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This week’s poembound workshop met at a different day and time, because the principal called and told me she didn’t think there’d be many kids at school on Friday, the day before spring break, and the day after graduation exams. Besides the low projected attendance, Friday is a planned service day for students to work towards the community service requirement for graduation.

Because of the various delays we’ve had, I combined both imagery workshops from the first series – figurative and literal – into one week’s session. I got there early to be sure I had plenty of time to get the handouts copied and to get set up, with my papers, books, and easel ready to go. Five minutes before we were to begin, there were only 4 kids in the room. I wandered the halls trying to round up the rest; it turned out only 8 attended altogether, of the 15 who came to the first session last week.

As I waited to begin, I chatted about testing with the students who had come in. I was honest and frank about what I think of standardized tests – useless, beneficial only to administrators, test publishers, and education bureaucrats, and completely non-representative of the actual value of a person’s true education, knowledge, or skills. They agreed but seemed amazed that an adult, and one who was there in the role of “teacher,” would openly espouse such heretical views about tests they’ve been told are for their own good. I said it seemed better to be open about my views so they knew where I was coming from. I hope my candid attitude will also foster openness in the workshop.

One girl asked why my kids were there – I realized later that I didn’t introduce them last week because they were both getting over being sick and were home with S. I explained we homeschool, and she said she had homeschooled too, but that when she came back to school (for reasons she didn’t explain), the attendance forms her family filed were lost, so she didn’t get credit for the two years she homeschooled.

A family files the forms required by law, but because the school loses the records, the kid gets a raw deal, and is made to believe her learning was not valid – that’s fair? Schools routinely “lose” homeschoolers’ attendance records in Georgia; people post to email lists every year about trying to get a teen’s drivers’ license and discovering the school didn’t keep any of the records they’d filed. But the burden of proof falls to the homeschool family, not the schools. Two years of a child’s life, and she’s told they “don’t count.” Her view was that homeschooling had been bad for her, because it set her back – she didn’t see that it was the school’s dismissive attitude of her family’s choice, not the homeschooling, which hurt her.

I can’t even begin to say how wrong that is, and how unacceptable I think it is for schools to act with such hostility and suspicion towards homeschooling. Thankfully that’s not the case everywhere, and I don’t know the entire story with this girl’s circumstances. The principal I work with has told me she admires what I am doing for my children – which is kind of her, but still illustrates that she probably has very little idea of what we do, because they do as much or more for themselves as I do, educationally speaking. I’ll grant that we make sacrifices as a family in order for me to be physically home with them all day, but they are primarily responsible for their own learning and I am just a companion on the journey. At least she is not telling them or me that we’re wasting our time. She has enough confidence that her school is helping her students, I guess, that I don’t seem like a threat. And, she is just a genuinely nice person.

But we are a threat, as a group – homeschoolers routinely do as well or better (and around here, almost any alternative is consistently better than the average public school classroom – even my local teacher friends agree with that) than schooled kids when measured by society’s standards, even those of us who don’t care to apply those “one size fits all” standards in our home education life. We autonomous learners don’t have the credentials that the education industry would like society at large to believe are necessary for “quality,” “standards-based” education, and that’s scary to some professional educators – how can we do so well without them?

I am thankful every time I set foot in the school, and so are my kids, that we can learn in freedom. My kids are two of the most fascinating people I know, with varied interests, and a wide perspective on the world. Their viewpoints and knowledge aren’t packaged by some educrat – they see the world as full of possibilities and they know they can learn whatever they want. Adults, to them, are people who can help them get the knowledge they seek, or interesting friends, or fellow volunteers, not authorities who can deny their requests, who label them, or who judge them for not measuring up in some way.

I witness that dynamic at the alternative high school every week – there is always some student in a fervent conversation with a staff member over something the student is perceived to have done or not done. One of the reasons we unschool is that I admired a family I met when my children were very young for their lack of that very struggle between adults and adolescents – they had no “us vs. them” feelings, it was we are all learning together, working on our goals, supporting each other.

The students I’ve met so far have little confidence in their own knowledge or abilities, and many of them have been told by some adult in their lives that this is their last chance, or that they’d better listen and wise up. You may recall that one boy last week wrote: “success is such a stress.” Success? Getting a diploma, when you have almost no practical knowledge of life in the real world, little idea of what to do on your own or even what you like to do or how to go about pursuing your dreams (if they haven’t all shriveled up like a raisin in the sun . . . more on that in a bit), and you’ve been labeled as a difficult student, a discipline problem, or in this case, an emotionally disabled person – no wonder he’s stressed.

Many people tell me that they feel homeschooled kids aren’t in the “real world.” This is so ridiculous I can barely fathom it – my kids are with me as I go about living, shopping, banking, making decisions, comparing choices, working, taking care of my needs and theirs, acting as a productive, responsible member of my community, as well as learning in real situations. When we travel somewhere, we learn about it right then and there; when we want to do something like have the car repaired or plant a garden, we do the research we need to do to make good choices; so what they learn is not a bunch of disembodied facts, it’s practical stuff they need or want to know. They also know a greater variety of people – people of all ages, from all kinds of backgrounds, who do all kinds of work. Which is the real world: the place where students are labeled, sorted, ruled by bells and standardized, segmented facts pieced out and then regurgitated back on high stakes tests, or the actual living, breathing world of human beings going about living and working and learning?

I wanted to tell the students all of this, but it’s tough to tell people who are trapped in a system they have been made to believe is their only hope for a productive future that it lies to them to serve itself, so I danced around the edges, and tried to be both honest and gentle. I focused on the fact that tests shouldn’t make or break a person, which is a safe thing to talk about because many teachers are also exasperated by standardized testing and the way it stifles their teaching things of substance so that the focus can be on raising test scores, which satisfies administrators and government officials who hold the purse strings. And I told the former homeschooler I was sorry the school had made it hard for her. So, with my views on standardized testing aired, my thoughts on education eluded to, and the students intrigued by this strange adult who felt comfortable discussing how wrong it seemed to her to judge people’s lives and work in such a way, the rest of the group trickled in and we began.

I followed the same plan for the workshops as the earlier posts called “Workshops, week 2 : figurative language:”

https://poembound.wordpress.com/2007/01/19/plc-poetry-workshops-week-2/

and “Workshops, week 3: imagery:”

https://poembound.wordpress.com/2007/01/26/plc-workshops-week-three/

– you can see those blog entries for quotes from The Discovery of Poetry and Poemcrazy, and links to the poems I shared with students. I read some poems aloud, and spent time talking to the students about looking at the world through poetic eyes – using a viewfinder or their two hands to frame a view and then writing about the images they spot, listening to conversations for figurative language, thinking about the way we naturally compare things, defining things in terms of what we already know.

One poem I read was “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=175884

We talked about how powerful it is to imagine a deferred dream festering, shriveling, exploding – and the conversation came back to school again. I said that Hughes often wrote about getting through the hoops we all have to jump through in life, the systems we have to deal with, without losing the dreams and hopes we all have. I asked if that didn’t seem familiar – school is a system you have to get through in order to reach your dream of whatever it is you really want to do in life. A few heads nodded.

One of the girls who came in after our earlier conversation on testing asked about my kids. I explained again that they don’t go to school. The group asked more questions about this and I told them that I don’t ever want my children to think of learning as something that happens during certain hours in a particular building according to some plan that someone who will never even know them as individual human beings has devised in order to accommodate the system that imparts the curriculum, not the consumers of that curriculum; rather, I hope they see that life and learning are one and the same. I said that school tells you what to learn and when to learn it, and usually also how, and that our philosophy was to learn in ways that made sense to the kids and explore what they are interested in. The whole idea seemed to amaze the group. Some of them seemed horrified that we don’t stop for the summer, others seemed amazed that I could say that the order of learning things imposed by school isn’t a part of our lives.

After that aside, we got into the practical portion of the workshop. I asked them to take some “tell” examples I had written on the easel paper and write “show” versions – we’d explored some examples of showing the reader strong images rather than just telling what you see, and now I asked them to try it. It was hard to get them to call out ideas – as I said last week, this group is more reticent than my first workshop group. Possibly, they were still unsure of what to make of me.

After an awkward silence, I did the first example myself, to get them started. That seemed to help – again I realized that many of these kids have never been asked to think for themselves or expected to “get” an idea the first time, without being walked through things, held by the hand, led through the work. More than one of the students today asked me “is this right?” I told them there is no right or wrong in my workshop – more on that in a moment – but this seemed unbelievable to them.

Here are two ways to “show” that they came up with, after my example:

tell: A woman crossed the street.
show: Her pumps trampled across the road – click, clack, shuffle – as a driver honked.

tell: It was raining.
show: There was a drip drop sound on the roof.

Next I passed out a pile of photos from old issues of National Geographic. I asked them to look at a photo, write, “I see” in their journals and describe the image literally, to make their words become “the thing itself, created by my soul a second time,” in the words of Juan Ramón Jiménez (The Discovery of Poetry, p. 72). Then, I asked them to write “it looks like” and then describe the same photo, this time using figurative language. I only gave them a few minutes to finish, explaining I wanted their language to be spontaneous and fresh.

Finally, I asked them to use one of the two image worksheets in their handout packets, one from Discovery of Poetry and one from The Practice of Poetry. We were running out of time, so I suggested they just generate one or two images using the prompts, and then try to write a short poem using either their National Geographic image or the worksheet images.

Despite the brief time remaining before they had to, as my friend L., a teacher here, told them, “get back to the grind,” several of the students asked me to read their work, and I was universally impressed by the way they applied themselves seriously to their work. The giggling and whispering faded away and everyone wrote. Several of them wrote about the magazine photos. One boy wrote from Frances Mayes’ prompt: “Days pass like . . .” (The Discovery of Poetry, p. 96), and his poem was about everyday frustrations.

This young man is an athlete and identifies himself that way, frequently jokes around, and he’d written a really lovely, sensitive poem. He knew it was well done, too, because he sort of pumped his fist when he finished, and asked me to come over and read it. He used a very natural and effective form, beginning and ending with the same line, and I pointed out how beautifully he’d given the piece a cyclical resonance with that technique. He looked baffled, with an expression that said, “I did all that?”

Only two teens read work aloud. Here are those two, which I copied down:

I see a face.
It looks like Buddha, it says doom.
Brown, frantic big eyes, sharp teeth, spaced eyebrows.
King of the jungle, wild thornberries.

There is a section in the front of National Geographic called “Visions of Earth,” and this phrase is printed on a page I’d brought in with an aerial photo of a North African sand storm, which prompted one student to write:

Visions of Earth

I see the universe expanding, people migrating,
I see nations progressing. I
see races communicating and trusting
each other’s faith.
I see religion converting,
people dancing to rhythms.

After the first girl read her face poem, the second said, “I did this wrong.” I assured her there was no wrong way to do things in the poembound workshops, and encouraged her to share what she’d written about “visions of earth,” so I could reassure her that it wasn’t “wrong.” After she read, the girl next to her said, “there’s nothing but dirt in this photo, you didn’t see that stuff.”

I jumped in and argued that on the contrary, she had used a poet’s eye to really see, beyond the literal image. She’d had a visit from what Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge calls “the image angel,”(Poemcrazy p.149-153) a connection between the concrete world around us and the imagination. Not anywhere near “wrong” – I told the group I’d like to live in the world she saw in that image. Her poem is one of hope, and her view of the world being interconnected was perfect for the storm photo, because the caption explained that southern Europe was covered in the dust of the African storm. We are interconnected, and her poem touched that truth.

Here’s another poem from today’s workshop:

The river flows like the
voice of a sweet child. The
wind is roaring like a lion in a
jungle. Moments of silence
after a long, noisy day that
anyone, anything, would sleep
all day. But when the day is
over, all is back the same.

Several students wanted my feedback and showed me poems they wrote, or images they were working on. Here’s an image from a magazine photo by another of the boys in the group:

The island stretches out from
a coast like a rubber band,
you pop it, it comes back.

He said the photo made him think of how a person would be drawn back to the island again and again.

Because the group had been pretty reserved with me to that point, I was relieved and pleased to see how they dove into the imagery exercises, and also sought my feedback. They really thought about what they were seeing and tried to see things in new ways. I thanked them for tapping into their creative energy after the mind sapping tests in the morning and the crunch they are all in before spring break, with the school year winding down. School lets out here in mid-May, and the principal and other staff have alluded several times to the last minute rush of trying to ensure everyone has the credits they need in these final few weeks. I asked the group to try to notice images and figurative language and capture it in their journals in the next two weeks, and suggested they might even try journaling their dreams when they wake up.

Last week I wasn’t sure I was reaching them, but today they began to open up to what’s possible in their own writing, and it felt like we really were poembound. I sincerely wish spring break wasn’t about to disrupt our workshops, but when we come back together in two weeks, we’ll be talking about the sound of poetry.

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