Wednesday, May 27, 2009


We have been memorizing poems, and today a number of students bravely performed their poems, alone, in front of the whole lower school at Community Meeting. Jarad, usually a quiet, reserved kid, stole the show with his recitation of a poem about Mohamed Ali that starts, "Well, I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee..."

On the way back up the stairs to class, I heard him asking his classmates, one after the other: "Which poem do you think I should learn next: the one about Martin Luther King, or the one about Malcolm X?" By recess time, it was a formal survey, complete with clipboard.

I think probably either one would do.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Art and Poetry

Today we read "Invitation," by Shel Silverstein.

If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer...
If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
come in!
I thought it was a hard poem to understand. We started by asking questions about it, because I told them that when you read a hard poem, you ask yourself questions about it.

Who is he inviting in?
Where is he inviting them?
What are "flax-golden tales?"
Who is he calling a liar? Why?
(That word had a big impact on them.)
What inspired him to write this poem?

And then some students had some answers, and some surprisingly good ones. (I know, I shouldn't be shocked when they are thoughtful. I mean, I've known them to be quite smart and insightful for two years now, right?)

"I think he's inviting us into our imaginations," Aliyah said immediately. Wow.

"Why?" I asked. "What's your evidence?"

"Because he talks about dreaming, and wishing," she answered.

"I think it's about making up stories," Pria suggested. "Because he talks about spinning 'flax-golden tales,' and tales are like stories."

The idea then surfaced that he was inviting people to sit by a campfire (since he says "sit by my fire,") -- that it was about a camping trip, and they were telling stories around a campfire and roasting marshmallows. Ah well, can't completely escape the literal second-grade mind.

We talked about fairy tales, because that's what spinning "flax-golden tales" evoked in our minds (we thought about Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rumplestilstken, and other stories in which spinning figures), and because they asked about a "magic bean buyer" and we remembered Jack and the Beanstalk.

Ramon understood the poem deeply, from the beginning. He raised his hand over and over again, driven to share his ideas about imagination, inviting people in, and stories.

"You really understand poetry, and you really like it, don't you?" I asked him, smiling as I looked down at him on the rug.

"Yes," he answered.

"You know, I used to want you to go to art school," I said (because he is a very talented artist). "But now I want you to grow up and go to poetry school."

Instantly, he replied, "But poetry is like art."

"It is like art," I agreed, my smile widening and my heart getting a little fluttery at his marvelousness. "What do you mean? How are they the same?"

"When you write a poem, it's like making something up, the same as when you draw a picture or tell a story," he said. "And it's using your imagination."

If ever I thought poetry was too hard for second graders, I learned my lesson right then and there.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Poetry and Performance

I have discovered something new and great.

It started almost by accident. We had a brilliant guest teacher in the other second grade, who came in and taught a poetry lesson. He introduced the students to the poem "The Eagle," by Tennyson.

He clasps the crag with crooked hands,
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed by the azure world he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls,
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

It was an excellent lesson, in which he didn't reveal the title of the poem, and they had to use clues in the poem to guess who "he" was. They also got to act out the poem, learning what the unfamiliar vocabulary words meant, and even jumping off of desks to imitate "like a thunderbolt he falls." They illustrated each line of the poem, having only 3 minutes per line to sketch quickly what they visualized when they heard that line. They recited lines of the poem over and over again, concentrating on fluency, expression, word endings, enunciation, and performance skills.

I decided to do the same lesson in my class Monday. I was excited and inspired. But my students were silly. They were annoyed that they had to stand up to recite. They spoke too loudly, yelling the lines. They went too fast, and sounded out-of-sync. They flopped around on the rug, and made fun of the poem.

I persisted. I stayed animated and positive about the poem. Some students were intent on memorizing and reciting it, and on the idea that when the whole class could recite it beautifully together, we would go outside and jump off a (low) wall at the last line. I let those who wanted to sit down sit, and I worked with the others. Every time they chanted a line, I got excited, and commented on the parts they did well. We practiced the word "clasps" over and over again. We even practiced the "sps" sound over and over again, in preparation for the word "clasps." "Beautiful!" I exclaimed as they began to recite in unison, ending with a few seconds of silence, the final consonants ringing in our ears.

On Day 2 of the poem, there was less silliness. At one point, I ended up alone with 3 students in the room. I asked if they wanted to recite it together. They chose not to look at the words, and they did it perfectly, working as a group to start and end each line together. Their expression and articulation could use a little work, but they had the whole thing memorized in two days.

Today, those three students performed for the class. Then they chose 3 more students to stand and join them. Finally, they chose 4 students to replace them, and to recite it as a group. After each recitation, the class broke out in applause. I continued to comment on crisp consonants, coordination of teams, and expressive voices, and to delight in the beauty of the poem.

The teachers have been thinking a lot about fluency lately. Our students can often read on grade-level, but not fluently, and comprehension breaks down, especially when they get to third grade. So today I took my lowest guided reading group, and asked them to practice reading one page of a non-fiction book about sharks over and over again. I read it fluently and with expression, and they echoed me. They read it for and with their partners. We noticed what each student did well, and made suggestions. They read the same four sentences over and over and over, until they sounded almost perfect, like fluent readers.

In the middle of the lesson, I turned around to see that Ramon had stood up as he practiced the reading. Ramon, who the day before had complained bitterly about having to stand to perform the eagle poem, and had flopped down on the rug in exhaustion.

"Whatcha doin' standing up?" I asked him.

"I'm performing," he answered.

"Oh really?" I asked, grinning. "Whatever happened to 'I don't want to stand up to read the poem!'" I whined in imitation of his tone.

"That was yesterday!" he responded without missing a beat, his eyes crinkling up as he laughed at himself.

I realized that performing is powerful stuff. Reading is so hard for Ramon, who has a serious reading disability. But he likes practicing it over and over again, and he is good at memorizing. The more he repeats a poem, or a page of text, the better he will know the content, and the more he will recognize those words the next time he encounters them. He, and his classmates, are starting to relish the sound of their own voices when they sound strong, beautiful, and competent -- not the way they usually read. They feel proud as they get better at the text they practice. And they are motivated by the promise of a real audience, whether it's our class or the entire lower school.

I promised his group that they would each get one chapter of the sharks book to master. They could take it home with them to practice, practice at school, practice, practice, practice, until they were good enough to "perform" it for the audience of their choice. They were excited, and our reading group returned to class full of energy and smiles.

Meanwhile, poetry is taking off. We started talking about alliteration, focusing on the first line of the eagle poem. I brought in tongue twisters to try, again focusing on articulation and word endings. Students got a page of alliterative phrases with blanks, such as "tough teachers _____," and they got to fill in the blanks with another word that started the same way. Some of these began to turn into silly poems. Every day, there is great enthusiasm at the end of reading, as some students get to perform what they have written, or recite a poem they have memorized. It is an organic process -- it is just unfolding, and I am picking up on the energy and growing it, but I am not making it happen. This is how good teaching happens, kind of magically, kind of by mistake, and your only choice is to run with it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Infinite Pools of Patience

Why is it that some days I have infinite pools of patience?

Some days, no matter what happens, I am the picture of serenity. Chairs can be kicked over in rage, tantrums can be had in the hallway, giggles can burst out incessantly on the rug -- and I am tranquil, responding in even, measured tones.

"It's okay to be disappointed, but you can't use your body like that. You need to let us know with words."

"When you talk to me that way, it doesn't make me want to do what you want."

"I'm going to ask that question again, and I expect to see people raising their hands quietly."

All delivered in a matter-of-fact, even friendly tone that says "I still like you, and I know you can get this right. I'm happy to work with you on this if you try it again." Handled the way a good teacher would handle it.

If I knew the secret to those unflappable days, perhaps I wouldn't have the kind of days when the smallest quip, or student out of place, or unrequested voice makes me sigh, snap back, throw my hands in the air, or want to stamp my feet as if I too were in second grade.

I suppose the latter kind of days are the days that make me human. But I would rather be super-human, I think: unmovable, always wise and calm and friendly, never rushed or impatient or stressed. As I age, I'm getting better at this, despite the fact that I am not hard-wired for calm. So maybe by the time I've been teaching 25 years?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

liq⋅uid [lik-wid]

Definitions of a liquid, by the second graders.
  • something you can only hold if it's in a container with no cracks or holes
  • something that changes its shape to fit the container it's in
  • something that slides or pours
  • something you can put your hand through
Pretty damn good, huh?

Monday, May 4, 2009


Dear Ms. Swamp,

My favorite part about spring is all the flowers and trees growing because your neighborhood looks nice and to get to plant new things in spring and you get to enjoy the weather in spring. What's your favorite part about spring?


Dear Ms. Swamp,

What did you first think about teaching second grade? What enspired you to go hiking?


Dear Ms. Swamp,

I am sorry that I did not do my homework. The troth is that I forgot haf of my homework.


Friday, May 1, 2009

Hilarity at Morning Circle

My class made me laugh so hard yesterday morning that I cried, and one of my contacts came out.

Tyshaun came in angry (as is so often the case). We sat down for Morning Circle, and I knew immediately from the thunderous look on his face that he was upset. There is nothing subtle about Tyshaun's moods.

I commented that he looked unhappy, and asked if he was mad at me. (I'm usually the one he's mad at.) He shook his head, his face hidden in his arm, while the class watched.

"Are you mad at a student?" I asked. The back of his head moved up and down.

Someone said the name of a student he was upset at, from another class, and Tyshaun nodded again.

"Do you want to go talk to him?" I asked. His head went back and forth. No.

"Is there anything I can do to help you feel better?" Back and forth again. "Is there anything the class can do to help you feel better?" Nope. "Okay, well, if you think of something we can do, let us know."

By now his eyes has begun to emerge from his arms. Soon it was his turn to greet the students sitting on either side of him. His head went back into its hiding place, but I thought I could sense his mood lightening a little, so I tried to make him laugh by making a face. Against his will, a smile spread across his face for a second. I knew we were okay then. The class was laughing, pleased that Tyshaun was coming out of it. Then Ivan pretended to greet the students next to Tyshaun, in a falsetto that sounded nothing like Tyshaun's voice, and we all collapsed with laughter. It was probably partly because I'm a little coldy that tears started to roll down my cheeks. I rubbed my eyes, and found a contact in my hand.

Morning Circle pretty much degenerated from that point. I got the contact safely back into my eye, and we tried to move on, but fits of giggles kept taking over all of us, including me. Finally we had to do some deep breathing so we could get serious enough to finish the circle and move on to writing.

Fun times in second grade.