Archives For NPR

My seven-year-old nephew hosts his Lego creations on shelves all over his room as though he is curating a museum show. Look, but do not touch.  My three year-old great niece sings the refrain, “Everything is Awesome” from The Lego Movie (NOTE: the tune is a maddening “songworm”)

My two sons were adamant that I should not give away their Legos when they went to college.

Those tiny, multi-colored plastic building bits have a dedicated, even obsessive, fan base. Such fanaticism is the  reason why I thought the following story I recently heard on National Public Radio (NPR) would make for a great informational text that blends visual, print, and audio with social media for a wide range of readers.

The story was titled,  Lost At Sea, Legos Reunite On Beaches And Facebook and the audio was broadcast on 7/26/2014.

The text for audio link reads:

Nearly two decades ago, a massive wave struck the Tokio Express, a container ship that had nearly 5 million Legos onboard. The colorful toy building blocks poured into the ocean. Today, they are still washing up on shores in England.

The NPR page contains a link to the Facebook site ( where beachcombers have been uploading photos of their findings:

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Each photo on Facebook is accompanied by a few words by the person who posted the photo- a little story to share.

What makes this story of the missing Legos so wonderful is that there are a multitude of stories in other media. Each has a different take on the lost cargo of Legos which were swept off the container ship 17 years ago.

South Florida’s Sun Sentinel ran the article Sea Hunt a year after the loss. The story by Margo Harakas (May 26, 1998) featured interviews with oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer and beachcomber Cathie Katz. Ebbesmeyer provided his estimate that in excess of 1,000 containers a year slip their moorings saying, “That’s not much considering the 40 million or more containers transported across the oceans annually.”  Katz and Ebbesmeyer  both found a delicious irony in the kind of Lego toys that was lost at sea…that particular Lego container contained aquatic-themed toys.

The Atlantic offered specifics on the kinds of aquatic-themed toys in the story Why Are All These Legos Washing Up on the Beach? in an article by Megan Garber that ran 7/26/2014:

 There were toy kits that included plastic aquanauts. And spear guns (13,000 of them). And life preservers (26,600). And scuba tanks (97,500). And octopi (4,200).

For the older students, there is an article by Joseph Gallivan (8/9/2014) in The Independent, Life’s a Beach to Comb, that discusses the technical details of the Lego spill:

A container ship, the Tokio Express, en route from Rotterdam to New York on 13 February 1997, was hit by a rogue wave about 20 miles off Land’s End. She tilted 60 degrees one way, then 40 degrees back, and lost 62 HGV-sized containers overboard.

The article goes on to discuss the contents of other famous cargo spills including one that released chocolate: Hershey’s Kisses, Tootsie Rolls, Reisen dark German chocolates, and Werther’s hard butterscotch candies. Another spill involved 500,000 cans of beer, and yet another spilled out a container of yellow ducks. There is even a mention of a few dead bodies found floating in the ocean’s currents…all lost at sea.

The variety of these informational texts about these lost Legos can serve as a springboard for other research students can do on topics ranging from ocean currents to degrading plastics to the cultural fascination with the Legos themselves.

For those fortunate to live near a beach, there is even an invitation to share their beachcombing findings. The oceanographer Ebbesmeyer has provided his address with directions on how to share:

…findings can be shared with Curtis C Ebbesmeyer, 6306 21st Ave NE, Seattle, Washington 98115, USA. Please include photos of yourself and drifters, written accounts, locations and dates. Factual descriptions, concerning the drift of the water body fronting your shore, are welcome.

So, I guess it is true. When it comes to tracking Legos, “everyone is cool when you’re part of a team.”

Screen Shot 2013-12-05 at 11.08.36 PMThe sonorous voice delivering the keynote address at the Conference on English Leadership (CEL) on Sunday, November 24, 2013, belonged to the poet Robert Pinsky. He was there to promote his latest book Singing School, which is promoted as, “A bold new approach to writing (and reading) poetry based on great poetry of the past.” This collection of 80 poems includes selections from  Sappho to Allen Ginsberg, Shakespeare to Emily Dickinson. In an interview on NPR,  Pinsky explained that the poems for the book were selected “because of the music of the language, and not from the meaning of the words.” In the interview he explained:

“Even just the cadence of pauses,” he explains. “I stop. I think. I wait. I wait a little longer. Then less. … Something like that generates the poem. And for me, if anything I do is any good, it’s carried by that kind of cadence or melody.”

To prove his point, Pinsky filled his address with reciting lines of poetry, once challenging the crowd of English teachers in attendance to identify the poet; “That was Robert Frost, your New England poet,” he gently chastised when no one responded correctly. (To give you a taste of the experience, you can hear Pinskey read Frost’s poem “Mowing” courtesy of Slate Magazine by clicking here.)

As we listened, I heard someone remark that Pinsky could make a parking ticket sound lyrical.

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Pinsky’s voice was not the only one reciting poems in his keynote. He turned to the presentation screen to show videos from the Favorite Poem Project website. This project  is “dedicated to celebrating, documenting and encouraging poetry’s role in Americans’ lives.”

Pinsky founded the project when he served as the 39th Poet Laureate of the United States, from 1997-2000. The Favorite Poem Project website details how,

“During the one-year open call for submissions, 18,000 Americans wrote to the project volunteering to share their favorite poems — Americans from ages 5 to 97, from every state, of diverse occupations, kinds of education and backgrounds.

Pinsky purposely selected a video to show as a tribute to the City of Boston, host of the CEL. The selected video featured John Ulrich, a student from South Boston, MA, reading Gwendolyn Brooks’s  “We Real Cool”:

We Real Cool
by Gwendolyn Brooks


We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Each video available on the Favorite Poem Project’s website begins with the reader’s reason for choosing the a particular poem. Ulrich provided a touching admission of how Brooks’s short poem reminds him about several childhood friends he lost to suicide. He read her 1950s tribute to the players in a pool hall in the South Side of Chicago with a heavy South Boston accent twice. The defiance on his face during the second reading is visible in the video.

I have taught this poem in my classes, and inevitably one of the more musical students, usually a drummer, will notice, “Hey, this is written in jazz!” The brevity of Brooks’s verse belies the amount of discussion the poem generates for students, particularly with the ending line, “We/ Die soon.”

Pinsky shared other videos: Nick and the Candlestick by Sylvia Plath read by Seph Rodney and Poem by Frank O’Hara read by Richard Samuel. The production quality of these videos garnered admiration from the crowd.

“Are you still taking entries for this project?” one teacher asked.
“We may be,” replied Pinsky.

His final comment sent a ripple that went through the audience as people considered, “What poem could I read for the project?”

Continue Reading…

Mash-up are usually the blending of music from two or more sources. However a different mash-up was featured in a story by National Public Radio (NPR) where street signs in New York City were rewritten into Haiku poetry, Haiku Traffic Signs Bring Poetry To NYC Streets. This story illustrated how a mashup could be made of a very basic informational text with a strict poetic form. “Caution: Oncoming Traffic” was expanded into a poem of  of 5 syllables/7 syllable/5 syllables of “8 million swimming/The traffic rolling like waves/Watch for undertow.” In the NPR story,

“Traffic warning street signs written as haiku are appearing on poles around the five boroughs, posted by the New York City Department of Transportation. The poems and accompanying artwork were created by artist John Morse.”

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NYC’s Department of Transportation hoped the signs would catch new eyes in order to communicate important information. The unusual combination of graphics and verse on street signs presented pedestrians with additional information, a different point of view. The reordering of information is just one example of how presenting information in a different genre also provides new writing opportunities for new audiences.

Since the English Language Arts Common Core is rattling its standards calling for an increase in informational texts, the 9th grade curriculum is including a non-fiction unit where students choose a non-fiction text of their own to read. The CCSS  require this increase based on:

“…extensive research establishing the need for college and career ready students to be proficient in reading complex informational text independently in a variety of content areas. Most of the required reading in college and workforce training programs is informational in structure and challenging in content…”

Our students may choose a text to read on topics that range from animal or adventure topics to travel or war. There are titles that have been made available in bulk on the secondary market, such as public library book sales or thrift stores and added to our classroom book carts. The books purchased for $1.00 each (see how) include:

  • Girl Interrupted-Keysen
  • Guts-Paulsen
  • Tuesdays with Morrie-Albom
  • The Tipping Point– Gladwell
  • Left for Dead-Nelson
  • Iron and Silk-Salzman
  • A Night to Remember-Lord
  • Hiroshima-Hersey
  • The Teammates-Halberstam

iron and silk Night to remember dog year Tipping

There are also a number of books that deal with animal literature that are stocked on the classroom book cart. Many of these texts will also be available for the senior elective, “Critter Lit”:

  • With Love from Baghdad-Kopelman
  • Tell Me Where It Hurts-Trout
  • Seabiscuit-Hillebrand
  • Winterdance– Paulsen
  • A Dog Year-Katz
  • Wesley the Owl-O’Brien
  • Alex and Me-Royte
  • Modoc-Helfer
  • The Pig Who Sang to the Moon-Masson

Students may chose from these titles or another non-fiction choice though the school library, which also offers the online book shelf Overdrive. The students organize themselves into thematic groups while the unit runs for four weeks (block schedule) with some overlap during the standardized testing weeks. The students spend time reading in class, and they organize themselves into thematic groups. Rather than respond in essays or traditional research papers, the students are given an opportunity to create genre mash-ups.

First, to prepare for writing mash-ups, the students generated a list of the kinds of non-fiction writing they see everyday including:

  • License plate
  • Newspaper article
  • Letter to the editor
  • Ad
  • food labels
  • Menu
  • Directions
  • Q&A Interview
  • Diary
  • Weather report
  • Sports report
  • Billboard
  • Tweet
  • Blog post
  • Directions

Next, the mini-lessons that begin each class are quick( 5-10 minutes) and focus on the characteristics of a particular genre from the list so that students can create rewrite each text in that genre. For example, students review how information is arranged on a food label before creating a “food label” for the books they are reading. Students read billboards and street signs before creating the same.  After each mini-lesson, students write about their text in the assigned genre and use a Google Docs folder to develop a portfolio of authentic writing. The result is a portfolio of mash-ups of informational texts rewritten by students into other genres.

Like the haiku and street sign mash-up, these mashups will still communicate essential information. Students can write about the texts they choose to read in the authentic genres they encounter everyday.

Finally, when April comes around, the students may try writing their essential information in poetry: sonnets, limericks, villanelles and even haikus. After all, April is National Poetry Month!