Monday, September 28, 2015

Haiku Deathmatch (No students were harmed in the process of learning)

When students see the name of this activity on the board, they always seem a bit intimidated, yet intrigued. It definitely sparks interest and authentic engagement! I have played with other names, too, but this one seems to create the most buy-in. To be honest, I did not come up with the name on my own, as I had heard a colleague use “poetry deathmatch” before. As teachers do best, I adapted the activity to suit my needs, and I am happy to share my lesson in hopes that other teachers will do the same.

First, I introduced (or reintroduced) students to the haiku format. We discussed the origin of this structure and the fact that, in America, haiku are usually written in 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables each. We talked about the fact that the plural of haiku is: haiku (this prevents my annoyance upon hearing “haikus”). We looked at several examples of haiku – both traditional Japanese haiku and more modern examples.

Because we were already talking about the power of words in the context of my current curriculum, I had students list their favorite words and words they loathe in their reader’s/writer’s notebooks. I listed mine with them, and we all shared. Here are some words that tend to show up across classes in multiple writers’ notebooks:

Words students love:
Words students detest:

Students listed their favorite words for about 5 minutes; then we shared our words. As we heard words that we either liked or disliked, we added them to our own list.  If you find that students are having a difficult time with this part of the activity, you can look to the following sources for inspiration:
Once everyone has shared, I ask students to write at least 2 haiku: one with a favorite word and one with a word that they don’t like. I assure them that it is natural to count syllables on fingers, and that they will see me counting on mine, too. I also teach them the trick to determine the number of syllables in a word by placing their hand under their chin and counting the downward chin movements. Here is a picture of my notebook from the last haiku brainstorming session:

After about 10 minutes, I ask for volunteers to share. There is usually a lot of nodding and agreement with the haiku containing words students like and dislike. You can almost certainly expect an anti-homework haiku or two.

Now that students are comfortable with the haiku format and realize they’re having fun in class, I challenge them to work in small teams to write haiku for the previous text studied in class. I generally choose one work on which to focus; however, this time, I asked students to review their summer reading via haiku. Thus, my students were asked to choose from either Beowulf, Brave New World, or a combination of both. I have previously taught this lesson while reviewing books such as The Kite Runner, Frankenstein, and a variety of shorter texts. It has worked well in all cases. Each member writes the haiku, but there is one official recorder who writes legibly. The team’s goal is to generate as many quality haiku as possible in the time allotted.

Each team selects a spokesperson/performer to represent their team. Two teams are called to begin the “deathmatch.” I devise a system for determining who reads first – sometimes they choose a number, or play rock-paper-scissors, etc. Each person selects a haiku to read. There is strategy involved because they want to select one that is good enough to beat their opponent’s, but they also need to leave strong haiku in case they advance in the competition. Based on experience, each person will need to read his or her team’s haiku twice. I generally have them alternate so the audience can hear the poems side by side two times. Then we vote. The team with the most votes remains to battle the next opponent, and this process continues until only on team remains. In the event of a tie, each team can select an alternate poem to read. Sometimes, I allow the first team eliminated to battle the winning team. This eases the pain of being knocked out of the competition on the first round.

Teachers can decide whether or not to have any type of prizes, but the real reward is the sneaky book review taking place, the decisions about word choice (the best words that will fit in the limited structural space), and the collaboration occurring while students discuss texts and language.

Some variations on this lesson:
  •       Haiku for a character (to study characterization)
  •       Haiku in the style of an author
  •       Haiku featuring a specific literary device (simile, alliteration, etc.)
  •       Students tweet their haiku using a specific hashtag
  •       Students write a back-and-forth dialogue through haiku
  •       Students combine haiku to form one longer poem on the given topic (They love this one!)
Please comment with any variations on this lesson or new ideas. I think there is a wide range of possibilities for this activity!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Prayer to the Teachers to Forgive them for Solely Using TPCASTT

Last year, I began moving away from the formulaic TPCASTT and Somebody-Wanted-But-So methods of poetry analysis in my AP course. I still teach those methods of analysis; any tools my students have for decoding poems that serve as potential pathways toward understanding are valuable, and I want them to have as many tools as possible! However, I found that by emulating mentor texts, my students were able to find all of the poetic devices and reach a deeper understanding of the author’s work. This is simply a natural by-product of analyzing which parts of the poem – diction, syntax, theme, repetition and other devices – that they would like to mimic in their own work. My students came up with some of the most beautiful and deeply personal work I’ve ever experienced – some of which they performed at a poetry slam that they organized at the end of the year.

To that end, tomorrow we will read “Forgive My Guilt” by Robert P. Tristram Coffin and “Prayer to the Living to Forgive them for Being Alive” by Charlotte Delbo (one of my favorite poems to teach, by a Holocaust survivor and heroine). We will look at the TPCASTT method as well as Somebody-Wanted-But-So, but my students will ultimately choose one of the two poems as a mentor text from which to gather inspiration. I will ask my students to follow the original poem as much as they see fit as far as structure and ideas, but they have creative freedom to make their own choices. This provides a safety net for students who need a bit more support in poetry-writing. They can simply replace nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. More adventurous students can depart significantly (or entirely) from the mentor text. This approach provides built-in choice and differentiation that are crucial to our modern classrooms. In my experience, students are capable of creating works that rival those in the literary canon.

I always do what I ask my students to do. It demonstrates that we are all writers and that this writing has value; it is not merely busy-work. Tomorrow, while my students write, I will craft my version of “Forgive My Guilt.” Today, I wrote my version of Delbo’s poem based on how I felt about the socioeconomic disparity between me and my peers in the mid-1980s. I recommend sharing as much of your life with your students as is appropriate. This will make it safe for them to share, let them know that they, too, can overcome obstacles, and engage them in a learning community in which everyone has a voice and valuable ideas to share.

When I discuss my version of this “Prayer” poem with my class, I will talk about my decision to emulate the syntactical style, fragmented thought pattern, repetition, and the accusatory effect of the use of 2nd person. This is also a good time to note why we don’t use “you” in essays, as it sounds very harsh! I will discuss the differences as well, such as my use of specific examples, the weight of her subject matter compared to mine, and the fact that mine is more personal (though I speak for everyone who felt this way) while Delbo’s definitely speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves.

Teachers, I urge you: please get your students writing, and write with them! They will amaze you with what they write.

“Prayer to the Living to Forgive them for Being Alive” by Charlotte Delbo
(mentor text)
“Prayer to the Affluent to Forgive them for Being Materialistic” by Amber Counts
(inspired by Delbo’s mentor text)
You who are passing by
well dressed in all your muscles
clothing which suits you well
or badly
or just about
you who are passing by
full of tumultuous life within your arteries
glued to your skeleton
as you walk with a sprightly step athletic awkward
laughing sullenly, you are all so handsome
so commonplace
so commonplacely like everyone else
so handsome in your commonplaceness
with this excess of life which keeps you
from feeling your bust following your leg
your hand raised to your hat
your hand upon your heart
your kneecap rolling softly in your knee
how can we forgive you for being alive…
You who are passing by
well dressed in all your muscles
how can we forgive you
that all are dead
You are walking by and drinking in cafés
you are happy she loves you
or moody worried about money
how how
will you ever be forgiven
by those who died
so that you may walk by
dressed in all your muscles
so that you may drink in cafés
be younger every spring
I beg you
do something
learn a dance step
something that gives you the right
to be dressed in your skin in your body hair
learn to walk and to laugh
because it would be too senseless
after all
for so many to have died
while you live
doing nothing with your life.

You who are passing by
well dressed in designer clothes
the latest styles that suit you well
so you think
until you look back one day
and feel embarrassed
embarrassed that
you wore a rabbit fur coat
when it was 85 degrees
under the Texas sun
embarrassed that despite
perm after perm
after perm
your hair looked like fried straw
and your rubber bracelets
did not make you Madonna
You who cast aspersions
on my character
downward glances dismissive
based on my clothes
at least I stand out
in my second-hand jeans
clothes my grandmother
lovingly chose for me
while you
you all look the same
you all look like everyone else
everyone with money
everyone who can buy Gloria Vanderbuilt jeans
oh wait it’s Jordache this month
no it’s Guess
well guess what
I am more than the label on my jeans
You are just a label
a superficial label seeking
the acceptance of your clone peers
how can we forgive you
those of us who cannot
fit your mold
how can we forgive you
that you have everything
while we have nothing
yet you’re still unhappy
and often mean
how can we understand each other
when you think tragedy
means not going to Florida on spring break
or not getting the right color car
on your birthday
when tragedy for me
is bathing in the laundrymat sink
for school
because I am homeless again
skipping another meal
because there is no money for food
but these aren’t tragedies for me
they’re commonplace
this is my reality
But go ahead
laugh that I don’t have
my own Sony Walkman
because you do not have
the depth of thought
compassion or character
to understand my life
while you superficially make your way
through yours.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Review of Mr. Mercedes

I read a lot of Stephen King's novels when I was young after my love of the characters in the movie Stand by Me led me to the short story it was based on, published under King's pseudonym. I quickly found what I think draws many to his work; King's characters are complex, and their thoughts, motivations, and dialogue are authentic. Recently, I returned to King's work to see how I feel about it as an adult whose favorite film is now The Shawshank Redemption - also based on his work.

When someone tells me that they don't like King's work, I often ask which books they've read. To me, that's like saying you don't like the Beatles. From which era? Which style or genre? With both iconic artists, there is simply too much variety for such blanket statements. 

It is true that many of King's works - though not all - contain some dark element. He has brought us homicidal cars, vengeful prom-goers, vampires, and alcoholic fathers who attempt to murder their family members. He has also brought us post-apocalyptic heroes, characters with the power to ease the pain of others, real female heroes, and some of the most touching tales of friendship found in print. His textbook, On Writing, is one of the best books I've read on the craft of writing. Ultimately, he captures who we are, for better or worse, and brings our hopes, joys, and fears to life through the written word. I understand that some don't want to examine the darker side of humanity, and anyone in that group should steer clear of Mr. Mercedes. (Note the clever car pun.)

In this mystery/suspense novel, retired detective Bill Hodges rouses from his depressed, suicidal state when the "Mercedes Killer" taunts him with a letter. This letter, intended to psychologically torture the retired cop, has the unintended effect of giving Hodges a renewed sense of purpose and sending him on an investigative journey. Since I refuse to spoil the plot any further (you've got Wikipedia for that), I'll just say that the pay-off is there at the end. I was ultimately glad I stuck with these characters through this wild ride, despite the sometimes gruff language and disturbing details. I've seen enough true crime shows to understand that serial killers don't get to be the way they are in happy family homes, and the fact that King provides a basis for why his killer acts the way he does just reinforces my earlier observation about King's ability to write real characters. There are some cheesy phrases and "Kingisms" along the way - mostly little jabs at pop culture, but again - these are timely and generally ring true to the character thinking or speaking the lines. I only rolled my eyes a couple of times. 

If you can stand a little darkness, if you like journeying with characters through a cat-and-mouse high-stakes game, and you want to read this before it becomes a mini-series, then sit back and enjoy the ride with Mr. Mercedes.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Little Drummer Boy (Who Plays the Bass)

My son turned 16 today. He didn’t get the keys to a car; that’s beyond our means right now, but he did get a pair of drumsticks and a practice pad so that he can learn to tap out rhythms. He recently joined the “School of Rock” club at his school, and though he currently plays the bass guitar in the group, he really wants to play the drums.

My son at 6 months with his drum
Before I get to my main point, let me back up several years. My son loved beating out rhythms since the days of his Little Tikes drum with connected plastic sticks. When he was about 5 years old, he advanced to a junior drum kit. I bet our apartment neighbors loved that! At 10, my mom gifted him with a more advanced drum set. It was still a learning model, but he had fun operating the bass drum and cymbals along with the drum heads. He began talking about signing up for band the following year, and as parents who met in high school band, we were only too happy to support his enthusiasm and musical ability.

At the next opportunity, we spoke with the middle-school band director. That conversation changed the course of a life.

She told us emphatically that my son would not be allowed to play in the percussion section in band because he had not taken 3 years of piano lessons prior to beginning a rhythm instrument. Wait. What? I’m pretty sure most of the drummers I rocked out to in the 80s hadn’t been required to take 3 years of piano lessons before they started playing. Though I clearly see how this practice would be helpful in playing the xylophone or marimbas, I could also clearly see that my son would not learn toward those instruments. Besides, piano lessons are incredibly expensive. We could not afford them. I kept all of my opinions about elitism to myself and beseeched the band director to let him join if we promised to find a way to get piano lessons on the side. She stood firm with her answer: no.

I checked with some other parents about the veracity of this answer, and as far as anyone knew, this was the norm for this school. Parents don’t always feel empowered to question the system or even know how to begin doing it if the need should arise. Often, parents just do what they’re told, and that’s what we did. In retrospect, I wish I had been a stronger advocate for my child in this case.

Feeling dejected and not wanting to play any other instrument in band, my son struggled to find enthusiasm for any other extra-curricular activities in middle-school. As it turned out, some of the 8th-grade orchestra students from the middle-school visited his elementary school within days of his hearing the verdict. A particularly cool bass player (they’re still friends to this day) caught his attention by playing the bass line to a Green Day song. The next thing I knew, we were learning all about orchestra and figuring out how to buy and transport a bass.

My son has loved playing bass. He’s pretty darn good at it, too. He is excited that he can play the bass guitar as an extension of learning to play the double bass. But he feels like something is missing. He feels like he should be marching with the drum line at his high school.

This breaks my heart.

Here’s why. Can he learn on his own and still play the drums now? Yes (hence the birthday present). But he will never benefit from the years of a qualified band director or school-associated private lesson teachers to learn from. Will he ever experience marching band? No. He will never experience the camaraderie of the rhythm section of the band, and there’s nothing else like it.

Would it have hurt that band director to consider making an exception for a highly motivated, enthusiastic child who had long-term goals in her program? No. It would not have. As it turns out, the other schools in the district don’t all have the same policy. I didn’t know that then. I have asked several of my percussionist students – some of whom have qualified for All-Region and even All-State band – over the years if they took piano lessons before they joined band. About half say “yes.”

I felt moved to write this piece because as an educator, I feel that it’s important that no one in this profession ever forget that these moments of interaction do alter our students’ lives and have far-reaching implications. We must know that each decision we make is not based on some arbitrary rule that is designed more for our convenience, or the state’s, or the district’s, than the student's, and that we make each decision on a one-by-one basis. After all, these are human beings, not mere units in a band. We must know why we give the answers we do, and we must believe in them so strongly that we could look that student (and his or her parents) in the eye years later and still support that decision.

Note from my son: As he read this to offer or decline his approval, he stated that it would be the same as if they had asked him to take 3 years of guitar lessons before joining orchestra. He has a point. And he offered his approval of this message :)