Ours Poetica & Ideation in a Poem

In a previous post, I wrote about how getting students to slow down and notice each unit of meaning, each phrase or clause and what it literally indicates on the page, is such an important step in noticing the Ideational Level in poems. Recently, I’ve become a follower of Ours Poetica, a new Youtube show on poetry presented in cooperation with the Poetry Foundation and author John Green. First, this is definitely a show worth checking out, just for its interesting way of approaching sharing poetry. However, in this episode in particular, I especially like the way that each clause appears on the page as the poet reads his work, tracking and modeling the noticing of each idea.

Check it out here: 

Students Reading Poems Too Quickly? This May Help…

While the “I Notice” method and the “Noticing Poetry” unit plan work well to positively impact student engagement with poems, there’s one area wherein I, and many other educators have struggled — the Ideational Level. This is because what this level requires is a noticing of each idea, noticing how they shift or turn. The problem is always the same, “How do I help students notice each idea unfolding in a poem?” Students usually rush through, thinking they’ve got the answer. What can be done?

Recently, a TED Talk by famed author Jacqueline Woodson has been circulating on social media.

Woodson’s TED Talk on reading slowly can be adapted to reading slowly for the Ideational Level, the ideas within poems and how they turn/shift from beginning to end.

Woodson is on to something here, something I alluded to in my previous article Reading Poems = The Mindful Noticing of Language:

Help students



In her talk, Woodson says, “But I learned that the deeper I went into my books, the more time I took with each sentence, the less I heard the noise of the outside world.” We teachers need students to hear the words and ideas of the poem, to sit into them with the requisite attention and mindfulness toward language, sentence by sentence, idea by idea, unit by unit of language.

For a while, I thought I needed to alter the “I Notice” method and its accompanying resources, but would this help model for students how go slowly, idea by idea, even if doing so seems painstaking at first? No. The way of noticing ideas is the issue, so what tools are available to help students go more slowly at noticing?

Here’s one idea:

  1. Ask students to read using their pointer finger to follow each idea’s start and stop place (basically identifying each phrase or clause). This does not mean that students are numbering each line necessarily. Look for the grammatical units of clauses first to identify each subject-verb combination.
  2. Number each idea as they go through the poem.
  3. Once students have arrived at the end of the poem, ask students to put each # into the poem level meter.
  4. After each idea is put in, students should ask, “What do I know now?” and respond in a brief paraphrase about what they know to be true about each individual idea. By looking at the # of ideas, students can see how they change/shift; students also don’t have to rewrite the ideas themselves. Here’s the example of the Ideational Level numbered from the “Noticing Poetry” lesson plan on poets.org:

This revisiting, paraphrasing, and exploring of each IDEA is enough to help students identify what the ideas actually are. It slows them down enough to where they think about each idea representation. This can also be done separately, or the Ideational Level can be cut into strips so students can physically connect them to the other levels’ contents. This allows students to further explore connections betweenIDEAS and SOUNDS, TYPOGRAPHY, and SENSES.

I’m looking forward to trying this out with my students this year! If you give it a go, let me know!



Developing a Noticing Habit

As I look forward to the upcoming school year, I’m thinking about the Noticing Poetry unit that our tenth grade teaching team adopted two years ago and the research that validates its use in helping students become more competent and confident readers of poetry. However, I’m also thinking that the unit doesn’t go far enough. The “I Notice” methodology should be integrated into ongoing practice throughout the year.

This is because the Noticing Poetry unit is a standalone, but it is not incorporated into the daily, weekly reading habits of students and teachers. It certainly can and should be. What I’ve been thinking about for some time is pulling out the levels/cards and using them consistently, and focusing in on the Ideational Level more fully throughout the process, since it’s what most students have the hardest time with. Several years ago, I had deliberately transformed the “I Notice” method into a unit since that is the way most teachers prefer their units of instruction unfold, but I’m thinking now that what is needed is an additional approach in order for “I Notice” to be useful to anyone, not just students. I’m tinkering with the method and the unit, adapting it to be a tool for ALL readers, not just students, allowing more and more people to engage with “the art of the language itself” a.k.a. poetry, even if they have some trepidation or anxiety about doing so.

So stay tuned! An even more useful tool is on the way that can help all readers!



Poetry and Science!

I woke up this morning to a wonderful article in Scientific American entitled, “How Poetry Can Help Communicate Science,” written by Sam Illingworth. According to his bio, “Sam Illingworth, PhD, is a senior lecturer in science communication at Manchester Metropolitan University, in the U.K., where his research involves using poetry to enhance dialogue between scientists and nonscientists.”

It’s a wonderful article, and it reminds me that infusing poetry across disciplines is natural. Language art is limitless in its capacity to communicate!

As a U.S. poet living overseas in China and teaching at a private international school, I’m always on the lookout for ways to integrate multiple disciplines with poems or vice versa, which is why Illingworth’s post reminded me of this sonnet I wrote a while ago:


The overall struggle for existence of living beings is […] a struggle
for entropy [more accurately: negative entropy]…
—Ludwig Boltzmann

The mounds of dirty clothes wait on the floor;
the piled-up Matchbox cars, a lonely doll
and Weeble Wobbles loiter near the drawer
where they belong. A “Gibbs” pre-printed football
rests on the kitchen floor. The plate-filled sink—
drowned sippy cups turned upside down, some forks
and spoons akimbo, Oh! The garbage stinks
like Brussels sprouts. This wont of ours won’t work.
It matters that disorder’s all around:
my dappled tie, the flowered skirt you bought,
the scattered bills, the diapers on the couch,
the puzzle piece of Noah’s ark—my God!
We kneel. We pray: redeem us, send a maid.
We’ll need one since we’ll procreate again.

I recently revised the last line (above) from the version of the sonnet which originally appeared in the now defunct literary magazine, Verse Wisconsin. You can still read that version here.

Nye is Right On!

Photo of Naomi Shihab Nye from the article.

“Every day is filled with poems, it’s just whether you want to turn your head and look at them, or give them a little time on the page or in your mind,” she says in an interview. “I think it helps us to know that.” —  Naomi Shiahb Nye qtd. by Henry Gass in his article “This writer’s job: Get young people to see poetry everywhere” published yesterday in The Christian Science Monitor.

As a writer who teaches, all I have to say is, “Yes yes yes!” There is so much that is wonderful about this article in the Christian Science Monitor about U.S. Young People’s Poet Laureate Naomi Shihab Nye and her work. It reinforces what I’ve said before not only here in my post that “Reading Poems = The Mindful Noticing of Language”, but elsewhere as well! Check out the article!

Educator Self-Care All Year Long (Not Just in the Summer)

At the start of the summer, colleagues of mine reposted a link to the Education Week op-ed, “We’ve Said Goodbye to This Year’s Students. Now It’s Time to Take Care of Ourselves,” by Justin Minkel. The article is quite sensible in identifying that “Teachers are notorious for taking care of everyone but ourselves,” but absolutely wrong in suggesting that “The coming summer provides a perfect chance to change that.”

Truth be told, year seventeen of teaching was a difficult year for me. Overwhelmed with demands placed on me by a new administration and new demands at home, my wellness took a hit. Coming off of surgery just before last summer, my exercise diminished as the 2018-19 school year progressed. I stopped taking care of myself, and I stopped doing anything that either wasn’t related to working for my students and school or supporting my family. I usually say, “Yes,” to administration, colleagues, students throughout the year, but this year I felt like I was saying, “Yes,” more and more. As an educator, I always want to help others so much that much of the time I don’t help myself. So what did I do? I forgot about writing or reading or guarding my time to practice ongoing self-care. I forgot about socializing and friendship. I pulled my head and arms and legs into my shell and waited it out. What was I waiting for? What I always wait for as a teacher — summer! Just like my past seventeen years as a teacher, I was relying on summer to “recharge and reboot and relax and refresh and rest.” Such words are also common in administrators’ end of the school year and start of the school year remarks, as if they are saying, “we acknowledge that you stink at taking care of yourselves, so do it in the summer!” However, Minkel’s article reminded me that this is precisely the problem.

The expectation put on teachers (by ourselves and our systems) that we must sacrifice our self-care during the school year is unhealthy and wrong. However, it’s what many of us teachers regularly succumb to, relying on summer to save us. Why? Because the alternative is downright even harder to do — to live differently with healthier and happier lives all year long. It surprises me that Minkel’s article narrowly advocates for coming up for air primarily at the end of the school year; many of his ideas should be integrated into the school year!

Instead of relying on some shared sense of a summer that saves us, we teachers need to work harder during the academic year at building sustainable, healthy lives that are personally and professionally satisfying. Can this be done? I think so. Looking back on my own challenging school year, I realize that what helped me at the end were four simple actions (which are interrelated and in no specific order), epitomized in this brief mantra:

let go
say no

A teaching life need not to be defined by the stress and anxiety so prevalent within an academic year. As teachers, we can prioritize what we do and to what we commit and still do right by our school and our students. Whatever is most pressing and directly benefits student learning should be done first. We have to let go of some things that just aren’t as important for facilitating student learning. However, you might ask: What if everything is important? Well, let’s be honest. It’s not. It might seem like it, but we should ask ourselves to whom is this work important? Is it important so that students in our classes learn? If not, let go of it. Is it important to administration but maybe not as important to student learning? If so, prioritize which is due first. Let go of what is due second, at least for the time being. Prioritizing and letting go work hand-in-hand. Everything is not important all of the time although it might seem that way.

We also need to self-reflect in order to know what we need. If we commit to practicing such reflection daily, we can take better care of ourselves and make clearer decisions about what we do and do not want for our own professional and personal lives. We can prioritize what we need at any time, but this is most effective after we have spent considerable time reflecting on our own situations. Prioritizing our own daily reflective practice, primarily through mindfulness or exercise or both, can help us sort through what is best for us personally and professionally. By reflecting we also can sort out what is important, and by doing this we can set boundaries (i.e. I will do this; I will not do that). In this way, we can still say yes, but we can grow in our courage to say no. Making a habit of tapping into this courage means sustaining the self throughout the year. To say no as an educator is not to say, “I don’t care.” To say no as an educator is to say, “I am practicing self-care.” When we say no we also allow ourselves to fully engage in the deep, meaningful work which we prioritized when we said yes. We enable ourselves to do better work on what matters most when we say no.

Standing up for one’s own self-care is empowering, and we won’t need to rely on summer to “recharge” as much as Minkel suggests if we make this a habit. Sure, summer can and will still be filled with everything that makes it such an amazing time of year for educators. However, it doesn’t need to be our salvation; it doesn’t need to be an “oasis” wherein we finally “get to” take care of ourselves.

So as I look forward to year eighteen, as administrators and fellow teachers welcome me back and express to me that they hope my summer was filled with time to “recharge my batteries,” I’ll smile, thank them, wish them the same, but in the back of my mind, I’ll be reminding myself to

let go
say no

As we all embark on another academic year, I challenge you to take whatever steps necessary for you to lead a satisfying professional and personal life all year long, not just in the summer. I look forward to reading about how you’re doing it.



P.S. If you’re really searching for one guide to help, you might consider starting with The Frazzled Teacher’s Wellness Guide. If you’re not ready to buy a full book on the subject, check out the article “Educator Wellness: Self-Care in a Selfless Field” or Edutopia’s Teacher Wellness section of its site. Also, check out these tips for prioritizing exercise! Enjoy what remains of your summer and have a great year!

Spyku: Image of the Week

Learn more about Spyku here.