Tuesday, April 30, 2013


New York state testing has come to an end this year.  The English Language Arts Test is mostly scored and teachers have moved on in their teaching of students.  Many of my teacher friends have delved into poetry writing to finish up the month of April.  The math test concluded on Friday with only make-ups to be completed in the first days of this week.

Many teachers I know have spent the past six weeks in a test writing/test taking mode.  Children had been practicing how to write for tests and how test writing is different than writing an essay or a narrative.  I helped to correct one of these tests and saw how well trained the students were as they supported text with evidence, using quotations from the text and citing the lines they were quoting.  Writing for the tests is very different from the writing done with their narrative, informational and even opinion texts—when the topic is something chosen with passion.  Gaining the knowledge to write in this manner, when the high-stakes expectation is to write in this manner—is important.  And yet it isn’t.  The students followed directions explicitly, citing two texts, restating the question and tying up the answer with a brief conclusion.  Their answers gave them the needed points and lacked passion or voice.  Learning to write in this manner gave them a skill for writing that will really only apply when the students take these kinds of assessments. 

In the wake of the test completion I have been reflecting on best instruction.  Recently I overheard one of my graduate students complaining about another class they were taking.  “The only thing that happens in that class is he lectures.  His class is so boring.”  As I observed third, fourth and fifth grade students as they were learning test prep, they were not being “talked at”.  They were spending much time writing in a formulaic way.  In both of these situations the learner was being told.
Sometimes being told is necessary in instruction.  It is direct.  It is explicit.  And there are some things in school and in life that we need to be told to do and how to do it.  But life and school, to be rich and engaging is based on inquiry and exploration.  Learners integrate knowledge through experience.  As I began to teach adults, a mentor of mine told me about the 10-2 principle, which basically means that for every 10 minutes of talking or lecturing that happens, the instructor needs to allow two minutes of time where the students engage in conversation or experiential learning so that they can integrate what was spoken.  Through the years, I have discovered that true learning happens more with a 2-10 principle.  Find the essence of what needs to be said, say it in short, succinct ways, then create experiences of learning and inquiry so that students can discover the essence of this learning on their own.  This is a messier way to teach and sometimes this type of teaching takes longer, but students own their learning in a much deeper way.  

One wise teacher once told me, "Students won't remember the lesson you taught where they listened and absorbed.  They may remember the lesson where you created a moment together."  Great learning builds memories!  Many years ago, at the end of a year of teaching fifth graders, I brought the students to our sharing circle so that we could highlight our fifth grade memories.  Memories of field trips, and humor, of working together and of building projects abound.  Not a mention of the English lesson where I talked about adjectives and their power or of the social studies lesson where we discussed immigration.  But there was mention of the poetry created that we displayed in the library and the day we came to school as immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.  Learning happens by experience.

Last week I visited a fifth grade classroom.  The teacher was beginning a unit on poetry.  She had many poems available for her students to read and explore and they were in inquiry groups discussing elements of writing that they were seeing.  They had their writers’ notebooks out, jotting ideas and lines for their poems.  They were deciding which poem they wanted to carry in their pocket for “Poetry in Your Pocket Day”.  They were having fun.   They were engaged.  They were learning.  

I am so glad the New York State tests are behind us for another year.  Viva la poetry! Viva l’experience!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


Earlier this month I posted that I was afraid of poetry.  I have been thinking about that post and the reasons for my thinking.  I actually love poetry.  I love the way it sounds.  I love to teach students and adults about poetry.  I love to share tidbits of verse in workshops and have the words springboard us into deeper thought.    It is my favorite mode of writing.  A good poem moves the soul.  Its sparse use of words breaks down mood and purpose to essence.  I read some poets and I think, “if only I could craft such a presence with my words—use my words to create a truth in such a unique and honest way.” 

When I posted earlier this month about these thoughts, a friend of many years with whom I have recently reconnected wrote to me and sent me a poem that I wrote in 1982.  At the time that I wrote this poem, I was in Berkeley, California, attending the Bay Area Writing Project.  This time ignited my love for poetry, my understanding of writing and changed forever my instruction of students.  Many posts could be written about this transformational time, but today, I am going to post and celebrate the poet from within—in me.  In all of us.

These words ignite in me a passion that I had as a young woman to be a poet.  These words help me to honor that woman as someone who has let poetry live in my world.  Poetry has lived in me through reflection, insight, action and lived truth.  Thank you to my friend, who was touched by my words when they were written over 25 years ago and saved them to touch me this month in the wake of my expressed  fear. 

Poetry can be scary. But when one has the courage to face that fear, poetry becomes joyful and transformational.  Poetry becomes a journey.  It is through poetry that we connect with our essence—our soul.  We are all poets.   Poetry, in its most essential form, is beauty in expression.   Each of us is unique and beautiful.  That beauty—our living poetry can be spoken in many ways—through song and verse, through art and photography, through movement, through acts of justice and kindness.  The poet in each of us strives to express the beauty from within that is unique to each of us—our truth—our essence.   

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Today the world is deeply saddened by yet another act of senseless violence.  My friend, Amy, posted this poem on her Facebook page and it moved me to my core.  We all suffer.  As individuals.  As a society.  Our world is haunted by unfathomable violence that affects collective suffering.  Today runners of the Boston Marathon dedicated this race to another tragedy that claimed our innocents at Sandy Hook…26 miles in honor of 26 victims.  That marathon became another tragedy of innocence.    For our individual suffering…for our collective suffering…may we embrace kindness.  Thank you, Naomi, for these wise and prophetic words.


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
     purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

                                      ~Naomi Shihab Nye