Tag Archives: teaching

Dodge Poetry Festival 2014


Poetry is not my comfort zone. It never fully clicked with me. I could read it and interpret it for class, but I rarely enjoyed it as a student. The exception was epic and narrative poetry that told stories, which is where I’m at home. So when I decided to attend the Dodge Poetry Festival this past week, well, I don’t know what I was thinking.

Actually, I do. I wanted a jolt, a kick in the pants to push me to both appreciate poetry better and use it in my classroom more. And what a jolt it was! Dodge brings in the best poets in the entire country for four days of readings and discussions. And part of what makes Dodge special is the both the diversity and level of the talent that is brought in.

The day began with a “sampler” of fifteen poets reading one or two of their poems. Of course not every poem clicked with me, but a few of them gave me visceral reactions. I actually jolted back in my seat at Brendan Constantine’s “Dementia, My Darling,” a poem imagining his mother’s mind unraveling with dementia. Saeed Jones and Rachel Wiley read pieces that also gut-punched me.

The first session I attended was a panel of four poets who were also actively teaching. This session had a mix of useful suggestions for engaging students with poetry, entertaining stories, and a few utterly impractical perspectives. By this I mean I was reminded how different teaching an undergraduate poetry workshop is from teaching general education 7th grade language arts. Simply telling students there are no rules and to do whatever they want might work with really, really advanced students, but not for squirrely 12 year olds.

Then I attended a panel on women in poetry. I was one of 5 or 6 men in a crowd of about 75. I was pretty uncomfortable, especially when the session began with Jan Beatty’s “Shooter,” a poem about shooting all the men who ever harmed her. But I think it’s okay to be uncomfortable. After women spent centuries being the object (rather than the subject) of dominant white male poetic culture, I think I can sit in a poetry reading for an hour and a quarter and feel marginalized. It was a good perspective-shifter.

Maybe the best session was with Robert Pinsky, who I saw back in 2004 or so when I was a college student. His advice was practical and honest for teachers, and his sense of fun and gravitas was perfectly balanced. . He also created the Favorite Poem Project, a site of videos with  people reading their favorite poems aloud.

The final reading was by Yusef Komunyakaa. He is a brilliant poet who thinks about poetry and sound a lot. As far as being able to use his advice in the classroom, well, it was all rather abstract. A lot of “I think of sound…and tone… and beauty” type commentary. Still, it was a pleasure to sit two rows from one of America’s preeminent poets and hear him read.

The Dodge Poetry Festival only happens once every two years. It brings some of America’s most beautiful words to the heart of Newark, one of America’s ugliest places. I hope to go again in 2016, and in the meantime, become better engaged with poetry.

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6 Things You Thought You Knew About Teaching

Ah, fall! School is back in session. Retailers are shoving 3-ring binders in your face at low, low prices, children are groaning about their free public education, and the sky is bright with the colorful opinions of people who know absolutely nothing about education, but think they do.

Every teacher experiences it. At dinner parties or holidays. In online forums. At the gym or in line at the grocery store. You tell someone you are a teacher, and the other person nods knowingly. They can’t wait to pass some wisdom to you about education. Maybe you’ve heard these before.

1) “Boy, it must be great to work from 8 to 3.”
I don’t know a single teacher that does this. At all. Not even the very worst scum teachers on the bottom of the teacher barrel can pull off these hours. Demands on teachers have become so intense, and the requirements so elaborate, that in order to simply get the bare minimum done, teachers often arrive at school an hour before or stay an hour after. Their weekends are filled with grading papers and tests. The 8-to-3 teacher is a myth.

2) “Teachers have it great with their paid summers off.”
Is summer break great? Sure. But it isn’t paid. Teachers are paid for ten months of the year in most public schools. This means two months of unemployment, for which they cannot collect unemployment benefits from the Federal government. Teachers have two choices: squirrel away money during the year to survive July, August, and the first half of September, or find seasonal work.

3) “Teachers are paid great. Why, I know one who is making $95,000 a year!”
First of all, it should be “paid well.” Adverbs, guys, come on.
It’s true, teaching can provide a stable, predictable middle income salary. But for the amount of education, training, and specialization that teaching requires, teachers are underpaid relative to other occupations and relative to teachers in many other countries. And secondly, most districts pay teachers on a step salary guide, locking them into an incremental pay level. In the business world, an ambitious and talented employee could double his or her salary through promotions in five or six years of service. A teacher might see an increase of a thousand dollars a year in that time. And that 95k teacher? He or she probably has 35 or 40 years of experience and an advanced degree. That salary is the culmination of a lifetime of work, not a sweet ride on the backs of taxpayers.

4) “I pay taxes, so technically you work for me.”
Great. So when I talk to a firefighter, I’ll tell him to let your house burn down. Since I’m a taxpayer, too, technically he works for me.

5) “All you need to do is _______.”
Make class fun. Show them who’s boss. Keep their attention. Speak to them in a way they can relate to.
There is no one key to successful teaching. Teaching is complex and constantly shifting. In a class of twenty-five students, there are twenty-five minds that learn differently. For some, making class fun and talking like a gangster (or is it “gangsta” now?) makes you relatable. For other students, it makes you a buffoon. There is no one thing that is “all you need to do.”

6) “You should really teach them about _________. I loved that when I was a kid.”
People not in education fail to understand that teachers have very little control over what and how they are allowed to teach. We can’t teach the books, perform the lab experiments, or introduce the mathematical concepts we want to. We have limited control on how we teach, and that is heavily observed and scrutinized. So just because you had a great experience making a baking soda and vinegar volcano in third grade, or you loved reading The Lord of the Flies, don’t assume I can do that, too.

People who are not in education think they know better than teachers. Breaking a bone does not qualify me to be a doctor. Eating in a restaurant does not qualify me to be a chef. So having been a student ten or twenty or fifty years ago does not qualify you to be a teacher. The next time you hear someone is a teacher, keep the helpful advice to yourself.

Instead, just tell say “thank you.”

Or, “God bless you.”

Or, “Here, have a drink. I bet you need one.”

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Lessons from the Holocaust Denial Essay Disaster

Auschwitz-BirkenauA school assignment came into the news recently regarding a controversial essay. 8th grade students in California’s Rialto Unified School District were given an essay assignment in which they had to argue whether the Holocaust was a real event or a hoax. The students were given documents on each side of the argument to use in their case’s defense.

Understandably, this assignment has created an outpouring of anger and disgust from the public. The Anti-Defamation League has voiced its objection and contacted the district. Parents and advocates are outraged. The superintendent has even received death threats. The assignment is being called everything from foolish to dangerous and anti-Semitic. The Board of Education has acknowledged the inappropriateness of the assignment, apologized, and returned it back to the teachers to rewrite.

The topic:

When tragic events occur in history, there is often debate about their actual existence. For example, some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual historical event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain. Based upon your research on this issue, write an argumentative essay, utilizing cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe the Holocaust was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain. Remember to address counterclaims (rebuttals) to your stated claim. You are also required to use parenthetical (internal) citations and to provide a Works Cited page.”

I’m going to go into this with the assumption that the Rialto Unified Board of Education is not a pack of raving anti-Semites with the insidious goal of turning students into raving anti-Semites. If they are, well, then reason goes out the window. But having worked in education, I can reasonably predict that what happened was a gross misjudgment, a seriously bad question written with good intent but terrible delivery.

The intent of the assignment is, I would think, to lead students to see that the Holocaust Denial movement is ill-founded and false. The essay itself, though, is inappropriate for a number of reasons. The primary reason is that Reality vs. Hoax is not a legitimate debate. The Holocaust happened. It is real; there is nothing to debate. But to conspiracy theorists, any evidence in their favor is touted and any evidence against them is declared to be fabricated. How could anyone win an argument against someone like that?

For an argumentative essay topics to be fair, the two sides must both have equal weight. In an essay about whether or not students should wear uniforms, for example, arguments both logical and emotional could be made for either side. But Holocaust Reality vs. Hoax is not a debate. There IS no debate. If you give students two documents supporting and two opposing a claim, but don’t tell them that in fact there are millions of photographs, videos, personal testimonies, physical scars, embedded tattoos, and missing loved ones as proof of the Holocaust, it sets up an artificial equality for the grounds of debate.

Compounding this is the fact that most 8th grade students lack the critical skills to engage this topic meaningfully. In many cases, 8th grade is their first exposure to the Holocaust. Give them a debate and they will accept uncritically the grounds for that debate.

In my own class of 8th graders, students are reading Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a standard text for this age. To ensure the students would appreciate Frank’s testimony, I spent nearly two weeks sharing with them information about anti-Semitism, the causes and events of the Holocaust, individual stories of different victims, and a broader exploration of how prejudice leads to discrimination which leads to violence and genocide. For most of my students, this was their first engagement with the Holocaust, and they craved to know more.

A few of my students did “independent research” on Google and came across a number of Denial websites. They tried to argue with me about the compelling evidence they saw. They said it made a lot of sense to them. I attempted to explain to them how conspiracy theories work, and that these loonies explain away any evidence against them. They seemed unconvinced, and the exchange has left me troubled.

Back to the Rialto Unified fiasco, I won’t try and relieve the administration of responsibility. The essay assignment was terrible. But as an educator, I can make a few guesses as to what happened. First of all, the essay is surely an attempt to create a Common Core-aligned essay. For those not in education, the Common Core is a set of nationalized educational standards that nearly every state has adopted. Every state, district, supervisor, and teacher is being pressured (professionally and financially) to implement them. And the Holocaust Denial essay was designed to be in alignment with Core standards, specifically regarding critical thinking skills and use of primary source documents.

More than likely, here is the scenario that occurred: the district mandated that the Language Arts department develop a document-based essay question for all 8th grade students. A group of teachers, likely already overtaxed and harried with responsibilities, formulated the question in question. How they came up with this prompt, I can’t say. Maybe they dashed it off, just another item on a to-do list that wasn’t given appropriate consideration. Maybe they thought they were being bold and provocative. Maybe they thought that this essay would help students see the futility of Holocaust Denial. In any case, the question is bad. Which happens. No teacher bats 1.000.

But then the prompt was surely rubber-stamped by supervisors, principals, and Board of Education members, all of whom had more pressing duties than discussing middle school essay questions. By the time someone looked up and said, “What the hell?”, news and social media had already done that for them. And by the district’s own acknowledgement, the problem was a lack of internal checks and balances.

What can we learn from this?

What I have learned is that teaching students about Holocaust Denial might be an important component of teaching them about the Holocaust itself. If I don’t address that some of the “information” out there is actually garbage, they might stumble on it and believe it.

And what can the field of education learn? Perhaps the lesson is that without taking a little time to check each other’s work, bad ideas can be greenlit and taken too far. Perhaps the lesson is that without giving students context, their learning is at best hampered and at worst entirely misguided. Or perhaps the lesson is that when contrived and artificial questions are created for the sole purpose of assessing students by some arbitrary standards, bad things result.

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Synonym Toast Crunch

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” –Mark Twain

I believe vocabulary development is one ofthe key elements of middle school language arts. There’s a lot to learn between sixth and ninth grades, but without expanding the words that kids can recognize and use is critical to high school success. Limited vocabulary can be a hurdle, but done effectively, vocabulary can be a bridge from little-kid reading and writing to real sophistication.

I’ve struggled with how to effectively teach vocabulary in my class. We have vocabulary workbooks in my school with 20-word chapters of grade-appropriate vocabulary. Bleh. I dislike teaching vocab out of context, but it’s like doing long runs or pushups– ya just gotta get the work in. Throughout my six years of teaching, I’ve striven to make the chapters both effective and palatable.

Anyway, I’ve found that strict memorization is pretty much useless. Your vocabulary isn’t a stockpile or stamp collection– the words aren’t any use if you can’t recognize and deploy them. So now when I teach vocab, I have the students make flashcards and draw pictures, I give them example sentences and make them write their own, and reward them when they use the words properly in their own writing. So far, it’s working pretty well.

I also require them to give me a synonym and antonym (if applicable) of each word. Here’s where things fall apart. It’s one thing to remember a definition, another to rephrase it, and another to plug the word into a sentence. But to give synonyms requires having a sense of the word that isn’t easily learned in a couple of weeks.

The first hurdle is understanding the part of speech and the ways in which the word can–and cannot– be used. For instance, one of the words in their current chapter is “bungle.” A verb. Yet I’ve had a number of students give me sentences like “He’s such a bungle person!” I explain that it needs to be changed to an adjective, “bungling.” Then they get another verb, “refute,” and try to change it to an adjective: “The scientist’s report was very refuting about the old information.” English is fun!

The second problem is that some definitions just don’t give a sense of the word. This chapter, the hardest word to grapple with is “smug.” The official, book definition is “overly self-satisfied, self-righteous.” I think this is a vague definition (not to mention useless for the 98% of my students who don’t know what “self-righteous” means). I’ve done my best to talk them through it, explaining “smug” as “cocky” or “thinking you’re better than everyone and everything” or “arrogant, in a quiet way.” I give them example sentences (“She was awfully smug for someone repeating 7th grade for the fourth time!”). In the end, though, I’m pretty sure that “smug” will be one word this chapter that will simply elude most of my kids.

Another challenge comes from how we look for synonyms. We recently completed a research project, and I came across one report with a high level of highly misused vocabulary. The sentence that really got me was “Edgar Allan Poe was a vast author for all his stories and poems.” I called the student over and asked her what she meant by it.
“I mean he’s a great author!”
I paused. Something struck me.
“You typed this in Microsoft Word?”
“Did you write ‘great,’ then right-click on it and look for ‘synonyms’?”
“Yeah. You’re always telling us not to use little kid words, so I wanted to replace ‘great’ with a better word.”

I explained that because “great” can be used many ways, and not all the meanings are the same. “Great” and “vast” are synonyms…sometimes. The caveat to my “used big-kid words” is “use words you know how to use.”

This isn’t the fault of technology or MS Word. The same error could have been made with a hard copy thesaurus. I only find thesauruses useful when they remind me of other words I hadn’t thought of. But lunging out at mysterious words can create some wacky results.

(Also fun– use MS Word for “synonym chains,” when you replace one word with a suggested one, then replace that one, over and over until the final word choice is light years away from the original one.)

I don’t see the “great/vast” mixup as an utter failure. A big part of vocabulary development is experimentation. But it’s gotten me thinking about the nature of synonyms. Are there ever any true synonyms? If two words meant exactly the same thing, why have both of them? English is a messy hoarder of a language that eagerly accumulates and reluctantly abandons words. English may not be efficient or tidy, but I think this ambiguity, the shades of meanings, the connotations and implications of words is what makes it so much fun to play with.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Simple, clear, epic.
“It was the paramount epoch, it was the most perilous of occasions.” Bloated and overreaching.
“It was the instigate of clock, it was the under the weather rotation.” MS Word Synonym Chain.

I’m not going to stop teaching vocabulary, though I’m always adapting my methods. Is there one key to developing a vocabulary that is not only large and flexible, but is readily applied? Sure. I encourage my students to do it all the time, in school for academics and at home for fun. It was the way I developed my vocabulary. Read.

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Is Poetry Relevant?

This past week, I took a professional development workshop. In it, we teachers learned a variety of ways to get students reading and writing, and maybe even engaging some critical thinking skills. (I’m not being sarcastic. It actually was a helpful PD session, for once). One of the best activities involved using poetry– perhaps the least left-brain form of writing– to engage critical thinking skills. All in all, a thought-provoking activity, but the thoughts it provoked in me went in a different direction. I found myself asking:

Is poetry relevant?

Of the poems we read as examples, a couple were familiar to me, but most were not. They were all suitable for middle/high school students. I realized as we did this activity that I haven’t really read much poetry in… years? Ok, not true. I will read narrative poems; I reread The Iliad and The Aeneid a couple years back, and I’ve been celebrating October with some Poe (Poe-try?). But as for just sitting down with lyric poems and working with them…it just hasn’t been something I’ve been drawn to. Between reading fiction to study the craft, and reading fiction for pleasure, and reading history to broaden my knowledge, and reading student essays to eat and pay my mortgage, reading poems hasn’t felt all that pressing. But simply because I’ve neglected it doesn’t mean it’s not important. Some people neglect going to the dentist for a decade, that doesn’t mean dentists are irrelevant. But still, I ask:

Is poetry relevant?

I chose my question carefully. I’m not asking “Is poetry important/powerful/worthwhile/beautiful/interesting/useful?” I don’t think most people would argue that poetry has NO place in today’s world. There is a place for everything in this world: punch cards, speakeasies, the steam engine, the longbow. That place is a museum. These things, like poetry, all serve a purpose. But I wonder, in today’s world:

Is poetry relevant?

Our instructor told us about an assignment he would give his students. He worked with tough, urban kids from Atlantic City, and asked them to think of the dirtiest, foulest word they knew, and tell him. Of course, the kids started spewing all the profanity they knew in an attempt to answer the question (and to shock him), but he just shook his head. “Those words aren’t dirty. You use them all the time. They’re part of your everyday vocabulary. I would say that the dirtiest word you know is ‘poetry.’  Try this tonight for homework: go to five people you know and say ‘I want to talk about poetry’ and tell me how they react tomorrow.” The next day, the kids returned with stories of strange, uncomfortable looks and friends and family making a point to steer clear. I think this story illustrates something important: Poetry isn’t just obscure to most people; it makes people uncomfortable.

So now, having not answered the question in the least, I leave it to you, world:

Is poetry relevant?

In an essay of at least 1 word, defend your position on this issue. This counts as a test grade for the first marking period.


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Adam Knight

Author and Freelance Writer

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