Monthly Archives: October 2014

It’s hard, but it’s beautiful…


The mention of poetry elicits strong reactions from students. Past experiences in well-meaning classrooms often taint their “poetry palate”. Just like remembering a batch of cookies in which the cook forgot the sugar, I get that “look” from too many students every single year.

I can remember when teaching poetry scared me more than “doing the highs” at the ROPES course. The fear was three-fold:

1. Would I screw them up even more than they already were regarding their “taste” for poetry?

2. Would they say things that would hurt my poetry feelings? I love poetry, and it often feels like a personal affront when students hate it.

3. How could I, mere mortal that I am, possibly teach this beautiful form of literature?

The rest of this post will go through the beginning processes I’ve honed throughout the years to teach poetry in a practically pain-free way.

First, I like getting a baseline of sorts from my students. It’s simple, but it’s tried and true: ask each student to reflect on what they know, believe, and feel about poetry. Because so many students have such disdain for poetry, I simply ask the students to write 1/2 to 3/4 page. Of course, I explain to them that there’s no right and no wrong about this. I just want to know where their heads and hearts are regarding poetry.

Then, on the following day, you can bet about 90% of the students have forgotten their reflection, so poetry isn’t on their radar anymore. I can pull a “fast one,” thanks to the internet, Slam! Poetry, and Daniel Beaty.  If you’ve never seen this poem performed, click here:

“Knock, Knock” by Daniel Beaty

The students react accordingly:

  1. Transfixed throughout the performance;
  2. Pulled into silence immediately afterwards; and, then,
  3. Compelled to question Daniel’s technique, his life, the words, the story, the poetic elements, and on and on.

At this point it’s difficult to contain even the most resistant student. The questions come at me like rapid-fire. They argue with each other about what Beaty is saying. And, finally, someone says, “Can we watch it again?”

“You bet!” I enthuse. Inside, I’m doing my best super-villian Bwhahahaha! laugh, because, you see, now each and every student from the resistant to the poetry fanatic is ensnared in the magic.

“But,” I continue, “This time I have the printed words from Beaty’s poem. As you listen the second time, mark up those lines you love, put a question mark next to words or phrases that baffle you, star the brilliance when you find it, write your thoughts to the side. Do what you need to do to make this poem yours.”

We listen and watch again. I give them four or five minutes to mark up their copies. Next, we talk.

What do we talk about? We clarify what Beaty’s words could mean. We look at how he cleverly switches up words in a line, “Dribble the page with the brilliance of your ballpoint pen” from “How to dribble a ball” in a previous line.

“But wait!” a student in the back blurts out. “That’s alliteration, isn’t it?”

“Oooooo….cool!” several students intone.

The conversation goes on in much the same manner, with students pulling bits and pieces from the poem, tasting it, rolling it around in their mouths, and resetting their poetry palates for the new discoveries to come.

Oh, and before I close, I must explain the title. On Wednesday, I read through the students’ reflections about poetry. Here are just a few tidbits I gleaned from their writings:

  • a way to get the girls
  • hard to get at first
  • re-read it like 500 times, you’ll get it
  • I think they should stop writing poetry
  • it is pointless
  • I still don’t get how the guy with the guitar can steal my girlfriend just ‘cuz he writes poetry.
  • your life settled on a page

Then, I came across a student’s reflection. This is a student with dyslexia. Reading is difficult for him. Writing is painful for him. I’m certain that poetry hasn’t been his best friend in the past, but he wrote:

It’s hard, but it’s beautiful.

Yes, I thought. That’s it. Poetry IS hard, but poetry IS beautiful. As a teacher, I feel the same. TEACHING poetry is hard, but TEACHING poetry is so beautiful.

Next week, I’ll share some other strategies for teaching poetry.


The “Golden Rules of Student Conferencing” with a Little Help from Rock Tumbling

The “Golden Rules of Student Conferencing” with a Little Help from Rock Tumbling

“There are three important rules that you should keep in mind whenever you go to your tumbler. These are: 1) Garbage in means garbage out; 2) Avoid contamination; and, 3) Great results take time.”

To begin this post, I’d better clarify my analogy. I do not identify with the camp that proclaims that students are as “dumb as rocks”, nor would I be disappointed to have received rocks on Halloween, unlike Charlie Brown. If you’ve read my first two posts, you know that I find rocks fascinating and filled with potential.

While I’m not sure how long this rock analogy will play out in my blog, I woke up quite early this Sunday morning with the idea of how student conferencing is much like tumbling rocks. Excited to get a bit of inspiration from the experts, I googled “rock tumbling” into the search bar. (Yes, I really did use “Googling” as a verb. It felt weird, but I did, in fact USE Google!)

My first hit landed me at Umm-hmmm….these amateur geologists aren’t into cutesy, clever names. Let’s just call it what it is: rocktumbler dot com. Alright, then—if I’m to continue with this analogy, I suppose I am the “rock tumbler” in my classroom. Looking at the different models, I would be a Thumler Model B.

The Model B has a single 15 lb. metal barrel with a rubber insert and gasket. If you fill this barrel about 1/2 to 2/3 full of rock as recommended it will process about ten pounds of rock. The soft rubber insert and gasket will tumble your stones with a minimum amount of noise. It has the low speed, 1550rpm, overload protected motor. Age Recommendation: This is a large-capacity tumbler that should be used by adults.

Considering my years in teaching, I would probably be the largest, most expensive rotary tumbler. Not too noisy and has processed lots more gems than the smaller, less expensive models. Perhaps my mentors, such as Donalyn Miller, Penny Kittle, and Cris Tovani, are the Thumler Model UV10, processing many more gems in half the time. But I digress…

Garbage in means garbage out

When I consider the first rule of rock tumbling, “Garbage in means garbage out,” I remind myself of those weeks I have been tempted to opt for no student reading conferences, weeks like last week. The expectations in my new district are huge for football, so lots of emphasis is placed on the celebration of Homecoming. We had the typical dress-up days which can’t help but distract from the learning process. We had a guest speaker on Wednesday which ate up time from two different classes. Friday, we had the Homecoming Olympics starting at 10:00 am (my team pic is featured on this post) and an early out at 12:00 to get ready for the Homecoming Parade. All of this was great fun, but I kept thinking, Should I really take up one class period with reading conferences? 

My answer came from not one, but several students asking, “Aren’t you going to conference with us?” “Are you gonna talk to me about my new book?” “Hey, Mrs. G! I read a lot this week. Can we talk about how I did it?” Really? How can I say “no”? Yes, I could have spent that period teaching more about our Article of the Week lesson, but I know that next week’s reading for many of my students would be “garbage”. They still need a one-on-one push, a validation that I know what they’re accomplishing with their reading despite their busy schedules, and a discussion about how books have rocked their world.

Avoid contamination

So far I haven’t heard the dreaded words, but it may come. It will sound something like this: You mean you waste a whole class period discussing individual reading with sophomores? Aren’t they old enough to do this on their own? Couldn’t you use that time to teach them about split infinitives, Beowulf, and Grecian Urns? While these questions might come from colleagues, from parents, from administrators, they often come from within myself. I question and wonder and doubt often. Do reading conferences really need to happen in high school? Is it a waste of time? Shouldn’t we be doing “English-y” things every day?

The answer hides in each conference I have. When a student realizes that he read past his weekly pages and asks to “bump up” his goal, when a student begs to be the first one because she’s figured out the mystery of the book’s title which leads to us discussing the book’s theme, when a severely dyslexic student reads 5X the amount he read last week even if it is “only” 55 pages in a week, my decision to have reading conferences at the high school level is validated, a student at a time. Every week, it becomes easier and easier to ignore the contamination and to really know what I’m doing is right.

Great results take time

Don’t be in a hurry. Spend time doing a great job. If you tumble a batch of rocks through the coarse grind and they still have a few rough edges or are not nicely rounded, don’t hesitate to run them through that step again.

Exactly! While we know, as teachers, that we don’t have a lot of time, we have to remind ourselves that great results DO indeed take time. In conferencing with students, I’ll come across a few that had a bad week. I’m finding out that sophomores have so many more distractions than 8th graders. I have students who are in marching band and are football players. I have others who are working at the local pizza joint or another fast food restaurant until 11:30 on several school nights. Other students already have families of their own, and figuring out how to fit self-selected reading into their world seems daunting.

Part of my job as a “rock tumbler” is to help my students figure out how to carve out time. Maybe they can read on the bus on their way to a football game. (Some of my boys said this worked for them despite getting mocked by a couple of coaches! I was so proud of them for forging onward.) They can take their books to work and read a few pages during “down time” at work. I’ve suggested reading their own books to those that have babies. On Friday one 16-year old student whose first sibling is a month old said he simply read his book to her while helping his mom out! Talk about creative reading.

Rough patches happen especially with teens. I have to make the effort each week to have these special conversations with my students about reading. Sometimes, all it takes is helping them to realize they can find snatches of time within their busy weeks. When this occurs regularly week after week after week, like rocks in a tumbler, students’ rough edges begin to smooth and they begin to sparkle.

Happy rock tumbling, readers!

Rock Tumbler Instructions. (n.d.). Retrieved October 19, 2014.

Rocks and Rekindling

Rocks and Rekindling

During my elementary school years, a rock tumbler in what we called the “front room” provided a steady rumble throughout my childhood home. Never acquiring the knack for hunting arrowheads like my parents, I settled on rocks. From a desert rose quartz to glinting “fool’s gold,” I adored the challenge of finding various rocks. Most of my finds were accidental, but, as with many of my life pursuits, I preferred happy accidents to searches that ended in disappointment.

In June of this year, my husband, my son, and I vacationed in the Big Bend area. The home in which we stayed featured several outdoor sitting areas. One of my favorites was under the carport, simply because of the mesmerizing specimen of fluorite the owner had placed on display. Every day, I found respite from the heat in that spot, and every day, I imagined finding a beautiful piece of fluorite like that one to take home from our travels.

Eventually, I found my rock. Browsing through a local shop, The Cheshire Cat, I spotted various rocks for sale throughout the store. After explaining my search to the store owner, she led me out back where I finally found my take-home rock.

A long forty years had passed from the last time I had tumbled a rock as a ten-year old to a search for a rock as a 51-year old. That one specimen of fluorite had reawakened my love of rocks, and I’m beginning my second collection of a lifetime.

It’s never too late to take up something one loved as a child. With that in mind, I think of the students in my high school classroom, particularly those students who loved reading and who loved writing as children. It’s not too late for them to rekindle that love for words.

By providing a plethora of Young Adult (YA) literature in my classroom and encouraging free-choice reading, I witness the daily re-discovery of the love of reading. No, sophomores and juniors don’t have the same amount of leisure time that elementary or even middle school students do; nevertheless, my students are learning to creatively carve out time to read. Some that have been successful at snatching those moments say they find time to read as they are going to sleep, right after they do their chores, immediately after football practice, and during school when they finish assignments. It’s amazing how creative students can become with their time when they realize I expect them to be readers. At the end of each week, I have a reading conference with each student. By this point in the year, the students are often leading the conference: telling me about their book, the surprises they’ve had while reading, the way they’ve found time to read, and their goal for the following week. I’ve added a place on my reading form for each student to initial and for me to initial, validating our shared goals for the amount of pages to read and their dedication to carving out time to read. Individual reading record sheet 3rd week 2014-15

Except for a handful of students who balk at the thought of reading outside of school, 95% of them are experiencing gains in the amount of reading they’re doing (time spent and pages read), their enjoyment of reading, and their goals for themselves as readers (knowing the next book they want to read, increasing their “pages to read” goal, and desiring to branch out into varied genres.)

Writing almost daily and providing one-to-one verbal feedback assists students in rediscovering their writing voices. Writing is hard work, but, by incorporating choice into our writing routine, it becomes an opportunity to enjoy the creative process of forming words and ideas. During the first six weeks, I allowed students to choose their writing topics. I provided a list of suggestions which were mainly based on what they were reading, but we also had a weekly topic on the board. Students add to the white board throughout the week, providing writing possibilities for other students. Some students stop me before or after class, asking if they may write about something they care deeply about.

The last week of the first six weeks, I asked the students to select their favorite draft to revise and edit. After two peer editing opportunities, students met with me individually for about 10 minutes to set final goals and expectations for their final product. I was able to quickly reteach writing mini-lessons from the past weeks as well as teach more sophisticated writing strategies to students who were ready for those.

Upon completing this blog post, I will return to reading my students’ final drafts and marveling at how they have cleverly crafted sentences, seamlessly integrated figurative imagery, and gradually rediscovered their love of producing written language. Like my rekindled admiration for rock collecting, my students are rekindling their love of reading and writing.

Mining the Magic


Papers rustle as students take their assigned spots. A boy pulls a well-worn sports novel from his backpack, his destiny as a “Crutcher, de la Peña, Dueker” fan sealed within the next few pages. Others see the book, shush their neighbors, and repeat the dig for their own novels within their backpacks. Within a matter of minutes, seventeen sophomores sit, confined to a desk, but lost in a world outside of Room 320. This is my life. This is the magic I have the privilege to witness five times per day, five days a week.

I doubted that this style of teaching which worked so well in my 8th grade ELA classroom for so many years would work in the confines of the high school English II and PreAP English II setting. I had a block schedule with my 8th graders, seeing them twice a day. Conversely, I would see my sophomores once per day, most of them, with the exception of one class, only four days per week.

Was there time to confer about reading? Would there be time to discuss their writing individually? I questioned other seasoned high school teachers. While I consistently heard, “Yes! You can make reading/writing workshop work,” I continued to doubt. Would high schoolers even respond to this type of teaching? Would they expect more direct instruction? Would I have to figure out how to be the “sage on the stage” again?

School started two weeks ago. Tomorrow will be the second full week. A Friday, thank goodness! Yes, I’m exhausted, but, more importantly, reading/writing workshop shows promise. One girl finished her book today, and, as we walked down the hallway together, she said, “I’m really not a reader, but this book just hooked me.” Yes, dear, and you are now a reader. I said nothing, but I know different. That book will be her warm fire in the dead of winter, her watermelon of the dog days of summer, her favorite worn blanket from her childhood. That book will be the book that more books will stand upon in this coming year. It wasn’t a classic. It’s not on the AP Reading List. It’s not written by a Newbery-Winning author. It’s a simple book with a story that pushed this girl off the edge, and, now, she IS a reader. Nothing is different between 8th graders and sophomores when it comes to that one book that snags them: that individual book soon holds all the promise in the world for that child.

Next week we’ll set new reading goals. We’ll begin a new piece of writing. We’ll read a short story. In the midst of all of this, if I listen closely, I’ll hear the magical sound of books summoning my sophomores, pulling them into the pages, making them readers for life.