Dave Mendell on Pocket PCs, Poetry and the PSSAs

From Discovery Educator Dave Mendell:

When I first took a look at Lance’s schedule for guest blogging my immediate thought was “Great, how am I going to be able to share anything I’m doing with my kids when all I’m doing is testing this week?!”   I must admit, that even I, the constant optimist, felt like this was going to be virtually impossible.  Fortunately, what I soon realized was the answer was right under my nose…just keep doing what I’ve been doing all year long.  You see, even with the rigors or testing, I can still get my kids to chill out, think and capture their thoughts creatively using their pocket PC’s.

Face it, even the highest scoring response to an open-ended “test” question can be less than inspirational.  Poetry Sketches are an activity I have used with my class as a way to foster their creative writing skills and encourage them to write meaningfully and emotionally.  In writing poetry sketches, students are given four words.  Students may use the words in any form as long as they are included in their poem.  Additionally, I tell the class that their poems shouldn’t rhyme and should contain at least 3 complete thoughts or sentences.

Perhaps it’s easier to see how it works… Last week, with PSSA’s looming I gave my class the following words to sketch:  test, sleep, pencil, measure.   Here are some of the things they came up with…Notice how one focuses on the test while the other one doesn’t!

When I take this boring test,
My pencil is killing me
Last night, I didn’t get enough sleep,
I am still sleepy.
Measure, measure, measure away
How many millimeters in one mile?
Think, think, think!
Write, write, write!
Finish the test!
– Malcolm

Time, it falls away as I sleep.
At night, school.
time, time, time
as pencil to paper
testing goes on.
your measure is falling away.
– Aaron

Poems can tell us so much!  Just a few words per line can help me understand how my students are thinking and feeling.  That’s pretty powerful!  What’s this have to do with technology?  Not much.  These poems were written and edited on pocketPC’s which the students then beamed to me, but that’s about it.  Why am I writing about this one activity for the DEN blog?  Remember that technology is not the cure-all for engaging students in their learning!  Here’s a friendly reminder of just how powerful a few written words can be.  Sometimes the most important skill a teacher can have when integrating technology is knowing when not to!  I would be happy to share some more ideas and some more poems (it was hard to pick just 2).  Please feel free to contact me!


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  1. Susan Keck said:

    Dave, I love the poems that your students wrote and can imagine how hard it was to select two! Students find poetry to be a playground for language. The constraints of formal writing have no place within a poem, for poetry calls to one’s imagination as well as to one’s creativity of arranging words on a page to express our thoughts, pictures and emotions.
    I found, when working with third grade students, that through poetry they truly understood the purposeful use of every part of speech, because poetry compresses language and thus, every word carries importance.
    I also learned that we can never assume a limitation to a child’s ability to learn. For example, the third graders with whom I worked could not only define a verb, but identify and explain how powerful verbs contributed to their writing,in both poetry and prose. Children are truly amazing in their capacity and ability to learn. Would love to read more of your students’ work!!

  2. Pat Ruffing said:

    Thanks, Dave. The poems are terrific and I would be interested in reading more. I am going to share the idea of a “poetry sketch” with the teachers at my school. The words must be able to stand on their own, whether it be story or poem. The technology just enhances the words.

  3. Chris Champion said:


    I think I have poetry like that from High School… I really agree with you that technology isn’t the end-all do-all. Sometimes free writing helps students clear their minds and focus. One thing I’ve done personally with tech is to bring my PDA with me on bike trips, or camping, whatever. Then I can write down my thoughts with a keyboard – knowing that later it will be easier to upload them into my online journal. Sometimes knowing that you will publish work is better motivation to record it, and in this day of “digital natives” (our students), a portable journaling tool like a PDA is a great idea.

  4. Dave Mendell said:

    Hi Sue –

    Thanks for the feedback! One of these days we’ll have to continue the
    conversations that we started at PETE&C… So often, I often receive
    questioning looks when I try to explain just how powerful poetry can
    Thanks for reaffirming my beliefs and letting me know that I’m not
    completely nuts!

    Here’s one more student poem that I just found on my PPC… I believe
    words for this poetry sketch were: roar, breathe, grow and life…
    Sort of
    a March theme…but it just shows where the kids can take things…


    The roar of the wind
    The swish of the trees
    Breathe, grow to be strong
    And let your life flow

    – by Sophie

    Be cool –

  5. Susan Keck said:

    I LOVE this poem – amazing! Please tell Sophie I am really impressed – what I like about her poem is that the first two lines establish the strength in nature through the description of the wind and the trees and at the same time a sense of freedom that is pulled together in the last line. The word I love most is “swish” because I both hear and see it.
    Maybe we can encourage others to try poetry in their classrooms. I highly recommend Jack Prelusky’s site for elementary students and teachers. Not only does he provide wonderful tools, but students can co-author poems with Jack Prelusky and then he provides feedback. Very motivating for all students! His site is http://teacher.scholastic.com/writewit/poetry/
    Take care and I would very much like to continue the conversation about poetry writing and its impact on students’ acquisition of vocabulary and writing skills.

  6. RJ Stangherlin said:

    I would love to read the rest of your students’ poems. Is there a way you could share the rest of them with us? You are so right that knowing when not to integrate is just as important. Your students’ works are impressive and I would really like to read more. Thank you for a wonderful blog.

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