Empowerment through Language...

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Degrees of Separation

It has been a busy few weeks, the end of the school year, the last weeks with students for me. I am finishing up my work a couple of weeks prior to the end of the school year. I see the pressure to get everything done before the close of school, before the final exams, in both students and teachers. The changeable weather adds to the frenzied environment. I also notice each year end that some students struggle with the separation from the structure, support, and sometimes safety that our schools represent to them. Summer is coming and that is not always a welcomed thing in some of our neighborhoods and for some of our young people.

I was teaching this week in an urban school where gunfire in the neighborhood is sadly too prevalent. A district supply truck was loading things into the school a couple of floors below the window of the room where I was starting to get the students in the next period ready to brainstorm. A sharp noise rang out, startling the class and one young man quickly ducked and starting scanning the room. The noise resembled that of a shot and he did what he has been prepared to do, protect himself and get low to the ground. He quickly sorted out that the sound was not a gun and laughed a bit at himself as he caught my eye, straightening his body and taking his chair. I smiled and quietly affirmed, "That was an appropriate response." We connected for a moment and I believe that there was an instant of understanding that made a difference in his engagement in the lesson for the day, perhaps even his final output.

I am in the business of garnering trust quickly with students. I do not have the luxury of a school year's worth of conversation, instruction, relationship. I need to be someone who can not only be trusted but valued for bringing them an enjoyable as well as educational experience. I ask them to rely upon me, drop hesitancy and fear, buy into my plan and somehow I expect that most will. Then we get to work. I have discovered over the decade I have put into my teaching work, that the first 2 days are full of tests. It is my responsibility to show myself well to these students and to also establish that I am the tour guide on this journey, they are the passengers, and that this hierarchy is the rule.

By the third day, the lessons tend to flow better and students are more likely to commit their attention to the tasks at hand as well as contribute to the conversations. I am big on the conversations. They are more important to me than the graphic organizers and the forms and templates for creating cookie cutter poems that could be offered. The critical thinking starts with a series of provocations in the form of questions, inquiry that strays sometimes from the routine of the classroom that the teacher has created. Understand that I have tremendous respect for that routine but I have equal respect for the input of elements that stand to the side of the routine. I also respect the inherent intelligence and capacity of the students. I enter with no preconceived notions about their abilities or limitations. I may discover those throughout my residency but it is an "open book" when I first enter a teacher's realm. If this approach is not of value to a teacher, it will not be a smooth ride for us as colleagues.

I had such a week recently. I was challenged daily by my partnering educator, told that I do not understand how to work with "these kids," and that I need to retool my approach to instruction to be able to direct them, to give them the skills that they need. This was challenging and frustrating. No matter how I expressed my direction or my experience, I was critiqued negatively for many things. I had to look very closely at my pedagogy and my reasons for every action each afternoon on my drive home. I had to decompress with friends and vent. But it was a blessing because I understand really well why I take every step in the classroom, why I take my time to weave through the rows and among the tables to hand out papers, why I slide off topic for a moment of humor or politics. I know my teaching style so much better now that I have had this opportunity for assessment and self reflection.

I will not be changing soon. I will always grow my practice but I believe in what I do and how I do it. I believe in my empathy for each of those kids and I know that I give many teachers a lens for viewing their students in deeper ways as well. I know more about teaching than I may be given credit sometimes. This is no accident. It is a career that I have been developing and honing. It is a career that I love and it is supporting me, even in this time of recession.

Each time I leave a school, I leave behind a collection of poems that would not have been written in quite the way they were. I frequently do not even see the final product from my work because I am rarely in a school more than 5 days so the poems are completed after I leave. It is sad when I am done. Even the most reluctant students in days 1 and 2 ask why I need to go. Leaving is as much a part of the job as arriving, but bittersweet.

My last day this past week, one student was using every moment she could find to work on her poem on the computer, a poem that was stretching beyond 3 pages, a beautiful poem as well. This troubled student was finding safety on the screen as her words filled her view. Midday, she had a very explosive outburst in another class and there was the likelihood that she would not be able to come to my last class. I was saddened. It was suggested by the teacher who challenged me that it was perhaps her way of dealing with the separation factor. What she was saying was that this student was going to be abandoned, again, by another adult, and that adult was me. It was more empowering to create the separation herself than let it happen. This last part was my reading into the words but based on what I have experienced over and over again. It has been on my mind for several years, particularly when I am working with youth who are classified "at risk."

I take my role very seriously and I fear being another adult who walks away. But I have little choice. I just have to do my best to affirm these young people that they are valuable and bright, that I believe in them and will remember them. Then I collect my hugs, sometimes sign autographs (an act that always cracks me up), and sign out of the visitor log to head home, sometimes just across town, sometimes hundreds of miles from the students I leave behind.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Quick Moment to Share a Giggle from the Classroom

As I introduced myself to a self-contained class of special needs children this week, one student looked at me with a big smile and asked, "Can I call you Muffin?"  I smiled and wondered why Muffin.  I did think that Ms. Popoff was the better choice for the situation but I keep thinking of that question.  Why "Muffin?"  Was there something that connected baked goods with me.  I puzzled over it for a couple of days and then my best friend said to me...Poppin Fresh...Popoff.  Of course.  Ah...the power of advertising!  Pillsbury, ya done good in the effort to imprint the minds of America.  I hope it isn't that I look like the Dough Girl!!!  But I am now Muffin in my own brain.  I like the nickname.

Still limited email with my travels so this is short.  More over the weekend.  I have a lot on my mind from the past couple of weeks of teaching and writing.  I am on fire with writing projects and nothing could make me happier, except perhaps world peace and prosperity, but we will see if we get that, right?!

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Lost Art of Penmanship

I will always be grateful to my 4th grade teacher, Ms. Kathleen Crouch, for many reasons.  It was in her class that I started to identify as a writer, for one thing. It was in her class that I started to think beyond myself to the outer world and all it can be. It was because of her that I initiated my learning of other languages. She asked for permission from the district to offer an afterschool French language program. I think it was the first in the City and I imagine she did not get paid to offer the experiment. I later took French from her in middle school as well.  She went on to teach high school and then many years at the college level. Long since retired, until a couple of years ago, she lived in an apartment around the corner from my home and sometimes we would chat about my school years. Once she reflected on how I would leave poems on the corner of her desk in the morning, not asking anything from her, just leaving my writings as gifts, like apples. I wish I had them now to see who I was then from an adult perspective. I do remember that it was for Ms. Crouch that I wrote my first persona piece. We were studying Pompeii and volcanoes and I wrote a story in the voice of a teenage boy dying in the eruption, being encased in ash. I wonder if she worried about me. I do believe that it was my first documentation of my sense of past life experiences.

I also appreciate Ms. Crouch each time I receive a compliment regarding my handwriting. After the past couple of weeks, I especially appreciate the attention she paid to teaching us cursive writing and general penmanship. I was one of those kids who loved the exercises to familiarize our hands to the flow of the pen. I could have done them forever and I still do a couple of them when I am doodling and processing thought.

In the past couple of weeks, I have had several conversations with teachers about how penmanship is no longer a key component of elementary education and we asked ourselves, what have we lost? I have also encountered many students, particularly middle school students, who no only cannot write in cursive (their printing is not much better) but cannot read cursive! One 7th grade teacher told me that frequently the students cannot benefit from her comments on their papers because they cannot decipher her written language.

As we discussed how this is a detriment to education and that it is a failing of the system to offer this necessary skill to students, her logic was that, with the pressure of more and more mandates, something has to give.  Penmanship skill building is a lower priority.  However, we are creating a generation that will not have the ability to communicate without a keyboard and printer. Even their printing is atrocious. I often cannot decipher student writing when we are working on a poetry project. It is embarrassing to not be able to figure out the student product without their help. I honestly do not know how teachers manage to read the homework. It must take tremendous effort to learn how to navigate all of these students' individual styles, etc. I can only liken it to when I was a secretary to 23 geologists, many of whom should have gone to med school, based on their penmanship. Understanding their scrawls became a learned familiarity with each person's ciphers. I survived and learned to almost read their minds.  Just like teachers with students.

Another key discussion has been around the subject of pens and writing instruments. Students at one school took a keen interest in my various fountain and "designer" pens, each with a different color ink for various moods and purposes. They did not understand why I would spend $10, or $65, on a pen. I explained that these are my tools. If I were a contractor, I would have a tool belt of excellent hammers, wrenches, etc. Besides, these pens are more ecological. My fountain pens have reservoirs that I refill, using only one bottle of ink per preferred color every 2 - 3 years. No plastic to send to the eternity of landfills.

Recently, I admired the pen case that held Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson's gorgeous selection of fountain pens as he signed books in Syracuse before his lecture. I said that I just threw my pens in my purse and sometimes they leak. His reply was, "Of course they leak. They are angry..." I don't really just throw them in my purse. They go in a special pocket but they still get knocked around by Bach's Rescue Remedy, my Tide spot pen, and lip balm. This week I splurged! I ordered a leather pen case for my three prized writing instruments. It was not cheap but it is a protection for the primary tools of my trade. That is reason enough. Thank you, Dr. Tyson. I anticipate much more cooperation from the little buggers once they rest in proper berths.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Rolling with the Circumstances

My teaching has me on the road frequently. I have discovered several things in the years that I have been traveling to share my work with school communities: I am a magnet for snow days and fire drills, I will always be packed with clothing for the wrong weather, I sleep well on good mattresses, and I always feel like a pack mule.

Snow days, inevitable in the Northeast from January through March, are the mixed blessing. The unexpected day off is generally a delightful surprise. However, it slows down my process and usually means I lose a day of work with the students and, often, a day of billable hours.  No matter that I have lost the day and am far from home so I cannot reschedule. Even if I did reschedule, it messes up the timing and flow of the process, already under serious constraints anyway.  

But one snow day this past winter was incredible. I was staying at a friend's house in the country in Orange County.  It is a small home in the country and there are huge windows on one side of the house in every room, including both bedrooms. Because she is not living there year round anymore so there is no cable or internet access, I had to have a friend in NYC look on line to see if school was cancelled very early that morning. The news was yes. In fact, even the Big Apple was closed for business due to snow! So I made coffee, got back in bed and watched the snow fall as if I lived in a giant snow globe.  t was incredible. That morning I completed reading the new Toni Morrison novel; that afternoon, I journaled, did the NY Times Sunday crossword; that evening I revised poems and my lesson plans for the remainder of the week.

Now the weather is warm, it is fire drill season. I have been in two this week already, one in each of two districts where I am working. One year, I was in three in one week in the same school because they were making up their yearly quota. The teachers said it was me that brought the fire drill mojo and they may be right. I will be in that school all next week. I am sure that we will be rushing out the door into the spring air to practice for emergencies, stepping over the goose poop in the fields surrounding the school.

I have to pack for all weather because the Northeast is moody. Yesterday I wore a sweater and it was in the 70s. I brought a cotton tunic for today because the weather forecast said it was to be warmer today but the rain overnight changed things. Oh well. I will be warm in school and the car has a heater for the drive home.

Not only do I need to pack for my clothes and daily needs, I also need to pack all of the supplies and teaching tools that I will require for my visits. I have a car that resembles Shaquille O'Neal's rollerskate. It is always jammed with bags of books, boxes of books, computer case, suitcase, roll-along tote, chart paper, magazines for cutting words out for collage poems, and a healthy selection of CDs for drive time. I imagine I add a lot to the car's overall weight with this cargo. Fine in the winter. I need the weight to keep the car connected to the road. But I do not make the best or most efficient nomad. But the work is great and being in different communities is fascinating in many ways.

For now, time to iron the cotton after I unfurl it from the suitcase. I teach in 90 minutes and I need to get ready and out the door, then head home again after school. I will continue to monitor the fact that I am a magnet for snow days and fire drills. Three more weeks of teaching for me after this. There is plenty of time for more journeys into the sunshine in the middle of a lesson.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Being a Rock Star

On Facebook the other day, another teaching artist friend commented on how cool it was to walk through the halls of the school where she is in residency as she heard the kids say to each other, "There's the artist."  She said she felt a little like a rock star.  I know that feeling so well, particularly because there are schools where I have been in residence for several years.  Now I even receive shout-outs and hugs, news that needs to be shared, big smiles.  It is terrific.

I have had students walk into their classrooms lately and state, "Yea! Poetry!"  Or, "Oh good, the poet is back."  Today students asked me why tomorrow was my last day.  Why couldn't I stay and work more with them?  I had to tell them, "I have to go to other schools."  Then they asked why I could not change my schedule.  I replied, "Two reasons: commitment and paycheck."  One laughed and said, "You were going to say paycheck first, weren't you, Ms. Popoff?"  I admitted that I was and amended my choice before responding.  I cited that as a revision just like they would do with their poem drafts.

I am never sure what to expect.  I have confidence that I am skilled at my work but I am always challenged to grow.  I will always find something that is new, a teacher will always bless me with new awarenesses and approaches to teaching.  Another great element of partnering with classroom teachers is how they translate what comes out of my hyperactive brain to connect with students in another way, often the way they are more used to hearing things.  But it is good that they also get to hear things my way, students and teachers both.  The more ways a concept can be articulated, the more likely the concept will anchor into consciousness.

We, as teaching artists, are bigger than life to students.  We stand outside of the normal way of doing things.  We bring a fresh excitement to the classroom and we change the daily rituals, often creating our own.  We are frequently animated.  I figured out that a great deal of teaching, at least for me, is performance art.  I hold very little back and I enjoy being 110% of me.  I enjoy when I make students laugh as much as I delight in seeing their pens or pencils connect with the lines on their paper, leaving evidence of their creativity and inner beings.

Students sometimes ask me if I am famous.  My standard response is that I am famous, just nobody knows it yet.  I appreciate the laugh when they get the joke.  I am sometimes asked for autographs.  Kids connect and want a tether to what we bring to them in new and expansive ways of knowing themselves.  Then maybe they are just hoping we get famous enough to eventually sell the autograph on EBay but, for the time being, I will take the requests as compliments.  And I follow in a conscious tradition of great poets and teachers by writing a note with each one, a note that affirms each student and hopefully inspires them to continue to express themselves with language, for all the myriad of reasons that it is healthy and good.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Power of Language

Here are my current opening lines to a new class as I introduce myself:  "Let me make this very simple for you.  Words are power.  The more words you know and can use, define, understand, the more power you will have as a human being.  Hear me when I say this.  The more language you know, the more likely it is that no one can get it over on you.  This is the most practical reason I can offer as to why you want to listen to me speak to you about poetry."

I keep coming across little bits of research, information about brain function and language/reading, details about the usage of words, reading comprehension statistics and theories, all sorts of tidbits that occupy countless tiny files in the computer that is my brain.  It is estimated that the English language has anywhere between 450,000 and 750,000 words and word forms, dependent on which tally is cited.  Some time last year, I heard that the average American's daily usage of that repository of language is 168.  This is appalling.  Add to that our propensity for abbreviating everything to acronyms and trademarked names and we are pitifully lacking in scope.  We are satisfied with mediocrity when it comes to communication and expression.

The other side of the language factor is that, dependent upon socio-economic class, a child will have heard somewhere between 350,000 and 3 million words by the time he or she is registered for kindergarten.  Huge spread but still, a child is predisposed to language in some form.  What are we offering students in options?

I cringe every time I hear the phrase "her and I went..." but, unfortunately, I hear it all the time and not just from students.  I can sit in an English Department office with colleagues and hear this painful grammatical construction.  I hear it from professionals in the fields of law, human services, medicine.  I hear it on television and on the radio.  It freaks me out.

There are some basics for which many people no longer have any pride:  spelling, grammar, even good penmanship.  These are not stressed in ways that compel students to invest their effort and time in learning and displaying quality skills.  Additionally, all around them are examples that negate such interest or pride.  The fast food national mentality of immediate gratification and the fastest track to receive it is proving to be a critical flaw in our society that I believe is helping to bleed us dry.

During the presidential election, I was astounded as some criticized Barack Obama for being a skilled orator.  It became an insult to be an expert in rhetoric!  WHAT?!  I, for one, am so relieved to be able to sit in front of the television for a press conference and hear the beauty and power of language spoken with confidence and pride.  Not only that but I have a president who challenges me to learn new words every time he speaks as well or, at least, doublecheck that I know the definition and understand the connotation of the vocabulary presented to me.  At last, someone who is raising the bar and expecting that the American populace is intelligent enough to keep up, to understand.  How refreshing!  What a relief.

I have also heard poets state that they are not going to use certain words in poems because no one will know what they are anymore.  We forsake language when we are in the business of language to create worlds, environments.  What will we be doing in the future?  Single syllable word construction of haikus for bottle tops of the newest beverage sensation?

Language is power.  The dictionary is not a doorstop.  It is a weapon as well as a tool.  It combats ignorance, deception, and indifference.  I hope to infect at least one student in every class I facilitate with the curiosity to break the inertia and lift the book, open the cover, and check a word simply because it was there and it was a mystery.