A Daily Dose of Poetry

The fear of miscomprehension has kept me a closeted reader of poetry. Still, I read a poem a day courtesy of The Writer’s Almanac. It is a ritual, a guilty pleasure, because it is seemingly unproductive. Like walking a quiet path. A guilty pleasure. I simply enjoy it. I soak up the words as I understand them at the moment. Connections arise and then release as I move on. Reading poetry is a gift to myself. And thanks to inspiring teacher-poets Mary Lee Hahn and Steve Peterson, I have two new sources, The Slowdown with Tracy K. Smith and Poetry Unbound.

Today’s Slowdown comments from Smith made me feel as if perhaps I’m not alone in my approach. She spoke of how sometimes words in poetry are simply images that slide together, and that she does not always understand the meaning of poems she loves. To have permission to venture into poetry without judgment was a huge relief.

Knowing this, why not apply the same philosophy to our use of poetry in the classroom? Why not grant ourselves permission to read poetry without the pressure of academic understanding. To see poetry in the same light as we see the arts. I have been a teacher who always sought a lesson through poetry. Be it word knowledge or craft. I’ve always felt the need to justify its presence. But what if I let that go and simply let it be.  Maybe my planned purpose should simply be the gift of a poem a day. Just as I give myself. Read aloud, shared, and at times a mentor text to study. While I’m the kind of teacher who needs a plan, perhaps my plan should be to purposely have a space for poetry. Daily.


by Naomi Shihab Nye

These shriveled seeds we plant,
corn kernel, dried bean,
poke into loosened soil,
cover over with measured fingertips

These T-shirts we fold into
perfect white squares
These tortillas we slice and fry to crisp strips
this rich egg scrambled in a gray clay bowl

This bed whose covers I straighten
smoothing edges till blue quilt fits brown blanket
and nothing hangs out

This envelope I address
so the name balances like a cloud
in the center of the sky

This page I type and retype
This table I dust till the scarred wood shines
This bundle of clothes I wash and hang and wash again
like flags we share, a country so close
no one needs to name it

The days are nouns: touch them
The hands are churches that worship the world


Who we are as readers (thank you, Vicki Vinton)

A post from Vicki Vinton got me thinking and wanting to work through my thinking in a public space. I am grateful for the need to write with purpose.

A friend once said she couldn’t define the type of reader as was, as in what kind of books I like. I had to agree with her. The books I loved were all over the place.  This quiz I found on Vicki’s blog, defined me in a way that made sense. My highest score was as the aesthete, the type of reader who treasures a writer who can take the ordinary and make it profound. This score was followed closely by the endurance reader, one who has no problem with sweeping sagas that span multiple generations. That’s a reasonably good definition. But I believe I would not have been defined in this way decades ago.

As a younger reader, I gravitated toward escape novels and books that reflected who I was and what I was struggling with. Over time, I consciously sought books that presented people and places with stories that were vastly different.  I wanted to look into other worlds. Over time, what attracted me changed. Was this because of experience, and how much of this change was because of my reading life. I like to think it was equal parts. I want to believe reading can change our reflection.

How this translates to our young readers is also on my mind. I don’t have an online quiz that would define my students’ preferences. That’s my job.

Last week, M– asked me during an engineering competition,
Can we have no homework if we win?

What homework do you have?
M– Reading.
That’s not homework. That’s just what readers do.
M– It is to me.

A– was listening in. Reading isn’t homework. I do it anyway.
This wasn’t a surprise. A– reads everything and anything.

A– and M– have the same running record score.

So why does M– see reading as an assignment, while A– sees it as what she does. And I’d say who she is.  More importantly, what can I do as their teacher to get M– to see reading as A– sees it?

So I asked him.
Do you always feel that way about reading?
M — Not during read aloud.
How is that different?
M — I’m not reading.
But you are doing the thinking of a reader.
He was not convinced.

So I asked more.
Aren’t there books that you read that make you feel the same way as a read-aloud?
M– Fantasy. Like the Land of Stories.
So this has to do with the type of books you read. Not reading in general.
M– I guess.

Perhaps our student’s perception of reading and our perceptions of our students as readers need to be reframed. Seeing M– and A– as similar readers because of their running records scores would be a disservice to both of them. I’m not concerned about A–.  But M– needs a lot more of what he loves as a reader.

Later, I check in on the students who have yet to finish a book they chose last week.
K– I don’t really like this book, but we’ll finish it.
Why? I ask. I have a book like that now, and talking to you makes me realize I just don’t like it. I’m not going to waste any more time on it. And, you shouldn’t have to keep reading something you don’t like either. Don’t waste your time.
K– Really?
Really. There are too many books to read. Do you know what it is about this book that you don’t like?
K– It’s slow.
We talked about those “slow” parts and why they are in books. Why they are necessary. But as younger readers, they may lack patience for them even if they understand why they are there.
K– handed me the book, gathered his group, and they choose another.

I’m not worried about K– as a reader. He knows what he likes, and he reads without being asked. I am more concerned about his perception of school and reading. Just because he chooses a book at school doesn’t mean he loses the right to abandon a book. Time is precious for all of our readers.

Finding out who we are and who our students are readers as readers require more than a test Be it of interest or skill. We readers are on a journey that evolves as we do. This is the beauty of reading, and the opportunity presented to teachers of reading. To introduce and expose our students to stories that they want to read and as well as stories that may change who they are as readers. To get students to see it is their right to abandon books, to honor their tastes and interest, to allow them to see themselves as readers.

As my students pick up their books, I am looking for what keeps them reading. Not because it is homework or because someone recommended it, or even when they chose it themselves.  But because it fills and feeds them as a reader right now.






Unexpected Possibilities

I have a love-hate relationship with field trips. I love the opportunity to go outside the classrooms to find new experiences. The hate or I should say the stressful part is unexpected possibilities. When venturing outside the school gate, even the best-laid plans can go awry.

Our adventure to a downtown museum allowed time for traffic, construction, and child-related delays. The walk to a historic part of the city was mapped, and a 1 to 4 adult to child ratio felt comfortable.  Yet all along the way, the unexpected kept popping up along our three-mile walk past museums, monuments, and government buildings. None of these obstacles derailed the trip. In fact, in some way, each experience made the trip.

When we arrived at the museum, A’s mom pushed her wheelchair up to the base of a steep stairway. There had to an access point, but where? A construction worker saw the situation and didn’t hesitate to ask if he could help. Next thing I know, he’s carried her up two flights. Problem solved as well as an act of kindness demonstrated for all. This is how we act in the world as helpers.

After the tour, our adventure began, past MOCA and the line of people waiting at The Broad, past Disney Music Hall with its blindingly bright reflective exterior, to the grassy Grand Park where we would have lunch. I hear comments.
“I’ve never been downtown.”
“I”ve never been on a field trip like this before.”
“Big streets scare me.”
And each of these thoughts starts a conversation about the place, the world. 

After lunch, we gather up our things, count up students. Make sure each child in with their chaperone, and we venture off.  More crosswalks, cars, and people, past City Hall and more comments pop up.
“What do they do there?”
“My feet hurt.”
“What are those tents for?”
Explanations and conversations follow each other.

“See that bridge ahead,” I say. “The walkway is narrow. We have to walk single file.” The walkway is narrow because of the homeless encampment that seems to exist on every freeway overpass in Los Angeles. This is our world that requires more conversation.

We arrive at Olvera Street. It’s short and crowded. Filled with vendors, delicious smells, traditional music, and more conversation.
“I wish I brought money,”
“I’m begging my parents to come here.”
“Where is the bus?”

We finish up at Union Station.
“Is this a hotel?”
“Just keep moving.”
“Is that our bus?”
“Line up.”

Each unexpected encounter made this trip for me. Each one met with wonder allowing parts of the world to filter into our lives. Each one added to who we are and what the world is to us. A travel experience of kindness, difference, color, sadness and the inexplicable that I hope planted seeds for more in each of my students