Posted by: Tom Triumph | December 13, 2015

218. At the California Institute of Technology: Richard Brautigan

This generation is picky.

No connection is fast enough, or response quick enough coming.  I cannot tell if the irrupting is poor upbringing, indulgence or simply not knowing what delayed gratification is or feels like.

Unlike my peers, I do not believe television and computers have ruined this generation.  My students do not need to be constantly entertained.  They seek authenticity.  If they cannot get it, then entertainment will suffice to dull the moments between when they control the environment.

It is, then, our job to teach them to move beyond.  To seek and find authenticity.  My son was assigned to find out what a candidate’s position was on gun control.  Given an hour, he did it in five minutes; he just Googled “What is _________’s position on gun control.”  At home, he complained that class was boring.  We laid out ten questions about the candidate, his track history with the issue, what the issue even was, its origins….  He went to school the next day with more than sixty minutes of seeking.

I teach them why The Hunger Games is Literature while Divergent is entertaining pap, or they argue the opposite.  We seek out something more–something deeper.  Art is more.  Art is authentic and not merely a distraction.  I teach that.

It is, though, the small moments where the dissatisfaction of youth plays out.

When we write, I allow students to listen to music.  It helps block out distractions.  But students refuse to bring in their own headphones, or even earbuds.  They want the school to provide.  While exploring, I noted that our library had two milk crates of ancient headphones.  Mono, with 1/4 inch jacks, my query coincided with plans to toss them.  From Amazon I bought 1/4″ to 3.5 mm adapters.  Cheap.  I strongly suggest seeking out the bowels of the media center for such gems and adapting them to modern use; it tends to be cheap and practical.  We now have 30 pairs of headphones to lend.    

The kids hate them.  

Hard plastic padding around the ears carrying mono tinny sound, they will not be moved to bring their own yet they will not use what is offered.  I use them and they are perfectly fine for a distraction.  Retro cool.

My sister the psychology professor says a colleague studies the word “bored” and its use among adolescents. When used, it does not mean things are dull–it could be they are confused, tired, the subject repeats, the material is overly familiar, they need food, feel sick….  I keep this in mind when my students complain about being bored.  “I have just laid out a concept that has engaged the greatest minds of history, and you find it boring.”  Perhaps it is hunger issues.

Bored three times in a day?  Perhaps it’s you.  Bored people are boring.

What bores us and why?  Yet, people study that boring thing.  Create it.  Devote their lives to it.  Why?  Find out three things of interest.  Write an ode!

What is “interesting”?  Is there a universal declaration among the class?  How might another look at that activity?  A great writing prompt right there!  Why is kicking a ball more entertaining than hitting it with a stick?  That flash game vs. a book?  With the holidays coming, and the cold outside, the world will shrink.  But it won’t be boring.

Just filled with boring kids.

At the California Institute of Technology
Richard Brautigan

I don’t care how God-damn smart
these guys are: I’m bored.

It’s been raining like hell all day long
and there’s nothing to do.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | October 26, 2015

Stop Using “Poet Voice”: Rich Smith

If you are into students reading poetry out loud (and you should be), take a moment to read this CityArts article “Stop Using ‘Poet Voice‘” by Rich Smith.

On a similar vein of speaking poems, my wife thinks that Garrison Keillor ruins poems daily with his readings on his Writer’s Almanac podcast.  It’s a great source of poems and historical information, but, as my wife points out, he reads every poem the same.

Wife: “That is, he ruins it”.

Beyond his inflection, the breathing he does through his nose is a bit distracting.  My main complaint about The Writer’s Almanac is that a) many of his references are not about writers, and b) he does not do a writer’s poem on their birthday.

For example, today (October 25, 2015) he leads with Pablo Picasso.  Next, he moves on to Minnie Pearl.  In her posting, there is link to her books.  One is a joke book, another her autobiography.  Minnie Pearl is a legend, and besides being a great performer she was a powerful and savvy businesswoman.  She is not, though, known as a transformative or important writer.  So many books and poems, not enough time to dally with tangential talent.

Similarly, he will talk at length about a writer or poet, but read a different person’s poem at the end with no clear tie to the day or anyone previously mentioned.  On this day, after a painter and performer, he got to author Anne Tyler.  He gave half of the program to Tyler, and went into detail on her life and works.  Good stuff.  Then, he ends with James Reiss’ “My Daughters in New York.”

Reiss’ birthday is in July.  This poem does not seem to have anything to do with anything mentioned.  Random.

October 25th is also the day Henry V defeated the French in the Battle of Angicort.  A bit of Shakespeare and that “St. Crispin Day” bravado?  How about the poets Daniel Mark Epstein, John Berryman, Âşık Veysel Şatıroğlu, Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay, Vesna Parun.  Sahir Ludhianvi, Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, Raymond Queneau or Edmond Pidoux, Alfonsina Storni, or Ziya Gökalp,  At the very least it’s the day Geoffrey Chaucer died–line up the Canterbury Tales.

Nothing against James Reiss.  I suspect Keillor is just trying to give some exposure to a living writer, but….

Posted by: Tom Triumph | May 23, 2015

217. A Word on Statistics: Wislawa Szyborska

I love data more than I do poetry.

When I read poetry, I find it intellectually rigorous. I like to do analysis. Or break it down and see how it works. The idea of meter and rhyme and how it comes together–supports the underlying theme–is fascinating. Writing poetry is hard. Poets are builders. Elegant builders. They are a class above me.

I appreciate that. But I don’t write poetry–too hard. I know enough about poetry to know that my writing is mediocre and that knowledge distracts me from it being a true outlet (instead, I post blogs). And I don’t really read poetry for fun like my wife does, except to take it apart with analysis.

But data, I like for the same reason I appreciate poetry–BUT I CAN DO IT. As this is the golden age of data driving instruction, this is my time. Which is where I make my shameless plug for another blog Educational Statistics Fun! And also my most recent post (relevant to middle school English teachers) about the DRP as a measure.

As data becomes more of our life, more and more poems seem to address that dehumanizing element of an information driven society. It’s not new. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen” is a great example, written long, long ago. But the lives of our students have fundamentally changed. Privacy is at an end. At the same time we can no longer post test scores publicly and every email has a confidentiality warning (all in the name of privacy), our students are being tracked and filling databases with minute details for scores of people to see. No one talks about the abusive parent that might be affecting their learning, but we have a nice data trail of their failure to thrive. Our cameras track who wrote what graffiti on the wall, while notifications come up when they harass a peer using the school’s gmail account. And when it goes into the local newspaper that 78% of seventh grade students met proficiency in math, the other 22% know who they are.

Where are they? What Szymborska offers is a use of percentages to make a point. Data shows fractions. It shows ratios. And those ratios reveal. Just like writing and poetry and art does.

Look at your class and create data. Dont’ worry about it being scientific. Or do. In fact, ask students what “valid” data even is. How many agree what that definition? Whatever. Collect data. What data is important to them? Who plays baseball? Bah. Reveal.

Here are data points kids care about:

  • How many people like me?
  • What is the chance this boy/girl will dance with me?
  • How many kids in the room would you consider “nice”?
  • Do I look like a dork?
  • How many friends do I have? What’s the “normal” number?
  • Am I normal?

Show of hands?  Eyes closed?  Or not.  Brainstorm a list of questions.  Perhaps they don’t want to know the answer, but let them use the answer–or their perceived answer or feared answer–as the content of the poem.  “Every kid in this room is okay with me, but zero percent know who I am.”

Data is telling.  The next question to ask is if it is valid.

A Word on Statistics
by Wislawa Szymborska
(translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak)

Out of every hundred people,
those who always know better:

Unsure of every step:
almost all the rest.

Ready to help,
if it doesn’t take long:

Always good,
because they cannot be otherwise:
four — well, maybe five.

Able to admire without envy:

Led to error
by youth (which passes):
sixty, plus or minus.

Those not to be messed with:

Living in constant fear
of someone or something:

Capable of happiness:
twenty-some-odd at most.

Harmless alone,
turning savage in crowds:
more than half, for sure.

when forced by circumstances:
it’s better not to know,
not even approximately.

Wise in hindsight:
not many more
than wise in foresight.

Getting nothing out of life except things:
(though I would like to be wrong).

Balled up in pain
and without a flashlight in the dark:
eighty-three, sooner or later.

Those who are just:
quite a few, thirty-five.

But if it takes effort to understand:

Worthy of empathy:

one hundred out of one hundred —
a figure that has never varied yet.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | April 1, 2015

216. Briggsflatts: Basil Bunting

Why, no, that is not a made up name.

Remember Dire Straits?  “Walk of Life”?  “Money for Nothing”?  Great band with a lot more going on than those two hits (but they are great songs).  Mark Knopfler, the founder and guitarist of the band, knew Basil Bunting.  The not-yet-frontman was working in a newspaper while Bunting was trying to make a living.  He tells Ian Robson:

He said: “When I was 15, I was a copy boy on the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle, it was a Saturday afternoon job that I had.

“I’d go in to the newspaper office, and you’d deal with all the sports copy coming in, and you’d be putting them in tubes, down to the printer’s, or going over to the subs’ desk.

“There was a chap work-work ing there who was very dif-different from the others. He was grumpy and he was older, and differently dressed, and I learned that that was Basil Bunting.

“It was very clear that he’d rather be writing poetry than writing copy for the Evening Chronicle, and he didn’t really fit.

There are different ways to go with this poem, but I suggest using it to look at your town.

Students need to look at what is in front of them.  They need to write about what is in front of them.  Too often, we encourage kids to write fiction when they have no ability to ground it in reality.  Good fiction has a foundation.  It is tethered.  Even in fantasy, the world is real.  How can you have a dragon lay siege to a castle if you cannot tell me about the castle’s construction?  How many towers?  Defenses?  The great writers know about castles.  Really know about castles.  Then, they create dragons that breathe.  Only then do those dragons attack.

Where do your students live?  As we fill them with ideas of colleges and far off lands, let them know where they come from.  What is before them.  This is the time when they are developmentally ready to understand their siblings and parents and community.  How do people make a living?

Why do they work?  Hopes and dreams?  Take a moment.

How does Bunting capture Briggsflatts?  Tools and sounds and purpose.  This is a town that works.

But it is also a town that is lyrical in nature and metaphor and sound. Stray one way (realism) or another (fantasy) and you lose the truth.

Bunting is writing an epic.  Only one stanza of it is here (to focus on the work).  Have your class each write a stanza.  Capture a snapshot of your community, and string it together.  Make it real and magical and real again. Have them tweak their styles to match each other.  To steal from the best in the group.  To mimic and through that understand their own individual voice–while still part of the community.  The community of your town.  Of the class.  Of poets and writers.

from Briggflatts
Basil Bunting

A mason times his mallet
to a lark’s twitter,
listening while the marble rests,
lays his rule
at a letter’s edge,
fingertips checking,
till the stone spells a name
naming none,
a man abolished.
Painful lark, labouring to rise!
The solemn mallet says:
In the grave’s slot
he lies. We rot.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | January 29, 2015

215. Fire Safety: Joshua Mehigan

Another poem exploring safety, from our year-long look at Maslow (each stage a unit).

Three things to take away:

First, how does Mehigan capture an everyday object? Why use such a ubiquitous object as the subject of a poem? After looking at this poem, ask students the next day if they noticed the fire extinguishers in the school more than in the past. Did they even know where they are? They probably know they exist, but, before the poem, you could ask them to write down where, exactly, they are. Try landmarks in town (police station, fire station, church, etc.). Do they know where they are? Why not? How about items at the supermarket?

Because we take so much for granted, which leads the question of what other objects we take for granted. Substitute fire extinguisher for a parent. Or friend. When was the last time they told that person how important they are? One nice exercise is to have students write a very brief note to a teacher who made a difference. It is a good time to teach letter writing skills (still important!) or, at least, the value of a “thank you” card. Why do we take so much for granted? And, could we function if we noted every important thing, like the location of every fire extinguisher we passed in our day. Thus, holidays.

T.Z. Suzuki is a Buddhist philosopher who claims awareness happens in three stages: Parroting, consciousness and unconscious consciousness. Note: I don’t believe these are the terms he uses, but the ideas at correct.

The first is parroting, where we say things without thinking. For example, we say “Good morning” without thinking it being about “good” or, sometimes, the morning (we’ve all said it after lunch). Have a student recite the “Pledge of Allegiance” solo and they often stumble, after doing it for eight years!

The second stage is awareness–“It’s morning, and I want you to have a good one.” Blow. Your. Mind. What are they pledging to? What does allegiance mean? What does the flag stand for? Hmmmm. You can also talk about game controllers–when they first get a gaming system, they look at it a lot. And gaming is slow. Consciousness.

The third stage is unconscious consciousness. Ask how many of them don’t even look at their game controller anymore. Some have good stories about that. It becomes an extension of us. We wish a “good” morning in earnest. We need the second stage to be human–we are the only animal that is reflective. That’s what history is.

How, then, do we revive this reflectiveness so we move forward? Brush our teeth with the left hand? Sleep the wrong way in our bed? It’s a start. Question everything. Read a poem about an ordinary object, like a fire extinguisher. Write your own poem. And thank your parent.

The second lesson is similes and metaphors. Where are they in this poem? How do they work? Why did the author choose these? Explore.

The third lesson is the moral. Until the last stanza, this is a simple descriptive poem. But the whole theme is wrapped up in the last stanza. That last line. In this poem, students should be able to see how a simple thing like those last two stanzas elevates this to art. Why is one painting of a tree art and their’s is not? How is one story worthy of class time and another not? Theme. Truth. In understanding that last line, they “get” the poem.

Now, theme in hand, work backwards and see how those similes and metaphors lead to that understanding. Then write that note to your old teacher.

Fire Safety
Joshua Mehigan

Aluminum tank
indifferent in its place

behind a glass door
in the passageway,

like a tea urn
in a museum case;

that dumbly spend each day

waiting for gas or smoke
or hands or heat,

positioned like beige land mines

sanguine on walls,
or posted on the street

like dwarf grandfather clocks
spray painted red;

little gray hydrant
in its warlike stance;

old fire escape,
all-weather paint job peeling,

a shelf for threadbare rugs
and yellowing plants;

sprinkler heads,
blooming from the public ceiling;

all sitting
supernaturally still,

waiting for us to cry out.
And we will.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | January 26, 2015

214. Grip: Jericho Brown

We are in the midst of a unit called “Safety”.  It’s part of our Maslow year.  

What’s interesting about “safety” is that everything connects to it, but nothing does directly.  When we did our first unit, Survival, we read “The Most Dangerous Game” and “To Build a Fire” and kids took notes and it all was pretty clear.  Our “high flyers” were able to make connections beyond physical survival–how elements of survival apply to emotional experiences, too.  But safety is not so clear.

Here is an interesting poem about tug-of-war.  Everyone likes tug-of-war.  Well, not everyone.  In fact, many people hate it.  Why?  Good question.

Get out the journals and have them write about their tug-of-war feelings.  Then break out the rope.  Fun?  Not so much, except for some.  Who?  Why?

Then read the poem.  Analysis!

Note: As with many poems, analysis may or may not determine if this is a poem about sex or not.  I have used it to talk about the conflict that happens in relationships, when you get to the point where you are hurting the other person because winning becomes more important than resolution or truth.  Very middle school drama.  The end of the second paragraph and start of the third has all of the hallmarks, though, of a tryst.  I still believe that this is about relationships, but perhaps the bedroom is one side of that.  Or not.  (Mr. Brown, if you read this, please chime in).  I used it before it was pointed out to me, but next time I will probably pass.  Your call.

Jericho Brown

If it had become a competition in which we,
Like children desperate for the blue ribbon,
Pulled knotted hemp, gripping until certain
Of calluses, if our contest awarded the strongest,

The boy who could best inflict pain yet not
Flinch when injured, then you won, for I must
Imagine the brown of your back to reach my
Peak, a short thread of breaths, a tug of war

With the heaviest child grunting at the end
Of the rope until jerked and dragged over
The line. That fat kid flounders through muck

The way I splash your relentless name
In shivers about me. Watch him wallow.
If he tastes mud as bitter as this poem

Of mine, then I win – and you love me.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | December 20, 2014

Crown of Sonnets/Heroic Crown of Sonnets

In asking my students to make crowns, I realize the origin of monarchy–good crown makers are hard to come by.

For an exercise in rhetoric, I asked a group of students who had finshed the assignment early to make enough crowns for half of the class. With specific instructions, drawn on the board (because an earlier class had struggled, too, so I thought I’d make it clear), I watched as otherwise high honor students struggled to conceptualize cutting in a zig-zag pattern, taping two papers together, fitting a length of paper to their own head (or another student) and taping that, too, into a loop.

My theory is that original societies wanted to be democracies, but when they tried to make symbols of citizenship–the crown–only a few were able to make one. Everyone else figured they should listen to that guy, thus creating a king. When the ruler had a son, he realized the kid would never get his own decent crown so he just gave him his own. Thus, a system based on birthright.

I doubt few historians will accept my belief, but the story holds true in my experience. Craft is hard. I have spent too much time this fall at conferences promoting standards based learning, and the concept of having students repeat skills (formative) to attain mastery (summative) is logical, but scary in practice. Highlighting specific elements over and over tends to lay raw what students can and cannot do (which is the point). Fortunately, crown making is not part of the Common Core.

An interesting test is to have students complete the “Crown of Sonnets”. The crown consists of seven sonnets centered on a single person, often around a single theme. For example, Jenny and love. Each sonnet explores a different aspect of the theme. The neat trick, though, is that the last line of the last poem is the first line of the first poem. Neat.

I had no idea such a thing existed.

Even cooler is the “Heroic Crown of Sonnets”. What makes it heroic? It’s fifteen sonnets and the last sonnet is composed of THE FIRST LINES OF THE FIRST FOURTEEN!

You can find a compact handout on these two crown here. Eric Chevlen wrote a book called “Triple Crown” where he writes a heroic crown of heroic crowns of heroic crowns (I think). Gimmick or art, I have no idea.

All of this might be above your student’s heads. Even writing a sonnet might stretch them, if only because you are adding new, bad poetry to the world. There is, though, value in such things. Two ideas:

First, group seven students together and have them write seven different sonnets (or any style of poetry) on a single person, theme or both (it depends on how strict to the structure you want to be–me, I like structure as the restrictions force them to dig deeper, which ultimately leads to freedom). They have to work together, while still offering independent takes on a shared idea.

Second, you could have them find seven poems that do this. Seven poems around the theme of love. What is learned? Either have each student find seven poems, or seven kids find a poem each. As they come together, depth is achieved. Lesson: The body of literature, not a single work, is what humans need. Keep reading.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | November 17, 2014

Too Many Cooks

I whipped this together while watching football.


And if you’d like a gentle poke in the ribs and good procedural mystery, try this:

Absentee List: An Old Horse Mystery

Posted by: Tom Triumph | September 28, 2014

213. Anecdote of the Jar: Wallace Stevens

Last week I spent two days at a conference on standards based learning, hosted by the New England League of Middle Schools and run by Rick Wormelli.

Wormelli’s writings are well known, but his live show is just that–a show. If you liked Robin Williams in “Aladdin” or “Dead Poets Society”, this is two days of that. A tad distracting from the main ideas, with lots of 80’s references (his analysis of a clip from “Song of Music”, though, is priceless). This is not to take away from the content or ideas, but know that if you get a chance to see Wormelli you’ll a) be subjected to that type of performance, b) if you have a decent background in standards based teaching and grading much of it will be review. So, be prepared before you sign up.

It got me thinking, though, about the use of rubrics and our system of instructing and assessing rubrics. One of the exercises I do with kids–and adults–is something called “Clapping University”. Here’s the procedure, and I think you’ll see the point:

  • Welcome your students to “Clapping University” where the outcome to produce quality clappers.
  • Ask for three volunteers. They will be “judges” and have them sit in a prominent place at the front of the room. Each will have a marker and four pieces of paper.
  • As for four more volunteers–students at Clapping University. Have them leave the room, where they cannot see or hear what the previous student does when called in.
  • Tell the judges that they are to say nothing, and to follow your directions and your directions only.
  • Call the first student in. Tell them to clap. They’ll seek direction, but give them none. When the student is done, instruct the judges to grade the student (A, B, C, D…. or whatever your grading system is) and keep it to themselves. That student then sits and joins the class.
  • Call the second student in. Tell them to clap. When the student is done, instruct the judges to grade the student. This time, they are to share the grades with the class (one by one, to keep some drama in place). That student then sits and joins the class.
  • Now, ask the class what makes for good clapping. Pick two characteristics (pace, volume, enthusiasm, etc.). Tell the class and the judges, “When the next student comes in, you will judge them only on those characteristics.” This is your rubric.
  • Call in the third student. Tell them to clap. Again, no one should say anything and wait for your cue. When the student is done, instruct the judged to grade the student based on the rubric. They are to share the grades with the class (one by one, to keep some drama in place). That student then sits and joins the class.
  • Finally, call in the fourth student. Share the rubric with the student. Have them clap. When the student is done, instruct the judged to grade the student based on the rubric. They are to share the grades with the class (one by one, to keep some drama in place). That student then sits and joins the class.

The point?

  • In the first case, the judges have no common characteristic, grade, and never give feedback.
  • In the second case, the judges have no common characteristic, grade, and share. But the feedback is useless because, from the varied grades, it’s clear no one has defined success prior to the performance.
  • In the third case, the judges have a common rubric. The student claps and the assessment is uniform. And, the student gets feedback. Except, because the student did not know the standard beforehand, the grade is unfair with regard to what they could have done.
  • In the last case, the student knows what’s being judged. And they do it. And they get a universally good grade. Having a clear expectation, sharing it and providing feedback works.

You can talk to your students about their experiences with each kind of teacher (judge); they love to share their horror stories.

But what of Stevens?

There are, apparently, a host of interpretations of this poem. You can read them here, at Wikipedia.

But I like to imagine, and my students come to this conclusion year after year, that placing the jar down creates order to the wilderness. It becomes a fixed point–made by man–that all else relates to. Much like creating a rubric and taming the wild that is student work.

There is probably more there, but I would recommend going outside and placing a jar in the field or wild near your school. Read the poem. Ask, “What’s with the jar?” Have them defend it.

Anecdote of the Jar
Wallace Stevens

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | September 6, 2014

212. the genius of the crowd: Charles Bukowski

I don’t know if the title is capitalized or not. It is where I got it from, but I suspect that’s wrong, or an auto-function of the website.

Bukowski is probably not one of the most middle school appropriate poets you will come across, but doesn’t mean your students should be denied genius where it falls.

Like many of my age, I first encountered him through Mickey Rourke’s portrayal of him in the mediocre independent movie “Barfly”. Ah, 1987. That was when Rourke was huge, and the advent of home video gave independent films you’d have never seen a second life and a certain cache. I remember that when Bukowski died, papers printed a publicity photo of Rourke next to the announcements. Anyway….

So, watch out for the references of not listening to preachers or whatever else is in here that will offend your particular community. Know this, because you need a job and your students need you.  

But, here’s something you might use.

the genius of the crowd
Charles Bukowski

there is enough treachery, hatred violence absurdity in the average
human being to supply any given army on any given day

and the best at murder are those who preach against it
and the best at hate are those who preach love
and the best at war finally are those who preach peace

those who preach god, need god
those who preach peace do not have peace
those who preach peace do not have love

beware the preachers
beware the knowers
beware those who are always reading books
beware those who either detest poverty
or are proud of it
beware those quick to praise
for they need praise in return
beware those who are quick to censor
they are afraid of what they do not know
beware those who seek constant crowds for
they are nothing alone
beware the average man the average woman
beware their love, their love is average
seeks average

but there is genius in their hatred
there is enough genius in their hatred to kill you
to kill anybody
not wanting solitude
not understanding solitude
they will attempt to destroy anything
that differs from their own
not being able to create art
they will not understand art
they will consider their failure as creators
only as a failure of the world
not being able to love fully
they will believe your love incomplete
and then they will hate you
and their hatred will be perfect

like a shining diamond
like a knife
like a mountain
like a tiger
like hemlock

their finest art

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