David Whyte – language we need for the times we live in

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.”

The words of David Whyte, from the poem, Sweet Darkness.

David Whyte

If you’ve never heard of David Whyte, then I suggest you make yourself familiar with his work. A good start is to listen to him interviewed by Krista Tippett at the On Being podcast. That’s where I first heard him, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Not long after I listened to this podcast, I was fortunate enough to hear him speak at The Edge in Federation Square. It was a gift to listen to him share his verse and touch many of us with words that spoke to situations we were dealing with, each in our own way. When David recites his poetry, he repeats lines, phrases, and stresses key words. It’s so impactful. You listen even more carefully, craning for insight.

David’s back story is fascinating. He studied marine zoology and found himself in the Galapagos islands observing wildlife. What he also found was that the scientific language he needed to describe their habitat and interactions wasn’t enough to fully appreciate and encompass the experience, and he found those words by returning to poetry. Eventually, he immersed himself fully in his craft. Here’s what he shared in the On Being podcast explaining how he ended up working for companies in corporate America.

And so when I went full-time as a poet, I was only a year into it and I spoke here in Washington, D.C. at a large psychological conference. And at the end of the conference was this line of people, and at the end of the line was a man who, in best American fashion, said, “We have to hire you.” And I said in best Anglo-Irish fashion, “For what?” [laughs] enthusiastically. And he said, “To come into corporate America.” And I said, “For what?” And he said a marvelous thing, actually. He said, “The language we have in that world is not large enough for the territory that we’ve already entered.” “The language we have in — and in your work, I’ve just heard the language that’s large enough for it.”

And of course, he was talking about the territory of human relationship that the workplace was entering, and the movable human relationship, and the movability that the organizations had to have. And the only place that came from was from the individuals who actually worked within the structures. So it was the breaking apart of many of those structures. And I don’t think we quite realize how over-structured our organizations were just 25 years ago or 30 years ago. There are still plenty of dinosaur ones left for us to still go and live in if we want them, but …

These words sang to me. As I’ve stepped into leadership positions over the last few years my understanding of the power of words to bring people with you has only intensified. I’ve appreciated how words can move people, can frame change scenarios in ways that make people want to come with you and not turn the other way. As many of us work within our schools to envision what is necessary for children navigating futures less certain than ours ever were, we need to find the language that will ease our people into a deeper understanding of the role they need to play. An investment in ideas and a willingness to reflect and review will help prepare our children and build our capacity in the process.

At the AIS ICT Leadership conference in May this year I spoke briefly about podcasts and the benefits they can bring  – they’re an investment in yourself and your personal growth if you listen to the right ones. I mentioned On Being and referenced the David Whyte episode. Often, when you’re leading change, you have to have difficult conversations, ones you’d really prefer to avoid given the chance. But if you’re doing your job well, you don’t avoid them, you face them head on, even though it means you’re often doing so with trepidation. It’s a situation many of us have to face, and the words of ‘Start Close In’ capture what I think is necessary if you are going to build resolve and tackle things head on. I read this poem to the audience of mainly men. There seemed a bit of a stunned silence at the end of it – not sure anyone’s read a poem at an ICT Managers conference before, but hey, you never know when words will make an impact, right?

START CLOSE IN

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way of starting
the conversation.

Start with your own
question,
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something
simple.

To find
another’s voice
follow
your own voice,
wait until
that voice
becomes a
private ear
listening
to another.

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step you don’t want to take.

~ David Whyte ~
(River Flow)

I suggest you start close in and take a look at David Whyte’s work. People of wisdom in times that require it are salve for troubled souls.

 

Spoken Word Poetry as a Year 9 Project Based Learning task

Tomorrow, I start a new job. In it, I will be leading the direction of technology use in classrooms across three campuses. It’s a big job, and one that means I no longer will be teaching my own class. While I welcome the opportunity to think in a big picture capacity and support teachers and students across a very large school, I am going to miss the vitality of the classroom and the close relationships you form with a class over the course of a year. Hopefully people will welcome me into their classrooms, because I think you need doses of classroom reality to keep you grounded.

I’ve had to leave my wonderful class who are taking the elective I created called ‘Language of our Times’. This term begins with the Project Based Learning Spoken Word Poetry task that I have loved teaching. I’ve been meaning to write about it over the past two years so thought now was a good opportunity to share my experiences with it. It also might help teachers at my new school see that I am a classroom teacher too, even if they’ve never seen me teach a class. 🙂

Spoken Word Poetry task: Year 9

Driving question:  How can language move people?

Your task is to work in groups and create a Spoken Word Poetry piece (also known as Slam Poetry) that will be performed in class and then performed for a public audience during our celebration of Book Week in August.Your Spoken Word Poetry piece must use language effectively to convey meaning, and must capture the attention of your audience. The focus for the piece will be decided via negotiation with the members of your group. Group performance, your individual contribution, effective language choices, and high level collaboration efforts toward a common goal will form the basis of your assessment.

Student Objectives

Students will:

  • Listen to, read, analyze and write poetry;
  • Recognize, discuss and employ the poetic techniques employed in poems;
  • Analyze the techniques used by performance artists; and
  • Perform their own poems.

Reference explaining Spoken Word poetry: http://www.nelson-atkins.org/images/PDF/Calendar/PoetrySlam_SpokenWord.pdf

“What is spoken word poetry?

Spoken word poetry is poetry that is written on a page but performed for an audience. Because it is performed, this poetry tends to demonstrate a heavy use of rhythm, improvisation, free association, rhymes, rich poetic phrases, word play and slang. It is more aggressive and “in your face” than more traditional forms of poetry.”(follow the link above for more detail explaining what to keep in mind when writing a Spoken Word poem)

Relevant Australian Curriculum Content Descriptors addressed in this task:

Interacting with others

Listen to spoken texts constructed for different purposes, for example to entertain and to persuade, and analyse how language features of these textsposition listeners to respond in particular ways(ACELY1740)Use interaction skills to present and discuss an idea and to influence and engage an audience by selecting persuasive language, varying voice tone, pitch, and pace, and using elements such as music and sound effects (ACELY1811)Plan, rehearse and deliver presentations, selecting and sequencing appropriate content and multimodal elements for aesthetic and playful purposes(ACELY1741)

Interpreting, analysing, evaluating

Explore and explain the combinations of language and visual choices that authors make to present information, opinions and perspectives in different texts (ACELY1745)

Creating texts

Create imaginative, informative and persuasive texts that present a point of view and advance or illustrate arguments, including texts that integrate visual, print and/or audio features (ACELY1746)

Text structure and organisation

Understand that authors innovate with text structures and language for specific purposes and effects(ACELA1553)

Language variation and change

Investigate how evaluation can be expressed directly and indirectly using devices, for example allusion, evocative vocabulary and metaphor(ACELA1552)

We had a hook lesson with Poet, Alicia Sometimes, late term two because that is when she had been booked to come to the school. I had discussed PBL with the students and we went through the ‘main course’ elements when we started with the task.

A “Main Course” project:

  • is intended to teach significant content.
  • requires critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication.
  • requires inquiry as part of the process of learning and creating something new.
  • is organized around an open-ended Driving Question.
  • creates a need to know essential content and skills.
  • allows some degree of student voice and choice.
  • includes processes for revision and reflection.
  • involves a public audience.

At the start of the task I introduced the students to the rubric we used for assessment  so that they were aware of what was being assessed before they began and understand what to work towards. It was also made clear that although they were working in groups, they would be individually assessed based on what they demonstrated throughout the duration of the task. We used the collaboration rubric from the Buck Institute of Education and I added a component for reflection  because I wanted the students to value the importance of reflecting on their learning. (now part of Gold Standard PBL) I used a scoring rubric from the Out Loud Poetry competition Judge’s Guide to assess the Spoken Word performance element of the task.

The first year I made the groupings without consulting students. Last year, I asked students who they would like to work with as some had begun a poem when workshopping with Alicia Sometimes and I didn’t want to interrupt the flow that some had attained. Some groups formed naturally from this process but I did place students in other groups.

I was continually heartened by the majority of the groups’ application to this task. I tried to focus them at the start of a lesson by asking each group to briefly provide feedback to the whole group about where they were at and what they think they need to build on for that lesson. At the end of a lesson (when time hadn’t got away from us!) we refocused by watching a YouTube video of a spoken word poem to continually provide exemplars of effective performance.


Braemar College-Comp from Australian Poetry on Vimeo.

The LMS we used had a sharing space where the students  posted examples they had found of Spoken Word Poetry to share with the class. I also included information about Poetic techniques within this space and we explored this as a group to give them some grounding to assist with the development of their poems.

Each group used their Google Drive account and were working on a shared document to collaboratively write the poem. I asked them to identify who had written each part by colour coding the lines for individual contributions and indicating when the group achieved consensus with some lines. That worked well and they honestly provided indicators of individual’s contributions. I always find it interesting when you give the students a lot of agency with their work – my experience has seen students honestly reflect and acknowledge when they are pulling their weight, and when they aren’t. They are self assessing all the time. For some, this is impetus to do better not just for the teacher, but for their own self worth.

The rehearsal stage was always interesting. The scoring rubric from the Out Loud Poetry Guide measures physical presence, voice and articulation and dramatic appropriateness. The students were exposed to many examples of group performances (some seen above) that demonstrated how they could incorporate movement into their poems for effect. They practiced tirelessly to coordinate movement and time delivery of their poems and those who really worked at this performed pieces that quite literally left me and many in the class almost speechless. Other groups were not so polished with some group members not being able to stay ‘in character’ or able to commit all of their lines to memory. They were Year 9 students – I wasn’t expecting miracles because to pull off spoken word poetry well is very difficult indeed.  However, over the two years when I taught this unit there were groups who did pull off a miracle, and that was satisfying for me, but more importantly, it was personally satisfying for them.

Working within the Project Based Learning model was eye opening for me as a teacher. I saw students work way beyond the capacity of what test scores predicted as their achievement level. They were invested in their groups, saw the value of shared purpose and some exhibited leadership capabilities I had never seen evident in more traditional learning tasks. More than once students told me how proud they were of what they were doing and this was clear when they publicly performed their pieces at our Book Week performance days. In the second year, we invited parents to come along and those who came were blown away by what their children had managed to achieve.

A moment stood out last year when sometime after we had finished the unit, an English teacher came to see me one morning to let me know that a student in her regular English class had written a remarkable poem that incorporated an extended metaphor, repetition and other poetic techniques that she did not think were in the range of this student’s ability. When she quizzed her as to where this inspiration emanated from, the student explained that in our Language of our Times elective we had studied Spoken Word poetry and that was where she had learnt these techniques. What did I love about this? Being able to talk to this student and ask to view her poem as I had heard how wonderful it was. I could almost feel her pride in herself envelope me at that moment.

You guessed it, those are the moments to savour, and the moments I will miss.  🙂

School’s out Friday

I will be sharing this with my students next week. I teach girls, and what Sarah Kay has to say to them here may not translate so well at their delicate age, but maybe it will plant a seed and when they need it one day they will return to it. I hope so, because there is a powerful and important message in the words she speaks.

My students have watched a lot of spoken word poetry performances this year, largely because I want them to appreciate the power of language and performance when they combine so beautifully to create something that moves you into a space you weren’t occupying before you entered the world of the poet. One of my new students this term asked me if I’d seen Shane Koyczan‘s ‘The Crickets Have Arthritis‘ and I confessed I hadn’t. I went home that night and read it from his blog and was moved by the words on the page. The next day we listened to it in class, and for seven minutes, there was no sound other than the transcendent quality of Shane’s voice. When it finished, the silence continued as we appreciated the story that had unfolded and the profound impact it had on us all. Here it is. Maybe it will move you as much as it moved us.

Have a lovely weekend. Make the most of all life offers.  🙂

 

Flow – the outcome

Last week I wrote about ‘Flow‘ and how I had observed one of my students drive her own learning in this state. My student is Laine, and she has very kindly allowed me to publish the outcome of her state of flow.

To remind you, the task was to use a picture depicting a war situation and to write a poetry piece about it. Laine selected an iconic image, one that many of you would be familiar with. The picture of the Viet Cong prisoner being executed by the chief of Vietnam’s national police. She researched the background to this photo and produced the following poem;

(This is a flickr picture labelled for commercial reuse – an illustration of the image Laine was using as stimulas. Visit the flickr page where the illustrator provides quite a bit of the background that Laine unearthed. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t using this page when she was searching for information)

Points a gun to his face

Small and barefooted man dressed in a plaid shirt;

Hands tied behind his back, unsure of what will happen next,

What is he most afraid of?

What he had become.

He was now situated in front of me because of what he did;

Responsible for thirty-four bound and shot bodies of police and their relatives.

This is what he had become, a savage act caused by a war.

Tough and commanding general, tempered but educated;

He is the personification of America’s hidden hand and dirty involvement in the swamp.

What is he most afraid of?

What he had become.

He held a gun to another’s head, and pulled the trigger,

He walked away knowing that warm blood was now gushing onto the street.

This is what he had become, a man who is judged by a photograph.

A press photographer, unintentionally standing in these streets,

Standing with my camera, I witness a prisoner being dragged by two soldiers.

What am I most afraid of?

What I had become.

A man entered my viewfinder; pulled a pistol out of his holster, raised it and fired,

I stand shaken, five-feet from where the now lifeless body is laying.

This is what I had become, a killer; I killed the general with my photograph.

Her poem is the obvious result of the research Laine conducted; self driven research motivated by a desire to understand.

Can I say I had anything to do with this outcome? Only that I allowed her the room to explore in order to reach an outcome like this. Maybe that’s the lesson here. We need to give our students the room to take their learning where they need to take it. In order to do this, we need to have flexibility as classroom teachers and we need to not let curriculum demands dictate moments where creativity should reign.

Laine’s creativity extends beyond the English classroom. She’s a photographer, and an exceptional one at that in my estimation. Check out her Tumbler blog and appreciate her talent.