Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Throwing out the Rules

Illustration by Austin Kleon
Elizabeth just came up to my desk to ask if she is allowed to use contractions in her personal essay.


Our student writers are taught a set of rules. Don't use contractions. Double space your essays. Spell out numbers under ten. Write everything in complete sentences. Make sure that your subject and your verbs agree in number. These are easy to teach, easy to learn. But clearly the writing that we remember, that packs an emotional punch, is more than a well-employed set of grammatical rules.

As an English teacher, I admit to focusing a bit too much of my energy on marking misplaced commas and dangling modifiers in the past, but this is not where the heart of writing lies.  In spending our energies on correcting grammar, we teach our students that grammar is important. Exclusively. When we focus on writing as teaching students to write a certain number of paragraphs, to a particular set of rules, we limit student possibilities for expression.

I understand the need to begin somewhere.  However, a set of rules, a list of dos and don'ts, decapitates student writing. (I asked my creative writing students for help with this sentence. Jordan came up with the verb decapitates.) Instead, taking a lead from Kylene Beers, Lynne Dorfman, and Kelly Gallagher, I ask my students to find mentor texts for each piece of writing they craft. What is the writing doing? What do you notice? What moves is the writer making? Beginning in this manner, students come up with their own rules. They notice that personal essays published in the New York Times Magazine use contractions. The college application essays that earned the highest marks are those that use slang, that contain intentional fragments, that break the rules of what is "allowed."

I am asking my students to think about writing for publication. They are trained to write in five paragraphs, but pick up any magazine, a newspaper, read a blog. How many of them are written in formulaic five-paragraphs? Yes, we must begin somewhere when it comes to teaching writing. However, I firmly believe teaching students to write to a set of rules, rules that so many of us break, is not the place to begin. Rather than close off possibilities, we must find ways to open them up.

So it's not that I'm throwing the "rules" out the window. I'm just setting them aside for awhile and letting our community of writers figure out the rules for ourselves.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Cry Baby

Flickr Creative Commons image by LMAP
I am a cry baby. Always have been. My younger sister would sneak in to steal a toy, and I would cry. Didn’t get my way or change our plans, and unstoppable tears would rush over my fat cheeks. I remember making a decision, perhaps at eight or nine, to stop crying. I didn’t want to hear another exasperated sigh escape from my dad’s moustached mouth, wishing under his breath that I would just stop.

So I did.

But somewhere between nine and thirty-nine, I realized how devastating that decision was. It wasn’t that I stopped the hurt or emotion behind the tears; instead, I stopped sharing. I stopped revealing. But on becoming a teacher, working with emerging writers, I have came to understand how dangerous that pressure to conceal can be for writers in particular.

A writer’s power comes in connecting truth, in revealing in ordinary moments the larger themes of our connected lives. To do this well, the writer, whether nine or thirty-nine, must reveal themselves. I am the odd one in my solidly Midwestern family. I cry at diaper commercials and fundraising campaigns for the ASPCA. In class, when my students share their personal This I Believe essays, I cry. Students write about their experiences with loss: losing a mother to cancer, a grandmother to Alzheimer’s, a father to drug addiction. Students share their fears, their loneliness as much as their pride and joy, often sitting side-by-side in one essay. And I cry.

The courage that it takes to reveal oneself, whether that be to a teacher, to peers, or to an unseen audience via the web, is awe-inspiring. I have grown more not only as a teacher but as an individual by opening up opportunities for students to revel and reveal in their writing. Sometimes that brings me to tears of joy, other times to tears of commiseration. But now I share them freely. Unashamed.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Taking the Stage

I'm nervous.

I've spent the day making sure that everything is in order for our visit from the One Book, One Philadelphia author Christina Baker Kline, author of the fantastic historical fiction novel Orphan Train. Emailing maintenance to make sure we have a registration table and microphones, asking students to come up with questions they want to ask of the author, and running around the building snapping pictures of teachers and students reading Orphan Train. I had quite a bit of fun with that last task. As teachers, students, and community members file into our auditorium tomorrow, I have a slideshow prepared of our community members reading Orphan Train, and snapping pictures throughout the day has also meant that I have had the opportunity to talk with so many different people about this story. There has been one common thread - we love this book!

A guidance counselor shared with me the story of discussing this book with her 90 year old mother, connecting over the history behind Vivian's tale. A tenth grader shared how she loved the parallel between Molly's story and Vivian's. A gym teacher nearly cried as she shared how this story helped her connect with an important young person in her life who shared a similar journey to that of Molly. Young and old, men and women, students and teachers from all walks of life connect to this story. There is something so moving about Vivian's journey, her struggles and decisions, her heart break and connections and the way in which young Molly is able to reach out and connect with her experiences across generations that touches all sorts of readers.

But, I am nervous.

I have the job of being moderator for tomorrow's program with Christine Baker Kline. It's not that this is my first time moderating an author presentation, but that doesn't seem to quell my nerves.  I have had the pleasure of moderating presentations authors Edwidge Danticat and Julie Otsuka made when they visited our campus in the past, but there is something about being so near the writers whose work I've admired, while also standing on stage in front of hundreds of people under a spot light. I mentioned this nervousness to a non-teacher not all that long ago who gave me a quizzical look. "Aren't you 'on stage' in front of people every day? Isn't teaching the same thing?"

My classroom is not a stage, and I don't put on a performance each day. Although I work with about 75 - 85 young people each day, it's not quite the same experience. As years pass, I find that I spend less and less of my time in front of the class. My nervousness about tomorrow alludes to my position in the classroom. I am not confident speaking in public. It is not something that comes naturally to me. I much prefer to be in the classroom working with people. So to prepare for tomorrow, I had my students help me brainstorm questions to ask of the author. And, not surprisingly, they came up with great questions about Ms. Baker Kline's writing inspiration and her process.

So I'm starting to feel a bit more prepared for tomorrow because when I go up on that stage, I'll take with me the stories shared with me by our community of readers about their connections to Orphan Train as well as the questions that my students generated. We've prepared for this together.

Okay, I'm more prepare but still nervous.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Curling Up with a Book

I stay in my pajamas until well after noon. The rain rhythmically sliding down the window panes from the early morning hours until now has made it easy to stay curled up on the couch. I don't often get to do this. I'm usually out the door early, even on the weekends. Either I'm heading to conference or reluctantly slipping into gym clothes and heading to the Y (which I always ending loving after I've arrived). But not this morning. It's rainy, and my boys stay happily upstairs orchestrating elaborate stories with their Legos while my husband and I polish off a pot of coffee and immerse ourselves in reading.

Cuddled in with coffee and a book. This is paradise!

I finish Wild by Cheryl Strayed and start in on Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, trading non-fiction for fiction. Nearly four hours pass before I realize how long and how happily I've been sunk in. Four hours.  I haven't read for this long of a stretch in...well, I can't quite recall.  My eldest comes thunking down the stairs. He needs me to separate one Lego brick from another, which of course leads to a barrage of questions. Whatcha reading? Why? What's it about? And that's when I realize the opportunity that I have here.

My eldest is six. When I met with his kindergarten teacher at parent-teacher conferences on Thursday, she declared that reading just "clicked" for him recently. He's jumped up two independent reading levels quite quickly. He's always loved being read to, but he's just discovering reading on his own terms. And for the most part, he's always had someone reading with him, either a parent or teacher leaning in to support his efforts, to gently correct. So I suggest that he grab a few of his books and curl up, too. Grab the chair next to me and read. He looks at me a bit confused. "But you need to read with me." Nope. And you could see the light go on. Wait! I can do this for myself? I can read to myself.

He grabs a whole stack of books, a blanket, and curls into the chair next to me. I half expect him to ask for his own cup of coffee (he didn't). And he reads.

This is how life-long readers are born. Find a book, a cozy corner, and some quiet time to read. Just read. Get lost in the story, let it twirl around your imagination, and sink into your soul. This is what it is to curl up with a book.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Connecting Readers

The excitement over our March Book Madness bracket is growing.  This past week as our school community voted on books in the initial bracket, I had the pleasure of handing out signed copies of Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park and Patricia McCormick's Sold along with gift certificates to local book stores and copies of Looking for Alaska and Thirteen Reasons Why.

And not only have students been getting into our daily voting, but teachers have as well. On Tuesday, I drew the name of a fellow English teacher as the winner of our raffle from all those who participated in the day's voting. She was giddy as I handed her a copy of Thirteen Reasons Why

But yesterday afternoon, the excitement started to really gain momentum. And it all started with an email. From LOIS LOWRY!  Oh yes, you read that right. Prior to the start of our voting, I emailed every author in our bracket, explaining our March Book Madness bracket and requesting a signed copy of their book to give away. It is how we received copies of Rainbow Rowell's and Patricia McCormick's books.  Well, I also emailed Lois Lowry, author of The Giver, a clear favorite among both our students and teachers.  So when I saw that email signed "LL" in my inbox, stating that Lois Lowry was sending a signed copy of The Giver, well I couldn't keep that to myself! 

I've been using Celly, a text-messaging service, to conduct our daily votes. When I saw Ms. Lowry's email, I shot out a quick text to all our bracket voters sharing the news. Within minutes, I had teachers and students coming up to excitedly chat about their love of The Giver. And then, just a few minutes later, S.E. Hinton retweeted us! I had sent out a tweet earlier in the day from my class account sharing our daily vote between Elie Wiesel's Holocaust memoir Night and S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. And she retweeted it. By the last bell of the day, I had lost count of the number of students and staff that approached me excited, nearly giddy, wanting to talk about their love of these authors and their books. 

That bring us to today...
I'm sitting in the teachers' workroom typing up my Writer's Notebook prompt for my last block of the day, Creative Writing, when my phone buzzes that short zap. Someone has just tweeted me.  I turn in over and find...JOHN GREEN HAS TWEETED ME!  Not a retweet, mind you. He has directly tweeted my classroom Twitter account to put in a vote for today's March Book Madness battle which pits his Fault in our Stars against Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower, our closest battle to date. I believe I squealed and that shouted, "Holy crap!"

Now this is not normal, every day behavior in our teachers' workroom. The English teacher sitting next to me at the large table in the middle of our workroom just stared at me when I could barely stammer out why I was so excited.  I handed her my phone to show her the tweet. And she laughed before clicking a quick photo of my phone to post to Instagram. I quickly retweeted and sent out a message to our student and teacher voters through Celly letting them know about the day's connection. We were giddy! It didn't take long for the buzz to spread. Not thirty minutes later when I walked through the lunchroom for cafeteria duty, a student called out from the din of conversation, "Ms. Ward - I just saw! John Green?! That is sooooo cool!" 

I love that we had an opportunity to connect with author John Green using social media (on Digital Learning Day, too), but here's the best part: students and teachers are giddy talking about books! These connections have sparked an interest in our community. We're talking about books, making reading recommendations, arguing the merits of one book over another. We are excited, engaged, and connected readers! 

Now, I wonder who we'll hear from next? Veronica Roth? J.K. Rowling? ;)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Poetic Connections

My hours at school this week have been filled with poetry. My tenth grade students are pulling ideas from their Writer's Notebooks to polish into pieces to submit for publication next week, and many of them are revising poems. For the past few days, I've been listening in on conversations about word choice and line breaks. Does this sound right, or am I forcing the rhyme? I love these rhetorical collaborations, hearing students thinking deeply about word choice.

When we had an opportunity to Skype with the senior editor at TeenInk Magazine today, my students and I learned about how works are selected for publication. And being the English teacher that I am, I asked a question about the importance of correct grammar versus the quality of composition. It was refreshing (and validating) to hear the senior editor of a publication, Ms. Stephanie Meyers, state that "It's not that grammar doesn't matter, but it's about the story being told." A work can have perfect grammar and syntax but lack heart, lack spirit and soul.  Along with her group of editors, Ms. Meyers stressed that TeenInk looks for works that carry a strong voice.  Spelling and proof-reading mistakes can be corrected with editing, but a poem that lacks a nuanced perspective, lacks a distinct voice, is much more difficult to correct. Our hearts are moved by poetry that speaks to the stories that lie within us. Poetry begs for connection. Our job as writers (and as teachers of writing) is to use our words to realize those connections, and remember that grammar is only a part of the equation. The power of poetry lies in the artistry of crafting connections.

And it's this connection between poetry and art that my Creative Writing students also spent time exploring today.  I spent a good amount of time in front of the copy machine blowing up fingerprints.  Earlier I had my high school students rub a pencil across their thumb, darkening it with lead. Then, taking a piece of clear tape, students carefully pressed their print onto the tape, and sealed their print to an index card. This is why I was standing in front of the copy machine. I took each student's fingerprint and blew it up 500 percent until their unique mark looked as though it may have been left by some ancient giant.  Our Writer's Notebook prompt today was:

Start with where you began. 
Where does your story start? 
Wind into the moments that have shaped your life. 
Have there been twists and turns that have helped you become the person you are today? 
Then, weave your way into what you want to be. 
What will be your mark on this world?

Students started in their Writer's Notebook crafting their story. Then, laying a bright white sheet over top of their photocopied print, used the lines of their fingerprint as a map upon which to write the lines of their story.
But this was only our opening activity, our first creative connection. Next, I asked my Creative Writing students to take a look at the Times Magazine's “Picture and a Poem” series where a contemporary artist is asked to create a visual representation of a poem. The two works together help the reader to understand both creative pieces in a new light. Sifting through our poetry books, student selected works from Walt Whitman to Lao Tzu, from Shel Silverstein to Edgar Allan Poe. Then, using either digital tools or by putting pen to paper, student found creative ways to illustrate their poems.  Some used Canva and Animoto, while others illustrated and inked their creative interpretations of their selected poems. Throughout our class today, students connected their rhetorical choices in visual composition to those written rhetorical decisions made by the original poet. 
It has been a day filled with poetic connections!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Labor of Love

I don't have a desk. Okay, I do, but it is home to my sewing machine and not really a conducive place for writing, crowded as it is with snips of thread, straight pins, and pinking shears. Instead, I write each day at our dining room table, either well before the sun comes up or well after it goes to sleep. These are my hours. The quiet time when my little boys are snuggled into their beds, and there is time to reflect and not just react. 

I especially appreciate this daily blogging challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Instead of keeping my writing to myself in my Writer's Notebook, I have this opportunity to write daily, to share daily, and to connect daily. I encourage my students to connect and share in similar ways, but then often find that without this daily deadline, my own blogging gets pushed to the bottom of a to-do list whose items I know I will never be able to completely check off. My blog is pushed to the back of the line behind responding to parent emails and providing feedback on student essays and arranging for Skype sessions with authors and calling local museums to arrange for speakers and responding to more emails. I write daily, but the writing that renews my soul - reflective writing and creative writing - often times is left as an unwritten monologue playing through my head while I attend to more immediate concerns.

This morning a request appeared in my inbox to share my reflections on when, where, and why I write as part of the weekly National Writing Project iAnthology series. And so I've spent some time today mulling over why I let the writing that I am truly passionate about go unwritten much of the time. I don't have a good answer to this question. But I do have a simple answer.

It's hard.

This is the writing I care about. I care about weaving a narrative, pulling threads of ideas together, making a creative and hard-hitting point. But this takes time. I am not someone that can pound out a blog post in minutes. I read over and write over each sentence. I write in stops and starts, slowly moving forward like a child on a rocking horse, ever leaning forward to an imagined finished line. And so far, I've only written five paragraphs, that is if you can really count my fourth as a paragraph. But I've considered why I've let that sentence hang there alone.

It's hard.

And now I'm at seven paragraphs. But if it takes me this long to write this short piece, I have to remember what it might take a student as of yet less experienced than I am at blogging to share his work publicly. Check the widgets to the right. I've been at this since 2007. And I know that this is hard. I must remember that this is hard no matter what age or level of experience you bring to writing. To do it well, writing is a labor of love, but it is labor. It is work. Writers must be given the space, the time, the opportunity to work at the craft. In order to create a narrative worth reading, students need time....writers need time to put in the work.

And, sometimes a deadline helps, too.  

Saturday, March 7, 2015

As Ye Sew, So Shall Ye Rip

My younger sister and I showing off our spring
4-H ribbons for sewing and ceramics, 1987.
I started in 4-H when I was eight-years-old. My mom became co-leader with the mother of one of my elementary school friends. Together they showed a group of 8-10 year old girls how to measure, cut, follow a pattern, and sew simple skirts and dresses.

However, as I crept along into my eighth, then ninth, and finally tenth year in 4-H as a high school student, I dreaded sewing. I'd ask my mom to show me how to make the tiny pin tucks required by the pattern, secretly hoping she would just sew it for me, and she would reply, "Oh, you know how to do it." I would huff an exasperated sigh and threaten to quit. She would simply reply, "I'm not fighting with you." So I would put my head down, bending close to the bobbing needle, and slowly feed the fabric underneath the sewing machine's foot. Dress after dress got finished. I sewed my prom dresses, my suit for student teaching, a quilt for my sister to take to college. Eventually, I helped my mom sew my wedding dress. Okay, I cut it out and got a few stitches in before handing it over to my mom.

I am so grateful to my mom for teaching me how to sew. It is still something that I find to be one of my favorite creative outlets. And now decades later, I'm also appreciative of how she taught me to sew. Namely, I have come to appreciate her way of  making me figure it out on my own. She would help with those difficult corners and invisible zippers, but once I had sewn them once or twice, she was hands off. I had to persevere, become friends with my seam ripper. I have come to appreciate the tongue-in-cheek play on the Bible verse - "As ye sew, so shall ye rip."

Talking to my younger sister today on the phone, I told her that I wanted a couple of new infinity scarves. Rather than heading out the store, I jogged upstairs to the closet in my study where I have a couple bins of fabric and scraps of skirts that may be ruined by a small stain, but which I am incapable of throwing in the trash. There's still so much usable fabric there! I haven't bought a pattern in years. I am comfortable figuring out how to sew these simple projects on my own, as long as my seam ripper is handy. Infinity scarves, handbags and headbands, shorts for my boys, bibs for a niece's new baby - my mom's greatest gift was giving me confidence in my ability to figure it out. I'm going to mess up. But with my trusty seam ripper, I can take out those missed stitches and try again until it works.

This is what I hope to instill in my learners: a realization that first attempts can be corrected. As one of my favorite playwrights, George Bernard Shaw said, "A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing." My classroom should be a safe space for students to try and try again, to practice and perfect. Nothing worth doing can be done well the first time. We all need that seam ripper sometimes. Goodness knows (as do my mom and sister), I've used that seam ripper more times than I can possible count.     

Friday, March 6, 2015

Little Boxes All the Same

Flickr Creative Commons image by Erich Ferdinand

Another snow day! My boys and I spend the morning slowly making our way out from under a blanket snuggled deep into the couch where we are watching The Boxtrolls to the kitchen where we make breakfast together. While whipping eggs together, I put on a playlist of tunes I compiled for my little guys, a mix of new songs and classics that I've been singing to both boys since the day they arrived. "Little Boxes" comes on. My mom would sing this to me when I was little.

Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes all the same
There's a pink one and a green one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same

And the people in the houses
All went to the university
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same
And there's doctors and lawyers
And business executives
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same...

So apparently the universe is sending me messages today in the form of boxes.

My boys love both the movie and the song. My son asks at one point, "Why do they 'come out all the same'?" He's six. I pause. I want to give him an honest response, about how when we become so concerned about success, about making sure that we are doing as well as our neighbor, we put ourselves into a metaphorical box; we try to standardize success. Although the colors of our boxes may be different, the system still pushes out the same boxes.

He's six.

So instead I ask him, "Why do you think they come out all the same?"
He pauses and responds, "Well, they are all in boxes." He's quite literal. He is six after all.
I push him a little. "Why do you think they're in boxes?"
"I dunno. Maybe they want to be the same."

Someday we'll have a longer, more philosophical conversation about who is putting us into boxes, what system those boxes are created for and created by. Someday we'll discuss what such standardization does to the individual and to our collective understanding of humanity. Maybe when he's seven.

In the meantime, the connection between my son's questions and mine in regards to our current state of standardized testing are abundantly clear. I stumbled across AJ Juliani's post yesterday titled "The False Hope of a Standard Path for our Students." In his post, he states,
"Teaching students to think about learning (and how they've come to an understanding) empowers them to think critically in any field. It is a complete role-reversal from the standard path, where students follow the rules, play the game of school, and hope for a reward at the end of their schooling in the form of a job."
Some of my students are very good at playing the game of school. They have succeeded in our current system and will move forward on that standard path from grade to grade, from high school to college, from college to job. However, many of my students have struggled to stay on that path. I have students who crumple under the weight of test anxiety, but when given the opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned through a presentation, show such confidence and critical analysis of our course content. I have students who second guess every answer they bubble in, yet whose writing demonstrates such eloquence and clarity of thought.  I have students in my class who take public transportation each morning from a hotel room they call home at the moment, who may not have had breakfast, and yet who are expected to care about short non-fiction passages on Queen Elizabeth. In our push to standardize and mechanize our education system, we are churning out students who succeed in little boxes and little bubbles. And we do this knowing full well that the skills that students need in order to be successful - creative and critical thinking, perseverance, ingenuity, collaboration, and imagination - are not easily tested by bubble in tests.

I don't want my sons to grow up thinking their goal is to be "just the same" as everyone else. That's not the type of education or life anyone should aspire to.

So how do we encourage change in a system that espouses the value of "thinking outside the box" while at the same time continues to put our learners into them?

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Sorry, Not Sorry

I should be grading, but to steal a line from my students, I'm sorry but not sorry.

I woke up to an inch an hour, snow falling in big fat flakes, coating our neighborhood in a downy blanket of white. It is quiet. There are 892 school closings in our area. Everyone is snuggled inside. And this would be the perfect time to pull up a few student essays, except this happened:
My kindergartener has loved this week, which kicked off with Read Across America day. Each day he has bounded off the school bus with a new story and a new connection to Dr. Seuss. Today was supposed to be crazy hair day at school, and he has had a plan for his hair since Monday. When he woke to find that school was cancelled due to snow, his lip jutted out and tears hovered on his lashes. He loves school. We don't use the word "hate" to describe things in our house, so you know it's serious when he declares, "I hate snow days!"  But within a few minutes, he's had a change of heart. He's convinced his younger brother to dress up with him, to spend the day dressed as Thing 1 and Thing 2. 

Breakfast is barely cleared from the table when my two boys get to work. They dig a cardboard box out the recycling and use crayons to make it red. They enlist me to use hair chalk to turn their hair blue. Suddenly Thing 1 and Thing 2 are bounding around our living room, bouncing out of their box, begging me to chase them, to try to lock them back into their chest like the Cat in the Hat tries to do. My boys are excited about bringing their books to life.

I want my high school readers to feel this excited. Okay, so my 15 and 16 year old readers are likely not going to come to school dressed as Tris from Divergent or Miles from Looking for Alaska. However, I want them to bring their enthusiasm for stories into our classroom, and for some, I want to help them rediscover that enthusiasm for reading. Somewhere between kindergarten and tenth grade, many of my students lost the love of being enveloped in a good story. I want to build a learning community that is excited to share their book recommendations. To do that, I need to open up space for students to choose their own books, discuss their good finds, to play with books.

But building this love of reading is not really something that can be tested, nor would I want to. So, in addition to not being all that sorry that I'm not spending my snow day grading in order to play Cat in the Hat with my boys, I'm also not at all sorry that I open up time for students to talk about books instead of spending time testing them on what they've read. I don't do plot tests or reading checks. It is wasted time. Talking about books is not wasted time. Exactly the opposite. I'm building life-long readers. So sorry, not sorry. 


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Fostering Creativity

You couldn't miss the nervous energy in the room this morning.

We've just finished reading Elie Wiesel's Holocaust memoir Night, and while reading, I asked students to keep track of significant quotations from the book, quotations that impacted them as a reader, quotations that stung and haunted. For about a week now, we've been sharing our quotes, both digitally as well on posters that hang about my classroom. And it all lead up to today.

Late last week, I introduced to my students the purpose behind keeping track of all those quotations. Not only would we be referencing them in our class discussions, but I asked each student to pick one. Pick a quote that speaks to our human condition and do something creative with it. That's it. That was the assignment. Do something creative. 

Okay, so I asked them to do a couple more things with the quotation, like have it cited correctly on their work and connect to a well-worded theme statement that they could discuss and connect to our current lives, but I didn't give a set of step-by-step instructions. Instead, I hung a few exemplary projects from previous students around the room and gave them space and time to think. Be creative.

We often ask our students to be creative, to think critically, to be original, but then we don't give them space to do this in the classroom. If students do not see what creativity looks like, what it sounds like, and how it happens, it is incredibly difficult to nurture. 

Yesterday a student came into class with her canvas covered in black and white photos of shoes, melted crayon wax dripping over her images. She used class time to paint Mod Podge onto her canvas. And the student sitting next to her, a young man working on a collage, had no idea what to think. He had never heard of Mod Podge or decoupage. I overheard a whole conversation between these two students about how you can use the gel medium to seal and transfer images, to collage and create in ways that he never thought of. And while it started as a conversation that may have been better suited to an art classroom, it pretty quickly changed into a conversation about why each student had selected their particular quote, why they were making particular design choices, format and genre choices for their creative piece, and connections they were making to things learned in their World Cultures course. I eavesdropped on a conversation that involved the words "analysis" and "rhetoric." And that conversation may not have happened in quite the same way if something tangible, something creative hadn't connected them.

And so today, when I asked students to share their creativity with the class, there was a palpable anxiousness in the room. Sure, a few were anxious about speaking in front of their peers, but even more so, there seemed to be an excitement to share their creations and revelations. I asked for volunteers to present and hands shot up. We discussed the visual choices and connections of our mixed media artists, heard original poetry, watched a video recording of an original modern dance performed by two of my students, talked typography choices as part of visual rhetoric. Students analyzed how messages and how themes connected with readers.  At more than one point during our class, I had students explain why and how they decided to alter their original plans in order to better reflect the theme presented by the quotation. After the bell to end class rang, a student came up to tell me that she had rediscovered water colors for this project, that in painting her piece she connected to the quotation through the process of painting.

And while some might look at this project as being "fluff," I know that by having my students produce something creative connecting quotations and themes that my students will be better equipped to write their original essays on themes found in their reading next week. I may not have had my students complete a graphic organizer or a sentence outline, but my classroom is now a gallery of quotations. They have evidence. Students will have heard 25 original theme statements before ever putting pen to paper when they write their essay on a theme found in their reading. They have support. They will have been thoroughly immersed in conversations about rhetoric, analyzing the impact of choices, both artistic and written before they ever begin to draft their essays. And opening up time and space in the classroom for students be creative also opened up opportunities for my students to analyze a text in new and creative ways. I won't have 25 of the exact same essays to read next week because I gave students space to engage with one another in order to produce something creative.  They are now better prepared to write creatively and critically about the text. In asking them to produce something original, they are now better equipped to write something original. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Proud Fangirl

It arrived today. I went down to check my school mailbox during my lunch period, and there it was. A big white envelop addressed to me...from Patty McCormick. Yup, Patty. So when I came back into the teacher's workroom with my white envelop, holding a signed copy of Sold which author Patricia McCormick donated for our March Madness Book Battle, I'm pretty sure I was floating. Earlier last week, as students and staff were suggesting titles for our March Madness Book Battle, I reached out to some of the authors whose books were nominated a number of times by our community. Ms. McCormick's novels Sold and Never Fall Down were recommended multiple times. I sent an email to her assistant and publisher. Within 24 hours, Ms. McCormick emailed me directly offering to send signed copies of both of her books. She signed the email "Patty."

When the email hit my inbox, I'm not going to lie, I may have spent the next 30 minutes telling every student and staff member in earshot that I had just received an email from Patty.

You can only imagine what happened when the signed book arrived today.

Sitting at the lunchroom table, a fellow English teacher commented, "I love that authors are celebrities for you. You are such an English teacher!" It's true. I've met a few celebrities. While on the set of Wonder Boys, I was able take a photo with and get an autograph from Michael Douglas. Wanda Sykes shops at my grocery store. But the nervous jitters and joy I feel when connecting with an author is unparalleled. There is something about first connecting with a text, with a well-developed character and a captivating story, and then meeting the writer. I can rattle off a list of writers that I have had the opportunity to meet in person: Georgia Head, Ishmeal Beah, Edwidge Danticat, Julie Otsuka...okay, I'll stop name-dropping. All to say, I am a fangirl. Squeal out loud and fluttering hands fangirl. I am a literature fangirl.

And proud of it!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Opening the Door to Strangers

I love bringing authors and guest speakers into my classroom. It's selfish really, but I love learning from experts and writers. I am passionate about opening up opportunities for my high school readers and writers to ask questions of experts they might not have access to in their daily lives. Okay, I like to be able to ask questions of experts I might not ordinarily have access to outside the classroom. Today was no exception.

This morning Donna Nordmark Aviles came to speak with my tenth grade students about this history of the orphan train movement in the United States. In preparation for our visit from author Christina Baker Kline who is coming to speak about her book Orphan Train next week, Ms. Aviles shared the story of her grandfather, sent to ride the orphan train to Kansas in 1919 along with his brother.  Inspired by her grandfather's story, Ms. Aviles spent a number of years researching the history of the orphan train movement, one of the first social welfare programs introduced in the United States. Orphans from the large east coast cities, like New York City and Philadelphia where immigration populations exploded, were taken from orphanages and placed onto trains headed west where Midwestern families would either adopt the children or use them as extra labor on farms.

The opportunity to hear the real story behind the historical fiction story of Orphan Train was fascinating. Bringing in outside voices helps to build a greater sense of empathy, a greater sense of responsibility to bear witness to the lives and to injustice when and where they see it. As a teacher, I have the opportunity and responsibility to facilitate those sorts of introductions. I hold open the doors of opportunity, facilitate learning, and introduce students to possibility. I open my classroom doors to strangers in the hopes that all us become more acquainted with the voices in our community.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Comfortable with Chaos

Today's the day.

March 1st kicks off the month-long blogging challenge hosted by the Two Writing Teachers blog. I participated last year for the first time in their daily Slice of Life Writing Challenge and connected with so many fantastic teachers and writers that I just had to do it again this year. So, what is the challenge? Write about a slice of your day, a small moment from each day for the month of March. Participants are encouraged to comment on the blogs of other "slicers" and share feedback using #SOL15. Interested? There's still time to join. Just head on over to the participant post.

I'm not sure what is going on here, although I'm sure there is a story. There always is. I walk into my boys' room, and in addition to painfully stepping onto a errant Lego brick, I find this scene, one among many, set up on their Lego table. When my eldest, now in kindergarten, first started playing with Legos a few years back, he would follow the directions that came with each set. Sets were stored in their original boxes with the directions. And you could never mix sets together. No way. But somewhere in the course of the past year, that changed. Sets are intermixed, directions tossed aside, and I can hear my two boys making up stories for their creations as they build them. Astronaut knights fight evil dragons with the help of alien robots.

My boys wanted the rules and directions when they first started to build. I would watch them at the dining room table as they pieced together each creation, carefully following the step-by-step instructions. And they still do this when opening a new set, but after the set has been built to the directions the first time, it is likely the last time that we will see the set in that form again. Now it is about the story. They've figured out the basics: how to build with joints and wheels, how to make a hinged jaw or a contraption to fire missiles.  Sets are mixed together in comfortable chaos.  Knowing the rules helped them feel more at ease breaking them.

There's a lesson here.

I want my students to be comfortable in the chaos of learning that happens in our classroom. I want them to take ownership and initiative, but I can't expect this from day one, especially when so many of them have not had many opportunities to do so. Instead, teachers expect students to follow our instructions, our directions, our curriculum. And much of the time, our students are not involved in the process of creating those rules. So to expect students to think creatively, to embrace the chaos, and take initiative from the very first day of our class is not only unrealistic, but it is also unreasonable. Just like my little master builders, my students need to be shown models, introduced to mentors, and gradually handed the reins of responsibility. Students need to be able to identify what defines the box before they can think outside of it. Students need to learn the building blocks of writing before they begin to challenge what the rules of writing mean for their own rhetorical expression.

But like my little Lego creators, I want my students to be the narrators of their own stories, to be confident in their creations, to be comfortable in the chaos that comes with creating something new and meaningful. The goal is not to have students follow my rules; the goal is to have them make their own.

Related Posts: