“Māra,” by Moira Wairama

During the last week of term, I introduced many of my E.S.O.L. students to “Māra,” a poem published in Issue 52 of the New Zealand Junior Journal, a journal of writing geared towards students working in level 2 of The New Zealand Curriculum. The full journals, with illustrations and audio recordings, are available here at no charge: http://literacyonline.tki.org.nz/Literacy-Online/Planning-for-my-students-needs/Instructional-Series/Junior-Journal.

A pēpepe I met in the Auckland Domain


In a smooth blend of English and Māori, the speaker invites us into her māra (garden) to meet all of the insects she meets there. The (free) audio recording available on the educators’ resource site highlights the poem’s magical, musical quality, capturing students’ attention in a way that simply handing them the poem as a silent reading assignment could not.

Though the poem is a great example of how students can use imagery, rhyme, and meter in their poems, I find one of the most important things this poem does is highlight the bilingualism and biculturalism that is so important to New Zealand. While I am an American citizen teaching English to non-native speakers, I feel a responsiblity to honour and lift up Te Reo wherever feasible in my teaching as well, and to set a norm in my classroom that all languages are equally precious. Of course, though the poem incorporates both languages, I don’t know if it actually tells us anything particular about Māori culture, so I should be on the lookout for more poems that do this. Learning English is never about replacing what one has grown up with but about adding something new. This is a topic for a future post, but does anyone have suggestions of other poems appropriate for young children that incorporate multiple languages fluently? I’d love to start a solid collection. Thank you!

Most of the articles in the journal come with teacher guides, but the poem does not, so I’ve written up some activities and prepared a vocab sheet for pre-teaching the Māori words and some of the Tier 2 English words that non-native English speakers would need support with. I included some questions to prompt a discussion about the concept of being “special” and what it means to consider something or someone special. My sessions with these students are each quite short, so we don’t have the opportunity for full on CoI, but as always, I’d love to hear of your students’ responses – just hit “reply” below! Adjusting for your students’ needs, I would discuss the unfamiliar words first, so that they have context. Then listen to the poem, giving each student a copy of the poem (from the journal) to have in front of them. Then proceed with the discussion and writing activity.

The guide is available here: http://tinyurl.com/maraguide

After a few drafts, I publish the students’ poems on the wall and give them a chance to read their poetry to each other. It gives each student a chance to showcase their own work and be publicly proud, to review what they have done vs. just turning in an assignment and never seeing it again, to recognize their own work as publish-worthy art, and to learn from and about their peers. I’d love to hear your experiences, successes, and challenges of young students writing and sharing their work!

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.

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Strategies for active engagement with poetry

This week my Sheltered English Instruction for English Language Learners course has been focusing on lots of strategies for approaching writing in a way that makes it more accessible for students of varying language backgrounds. I’ve been working a lesson plan incorporating critical thinking into a unit on “The Dormouse and the Doctor” by A. A. Milne. I’ve put together a collection of ideas inspired partly by our discussions and course readings and tailored them all to active engagement with narrative poetry, creative expression and critical thinking. Suggestions/comments very welcome! I would like to expand and specify the ideas below. They are not all explicitly philosophical activities and questions, but could certainly be used as a stimulus to develop some questions for a Community of Inquiry. Most could be adapted for writing prompts or for discussion prompts/question generators, but lend themselves more to one or the other. 

Some Ways to ENGAGE with Narrative Poems for Critical Thinking

Roleplay perspectives.

  • Think about who, what, where, when, how, and especially why characters behave the ways they do or make the decisions they make. Could have students reflect on paper or in small groups.
  • One idea: Act out what happens in the poem OR what they think would happen next and then reflect as a class. Probably more suitable for older children.
  • Another idea: Split up into small groups and encourage unstructured imaginative play for a period of time; then reflect in small groups. Follow up with discussion and/or writing or drawing activity.

Journal from perspective of one of the characters.

  • Similar to the roleplaying idea above, this activity requires students to think critically about the How and 5Ws of individual characters’ behaviour.
  • This assignment is particularly interesting if the student takes on the persona of a minor character or antagonist.
  • I wouldn’t worry about poetic form or formal writing structure at this stage; the idea is to get the juices flowing and think about the reasons someone else might have to justify their ideas/feelings/opinions/behaviour.

Work with “realia” (physical objects related to the poem in some way) to make the poem really come to life.

  • Facilitator or students could bring in.
  • If you are beginning with a poem to spark discussion, the educator could bring in objects to ground the poem; then the next day or the next week students could bring in objects from home to inspire/help ground their own writing. Physical objects help make communication accessible to everyone of different language abilities, and they provide physical stimulation.
  • Kinetic engagement tends to help students make more complex connections and reinforces learned material.

Use graphic organizers.

  • K/W/L charts for brainstorming subject matter: First column is what we know about a topic, second column is what we want to learn, and third column is for recording what we have learned after we research our questions.
  • There are many ways to organize thoughts around plot development (in the writing process of a new poem or in interpreting a poem you’ve read).
    • Cycle Webs can show chronological progression of events and/or cause-and-effect. Students can draw bubbles in a circle with arrows connecting each one.
    • Cause and Effect graphic organizers are another way of showing what follows from what and can strengthen logic and formal reasoning skills.
  • These charts can be created with words, pictures, symbols, or all of the above together, depending on the students’ language ability and how they best process material. Opens opportunity for differentiation for different abilities so that everyone in the class is working on the same project but doing it in a way that will give them each the appropriate amount of challenge (not too much (they’ll freeze) and not too little (they’ll get bored)).
  • Engage with character traits by using Venn diagrams to compare/contrast what is the same and what is different about key speakers in the poem.
  • Main idea webs: Ask the students what the poem is about. Many main ideas will come up. Have them agree on one of them to begin with, and write in the middle of the board. (Note: I’ve found that reaching consensus on a starting point, particularly with a large group, can sometimes be very time-consuming, so if time is limited, you may want to suggest one idea to begin with for discussion, acknowledging that others are just as important and can be discussed another time.) Extend with questions and related ideas to generate a group mind map of inspiration for inquiry around that idea. **NOTE This is related to the “One word or main idea” activity in Philosophy with Young Children: A Classroom Handbook by Philip Cam, Liz Fynes-Clinton, et. al.

Cut, paste, and extend!

  • Physically cut up a poem to engage with it on a physical level. Split the poem into strips so that each line can be moved around and replaced on the page.
  • This can be used as a strategy to edit your own poems OR to glean inspiration from an existing poem you have read.
  • Great activity for children or adults to get a different perspective and strengthen our own writing.
  • Move lines up and down, add spaces and edit, remove words entirely, etc.
  • You can pick just one line you really like from a published poem and write a spin-off poem from that line.

Activity: The Ships of Theseus

Activity: The Ships of Theseus

As Theseus takes an old ship and changes it piece by piece into something that seems entirely different, we will revitalize an old poem by changing it piece by piece into something fresh. 

1. Read “The Ships of Theseus,” Steve Gehrke and/or my discussion of the ancient philosophical paradox at Metaphysics Poems.

2. Start with an old poem of your own or a favourite poem written by someone else, and practice the art of revision: Change one line at a time, until every line has been altered significantly.

3. Share both poems with the rest of the group, and consider the questions below for discussion:

  • Is it still the same poem? Why or why not?
  • What have you learned by altering your poem?
  • Does it still have the same subject and/or main idea, or does it seem completely different?
  • If there is a significant shift in subject, did you make this change consciously from the beginning, or did it happen organically as the revision process went on?
  • If you began with a poem written by someone else, is the revision your poem, or does it belong to the author of the original poem? Why?