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Saving Summer: The Expert

 

My best skill, my most beloved gift,  is teaching writing.

Hold that thought.

This morning it occurred to me that my task every summer is not to just ‘take a break,’ or enjoy the nice weather, but to clean up my mental lag, too. (Notice how I used the words “task” and “break” in the same sentence? That is the paradox of teachers’ years.) Little phrases or incidents roll around in my noggin until they lose their centrifugal force and drop off of my mind. All the little slings and arrows, missteps and frustrating meetings and discussions, worrisome students, and…other stuff. Just. Other stuff. It takes awhile for it to go down my mental head drain, and then a few weeks in, right about now, I’m feeling confident again, have my sense of agency and rest, knowing in those few weeks until school begins again I’ll be refreshed and capable. And more importantly, take back some modicum of control over my responses to outside forces. That’s is what these weeks are for. That and dentist appointments.

And today, very timely, preternaturally coincidentally, a friend posted this Medium essay by Jose Vilson, “Why Teachers Need to See Themselves As Experts.”

Mr. Vilson says many wise things, strong things–but not radical things. We teachers, who spend hours searching for the best and better ways to practice our profession, do not need permission to own what we know, our expertise, and our talents.

If this happens to our most visible spokespeople, what does that say about the rest of us? We have systems that constantly bombard us with deficit modeling. I’ve sat in a billion PDs where we’re told that we’re failing our kids, even when the kids themselves say otherwise. The person saying it is usually a professional developer who isn’t worth their weight in whiteboard ink. Politicians tell us that we’re not yielding results with measures that are both inappropriate and wildly unstable. Then, they turn around and tell us they can’t alleviate and eradicate oppressions like poverty, institutional racism, gender inequity, and the prison injustice system. We’re told by any number of folks that they’d left the classroom for greener pastures but still taut the “teacher” title and get to speak on behalf of us. (Nah.) We get stacks of books from folks we love (few) and folks we have no love for (many), but the letters “Dr.” or “Ph. D” legitimized why a district spent thousands of dollars on folks who may or may not have better pedagogical knowledge than the folks being handed these books.

Can I get an “Amen?!”

He’s not suggesting bragging for bragging’s sake. The most skilled professionals know it is safe to say “I don’t know, but let’s collaborate and figure this out together…” No one knows everything, nor should they. There is no growth, no creativity, from a vacuum in professional development space. I’ve said many times that there are those who know how to naturally, seamlessly collaborate: they ask questions not assuming the answers and have the flexible thinking skills to roll new thoughts in their heads like Play-Doh and create something new.

“In our quest to demonstrate humility, we can tip over into modesty, where we don’t acknowledge the fullness of the gifts we’ve been given. We don’t have to pretend to have it all together, either. I’m more suggesting that we should be allowed to express the depth of what we do and put our strongest foot in the work we’re already doing with our students and communities.”

 

Now I am ashamed to say this is my first time knowing about Jose Vilson, and he is the real deal. Go to his page and read his bio. I’m an NBCT, too, and an NWP Fellow. And if he says I should own my expertise, then own it I shall. It’s for my students anyway, because it gives me the joy to see them grow and find their voices, too. That simple. I know how to teach writing, and help students become writers. That simple.

And I have made a promise to myself, that if I am ever at a meeting like one that occurred in December, I will respectfully, politely, leave. It won’t be an act of defiance, but self-respect, and respect for our work.

“Teachers who do the work model justice in this way. When given a platform, the best of us can look at the rest of the society eye-to-eye, feet firmly planted, and let truth sprout from within. That’s the work, and if a teacher’s already there, then they should take a mic and pump up the volume. Shake the corridors.”

Home

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Saving Summer: More Good Things

Literary Analysis, Themes, and Essay Writing, Oh my!!

How did I not know about this? (probably because of PG-13 language: I’ll get permission slips, promise!)

ThugNotes is narrated by Sparky Sweets, Ph.D., and yes there is some language, but the plot summaries and analysis are epic. For a secondary audience, this modern version of CliffsNotes is helpful and entertaining. Since I’m teaching a unit on Lord of the Flies next year I am thankful for his analysis and insight.

Next: thinking about essays and writing structures differently:

An Essay Primer for Adults: Six Essay Types You Should Know by Lorraine Berry

An Essay Primer for Adults: 6 Essay Types You Should Know

Here they are to preserve and keep:

The linear narrative essay: This essay structure is self-explanatory. The story is told in a straightforward narrative, and is usually told in chronological order. Sometimes, there are flashbacks contained in the essay, but that doesn’t disrupt the forward motion of the narrative. One essay that may be of interest in the coming weeks as we approach the August 21 “Great American Eclipse” is Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse,” which is published in her collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk.

The triptych essay: Just as a triptych painting features three panels, so too does a triptych essay feature three separate sections that are not continuous with each other, but that may shed light on the other two parts. See “Triptych” by Samina Najmi, which was published in World Literature Today.

The collage essay: This type of essay features bits and pieces – vignettes – of prose that are collected together to form an essay. They often resemble poetry as the writing for a collage essay tends to be lyrical. One of my favorite collage essays is Sherman Alexie’s “Captivity,” which appeared in First Indian on the Moon.

The experimental essay: These essays seem to buck all known structures. One of the most unusual of these essays is “The Body” by Jenny Boully. The pages of the essay are blank – except for the footnotes, which are extensive. It turns out that the footnotes are the entire essay. “The Body” is characterized as a lyrical essay

The last two forms of essay that I wish to discuss are the “hermit crab” essay and the “braided” essay, and here I’d like to offer more exploration of two particular essays that are examples of them.

The hermit crab essay: In 1972, John McPhee wrote “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” and it was published in the New Yorker. He used the original game of “Monopoly” – the original American version that was based on the streets of Atlantic City, New Jersey – and he uses going around the board as the frame for the essay, making this a perfect example of a “hermit crab” essay.

In the essay, McPhee is playing a game of Monopoly but he is also recounting walking the streets of Atlantic City. The game is taking place at an international singles championship of Monopoly play, where it is possible for two skilled players to play an entire game in fewer than fifteen minutes.

McPhee intersperses the history of America in the details, but also how Atlantic City was the planned “invention” as a railroad terminus that would be a “bathing village.” In preliminary sketches, the village was labeled as an “Atlantic city,” and the name stuck. In the early 1930s, Charles B. Darrow took those early sketches of the city and based a game board on it.

So, as McPhee lands on each property or group of properties, he tells the story of each part of town. When McPhee’s piece lands him in jail, he uses it as an opportunity to visit the city jail, which in 1972 seemed to be chock-full of drug offenders. He also documents the “facade” aspect shared by resort towns. Once you travel off the beach-side main drag, you are in “the bulk of the city, and it looks like Metz in 1919, Cologne in 1944. Nothing has actually exploded. It is not bomb damage. It is deep and complex decay. Roofs are off. Bricks are scattered in the street.”

He walks these streets and sees long lines of people standing in line at the unemployment office. Newspapers in 2017 tell us that we have an “opioid crisis,” but a multiplicity of signs urging addicts to get help are present in Atlantic City in 1973 (perhaps another reminder that something doesn’t become a crisis until middle class white kids in the suburbs are dying).

McPhee walks through these neighborhoods looking for the one Monopoly property he can’t find: Marvin Gardens. No one with whom he speaks, those living in their bombed-out neighborhoods, has heard of it. It turns out that Marvin Gardens, “the ultimate out wash of Monopoly, is a citadel and sanctuary of the middle class.” It is a suburb within a suburb, what we might now refer to as a “gated community,” separated from the rest of Atlantic City and patrolled with a heavy police presence to keep the rest of the city out.

If you’ve been paying attention while reading, you realize that McPhee has used his hermit crab essay to write a critique of capitalism.

The braided essay: “The Fourth State of Matter,” by Jo Ann Beard is, I must confess, my favorite essay. It, too, was originally published in the New Yorker in 1996. Beard offers a braided essay – in which she is telling a number of stories that are all related to the time she spent on the editorial staff of a physics journal at the University of Iowa. Over the course of the essay, which begins with Beard’s poignant description of the daily routine she experiences as she cares for her aged, incontinent dog, the reader is braced in anticipation that the dog will die.

 

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Saving Summer: Rethinking Themes, Essays, and Media

I’m about to do a dangerous thing: post a document long before it’s “ready.” It is not even close, and I think–that’s where it should be. A finished document would mean there is no room for growth or adaptation; it’s a sketch. Flipping my thinking around about the silo type of units, students would be better served if we took a gravitational, or centrifugal force idea. While we’re spinning, we stay connected and use metacognition to be cognizant of what draws us in. Choices are key, here, with a map for guidance. In essence, every UBD and essential questions demand a variety of genres and modes of texts. We think about big issues in a kaleidoscope way, not linear. I started thinking about units I’ve created in the past, and some of the theme topics, and came up with this document:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0ByKyQvl3l_F5QWxjM09NbzAyZjA/view?usp=sharing

Ethical ELA is a huge influencer, and sites such as

https://www.discoverartifacts.com/

https://www.commonlit.org/

Nothing should be off limits: essays, short stories, podcasts, films, novels, poetry, letters, texts, tweets, news, classics and modern re-tellings, pop culture, graphic novels, series: sources for texts and media are bordering on the infinite. If you can write it or read it, it belongs.

Oh, and for the curated list, a wonderful collection of essays that may come in handy:

10 personal essays that will teach you how to write

What big questions are ones you come back to again and again in your teaching? No matter how many times I watch Descendants, I see something new.

Descendants from Goro Fujita on Vimeo.

 

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Saving Summer: Hugo House and Shared Writing

 

Summer fills up fast, faster than a kiddie pool in an Orlando backyard, faster than a cup of coffee at an all-night diner, faster than…well, dang. I’m out of analogies. But, there is a remedy for lack of inspiration! One of the highlights so far included time and money well spent at Hugo House at the Write-O-Rama on July 8. Since the dismantling of the Puget Sound Writing Project, I’ve been untethered in

Since the dismantling of the Puget Sound Writing Project, I’ve been untethered in terms of having others to talk about and share writing. It’s been…well, I’ve been in a state of low mourning. I’m glad I went, and I plan on going to other events and joining now that I am aware of this deep resource.

https://hugohouse.org/blog/

The way the day was set up was simply lovely: it didn’t start too early (looking at you, Holly!) and attendees could decide well in advance which speakers they wanted to hear. I ended up going to 1. Get into Character with Bruce Holbert (charming writer!) 2. Mini-Memoirs for Podcasting–it was good, but wish I went to Movie Memoir, too…3. Revising your novel – the tip I took away was…now I don’t remember. (Just write the damn thing?!) 4. Writing for Performance: I wish Garfield Hillson could come and speak to students at my school and finally 5. Your Note to a non-person was a lovely way to end the day. This is just like RAFTS, but the creative constraint was letter writing, which added a useful boundary by which to operate.

Oh, now I remember. One tip for the Revising Novel unit was to write a movie descriptor summary. What a great idea for students! This could lead to what themes exist, etc.

Looking for something else, I came across this site, which I am going to use for writing instruction:

What’s The Logline?

Now, the spoken word section. That was humbling and wonderful –(this may sound odd, but being humbled is excruciatingly thrilling for me: it’s where I learn the most). He gave us good notes, and specifically,  he said mine was really funny but need to alter my pacing. Good to know, good to know.

This leads me to ask, “What is comedy?” -but only because, like I said, he thought my piece was funny.

 

Comedy is “a person dealing with a situation that they’re ill-equipped to handle.” —  and if I go through my rough draft of the spoken word piece, clearly the world right now is too much for me to handle.

These are my raw notes from Evernote:

Spoken word poetry
Writing as ritual
Garfield
Access
Pronouns
Name
Asked important questions first (name, preferred gender pronoun)
Writing prompts:
Blockbusters if you had one superpower what would it be
If your name is the thing you’re called the most what would your name be
Acrostic poem
Blood is thicker but water swallows best
If I had one superpower
I could understand, and speak any language in the world
Dead languages, too, like Latin
And living ones like Urdu and Navajo and Swahili
The French would be astounded when this very American middle age woman opens her mouth and says the most brilliant things with the perfect accent and they wouldn’t be suspicious at all
Spanish students saying jota and pendejo would giggle when I could give them “the look” because I know what they are saying: but more importantly, I could help Moises learn to read in English easier, and faster, so he could pass the test and make his family proud. I could speak to the moms, crying because their daughter stole 800 dollars from them, tell them it’s going to be okay, instead of with my stupid cow face nodding sympathetically
I could speak perfect German, and Russian, just like Angela Merkel, so when I become a world ambassador I could help broker peace deals that would save the world, and in the virtual worlds,  if I could speak Portuguese I could tell the World of Warcraft players from the Quel Thalas server to stop trolling.
In elevators and airports, I could understand people’s small talk, and thus understand their dreams.
On airplanes, I would travel internationally and soothe babies in their mother tongue’s lullabies.
Floating on ships, nothing would be lost in the depths of translation.
I could speak Elvish just like Tolkien imagined, and Klingon that would bring any Trekkie to tears.
And read the Russian masters in Russian, gaining insight into my son’s predilection for dark, Slavic humor.
But the language I wish I could speak most of all would be the words to stop hate: shush the distractions and liars, and whisper intelligence in the unhopeful and ignorant.
No one seems to know this language, though. It has yet to be created.
Any poem can be performed
What does the poem say?
And that is how it’s performed
What does the poem require?
Energy to the words
Emote/Speak
Don’t read flat
I wish I could bring students to this!!!
Garfield
As we edit, put in the feelings and emotional tones
Soft spots: bursts open with feelings and emotions
Locate those moments first
Get rid of lines that are just thrown in there
Purposeful and lead into experience
List poems
Of what is in there and what is not
List of frailty
List of abundance
Writing territories
Create lists
Language
Death
List of all the languages
What do I need before I go on stage?
Why is this important?
Tell students to think about what they need: nervousness, not speaking or speaking
While on stage, why are you doing what you’re doing?
Speak and be in the moment
Exit strategy
Treat yourself in order to get back to yourself
Slump
Feel as good and genuine in your body as possible
Hands
Feet
Slam intentional movements
Point and down
Be careful of “poet” hands
You are all Genius and excellent writers
Several shades of emotions
Nuances of emotions
Record the performance
Make sure not so monotone
Please listen to self
Record self!!
Record self on mute and look at what body is doing
body language and voice can send a mixed message
Be authoritative when it calls for it
What an amazing partner activity
The voice/performance makes the world
Like Shakespeare makes sense when you hear it
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Saving Summer: Amygdala and The Brain

Teaching is stressful, there is no doubt or debate. And it’s also joyous, satisfying, and filled with discovery and success.

But let’s get back to the stress for a moment so we can move forward with more moments of joy, satisfaction, and discovery.

My buddy Sharon and her Brainiacs are developing a PD session for SEL/Teachers/Students. Tangentially, I’m developing the digital curriculum, along with her and other colleague’s input. When we talk about preparing students for their futures, not our pasts, we must have a deep understanding or exploration of what is happening to our brains in the digital world. We must share this knowledge, so students can adequately reflect, practice mindfulness, and know when to take on that “big view.” Elena Aquilar’s post, “5 Simple Lessons for Social and Emotional Learning for Adults” was a deja-vu moment–my husband was just advising me of these ideas yesterday while we had street tacos at the local lunch truck. Take the big view:

“Lesson 4: Observe Your Emotions”

We are not our emotions. If we can practice observing them — seeing ourselves experience emotions from 10,000 feet above earth — we are more likely to make decisions that don’t emerge from them. We might notice that sometimes they’re powerful and gripping, and sometimes they’re lighter and less sticky. It helps to practice non-attachment to emotions. They’re just emotional states and they come and go — and remember that we have some control over these states. Sometimes I visualize my emotions as weather patterns: There are storms and calm skies, heavy rain, and light winds. They always change. I visualize myself as a tree experiencing these emotions that come and go.

An article posted in the New York Time’s by Lisa Feldman Barrett, “When Is Speech Violence?” walks through the key points of amygdala hijacking and the effects of chronic stress.

“What’s bad for your nervous system, in contrast, are long stretches of simmering stress. If you spend a lot of time in a harsh environment worrying about your safety, that’s the kind of stress that brings on illness and remodels your brain. That’s also true of a political climate in which groups of people endlessly hurl hateful words at one another, and of rampant bullying in school or on social media. A culture of constant, casual brutality is toxic to the body, and we suffer for it.”

A school year is a long stretch of ‘simmering stress.’ Whose job is it to maintain the physical and emotional safety of a building? In truth, everyone is a stakeholder. Building trust and relationships that can find strength in discourse and dialogue, strong respect and cordial working relationships are the desired culture of any building. And as the Stoics believed, it is not what happens to us that affect us, but how we view and control our thinking about events. What if we all pledged to think about the school stress as a means to practice our own care and mindfulness?

In the meantime, I’m reading a book my husband recommended to me a few months back, The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, first published in 1973. Yeah, not exactly a little light summer reading, but it’s what I need right now: hefty intellectual grips by which to grab onto the rocky surface, and climb up. Getting a new perspective or two is a great way to get that higher view.

And though I can’t control others behaviors, I will strive to speak the truth, ask questions, seek answers and common ground.