Saturday, February 9, 2013

Let Them See You

I wish I had let them see me fail.

I’d set a goal this year, after reading Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts by Kelly Gallagher, of writing with my students. Actually, writing before them--modeling: I go, then they go. Then I got busy. (Partly with some of my other goals--like keeping up with this blog!) 

In the current poetry unit we are writing 4 model poem drafts. I wrote the first one, but it came out so badly I was embarrassed to share it. The next one, it just never came. Then my principal checked in on how I was doing on my annual goals. That was a giant kickstart. I’ve written the last 2 model poem drafts, and I’m glad I did: I enjoyed it, and the students did, too. My drafts provided good models, food for thought, and opportunities for talking about writing choices. 

Still, I fell short of my goal, even with those 2 drafts. I showed students my product, but I didn’t show them my process. I didn’t carve out the 5 minutes for me to write first. I wish they’d seen me produce that bad vegetable poem. Struggle with not being able to come up with a musical instrument I cared about enough to not write canned drivel. The triumph of my last 2 would have meant more--not just what they already knew--that I’m an English teacher so of course my writing is much better than theirs.

Here’s how it unfolded. 

Model #1, based on Margaret Atwood’s poem “Mushrooms,” asked us to do the following:
Pick a vegetable that you have some connection with--some special feeling, memory, or meaning. Explore that using images both literal and figurative. Write a 5-line poem on the following pattern:
Line 1: Literal sensory description
Line 2: Literal sensory description
Line 3: Simile or metaphor sensory description
Line 4: Simile or metaphor sensory description
Line 5: Come down to the meaning of the vegetable to you

Here’s what I came up with:


How does the deep, glossy purple of the firm globe
Turn into such slimy gray mush with just a little heat?
It looks like royalty, like summer,
But it feels like baby food in my mouth.
Eggplant is the fool’s gold of the vegetable world: a feast for the eyes only.

Oh, dear. I made a half-hearted effort to find last year’s potato poem, which was much better, but I knew that wasn’t really the point. 

Model #2, based on Federico Garcia Lorca’s “The Guitar,” asked us to do the following:
Pick an instrument. What feeling does listening to it evoke in you? Try to evoke the same feeling in the reader of your poem:
Use assonance, consonance, alliteration, repetition.
Use at least 1 metaphor
Use at least 1 simile
Use at least 1 personification
End with a metaphor addressing the instrument.

I completely failed at coming up with anything for this one.

But the next one, based on a poem by Rosellen Brown that our textbook calls “What Are Friends For” (though it appears to be just a small piece of a book-length narrative poem) asked us to do the following:
“(Cynical question),” (person) asks.
(general negative idea about the topic), (general negative idea about the topic)
(specific example of a negative idea about the topic)
(Evaluation of the motivation of the person asking the question)

(Candid answer to the cynical question--perhaps even paradoxical)
Metaphor 1
Metaphor 2
That’s what _____ is/are for.

Here’s what I came up with: 

 What Are Students For?

“What are students for,” a teacher asks.
Complaining about homework. Worried about grades rather than learning.
Asking a friend “What’s for lunch” when I’m talking about what’s for life.
Someone has pushed his buttons once too often.

Challenges. Students are to challenge me to challenge them,
for all of us together

to sink roots deep and spread branches high
and become the best oak or geranium or bean plant we can 
to feed the fruit and kill the pests 
all around us and within
to become the people of 
competence, curiosity, 
compassion, courage, 
discipline, grace, and integrity
that the world needs like it needs sunshine, clean air, and pure water.

That’s what students are for.

Not bad for a first draft. Well, I did do a little tweaking. A couple of times. And the kids all gasped at the line about asking what’s for lunch--“We DO that!”--giving me the perfect opportunity to remind them of the power of the specific--not just in poetry, but in academic papers as well.

Finally, model #4, based on “Some Like Poetry” by Wislawa Szymborska, asked us to do the following:
Come up with a 3 word sentence. This will be the title, and each word in the title will be the first line of each of its 3 stanzas. The poem should contain at least one metaphor or simile. You may write more than 3 lines in each stanza, but not less.
1) Stanza 1:
line 1: First word
line 2: Examine that word
line 3: Examine that word
2) Stanza 2:
line 1: Second word
line 2: Examine that word
line 3: Examine that word
3) Stanza 3:
line 1: Third word
line 2: Examine that word
line 3: Examine that word

Here’s what I came up with:

Books Light Fires

Nursery rhymes and holocaust memoirs
How-to’s and who-dunnits

Not heavy, not dark
But striking a spark

Give heat and light and cook my supper
on a night in the woods;
Flicker to life in the imagination
And change everything.

I asked my 3rd period class, “I didn’t realize that spark and dark rhyme until I read it out loud to you--is it cool sounding or stupid sounding?” They voted for cool. That’s bittersweet because there was so much more process they could have seen.

I’ll tell them the next time we have class--I’ll show them my stupid eggplant poem and admit I couldn’t come up with an instrument poem. But it’s not the same as seeing it. 

Still, kids learn. I overheard this in one group as students were looking over their 4 model drafts to choose 1 to bring to a final draft: “I think the practice really helped me get better. My last 2 drafts are much better than my first 2.”

Lessons from this week:
  1. Decrease coverage in favor of processing, experience, skills. I cut out some poetry to cover and actually had time for the students to write all 4 models for the first time this year.
  2. Make goals, share them with someone, and if someone has shared goals with you, please do them the favor of asking her how she’s doing on them. It was my principal checking back on my beginning of the year goals that got me back on the wagon to write the last 2 poems.
  3. Something is better than nothing. As I've written in another blog. I wish I’d shown my students my process for all 4 model poems. But failing that, I am glad I showed them my product for the last 2 rather than writing nothing!
  4. Get back on the bike. This week I’m going to model a thesis statement and a mindmap for the poetry paper--before the students do theirs. 

So I’m off to select the lyrics to a favorite song--like the students had to do--so I can model analyzing the poetry of it for them next week. Wish me luck--or at least the courage to let them watch me fail!

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