Archive for January, 2016

So, I’ve been thinking about the impact that restraints have on writing. This was a topic on one of the days of the teaching writing workshop I attended and loved over the summer. The two creative writing teachers shared a number of ideas from their classes.

The idea is that having some constraints around the writing is in fact helpful for getting going. They particularly suggested setting as something to consider making a constraint. So, the class might brainstorm a list of possible settings and then each student would write a brief piece set in one of the times and places. Try considering this yourself. If you are told the story takes place on a bus or in a local chain restaurant or at the library, there are probably ideas that come to your mind right away.

This past semester one of my goals for my English class was to do some creative writing. We did talk about the setting exercise and played with the idea in class. Then, what I ended up doing was asking students to find a sentence in the book we had just finished and use it in their creative writing. (I wrote earlier about my other goal for this project, which was to find an audience for this work. That part did not end up being super successful. More on that later.) However, providing the constraint of the sentence by our expert author was successful. Some students took a sentence and also borrowed a similar  general genre. Sentences from Slaughterhouse-Five ended up in new stories about people returning from war. However, others took it as a deliberate challenge to do exactly the opposite with the sentence. What? Students setting a challenging goal for themselves and then following through? Victory.

I did not write a story with a sentence, although I should have. I have continued to work on blackout poetry, which I have written about numerous times on its own and in conjunction with my personal taxonomy projects. Most recently I tried using catalog text, which did not lead to such great work. I have been thinking about moving to the sports section of the newspaper as my starting block. Like my student who wanted to turn the sentence he found on its head, I wanted to take on the constraint of articles from the sports section and erase all sports from the resulting poems. Although I had started this a few times, I finally got to it on our snow day. Sports themed blackout poetry taxonomy project here I come. Thank you Jonas the blizzard.

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I took the Sunday Sports section of the January 24th New York Times and started with the front page articles. I was lucky in that there were a few not so sporty articles. As I got going, I realized that the article was continued on an inside page, as were all the articles. So, I decided to add another constraint to my poetry–all the poems from the front page portion of the article had to end with the word continued (or continue).

I found that having that end goal gave direction to some of my other word picking. I find it easy to be distracted by a choice word when I am trying to write one of these poems. (I have the same trouble at a buffet. One thing grabs my attention and then the next thing you know I have a plate full of random items that do not go together in any way other than they are yummy.) Since I do need to have something leap out at me or force me to make a first choice, it’s in some ways handy to have a word jump out at me. The problem is that sometimes that first sparkly word should just be the catalyst and nothing more (catalysts do not actually get mixed in with the chemical reactions. They get things going, but stay apart. So interesting.) Anyway, some of the first words that catch my eye or ear should not really be involved at all in the final poem. But knowing that I had at least one word all set was sort of comforting.

Here are the three first poems.

Poem 1

Untitled

A car shop on Friday afternoon

He leaned on the counter and smacked the bell several times

He claims to have arrived that day

He figures that some version of his sales pitch can continue.

Poem 2

“Danger May Lurk”

Take Pause,

They meet to decide to do

Something they rarely do

It is continued.

Poem 3

“Most Unlikely”

The man did not mind

The talk about lucky charm that seemed to grow

Like virulent kitchen mold.

There is the matter of finances;

The spending continued.

Then, I decided that I would go to the continuation of each article and make another poem from the rest of the article. No continued in this poem and the point was to have the poem be different. I also tried to have words from all columns, even though the poems are meant to be read left to right instead of up and down, and to have some words towards the end so that the poem got all the way, or most of the way, down the page. This seemed important to me visually; I’m not sure why. Another constraint.

First second part

“At Least in Winter”

From the front room you can probably see

Posters from the movie.

I’m thinking why would you do that?

For about the next 15 years

He does good work–great work,

Cradling the phone

Flashing a peace sign.

Second second part

“Favorites, Take Pause”

At this time of year

You just get accustomed to this trouble spot.

In late November love

Was a lot different

To play.

Final second part

“Most Improbable”

The story routinely

Almost exclusively

And undeniable

Took place at the final buzzer

In Charlotte four years ago.

He would never forget

That there was more.

So, there you have it. I claim neither to have written award-winning poetry nor to have students who wrote prize-winning stories. However, we all created. We all made these little bits of things with words within the constraints, which turned out not to constrain us at all.

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They Fooled Me

Posted: January 18, 2016 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,
public domain image from Pixabay.com

public domain image from Pixabay.com

So I’ve been thinking about what I learned about teaching this semester. There are plenty of things I worked hard to do that I can look to as successes. However, I can do better.

I have written about the fact that I found teaching seniors to feel strangely familiar, even though I had never taught this grade level before. I think the biggest take away I have should not be a surprise to me.

The seniors are kids. I know this; I believe this; I say this in other situations. But, did I teach with this in mind?

I wanted to be very aware of the fact that the young people in front of me were not 10 or even 14 years old anymore. When we had creative writing assignments, I set PG, maybe PG-13, as the upper rating for their work, because I knew where some of them might go otherwise. I paid attention to college application deadlines, when acceptances and rejections were delivered, the impact a breakup could have on productivity. I deliberately chose a book and tackled some topics in that book with particular attention given that these young people will, most likely, be living away from home next year. And yet, I also was swayed by their air of confidence and ease. I fell for it. So, when I gave a quick explanation of something, asked if everyone got it, I believed them when they said yes. I know better! I know to give the complete explanation, at least at the beginning, to ask for questions rather than comprehension. I didn’t let 5th graders or 9th graders get away with that, but …

I taught the people these seniors wanted to be seen as, rather than who they were. I assumed things at the beginning that meant I had to back track later. My 5th grade teacher self is yelling you know this, you worked so hard to do this clearly and effectively before. What have you forgotten in these few short years?

It’s easy to look at 10 and 11 year olds and see kids. Their very beings scream the words. Even the ones who are already becoming abstract thinkers, getting the jokes, engaging in real discussion about ideas give away their age in ways big and small. There is no mistaking them for adults.

The seniors tricked me, some of them, not just by their physical selves, but through the things they talked about before class began, the questions they wanted to ask me about my life (some of which I did not answer), by their boldness. And so, I did not clearly state some of the basics from the beginning. I assumed. I mistook the physical for the academic. I was overly cautious about not teaching them like the little kids they clearly are not, but should have taught them more like the big kids they clearly are.

So, this semester, I vow to see those big people sitting in front of me as big kids, without making anyone feel bad or condescended to. I’ve got a whole list of what that will mean, but I’ll spare you the class-specific details. Any suggestions?

Wish me luck.

YA Literature Elective Begins

Posted: January 16, 2016 in Uncategorized
flickr photo by Tracy Elizabeth http://flickr.com/photos/tracyelizabeths/7411953756 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

flickr photo by Tracy Elizabeth http://flickr.com/photos/tracyelizabeths/7411953756 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

So, I’ve been thinking about teaching YA novels in high school for a few years. I am going to get a chance to do just that, with second semester seniors, just to add a little wrinkle to things.

Each set of works will have a required read for all and then some choice. My goal here is to have some quantity to discuss and compare.

Here’s the outline of the class.

Unit 1

required title: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. If students have been at my school since 5th grade, they will have read this then. I am curious to how they read this differently now and am really looking forward to talking with older students about this book.

choice titles: Combo 1: Hush by Jacqueline Woodson and Monster by Walter Dean Myers OR Combo 2: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson and The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.

Unit 2

Required title: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Will anyone have read this?

Choice titles: Haroon and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie or The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente.

Unit 3

Required title: Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande.

Choice Titles: Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan or Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan.

Finally, we are going to read a number of articles that made up some online debate in 2014 (started by this piece on Slate) about adults reading YA literature. I know my seniors are not quite adults, but I’m going with it.

Fingers crossed. I am so excited.

Any thoughts on the book choices or reading YA with older students? I could always use any words of wisdom you have.

So, I’ve been thinking about being silent in a group, how different it can feel, and how it should figure in my teaching.

flickr photo by blech​ http://flickr.com/photos/blech/4976399329 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

flickr photo by blech​ http://flickr.com/photos/blech/4976399329 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

My personal family and I attend Quaker meeting. We all show up, sit down, and settle in to the silence for an hour. Sometimes people stand up and “share their testimony” but there are no official statements, songs, sermons, messages. I have to say, when we first started going, it felt odd. I had a hard time quieting my mind; I made a lot of lists in my head. However, once I became more familiar with being in community and in silence at the same time, it became comfortable. Many people close their eyes, which is not a euphemism for sleeping (at least not always). So there we are, a group of people sitting in silence, maybe even with our eyes closed.

Sitting in silence in a group for an hour and not feeling awkward? Not the norm, but what might be gained by adding some Meeting silence to the classroom?

In the classroom silence often feels different. When a discussion is going nowhere and students are not participating, silence can be awkward or signal lack of engagement. When students are taking an assessment or working independently that silence feels purposeful. All that working going on gives the silence an entirely different feel. Rather than the emptiness of non-participation, this working silence is full and busy.

The school situation that might be closest to Meeting is “think time” –time we give students to think in preparation for writing or discussion. Think time is generally a few minutes. Yet, I find that it is often not easy to spend even 5 minutes in silence, for me or for the students. What is it about the expectations of the classroom that make silence uncomfortable? Do we feel like we need to be “doing” all the time? What does it mean to make good use of the time? I feel pressure to have class be useful, to prove my value add.  When students are working quietly, I take the opportunity to have individual conversations with students. So much for silence.

Back to silent think time in the classroom. Does good teaching mean that teachers are thinking a lot or students are thinking a lot? This Edutopia article says students should be doing the thinking. I agree that students should be learning to think, and I think that teachers should be doing a lot of thinking too. I would just say that my teacher thinking should neither negate nor make unnecessary student thinking; it should support student thinking, or parallel it, or be next to it.

Often thinking means quiet. If we can’t be silent, can we think deeply enough? A few years ago I overheard some students talking. One said to the other,

I can’t be creative at school. If I really need to work, I have to do that at home.

To me, those words ‘creative’ and ‘work’ speak to thinking and silence. Here we are again at how to be quiet in community. How can I support that in my classroom? Am I asking students to give me updates on their thinking too quickly? How comfortable am I with students thinking but not doing (because thinking takes time)?

Some things for me to consider in the new year.

 

 

So, I’ve been thinking about big installation type maker/art project. My New Year’s plan is to make some sort of installation myself, or with a little help from my friends.

Here are some of my inspirations:

I have been mildly obsessed with Jie Qi’s work for some time. Her interactive painting is beyond amazing.

 

In addition, I really enjoyed the responsive art in this TED talk by Aparna Rao.

I love her frames quickly standing at attention. And, the way she talks about her work, so serious and quiet, cerebral, is such an interesting counterpoint to the playful and lighthearted work itself.

My personal family went to see the Ann Hamilton: the event of a thread exhibit at the Park Avenue Armory three years ago, and we all still talk about it. Huge swings were hung in the Armory. The swings were also attached to a large curtain that hung though the center of the long side of the space. So, as visitors swung, the curtain undulated. There was also a sound component in addition to pigeons. Not only did we enjoy swinging, but watching the curtain wave was a different and equally engaging action. People reclined on the floor and just watched, mesmerized. (There is a video on the site linked above as well.)

 

 

Recently, my amazing colleague @Mr_Fornaro visited another school’s maker space and reported that they had rigged up a Makey Makey to two flights of stairs, not just a few steps or a few places on the railing. So, as you can tell, I start thinking on a very reasonable scale. This is what I do. It does not always produce good results.

Then I remembered a fortune that I had saved. It said:

If you want good advice, consult your mother.

Putting all of this together, I had a plan to create an interactive experience using a Makey Makey, some sort of bar or rail, a number of old rotary telephones, and recordings of real advice from real mothers. I had thought that there would be a big sign or something on the wall with the fortune/saying. When I met with tired new dad @Mr_Fornaro, he was excited to help and has some experience with Makey Makeys. He also knew of some students who might be interested in the project–more friends! As we discussed, we both simplified and built-in potential for expansion. Fantastic. One of my original ideas was to include the larger school community in advice collecting. Our thought on that: totally doable.

As I was describing this to my personal family at dinner tonight we thought of a few more ideas. (Hmm, is this a family trait to plan big? Perhaps.) Maybe it’s a booth or pay phone box that says “advice from mom” or something instead of “telephone” at the top. Then we thought, maybe it’s an advise station and different phones would have different themes: advice from mom, words of encouragement, etc. Oooooh, so many ideas.

I have to say I am so excited about the prospect of this actually getting created. Plus, my conversations about the plan totally reinforce my belief in the importance of brainstorming with others. Even though I am currently working on a post about the importance of silence and prolonged thinking, I have always been a big fan of brainstorming with other people who are also interested in generating a lot of ideas and talking around the topic. The person who wants to go with the first plan/idea/thought and finish the task is not the collaborator I am looking for. However,the person who loves a good rolling around of ideas is exactly the collaborator for me.

Back to the plan. The space we are targeting is not available at the moment, but we can get stated on our first prototypes.

Any other collaborators out there have some ideas to share?