Since I can remember, words and wilderness have been my places of refuge and wonder. I get lost in books or on trails, those places that take me away from myself and back into the universe and the universal. When I discovered the Merwin Creative Teaching Fellowship, I couldn’t believe my dream worlds were coming together here in Hawaiʻi, where I teach and parent and love to live.
After 15 years in education, I have learned that nearly all educators want their classrooms to be lively and welcoming sanctuaries, gardens of wonder, forests where many species thrive. And this year of constant changes is no different. In fact, I think it’s a marvelous coincidence that the Merwin Creative Teaching Fellows’ Anthology is being released right now.
This work of 15 teachers from public, charter, and private schools across Hawaiʻi was intended to “awaken, celebrate, and sustain creativity, imagination, and compassion in [teachers] and their students” and centers around students “becoming engaged, compassionate and creative citizens.” This is our collective desire, more necessary than ever.
Teachers, parents, and community members will see these objectives beautifully captured in the included lessons. Each one is an original work begun by teachers while working together under the unparalleled guidance of poets including Naomi Shihab Nye and Cathy Song as well as educator Marnie Masuda Cleveland and the Merwin Conservancy’s Director of Programs, Sara Tekula.
While the entire anthology is now available to the public, we are highlighting a few lessons below with notes from the teachers about simple modifications other educators can make for distance learning. You will also see the lesson titles, driving questions, and some big ideas from the teacher. We hope these will provide a sense of the infinite potential of place-based, creative lessons to engage learners and keep wonder alive in every student, even through a screen.
Listening In: Using Silent Walks and Slow Art to Improve Concentration and Literacy Skills
by Laurie Faure, Kuhio Elementary
Driving Question: How can we improve students’ focus, concentration, critical thinking, close reading, and social and emotional learning through the use of Silent Walks and “Slow Art?”
Laurie writes that this is a lesson her K-5 students frequently ask to do again and that it helps “students develop the ability for self-reflection, to get in touch with their internal dialogue, identify and practice their ability to think out loud in their head, identify emotions, wonderings and ideas, promote curiosity and inquiry, and what this experience reveals about themselves as humans.”
Modifications for Distance Learning: A Silent Walk can still be done outdoors while wearing a mask and safely distancing from others during the walk. Silent Walks that engage all senses can be done in the backyard, indoors, even in a single room by trying to really SEE and experience what is there through a new lens. To repeat the same Silent Walk path during different times of the day is another option to view and experience the walk anew. Slow Art can be done virtually by accessing online art collections found on most museum websites. Try and view the image in a large format. When reflecting on the experience, you may want to consider what is different when art is viewed digitally versus looking at the actual work of art.
Selfhood and Community: Diving Deep into Poetry, Imagination and Place in an English Language Learner Classroom
by Kari Leong, Queen Ka’ahumanu Elementary
Driving Question: How can students use poetry, imagination, and deep thinking about who they are to learn more about their families and cultures?
Kari writes that she was “inspired…to first take a few steps back with my EL students, to think about the place that they came from, the influences that their heritage, culture, experiences, and place had on who they have developed into so far, and to think about how their past, present, and future self will positively contribute to the community that they are a part of.”
Modifications for Distance Learning: The unit can be done using a variety of online tools. Teachers can use whiteboard.fi and students can create thinking maps as they prepare for writing. Teachers can model thinking map development of ideas by using Jamboard. Poems used for reflection can be displayed in Google Slides or Powerpoint. Students can share their own personal pieces on Flipgrid by reading their stories/poems using their voice. In creating “We Honor our Ancestors” or “Where We Come From” projects, students can use photographs and/or video when creating stories to honor ancestors. Students can create a trailer or movie in iMovie. When reading “Grandma’s Records” and connecting music to one’s culture, students can create a mix of their own cultural songs on GarageBand.
Pedagogy of Place: Grandma’s Suitcase
by Jeff Friedman, Montessori School of Maui
Driving Question: How can students expand their imaginative capacities, writing skills, cultural awareness, and social/emotional skills through digging into the history of the town in which they live?
Jeff writes, “Students will sow a unique seed of meaningful understanding and personal connection to their school’s nearest town. This is achieved through interdisciplinary study (literature, history, current events, geography, language arts) explored within the frameworks of human thought and human solidarity. These stories of other people across time are engaged by respecting adolescent developmental principles and characteristics.”
Modifications for Distance Learning: Grandma’s Suitcase is divided into three waves of work. The first and second can easily be done remotely via the internet and access to design software as well as museum digital archives. Some elements might need to be adjusted, such as the documentarian role and the museum’s archivist facilitating conversations on which objects not represented online might be photographed/filmed for student use. The third wave (exhibition installation) can be done remotely: an online exhibit that would involve basic website development/design that can be a student site the museum page links or coded in tandem with museum IT. The exhibit can still be accomplished as a physical installation by creating a sign-up list of times where one student at a time can work with museum staff on-site.
Behind The Future – A Creative Family History Project
by Matthew Martin, Seabury Hall
Matthew writes, “Students use blackout poems, created from their family interviews, to demonstrate an understanding that history is created by a series of narratives and stories. While an oral history project has long been a reliable way for students to learn about their own histories, it is the use of poetry as an added layer to the project that will allow students to reach for a deeper understanding of where they come from and how their histories can help them shape the future they want to create for themselves.”
Driving Question: How can poetry help students understand how history, community, and culture are shaped by unique personal and family experiences and narratives?
Modifications for Distance Learning: This unit can easily be adapted to a distance learning environment. While interviewing an older family member in person is ideal, conducting an interview online or over the phone can still create special intergenerational memories for students. The rest of the unit was originally designed to be completed using digital tools like Google Docs, Google Slides, and Vocaroo which allows for easy adaptation to distance learning. The final product was also originally designed to be presented as a digital portfolio. Whether used in the classroom or at home, the 21st century nature of this unit can seamlessly make the face-to-face to distance learning transition.
Using Spoken Word Poetry to Build Confidence
by Kelsey Sadler, Haleakalā Waldorf School
Kelsey writes, “The Open Mic curriculum is written for a full performance outside of school hours, yet is scalable to an in-class or assembly performance during school hours. The main purpose of the Open Mic curriculum is to foster authenticity and fluency in the students’ poetry writings and require them to share that authenticity.”
Driving Question: How can my students build confidence in their own work through the study, research, and emulation of poets and rhetorical devices?
Modifications for Distance Learning: This unit is easily adaptable to distance learning. Daily group writings and shares in class can be held online. Some students can log in on their phones or laptops and sit outside during class to change their environment. Homework assignments can also encourage writing outdoors. Students can use breakout rooms to practice their Open Mic poems and plan the set list. While presenting online is different from presenting in person, Open Mic can still be held online. If connection issues disrupt live performances, students can pre-record their spoken word, perhaps even creating an “Open Mic” background image which they all use when recording. They can edit all the videos together and release the performances as one cohesive video. They can also invite the larger community to a live online forum where an emcee introduces each student/video. If a group or audience is too large for one online event, students can organize a series of smaller Open Mics spread out over the weeks, which may allow for more live readings and performances as well. If they want to perform music, students are limited to the instruments they may have at home. This curveball would have changed much of our Open Mic, but I’m confident that the students would have gotten creative in some other way, singing along to a karaoke playlist or using makeshift objects as a drum set. If the students or teacher are not comfortable inviting the larger community to the performances, they can host an online Open Mic during class time just for the students.
I think often about visiting Merwin’s garden. I think of the work and imagination and time it took to bring it to life. How each individual plant, each of the 2,740 palms, was just a seed given life through a steward willing to try planting it in an unlikely place where people said nothing would grow. He nurtured the soil simply and naturally. He gave each plant time and space and sunlight and water.
Looking through these lessons inspired by Merwin’s palms, I feel full of possibility. Only a few weeks into this school year, it seems there is so much each of us teachers can do in our single gardens to create much-needed joy and natural wonder for our students. I hope that the lessons in this anthology inspire us to innovate and reimagine what we can grow right here and now.
A 2018-19 Merwin Creative Teaching fellow, Erin Medeiros is a high school teacher at Kanuikapono, a Hawaiian-focused Public Charter School in Anahola, on the island of Kaua‘i. She seeks renewal in literature and hiking, biking, or playing at the beach with her educator husband and their two daughters. Erin views teaching as a deeply creative profession and encourages her students to develop their attention to the past and present, to observe and question life. She does whatever it takes to get her students outside and into the community at least once a week and loves to prepare them each year to perform Poetry Out Loud. She believes that networks and human connections are vital to a healthy teaching career, which is one of the things that attracted her to the fellowship. She has a B.A. in History from Lewis & Clark College, and a Masters in Education from University of Oregon.
To view other entires in our “In Good Company” series of writing by guest bloggers and friends of the Conservancy, click here.