Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What’s Your Poem?

Poem in Your Pocket Day LogoThis year, the Academy of American Poets is introducing a new celebration as part of National Poetry MonthPoem in Your Pocket Day. On April 17, people across the United States are invited to choose a favorite poem and carry it in their pockets. Just carrying a poem is only part of the celebration though. During the day, poetry lovers are encouraged to unfold and read their pocketed poems in celebration of the visions of poets.

This may be the most challenging day ever for an English teacher like me. How can I possibly choose just one poem? When I first discussed Poem in Your Pocket Day with colleagues, one of them joked about carrying around a copy of “The Wasteland” in his pocket. I love Eliot too, but I’d be more likely to carry “Preludes.” It’s far more portable, but it’s also filled with imagery that I love.

But could I limit it just to “Preludes”? What about my love for the deep allusions in Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly”? Sure everyone knows “In a Station of the Metro”—and there is perhaps no poem more perfectly suited for pocketing—but my heart belongs to the classical references of “Mauberly.” Yet is that the right poem?

What about all those Nikki Giovanni poems I adore? And how can I forget Robert Frost and Langston Hughes? Wait, and Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Blake? And I have such a nice soft spot for Christina Rossetti. And I almost forgot about William Butler Yeats!

Perhaps choosing is just too difficult. Maybe I should just write my own, with apologies to William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

a single

laced with waiting

inside my pants

Not the work of a great poetic mind, but how can you choose just one anyway? So what’s your poem? What poet will you carry in your pocket for Poem in Your Pocket Day?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Online Tools for Poets

Looking for some online fun as you celebrate National Poetry Month? These tools provide some great places to start!

  • Write the Acrostic Poems the typical way they are taught, asking students to compose poems that highlight their names or significant nouns. Try the activity with literature by having students compose poems for character and place names in a recent reading (e.g., Boo Radley, Maycomb, Atticus Finch). Extend Acrostic Poems to content areas by asking students to create acrostics for key vocabulary terms.

  • Invite students to publish their poems with the Stapleless Book. Students might write a series of shorter poems, one on each page of the book. Haiku lend themselves to this strategy. The Stapleless Book can also be used to publish one poem, with a line or two on each page of the book.

  • Combine a bit of grammar review with poetry by asking students to compose Diamante Poems, which use specific parts of speech to contrast different aspects of a single topic or to compare two different topics. The technique can work well in a review of thematic units such as “innocence to experience” or to compare two characters from a work of literature (e.g., Othello and Iago).

  • Explore the genre of Letter Poems with students and then ask students to use the Letter Generator to publish their work. Elementary teachers can use the ReadWriteThink lesson plan Letter Poems Deliver: Experimenting with Line Breaks in Poetry Writing, which incorporates the online tools.

  • Describe objects in poems that are published in the object's shape with Shape Poems. Students can publish poems about Nature, School, Sports, and Celebrations. For example, after a study of the Water Cycle publish shape poems in the shape of the sun, a raindrop, or a cloud.

  • Have a bit of fun online with Magnetic Poetry Kids' Kits, High School Kit, or general collections, including a Shakespeare Kit. Note that some of the general sets will not be appropriate for students (e.g., the Innuendo Kit or the Pickup Lines Kit), so provide students with the direct link to the tools that you choose rather than sending them to the general collections page.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Why Teachers Violate Copyright

Quoted in the March THE Journal article “Do the (Copy)right Thing,” Maria Kardick, a Pennsylvania librarian and ReadWriteThink author, explains, “Educators feel no one will sue them because they work for a school and they are exempt.”

I’m sure Kardick is correct. There are cases where teachers and administrators assume that they are exempt, but even the THE Journal article suggests that the underlying reasons for the violations are more complicated. Carol Simpson, who has written a series of books on copyright issues, shares this example in the article:

A school district in Texas purchased a single copy of a high-stakes assessment workbook for each grade level, then sent the copies to the district print shop. The print shop duplicated a copy for each student in the district. The copyright owner found out, and sued the district, alleging $7 million in damages.
Why did that school violate copyright? They were trying to raise test scores. Even Simpson admits in the article, “There is immense pressure on administrators to maintain or raise test scores. If that means pirating test workbooks, then that's what they're going to do.” As Simpson explains, these educators “feel like the ends justify the means.”

What troubles me in all this is that the blame falls on the teachers and administrators rather than where it belongs. If schools received adequate funding, educators could acquire copies of these texts legally. Why is the problem seen as educators disregarding the law instead of as local, state, and federal governments providing inadequate educational resources for students?

The THE Journal article contends with its title that educators should “Do the (Copy)right Thing.” By ignoring copyright regulations, teachers and administrators do the wrong thing, which “sends a terrible message to students.” It’s not that I disagree. Protecting intellectual property rights is important. I’m just not sure which is the worst message to send—it’s okay to copy these texts, or we can’t afford to let you read them.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Grammar Myths for the ELL/ESL Classroom

Yesterday was the first National Grammar Day, a new holiday that encourages people to use and champion good grammar all day long. I first heard about the holiday when Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, twittered that she was working on a Top Ten Grammar Myths podcast that would celebrate the event. Most English teachers will be familiar with the items on her list:

A run-on sentence is a really long sentence.
You shouldn't start a sentence with the word however.
Irregardless is not a word.
There is only one way to write the possessive form of a word that ends in s.
Passive voice is always wrong.
I.e. and e.g. mean the same thing.
You use a before words that start with consonants and an before words that start with vowels.
It's incorrect to answer the question “How are you?” with the statement “I’m good.”
You shouldn’t split infinitives.
You shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition.

Those rules are the kinds that make English so frustrating for students to learn. When grammar rules are open to popular controversy, how can students ever pin down the right way?

We could explain to students that there are always exceptions or share the old adage “Rules are made to be broken”—but neither response is particularly satisfying. How are language learners to know which rules are real and which are myths? How can they learn the ways that a rule can be broken?

Underlying these issues is perhaps the worst grammar myth language learners bring to the classroom: There is a correct way to speak and write English. One of the telling things about students and language is that nearly all students, language learners or not, will readily accept this myth as true. It can take only one correcting voice to convince someone that there is a right and a wrong way to read and write.

I remember getting a new package of stationery from my parents as a reward for babysitting my younger siblings. I quickly wrote letters to my grandparents describing the things that we were all doing that summer—trips to the beach, walks to the bookmobile, and courses at nearby parks. About a week later, I received a reply that commented on the things we were doing, but ended with admonishing me for errors that I’d made in my writing.

I felt like the worst writer in the world, and I don’t remember writing another letter that summer. I was afraid I’d make more mistakes. I was convinced that there was a right way to write and a wrong way to write . . . and that I could only write in the wrong way. Now, of course, I know that’s a flawed conclusion, but at the time, it was a myth that I easily accepted as true. There was a right way, the way of my grandfather, and there was the wrong way, my way.

For an English language learner, the voice of the right way may be a teacher, a correcting peer, or a family member, but the effect is similar. Students mistrust their own literacy skills and sometimes learn it’s better not to try. What can we do in response? Try these strategies to support English language learners in the classroom:

  • Position students’ home language and cultural knowledge as useful resources. Ask students to share their expertise with the class and draw comparisons among the ways that different language work.

  • Start where students are grammatically. Discuss and extend the grammatical tools they have.

  • Acknowledge the meanings students have constructed as active language users. Remind students to focus on communicating as they use language.

  • Discuss grammar in the context of making meaning of texts that students read and write. Grammar should never be an add-on that’s explored in abstract or unconnected ways.

  • Explore culturally relevant texts with students. Students will better understand discussions of the form and function of different words and structures when they have a thorough understanding of the ideas expressed by those words and structures.

  • Explore language myths explicitly by talking about the ways that rules and usage change depending upon a range of factors including the speaker, the audience, and the purpose for the text.

For more information on supporting English language learners, see the Policy Research Brief on English Language Learners, the Teaching Resource Collections on Elementary English Language Learner and on Secondary English Language Learners, and Pathways for Teaching and Learning with English Language Learners.