Sunday, April 22, 2007

Dispatch from PA

For the past few days I've been down at my fiancee's parents' house in southern Pennsylvania.
Yesterday we went to one of her friend's weddings, and the day before we hiked about four miles on the Appalachian Trail.
The weather, finally, has been sunny and warm. It was great to get outdoors and walk in the woods, if only for a few hours.

It feels like spring has finally arrived. As usual, its arrival marks the beginning of the end of the school year. My seniors have less than a month left - the rest less than two. The finish line is clearly in sight, yet the final stretch is by no means easy.

My seniors have to finish Lord of the Flies, complete a research project, and take a final exam. My freshmen are wrapping up a poetry unit before delving into Romeo & Juliet. They also have their fourth-quarter Outside Reading Books to read and present, and a final exam to take in June.

My journalism students are busy trying to put out two more newspapers before school ends. They're also planning for next year, devising ways we can improve all aspects of the paper, from the creation of story ideas to interviewing to editing to photography to layout.

Just before April vacation three of my journalism students and I went to Tufts University for a high school journalism conference. It was without question one of the highlights of the year. We had an opportunity to mingle with other scholastic journalists and teachers while also meeting some of the best professionals in the business.

We sat in on seminars by an ACLU lawyer, a two time Pulitzer-prize-winning photographer, an award-winning Boston Globe reporter, and a Tufts professor who has spent years working as a political consultant for a variety of presidential candidates. It was great to be reminded that we are part of a larger community, and to know that many of our struggles are shared.

In a few hours I'll be on a plane back to Massachusetts. Even though we booked our flight a few months in advance, the earliest flight back to New England leaves at 8:30 p.m. We'll arrive in Providence, RI, around 9:45. We'll then have a two-hour drive back to our home in Western Massachusetts.

I think I'll be brewing the coffee extra strong tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Poetry comment instructions

On your respective class blogs are original poems written by you and your classmates. I would like you to offer feedback in the form of blog post comments.

Three comments that satisfy the criteria = a "check," six comments = a "check plus."
Please bring a printed copy of your comments to class on Monday, April 23rd.

Your comments should respond to each of the following:

- What do you think about after reading the poem? Are you envisioning anything in your head? What do you see in your mind's eye?

- What was something that this poem did effectively? Does it contain effective metaphors, allusions, imagery, alliteration, rhyme, or some other poetic or literary device?

- How do you feel after having read this poem? Are you warm and happy? Shocked? Contemplative? Sad and forlorn? Hopeful? What was it about the poem that made you feel this way?

- Does this poem remind you of anything else you've read? Are any of its themes or ideas similar to another poem or work of literature you've encountered over the course of your academic career?

Your classmates and I thank you for your valuable and insightful feedback!

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Spontaneous Anthology Research

My 9th graders' poetry anthologies are due on April 10th. We've been working on this project for a few weeks now. It involves a fairly substantial amount of time and effort. It's one of my favorite units.

The students are asked to write poems, gather poems, analyze poems, and write a research-based essay about one particular poet. They are free, essentially, to pick from any professionally published poets they like. Our school's librarian does a wonderful job gathering a plethora of poetry books and anthologies for the students to use.

In class I do mini lessons on various types of poetry, teach students about MLA format, and give them ample time to write, research, and conference with me and each other. It's an independent (each student must create his or her own anthology) yet collaborative and social project. Once the anthologies are complete, we'll do a poetry reading, a poetry slam, and students will post their favorite original poem to this very blog.

Here is a poet research narrative I wrote about Jack Kerouac. I've been a Kerouac fan ever since high school, when some of my friends introduced me to On the Road. Since then I've read most of his novels, a number of his poems, and many of his letters, journal entries, and random musings. One of my favorite Kerouac anthologies is Some of the Dharma. It's a must-have for true Kerouac enthusiasts.

In my essay I tried to do things I asked the students to do, like paraphrase ideas, weave in direct quotes, provide basic (but not mind-numbing) biographical information, and discuss the way a poet uses language and form to communicate ideas.

The essays needed to be written using MLA format. While this is the third time we've used MLA format to cite information, it was the first time I explicitly taught the concept of plagiarism as idea theft. Many of my students were under the misimpression that it was OK to take someone else's ideas and put them into their own words without having to reference where the idea came from.

I told them that nope, sorry, that is still plagiarism. I said it was fine and good to take another's ideas and try to express them yourself, just be sure you cite in parentheses where that information came from.

This then led to a discussion about "common knowledge," and instances when one does NOT need to always cite information that comes from a source. For the purposes of this particular project, I told my students they did not need internal citations for the biographical information about their poet, as I considered basic facts about when a person was born, where a person lived, where a person went to school, what a person did for a living, and when and how a person died (so long as it was not disputed) to be "common." Ideas and statements about who the poet was as a person, and any anecdotes or insights about that poet's writing style or techniques, however, absolutely needed to be cited.

I think the following passage from the University of North Carolina Writing Center does a good job explaining what common knowledge is. It begins by first stating three ideas that are considered common knowledge (Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, oxygen has an atomic number of 8, and "The Starry Night" was painted by Vincent Van Gogh):

Sometimes it's difficult to be sure what counts as common knowledge, especially when writing in an academic discipline that's new to you. Perhaps you aren't familiar with Van Gogh or an atomic number. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if a knowledgeable reader would be familiar with the information. You may, in fact, need to consult with a reader within the discipline. If she'd have to look it up, you usually should document it. If you aren't sure if something counts as common knowledge, document it to be safe.

These discussions about common knowledge, paraphrasing, intellectual theft, proper attribution, when to paraphrase and when to weave in direct quotes, are, for me, very stimulating. They definitely require higher-order cognitive skills, and really challenge students to think about what they're doing and why they're doing it.