National Poetry Month 2019: The Spyku Challenge

This Spyku remained in place for two years before being removed. Who says print is dead?

At a recent meeting of our school’s literary magazine, I was asked to lead students through a workshop on haiku and senryu and have them start writing their own. After speaking with club leadership, I thought it was a great time to resurrect Spyku!

“What’s Spyku?” you ask.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you.

The first rule of Spyku is:

Don’t talk about Spyku!

The second rule of Spyku is:

Don’t talk about Spyku!

Okayokayokay. Fine. I’ll share the process. But, shhhhh! Operation Spyku 2019 is underway!

First, students self-select codenames, mainly ones that align with their initials and sometimes including an animal (I mean, why not?). This is for attributing authorship and for safety purposes. No one wants to “Spyku” a principal’s favorite stapler and own the deed publicly! I mean, if perhaps even a teacher were to participate, we wouldn’t want the assistant principal to know that the Spyku attached to her stapler was anyone other than Silent Sasquatch, not yours truly!

Next, students are tasked with selecting one or more objects about which to write their haiku or senryu. It’s important that students select objects on which small strips of paper can be Scotch-taped. In years past, students have chosen to Spyku-bomb water coolers, doorframes, benches, trees, desks, etc. Basically, once they write their haiku/senryu and have them approved with their codenames attached, once they have put each into the haiku/senryu template with the “official” Spyku logo, and once they have cut each of them out in one inch strips that can be taped over with one small piece of Scotch tape, students, a.k.a. “Spyku-ists”, armed with Scotch tape, sneakily fan out across the high school campus, attaching their Spyku onto their inspirational object (it’s important to note that one administrator must know about Spyku; in all of the years I’ve done this, I have never been confronted with a problem). The placement of the Spyku is all done on over 1-2 days during the month of April (a.k.a. National Poetry Month).

Here’s are some samples from years past:

This door to a library classroom had a porthole window, a perfect location for Spyku-ist Judge Lemur to strike!
Here’s Spyku-ist Tree Leaf’s tribute to an assistant principal overlooking the 11/12 study lounge.

While the 2019 Spyku Challenge has begun, it’s not too late for you and your students to participate! This year’s Spyku results are forthcoming by the end of the month! Let’s all share some Spyku!

Happy National Poetry Month!

Best,

SS

P.S. Here are “official” dictionary definitions of “Spyku”:

Spyku (n.): haiku/senryu written and attributed to authors whose pennames are often humorous representations of their initials, and attached in small strips via Scotch tape to the objects about which they were written.

Spyku (v.): the action of stealthily attaching Spyku.

Spyku-ist (n.): one who stealthily attaches their own Spyku to its object.

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Published: An Inquiry into Student Engagement with Reading Poetry

Recently, I received a notice from The Journal of Inquiry and Action in Education that they have published the paper that Jordan Benedict and I wrote, “Data Diving into ‘Noticing Poetry’: An Analysis of Student Engagement with the ‘I Notice’ Method”, and I am thrilled about what this means.

Scan to go to the paper at The Journal of Inquiry and Action in Education or click the link here.

This data analysis was the result of work by our English 10 collaborative team in the 2017-18 academic year, after we had adopted the “I Notice” method and the “Noticing Poetry” unit plan for all core English 10 classes. I had been working on the “I Notice” method for years in my own classroom, believing in what I was doing, having other teachers tell me that it was a good method, too, but not having any hard data that it worked. Thankfully, our Grade 10 team wanted to know whether or not the method affected student engagement in reading poems, too.

Now, nearly one year after concluding the data collection and after working for many months co-writing this paper with Jordan, I can finally say that the “I Notice” method and the “Noticing Poetry” unit are research-validated ways of increasing student engagement and self-efficacy in the reading of poems.

Some students say that they want to know of other methods out there that provide alternatives to “I Notice.” As far as comparable, scalable, research-validated methods/pedagogies that deal directly with reading and engaging with poems, I do not know of any others. This is unfortunate, since surely there are great things happening in all kinds of English Language Arts classrooms. There may indeed be other approaches out there that simply have not been highlighted yet. Hopefully, more English teachers will take on action research and collaborative inquiry in the future, examining what they consider to be their own best practices and focusing on what helps students engage, learn, and create. By doing so, we can all help more students in reading poetry and in helping teachers become more confident in engaging in the genre as well.

You can find the paper on Digital Commons, or search for it on Google Scholar. You can also scan the QR code below and be taken directly to the download page.

All best,

Scot

The Books I Carry

Perhaps I’m writing this because it’s Lunar New Year here in China, and I’m thinking of family. However, while my family sleeps, and while I’m quite a distance from family in the U.S., I’m thinking instead about my writing family, as represented in the books on my shelf. I couldn’t carry them all here, and many of the precious ones were left behind. However, no matter how many moves I’ve made, no matter where I’ve called home, there have been a few books I always bring with me, indispensable to me not only because they’re simply wonderful books but because they remind me of my past and some of the people who have mattered so much to my writing life.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke was gifted to me by my English teacher and now good friend, Rob. Whenever I take it down from the shelf, I remember Rob, an instrumental mentor in writing and teaching and a dear friend without whom I may never have found my own path as a writer and educator. The book was a graduation gift, and I’ve carried it with me through all of the moves I’ve made. I know it’s often quoted from and cited by budding writers, and there are passages which don’t resonate the same way with me like they used to, but I keep this little book nearby because of the person who gave it to me. Plus, it’s small and it travels well. And who doesn’t need a little reminder every now and then of those who care so generously for the dreams of young writers?

Second, The Lords of Misrule by X.J. Kennedy was purchased on my own in a bookstore in 2002, a few years after I had given up on writing poems, when I was hungry to find my way back to poetry. Whenever I return to The Lords of Misrule, I remember what I love about poems, the formal play that first led me to taking a course at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland; to meeting the fabulous poet Moira Egan, another mentor and friend; to attending Johns Hopkins University where I met so many wonderful poets and mentors (e.g. Greg Williamson, Ed Perlman, Elizabeth Cooper, and more); to attending multiple sessions of the West Chester Conference on Form and Narrative, and to, and to, and to… This little book of poems was a gateway for me, a portal back to poetry, and its author will forever have my gratitude. Although I’ve never had the distinct pleasure of meeting its author to thank him in person (despite being in the same location as him numerous times), I wish X.J. (Joe) Kennedy the very best and send him so much love and gratitude for his work. This little book showed me that poetry and play could be synonymous.

Lastly, Sonnets: 150 Contemporary Sonnets edited by William Baer was gifted to me in 2008 by a professor in my Johns Hopkins’ M.A. in Writing program. I was at the end of my second to last course in the program, and it was a time when I was trying to complete the degree, teach full time, move into our second home, and be a supportive spouse and good parent for both of our young children. Whenever I open Sonnets, I first turn to what is written inside, “Elizabeth to Scot, 4/16/08, “Just do it!” and am reminded that whatever difficulties I may face, that making the time to write poems is absolutely one of the most important and rewarding ways I can spend my time; this book also is chock-full of amazing sonnets and has reminded that my work matters, but I need to actually make it for it to matter.

These three books take me back to people and circumstances of my writing life that have moulded and shaped me. They are talismans in a way for me, nostalgic touchstones of who I was and am. They bring me home no matter where my home is.

So there you have it, my gratitudes for some of my bookshelf family members to start off 2019, the Year of the Pig. Which books are you carrying with you this Lunar New Year? Which ones do you call family? Which ones bring you home?

Day 1: Being Present with a Poem

To know what’s present in poems, one must be present with the language of poems. This is what they’re learning how to do.

This is one of my favorite months of the year, the month when my three other colleagues and I introduce a modified version of the Academy of American Poets unit plan, “Noticing Poetry” with all 108 of our students, the month when students begin to understand what it means to notice poems for what they are — the art of language itself.

This post was written about Day 1, January 10, 2019, the first day of the Noticing Poetry unit, during which students explored Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:

I start off class asking students to read the first slide of the PowerPoint in their cheesiest infomercial voice imaginable. One student, two students, three students, each take turns at one sentence after another. “I really need to make this into a real infomercial video,” I say. A number of students love this idea — a cheesy infomercial for a method to read poetry. They know me, and it very well may happen before the academic year is over, with their help, of course. So stay tuned! 🙂

After this levity and one particularly talented student reading, I explain the concept of looking at levels, only four things in any poem they come across: ideas, images, sounds, visuals (typography).

I pass out the iNotice cards, and ask them play “nose goes” to determine who the speaker for their level groups will be — one group, the Ideational one, is down to two boys who don’t quite understand the game.

“Okay, hands on the table, you two,” I say. “Ready? Don’t injure yourself… first one to touch their nose is exempt. Get set…. go!”

It’s clear who the loser is, the boy who was the most prepared, the one who thought he had his pal beat. After a good laugh and some redirection, I raise my hand for their attention.

“Look for as many instances of these things as you can,” I say. “It’s about volume. Quantity right now over quality. How much do you notice?” Then they go off into their group work.

Ideational Level Card


I walk over to the Ideational group. “Remember, start with the title; what is it that you know?” I ask. “Write this down next to the title. Then go through each phrase or clause, asking, ‘What do I know now?’ Your job is only to look at what is there, to notice what it literally states.”

I leave them, checking in on each of the other groups.

Visual/Typographical Level Card

The Visual/Typography group has two students in it. “You’re small, but mighty,” I say. “How does the poem look on the page? Leave no visual aspect unturned! Everything on the card and that you notice in the poem counts! It’s about the amount you notice!” The poem is a small one, and as two quieter students, they are quite happy to work diligently together.

Sonic Level Card

Noticing some silence from a usually spirited trio of boys, I head to the back of the room. Making a techno-club sound in the back of my throat to get their attention, I shift over to where the three boys slouch in their chairs staring ahead at the words in front of them. “You’re the Sonic level; remember your job is to find as many sounds as you can! How many so far?”

“Two,” says one boy.

“Two?” I ask.

“Uh-huh.”

“Hmm. Look again, please. Read it out loud. Go ahead. Any repetition of sound.” He begins reading aloud. Another boy from his group mouths “black bough. Alliteration.”

Score! I think.

“Keep going! Notice more!” I say.

As I walk away, the third boy adds, “What about wet and petals?”

I smile.

Sensory Level Card

Lastly, I go to my Sensory level group, the images/”word pictures” group. I’m expecting them to have many, many images. They’re doing well, noticing at least five images. Still, some of the images are lumped together.

“Remember, each picture counts,” I say. “Each and every image, even if it conveys a slightly different sense should be counted separately.”

I give them all a few more minutes, and it becomes clear from the chattering about events unrelated to the poem that they’re winding down. I pass out the “iNotice Poem Level Meters.”

“Okay, now we’re going to see just how much have you noticed,” I say. “Let’s start with the Ideational Level. What did you find?” Each speaker (a.k.a. loser of the “nose goes” game) tells me, and I write their responses on the board, on an “iNotice Poem Level Meter” I’ve projected. Other groups can add or question as we go, and we collaboratively fill in one master chart from the bottom up with their “noticings”:

What results is a kind of boombox spectrum analyzer of the poem’s levels of language (see below). They then accurately identify that the Sensory level, images dominate this little poem by Ezra Pound.

“Now, what connections do you see across levels?” I ask them. “Describe what’s connected and how different details connect to the ideas.”

I draw the connections they describe, and as they start talking about what they notice, I listen. Anytime someone says, “It could be,” or “maybe”, or “perhaps”, or approaches “being deep,” I redirect.

“Remember, just focus on what’s there. What relates to one another?” After making several connections, then it’s time to ask a new kind of question.

I ask, “Well, who cares about what’s there? What do you have to say about what we just did?”

Whatever meaning-making occurs from here on out, occurs organically and is rooted in the language of the page. One student says that the colon acts a as connecting device between the two ideas present in the poem. Another student comments on how the poem is not just pretty but a little sad in places, moving from an image that isn’t very pleasing to one that is more so.

While I want to do more with this poem, to lead them through it, I know that if I do, I’ll kill whatever has occurred organically. Some students will feel less competent if we reduce this experience to “look to the teacher.” I want them to feel competent in their abilities, that they (or anyone) can notice what is present in poems. To know what’s present in poems, one must be present with the language of poems. This is what they’re learning how to do.

They are beginning their journey as readers of poetry; they are noticing language and are beginning to make connections that are interesting and surprising. And they are all rooted in the language itself to do so.

The majority leave happy. I leave happy. A successful day one.

I walk out of my room into the hallway, energized by the learning that’s taken place, by their recent immersion in a small, beautiful poem on their own terms. I know this is setting them up for more of this good stuff of poetry that is to come. I know they’ll advance to larger and more complex poems. I know that we’ll have to get to analysis and all the ways one must learn to write about literature. However, today they slowed down and noticed what was there. Today they felt what it was like to really be present with poetry.

Review of a Poetry Podcast: The Slowdown

U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith

U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s The Slowdown is the best poetry podcast you’ll listen to.

Smith often opens the podcast with a narrative which hooks me, then offers a brief reflection which acts as a connective and ushers in the poem with a graceful reflection on what she loves about each episode’s poem and why. The soft soothing authority of her voice playing over the lilt of a piano gives the podcast a wonderful tonal quality, which invites the listener to indeed slow down, reflect on each word, pay attention. It’s an invitation to us to notice poetry. The poems she reads are of a length that is manageable for a complete 5-7 minute episode, and the diversity of poets and poems Smith chooses — everything from George Herbert to Patricia Smith — is delightfully American, a cornucopia of styles and subjects that surprises and delights. I also sincerely appreciate the way each episode manages to mimetically reflect the podcast series’ title — each show slows us down. This is something I could never say for The Writer’s Almanac, even though I followed it for years and loved it very much. The Slowdown actually helps me be more mindful; there is clear connection between the narrative introductions, sometimes from Smith’s own life or observations, and the poems Smith features. In this way, The Slowdown explores our human connection as much as the art of poetry itself, shining a daily spotlight not just on the art form, but more importantly on the how and they why that makes poetry so important to all of our lives.

If you haven’t yet followed this podcast, do so now. You won’t be sorry that you spent a few minutes each day allowing yourself to savor The Slowdown.

If you want to read more about what our U.S. Poet Laureate is up to, check out this article from The Smithsonian.

Poetry Blogging

Reflecting back on 2018, I can’t help but also reflect on my writing, its highs and lows, and its associated writerly events/activities. I was fortunate to participate in the Beijing Bookworm International Literary Festival for the second time in the past three years, but as far as other events/ activities, my teaching life has kept my writing life at bay. However, no longer! I remain optimistic and committed to a more productive writing life in 2019!

To that end, I’ll be blogging twice a month here as part of the Poetry Blogging Network, set up by Kelli Russell Agodon over at https://ofkells.blogspot.com/. You should check out the list of Poetry Bloggers she already has lined up — a truly amazing list of talented writers!

Onward into 2019, and if you’re already there, I’ll be there soon!