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Undivided Attention

We set out tomorrow for a short trip tomorrow through the mountains and, hopefully, no snow. There will be snow. I hope it is not snowing.

A colleague recently introduced me to the poetry of Taylor Mali. He is better known for the poem What Teachers Make. That was a poem I had heard several times before, but could not have attributed it to a poet. Mali has great wit, clarity, and creates powerful imagery through his words. He was a teacher for several years and I think he would have been fantastic in the classroom building relationships with young people. I wrote about Sam Intrator several months ago and I think Taylor Mali is the kind of teacher he was describing in his book, Tuned In and Fired Up.

This poem by Taylor Mali spoke as the day unfolded. I need to be present for my students to learn. I need to give them my undivided attention so they can give their undivided attention to the subject at hand, perhaps that piano hanging eight stories up across the street. What could we learn that day?

A grand piano wrapped in quilted pads by movers,
tied up with canvas straps—like classical music’s
birthday gift to the criminally insane—
is gently nudged without its legs
out an eighth‐floor window on 62nd street.

It dangles in April air from the neck of the movers’ crane,
Chopin-­‐shiny black lacquer squares
and dirty white crisscross patterns hanging like the second‐to­‐last
note of a concerto played on the edge of the seat,
the edge of tears, the edge of eight stories up going over—
it’s a piano being pushed out of a window
and lowered down onto a flatbed truck!—and
I’m trying to teach math in the building across the street.

Who can teach when there are such lessons to be learned?
All the greatest common factors are delivered by
long‐necked cranes and flatbed trucks
or come through everything, even air.
Like snow.

See, snow falls for the first time every year, and every year
my students rush to the window
as if snow were more interesting than math,
which, of course, it is.

So please.

Let me teach like a Steinway,
spinning slowly in April air,
so almost-­‐falling, so hinderingly
dangling from the neck of the movers’ crane.
So on the edge of losing everything.

Let me teach like the first snow, falling.

The Poet Speaks

Yesterday, after I posted a Vaclav Havel poem, It Is I Who Must Begin, I realized there was more than just the poem at play. Sam Intrator in Teaching with Fire, which he co-edited with Megan Scribner, commented in a section entitled Tending the Fire: “Poetry, by its capacity to touch the human soul and tap into the deepest wellsprings of our being, opens up opportunities for us to stay vital and alive” (p. 210).

As I reflected on yesterday’s poem and the role that poetry plays in my life, I realized poetry is a series of conversations. It is both an internal and external process. I turn in with each word, symbol, and term and ask “What does that mean in my life?” I also, in that internal conversation, hear the poet, who is present, through his or her words.

I sit

Book in lap

Each word, space, punctuation

Each has meaning

A personal truth

For each heard differently.

I listen closer

My body leans in

I don’t want to miss any essence

I hear a voice

As in the company of another

Is the poet here with me?

Tuned In and Fired Up

I mentioned this book in Culture of Peace and Angry Young Poet. It was worth a read. I start with a haiku which emerged from the book.

 

Who stretches the teacher?

Journey into their essence

Reveal the learner.

I read Tuned In and Fired Up by Sam Intrator for two reasons: as a teacher and as a graduate student preparing for the dissertation process. Sam contributes to the work of the Centre for Courage and Renewal which based on Parker Palmer’s writings and thinking.

The book is enjoyable, informative, and motivating. Teachers need to take time and pause, reflect upon, and recall the reasons they were called to teaching. There are alchemical moments of discovery we artfully use and define teacher, students, and subject. It is surreal and its magic can never be underestimated as the three blends into a single whole and respects individual integrity.

Part of the magic in this book is Mr. Quinn, the teacher. He took risks and students tuned in and fired up to his genuine presence. Parker Palmer, in The Courage to Teach, suggested “teaching is always done at the most dangerous intersection of personal and private life” (p. 18). Mr. Quinn’s teaching was learning and realized he could wrong. The magical aspect takes a teacher onto the boundary and, then, into uncharted waters. Good teachers take that risk and students sense it.

Towards the end Sam cited William Ayers: “Since teaching is always a search for better teaching, I am still in a fundamental sense becoming a teacher. I am stretching, searching, and reaching toward teaching” (p. 134). This is a virtuous cycle of learning-teaching-learning to infinity.

Sam leaves the reader with an incredible list of those things teachers can reflect upon and use according to their setting. Many are well-known: cultivate rapport with students, compete tenaciously for their attention, and spark their desire to create. Others were ones I felt were lesser known: embrace your role as a performer, tap into their senses, and acknowledge boring. That last one is challenging. At the adolescent level, treat them like they are becoming adults.

Questions: A concern expressed by Sam was a need for genuine collaboration. What practices do you use in your workplace or learning that foster collaboration between adults? If you teach, what ways do you include students?

Recommendation: I loved the book and let me leave you with just two ways. It was easy to read without losing meaning. Sam used simplexity and achieved his aims. Second, he left a thorough recipe without the quantities. I need to figure those out with students and subject.

Intrator, S. M. (2003). Tune in and fired up: How teaching can inspire real learning in the classroom. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Palmer, P. J. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

 

An Angry Young Poet

Each year, I spend time on poetry with the students. Two years ago, a student asked if I wrote poetry in junior high school and I was able to say, “Yes!”. He asked me to share with them. I found them in a small lock box I keep at home and shared several with the class.

I mentioned in Culture of Peace Sam Intrator. He suggested teachers expose adolescent students complex, existential questions of life as they move through those formative years. I wrote my poems in about 1969. It was a time when identity was increasingly rooted in the global nature of the world, not just immediate community and family. War, even in Canada, entered our homes via television. I found voice in poetry and expressed an abhorrence to institutional and government approved murder. What set me apart from my peers, was I took no sides. Each was equally wrong in my mind. Mr. McKenzie, an innovative English teacher, encouraged that in us-find our voices.

I shared the following poem with my students. I concede it is not exactly the original, as it was pretty angry. I hope the original message is still there. Students asked for more poems and I complied. These past few months I rediscovered my poet’s voice. It is a gentler voice, I hope.

Win or Lose: What Difference Does it Make?

 One game

If it is one

No fun to lose

No great thing to win.

War!

Hollow

Men, women, children gone

In no time

Woe! The vanquished losers;

No winner

Each, vanquished in every sense.

Divided

In ruins

Rebuilding

On countless graves

Rudderless.

Without pride

Beggaring citizens

Values of others

Resenting conquerors

What does war bring?

No jobs

No hospitals

No schools

No homes, but the streets

Destruction everywhere.

What does war bring?

Death of innocence

Loss even in victory

Comrades fallen

But see an enemy vanquished.

Killing

Proving nothing

What fools

Going on forever

Will we learn?

We must

I pray

For human survival.

Take care and have a great 20th of July, 2012.

Culture of Peace

Each child has a voice

In a secure space

Voices are revealed.

I am reading Tuned in and fired up: How teaching can inspire real learning in the classroom by Sam Intrator. It is the published version of his doctoral dissertation so I read it out of a twofold interest: as a teacher and as someone getting ready for the dissertation process. Sam asks teachers to consider the following question: “What engages children in learning?” That was the focus of his study and he found an innovative teacher, Mr. Quinn, who lived up to the challenge.

Mr. Quinn was studying Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, but found the students were not enjoying the early part of the book. He took them outside to the ball diamond, had them select a small patch of ground, and spread out from their classmates. Mr. Quinn asked students to observe, collect data, and write about a 1 foot by 1 foot (30 cm by 30 cm) patch of grass. They were to try see the world as a poet-scientist and find their way to describe their small ecosystem. Despite initial grumbling, the students became engaged and wrote poetry, reflective journals, and connected that patch to their lives in many ways. For many, it was the highlight of their learning that year.

In Grade 8 Social Studies, I found an activity in the Teacher Resource Manual called A Culture of Peace. This activity engages students and brings out even the voice of those who generally choose not speak up. This is one of those activities with no right or wrong answer.

First we discuss a Culture of War, which by the standards of the day should be easy to do, but an interesting thing happens. About 10-15 minutes into this discussion, students run out of descriptors for a culture of war or they repeat what has already been said. I record comments on the whiteboard and say, “It is time for a change of pace. What are some descriptors for a Culture of Peace?” I fill up a whiteboard with student responses. They are so engaged they know when they are duplicating previous responses. They are listening intently to each other. The shy, reluctant students engage in the conversation, because they feel no risk of being wrong.

The first time we did this we had to stop after an hour because we were borrowing another classroom and the teacher needed it back. When we walked out of the classroom to return to our classroom, one of the boys turned to a friend and said, “I could do this all day.” As a teacher, I felt like I was on Cloud 9. I look forward to this activity each year. The students and I become engaged in our learning.

Question: What was one learning experience that engaged you fully and made learning worthwhile and so memorable to be vividly recalled years later?

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