Saturday, March 27, 2010

Children and Poetry

My normal gig is teaching gifted students, which I absolutely love. I will not go so far as to say my job is easy; teaching gifted students comes with its own challenges. Gifted children suffer from perfectionism, anxiety and depression at a higher rate and often become lazy when the realize they can work half as much and still excel beyond their peers. They also deal with being different from a young age, since gifted students realize early on that they are not like other kids their age. But there are many challenges I do not face. For example, my students can work in small groups or independently, I explain something once and they grasp the concept, the read above grade level, and are almost always motivated to learn something new. However, I did want to gain experience teaching all students, especially the ones that might struggle in some areas.

A few weeks ago I began teaching a creative writing club at the school where I teach. This is part of the after-school program and is open to all students. I decided to make my club for grades 5-8 and also use it toward my field experience credit needed for my creative writing teaching certificate as part of my MFA at Chatham. I have assistance from two other grad student volenteers and another who is also getting field experience credit. We met for at least a month beforehand to gather materials, plan out the scope and sequence of our curriculum, organize who would lead each session and share resources. We would continue these meetings to discuss student work and reflect on that week's lesson.

Our original plan was to have five weeks of fiction writing and five of poetry. Then the program lost a week due to scheduling conflicts at the school, so we cut a week from the poetry. The first class was tough. The students were much different than my own; rowdy, boisterous and dramatic. Some did not take direction very well. A majority though, were good kids who just loved to write. We began with a lesson on plot structure. Most were engaged. Some, however, we harder to motivate.

One student in particular, we'll call her Samantha, was really difficult to work with, especially the second week. The week prior she only would write fiction if she could coauthor a story with her friend. I acquiesced in order to keep this student involved. The second week her friend was absent and of the grad student volunteers was having a heck of a time getting Samantha motivated to discuss her story's characters. I decided to intervene, since I knew Samantha was more interested in writing poetry. In fact, the literacy coach, who also runs the after school programs, told me this student was particularly gifted in poetry writing. I asked Samantha if I could see her poems and she handed me a notebook filled with pages of poetry. While a lot of it was what you would expect from an 11 year-old writer, all of the poems had an honest quality. Dark even. It was clear this child wrote poetry to express herself and to work through her feelings on a deep level. She was experiencing severe loneliness, which I think a lot of children feel but do not know how to name it. Samantha named it with rain, solitude, darkness; one poem even made this lovely leap at the end describing how the world turned into a "golden cello." This student was a poet. I sat with her during the rest of the meeting and we even wrote a poem together about the rain. She hugged me when she left.

After having a break through with a difficult student, the group decided to simultaneously teacher poetry and fiction. I would begin by offering a poetry activity to any of the students. During my conversation with Samantha, I asked her if she ever goes back and revises her poems. She said she never does because she believes them to be perfect the first time they come out. Allen Ginsberg's quote came to mind; "First thought, best thought." I immediately decided to not focus on revision or editing, but rather focus on exposing students to reading the work of famous poets and giving them the chance to write their own poems.

I really do not like most of the children's poetry they teach in school. It is overly simple, cliched, naive, sweet and rhymey to the point of nausea. It's no wonder kids don't like reading poetry. This kind of poetry assumes that children do not have the capacity to examine real poetry or the ability to relate to it. My opinion was, if the teacher could make the poem relatable, then the students would be on board. Good thing Kenneth Koch agrees with me.

In his book, Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?, Koch outlines his experiences with teaching adult poetry to public school children in grades first through sixth. He includes his process of approaching a poem from the angle of teaching it to children. He insists upon finding the poems emotional drama and making that feeling meaningful to the students. In his book he teaches Shakespeare, Whitman, Blake, William Carlos Williams and Federico Garcia Lorca. He also includes works from his students over the years, which are - in short - amazing. I strongly recommend this book to folks who want to teach children about reading and writing poetry.

So I planned a lesson for Tuesday. Along with a fun writing game using similes and metaphors, I will teach the students "This is Just to Say" by Williams. Because, really, who hasn't experienced apologizing for something they were secretly still glad that did? I can't wait to see what the students come up with. Hopefully I'll be able to copy a few and post them here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Events Galore!

Pittsburgh has plenty of literary events happening around town n'at. Every week there are at least three events and there are a number of regular monthly reading series. A great resource for all things literary in the 'burgh is the Pittsburgh Poetry Calendar.

I have some friends reading in events this week. My Chatham buddies Thom Dawkins and Petro-Micchelli are reading at the Hungry Sphinx reading tonight at 8pm. Oakland. Check it out.

My good friend Crystal Hoffman is reading tomorrow night at Modern Formations in Garfield for the New Yinzer Presents series. The fun starts at 8pm there as well.

My next reading coming up is one I'm really looking forward to! I'll be reading with so many poets, including Thom and good friend Michelle Stoner. Chesterfest is a fundraiser to help send some Carlow students to the AWP conference in April. This reading will be hosted by Kayla Sargeson and what I can only assume is her home on March 27th in Oakland at 127 Chesterfield Street. Doors open at 6:30pm (I think), readings start at 8pm. There are tons of readers, art on display and musicians will begin playing around 9pm. Dancing starts at midnight! I'm pumped.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Writing Projects!

I have a few writing project ideas floating around in my head right now. I am taking a Spanish literature class this semester and for our final paper we are permitted to write a creative response along with a detailed supporting paper outlining the concept. My goal is to write about 10 poems that touch on major themes in Spanish literature like honor, chivalry, religion, monarchies, sexual repression, the changing roles of women, solitude, poverty and social class. I've got a good idea of how I can structure this work and connect the themes over time. I've also been trying to think ahead to my thesis for next spring. These first two semesters have literally flown by so I know it will just be a matter of time before it's September and I'll have to start working on a manuscript. I have been thinking it might benefit me to really work on a number of small series of poems so that I gain more experience.

Starting next week I am teaching an after-school creative writing club at work for 18 students in grades 5-8. We're starting with fiction and then moving on to poetry. We hope to having a reading sometime in June as well. How exciting! We're beginning with plot structure and I made a wicked PowerPoint presentation. Here is a picture of our jazzed up plot structure brainstorm we made on a chalkboard.

I currently have a number of poems from last semester out at journals. I sent them out in December. This is the longest amount of time journals have kept my submissions. After reading on Prosody, I feel a new sense of confidence in my work and I can really see how my work has improved over time. I also have a real desire to share my poems with more people. During the Weave event, someone approached me to discuss how I got on Prosody and complimented me on a couple of poems. It was such a wonderful and strange experience.

I also have a new reading series project I'm "consulting" on. A good friend of mine Thom, who helped produce the Weave event has now caught the event planning bug. It's addictive.

Plus I've got the next issue of Weave we are working on. We hope to finish reading by the end of the month so that when we reopen on April 15th we'll be done. Oh goodness. So much to do! I'm glad I remembered how busy I was.

Also, it's SPRING. Thank goodness.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Spring Break Procrastination

Sometimes I like to think of catchy, cute blog post titles. Today is not that kind of day. I'm lazy. In fact, I've had the laziest weekend I can remember in a very long time. Partially because it's spring break for me at Chatham. Also because my boyfriend has been really busy at work so we've not had tons of time to chat. In these kinds of times I begin to realize why I'm so busy all the time: because if I'm not busy, I'm not productive. I've basically laid in bed for the last four days straight, save for brunch with my folks yesterday and an Oscar party last night. I did go to work today, but here I am back in bed when I just realized I forgot about a doctor's appointment I had at 5pm. Normal, overworked, overly busy, stressed out Laura would have remembered. But lazy, somewhat lonely, slightly despressed Laura eats chips and dip in bed while watching hours of SNL reruns on Hulu.

The thing is, I have a ton of work to do. I have two huge research papers due in the next few weeks. I have so much to read for class. I have lesson plans to write for work and for a class. Perhaps I am frozen under the weight of all I need to accomplish. Mostly I am guessing I'll just get it done another time and it's more fun to watch TV.

Writing this blog post is the most work I've done (other than teach) all day. I now have actually scared myself into starting some of my school work. Here goes nothing.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

We're having a party!

There are many things to celebrate! My crazy week is over and I'm back to normalcy (not really). My students raised almost $1500 for Haiti relief. I did a pretty good job on Prosody last week. Oh yeah, and my magazine released a new issue.

The event is listed in this week's PopFilter. Details below. You should come out, have a beer and be entertained. It's going to be a really fun night.

What: Weave Magazine Issue 03 Release Party
When: Wednesday, March 3rd @ 7pm
Where: Remedy Restaurant and Lounge
Why: To celebrate our issue and it's lovely local contributors!