Friday, January 25, 2013

Perspiration & Perspicacity

Using a blog in the classroom contains so much potential for all subject areas. Yet in order to convince others to use it as a tool, I need to be able to demonstrate and defend its use in my English classroom first. It started two years ago, but I had a difficult time sustaining any momentum with the students.

Signing up for computer lab time was difficult. Not every student had access to the internet from home. So, using a classroom set of iPads was the dream--and I wrote a grant.

Several months later, I had a half a classroom set of iPads and writing beyond our writer's notebook began...but the kids didn't really know what to do. An iPad for many is a toy...a device used to take funny pictures or play games with.

As a writing and creation are not there yet naturally.

Since the blog was for nothing more than another avenue for writing, I saw it as an online writer's notebook. I assumed (ha!) that students would just go about their writerly business with ease.

Not so much.

Initially, my students stuck to very starchy topics. Almost afraid to let go, they wrote about school. They wrote about what we were school. They wrote as if they were responding to discussion school. 

After much coaxing--I literally had to tell them often that it was alright to write about anything--that it was alright to be messy--it was alright to be rough--some finally started to break away from writing what they assumed I wanted them to write about.

Still, it was only a few per class.

I took to posting on their blogs as well. I took to taking the first five minutes of class to read the blogs I projected on the wall. I took to leaving the iPads out on the desk and invited them to blog or comment during the first five minutes of class as students settled in for the lesson. I had to teach them about etiquette, and writing in public, and the use of white space in a post (we're still not so good with that).

And now slowly, after much sweating it out on my part (are they ever going to buy in to this) I am finding evidence of perspicacity among the masses. We have a pulse. The beads of sweat have formed, we're warm, and we are writers.

I am finding that students are using the blog to be critical...


and reflective.

I also have my share of dreamers, complainers, poets, socialites, etc. The bottom line--without fear of judgment from an adult, students write. And they never ask how long. 

Sometimes they fret about not having anything to say...sometimes. But that seems to pass too.

For me, having students write on the blog has opened the doors to understanding. It helps me (and it helps them) understand each individual  as a writer and as a person. This fact alone has made the implementation of the iPads in the classroom worth it. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Our Role: Reveal the Possibilities

A man twenty years my senior, knowing I am to be married for the first time this May, repeated my age (44) aloud and grinned wide as he said, “Death is the next great event you’ll wait for. That’s all that’s left.”  He said it like a fact. Like a rule. We coach together at the local university. Bundled up for October in Pennsylvania, I wanted to say “thank you.” His joke reminded me of how many possibilities awaited me. The late afternoon sun was low. The shadows, long and thin, trailed us. His words stuck with me through the chilled evening practice. Over us, the sky lowered itself into blue night. That moment, those words, redefined this school year for me.

I left practice thinking about the people in my life and we are all students, teachers, and mentors for each other—no matter our age or title. We are in this together—whether we realize it or not.

Our lives are in part defined by our education, and our education is a puzzle to be assembled. Like children with elbows on a table, we see the possibilities of our lives revealed as puzzle pieces are locked together. The puzzle can be as full and wide as we like—there are no rules for what our lives can be.  There are no rules—only possibilities.

Education introduces us to the possibilities. Whether our fingers are tuned for the manipulation of music, or our muscles are disciplined for the strain of athletics, or our front lobes are wired for rhetoric, human beings need a safe place to arrange and rearrange the pieces—a place to see all of the possibilities.

Therefore, my role as a teacher is to help students discover the possibilities inside and outside our walls and guide them to begin to piece together not just who they are, but who they can become. Just writing those words, who they can become, is exciting because the words make me think of myself, who I can become, as much as I think of my students. And that is a good thing. Never finished, we are exploring our individual pieces and possibilities together.

In my case, thirteen year-olds need to feel comfortable in order to move forward. So often, I see and hear 8th grade students who are used to being told what to do. Whether it is from well-intention adults, the adolescents I teach are at the age when few listen to them--young people are dying for an adult in their life who listens to them.

Sadly, for years, I never listened to my students except for when I directed the school play. Sitting in a circle before rehearsal, we each took a turn to say something about our day. In most cases it lasted for a few minutes and then we moved on to warm-ups and rehearsal. Yet, sometimes they spoke in circle for two hours, with me just listening. Some days we never rehearsed the play. We just talked. And rehearsed life.

Directing the plays showed me that adolescents crave opportunities to be heard without judgment.

Year after year I received letters from cast members. Not about “the play” but about “circle.” I tried to apply the basic tenets of my role in “circle” to my classroom: listen, smile, and avoid judgment. And then I received a letter from a young girl named Becky. For the first time a letter wasn’t about “circle” but about something bigger:
…Other teachers walked by in the hallway.  But he would smile and say "Hi Becky," or simply smile.  Either way, I actually remembered it and thought about it when I got home from school that day.  It would brighten up my day.  If he didn't realize it, I always wanted to tell him that when I felt lost and confused, I always knew that I could talk to him about it.  I never did talk to him about a personal problem, but just knowing that if I did tell  him he would listen.  It helped me figure things out and find my way. 

How we handle kids--how we speak to them, about them, with them--often has as much to do with their confidence moving forward than any other factor. I actualize this when I remind myself to see myself as a mentor or when I am reminded by someone else that my possibilities are still out there.
Writing alongside of my students, I consciously work at having them regard me as a mentor of writing, and not as a judge. What they write, I write. And I give them choice. We write freely together in writer’s notebooks and on the classroom blog. We freely choose the books we want to read, in addition what we are supposed to read—and we share the connections we make in our self-selected reading.

We work to see our writing as a piece of art—I literally have a frame hanging in my classroom. Inside of this frame I will place student writing in all of its forms. If I can raise how they see themselves in their own eyes then I am on my way to mentoring kids forward, towards the possibilities.

It is so important and relevant that they see me as a writer and a reader. So I have to walk the walk. Last spring we started to submit our writing to the local paper, The Unionville Times. Because of the quality of our submissions, editor Mike McGann notified me that he was creating a new section called “Local Voices.” Now, anyone in the community has a forum to have their writing read, including our students.

It was just last spring when I thought of another possibility—I formed a writing group for adults called “Parents and Grandparents as Writers.” For nine consecutive Tuesdays in the Spring I offered a free writing workshop to any parent or grandparent in our school district community. Welcoming six brave souls, we made it through all nine workshops—of course, we were competing with the Chester County Night School’s bridge club! Right in the next room in the library, over fifty senior citizens met to play bridge. How I wish I could infiltrate that group for some senior writers for this coming year…because the possibilities are endless for all of us. And our teachers, our mentors, and our students are all around us. We are one and the same. The beauty is that we never stop learning, especially when we come to understand in our time that all of our puzzles connect with one another.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

One Problem Defined

Nominated for something recently, I had the opportunity to respond in one typed, double-spaced page to the following prompt about the teaching profession:

  1. Define the major issues in public education today.  Address one in depth, outlining possible causes, effects, and resolutions.
  2. Describe how Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Standards Aligned System can inform and improve education in our schools.
  3. Describe what you do to strengthen and improve the teaching profession.

Focusing instead on one connected thought in the required space, my reply ignores the second charge of the writing prompt. Well-intention, the inclusion of this second component of the question serves to partially help me make my point-- education wants to herd everything in measurable value-added categories. The plain truth remains, education does not always fit the rubric or the test. The prompt asked the nominees to address a problem in public education and that is what I did.

In a 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama said, “The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.”  And thus, innovation is a major issue in public education today because it does not fit the current model of Draconian education reform.  We get what we emphasize, Mr. President.

The President wants innovators, yet education reform emphasizes numbers and scores. Framed by policy makers, academics, and politicians, current education reform is built on numbers and testing and as Diane Ravitch wrote in The New York Times on January, 2011,  “None of these ideas is supported by research or has a record of success.” And across American teachers wait for judgment to fall upon them.

So you’ll forgive the confusion and angst among my peers when they hear the President romanticize, “What we can do -- what America does better than anyone else -- is spark the creativity and imagination of our people."  Creativity and imagination can’t be scored…and should not be scored. 

Creativity and imagination are the sisters of failure. And when we say we embrace innovation we have to say that we embrace failure. Beautiful failure! Oh how I wish we meant what we said.
So let’s be honest, if I am selected as Pennsylvania’s Teacher of the Year I would like to tell President Obama and Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan the truth. We will only find creativity, imagination, and innovation in our schools, when we have inspired teachers.  And inspiration only comes with time…time that has been stolen from America’s teachers. Our leaders have to give teachers their time back—without a value added. Without fear of failure. Trust us.
Whether we discuss Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Pablo Picasso, or Carl Sandberg, all of history’s great innovators embraced equal amounts of solitude, collaboration, and failure. How would anyone measure a Tesla or a Picasso failure? Yet we are quick to embrace their triumphs, aren’t we?

I add strength to the teaching profession by embracing the tenets of creativity, innovation, and imagination through solitude, collaboration, and accepting failure as a chance for growth with my peers and my students. I model it in my professional life through active involvement in the National Writing Project at West Chester University (Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project), blogging about teaching, creating my own daily professional development on Twitter—all of these contain components of solitude and collaboration. And then I demand it in my class by granting students the privilege of equal amounts of solitude and collaboration. Solitude to read books of interest. Collaboration on big ideas in what we read. Solitude to explore our thoughts through writing. Collaboration to grow our writing with feedback from peers and mentors. By reading and writing in solitude and in collaboration I engage my students to see where language fails us on the path towards winning the future and inspiring something better for our world.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

"Get a skull"

For my writer friends, I wandered into this passage on writing lists in Ross King's Leonardo and the Last Supper:
 Leonardo enjoyed making lists. His notebooks include many catalogs and inventories evidently made on the occasions he packed up his belongings for a trip or move. He also composed lists of things he hoped to learn or acquire. Quite often the two lists got jumbled together, making for some strange juxtapositions. In one such list he made himself a note to get Avicenna's work on "useful inventions" translated, before going on to itemize such artistic necessities as charcoal, chalk, pens, and wax. Then he abruptly added, "Get a skull." The list rounds off with mustard, boots, gloves, combs, towels, and shirts. Another list combines his ambition to learn the multiplication of square roots with a reminder to pack his socks."
Skull by Andy Warhol
How I would love to see these lists.

As a Fellow of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project I have come to understand the usefulness of lists and try to impart them as a strategy to my students. However, it is (geekily) thrilling to find someone of this ilk who kept a notebook...and better yet...kept lists.

I imagine many writers out there have to smile at this small note about Leonardo da Vinci.