When Poems Find Me

April 17, 2019

Sometimes a poem strikes me, and I’m able to write it in the moment. I get an idea for an image, a phrase or a metaphor, and I just can’t help myself.

Other poems are more coy. They want me to write them, but maybe I have too much to say and don’t know how to squish it all down. Or maybe I feel too strongly and the words haven’t quite yet translated.

I’ve been trying to write this poem for about three years now. It surfaces each time I ask my fourth graders to personify an attribute or emotion. I keep wanting to write this poem, but it’s eluded me. It doesn’t help that this assignment comes around the same time of year I lost my brother, and writing about grief while I’m feeling it is…well…messy.

This year, for whatever reason, this incredibly patient poem decided it was time. Enough with the nonsense. Just write already. So I wrote. Here goes:

Grief

I am Grief.
We may not
Yet
Be familiar.
But we will,
Some day.

When we first meet, I am
Everywhere,
Awaiting you in moments
Large and small.
I hold you tight enough
To steal your breath.
Or hide behind a corner
Waiting to spring you
In the off-chance you have forgotten me.

People know me by
That tell-tale dimple on the cheek
That one song that comes on the radio
The telephone call you go to make before realizing
You can’t.

People never consider
How attached I am
To Love.
But there we are,
Always intertwined
As best friends are.

People never consider
I am not one to be escaped
I am not one who should be escaped.
I want to whisper,

Come.
Sit with me.
Let me surround you,
Enfold you.
I am here, yes.
And so is Love.
As you sit,
And as you sink,
You might just fall.

Let us catch you.

-© Lainie Levin, April 2019

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Troubleshooting: Questions Edition

March 15, 2019

It started out easy enough.

My second graders were sharing the questions they had written with one another, and to promote supportive listening I had the kids nominate strong questions for a light-hearted “awards” ceremony.

Our “Questies” consisted of 3 categories:
*Questions we’re most curious to find the answer to
*Big questions, that nobody really has the answers to
*Questions we’re jealous of because we wish we had asked them ourselves

I solicited nominations, and it went well. At least…in TWO of the three categories. See for yourself:

We knew which questions we were jealous of, or curious about, but we just couldn’t seem to nominate any big questions. Which means a few things might be happening:
*None of the kids wrote any big questions on their homework.
*The kids weren’t listening to one another as well as they could have.
*The kids don’t know what a big question is.

Situations like this always present themselves like a choose-your-own-adventure story. I’ll have to start by diagnosing the homework assignments. If there are several “big” questions on there, it looks like we’ll have to do some activities on how to be a listener.

If there aren’t any “big” questions on there, I’ll have to figure out if it’s because kids weren’t giving their full effort, because they’re not connecting deeply with the reading, or because I need to do some teaching on what big questions actually are, or how to ask them.

I do know that, as a teacher, I do this kind of problem-solving every day. Multiple times a day. Sometimes in bigger ways like this, that make me stop and think. But most of the time, I’m performing dozens of these calculations without even noticing.

And what will the answer be to THIS question? What will be the diagnosis of my “Question” question?

Only time – and a bit of investigation – will tell.

March: Blowing in Like a Poem

March 8, 2019

So many little miracles happened for me today. I got a hug from a reserved second grader. A tricky third grade class was beautifully behaved. And this morning the world brought me a seed for a poem, which I carried in my pocket and thought about through the morning. And when my fifth graders held their Freelance Friday writing time, I joined in the fun. Here’s what I wrote.

To Today’s Snow, Who Surprised Me This Morning On My Way To Work

I feel sorry for you
For coming on Friday
In March
When we were cold, and tired,
And tired
Of being cold, and tired
And people huffed past you
Without a glance,
Wishing you had been sunlight.

If only
You had arrived in October
We would have greeted you
In wonder.

If only
You had arrived in October
I would have gathered my class
To run outside,
Black paper
And magnifiers in hand.
And we would have seen you,
Really seen you
Marveling at your structure
And intricate detail.
There would have been squeals
As we caught you on our tongues
And you stuck
To our eyelashes,
Our hair,
Our not-ready-for-winter clothing.

But it is March.

So I hope it is enough
That I saw you today,
That I noticed
The delicate fluff
Of sparkle
You laid upon the world,
And that I spent a wistful moment

Before snapping a photo,
Starting the car,
Turning on the wipers
And pulling away.

(c) Lainie Levin, March 2019

Making Lemonade

December 17, 2018

Now is about the time of year when I give my fifth grade students an assessment on literary analysis. We have spent a fair amount of class time learning how to write proper claims and arguments, and we have also discussed the type of language that is best suited for the tone of academic writing.

These essays are part of my year-long data gathering; I use these to determine growth among my students across the year. So when I look at their work, I’m hoping to see kids using the structure and conventions I’ve taught them.

It is so very hard to be patient.

It is so very hard to look at these novice, rough-around-the-edges attempts with a generous eye.

It is so very hard to look at where the kids are now, and not be so very discouraged about how very far we must go from here. To not look at the papers and give up because it all feels like one hot mess.

I knew that if I sat down now to fill out the rubrics on their writing, it would just make me crabby. Everyone knows they don’t want a crabby teacher evaluating their work.

So, I decided to hit the brakes for a bit and get the students involved. I had them read their work aloud to themselves to get a feel for how it “sounded” to them.

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Then, I asked them to choose a recent work to compare to their beginning of the year writing, and reflect from there. The questions were:
-When you compare your work from the beginning of the year until now, what strikes you or surprises you?
-In what areas have you seen the most growth in your writing?
-Looking at the most recent essay, what areas do you see yourself needing to improve or strengthen? What skills do you need to learn?

Lo and behold, as they do just about every time, my students came through. The level of thoughtfulness and insight that the kids brought to their responses was encouraging and refreshing. Just as I had hoped, their reflections on growth reminded me that indeed, their writing has come a long way since the beginning of October. Much to my relief, many of their areas for improvement were the same as what I would have suggested.

In a busy and stressful time of year, this activity was a reminder to listen to my loveys, to allow them the opportunity to reflect, and to celebrate their growth and development.

Quite the holiday gift.

On Teaching and Transparency

December 14, 2018

I’m always complaining that I don’t have enough mentor texts to teach my students about reading and writing concepts. I can never get enough. That’s why I was so excited to introduce a concept to my two fourth grade groups yesterday and today.

I got the idea from Kristin Ackerman and Jennifer McDonough’s book, Conferring with Young Writers: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do.  They suggested creating reference books to teach writers about skills and strategies they can use in their work. Want to learn more about personification? Find the reference book to see multiple examples, then give it a go in your own writing.

Over the coming weeks, my students will mine both their favorite books and their own writing for mentor texts to create these resources, and they are as excited about the proposition as I am.

But that’s not what my post is about. Sorry to disappoint.

Here’s the thing.

The top of the student form reads, “Mentor text submitted by______.” As soon as I passed the papers out, a student asked, “What’s a mentor text?”

What’s a mentor text?

What’s a MENTOR TEXT?

You mean, that thing that I use nearly every. freaking. DAY in the classroom to teach you reading and writing skills? And agonize over how I will find more? And more quality ones? And plan nearly every. freaking. LESSON. Around?

You don’t know what a mentor text is?

The answer was no. Not one of the nearly 20 fourth grade students had any clue.

And I thought, how is that even possible? How is it possible that there is something so incredibly integral, so incredibly critical to what I teach, yet my students do not even know what I’m talking about?

To say it was eye-opening was an understatement.

I’ve done a bit of thinking since then, and here’s what I’ve come up with.

There is a lot of teacher language that my colleagues and I use. We use a lot of technical vocabulary around reading, around writing, or behavior, or learning. What is stopping me from using that language around my students? What stops me from calling things what they actually are?

Frankly, I’m not sure that anything really is.

I’m not entirely sure where this will all lead, but there is one thing I know for certain. As a teacher, I need to think deliberately and with intention about the language I use. If I want my students to use the language of craft, and the language of learning, I have to make sure that I am open and clear with them about what I’m doing, and how I’m teaching.

My students DO know what a mentor text is now. At least they’d better, because it came up at least eighteen more times in our conversation. But my other blind spots? The other assumptions I’m making about their knowledge or vocabulary?

My guess is, if I’m becoming more transparent in my teaching, those are going to come up soon enough.

They will have to.

Ah, Fiction! We meet again.

May 12, 2018

I have a confession to make.

I have not written fiction in…I cannot remember how long.

There’s just something about writing fiction that stops me in my tracks. I don’t know what it is. Personal narrative? Poetry? Essay? I’m all in. Fiction? Move it along, nothing to see here. I’ve tried countless times, with stops and starts.

To tell you the truth, I had been feeling guilty about it. After all, I’m the queen of getting in there with my kids, rolling up my sleeves and writing along with them. Except with fiction. I always demonstrate my pre-writing, model my storyboards and such, then quietly fade away when it’s time to do the actual composition.

Well, this week I had an assignment for one of my classes. We were supposed to imagine that an educational reformer from history visited our classroom, and to respond creatively.

My original thought (as it so often is) was to use poetry. Little by little, my verse started reading more and more like prose. Until I finally sighed, gave in, erased the line breaks and embraced my writing for what it was. Fiction.

Here goes. It’s a little rough around the edges; I’m not gonna lie. But boy am I proud that I climbed this mountain after who knows how long.

———————————

Monday morning, 7:36 a.m. Time to begin my daily ritual. I slung my teacher bag to the floor, threw my coat over my chair and slumped down. I reached into my bag to unpack. My laptop and plan book assumed their rightful positions at the altar, as did the pile of grading I should have done the night before. Pencil in hand, I began to assimilate just exactly how the day would go.

A shadow in a dark suit appeared at the door. Crikey, I thought. Please tell me I haven’t forgotten some sort of meeting. I straightened and turned to the figure, then grew puzzled. It wasn’t someone I knew. “Good morning. Can I help you?”
“Yes, I’m looking for a…Mrs. Levin?”

Rising from behind my desk, I reached out to shake hands. “I’m Mrs. Levin, and you are…”

“Dr. John Dewey. They didn’t tell you I was coming? I’m here to observe your class for the day.”

“Wait…John Dewey?” I replied.

“Yes, from the Time-traveling Reformers for Enlightened Education.”

“Ah…TREE. I’ve heard of you. Well…welcome! Have you been to many classrooms before?”

“A few,” Dewey said. “So here I am, ready to learn from you.”

Holy cow! This guy wrote the book – literally! – on progressive education. I better have my A-game ready today. “I don’t know,” I stumbled. “It seems I’m probably the one who has some learning to do from YOU. Well, Dr. Dewey, my mentor teacher always says that you can tell a lot about a teacher based on how the classroom looks.” I gestured towards my clearly lived-in classroom space. “So what do you think?”

John Dewey adjusted his spectacles, cleared his throat, and began his tour. He started by examining the tables for groups of students, the supplies I keep in the room available to the kids, the Wonder-Bot 3000 some of my loveys made for when kids had questions to research for fun. He thumbed through my shelf full of professional books (Reading with Meaning, The One-World School House, Learn Like a Pirate) and gave a satisfied “humph.” Turning to my desk, with the too-large pile of grading on it, Dewey gave me a quizzical look. “Are these…worksheets?”

What? If only he knew how much busywork is my nemesis. “Oh, no,” I quickly say. “My students are exploring the evolution of the English language. These packets help guide them on their research.”

“Ah, I see.” Dewey looked through the pile, pulled out a random paper and began reading. “So, you’re studying Noah Webster and his contribution to American language.”

“Well, he IS kind of a dude.” I feel myself turn red before adding, “At least the kids think so. You know that’s one of the highest compliments they can give a person.” An awkward silence. “Perhaps you’ll understand when you meet them during your observations.”

“I suppose I will. Well, Mrs. Levin, your classroom does seem to be quite student-centered, and their work does seem interesting. When do the children arrive?”

“In a bit. They just need to check in with their home rooms.”

“Home rooms?”

“Yes. The students just come to me for language arts enrichment. These are students who demonstrate a high aptitude for reading, so they come to me for additional challenge.”

John Dewey furrowed his brow and folded his arms. “So…this opportunity isn’t available to all students, then?”

“I know what you’re thinking, Mr. Dewey. All students need the opportunity to be creative and to explore. You may not entirely agree with the premise of gifted education. I know not everyone does. Heavens, even I didn’t for part of my career, and I was even a product of that system.”

“You’re not making a strong case for yourself.”

“Allow me to continue,” I said. “The thing is, gifted students need each other. This classroom expands their opportunities to be creative and explore the world around them. To make it better, they often go back to their classmates and spread that knowledge and those skills.”

“I see,” Dewey said.

“The thing is, Mr. Dewey,” I went on, “I agree that it might be nice if ALL students had the chance to engage with curriculum to the same degree of depth and complexity as these students do. But…given the time constraints classroom teachers have, plus the expectations to meet our state and national standards for every child, many classroom teachers don’t have the room or the freedom to pursue courses of study like this one. You can thank your friends in the standardization movement for THAT one.”

He replied, “We have some philosophical differences, Mrs. Levin, but you do seem to have your students’ interest at heart.”

“I’M HERE!” interrupted Sandro as he strode through the door. “DID YOU MISS ME?”

“Of course I did, Sandro. It’s been a whole three days! Where are your classmates?”

“They’re coming.” He turned to John Dewey. “Who are you?”

“I’m Dr. John Dewey, young man. I’ve made some important contributions in the past to the way you learn, and I’ve traveled through time to visit you and your teacher.”

“Wait. Dr. DEWEY!? I know that name!” he shouted, as the rest of the class came straggling in. “Hey you guys! This is the Dewey Decimal System guy. Can you believe it? Here’s here from the past – to visit US!” A commotion arose as the other students gathered around, asking all kinds of library questions all at once.

John Dewey’s shoulders sagged, and he gave a heavy sigh. Clearly this was not the first time he had heard this one. He adjusted his spectacles, shook his head (did he just roll his eyes?) and said, “No, no. That’s not me. You’re thinking of MELVIL Dewey. He’s the library man. I’m JOHN Dewey. I made reforms in progressive education throughout the early twentieth century.”

Amelia piped up. She was never shy about asking questions. “What’s progressive education?”

“Simply put, young lady, progressive education means that learning is there for you to explore and learn about your world. Learning is not just to prepare you for some job later in life, but to help you make the most meaning of your life now, as you live it.”

There was a general murmur as the students considered this idea.

“That’s kind of like what Mrs. Levin does!” answered Jenna. “She lets us explore cool stuff all the time! Have you ever heard of Noah Webster? We’re studying him now.”

“I am vaguely familiar,” Dewey said as he shot me a look. He continued, “I am glad to hear that you are enjoying your studies. You must remember how important it is to seek out big ideas and make them a part of your educational experience. It is the best way for you to understand and connect with the world around you.”

“Dr. Dewey,” declared Sandro, “you’re a DUDE.”

From behind his spectacles, John Dewey blushed as the other kids nodded in agreement. Check’s in the mail, kid. Check’s in the mail.

 

Right Poem, Wrong Assignment

April 24, 2018

Today I had my fourth graders write about something small, taken for granted, or unappreciated. We started with a poem I wrote and shared about lowly feet. Then it was time for the kids and me to get cracking.

I meant to do the assignment along with them. I really did. But I couldn’t think of ANYTHING to write. So after a few minutes of being blank (which felt like an eternity) it struck me that perhaps boredom itself goes unappreciated.

In I went to compose a poem elevating boredom through poetry. But then a different poem came out. It’s still one I kind of like, so I’m sharing it here.

The kids still have me on the hook for the real assignment, though.

Boredom

When my pencil
(poised above paper) awaits,
Anxious to do the bidding
Of my master/mind
Yet no command comes
A standoff:
As my hands
(eager to get moving) wonder
What is wrong with
The machine that moves them
And my mind
(unused to blankness) panics
When finding itself
In silence.

So my imagination
(relenting to this break in the action) sighs,
Succumbs to numbness,
Twiddles its thumbs
And waits
For a lost, lonely idea
To find its way
Home.

More Important Things

April 23, 2018

Once again, I got to enjoy composing alongside my students today. This group of fourth graders was also working on “important” poetry, but we decided on pencils as our object. Here’s my contribution:

The Important Poem

The important thing about a pencil
Is that it is sharp.
It’s long, it’s yellow
And you can twirl it between fingers
If you teach yourself how.
It gets shorter and shorter, especially
When you sharpen it to the perfect point
And blow on it
Because that’s what you do.
And whether it is
Fresh-out-of-the-box-new, or
Worn down to a tiny
Eraserless nub that you
Pinch in your fingertips,
It will still take
All of the pictures
That circle your brain
And give them to the rest of the world.
But the important thing about a pencil
Is that it is sharp.

Important Poetry

April 20, 2018

Once again, my students and I are composing poetry, this time based on Margaret Wise Brown’s The Important Book. It’s such a charming read, and both the kids and I love how Brown takes ordinary things in our lives and sees the poetry within.

The kids wanted to write their poetry today about paper. So, I joined in. It may still be a work in progress, but I thought I’d send it out into the world for now. Have a good read!

The Important Thing

The important thing about paper
Is that it is thin.
We find it in any size
Or color.
We ball it and throw it.
We fold it and tear it.
It carries the weight of words
And stories
And lists
And lives.
But the important thing about paper
Is that it is thin.

On Feeling (not) Useful

April 19, 2018

Well, it certainly has been a while since I’ve stopped by. I felt the pull to write once again as I am watch my fifth graders craft allegorical stories.

Funny thing is, they’re the same group who formed trusted reader circles in fourth grade.

And here they are, working with a new set of trusted readers. They’re talking to each other about what’s going well, where they are struggling, and what they can do to improve their writing.

And me?

I’m here. They’ve all shared their work with me, and I can read every piece. I can comment on documents and confer with my students. They can also come to me if they want me to be one of their readers. And I will.

Right now, though? I’m just…enjoying the view.

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