Tuesday, December 20, 2016

American history through poetry

In October, the 7-8s began a deep examination of three seminal works in American poetry:

"I Hear America Singing" by Walt Whitman
"I, Too" by Langston Hughes
"Praise Song for the Day" by Elizabeth Alexander

These poems gave us a way to examine America's history of civil discourse and social challenges through the lens of the "singing" of diverse voices and the ways in which different voices have or have not been "heard" throughout history. Using poetry written at pivotal moments in history ("I Hear America Singing" during the Civil War era; "I, Too" during the Harlem Renaissance; and "Praise Song for the Day" at Obama's first inauguration), students were able to both place the art in a larger context and consider the ways in which the social and political landscape of the time is represented in the poem.

Working in small groups, students had to analyze the poems' form, content, and language; research the historical and cultural significance of the poem and poet; discuss the ways in which the poem is relevant today; and develop a lesson to engage the rest of the class in an activity based on the work itself or its message.  To accomplish these tasks, students had to do their own research (using web resources and books) and practice citing a source using MLA format.

In mid-November, the groups shared their work during our first exhibitions of the year. Belated and tremendous thanks to the parents and students (in Jason and Sam's classes) who joined us for these exhibitions. Students used their knowledge of poetic terms and concepts (such as, but not limited to, free verse, rhyme, metaphor, and simile) to analyze and discuss the poems. Presentations were informative, conversations were lively, and, as usual, we ran out of time to do all of the activities in their intended entirety.

Poetry continues to be a useful lens through which to attempt to understand the nuances of language and narrative. In these specific cases, connecting poetry to history gave us a way to examine the current political climate as part of the evolving American "song" and the ways in which the global (and local) events of our time shape our own voices.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Weekly overview - week of December 5

In English, we started the week with additional reading about two specific cases of gene editing in animals: salmon that grow significantly faster than their traditional counterparts; and mosquitoes that are specially designed to curb the spread of diseases. We mapped out arguments in favor of and opposed to genetic editing of animals as preparation for a formal debate on the topic (two, actually, since teams will be working on either salmon or mosquitoes) the week of December 19. Genetic editing and cloning are topics on the forefront of our minds as we continue reading The House of the Scorpion, which has resulted in deep thinking about the ethics and potential human or animal rights issues that genetic editing forces us to consider. We also deepened our study of ekphrastic and epistolary poetry this week with a trip to the University of Michigan Museum of Art, where we learned about art inspired by other art and wrote ekphrastic poetry of our own. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Weekly overview - week of November 21 and week of November 28

During our two-day week before Thanksgiving, we finished The Red Pencil and reflected on our "America Sings" group poetry exhibitions. We also ended the week with “Gate A-4” by Naomi Shihab Nye and talked about the poem’s relevance today (both post-election and in the spirit of the Thanksgiving/holiday season).

This week, we dove into our next novel, The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer. The award-winning science-fiction novel addresses questions about cloning, biotechnology, and bioethics. In order to gain a foundation for thinking about these topics, we read and discussed this New York Times article about gene editing in animals. Our next unit of study in science will be biology and genetics and we will use the list of vocabulary words and comprehension questions that we created/answered from the article to guide our learning in science.

We also started learning about ekphrastic and epistolary poetry as we begin to think about writing poetry inspired by or dedicated to favorite places/things/people of our own.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Weekly overview - week of November 14

From now on, I'll be sharing my weekly overviews (the summaries that go out in Walter's Friday emails) here on the blog, too.

Also, don't forget to check the photo album (right side bar) as I add photos regularly.

In English this week, students presented their group poetry exhibitions on either Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” Langston Hughes’ “I, Too,” or Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day.” Students were asked to analyze the poem, learn about the poet’s background, and examine the poem’s relevance in light of the election season and the current political climate. Using poetry as a lens through which to view America’s “songs” at different key moments (around the Civil War, during the Jim Crow era, and at the inauguration of President Obama) gave students a chance to think about our current “song” and ways in which we can encourage civil conversation among people with a wide variety of voices and opinions. We also completed The Red Pencil, a novel in verse that we’ve been reading for the last several weeks. Students have been working to identify examples of figurative language in the text and to answer comprehension questions about the plot. Finally, we wrote letters of advice to our new president as part of Teaching Tolerance’s “Students Speak” campaign.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

"I would like to ask that we begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how we start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently." (Adichie, 25).

Since the first week of school, Karl and I have spent time each week reading and discussing We Should All Be Feminists with the students. We finished this text last week. Our weekly read-aloud time comes after our all-school morning meeting, each Friday morning, when our class sits together and spends a few minutes reading, discussing, and sharing. I love this time each week.

We Should All Be Feminists is a printed adaptation of a TEDx talk that the author gave several years ago. In it, she shares her own experiences as a woman of color (in her native Nigeria and in the United States) and her ideas for ways in which we, in our actions and our language, can work against gender stereotypes (which, as she explains, can be harmful to people of all genders).

Each week, we read a section from this short book and then discussed what we'd read. Each week, without fail, we ran out of time to finish our conversation.

One student pointed out that the author uses rhetorical questions in the book as a way of forcing the reader to consider the topic in a new way. For example, Adichie asks, "What is the point of culture?" as part of a statement on how "people make culture," not the other way around (Adichie, 45-6). This question is part of a response to cultural traditions that exclude women and led us to think about the intersectionality of culture, religion, and language. We shared our own traditions and our ideas about the origins of culture, religion, and language. A student noticed that, in our class, we often felt compelled to respond to Adichie's questions with questions of our own as a way of trying to answer her initial question.

It was powerful to see the students' responses to this text. It was also powerful to watch them listen and respond to one another based on their own experiences. For example, in a section where Adichie described her tension over what to wear to teach a university course, she wrote about wanting to be herself (and wear clothes that she likes) but being concerned that students might not take her seriously in "feminine" clothes. While our students take pride in the way that they don't feel like they worry as much about being judged based on their clothes here at SK, they still shared experiences of feeling judged based on their appearances in other settings. They talked about how this felt for them and how they would like to live in a world where people aren't judged based on their appearances.

While the work of world-changing is never ending, I continue to feel confident about the young people to whom we are entrusting this task.

P.S. It is worth noting that there are a few sections of the book that we did not read aloud because we did not find the content appropriate for our class.

P.P.S. It's also worth noting that the Swedish government gave a copy of this book to every sixteen year old student in the country.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Form and content

In English, we've been talking a lot about the way you say something being just as important as how you say it. It's come up in both our classroom interactions and in our reading/writing. In class, it has to do with how we present ourselves, how we approach others, and how we respond in difficult situations. In writing, we've talked about form and content in the context of poetry and in the context of informational writing. Different types of writing serve different purposes and the context of the writing impacts both its content (which is more obvious) and its form (which is often less obvious).

Last week, I told the class that the way we say something is just as important as how we say it. One of the seventh graders challenged me (respectfully, of course) and said that my statement was a rather bold claim. She asked if I really believed that the form was as important as the content. I wrote this question on the board for us to consider: Is the way you say something really as important as what you say?

We've been sitting with this for awhile now. After returning to the conversation today, I asked students to write their responses somewhere along a continuum (from "yes, form is as important" to "no, content matters more") on the board. Some of their responses:

We also considered a rather unusual poem this week, "Hot Springs," by Davis McCombs:

Our general consensus seems to be that form matters (although the verdict seems to be that it doesn't matter as much as content) but also that context and audience are critical factors to consider. There is also an underlying social issue of who gets to speak and how the way that people are understood is related to who has more power in a situation or whose voice is more "valued." I'm sure we'll continue to return to this concept, especially through the lens of multiple narratives.

On a less "academic" note, we watched this ridiculous State Farm commercial and this ridiculous State Farm commercial as evidence to support the idea that context definitely matters.

To be continued, I suspect,


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Finding poems

Last week, we dove into our study of poems, forms, and poetic expression. We'll be looking at a new poem or form (or both) each week. Our plan, when we examine poems, is to make the implicit explicit through careful study (explication). We started with Naomi Shihab Nye's "Valentine for Ernest Mann" and discussed the concept of re-inventing (or re-framing) the ordinary to make it extraordinary.

This conversation followed on the heels of the previous day's examination of the idea of "the danger of a single story," a TED talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the idea that if we hear only a "single story" about a person or group of people, we risk a "critical misunderstanding" of that person or group.  "Valentine for Ernest Mann" pushed us to think about the danger of accepting any sort of single narrative and the way that there are always stories, poems, and beauty to be found in our everyday lives.

After listening to me read the poem to them and then reading the poem silently themselves (twice - once all the way through and then again, to underline compelling words and phrases), several students read the poem aloud. We talked about which parts we liked, why those parts resonated with us, and how we might all live in a way that allows us to continue to find poems lurking about in unexpected places. E.H., one of our seventh graders, pointed out that there's a contradiction in the poem: if ordinary things already contain extraordinary beauty (if we just look at them differently), then why would we need to re-invent them to make them beautiful? We sat with this contradiction and tried to decipher the speaker's intent.

I then asked students to look around the classroom for an ordinary object and examine it closely, find its alternative narrative, and, if they felt so compelled, re-invent it (or just look at it differently) to see it in an extraordinary way.

Samples of their work --

N.C. on the corkboard:

E.W. on the second floor of our school:

O.S. on the wire rack that holds our clipboards:

E.H. on the light switch:

M.P. on maps:

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems.

With continued plans to find poems,


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Welcome, families.

Dear SK families,

It's hard to believe that summer is almost over and we're gearing up for another magical school year here at Summers-Knoll. I'm overjoyed to be joining Karl as 7-8 homeroom teacher and am very much looking forward to welcoming the students in two weeks.

Until then, please do not hesitate to contact Karl or me with questions.

To a wonderful year,