Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Teaching of Poetry: Some Thoughts

One of the areas that can stymie many ELA and English teachers is the teaching of poetry.  Personally, I believe that is because, over the decades, we have de-emphasized the teaching of poetry.  At the turn of the 20th century, poetry was a full half of the curriculum.  Now, it's a tiny fraction, maintained almost entirely alone during April's Poetry Month in large part due to the AP Literature and Composition's hold on the overall English curriculum in so many schools.  Many English majors take few classes dedicated to the sole study of poetry, and many survey classes eschew all but the most important pieces.

This means that the current crop of ELA teachers have little experience with poetry compared to prose except, perhaps, on a personal level in their own writing.  In many conference sessions and conversations, I heard teacher after teacher confess that they feel uncomfortable in teaching poetry and consider it a weak area.  This shows in some of the lesson plans and curriculum ideas available on as well as in many teaching texts.  Formulaic plans with emphases on easy-to-grade areas like rhyme scheme and figurative language (one of the few areas of poetry in the Common Core) abound, and they are wrong.

I am a huge believer in and proponent of Baron Wormer's and David Capella's Poetry Centered Classroom Method.  I personally used that method with various age levels and English classes with great success.  First of all, every time I used it, test scores went up.  Secondly, students of different ages and ability levels all agreed that it taught them how to read closely and think critically.  If you can get a copy of Teaching the Art of Poetry, I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Their follow-up text, A Surge of Language, is also very helpful in seeing how to implement the method in an actual classroom.

There are great methods and ideas in those books, but I would add a few here for when you incorporate poetry as your curriculum currently dictates.

1. Have students write poetry more than just during April.
    One of my favorite tricks was to pull out acrostic poems when we were all getting quite tired of the usual vocabulary quizzes.  Instead of having to write sentences on all ten words, I had students write three acrostic poems (their choice of which vocabulary words to write about); the word got spelled down the side of the poem, and the definition of the word had to be in one of the lines.  The rest of the poem was up to each student.  The first time I would use it with each class, it would take a bit of explaining what an acrostic poem even was, as many had never been exposed to that poetic form at all.  Once they got it, creativity would flow, and amazing poetry was written as a result.
    For differentiated instruction, put the writing of poetry on menu choice boards or include it as an option for reactions to novels or explaining important concepts.  While the CCSS and the AP curricula emphasize essay writing above all others, students whose minds are more poetic struggle with writing essays and should be allowed to shine from time to time.
    Pick a poetic form to go with each unit.  Use that form to help students better see how figurative language is really used.  When I taught a class of 8th graders The Outsiders, we watched many slam poetry performances, and the students had to write and perform their own, one of the more powerful experiences in my career.  Students wrote of their struggles, successes, pain, and love in powerful, phenomenal ways, ways they could not have if we had done yet another essay.  Think outside the box, pantoums for Brave New World, sonnets for Jane Austen, fitting the form to the themes or topics.

2. Encourage students to use the writing process on their poems just as they do on other writings.
    It is not usual to hear of teachers having students write shape poems for Valentine's Day or poems for special occasions, but it is less usual to hear of those assignments following the writing process.  Students write one draft, and it is expected to meet the standards, and then they move on to the next assignment, never to revisit that poem again.  We might do that with short essay answers or even other short prose writings, but we rarely do that with essays.  To show that all writing follows the writing process, please plan enough time for rough drafts and peer editing, just like you would for any other important writing assignment.  Show students rough drafts of famous poems so they can see how it can look.

3. If you have students read their poems to the class, treat that as a sacred moment.
    Requiring students to read their work out loud to their classmates is in the CCSS, sure, but it is also a difficult thing for most students.  It's scary.  Don't bully them or guilt them into it.  Instead, set down strict rules for those listening, that any mocking or mean comment results in being sent from the room or something as severe depending on your school's policies.  Make it clear that all students will be safe in reading their poems aloud.  For those who still don't feel safe to read aloud, offer other options, like recording themselves for just you or for the class to read or reading their poems just to you in the hallway.  Respect their fears.
    One thing that seems to help students in reading their works aloud is practice.  If you can find time for them to practice reading their pieces to others, it is very helpful.  Starting them on reading to just a partner, then groups helps prepare them for the whole class.

4. Sneak poetry into your curriculum whenever you can.
    Don't just use it for teaching metaphor and simile or during your Shakespeare unit.  Use poetry for teaching all the things!  If you find the right poem, you have a great, short mentor text that is easier for students to grasp than a huge novel or pages long article.  That short text is less intimidating for students to practice close reading on, learn how to cite quotes properly, and even use for learning new vocabulary.  For those thinking that poetry is less accessible, try it first with popular song lyrics the students volunteer.  Those are poetry, as are the popular slam poetry performances on YouTube (a great way to cover the CCSS critical analysis of video texts!).  Any time you're working on a new concept, introduce it with a poem, and see how much easier that works for so many students.

Poetry is the oldest form of human creative writing, older than writing itself.  There is no reason to cut it from the curriculum, other than it's difficult to write test questions for and isn't as easily monetized as fiction.

I'll leave you with a story:
    Years ago, I was asked to do a guest teaching spot in a 6th grade classroom.  I was a new stay-at-home mom and desperately missed teaching, so I jumped at the chance.  It was in a private evangelical Christian K-12 school, and in talking with the teacher, it became clear that she had not covered any of the metaphorical language standards or covered poetry at all, so I devised a fairly simple, safe lesson on metaphor and simile. 
    I will never forget that day: bright faces, interested and engaged learners, and sighs.  Oh, the sighs.  In the two sections, each time I finished reading the poem out loud that was on the overhead, there was a huge collective sigh like they were finally breathing oxygen for the first time.  They gasped as we went through the poem again, splitting apart the metaphors, finding each one together, and some even cried.  It wasn't even a great poem.  I remember one little boy raising his hand afterward, asking, "What is that?  It isn't like anything I have ever read before."  So many agreed with him, and I had to back up and explain what poetry even was.
    When it came time for them to try writing their own, each section was crammed with students who thought they knew all the rules for writing.  I was asked how many sentences their poems had to be, how many paragraphs, and more questions focused on the editing side.  You should have heard their gasps when I explained that poetry does not have to follow any of those rules, that they did not even have to capitalize if they did not want to or even use a single period.  They turned in some pretty rough free verse that day, but they smiled, breathed easier, and left class chattering about their poems, sharing them with each other, and saying they wanted to write more.
    Poetry is part of what makes us human.  Don't deny your students that experience.  Let them gasp and breathe it in.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Ashwagandha Experiment: Day 13 and the End

The ashwagandha experiment has ended for me, though my husband is still considering it.

End results for me:
My asthma is worse, my allergies are worse, and I definitely have my GI allergy symptoms (stool change, stool color change, some abdominal cramping) going strong now with no other possible cause since this is the only new thing I've introduced.

The first few days, I had less pain, more energy, and I really thought it was something I could take that would help.  The rebound headache when it wore off, though, was definitely a problem, as were the sleep issues.  I felt more rested when I took it at night, but the tracker said I had absolutely no deep sleep those nights, and it was a lot harder to fall asleep (when it already is difficult).  Switching to taking it in the morning helped a lot for a couple of days.  In trying to ease up the bad headache in the evening (well, worse headache since I always have a headache), I split the pills to stagger dosing, and it didn't seem as effective that way.  Going back to taking a whole pill in the morning did not help my pain like it had before, and my allergy symptoms definitely started getting worse.

Another side effect for me was massive lack of appetite.  I've been forcing myself to eat even a little and finding that my appetite comes back when it wears off in the evening, which is not a good thing for my weight or metabolism at all.  I just didn't want to eat, didn't even think of food as something good (which is weird for me).  I do wonder if, for people on medications that make them hungry all the time, it would help counteract any of those symptoms.  That isn't the case with me, though, and while it helped me stay in a better calorie range for me, it didn't help with weight loss because of when I was finally hungry and able to eat.

Conclusion: I'm allergic to it, and I'm stopping taking it as of today.

End results for my husband:
He stopped taking it a couple of days ago, mostly due to the bad headaches he was starting to get.  We aren't sure if those are due to the ashwagandha, actually, so it's more that he's put it on pause to see if, after this weather system goes through and he tries it again, it works better for him.

He definitely was having GI symptoms, too, though.  Worse gas, some abdominal pain from gas cramping, and his gas smelled much worse.  We're not exactly sure what it was doing to our gut biomes, but it was doing something.  He hasn't had the lack of appetite to the same degree I've had, but he definitely has not been as hungry until it wears off.

Conclusion: My husband thinks he needs a smaller dose than the 600 mg we've been taking (Garden of Life) and a different formulation.  He's going to try taking it again in a few days and see if he has the same symptoms, and he possibly will be taking half pills instead.

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Ashwagandha Experiment: Day 11

Things have gotten interesting in the Ashwagandha Experiment in our house.  I've messed with taking it at different times and splitting doses, my husband is trying it now, and we have learned a few things.

Thing 1: It really helps to take it in the morning for us.
Taking it at night made it so I didn't get any deep sleep and took forever to fall asleep.  I did feel like I had slept really well, but the tracker says I didn't, and the brain fog says I didn't.  We both take it in the morning, though we have found it helps to take it a bit later in the morning due to Thing 2.

Thing 2: It is not fun when it wears off.
I tried doing a divided dose for a few days in hopes that it would make the evening easier when it wears off, but instead, it just made it not work as well overall with the headache still hitting hard in the evening.  My husband didn't take one yesterday (as part of his experiment), and his headache was bad all day.  We're both starting to question taking this at all due to the almost-rebound-like headaches when it wears off.

Thing 3: Divided doses did not help, but taking the one pill didn't help with a bad weather/rainy day, either.
In other words, it definitely is no miracle worker for me.  Yesterday, it stormed and rained all day, and I had zero energy and really bad pain.  The ashwagandha did nothing to help with that at all despite going back on a full dose.  Honestly, the longer I'm on it, the less effective it seems to be, which is weird.  I'm going to stay on it the full month to see if that changes.

Thing 4: Both of us are finding that our allergies and GI issues are worse on it.
I've been starting to wonder if I'm mildly allergic to it, especially since my allergies and asthma are worse and my GI symptoms are starting to look more and more like they did with soybean oil (which I've become allergic to).  I'm not quite there yet, and it is fall (and a usually bad time of year allergy-wise for me), but if my asthma keeps acting up, I will have to stop taking it entirely.  If my husband keeps having the GI issues he is, he's going to stop taking it, too.

In conclusion, over a week later, and I'm not seeing the benefits I did at first.  There is the possibility that it's the dosage or the configuration we're taking, but if I'm really allergic to it, then it doesn't matter in the end at all if it works or not.  So, I'm going to continue on it and watch everything carefully.  If the allergic symptoms continue or worsen, I will have to stop taking it and then see what happens.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Ashwagandha Experiment: Day 5

Today has been interesting.

Last night, the ashwagandha seemed to wear off around 8:30 (putting it at a ten hour range or so), and the headache got really bad, almost like a rebound headache.  The fibro pain came roaring back, too.  I got super sleepy at 8:30, managed to stay awake through kids' bedtimes and all, but when I went to bed, I had a hard time falling asleep.  According to my tracker, I did get deep sleep, though, once I fell asleep.

This morning, I felt more like I usually do and had the same hard time waking up as usual.  My husband and I had discussed the rebound stuff, and I decided to take a half pill this morning.  I did feel more energy, and the pain started letting up a bit, and by the time I got to my neurologist's appointment, I felt decent.  I even was able to bend down and pick things up fairly easily without my muscles screaming.

Then, I went through the more thorough neuro test as part of my appointment.  That got the tremors going hard, and the fibro was all ticked off the rest of today.  My husband had the good idea tonight that I should take a half pill in the morning and then half a pill after lunch to help with the worst time of day (late afternoon).  I'm going to try that tomorrow.  It definitely didn't help enough with the pain today, so maybe going back to a full pill but in a divided dose will help more.

Another interesting side effect: lack of appetite.  I just haven't been as hungry since starting this experiment, even to the point of not finishing what I am eating.  I am a lot more thirsty, and with my kidney, I have to be concerned about that.  I was even down a pound this morning and could fit into jeans I haven't been able to wear in awhile.  Given that, if I want to lose weight at all, I can't eat much more than 1300 calories a day (long story), this isn't a bad thing.

The sleepiness is starting to hit here at 8:30 again.  We'll see how tomorrow goes.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Ashwagandha Experiment: Day Four

I've read in several places now that the Indian herb, ashwagandha, can help quite a bit with fibromyalgia.  Given the price and how other experiments in herbals have had less-than-stellar results, I just didn't even try it.  This last summer, in an effort to get more use out of the herbs I always plant, I started researching herbal tinctures and teas.  I've made holy basil and lemon balm tinctures, and the sage oil is still steeping.  Next up (and last given the turn in our weather) is an oregano oil.
Anyway, I tried taking a blend of the holy oil and lemon balm tinctures.  Bad vertigo.  Really bad vertigo.  Maybe it was too much, maybe it's the alcohol, I'm not sure.  Next, I'm going to try taking them separately and see if I can figure out which one did the vertigo or if both do it.
In going back through some of my fibro resources about herbal treatments, I kept seeing ashwagandha mentioned repeatedly.  It's an adaptogenic herb that has shown some success in helping with fibro symptoms.  When I was at the Natural Health Center (great store here in Kalamazoo) getting my multivitamin that I was out of, I saw they had an ashwagandha blend on sale and decided to give it a try.

I had to look up when and how to take it (not on the bottle), and the results were mixed.  For some people, ashwagandha gives them energy, so they should take it in the morning.  For others, it really helps with sleep and should be taken at night.  Given that most of my reactions lean towards the sleepy side, I decided to try taking it at night.  My first night was this last Friday night.  According to my fitness tracker, I had only a few minutes of deep sleep on Friday night, and I woke up feeling rather refreshed (and so was surprised at the lack of deep sleep, one of the hallmarks of fibro and considered a possible cause).  Given the nasty storms all day Saturday, I was in surprisingly decent shape, and my pain wasn't anywhere near as debilitating as it would normally have been.  I took it again on Saturday night, and according to my tracker, I had absolutely no deep sleep.  I felt like I had slept hard, though, and my husband said that the couple of times he woke up that it seemed like I was sleeping hard.  Weird.
Sunday, I had a bit more energy than usual despite the lack of deep sleep the night before, but then the fatigue and pain hit hard again in the last afternoon like it always does.  My headache was bad, and so I had a Pepsi with dinner in the evening, and then I took another of the ashwagandha pills with my bedtime pills.
It hit hard last night after I took it, the energy and total inability to sleep. I couldn't fall asleep for hours (not tired in the least though I should have been). According to my tracker, for the second night in a row, I had zero deep sleep.  I did finally get some deep sleep when I fell back asleep this morning, after I think it wore off because I suddenly became exhausted.

I've changed the time I'm taking it to the morning to see what happens during the day. Oddly enough, my fibro-induced occipital neuralgia these last few days has been more annoying (feels like pop rocks going off on the top of my head, and it feels cold but isn't), but the pain has been less.
Today is the first day I've taken it with my morning pills, so we'll see what happens.  So far, I feel more awake, but it's like part of me is still tired and in pain.  It feels weird, but we'll see what happens.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Once you're a student of mine, you're always a student of mine.

Before I went on medical leave and ultimately had to resign from my middle school teaching job due to disability, I taught high school and middle school kids for a total of ten years or so.  Sadly, the fibromyalgia has taken away most of their names from my memory and even some classes and such, but I remember so many of them.  I easily taught around two thousand students in those years, but I stay in touch with several even years later on Facebook and Twitter.  Great kids who have grown up and moved on with their lives.

They're still my students, though, and I still worry about them.  I have a pair of former students, married parents of one and one on the way, and I had to break out the knitting needles yesterday when I read that she is having some troubles with the pregnancy.  Didn't even stop to think much beyond what colors I know both like and what I had in the yarn stash and then look through some baby sweater patterns I have on hand.

In explaining it to my husband last night as I was trying to at least finish the hood on the top-down sweater before going to bed, I found myself thinking that people outside of education might think it odd.  I haven't taught them in 7 years, haven't seen them in real life outside of social media online, but they're still my students even after all this.  Thankfully, my husband didn't even question it (he's awesome that way).

See, we don't teach machines or widgets in some factory.  We teach people, and those people touch our lives as much or even more than we touch theirs.  They take over huge areas in our hearts, and even after graduation, we find ourselves as teachers wondering how they're doing, what they're doing now, hoping they're okay.  I've talked with teachers about former students and shared what I have heard, and they have told me of family members and the latest news.  I have never known a teacher not to worry over former students, be proud of them for every achievement, and cry over them when they die (yes, we do keep track of that, too).

So, I'm still knitting on this baby sweater in hopes that it will fit okay and let that little baby know that his mom's teacher cares about him, too, even if I won't ever get the chance to have him in a classroom.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The New Year Cometh and Cometh Right Soon

The ESL program I volunteer teach for starts back up the second week of September, and I still struggle with a basic concept: what am I supposed to be teaching?

If I listen to the state of Michigan, I am to teach CASAS test prep so that the adult students learn ESL quickly and move quickly through the test levels, testing out and then moving on to a GED or a TOEFL program.  If I listen to CASAS, I would work harder on teaching the Common Core CCR (College and Career Readiness) Standards.  If I listen to my program director, she would add that I need to teach the textbook because students feel more accomplished if they finish the books and also need to use the new software our parent program paid for.  If I listen to my students, I would just teach pronunciation games and work on conversation skills so that no one would make fun of their accents.

In going through the mountains of CASAS standards (seriously--there are hundreds), it's clear that we volunteer teachers are facing a more than slightly uphill battle.  We are to get our students to completely assimilate into US culture as well as be entirely fluent (speaking, reading, writing, listening) in English to a native speaker's 8th grade level.  Having taught 8th grade ELA, this is a bit more in my wheelhouse.  That said, these are adults, and they have many different levels of fluency in both English and their primary languages.

This year, I'm thinking of having my students read a book in addition to textbook work and work on the computers.  I'm strongly leaning toward Steinbeck's Travels with Charley.  I know it's a problematic piece (racist against First Nations peoples and black people, for example), but he does a good job of explaining American culture and describing the US geographically.  The reading level is perfect, too.  Apparently, a former teacher used to teach Maya Angelou, and while I love her work, I wonder if it's a good first text to tackle after doing so much book work for so long.  If that goes well, I want to start lit circles after we finish that one and then do a class text in January (no idea what to do then), followed by lit circles.

It is important to read a culture's most important texts, but these days, our canon in the US is undergoing real change.  Books written in the vernacular are difficult for adult ESL learners (at least, they would be for most of my students), so that makes many great YA books and solid American books (like one of my favorites, Their Eyes Were Watching God) not the best in this situation.  Mark Twain is right out, as is any 18th C. American writer due to vocabulary level and complex syntax.  Having never taught American lit, I'm at a bit of a loss.

So, I am asking my readers, what books do you suggest?