids were receptive (they even took notes!) and I was given a pretty hep t-shirt emblazoned with the school’s panther mascot. Then Mary Kate her silver Honda Civic and I chased down a yellow taxi piloted by a Sudanese driver who took me to the airport where I was able to get on an earlier flight pretty much walking into O’Hare and directly onto a plane.

Sometimes things just fall together and it just looks like you know what you’re doing…


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Poetry in Motion

There are times  
when a teaching artist walks into a school introduces themselves to the secretary at the front desk and receives a blank stare similar to that of a caged bird. They are looking at you but you know they have no idea why you are there. This was not the case during the two days I just spent in Mason Ohio - just north of Cincinnati in the shadows of the roller coasters of Kings Dominion Amusement Park.

Sara (my partner in rhyme) and I were greeted out front by Laura Palmer – not the Twin Peaks character but a 7th grade language arts teacher - and her compatriot Joe Carraher who whisked us into the school, handed us updated agendas, a choice of lunch menus, provided a basket of bottled water and snacks made sure all the tech stuff was clicking and whirring at an acceptable rate and pretty much treated us like we were way more important than we think we are. We did three large assemblies of around six hundred kids each, got a few of them onstage with us and had a generally swell time. After lunch we split up and led a couple writing workshops apiece. I got in a little trouble when my group made a teensy weensy tiny bit too much noise (admittedly at my direction) in the media center - but I think the writing that they produced was well worth the minor insubordination . Joe stepped in and offered his classroom for our subsequent sessions and a grand time was had by all.

Day two we started out by leading a three-hour teacher workshop and again followed up in the afternoon with a couple student workshop sessions. After the teacher’s PD session we were thrilled when the secondary language arts curriculum coordinator, Jenny May, complimented us on how well we kept up with the latest pedagogy in the field. We were just as delighted by the staff’s enthusiasm for teaching and their participation during the session. I was pleasantly impressed with the genuine interest and appreciation showed when I recommended the vocabulary acquisition book Word Play by our friend Sandra Whitaker to one of the teachers with whom we were having lunch. Thanks for the great pizza by the way and thanks to the staff and parent volunteers who helped to make our visit to Mason Middle School one that we will remember fondly.

extra credit points if you get this reference...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

But that’s not all!

pierce021 Spent two days at Pierce Middle School in Milton Massachusetts working with the eighth graders in Christine Charbenneau’s class doing vocabulary acquisition and helping Sara out with a couple school assemblies and a family literacy night.

I led the kids in writing some infomercials for vocabulary words ala Billy Mays (one of the exercises forthcoming in our new vocabulary book)  the first day and then participated in said family literacy event in the evening. We finished up the writing projects the second day and then Sara and I spent the rest of the weekend scoping out nearby Boston with Christine and her husband (this adventure will be expounded upon in detail in an upcoming post.)

The family Literacy night was a real cool event. Sara and I kicked the thing off with a keynote reading – performing some of our family oriented poems – then the English department lead a selection of half hour breakout sessions from which the parents could choose where they were treated to book talks and other good reading promoting positive propaganda. After the mini classes a book fair was set up in the library with the prerequisite PTO bake sale goods outside in the hallway and a good time was had by all!