Monday, January 9, 2012

Poetry Across the Curriculum

They are just not getting it, he says
Head shaking, heart sagging.
The seniors were struggling, grappling
With the grave forces of gravity, inertia, momentum.
The subtle combination of math and movement
Buried them under mounds of complex theory.
"Maybe I can help," I intoned in a voice
far from the Superman crowd,
"Maybe I can unlock their interest with poetry."
His look more than withered.
If his eyes could have spoken, they might have said,
"What's wrong with you boy, are you out of your head?
There is no way that your verse and your line,
Can help my students to get and define
The topics of physics, you must be quite wrong,
What could a science student learn from a song."
So, I paused and I waited, while his eyes said their peace
And, thankfully, he didn't voice these thoughts.
Instead he said "Sure, that might be fun,
I will try anything to bring these students back
To the topics and ideas of this great science."
So, I assigned three different topics
Based on the physics teacher's
Suggestions. The students were to choose
One of these topics and craft a poem,
Formal or not,
To describe the physics concepts embodied by each.
And lo and behold what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a sleigh full of verse about forces and motion.
In the end, the physics teacher allowed that
Poetic adaptation is not the worst of all tricks
To get students to learn the science of physics.

So, bad poetry aside, what the heck am I talking about? How can we possibly ask science, math, and history teachers to judge poetry? How can we ask the teachers to assign poetry? Should we?

My friend and colleague, Chris Spencer, does something he calls Friday poems. The basic idea is not necessarily original or innovative (students write poems and present them in class at the end of the week), but I think Chris has managed to make it his own. In Chris's class, students write poems every week. About what ever they want. They spend time at the beginning of the week generating three topics for the week. Chris does not generate these, but he mediates the process. And surprise...they love it. Seriously. When I taught at Chris's school, all of the students in his class would find him at lunch, after school, on e-mail over the weekend, seeking his expertise as the most knowledgable writer in the room.

Writing in class does not have to be just journals and essays. Poetry is a tool that can be used to unlock those stubborn barriers to understanding in other disciplines. I recently had sophomores writing poems based on the ideas about genetics they were discussing in Biology class. I had freshmen writing poems about mathematical topics like point-slope equations. Each time, my colleagues said they noticed a positive change in the students' understanding of the topics. Poetry, like all writing, is inherently generative; therefore, in writing these poems, these students generated new understandings of subjects they struggled with before.

Is it foolproof? Most certainly not. Not every topic works this way for every student; but, ask yourself this: how often do you get your mind blown by a poem about physics?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Teaching Vocabulary, Successfully

by Tara Seale
The best advice I received this year came from my students, and it related to vocabulary instruction. I struggle with the best way to teach vocabulary; and unfortunately, like most English teachers, I do not have the time I need to devote to vocabulary instruction (maybe it should be its own class, I thought, grammar too, but that is another blog post). I also recognize that a strong vocabulary is essential for effective reading comprehension. Looking for contextual clues only works if students understand the other words in the sentence.

Frustrated, I tried guilting my students into learning words because they just need to know them to succeed in life. That doesn’t work. I related a story about how my husband, at twenty-four, attended his first board meeting. He realized that it was imperative that he increase his knowledge of words and bought 30 days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. We still have this book with all of his annotations. They liked the story and realized that they might end up in this same situation one day, but they also decided that they would rather play video games, text, work, go to band practice, football practice, or any number of teenage life distractions that make additional learning outside of class something to put off until absolutely necessary.
After nine weeks of frustration, I asked my students, “What can I do to help you learn the words you need to know?” They told me that Paula Barker, their pre-AP 10th grade teacher, helped them learn words through vocabulary bingo, and they also received the added bonus of candy. I told them that if I was going to buy candy, I needed proof. I was amazed as my 11th grade students recited words they could still remember because of vocabulary bingo in 10th grade English. Of course, I immediately contacted Paula and asked her to explain her visionary bingo game.

This is it:
  • 20 - 3 x 5 index cards will fit on a desk uncut, but you can cut the index cards to fit more.
  • Students write the vocabulary word on one side and the definition on the other.
  • The teacher also has her own index cards.
  • The class plays bingo during the last 10 minutes of class.
  • Students place all bingo cards word-side-up on their desk.
  • The teacher reads the definition, and based on the definition, students turn over their card.
  • The teacher goes slow at first letting students look through all of the cards, but the longer the game is played the more the teacher speeds up.
  • The first student to bingo receives a piece of candy.
  • Another version is to allow students to pick one card and stand up next to their desk. The teacher reads the definition, and students sit down as the definition to their word is read. The last one standing receives a piece of candy.
  • After two weeks, the teacher quizzes the students on the vocabulary words.
This idea is great for several reasons. First, it takes care of the last moments in class when some students would rather pack up than listen or participate. Second, competitive students want to win and just doing well on a quiz is not really winning, but blurting out bingo or surviving as the last one standing is winning. Third, it doesn’t take much planning or time out of class, so teachers can implement vocabulary bingo and not feel like they are sacrificing precious time.
The last reason involves a different implementation. I recently used vocabulary bingo for rhetorical devices instead of vocabulary words. It worked well; students wrote the definition and an example on their index cards.
Regardless of how a teacher decides to use this idea, students will be engaged because of the competition and the chance to win an inexpensive piece of candy. Learning vocabulary through vocabulary bingo is a win win situation for both the teacher and the students.