Seeing the Treasure in the Trash: Creating a Happy Little Social Studies Unit

High school was a time of discovery and exploration.  Don’t worry, I was a friendly explorer, unlike those wretched conquistadors that caused much suffering and death in the name of freedom and exploration.   I was a happy young man in search of new music, friends, movies, love, fun, and garbage.  Yes, that’s right, I was in search of garbage.  Not the band, oh no, not a fan.  I mean actual garbage that people toss away.  You see, it was in high school that I discovered that one person’s, or in this case one company’s, trash, can truly be someone else’s treasure.

Dumpster diving is the act of rummaging through other people’s garbage in search of that special something.  As there was not much to do in the small town of Lebanon, NH, late at night, my friends and I would scavenge through the dumpsters of various companies and organizations that had offices in our sleepy little town.  Although we usually left our nightly excursions with some small trinkets, we never found anything substantial or exciting, until that one night in late July.  There we were, at about midnight, in the middle of summer, literally jumping into this giant dumpster in search of something worthy of our time and effort.  When my friend pulled out a television remote, our excitement began to grow, as we all new what that meant: There was probably a television near by.  Sure enough, when I pivoted and looked behind me, a very large TV stuck out of the pile of battered electronics.  We shouted for joy, softly, so as to not call attention to ourselves in the middle of the night.  I then had one of my friends help me fish that television out of the dumpster and pack it into our car.  While my parents would freak out if I brought a large screen TV into the house, one of my friends ended up bringing it home.  The most interesting part of this whole vignette is that I never found out if he got the television working.  Perhaps it was a dud and deserved to live out its plastic existence in a landfill somewhere, or maybe, it did work.  I like believing that it was a working treasure, that all of our hard work paid off.  I like to think that good things can happen to good people.  To me, that glass will always be overflowing with clean and cold water.


Like my friends and I discovered in high school, if you look long and hard enough, you will find the treasure and beauty in everything, even something that resembles trash.  Luckily, I had the wonderful experience of doing just that, recently.

As one of my professional development summer goals is to revise and retool the social studies unit that I generally use at the start of each academic year, I decided to dig in and give it a shot.  Although I didn’t have a clear idea of exactly what I wanted the unit to look like when finished, I did have some foggy notions swirling about my beautiful brain.  I knew that I wanted to inject an engaging and fun project into the unit, but was unsure of what the journey to that point might look like; however, I forged ahead regardless.  My first iteration of the revised unit felt clunky and disconnected, like a broken television.  While I had added in the project I wanted to include, the unit felt more like a series of separate, unrelated lessons on different concepts or topics.  It lacked flow and life.  It felt like demo tape that a band releases before getting with a producer to craft a polished and brilliant debut album like Pearl Jam’s 10 or Coheed and Cambria’s The Second Stage Turbine Blade.  While it wasn’t yet the beautiful jewel that I had hoped for, it wasn’t simply trash.  The nucleus of its treasure was hidden deep within it, and I just needed to find it.  I needed to change my perspective so that I could transform this awkward unit into something more, something great and engaging.

So, I took a break from it.  I let the unit sit for a few moments and simmer.  I gathered my thoughts and started thinking about what comes next.  How could I alter this unit to make it more meaningful and relevant for my students?  While I see the value in teaching students about the community of which the school is a part, do I need to spend so much time discussing the concept of community?  Could I just jump right into teaching about the town?  How will I then connect the town to the rest of the country?  I did much thinking before I sat down with the unit one more time.  Then, I cut lessons, chopped discussions, added activities, and found a way to bring about cohesion to this unit.  I subtracted the clunkiness to get to the heart of the unit.  I want the students to see how the town of Hopkinton is connected to the state of New Hampshire, and how the state is a part of something even larger, greater.  And, I managed to do just that.

As our country is in the midst of epic turmoil, it is important to me that I empower my students to become agents of change.  I want them to be able to look at the problems facing our great nation and find solutions to them.  I want them to want to foster change within the world.  I want my students to be able to see how important the upcoming presidential election is for our country.  I want my students to be self-aware and know what is going on around our country and world.  I believe that this new unit is just the bridge I need to make my desires come to fruition in the coming school year.

I call this super unit Understanding our Country and it will be divided into three parts.  Part one will focus on the fundamentals of social studies.  The students will learn about what I’ve aptly called the Big Ideas when learning about a new place: Geography, History, Government, and Culture.  I will be sure they understand what each Big Idea represents and the importance it holds.  I will have the students practice applying these Big Ideas as they learn about our fine town.  Once I feel as though they have a firm grasp on these Big Ideas, they will complete an interactive research project on the US.  It is my hope that this project will engage the students and empower them to truly see our country for what it is, full of possibility and wonder.


Expedition USA Project

Introduction

The most effective way to learn about a new place, is to travel to that place and explore it.  While, sadly, Mr. Johnson informed me that we cannot go on a cross-country field trip to explore the great United States of America, even if we wear fun masks and ride in separate train cars, we must do so virtually.  So, let the excellent, virtual, expedition begin!

Purpose

The purpose of this project is two-fold: 

  • Learn more about the great country in which we live through some virtual exploration.
  • Practice crucial study skills including note taking, working with a partner, and using Google Maps.

Part I: Brainstorming

  1. Meet with your assigned partner
  2. Brainstorm ideas
    • Make a list of all the places in the US that you and your partner want to visit
      • You must choose at least 5 different locations around the US to virtually visit:
        • One must be somewhere near the East Coast, Atlantic Ocean
        • One must be somewhere near another country
        • One must be landlocked
        • One must be somewhere near the West Coast, Pacific Ocean
        • One must be a National Park

Part II: Research

  1. For each location you will be virtually visiting, gather online research and take notes on your findings

Part III: Google Maps

  1. Create a New Map in Google Maps that includes the following information:
    • Unique title for your expedition
    • Separate Marker for each location you will virtually visit
      • Details about what you will do while there, in your own words
      • Details about what you will learn while there, in your own words
      • Details about why you want to visit that location, in your own words
      • Picture from your virtual visit, with attribution
    • Lines showing how you traveled from BHS to each location and then back to BHS
      • Details about method of transportation, cost, and time it took
      • Kilometers traveled
      • Picture from your travels, with attribution

Part IV: Presentation

  1. Present your Google Map and expedition to the class

Graded Objectives

Your handwritten notes will be assessed on the following objectives:

  • Students will be able to extract the main idea from an online source in their own words.
  • Students will be able to craft neatly organized notes with separate headings for different sources or topics.

Your finished Google Map will be assessed on the following objectives:

  • Students will be able to paraphrase information learned, in written form, regarding a research topic.
  • Students will be able to utilize the Google Maps app to accomplish a task.

You and your partner will also be assessed on the following objective:

  • Students will be able to collaborate and work with a partner to accomplish a task.

I created this project with lots of wiggle room so that the students can and will ask questions.  I didn’t detail or mandate how the various stages of the project will be completed because I wanted to empower the students to choose.  I want the students to determine how some things are done.  I left the instructions a bit vague on purpose, so that they would be confused and want to ask questions and know more.  Students who are thinking and doing, are learning.

This project will conclude the first part of the unit.  The closing activity will have the students make a list of what they learned about the United States of America in completing this project.  I will again get them thinking in terms of the Big Ideas.  I will have them create a chart showing the Big Ideas that they’ve learned regarding our country.  My hope is that they will notice that they have learned very little about the government and history of the US, as parts two and three of the unit pertain to those Big Ideas.

Part two of the unit will focus on the American Government and will feel very much like a civics unit.  The students will explore the hows and whys of our governmental system.  We will then dig into the big election taking place in November of this year.  We will discuss the political parties in our country and learn about the candidates running for president.  My hope is that during this portion of the unit, the students will be inspired to ask many questions about why things are done a certain way in our country.  I want to provide them with just enough information, that they will want to know and learn more.  I want my students to be curious and wonder.  I want them to question things.  I want them to think freely.  I believe that this part of the unit will get them doing just that.

The final part of the unit will allow the students to learn more about the roots of our culture and history.  Who were the first true Americans?  Were there people living in what we now call the US prior to the Europeans setting foot on the new land?  In this third part of the unit, the students will learn about the native people who took care of and respected this land long before the colonists moved in and took over.  This portion of the unit will conclude with an interdisciplinary project in which the students will research a tribe of Native Americans and then craft a historical fiction story regarding that tribe.  My hope is that this final part of the unit will also inspire the students to ask questions and wonder why things happened the way they did in our country.  I hope that it will empower my students to ask why and also conjure up strong feelings and emotions within them.

I will close the entire unit by having the students fill in any gaps they may have in the Big Ideas chart we started at the close of part one.  Throughout the unit, we will also discuss current events happening in our country.  I want the students to pay attention and be aware of what’s going on around them, as they develop the skill of self-awareness.  I want them to wonder and ask why.  I want to empower my students to see problems affecting the citizens of the US.  I want to get them thinking about possible solutions.  I want to empower my students by providing them with knowledge, information, curiosity, and questions.  I want them to ask why and how.

And that’s the unit.  I structured it this way so that I could create different learning opportunities and activities for the students.  I wanted to find unique ways to teach the crucial study skills they will need to be successful students, as well.  As it is an election year, I want to capitalize on the current event aspect to help them make connections between information learned.  I want this unit to be engaging and fun for the students.  I want to challenge their thinking and broaden their perspectives on our amazing country.  I completely overhauled the unit that I’ve used in past years to make something special and wonderful.


While it took me a few rounds to get to what I have now, I am pleased with the result.  I found the treasure in the trash.  I can’t wait for the new academic year to begin so that I can implement this new unit.  I can’t wait to watch my students explore and wrestle with US maps.  How does this thing fold?  Do I fold it this way or that way?  It will be like watching me try to assemble a piece of furniture I purchased from Ikea, quite the comedy routine.

The entire experience of creating this new social studies unit empowered me to feel like an explorer, charting a course for new lands and information.  I loved sifting through the online research I discovered throughout the process.  Educators have created some amazing units and posted them online for the world to see.  There is a wealth of information out there on our fine country and how to go about teaching students all about it.  This experience did at times bring me back to my dumpster diving days.  Trash or treasure?  Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, my friend.

Is it Vital that we Teach our Students about American Politics?

As a younger fellow, I was not actively engaged in American civics.  Because my parents were not passionate about politics, we did not talk about on going elections or the state of the American government growing up.  I had better things to do when I was a teenager.  I had a job, school, and friends.  I didn’t have time for politics back then, I thought.  As I aged and matured like fine cheese or root beer, I started taking a hard look at the world around me, and cringed.  What is happening to our climate?  What is going on in the White House?  I started paying attention and then became enraged and a bit upset.  As the popular bumper sticker from the 1990s reads, “If you’re not angry, then you’re not paying attention.”  As I magically transformed into a caring and empathetic adult, I began to understand what that quote really meant.  If you just look around, you will see the world for what it truly is, unfair and unjust.  As I gently ripped the rose-colored glasses from my eyes, I started to become more interested in politics.  I started paying attention to elections and who was running for political office.  I began to exercise my civic responsibility and became one of those people the founders of our country wrote about in the Constitution.  The people are the ones with the real power.  We need to voice our concerns and speak up.  We need to educate ourselves on the political process and vote.  We need to be the change makers in our country.  As I started paying attention to American politics, I became passionate about something.  I looked at my role as a citizen in this country as something important.  I’m a cog in this machine.  I need to be sure that my views, thoughts, and opinions are heard.  I will no longer stand in the darkness of ignorance and apathy, in what some Americans spend their entire lives.

As passion for our world and the way in which it works filled my soul, I started to realize that as a teacher, I need to use my power for good.  I don’t want my students living in the shadow of doubt and apathy, as I did for too long.  I want to spread the passion that I have to others.  I want my students to understand how our government works.  I want them to see that as citizens of this great country, we all have a civic duty to be sure that our country is operating the way in which we would like to see it operate.  I want my students to grow curious about politics and crave more knowledge.  I want them to pay attention to the world around them so that they can make a difference.  As the future leaders of our country, I want my students to begin to gain passion for making a difference and taking charge of how our government does business.  I want my students to begin to see the power in caring earlier than I did.

To help inspire my students to care and want to learn more about American politics, we discuss current events in our class every Friday afternoon.  We talk about what’s going on in the world around them.  I encourage them to talk to their families about these issues as well.  My goal is for my students to begin to form their own opinions on issues like the environment, education, and equality.  I share background knowledge with the students during these conversations so that they understand the why of what is going on.  The students also share their thoughts on the current happenings in our world.  I attempt to make these topics and this weekly block of time seem vital and necessary so that they begin to care about current events as well.  I want them to watch or read the news, talk to others about issues in the news, and research current events to gain multiple perspectives.  As we are more than halfway through the academic year at this point, students will come to school and share information about current events that they learned about on their own.  It’s so cool.

As the Primary Election process has already begun with the completion of the interesting Iowa Caucuses taking place this past Monday, I wanted to take the opportunity to help my students understand the election process, political parties, and the candidates running.  Although they can’t vote, I want them to wish they could.  I want to foster a sense of passion within my students regarding politics and government.  So, yesterday morning, I seized the opportunity to educate my students on the election process in our country.  I gave them a general overview of how presidential elections are conducted in America.  We then viewed and discussed a short video detailing the difference between conservative and liberal political ideologies.  We talked about the two major political parties in our country.  I made sure to leave my biases out of this discussion.  I didn’t share my political views with the students during these discussions.  I really wanted to be sure that they learned accurate and unbiased information regarding this big issue of American politics.  The students asked many questions regarding the big differences between Democrats and Republicans.  They were really trying to wrap their minds around big government vs little government.  I could see the wheels turning inside the brilliant minds of my students.  It was so awesome.  They were very curious.  We could have kept the discussion going all morning long.  They wanted more information, which was exactly the outcome I was hoping for.  I wanted them to be curious and desire to learn more about this huge topic.  I then shared brief biographies on each of the major republican and democratic candidates running for president in the Primary Election.  I used the NH PBS Website for information on the candidates.  It provided super background information on each of them.  At that point, my class participated in the NH PBS Mock Election.  I reminded the students to think carefully about their party affiliation.  Which ideals and thoughts do you most agree with?  What matters to you?  Do you want more governmental control or less?  My students chose their political party and then cast their vote.  They seemed so excited to participate in this wonderful Mock Election.  As I explained the gravity of this momentous event, they were so engaged.  “Our vote matters?” they wondered.  During snack, the students spent the entire period discussing their thoughts on the two major political parties and for whom they voted.  It was awesome to see them so interested and excited about American politics.

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As pride and excitement filled my body and soul yesterday morning watching my students engage the process of American Democracy, I wondered how many other teachers are helping their students understand American politics and how the American government functions.  My hope is that all teachers are helping inspire their students to find their passion in politics.  I hope that all students leave school a bit curious for more information on this hot-button topic.  I hope that teachers don’t avoid teaching this subject because it is often considered controversial.  I hope that teachers are engaging their students in discussions on politics and government.  I hope that students are looking around their world wondering how they can bring about change and make tomorrow better than today.  I hope that future generations of Americans will see that as citizens of this wonderful country, we are in charge.  We have the power to elect officials to represent us and our ideals.  We have the power to foster change.  I hope that schools around the country are helping students see that we all have the awesome responsibility to make America the most caring, accepting, diverse, and environmentally conscious country for all people and living organisms.  I hope that students are attending schools in which they tackle big issues like politics head on so that future generations of citizens feel empowered and passionate about making our world a better place for all.  All schools need to teach civics and talk about current events in our world so that our students will be able to grow into the most effective global citizens possible.

The Power in Holding Students Accountable

Fourth grade was a challenging year for me as a student.  I felt like I was on an emotional roller coaster.  Some days were better than others.  I hated school on some days, but then loved it on other days.  In retrospect, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to what caused good days vs the bad ones.  At this same time, I also struggled being able to see well.  I didn’t want to tell my parents because that meant that I would need glasses.  Back in the 1980s, if you wore glasses, you were labelled a geek and picked on mercilessly.  Life was already hard enough for me, and so I just rode it out.  I sat in the back of the class, straining to read anything the teacher had written on the blackboard.  I didn’t have many friends back then either.  Life was tough.  Despite all of these big things going on in my life, one of the most vivid memories from my year in fourth grade was when my teacher held me accountable for not doing my work.  Here’s the story…

It was a mid-Autumn, Monday afternoon.  I had just gotten off the bus near my house and walked home.  The sound of crunching leaves echoed throughout the neighborhood as children ran to their homes.  After using the restroom and having a delicious snack, my mom made me sit down and do my homework.  While I was never a big fan of homework, looking back on how my parents addressed it, I appreciated the structure as it helped mold me into a strong student.  My homework was a spelling worksheet.  I hated spelling, but I was good at it.  So, I whipped through it quite quickly.  As I finished the worksheet, my mom rushed my sister and I out of the house for some sort of family thing.  My memory of the specifics regarding what we were doing isn’t quite as strong as the rest of this story, but we had something to do that prevented me from putting my worksheet into my backpack.  We then got home very late that evening.  I went to school the next day, not having put my spelling worksheet into my bag.  So, when my teacher asked for us to hand in the worksheet, I didn’t have mine.  My consequence was detention that evening.  I was mortified.  I went to the bathroom and cried.  I then had to go to the office and call my parents to tell them to pick me up later.  It was an incredibly traumatic experience that ingrained within me the importance of being prepared and organized.  From that day forward, I never missed another assignment.  The moral of the story is that being held accountable taught me a valuable lesson.

As a teacher, I see the power in holding students accountable.  If a student doesn’t complete work to demonstrate their ability to meet an assessed objective, there needs to be some sort of consequence or repercussion so that he or she learns the value in completing a task.  If students are able to get away with not completing work, even if they don’t pass the course, will they ever truly learn the skill of follow-through?  In my class, if a student doesn’t complete a task, assignment, or project, I work with him outside of class during his free time to be sure he completes the work or is able to meet the objective being graded.  In order to be sure that I am properly preparing my students for the next grade, I need to do my job and equip them with the appropriate and necessary skills.  Every assignment or learning task is important to me, as I assess their ability as students.

In Humanities class yesterday, my students participated in a fun and engaging Poetry Slam, as they turned in their final Poetry Book for the unit.  The students had a blast reciting their poems aloud to the group in a unique manner.  Many of my students even chose to don the beanie hat I have as a prop.  While they read and listened to some amazing pieces of creative poetry, they enjoyed some tasty treats with which I provided them.  It was a very special activity, as they worked very hard to complete this difficult task of revising their poems and putting them together in an organized and aesthetically pleasing way.  Laughter filled the room as the boys shared their poems with their classmates.  The students got into character, altered their voice, walked around the room, used hand gestures, and had fun reading their phenomenal verses aloud to the class.

Prior to Friday’s due date for this project, I told the students that those who don’t have their final Poetry Books completed according to the requirements and ready tor turn in by the start of third period on Friday would be unable to participate in our festive Poetry Slam in class.  The boys were very aware of the learning task, due date, and consequence for failing to complete the assignment on time.  All but two students were ready and prepared for class on Friday with their Poetry Book finished and turned in.  Before we got into our Poetry Slam, I had those two students exit the room to work on the task that they did not finish.  While one of the students tried to debate that he did actually have his Poetry Book finished, I reminded him that it wasn’t completed according to the requirements listed via the learning portal.  Those two students missed our super fun, engaging, and enjoyable Poetry Slam to complete work that should have been finished outside of class.

While they missed the tasty snacks and humor that ran rampant through the room during our final Poetry Slam, I’m hopeful that those two students learned a lesson in time management.  In life, if you don’t complete something according to the due date, you are penalized.  If you fail to renew your license prior to its expiration date, you could face a stiff fine or penalty.  To prepare my students to live meaningful lives in a global society, they need to understand how the world works.  By holding my students accountable and doling out consequences for not completing work on time, I am helping to teach them a valuable lesson that will serve them well in the future.

Helping Students Change Their Perspective

It’s story time…

Once upon a time in the land of green and white, there lived a class of sixth graders.  They were a little feisty, slightly stinky, and wonderful in all the right ways.  The only problem was their perspective.  It was always so stuck in the mud like a pig or Artex from The Never Ending Story.  Whenever their amazingly gifted and ruggedly handsome teacher taught them something new, they put on a stern face and said, “We hate this topic and we are never going to like it.”  However, once they began learning that something new, their attitude began to change.  They started to like that thing they once hated.  No matter what the new subject was, they always started out with a negative mindset, until the learning actually began.  It was like watching reruns of Mash, at first you’re like, “Oh, this show is so old, I can’t possibly like it,” and then after you start watching an episode for a few minutes you’re like, “OMG, this show is hilarious.  I love Hawkeye.”

Okay, I’m done telling my story, but wait, it has no ending.  Every story needs a happy ending.  So, here is mine…

Then, one day the sixth grade class was outside exploring the Forbidden Forest of Doom when they happened upon a uni-chaun, which is a cross between a unicorn and a Leprechaun for those not in the know.  The uni-chaun jumped for joy when it saw the sixth grade class and their broad-shouldered teacher, and said, “Yah!  I am now free.  Thank you so much for finding me.  I can grant you one wish before I fly away.  What would you like?”  So, the sixth grade class thought long and hard about their wish, and responded, “We would like to have rainbow-colored wings so that we can fly wherever we want.”  And so, the uni-chaun granted their wish and gave every member of the sixth grade class, including their witty and wise teacher, rainbow-colored wings.  Then, the sixth grade class flew off into the sunset.  THE END.

So that’s it.  That’s my story, which serves as the inspiration for today’s blog post.  You see, over the years, I’ve found that many of my students come into a particular topic or subject area with a very fixed and closed mindset.  For whatever reason, they don’t like math, science, poetry, or some other topic; however, by the end of the unit, activity, or course, they change their tune and seem to like that which they once despised.  It’s always been a bit perplexing to me, but something that I’ve grown to accept in my years of teaching sixth grade.

Recently, my students have been learning about poetry in my Humanities class as part of our larger unit on Figurative Language.  When I first introduced our mini-unit on poetry, complaints and sighs filled the room like mold on bread.  “I hate poetry.  It’s so boring,” were some of the statements made by my students.  Then, we got into the heart of it.  I taught them how to craft Haikus, Sonnets, Epic, and Free Verse Poems.  I shared examples of great poems with them.  They began writing their own poems.  I explained how poetry isn’t fixed and is open to interpretation.  Rules are meant to be broken, I told them.  I let them explore words and lines as they learned the ins and outs of the poetic form of writing.  And of course, as always is the case, they started to enjoy poetry.  They had fun writing poems.  They liked listening to poetry read aloud.  They loved reading their original poems aloud to the class during our weekly Poetry Slams.  Their disdain for this personal form of writing seemed to drift away like gas after a student farts in the classroom.  As they realized that what they thought they knew about poetry was only a tiny sliver of the actual truth, their perspective began to change.  They started to see poetry as fun and exciting.  They looked forward to learning about new forms of poetry.  They couldn’t wait for our next Poetry Slam.  And they begged me to read more of our class read-aloud novel written in verse.  They have begun to truly love poetry.  It’s amazing.

Today in class, after the students had spent the period working on revising some of their poems, I had some of the boys share how they have grown as poets over the course of our time learning about poetry.  It was through their words that I started to see how it just takes time for people to see all sides of something, including the good and the bad.  While for many of the students, their past experience with poetry was negative and perhaps a bit stereotypical, they have now been able to see it from a different perspective.  They now see how poetry is more than just “pretty” words strung together in short lines.  Poetry is truth.  Poetry is fun.  Poetry is personal.  Poetry is easy.  Here are some snippets of what they shared with me in class this morning…

“I used to not like poetry because I thought it was boring or confusing.  Then I started to realize that it’s fun writing poetry when you use figurative language.  My lines now mean something more than just what the words suggest.”

“I thought poems were just about nature and stuff.  I didn’t realize you could write a poem about Abraham Lincoln or how life changes.  I liked learning about different poems and trying to figure out what they meant.”

“I liked how we could break the rules of grammar and writing when typing our poems.  I could choose to use a comma or not, and I didn’t get in trouble.”

“I liked how short the poems could be.  Haikus were really short and didn’t take long to write.”

“I used to not like poetry because there were so many rules about syllables, lines, and rhymes.  Then I realized that I didn’t have to follow all of the rules if I didn’t want to.  I really liked the freedom we had in writing our poems.”

Clearly, my students learned a lot about poetry throughout our unit as their perspectives changed quite a bit.  It’s nice to know that my students will be moving onto seventh grade enjoying poetry and seeing a new side of this form of writing that used to send shivers down their spines.

An Ode to My Sixth Grade Class in Haiku Form

My sixth grade students

are silly and stinky and

like learning new things

Inspiring Curiosity and Critical Thinking

In this incredibly digital world in which we live, people can find answers to questions plaguing them faster than I can say the word pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.  When we want to know something, we whip out our smart phone or computer and Google it.  We live in a world of instant gratification.  People are so used to getting what they want when they want it, that they struggle to be patient or think critically to determine the answer to their questions on their own.  This has really done a number on this current generation of students in our schools around the world.  They seem to have the attention span of Dory from Finding Nemo.  They are greatly challenged by having to locate their own answers or information.  Rather than think about a topic or question, they’d rather just go online and find the answer in mere seconds.  This fixed and impatient mindset is creating students who can’t think for themselves.  They can’t solve their own problems, as they rely on technology to do it for them.  This is a serious issue.

As teachers, we need to combat this problem in the classroom.  We need to help our students learn to think critically and creatively in order to solve their own problems, without Google.  We need to teach students about the powerful mental technology available to each of them in their skulls.  We need to help them understand how their brain works so that they know of what they are capable.  We need to empower our students to be mindful and take the time necessary to process information or a problem so that they can construct a viable solution.  We need our students to learn how to be self-reliant so that when the robots take down the power grid one day, they will be able to survive and save the world from robot-mageddeon.

I foster an atmosphere of creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving in my classroom by inspiring my students to ask questions, formulate hypotheses, and think for themselves.  I began the year by teaching the students about their brain and how it works.  They learned about the power of perseverance, mindfulness, and growth mindset.  I also challenge them to draw their own conclusions and support them with evidence that they find on their own.  I usually respond to their big questions with further questions.  I don’t want to be the personification of Google, and so I inspire them to determine the answer to their own question.  When students realize what they can do on their own, the world becomes their oyster.  They see all of the possibilities that exist when their eyes are opened to deep thinking and self-awareness.  It’s truly amazing.

Today in my Humanities class, we continued reading and discussing the wonderful play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose.  Throughout the period, I posed some questions to them, but then offered them the opportunity to ask any questions they had.  The boys asked some insightful questions about the homework and play.  One student asked if the rain storm began directly following the first climax of the story or at a later time, while another student asked if he needed to include information in his notes on both the characters’ motivation and background as they are one in the same.   Awesome!  They were really reflecting on and thinking about the play as a work of literature and figurative language.  I was so impressed.

Another way I work to challenge my students to become curious is by limiting the number of questions asked in class.  As my school utilizes 40-minute periods, that is nearly not enough time to really delve into a topic.  So, I just don’t have time in class to address or answer more than a few questions.  By not calling on every student who raises their hands, I promote independent learning.  The students generally leave class wanting to know more, and so some of them will do research outside of class, on their own, to answer their questions or ask me questions after class has ended.  They are curious and want to know more.  I love it.  I’m whetting their appetite for knowledge by not simply answering all of the questions my students have during class.  Rather than spoon feed my students information or answers to questions, I like to inspire creativity and curiosity.  I want my students to wonder about the world around them.  What causes this to happen?  Why does that happen?  As they wonder, make observations, ask questions, and get curious, they begin to learn and make strong neurological connections in the brain.  This sense of curiosity being instilled within my students will help to combat the drawbacks and distractions caused by digital and portable technology.

Grading Rubrics Not Required

Picture this… It’s Christmas morning.  You wake up super early, filled with excitement and glee.  What did Santa bring you this year, you wonder as you leap from your bed.  You run downstairs to check out all of the awesome gifts the jolly man in red left waiting for you under the tree.  It’s that remote-control car you asked for.  Yes!  You tear into the box and attempt to extract it.  Unfortunately, it is screwed down.  So, you ask your parents for help.  After hours of trying to find the only screwdriver in the house, they finally manage to pull the car and remote from the box for you.  Your eyes sparkle like waves in the blue ocean.  You can’t wait to play with your fancy new car.  You try to turn it on when realize that it requires batteries.  You scream to your parents that you need 16 AA batteries for the car and remote.  Sadly, they respond, “We only have four AA batteries.  You’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”  Tomorrow?!  You can’t wait until tomorrow to take your new car out for a test ride.  You need to do it today.  So, you scavenge the house for batteries.  You take two from the television remote, two from the VCR remote, and two from each of the four smoke detectors in your place.  You now have enough batteries.  Let’s just hope that nothing catches on fire in the next few days.

Ahh, the good ol’ days of needing an excessive amount of batteries for everything.  While you always seemed to have batteries when you didn’t need them, you never had them when you did need them.  Although times have changed, many other things haven’t.  We still need batteries for almost everything, you still shouldn’t walk home alone, and remote-control cars are still super fun to play with, no matter how old you are.

Like remote control-cars need batteries, teachers have always thought that every graded assignment or project should include a grading rubric to guide students through the task.  “How will the students know what to do unless we tell them exactly what is expected of them?  We need to force feed them everything.  Students can’t think for themselves.  We need to take thinking out of the equation.”  And this line of thinking is exactly what has led to such a decline in American students going onto become engineers, mathematicians, or scientists.  If we want students to think critically, creatively, and learn to become problem solvers, we need to empower them to do the thinking.  Rather than explain in great detail what they need to do to meet an objective, we should provide the students with a very brief outline of a task or project and allow them to figure out the specifics on their own.  This way, they will learn to ask questions and think outside the box when working toward mastery in a particular area.  Unlike how the world still needs batteries, schools and learning don’t still need grading rubrics.

In my Humanities class today, I introduced the final project for our foray into poetry.  I made no rubric for this project, but instead created a simple outline of the requirements.

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I introduced the project to the students by going over this outline.  I then fielded the numerous questions the students had, which I had hoped they would.  By not providing them exact parameters on how to meet or exceed the three graded objectives, they have to think about what they will need to do to solve the problem.  This contemplation leads to questions, which I love because then I know they are the ones doing the learning.  They asked lots of clarifying questions, which I joyfully answered.  They even asked questions that I didn’t even think they would ask.  I love how my students continue to surprise me daily.

By not having a detailed rubric for this project, I’ve put the ownership and learning on the students.  Am I worried about the outcome?  No, because I’ve created an atmosphere of compassion, learning, and challenge in my classroom.  My students put great effort into meeting and exceeding every objective because they know it’s the right thing to do.  They work hard because they want to and see the benefit in doing so.  They are motivated because of the family spirit I’ve worked very hard to create in the classroom.  They don’t need me to explain and spell out every aspect of how to meet or exceed each of the three graded objectives, because they want to do well to exceed them, and will, therefore, do whatever it takes to solve problems encountered or address questions that arise, on their own.  Students who want to do well, will do well with or without a grading rubric.  Why waste my precious time as a teacher and steal their creativity and thinking by crafting a rubric for every project?  That just doesn’t make sense to me.

After this short preview of the project, I let them get to work on editing and revising their Haiku and Sonnet poems.  This is the point when I saw, firsthand, how unnecessary grading rubrics are when you foster a sense of challenge and can-do-ness in the classroom.  Some of the students revised their poems on their own, while others worked with a table partner to edit and revise their work.  They coexisted in such meaningful ways, helping to make their partner an even stronger and better poet.  It was amazing.  Those students who worked independently, took the time to carefully comb through every word and line of their poems to make sure that they included figurative language and really painted the perfect image in the mind of their readers.  I was so impressed.  One student who had quickly thrown together the sloppy copy of his Haikus a few weeks ago, took the time to make them meaningful, relevant, and brilliant.  He changed words and added new meaning and dimension.  Wow!  Other students wanted to challenge themselves one step further by crafting all new poems.  They wanted to be sure that they displayed their growth as a poet over the course of this unit, and utilized all of the tricks, tips, and strategies learned to craft new, better poems.  It was so much fun to watch and observe the students working.  The positive energy in the room was palpable.  The boys were having fun revising their work and growing, right in front of my eyes, as writers and poets.  And, they didn’t need a grading rubric to tell them to do this.  They just did so because that’s what we do in my classroom.  The bar of excellence is set high so that they are constantly able to grow and challenge themselves as learners.

I’ve realized, throughout my research into grading rubrics this year, that they are an old technology.  Teachers no longer need to provide their students with grading rubrics.  Instead, great teachers inspire their students to ask questions, think creatively, and solve their own problems so that they learn to become critical thinkers who can tackle any problem encountered.  So, my advice to you all is to ditch the grading rubrics and turn the learning over to your students.

How My Students Helped Put Things into Perspective for Me

The word perspective is very much like a Transformer.  Yes, I mean those really cool robots in disguise.  What does a word have to do with a toy, you’re probably asking yourself.  My simile is much more figurative in nature than literal, of course.  Although words can have alternative meanings when used in particular situations, their spelling or phonetic composition doesn’t change.  So, here’s where I’m going with this comparison…  While artists view the word perspective one way, teachers of the humanities look at it through a very different lens; however, the nucleus or core meaning stays the same, much like Transformers.  Optimus Prime was a compassionate and kind being in robot and vehicle form.

Whether we’re using the word perspective to discuss the vantage point of a piece of art or how one views the world, it comes down to view point and how one is looking at something.  My view of the world most likely greatly differs with how you all see the world around us and happenings within it.  The same is true of artists, how one painter chooses to create an image for the viewer will be different than how another artist approaches the same task.  Perspective is open to interpretation.  It’s a personal word.  While it’s something we all posses regarding many different topics, it’s different for each person.  Our experiences, history, culture, and language all shape our perspective of the world in many different ways.  Despite these differences though, just like Bumblebee, we all jump into each new adventure life throws at us armed with our perspective, and charismatic wit.

In my Humanities class, Saturdays are devoted to discussing current events in our world.  As our students are the future of our world, it’s important that they are equipped with all of the necessary knowledge to move our world forward and live meaningful lives in a global society.  In order to make decisions in the future, our students need to understand their past and what led to the current state of affairs.  Learning about what’s going on in the world outside of the walls of our school not only broadens our students’ perspective, but it is vital to the success of our students and our world.  If the future leaders of our globe don’t understand how the leaders of North and South Korea came together for a common good, then they may not know how to approach a situation involving the countries or solve problems plaguing that region of the world.  Therefore, I make sure to educate and inform my students about major news events happening around the world.  Although I only give them the Twitter-ized summaries of news stories, I help to foster fruitful discourse amongst my students so that they learn how to view the world through a critical eye in order to solve problems creatively.  I provide my students with the facts and then let them analyze and infer.  What does all of this mean?  How is this story news and relevant to the world?  What can be done to address or solve this problem?  How does this story impact and affect me now and in the future?  To be sure that my students will indeed live meaningful and compassionate lives in our world, it’s important for them to see the world through many different lenses.  They need to see all sides of a story, fact, or current event in order to make informed decisions or draw appropriate conclusions.  I want my students to be like the word perspective itself, adaptable and flexible for every situation, much like a Transformer.

Yesterday during our current events discussion in my Humanities class, we talked a bit about the interesting and provocative quote recently uttered by the musician and artist Kayne West.  “When you hear about slavery for 400 years … for 400 years?” he said. “That sounds like a choice.”  I tried to frame the crux of his statement in a way that would allow my students to draw their own conclusions.  I never want to paint my students into thinking one way or another.  I try to create an open dialogue, free of bias and my own opinions.  So, I didn’t tell my students what I thought about his words, but instead, tried to inspire them to think about them.  Was slavery a choice for black people in America?  Why might Mr. West think that?  As we dug into this story for a brief moment, an international student in my class from Europe asked, “What is slavery?”  So, I used ESL-friendly language to describe what the term means, for this student.  He got it, from my explanation.

This reminded me of what I’ve noticed over the years teaching students from numerous different countries around the globe: They don’t know about slavery because it didn’t happen where they are from.  While all countries have their own sordid stories and histories of how they came to be, most countries in Asia and Europe didn’t experience this same kind of racial slavery and degradation.  The first time I realized that this big, important chunk of American history is so foreign to outsiders, I was perplexed.  How can they not know about something as big as slavery?  Slowly, I started to see that it wasn’t that they didn’t know about it, they just couldn’t wrap their minds around it.  It didn’t make sense to them.  Why would one race of people enslave and mistreat, for so many years, another race of people?  This kind of horrible abuse didn’t necessarily happen in these other countries, or at least not in a racial manner.  They couldn’t fathom how America and its people could allow for such atrocities to take place.  The country was founded by people who fled their former homes in search of freedom, peace, and fairness.  So, why were those same people robbing other humans of their freedom, peace, and fairness because of the color of their skin?  It just doesn’t make sense to many people from other countries learning about American history.  This epiphany helped to open my eyes to a whole new perspective and view on the world.  Just because I understand and know something, doesn’t mean that everyone else has that same perspective.  My viewpoint on the world is very different from that of someone from a different country.  Knowing this, has allowed me to approach the teaching of big events in a more open, broad manner.  Rather than spewing out facts to the students, I pose questions and try to generate empathy for the people involved.  Teaching about slavery is not an easy undertaking for any teacher, but is one that can be interesting to teach to people not from America.

So, once again, my students helped me to broaden my perspective and see the world in a more open and real way.  Nothing should ever be taken for granted, especially facts or the rights afforded to all human beings, regardless of the color of their skin, religious preference, or any other difference that makes someone special and unique.  My students reminded me of this once again in class yesterday.  I often wonder who the teacher in the classroom truly is, me or my students.

How Can We Most Effectively Engage ALL of Our Students in the Learning Process?

Engagement seems to be a catch phrase in the education world these days.  How can we most effectively engage our students in the classroom?  Numerous books have been written on the subject, while teaching conferences around the world have engagement as their theme.  Why does does it seem that all of a sudden we now need to care about student engagement as part of the learning process?  Why now?  This seems like a common sense strategy that great teachers should have always been using.  The most meaningful learning happens when students are engaged in what they are learning about.  So then, why does it seem that my email inbox is constantly inundated with email blasts about new books and articles written on how to effectively engage students in the classroom?  Why isn’t this idea and topic covered in colleges or teacher preparation programs around the country?  Why does it seem that student engagement is the new hot topic or trend in teaching?

While engagement has always been a concern for teachers, because times and our society have changed so much in the past two decades, what we as educators learned or know about how to engage students in the classroom has changed and evolved.  Our world has changed.  Technology has changed.  Engaging students now isn’t anything like it was when I was a student.  The children of today are different.  Their attention spans have grown incrementally smaller in size due to technology, movies, television, and video games.  Engaging the students of today is much different than it was when I was a student in school.  I used to be able to focus and pay attention to teacher-directed instruction for thirty minutes to an hour when I was in sixth grade.  Now, our students struggle to stay focused or on task for more than ten minutes.  Student engagement is a whole new beast because of all of these changes that have taken place.  Staying current with and abreast of research and information on how to effectively engage students in the classroom is crucial for teachers.  We need to know how to best support and challenge all of our students in this “Brave New World” in which we live.

The issue that I often struggle with in the classroom is engaging all of my students, all of the time.  How can I best support the ELLs in my classroom while also challenging the more advanced students?  Sure, differentiation works well for this, but if I’m teaching a mini-lesson for the entire class on a topic, how can I most effectively reach and engage all of my students?

Today in my Humanities class, I introduced the concept of Epic Poetry.  I began the lesson with a class discussion regarding what the students think they know about this form of poetry.  Several students made some great hypotheses based on simply interpreting the word epic.  A few of the boys even drew connections from the previous forms of poetry studied to epic poetry.  That was pretty neat.  We then read and discussed excerpts from two great epic poems of long ago.  This was when the issue of student engagement popped up.

As I work to engage all of my students, all of the time, I try to call on students who seem disengaged, distracted, or bored in class when something needs to be read aloud.  So, I called on two students, who seemed to not be paying attention during our mini-lesson on Epic Poetry today, to read a stanza from one of the epic poems we studied.  As these two students happen to be ELLs, they faced great adversity when reading the lines aloud as they were filled with large vocabulary words and strange names from ancient Greece.  It took the boys several minutes to get through each stanza, as they had to sound out almost every word and stumbled over every other word.  I heard a sigh from one of the other students in the class during this time.  He was clearly frustrated that this process of reading the poem aloud was taking so long.  While my goal was to keep everyone focused by helping to redirect distracted or disengaged students, I ended up creating an atmosphere of disengagement in the classroom.  How can I best engage all of my students without taking away or distracting from anyone?  During a lesson like this, what’s the best way to help keep everyone focused, engaged, and involved in the learning process?

  • As I was mindful and living in the moment, I was able to react to what was happening this morning.  To help remedy the situation, I read the second poem aloud so that I could emphasize word choice, flow, and meter.  This choice refocused those students who seemed a bit distracted when their peers were reading the poem aloud.
  • What if I had the students read the poems independently, making written observations.  This way, those students who read and comprehend at faster rates could move onto our class Things to Do When Done list while waiting for their peers to finish.  Also, it would allow me to individually support and help those struggling readers in the class.  We could have them come back together as a class to discuss their noticings and observations.  Perhaps this method would have been more fruitful.
  • What if the students had read the two poems together with their table partner, engaging in a conversation about what they noticed and wondered?  Would that have been a more effective way to introduce the epic form of poetry to the students?
  • What if I had read both poems aloud to the class?  While that would have helped that one disengaged student who sighed during class, would it have kept my disengaged ELLs focused?

As the students will be analyzing two poems tomorrow in class, I will try having them work with a partner to read and analyze each poem on their own first, before discussing them altogether as a class.  I hope that this approach will foster more engagement from the students.  We can spend the class discussion focusing on analyzing the poems and not reading them together in a way that might create disengagement.  I feel good about this new idea, but I still wonder, is it the most effective way to engage all of my students?  As of late, I have been interested in the concept of student motivation and I feel as though student engagement is directly connected to it.  I’m hoping to glean some data from tomorrow’s lesson that will help me find new ways to motivate and engage all of my students in the learning process.

How John Tesh Helped Me to Help my Students

So, I have a confession to make.  It’s a pretty big one, and may change the way the world sees me.  While I don’t hide this fact from others, I don’t often throw it into regular conversation either, and so, I totally understand if you choose to unfollow me after the big reveal.  Here goes nothing…

I like listening to the John Tesh Radio show on a local radio station in my area.

Crazy and strange, I know.  You’re probably asking yourself, how can you listen to a Top 40 easy listening radio station when you like Coheed and Cambria, Slipknot, and City and Colour?  The truth is, I do change the channel during the music portion of the show and generally only listen to the John Tesh parts.  I mean, he gives great advice on intelligence for your life.  I’ve learned a lot of really cool, and sometimes, gross facts from Mr. Tesh.  For example, remember those fun bath toys we used to play with as kids while we bathed in our own filth?  They are full of nasty germs and stuff including viruses, bacteria, and things that can get you really, really sick.  Perhaps that’s why I was often sick as a child?  Think about it?  Did you play with those squirty bath toys or rubber duckies as a child while bathing?  Did you get sick?  The two are clearly connected.  Anyway, that’s just one of the numerous fun facts that I’ve learned from listening to his show over the years, I mean months.  While this Earth shattering news on Earth Day of all days is quite disturbing, I hope that you can find it in your hearts to understand why I do what I do when I’m not teaching, spending time with my family, or writing this amazing blog, because, I have another wonderful fact to share with you that I learned from listening to Mr. Tesh on the radio.

John Tesh said that looking at pleasant scenes of nature or the outside world for just 40 seconds, can make people more productive and happy than those who do not have the luxury of “seeing” the outside world.  That makes sense, I thought, but what if they look out a window and see the same thing?  Would they be even more productive and happy?  John Tesh really gets me thinking.  I love it.  Thank you, Mr. Tesh.  While his music is really just a rip off of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and other such bands, his advice is original and thought provoking.  Perhaps he should devote more time to finding fun facts to share on the radio instead of recording more unoriginal music.  Just an idea.  Before I digress too far off track…  I started thinking about this idea of nature and how it can promote productivity and happiness within people.  While the study that he shared pertained to adults at work, I wondered if the same would be true in schools.  So, thanks to John’s inspiration, I did a little test in my classroom yesterday to see if John and I were right.

During my Humanities class yesterday, we read and discussed the wonderfully engaging play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose.  Prior to starting the class, I opened the curtains covering two very large windows that looked out onto Mount Cardigan, the Canaan Street Lake, trees, the brilliantly blue sky, and the natural world.  It was like looking at a Bob Ross painting, magnificent.  So, after looking out the windows for a few moments while I shared a mildly boring story about why we still have the curtains in the classroom, we got right to work.  The students read their lines with emotion, focus, and gusto.  They acted out their lines as if they were performing on Broadway.  The reading of the play flowed like the mighty Mascoma River, quick and dirty.  Well, there are a few curse words in the play that the students get to read.  Don’t worry though, we spent several class periods discussing the power of words and when it’s appropriate to use some words.  I’m not teaching them to talk like crazy pirates of old.  The students performed the play yesterday in class better than they had since we started reading it a few weeks ago.  Even the discussions that we would have, periodically, throughout the period, were deep and fruitful.  The students shared great insight and were really analyzing literature.  It was amazing.  This was, by far, the best period of reading and discussing the play we’ve had.  The boys were on-task, engaged, and super excited during the period.  What’s strange, is that having the curtains open was the only difference between yesterday’s class and previous classes.  I provided the students with the same reminders about reading their lines with emotion and acting them out.

So, is my hypothesis accurate?  Does looking out of a window to see beautiful scenes of nature, promote even more focus, productivity, and happiness amongst people?  While I should gather a bit more data so as to be all scientific and such, I feel as though the answer is, Yes.  I have posters of nature on the walls of my classroom, and they haven’t made much of a difference on a day-to-day basis.  Clearly, allowing the students to look outside before beginning yesterday’s lesson made all the difference.  They were relaxed, focused, productive, and happy.  I had one student come to me and say, “This is the best activity I’ve ever done in school,”  referring to the reading and discussing of the play.  Although I love the play and know how great it is, I do often wonder how much my students enjoy reading and discussing it.  However, yesterday, they seemed super into it.  Was it the rays of sunshine that penetrated the double-paned glass?  Did that help to promote more focus?  Was it the rolling hills?  Did looking at those for a few moments fill them with glee?  Maybe, or maybe it was something else.  But for now, I’m going to go with, I’m right.

So, there you have it.  Listening to the John Tesh Radio Show inspired me to try something new in the classroom, and it paid huge dividends for my students.  They got more out of Saturday’s class than they have in a while, and it was all because of John, sunshine, and my brilliant creativity.

Having Fun with Poetry

“Poetry shmoetry.”  “I hate poetry.”  “Poetry is for girls.”  “Flowers, sunshine, and birds.  Yuck.”  “Poetry is so boring.”  I could go on, but you get the idea.  Most students with whom I’ve worked over the years feel this way about poetry.  They just don’t like it, for whatever reason.  Perhaps their previous teachers did not effectively introduce poetry to them in an engaging and meaningful way.  Or, maybe, they just weren’t ready to learn about poetry prior to entering the sixth grade.  With this much disdain towards the art of poetry, I make it a yearly mission to change the way my students think about poetry.  I work to help them see poetry as something that is fun and challenging to do.  I want my students leaving the sixth grade with a broader perspective on poetry.

Today in my Humanities class, I introduced the concept of a Poetry Slam to the boys…

A poetry slam is

like a play with a

cast of one.

Words create the scenery

as your body weaves

emotion throughout

the audience.

 

Have fun as you

recite your chosen

haiku for all to hear.

Act, perform, and paint

pictures with your

words and body,

Leaving the audience

stunned and wanting…

 

I tried to convey a sense of excitement and fun through my description of this amazing event, with which we were about to embark.  I didn’t model a sample, as I really wanted the students to draw their own conclusions and interpret the parameters creatively.

First student read his haiku

as if he were dead and lifeless.

I was bored, as were the others.

Do I stop and correct him?

I wondered as he finished.

Holding the bar high for

my students, I knew what

had to be done.  I didn’t snap

my fingers like the others,

when words stopped flowing

from his lips.  Instead I called

him out saying, “You can do better

than this.”  Then I performed

a haiku in the Poetry Slam way

to show him what fun could be had.

He went again, and nailed it

like it was the final piece in

a ship of words he built

for us all to ride upon.

Amazing, I thought. “Now,

that’s how you perform

at a Poetry Slam,” I said

to him as he walked off stage

grinning in excitement.

 

The rest of the students blew me away, as they read their haikus aloud for us all to hear and enjoy.  It was a banquet of awesomeness for our ears and eyes.  The boys writhed around the stage, as they recited their poems, adding emphasis and emotion for impact.  They had so much fun performing in front of their peers.  Students who are usually so quiet, got into character and read their poems with gusto and panache.  I was thoroughly amazed.  The boys had a blast during our first Poetry Slam, as they realized how much fun poetry can be when you change the way you look at it.  It’s not just words on paper.  It’s emotion, blood, sweat, and tears pouring from one’s heart.  Poetry is all the stuff that makes life what it is: Alive and real.