Empowerment through Language...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Pajamas Inside Out and Backwards...

It is every kid's dream and we do not outgrow it...the morning that the announcement confirms hopes and suspicions that school is closed and there is no need to scramble out the door. Today, it happened again for the district in which I am teaching this week. Honestly, I am a lucky charm for snow days. Especially this time of year. This is the third year in a row, in fact, that on a Wednesday in late winter, while I am teaching at this particular school, that the snows have seized the day.

I love the gift of the extra time to do other things, believe me. I appreciate not leaving my host's home at 6:30 a.m. to make the drive to start first period at 7:45, the faces of tired and semi-interested adolescents before me as I start the "Georgia Show," to have one day to myself. That seems decadent and delicious in the midst of my schedule. 
But, as a teaching artist, it also means a day lost in my process, as well as creates the need to figure out how to reschedule everything or lose a day's income when the billing is finalized. In some schools, a snow day is not excluded. Other schools will not pay the lump sum. It depends on many factors. So a snow day is also a mixed blessing.
This morning, I am tending the fire in the fireplace, sipping a third cup of coffee, catching up on my blog, and getting ready to finish reading a great book by an icon and wayshower in the worlds of poetry and arts in education, Richard Lewis. Richard was honoring the poetry that is inherent in children's hearts when I was becoming a poet myself in the early 60s. The book for the morning is when thought is young:  Reflections on Teaching and the Poetry of the Child
Another of my very favorites is Richard's anthology of poetry from students of English-speaking countries, Miracles. This book is out of print but I have consistently found it on line used. Although published in the mid-60s, the poetry is still relevant. It also depicts quality poetry that can be created by young minds, young writers. Too often we rely on adult words to fulfill student interest. It is so easy for them to then draw the judgment that they are unable to do what the grownups can do. With this resource of delightful and insightful poems by youth, it supports the assertion that our students can make poems that others want to read and that they, themselves, can be proud of sharing.
Still at the work in 2010, generous with his gifts and insights, gentle of voice and nature, Richard has given me the perfect fireside reading while the world outside is all aflutter with flakes and I feel like a small figurine inside a snow globe.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Road Is Calling Once Again

I have been home for 2 weeks after 5 weeks of traveling to teach. It was a wonderful stint but the time at home was much needed. The grounding, waking in my own bed, the chance to clear at least the bulk of the huge piles on my desk, to have dinner with friends, water the plants, all healings from which I have received much benefit.

However, it flew by. There was always work to do with all of the side jobs. I saw some of my friends but not nearly the number with whom I would have liked to share some of the miracle tales I witnessed in my work with children. I had editing jobs to do, work on my collaboration project, Comstock Review editing and typing to get the issue ready for design, friends in the hospital (some of whom I could not even get to see). I also spent three afternoon sessions with 3rd grade poets who were my true Valentines.  It has been a blur already. Wow.

Sunday, after finalizing the pressing deadlines before me and hosting a poetry reading this evening at the Downtown Writer's Center, I will pack up the car with all I will need for several weeks downstate. I will first drive to Elmira, NY, to address the Southern Tier Reading Council for their annual tea. This is a wonderful opportunity to meet many people who are dedicated to the art of teaching and the love of language. Then I will head the other direction on Route 17 to Orange County. 

Monday morning early the cycle starts again. Three weeks of middle school instruction are before me, five classes a day, five different teachers, an average of 100 new students per week, taking me to well over 1000 students I have already met and imagined with so far this school year. It takes stamina, it requires a great deal of flexibility and innovative thinking, it necessitates being able to respond in the moment, to be present with each student, and the ability to assess a situation and classroom temperament within moments.

But this is great work and I have finally achieved the ability to be fully satisfied in the work that provides the home that soothes me upon each return. This is a blessing and I am full of gratitude. Have a wonderful weekend everyone. Take a moment to notice the poem that is your own life.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

When Teachers Are Engaged, All Are Engaged

I am nearly done with 2 weeks in classes of 3rd graders and what a blast it has been, although I am really whooped. With three or four contact sessions per class, four self-contacted special ed. classes and seven standard classes, I have taught nearly 230 students in 10 school days. Each class has a completely different temperament. This is particularly noticeable with the classes of students with special needs. What this work demands is an ability to be very flexible and to be able to assess needs and capabilities very quickly in order to adapt to the class for a lesson that will keep the students engaged.

Over the years, I have heard many teaching artists comment on the difference between the teacher who contributes to the process or activity, the teacher who models lifelong learning and enthusiasm for what the artist or visitor brings to their classroom vs. the teacher who thinks that our presence in their room is the gift of down time, paper-marking time, email time. Anything but teaching time. When the host teacher is involved with my lesson, it is always a better experience for us all. Students will mimic what they see. Even if the teacher is sitting with them as I teach but that teacher is marking papers, the students see a lack of attention and replicate it. In some cases, they may even shuffle papers from their desks and doodle as well.

Basically, my work is not just what I do with the students but the methods and activities that I have developed for teachers to use when I am gone. The teachers who recognize that this is an opportunity to add elements to their own pedagogy, as well as to share skills with me, are the teachers I most enjoy and who probably most appreciate my work with their students. I learn from the teachers with whom I teach every day. They give me new approaches for everything that I have to do in schools. I hope that I bring them the value that I intend to share.
I have always seen my work in the classroom as a three-way learning experience, when it is at its best. I had many such experiences these last 2 weeks and I look forward to next year, when I will hopefully be invited to return to the school with even more to bring to students and teachers both.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Each Day an Adventure, Something Else to Learn

I am just 2 days shy of returning to my own bed. I have been on the road for most of the past month, home long enough to do laundry, check the mail, and sleep a couple of fitful nights before packing up and heading out again. I have 2 weeks ahead of me and I am ready to reconnect to my own space, see if I can resurrect some of my poor plants. Perhaps I will be more accustomed to the profound emptiness that lives there now that my beloved cat and friend, Butch, is gone.

Butch was a legend among the many poets and friends who have stayed with us, either in my perch on the third floor of Mrs. Powers' house on Victoria Place for 10 years, or the 10 years since that I have lived in my home. It was 10 years ago last week that a throng of friends moved me from the apartment to this house, quite an ordeal. Butch and my other cat, Angel, were quite disturbed by it all. Angel retreated to the basement for a month. Butch took to finding his way and claiming the space.

Butch was a big boy, born into the wrong body. Some golden lab somewhere was seriously confused because the cat that should have been in Butch's body was switched at birth. He loved water. He followed me everywhere. And he was relentless in loving.

Right now, Butch has been what I have been calling Walt Disneyed. In upstate NY in winter, there is no way to bury a cat. So the day he passed, after a lengthy hospice through the holidays and into the new year, I bathed his body and wrapped him well, then placed the bag that holds him in his bath sheet shroud in a nook in the chest freezer I bought this summer to keep him safe until spring when the ground softens.

The other day, I opened a can of tuna and there was no one to give the liquid to as a treat. With my teaching schedule, I haven't had much time to adjust to the loss in that kind of immediacy.

Butch came to live with me just a few weeks after I attended my first National Poetry Slam in 1994. I was doing secretarial work at the time and I told several of my friends at work that I was going to do whatever I could to create my life centered on my identity as poet, which I had put on a shelf for nearly a decade.

Now, more than 15 years later, that kitten grew from a frantic little maniac, to a big bruiser, to a distguished older gentleman, to an old, old man. He departed at a time when I am solely supporting myself as a teaching poet and my success in writing has been evident as well. I have gone from just returning to writing to my present self, and Butch was there for the entire journey. Now he leaves me on my own. 

He was a great guy. He made a warm spot for me on the bed before I retired on winter nights. He filled my lap with bone-strengthening purrs. Butch loved me unconditionally, and he loved my friends. He will be missed by many. I was lucky to know him. Nite nite Butchie Boy. And thanks loads...

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Ebb, Flow, and the Full Moon

So here's the deal. As artists who choose to work in education, we are often freelancers, independent contractors, consultants. We have walked out on some shaky limb for one of any number of reasons. And we need to be paid on a timely basis or we contribute more to the mess that the economy is in. But it is worth the frustration to have this work now and this schedule. It just means that the universe has some smoothin' out to do...

Nuff said...nite nite...