Those that know me know I am fond of saying I love juxtaposing the oldest genres in the world (poetry) with our newest texts. Each year Sue Ringler Pet, Ian O’Byrne, and myself celebrate a poet laurete at NCTE through the use of digital texts and tools.

This year Leanne Drapeau, a classroom teacher we partnered with joined us in Boston. I found the inclusion of a teacher,who could contextualized the young poets we celebrated,  in our presentation to be a rewarding experience. It also fit our theme quite well.

This year we dove into the work of Natasha Trethewy. Specifically we examined her work in documentary poetry.

Once again the project allowed students new access points into poetry. Here are a few takeways:

The Best Learning Activities are Grade Agnostic

When Sue and I first started this project we began by using Powerpoint to create extended metaphor poems. We have taught this lesson in early elementary school up to our graduate students. The best lessons in poetry work with any grade level.

Our work with documentary poetry was no different. We completed the project with 7th grade students, high school seniors, and pre service teachers. At every turn the students, no matter their age, were inspired by other young poets.

Delve into Poems not Devices

When we first looked at redesigning meaning through multimodality we framed the work through Billy Collins’s, “Drop a Mouse in Poetry.” For Sue and I we found poetry taught too often in isolation. Students did not search for emotion and truth instead they went on a scavenger hunt for similes and hyperbole.

Once again our work with Trethewey reminded us that teachers should not be afraid to spend immense amount of time on a single poem. The more we used and analyzed mentor texts the louder student voices become.

Sample of The Poems

Reflections and Thoughts

There was a different in topics and narrative voices

A pattern became evident to myself and the audience as we listened in on our young poets. Our older pre-service teachers seemed to write with a more meta detached voice. Topics included ideas such as Edward Snowden and the Korean War.

Students from New Haven and Hartford had a more personal and present narrative. Topics included Sanday Hook, child slavery, and gender discrimination. The voice giving  witness to the tragedy or emotion being documented seemed louder.

Do not teach a formula but a poet’s toolbox

In an earlier post I spoke of my 7th graders reading in a voice that was more prose than poetry. Their poems read like a narrative. Originally I speculated this may have been a product of a short time frame but after hearing from Leanne’s approach I realized the teachers I was supervising may not have provided students with the poetic toolbox.

Leanne and her students focused on four elements in their poems: juxtaposition, credibility, internal rhyme, and repetition. I only worked with a few group of students during writers conferences on repetition. Given more time I would have loved to work with tmy students and have them listen to their poems. They could identify elements that were poetic and revise the poems to include the toolbox Leanne shared with her  students.

Communal collaboration

Our original goal was to have students collaborate on these projects. Soundcloud, unfortunately, like many social networks was blocked in most of the schools. This did not allow for the collaboration and sharing of voices in the cloud.

Yet we also want to go beyond collaboration. We want to use digital poetry to highlight the interconnected elements of communities. That will be our focus next year. We are currently drafting a plan to not only witness other communities but to delve into personal and interpersonal perspectives. I will share later as we finalize the design, and I hope to highlight this work in D.C. at #ncte14.

Test you tech

I tried to present from my iPad and use Reflector to mirror to my laptop so I could screencast our presentation. Yet when we went to play video and audio we had no sound. This required us to pivot to my laptop. This lead to a downgrade in sound quality as we as speakers worked the room.


The Presentation

(Apologize for sound quality. I could not stream media from my iPad seamlessly and needed to use my laptop. We lost the proximity or the mic.)


I have often wondered if the Common Core State Standards have a dead white guy bias. It seems that advocates of the common core continuously try to reinforce the idea that reading the classics is the solution to all educational issues. This applies to both nonfiction and fiction

In fact when Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, testifies in support of the Common Core one of the first things he mentions is that the Common Core requires the reading of our Founding Documents. If I would have known reading the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address were the highest priority in education I would have done it years ago.

I have come to see the bias in the CCSS based on the Fordham Institute recent report “Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments.” I find thinly veiled ethnocentric beliefs in the suggested instructional approaches and in the suggested reading.

Bias in Instructional Approaches

Throughout the report on Common Core implementation is the idea that our educational woes are driven by a lack of content knowledge. In order to overcome systemic inequalities we just need to increase the cultural capiltal by focusing on knowledge and not the skills of what good readers do.

Let us ignore the research from the last thirty years and entertain this line of thinking:

The forward of the report states:

“In trying to improve reading comprehension, schools made a tragic mistake: they took time away from knowledge-building courses such as science and history to clear the decks for more time on reading skills and strategies. And the impact, particularly on our most disadvantaged students whose content and vocabulary gap is so great, has been devastating”

It assumes that strategy instruction is the root of our social woes. The only way to fix the achievement gap is with a heavy dose of dead white guy literature. Background knowledge and comprehension are linked. That is one of the most stable findings in educational research. The more knowledge you have the more you can comprehend. The more you can comprehend the more knowledge you gain. The pendulum may have swung too far towards instruction in disciplinary literacy strategies and comprehension strategy instruction but eliminating these in favor the Great Gatsby and Gettysburg Address will not serve children well.

Instead what we need to do is build in opportunities to read and write like historians and scientists into out content area classrooms. I am hopeful the CCSS will help move us in this direction. However, it cannot be about content alone.

According to Common Core supporters high quality dead white guy literature is also important for English Language Leaerners. In a recent speech to the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference Kathleen Porter-Magee, who wrote the forward to the report, spoke of the need of complex text for ELL learners. She gave an example of a leveled “Great Gatsby” text.

Porter Magee highlighted

In a “retold” version that is given to intermediate readers, that opening is boiled down to this:
“My name is Nick Carraway. I was born in a big city in the Middle West.”
Even more distressing is the version given to “beginning” readers:

My name is Nick. This is my friend. His name is Jay. Jay has a big house. See his house.

I agree with Porter-Magee that the beginning reading is not complex and does not allow for the intellectual capital of our second language learners to flourish. Yet if I am trying to teach a student who just arrived in this country to read English I would never use the full version of “Great Gatsby”. That seems even more inhumane.

The best approach is a bilingual education that would allow for translated or native works supported with beginning reading texts. Yet many states are openly hostile to bilingual education and even try to outlaw these approaches.

Giving a student who does not speak English the “Great Gatsby” will not end the achievement gap. It is silly to think so.

Bias Against Culturally Relevant and Young Adult Literature

Most gregarious in Appendix B is the list of recommended readings. What follows is a collection of books by dead white people about dead white people. In fact Appendix B states that the only selection criteria used was complexity, quality, and range. Representing the underrepresented with books about characters that actually look like the children we teach was not even considered! That is a national tragedy.

The authors of the report note that the appendix is not a suggested reading list, but they then go on to judge reading programs using the same list. So programs that use contemporary and culturally relevant literature would score low.

For example the report states that,

As a result, classic literature has, in many classrooms, been replaced by popular teen novels (often made into movies) such as The Hunger Games and Twilight. Indeed, the former, according to Renaissance Learning (more below), became the most widely read book in grades 9-12 following its theatrical release in 2012

It goes on to say:

Similarly, research published in 2009 by Renaissance Learning (the company that produces the “Accelerated Reader” program) found that “Ten of the top 16 most frequently read books by the 1,500 students in the top ten percent of reading achievement in grades 9-12 in the database for the 2008-2009 academic year were contemporary young adult fantasies.”

To say modern fantasy has no place in the reading programs of today’s high school is a travesty. The character development and conflicts are often quite complex and more than make up for some inadaquete readability scale. After all, if the students  choosing to read modern fantasy are in the top percent of reading ability there must be an instructional value.

This bias towards dead white guy literature is actually inherent in the anchor standards of the Common Core State Standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7 Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.9 Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.

The only required documents students have to read are: our founding documents, Shakespeare, and dated dead white guy novels.

How to fight for Culturally Relevant and Young Adult Literature.

Be informed. The Text Complexity Triangle contains Quantitative, Qualitative and Reader and Task. The report mentions readability (quantitative) 14 times. The other two corners of the triangle were quickly dropped. If you want to argue that culturally relevant or modern fantasy are complex text use the other two corners of the triangle to your advantage.

Know the research. Get involved. Follow the work of leading African American, Hispanic, or literacy scholars who advance the field of culturally responsive curriculum.

Do what is right. Our students need to read about characters that look like they do. They need stories with conflicts that reflect the realities of their lives. Include these in your program. Fight against those who say the woes of our urban youth are caused by a lack of dead white guy literature.

I support the Common Core State Standards. I believe the anchor standards (not grade level expectations) provide a holistic approach to educating well prepared and well rounded students. I just want a better Appendix B.


I have lurked. I have laughed. I have never launched into my own learning into DS106. For those that do not know D106 started off as a class into digital storytelling and it has evolved into one of the most active communitities for mutlimodal composition.

I always saw my favorite Twitter folks discussing #ds106 and #ds106 radio without knowing what it was. After struggiling to find a MOOC that met my needs as a learner, and after hving a positive experience with almsot completing the #CLMOOC I decided to give #ds106 a try.

Expertise without Authority

I think I enjoyed the CLOOC because it was a community and not a class. The members were people I respected as authors and makers before the class began. I have found that expertise missing in other MOOCs I have tried. No one was pushing my thinking. We did not delve into particulars of theory of Design, literacy, rhetoric, research design, etc.

Maybe the audience for the type of learning I was looking for isn’t that massive. What I do love, and I stress to my writing students, is that writing takes a community if we are to learn the cultural practices of meaning making.

That is what CLMOOC and from what I can see so far DS106 represent. It is expertise without authority. It a group of authors willing to explore the boundaries of multimodal composition in ways I have never thought of.

My First Creation

After perusing the DS106 website late last night I discovered the daily challenges. Yesterday’s challenge was satire. I fell in love with satire, like many, when I first read Catch-22. I followed this up with a study of Satire in college.

So I used Mozilla’s xx-ray Goggles to create a satirical news article.

 Where do idea come from?

As a writing instructor I promised my students to try and make my writing as transparent and open as possible. Yesterday I shared my pre-writing process. Today I wanted to talk about where ideas come from.

Ideas are dialogical. They develop through a dance of experience with other texts often taking the lead as a partner. To say I own my ideas just makes no sense. Ideas cannot be owned as they are entertwined in the fabric of yesterday’s stories.

So how did the idea for my Nemo story develop?

  • First as I stated I enjoy satire. True story: back in college I was a political science major. I was taking a class in comparative politics looking at Lenin, Roosevelt, and Hitler. I was also enrolled in acreative writing class on political satire. We had to write a story based on Swift’s Modest Proposal. I think my piece was on ending poverty by inoculating minority babies with the HIV virus. So my roomate, stumbling around, found a draft, and then saw all the Hitler books on my shelf and came to the obvious conclusion I was a secret neo-nazi.  So satire has been with me a long time.
  • Then last year I was taking my children to the mystic aquarium. Folks hate visiting museums with me. I want to read every placard at every exhibit. It was there that I learned of the mating habits of clownfish. I know, an exciting topic.
  • At the time I thought that this would make excellent satire. I shelved the idea away. Then when I saw the daily challenge on DS 106 it just popped back into my head.
  • So I Googled, “Finding Nemo.” and realized it was ten years old.
  • Then I Googled, “New York Times Lawsuit.” I needed a mentor text to serve as a template for the article.
  • Next I Googled, “Clownfish Wikipedia” so I could get a modicum of the science write.
  • Finally, I Googled the education director of the Mystic aquarium to add some authority to the piece.

Looking at this process my writing spanned over a decade (centuries if you count Swift). It is really a remix of a half dozen sources and the inspiration I have found in the writing is making crowd.

craftivism workshop at The Royal Standard arts collective

flickr photo shared by craftivist collective under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

Many of us agree that we need to align our classroom activities with the digitally literate lives our students lead. Yet we still hear of many classroom simply focusing on technology integration.

Simply put this is a mistake. When we look at the shift from page to pixel in terms of technology integration rather than an ever shifting and dynamic text we create a horse race environment where technology never improves learning.

It’s like the old Orbitz commercial where a refund is delivered by hovercraft instead of mail.

Just because you have technology does not mean you need to use technology. Instead always ask yourself, “How do these emerging text enhance or inhibit my pedagogical goal?” Do not simply use a hovercraft because you have one.

Multimodal Poetry

One area that I have been working on for the past five or six years is to integrate digital texts and tools into my teaching of poetry. There is something rewarding about using the oldest genre of litertature with the newest forms of text.

I also think poetry, as a potter’s wheel of the soul, is a great place to shape ideas about design effecting meaning making. Each word, phrase, stanza, image, or metaphor continuously redesign meaning as a new audience stumbles upon the poem.   The rich words and guttural reaction to poetry allow for a conversations around topics such us color scheme, image placement, font, etc.

Finally I have too often seen poetry taught so poorly that generations of new writers may have never discovered their poems from within. We do not let students work with one poem over time, or to play with meanings. Instead the focus in on literary elements, i.e. find me a one poem with a metaphor, one poem with alliteration, etc.

The humanity is lost in the hunt for the mechanics

Celebrating Poet Laureates

It was decided then that at each year at NCTE we would submit a proposal to celebrate the work of a Unites State Poet Laureate through multimodal poetry so we could get away from what Billy Collins (our first featured poet) called teaching children, “To beat the meaning out a poem with a hose.”

In 2009 we highlighted Billy Collins by exploring new ways to respond and author poetry with images.

In 2010 we featured Kay Ryan and went through #Twitpoems and multimodal retellings with iMovie.

This year, in Chicago, we brought in the works of W. S. Merwin and connected to using poetry to make the world a better place. That is our definition of critical literacy-words in action to change or question the status quo for the greater good.

W. S. Merwin and Poetry for Change
W. S. Merwin is also an interesting choice as he has developed a natural suspicion to many things digital. We wanted to show that there is just as much poetry in the design choices students make as in the words they add or leave off the page.

Basically we read some Merwin poems as mentor texts. Next we took ideas from Probst and concentrated on converting prose to poetry. Students had to choose a social justice issue. Then we took he project into two separate directions.

One group of students completed an internet inquiry topic around their issue. They wrote a collaborative paragraph. Next they highlighted important words or phrases in the paragrpah and used those a basis for a poem. Students then, using Audacity and iMovie, created a multimodal version of their poem.

Another group of students went out into their world to find a social issue. They collected cell phone pictures to document the problem. They then searched for similar images online. Using search engines they connected back to the websites that hosted the images and “found” texts they wanted to use in their poems. They then used iMovie or MovieMaker Live to create the poem.

Moving Forward

Poetry has been a great avenue to explore multimodal design elements. We hope to continue our work at NCTE next year, or by simply sharing our work with other teachers.