Empowerment through Language...

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Post Script - Extrapolation

Just a quick addition to the blog from this morning:  remember this - 17 teachers and aides, a whole grade level in an all-day in-service means the expense of an equal number of substitutes for the day.  Plus all the prep those teachers did so they could attend.  No small feat!  And what an administrator to make that kind of investment, encourage that level of commitment in her staff!  See why I respect not only this principal (retired) but the teachers as well?!

You Never Know What to Expect

In my decade of active teaching artistry, I have learned to only be "so" prepped for walking in the front door of a school, as well as to be prepped for at least two options, no matter what.  Countless times I have a concept of what I want my theme or process to be for a group of teachers and classes, only to be surprised once I arrive at the school by any number of contingencies, including the school forgetting the fact that I will be arriving.  Better to be prepared with multiple options that can be one-session experiences than to be rigid.  Flexibility is the most prized asset a teaching artist can develop, not just to maintain one's sanity but to build positive relationships with the schools in which one works.

My best example of surprise was several years back when I was going to do my first residency at an elementary school in Orange County, NY.  I generally visit schools with 500 - 700 students so when I spoke to the principal and asked for a day of in-service with my teaching team before we initiate my residency, I envisioned about five or six teachers to work with so it seemed completely reasonable to me.  On the other end of the line, the principal (angel that she is) sighed and paused for a moment.  In a measured voice, she replied. "Alright, we can arrange that."

The day came.  I had a rolling tote full of picture books, anthologies of poetry for young readers, activities to share with the teachers, chart paper, markers, post-its, my computer, you name it.  I was burdened with getting the untenable load from my subcompact car to the conference room.  I often feel like a pack mule when I am in schools.

I was greeted royally and that was wonderful.  The school is a modern school in which all the facility is on one level.  The staff at the entrance were so friendly as they signed me in .  The office was a beehive.  The principal was very much the queen of the environment and the central command.  And somehow, with all that was going on, she even had prepared a spread of morning snacks for her staff and me to fuel our learning together.

But let us not forget the surprise:  as everyone congregated, there were 17 teachers and teacher's aides scooting in around the conference table, easily twice to three times the number I had anticipated.  I had never asked how many classes there were in the grade level I would be teaching!  Lesson learned.  No need to worry about ever forgetting that one.  I also realized just how deceptive architecture can be.  The view from the front door does not allow a visitor to see the four wings of the school of 1,200 elementary students.  Wow...not at all what I was expecting but I roll with any and all circumstances.

There are always bumps and obstacles in a residency.  Somehow there is also never enough time with the teachers and students.  We all learn to make due with the limitations and maximize the opportunities.  If a visiting artist is too rigid in his or her needs, expectations, and/or process, it is likely that the experience will face difficulties.  This first year involved a lot of getting-to-know-you phases that have led to a long-term relationship with the school.  We all learned how to work as partners in the student learning.  I think I earned my way onto the team and into the community of the school.

This first project led to subsequent years in the school, friendships that I cherish, faculty who teach me many skills that improve my practice, and extraordinary moments with students.  The principal of this school always greeted me as if I were family, we shared books, resources and laughter, celebrated the birth of her grand-twins with hugs and photos, and a mutual regard that has sustained, in spite of her retirement last year.  We have plans to know each other for a long time.

In a couple of weeks, I will return to her school, to the teachers I adore, to meet a new crew of 3rd and 4th graders, and to start to build a relationship with the new administration, all new positions.  Again, flexibility will be necessary because the climate will have changed but I know I will be going to my "home school" and I will be ready for anything.  I hope they are getting ready for me!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Long Day and What a Moon

Just a quick post tonight.  All day with 6th graders, three different lesson plans for three different phases of the project, dependent on how many times I have met with certain teachers and their classes.  And because I am the Queen of Snow Days and Fire Drills, of course, a fire drill in the 90 degree April morning.  Some folks just have a gift.

Then this evening, my adult class with really focused and talented poets.  Oddly enough, there is not that much difference in how I discuss poetry other than the sophistication of language.  It is still a process and I am still connected to the poems for a series of reasons.  

It is good work.  Tomorrow I will see how making necessary changes to a troubled residency at a different school may lead to success for the students who really want to engage.  I hope for a lovely day.  Perhaps I will realize my prayer and it will be as wonderful as today was.  Perhaps I will see the glimmer of excitement and self-satisfaction in tomorrow's students I witnessed today.

When it all comes down to it, the work is about enthusiasm, sharing it, creating it, supporting it.  And everything else is diminished by the breathtaking glimpse of the sheerest crescent moon on a night so clear that the reflection of light outlines the entire satellite in dusty orange.  There is nothing more captivating in the night sky, without benefit of a telescope.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Work at Hand

How to inspire people to love language?  How to instill a keen and honest interest in writing, telling their stories, reading a book when it is not a regular practice?  That is the work that I am engaged in, starting with children early in their careers as learners, then with students already disengaging from the passion by middle school.  By high school, many of them are convinced it is "boring" and no longer have interest.

It is a constant challenge to develop discussion points and activities that coerce the reluctant and fulfill those who already drank the Kool-Aid.  

My starting point is the brain...that portable personal computer that is grander than any computer designed and manufactured.  Reminding students of all ages that they are life-long learners, that the brain is the most marvelous of devices and each of us owns one, for free.  We need to nurture and maintain this incredible machine that can do more than any laptop in any given second.  It is as astounding as the universe.

As I explain that the brain is this ultra-computer, I build on the metaphor and explain that the job of the writer is to make those imaginary DVDs and CDs that slip into the brain's drives so the voice of the narrator fills the mind as one reads silently, so the movie will play as one reads an intriguing piece of fiction.  Strive for this goal.  Be that kind of writer who deliberately selects each word to collaborate with the others to achieve this goal.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The end of a long week

I have been at this work for more than 10 years and this week has some of the most delightful and some of the most distressing moments I have ever encountered as a teaching artist.  How is it that this happens?  This school year, I estimate that I will be teaching approximately 1,800 students by the time June arrives.  This will include five different school districts throughout New York State.  Additionally, it will also include somewhere between 68 and 75 different classes of 5 - 25 students each, and nearly 70 teachers, teaching assistants, and student teachers before I call it a summer.  In most cases, there will be a minimum of 3 contact sessions but in some isolated cases, it may be one or two sessions.  No matter how you look at it, this is rather overwhelming.  It also does not include my course at the higher ed level or my adult ed workshop, nor my professional development classes for teachers.  That pushes the statistics to an even more remarkable total.

As I travel through these 10 schools, the differences are significant and sobering.  Developing a sense of the climate of each building and then the climate of each classroom, and then the temperaments of each student takes a particular skill of flexibility combined with rapid response in improvisation and performance art.  It is exhausting at times, exhilarating at others.

But I love this work and now that it is the central focus of my career, I am delighted.  I will share stories and theories of my work as I grow more adept at this process of the Blog world.  For now...the sun is shining and I have spent nearly 2 hours of this magnificent Saturday morning in front of my computer breaking into my blog and then posting.  Out to the garden!!!

The beginning...

This is the initial blog of my train of thought.  I will be sharing elements of my work as a teaching artist focused on poetry, particularly poetry in the classroom, grades K-12; however, I also teach adult education so there may be stories from there as well.  Thanks for joining me on this excursion.  I hope you find something of value