Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Poet In All Of Us

April is National Poetry Month and as a poetry lover, I've intertwined poetry into almost every lesson this month. Poetry presents a tremendous opportunity for students to grow their language skills. It gives learners the chance to expand vocabulary knowledge as they analyze and experiment with language choice. Reading poetry requires us to not only attempt to understand the meaning of poems, but to also look closely at the poet's words and the feelings intended to provoke, all the while covering literary devices, figurative language, inferences and analogies - just to name a few. Poetry writing strengthens composition skills by removing boundaries and developing creativity, paving the way for many other forms of writing. Reading poetry aloud emphasizes speaking and listening skills which are often neglected despite the implementation of CCSS.  Granted, these skills are essential for everyone but for English Language Learners, they are paramount.  Some teachers dread covering poetry, however, I embrace it - making April my favorite month of the school year.

This year, I've stepped up my poetry instruction a bit. I was determined to instill a love and appreciation for poetry in the hopes of making a poets of my ELLs.  Some of my most reluctant writers embraced poetry, discovering a creativity within them that they never knew existed.  Like an athletic trainer developing physical strength, I've heard quite a bit of moaning and complaining, yet they completed their tasks and I witnessed their growth. Some were quick to express their pride, some simply showed it through their gleaming eyes and bright smiles.

As in prior years, I have used this wonderful website recommended by one of our middle school Language Arts teachers.  It provides interactive poetry forms offering structure and sentence starters - a creativity push that is a much needed scaffold for most learners, but especially ELLs.  Some of my students used the site all month, but a few were able to write from scratch after a few times. In prior years, poems were read and interpreted as a class and they also wrote poems about themselves and/or characters in a book.  This year, I had students read their poems aloud and even recorded one group in front of a green screen which they later used to create videos of themselves.  This was helpful in developing reading fluency as well as listening skills. After writing their poems, they published them on their blogs for all the world to see. Their blog addresses were shared with some of my PLN and their posts were read and commented on by teachers and students across the country.

One thing I really want to brag on is my integration of Poetry and Informational  Text.  In lieu of reading informational text and answering questions, students were asked to write poetry in response to an article they read and discussed with their peers. Not only did I search high interest articles, I intentionally chose topics that would stir their thinking and facilitate the writing process. Topics ranged from cyborg cockroaches to stories of the Jim  Crow South to cross dressers of the Civil War.  At first thought, informational text may appear grossly unrelated to poetry, but this odd couple quickly became a perfect match.  Students were more engaged in their writing those days than they had been all year. I am very pleased with my integration of poetry and informational text - a strategy that I will fine tune and perfect for the coming year.

I will have to reluctantly admit that I probably overdid it this year and may have burned out a few, so I learn from my mistakes and build on my successes.  I will certainly continue to integrate poetry into my units during April, but I realize that I will need to introduce it earlier in the year and perhaps bring in a little more drama and fun during April, making it more of a celebration of National Poetry Month.

My goal this month was not only to teach poetic elements and all that goes with it, but to also instill a love of poetry and generate some unorthodox thinking and writing. Some enjoyed the unit, some did not, but they all wrote great poems.  Some required more scaffolding than others, but they got their creative juices flowing and I'm immensely proud of every single one of them. Was my mission accomplished? For the most part, yes.  I set out to help them discover the poet in themselves and I did. While some of my ELLs don't yet fully appreciate the beauty and opportunity of poetry, I certainly planted a seed. Regardless, they will all agree that there is a poet in each of us waiting to be exposed.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Don't Believe Me, Just Watch

Last week was our first week back from Spring Break and the beginning of the last quarter of the school year.  As we enter this final stretch, spring fever is in the air and everyone is eager for summer vacation. Warm and sunny days make for beautiful weather, but the classroom climate can be quite tempestuous as students are ready for it all to be over. They slouch in their seats, slack on their work and whine about anything that's remotely challenging. And those of course are the easy problems - other more problematic students may step up their rebellion a tad bit putting discipline issues on the rise. Like a tired runner on his last lap, it's very easy for teachers to lose momentum, but this is a critical time to pick up speed to ensure we finish strong.  For many of us, this may mean making a few changes.  Just like an Olympic runner, it's the last lap that determines outcome and as tempting as it is to slow down or drop out, you can't win unless you persevere until the very end.

After recently reading two fabulous books I've started this last quarter with a spring in my step.  I read Teach Like a Pirate and Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire - two books that I believe every teacher should read, especially preservice teachers. I first heard of TLAP on Twitter and then it was all the buzz at EdCampQC so I just had to buy it and I read it just before spring break.  TLYHOF was recommended by #reflectiveteacher tweep, Beth Liedolf (@bliedolf) and is the subject of our chats this month.  I read that one during spring break. Aside from similar titles, both books offer strategies and methods to generate/increase student engagement. Rather than writing a long book review on each, I will let my readers check out the books for themselves and develop their own opinions.  They are relatively easy reads and some of you may be able to read them both in one weekend.  Reading them as I entered the final quarter of the year was perfect timing.  As I begin this final lap, I was looking for inspiration and both met that expectation. Moreover, both emphasized the importance of creativity, spontaneity, reliability, follow through and teaching the whole child.  Both authors also emphasize the importance of modeling.  It's easy to become frustrated at the disengagement and lose steam,  but I can't expect to win them over unless I adjust my own approaches and increase momentum myself.  Classroom modeling doesn't only refer to academic skills and behaviors, we also need to model attitudes and engagement.  If we are not excited about what we teach, much less will our students be.

Here are some small changes I have made to stir up some positivity and brighten up the remaining school days.
  • Increase positive recognition. I'm usually pretty good about pointing out the good in my students, but I've been trying to dig a little deeper.  And I don't want to just tell them individually, I want to make sure the entire class knows about the treasures I find.
  • Ignore the small stuff.  I'm picking my battles carefully and so I can stay focused on the learning targets.
  • Share myself.  Be open and honest, willing to share joys, successes and setbacks.  As I tell students about my own stumbling blocks and how I turn them into stepping stones, many may find connections and hopefully be encouraged. 
  • Take time to laugh.  A little amusement can do a lot of good.  Happy teachers will make happy students.  Learning and laughter are not mutually exclusive.
  • End the class with a joke.  I try to end my class periods on a positive note by sharing a little motivation or encouragement as they are launched from my room.  This last quarter I'm ending the class period with a riddle or joke.
While I aim for my students to finish strong and achieve good outcomes on their year end assessments, I, also need be sure to no lose momentum myself. These small changes will help both my learners and me and make sure I practice what I preach.  So in the words of Bruno Mars in Uptown Funk, "Don't believe me, just watch".