What colour is “cold”? 

Yesterday I hosted a little poetry lunch with my students. I brought in sandwich makings, and they shared their own writing with each other. Each student was proud to perform their own work, and we gave everyone snaps and commented on parts of the poems that resonated with us or asked about parts that made us wonder. When everyone had read their identity poems that they had written with me, I suggested they head back to the larger group to make sure they had time to play before the next class, but they all chose to stay and read more 🙂 One girl read a poem she wrote inspired by the colour blue, and her classmate wondered why she had included images of snow and ice in the poem. We talked about why that might make sense and how colours are often used to symbolise temperatures and feelings even if they don’t always actually look that way in real life. 

  • Do different types of weather have colours?
  • Can you feel a colour? What does it mean to feel blue? How might that be different than feeling like green or yellow?
  • What makes us associate certain ideas and feelings with certain colours? 
  • Can personalities have colours? 
  • Could you write a poem from the point of view of a colour itself? Try it out 🙂

I have minor synaesthesia,  which for me just causes me to have strong associations between certain numbers, letters, and words and certain colours. If you or your students experience colour connected to other senses too, it can inspire insightful poems and new ways of seeing the world. Fun to get different kids’ perspective on how they experience and conceptualise colour in different ways. 

Do you or your students have some colour poems or questions/muses to share? Pop them in the comments. Thanks and have a beautiful weekend!

World news 

This month I’ve started ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) support at a rural Auckland school. The school is inquiry-based; students learn by exploring their world and asking questions about the things that matter to them. I’m in my element at this school. My students are motivated and take responsibility for their own learning. At any given point, different students in one room may be working on different things, and they cheerfully support each other. Throughout the school, I have felt a strong emphasis on community and on learning for learning’s sake.

My job is to pull out small groups for speaking, reading, and writing instruction targeted to students’ individual needs and interests. In addition to levelled PM readers and an expansive library of children’s literature, we have been using Newsela and Kiwi Kids News, two sites that offer news articles packaged with related educational resources. Newsela begins with articles written by the AP, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and other global news sources and adapts each article to at least five different reading levels, so students whose reading abilities differ can access the same subject matter. Articles are searchable by grade level and reading standard, and many articles are available in Spanish. Kiwi Kids is published by and for New Zealand educators and families. Both sites include teacher resources, quizzes, and writing prompts.

In each meeting, we read a short article, discuss it, and write for a set amount of time in response to a prompt or share and edit their writing from earlier. Our first time, I asked my students simply, Is it important to read the news? Why or why not? It seems like a simple (obvious?) question, but it is more complicated than I originally thought. I would hope most people agree that having a general idea of what is going on in the world and in one’s community is important. Personally, I always took it for granted – I grew up with NPR radio surrounding me in the car and the house all day long, and generally scan headlines first thing when I wake up each morning. However, people disagree as to how and how often they prefer to access the news. Many people insist they prefer not to read the mainstream news often because there is so much negativity. Not only is it unpleasant to read about violent or natural disasters, it can be discouraging to read again and again about tragedy about which you feel helpless. On the other hand, others maintain that we need to be as aware as we can be in order to make a difference, and that staying up-to-date about global current events is integral to understanding the interconnectivity of social justice issues around the world and doing effective ally work.

Some other things I try to think about when selecting news sources for myself and to share with my students:

  • Bias – every article is written by a human being, and human beings are necessarily biased in some way. Consider the POV of the writer, what their goals are, and how my own perspective impacts how I understand the information being presented.
  • Balance – How much do I seek out a balance of local news, global news, political news, arts news… How much do I read from major/mainstream newspapers, smaller/independent journals and websites, blogs, opinion pieces, print vs. online… etc.
  • Audience – Who is likely the intended audience of this piece of writing? Do I fall into that group? Why or why not? How might this piece be received differently depending on the reader’s current and past experiences?

What do you think? My students agreed it is important to read the news, but for different reasons. If you work with children or have your own, what do they think? You might be surprised. Discussing these questions with our students keeps us all thinking critically about the news we consume. If you or your students are feeling overwhelmed, Kiwi Kids has some Advice If You Are Upset By The News.

Lesson Plan: “Where I’m From”

Last week, I had the privilege of introducing an origin/identity poem discussion and writing exercise to my fourth graders. In this lesson, students study and discuss George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From,” and they write their own poems inspired by Lyon’s work. Lyon is the poet laureate of Kentucky, currently working on a project to collect poems from every county in the state. My lesson plan for this study is posted below. If you do a similar activity with your students, please post your experiences in the comments!

Wherever you are in the world, you and your students can use her form to explore how memories shape identity. Encourage your students to use vivid sensory details from sights, smells, sounds, sensations, and tastes that resonate with them deeply. The stronger and more important each image is to you, the stronger and more meaningful it will be for the reader.

Continue reading

“Mountain Tambourine”

“Mountain Tambourine,” Peter van Toorn (Canada), This Same Sky p. 102 (see Resource List)

A crew took part of the big tree awaypoplar tree
on my street. A poplar, it was throwing
its ashes, its dirty pillow stuffing,
around too much. So they said. Anyway,
people were tired of it. It was too grey.
It might drop a tired branch and hit something,
a power or phone line. What’s still standing
they’ll come for tomorrow and chop away.
It doesn’t make much poplar talk now. The big
clatter’s gone out of it. On the older
side of the street, the last tree stands, tall, big,
full, leafy—a fine shade and rain holder.
It leans to one side at a warm angle,
like Annie, whose door it covered last fall.

Background on Philosophical Issues

Environmental Ethics

“Mountain Tambourine” makes us wonder what our roles are as people in relation to the earth and its inhabitants. The people in the poem cut a tree down, presumably because it has been inconveniencing humans. Is it okay to destroy non-human nature in order to make ourselves more comfortable? Our instincts might be to say no, but we must realize that our day-to-day lives depend on doing just this every day. Every time I write on a sheet of paper or print out an essay for school, I depend on the systematic destruction of forests. Every time I get in a car or even ride a bus or train, I support the creation of more exhaust fumes that pollute the air and make it difficult for all species of animal and plant life to live. Every time I open a plastic package, I know the material will ultimately end up leaching chemicals into the earth and/or being picked up and choked on by a bird or fish who mistakes it for food. My waste and its consequences will be around long after I am gone. Does this mean we should reject all forms of industrial living? Some people say yes, and choose to live entirely “off the grid” and/or as fruitarians – individuals who do not consume anything that caused another living entity, animal or plant, to die. Others believe that we can find a morally-acceptable balance between considering the interests of present-day humans, the interests of other species of animal and plant life, and the interests of future generations. Either way, it is difficult to imagine living in today’s society without in some way relying on paper made from trees that have been killed. How do we reconcile our wishes to treat the earth with “respect” and “kindness” and our urge to maintain the habits and conveniences we have grown up accustomed to?

Philosophy of Language

The tree almost becomes a character in this poem. The speaker refers to the tree’s “poplar talk,” and the tree has a “tired branch.” This personification compels us to consider what it really means to communicate. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) revolutionized how we think about language and communication. For Wittgenstein, effective communication depends on a “language game,” in which all the participants in a conversation agree on the same “rules.” Under this understanding, words mean something only within the context of a culture. The meanings of words, of course, depend on how individuals interpret them.

What is the relationship between language and communication? Wittgenstein hypothesized a “private language” (though he didn’t refer to it with this name). Wittgenstein believed that a private language – a language that only one person understands – would be meaningless. The reasoning behind this is that each word has meaning only in relation to other words. If someone makes up a word but has nothing to relate it to, then even the originator would not be able to explain her own language. This seems to imply that any language must be communicated between multiple people. If this is true, it could imply that the formation of language and even concepts depends on set, agreed-upon rules of behaviour.

However, others have put forth a wider definition of language, which can include a language spoken only to the self. If even trees can have language, would this mean they have thoughts and consciousnesses? Or would it mean that language doesn’t require consciousness? On the other end of the spectrum, is it possible for someone to have thoughts without having access to language, or do we need language in order to formulate thoughts?

languages

References:

Candlish, Stewart; Wrisley, George. “Private Language.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Richter, Duncan. “Ludwig Wittgenstein.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Sample Questions for Discussion

“…people were tired of it. It was too grey.
It might drop a tired branch and hit something…”

  • What are some reasons that people cut down trees? Are these good reasons or bad reasons? Why?
  • What should we do if one living entity’s existence is hurting another living entity?
  • Should the people cut the poplar tree down? Why or why not?
    • Does it matter/would your answer change if the tree were endangering buildings, plants, or animals? Why or why not?
    • What if it were only inconveniencing humans but not in danger of actually hurting anyone?
    • If the tree were endangering animals, would it matter/would your answer change if it were endangering human or nonhuman animals? Why or why not?

“…On the older
side of the street, the last tree stands, tall, big,
full, leafy—a fine shade and rain holder.”

  • Do trees have a purpose? If so, what is it and why do you think so?
    • If so, do all trees have more or less the same purpose?
  • Do people have a purpose?
    • If so, do all people have the same purpose?
  • If there were no people on earth, would the purpose of the tree be the same?
  • Who gets to decide what something or someone’s purpose is?
  • What should happen when someone or something cannot fulfil its purpose any longer?
  • Is a purpose the same thing as a goal? Why or why not/if not, what is the difference?

“It doesn’t make much poplar talk now.”

  • What does it mean to “talk” or to “make talk?”
  • Do you think the “poplar talk” means the tree was making sounds, the tree was communicating, or something else?
  • Can the sound(s) trees make be classified?
  • Do trees talk/do trees communicate? How so/can you think of some examples?
  • Can we talk to trees? Why or why not?
  • Is “talking” always the same as “speaking?” Why or why not?
  • Does “talking” always involve sounds?
  • When people use their hands to communicate using one of the hundreds of codified signed languages around the world, is that talking? Why or why not?
  • When humans or other animals use gestures or facial expressions to communicate, is that talking? Why or why not?
  • If I say something that only I understand, is that a language? Why or why not? If I interpret the sounds of nature to mean something but no one else understands them the same way, is that language? Why or why not?
Koko understands spoken English and ASL, and she uses over 1000 signs to communicate with other gorillas and with humans.

*Note: Many of the questions above were inspired by a discussion with the Spring 2015 Smith College Poetry Concentration Senior Capstone course. I am indebted to Professor Ellen Doré Watson and all my amazing peers for opening up these ideas. Thank you!

Environmental Ethics Activities

Related Resources

  • The Giving Tree book module by Professor Tom Wartenberg
    • Includes summary of the beloved illustrated poem by Shel Silverstein, guidelines for philosophical discussion with philosophical background, and example discussion questions.

Some question starters I’ve found helpful

Here are some phrases to get you started if you are interested in a particular subject but having trouble coming up with juicy questions to ask. For instance, if we just finished reading Harold and the Purple Crayon, and I wanted to get metaphysical, I might ask “Is it possible to create a new world using just words and pictures?” Of course, any question is then naturally followed up with why/why nothow, or how can we tell? Remember, in order to be a philosophical question, it has to be something that you can’t find the answer to in a book or an encyclopedia. Have fun!"What is reality?" "Is truth relative?"

Metaphysical (about reality)

  • “What is … ?”
  • “What is the difference between _____ and _____?”
  • “Is it possible that/to … ?”
  • “Is there anything bigger/smaller than _____?”
  • “How does ____ work?”
  • “When/where does _____ begin/end?”

Epistemological (about knowledge)

  • “How do we know that …. ?”
  • “Can we know that … ?”
  • “How can we tell if ….?”
  • “What would we know if we knew that ___ ?”
  • “Can everyone know … ?”
  • “How could we learn more about __ ?”

Ethical (about morality, right and wrong)

  • “Is it okay to … ?”
  • “Is _______ ever right?” Or, “Is _____ ever wrong?”
  • “Is _______ always right?” Or, “Is _____ always wrong?”
  • “What are our obligations to _____ ?”
  • “What is the best …?”
  • “What is the best way to …. ?”
  • “Should we … ?” or “Why should we … ?”
  • “Why is ___ a problem?”

Aesthetic (about beauty and taste)

  • “What is the most beautiful ___ ?”
  • “How can we tell if ___ is beautiful?”
  • “Is there a difference between beauty and __ ?”