Reposting: Peg with Pen on the Harm of Incentives

Last week I wrote a blog post about the issue of using bribes to entice kids to do well of high-stakes standardized tests, such as the Maryland graduation required test, the PARCC. Here is Peggy Robertson’s blog post which gives even more insight into why this kind of systematized bribing is such a harmful and degrading practice, not only for students, but administrators, teachers, and public education as a whole.

Retweet to @aurorak12 please re: PARCC incentives at JewellElementary


If you read my post from last Sunday you will know that there is currently a PARCC incentive plan afoot in my former school, Jewell Elementary in the Aurora Public School District. The plan will reward students who show great effort on PARCC and who attend on all testing days. It will punish children who do not show great effort. It will punish students whose parents have opted them out.

As you can imagine, the children who don’t show great effort will be the children who are struggling in some shape or form, whether it be due to problems at home, stresses at school, lack of food, fatigue, emotional and behavioral needs that are not addressed, the list goes on. So, our neediest children who test will be punished for lack of effort. The opt out students will be punished because their parents are refusing to allow their children to participate.

This week has been a week of attempting to shut this PARCC incentive plan down. You can read more about it in these links:

Washington Post (Answer Sheet w/Valerie Strauss)

And Peter Greene did a nice piece about testing bribes here.

Currently there are lots of rumors running around so it’s hard to know how this will be resolved. These PARCC incentives are not in compliance with the House Bill 15-1323 which was passed in 2015. There is some indication that Aurora believes they have skirted the law successfully because the PARCC incentives occur during school hours (HB 15-1323 states you cannot deny opt out students “extracurricular” activities, which apparently is being translated as activities after school). Jewell is planning raffle prizes and a party during school hours.

So, does that mean it’s okay to punish children during school hours only? Not after school?

There are some rumors that Jewell might pull back from such a harsh stance and bend the policy a little. But the PARCC incentives will indeed remain.

This is not okay. Our children are not dogs to be given treats. Our children should not be taught that compliance is the best policy. Our children should not be taught that this test has any value whatsoever to a child’s life. As Stephen Krashen states regarding these tests, “The tests only serve to enrich the oligarchy. There is no evidence that they help students.”

There is plenty of evidence that they harm students.

Senator Holbert and Senator Kerr are looking into this – they both sponsored HB 15-1323. Hopefully we will hear more on this soon.

In the meantime, I would appreciate any help tweeting to @aurorak12 as well as media. You can find me on Twitter @PegwithPen. Feel free to retweet my tweets or simply create your own. We must continue to push back against policies which harm children.

Many many thanks to all of you.


About Peggy Robertson from her blog:

I am a writer, activist, gardener, stellar organizer, former public school teacher and current chicken herder. I like to cook incessantly and drink a lot of coffee. I write about education and have recently expanded my activist work into other spaces – stay tuned for more.

It’s Hard to Read on the Assembly Line

Every day when I taught in a high school, the front parking lot was full of long, yellow buses. The kids streamed out of the vehicles, talking, sharing jokes, and laughing as all of us squeezed through the open front doors. And I can remember thinking that the beginning of the school day had a lot in common with the shift change at a factory.  Everyone is on  a schedule. Bells signal the beginnings and ends of sessions. The timeline must be obeyed no matter what else is going.  And most of all, everyone needs to comply and do their work if they want to get a promotion….or in the case of high school students, if they want to graduate.

School buses
School buses

At the school where I worked, the graduation test was given four times per school year and once in the summer. I never could find a dollar cost in the budget, but I imagine all of that testing took a huge chunk out of our funding stream. But most of all, there was pressure to get everyone to pass the state graduation tests. One year my principal “offered” prom tickets to seniors if they would agree to take the test for the second time, even when they had previously passed. “Maybe the students can boost their scores so we’ll have better numbers,” she told us.

But saddest of all were the students who still struggled with reading and were denied  help for longer than one year. Instead, because many of them had a special education diagnosis, we could give them an accommodation–which means that we could read the test to them and hope that they would pass.  The goal–of the school system administrators, the principals, and some of the teachers– was simply to get kids to pass the test–there was no looking ahead to the students’ futures. That situation would be someone else’s problem.  But in the 21st century, with so much knowledge about how to teach people to read, I felt that we were doing our students a great disservice to graduate them when they were barely literate.

And when I think about many of the students who were in my high school English and reading classes, I wonder what they are doing and if they still need accommodations.

The poem below is part of my latest collection, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems From the Classroom and was also published in ArLiJo last year.

The Autoworker on the Radio Explains How the Factory Works

You never stopped the line,
no matter what mistakes you saw.
We worked a lot of overtime fixing mistakes
but we never stopped the line.
 “This American Life,” 2010

And I feel the same way about Ben,
my student determined to graduate from high school
still reading reading at the third- or fourth-grade level.

The administrators say,
Ben needs credits to graduate,
reading class doesn’t count
if kids take it more than once.

So administrators find ways
for teachers to push him along,
like the auto factory grinding out
a Ford Focus with Fiesta doors
held on by Explorer bolts.

Nothing fits, and you can’t drive the car,
but we don’t stop the line
for Ben who understands a lot about history
but he can’t read well enough to take the test.

So we give him an accommodation—special help—
and someone reads him the test,
which worked well when he was seven
but seems foolish when he’s 17—
and hoping to get a job, hoping to graduate.
So I ask, Will someone read to Ben at work?

The answer echoes back We can’t stop the line.
But when you peek under the hood—
like the car with the wrong bolts
Ben will need repairs.

A Blessing for Freedom: John O’Donohue

In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, I am dedicating this post to my Celtic hero, John O’Donohue, poet, author, and scholar.

I first encountered O’Donohue’s work in the beautiful book he wrote about friendship, Anam Cara. O’Donohue explains that anam car is a Gaelic word that means soul friend.  An anam cara is not a lover, but rather someone with whom you have a rich and nourishing connection. In his clear and musical prose, O’Donohue explores the beauty of friendship and the riches it offers to all of us. He also takes the reader on a journey into the Celtic world of the soul and its relationship to beauty, growth, and aging. Sprinkled through his beautiful book, O’Donohue shares his poems, many of them written as blessings.

The Cliffs of Moher

Anam Cara introduced me to O’Donohue’s poetry, and because I wanted to read more, I bought his book To Bless the Space Between Us, the last book he published before his death in 2008. Celtic spirituality is rich with prayers of blessing for every occasion, including the start of the day, new beginnings, courage, exhaustion, and illness. I’d like to share one of my favorite poems which I think is especially appropriate for where we are today.  I hope you enjoy John O’Donohue’s inspiring poem, “For Freedom.”

For Freedom

As a bird soars high
In the free holding of the wind,
Clear of the certainty of the ground,
Opening the imagination of wind.
Into the grace of emptiness,
May your life awaken
To the call of its freedom.

As the ocean absolves itself
Of the expectations of land,
Approaching only
In the form of waves
That fill and please and fall
With such gradual elegance
As to make of the limit
A sonorous threshold
Whose music echoes back along
The give and strain of memory,
Thus may your heart know the patience,
That can draw infinity from limitation.

As the embrace of the earth
Welcomes all who call death,
Taking deep into itself
The tight solitude of a seed,
Allowing it time
To shed the grip of former form
And give way to a deeper generosity
That will one day send it forth,
A tree into springtime,
May all that holds you
Fall from its hungry ledge
Into the fecund surge of your heart.

Reading Aloud in Starbucks by Alonzo LaMont

I first met Alonzo LaMont when both of us were involved in a program call The New Day Campaign, a series of events to help de-stigmatize mental illness and addiction sponsored by  local artist Peter Brunn. Alonzo LaMont read part of his one-man show called B-Side Man which dealt with his musings over life, career and the tragic death of his son.  I was struck by Alonzo’s wit and his willingness to share his very moving story as part of the campaign. 

The other day in Starbucks I came upon a rare sight indeed. A mother (I assumed) was reading ALOUD to her young son. Everyone else had their laptops propped, and they were entranced. Full-blown hypnotics, caught in a cult of self-divinity. Drenched in — the look. You know that look. You’ve seen that look. It’s where someone’s face is ever-so-delicately lit by the glow from the gadget. One dare not speak. One dare not interrupt. It’s a life and death scenario. Chances are that illuminated face is more serious, more intent, more purposefully driven than all the other faces you may see on any given day. The glow from the gadget produces the Starbucks Rapture Face. Those faces and all that purpose must surely be engaged in some higher conflict, some deeply internal mystical adventure. If you’ve ventured into any Starbucks in the last — I don’t know how many years — you’ve probably also caught those same faces and busy-bee facades. How could you not see? They’re practically etched into our consciousness. Those faces say “Do Not Disturb. Can’t you see I’m exploring a higher realm?! I’ve a screenplay. Things for my calendar. Recipes. Flirtations. And all manner of correspondence to respond to!”

Alonzo Pic

And then there was the mother I saw reading aloud. She was breaking the code. I stopped by and complimented her on creating such a rare sight. She explained that her oldest had read this same book and didn’t like it. She wanted her youngest to have a more genuine connection to what the book had to offer. I told her that my mother used to read quietly to to me, and usually not in public. But I didn’t want to intrude any further so off I went. She started up right where she’d left off, and her child’s gaze went back to the pictures and the words his mother was illustrating.

I believe we’re conditioned to witness everyday scenes pass before us in a particular slideshow. It’s only when one of the slides goes off the rails that many of us ask, “What was that?”. For instance, if you’re a bicycle rider and during your commute someone pulls up next to you and actually speaks. More often than not, other riders wear the dour countenance of children forced to eat their asparagus before they can leave the dinner table. A supermarket shopper in the same aisle who says “Hello” makes us practically shout “What’s that all about?”. Expressions of greeting or warmth feel ancient and out of place. For most of us, our everyday life becomes a bunker that requires an ever-watchful mental sentry to fend off the slightest gesture of welcome. And to be extra vigilant for those who could be leaning towards conversation. At my job many folks devote their lunch hour to fitness. Fluorescent sneakers proliferate, gadgets are checked, and if they’re walking with a friend— apparently the act of smiling breaks some kind of unspoken treaty.

And yet, through all this….I found a woman reading aloud. It could be years before this occurrence re-appears. Civilizations may rise and fall. A tree may or may NOT grow in Brooklyn. Laws of Physics may be broken. But, perhaps another person will read aloud, and the glory of hearing language and storytelling will make someone else appreciate one of the “lost arts.” Perhaps another person will have their day filled with the brilliance of such a small but powerful moment. Books and reading continue to do that. Language and ideas and sharing have always existed in these kind of sacred ways.

We just have to keep an eye out.

Alonzo LaMont, Jr. is a Playwright who’s had his work produced in D.C., Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, New York, Amsterdam, written for network TV, won grants, gotten awards, been on the big stage, the little stage, and all points in-between. He’s taught college, served as an invited guest on arts & writing panels and workshops, but is happiest creating, directing & crafting freelance projects. His most produced plays include: “That Serious He-Man Ball,” & “Vivisections From The Blown Mind.” “He-Man Ball” was published by the Dramatist Play Service, and “Vivisections” was published by the Theatre Communications Group “Plays In Process” series. Alonzo performed his latest play “B-SideMan,” at The Tank in New York City this past November, and also performed “B-Side” at the Charm City Fringe Festival this past December in Baltimore, MD.

Alonzo directed and co-wrote “Telling: Baltimore” in 2014, (“Telling” is a national organization that presents the stories of Veterans who’ve participated in military service) and he continues to work with the Baltimore City Dept. of Health writing scripts for their “Waxter Wisdom series.

Find out more at

Reblogging: Julain Vasquez Helig: 10 Things to Know about the Charter School Debate

 10 Things to Know about the Charter School Debate

At separate conventions this summer, the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter Movement—the nation’s oldest and the youngest civil rights organizations—passed resolutions critical of charter schools and the privatization of education. We may have reached a watershed moment for market-based school choice.

This article appeared here first at the Progressive Magazine.

Here are 10 things to consider about the market-based charter schools debate:

  • Where did market-based school choice come from? Writing in the 1950s, the libertarian economist Milton Friedman, followed by John Chubb and Terry Moe in the 1990s, argued for a profit-based education system where resources are controlled by private entities rather than by democratically elected governments. They recommended a system of public education built around parent-student choice, school competition, and school autonomy as a solution to what they saw as the problem of direct democratic control of public schools.
  • School “choice” does not cure the inequality created by markets. Not surprisingly, the academics neglected to mention that market-based mechanisms are the very system that created the inequities in American public schools today. Along with other public policies, including redlining, market forces created racial and economic segregation. Instead of making this situation better, school choice made this situation worse. A group of Chilean economists mentored by Friedman, the Chicago Boys, took Friedman’s theories about education back to their home country and to push an education system with universal choice and relaxed regulation and oversight. Over the past several decades, Chile simultaneously became one of the richest countries in South America and the most unequal developed country in the world.
  • The position of the NAACP and Black Lives Matter on privatization is consistent with the views of past civil rights leaders. NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois, in his essay Negroes and the Crisis of Capitalism in the U.S., extolled the virtues of collaborative social and government action. He railed against the role of businesses and capitalistic control that “usurp government” and made the “throttling of democracy and distortion of education and failure of justice widespread.” Malcolm X characterized market-based public policy  as “vulturistic” and “bloodsucking.” He advocated for collaborative social systems to solve problems. Martin Luther King Jr. argued that we often have socialism in public policy for the rich and rugged free market capitalism for the poor. King and Malcolm X would have recognized the current patterns we see of charters located primarily in urban and poor areas rather than wealthy suburban enclaves. White academics pressing for market-based school choice in the name of “civil rights” ignore this history of African American civil rights leaders advocating for collaborative systems of social support and distrusting “free market” policies.
  • Is the NAACP and Black Lives Matter position on schools out of touch with civil rights? A barrage of criticism has come from market-based school choice proponents and charter operators about the NAACP and Black Lives Matter resolutions. However, the NAACP has for years been consistent in its critique of charters schools. At the 2010 convention, the NAACP national board and members supported an anti-charter resolution saying that state charter schools create “separate and unequal conditions.” A review of ten years of research supports their statement. More recently, in 2014, the NAACP connected school choice with the private control of public education. While the recent 2016 resolution has not yet been ratified as policy by the NAACP National Board, more than 2,000 NAACP delegates from across the nation did vote for a charter school moratorium based on a variety of civil rights-based critiques such as a lack of accountability, increased segregation, and disparate punitive and exclusionary discipline for African Americans.
  • Do families actually choose charter schools? Probably the most prominent argument heard from market-based education proponents is that school choice means that families can choose their own schools. Proponents of market-based school choicehave argued that charter schools were designed to have both more freedom and more accountability. Critics of privately-managed schools point out that charters are actually afforded less accountability. For example, a recent report released by the ACLU and Public Advocates found a variety of illegal exclusionary policies in more than 20 percent of charter schools they examined. In essence, charters schools doing the choosing. The New York Times has described the reality of school choice for parents in Detroit as “no good choice.”
  • Why is more oversight and accountability needed for charters? Proponents of more accountability for charter schools want parents to be able to choose from high-quality public schools. Instead, charter schools have the power to selectively choosestudents who will perform well. Charter supporters blame a few bad apple charters for expelling too many students. But charter school supporters and their lobbyists consistently support laws that promote lax oversight and regulation. For example, the California Charter School Association has actively lobbied against data collection and accountability for punitive and exclusionary school discipline and teacher turnover in charter schools.
  • Are teachers’ unions leading the opposition to school choice? Another common argument from supporters of privately-managed schools is that the teachers’ unions are the primary opponents of market-based school choice. But union leadership has been mostly sidelined on charters because of an apparent strategy to organize charter schools. The leadership of teachers’ unions could and should take a much greater role in this conversation since they represent millions of teachers nationwide. Ironically, Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, first proposed the charter school idea in 1988. But he saw his idea misappropriated in the creation of anti-democratic, privately managed public schools. He realized that charters were going to a group of people who were “eager for public funds but could care less about public education.”
  • Who is supporting charters schools behind the scenes? The hundreds of millions of dollars spent to promote privately managed schools is coming from the non-democratic foundations of billionaires such as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Smaller organizations including the Black Alliance for Education Options and the Libre initiative and the Democrats for Education Reform have accepted tens of millions of dollars over the years from billionaires and their foundations to press for market-based school choice.
  • Do charters perform better than public schools? Charter proponents often cite studies produced by The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. CREDO studies are not peer reviewed. But charter school supporters and the media point to CREDO’s 2015 urban charter study to say that African American and Latino students have more success in charter schools. Leaving aside the integrity of the study for a moment, what charter proponents don’t mention is that the performance impact is .008 and .05 for Latinos and African Americans in charter schools, respectively. These numbers are larger than zero, but you need a magnifying glass to see them. Contrast that outcome with policies such as pre-K and class size reduction with far more unequivocal measures of success than charter schools. Also, CREDO doesn’t usually compare schools in their studies. Instead, researchers use statistics to compare a real charter school student to a virtual (imaginary) student based on many students attending traditional public schools. In spite of criticism of CREDO’s methods and lack of peer review, charter proponents and the media continue to cite the CREDO studies as important evidence demonstrating charter school success.
  • The news media reflects a very mixed assessment of charter schools. Charter schools have received very positive media treatment in the past. The 2010 documentary film Waiting For Superman was basically a long infomercial for charter schools. Recently, however, the New York Times, Mothers Jones and many other outlets have published more critical stories.  The 2015 education documentary Killing Ed portrays the second largest network of charters in the United States taking advantage of loopholes for construction, finance, immigration, and teacher quality. John Oliver recently took issue with charter wrongdoing in a scathing segment on his Last Week Tonight Show.

These are ten of the more contentious points in the debate about charter schools, but there is one major point of agreement: Poor students in the United States have less opportunity for a high quality education than students living in wealthy areas. That’s why civil-rights organizations are taking strong stands against market-based charters. The tide may be turning in the public debate as well. The public may be supporting community-based, democratically controlled education instead of privatization as the best course of action for families and communities.

For more on what’s going wrong with charters click here.


Twitter: @ProfessorJVH

What Happened to Maxine?

My first job as a teacher was in Richmond, Virginia, working for a federal program that provided enrichment for at-risk kindergarten students. And while I had gone to high school in Baltimore’s inner city, I never knew the stories or the challenges of the people in my school’s vicinity. It wasn’t until I was working in Richmond that I found out what poverty looks like on a personal level.


I remember going into a kindergarten room and seeing all of the children napping with their heads on their desks–the school was built over a landfill and there were roaches everywhere. In another school, one of my students had teeth etched with lines of black decay, so I asked his mother to come in so that I could talk with her about his dental care. When she smiled, both of her front teeth were missing.

In that first year of teaching, I was much too naive to know much about the role of property taxes in funding schools and how red-lining practices enforced segregated housing, but I saw the effects of those policies on the children in my speech classes. I still remember those children, and their stories feature prominently in my new book of poetry called No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom. One child I still think about is Maxine—and I wonder whatever happened to her.

Maxine the Hugger

When Maxine enters the speech room
she throws her arms around my neck
pulls my face close to her cheek.
Her party dress is dotted with food stains,
the gray-white collar frayed and limp.
Maxine smells like musty sheets
draped over furniture in an abandoned house.
Blond bangs graze the tops of her brows, thick lashes
frame hopeful eyes. As if to answer the question
I would never ask, Maxine tells me, We don’t have no water 
in our house. She reads the worry on my face.
But Momma says not to fret
‘cause my Uncle Todd—he lives in the next house over—
he’s gonna run a hose
down to our place.

The launch reading for No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom is tonight! February 24th at Zu Coffee in Annapolis, MD, from 6:30-8:30 pm. Co-feature is Diane Wilbon Bond and the event is hosted by The Poet Experience.

Playdoh Poetry Connection

My new book, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, features lots of poems that detail some of the ways I’ve had to draw on creative ideas to engage my students. I think the story below captures some of the creativity I bring into the classroom and the and the joy with which the children participated in the lesson. I am reposting my Playdoh story due to so many requests and hope that readers will find inspiration for their own work.

Have you ever thought of using Playdough to help you reimagine a writing project? Sometimes when you’re stuck, trying a different creative pathway opens new insights. Let me know if you try this idea!


What do you think of when you hear the word revision? For most writers, revision signals that you’ve already completed at least one draft of a piece of writing and now it’s for pruning and polishing the work to get it ready for publication. To many of my college students, it seems to mean a painful process that the teacher recommends to get a better grade. And to the fourth graders I worked  with in a poetry residency, it seems to mean recopying a piece of writing and fixing spelling errors.  But as I’ve grown in my writing skills over the years, revision has come to mean something very different to me. Revision means I’ve already done the hard work of thinking up an idea and committing it to paper.  Getting the first draft is much more likely to scare me then revising what I’ve already written. But I’m a seasoned writer with lots of revision experience tucked into my writer’s backpack.  How could I teach this skill to fourth graders?

I knew my best bet for finding teaching resources was to do a web search, and I found a wonderful, hands-on activity on the blog Teaching Authors: Six Teaching Authors Who Also Teach Writing.  As I read through the post entitled “Revision! A LINGO Poem! Poetry Friday! and a Play Dough Exercise!” by April Halprin Wayland , I knew I’d found my lesson.  But even April’s well-structured lesson needed a bit of revision for the group that I had in mind.  Here’s a description of the lesson I did at Swansfield Elementary in Columbia, Maryland, as part of a five week poetry residency in the fourth grade sponsored by the PTA and funded through a grant from the Howard County Arts Council.  While I thought the playdough activity would be fabulous, I realized that the teachers might need a heads-up, so I sent an email the day before telling them what to expect.

When I walked into the room carrying a plastic tub of small Play-Doh cans, the kids were immediately excited. After I assured everyone that they would indeed get to make something with the playdough, I wrote the word “Revision” on the board.  Then I broke it down into the prefix “re” and the root “vision” to explain that  revision is the act of seeing a piece of writing in a new way and making it better.  The students were used to seeing me wear my purple poetry glasses—to help me see the world with different eyes—so it was not a big leap for them to imagine seeing a piece of writing in a new light.  We had constantly revised as we worked on our group poems—changing words, selecting phrases, and deciding what to keep and what to set aside. But what did playdough have to do with writing poetry? Let me recap the lesson and you’ll find out.

Here’s what you need:

  • construction paper for a smooth and clean work surface
  • one can of Play-Doh for each child
  • a writing sample to revise as a demonstration
  • drafts of  student work to revise
  1. Each child places a piece of construction paper on the desk to provide a work surface and to keep the desk clean.
  2. Classroom helpers pass out the cans of playdough. It’s nice if you have enough cans for each child to select two colors, but the students seemed very happy having one can to work with.
  3. Direct the students to make a sculpture of anything they want. Most students made animals, food, or people.
  4. Tell the children that since they are creating a piece of art, it needs to have a title and when they finish the sculpture, they write the title on the artist’s mat. I allowed about 12-15 minutes for this portion of the activity. Most students seemed to need this much time.
  5. Next, the students take a gallery walk around the classroom to observe everyone’s sculptures.  They consider the question, “What inspires me?” as a way to cue themselves to think about revision. I allowed about 5-6 minutes for this portion of the lesson.
  6. Once they complete the gallery walk and sit down, students are directed to make one change to their sculpture, any change that they can imagine (except to squish up the work and begin again). Then there are to make a note about what they changed.
  7. Select several students to present their sculptures to the whole class using the title of the work and then describing the one change they made.
  8. Demonstrate your revision process on a poem that the class drafted together; discuss why you chose to make certain changes.
  9. Allow the students to revise a draft from a previous lesson.

The room buzzed with possibility and excitement as the children tore open the jars of playdough and began squishing it around.  The process was the same in every class—some students got to work immediately and had a definite result in mind while others just held the playdough and said they didn’t know what to do. I advised them to “Just roll, pinch, and squeeze it until an idea comes to you. Let the dough guide your imagination.”  Within a few minutes, everyone was completely absorbed in the activity and quietly lost in the world of possibility.  The gallery walk provided a space for the students to admire everyone’s work before revising their own and  sharing with each other.  Due to the time constraints imposed by a 45 minute session, I had to limit the sharing and moved on to demonstrating the writing component of the playdough-poetry connection.

For my revision process, I selected the previous week’s class-poem on telling a fairy tale in a different voice.  The students had co-written a poem based on the story of Aladdin and told the tale in the voice of the genie. During that lesson, we had worked on the poetic devise of repetition, including sounds, words, and phrases. Additionally, many students wrote their draft poems in a paragraph format, so I showed them how to make the poem look pretty on the page–an idea that my friend Grace Cavalieri shared with me—a much simpler concept than explaining formal linebreaks and very visual—which connected nicely to the playdough session.

While I had to move on to the next class before the students completed their revisions, I felt that the goal of the lesson had been achieved-to show that revision is something all artists do and that it provides an opportunity to make changes to something that is already good.  Happy revising! And if you get stuck for some inspiration, you can always count on playdough.

The launch reading for No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom is on February 24th at Zu Coffee in Annapolis, MD, from 6:30-8:30 pm. Co-feature is Diane Wilson Bond and the event is hosted by The Poet Experience.

Resource: See the April Halprin Wayland’s version of the lesson here:
“Revision! A LINGO Poem! Poetry Friday! and a Play Dough Exercise!”
on the blog Teaching Authors: Six Teaching Authors Who Also Teach Writing.  
The blog originally ran on September 9, 2011.

Play-Doh image courtesy of:

Shape-Shift Reality With Words

Poets and writers know the importance of choosing the precise word to describe a character or a feeling. Those choices are purposeful and usually the result of many revisions. But does that kind of careful approach to language have real-life applications?  Linguists think it does.


A study on the use of words and metaphors to describe a problem has revealed some important information about how the words we choose can shape both the problem and the solution.  Mitch Moxley, the author of a  Slate magazine article called “Can Language Influence Our Perception of Reality?” gives an example to illustrate his point. Suppose you describe the economy as being stalled. What do you do?  Jump-start it, of course, just like a car. A quick, rough solution. But what if you describe the economy as ailing? That word conjures up images of sick people who need long-term care and attention. As a policy maker, you begin to look at different kinds of  solutions rather than a quick-fix. A simple shift in language moves the solution in a very different direction. For more information and a deeper explanation of the University of California San Diego study on linguistics by Professor Lera Boroditsky, take a look at Moxley’s article.

As someone who studied linguistics in college, I am keenly aware of the power of word-choice to shape perceptions and attitudes. That’s why I object so strongly to using business language to describe people. And when I read that some college administrators refered to students as output, I knew I had to write about it. It was as if the language was reducing the people in the classrooms to products coming off of an assembly line. And I reject that notion of education.  My new book, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, features this poem about the harm of using business language to talk about education–a deeply human and individualized process. The poem, “Value Added Teachers” was first published in New Verse News. I hope you enjoy it.

Value Added Teachers

She feels frustrated
as she rumbles around in cramped offices
with all the people shouting
Words don’t matter.

Especially when she hears graduates
of the university
referred to as output.

When people become output
there’s no need for nurture.
Sewage pipes have output,
as do factories that churn out row after row
of standardized parts.

In cramped classrooms and windowless lecture halls
teachers are gauged by their productivity–
here every human complexity is reduced
to a series of data points, quantified and measured
success or failure—positive or negative output.

These days she no longer relishes
seeing joy or surprise or the flash
of an ah-ha moment on her students’ faces.
Instead of planning for a field-trip to the meadow
for a sensory experience,
she spends time trying to quantify
commitment, measure amazement,
and determine a cut score for
how much inspiration one needs
for a journey into the unknown.

The launch reading for No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom is on February 24th at Zu Coffee in Annapolis, MD, from 6:30-8:30 pm. Co-feature is Diane Wilson Bond and the event is hosted by The Poet Experience.

Poetry for Challenging Times: “How the Stars Get in Your Bones”

When you come to a challenging place, it’s always comforting when a friend gives you a poem that speaks to your experience.  That’s exactly what happened when two of my dear friends gathered at my home the day after the inauguration for poetry, meditation, and mandala-making. We wanted to support the goals and intentions of the worldwide marches as well as each other, so to that end, each of us set an intention and offered a word that might guide our hearts as we move into the future together. One friend offered the word light, one offered the word tolerance, and I offered the word perseverance. We talked about some ways that we might put those qualities to use, and then my friend Mary shared her poem  “How the Stars Get in Your Bones”  by Jan Richardson.  We all agreed that this poem  captures all three of the words that guided our mediation day.  We found the poem inspiring and I hope that you will as well. Enjoy and keep hope in your hearts.

How the Stars Get in Your Bones
A Blessing for Women’s Christmas
—Jan Richardson

Stars Get in Your Bones
Wise Women Also Came

Sapphire, diamond, emerald, quartz:
think of every hard thing
that carries its own brilliance,
shining with the luster that comes
only from uncountable ages
in the earth, in the dark,
buried beneath unimaginable weight,
bearing what seemed impossible,
bearing it still.

And you, shouldering the grief
you had thought so solid, so impermeable,
the terrible anguish
you carried as a burden
now become—
who can say what day it happened?—
a beginning.

See how the sorrow in you
slowly makes its own light,
how it conjures its own fire.

See how radiant
even your despair has become
in the grace of that sun.

Did you think this would happen
by holding the weight of the world,
by giving in to the press of sadness
and time?

I tell you, this blazing in you—
it does not come by choosing
the most difficult way, the most daunting;
it does not come by the sheer force
of your will.
It comes from the helpless place in you
that, despite all, cannot help but hope,
the part of you that does not know
how not to keep turning
toward this world,
to keep turning your face
toward this sky,
to keep turning your heart
toward this unendurable earth,
knowing your heart will break
but turning it still.

I tell you,
this is how the stars
get in your bones.

This is how the brightness
makes a home in you,
as you open to the hope that burnishes
every fractured thing it finds
and sets it shimmering,
a generous light that will not cease,
no matter how deep the darkness grows,
no matter how long the night becomes.

Still, still, still
the secret of secrets
keeps turning in you,
becoming beautiful,
becoming blessed,
kindling the luminous way
by which you will emerge,
carrying your shattered heart
like a constellation within you,
singing to the day
that will not fail to come.

[The Wise Women Also Came image is © Jan Richardson from the book Night Visions. To use this image or order an art print, please visit this page at Jan Richardson Images.]


“So much depends upon…” “…my page for English B”: Writing Assignment by Michael Dickel

I had the pleasure of meeting Michael in Salerno, Italy, in July of 2015  when we both participated in the 100Thousand Poets for Change Conference.  Michael joined me, along  with Laura Shovan and Debby Kevin, my travel companions, in sharing a gourmet Salerno lunch in a wonderful ristorante.  Michael also served as the emcee for one of our poetry nights. His work speaks of struggle and peace, and he is committed to using the arts for social change. Welcome, Michael.

MIchael Dickel
MIchael Dickel

The Red Wheel Barrow

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

William Carlos Williams 

A couple of years ago, I taught an English as Foreign Language (EFL) creative writing course at one of the top education colleges in Israel. The students were in the Excellence Program, an Israeli version of an honors program, where they receive full tuition if they keep their GPAs up, and also take additional courses each semester to enrich their learning and prepare them for professional life and graduate study. My course helped them get more comfortable with their English writing and their creativity.

The students had had a few writing assignments at the point in the semester when I introduced a poetry one. They had written to introduce themselves, practiced descriptive writing from observation (non-fiction), and developed a short narrative (fiction). For this assignment, I had them write a poem in response to another poem.

The assignment

I gave them two different poems to read and respond to, both of which have straight-forward language accessible to English-language learners. The poems involve observation and description, but in very different ways. One tells a story. They share a deceptive simplicity, but that surface simplicity also allows students to access them and to use them as a model for their responses.

One poem I used was William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” quoted above. It owes much to short Japanese poetry forms and Williams’ insistence on the image over ideas. Despite the simplicity of what is, in the end, only one sentence, the poem conveys a mood, and with its opening lines, the sense that something significant waits, an outcome, and that what it depends upon is beyond us—beyond our understanding or control.

Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B”, on the other hand, is more involved. It includes narrative. It opens:

The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?

In fact, I chose it because it begins with an assignment, and the persona of the poem responds by questioning the assignment (it is not Hughes speaking—the biographical details that come later are made up). The speaker of the poem goes on to ask what is true for him, as he describes his walk from New York University to the cheap housing at the Harlem Y, where he, “the only colored student in my class,” lives. He describes what he likes, what he does, and wonders if it is different for him as a “colored” person (the poem was written in the 1950s) than it is for his “white” instructor. He wonders if his paper will be white or colored, and suggests it will be both. He engages both the similarities and differences of the two of them—white instructor and African-American student—and their mutual resistance to be too much like the Other.

The poem ends with:
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.

I often use this poem when asking students in a course to write a poem, as a way to invite them to use any resistance that they might have to writing a poem, or to writing any assignment, for that matter. I also like that it suggests the fact that students and teachers learn from each other (I think this happens when classes go very well). Finally, the poem shows that we often give assignments without fully knowing or understanding the material- and cultural-realities of our students.

For the assignment, I asked the students to read the poems first, and then to choose one and write their own poem in response. Most, but not all, of the students responded to the shorter poem by Williams. Some responded to Hughes’ poem. A couple of the Excellence-Program students wrote two poems, responding to each.

How I respond to student writing

When I respond to students’ poems in my courses, especially in the EFL context, I don’t focus on issues of correctness in English. I mark spelling and grammar mistakes, of course, but without a written comment in almost all cases. I write comments, though, about poetic suggestions. Often, these poetic suggestions transfer to other forms of writing as well.

For example, one student wrote a very powerful poem using the image of an empty velvet chair by a window. However, she wrote it as a sentence, without line breaks. So, my comments suggested using line breaks, and where they might add drama or power to the reading of her “sentence.”

The students seemed to enjoy the assignment. Almost all of them took it seriously, from my reading of their poems. Many of them wrote good poems—that could be made better, which I hope my method of commenting helps them to see. And I believe commenting on content and poetics (while still marking errors) focuses on the students’ strengths and the potential of their writing. They still learn about their mistakes in the language, but they also see that they wrote something that their instructor took seriously as a draft poem.

Final thoughts

For this assignment and others, I choose strong examples to share with the class—both so that other students see good examples, and so that they see (for later, when they respond to each other in small groups) that even good writing could be improved, with the help of thoughtful commentary. I tell them that I revise my own writing all of the time. And, I think most importantly, I emphasize that the writing process is not about how to write perfectly the first time, but about how to perfect writing over time.

Often students tell me that they “can’t write” because it is so much work, that they struggle to write what they mean, and that they can’t just write it out the first time. I usually turn these narratives of “failure” as writers around and congratulate them on being “good writers” (or “good potential writers”)—writers who already realize that writing takes work, that it is a messy struggle, and that even the “best” results often don’t quite say what we are trying to say with our writing. I believe that providing students with content comments, alongside modeling for them in class how to use those comments to serve their own purposes, is a process that helps students learn how to negotiate the messiness and arrive at, if not perfect writing, at least writing that they feel comes closer to speaking for them.

Bio: Michael Dickel, a poet, fiction writer, and photographer, has taught at various colleges and universities in Israel and the U.S. He co-edited Voices Israel Volume 36 (2010). He was managing editor for arc-23 and 24. Is a Rose Press released his new book, The Palm Reading after The Toad’s Garden in 2016. His previous books are War Surrounds Us, Midwest / Mid-East, and The World Behind It, Chaos… With producer / director David Fisher, he received an NEH grant to write a film script about Yiddish theatre. Dickel’s writing, art, and photographs have appeared in print and online.