Saturday, May 30, 2015

Life is the dull bits--savor them.

As my school gets ready to celebrate and say good-bye to another senior class (seven of them this year), I found myself looking at old commencement speeches that I've given to honor my former advisees.  Having spent four years as their humanities teacher and advisor, it's always a challenge to summon both advice and final words that express how much they mean to me.  I decided to share this one that I wrote a couple years ago.  I like the message about writing and about life.  Here it is, almost as I read it on a hot day in June of 2013:

There’s a part of me that couldn’t wait to get up here and tell this group how much I love them and how I miss them already.  And yet part of me dreaded this; standing in a sweltering room, in front of hundreds of people, trying to say something meaningful—while trying not to cry--is a profound challenge.  

But now that I’m here, there’s no where else I’d rather be (kind of like when I leaped off that waterfall in the Dominican Republic with you all—I felt dread mingled with elation).

I admit to struggling with how to start this speech.  So I took some advice I give my students, which I shamelessly stole from composer John Cage.  He (and now, I) say:  “Begin Anywhere.” 

So, I’m going to begin by describing my writing process for this speech.  I started it many months ago during my daughter’s college orientation.  I scribbled a thought inspired by an effective speaker who welcomed us, the nervous parents. That scribble was the kernel. Then months later, I looked at what I had written, but it didn’t really inspire a speech.

I tried again: Memorial Day weekend, I sat at a friend’s kitchen counter as he prepared an omelette and I sipped coffee.  I scribbled down a few bits and pieces.  Then I went outside and scrubbed every inch of my car—inside and out. Still waiting for it to to come to me.

A few days later, listening to the same Tom Petty song over and over, I wrote a few bits in my head, hoping that it would be as brilliant as it seemed to be before it was on paper (it wasn’t really).  Eventually, I put all those bits and pieces together  (and deleted quite a few more), and it seemed that I had some semblance of a speech. 

That was when I realized that the writing process is a lot like life: We write –and live—in bits and pieces.  Layered together, sometimes with grace, sometimes with purpose and preparation, and sometimes not so much.  Each process also gets a little messy at times.  Anne Lamott wisely said, “we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here.”  So make a mess.  But that’s also when you have to have a little faith that you will get it where you want it to be.  Just keep going.  Begin again.  Anywhere.

Those bits and pieces you’re putting together are your beautiful life.
I’ve told you several times in class, as I encouraged you to write stories and screenplays, that Alfred Hitchcock once said that: “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”   His (and my) point was that you need to take out the character brushing her teeth--and "skip the door" (from Alexie Sherman's story).        
 And that’s right—at least when it comes to creating films and plays.  But when it comes to life—I give you the opposite message:  Life is the dull bits.  I’m not saying that life is dull.  But rather, it’s really the sum of all those moments.   Life isn’t really made up of the rites of passage like this one.  These events are the ones we think or imagine make up our life—the transitions, the major events like earning your drivers’ license, passing your roundtable, falling in love for the first time--and certainly those are important and memorable, but they aren’t ultimately what life is composed of.

Life is simply a delightful collection of those moments—those bits and pieces--that you don’t even necessarily remember for the rest of your life: like the orange peel fight in high school advisory, when you were supposed to be working on your portfolio but were overwhelmed by stinky feet smell and silliness . . .

Or the moment that you got your teacher to sit on a chair and you then lifted it up into the air and gave her an exhilarating ride until she was laughing so hard, tears fell from her face.

Or those moments in math class when you just couldn’t stand it anymore, and walked down the hall to say hi to your advisor.

Or the time you put candles on a mango and sang happy birthday to a wonderful friend, accompanied by a Dominican waiter--an opera singer wannabe. 

It’s even the moment you both loved and felt frustrated by your peers as you successfully re-built a picnic table, or sat at home, recovering from pneumonia.

Those moments are what make up your life.  So keep living--and the bits and pieces will create themselves—like little stories.   The moments will layer themselves like some rich dessert in an Italian pastry shop and they might seem like nothing, but they aren’t.  I encourage you to notice them. The poet Mary Oliver said that these are the “Instructions for living a life": 

Pay attention.   
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”
 Mary Oliver  (

I agree with Mary; my final words of advice to you are to take note of life’s moments,  and more than that--be astonished—even thunderstruck--by them.  And if you’re so inclined, share them.  Tell your stories . . . in a journal, in a photograph, in a TV script, in a drawing, in a film, or in a story you tell your boy or girlfriend as you eat ice cream on a hot day. . .

 I have been honored to witness some of the bits and pieces of your lives, and I feel enriched as a result.  Thank you for being the wonderfully funny, inquisitive, creative, respectful, hard-working, loving people that you are.  You have nourished me with your laughter, your stories, and your love.  You know how much I will miss you.  Thank you.

("skip the door" is a reference from Sherman Alexie's short story, Breaking and Entering, from the collection entitled, War Dances.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

When in doubt, move closer

  It is all-school meeting.  We are gathered on the carpet of our common room for announcements and commendations.  Some students are flopped over each other, some stand slightly outside the circle. The "circle" is really more like a sloppy oval that someone really unskilled with an etch a sketch might draw.  There are always a few students who get fidgety and began to murmur or giggle to the person next to them.  Teachers may shush them, but then another one pops up.  I don't expect perfect silence, but I find myself grumpy by the end of these meetings.

Today, I want to feel less grumpy. It's just the fifty or so high school students, as the middle school is holding their own meeting.   So after the announcements, I spontaneously try a simple drill when I sense that people are beginning to lose their focus. It is so simple, yet so effective.  It goes something like this:

"Ok, everyone stand up."  (They stand)
"Ok, now everyone move in about a foot or two" (Curious, they walk closer, and the circle is instantly more intimate)
"Now, stop talking."  (The room falls silent.  It's as if we are playing Simon Says.)
"Now, just like that--without talking--sit down."  (They sit.  They are still quiet)

It's amazing. They are focused again.

And somehow (or perhaps it was my imagination), this simple tightening of the circle--and perhaps the brief pause in the meeting--helps change the dynamic of the rest of the meeting.  Students listen closely to celebrations and commendations, and the closer proximity even seems to lend itself to these sweet articulations of gratitude to teachers and to peers.

Classroom management is a dance--a dance of planning and implementing curriculum carefully,  establishing routines, of managing student numbers, and moving yourself around the room, as you use a variety of voice levels and one-liners ("eyes up here" or "it's her turn" or, "it's all about me now").  The dance doesn't stop with the details, for it's also about how you connect with students.  Mutual respect goes a long with with this dance.  Sometimes, behavioral problems can be solved with a simple rearrangement of  the space you have--from moving desks, to asking students to stand around me in a semi circle while I give directions.  Sometimes, a pause in speaking or moving is helpful (see my blog post about other benefits of the pause).

Sometimes, like today, simply moving a little closer makes all the difference.

Here are some other tips for classroom management:

1.  Use routines, like silent reading or journal writing at the start of class to help students make the transition into working.  I know some teachers who tell a quick story at the beginning of class, or do a math problem warm-up.

2. Be consistent: whether you use discipline slips, yellow/red cards, or old fashioned consequences like cleaning your board after school, try your best to always use these.  When students know what to expect, it's easier for them to contain their distracting behaviors.

3. Mix it up: students often misbehave when they're bored.  Like it or not, many of us have short attention spans, and a change in activity can help us sustain interest.  My rule of thumb is to have some opportunity for writing or reading, some opportunity for talking (ideally, students talking more than me), and some chance to move/do or watch something (a quick YouTube video or Ted Talk or whatever is relevant to the lesson)

4. Alway have the agenda on the board, and ideally, with time estimations.  I've had students tell me that they really like to know what's up, and how long it'll last.  Sometimes students act out when they don't know what to do or when they don't know where things are going.  A simple "roadmap" can do wonders for behavior.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Best Writing Assignments: The Real Ones

My 13 year-old son, who attends the small school where I teach, hates homework.  He declared last night, "it's by far my least favorite thing about school."   Yet I watched him eagerly working on an assignment last night.  No, it wasn't the pages and pages of algebra problems.  He was writing an article about a recent change in a studyhall policy our director announced to students the other day. Aside from the excitement and pride he exuded, I loved that he was writing it to fulfill his current events assignment.  His humanities teacher assigns traditional bi-weekly current events: students look through newspapers and choose an article to summarize. They then use these summaries to discuss national or international news in their 7/8th grade classroom.  A fine assignment, but nothing mind-blowing.

However, this week, my son asked his teacher if he could use the new studyhall policy as his current event.  I'm guessing that many teachers would simply tell my sometimes flippant, sarcastic son, no--that's not a "true" current event, and of course, there's no article about it.  However, this wise humanities teacher said, sure you can--but you'll have to provide the article.  So my son has spent the last two days as a journalist.  After he shared an initial draft of his article, his teacher told him he'd need to provide some quotes from actual interviews.  So my son talked to teachers and peers, recording their interviews on his Ipod.  He then came home and transcribed them, while also talking to me about how to work direct quotes into his article.  In other words, he is writing much more than a summary. What could have been an obligatory reading/writing assignment became an engaging, valuable writing exercise.

I commend my colleague for being flexible, and realizing that it can be valuable for teachers to put aside our expectations for an assignment, and really think about what a student will gain from a slightly (or even drastically) different version.  In this case, the teacher quickly surmised that my son would follow through and write an article if he told him that this would be the only way to cover that  current event.  And he also knew that there was already more interest in this particular "event" than a more national event that my son might have chosen, just to get the assignment completed.  In the end,  my son is learning that writing has purpose--and potentially, power.  Afterall, his article is already creating more dialogue about the new policy and he's learning about how to listen to differing perspectives on an issue.  You can't ask for much more than that from a homework assignment.

Monday, May 26, 2014

How to survive (or even thrive in) the last days of the teaching year: a basic to-do list

I've noticed several recent tumblr jokes, blog posts, and Facebook warnings about the cruelness of the end of a teacher's year.  It's a given that this is a challenging time of the school year, perhaps even more so than the beginning, when we're thrown into the whirlwind of students' needs, curriculum planning, and grading, having come out of the calmness of reading books in the back yard with a glass of lemonade (not that this is what teachers do all summer: many work to make ends meet or take graduate courses, plan curriculum, re-organize our classrooms, and so on).

Ideally, the end of year feels celebratory and reflective, but often it feels hectic: we facilitate and assess final projects/tests, complete report cards, clean our rooms, and organize end-of-year events such as portfolio roundtables or concerts. The students are antsy, our colleagues are tired, and the school may feel oppressive as the sunshine and spring air wafts through our windows.

So, in the name of getting things done in these final weeks, here's my basic to-do list for the end of the year.  It omits the obvious things, like complete your grading and clear off your desk. . .

1. Make sure to reflect on your year: If you do nothing else, make three quick lists as you look honestly and critically at the past year:
what to keep
what to revise,
and what to ditch.

If you have more time, choose one problem to focus on--maybe a student who continues to struggle, or a project that needs tweaking.  Give it a 20-minute written reflection or discussion with a colleague over lunch. Then let it go for now. You'll get a fresh look at it in July, as you sit in the backyard with that lemonade.

2. Write to some of your students' parents and thank them for their support. This simple email will fill you with gratitude and propel you to the next school event.

3.  Ask your students about their thoughts about or plans for summer. You might learn something interesting, like one plans to travel to England, and another is dreading summer, as he often misses his friends and gets bored.  At the very least, you can agree that sleeping in is something to look forward to.

4. Delegate! Ask for a student's (or parent's) help in collecting books and crossing them off your list, organizing your book shelves, or even sweeping under your desk.

5. At home, do one simple thing that will make you feel like things are under control.  I clean my bathroom sink. The shiny fixtures and clean whiteness make me sigh with relief, even if my lawn looks like a jungle and there's a layer of cat hair on every floor and surface.

6.  Buy a pair of sandals (on sale at Target)--or some object that screams summer.  Even bug repellent. Or pick some flowers and bring them inside. The end is in sight!

Happy end of year!  May your summer be rejuvenating, productive, and fun.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Embrace the Mess: Collaborative, Student-driven Projects

Embracing the messiness of important learning . . .

Student's display on Frank Sinatra. 
I'm getting ready for it--the mess in my classroom.  In fact, it has already begun.  Today, there were three tri-fold display boards, splayed across tables next to a huge paper cutter, piles of cut paper strips, scattered glue sticks, and scissors as I wove my way to my desk.  A sewing dummy, wearing a cute forties jacket shares space with the desktop. In the next several days--if all goes well--my room will slowly collect objects--an old record player and radio from the 1940s, fabric, lamps, and other odd objects.  One week from today, a couple classrooms, along with the adjoining common room will be transformed into a "living museum" of the 1940s--the culmination of a 8-week unit for two sections of 9/10th graders.

A student's display in progress on fashion of the 1940s.

But it's not the physical mess that is most challenging.  The other mess I refer to is letting go (somewhat) of control--allowing students to plan and create.  After all, I don't know what they will come up with for the museum, and though my humanities colleague and I guide them with rubrics, ideas, pictures from past years, and they have a solid background of the era, it's up to them to create a space that takes us into the past. And the museum opens to the public.  Student-led projects like this, with an authentic audience, require me to let go, to truly trust that the students will create something of value and that they are learning.  It means I'll feel that little pit in my stomach as I watch the inevitably rocky start of the group planning--as students bicker and brainstorm, bicker some more, and then come up with some vague idea before they prance off to lunch, and I'm sitting there thinking, it's not happening.  Every year I watch the beginning and think, nope, they are going to run out of time; they're going to continue to waste time and argue.  Then, a week or so later, I walk into a space that resembles a dimly lit 1920's speakeasy, with jazz, dancing flappers, a table of card players, and organized displays on topics such as music, art, and politics of the 1920s.  I watch in wonderment as students act as a forties "family" in a mock living room, complete with newspapers and Life magazines from the 1940s that they (or I) found at local thrift stores. They've even rolled paper "cigarettes" because they want to be authentic of the era.  For the sixties, we've burned "draft cards" and created anti-war posters.  For the last ten or so years that I've been assigning this project, the students have always come through.  But the beginning is hard to watch.
I tell students, this is your mantra this week.

As I told my students today, collaboration is hard.  Yet you can't avoid it, so it's worth practicing.  And as I go from group to group, stepping in to help with the process or an idea, I know that they're practicing crucial skills.  As they flounder  (and yesterday this looked like two students monopolizing the brainstorming session with an argument), they must learn strategies to communicate more effectively (today I watched a student grab a marker from a desk and tell her group assertively, "we need a talking stick!").  Today, I reminded them of the important skill of delegating, and I watched later as one student asked a "wandering" student if he could go find her something her group needed. These are skills we don't necessarily teach in schools, yet almost any job (not to speak of family life) will require some form of collaboration.

Learning to swing dance

So, I embrace the messiness of learning: learning to work with others, to create quality visual presentations, to innovate, to communicate knowledge to an outside audience, and to manage time.  In a week, I'll be in the common room enjoying a students' performance of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, listening to "Henry Wallace" give a speech, getting my "ration tickets," and eating Wonder Bread and Spam from the 1940s cafe.

Top Five Tips for student-driven projects:
1. Before and as they start, show and discuss models from past years (of writing, displays, any final products)
2. Make the planning visible: post planning sheets, to-do lists, supplies lists, and schedules.
3. Create small groups, making sure that there's some student leadership in each one.
4. Stress that the goal is the final project, but also remind them of and assess the skills that they're practicing: collaboration, communication, and problem solving.  Provide (and model) tools for collaborating effectively.
5. Provide an authentic, out of school audience, if possible, for the final project. Parents, alumni, and local community members are often willing to come support student work.

Student's display on V.P. Wallace that raised the bar: now all students want 3-D parts on their tri-folds.

Learning to dance the Charleston in the "speakeasy" from past 1920s Project
Vignette from past 1940s "Living Museum".  One year we even purchased a giant old radio from the decade.  Sometimes, antique stores are willing to loan us clothing and artifacts.

Monday, April 28, 2014

How to grow a student writer, in ten easy steps

How to grow a writer: A simple, but crucial step-by-step approach:

1. Start early.

Surround your sapling-writer with books--and read often.  Tell them stories about themselves.
The goals:
They delight in the sound of words.
They observe the world around them.
They want to tell stories.

 2. Once settled into school, encourage dabbling in all genres. Provide a sampling of writing assignments, encouraging her to find her writing voice.  Does she do humor?  Memoir?  Poetry? Historical fiction?  Newspaper articles or book reviews?  Whenever you can, allow her to choose topics for writing--perhaps within a theme.

Have you tried 2nd person?  Read Lorrie Moore's satirical essay,  How to become a Writer

3. Be an enthusiastic reader.  Criticize lightly.  Read her work in a comfortable chair, with a cup of something yummy next to you (rather than with a red pen and a tired frown).
Respond as a reader might: I loved this because I could imagine being in this spot you describe or, This is funny! or,  Huh--I was confused here. What's missing? Or, if you're really at a loss, I sense that your heart wasn't in this--  want to start again?

Don't edit for spelling until you have to.

4. Cultivate people to share her writing pieces with, but only when she's comfortable doing so, and maybe even let her choose her partner.  Provide the peer-reader with specific things to respond to (for instance, what is the main point the writer seems to want to make?)

5. If you have the right conditions, two writers can write something together  (Examples:  a scene of dialogue, perhaps a whole play--perhaps an abridged re-make of Macbeth, that is then performed).

6. Provide models!  How can he know how to write without seeing how others do it?  Read lots and ask him to "point" to specifically what he likes (or doesn't like).
Sample recommendation:  short memoir piece, My Name, by Sandra Cisneros.

Please note: Novels by John Green have been know to cultivate massive reading habits, and this can't hurt the writing habit.  

7. Demystify the writer's process: Share your own possibly painful, evolved writing process; invite writers into the classroom, and have them share their process. Invite peers to talk about how they write. (great essay, A. Lamott's Shitty First Drafts)

8. Seek authentic readers for your growing writer (and keep those diverse assignments coming):

Hold a poetry/fiction reading with low stakes and chocolate-covered strawberries.  Instead of forcing shy ones to read out loud, place stories at tables with comfy chairs for others to read and respond to.
Have her start a blog.
Have him send his essay to your parents or to your smart, kind friends for feedback.
Tell her to send a funny letter to your friend, telling her (creative) lies about what you do in the classroom.
Put on a performance of their ten-minute plays at an evening event.  Send invitations to parents, local writers and alumni.

9. Be patient with your writer.  She will grow!

10. Water regularly . . . with specific feedback and encouragement (and the rule for semicolons).

                       Celebrate--you've put another writer in the world!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Let's Play a Game: Questions about Competition

For the most part, I enjoyed elementary school, but one of my least favorite memories of those school days is playing duck-duck-goose in gym class. I recall my stomach lurching as one of my peers came around the circle, uttering: "duck, duck, duck. . . ".  Goose?! Augh . . . would she tag me?  I dreaded the moment that I'd have to jump up and run as fast as I could around the circle, while everyone watched. Would I run fast enough?  Would I make it around without tripping? I wasn't clumsy, and I was capable of running fast, so it wasn't a matter of incapability. It was fear of looking like a fool.  Fear of failing in front of others.  Despite my love for teaching, I'm inherently shy, and according to Susan Cain's new book, Quiet, I'm all-introvert.  And one of the things introverts hate is being in the spotlight, especially if others are watching us as we complete a task/answer a question.  So, the act of standing up when tagged and running around a circle of my peers, under pressure to not lose, was pretty much torture for me.

Recently, I played my first game of Bananagrams with some dear old college friends, and I admit to not only being bad at it, but also to not enjoying it (ok, there's a connection there).  I like words, and I like scrabble, but what I felt when I had to race to create words, was not unlike that old duck-duck-goose lurch. It was the competitive element--in tandem with my genuine desire to create words--that I found frustrating and downright unpleasant.  I'm guessing that my brain even worked slower as I was overtaken with the anxiety the game provoked.  The experience soured even more when a couple of my friends fiercely argued over words (are two-letter words only used in the math world valid?). Granted, it was all in fun for them (I think), but I experienced a vague sense of anxiety, not fun.  After several rounds, I ended up playing a slower, non-competitive version of the game with one other friend--something I made up with my son, who also didn't want to play Bananagrams by the usual rules.  My friends went out and bought a dictionary the next day to help mediate future arguments.

School is full of games.  In fact, school, depending on how it's played, can be all about competing: GPA's, SAT's, awards, sports teams, spelling bees, prom king/queen . . . all about competition. For some, school is simply a game: we figure out the rules made by teachers, and we jump the hoops (do the HW, take the tests, etc).   Is this a good thing or a disservice to those not motivated by winning--or for whom games makes us anxious?  I know that being an introvert doesn't necessarily mean one isn't driven by competition (just like being an introvert doesn't mean I don't love being in front of the classroom), but given that I'm sure there are other students like me in our schools, do we depend too much on fast-paced, competitive, public games?  Do we organize schools in a way that most benefits those who are motivated by winning, instead of those who are more inherently motivated?  (According to Cain, schools definitely favor the extroverts, as speaking up in class, being the outspoken leader in groups are rewarded above quietly reflecting in writing or deeply focusing on work by oneself, though she doesn't address any link between introverts and competition).

What is the role of competition in learning?  Does it motivate students?  Does it help or hinder learning?I don't know enough about brain research to understand exactly what happens to the brain when we compete.  I wonder if the part of the brain that is activated during a fast-paced game is helpful to learning.

Do those games we play in the classroom to review content or learn vocabulary provoke fear or excitement in students?  My answer is yes.  Yes, some students are motivated and excited by competitive games, which was clear as I watched my two friends battle it out in bananagrams. And yes, others will be filled with fear when you utter the words, "we're going to play a game."  I suspect that this feeling will not help those students learn.  On a more dramatic level, I wonder if students who always feel like they're losing the "game" of school are also the ones who sit in the back, not saying a word--or who eventually drop out. What would happen if it felt less like a game?

I wonder what percentage of people/students are motivated by competition. Do we live in a culture that assumes this is the way to go?

I wonder if the usual teacher practice is to think of ways to make it a game, making the assumption that game equals fun.

I know that I have used competitive games in my classroom.  I am a believer in variety because in my experience, students learn in different ways and are motivated by a variety of factors.  I need to mix it up in order to reach many students.  However, I think we as teachers also need to ask ourselves what our goal is when we create a climate of competition in our classrooms.  Administrators may ask themselves the same about competition in schools.

Here are a few ways I've used competition in the classroom--and feel (mostly) good about the results:

1) Definition game, Balderdash, works great on a Friday afternoon, when students may need a break from content or after a test. I keep it low stakes (no one is put on the spot, for the group works together and even though we keep score, it's kept light by goofy team names and the focus is on the fun of the definitions).  This game often results in creative, hilarious word definitions--and lots of laughter.  (message me if you want to know my process/rules).

2) Jeopardy-like game for test review.  I have mixed feelings about this one: on one hand, students seem to have fun and the material is covered.  On the other hand, does it also result in a loud, even mean-spirited activity that quieter students feel uncomfortable with?

3) Film-making class (see earlier entry, Want to Challenge  . . .). Although not the main focus of the class, there are competitive elements.  For instance, not all students' screenplays are chosen to produce (out of necessity), so students make their preferences.  And on the final film festival night, there are "judges" who give feedback and decide on winners.  Usually, out of the four films, there's one "best picture" prize, and 3 others for specific elements that were done well (things like, best editing, best use of ensemble cast, etc.). I decided to follow in the footsteps of the tradition of Hollywood film awards in this case, and I don't think it has hindered students' learning (though I have no actual proof).

What do you think?  Do you like games or not, and what is the place of competition in school?

"Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people.” 
― David Sarnoff founder of RCA

“Real learning comes about when the competitive spirit has ceased.”
-Jiddu Krishnamurti