Thursday, April 12, 2012

Slam Picts Round 1

I hesitate to say that this is it
that this is why I teach
but this
this group
these kids
their honesty
their vulnerable open-minded,
heart-driven, power
this I can work with
this I can nurture,
grow and teach.
Today, this
is IT.

Poets in Action

Our school poetry slam is today! We'll be live streaming and recording each of the 4 shows. If you'd like to drop in for a listen find us on Ustream here:

Here's the program in case you'd like to follow along:

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tuesday's Slice of Life: Slam-spiration

Last week I wrote about all of the things I have to get done for this Thursday's poetry slam. In comments,  Deb Day asked me how I got started doing slam at school. I've been thinknig about her question ever since.

Poetry slam at school started as an idea, an inspiration taken from Slam legend, Sara Holbrook. In the mid-1990s she performed for English teachers in my district (here's her signature piece from the slam circuit, Chicks Up Front). The first time I saw Sara was during one of those sit and get inservice sessions in an auditorium packed with several hundred middle and high school language arts teachers. I didn't expect much, but I settled into my seat surprised we had a living poet in the house to perform.

Holbrook on stage in Alaska during a literacy institute
team builder at The North Slope Saloon.
Sara held us in her poetic hand. Wearing a long mustard colored gypsy skirt, strolling barefoot, trailing a purple scarf, earrings and bracelets jingling, she intrigued me. Her voice dripped passion and anger: raw emotion tightly controlled. With poetry and story, she threw us high into the rafters and gifted us with laughter only to dash us to the ground and leave us in tears. I was hooked. Sara Holbrook became my new poetry hero (luckily we got to become friends during on time on the road doing workshops for teachers with Janet Allen's literacy institutes).

She introduced me to the idea of slam and shared stories about a teacher in California who was running his own classroom and then school slam.  She shared her work, her voice and the know how of her Slam Master, partner-in-rhyme, Michael Salinger, who ran slams and served behind the scenes for Slam, Inc.for several years. Sara gave me courage and a map I could use to chart a new course for poetry in my language arts classroom.

I started mentoring student poets with Nikki Grimes' novel, Bronx Masquerade. It still remains a favorite in my classroom: members of an English class begin open mic sessions on Fridays and reveal themselves to each other. Grimes based the story on that California teacher Sara talked about. We read the novel and began writing poetry by imitating some of the characters' pieces. We read more poetry and more and more and before I knew it we were writing poetry nearly everyday and students had begun to share in class.

I wanted to celebrate students' enthusiasm and success, so I invited parents (and all of the administrators) at my high school to visit our classroom for a Poetry Jam.  I sort of tricked the kids into performing at first. Tricked may be too nice a word. I made reading or performing one poem at our celebration the culminating grade for our unit of study. I made poetry and performance count.  Students were required to perform 1 poem. I  counted it as a test. No pressure, right? I promised students that they wouldn't score lower than a C, that they could memorize their work, and that they could rely on a printed copy if need be. I promised them they would be stronger for the experience.

The most amazing thing happened. Of course the parents and administrators gave students high scores and lots of praise. Two things were absolute gifts the first year I had a poetry jam in my room. The first, once students did their "required" performance, suddenly they all wanted to read again.

"Can I go again?"
"Is there time for another one?"
"Can I do one more?"
"What about me, can I go?"
"After Bobby, I'm going."

I couldn't have planned that. Every student got up more than once, some 3 and 4 times (we filled a 90 minute class period). I discovered the power of a microphone, an audience and choice. Students had something to say and we were listened.

The second gift that first year came from a parent. Gabby's father was acquainted with Pablo Neruda.  About mid-way through her class slam her father, very formally, with a heavy Spanish accent, asked me if he could say something. "Of course, I said," wondering what would follow.

He stood up and told a story about Pablo Neruda: revolution, youth, idealism and  poetry sum it up. He explained that poetry honors life by making it into art and thanked my students for honoring the art and speaking their truths. I tried to keep my mouth closed and looked up so the tears that sprang into my eyes wouldn't make it to my cheeks. What a gift that was.

Monday, April 9, 2012

It's Monday: What Are You Reading? From the Stacks

Head over to Teach Mentor Texts for
more on reading Mondays!
I just finished Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers. I was reluctant to pick it up. I love Hoffman's style, her words like gorgeous blooms scenting the night air and twining through the garden trellis of my imagination.

 I've read every book she's written. I hesitated to pick up The Dovekeepers. I was intimidated by Jerusalem and the idea of ancient Israel. My sister-in-law recommended the book, so while I was visiting she and brother in New Hampshire, I downloaded it.

Told from several perspectives, the dovekeepers, all women, endure years of trial and hardship as they flee a falling Jerusalem and attempt to resist the Roman empire on a mountain fortress. Like my sister-in-law, I didn't want the book to end once I'd started. Love and hate, faith and fear, grace and betrayal intertwine. With every page I imagined the research behind the story. What a feat. What a story.

This week I'm finishing up Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. I've always wanted to walk across the state of Florida and this book has reminds me of that dream. I love stories from the wilderness and nature. I can imagine Bryson's fear as he worries about bears and is haunted by mosquitoes. I'm enjoying this read.

Stickers on book spines: genre at a glance.
We started reorganizing the classroom library on Good Friday. Half of the students in my classes were absent, so while some students chose to read or work on a piece of writing, others volunteered to reshelve and start reorganizing. At the beginning of the year I tried putting books in book bins and labeling bins by genre. Unfortunately that effort did not bring the anticipated results. Students browsed the bookshelves less than they had before. Also troubling was how difficult it was for me to find a book. Instead of going to the author's last name and pulling a title in under a minute, I now had to hunt and hope.

Hunt for the genre bin (I didn't make a master list) and hope that students who'd borrowed the book had classified it the same way I did or re-shelved it where they originally found it. We're going back to shelving by genre (fiction, nonfiction, short stories, and  poetry) and within each alphabetizing by last name. I'm going to add another layer of organization to the fiction section: color-coded stickers. Linda Rief color-codes by genre but organizes shelves and collections by author.  Now I'll be able to put my hands on a book quickly and students will be able to pull by genre: win, win.

The reorganization led me to pull books for my 5th grader. I brought home Paulsen's Transall Saga because he loves The Hunger Games, Divergent, Hatchet and Lawn Boy.  Last summer he got into war books and he has a friend who loves anything World War II, so I pulled a few I knew he hadn't read yet that he might like to pass along to his buddy: Collier's My Brother Sam is Dead, Graham's Under the Blood-Red Sun, and Soldier X by WulfssonStein's The Art of Racing in the Rain (young readers version) I thought a perfect read as we prepare for a new puppy--he didn't have school today and this was the book he picked up first (nearly finished it).

Just a few Monday reads and recommendations! This week I've got to make it to the library. I have a deep need for picture books! Got any recommendations?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Slam Slice

Youth poets from our last open mic session at the book store.
It's 2:35 p.m. and I'm hustling back to my double-wide classroom. It is surprisingly hot for March: 91 degrees. I spent the bulk of my last-period of the day planning period running to Walmart to buy a gallon of white paint, a quart of black and a dozen colors of spray paint. We're 9 days out from our school poetry slam and we need create our backgrounds.

I have been coaching  youth poets for 14 years. This year, our 16 poets have prepared 2-3 poems for the slam. We have met to write, share and perform our work every Tuesday after school since September. My poets are quick to remind me that I have missed two Tuesdays. Once in September because my son needed stitches after a playground accident and a second time in January because I  broke my arm and had to get the cast. Student poets' get serious about attendance in the weeks leading up to the slam.

Here's what I'm working on this month and into next as my school is also hosting a multi-school slam in May.

Final Month Logistics:

  • create set/backgrounds
  • finalize in-school field trip paperwork
  • invite community members, school board members, district personnel, feeder school principals
  • student permission slips
  • arrange for lunch the day of the slam (pizza or subs)
  • plan team building activities for mid-day break
  • charge cameras
  • plan for live stream
  • rehearse
  • set up stage 
  • invite teachers to bring classes to performances
  • track teacher sign-ups via Excel file (cap audience at 800)
  • create seating chart for the auditorium
  • create slam program
  • create youth poets chap book
  • create slam book marks (mini-program with multi-school May slam date promotion)
  • create/plan to announce Open mic summer nights at local Barnes and Noble