Friday, February 25, 2011

"I am ewnec"

The poetry version of last week's first-grade effort to grasp character traits...

On the outside, you can see my physical traits:
"I have tanish-pinkish sgin."
"I have krly eyelashs."
"my body is tall"
"my hair is shtrayt"
My words and actions show my character traits on the inside:
"I am a little shiy."
"I am prsistent."
"I take care of my frands"
"I have lost of ideas"
"I am ewnec. there is only one me in the wrld."

And an open letter to colleagues:

As we survey our reading asessment results and think about how best to meet the needs of children in our classes, I want to raise a few points that I think sometimes get insufficient attention in our “data-driven instructional model."

The students we work with are 5, 6 and 7 years old. They are all, to a greater or lesser degree, egocentric, and they live in the here and now of their daily experience. They come to us as children first, and no matter what their academic ability they share the fundamental needs we all have: the need for security and comfort, the need to be known (and yes, loved). That’s partly why we have chosen this job, because we’re good at making little children feel at home in our classrooms--their home away from home.

Our students come to us second as individual learners. Each one has his or her strengths and weaknesses, and part of being a good learner is growing into a sense of where you have the power to help others along and where you might need to ask for help. We create heterogeneous classes because that’s what the world is like, and part of a good education is learning to be an effective participant in a diverse community. (In fact, I believe that’s the whole point of public education in a democracy, which is why, even as a reading teacher, I tend to start my planning with the social studies curriculum in mind).

Third on the list, our students come to us as readers--and now they all have a nice fresh label attached. In my first grade class, for example, I have two boys who are alike in many ways—mischievous, not as intrinsically motivated to “do school” as we might wish, and within 6 months of each other in age (which is quite a lot, really, when you’re only 72 months old). They have both moved from Level 5 to Level 8 since the beginning of the year, but I will not be putting them in the same guided reading group, because they are very different learners.

One is wired to decode pretty well, but he has a hard time focusing on the ideas behind the words, and in general his problem-solving skills are not strong. He needs a lot of support in reading for meaning, and a slower pace will also be a benefit as he struggles with some unfortunate family circumstances. I’ll put him with the Level 5/6/7’s because there he can have a chance to shine a little and the comprehension demands will be manageable.

The other boy is much more attentive to life generally, more observant, has shown himself ready and willing to rise to a challenge as long as it wasn’t actual reading. However, he’s been very conscious of his struggles in comparison with classmates, and now that he’s making some noticeable progress, this is the moment to put him with a snappier group of thinkers, to capitalize on his competitive tendency and to maximize his growing investment in becoming a reader. I’ll be putting him with the 10/11/12’s--for now.

And then there are the books. We know that all Level 8 books are not equal, and just because both boys read the Level 8 fiction selection successfully doesn’t mean they’ll do as well with every other book labeled 8. So it’s part of my job to choose books that will be “just right” for each of these boys labeled Level 8, and those “just right” books may be Level 6’s or Level 10’s or not leveled at all. They may be books that speak to each boy where he is right now, like Goggles! by Ezra Jack Keats, which they both love because of the way Peter and Archie put one over on the big boys. This book is challenging for each boy in different ways, but they are both persevering in reading it because it’s meaningful and because it has become part of our classroom culture.

By now you may have guessed what point I'm getting at. Because our students are children first, who need to feel at home in the culture of a classroom (a culture that we work hard to build), individual learners second, and labeled, leveled readers last, I want to advocate against moving Kindergarten and 1st grade children around at this point in the year.

I feel strongly that any instructional gains we may earn by moving a child into a group with other Level X’s are likely to be cancelled out by the emotional upheaval of moving that child out of one classroom culture (that culture that we so carefully build in community with our students) and into another.

Of course, there are always reasons to make considered exceptions, but I think we mistakenly give up some of our professional power if we allow the handheld assessment device to determine a child’s daily experience of school. I believe in the usefulness of data, and I believe that teachers and children are more than interchangeable pegs in a big pegboard. Grouping by reading level tends to turn us all into pegs.

With respect for all you do in the classroom,

Friday, February 18, 2011


There has been a lot of discussion recently about, to put it dramatically, the death of the poetry anthology and the difficulty of getting our themed and "random" collections of poetry published and recognized. As I read to my kids this week in school--more Ezra Jack Keats for 1st graders (full of poetic moments) and Rosemary Wells for the kindergarteners--it occurs to me that we may be neglecting another approach to getting our best work into the hands of young readers--the "picture poem book."

Wells's Noisy Nora is a grand example of a rhymed picture book text that could easily stand alone, even without her characteristic, finely detailed illustrations, as one poem in a collection like Sing a Song of Popcorn. If we begin to imagine all the picture book texts that could "cross over" into the realm of anthologized poems, it becomes easier to imagine the poems that might cross over in the other direction, into the realm of stand-alone picture books.

There are plenty of out there--one of my favorites is e.e. cummings "little tree" rendered beautifully book-length by Deborah Kogan Ray (and adapted into an actual story, possibly unnecessarily, by Chris Raschka). Several have mentioned the Delmore Schwartz-Barbara Cooney work pictured here, I Am Cherry Alive--enjoy Kate Coombs's reflections on it here. And a kind Booklist reviewer of my own Squeeze suggested that "The best poem, “How to Run Away,” could be a picture book in itself." What a compliment!

Of course, not all good or even excellent poems will stand up to a picture poem book treatment--and if we have exerted ourselves to percolate ideas and write poems from a "collection" point of view, it's likely that most of the poems written from that stance huddle too close to their flockmates to be comfortable out on their own.

I'm going to spend some time reflecting on what qualities make a poem picture-bookable and try to articulate them. I'm also going to be thinking which of my poems offer enough possibility for an illustrator, enough richness to warrant whole books to themselves. And then I'll start thinking again about the agent who might shop them for me!

Which of your poems are "bookable?"

Friday, February 11, 2011

the mystery of zingerline

Recently on NPR's Science Friday there was a piece on how our many online social media opportunities raise a question about the multiple identities we all inhabit and how we present ourselves to the world. I think I'm what you might call a "casual user" of this technology, but even I am splintered across this blog and my static website, two accounts on facebook, LinkedIn and twitter (as yet unused), three email addresses (personal,"writer" and teacher), about a dozen listservs (three different usernames) and a charter school identity. And who knows how many sites (Evite, Groupon, to name a few) think they know who I am and what kind of cookies I like?

But long ago--ten whole years and then some--before any of this, when most of us were pretty cutting-edge in having any email address at all, I considered redefining my poet self by writing under a pen name instead of under the same old scary-looking, mispronounceable Mordhorst (which, by the way, is spelled just the way it sounds and pronounced just the way it's spelled, so please don't say MordhUrst). I came back to poetry almost the minute my daughter was born (talk about identity crisis: "You are now Mommy"), and while taking workshops at the wonderful Writers' Center here in Bethesda, I started signing my drafts "Heidi Zingerline."

The new surname choice was totally legit and even served a historical purpose, I thought. My mother's maiden name is Zingerline and with only one set of cousins on her side of the family, both girls, the name is in danger of disappearing from use. Plus, how perfect is that for a poet--zinger-line? Get it?

Then I realized that there was no way to communicate all that information in a byline, and that anyone who didn't know that Zingerline was a real name, mine to use by rights, might see it as a cheesy joke. I briefly considered "Heidi Zingerline Mordhorst," but it's not like "Heidi Mordhorst" needs any further distinguishing feature--maybe, if I had been Lisa Smith my whole life, Lisa Zingerline Smith might have made some sense.

But what really changed my mind was a poem written by a fellow workshopper and instant friend from the Writers' Center. He arrived at a critique group meeting one week in 2000 with this to share, and now the only vestige of my flirtation with Zingerline is in my writer email address, Thank you, Lawrence, for your faith in Mordhorst.

Nom de plume
For "Heidi Zingerline," newly named

A commanding sound -- so majestic!
It could be a painting
by Vermeer: View of

Or a short
story, no? One of Edgar Allan Poe's
more fearsome inventions --
"The Fall of the House of

Or a series
for Masterpiece Theatre -- imagine
Alastair Cooke: "Welcome
to tonight's episode of

I'm sorry I misspelled your name. Please
don't take another just because
my fingers can't type

digits. They pay no attention, and
sometimes the eyes don't either.
But the ears delight in

~Lawrence Biemiller
October, 2000 ~ all rights reserved

The round-up today is with my new acquaintance Carol Rasco, the CEO of RIF. Does my awe at the fact that the CEO of anything big would hang out at Poetry Friday reveal a streak of cynicism, or have I just suffered bad timing?