My Poetry Workshop: Mission Accomplished!

At my request, the chatty group of teachers attending my presentation at the Long Island Writing Project (LIWP) on Saturday, The Power of Teaching Poetry to ENL (English as a New Language) Students, suddenly became quiet. It was a “make or break” moment. I explained that we would be reciting together a Native American prayer/poem to establish a sense of community and to honor the origins of poetry as a spoken-word practice. This prayer/poem was written on an accordion card sent to me by a dear friend from California. I then asked the participants to stand and to join in the reading.

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I then started playing a CD of Native American flute music: The Canyon Trilogy, by Carlos Nakai. The lovely, soft sounds of the flute echoing against the walls of the Grand Canyone floated over and around us filling the room and our hearts as we began our reading. I began reciting the first verse, then passed the prayer/poem on to the next person, who passed it on to the next and so on until we had completed all twelve verses, ending with “Now our minds are one.” Then everyone sat down and we began our discussion.

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This was a pivotal moment for me. I had thought long and hard about how I would introduce this workshop, but I kept coming back to wanting to perform this prayer/poem with the participants. I had every moment of self-doubt you can think of…they’ll think this is really corny; they’re going to be annoyed, and other troubling thoughts. But risk-taker that I am, I decided to go ahead with my plan. I am so glad I did because so much of the success of a topic depends on how it is introduced. The spell was cast.

The next two hours flew by. I explained the gist of my presentation: that poetry, which is often relegated to one month a year in the elementary classroom and an occasional appearance in the upper grades ought to, instead, be embedded in the curriculum during the entire school year for two reasons. First, when introduced in the right way, poetry is much loved by students of all ages. Second, poetry provides a new lens through which students can see the curriculum and serves as a great entry point into any topic in the curriculum.

We talked about an article I read aloud from the New York Times that discussed the paucity of vocabulary that many ENL students bring with them when they enter the American public school system at age 5 (nearly a 32 million word deficit by some estimates), and how that deficit affects their academic performance from day one until they graduate. We talked about another article from “O” magazine that declared how poetry “is not a test.” How deadly it is to ask the students, “So what does this poem mean?” instead of “Let’s talk about what we enjoyed or noticed about this poem.”

We talked about how students can learn from poetry how to be more playful with language; how they can create similes and metaphors with the proper scaffolding without even realizing they are doing so; how many ENL students have much more success with non-rhyming poetry because they do not have the command of the language nor the verbal agility they need to create rhymes in the earlier stages of their second language development.

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We talked and talked and talked. I had lots of examples of poetry anthologies from my students to show as models for what can be accomplished by ENL students including cinquains, haiku, acrostics, concrete (shape) poems, found poems and lots of free verse. I showed the participants how they could use a very effective 3:2:1 graphic organizer to help their ENL students organize their thoughts into the gist of a poem…

http://www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/lesson_images/lesson951/strategy.pdf

…and then how to teach them to arrange their words into poetry.

And then the workshop was over. We had run out of time. I probably could have gone on for at least another hour, but I’m not sure my participants could have absorbed much more at that point. It was time to ask them to reflect write a reflection of what they had learned and would take away with them.

Next they shared their written responses. My heart swelled as I heard comments about how they had always thought poetry was so daunting and probably too difficult for their students; how they had only taught “to the test” when they addressed poetry as more of a necessity than a pleasure; how they had never thought of using poetry throughout the curriculum and best of all, how they really enjoyed the way I began the session with the recitation of the Native American poem as a way to immerse the students in the sensory experience of poetry. They were excited about rethinking the role of poetry in their curriculum and how to include it in their daily lesson planning.

My heart was full. After a month of two of perseverating about how to structure this workshop, whether or not to include the prayer poem, how to cover such densely layered information in such a short time, I knew I had been successful. These teachers were full of enthusiasm for poetry as a genre that is accessible to all students when introduced in a supportive, thoughtful and experiential way.

Mission accomplished. Nearly two years after my retirement from teaching and one year as a cancer survivor, I was back in the game and loving it! Thank you to the staff of Two Writing Teachers and all the dedicated Slicers and my mentors at the LIWP for supporting me as a writer this past year and breathing new life into me as a teacher. Long live poetry!

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17 thoughts on “My Poetry Workshop: Mission Accomplished!”

  1. Barbara, because I enjoyed reading this poem so much I bookmarked it to share with other teachers. I think your introduction was powerful and I wished that I had been there. Perhaps, at another function we will meet and I will benefit from your perspective on how to be passionate about poetry (one that I share with you). I look forward to sharing many slices with you in the future. I hope you will join #NYEDChat’s convo on April is Poetrylicious on 4.11.16 at 8:00 pm. I am moderating and bringing on some of my Poetry Friday poet friends. You could share this blog post when the question of sharing resources comes up.

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    1. Carol, Another kind, supportive email from you. I, too, wish we could meet and talk poetry. I will try to join you on the 11th and appreciate very much the invitation. (I have to ask my tech mentor, K. Sokolowski how to do this.) I would like to participate in Poetry Friday. How do I go about doing so? Yes, I have a feeling we’ll be trading slices for a long time to come 🙂 !

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  2. Yay you!! I love everything in this post. Poetry is in my classroom, but not enough. I’m not as adept with it as I’d like to be. Thanks for the inspiration!

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  3. “poetry provides a new lens through which students can see the curriculum and serves as a great entry point into any topic in the curriculum” I appreciate this quote from your slice a new lens and an entry point-I agree. I love how you introduced the session-so beautiful.

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  4. So glad it went the way you wanted it to go, and that the participants were engaged in the poetry. Your larger message about poems and language and writing and learning and more resonates.
    Thank you for the rich sharing ..
    Kevin

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  5. The workshop sounds amazing. I love the way you opened it, inviting the participants in with the recitation of the Native American prayer/poem. The workshop is exquisitely planned. Congratulations! Loved the post.

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  6. Your passion had to be a driving force in this workshop, then the content sealed the deal. You gave the participants a new way to look at poetry but also gave them strategies to implement. Well done!

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  7. I wish we could have been there with you absorbing so much knowledge and passion for poetry. Thanks for sharing your reflection about the presentation. Congrats on your success. Back in the saddle, indeed.

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  8. Congratulations on a workshop well done. I knew you would be successful because of your passion for the topic. When the presenter is so enthusiastic,the participants can’t help but be involved and engaged in what is going on.

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  9. I just knew your presentation was going to be fabulous, Barbara! FĂ©licitations! Now that opening poem/prayer, that is just a gorgeous lead to what sounds like a wonderful workshop. Wish I could have been there!

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  10. What a fantastic way to open your workshop! It sounds like your participants were treated to some excellent learning. I am also a believer in using poetry across the curriculum and throughout the year. Well done!

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  11. Congratulations! I understand why you were undecided at first about how to begin, but congrats on taking the risk! It obviously was successful! I love this line: “The spell was cast.” That is exactly what it can seem like – with a group of kids or adults.

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  12. What a wonderful workshop. I wish I had been there! And hey, we have NWP in common. I know- Melanie, Darshna, Heidi..etc. But looks like you’re part of the new team, right?

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  13. Barbara, so glad the prayer/poem (are they not often one and the same?) was richly useful and moving as an introduction to a workshop on poetry in the classroom. I wish I had been there. Syracuse Cultural Workers produces great stuff. Wouldn’t it be fun to do a collaborative illustrated thanking poem in class like this unfolding gratitude poetry poster? Doesn’t it make you miss the classroom, at least just a little bit?

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