By Jeffrey Pflaum
Teachers & Writers Collaborative will turn 50 years old in fall 2017. To celebrate this milestone, we asked people who have been part of T&W’s work over the last five decades to tell their stories. Jeffrey Pflaum reflects on how T&W books and writers have inspired his own teaching and writing.
A colleague handed me a pamphlet about Imaginary Worlds by Richard Murphy and said, “Here, you like to teach writing and creativity, why don’t you try this?”
“Creating imaginary worlds was perfect for a school where chaos and confusion, at times, ran the show,” was the thought that came to mind.
From Murphy I discovered T&W and Kenneth Koch’s books, Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?: Teaching Great Poetry to Children, and Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry. I started our poetry journey by reading Japanese, Chinese, African-American, Latino, and Native-American works to my fourth- to sixth-grade classes for 5 to 10 minutes several times a week. The openness, images, emotions, ideas, and experiences in the poems spoke to the kids and how they see things. All this was reflected in their own writing from my Inner Cities Poetry Arts Project.
I wrote to T&W about what I was doing in the classroom. Teachers & Writers Magazine editors Ron Padgett and Christopher Edgar encouraged me to submit lessons in creativity, imagination, writing, and contemplation that I had been working on since the 70s. They published my first articles: “Contemplation Writing” (1992) and “Here and Now: Nine Meditative Writing Ideas” (1994). T&W showed foresight by publishing these pieces because my “internal curriculum” on emotional intelligence and social-and-emotional learning skills were not buzzwords in education at that time as they are today.
In contemplation writing, music became a vehicle that led children on peaceful inner journeys of self-awareness, motivation, and education. I expanded this into “Reflection Writing” (writing about past experiences) and “A Penny for Your Thoughts” (getting into present-moment thoughts and meta-cognition), both published by T&W. The foundation lessons also combined contemplation, reflection, visualization, and EI/SEL skills to prepare kids for poetry.
Through Koch’s work, especially his “list poems,” I developed “The Trigger Method of Creativity,” which used brainstorming, word storming, picture/slide storming, title storming, and sentence storming to stimulate students’ minds and imaginations. I gave slide presentations like “The Big Cloud Picture Show” to motivate students and asked them to: title storm titles for potential poems, select one—or more—that conjured up “poetry ideas,” and write their poems.
The titles/poetry ideas sparked inner experiences that elicited poetry writing. With contemplation writing (prose) already established, navigating landscapes of mind and self was nothing new to them. Their poetry was “psychological” in nature because my approach was for kids to express feelings, thoughts, and experiences in writing when few outlets were available.
I created poetry lessons like “Word-a-Thon Poetry”: students cut out hundreds of poetry words from newspapers/magazines, “unraveled” their piles, and pasted together poems on large black art paper. We took mindful walks around the neighborhood, and from our “travels” wrote haiku about nature and inner life. With mostly Latino and African-American students I went on lifelong haiku journeys culminating in their collection, Dancing in the Spring Rain. I’m still in contact with many “kids”—now 50 years old—on Facebook and in the real world.
But the connection to T&W did not end with Koch or my articles. I had the good fortune to meet, work with, and be inspired by Irwin Gonshak, a former high school teacher-writer and producer of the T&W-sponsored public radio shows “Poetry in the Morning” and “Anything Goes.” Irwin, like Ron and Chris, could appreciate “where I lived and what I lived for” as a teacher and writer at PS 16 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
In my shows presented in 1997 called, There’s a Soul Arising in My Mind, I read the students’ contemplations juxtaposed with their poetry from Inner Cities, an anthology spanning the 70s through the 90s. The poetry has been published in college, professional, writers’, and children’s literary journals; and in newspapers and magazines; as well as by major commercial book publishers.
A few examples: Ralph Roman’s “A Joyful Sound” won WNET/THIRTEEN’s “Fifth Annual Students’ Arts Festival, A Tri-State Mosaic.” Glennie Llano’s “I Hear It” and Juan Serrano’s “War Windows” (The Sow’s Ear Review of Poetry), written about the Persian Gulf War (both translated into Spanish by the children), sadly forecast the 9/11 Twin Towers tragedy. A New York Newsday article, “Making Life a Matter of Meter,” by David Bornstein, described the students’ inner space odysseys and how contemplation, music, writing, and discussion led to poetry writing.
I’m finishing my story with student haikus combined with teacher photos dedicated to the next 25 successful years of T&W, and also to the children of PS 16.
As an elementary-middle school teacher in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for 34 years, Jeffrey Pflaum developed original, innovative projects in creativity, writing, thinking, reading, poetry, concentration, EI/SEL, values clarification, and vocabulary. The various projects culminated in Motivating Teen and Preteen Readers: How Teachers and Parents Can Lead the Way. Pflaum consider himself a teacher-developer-researcher-experimentalist who was not satisfied with the traditional curricula in reading and writing, so he began making up stuff: call it experimental education. He is currently a blogger for The Bam Radio Network’s blog, ED Words and a contributing author on Education Views.
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