Posted by: Tom Triumph | April 30, 2017

227. An American Sunrise: Joy Marjo

My mother always said that I thought too big.

My voice is this blog and my teaching, both of which are unremarkable (in my mind).  Yet, I remind myself daily of the novels that have no publisher, the teacher recognition I do not earn or the public policy I am subjected to because I dare not run for office and dictate the change.  I am told I make a difference daily, but as my mother notes I think too big for my ordinary life and it makes my heart sad, daily.  I am sad at my own hands.

To that end, I “get” Steve Bannon, one of those behind Donald Trump.  A part of me was that in high school and college–the same fiery consumer of destruction and revolution and rebuilding that followed the rise (and fall) of punk music and Reagan–but my logic that fixed any situation stopped with the heart.  I could not kick anyone in the teeth.  The Machiavellian solution of cutting off the leg to save the body stopped me–I could never cut the leg.  What I have found is that few who want to save the leg make it–on the right or the left.  Instead, most Americans seem to be okay with letting the patient die, in the name of compassion or tough love.  

I write a blog and teach and raise two kids and feel sad that our politics are run by surgeons.

Joy Marjo points out below, “We are still America.”  9780393345438It is, in my reading, acknowledging that each of us holds an ideal.  But, living in the real world, we are frustrated that in a democracy that ideal is one of many, competing and working themselves out.

As such, I offer the following ideas as a declaration (you can skip below for the poem).  It is my token in the fountain, to ease my own need for voice:

Health Insurance: Universal Medicaid. Private insurance supplements to allow “perks” such as doctor choice and the like. Teacher contract negotiations then pivot towards this secondary market instead of the simple desire to stay healthy (or alive) on the taxpayer’s dime.  No one deserves to lose their home or livelihood due to illness.

Flat Tax: The only deduction is the poverty rate.  If you make $30,000 subtract $22,500 (2010 number) and pay flat tax on $7,500.  Earn 1,000,000 pay taxes on $977,500.

Schools and Prisons: Public, run by and paid for by public money (taxes).  The federal government sets guidelines (Common Core) and measures (i.e., SBAC) but lets the states address where they fall short.  When it persists, the feds begin to get involved.

Public school is the strength of our nation.  It is the great equalizer.  And prisons are how we are measured as people–punishing or rehabilitators?  I choose the latter.

Regulation: Like schools and prisons, each department creates a floor, measures and, if necessary, enforces.  Using the Bill of Rights as our model, simple lines are enduring.

Enforcement: Our justice system should be based on the growth of the individual.  It should be geared towards teaching those ready to learn and turn a new leaf.  That said, white collar criminals need to do time instead of allowing their companies to pay fines–if you take the bonus, you take the responsibilities.  Let them grow, but start that process behind bars.

Military: The National Guard should be the centerpiece, with part-time citizen soldiers doing the bulk of the work.  It should be centered around humanitarian work abroad, manned by soldiers with appropriate equipment from areas in America afflicted with similar issues at home.  For example, hurricane relief specialists coming from the Gulf states would respond effectively to disasters in the Caribbean.  Californians might be called on for Asian earthquake relief.  As they experience the worst disasters the world might offer, they bring that expertise home to help neighbors when the unthinkable happens.  Beyond that, we are a republic not an empire–we need to contract a bit.

Abortion and Gun Rights: I cannot help but feel that the battle over abortion is about controlling women, even if many against it are earnest in their beliefs.  Such draconian measures and sentiments would not be public debate if this was only about life.  And if life is precious, why all the guns?  I will trust women and gun owners to be moral in their private lives and decisions, and allow only what is necessary for the individual to defend their own life.

Deficit: Governments are not households, so our systems of spending differ, too.  That said, we have created a system dependent of deficits.  We should live within our means, starting with shoring up the taxes (above) and cutting the military as our obligations shrink.

Immigration: A nation controls its borders.  Our greatest strength is our diversity and those who join us from abroad.  The sweet spot is legal immigration.  Let’s balance taking in a refugee for every illegal immigrant deported.

Data and Facts: The federal government should collect data and make it public.  It should tie funding for schools, the police, highways and the like to data.  Data about race, gender and poverty should be an accessible no-brainer, but we have nothing here.  That NASA and the NOAA have so much trust tells you the power of the truth.

Rule of Law: It should go without saying that checks-and-balances are important, but apparently not everyone seems to agree at this time.  We cannot make exceptions.  Once this is compromised going back is very, very hard.

I could go on, but I won’t.  Each of us has not only a view, but issues that mean more to use than others.

What does America mean to your students?  I am finding that the gap between perceptions and reality are where the learning goes.  In a recent unit on Africa, my students were filled with stereotypes.  But in every stereotype is a kernel of truth.  Finding that truth, and shining light on the rest taught them more than a few maps and current events could.  Honor their experience so far and, like me, have them solve everything.  Your students might be able to cut off the leg to save the body, but they might also find a cure that makes such surgery unnecessary

Note: It is unclear to me if this is a prose poem or if enjambment is intentional.  I tried to respect my source’s formatting, the Poetry Foundation.  Fun Fact: The last word of each line in the poem comes from Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” (a poem I love, and a technique being called a “shovel poem” hereand more related to Harjo’s “Fun Fact” here.

An American Sunrise
Joy Harjo

We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves. We
were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.
It was difficult to lose days in the Indian bar if you were straight.
Easy if you played pool and drank to remember to forget. We
made plans to be professional — and did. And some of us could sing
so we drummed a fire-lit pathway up to those starry stars. Sin
was invented by the Christians, as was the Devil, we sang. We
were the heathens, but needed to be saved from them — thin
chance. We knew we were all related in this story, a little gin
will clarify the dark and make us all feel like dancing. We
had something to do with the origins of blues and jazz
I argued with a Pueblo as I filled the jukebox with dimes in June,
forty years later and we still want justice. We are still America. We
know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die

Posted by: Tom Triumph | April 12, 2017

226. Flag Salute: Esther Poper

My wife was preparing her unit on the Harlem Renaissance and I came up short–I could only name about three artists involved.  Now, I can’t name that many writers from most literary movements, but when I called up Wikipedia I was at a loss to even recognize names beyond Hughes or Hurston (so, really, two names).

I am sure I’m not alone.

Tonight, I spent a bit of time looking up the bios and poems of a few.  Ms. Poper stood out because she self published a chapbook of poems as a teen titled, “Thoughtless Thinks by a Thinkless Thoughter”.  Great title.  I stuck with her because she is blunt.  Go to this link and check out “Blasphemy–American Style“, where i also got “Flag Salute.”

Why?  Although “Flag Salute” is more “appropriate” than “Blashphemy–American Style” I’m not sure that it is.  I’d probably get fewer parents asking questions with the former, but I get no letters doing a bit of Whitman.  What, then, is the point of poems?  Of art?  How do you honor someone like Poper if not to read and discuss her work in class.

I am a white teacher teaching, mostly, white kids.  What business is it of mine to bring the “n-word” into the classroom with as much force and meaning as Poper gives it?  Am I using it right?  Can I?  I’m not sure.  But I also not using it–of not giving Poper her voice seems wrong, too.  So, do I not use “Blashpehmy–American Style” and stick with “Flag Salute”?  Perhaps just stick to Hughes’ “America” or “A Dream Deferred”?  Perhaps stick to the Fireside Poets?

So many worms in that can.

Fun fact: Poper was a teacher for most of her life.  That made me think, perhaps, that she understood that these poems are difficult to hear, but essential.

My suggestion is to discuss with students what is uncomfortable for them to talk about?  What are the taboos.  Then, talk about why society sets those in place.  For some topics, there is a good reason.  Sometimes its the words used, or the argument made, but the topic is one worth exploring more.  Create a list.  Then, next steps.

Flag Salute
Esther Poper

“I pledge allegiance to the flag”–
“They dragged him naked
“Through the muddy streets,
“A feeble-minded black boy!
“And the charge? Supposed assault
“Upon an aged woman!
“”Of the United States of America”–
“One mile they dragged him
“Like a sack of meal,
“A rope around his neck,
“A bloody ear
“Left dangling by the patriotic hand
“Of Nordic youth! (A boy of seventeen!)
“”And to the Republic for which it stands”–
“And then they hanged his body to a tree,
“Below the window of the county judge
“Whose pleadings for that battered human flesh
“Were stifled by the brutish, raucous howls
“Of men, and boys, and women with their babes,
“Brought out to see the bloody spectacle
“Of murder in the style of ’33!
” (Three thousand strong, they were!)
“One Nation, Indivisible”–
To make the tale complete
They built a fire–
What matters that the stuff they burned
Was flesh–and bone–and hair–
And reeking gasoline!
“With Liberty–and Justice”–
They cut the rope in bits
And passed them out,
For souvenirs, among the men and boys!
The teeth no doubt, on golden chains
Will hang
About the favored necks of sweethearts, wives,
And daughters, mothers, sisters, babies, too!
“For ALL!”

Posted by: Tom Triumph | April 1, 2017

225. April Midnight: Arthur Symons

Another poem and poet I do not know.  Welcome to National Poetry Month!

The Victorian poem Arthur Symons was the choice of our local high school’s Poetry Out Loud representative, Casey Ober.  She went to the state competition and made the Top 10 regional finalists.  She coupled it with Suzanne Buffam’s Enough”, a pair of starkly different offerings.

There are many things I don’t like about Poetry Out Loud, but the same could be said about poetry slams or shape poems.  All three, though, have more going for them than their faults.  For Poetry Out Loud, I like that they memorize the poems.  Perform the poems.  And, most important, pick poems that mean something to them that they did not write.  Writing is important, but so is finding the words of those who came before us.

Click Poetry Out Loud to get to the site.  Check out the videos and advice and lists.  You  can get random poems to read generated by clicking hereYou  can get random poems to read generated by clicking here.  Know that Poetry Out Loud is for high school students, so some poems might be difficult or of a mature nature.

As for Symons, I’d challenge my student brood to pick out a single element that makes something true.  Spring.  Chopping wood.  Baking.  Twisting an ankle.  Capture the experience with words and phrases.  Then order them to create an image.  Finally, tell a story that extends from the image, not from the beginning or end.

April Midnight
Arthur Symons

Side by side through the streets at midnight,
Roaming together,
Through the tumultuous night of London,
In the miraculous April weather.

Roaming together under the gaslight,
Day’s work over,
How the Spring calls to us, here in the city,
Calls to the heart from the heart of a lover!

Cool to the wind blows, fresh in our faces,
Cleansing, entrancing,
After the heat and the fumes and the footlights,
Where you dance and I watch your dancing.

Good it is to be here together,
Good to be roaming,
Even in London, even at midnight,
Lover-like in a lover’s gloaming.

You the dancer and I the dreamer,
Children together,
Wandering lost in the night of London,
In the miraculous April weather.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | March 14, 2017

224. Enough: Suzanne Buffam

51jgnfph60l-_sx343_bo1204203200_Suzanne Buffam’s Enough”, along with Victorian poet Arthur Symons “April Midnight”, was the choice of our local high school’s Poetry Out Loud representative, Casey Ober.  She went to the state competition and made the Top 10 regional finalists.

What was most interesting, in the interview I read, was her passion for the poem.  Ober enjoyed Symons, but Buffam spoke to her.  A junior in high school and she already had enough anger and longing and emotion and whatever for Buffam to speak to her.

That’s poetry.

Power.  A voice.  Have students figure out what they want to say.  They like to complain, but when they drill down they don’t know what they have to complain about.  “What are you rebelling against?” they asked Marlon Brando’s Johnny in the classic The Wild One.  His response: “What do you got?”

Teens.  Am I right?!

See if they CAN identify their angst, or happiness or joy or ennui.  Name it.  In a few words, capture the cause.  Then, capture the solution.  In a few words.  Move them around and freeze it.  Not a poem, but something.  Perhaps close to understanding their own skin.

Suzanne Buffam

I am wearing dark glasses inside the house
To match my dark mood.

I have left all the sugar out of the pie.
My rage is a kind of domestic rage.

I learned it from my mother
Who learned it from her mother before her

And so on.
Surely the Greeks had a word for this.

Now surely the Germans do.
The more words a person knows

To describe her private sufferings
The more distantly she can perceive them.

I repeat the names of all the cities I’ve known
And watch an ant drag its crooked shadow home.

What does it mean to love the life we’ve been given?
To act well the part that’s been cast for us?

Wind. Light. Fire. Time.
A train whistles through the far hills.

One day I plan to be riding it.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | February 4, 2017

223. Meditations on Statistical Method: J.V. Cunningham

Unfortunately, too many English and liberal arts majors throw their hands up and say, “I can’t do math.”  Idiots.  First, you can do math.  Second, that just gives license to all of the STEM kids to dismiss your teaching of poetry in a “why do we need to know this” way.  Don’t go there.

Let me be brief.

First, data should drive instruction.  If we believe in a growth mindset, data should be used to measure a baseline and then measure progress (if you don’t believe in a growth mindset, please get out of education).  What you do in the classroom should have an impact on student learning.  That’s what we are paid for.

When our school board planned to change how literacy intervention was delivered, I was asked to help craft a slide presentation defending how it had been done.  When I asked for data–some measure that the program worked–I was told there was none.  Instead, I was asked “How can you measure a child’s love of reading?” by one of the instructors.  Well, you can measure how many books they read independently, how much time they spend reading each week, or even how they rate the books they read.  None of those are perfect, but they begin to ask the question.

If you look, you will find numerous programs around your school that have little to no data showing their efficacy.  On a committee to create an alternative program (I began my teaching career in behavioral programs, so I get tapped for such initiatives), I was shown a model program at a local 5-8 school.  When I asked how many students “graduated” back to the mainstream, they had no answer.  In fact, none had.  The program was a warehouse for problem kids.  When I researched data or papers on such programs, I found (at the time) little existed.  I did find one interesting study that explained the phenomena of no data: When a kid succeeds in an alternative program the program is praised, and when they don’t the kids are blamed (“What can you do with those kids?  You tried.”).  Data tends to reveal just how wasteful such programs are–in dollars, time and in wasted youth.

In your own classroom, you might be teaching skills that kids already know.  You might also think they “got it” when they don’t.  Our school (and state) have embraced Proficiency Based Learning (PBL).  If you are not using data, look it up.  Formative and summatives.  No zero.  Redo work until it’s right.  It is transformative.

Second, data drives everything you do regardless of your awareness.  Take the schedule.  One of the issues in our middle school is that students pick up new subjects (Band, World Language) and don’t lose old ones.  Where does the time come from?  When they diced that out, the kids had a lot of transitions–fourteen over a seven hour day.  Adding it up, kids spent more time in the hallways over the course of a single day than they did learning Art in the week.  Data–time–revealed the issue.

Look at your own class.  With the push towards Project Based Learning (PBL, not to be confused with the other PBL) teachers really need to question the value of time spent.  For example, we had students create maps of Europe.  Some spent a full hour coloring them with colored pencils.  Did that add to their understanding of geography?  No, but it took an hour away from their working on their reading.  A basic question to ask is if the time put into something will get the value.

Time is a resource.  It is valuable.  Forget dollars and computers and supplies, time is the resource that helps students most.  Just having time to read can do wonders.  And we measure that in minutes.  In days.  Twenty minutes of Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) over one hundred and eighty days equals sixty hours of reading.  For a kid who refused to read, that’s gold.

Now, here is where I make my pitch for my other site: Educational Statistical Fun!  It can be wonky, but not too wonky.  Ideas.  New ways of looking at your work.

Don’t put on a sad math face.  If you really want to, go down the rabbit hole of math and poetry here and here and a video here.  Or just look out at your class; can you tell who “gets it” or who is progressing?  Is the project you are doing worth the time, or having effect at all?

Meditation on Statistical Method
J.V. Cunningham

Plato, despair!
We prove by norms
How numbers bear
Empiric forms,
How random wrong
Will average right
If time be long
And error slight,
But in our hearts
Curves and departs
To infinity.
Error is boundless.
Nor hope nor doubt,
Though both be groundless,
Will average out.


Posted by: Tom Triumph | January 22, 2017

Use Children’s Picture Books

Yes, Mike Mulligan dabs.


We discovered this fact during our unit on the Industrial Revolution.  Half of the students were given Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House while the other half read her Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.  Each was asked to tell us if Burton thought industrialization and development were a good thing or a bad thing.

Outcome: Little House readers overwhelming said that Burton saw development as a bad thing, while Mike Mulligan readers were split, some refusing to even come down on a side.

Before they could make their Claim, they first had to gather Evidence.  And that’s the process for any response to literature: Evidence, Analysis and then Claim.  The analogy I use is a police investigation.  When a crime is committed, the police first gather Evidence (fingerprints, witnesses, statements, etc.).  Then, they Analyze them (“We have a witness who saw Sally enter the house around the time of the crime.”  Analysis: Sally was near the crime and could have done it.).  Only then is a Claim made: Sally is the perp.

In the case of Burton’s books, I had them specifically look at the use of color, the emotional arc of the protagonist(s), and the use of proper nouns.  Not only was I leading them towards quality Evidence, but in doing so they were forced to look at text features.

This is where using children’s picture books make a difference.  Unlike text and chapter books, picture books are all text features.  With so little in the way of text, authors need to use font, visual balance, color, illustrations and more to tell their story.  Often, the stories are emotional as well as plot driven.

This is quite different from the text and chapter books offered to kids prior to their reading young adult titles.  Many students are used to series books, from The Magic Treehouse to Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  These are fine titles, but an analysis on them is often difficult for students.  Not so with picture books.

There are several blogs and books on analysis of children’s books.  I’ll pitch this Burton biographical film Virginia Lee Burton: A Sense of Place, which gives plenty to think about in terms of criticism and style.

As important, children’s books are excellent ways to teach content.  Not only are they accessible, but publishers have been attacking familiar topics in interesting ways.  We often forget this when student reading levels move far beyond these titles.  Don’t.  My Burton lesson was not the whole curriculum, nor are these two titles textbooks.  They did, though, make students think.



Posted by: Tom Triumph | November 28, 2016

222. The Magic of Technology: Aneta Brodski

Several years ago, I stumbled upon a YouTube thread where a deaf woman in her twenties was signing/discussing…. I don’t know.  I don’t sign.  There were no subtitles.  Whatever she was passionately putting out into the world was not for me.

It was a bit of a revelation, because I think of everything being for me.  It might be dull or miss the mark, but doesn’t everyone put media out there for the widest possible audience?  Why else YouTube?

Not. For. Me.  As in, the woman did not care or think about me at all; she had another audience and I did not matter.

The video was fascinating, though.  Silent, except for the sound of hands slapping while signing, and the occasional grunt or exhausted breath.  I was forced to focus on facial expressions, the punctuation of gestures and to appreciate the pauses.

Our class is reading J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as part of a unit on “Magic in the Industrial Age.”  Why, we ask, is magic so appealing as more and more of our world is automated?  We look at England’s Industrial Revolution and then Harry Potter.  Why, for example, do they still use quills?  But they take a train, wear sneakers and mix other modern things with the ancient?  Rowling has tapped into something.

If you have not been listening to the Imaginary Worlds podcast, I highly recommend it.  This episode on Magical Thinking go me thinking about the limits of magic, and why it appeals to us.  After our study of the Enlightenment, the different takes on magic made sense.

Seeking a fresh look at technology, and how it can “seem like magic”, I came onto Aneta Brodski’s “The Magic of Technology”.  She is deaf, but technology has changed how she is able to interact with the world.  Check it out (WordPress no longer seems to  embed video, or I’m doing something wrong–click the link above).

My suggestion: Turn off the sound.  Jump to about the 28 second mark (where she begins) and let the words at the bottom clue students in on what she is saying.  I find the beatnick music and translator’s voice off putting (in that it is a bit cliche), but it’s also important to let Brodski tell her poem as she intended it–in sign.

Of course, it might be condescending to take the audio away–I don’t know.  Check out this PBS documentary about Brodski to help you decide (there is a discussion on the topic).  And, just to give you something else to throw at your students, check out this documentary, Sound and Fury, about implants and what it means to the deaf community–my students are always riveted and love discussion what “normal” is (a phrase we overuse and take for granted) and what choice they would want their parents to make for them (or they’d make for their child).

Perhaps, ask your students which performance they find most compelling to THEM.  I stress THEM because poetry is about the audience–the reader–and the poet creates, not mere access, but magic.

Check it out.



Posted by: Tom Triumph | October 2, 2016

221. The Art of Making Possible: Nancy Scheibner

Is hope trite?

My sister shared a parody pro-Hilary Clinton piece, which took me down the rabbit hole I’m sharing now because it ended with this poem.  Back in 1969, when the real Clinton was Welsley’s valedictorian speaker, she, too, ended her speech with the last lines of “The Art of Making Possible” (and, being a good scholar, she attributed the author, Nancy Scheibner, who was a classmate).  It is exactly the type of nice, hopeful poem an idealist student might throw into a graduation speech.

In searching out the entire poem all that came up was Clinton, with Scheibner a mention as the writers made other points.  At best, I got those last few lines but not the whole poem.  Eventually, at the Poetry Foundation’s (excellent) site I got a mediocre essay by Alexander Provan titled “Hillary Clinton’s Poetry Challenge”.  

Warning: It rambles a bit, and I’m not sure the point of much of it.  It feels like Provan wants to take a political stand, but feels it is not his place, so waffles.  Or he can’t make his point, and pads the essay.  Whatever.  It is a document of its time: 2008.  Obama’s “Hope” was destroying Clinton’s coronation and the knives were out.  At the time, Clinton, quoting Mario Cuomo, warned that, “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.”

My feelings exactly.  Full disclosure, I was pro-Hillary in 2008 and thought of Obama as a nice guy, but a lightweight candidate at a time that required a sledgehammer.  I still feel I’m correct, and lament how much more would have been accomplished if that bulldozer Clinton juggernaut had been leading our nation.  But, I digress.

Let’s take Cuomo’s analysis at face value and ask: Can we govern with poetry?  If Clinton’s pointed admonishment of Obama being poetry is taken as fact, has his words governed us well?

On the whole, yes.  Beyond those who think Obama is a Muslim devil born abroad, even those who disagree with him like him.  He, and Michelle, make many proud to be American and see the role government can play in the public good.  It inspires, and after eight years people still care what he thinks about things because he frames it well.  Even if the laws are not as transformative as I’d like (especially that first year) our nation is in a good position.

Over that same time, Clinton has been hammered for her prose.  She does not smile.  People don’t trust her.  Don’t like her.  After proposing universal health care over twenty years ago, being a senator and Secretary of State, they won’t let go of the emails.  Having been cleared of Benghazi, and it being pointed out that Republican presidents suffered much worse similar disasters, people still want her to go to jail for it.  As president (if she makes it), I suspect people will begrudgingly take the meal (metaphor) she provides and grumble that it both tastes horrible and the serving is too small.

I don’t know if Clinton was ever poetry.  I suspect not.  But poetry drives her.  Hope has always been a theme.  Let us take a moment to celebrate that under many engineers, mathematicians, pipe fitters, and academics lie someone for whom poetry matters.

The Art of Making Possible
Nancy Scheibner

My entrance into the world of so-called “social problems”
Must be with quiet laughter, or not at all.
The hollow men of anger and bitterness
The bountiful ladies of righteous degradation
All must be left to a bygone age.
And the purpose of history is to provide a receptacle
For all those myths and oddments
Which oddly we have acquired
And from which we would become unburdened
To create a newer world
To translate the future into the past.
We have no need of false revolutions
In a world where categories tend to tyrannize our minds
And hang our wills up on narrow pegs.
It is well at every given moment to seek the limits in our lives.
And once those limits are understood
To understand that limitations no longer exist.
Earth could be fair. And you and I must be free
Not to save the world in a glorious crusade
Not to kill ourselves with a nameless gnawing pain
But to practice with all the skill of our being
The art of making possible.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | June 19, 2016

220. Good Bones: Maggie Smith

What makes something go viral?51bltjineel-_sx321_bo1204203200_

It’s a good question to ask your students.  If you ask them about “Literature with a capital ‘L'” they won’t know what you’re talking about.  Classics?  Old books?  Books librarians shove in your hand, that have gold seals on them and are not good but good for you?  Personally, I cannot bring myself to read “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” because it looked educational and had that seal.  When it was made into an after school special, earnest people told me I should watch it.  It has the same cover now as it did then, and I have a visceral reaction to what is probably a great read.

Their good books are different than your good books.  Fact.  As an adult, you’ve seen that face when you put the book in their hands.  Blank compliance.  A tinge of sad dread?  At best, the bookmark barely moves from SSR to SSR.  At worst, you find the book abandoned by the end of class.  A few might acknowledge that this book or that assigned one was “okay”, but for the most part what they “discover” is much more relevant than what you put in their hands.  Are “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Big Nate” really more compelling stories than “Hatchet” or “Summer I Turned Pretty”?  To a kid who hates school, yes.


That’s a good question; one that leads to the reason we read.  For distraction?  Yes, but….  To give us voice.  Sometimes, like Greg Heffley or “Big Nate”, the reader can come up with an anecdote of equal humor and truth (not consistently and with great endurance, though).  Sometimes, not.  Especially when a feeling or experience is new.  Then we seek a voice for that thing we cannot yet name.

Middle school is all about new feelings and experiences.  Jeff Kinney is the voice of that.  So is Riordan, Rowling, Paulsen, Duncan, Hinton and Pierce.

But why does Suzanne Collins enjoy continued success while other books (better books?) come and go?  What happened to “Cat Who Ate My Gymsuit”, “The Pigman” or “How to Sue Your Parents for Malpractice?”  Their covers look tired, but they are good stories.  Right?  While clearing a shelf, I came across the “Zanbanger” series–I loved it, but cannot get a kid to even try it.  Since I was a teen I’ve wanted to read “Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich” because it seemed like something I wasn’t supposed to read (too “ethnic” for my preppy town), but my students can’t get past the cover and that they’ve never heard of a “hero” sandwich.

In the wake of the Orlando mass shooting, Maggie Smith‘s poem “Good Bones” went viral.  It spoke for many who could not find the words.  Sadly, this tragedy will pass and, unfortunately, be replaced by another by the time you read this.  Is the poem still relevant?  Does it still speak?


Focus on what it means to be a child.  Now, what has changed as an adolescent?  What are the secrets that parents have kept from you?  Keep from you (perhaps they don’t know that you know)?  Are there things you know but you know they don’t want you to know about (sex, drugs, dating, the truth about Santa….)?  What are you discovering?

Now, look at what you consume.  What do you seek out?  How does the one question–the secrets before you–line up with that media you seek and enjoy?

How does it speak truth?

Good Bones
Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | March 17, 2016

219. Beam 10: Ronald Johnson

Is it cheating to steal part of a post from another teacher and just stick it into my post?

The Poetry Foundation published a piece by Eric Selinger titled “Ten Poems I like to Teach“.  Some of the poems are familiar, and others are not.  At the very least, it provoked a lively comments section.

But this last choice was an odd one.  A puzzle.  Science fiction, which often gets the short end of the respect stick even as students eat it up.  Short.  Part of a book-length novel.  Here’s what Selinger writes:

10. “Beam 10” of ARK by Ronald Johnson

Science and poetry never had a more playful, fertile fling than in ARK, a book-length work by the poet (and acclaimed cookbook writer) Ronald Johnson. I like to give my students “Beam 10” of this architectural poem, a little two-line riddle or treasure hunt, like “Blue’s Clues” for grown-ups. Here’s the poem:

daimon diamond monad I
Adam Kadmon in the sky

Yup, that’s all of it. Have one group start by looking up the words they don’t know. Have some think about science: What are diamonds? Where do they come from? What’s their relationship to stars, and thus to hydrogen (which enters the poem via “monad”). Set your punsters loose on Kadmon—aka Caedmon, the original English poet—and tell anyone who starts humming the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to go look up where the name Lucy comes from. While they’re at it, have them investigate how that name fits into a poem that mentions Adam, the original human of the Bible, and “Adam Kadmon,” the original, unfallen Heavenly Man of the Kabbalah. (They’ll want to report to the science group tomorrow.) Anyone who hears the Alphabet Song or Blake’s “The Tyger” in these lines is right, which is fun, and I promise that you’ll never sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” again without hearing a little answering voice: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star / How I wonder what you are.” “daimon diamond monad I / Adam Kadmon in the sky.” OK—enough clues! Now go play.

Using Selinger gives me an excuse to drop this video in.  Enjoy:

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