Thursday, November 20, 2014

Truth & Generosity

The grace of connecting with students can sometimes last over lifetimes.

This week, Victoria Marini, literary agent at Gelfman Schneider in New York City, gave my 8th graders advice about their writing. Using Twitter, my students fired off questions about writing to the literary agent all day long. And, all day long, the literary agent responded. I was so proud of the questions the kids asked her. What they are writing matters to us and having the unique opportunity to engage with Torie was not lost on my students.

At one stage, an 8th grade girl looked up at me from her iPad and asked, "how did you connect with this literary agent?"

I taught Torie.

And the girl's face lit up. She didn't expect that answer. She said something along the lines of how cool that was as she made sure others around her knew what I had said.

Yep, years ago...I taught Torie.

Well, I "directed" her in the middle school play back in the late 90s. I remember casting her as the Dauphin in Henry V because I thought she had the natural instinct and sensitivity for it. More specifically, during auditions, I could already envision her playing the moment when the Dauphin receives the king's message that England would not give up. England would fight. The significance of that moment is that the Dauphin can see that this brash English King will win. That France is up against it even though they outman and out "gun" England. I knew she would play the significance of that moment. I knew she would "get" it.

It is 17 years since we worked on that play together, and I remember those decisions and I remember her sincerity as a person and as a young actor.

Torie came along on a school trip to the University of Wyoming that I organized. I set up a week long visit for fifteen kids interested in pursuing the arts in college. One of the professors, Leigh Selting, was so open to the idea that he let my students sit in on college theater classes and organized special training sessions in voice, fight, dance, set design, acting for the camera, et al. My kids even prepared monologues to deliver in front of their theater faculty. As Torie performed her scene from Paul Zindel's The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Professor Selting turned to me and whispered, "She's so goooood. She's the real stuff."

I'll never forget that either.

When Torie went to high school she came back and assisted me with the middle school play. This act inspired many others to also help. For many years I often entertained anywhere from 6-10 student directors from the high school. Torie started that. And then she graduated. And, like so many of the kids we teach, she vanished into her life.

We lost touch until recently.

I reached out to Torie just as my current students were starting to write their collaborative MG novel. Fortunately, the timing worked out for us and Torie connected with my students on Twitter just as we started to read and comment on each others work.

As we shared our thoughts and questions about each others' work on post-its, we read them and crafted questions for Torie. Students were milling around the room, reading and writing, talking and felt like a writer's studio. We were experimenting--together. We were talking about writing--together. We were thinking--together. We were creating--together.

And we also had someone help us. Someone who was just like them not too long ago. Someone who sat in these desks yesterday, and took the time today to model giving back and sharing.

When I knew the adolescent Torie on the stage, I made a point of drumming home the two words "Truth & Generosity" to my young actors. I did it so often I put a gold plate on our drama award that read "Truth & Generosity." We talked about it every day. We really did. That is not an exaggeration. We would talk about how we can find ways in our life to practice both of those virtues. For us, then, it was as simple as listening when someone else was talking, listening when someone else needed us.

Initially, I thought this blog post would be about the cool experience my kids had with writing, or Twitter, or a literary agent. Instead, I think what sticks most to me is the importance of how we make kids feel in our classrooms. And this week, a former student helped me make my current students feel like writers...they feel it...they believe they can do this. For some kids, it is the first time that they think of themselves as writers.

Thank you, Torie! Some connections do indeed last over lifetimes.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Like it Matters

I don't want to ruin it for everyone.

That line is following me around at school.  It waits for me in the morning. Flicking on the light to me classroom, the sound of it is long gone, but its impact left an echo that lingers.

I don't want to ruin it for everyone.

About two weeks ago I introduced a new project to my classes. We are writing a collaborative MG novel where each student is responsible for a 250 word segment.

We outlined a plot and broke it into 100 segments because, at the time, I had 100 students. Students chose their scene. One writer per scene.

Having secured funding, we will soon be sending our 50,000 word manuscript off to CreateSpace. We will be paying for three rounds of editorial services along with some of the other self-publishing services offered. Students will soon be receiving professional feedback. The editor's notes will soon ignite some great class discussion.

But before we cross that bridge, I wanted to share something.

When I asked my classes if they were excited to work together to publish a book, many raised their hands with enthusiasm. One boy exclaimed, "Think about it. How often in math do you actually get to go outside and measure a cylinder for some job site. I like that we actually get to apply things. We can write for real."

Some were not as excited initially. When I pressed on and asked what was going through the minds of those who did not raise their hands, one boy spoke.

He said, I don't want to ruin it for everyone.

I asked him to elaborate. And he did. But something else happened. Others spoke up too--both in agreement and support. The initial feelings were that no one wants to be person who writes the scene that ruins the, we will talk about it. A lot. And read and help each other.

And talk about our writing, talk about our writing, talk about our writing. If nothing else were to come out of this at the very least I can say my kids talk and talk and talk about their writing like it matters.

Because it does.

As we selected scenes and then created drafts through the eyes and voices of six separate characters, I kept checking in with my students as they wrote. More often then note, they flagged me over to talk.

When we talked, we talked about characters, conflicts, dialogue, action, setting, and word choice. They asked me to read their work again and again. They passed around their notebooks and Chromebooks to each other on their own--wanting peers to read their work. Remember, it is only 250 words per student--a completely manageable number of words. It leaves a lot of room for conferring, revision, and experimentation with writing.

I don't have to press or lean on them. They bring the energy and a really interesting positive anxiety because in this moment their writing matters. It feels like a room full of athletes or performers about to step into the spotlight to do their thing--and the anxiety that courses through the veins of someone ready to simultaneously test and share themselves is very real among my kids.

After a few days I told my classes that I don't know if I could ever create this rush of importance, anxiety, pressure, and excitement with any other piece of writing. Usually, students try to write to me, their peers, our community. But now, the implication is that we are truly writing for real readers ...out there...readers who will have real opinions. We are paying to put an ISBN on our book. People will be able to buy our self-published effort internationally as well.

So, for the first time, ever, in twenty years in my classroom, all of my kids are feeling the same wonderful thing all at once:

it matters.