How Poetry Can Change People

In high school, I used to despise expository writing.  I did not like crafting essays or reports analyzing books or moments in history.  I did, however, love creative writing.  I enjoyed writing stories based on the crazy ideas running rampant through my mind.  It was a great escape.  Then, I discovered poetry.  Sure, I had been introduced to the world of stanzas and lines back in elementary school, but it was always taught to me in a formulaic way.  “Write this acrostic poem this one way, following these rules.”  That didn’t work for me.  It felt too restrictive.  In high school, I had an amazing writing teacher who helped me see the freedom in poetry.  She helped me to understand that poetry is like pouring your heart and soul onto the page.  You can expose your true self through figurative language with poetry.  From that moment on, my love affair with poetry has been burning brightly.  I love taking risks and combining words in new and unique ways.  I enjoy being able to twist my perspective to show a memory or idea in a very different way.  I love playing with words to share a part of me with the reader.

As a teacher, I make it a personal goal of mine to help my students learn to see poetry in a similar way.  I want them to see that poetry doesn’t have to be flowery and based in nature.  Poetry can be free, loud, fun, colorful, scary, sad, serious, and so much more.  I want to help my students broaden their perspective on a type of writing that is usually instructed in a particularly constrained manner.

Over the past two months in my Language Arts class, my students have been entrenched in a unit on poetry.  They learned how to interpret poems, use figurative language, craft many different types of poems, and recite poetry aloud.  It was a wonderful adventure filled with laughter, sadness, struggle, failure, and success.  My students dug deep to bare themselves in their pieces.  They took risks and tried new things as they crafted their poems.  A few students struggled to craft some of their poems, but persevered through that adversity to come out on the other side better for having had the experience.  Many of my students loved our lessons on different types of poetry.  They enjoyed listening to examples of various forms of poetry crafted by other gifted and famous poets.  They seemed enthralled by Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky as much as they were with the lyrics from City and Colour’s song Against the Grain.  They really got into our unit.  They utilized a growth mindset and were open to the possibility that poetry could be something they might like.  For many of my students, the highlight of the unit was the final project.  They loved compiling the best of their pieces into a booklet that they then shared aloud with our families and friends in a Poetry Slam this past Thursday.  They really got into reciting their poems.  It was a blast watching and listening to each of them share their poems for the world to ponder.  Check out video of the big event.

This unit brought me much joy as I observed my students putting forth great effort to experiment with a completely different form of writing.  For a few of my students, they had never been exposed to poetry before, which seemed amazing to me, but also heartening, as I knew that they would be like blank slates without any prior knowledge in either a negative or positive way.  I was fortunate enough to go on this often bumpy but beautiful poetic ride with my students.  Some students were blown away by the pieces they had written, as though they had no idea they were capable of such magic.  Other students enjoyed writing poetry so much that they wrote more poems outside of class and then shared them with me.  Amazing!  A few students did get stuck on some of the forms of poetry that we tried.  Acrostic poetry proved challenging for some of my students, as they felt like each line had to be separate.  When I reminded them that when it comes to poetry, rules are meant to be broken, they took a new route to success.  The Jabberwocky-inspired form did bring two of my students much frustration, as they were stuck in thinking that their piece had to be completely made up.  When I reminded them that they could transform a personal story into an epic adventure with some newly minted words, they took a deep breath and jumped into the task headfirst.  Throughout this unit, my classroom felt like a stage upon which my students were the actors in a whimsical musical about life.  As the director, I provided them guidance, but also challenged them to step outside of their comfort zone when singing poems of vacations, lost love, self-reflection, and pets.  It was a hoot.  The Hopkinton Poetry Weekly gave us ****.  “It was a wild ride painted red with words of wonder and awe.”  Kidding aside, this unit was my favorite so far this year because of my students.  They made it enjoyable and memorable.

Examples of Poems My Students Crafted

Space

The sun’s rays dimming,

the stars are getting worried.

They come to help,

but the rays keep getting dimmer

and dimmer.

The plasma

coming to a pause,

The stars

have given up.

Her life

has come to an end.

The stars

have dropped

Their happiness and smiles.

 

Inside My Brain

Why is my teacher so weird?

Why does he try to be funny?

What school will I go to next year?

Why am I so scared about it?

How should I calm down?

Should I take a deep breath?

 

Why am I hungry?

What can I eat?

Where can I get food?

Why do I sound like Brogan?

 

Why do I keep thinking of my teacher?

Is it because I am typing this?

Should I stop typing?

Why is this annoying to me?

What can I do to make it more fun?

Should I think about Christmas?

Would it make it more entertaining?

 

What will I do at soccer practice tonight?

Will we have to do sprints?

Can we do a scrimmage?

 

Why can’t I just go home?

Can I play with my dogs when I get home?

Will I be able to rest?

 

I have so many questions.

It is driving me crazy.

Please.

Someone help!

Ahhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

Abby

When she started dreaming

I realized that everything

She had done

Had resulted in beauty.

But when she walked

And wagged her tail

And cuddled up

On my bed

I realized that I would

Forever be sad

When she dreamed

Foreverly still


To wrap up our poetry unit and pay it the great respect it deserved, this past Friday afternoon, I had the students complete a reflection survey via Google Forms.  I wanted their honest feedback on this unit.  While I may have loved it like Valentine’s Day, did they get out of it what I had hoped?  Were their perspectives broadened?  Do they see the value in poetry?

Here’s what I learned…

“I loved it when we began the unit and I still love it but now I love reciting poems almost as much as creating them.”

“I did not really know what poetry was but now I do and I like it.”

“I feel like a cloud. When I think of a cloud I think light, happy, and I think that it goes the speed it needs to succeed.  That’s what I think of poetry.”

“I thought it was useless and pointless. I thought it was a not needed and lesser form of writing. But now I have been shown the truth. Poetry is a rainbow of emotion: Blue sadness, red rage, yellow happy and more.”

“At first I didn’t think it would be fun but after we finished, it was really fun. I think of it as a fun and creative form of writing as opposed to boring-told-what-to-do writing.”

“I now think of poetry as a way to express your feelings, as in the beginning I thought of poetry just a different way to write and I also thought you could only rhyme.”

I think they got it.  I think my students enjoyed this unit almost as much as I did.  That’s terrifc news.  I’m so glad to know that my students had a fun journey playing with words and bleeding some of their true selves onto the page.  Poetry is such a different form of writing that it can be overwhelming or boring for students.  Perhaps my love of poetry was contagious and allowed me to bring passion to my lessons.  Whatever the cause of this wonderful outcome, I am happy that my students now see poetry in a different, brighter light.


An Ode to My Fifth Graders

Brave and courageous, they live to learn

like unicorns long to be freed from our imagination.

They write with passion,

not afraid to reveal the truth,

unlike most adults who live behind

a mask, unwilling to share their true selves.

They care for each other like family,

and like all great families, there are struggles

but my students persevere and solve their problems

with compassion and kindness.

 

Each day, I awake with happiness and cuiosity

for the wonder and amazement that will

fill my day in the fifth grade.

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The Power of Mindful Meditation

“Hippy hooey nonsense is what that is,” I thought when I first heard about mindfulness techniques being used in the classroom about 10 or so years ago.  How can sitting still, listening, or Yoga help students focus?  That was before I learned all about how our brains learn by taking a neuroscience in education class.  My mind became more open to new ideas when I realized that these hooey techniques were actually based in science.  Perhaps there really is something to this mindfulness stuff, I then thought.

A few years ago, I began researching, specifically, how mindfulness techniques are utilized in classroom settings.  I went to a workshop led by two educators who implemented a mindfulness curriculum in their classes.  Then, I started experimenting here and there with some of these techniques.  They seemed to work.  So, then I went full in.  This year is the first year that I have committed to consistently using mindfulness techniques in the classroom throughout the year.  I started the year by introducing the concept of mindfulness and how it can help.  I then had the students practice a few different forms.  We now begin every other morning during Morning Meeting with a mindful meditation.  We also have a yoga instructor come into the classroom once a month for a different type of mindfulness.  The results have been amazing.

My students note that they are more focused following a mindful activity such as yoga or some form of meditation.  They report being more relaxed and able to be present in the following activity when a mindful practice is completed in the classroom.  They feel as though it helps rid their mind of distractions, including future thoughts or previous experiences from earlier that morning.  They feel recalibrated and ready to learn when mindfulness techniques are utilized in the classroom.

A great example of this at play took place in my classroom last week.  Monday, I devote time during our Morning Meeting for students to share about their weekend activities.  As this takes a good chunk of time, we usually do not begin the day in the classroom with a formal mindful activity.  The two activities following Morning Meeting that day did not go well.  several students were unfocused and the class, as a whole, didn’t seem to be coming together like usual.  What was going on, I thought.  Was it that we did not begin the day with a mindful activity?  Could that have caused these issues?  Most likely, yes.

Then on Tuesday, we closed our Morning Meeting with a mindful meditation activity.  I had the students focus on what they would do to be more focused and on task this morning.  For four minutes, the students sat in mindful poses with their eyes closed, meditating on this topic.  They were still, quiet, and focused for the entire time.  I then had students share out what they will do to stay more focused and in control in the classroom.  The following activity went swimmingly.  The students were all super focused and dedicated to the task at hand.  They revised their poems together very well.  The atmosphere in the classroom was so much more peaceful as compared to the previous day.  Was it the mindful meditation?  I do believe so.

When students are provided the time to focus their thoughts, rid their minds of distractions, and process the information that has been hitting their brains all morning, they are able to be more aware and present in everything that comes next.  Mindful meditation activities like the ones I use in the classroom help students harness their positive and calm energy by ridding their minds and bodies of that negative excitement that may have filled their minds as they got ready for school that morning.  Our lives tend to be so chaotic these days, and so simply taking a moment to reset our bodies and minds is beneficial to us in numerous ways.  Knowing all of this, has allowed me to better support and help my students, while also helping me to become a more mindful educator.

How Empowering Students Leads to Engagement in the Classroom

One of my favorite memories from my experience in elementary school came in the sixth grade.  While my year in the sixth grade was transformational for me in many ways, one project in particular really helped to shape my love of science and plants.  I had Mr. Carr for Science class that year.  He was an older, more experienced teacher who refused to put up with guff from students.  Did I just use the word guff?  How old am I?  Oh well, with age comes insight.  Rather than digressing too far off track, I’ll continue.  So, anyway, Mr. Carr was a cool dude who taught my Science class.  For most of the year, we learned about topics that clearly did not engage me, as I have no recollection of them.  Then came the spring term.  We learned all about plants, ecology, and ecosystems, which, on their own merits weren’t super interesting topics to me; however, it was the culminating project that really did it for me.  As a class, we had to design, build, and plant an outdoor garden in the school yard.  At first, I wasn’t super excited about this project, but the deeper into it I dug, the more engaged and enthusiastic I grew, puns intended.  I spent many of my recess periods outside tending to the garden and setting it all up.  I loved it.  I became so enthralled with gardens and plants, that I spent most of that summer planting a garden near my house.  There was something about getting my hands dirty and helping bring life to things, that really excited me.

If I became excited about learning and doing back then through a garden project, might I be able to inspire some of my students to get pumped about learning if I incorporated a similar project into my curriculum?  Planning my current unit on ecosystems and ecology, I reflected back on my own experience.  Hands-on learning in the form of a project might be just what motivates my students to see the benefit in learning all about how plants grow and develop in their ecosystems.  Plus, a student feedback survey I conducted in mid-December showed that my students like haptic learning experiences.  They like group projects that they can own.  Everything seemed to be falling into place, like seeds in soil.

This is the final project I generated for my unit on ecology, based on my past experiences and the information my students shared with me about how they learn best.

Capture

It felt really good to me.  I was excited to unveil it to my students.  About two weeks ago, my class began working on this project.  After I introduced it, smiles and positive chatter filled the classroom.  They were exhilarated before they even began working on it.  Yes, I thought.  Mission accomplished.  However, that excitement was simply the beginning of the awesomeness.  Because I wanted this project to be completely student driven, during each Science class that is devoted to working on this project, I don’t say a word.  I let the students take charge from assigning roles and jobs to each other to designing the ecosystem, choosing plants, and solving problems encountered.  I don’t interject at all.  In fact, only one student in the class is allowed to ask me questions during the work periods.  I want my students to apply the problem solving skills they have been working on since September.  I want them to self-regulate themselves and their classmates.  I want them to practice compassionate communication.  I want them to think critically about the project and content covered in order to solve problems they face.  After the first work period, they had discussed how they wanted to grow all sorts of berries and flowering vegetables in the garden.  I didn’t remind them that we can’t easily grow flowering plants in the classroom, as we can’t have bees flying around the room.  The next day however, one of the students announced the problem with growing flowering plants in our garden.  Amazing!  They solved their own problem through research, critical thinking, and working outside of class.  I just sit back and observe.  The students run the show.  A few students usually take charge during each work period to remind each other of the goal or task at hand.  Then, they break up into smaller groups and work on designing the indoor garden.  One group works on creating the blueprint while the other group generates a list of materials needed.  They ask each other questions and work together to solve problems.  Each and every student is involved in some way because they want to be.  They are excited about this project.  They love that they are able to choose what they grow and how to build the ecosystem in which these plants will grow.  So far, they have decided upon the basic design of the indoor garden, where in the classroom it will be located, and the plants they want to grow.

IMG_0352

Empowering students to lead the class while providing them with choices and options in how they learn or accomplish a task, leads to great engagement.  The students are excited for Science class now because of this project.  They love that they are in charge.  They hold each other accountable and make sure that everyone is on task.  It’s amazing.  Talk about student-centered learning.  This is it.  Creating opportunities for hands-on learning and student-led projects helps with student buy-in and engagement.  My students won’t soon forget the requirements plants need to survive or how ecosystems thrive because of this project.  They need to fully understand and comprehend the content covered during the beginning of this unit in order to successfully complete this project.  I’m hopeful that my students, like I did as a student, will take memories of their experience regarding this project with them as they continue to grow and develop as young adults, thinkers, ecologists, and humans.  Effectively empowering students truly does lead to student engagement with the content.

Helping Students to Broaden their Perspective on Poetry

As hype for the upcoming Super Bowl has been filling the air waves, Internet lines, and print media in recent days, I thought it might be fun to join in on the excitement and to capitalize on the football fever that has spread throughout my school, as our local New England team will be playing in Sunday’s main event.  It seems as though all sorts of creatures, big and small, have been making predictions about tomorrow’s game.  A famous bear, giraffe, hippo, and dolphin all made their predictions recently.  But, what about a hamster?  I have yet to hear about a hamster predicting the winner of Sunday night’s big bowl.  While hamsters may have a very cool dance, song, video, and toys, they aren’t making headlines for their prognosticating abilities.  Why not?  If a groundhog is able to predict the weather, why shouldn’t a hamster get in on this future telling train?

So, my students and I decided to see what Beans, our class hamster, has to say about all of this.  We arranged a very accurate and scientific experiment Thursday morning on the table in our Maker Space to allow Beans to help us determine which coast was going to be celebrating Sunday evening, East or West?  We wrote the name of each of the two teams onto sticky notes.  We wrote the names in approximately the same place, in the same front, and with the same marker on the notes.  We then placed the sticky notes onto the table at an equal distance from each other and the sides of the table.  We were careful not to skew our test or else our results would be null and void.  Next, we placed 8.5 sunflower seeds onto each of the notes in almost the same place and in the same pattern.  While we’d like to think that Beans would investigate colored paper on his own, without being bribed, we also knew that we did not want to wait hours for our result.  We then placed Beans in, approximately, the middle of the table, and waited for his psychic abilities to take over.  At first, it looked as though he was headed towards declaring the Rams the winner of Sunday’s big game, but then he moved back towards the middle and closer to handing the trophy to the Patriots.  After about a minute, he had chosen the team that he predicts will win Sunday’s Super Bowl.  Surprise filled the air as we witnessed the magic of our hamster and his great mental capacity.  To find out who Beans chose to win the big game, keep reading.

Much like the precision that went into orchestrating this science experiment, I put much effort, time, and energy into every unit, lesson, and activity I use in the classroom.  I want to make sure that my students are provided opportunities to think critically, question the world around them, be creative, and collaborate with each other effectively.  Crafting units is an art form.  Too much teacher talk or educator directed instruction, and the students become quickly disengaged.  Too much freedom, and very little learning happens.  It’s all about striking a balance.  In putting together the unit I am currently in the process of implementing in Language Arts, I was very careful.  Poetry can be a powerful word for many students.  While some students enjoy writing and reading verse, others have become programmed to think it is too difficult or restrictive.  Knowing this, I wanted to be sure that the unit I created allowed for freedom, creativity, a dash of structure, curiosity, and fun.

During the first week and a half of the unit, I never even used the word “poetry.”  Instead, I referred to what we were writing as verse.  The students were engaged.  They loved the stream of consciousness form of writing verse.  They loved trying to make their classmates laugh with their bizarre thoughts and ideas.  It was awesome.  When I did finally explain that what we’d been writing and what we will continue writing for a few more weeks was and is poetry, some of their expressions changed.  Some of the students had smiles on their faces and let out yelps of, “Yes!” Others, however, seemed a bit saddened by this news.  Thinking that this outcome was forseeable, I planned two fun activities to officially kick off our poetry unit.  First, I had the students share their prior experience, knowledge, and feelings on poetry.  What do you know about poetry?  How do you feel about poetry?  The students honestly shared their thoughts in writing and stuck them onto the large paper that hung on the walls of our classroom.  Only one student seemed to very much dislike poetry, while another student was trying to go into this experience with a growth mindset despite not having liked learning about poetry at her past school.  What one student shared with the class, shocked me a bit though.  He said, “My teachers taught me to think of poetry as a useless and unnecessary form of writing.”  Wow, that’s harsh.  I acknowledged his thoughts and shared with him that I hope he is able to, perhaps not see poetry as useless by the end of our unit.  The second activity gave students a chance to let down their hair a bit and get competitive as we dove into the basics of poetry via a fun Kahoot! quiz.  My students love Kahoot and can’t get enough of it, which is why I chose to close the lesson with this sort of engaging and fun activity.  They left the class feeling excited and hopeful for the fun that was sure to follow in the coming weeks.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve introduced several different forms of poetry to my students.  We dug into free verse poetry, which many of my students seemed to thoroughly enjoy.  We then worked our way through the delicate, yet short form of Haiku.  I also had the students practice writing a poem entirely composed of rhyming couplets.  This form, many of them did not particularly love.  However, I feel as though teaching them that rhyming can have its place in poetry is important for them to understand.  Throughout our time learning about these different forms of poetry, the students have been engaged and totally open to trying new things and taking risks.  Even those students who seemed turned off at first by poetry, put forth great effort to craft some amazing pieces.  I have been so impressed by the work they have completed thus far.  Robert Frost and Shel Silverstein are probably smiling in their underground dwellings because of the fantastic lines my students have been creating.  For those students who seem stuck trying to discover a topic on which they could write, I have a magical box of topic ideas from which they can choose.  Although most of the students who have chosen a topic from this box ended up taking a different path in crafting their poem, the ideas allowed their brains the time needed to process this new information and generate the right idea for them.

After each poetry lesson, the students share how much they are enjoying this unit and love writing poetry.  Even though I only required the students two craft one or two of each of the types, several students crafted many more than that.  They loved creating a feeling, conjuring emotion, or setting a tone for readers.  They also enthusiastically loved sharing their poems with the class.  On a few occasions, the student reading was laughing so much about their piece that they were unable to read it aloud without help from me.  That was hilarious.

Although I have been thrilled by how much those students who already seemed to like poetry coming into the unit are enjoying themselves, I find that the best part for me has been watching those few students who seemed to dislike the form come out of their shell and change their mindset.  One student who made it very known that he disliked poetry has been crafting some fine pieces filled with figurative language.  I love it!  That one student who seemed to have been taught to see poetry as an unnecessary topic about which to learn, has realized that his previous teachers were sorely mistaken.  He is loving poetry and sees it as a beneficial form of writing.  He is able to share his thoughts and feelings through his work.  It’s been super fun watching him transform throughout this unit.  A few days ago he sent me an email that said, “So, as you probably have figured out, my old school wasn’t particularly big on poetry.  You however, have opened my eyes to the greatness of poetry.  It seems like an amazing subject and I can’t wait for more!  Just a couple of hours ago I wrote a new poem!  I have been having the most fun that I have had in a while in a school subject.  I have said it once and I will say it again, THANK YOU!”  Wow, was just about all I could say.  While I was certainly grateful for the student taking the time to send me this email, I am so glad that he went into this unit with a growth mindset.  He has a future in writing and poetry.

As poetry is one of those topics in writing that seems to divide a class, as teachers, it is vital that we be mindful and thoughtful regarding how we instruct a unit on poetry.  We need to be respectful of the prior knowledge our students bring to the table, while also providing them ample opportunity to broaden their perspective as they dabble in the stellar writing form.  It is challenging but so rewarding when our students begin to see the other side of life.  Much like how my students are excited for our next poetry lesson now, I am sure that many of you are hankering for tomorrow’s big game.  Who’s it going to be: the Rams or the Patriots?  According to our class hamster, the Patriots will win tomorrow’s battle.  Perhaps he is a magical and wonderful being able to predict the future like my students seem to think.  If so, I’m having him help me pick my lottery numbers.