It is the season of assessment. The coffee pot in the teacher’s lounge is working overtime. We are overwhelmed with grading and the end-of-semester tasks for classes, clubs, and committees.
This Monday, during my first class, I was giving a lesson about sentence fragments. Scanning the class for engagement, I knew it was a losing battle. The students are exhausted. These days they arrive to school as the sun is still rising. Most of my journey to work is in the dark.
Finals are next week but the English Department issues exams that are standards-based. This means that our students will read a variety of passages and then answer questions proving their ability to identify, interpret, and analyze things like theme, craft/structure, and plot.
Giving a standards-based final exam removes the need for a week of content review. There are advantages to this. All of the content work for the semester has been assigned –essays on Shakespeare and The Grapes of Wrath await feedback.
We can and do spend time reviewing elements of writing and grammar, but I’m a firm believer that grammar, especially, is best attained in contextual practice, and most importantly, in small doses.
So, if we aren’t reviewing a semester’s worth of content, and are only devoting mini-lessons to grammar and the writing process—how do we fill a week of time?
Some teachers schedule content related movies, or assign reading time—ambitious colleagues assign a cumulative project. I have done all of these in the past. I am considering how to best use this week for my sanity and student preservation because they are clearly maxed out.
Last year, I had two sections of the course and it took several sessions to determine a theme. Eventually, the theme was revised too. This year, however, Ethan provided the winning theme at the beginning of our discussion.
Students were calling out themes like ‘Starry Night’, and ‘Flower Power’, when Ethan said, “What about this line from a Kanye song?”
Everyone stopped. It was nearly perfect.
After deciding not to lift the line exactly, we determined that our theme would officially be This Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures.
Even Justin liked it enough to abandon his thematic contribution--Tron-night.
Students divided into groups and brainstormed decorations, publicity, and entertainment. They returned to share incredible visions of how to tie our theme together this coming April with decorations such as words dangling on ‘invisible’ fishing line from the ceiling, a community poem in the shape our school initials, newspaper-flowers, etc.
We also had a discussion about concrete poetry and the how poets format language on a page become image filled. I asked students if they had heard of Erasure Poetry.
They had not.
This led to an impromptu lesson on the smartboard using Mary Ruefle’s, Melody, The Story of a Child.
We discussed negative space in ideas and on the page. When the bell rang, it felt too soon—and that was near miraculous given the time of year.
I rediscovered them in my cabinet as I was pondering the destruction of some old text books for an erasure poetry lesson.
My first class of sophomores trudged in. We reviewed sentence fluency and then I told them about this year’s Poetry Night theme. Juan asked if we would be writing poetry or something. Another student groaned.
I showed them examples of erasure poems, and modeled how to make one using a page from National Geographic. The room began to perk up. I put music on and opened the blinds. They were hooked.
This scene repeated itself throughout my day. My largest class worked with sustained concentration for over 30 minutes erasing language to create new ideas. Many showed me their poems as they completed them and were thrilled when I took pictures of them.
Jasmyn said she was going to do more at home. Time and again the bell came too soon. The only instruction I gave the students was to give special attention to sensorial language as they worked.
Erasing text to extract a core idea or to tell a different story than the one originally intended on the page seems perfect for teenagers.
There is something rebellious in the act of blacking out words—but it is equally tempered with a sense of discovery. Maybe the tensions of the season helped to evoke some of the most provocative work my students have done this year.
Or perhaps departing from our typical routine helped lead to some of these extraordinary results—all I know is that Creative Writing will be busy figuring out how to best display these poems at Poetry Night.
Oh, and I also know that I will be upping the creative work I assign in all of my classes for the rest of the year. There were plenty of teaching moments regarding literary elements, sensory details, subject/verb agreement and characterization during this activity. The often unspoken notion that students can’t attain mastery of standards by way of intensely creative work has effectively been erased.