Thursday, July 3, 2014

How Do We Teach Poetry? "Sell It!" Says Daniel Pink

When students (and most people) think of poetry, they tend to hear...

Teachers, let's face it: how we were taught poetry when we were in school influences our association with poetry.

As teachers, do we inspire poets and a life-long love of poetry?

Perhaps, if we are inspired, we hope that our passion can make a difference.

Borrowing from Middlebury Professor Jay Parini, I ask the question, "Does poetry matter?"

And inspired by Parini, I have argued "Why Poetry Matters".

But I realize that I tend to teach from my point of view, and I do not see (or hear) poetry through the eyes (and ears) of my students.

For a few years now, I share with my students a poem from one of my favorite poets...

I ask them to take a poem   
and hold it up to the light   
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem   
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room   
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski   
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope   
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose   
to find out what it really means.

After reading this poem, I'd be a hypocrite in class, and we would tie this poem to the chair and over analyze it.

Then I would play a favorite reading by Billy Collins with the expectation that students would like poetry and Billy Collins by hearing the poet's voice - yet that would often backfire. The laugh track would cue them to the irony, but they'd complain about the "boring" tone and not appreciate the nostalgia or the ironic humor.

Instead of enjoying poetry, students wonder if this will be on the test. 

Their attention wanders to thoughts of their math test next period, or their Spanish quiz that they may have failed last period.

In a bottom-line, test-driven culture, we can no longer manipulate students to jump through hoops, especially if it's not on the test. 
Poetry is difficult to test - yes, you can identify figurative language with multiple choice questions or write essays that paraphrase analysis found online... 
Plus how do we assess poems written by students? Do we give points for a simile? Do we require punctuation?

We have to move students and shift mindsets, including our own. Poetry matters if students show us how it matters to them.

As a teacher at a new school, I was the new guy in a new culture and once again I had to rethink how I taught (and motivated) students. I found extrinsic incentives do not inspire critical thinking that is required in reading and writing.

Addicted to TED talks, I discovered and meditated on the ideas of Daniel Pink:

A summary of Daniel Pink's DRIVE: When it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does. Our current business operating system–which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators–doesn’t work and often does harm. We need an upgrade. And the science shows the way. This new approach has three essential elements:
1. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.
2. Mastery — the urge to get better and better at something that matters. 
3. Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

For more, check out Daniel Pink's full TED talk.

Recently, I started reading and thinking about his most recent book - To Sell Is Human.

Now before we grow too cynical about teachers as salesperson, consider this argument by Pink:
Here’s the thing. I think that educators are in sales. Essentially what you are doing is making an exchange with your class. You’re saying, give me your attention. In exchange, I’ll give you something else. The cash register is not ringing. It’s not denominated in dollars or cents or euros, but it is a form of sales in a way. It is an exchange...Read More
Watch this:

As teachers, we don't like to think of ourselves being in sales.
But we are. When we hear the word "sales" we cringe with the connotations...

Yet everyday we sell our subjects to students at school; however, the game has changed with the internet. Our students have changed.

We no longer hold the keys to knowledge - lectures, content, lessons - all readily available at their fingertips.

As teachers, what is our role now? 

Motivators, coaches, facilitators, guides, curators, etc.

According to Daniel Pink it's the New ABC's of attunement, buoyancy, and clarity, he writes:

If you’re preparing a lesson plan, an empty chair can remind you to see things from your students’ perspective. Attuning yourself to others – exiting your own perspective and entering theirs – is essential to moving others. One smart, easy, and effective way to get inside people’s heads is to climb into their chairs.

More important, by articulating the reasons for turning you down, the letter might reveal soft spots in what you’re presenting, which you can then work to strengthen.

Instead, think about the essence of what you’re exploring – the one percent that gives life to the other ninety-nine. Understanding that one percent, and being able to explain it to others, is the hallmark of strong minds... read more.

So now when I think of teaching a poetry lesson, I put myself in a student's chair...
and I think what does she or he like to do when asked a question: Google search. 

Why not foster intellectual curiosity? 

The fun in learning is the inquiry, discovery, and sharing what you find interesting. 

This past year, I had my freshmen explore the internet, research, write poems, and share what they learned about poetry and poems. 
Attunement and Autonomy.

In the future, I will have them write peer comments on their work - and then self-assess their learning, yet they must be more critical than complimentary in their self-assessment. Explain the thought process behind the final product. They know where their own holes are - and how much time they worked on it. As friends, peers are often too kind to point them out. Through self-assessment, students criticize areas of weakness in order to make them a future strength.  
Buoyancy and Mastery. 

If students find their own examples and write their own poems, there is clarity to poetry. 
If they share their discoveries and poems with others, especially outside their class, there's writing for a greater purpose than a grade - remember the purpose of writing is for an audience. I believe students are more concerned with impressing their peers than impressing me as the teacher. Leverage positive peer pressure to produce poetry.
Clarity and Purpose.

Selling a Sonnet Assignment; Make Poetry Personal: 
  1. Define and explain: Sonnet
  2. Find a sonnet that you wish to give to an individual, perhaps a friend or family member.
  3. Write a sonnet - explain why you are giving your individual this sonnet.
  4. Record your sonnet. (Try iMovie or vocaroo.com or other online voice recorders). 
  5. Visit your classmates blogs and comment on their posts. 
  6. Post what you learned about sonnets to your blog - reflect on the learning process of finding, sharing, and writing about sonnets. 

What is a sonnet?
Why share a sonnet?
Who writes sonnets?
Why write a sonnet?
How do you read a sonnet?
What did you learn through this assignment?

The more open-ended the better in my opinion to encourage creativity, but being vague with assignments can create anxiety - how do I get an A? Thus...

How you get an A:
Show us what you learned. 
Hit the established deadlines. 
On a scale of 1 to 10, consider where your work stands in relation to the work of  your peers.
Self-assess: what grade do you believe you earned? Make a case. 

Depending on the grade level of students,  I would give students a couple days or a week to complete this assignment. I like to use some classroom time, but not the full period. I like to give mini-lessons (on other fronts:  grammar, vocab, reading other poems, etc.) and allow time for blogging and creative writing to evolve and even percolate on the back burner so students can produce work they are proud of, while reminding them:
“Poems are never finished - just abandoned.” ― Paul ValĂ©ry  

Same can be said for blog posts...

As teachers, we need to shift our focus to 21st century skills. We need to understand how different our students are as digital natives. As a 40 year old teacher, I'm a digital immigrant that must assimilate in order to relate to my students. The internet and smartphones exist. How do we embrace this fact? 

How do we as teachers motivate and inspire our students in this new world? 

Whether it be poetry or coding, let them show us what they've learned as we foster intellectual curiosity in our teaching. 

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