National Poetry Month: The Bells

Here in Baltimore, we feel a close connection to Edgar Allan Poe’s legendary The Raven, but when teaching sound devices like assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia and and alliteration, I love to teach The Bells, which is structured in four stanzas, with four different settings, and four very different types of bells.

When I teach this poem, I have four different readers read a stanza aloud. Then I break the girls into four groups to have them annotate for the devices they know how to spot. I circulate to answer questions and prompt them to find different devices they may have missed. Next, depending on the size of your group, you could lead a whole-group discussion on what they found, or you could have them jigsaw to teach each other what they saw in those stanzas. When you pull the class together, you can lead them through seeing the larger shifts and patterns in the poem.

I also like to have them hear the poem in several different forms. First, I play a recording of Phil Ochs singing the poem in an arrangement for his voice and guitar, then ask students how he changed it and whether his arrangement stays true to the emotions in the poem or produces something quite different. Next, I use a neat page from the Knowing Poe resource from Maryland Public Television, where you can hear all four stanzas on their sound board, adjusting whether you’d like a male or female voice, a reading with emotion or without, sound effects, and/or music. Students can then write about how the different recordings enhanced or detracted from their experience of the poem. Both of these forms remind students of the performative aspect of poetry, and also how different artists can interpret literature and become inspired to create a new piece of art.


Ready for a slice-of-life post?

  • we’re neck-deep in packing lists for the five-day outdoor education trip my girls are going on at the end of April, along with all the other 6th graders at my school; one list for what we already have (sweatshirts, yoga pants), one for what we will try to borrow (an outdoor sleeping bag, flashlights), one for what we will probably have to buy (rainboots that fit), etc etc
  • I made some predictions about how I’d like to be spending my summer, so here’s my progress: I’ve had several phone interviews with the Center for Talented Youth summer programs and am very hopeful that a job in their program will pan out, and I’ve officially been accepted to the Library of Congress Summer Teacher Institute! I can’t even express how much I am looking forward to immersing myself in the Library’s resources this July.
  • one of my daughters is playing lacrosse for the first time, and I’m so proud of her for jumping in and persevering; in Baltimore, many kids are handling lacrosse sticks as soon they can walk, so I was a little concerned that she would feel “behind,” especially since she’s only playing a team sport because I said she had to pick one! Luckily, our middle school athletics program is really encouraging of students who want to try a new sport, and she is gaining confidence and skills with each practice. My other daughter is gearing up for her ballet recital in June, and I’m happy to see them both building healthy habits that will serve them well in the future.
  • I feel comfortable declaring that the choices my colleague and I made this year about what to teach and why have really paid off; both Beowulf and Persepolis were new texts for us this year, and they’ve both been valuable additions to our curriculum. I also made some switches in my senior elective on Latin American literature, and those changes have worked out well too (though I’m still figuring out their final project). Like most English teachers, I put significant thought into deciding what books I want to teach in my classes, and it’s very rewarding when those choices turn out to be successful.
  • My sister and I are still training to run the Warrior Dash, which is only about a month away now, and we’ve both hit our fundraising goals as warriors for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (though I’d certainly accept more donations!). I feel more physically fit than I have in years, and in a burst of confidence, I also signed up for a 5K at my school, which is only about ten days away. Once I’ve got a few more 5Ks under my belt, I’d like to try a 10 K race next year. In addition to having a workout partner, setting goals has been a big part of actually being able to maintain an exercise habit for me.
  • current musical obsession: St. Vincent, both her newest self-titled album and her previous album, Strange Mercy

National Poetry Month: “Poetry Is….”

“Now that I’ve got all your responses, I’d love to have Lucie and Grace read theirs aloud.”

This is what I said to my class after starting a recent lesson on poetry with a very simple freewrite; I wrote “Poetry is……” on the board, and they had to complete the sentence as often as they could in five minutes, writing the whole time. Here are some of the responses I got, and I think you’ll see how they wrote little poems back to me, probably without even knowing that’s what they were doing.

Poetry is metaphoric.
Poetry is piece of mind.
Poetry is finding your center.
Poetry is the thoughts we have at random.
Poetry is the song we hear from nature.
Poetry is the world’s way of manifesting grace.
Poetry is the dreams we fear to tell.
Poetry is a path to the soul and spirit.
Poetry is a way of showing our beautiful thoughts.
Poetry is profound in a way that only the mind can decipher.
Poetry is calming to the weak the and needy.
Poetry is therapy for the strong who fall weak.
Poetry is the childhood and life we see every day and imagine in our dreams.
Poetry is the mind’s camera.
Poetry is for everyone.
Poetry is for dreamers.

Poetry is interesting.
Poetry is boring as well.
Poetry is rhythm.
Poetry is for adults.
Poetry is like the sea, it flows.
Poetry is something that I’m not good at.
Poetry is hard.
Poetry is a way of expressing yourself.
Poetry is what people back in the days used to write.
Poetry is not my favorite.
Poetry is cool, I guess.
Poetry is a word.
Poetry is a poem.

Poetry is rhyming. Poetry is like a flowing river. Poetry is the heart speaking. Poetry is an empty nothing that means something. Poetry is fear. Poetry is love. Poetry is passion. Poetry is in everyone. Poetry is inspiration.

Crosstown Traffic: Where’d You All Come From?

When I click on my WordPress reader, from time to time, I also click the “Stats” button just to see how the site is doing. For months, several patterns remained consistent: my views went up on the days I published new posts, people often landed here through Googling different teaching-related terms, and my teaching-related posts were some of the most popular. Facebook and WordPress followers are my most consistent readers, and my views-per-day number is on the smaller side, but steady. I started blogging mainly to journal and keep up with old friends, and I’ve been pleased with the smallish band of loyal followers I’ve developed, counting many among my friends though we’ve never “met.” I also love thinking of my site as a resource for other teachers and readers.

Then, two things happened. I adopted a new theme for the blog that was a new design option for WordPress users, and my site was included on the official WordPress page that describes that theme (I think it’s been bumped off by now). That resulted in an immediate, relatively-medium-size uptick in my traffic; over the three subsequent weeks, I was receiving over one hundred more views a day, people heading over from that page and then clicking their way through my pages and archives. Next, my blog was featured in a post on effective front-page strategies on Hot Off the Press, WordPress’s main blog full of news and updates, followed by thousands of other WordPress bloggers. That post resulted in a one-day spike and my second-highest number of views ever. The only time I ever beat was when I published a post about our plans for Inauguration Day after Obama was elected! Seasonal spikes are typical–I’m getting some traction right now on my post about Easter recipes from the Pioneer Woman–but the WordPress ones were unprecedented for me, and resulted in many more global visitors.

I’ve never been the kind of blogger to chase stats; I’m more interested in making myself a better writer and teacher through blogging, as well as getting to know all of you. I don’t think of this blog as a moneymaker: I’ve only done one sponsored post in all that time, the offer for which literally landed in my inbox one day, and I only just received my first ever Amazon Affiliates payment (a welcome $10, so please keep clicking those links!). Seven years and 700 posts in, I’m fairly clear on what I’m doing around here.

However, I was surprised at how it felt to suddenly know that I had a much larger audience out there, reading, listening, and perhaps even waiting to hear what I would say next. Who were these people? What did they want to read about? Once they had clicked over, what might or has kept them coming back? I found myself amping up the number of posts I published, adding more tags, polishing up some of my pages and making sure my links were all useful and active. Maybe you wanted some book reviews, or some National Poetry Month ideas, or maybe you were just curious about the peeks into my life–since many are bloggers themselves, these new readers were the kind to like and comment and reblog different posts, as well on click many links and add themselves as followers. I got a little charge each day out of seeing new followers and comments pop up, and found myself continuously surprised about what got reactions–this post on life without a dishwasher seemed to catch your eye!

If you came to A Patchwork Life as a result of one of these recent posts, welcome! More importantly, if you’ve stuck around, I’m so glad you’re here. Having a new audience has not changed my taste or content, but it has provided inspiration, and that little boost to post more and more, and remember that I’m part of a larger conversation that can provide all kinds of creativity and surprises.

National Poetry Month: Poet-to-Poet Project

Today my classroom was filled with the grunts and squeals of manatees.

In addition to understanding poetic terminology, creating public poetry projects, and writing timed explications, my students are participating in the Poet-to-Poet Project, another wonderful initiative from the Academy of American Poets.

We worked through a modified version of a lesson plan provided on the website, which incorporates Manatee/Humanity by Anne Waldman and Valentine for Ernest Mann by Naomi Shihab Nye. We began with taking notes on background information about manatees, including a photograph and audio recording of the noises they make, and then read Waldman’s poem aloud, recording our impressions afterwards. Finally, we watched a great performance of the poem by Waldman herself, and recorded our impressions of it, followed by group discussion and writing about how the performance impacted our experience of the poem and how the poem itself made us see manatees differently and think think more emotionally about what it means when animals are endangered. As directed in the lesson plan, we only watched Waldman talk about her inspiration after we had discussed the poem more ourselves, which I think worked really well. Waldman’s reading really adds a richness to the text, and as one of my students noted, “she’s definitely giving off a hippie vibe, in a good way.” It’s a great poem to connect to the environment and sustainability issues, as well as a reminder of the interconnectedness of life, and Waldman’s passionate intensity shines through the screen.

Next, we read Nye’s poem and recorded our impressions as well. We watched Nye perform the poem and also speak about what inspired it, this great anecdote about an 8th grade boy who walked up to her in a school hallway and “ordered a poem,” as well as a friend of hers who gave his wife a pair of skunks for Valentine’s Day. Immediately afterwards, my students said how much they loved her line, “the person you almost like, but not quite,” so we brainstormed in our notes for a few minutes about what that line inspired in us.

In our next class, the students will work on a series of planning questions to help them write a poem of their own, inspired by either Waldman or Nye’s work, which they will send in to the Academy. I’m so excited to see what they write!

National Poetry Month: Public Poetry Project

One of my favorite parts of celebrating National Poetry Month with my ninth graders is watching what they do with the public poetry project I’ve been evolving for them over the past few years. I used to offer it as extra credit, but I’m so in love with the assignment that I’ve required it this year. This assignment has been popular in our community as well; faculty and students have approached me and others to express how much they enjoyed seeing poetry  I’m going to include the entire assignment in this post, and if you end up doing something similar with your students, here are some recommendations:

  • make sure to approve each student’s poem, not necessarily because they will find something inappropriate, but because they will find lots of “poetry” on the Internet that more closely resembles what you find on the inside of a greeting card. I approve each poem to make sure it has an identifiable author and is of literary merit.
  • student choice is really important here to increase engagement, but I make sure to require the students to explain why they chose their particular poem, as well as why they chose this particular method of sharing it publicly with our community, to encourage them to think carefully about their choices.
  • the other advantage of approving poems is making sure you don’t flood your school with “Where the Sidewalk Ends” in fifteen different presentations!
  • it can also be helpful to keep a public list somewhere so students can check it themselves and see what poems have already been claimed.

Here’s the assignment I give them–feel free to adapt or modify for your own use:

Dear students,

As April is National Poetry Month, we will conceive and execute a public poetry project! First, you will choose a poem (go here for some suggestions, but you can choose others as well), and then think about how you will make it public. Here are some ideas for you to consider:

• posting poems in public places like hallways or bathrooms (with approval)
• making a greeting card or bookmark featuring a poem to distribute in student and/or faculty mailboxes
• reading a poem aloud at a morning or class meeting
• printing the poem (or a portion of it) on a t-shirt and wearing it in public
• teaming up with a few other students to create a bulletin board display for my classroom (or another classroom, with that teacher’s approval)
• creating a visual representation of the poem that would hang in my classroom for the month
• writing your poem on sidewalks with chalk
• teaming up with a few other students to organize a poetry reading, like perhaps for a Lower School class (see me if you want help arranging this)
• many other creative possibilities!

The requirements are that you must document your project, either through pictures, giving me an example of what you have distributed or some other form you clear with me, and including a paragraph about why you have chosen this poem and this method of public display. You must also submit your event on the Academy of American Poets website so that it will be recorded with all the other public poetry projects happening this month across the country. I must approve your chosen poem before you do anything public with it, and I must approve any proposals involving more than one student. Finally, your public project must happen in the month of April and take place on campus. This project will be worth 25 pts.

Have fun—I’m looking forward to the results!

Snack Break

Part of my meal planning each week is making sure my girls have something healthy around to eat for breakfast and pack for snack time, so I’m usually baking a batch or two of muffins and maybe a “healthy” cookie. Once I started working out more regularly, I started feeling the same need myself, so I’m experimenting with what I like to have on hand for those grab-and-eat moments. Here’s what recipes have been successful around our house recently:

Strawberry-Banana Muffins: I had intended these for my girls’ breakfast but sliced the strawberries instead of dicing them, so they were rejected for being “too chunky.” However you deal with the berries, this is a great recipe and a way to use up overripe bananas for a little taste of summer.

Orange-Lemon Poppyseed Muffins: Whenever my daughter Lucy goes grocery shopping with one of us, she begs for a lemon-poppyseed muffin from the bakery section. I don’t like lemon-poppyseed at all, but when this recipe popped up on Sally’s Baking Addiction, I knew I had to try it for Lucy. Luckily, Sophie likes these too, and so this week’s snack is taken care of!

Peanut Butter and Jelly Muffins: Another big hit, and delicious with strawberry or grape jelly, my girls really liked having these around for breakfast. I substituted plain applesauce for the oil in this recipe, which I always do in muffins to make them a little healthier.

Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Granola: Granola is not a kind of snack I’ve ever been drawn to before, as I’m usually a potato-chip fiend. However, I knew granola would be healthier and give me better fuel for the day, and could serve a double purpose as breakfast or after-workout snack. I keep it in a Tupperware on the counter, and both Mr. Patchwork and I enjoy grabbing a handful or two as we cruise through the kitchen. Next I’d like to try apple-spice-quinoa or peanut-butter-and-jelly granolas.

I’ve really tried to cut back on buying cookbooks since the advent of Pinterest and the overflowing cookbook shelf I already have, but all the successes I’ve had lately really makes me want Sally’s Baking Addiction: Irresistible Cookies, Cupcakes, and Desserts for Your Sweet-Tooth Fix, Sally’s new cookbook which came out recently. She lives in my area, so part of me is hoping she does some local signings, and maybe I’ll be able to pick the book up in person!

Is She Really Your Sister?

“Ms. Regales, is Ms. Vreatt really your sister?”

“Did you two always get along so well?”

“You don’t look alike, but you sound alike and your jokes are the same.”

“I wish I got to eat lunch every day with my sister!”

“Hey sisters!”

For the past seven years, my sister and I have been working together at the same school, she as a theater teacher and technical director and me in the English department. We work out together, sit together at faculty meetings, often eat lunch together, and pop by each other’s rooms whenever we feel like sharing random trivia or frustrations during our day. Most of our colleagues and students know by now that we are sisters, but I try to make sure new people know so that they have a better context for our (often sarcastic) teasing way of interacting with each other.

Once people know our relationship to each other, they often assume that we’ve always been close, which couldn’t be less true. As children and adolescents, we fought like the proverbial cats and dogs, but also, our personalities were fairly different. I sat on the bleachers with my nose in a book while she raced across every athletic field; I listened to George Michael and Madonna while the sounds of Joan Jett and Led Zeppelin came from behind her closed door. I was always more timid, and she was always braver. She went off to college when I started high school, and I think the space from each other was a great help in allowing us to forge a new kind of connection. But even then, I don’t think I would have been able to predict our current relationship, and I feel so lucky and blessed to have somehow found our way here.

National Poetry Month: Analyzing “Let It Go”

Do you want to build a snowman?

If you’re like me, then you have some young people in your life obsessed with Frozen, the animated juggernaut breaking records and flooding the world with the Frozen soundtrack and Frozen digital or DVD edition.

Yesterday and today with my ninth graders, I decided to tie our study of poetry to analyzing “Let It Go,” so my students could see that the same poetic tools we were discussing are often essential in songwriting as well. We began by discussing imagery, metaphors, and similes, and then moved into making sure we could define alliteration, rhyme, assonance, and consonance. We focused in particular on these sections of the song:

The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I tried


My power flurries through the air into the ground
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around
And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast
I’m never going back,
The past is in the past

which I projected and had the students annotate on their own copies. In just these two sections, you can point out alliteration, assonance, rhyme, metaphors, images, similes, word choice, structure and characterization. We had a very good discussion about the complex ways the songwriters used language to create the same effects that we would see and hear in the film version as well, and I think it helped make our discussion of poetry more closely tied to the power of language in their own lives. Of course, reading the song made them want to hear it, so I did play a few minutes of it to wrap up our discussion!