Sunday, March 15, 2015

In the news...

Writing educator Nancie Atwell has just won the Varkey Foundation's $1 million Global Teacher Prize! Now that's something to aspire to...

Baby has landed

She's here! The reason my blog has had zero entries in the month of February is because this little bundle of energy has quite distracted me...

Asha Gale Ali, born February 6, 2015
weighing 5lbs 3oz
17 inches long
perfectly healthy

The problem with math

Guest speaker and poet Deanna Young came into our class a few weeks ago, but I'm just now getting around to posting this. I'll admit that I'm not a huge fan of poetry; I find poetry to be hard to access, too full of imagery and too short to be fulfilling. But Deanna challenged us to think about how poetry can be used across the curriculum to promote student growth. She gave us ten minutes to write our own poem, and included several criteria as guidance: 
- the title had to be either "The beauty of math is..." or "The problem with math is..."
- we couldn't include any numbers or figures
- the poem had to be 11 lines long
- we had to include at least one emotion
- we had to include at least two colors

I was so struck by this assignment and by the work I created that I saved my poem that was written on the back of a scrap sheet of paper. Alas, in the shuffle of the past few weeks I can no longer find it, but I'll do my best to recreate it here. 

At the time, I was at the tail end of an absolutely beautiful pregnancy that had been somewhat marred by over-cautious doctors: the baby was measuring small and while all of our tests came back reassuringly positive they insisted on monitoring me very closely and moving me into the "at risk" category, which only stressed me out further. I left every weekly checkup in tears. 

The problem with math is
that statistics don't have feelings.
They can't say
whether my baby will be
happy or sad;
brown or white—
so don't measure me
against a bell curve
or worry me unnecessarily,
because the life inside me
is just perfect. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Slam! in action

While I’ve never been particularly drawn to poetry, I think slam or spoken word is a fascinating text type that I’d love to explore more. My first experience with slam was about seven years ago at a French cabaret-type soirée featuring artists and storytellers of all kinds. It was a fundraiser dedicated to reducing illiteracy around Montreal, and one of the artists just mopped the floor with her 20-minute rhyming rant about the state of education in Quebec. Before that night I’d never experienced a performance that existed as a hybrid between the spheres of rap, oral storytelling, and classical poetry.
What I like about slam is that it speaks to students with myriad backgrounds; it is not an exclusive, elitist, or pretentious art form. It can be dirty. It wiggles and jives along the line of standard/nonstandard language and allows the writer to feel more at home using structures and vocabulary choices that might otherwise receive a slap on the wrist. Slam also is an excellent vehicle to encourage social critique and introspective self-analysis. As Bronwen Low notes in her article Slammin’ School, slam is very often a platform for deep social reflections—in her experience, students’ slam poetry tends to explore topics that are outside the conventional themes of love and interpersonal relationships so cliché among teens today. Slam helps students to play with grammar conventions and vocabulary choices, and it allows them to express hidden angsts, frustrations, and desires in a way that essays or narrative fiction cannot do.
Low talks a lot about how slam can open up a safe space for marginalized communities to voice their critiques. One student noted that minority (in her case, black) students tend to have a better cultural awareness and incorporate themes of injustice into their work. Central to slam’s power is the fact that it is a performed art. Student poets feed off the reactions of the audience and use dynamics and intonation to further hone their craft.
While I’d love to explore the use of slam poetry in my content area, I’m not certain how to actually teach slam other than modeling or using exemplars. I am not a poet, and I don’t think I’d be a great mentor. As a second language specialist I am really drawn to the theatrics of the language and can see lots of rich discussions involving synonyms and rhyming words. But how do you teach cadence and rhythm of language to L2 learners who can’t hear syllable stress?

Guest Poet

My friend Mary is a geotechnical engineer who writes poetry about science. She has been published on several occasions and is a good role model for creating poetry in content areas. This is one of her most recent poems.

La poésie de slam

In French, just as in English, slam poetry is riding a wave of popularity. There are classes dedicated to the art, soirées organized by local schools or coffee shops, and even an international competition between Quebec and France. Below is a slam poem submitted to the TV5Monde competition that speaks of the nature of writing. I found it very touching.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Teaching Writing According to Vygotsky

I was reading for another class and came across this passage, which I think ties nicely into the themes of this class:

     Vygotsky identified reasons for the child's difficulty in learning writing that also explain its contribution to developing thinking. First, it does not reproduce oral speech but is a unique speech function. It requires a high degree of abstraction that "uses representations of words rather than the words themselves." In other words, "written speech is the algebra of speech."   
     Second, it is a conversation with a sheet of paper rather than another individual. Therefore, the child must conceptualize the receiver of the message. Third, the motivations for oral speech are present prior to conversing with another, for example. However, the motivations for writing are less accessible to the child when he begins to learn to write. In written speech, the writer must create the situation. Finally, in choosing words and phrases, unlike most oral speech, the process is intentional and must reflect expected syntactic sequence.
     Therefore, instruction in writing is one of the most important subjects in the child's early school years because it requires deliberateness and analysis. Learning to write assists the child to develop the foundational cognitive functions of conscious awareness and control of one's thinking processes.
     Some writing curricula in the early grades address the motivational and deliberateness of the process. Provided are uninterrupted reading and writing time; access to books, picture books, and magazines; opportunities for other students to serve as an audience for early drafts; and publication of the children's favorite pieces.

Gredler, M.E. (2005). Lev Vygotsky's Cultural-Historical Theory of Psychological
     Development. In Learning and Instruction: Theory into Practice, p. 328-329. Upper
     Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Merrill, Prentice Hall.