Why Poetry?

The Gaelic Harp traditionally symbolized poets and musicians. Some rights reserved by Neneonline

I’ve just spent a month in Ireland writing poetry in a land of poets. Bliss for someone who loves poetry in a world where poetry is largely tossed into April for National Poetry Month (a practice which I detest, but that’s a different blog post). The reason I was in Ireland for the month was to finish my course work for my MFA…in poetry.

As I’m finishing my degree soon, poetry is at the forefront of much of my conversation of late, and recently someone asked me a brilliant question:

How does poetry inform your work?

He thought it was a common question, but no one has ever posed this question to me, and to be quite honest, I’ve always framed poetry as my indulgent degree. Truly, I have embarked upon my MFA to improve my craft. And yet, upon reflection, poetry most definitely informs my work.

So why poetry?

  • Poetry is beautiful. It allows you to think in images, possibilities and imagination.
  • Poetry is concise and precise. It forces you to be specific, use precise words and foster an economy of language.
  • Poetry is reflection. You aren’t supposed to get it right away, so it forces you to think deeply, reflect and reread for deeper meaning.
  • Poetry is creation. In a world where creativity is making a huge comeback, I love the fact that I get to spend my free moments using words to create something new. And though poetry is a more conventional form of creativity, thinking creatively in one genre transfers to other realms of life.
  • Poetry is the essence of literature, society and language. Yes, I know this is a big claim, but look at how many cultures value poetry, either today or in history, as the foundation of culture, language and politics. I always started my English classes with poetry, for, as I told my students, if you can analyze a poem, you can analyze anything. And if you can write a good poem, you can most certainly write a good essay or story.
  • Poetry is problem-solving. A great professor once told me that writing is 90% revision. Revising poetry is definitely an exercise in problem-solving. Form must serve function. There has to be a balance of heart and head, a “foot on the ground and a foot in the clouds.” Writing a poem can take 10 minutes. Revising a poem can take 10 years. It is a series of deliberate decisions. It requires thought, separation and perseverance. It is the ultimate exercise in problem-solving.

So there it is…my attempt to answer a thought-provoking and valuable question. My work requires creative problem-solving, imagination, patience, reflection, perseverance and a range of other skills that the act of reading and writing poetry give me on a daily basis.

I love bridging connections between distinct areas in life, and now, I have new inspiration for why we should all embark upon a bit of poetry in life.

My Blog, My Philosophy

We are developing an online portfolio, and as a part of it, we’re including our Educational Philosophy.  I’m happy to say that in reviewing the most recent philosophy I wrote a few years ago, it’s still valid.  However, a statement of philosophy can’t possibly encompass everything and so I have added a sidebar to my philosophy page with posts from my blog.  I share them here, organized by topic.  
On Technology & Engagement
On Assessment & 21st Century Skills
On Trying Something New
On Collaboration and Partnership
Resources to Share 

Flipped Faculty Meeting

Lots of people have been asking for resources about flipping meetings.  I am far, far from expert but I am experimenting.  We’ve done Moodle meetings for discussion and a couple of other things, but this is my first attempt at a video meeting.  The information isn’t really relevant for anyone but our faculty, so it’s not gripping information.  However, it might be a nice resource in terms of format and design.

YouTube Preview Image

Flipping the Why

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 4.29.08 PM

In every area of my life, I am bombarded with “Why?”

My five-year old loves to ask why and then say no.  My two-year old loves to ask why, over and over and over again.  She doesn’t listen  for an answer, but simply asks why again.

  • Why is Puff (the dragon) sad?

  • Why is Mia grumpy?

  • Why is the baby sad?

  • Why, why, why…?

At school, students want to know why.  And teachers.  And that’s great because asking why demonstrates critical thought.  It demonstrates a lack of blind compliance.  It demonstrates autonomy.  And that is what I want of my children, of my students and of my colleagues.

And yet, I am exhausted.  Sometimes, I don’t want to have to answer why for every single detail.  Sometimes, I don’t want to have to explain, especially when the information is readily available.  Sometimes, I want blind trust and faith.

As a poet and an English teacher, I have spent my life teaching “show don’t tell.”  And yet, I find myself in a lot of telling situations.  And we all know, when someone “tells” others don’t listen.

So, I am flipping the why.  I am no longer telling.  I am asking.

  • Why do you think you can’t do that?

  • Why is Puff sad?

  • Why do we need to…?

  • Why?

Last Thursday, I had to keep a lot of our students out of an area in which they wanted to go.  And when each of them asked why, I asked why back.  And they answered. Because when they reach within, they know why – we all do.  We had great conversations; my why generated connection and it built relationships.  Plus, I had a lot more fun and a lot more company than if I had stood there and told each student why individually.

I urge all educators to flip the why.  Involve the questioners and help them to find their own answers.  Ask them to “show” you why.  It leads to greater acceptance and less questions later.  It supports 21st Century Skills.  And it builds positive relationships.  So rather than answer why, ask why.

And Madison can tell me why Puff is sad…even if she does forget again five minutes later.

What would an Un-Classroom Look Like?

Some rights reserved by marcusjroberts

I’ve just spent an inspiring Saturday at the American School of Dubai in an AP Capstone “Unconference” a term coined by Dennis Steigerwald of Singapore American School.  In this Unconference, the participants built the agenda with their questions, which the facilitators grouped into sessions and smaller discussion groups.  We then had a session convener and a session note-taker for each topic.  In our groups, we posed questions, answered with more questions and engaged in rich, meaningful dialogue and exploration.  We all have access to the other discussion insights via a Google Doc and so we all have access to the same information, but we’ve been allowed to engage and participate in a much fuller way.  Plus, the information was differentiated for our various levels, understandings and needs.

Can we do this on our classrooms?  Absolutely YES.

In our Unconference, we covered a lot of content, and we also uncovered the fact that we had various understandings of that content.  No one person knew everything and by exploring what we each knew, we added depth to the information and the experience.

Posing a meaningful question is one of the most effective means of assessing knowledge.  Thus, we could center our courses around meaningful inquiry and engage students in rich dialogue that extends their learning.  My main takeaway from my unconference experience was that engaging in question-based discussion poses far more answers (and more questions for growth) than any lecture-based format.  So let’s bring the unconference to our classrooms and meeting spaces.  Let’s explore what we don’t know so that we can begin to know in a much greater capacity!

Tech as TOOL: Feedback

Some Rights Reserved by Woodley Wonderworks

Happy New Year!  It’s 2014, which means we are well into the 21st Century and yet, many are still dabbling with the idea of “21st Century Skills” and bemoaning how technology is changing our lives for the worse.  I continue to disagree – fully!  Tech has transformed how we communicate, learn and collaborate in exciting and innovative ways.

In my last post, I addressed cell phones.  Today, I’ll speak to feedback.

How has technology transformed how I give and receive feedback?

Google Forms
What a fantastic and easy tool to create online surveys in minutes.  I use these often as a way for faculty to give me feedback on a number of issues.  They are also a great way to get information quickly, such as individual goals, interests and experiences.  Plus, they produce nice data graphs and charts to use in discussing the information.  We also use Forms to collect student achievement and behavior information, and we’ve just used a form to collect homework data in a homework study we are doing.

Google Spreadsheets
I use spreadsheets to generate online conversations.  One way we use them is to collect information so that we can easily see what each other is doing.  Currently, we are using a spreadsheet to track our teaching of literacy in various classes.  We’ve also used them to generate assessment maps.

Another way I plan to use spreadsheets this semester is to create ongoing, individual dialogue.  Here is a draft sample: http://goo.gl/QEMVun.  Essentially, I envision an ongoing conversation driven by posing thoughtful questions about craft and goals and providing comments and feedback from both parties.  This is modeled after the Downey Three-Minute Classroom Walk-Through, in which posing questions to further craft is a goal.  Going online with this dialogue, at least to start, will hopefully deepen the exercise by shifting the time and place for the conversation to occur.

Google Forms & Spreadsheets w/Online Grading Tools
One of our teachers uses online grading software to produce feedback.  Students answer questions into a Google Form, which produces a Spreadsheet.  He then uses an online grading script called Flubaroo that grades the answers and sends an immediate e-mail to students.  It’s fantastic and immediate.

Observation Software
My AP and I use an App called GoObserve for walkthroughs and observations.  It allows us to take notes while we are out, and send an immediate email, if we wish.  It features tailored reports and gives specific information in the report that is easy for us to observe and record, and useful (we hope) for our teachers.

Online Discussion Forums
In large group dialogues, it is always difficult to preserve each individual voice.  Therefore, for “hot” topics, it’s nice to move the conversation online.  We use Moodle and embed our discussions there.  We’ve also used it to give feedback on projects we are working on in smaller groups.

Blog Comments
By participating in someone’s blog, I’m essentially giving them feedback with my thoughts and responses, thereby validating their writing.  I’m also connecting with people I don’t know and will probably never know outside of the virtual environment.

I’m sure there are a hundred other ways to give and receive feedback via technology and I’m keen to learn more, so please share.

It is important to note that in no way does any of the above lessen my connection with people.  In fact, I think it deepens connection and collaboration, which I will write more about in another post.  Happy 2014!

Technology is a TOOL not the Opposition

Some rights reserved by sd

I am in a meeting where we’ve been presenting a lot of information about 21st Century Skills and our commitment to them – critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity…We’ve also been discussing our technology initiatives.  Towards the end of the meeting, a question is posed:

“It sounds like a lot of 21st Century Skills are not technology related, they are interpersonal; yet, you are considering going 1:1.  Aren’t these two goals in contradiction to one another?”


Okay, I get it!  I do.  The old-school notion that technology is holing us up and creating anti-social beings.  I get it.  I just completely disagree.

Let me give a very simple and yet relevant example.  Two years ago, we began allowing cell phones on campus. I felt it was important to recognize that our students have these fantastic devices that we can harness for learning and connection, so rather than banning them, we’ve embraced them.

Originally, my proposal was not approved.  However, as we sat lamenting the fact that students were hiding in bathrooms to use their phones, I used that as an example of why we really needed to allow devices – we can’t teach digital citizenship to each individual in the bathroom stalls.  Technology is here, it is fantastic, and we need to harness its power and teach our students how to use it responsibly.

We have now allowed students to use their devices freely during break and lunch for the last two years.  We re-wrote our AUP to reflect our Mission and it reads that in the classroom, teachers decide how and when to use technology.  Some teachers have embraced it.  Others collect the devices so that they don’t become a distraction.  Still others merge both these options depending on the activity.

At break and lunch, the devices have actually brought students closer together rather than creating separate and disconnected beings.  Some examples:

  • Two girls sit with one phone and an earphone in each ear, sharing their music likes
  • A group of students play “Heads Up” with one phone, and suddenly, high school lunch looks more like a fun, playtime recess
  • Students can call their parents freely and re-schedule their afternoons to attend school events or meet with their teachers to extend their learning
  • Students rush around giggling and showing one another different things on their phones
  • Students do homework, research, etc.

All of this happens and more.  But mostly, students don’t need to be on their devices because there’s nothing to rebel against.  They are allowed to use them.  They can pull them out at will to check the time, e-mails, and messages.  So mostly, when they are at lunch, they are interacting with their peers.

What about the classroom then, some may ask.  Aren’t the devices distracting?  Aren’t they disengaging students from classroom instruction?

Some rights reserved by jonmott

Remember the 80’s?  When we used to pass notes in school?  Aren’t text messages just the latest note-passing tool?

Students will respond to engaging instruction.  They will disengage when not interested.  This occurs in any age, be it the device age or the paper-pencil age.

From our end in the office, allowing cell phones has created more connection among students and teachers, it has dramatically decreased discipline incidents, thereby freeing up administrator time to focus on learning, and it has decreased our incidents of cyber-bullying, perhaps because we are spending more time talking about responsible use.

I realize I am not highlighting a classroom example in this post, but it is one example of the positive power of devices.  I can continue on and on…and I will, but not in this blog post.  So in closing, I ask you:

How does technology enhance learning and connection in your school?

What happens in your classroom that is a positive side effect of technology as the tool?

How does technology serve to increase our competencies in 21st Century Skills?

Imagine Involving Students in School Accreditation

Some rights reserved by albertogp123

On a recent accreditation trip that I chaired, late one evening as we were jointly working through a section of the report, it struck me how many valid skills make up school accreditation.

As a Visiting Team, we are tasked with reading reports, gathering evidence from multiple sources to validate the report, posing thoughtful questions without leading, and ultimately synthesizing pages of information into concise and precise statements of evidence, praise and recommendation.  Two tasks stand out as most difficult in all of this.  Firstly, we have to sift through a tremendous amount of information as we write our succinct report.  Secondly, we are always operating through various lenses of communication, and we have to be able to place aside our individual biases and experiences to make accurate assessments.

From the school end, the process is even more involved.  We strive to involve the whole community, read through standards, gather evidence to make a valid self-assessment and then write a report that accurately summarizes who we are.

From both ends, we are asking for the highest levels of research and analysis.  Synthesizing information.  Gathering evidence from multiple sources.  Posing questions that will allow for multiple sources of evidence.  Writing precisely using the evidence gathered.  And so forth.

Essentially, skills we want all of our students to master.

In all the accreditation protocols I have read, Mission/Philosophy or Guiding Statements are at the forefront.  Wouldn’t it be a great research project to have the students complete the analysis and the report for that section?  Imagine giving them the standards to read through, dissect and analyze.  Then having them start to gather the evidence and pose the questions, perhaps even conduct the interviews.  And finally, synthesize their findings to write the report, either from the self-study end or the Visiting Team end.  This is one of the most valuable and authentic research projects I can think of and an idea I will definitely explore more fully.  What a great way to invest students in their own schools, all the while developing more critical and thoughtful thinkers.

Iceberg of Assumption

Some rights reserved by Rita Willaert

In my early days of teaching, I studied several theories of language acquisition that have influenced my practice over the years.  One of these was the Iceberg Theory by Jim Cummins.  Whilst a very complex theory, essentially what I have drawn from this is that outward appearances don’t tell the whole story.  With an actual iceberg, the tip that we see is only a small percentage of that iceberg – most if it cannot be seen as it lies beneath the surface of the water.  Yet, far too often in life, we make assumptions based only on what we can see.

This week with our faculty, we talked about this Iceberg of Assumption.  As international educators, we are very open, but it is also easy to fall back on what is familiar.  In the revolving world of international educators, it sometimes happens that we make judgments based on what we first see and on our experiences and perceptions of the world.

Whether we are dealing with our colleagues, acquaintances, students, family or children, I think it is essential that we remember all that lies beneath the tip of the iceberg.

Iceberg of Assumption

Iceberg of Assumption

The End or the Beginning: Measuring What Matters

What does learning look like?

How do we define student achievement?

In this project, we explore these questions using the work of three renowned researchers – Grant Wiggins, Stephen Barkley and Teresa Arpin – while we engage in on and offline collaboration to define achievement and measure that which truly matters – student learning!

I am proud to share the above video, a project that was conceived years ago when I first saw my ultimate hero, Grant Wiggins at NESA 2009 in Athens, was rekindled at ECIS 2012 in Vienna when I heard the brilliant vision of Stephen Barkley, and found its way to reality through the work of Teresa Arpin at NESA 2012 and, ultimately, through the inspiration of COETAIL and Google Apps.

This is the beginning of a fantastic vision, and we are happy to share what we’ve done thus far:  http://goo.gl/1iZ53