This post is for week 2 in the course “Rhizomatic Learning – The community is the curriculum.” I am not sure why #Rhizo14 is the nickname for it, but so it is.
Question of the week: “How do we enforce independence?”
First, I do have a problem with the notion of enforcing independence. All my training wants to respond with “How do we scaffold independence?”
I have seen second graders who can move unsupervised between work stations in a classroom that looked chaotic to outsiders. But the kids knew what they were doing, what the structure was, and they went cheerfully from one station to another, getting work done. I have seen high schoolers who won’t do any work at all. “I have an F. So what?”
The other day, I asked a middle school student to put away a drawing he was working on. He objected to the term I used. I don’t remember what I called it. I think “drawing.” I took a second look and saw an elaborate, intricately drawn page that looked like a graphic novel. “I apologize,” I said, and meant it. “I can see that it is a personal project and more than a drawing. But I still need to ask you to put it up and spend the next half hour on math.” He sighed and tucked it away to work on math. Before he left at the end of the period, I gave him a sticky note with the author, title, and local library call number for You can Do a Graphic Novel.
If you ever want to do a graphic novel, it’s a great book. It uses the graphic novel format, throughout, to present information. Maybe he’ll use it. Maybe he won’t. But I hope he felt encouraged — he gave me a big grin, anyway.
Most of the things kids want to do are extracurricular. And so many of them — like the graphic novel — really are learning opportunities. They just don’t fit the mold for the day (or the semester, or the year).
That is probably less true for adult learners, who decide a course of study and pursue it. And for people like me, life-long learners, who pursue whatever will’o-the-wisp lures us, well, everything is extracurricular. Or maybe everything is the curriculum. The internet is my school and my playground and my learning sandbox. (Walt Whitman MOOC? Ooh, shiny. The letters of Paul? Sign me up. Robotics? I am refreshing my math knowledge in the Khan Academy first, but I have a fantasy about that Robotics course. Songwriting and digital sound production? I better keep my day job, but I had a blast.) Besides MOOCs, I have been using the internet, and my library, to pursue multiple passions. Real food. Organic farming. Permaculture. Making hand-made felt hats. Knitting. Poetry. Nanowrimo.
But the public school system is my workplace, and it has very specific requirements for students as they progress through each year of schooling. Which brings us to the other topic that arose out of discussions this week.
How we decide what to teach? What to leave out? What is dictated by the system, and what can we decide for ourselves?
ModPo: In the fall of 2012, I signed up for ModPo: Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, taught by Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania on the Coursera platform. Al’s energy, passion and commitment made it the best course I have taken. Anywhere. I worked as hard to complete it as I ever did for a grade, for credit.
One of the frequent questions raised was “Why can’t we read read any ____? Why did you leave out such an important poet?” Frankly, it was really remarkable how many poets Al did pack into twelve weeks. He had a rationale for what he included, and what he left out, and he explained it. And students in the forums did as they pleased — conducted deep and wide ranging discussions bringing in all their favorite poets, as well as those in the official curriculum. It was an incredible learning experience, and it forged a deep community that is still working together, both in ModPo2 and in multiple independent forums. (Who told me about Rhizo14? A ModPo student in a Facebook group.)
Instead of lectures, the course featured seminar discussions between Al and a group of undergraduate TAs. I have been attempting, when I can, to find a way to bring this format into an elementary classroom.
Al liked to claim that he did not have an agenda in the discussions — that they were really open to whatever directions the students took, as the camera rolled. Often, he was surprised and delighted by the students’ insights — both in the taped TA discussions and the forums. But sometimes it was clear that he did have an agenda — there was some particular point he wanted us to get.
What I’ve tried: I have been trying to reproduce the collaborative close reading model for the elementary classroom. I don’t get many chances, because I work as substitute. If I want to teach my own lesson, I have to ask a teacher to let me teach her class for an hour or two. But I did a fifth grade lesson last year, and I am gearing up for an eighth grade lesson soon.
I thought this worked well: I made a list of all the possible places I thought the discussion could go, and questions that might take us there. I introduced them to “Bee, I’m Expecting You” by Emily Dickinson, using a recording of a contemporary song setting for it before we read it. (Bee, by Efrat Ben Zur.)
I started off by asking what their questions were, and dealt with vocabulary and with some sentence structures issues, then asked what poetic devices they already knew and recognized, and used those as a starting point for a discussion. They knew about rhyme and rhythm (though not how to scan), alliteration (but not assonance), personification, simile, and metaphor, and anthropomorphism.
I introduced two new ideas that built on their previous knowledge: 1) a rhyme can be an imperfect rhyme and 2) the entire poem can be an extended metaphor. I could see their faces light up as they got grasped the concept of the extended metaphor, and the discussion became a wide-ranging exchange of ideas on who Bee and Fly might represent, and what the deeper meaning of the poem might be. I wound it up by asking about the mood of the poem — the minor key of the song setting — and talking about how the different elements we had discussed (especially the imperfect rhymes) contributed to the unsettled, haunting, minor key feeling. (This contribution to the lesson came from the teaching of Pat Pattison, Songwriting, Coursera and the Berklee School of Music.)
I had an agenda — some key points I thought they needed in order to see the poem as more than just one more cute animal fable — but I was open to letting the discussion go in different directions as well. The students really dug into it and came up with possibilities that I had not seen.
Well, that was one lesson, with a lot of planning. But I have the idea that it could be carried out a across a whole school year, with a very high level of learner-centered planning and direction.
What I would love to try: Start with poems as “morning work.” This is work that is on every desk when students enter the room. Typically, it is a short math or language worksheet, about a half page. The work is done in the first ten minutes as students get settled in, then is corrected and put away. It takes an awkward transition period and turns it into a routine work time.
It’s not an original idea — I read a brilliant article on it but don’t know where. But the idea was to give students a poem a day all year, asking them to highlight and mark it up. Question mark for questions, underline and star for sections they like, circle words to look up. Then a brief discussion.
At the end of the week, take one of the poems and do a longer discussion. Ask them to write a paragraph at the end of the discussion (keeping an eye on the writing standards for this portion). Build on what the students know. Keep building.
Once the students get excited about poetry, they will start coming to the teacher asking, “Look at this poem I found! Can we do this one next?” Let them!
Every state, and every grade level, has a list of standards — things students are expected to learn by the end of the year. Some of the standards address skills, and some focus on content. Washington State, for instance, expects fifth graders to be able to quote accurately from a text, to determine a theme, compare and contrast two or more characters, determine how the structure of a piece of writing contributes to the whole, determine the meaning of words, phrases, and figurative language, describe how a narrator’s point of view affects how events unfold, and compare and contrast stories in the same genre.
Instead of designing a curriculum around the standards (Today we will learn about metaphors), design it around the writing that students bring to you (Today we will read the poem Evangeline brought us, “Fog,” by Carl Sandburg”). Introduce technical language as needed. Ask students to learn it and use when it is needed.
Keep a checklist of the standards that you expect to cover by teaching poetry. If you use a large sample of poems, you will not only cover them, but go beyond them. Use their writing as evidence that they have met them.
More: Clearly, a teacher can’t meet every reading and writing standard with poetry lessons. But teaching poetry sets a very high expectation for close reading. Why do you think the poet chose that word? How does this simile make you feel? Everyone laughed when I read this — what makes it funny? Why would a poet leave out all the periods? Look, the last line is almost the same as the first line — what effect does that have on the reader? This poem is about spring — and so is the poem we read last week — how are they different?
The excitement — the level of detail — the awareness that a writer’s words are choices — the awareness that the reader, as well as the writer, brings meaning to reading — these understandings should carry through into other genres. And understanding poetic devices carries over into other genres as well. Prose writers also use simile, metaphor, alliteration, assonance, and (in a looser fashion) rhythm.
Finally… what other areas of curriculum can be student led? Where can they make their own choices?
Hey Mrs. Evans, can we do manga this week instead of poetry?