Sunday, December 10, 2000

California Poets in the Schools Residencies

with Prof. Maxine Chernoff (for 3 units/ CW 899, creative process requirement for MA; Fall 2000)


Though I’ve taught California Poets in the Schools workshops since 1979, and was Sonoma County Area Coordinator and master-poet teacher: duties included training poets, marketing workshops, grant writing, and PR. I created multi-cultural programs including a 21-artist poetry & art exchange with the former Soviet Union. I was a board member, & planned state and international conferences.

However, I wish to focus this Independent Study report on my most recent teaching experience. But due to a new urban student population, it was brand new territory. This year, I taught some 18 CPITS poetry classes for a total of 120 sessions to elementary and middle school students in Oakland and Sonoma County. Classes were one-hour sessions; some classes met for one-and-1/2 hour- sessions and most classes took place during the spring, 2000. 

I also made student poetry anthologies, edited poems with students, and taught drawing classes. I wrote, and was awarded a multi-artist grant to the Oakland Cultural Arts council for future funding for spring 2001. Enclosed please find attached: student anthologies and sample lesson plans.

STATS: In Oakland, I taught at Frick Middle School: 12 one-hour sessions (6th & 8th grade; 6 sess. ea.); 6 sess. at Hawthorn (4/5th grade); at Manzanita Middle School I taught 18 sess. (three 6th grades; 6 sess. ea.); at Roosevelt Middle School I taught 30 sessions (6 classes: 5th, 6th, 7th grades; 5 sess. ea.; one was team-taught with Jorge Argüeta) for a total of 75 one-hour sess., plus several drawing classes for anthology art. 

I taught a 6th grade at Riebli Elementary School (6 one-and-1/2 hour-sess.) in Santa Rosa, and a 3rd grade at Alexander Valley School (6 sess.) where I also taught an after school GATE (four one-and-1/2 hour) sess. in science & creativity (grades 3-6). At the private Higham Family School in Santa Rosa, so far I’ve taught 15 one-and-1/2 hour-sess. (2 - 4th grades;); this class will continue to meet after winter break, 2000/2001.

STUDENT POPULATION: With the exception of Sonoma County schools and one class at Roosevelt, classes were ESL/ELD classes. All the Oakland residencies were inner city schools, and English as a second language classes. I taught five bilingual Spanish classes; four classes were Asian students, primarily Mien speakers with fair English speaking skills but bizarre writing skills: the verb “to be” was a virtual landmine field, so I also developed poetry & grammar lessons.

CHALLENGES: Though I’ve been an extremely succesful poet-in-residence since 1979, having received 7 competitive California Arts Council grants, & 2 Montana Arts Council grants (I’ve taught poetry workshops to thousands of kids)—I’ve even taught in Russia and Holland, where we had no common language—but nothing prepared me for working in Oakland inner-city schools. I have never worked so hard in my life. 

In addition, I’ve never worked in so many classes where the majority of the students had little, or no verbal or reading English skills. My passable Spanish skills were taxed to the limit, as I also had to type up their poems from phonetic Spanish—this nightmare inadvertently turned into a crash language course. For some of the Asian-speaking kids, we had translators; often other student translated for us—especially the Korean and Vietnamese students. 

In Sonoma County, the schools are rural or suburban, and though I’ve worked in in what is considered to be the tough, and/or bilingual schools—there, teaching is a very different proposition. Most kids have basic reading skills. In Oakland, I had to completely rethink my teaching process, I had to strip it down to the bare bones and to drastically lower my expectations, which I was loath to do. So I had to reach into a place previously untapped, to teach from the sheer willpower of persona, which left me exhausted & asking the larger question: how to avoid burn-out?

THE TEACHING PROCESS: When I teach poetry, I use a similar format for all grade levels. Introduction: what is poetry? In a nutshell, I tell them (or rather, let them tell me), and I write on the board my basic expectations: comparisons, imagery/imagination and feelings/emotions. I tell students if they use strong comparisons and imagery, the third concept automatically happens. We brainstorm kinds of poems we could write about, and they’re eager to begin. I tell them that poets and scientists use the same observation tools and skills—the poem is the hypothesis & conclusion.

I’ve already met with the teachers and tailored lessons to compliment their curriculum (ex. 4th grade: California history; 6th grade: ancient civilizations; I also choose model poems that reflect student ethnicities, whenever possible). I use a handout so that they can see the model poems in print (see enclosed lesson plans in packet), or if they get stuck, they can use some starter lines if they wish). 

I often begin with “I Am” poems because they’re non-threatening and easy to write; sometimes I ask students about their personalities: are they fiery, smooth as water, adrift in daydreams, etc., and have them write about aspects of themselves. I ask them to imagine secret animals/places inside them, etc., tailoring it to the curriculum. 

(If a student can’t write, I take no prisoners; I take dictation.) We read poems aloud, I tell the kids they’re all great poets, and we have a feedback session (was it hard? easy? What surprised you? What did you learn?) Students write in special poetry journals, which I read and make comments on; I type up a selection of poems for the next session, until I have at least one strong poem per student for anthology publication.

DAY TWO, ETC. I type up a page of kids’ strongest poems so that they can see the printing process. We read poems aloud, I tell the kids these are only our first drafts and the poems will change a lot before we do the anthology (that’s the carrot at the end of the stick; I also give out award stickers when kids get three poems typed up). 

They make verbal changes, sometimes another student will make suggestions, and I’ll point out junkfood words and redundancies, ask them about structure, etc. I say, “in the process of writing, we often forget to put in words/phrases, so it’s OK to add them in verbally.” In this manner, I introduce craft, as well as editing processes. We do a five-minute warm-up freewrite on anything they want (but I often ask for comparisons). I tell them to “write faster than you can think.” They’ll often add onto first poem or try another take. 

We read poems aloud; then I segue into the day’s lesson (see packet) which varies from class to class, depending on student writing skills, interests and curriculum. This is the overall format for the rest of the residency. (For a summary of a typical residency, please see my introduction in the Alexander Valley poetry anthology My Poem is an Explosion of Stars Inside Me in the packet.)

ON THE LAST DAY I bring in typed, corrected poems which they further edit, often adding new material or recombining poems to make a long poem (they only get one poem in the book, unless something knocks my socks off). We often meet one-on-one to solidify their first choice. In Oakland I was unwilling to give up the editing process of student poems. 

But in some cases, because their reading/writing skills were so poor, I brought my computer to class, and they made changes orally, which worked extremely well. I then edit, paste-up and layout the poetry book, and when it’s printed, we have a student reading and autographing party, if there’s time.

IN RETROSPECT, I invest a huge amount of time and energy with this intensive teaching style (2-3 hours per each contact hour), but my student work is the stronger for it. My goal is not to create a league of junior poets, but to develop their creative processes. I’m dyslexic, my philosophy is to develop students’ divergent thinking skills so that they’re empowered to creatively express themselves. Teachers insist that my methodology is extremely successful. 

Though I rarely get closure in teaching, some former students are still writing 20 years later—saying that if I hadn’t gotten in their face in 3rd or 5th grade, to get them to write, they wouldn’t have learned to express themselves so eloquently—to see the world through the poet-colored lens. A story about the MBA student/ basketball jock about to graduate from college, comes to mind. He called out of the blue to thank me for making him write poetry in 6th grade. He said at first he thought it was stupid, then kinda cool—and 15 years later, he found himself again writing poems. . . out of the blue.

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