Tag Archives: Poetry

If We Don’t Who Will

Some days you walk out of your classroom feeling that nothing spectacular happened that day. Nothing was learned and even less taught. A lingering cold, wrapped in exhaustion, wrapped in lethargy, wrapped in an overwhelming sense of banging your head against so many walls that you’re not sure where you are or how you got in. Forget about any notion of getting out.

The room is dark and empty, but still heavy and slipping away from you. The classes came and went, their opaque faces drab and reflecting your frustration. You ever try to teach a group of thirteen year old boys the power of metaphor?  The subtle beauty of poetry, the understanding that beneath their carefully constructed shell of angst and machismo, there may just be a tinny furry animal waiting to sing. Might be whimpering now, beneath the dirge of braggadocio and false self-esteem, but if you can convince them, they may perhaps hear  a more authentic Yawp, but on days like these there are few rooftops, and what little plateaus may glimmer in the fog are tame and totally translatable into words like defeat and failure.

They didn’t learn today. Words were exchanged, ideas shuffled, you sang tired song and danced a sad dance, but they saw right through you. They saw  through the mask and realized that the clown was only human and the lessons he was selling were false and trite and unnecessary. You could see the words dribble from your lips, as your convoluted ideas grew higher and higher drowning you both in wasted effort. Thesis statements, understandings, abstractions, imagery, truth. What do you know of such things to have the gall to teach? Each child struggling with his or her own inability to comprehend or grow or learn. Your teaching rather than act as a life preserver, awkwardly transforms into anvils of confusion, which you carefully tie around each ankle and watch them sink.

Sure there was the literal kid, confessing his in ability to see what could be. Trapped in a world of what is. His young brain, trained by rulers and numbers packed so snuggling into his perfect little box. His eyes looking into yours, cold, “I don’t know why the world is beautiful.” Even after the claim of the worlds beauty was one of his professed truths. “Let’s make a list of things you find beautiful,”  you reassure him. “Mountains okay! That is good. What do mountains tend to represent?” Blank stare. Quiet. “If mountains were people, how would they act, how would they look?”  Whispering. Unsure. “Yes good– strong, wise, old! What else is beautiful?” We are getting somewhere. This is scaffolding. This is teaching. “Rivers. Yes! Sure they are fast and flow and change. What do they do to mountains? Shape them! Perfect.” High fives. “Have you ever been to a mountain? Swam in a river? No? Oh….” The high is low. Poetry without experience is nothing more than empty words.  You both stare at dead letters blinking on the page. You google a few images of mountains and rivers and ask him to write a poem about a little boy who sees the beauty in the world, but has never felt it. You hope for the best. How do you teach what could be, when we live in a world of what is?

People criticize teachers, bloggers, writers who only promote and share their success stories. Claiming that by sharing what works we set the bar too high. Perhaps they are right. Maybe we do need more posts sharing the days where it just didn’t feel right. We tell our students that they cannot hope to achieve at the highest level all the time, but we hold ourselves at this high standard. We are so afraid to admit that some days we just don’t have it.  It feels good to admit that. Because after all, we have been doing this long enough to know that these days come and go. We know we will head back into the classroom, we will look back into those eyes, we will sing the song, we will dance the dance and we will teach kids poetry god damn it, because if we don’t who will?


Power in Energy

I have never been a fan of numbers. Can’t (don’t, won’t?) do maths. Physics ain’t my thing. I do, however, have a nagging curiosity about the nature of the universe and the magic with which it is made up. I simply choose to express my curiosity through words–poetry and metaphor, stories and allusions. There is a poetry in numbers, I am sure, but I only feel it when I translate it into pictures and words.

So when I saw the video below about the power of stored energy and chain reactions, my mind immediately sprung to an analogy and a song:

Until your back’s up against the wall
You never know yourself that much at all
So you’ve got to share your love with a friend
That’s all that you’ve got left in the end
Living in this city of pure confusion
People misled by their own illusion
All this action, no satisfaction
We’re all linked together like a chain reaction
Play or fold, love is bold
What is the future that will unfold?

Beastie Boys

Take a look:

I couldn’t help but think about the concept of stored energy and release, of change and revolution in– politics, in education, in personal growth. My mind lit up to reveal how, “a person is a person no matter how small.”  I am so often frustrated with the slow pace of change in terms of educational reform, or politics change, or social justice, but this clip reminded me that we live in a universe of stored and released energy. I may feel like the tiny 1mm x 1mm domino, but perhaps someday when I simply lead forward a bit and reach that tipping point, the larger dominoes (traditional schooling, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc….) will to topple over. Or maybe they are in the process of falling as we speak, but we are stuck in a slow-motion frame and it feels like it is taking forever.

Then I thought about the power of positive energy and love and karma and what this energy could be capable of when released! Not to get all metaphysical here, but there is power in energy, as evidenced in the clip, so be aware of how you harness, store, use and release it.


Launch Forth

Did you know that Walt Whitman wrote a poem about social media and the internet? Yeah, I didn’t either, until Ze Frank told me in his video Thinks Like Me.

Side note… I am in love with Ze Frank. Not in a weird– please be my best friend, stalker sort of  way, although I did start digging through his online closet after he started following me on Twitter and sent me some great advice, through a spat of DMs, concerning my Daraja fundraiser,–but more in a, I really respect you man, sort of way.

Maybe in love is the wrong way to put it– I love Ze Frank? Still sounds weird. I respect, admire, am in awe of…no no love will do. I love Ze Frank. Perhaps my admiration stems from the fact that I am new to his work. Yes,  I knew of him through the Young Me, Now Me project, but I had never fully explored the extent of his work. Now that I have, explored, I  realize that much of what he does is everything I love about the web, about people, about life. His work is light, funny, deep, poignant, collaborative, beautiful, loving, self-deprecating, and true. While he doesn’t take himself too seriously, the work speaks volumes about the human experience in the digital age. …end side note.

Sorry this wasn’t meant to be a declaration of love to Ze, it was meant to be about Walt, Spiders, and The Interwebz. I love it when my passions collide: Poetry by ancient bearded queers, social media, arachnids, and online collaborative artists? Yes please. I am assuming you have already watched Thinks Like Me.

What you haven’t watched it yet? Decided to skip that hyperlink, cuz there were too many? I can’t say I am not disappointment in your lack of media literacy, but that is fine. You are learning and I am a teacher. I get that too many links can be annoying, but sometimes you need to stop and read the links that is what a hyperlink is after all: an embedded connection to other content to clarify and add context to existing text.

Anyway, watch the video, you need it for contextual reference if we are to continue. (Man! That is a lot of alliteration or is it consonance?) We will be dealing with the part around 2:3o where he casually mentions that (this) Whitman poem:

It’s about the web right? You and me? Connecting? We are the spiders right? Isolated exploring the vacant, vast surroundings? Launching forth filament, instagrams, filament, Facebook updates, filament, out of ourselves. Aren’t we ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them. Aren’t we surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of (cyber) space. Ceaselessly musing, blogging, venturing, you-tubing, throwing, tweeting—seeking the spheres, to connect them. You to me. Us? Till the bridge we will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold? Aren’t we hoping that flung gossamer thread will catch somewhere? That someone will read? Comment? Re-tweet? Spin the web of our consciousnesses?

O my soul indeed! I get it Ze. I get it. And so did my grade seven students when we looked at this poem and I mentioned it might be about the internet. They smiled, cuz it is that simple and clear and obvious. That technology and social media is not about technology or social media, it is about connection. It is about the human need to launch forth from itself! Whitman got it, over a hundred years ago. Only difference is that now, it is easier to find an anchor hold. The gossamer threads are  fiber-optic and packed with multi-media, which in and of itself adds layers of complexity, but the need to connect, to create, to share is timeless.

All of this philosophizing reminds me of a post I wrote last year, Far From Home on a Dark Night.

Maybe what you are feeling, someone else feels. Maybe what you are feeling, someone else feels.Wow! That is what I wanted all along.

Seems relevant somehow. Looks like more and more of us are feeling it. Interesting that Justin also uses the metaphor of threads. What do you think? Walt Whitman- social media expert? I can see his Twitter handle now:



Paths Towards Articulation

Do you ever have one of those lessons, where everything goes as you planned? Better yet, things work-out beyond your expectations? Kids leave your room a buzz with excitement and inspiration? You feel you have somehow added to the betterment of humanity, through the enlightenment of the best minds of the next generation?  Today was not one of those lessons.

I had this last minute whimsical idea, but it didn’t really provide much visible fruit. Although, I was disappointed by the product, the process has been ripe for reflection. As always, nuts and bolts first, followed by reflection.

A seed has been planted in my heart, ever since I first saw Caine’s Arcade a few days ago. If you haven’t seen the film yet, take ten minutes to watch it below.

All year, we have been exploring the idea that poetry need not be confined solely to text. We have tinkered with film and photography as methods to capture the poetic experience, so here was a great example of visual poetry. I wanted my students to feel the emotional tug created through Caine’s Arcade. I wanted them to consider the depth of possible themes, and finally I wanted them to write a poem based on their experience with the film.

We discussed the context of East LA, as a low-income area of Los Angels before we watched the film. I asked them to jot down emotional observations as they watched, which we shared after the film. I was impressed by what they shared:


  • Caring
  • Hope
  • Dreaming Big
  • Never Say Never
  • Innocence
  • Joyfulness
  • Determination
  • Passion

They got the film.  This was clear. On a surface level, they connected to emotional baggage being presented. Next,  I asked them to take these themes, unpack them and write a poem based in what they found inside. Yup, I threw them into the deep-end just like that. It was not pretty. There was a lot of staring at blank pages, a lot of empty looks. They were drowning and drowning fast. A few of them were okay, but the majority were overwhelmed by the freedom.  They need more scaffolding. This is a Language A class of some pretty high flyers. I know they are working on an advance level as was evidenced by their great films. I did not want to offer them a pair of “water wings” if they didn’t need them, but at this point they needed something more from me.

Next, we explored some deeper themes and ideas.

  • Odds against you
  • Cardboard/reuse
  • Boredom versus creation

We talked about the idea of the arcade itself being a gamble. It is designed to cheat the player, much like life. They mentioned that it was interesting that this place of hope was created from reused cardboard boxes. I presented the idea that it was important to notice how like the boxes themselves, Caine had been abandon too. That maybe this film was the filmmakers way of reusing him and his story to create hope. We discussed the act of creation and how it stems from boredom. We had some great talks.

They went back to writing. They still struggled. I failed.

Well no! This is my epiphany. So many times we expect perfect little products after we “teach” kids how to do something. I will teach you about poetry (as if that is even possible) and you will write a poem. Here is your A! Isn’t school fun? It is never that easy. Sometimes maybe the struggle is the point. Maybe exposing kids to frustration and forcing them to keep at it is what we should be teaching. Expecting grade seven students to write great poetry is a difficult challenge, but teaching them how to recognize the poetry which surrounds them and offering them paths towards the articulation is a great first step.

We began the journey down this path today. We identified the poetry in a simple short film and allowed it to play with our guts. We examined the results and became frustrated when we couldn’t easily create art from our experience. This is not failure. This is a beginning. This is learning. I won’t be able to assess this or put it on a rubric, but I hope that my students will be the better for it. I hope they will explore their emotions, spend quiet time with their hearts and see what comes pouring out. It will be messy and jumbled and possible incompressible, but it is my job to help them sculpt a poem from it.

I asked them to watch the film again at home and spend more time with it tonight. I asked them to simply write what they think and feel. Forget about poetry. Do not think. Just write. I shared this little nugget:

Poems are not written. They are excavated from pages of notes, scribblings & emotional detritus.  A poem is not written it is sculpted.

Tomorrow I will show them this and see where we go next. I am not exactly sure where we are headed, but that is okay. We are on a journey. We are together. This is enough for now.

During the writing of this post, I received this tweet from Narvin, the creator of the film.

Who knows, maybe he will have some ideas of where we go next…


Young Grasshopper

We have been working on Haiku in my grade 6 Language B (low-language level students) class. I have been trying a new scaffolding assignment that I would like to share. Before I continue, let me state that I understand that poetry in general, and Haiku in particular, are best enjoyed alone and outside. Let me save you from your own argumentative voice, that is begging you to scream:

“What? Using computers to write Haikus? Get those kids outside and let them feel the nature!”

True. I agree, but I am dealing with grade six students who lack the vocabulary, the motivation, or the life experience to sit like the Buddha under a tree and see the universe in a dew drop. So I am using media and technology to help them get to that mental head space, by building their skills and knowledge of language. This assignment is not meant to replace authentic poetic experience, but to help students understand it, and hopefully by the end of the unit be able to write a decent Haiku after spending a meditative period outside with nothing but a scrap of paper, a pen or pencil, and the wisdom of a silent moment beneath a tree.

Let’s start with the nuts & bolts. We have been working with images all year. After their daily shoot assignment for our last unit on film, students should now be familiar with the basic idea of capturing a poetic moment through images. The hope is that making the jump to capturing a poetic moment  through text will not be too difficult. We have spoken a lot about how poetry is the art of of recognizing and naming the unnameable. We can do this through the lens of  a camera or through the power of language.

In addition to taking their own pictures, they have used Flickr and the pool of amazing Creative Commons photographs there to supplement their language, so it was with Flickr that we began.

I asked each student to find four Creative Commons pictures from Flickr that embrace and celebrate nature. Choose one from each season and try to include each element: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall + Earth, Water, Fire and Air. I thought these images would be conducive to Haiku later. They were reminded to cite each photo and keep track of the URLs for later use. This has become a habit I am proud of.

Next, I created a Google Presentation as a place to pool our images. This way, I could keep track of who was doing what and comment on their choices in one place. This also allowed them to see what types of photo their peers were choosing. They added their name and the URL of the image to each slide.

Then, they were asked to brainstorm a list of words that came to mind when looking at these images. I walked around and sat with kids to help the ones who were stuck. Next we did a quick lesson on parts of speech and discussed Nouns, Adjectives, and Verbs. I asked that they create a three-column table on the slide and separate their list into the correct part of speech. We discussed how most of them lacked verbs.

But there are no actions in nature? What can a tree do?

Ah young grasshopper, this is the soul of the Haiku! But I didn’t say anything yet. Next step, I asked that they find some synonyms for the adjectives. Take a look:

Yesterday, we began to discuss Haiku. We spoke about the 5-7-5 structure of the lines, syllables, and I gave them this format to get started:

  • First line- Describe an object or scene (Adjective +Noun)
  • Second line– Give this object or scene an action (Verb)
  • Third line– What is the lesson?

I have been impressed with the quality of images and words they have been using. As you can see, by using tech I was able to give these kids the skills and language they need to connect to Haiku. I hope that next week, we can leave the laptops behind and go outside to observe. I hope that we can sit near a flower, make a list of words, separate them into lists and begin to write. Better yet, I hope that they begin to see the Haiku hiding in their everyday lives.

In closing, we are hoping to create a class collection of Haiku to publish in a book and perhaps a short film in which students read their Haiku over the pictures with some sound effects. Will keep you posted.