November 21, 2014

A Teacher’s Thanksgiving: The deepening basket

Filed under: about me,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:05 am

For teachers, there is no holiday better positioned during the school year than Thanksgiving. We spend precious summer days flexing and pressing in mental cross-fit training for the coming year. Then the real fitness test begins. With ferocious intellectual muscle, organizational stamina, and some fast-twitch adjustments, we sprint head-down into the first months of the year. By Thanksgiving, we know our students well, are well along the route of the year-long marathon, and have found a good pace. For many of us, Thanksgiving day is the first day off since the first day of school. We give thanks– MANY thanks!


After so many Thanksgivings as a teacher, my basket of things for which I am thankful has grown and deepened. I share a few in honor of all my colleagues who are too tired to talk this Thanksgiving, much less write.

I give thanks…

  • For my best bosses, principals, and department supervisors who never said, “No.” Instead, they asked “Why?” or “How?” — the two most important things I should think about as a teacher.
  • For my top desk drawer,  filled with reminders of student success and my own growth as a teacher: the sticky notes saved, a “special” pencil a student gave me, light bulb note paper, pens and ID lanyards from conferences,  leftover invitations to classroom events, teacher gifts, sticker sheets with one remaining smily face, and goofy trinkets I took away from a funny student I actually loved but had to discipline. I really should Google that kid to see where he is now…
  • For the teachers who always came to lunch with something positive to talk about.
  • For turning off my computer and iPad — and muting my phone. I still like face to face talk best. Especially the laughing part.
  • For the gym teacher who shared lunch duty with me every day– and helped me break up the fights every day. We were like a two person theatre act. I am even more grateful that duty lasted only one semester.
  • For early dismissals (for snow). Yes, they forced me to completely re-plan lessons, but we are all still kids when it snows– at least the first snow each season. I am less grateful for the drives home in that snow.
  • For a mother and father who were both teachers — and a grandfather as well. I would not Think Like a Teacher if it were not for them. My brother says it is in our genes.
  • For a scary prof/advisor who made me teach a college Shakespeare class (90 minutes!) about a play he had acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company. After that, no lesson or audience seemed intimidating again.
  • For a family that tolerates living with a teacher. They do ask me to turn it off, though, “Does everything have to be a teachable moment?!”
  • For watching a niece share about becoming a teacher on Facebook. Her enthusiasm vibrates.
  • For people who don’t make fun of my license plate, TCHR2GO.
  • For Google. So every wonder can be followed by discovery and critical decisions about whom to believe.
  • For writing a blog. So many reasons.

Happy Thanksgiving to all teachers. Enjoy the rest, and add an extra dollop of whipped cream to your pie. You made it through to Thanksgiving!

Photo Credit: faith goble via Compfight cc

October 3, 2014

I am not a “real teacher.”

Filed under: about me,education,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:03 am

I am not a “real teacher.” At least that is the reaction I have heard for decades when telling people the specifics of my teaching assignment. Over the years, I have been:

  • teacher in a middle school library/media center (teaching language arts and cultural arts minicourses on media production, research, and more)
  • push-in teacher of process writing (co teaching with middle school language arts teachers)
  • gifted program specialist, grades 2-8 (implementing individualized enrichment and advancement per IEPs for which I was case manager)
  • technology integrator (peer coach to teachers on effective use of technology in their teaching)
  • Adjunct grad instructor (teaching Technology for Educators to teachers and teachers-to-be)
  • Director of K-12 Initiatives (running TeachersFirst, an online friend and “coach” to any teacher seeking ways to improve their own teaching and enhance/facilitate learning using technology)

What I have never been:

  • a teacher of a self-contained, elementary class
  • a teacher of a narrowly defined or scripted curriculum
  • a teacher with a textbook or teacher edition

In the world of teaching, there are “real teachers” (aka “regular” teachers) and “specialists.”  “”Real” teachers’ days follow predictable patterns and behaviors (the ones most adults ascribe to teachers based on our own experience in school). Then there are teachers whose patterns are less easy to explain or envision. Unless you have shared the same role, you have no idea what a teacher-librarian, Art teacher, school counselor, learning support teacher, speech/language clinician, reading specialist, instructional coach, or ed tech coach actually DOES. Those of us who are not “real teachers” do not use a specific textbook — or teacher edition. Our patterns, while possibly predictable, are not like those of “real teachers.” We are the ones who are assigned extra bus/hall duty (and the worst Friday afternoon study halls) or who are told to fill in when a “real” teacher is sick and there is no sub. We are the ones that “real teachers” do not fully understand. On the worst days, “real” teachers may even covet our mysterious positions.

As education grinds toward the divergent goals of 21st century individualization and test-based accountability, those who are not “real” teachers may be best prepared to handle the push-pull of change. All teachers today are pushed beyond previous patterns. Those of us accustomed to inventing our own wheels may have a slight advantage. “Real” teaching has changed. Now is the time for us to share ideas and strategies to invent our own teaching wheels. Those who embrace technology have some helpful tools. Those who embrace collaboration, questioning, reflection, and mutual support have even more. Let’s make teaching and learning “real” together. Thinking Teachers Teaching Thinkers are much more important than “real” teachers.

September 26, 2014

Language Limits: Captioning the pictures of learning

Filed under: about me,learning,myscilife,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 8:53 am

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 11.30.22 AMHow do you explain what you know and do every day as a teacher? Would anyone other than another teacher understand you?

I gave a tour of MySciLife to some non-educators this week. After decades as an educator, it is hard to explain anything about teaching or learning without slipping into the language I use among teachers. I use terms like differentiate, ESL/ELL, prompt, scaffold, and digital citizenship. Like most teachers, I do not even realize when my audience is thinking:


Differentiate… means to delineate the differences between two things. What is she telling the differences between?

ESL… or did she say easel? Is this for Art?

prompt… what does this have to do with being on time?

scaffold… are they painting her classroom?

digital citizenship … is that something about online voting?

When I use an education-specific term in a parent conference,  I make sure to circle back and define it in context. I do the same with unfamiliar terms I use with students:

Today you are going to work in small groups on an issue related to digital citizenship. When we talk about citizenship in social studies class, we are talking about the way we read, listen, and evaluate what our government does. We especially focus on how citizens participate in that government. Learning to do this responsibly is what makes us good citizens. So talking about digital citizenship…

This is easy when I am in teacher mode with kids. Sharing the intricacies of teaching and learning, especially  a form of learning unfamiliar to most adults over 30, however, is a real challenge. There is such richness in student-centered, social-media based learning that giving an introduction to MySciLife requires circling back over and over — risking listener dizziness.  The intelligent adults who are listening would never expect me to understand the intricacies of what they do every day in their professional roles. But any adult touring MySciLife carries along their own school experience. It is hard for them to understand MySciLife without comparing/contrasting with that experience.

Teacher to teacher, I would say that MySciLife is:

  • a safe, online learning space where your students can learn local science curriculum through student-driven learning and interaction with peers across the U.S.
  • a social learning community where students take on and maintain a role of a science identity, such as Mighty Mitochondria or Gregarious Gravity (they choose the name but concepts are determined by curriculum)
  • student-centered, meeting today’s digital learners in a familiar digital space while respecting and directing their use of the digital tools they know so well for productive purposes in social-media based science learning (now that is a mouthful!)
  • a learning community designed in accordance with specifications and experiences of our teacher-ambassadors throughout over 2 years of research pilot
  • designed to offer scaffolding and opportunities for differentiation for ESL/ELL, gifted, and learning support students
  • well-suited to the needs, strengths, and interests of emerging adolescents
  • a whole new experience in teaching… that gets easier and better with each unit
  • engaging to ALL students, promoting participation and interaction among peers. No passive learners here!
  • aligned to best practices in process writing (drafting, feedback, response, publishing, response…) and centered on experiences with digital writing and informational texts a la Common Core
  • infused with models of good digital citizenship
  • creative, open-ended, and focused on deeper learning
  • in short… amazing. It changes your whole view of what science learning can be.

I can talk to teachers about MySciLife for hours. I have not, however,  perfected an introduction to MySciLife that connects with non-teaching adults’ prior knowledge of school, redefining what it means to teach and learn using safe social media. I can give them a gallery of mental pictures, but captions for those pictures rely on my educator-specific language. I ‘ll keep working on ways to make the captions circle back.

September 12, 2014

5 phases of technology loss

Filed under: edtech,edtech coaching,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:04 am

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 3.43.14 PMOne of the most frustrating times for any teacher is when the technology breaks down just as you finally got your students prepped and ready to accomplish a task. You were finally able to sign out the laptop cart or ipad cluster. You finally had the kids ready to roll, and  –boom– the site went down, the Internet crashed, the batteries died, or your chosen tool changed to pay-for service in the last 48 hours!

Then we go through five phases of technology loss:

1. Chaos: The time between the first student calling out, “It doesn’t work!” or “File not found!” or “I’m getting a spinny wheel!” or “It’s asking me for my credit card!” and when we regain enough class attention to ask what happened — and hear only one answer at a time.

2. Realization: The moment when we realize that this is not a temporary glitch or human error. The task at hand is dead, gone, notgunnahappentoday.

3. Improv: What we do/say to maintain some sort of facade of meaningful activity, usually getting out a book or handout. We may have enough improv experience and lesson plan recall to come up with a think-pair-share on the fly, “Talk to your neighbor and generate a list of the most important ideas you were going to include in your (fill in the name of the project here).”

4. Venting: What we do in the teachers’ room over lunch as we retell the nightmare story and vow never to try that activity again— at least not until we can get the laptops for another day.

5. Shuffling: What we do in our lesson plans to try to jam the activity in again before it becomes meaningless.

In a dream world, we could simply flipflop tomorrow’s plan with today’s at phase 3 (with no loss of time to phases 1 and 2), sign up for the laptops/ipads for tomorrow, and do the activity then. We would find an alternative for the no-longer-free tool (check on TeachersFirst!), rewrite any directions accordingly, and miraculously accomplish both tomorrow’s and today’s objectives (HA!).

But wait. There are school pictures during this period tomorrow. Start over at phase 4.

The one phase we never reach is Payback Time. This is the phase of technology loss where we somehow regain the time that has disappeared.

As an edtech coach, Payback Time is the one goodie I wish I could give out. I do my darnedest to ease the pain, but I cannot add minutes back into your class time after the day goes awry. The best I can do is to show you ways to steal a few minutes here and there over the next week  by leveraging tools well and letting the kids solve some of the problems themselves.  But I know that time will never add up to what was lost. Maybe some chocolate will help?


August 15, 2014

Ain’t Misbehavin': What teachers really do during inservice

Filed under: about me,musing,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:10 am

doodleI recently ran across both a post and an article that made me think about how teachers act during inservice sessions. I have decided that in many cases, what you see us doing ain’t misbehavin’ even though it often looks like it.  Mark Anderson’s ICTEvangelist  blog shares a guest post from Rachel Jones on the 10 Things all teachers do – even though they might not admit it. I enjoyed reading the UK equivalents of education jargon [see translations in brackets] and laughed out loud knowingly at item 4:


4 – All teachers – all of them – exhibit signs of what would be called behaviour management issues in very long INSET [translation for US teachers] days. I have seen some teachers looking very official taking ‘notes’ with their iPads when in fact they were tinkering on Pinterest or playing Minecraft. I like the irony that you can see everyone from PGCE  [translation for US teachers] students to SLT [speech and language therapists?] exhibiting signs that some would find ‘inadequate’ yet as professionals they are listening. Teachers can multitask. Fact.

Yup. Been there, done that. Until fairly recently, I was one of those “exhibiting signs that some would find ‘inadequate.'” Usually I was guilty of doing meaningful team planning with colleagues from other buildings while listening with one ear to the latest and greatest in behavior management plans or some other paperwork wonder. Did I master the paperwork? Sure. Was I misbehaving? Yes. Did I accomplish two tasks in one inservice session? You betcha. Even worse, I doodled.

Enter the best article I have read about thinking, focus, and memory in a long time. When I look at the notebooks I have from grad school, the notes I have from VERY meaningful and useful collaboration meetings, or even phone calls with my boss (whom I respect and love working for), I see doodles. One of the things I miss when I use Evernote is doodling in the margins (maybe they’d consider that for an upcoming version?). Doodling IS thinking, sorting, and connecting thoughts. It ain’t misbehavin’ ! The Wall Street Journal says so! Research says so!

Maybe we should have an inservice on Doodling. It’s a thought.


July 17, 2014

Do you think better barefoot?

Filed under: about me,creativity,deep thoughts,iste14,musing,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:30 am

There is a moment during July when the teaching idea valve reopens. To me it seems to be barefeettriggered by something totally innocent: the feel of cool tile on bare feet, the rush beneath the surface of the water as I push off the pool wall, the sound of a favorite song playing as I sing along in a convertible, the lightning bugs after the fireworks end. At first the valve seems a bit creaky, crying out for WD40 on the brain, but soon enough it lets ideas flow freely again.

As the school year drew to a close, the valve had pretty much seized up. Stuck. I was stuck. Even eight years after leaving the annual school year cycle and moving to a year-round, continuous job, my brain still thinks like a teacher. I talk and “live” among teachers every day, and I need the annual renewal of July. It isn’t so much taking a “vacation.” It is allowing myself to go barefoot in my brain. It is letting myself play with ideas instead of packaging them.

No amount of effort I make can force that moment to come. A fabulous experience like the ISTE conference is so manic it overwhelms. I have learned to “save up” everything I gather at ISTE like pretty shells from the beach. I know I must wait to sort them all out and organize them later… and THEN decide what to DO with them.

I note the feel of cool tile under my bare feet as I write this, and I wonder whether we ever give students a chance to notice what makes their ideas flow. Sadly, many of us don’t figure it out until we are decades beyond school age. I wonder what would happen if each if us spent just one class  period per year talking with our kids about things like the Creative Routines of accomplished writers, artists, and thinkers. What if we asked them to pay attention to what makes their ideas flow… and to ask questions like, “Do I think better barefoot?”



June 27, 2014

Beyond the sinkhole: Score the next web tools

Filed under: edtech,edtech coaching,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 8:55 am

Web tools/apps that disappear unexpectedly can be a real challenge. Choosing their replacements can be a way to turn your frustration into something positive. Having done this scores of times, here is my advice for finding the best NEW, FREE, sink-proof replacements and grading them on a 100 point scale:scorecard

Look for FREE tools that are truly free, not free trials or free for exactly ONE project. Add 25 points for tools that allow at least 25 (or a class set) of truly FREE projects. For each additional class set, add 5 bonus points. If you are a secondary teacher with 150-200 students who are allowed to create their own accounts, award 25 points if students can create at least 10 projects per individual account.

Look for longevity. If the tool has been around without changing its terms for at least a year, it might last long enough for your kids to get several projects out of it. Allow up to 20 points for longevity.

Look for ways to keep offline copies. If the tool allows you to share via url and embed code, that’s great for allowing others to se it and for making kids care about the quality of their work because others will SEE it. If it also allows you to download an offline copy, add twenty five bonus points for the ability to KEEP the things your kids create even if the tools drops down a sinkhole.

Look for ways to direct students ONLY to the “create” area without stopping by public galleries filled with inappropriate to offensive projects made by bored 16 year olds at 3 am. SUBTRACT up to 10 points for readily accessible and potentially inappropriate galleries. If you teach elementary,  subtract up to 20 points.

Look for education-only features such as quick registration for students WITHOUT email, options to moderate student work, options to keep student work behind a password. These will allow you to stay within restrictive school policies without tricky workarounds or permissions. Add up to 10 points for teacher-friendly options.

Look for silent, how-to videos that are less than 2 minutes long. If they can demonstrate the tool in less than two minutes with only a silent screencast, even your least savvy student can handle it. More importantly, even the least savvy TEACH can handle it! Up to 10 points for a rock solid video demo and easy-to-understand interface.

Look for membership free , quick start tools. If you teach students younger than age 13 or in a school that prohibits students from creating accounts, add 10 points for membership-free use. If you have older students or freer school policies, add 1-5 points.

Look for tools that require kids to do more than a quick copy/paste and announce “I’m done!” For instance, look for tools that require them to write their own words (e.g. Fakebook) or tools where they must annotate and curate anything they collect (Diigo). Even better are tools that have them build something new from scratch, such as comic creators where they must add their own images, text, etc. to a blank set of frames. Add up to 10 points for higher level, original thinking required.

Look for tools that will allow you to adapt for different levels of students. These tools allow you to make a starter template for your students who need a little more scaffolding and also allow you to set a higher bar or greater freedom and expansiveness for your most able student. This expansiveness can include collaboration features for your kids to work with small groups or collaborate with others OUTSIDE your school. Add up to 10 points for adaptability.

Look for tools that are just plain cool. If you have never seen anything quite like it, add up to 5 points. (Sorry, virtual flash card and quiz makers, but you automatically lose out on these points!)

If you really want this process to be fun and to teach your students to be good digital consumers. have your class create their own point system to rate new tools. You could start with this one and let them add/subtract, multiply, or divide! You MIGHT want to seed the process with tools from the TeachersFirst Edge.

Happy hunting… and watch out for those sinkholes.

June 20, 2014

Down the sinkhole: Disappearing web tools/apps

Filed under: edtech,edtech coaching,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:58 am

potholeFree web tools and apps are like sinkholes. They drop to oblivion without any warning. This week I lost one of the core tools I planned to share in my presentation at ISTE 2014 NEXT week! (At least they posted a warning that they were going to close down.) Another sinkhole, now on to the next available path.

More resistant or reluctant teachers sometimes hear stories like mine and use the precariousness of free, creative tools as an excuse to never learn any of them. I think we should use the sinkholes as opportunities to look deep and discover buried treasures.

For every web tool/app that dies, there are at least three new ones that may even have better features. And some tools, when they sense their foundations are slipping, are able to reinforce the ground around them so they will last. A select few, such as Wikispaces, Dropbox, and Evernote, seem to have selected better ground in the first place. Longevity makes them at least appear beyond the risk of sinking. But teachers are not likely to ever have a full complement of free, sink-proof tools. So we as teachers should take the moment when a tool sinks to peer into the depths of the hole — and to other ground — for new possibilities.

As we built the TeachersFirst Edge, beginning back in 2006, we included a way to categorize tools by what they can do. That’s pretty tough, since new tools always add new “types” of products they can create or combinations of features. Yes, Timemapper makes timelines, but it also creates associated maps. So we tag it into both timelines and geo/maps. We try to be there for teachers who don’t have a lot of time to replace the sunken favorite tool, ready with another option.

When the next tool dies on you, what will you do?

To take out your exasperation, feel free to collect the names of all the tools you have lost to sinkholes — kind of like carving a set of notches on your techie teacher toolbelt. It might make for some funny discussion or party games with your savvy peers: “Remember Springpad? It sprung a leak!” (That’s the one I lost this week!)

But the immediacy of teaching means you will need to shift your directions a bit and turn the kids loose to find an alternative. I don’t recommend telling students below about 10th grade to “go explore for a tool,” only because less mature kids will waste a lot of time playing and less being critical consumers of what they need. Better to give them a list of possible new tools you have had a few moments to peer into… long enough to know these tools don’t have a public gallery of examples filled with naked women, neo-Nazis, or profanities. Alternatively, you can grab a tool or two from the TeachersFirst Edge and have them “tech it out.” Ultimately, have your kids keep a running list of the tools they have found successful and even of possible substitutes if one goes the way of the sinkhole. A graffiti wall, either electronic or actual, would be great for this.

Next time: Some criteria to watch for as you peer beyond the sink hole.


April 25, 2014

Make ’em laugh, make ’em listen?

Filed under: Ok2Ask,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:09 am

Forty five years ago, some educators complained that the people at CTW were ruining children’s brains by entertaining kids as they learned. The advent of Sesame Street and soon after, Electric Company, made skeptics question whether media and fun ruined attention spans and forced classroom teachers to become entertainers simply to be able to “compete” for kids’ attention.

Any middle school teacher will tell you that the best way to grab kids attention is to make ’em laugh. That started long before Sesame Street. If you want them to remember a grammar or editing concept, give examples that are funny:

Misplaced modifier: Throw me up the stairs a pillow.

Comma error? Misplaced adverb(?): I devoured my lunch, a sandwich with my boyfriend inside.

We all struggle to get kids to listen and pay true attention. The Southwest Airline flight attendant video that recently went viral is the perfect illustration of using humor to grab attention. Make ’em laugh, and you make ’em listen — at least for a couple of minutes.

Televsision was “bad” (read “change”) enough back in the day. Today we worry about what the Internet is doing to our brains and our students’ brains. Want to spend time doing many things and accomplishing nothing? There’s an app for that! Want to laugh while “watching” sobering stories on the news? Multitask! Write clever or meaningful tweets. Watch what’s “trending.” Text or message somebody. Scrape for laughs on top of laughs by sharing YouTube videos that make fun of your friends’ antics. Comment wittily. Comment acerbically. Did you forget what you were watching or thinking about? Exactly.

I worry about what multitasking is doing to my teaching colleagues’ brains. At TeachersFirst we offer OK2Ask® free online professional development sessions. We started OK2Ask over five years ago, and our audience includes many “frequent fliers” who come back, contribute, and learn. We also have many newbies  in every session. We are now discovering an increasingly disturbing trend.  Where teachers three to five years ago were extremely attentive simply figuring out how to chat or navigate a live, online “room,”  our attendees now fall into two groups: those grateful to interact in a live session and learn from other teachers and those who are obviously multitasking their way through the session time in hopes of collecting a professional development certificate. The frustrating irony is that if this latter group would listen at the start of the session or read the information and emails when they register, they would know what it takes to earn a certificate.
megaphoneDoes this sound like your classroom? If they would listen when you announce the homework, copy it down off the board (in the SAME place every day!), or even check the web site, they wouldn’t look at you the next day and declare, “I didn’t know” or “I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do.”

I want to say to the teachers who miss the 5+ reminders and explanations we give both visually and verbally: If you are going to multitask, do so wisely. You need to develop better situational awareness, the fighter pilot’s term for paying attention to what is going on around you (or placing yourself in grave danger).  If you don’t know to listen when listening matters, you are risking a certificate. More important, you are risking your own learning.

If we have to make teachers laugh to make them listen,  we’ll try that. But I worry that we have given in and that poorly attentive adults are the worst possible models for our kids. Online learning is an amazing opportunity to extend your learning reach, but it does require situational awareness and self-discipline. Should we make ’em laugh to make ’em listen? We will probably try it to see if we can avoid receiving emails three weeks later asking where their certificates are. But one part of me wants to scream, “IF YOU HAD BEEN LISTENING, you would know!”

In the meantime, if there are any budding comedy writers who would like to take a crack at a comedic presentation of our OK2Ask certificate procedures, comment here. I’d love to have your help.





April 4, 2014

Poetry in the Black: Adding (meaning) by subtracting

Filed under: creativity,teaching,writing — Candace Hackett Shively @ 11:46 am

Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 10.22.12 AMIn honor of Poetry Month, I offer another “poetic” post to follow up on the pocket poems.

You have seen them: blackout poems created just the way it sounds, by blacking out large portions of text on a page and leaving carefully selected words behind to form a “poem.” You can see many more and learn more about them in this great resource.

At first glance, blackout poems are a strikingly creative exercise, plucking words offered by serendipity to generate a poem entirely separate and new. Depending on the original passage, blackout poems can discover the power of even the smallest words, becoming a Hemingway of meaning or an e.e. cummings without capitals or punctuation. If you ask kids to try it, they may complain bitterly that the one word they want is not there, “Can I just add it?” By saying “no” you force a whole new level of creativity and awareness about words. There must be some other word there to suggest a thought that works. Poems suggest, allude, entice, but never tell.

At a much richer level, blackout poems can teach many things. Common Core asks us to teach close reading of informational texts, to help your students see how authors lay their evidence amid all the words, the bricks of evidence that support the structure of ideas and opinions. When you consider blackout poems, you are delving directly into those bricks, deciding which to keep and which to remove, while still trying to support a structure of your own ideas to become the message(s) of the new poem. I am not sure whether it is harder to maintain the message of  the original passage in the new poem or to create an entirely new one, but blackout poems could do either. A passage about trees can become a poem about climate change or pollution. A passage about the characteristics of great teachers (see “Passion and Awareness: What Great Teachers Have in Common” by Bill Smoot) can be distilled into a poem that suggests a similar message refracted through the poet’s lens. Here is a sample based on the great teacher article as a “test” of doing close reading via blackout poetry:

the noteworthy passion

a calling to feed their souls

chose me

for it serves humility in knowing

a purpose larger

give the ability to be better

to mind the words


the passion investigates     studies   writes

that math is beautiful

expertise completes it

excellence is never far away

create an atmosphere

detached awareness

a therapist

to listen to


themselves      and in their students

the witness seat

the art to instill

a goal of learning

tempered by


Now imagine sharing any article for reading, in fifth grade or twelfth, and talking just a bit about what it means, what its important ideas are, and how the author tells us what is important. Don’t answer all the questions… just start to ask. Now have kids work together with that text to first highlight JUST enough words to suggest the message. Then they simply reverse out the highlighted words so they are the ONLY ones that show, blacking out the rest. Have them try taking away as many as they can to suggest, allude, entice a message. At the same time, you are teaching poetry. (Science teachers have permission to pass out now.) Granted, it is not the kind of poetry that rhymes or has meter. It is sophisticated blank verse and lacks the conventions of writing we work so hard to instill! But in comparing the new poems with the original passages, and comparing the different poems that groups create, you have the perfect experience with close reading integrated with writing AND curriculum content:

Does the poem match the passage in meaning? How do you know? Can your group “prove” it? Do these two poems have the same meaning or does one slant it differently? How do you know? Is one a better match to the original passage than the other? But which one has a message you prefer? What words make it your favorite? Are there any “loaded”  (i.e. biased, slanted, or powerful) words in that poem?

The best thing about this activity is that it can happen in history class, reading a passage about the causes of the Civil War or the economic influence of China. It can also happen in science, reading about the importance of biodiversity. The original passages can come from the web or a textbook (bo-ring!). If they are on the web, a simple copy/paste gives students the raw material to read, subtract, and add meaning. It also gives students a new way to master required terms. Creating blackout poems is  group oriented, creative, and loaded with very high-level thinking.

Here are just a few other ideas for blackout poems during this, National Poetry Month:

1. Coming to terms: Make blackout poems from articles kids locate using Google, subtracting words to give meaning to new terms they are learning.

2. Loaded words: Make blackout poems to call out bias or opinions in letters to the editor (online or print).

3. Pass the backout: Have one student blackout a passage and pass the words to another who must create a poem from them. (This one allows reordering the words and adding a certain number of your own).  If in a content class, the message should have something to do with concepts they are learning, such as explaining weather phenomena.

4. Pass the Backout II: Pass around several different articles, challenging each student to blackout one sentence or less then pass it on. Each receiving “poet” must continue the blackout process, trying to do it so there is a logical continuation of the poem. (Very creative, but best suited for students who have some experience making blackout poems!)

4. Blackout mixup: Combine two passages into a single blackout poem, alternating words from the two articles to form a poem. This is REALLY challenging!!

5. Pluck the figures: Have students do the blackouts in small groups, treasure hunting for words that will become figures of speech. Of course the poems that include these figures of speech must make sense, too!

6. Earth Day Blackout: Find a web or print article from which you can blackout a poem titled “A requiem for the environment”  or some other Earth Day theme. (You can ADD the title so you don’t need to have those words in the original text!) Note: this is the ultimate “recycling” — of words — for Earth Day!

7. Blackout poem, the multimedia version:  BLACKOUT large portions of videos or news clips from YouTube to create a multimedia blackout poem. Try a tool like DragonTape. This is for the adventurous techie types and your gifted kiddos who always want to do something different! Make sure they give you the text transcript of the resulting  “poem” to show that they actually thought about it and did not just throw together something to be funny.