Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On Education. A long rant, but not without ideas.

(My ideal unplanned weekend morning involves drinking tea, reading online news sites and writing. I'm on February break. I'm reading Anna Karenina and I'm only 175 pages in. I've had to find other things to write about. So. Welcome to my brain.)

In New York City, there is a huge emphasis on English and Math. My students take a state test for both subjects every year and both departments devote about a month of their curriculum to "test prep." The city and state have had huge initiatives for the collection of student data and data driven lessons. Here are a few disclaimers:

1. I believe in accountability.
2. I am not completely anti testing. I believe there are core skill sets that students should learn before they move to a new grade. I believe that there has to be some kind of way to track whether students are learning these skills sets and that changes should be made if they're not.
3. I am anti high stakes tests that bear too much weight on a single day of a child's life.

The city recently told principals that they needed to sit down with every Math and ELA teacher in their building and share a report of their testing record: with the aid of technology, the DOE was able to track how every former student of each teacher did on the state standardized tests and compare them to all other students in the city and to other students in similar schools. I'm not going to lie: I was really nervous about this meeting. Overall, my data was good, but it raised a few red flags in my mind. It said that my middle and high achieving students had improved since the previous year's test. But my high needs students didn't move that much. This. broke. my. heart.

My high achievers are going to be fine no matter what. This is why I tell friends of mine that they don't have to worry about sending their not-yet-born children to New York City Public Schools: yes, it takes effort to learn your way around the system and to advocate for your child, but if a student comes from a family of educated parents who value learning, their kids will be fine. So, yes. I have had some brilliant, brilliant kids in the past. And as much as I love them, I'm not as concerned about their educational well being, because I know they are going to be fine.

What I worry about is the fact that the students with special learning needs that I taught for 2 years in a row didn't show a lot of growth. This is not to say that I am an amazing teacher, but I busted my butt trying with these kids: I differentiated my lessons. I ran small group conferences according to individual student needs. I tried to get them reading books at their reading level and push them to grow as readers. I swear they did grow as writers from the beginning of the year to the end. So. What isn't working? (And this is the reason why I don't believe that pay should be linked to student achievement on state tests...and why I cringed when I read that was one of the types of programs that would be getting extra money according to Arne Duncan, new Secretary of Education, although I respect him.)

And no, I don't just want to rant about how much the system is failing students (though it is). But this is what I think needs to happen if the goal is to improve student reading and writing skills (focusing mostly on large, urban school districts):

1. Literacy skills need to be taught in every subject area. Students do not know how to comprehend large swaths of nonfiction reading passages. Yes, this needs to be addressed in the ELA classroom, but teaching reading skills should be a core part of subject areas that rely on students reading content material. The current conflict is that there is a ridiculous amount of "content" to be covered in these classes, and to teach the kids reading skills is time consuming. But students are leaving without the knowledge of how to read and understand nonfiction.

2. Along the same note, administrators--especially in middle schools--should push for a core use of reading language to be used so that strategies and skills become transparent and transferable to students. The biggest success I did see with my special needs students was when their science teacher and I used the same language: "Write a paragraph the same way you would in ELA." Middle school education is as much about growth and development as it is about teaching skills. Students need to be taught and retaught, reminded of what they already know. Students do not make inter-curricular leaps on their own, as much as I would like them to.

3. School districts need to somehow meet their students' needs where they are (second language learners, grammar deficiencies, etc.) while maintaining a standard of a core curricular base that students need before moving on. This is one reason why I think that at least in theory (I've never worked in one), smaller K-8 schools might be the most successful model in urban areas... especially if the school can be organized to really tailor to student needs. Small group conferences alone cannot fix the subject verb agreement issues that my second language learners have in their writing. Ugh. So frustrating. I feel like I can address the issue with a student, provide some support, but that I am without the time/resources to truly cater to that student's needs.

I get really energized thinking about how to change this. I can picture a little, happy school in my head. But a little sad when it seems like the NYCDOE is just a big, dysfunctional system. (And, this didn't even mention the other challenging aspect of creating successful educational experiences: family and community life. Sigh. So big.)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Wondering why we--I--don't get it right the first time.

This question can apply to almost anything in my life, but today it has to do with learning Spanish.

We have an up and down relationship, Spanish and I. From 6th to 8th grade, I was Cristinita, shy, smart girl who got 104 on every test; master of basic Spanish. I would pay money if I could remember the name of my freshman year Spanish teacher. It was her last year in our school, she wore a lot of colorful make-up and had quite a head of white, coiffed hair. She was also very hard of hearing, which we sadly took advantage of on more than one occasion. I still was able to pull off high 90's.

Then. Came. Spanish 3. If you have ever played Boggle or Scrabble with me or watched me struggle with crossword puzzles, you are well aware that my brain has a hard time when there is one correct answer (also the reason I never excelled in algebra or chemistry). All of a sudden I was supposed to memorize, remember and correctly sort out multiple verb tenses. Needless to say, it was over. I got the first C of my life and promptly decided that I didn't need to continue my Spanish education.

All went well at Miami University. In my first 3 majors (ha) I didn't need Spanish. Then all of a sudden I found myself an English major with a foreign language requirement that would take me 3 semesters to complete. I was a junior in a freshmen class taught by a 22 year old. The one bright spot in the first two semesters was that Jana, one of my housemates, took it with me and somehow our TA's *loved* us. Then Jana "had" to take the last semester over the summer and left me to squirm in the reincarnation of my sophomore year experience in high school: I can't memorize to save my life. I cursed myself for giving up in high school and causing myself this kind of pain my senior year of college. I got another C.

But. I have to admit that when I arrived in New York 5 months later, I enjoyed being able to recognize some of the words in the Spanish advertisements. I began having students who spoke Spanish as their first language. Basically in the past 5 and a half years, I have fallen in love with Espanol. My students make fun of me when I try to speak in class and correct my horrible accent and vocabulary blunders.

Now I am planning a trip to Spain this summer and a possible language immersion program in Latin America next year. I just came home from the bookstore with "Essential Spanish Grammar," "The Spanish Verb Book," and a Spanish Verb Tenses workbook. And I'm excited about them all. Truly. Pumped.

I just wish that I stuck it out back in 1997 and perhaps I'd be a little more advanced at this point.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

not coherent.

i am today
a midsummer's night's dream.

i am immersed
in type
and stories
and verse

i am today
conjuring spring,
longer days
light that remains

i am today
tapping the sky
for elysium.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sometimes I can't contain myself.

Sunday mornings when it's almost 60 are some of those times. I confess that I have been looking forward to this day ever since it appeared in the ten day forecast. I took a walk around my neighborhood, decided that the Tea Lounge was way too dark and not fitting for such a glorious morning, so I ordered my delicious (seriously the best in town) Cafe Au Lait to go and have parked myself in the bay windows in my own apartment. I opened the window. My writer's notebook and Staedtler pens are next to me. Bursting! And I need to document this, albeit not very poetic, to remember *hope* and spring when the temperature drops again.

Sigh. Currently playing (basically all of the kindred travelling songs...):

The Beautiful Sea.

Son of a Son of a Sailor.

For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti.

Liz on Top of the World.

Why Should I Cry for You.

Ok. Off to write some fiction.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A clarification for the poetry you (maybe) read on this blog.

Yesterday the 8th graders had a poetry slam to celebrate the collections they published and all the life changing reading experiences they had (ha. I wish) during our unit. It really was one of my favorite moments of this year so far, though. 14 year olds willing to share their writing in front of 90 other students, and 90 other students willing to listen.

Teaching poetry is my metaphorical spring. I love finding ways to reveal just how life giving and refreshing reading it can be, and all of the opportunities for creative expression and freedom in writing it. One of my teaching goals for the year has been to write along with my students, which is hilarious because my students are precious enough to think that everything I write is amazing. I am obsessed with revision. I try to arm students with strategies and encourage experimentation. As I was trying to model what experimentation looks like, I ended up learning a lot about myself as a poet.

One, I like powerfully descriptive language in prose, but I don't like to overdo it in poetry. I've found that the poetry I am most excited about writing is when I try to capture a single moment in words and simultaneously give the reader a picture of what was happening while conveying its emotional weight. I tend to do this mostly through steam of conscious-style writing paired with meaningful line breaks. I love how one single image can speak volumes beyond itself.

So as I was experimenting with my own work in front of my class, I found I didn't like a lot of the revisions I was making when I was intentionally trying to include poetic devices. Granted, my rewrites were way better than the deliberately bad poems I started with, but they did not seem to have my voice and identity in them. For this reason, I didn't "publish" a collection with them, because despite my best efforts and seeming "good" revisions, I felt like a fraud.

This caused me to take a look at the poetry that I have written, and then feel compelled to explain it. Two of the most influential poets in my life are Pablo Neruda and Jack Kerouac. Neruda's use of language--even in translation--is musical without music, deeply beautiful at once transcendent and cascading and I always imagine someone who is talking with such deep passion that he forgets to breathe. (please read for an example. or google Sonnet 17.) Kerouac's western haikus are the pared down version: "Above all a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella." He was able to get "the rendering of a subject's essence, and the shimmering, ephemeral nature of its fleeting existence," (Weinreich):

in a birdbath,
a leaf.

My hope in my own poetry is to work toward combining these two styles; to try to convey the weight of a nuanced image and the way my heart can just drop to the ground, but in the good kind of heartbreak. I'm not sure that I felt I had to write this to justify my writing style to you, but more as a means to process through who I am hoping to become as a writer?

To close in another's words, an excerpt from anArs Poetica that I found recently. It seems to almost perfectly describe the art of capturing of a fleeting moment that becomes timeless and heavy:

Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.

Magical Thinking.

I mentioned a few posts ago that my reading life has been a bit full. A colleague of mine mentioned that she was reading and couldn't put down Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. I finished this book within 24 hours at 11:30 pm and proceeded to google Joan Didion, reading and thinking way too late well into the night. An account of her husband's death and her story of grief and memory, it was the closest, most poignant description of loss I have ever come across. And though I cannot directly relate to her story, she tapped into the underlying inevitability of the human story: that though we are capable of extraordinary love, we must also live through love lost.

One of the most poignant aspects of this book for me was Didion's intertextuality: "In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to literature." She breathes in all sorts of texts to process, and all I could think about was how frail life is and how we need art and story and memory to hold onto, however impossible it is to hold it in our hands no matter how hard we, I, try.

Life is frail;
feeling slips through my fingers
and pools in the depth of my chest.
I am left grasping for the pages and the images and answers
I cannot hold in my hands.

I have found that the biggest contradiction in my life (which I think I can also find beautiful?) is my belief in Truth next to my need to process through the lens of postmodernism. I connected with Didion not on the subject matter of her memoir, but in the way that through multiple texts and words I am able to attempt to make sense of the world around me: it is not a solitary painting or song or poem or story, but the compilation of each experience...and the fact that it seems near impossible to name any singular emotion with exacting clarity. Life will not ever be interpreted, for me, in one long, linear string of events; there are far too many strings in my web of an existence, each pouring into my understanding in its own way.

When researching for the Ars Poetica project I gave some of my students, I came across these lines by Czeslaw Milosz:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.


The last aspect of The Year of Magical Thinking that I want to comment on is the title itself. Didion references throughout the memoir that she kept thinking that John, her husband, would be coming back. The phrase magical thinking is heartbreaking--because as children we truly can believe in it and as adults it seems that it only comes by way of self deception, and loses the hope that is attached. I suppose that this is where my understanding of Truth comes in, though this is not the post or the place in which to fully disclose my beliefs. But. I do believe that there is a place for magical thinking, though it is not directly connected to the reality of this world. And I sometimes think that we need the magic to survive, sometimes.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


I have turned in my 2nd quarter grade early. Somehow I have all my lesson plans ready through the day before our week-long break. Somehow my "in" tray for papers to grade is empty. Miraculous. So I am writing at 11:22 on a Wednesday.

This post is mostly to share other writers' words. I am wrapping up a poetry unit with my students and there is something about all of the possibility that lies in poetry and the beauty of revision and experimentation that makes me feel like it's not winter outside. Or, makes me embrace winter a little better?

The extra credit assignment for kids who want a challenge or are done with their collections early is to write an Ars Poetica, a term coined by Horace in 18 BC. Its hard to name the excitement that runs through me knowing that these conversations have been going on throughout the existence of the written word. The term officially means "the art of poetry" and has come to describe a poem that is about poetry (think metacognition, but for a genre of literature). Here is one that just breaks my heart in the best of ways:

Ars Poetica by Claribel Alegria,
trans. by D. Flakoll

poet by trade,
condemned so many times
to be a crow,
would never change places
with the Venus de Milo:
while she reigns in the Louvre
and dies of boredom
and collects dust
I discover the sun
each morning
and amid valleys
and debris of war
I catch sight of the promised land.

I love the idea of poetry being a means of hope and of capturing and renaming the world and its corners. I keep thinking that if we paid more attention to the corners overlooked and the hands untouched that we could give them life. And their life can bring life to those who live out a cheapened version.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Reading Life Gone Out of Control. Or, Reading as Dating: a sad, sick comparison or a beautiful mess?

For a short, beautiful period of time this summer I became a one-book-at-a-time kind of girl. Getting involved with more than one character at a time felt like cheating: I was already involved with and caught up with a plot line and themes and characters. Plus, I had all the time in the world to dedicate to reading: I was going through a new book every few days. (Granted, I was sad to be finishing books so quickly because I felt like I just got to know all these great people, then they were out of my life, their stories over, our summer fling come to a close.)

Most of the time, reading multiple books at once seems fine because I can separate the genres: of course I won't confuse nonfiction with fiction with spirituality. I will probably continue to not only justify, but to enjoy this reading behavior for the rest of my life. The problem I am running into is that I have a ridiculous list of books I want to read right now and I can't stop myself from starting them all. The fidelity of my summer reading persona has completely faded. The current list includes:

1. Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin. A beautifully written, magical realism novel set in the early 1900's New York. It will make you fall in love with its use of language and imagination.
2. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. This has been recommended multiple times and a teacher mentioned the other day that she couldn't put it down. And I think I subconsciously wanted some emotional catharsis. Bought and started it yesterday in a moment of weakness.
3. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. This is my book partnership read, which I am slated to start probably sometime this week. It is so long that I don't think I will ever finish it if I am reading other books at the same time. This book is what started this particular rant.
4. Compassion by Henri Nouwen. One of the best books on Christianity I've read in a while--I can justify reading this with fiction...
5. On the Blue Shore of Silence by Pablo Neruda. I'm currently obsessed with learning to speak Spanish well, so I've been practicing learning new verbs and pronunciation with my bilingual translations and reading Neruda aloud in my apartment.
6. Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books by Maureen Corrigan. I just started reading this one, and if you are a compulsive reader, I highly recommend this one. Don't even get me started about talking about the whole idea of finding and losing oneself in reading.
7. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. My next unit for school and I feel like I need to immerse myself in all things R and J to get ready for this. I always forget how beautiful, rich, deep and thought provoking this is. Sometimes it takes teaching a text to fully grasp all that it is. I wish I always read this way, though what that might look like scares me a little bit: talk about an out of control reading life. But it is the essence of rich reading and living that I always want to capture.

I think that completes the list of books next to my bedside that are opened and stacked upon one another or stuffed with a pen or a bookmark. But. I have a stack of my favorite books of life next to my dresser, and in the morning this is where I dry my hair. Obviously I have nothing to really think about with my head flipped upside down, so I usually look at all the titles and think about when I read them: like reading The Voyage Out in my Virginia Woolf class with a group of people who were so passionate and excited about embarking on studying 8 of her books in 8 weeks. Sigh. Like how interesting The Hours was after that Woolf class. Like how Kate Atkinson reminded me this fall that there is some solid mystery writing out there. Like reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn with my mom. Oh I could go on forever.

Bottom line: I am a compulsive over reader. I cannot stop. I would like to think of my inability to be faithful to just one book as a beautiful, messy, post modern love of text and connection. Ha.