On Teaching Poetry, Part II

I taught my annual poetry unit at the beginning of the semester and have already blogged a little about it here.  In that post I posted these key questions:

The key to teaching poetry is answering the question how. How can we help our kids get inside a poem? How can we help them admire (even if they do not necessarily like) the games poets play with language? How can we help them respect poetry even if they do not understand it? (“On Teaching Poetry“)

A lot of teachers take one of two conventional (and mistaken) approaches: have the students read easy, crappy poems, or have them read classical poems and force them to try to get some meaning out of it. I have chosen another approach.

Being a UD grad, I’m all about the Western Tradition and legit poetry. But I’m also all about respecting where my kids are and acknowledging the fact that, for most of them, poetry is pretty boring. So instead of teaching what a poem is about or even why a poet wrote it, I teach them to ask the question how.

The first thing the kids need to learn when encountering poetry is the difference between tone and mood. Why? Because recognizing tone and mood in conversation, in writing, in emails, in text messages, in any type of human communication is a basic life skill. If you can’t identify tone and mood, then you miss out on 99% of the meaning in any given sentence you read.

Tone is how the speaker feels about what he is saying. It is his attitude.

Mood is how the speaker is trying to make the audience feel about what he is saying.

I ask them, “Have you ever met someone who has a hard time picking up on sarcasm?”

They always say yes. “That person, who cannot pick up on a sarcastic tone, unfortunately misses most of the meaning.”

I then give a real life example. I walk up to Charlie and I say with sincerity and a bright smile, “Hey, Charlie, you did a great job in class today!”

Then I ask, “How does that make you feel, Charlie?”

“Uh.. good, miss,” he replies.

“Great. Because I used a sincere or kind tone, I created a positive or happy mood in Charlie. But I could easily say the exact same words and create a totally different meaning.”

I walk up to Charlie again, this time with a bored and annoyed expression on my face. “Hey, Charlie. You did a great job in class today.” I make the sarcasm as evident as possible.

Then I ask, “How does that make you feel, Charlie?”

“Uh… kinda bad, actually…”

“Exactly. This time I used a sarcastic tone and that created a hurt or slightly depressed mood.”

So then we start to apply those terms to poems – usually simple Billy Collins poems first. Ask questions like, “Okay, what do you think the speaker’s tone is in stanza 1 – positive or negative? What words or images made you say that?”

Starting with the generic terms positive or negative really helps the kids at first. After they determine if the tone is positive or negative, they can more easily find a stronger tone word like “sad” or “furious” or “calm”.

So then we work on what I call “Tone and Mood Maps.” Basically, the kids get a poem with plenty of space in the margins. Then we go through the  poem stanza by stanza and put a plus sign + or minus sign – next to each stanza. Then, once we have mapped out basic positives and negatives, then we go back through the poem again and try to determine a tone word and a mood word for each stanza. Like so:

One of my students’ annotations. Notice the plus and minus signs on the left. Then the tone words on the left of each stanza, and the mood words on the right.

The next step is to put them in the place of the poet. Oftentimes students take for granted how difficult it is to write a poem. So I have them write their own “Introduction to Poetry” modeled after Billy Collins’ poem of the same name. The above picture shows one of these poems that was afterwards annotated by the student for tone and mood. Here is another one. The poem is worth reading!

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Again, notice the + and – signs, tone words on the left and the mood words on the right.

And I really like the way this student models her poem after both Collins’ and Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”: photo-3

Approaching poetry this way changes the question from what does a poem mean to how does a poem mean.

Which, in the end, is much more meaningful question. It prevents the student from making assumptions about the poet’s intent, and instead forces him to watch what the poet actually does in the poem.

Even if I present them with (gasp!) a real poem, they can find a way into the poem through the tone and mood. Like this student, who wrote admirably about Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. Here’s his second body paragraph:

Throughout the second and third stanzas of the poem, Frost tells of many similarities between the two roads. However, he twists and controls language in these stanzas using an appealing tone to help the speaker convince the readers that the second road was the correct one to choose and kindle in them a desire for it. After looking at one road for a while, the speaker “took the other, as just as fair,/ And having perhaps the better claim,/ Because it was grassy and wanted wear,/ Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same” (6-10). This is what makes this poem difficult to understand. As a result of the appealing tone that the speaker uses, the reader is led to experience an intrigued mood and get caught up in the appeal of the second path, but forget that it is the same as the first.

I love that this kid is comfortable admitting that this poem is “difficult to understand”. He doesn’t pretend to get the whole thing and turn it to some carpe diem cliche, like most people do when they read Frosts’ poem. Instead, he just describes how the poem means by analyzing the tone and the mood.

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Judas, John and Jesus

Even when I read the Bible I am an English major. I cannot help but read the Gospels as stories. One of the relationships I find the most fascinating is that between Judas, John and Jesus.

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The Last Supper by Natalia Tsarkova, 2002. Look how Jesus, John and Judas are portrayed in this scene.

I attend a wonderful Bible Study with a group of young Catholic women here in Denver, and this year we have been working our way through the Gospel of Mark. We read Mark 14 and 15 the other night, the chapters that recount the events leading up to and including the Passion. Chapter 14 begins with “the anointing at Bethany,” where a woman anoints Jesus with a very expensive “alabaster jar of perfumed oil.” Mark then notes,

There were some who were indignant. “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil? It could have been sold for more than three hundred days wages and the money given to the poor.” They were infuriated with her. (Mark 14:4-5)

Jesus, however, comes to the woman’s defense in a beautiful and powerful way:

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Mary of Bethany

Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. The poor you  will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me. She has done what she could. She has anticipated anointing my body for burial. Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:6-9)

I have always found his remarks here to be so haunting. Indeed, though Mark does not tell us her name, he records the event so that everywhere in the whole world we remember this woman.

Interestingly, it is right after this scene at Bethany that Mark recounts the betrayal of Judas. Right after Jesus finishes speaking, it seems, “Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went off to the chief priests to hand him over to them” (Mark 14:10).

It seems as if this scene at Bethany was somehow the last straw for Judas. Mark does not tell us why.

Last year, we were reading the Gospel of John, which also recounts this scene. But notice the differences:

Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him. Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. (John 12:1-3)

We have a lot more detail here in John’s Gospel, which is one of the reasons I firmly believe this gospel does come from an eyewitness, the youngest apostle himself. I find it moving that the author remembers, even after so many years, how “the house was filled with the fragrance.”

But John also remembers who it was that objected to the woman’s — here, Mary of Bethany’s– lavish act of love:

Then Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, and the one who would betray him, said, “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days wages and given to the poor?” He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions.

So Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:1-8, emphasis added)

Note the commentary in italics. All four Gospels recount that Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus for money. And, in their listing of the apostles, they always give Judas the epithet “the one who betrayed him.” But it is John who seems to feel the sting of the betrayal so personally — so much so that he always portrays Judas in the worse possible light. Here, he makes it clear that it was Judas to objected to Mary’s act of love– it was Judas who thought the breaking of the jar a waste of money, and who brought up the obvious objection inspired perhaps by Jesus’ own previous teaching on the poor.

John’s bitter commentary here– “He said this not because he cared about the poor”– seems very moving to me. Even after all this time, he is still so angry with Judas. Even after knowing about the Resurrection, and the meaning of Christ’s suffering, he– the youngest apostle, the “one whom Jesus loved”, the gentle, courageous one who stayed with him by the Cross, who was given the gift of caring for Mary as Jesus died– still feels so hurt and so bitter here that he cannot write unfeelingly about Judas’ actions.

Clearly, Saints Mark and Luke were not apostles of Jesus themselves. Mark, according to tradition, wrote his gospel based on the preaching of Saint Peter and Luke was a companion of Saint Paul. It seems unlikely to me that the author of Matthew’s gospel was the apostle Matthew himself — he writes with the same objectivity and restraint as the other synoptic writers.

But the Gospel of John is not written like that at all. There are all sorts of details and personal touches that suggest an eyewitness, and I think the treatment of Judas in this gospel is especially telling.

Even after all these years — John is writing sometime in the 80s or 90s AD, as an old man — the betrayal of Judas brings back his anger. He notes, during the Last Supper, that “Satan enters [Judas]” and “it was night” when he departs to hand Jesus over to the authorities. Much earlier, in the famous Chapter 6 of the gospel where he recounts Jesus’ promise of the Eucharist, the bread of life discourse, John concludes Jesus’ words this way:

“But there are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. (John 6:64)

Even here, John connects one of Jesus most profound teachings with the betrayal of Judas. John seems to think that Judas’ rejection of Christ began far earlier than the synoptic gospels recount.

Significantly, John says no more about Judas after the betrayal in the garden. For him, nothing else needs to be said.

But Matthew does. And he even seems to view Judas with some compassion:

Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.”

They said, “What is that to us? Look to it yourself.”

Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:3-5, emphasis added)

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Judas betrays the Son of Man with a kiss. From “The Passion of the Christ.”

It will always be a mystery why Judas chose to betray Jesus. If he was the keeper of the money, as John says, in some way Jesus must have trusted him to give him such a task. Tradition seems to hold that Judas valued money more than Jesus — obviously he accepted the thirty pieces of silver– yet there must be more to it than that. I think the moment where the woman at Bethany anoints Jesus “for burial” is significant for Judas. Perhaps this is the moment where he realizes Jesus is not the Messiah Judas thought he was going to be. On the one hand, Jesus claims to be more important than even serving the poor, but on the other he indicates that his death is very near. He is not going to be the liberator of the Jewish people from Roman oppression, he is not going to restore Jewish life in the Promise Land. Instead, he is going to die. All of this is too much for Judas. He is disappointed.

I think Judas’ story is tragic and terrifying. We all betray Jesus for strange and stupid reasons every day, and we too are disappointed in Him. He disrupts our orderly plans and our constricted hopes and gives us the cross instead.

We all hope that when we do betray Jesus, we can be like Peter and seek His forgiveness. We hope that sometimes we can even be like John and not betray Him in the first place, and stay with Him by the cross until the very end.

But all too often we are like Judas. We are disappointed and so we give Him up — we stop praying, we turn away, we busy ourselves and ignore him. And then when we realize what we have done, we are so ashamed that we cannot bring ourselves to run back to Him. We refuse to go to Confession, we refuse to beg for His mercy because our pride says we do not deserve it.

Of course we don’t deserve it. That’s the point. Even John, the good apostle, the best friend of Jesus, the caretaker of Mary,  is clearly imperfect in his struggle to forgive Judas sixty years after the Passion took place.

The hard thing about Good Friday is that it remains only an invitation to mercy. You can kneel at the foot of the cross, or you can mock the cross, or you can simply turn away and go hang yourself on the tree of your own pride. But the cross still stands, and Jesus is still there waiting for us with outstretched arms.

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John holds Mary, our Mother, at the foot of the cross. From “The Passion of the Christ.”

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Who is Emily Eden?

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The Lady Emily Eden. Source: tribuneindia.com

I had never heard of her before, so when my friend explained to me that she was a contemporary of Jane Austen and had written a wonderful novel, I was immediately intrigued. Noel Perrin of The Washington Post, on the back cover, amusingly observes, “The Semi-Attached Couple is the answer to a good many prayers. It is the book you go on to when you have run out of Jane Austen’s novels.”

We all know Jane Austen and her enduring influence on our ideas of romance and strong women. The Wall Street Journal just posted a great article by Alexander McCall Smith exploring the mystery of her appeal even to contemporary people: “The Secret of the Jane Austen Industry”. Smith wonders,

What explains the continued popularity of Jane Austen and the handful of novels she wrote? It is, after all, rather remarkable that a woman who spent her life in quiet provincial circumstances in early 19th-century England should become, posthumously, a literary celebrity outshining every author since then, bar none. Tolstoy, Dickens and Proust are all remembered, and still read, but they do not have countless fans throughout the world who reread their books each year, who eagerly await the latest television or movie adaptation, who attend conventions in period costume, and who no doubt dream about the heroes and heroines of their novels. (Smith, “The Secret of the Jane Austen Industry.” Wall Street Journal).

After reading Emily Eden’s delightful novel, The Semi-Detached Couple, I guess my question is this:

Why has everyone heard of Jane Austen and nobody has heard of Emily Eden?

Emily Eden (1797-1869) occupied a rather distinguished position in the upper class of her day. She, like Austen, never married– but unlike Austen did quite a bit of traveling, even to India with her beloved brother, where she wrote about her experiences.

The Semi-Detatched Couple was originally written around 1830 but not published until 1860. Interestingly Eden felt the need to include a caveat right after the cover page, explaining to her audience that this novel had been written a generation ago, “before railroads were established, and traveling carriages-and-four superseded” and thus really was “a strange Chronicle of the Olden Time” (Eden, Preface to The Semi-Detatched Couple).

Unlike Austen, who always writes about the pre-marriage adventures of courtship, pursuit, and misunderstanding–Eden in this novel writes about post-married life. The novel explores the challenges of a newly married couple who have a very hard time understanding one another. Lord Teviot is desperately in love with this wife but extremely jealous of her strong attachment to her family. Lady Helen is confused by her husband’s moodiness and misses her loving home.

However, like Austen, Eden creates extremely memorable, humorous, and occasionally infuriating characters–like the next door neighbor Mrs. Douglas who

had never had the slightest pretensions to good looks; in fact, though it is wrong to say anything so ill-natured, she was excessively plain, always had been so, and had a soreness on the subject of beauty, that looked perhaps as like envy as any other quality. As she had no hope of raising herself to the rank of a beauty, her only chance was bringing others down to her own level. “How old she is looking!” — “How she is altered!” were the expressions that invariably concluded Mrs. Douglas’ comments on her acquaintances […] (Ibid 21)

Eden, like Austen, is a very opinionated narrator whose frequent use of irony and wit had me laughing out loud many times throughout the novel.

Very aware of Austen’s influence, Eden even includes an explicit reference to her work. In a letter to her mother while visiting the enviable Ecksdales, Eliza Douglas says,

I write in such haste, that I have not time for more than several very important questions which I want you to answer. What am I to give the housemaids here? and do you object to my reading novels, if Lady Eskdale says there is no harm in them? They look very tempting, particularly one called Pride and Prejudice. (Ibid)

Like Austen, Eden makes frequent use of letter writing in advancing the plot and exploring the motives of her characters. But fascinatingly, unlike Austen, she explores the servants perspectives of their lords and ladies. In a letter from Mrs. Tomkinson, Helen’s ladies maid, we hear about the petty competitions between servants, their opinions on the upper-class interactions they witness daily, and their own concerns.  Eden treats them with the same amused attitude she has toward all of her characters.

Notably, Jane Austen never enters into the mind or heart of any servant in her novels. They are barely mentioned in her works at all. I wonder if perhaps, because Lady Eden belonged the the upper class and was safely removed from the servants’ circle, she did not feel threatened in any way by their perspectives and could enter into them in her novels without losing ironic detachment. Austen, being somewhat closer in class, perhaps could not share in this narrative perspective.

Austen also does not comment very much on the politics of her day (although I do not hold this against her). Eden does, and reveals all the ridiculous machinations of the political process of the period. In some ways she was far more worldly than Austen and this is very apparent in her work.

Although I do not think Lady Eden’s novel reaches the depth of Austen’s finest works, (like Emma or Persuasion), I think it certainly surpasses Northanger Abbey and, in some ways, even Pride and Prejudice. She is gentler toward her characters than Austen is. And the “villains” in her story are not soundly punished like Mr. Willoughby and Mr. Wickham are, which perhaps better illustrates an irritating truth about human life.

I highly recommend The Semi-Detached Couple and wish more people knew Lady Eden.

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Flannery and the Incarnation

Yesterday would have been Flannery O’Connor’s 90th birthday. I always thought it was so appropriate [read: providential] that she was born on the feast of the Annunciation, when God became incarnate. In fact it was her stories and letters that first really helped me to appreciate the Incarnation and Catholicism’s insistence on the sacramentality of the world.

I read C. S. Lewis long before I read O’Connor, and yet for all of his generous help to me in navigating Christianity, and his beautiful exploration of Christianity as a story in the Chronicles of Narnia, “Myth Became Fact” and other writings, I never really got the sacramental approach from him. It was in O’Connor’s bizarre works that are almost overwhelmingly “of the flesh” that I began to experience Christianity in a new way.

Christianity always seems to struggle in every age from gnosticism – from a desire to separate the body and the spirit. Flannery O’Connor’s writings are a very strong antidote for this chronic malady, I think because she herself was struck by the Church’s teaching on sacramentality and had to overcome a certain natural resistance to it:

For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified. (Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being)

When I was a junior in high school, I chose The Violent Bear It Away as my novel to read and to write about for the major paper we were writing in English class. This novel disturbed me and irritated me to no end (it still does), but I was arrested by how the moments of grace in the book were not abstract but firmly grounded in earthly imagery–fire and blood and bread and landscape. In this powerful scene, the protagonist, a young boy running away from his calling to be a prophet, is coming to terms with the fact that the mysterious “hunger” inside of him which has haunted him throughout the story cannot be satisfied:

He felt his hunger no longer as a pain but as a tide. He felt it rising in himself through time and darkness, rising through the centuries, and he knew that it rose in a line of men whose lives were chosen to sustain it, who would wander in the world, strangers from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth. He felt it building from the blood of Abel to his own, rising and spreading in the night, a red-gold tree of fire ascended as if it would consume the darkness in one tremendous burst of flame. The boy’s breath went out to meet it. He knew that this was the fire that had encircled Daniel, that had raised Elijah from the earth, that had spoken to Moses and would in the instant speak to him. He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command. GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. The words were as silent as seed opening one at a time in his blood. (O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away)

Reading Flannery O’Connor is very much like reading the Old Testament. There is violence and sin and some very unlikable people — and yet somehow it is only in this broken realm that grace chooses to work.

Oddly enough, that previous sentence also aptly describes the Catholic Church. It is not noble and abstract, nor clean and tidy, nor even very holy (except insofar as it is the vessel of the Holy Spirit). Rather it is full of violence and sin and some very unlikeable people. And yet somehow Christ has chosen to work his grace in it and through it.

As Flannery says, “Sometimes you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it.”

I love that. It comforts me when I’m impatiently enduring a banal liturgy or rolling my eyes about my Catholic friends’ Facebook posts or gaping at the comment some cardinal made or fuming over yet another scandal.

And of course I too am sometimes (perhaps oftener than I think) the cause of someone else’s “suffering from the Church”.

But Flannery understood this and explained it beautifully in her sharp, concise way: “the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it” (Ibid).

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Flannery with her self-portrait. Source: full-stop.net

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Why I’m Changing My Mind About Grades – Part IV

20140331-203836So, I have not written in a long time.

The biggest reason?

I’ve been grading a lot more than usual.

Yes. Unfortunately, the verdict about my new grading policy is that it definitely creates more work for me. And, hopefully, more productive work for my kids. But it has been a lot and I am feeling a little overwhelmed. Still, I think the extra effort on my part has been worth it — I just need to find a way to make this system more sustainable in the long run.

For instance, because my school has a stacked schedule  (the same seven 50 minute periods every day), the only time kids can meet with me for help or to retake something is before school, during lunch, or after school. So I don’t really get any kind of break from them during the day now, which is okay, but kind of hard for an introvert like me. I always have someone signed up (usually four or five kids) during lunch time and a bunch of kids after school. (Fewer of them seem to want to get up earlier and meet with me in the mornings, so that’s good).

Next year if I continue to teach sophomores, it may be easier because I will already have created multiple versions of the same assessments. Right now, though, if I make a test and offer a retake on it, then I have to create at LEAST one more test and usually more versions to help prevent cheating.

However, all of this work is just part of the job. I think that’s the thing I really need to accept. I love teaching, but part of teaching involves devoting a lot of time to grading. That’s true of most jobs — in order to do what you love, you have to sacrifice a lot of time.

Here’s a summary of the results of this new policy for my kids:

For my strong students: The grading policy makes a small difference for them, but not a big one. Many of them learn the stuff the first time around and do not need to do retakes. A few of them have retaken their Poetry Essays and benefited from meeting with me about them.Peanuts_-_school_advice

For my struggling students: The grading policy has made a HUGE difference for the kids who just don’t get it the first time but want to improve and get better. It’s really helped some of my kids get motivated and not give up on themselves. It’s for these kids that the retake policy really matters, and seeing them improve has made me a big believer in it.

But then there are a few struggling students who do not benefit at all from the retake policy because… well… they never retake anything. It’s too much work to meet with me and get extra help and then write a letter explaining their mistakes. Or perhaps they have already given up on themselves. Or maybe…

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Part I

Part II

Part III

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Why I’m Changing my Mind About Grades – Part III

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source: cse.buffalo.edu

What usually happens when a student fails an assessment?

Does he

a) come to see the teacher to find out what he did not understand

b) get reprimanded by his parents and try to do better next time on a different assessment

c) roll his eyes and forget it about it

In my experience, the answer is usually C. A and B do occur, occasionally. A, of course, is the best option and the one for which all good teachers hope. After all, grades should be about learning  and if a student fails an assessment that means he has not learned what he was supposed to learn.

Perhaps this failure to learn is the teacher’s fault. Perhaps it is the student’s fault. Perhaps it is nobody’s fault. But it happens. And what we hope is that a student can gain some helpful information from an assessment, such as: “Oh. I have not actually mastered Parallelism. I should go talk to Ms. Shea to find out what I did not understand for the sake of learning itself.”

Ha.

Under normal circumstances, and under most grading systems, option A rarely occurs because the student, the teacher – nay, the class itself – has already moved on to a new objective or concept. Why waste time laboring over an exam you failed when you have another one looming on the horizon? If a final exam is coming up, then perhaps you will ask the teacher to help you so that you do not make the same errors on the final exam. But this points-based motivation is hardly ideal.

What we really want is for kids to be intrinsically motivated. To care not about grades for grades’ sake, but to care about grades only insofar as they reflect learning.

This sort of virtuous motivation may be 90% grace, 5% parent-influence, 4% peer influence and only 1% teacher influence, but we must do what we can with that 1%.

Assessments can be a learning experience. And if the assessment says, “you did not master this concept,” then, ideally, the student should go back, try again, and then retake (an altered version of) the assessment so that we can measure whether or not he has mastered the concept the second time.

Therefore, I have decided to offer retakes this semester – something I NEVER thought I would do. I used to think that if a student had not mastered the objective by the time of the assessment, then his grade should reflect that. If I schedule the test for Februrary 19th and the student did not study, or studied incorrectly, or thought he paid attention in class but did not… then for any of the those reasons he deserves to earn a low grade.

This, as far as it goes, is true. But the real question is this: what happens after failure? Do we want our kids to fail (or perform poorly) and merely move onto the next topic, hoping for a better outcome next time? (Experience shows all teachers that the kids who fail one assessment are far more likely to fail the next one, even if it is on a completely different objective unrelated to the first.)

Or…

Do we want them to go back to that failed assessment, analyze it, think about it, talk to us about it, and learn from their mistakes? Of course we want the latter. Because grades should not be about punishment, they should be about what a student has learned. And if he can show us he has achieved the objective after all, even on a second (or third!) try, shouldn’t his grade reflect that learning and progress?

Yes? Are you with me?

So how do we make this happen? By allowing retakes for assessments.

This is my new retake policy in a letter I wrote to my kids:

Dear Sophomores, Based on the research we have been discussing in class and that has been presented by [Principal], I believe it is in your best interest to adjust our grading policy for second semester so that your grades will more accurately reflect your learning. However, I also believe it would be best to introduce a gradual change based upon some of the feedback I received in your grading proposals instead of the full assessment-only model. The changes are:

  1. Re-takes for assessments will be introduced

After certain major assessments, and at my discretion after looking at your performance, I will be offering re-takes on certain assessments so that you can learn from your mistakes and show me that you have met the learning objective. The retakes I offer will be available to all students, regardless of your original grade. If you chose to retake the assessment, I will not average your scores: the higher grade will go into the grade book to reflect your mastery.

  1. In order to retake an assessment, you must complete the following:
  • Two days of NHS study hall with me or with the student mentors to review concepts you missed on the assessment.
  • A full-page typed letter explaining how you prepared for the first assessment, the mistakes made on the previous assessment, how you prepared for this retake, what your plan of action is from this point to avoid making these mistakes again.

These requirements are in place to ensure that you try your best on all your assessments, and that you only retake an assessment to show me your growth in learning.

  1. Homework will make up a smaller percentage of your overall grade

You will still receive credit for homework, bell work, and other completion grades on a random basis. This will be worth 15% of your overall grade in this class. Late work will be accepted for a reduced grade (70%) until the end of the unit. After this time, late work will not be accepted. The goal in this adjusted policy is to ensure more clearly that your grades reflect your learning of the Archdiocesan standards and objectives. If you or your parents have any questions, please email me. I will be happy to meet with you to discuss the policy. Sincerely, Ms. Maura Shea [email]

Ideally, I would allow retakes on ALL assessments. But since I am still grading some non-assessment work (homework, bell work, class work, etc.) my principal suggested I take a partial approach. Basically, I am trying to offer retakes on as many assessments as I can. Keep in mind that this means creating NEW assessments and grading a LOT more of them. Ahem.

Later, I gave each student a simplified version they put in their binders for easy reference:

Retakes

  1. Sign up for two spots [on the schedule posted by the door] – one so that we can go over your previous assessment, and another so that you can retake a new assessment.
  1. Check in with me to make sure these times are okay.
  1. Prepare your typed letter.
  • How did you prepare for your first assessment?
  • What are the mistakes you made on the first assessment – why did they happen?
  • How did you prepare for this retake?
  • What is your plan of action to avoid making the same mistakes?
  1. Come see me on the scheduled days!

Thoughts? Suggestions? In my next post, I’ll explain how this new policy (implemented in January) has been working so far.

Read Part I here.

Read Part II here.

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Filed under Education, Teaching

On Teaching Poetry

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“I ask them to take a poem / and hold it up to the light / like a color slide” (Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry” 1-3). Picture source: genius.com

More thoughts coming soon on my dramatic change in grading policy! (I sound like an advertisement…)

In the meantime, I’ve just finished teaching a poetry unit and thought I’d share some ideas.

The first time I taught a poetry unit to high school students a few years ago, I knew I was in for a rough time. I remembered how much I hated poetry when I was in high school (even though I loved reading challenging prose like Augustine and Dostoevsky). Indeed, from the moment I uttered the word “poetry” in connection to our next unit of study to my kids, I got so many groans and eye-rolls that I briefly considered skipping the thing altogether.

What helped me most was reflecting on the reasons I used to hate poetry. They were pretty straightforward and can pretty much be summed up by one idea:

I hated that poets were being difficult and obscure on purpose.

As a relatively open-minded high school student, I could forgive Shakespeare for the fact that his language reflected the 16th century and even Hawthorne for his interminable sentences and hopelessly flowery diction – he was a 19th century Romantic, after all. Charles Dickens was making money to support himself for every unnecessary descriptive paragraph he wrote in Great Expectations, and I could even forgive Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner for their mysterious and disturbing characters and plot twists.

I could not, however, forgive Emily Dickinson for her inexplicable dashes.

Nor e. e. cummings for his annoying rejection of simple capitalization and punctuation.

Nor Sylvia Path for her confessional whining.

Nor, especially, William Carlos Williams for his infuriating wheelbarrow.

What made things much worse was the fact that I felt like my high school English teachers were demanding that we find the “deeper meaning” of these stupid puzzles. But of course I had no idea what Emily meant by her “Certain Slant of Light” nor what “One Art” Miss Elizabeth Bishop was referring to nor why Edgar Allan Poe was so obsessed by some lady named “Annabelle Lee”. And yet my teachers seem to think the answers were obvious.

Like many other high school teachers, several of mine insisted upon psycho-analyzing the poets and explaining their weird defiance of all common sense writing by praising them for their “revolutionary” challenge of the “patriarchal norms” of the English language. Apparently, I was supposed to appreciate poetry and like the fact that these dysfunctional people called poets couldn’t just say what they meant like everyone else.

After thinking about my own hatred of poetry as a high school student, I saw at once that I would have to develop a different approach with my own kids.

I must not demand that they appreciate poetry, nor that they be expected to know what Wallace Stevens was up to, nor even understand it in the common sense of the word “understand.”

But my University of Dallas Junior Poet educated self, who had fallen in love eventually with Emily Dickinson and Richard Wilbur and W. H. Auden, was also unwilling to let them just rhyme along with Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss.

The key to teaching poetry is answering the question how.

How can we help our kids get inside a poem?

How can we help them admire (even if they do not necessarily like) the games poets play with language?

How can we help them respect poetry even if they do not understand it?

Marianne Moore, in her famous meta-poem “Poetry,” observes that “we do not admire what we cannot understand.” So how do we help them understand without demanding that they tackle the impossible?

I start with this poem by Billy Collins, which says better what I am getting at than anything else I have read:

Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry” from The Apple that Astonished Paris. Copyright � 1988, 1996 by Billy Collins. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Arkansas Press.

Source: The Apple that Astonished Paris (1996)

via poetryfoundation.org

More to come.

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Filed under Literature, Poetry, Teaching