Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Slice of Life- So Much Depends…

Almost twenty years ago (or maybe yesterday?), I had the privilege of studying with Don Graves in the doctoral program at the University of New Hampshire. I will never forget walking into Don's study for the first doctoral seminar. Don sat in a big swivel chair at his desk, laptop open. He pulled a piece of writing off the printer and said something like, "And so we begin…" With that, he passed out the first one pager of the semester.

One pagers, it seemed, were a trademark feature of the UNH doctoral program. Every week, for pretty much every class, we wrote 1-1.5 page responses to our reading. And I know it doesn't sound like much, but sometimes, maybe most of the time, one pagers were really hard work for me. Don's class was on Tuesday, and I would often spend 8-10 hours on Sunday or Monday agonizing over what I was going to write (I was always a little shocked when I would talk to a classmate on Monday night at 9, and they still had not written their one pager for our Tuesday morning class- for me that would have meant pulling an all nighter!). Don believed that the one pagers were an opportunity for people to process and distill their thinking before they came to class. He commented one time that he thought that our class discussions were at a much higher level because we had written before we were allowed to talk. Often class opened with Don sharing his writing, and then we would break into small groups or partners and share ours. 

What shocked me the most about one pagers, however, was that all of the professors- Don, Tom Newkirk, Jane Hansen- wrote right along with us. They truly believed that teachers should never ask students to do what they were not willing to do themselves.

I have carried that big truth with me for the past twenty years. Teachers need to be writers. Teachers should never ask their students to do anything that they are not willing to do themselves. I've written with graduate students. I've written with first and second graders. And this year, I have written a heck of a lot with my fourth graders.

Right now, for example, we are doing an integrated unit on renewable and nonrenewable energy sources. As one of last week's lessons, we were supposed to write poetry about fossil fuels. My kids have read and written tons of poetry this year. Several weeks ago, I read LOVE THAT DOG, and then HATE THAT CAT. I also introduced them to a new poetry book FORGIVE ME, I MEANT TO DO IT, by Gail Carson Levine,  and since then, much of their writing seems to have taken on a William Carlos Williams flavor. He's not a poet I probably ever would have thought of sharing with them, but they could definitely have chosen much worse mentors. Then, for a reason totally unknown to me, they are especially interested in acrostic poems. I don't remember ever reading them an acrostic poem, or showing them how to write them, but they are all the rage. Last week, when we wrote notes for Secretaries' Day, many of them wrote acrostic poems. After I explained to them that you had to choose words that actually went with the topic, they actually turned out pretty well.  So again, we will go with it. 

Anyway, as I was saying, last week the kids were supposed to write poems about fossil fuels. I decided I would write a couple also. One is a William Carlos Williams take off. The other is an acrostic. I opened our workshop by reading my two poems, then we did a shared reading of an article about fossil fuels. My ten-year-olds read with a pencil in hand, marking important phrases and ideas they wanted to include in their poems. Afterwards, they wrote alone or with partners- they weren't required to write William Carlos Williams or acrostic poems, but almost all of them did.

Here are my poems:

“Our Earth”

So much depends

Coal oil gas

Fossil fuels

To be used up.

Carol Wilcox

For millions of years
Old plant and animal remains
Squashed deep underground
Squeezed tightly
Into rock
Layers and layers underground.

Furnishes coal, oil, and natural gas
Used 80% of the time
Energy for our cars and houses
Leaves its mark on Mother Earth,  people.
Should be more careful.

And here are a few of theirs.

caRs use fossil fuels
    Earth is getting warmer
    Energy for us to use
    No food for us.
    Hurricanes kill living things.
    Other places are hot and dry.
  SUn's heat we use
    Sea levels rise.
 IcE melting away.

Pollution affects things that are energy
Oil, coal, gas
Leaves carbon dioxide in the air
Leaves warm air around the earth
Usually ice melts
Trouble for polar bears
Ice melts in the Arctic
Ocean is warmer
Need to be careful of the earth.

"This is Just to Say"

This is just to say
I made a lot of pollution
to kill the Earth.

That was not nice.
Forgive me.
I like driving cars.



Greenhouses keep
all the heat
so plants can grow.
And that's good.

But the greenhouse effect
it's also bad
because all that heat
close to the surface
melts glaciers

And that floods the earth
And then a lot of people die
And people die
of hunger
because all that water
spoils the crops.


Robert was one of the first to share his work with me. "I wrote two poems," he said. "One is about fossil fuels and the other is about writing." I was blown away by the one about writing-- it pretty much captures my philosophy of teaching kids to write in about fifty words:

"So Much Depends"

So much depends
upon Ms. W.
writing an acrostic poem
about fossil fuels.

And so much depends
upon me
writing the same thing
as she did."


I think Robert and Don Graves, hit the nail right on the head. So much does depend on me, not as a teacher, but as a teacher writer, sharing my work with my kids. 


Katherine Sokolowski said...

Carol, first, I love the poems. What amazing work is contained in so few words.

Second, I have also come to this understanding of the need to read and write with/ alongside my students. Mine was through my own readings. I cannot even imagine what your doctoral program was like - I am extremely envious of it. :)


Anne and Riss @thelitladies said...

Mem Fox would agree with you “If you are not a writer, you will not understand the difficulties of writing. If you are not a writer, you will not know the fears and hopes of the writers you teach.”
  Mem Fox
I also like the idea of 'everybody writes', before a class discussion. It does help with organising the thinking!

Linda B said...

And, wish your students could read this, definitely a 'one-pager' that puts it all together in the one thing that's important, write with your students! Robert's poem too says it all, Carol. What a gift for you!

Ruth Ayres said...

I'm so glad your a "teacher writer" -- not just with them, but with us too. Your words make this world a much better place.

Nanc said...

I wish I was with you when you were in the company of Donald Graves. Amazing how his words linger and how their truth still touches all of us who knew him through his words or personally, like you, Carol. Yesterday I sat with a person in a staff dev. that said, "I hate to read, I hate to write" and then she laughed. It is so upsetting to me that she feels this way...I wondered what could have happened long ago in her life. Your kids really get it and I'm so glad that you continue to write alongside of them. xo nanc

Jone said...

I so agree and how fortunate you were to learn froom the greatest. I am glad your computer is on the mend.
Thanks for sharaing this slice.

elsie said...

Oh my, there is so much in this post that I love and want to remember to share with others. Just got the Forgive Me I Meant to Do It book, and love it!
Studying under Donald Graves, wow! That's all I can say.
You have created an atmosphere of learning with your kids. That final poem brought tears to my eyes. He gets it.
Have you shared the picture book River of Words with your students? It was a Caldecott winner. Also Silver Seeds is a great book that has acrostics.

Dana said...

I love that your teachers wrote with you and now you are writing with your students. Fabulous. That has been my essential learning of the past years (that I need to be a reader/writer to teach reading/writing). Great poems by you and the kids. I so enjoy that you used poetry as your way to synthesize learning about a nonfiction topic. Thanks for sharing!

Tara @ A Teaching Life said...

A "teacher writer".... I love the way this post began with Don Graves modeling the philosophy that you now practice with your kids. Awesome!

Mary Lee said...

Science and poetry go SO well together.

Great lesson!