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.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Surabaya International School

Here we are in Southeast Asia again.

Sara and I had the honor of presenting at the EARCOS conference in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. This is the third time we have presented at a conference for this organization. Usually we have presented at the teachers conference – this time we spoke at the administrator’s conference. It was a little different – but one thing that was the same for sure was the participants desire to provide the best education for their students in the world.

Well since we were in the neighborhood we arranged to visit a couple of international schools in theis corner of the globe, the first being Surabaya International School.  Leslie Baker, the librarian there picked us up at the airport and whisked us into the city of three million.  We only had two days to spend due to commitments back in the States (and another school over here) so we squeezed as many sessions in as we could.

Leslie made sure we were well fed and watered and basically treated us like family.

Well the extra hard work was a pleasure. We felt so welcome and appreciated – everyone from students, administration, teachers and the PTA who we met were absolutely wonderful. We came away wishing that we could have spent much much more time there.

Rooftop dinners, assemblies, fuzzy slippers with built in bear toes, a tea with parents and a mad dash to the airport in a mere 48 hours. It almost seems like we imagined it.

We finished the visit a little pooped – but in that satisfied so glad we came kind of way. So – bye bye Surabaya – hope to see you again.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Heads up! Summer just got away.

Sara and I are back from a quick trip to Springfield Illinois where we were featured speakers at the Illinois Reading Councils conference.

It's nice to be working so close to home and we had a really good time meeting and laughing with a whole bunch of teachers in the land o Lincoln.

We talked about writing,  from the outside in, across the curriculum, as an assessment tool and as a component in a no rigor zone. Somewhere the powers that be decided to adopt the term rigorous instruction - it's as if they didn't bother to look the word up in the dictionary e.g.

 (1) :  harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment :  severity (2) :  the quality of being unyielding or inflexible :  strictness (3) :  severity of life :  austerity
b :  an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty
2:  a tremor caused by a chill
3:  a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable; especially :  extremity of cold
4:  strict precision :  exactness rigor
5a obsolete :  rigidity, stiffness
b :  rigidness or torpor of organs or tissue that prevents response to stimuli
c :  rigor mortis
Sounds like a great learning environment huh?  
Anyway - we are actively supporting anti-rigor - let's replace the word with vigor (as our friend Lester Laminack suggests) or let's just continue the good teaching practices that were in place before all this silly rigor stuff started getting tossed around.

As such - Sara and I have decided that this year we will be posting more lessons to OUR Teachers Pay Teachers site as well as books from out back catalog. the books will be re imagined as PowerPoint presentations - we're calling them Heads Up books because they are project-able. This way the class has their eyes up where a teacher can see them, engaged and ready for discussion.

So - that's what's new right now - we are off  to dive down the rabbit hole at the end of the month - headed to Borneo and Indonesia - in the meantime let's get a cup of coffee, send me a note and we'll set it up.


Friday, September 19, 2014

Writing from the Outside in – day 7 of 7:

Writing from the Outside in – day 7 of 7:

Here we go – day 7 of 7 – made it through the weeklong Writing From the Outside in Challenge given to me by my partner in rhyme – sara holbrook.

Accept the challenge
Writing from the outside in
Haiku ends the week.

There you have it – seven days labor seven new poems all written from the Outside In.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Writing from the Outside in – day 6 of 7:

Writing from the Outside in – day 6 of 7:

Here we are – day six of seven. And it’s starting to feel like Autumn is taking hold. Switched to flannel sheets on the bed. Flannel sheets with a monkey print. It is monkey sheet weather folks. This is a bittersweet situation – I love the monkey sheets – but I could use a bit more summer.

The sweater in the attic
inside a plastic tub
has never seen
the July sun or an August beach.

It blinks its eyes
like a mole popping from the ground
in September
when the lid gets peeled back.

It toasts the Autumn sun
with apple cider
and marches off
to a clambake.

©michael salinger

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Writing From the Outside In: Day 5 of 7

Writing From the Outside In: Day 5 of 7

My office at home shares a wall with the laundry room. So I hear all the noises coming out of there.

So here I just report on what I hear – no moralizing – no confessions – no inner feelings – a simple study of what is there.
I trust my reader to come up with a metaphoric reason - or not.
Since it’s intended audience is grade school – probably not – and guess what – that’s okay.

Laundry Day

Snaps, buttons
zippers and buckles
pennies, dimes and quarters
sometimes even little rocks
forgot in a pocket,
bounce and scrape and slide
inside the dryer
when it’s run,
making  a crazy rhythm
to go with the humming
washer’s sudsy song.

© michael salinger

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Writing From the Outside In - Day four of seven.

Okay – here is day four of the Writing from the Outside In seven-day challenge that Sara Holbrook assigned me. I know technically I missed a day there – but it was Sara’s birthday and we were a bit busy and I blame it on her. But here we go back on track.

Last night riding home from a birthday dinner with Sara and a dear couple friend of ours it was raining and I noticed the street and car’s lights reflected in the blacktop in front of us as we drove along. That was the inspiration for this little snapshot poem.

Mirror Mirror

The world turns upside down
when it rains at night,
street lamps,
the moon,
car’s headlights,
are reflected in the streets
like a blacktop mirror.
The image is a little blurry
and backwards from the original
One must realize
that things may look different
through someone else’s

 © michael salinger

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Writing From the Outside In - Day Three of Seven.

Writing from the outside in – day three.

Today as I was riding my bicycle in a rural area not too far from my house I happened upon a duck crossing sign – which I took as a sign to write about ducks crossing the road.

So here again – we take an image from the outside and use it as the impetus of a poem. I try to get inside the head of the person who might put up a duck crossing sign – to empathize with someone I haven’t even met.

This is one of the values we can talk about when we write from the outside in – empathy – putting ourselves in another’s shoes. (And, we don’t have to get preachy about it!)

Caution – Duck Crossing

is where the ducks cross
when they need to get
from one side to the other.
Sometimes one duck
sometimes two
sometimes half a dozen dinky ducks
following their mother.

is where the ducks cross
we’ve even put up a sign
so that you know
you must be careful
when driving here
you must be cautious
you must go slow.

is where the ducks cross
we want none injured.
Drive carefully on this hill.
Please don’t bump
one of our darling ducks,
or we’ll be forced to send you
a duck doctor’s bill.

© michael salinger

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Writing from the Outside In (day two)

Day two of the seven day Writing from the Outside In challenge.

Taking inspiration from things that are outside of my self is the charge for this little challenge that Sara Holbrook has given me – and accepted herself. It goes to illustrate our idea that writing doesn’t always have to be (and in the real world, usually isn’t) from the inside.

That is one of the themes that might be echoed in this piece that was inspired by the sound of trains outside just before I was falling asleep.  Sometimes I hear them and sometimes I don’t, it all depends on which way the wind is blowing – which in itself might be a metaphor.

Here ya go – Poem Two:

Wind from the Northwest.

When the wind blows right
on a clear and cool
end of summer night,
the trains that are really
miles away
sound like they are
just outside my window.
The whistle blast,
and the wheels clack,
ride through the air
as if their track
ran straight and smooth
just outside my window.
Then the sound seems to fade
as it follows the train
to wherever it is going
and I fall asleep
in my warm bed knowing
that the world continues on
just outside my window.

© michael salinger

Friday, September 12, 2014

Writing From the Outside In

Okay – I have accepted a challenge from my partner in rhyme Sara Holbrook and I am going to attempt to write a poem a day for seven days for younger folks. we both know that others have managed to do this for a month and even a year – (or if you’re Jane Yolen) decades – but, we figure baby steps for now and see where it gets us.

What Sara and I are doing is working on writing from the outside in. There has been so much talk (and books written) about writing from the inside out. Well, I think there is enough self-reflection in our world today – the me, me, me, it’s all about me ethos isn’t exactly conducive to creating the best neighbors. Plus, when we are talking about an elementary aged kid – how much experience has he or she got to write about?

We find that we write from outside stimulus more like reporters than diarists – and that is how we are approaching this experiment.

So my first entry comes from riding my bicycle past some roadkill – a possum to be exact. And if we are talking the American Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) you’d be hard pressed to find an uglier animal – in fact the only thing uglier than a live possum is a dead one with its pointy little face all screwed up in its death grin.

So I give you my poem – 

When a Possum Grins

When a possum grins,
shows his thorny teeth,
though he’s trying to be friendly
and means no harm,
he still appears pretty scary.
It’s not his fault.
It’s just how he looks.
He was born scraggly and hairy
with warped whiskers,
twisted ears,
and a tail that’s long, bald and pointy.
It’s no big wonder
he makes us flinch and shudder.
Who could love
such an ugly thing
the possum’s mother?

©Michael Salinger

Monday, August 4, 2014

100% Guaranteed Back to School Idea.

Okay here we go – back to another school year. Here’s an exercise Sara and I think makes a great ice breaker with a new herd of students – the percentage poem. (You can find this and 19 other lessons in our newest book High Impact Writing Clinics from Corwin.)

The percentage poem is Sara and my answer to the acrostic – you know, that piece where we take the letters of a word or a name and use them to build an acronym. Well, when we do this with kids’ names we find almost everyone has an A or E or O in their names and thus they become Awesome – Excellent or Outstanding. Not a whole lot of creativity or deeper thinking going on there is there?

So here’s how a percentage poem works. All you have to do is come up with a list of attributes that can be used to describe the subject of the percentage poem and then assign appropriate percentages to those attributes. That’s all there is to it. Remember nobody (no matter what football coaches will say) can add up to more than 100%.

So here goes – here is one for myself:

I am

12% cyclist
20% dad
18% poet
and I am 13% teacher
5% zombie fan
6% jazz
7% cook
14% husband
and 5% spicy food eater
Can’t you see?
it all adds up
100% me!

Combining a little math with some weighing data and you get a real snippet of insight into the subject. Of course you may ask your students to expand on their descriptions of their attributes or require that a certain amount of attributes be used (to avoid that 100% Mine Craft player).

These percentage poems could also be used as character analysis of historical or literary figures or even events. By gathering the attributes and then determining the amount of 100% that each deserves our students define the significance of these attributes as they pertain to their subject. Was the fact that Rosa parks was a seamstress deserve more less percentage points than her act of protest being non-violent? A little deeper thought than AWESOME – don’t you think? Plus it’ll give you insight into your new students personalities.

We suggest that you write a percentage poem for yourself and present it to your class at the beginning of the year as a form of introduction and then invite them to write their own. Better yet, list the attributes you would use for yourself on the board and then write your piece in front of them changing numbers as you work modeling the process of weighting evidence and revision.

Give it a shot – we guarantee it’ll be 100% fun and relevant.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Your government in action


Here is the testimony I gave in support of Ohio Senate Bill 84 which would create the position of Ohio Poet Laureate. I spoke with four other folks: John Burroughs, Steve Abbot, Mark Hersman and Anna Soter.


To Chairman Burke, Ranking Member Smith and members of State Government Oversight and Reform Committee, thank you for the opportunity to present sponsor testimony on Senate Bill 84. Good Afternoon Senators. My name is Michael Salinger; I am a literacy consultant, educator, engineer, father and a poet. I have spent the last decade working with students, teachers and administrators across Ohio and the world incorporating poetry into the curriculum as not only a finished art product, but as a tool to aid in pupil’s understanding and educator’s assessment of lessons.

Poetry is precise and concise language; it is the poet’s job to distill experience into an instant. As former U.S. Poet laureate, and Ohio native Rita Dove has said, “If we're going to solve the problems of the world, we have to learn how to talk to one another. Poetry is the language at its essence. It's the bones and the skeleton of the language. It teaches you, if nothing else, how to choose your words.”

Through the reading, writing and listening to of poetry we can learn how to choose our words wisely, how to convey meaning and emotion as well as empathy for the voices of others. The refined nature of poetry invites the reader to slow down and pay attention to nuance, to think deeply about the words being read. Poetry invites contemplation. A writer of poetry takes time to craft their thoughts in order to record their experience so that others may interpret it. In short, poetry hones one’s communication skills to a sharp point.

Ohio has been the home to many, along with Ms. Dove, who have chosen their words wisely, Langston Hughes, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Daniel Thompson, James Wright, Kenneth Koch, Mary Oliver, D.A. Levy, Marilyn Nelson and former U.S. children’s poet laureate Jay Patrick Lewis to name just a handful. We Buckeyes have always had important things to say.

It is in this spirit of appreciation for insightful communication that I contend it is right and just that Ohio join the 45 other states who recognize a poet laureate. In doing so we will show the citizenry of our state the esteem we hold for civil and meaningful discourse. We will show our appreciation for deeper thinking and set a good example for our students.

It is often a poet laureate’s charge to take on a project, to provide poems for important events within their state, to raise the public’s awareness to the genre. Nationally these projects have included Billy Collin’s Poetry 180, which supplied poems for every school day to be read and discussed by classrooms and Kay Ryan’s Poetry for the Mind’s Joy, which highlighted the work of students in community colleges across the nation.

This is where I believe our Ohio poet laureate will leave a positive and lasting mark within the state, in the projects they initiate reminding folks, especially our youth, of the importance of precision in language and careful listening.

I hope this esteemed body sees fit to support and pass Senate Bill 84 to officially recognize what many in our great state already believe, poetry matters.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Three Wheeling Through Dhaka

The rickshaw drivers were just laughing at me. “I’ll give you 500 taka for your bell” I was saying to varying degrees of understanding to the skinny men perched on their bicycle seats.

DSC 0181


Dhaka, Bangladesh has some of the worse traffic I have ever experienced. The roads are dusty and moon cratered with potholes and oftentimes a street that one would assume was designed for two opposing lanes of traffic would instead be host to four or five. The busses all look as if they have been rolled sideways down a proverbial steep embankment then righted to their wheels and sent back onto the roadway. For the most part, traffic in Dhaka is a hot steaming mess.


Thus, one of the most efficient and economical ways to get around the city is via the bicycle rickshaw. These three-wheeled contraptions can barely fit two people sitting in the passenger section and are piloted up front by impossibly lean men (I never saw a female rickshaw operator – I’m not saying that they don’t exist, but I never saw one). Men whose BMI would be approaching negative numbers. 

DSC 0186


Now while the rickshaw more or less comfortably sat a single passenger, one could squeeze in for an intimate ride with a companion and many did, it is not uncommon in fact, to see three young men piled into the back of one of these things as well – all being pedaled along by a single sinewy pilot standing on the pedals, pumping them up and down as if he were climbing a ladder.


The rickshaws themselves are rolling pieces of art painted and decorated in garish colors, some festooned with flags and fringe, many though are mere faded reminders of past glory, their paint peeled, hues muted, gold fringe now a dust incrusted gray. The bells on their handlebars, about the size of half an orange, minus all but a few flakes of chrome the rest being the same dirty brown one would achieve by mixing soil into a drinking glass of water.

DSC 0432


The ringing of these bells punctuates the streets of Dhaka. And it was while I was lying in bed one evening listening to them cricket calling into the night that I decided I needed one as a souvenir of my visit.


For the most part the rickshaws only operate on the smaller side streets; they are not permitted on the major thoroughfares of the city. They may not even cross some of these bigger roads so they will cue up at these intersections hoping to solicit customers. This is where I first went bell shopping – amongst the couple dozen rickshaws hanging out at one of the crossings.

DSC 0433


Most drivers do not own the rickshaws that they pedal around town; they rent them from an owner for about 200 taka a day (one hundred taka equals about twelve US dollars). Now, the amount pone pays for a ride with these guys isn’t really written down anywhere and the prices vary not only by time and distance but by whom the passenger is. A local will always pay less than an out of towner, something like fifty to hundred taka for a twenty minute ride while I would be expected to pay at least the hundred and most likely two. But it’s all relative; I mean we are talking the difference between one and two dollars. 


I had done a bit of research and I learned that a new bell would run around 300 taka. I didn’t want a new one, I wanted and old used one, a bell that had some miles on it, a bell that had stories to tell. So I offered what I thought would be an exorbitant amount of money for one, 500 taka. At first the guys thought that I meant I wanted them to ring the hell out of their bells while they gave me a ride to wherever I was going. Pushed on their levers, each trying to show me that they had the best sounding bell. Eventually I got my mission understood though, and this simply assured all involved of my insanity.

DSC 0480


The drivers thought this was the funniest thing they had heard all day. Number one, the rickshaws most likely were not heirs, they had no right to sell pieces from it and secondly, the bells were an essential piece of equipment for the “safe” operation of the vehicle. I might as well be walking up to people in the states idling at a stoplight and offering them a couple thousand dollars for their steering wheels.  I returned to my room bell-less.


The next day I had a better idea. 


I perused the bells on the rickshaws parked near the entrance and found one with an exquisite pedigree, patina perfect, a couple flakes of chrome still clinging to its melodic dome. I then enlisted the help of the hotel’s two doormen who between them spoke just enough English that I was able to include them as accomplices in my plot. I promised to give the driver 300 taka for a new bell, but he had to drive me to the shop where he was going to buy it, install it on this rickshaw, give me his old bell and drive me back.


I climbed into the rickshaw and we were off.

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We slid down back alleys, through narrow streets just barely wide enough for us to navigate. We passed kids playing cricket and rickshaw bone yards, a row of burn out automobiles neighborhoods constructed of corrugated metal, goats, chickens, and machine shops for about twenty five minutes until finally we pulled up to a little shop with tires hanging outside of it. I gave my driver 300 taka and he bought TWO new bells. We borrowed a screwdriver from the shop and he took off the old one, gave it to me and installed his twin ringer dingers and we were headed back.


The new bells rang piercingly clear and at double volume while my new friend employed them with great abandon. I think he was feeling a bit invincible because I am pretty sure we took a few more risky moves than on the way out. The sonic umbrella of our duel bells protected us from automobile, busses and livestock the whole way back while we pushed our luck, taking chances that one without such fine ringers would never dream of attempting.

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On the way through security, at the airport as I was headed back to the States my bell showed up on the x-ray and the officer asked to see what it was. I pulled it out and gave it a ring. He smiled and I smiled back. It was seeing me safely home.