Empowerment through Language...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Haiku Reflection of My Day

school trombone lesson - or geese
farting overhead?

I couldn't resist...sorry. HA!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Back in the World!

This fall I had another nasty bout of bronchitis that had me housebound for most of a month, except for the teaching that was required. I retreated from the world while I tried to heal my body. I left the computer up in my office and broke my Facebook addiction. I neglected my blog because I had no energy for creativity. I did manage to knit a great deal and am now well versed in the latest season of Project Runway and multiple reruns of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and The Supernanny. I also admit that Jo Frost has very helpful suggestions in communication and discipline!

The fall was a gentle incline towards the busy schedule I will be keeping for the rest of the 09-10 school year. I had three different teaching experiences that were primarily unrelated in material and focus. I taught a discussion seminar for the Honors Department at Syracuse University called "Reading the World," a course for the Downtown Writer's Center on contemporary and emerging African-American poets, and a residency with 4th graders in a Syracuse elementary school. It was a light schedule compared to my usual pace and I could manage to get through most of my instruction without coughing myself to death and without infecting anyone. The rest of the time, I was a slug in the house with little capacity to think, read, walk the stairs, little appetite. It was a mess. But my teaching was terrific because I love my work and the students, whether they were 10 or in their 20's, even 60's, always bring energy and enthusiasm to my life.

The 4th graders were so wonderful. We worked together to create autobiographical poems that showed the kids with light, humor, poignancy, and their best efforts to use language to their ability. The teachers were wonderful to work with as well, supporting my efforts while I was on site and completing the tasks from each successive lesson to have students ready upon my return each week.

Teachers have to make a lot of room for an artist such as myself to come into their classrooms. There are may needs and demands with the school calendar, expectations for learning, tests (the damned tests) and more tests, particularly in elementary school. I dearly appreciate that my work with their students not only creates work for them as well but that the routine is shaken to the core for whatever time my residency lasts. I also appreciate that the teachers with whom I work value what I bring to their students enough to take on all that it requires.

This week and next, I am working with 3rd and 4th graders. We are engaged in a terrific experience in which I have set up the premise that we are all participants in a living video game called "Poetry Detectives." They are totally on board and we are having a lot of fun.

And today I got to have the same moment of bliss that the entire school experienced: SNOW DAY announced. Back to sleep, an unexpected decadent day to myself to catch up on other work and gaze out the window at the expanse of new snow.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Adults Ought to Be Ashamed

This summer, I have witnessed the most offensive, appalling behavior by adults in the face of the political climate. I am ashamed of the behaviors of adults evident in the news media. The modeling of screaming in a public forum or on a panel on a commentary of the daily news, of mocking and taunting those with opposing views, of lying and chastising to support one's own belief system, of unadulterated hatred and small-mindedness, all of these behaviors have been highly broadcast over the airwaves of America's media.

There have been a multitude of bullying activities in which some citizens have accused other citizens of being "unAmerican." There have been frightening correlations of our President to heinous leaders from the past who have exterminated human beings in unfathomable numbers. There have been firearms carried to public gatherings where our democratically elected President was going to speak. If this had happened at any other time in our history, I firmly believe these individuals would have been immediately arrested as threats to the President and our national security.

In our schools, there are comprehensive programs to combat bullying in the schoolyard, in the classroom, on the school bus, and in the neighborhood. But what is the point if we see political pundits and politicians bullying citizens, other colleagues, and our President? Last night, in a shameful act, an elected member of the House of Representatives disrupted the President's speech to scream the accusation that our President was lying. WHAT?! And he was permitted to remain in the room. Would we allow a student in any assembly in any school in our country to stay in the auditorium if he or she screamed at a principal as that administrator addressed the school population?! I would posit the answer is NO!

Another offensive behavior that no one stops is the habit members of both houses of Congress have developed of playing with their Blackberries and I-Phones while the President of the United States of America is addressing them about critical issues of our nation. In our schools, we are seeing a challenge for teachers and hall monitors in curtailing the use of cell phones, I-Pods, and other media during the school day. How are we to enforce such rules when any student can cite that Senator So-and-So or Representative Who-Gives-a-Shit was sitting in the most significant meeting space in our nation beyond the White House, tweeting their own views to the world rather than affording the attention that anyone who holds the elected office of President should be able to command?

Why is it not a rule that the phones and PDAs must be silenced and left in the offices of our elected officials when they are being addressed by our President? We make it a supposed rule that students must pay attention and be respectful of teachers and administrators, of their elders, but are their elders doing the same and modeling respectful behavior? Where is the model for thoughtful citizenship in the media for our youth?! Where is the truth of freedom of speech as one person is broadcast taunting another for an opposing view?Where are we modeling an environment of safety for personal opinion? And where are our youth seeing images of respectful behavior in public discourse?

Our President has been the foremost in modeling openness, tolerance, willingness to listen to all sides, even in receiving insulting heckling from an elected official who should be offering respect to the office that President Obama holds by a majority of the American electorate. Thank you, Mr. Obama, for your temperance while under attack. You, more than any in the glaze of media lights, show our youth how to comport oneself with self respect and to treat others in a respectful manner. I hope they pay more attention to you than to the many boors who jam our airwaves and public conversation.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

One of my most ardent followers admonished me back channel because I had not posted in a month. I guess this is more than a place to think in language, there is a certain responsibility to it. The lesson of discipline is one of the ones I am most incorporating at this time. And a responsibility to my readers.

I am learning more about my attention inconsistencies and my compulsive nature, how to make these aspects of myself tools, learning how to make them work for me rather than act as barriers and speed bumps.

This was the first summer I have had to myself to do pretty much what I want in 30 years or so. I started my first job 39 years ago this past summer. Most summers since then, I have had to work in some form. This summer I had the ability:
  • to sort out a lot on the interior world,
  • to notice the world with patient consciousness,
  • to start the serious organization of all of the chaos and clutter around me,
  • to journal regularly,
  • to laugh,
  • to walk,
  • to read for pleasure,
  • to listen to the cicada and watch the birds at the feeders for hours,
  • to pull weeds,
  • to sniff as the Stargazer lilies beg for attention...
...all this and more. I realized that, in my life as a poet and human, this is my work now. There was a moment in which I recognized that I finally understand the premise of being in the moment. I pray that I never lose this awareness. It is where I find my peace.

The past year has been one of the most significant and growthful years of my life. I reconnected with who I truly am. I examined my intention in all things, and I did a critical review of my work as a teaching artist. I rested and reflected on my year past and now I am readying for the upcoming school year. I will return to classrooms with teachers whom I admire and with whom I love working. I will meet new teachers and students. I will see students I know who have had a year's worth of development since last school year. I look forward to how much I will grow again this year.
And next summer, I will do it again. This is the cycle of my life now. I am so grateful. I am so blessed.


Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Self-Reflection in the Craft of Teaching Artistry

Last year, one of the teachers I was working with had to miss one of my days in her class to attend a professional development opportunity. She asked if I would mind if her student teacher videotaped one of the classes so she would not miss out on that part of the process of my residency. I consented eagerly and at the end of the school year she mailed me a lovely DVD of my classroom experience.

I admit that I do not like pictures of myself, like most humans, and I am very self-critical when I view them. For this reason, I avoided my movie self-portrait until the other day when I was working on some promotional materials. I faced my own reluctance and started watching to see if there were some pieces I could edit out to include in my project. I confess that I did not figure that part out yet, the copy/edit, but I watched a good portion of the DVD and I value the experience greatly.

I got a chance to watch myself from outside of myself. I saw how I generally speak with students, how I take their questions and explain what I believe I know about language, communication, poetry, and humanity. I saw my humor and my expression. I pretended I was a student sitting in the classroom experiencing this for the first time and I discovered that I believe myself to be good at what I do. This was so liberating. I am so invested in my career as a teaching professional and as a creative artist. To see myself in action gives me the impetus to start my planning and research for the school year ahead. Like it or not, it is August and time is a fleet adversary. I will be in schools soon and there is much to do to be ready for all those questions, all those discussions. I will enter the academic year with a touch more confidence in myself because one teacher valued me enough to not miss what I did with her kids and to share the evidence with me. Thanks to Jan Bubb! You rock!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

I Have Always Adored Signage

The other morning I decided to initiate the practice of daily writing prompts. I had to look something up in the fabulous collection of writing exercises compiled by Behn and Twichell, The Practice of Poetry the day before. I have referenced particular exercises in the book many times and I have it as a recommendation to teachers but I have not approached it as a writer in a long time and certainly not a daily practice. So I decided to go through it and endeavor to complete each exercise while maintaining a daily discipline.

The first exercise in the book is from Ann Lauterbach, called "First Words." Here is the result of that morning's response, quoted verbatim, no edits, just out of the brain:

I remember that I was thrilled to be learning to read. I was barely 5 years old and it made sense to me - the decoding process. The letters were sound symbols and I was deciphering those legends to make patterns that translated into thought and understanding. It was incredible.

I was driving with Daddy out Teall Avenue from the Rugby Apartments in his little maroon bubble of a 1960 vintage Saab with the gray scratchy wool covered bucket seats. I loved my dad. My mom had married him when I was 4 and it was so much fun to have a dad who laughed and hugged, so completely different from the austere, demanding chisel of stone my mother had divorced. So we were off somewhere together, just the two of us in the little bubble car, turning from Teall Avenue onto the cut-over street towards GM Circle when I saw approximately five words on a billboard that opened up to my young mind like a treasure chest. I read them out loud like a chant. Daddy was so surprised. So was I...and thrilled. I understood that something was very different in my life. I had discovered a form of freedom I had never known. It was so marvelous. I tried another billboard, the names of businesses on the buildings we passed. I don't know if he was being driven nuts by my verbal outbursts or if he was amused. Perhaps he was somewhat overwhelmed by bearing witness to this unfolding miracle that the capacity of my brain was expressing. He was very new to fatherhood, having now an infant and a child ready for kindergarten at the same time. I bet he felt overwhelmed by it all.

I also figure that his love was so strong that the fear was overridden by joy for the family he now had, the family to which he was responsible. One small reward, driving with a curly headed laughing girl blurting out the words of each billboard like they were scripture...and this was his alone to witness.

My father would be 85 years old this August 22nd, were he still with us. Vladimir Popoff was a man of simple needs and tremendous intellect. He was also very funny, deeply loving, and totally honest. I am honored to carry his name and to have been his daughter.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I'm So Confused

What the heck? I don't know how it happened that I had one full, lovely picture of Walter Cronkite, then it disappeared, then I found another and now I have not one, but two, half pictures of the man. Sorry to you, the readers, for this. It is as weird as the Declaration of Independence link that you have to click on but I can see the full pic. I am just not that technologically advanced and will have to keep to my own photos. Please don't give up on me. hahahaha

Thanks Uncle Walter

There is no escaping the fact that I am a Baby Boomer. I have had the privilege of living through the entire age of rock 'n' roll because of my chronology. I have borne witness to so much crucial history and countless marvelous discoveries in my 55 years. Through so many of my formative and young adult years, the sonorous tones of Walter Cronkite informed me. Walter did not just deliver the news with integrity, clarity of thought and language, and confidence, he encouraged us to think.

In this time when so much of the media on both sides of the divide are based in shouting each other down with opinions, the role of the journalist is slipping into the void. We lose award-winning journalists from regional and local papers that are struggling. The major papers are folding. We are left with USA Today, "news" generated days in advance and delivered at hotel doors throughout America.

Chris Matthews screams his opinions and he feels it is his right to interrupt if he doesn't care for what the other person is saying. Rush Limbaugh is just a hateful man profiteering on the fears of those who somehow cannot do the work to think of any side other than their own limited knowledge and belief system.

Walter Cronkite was the person for whom "news anchor" was coined and it became a title, a role, a responsibility. He was articulate yet spoke in a plain language that instilled trust. He set a standard and he changed history in some ways. Do the research yourself if you don't remember. Thank goodness we still have Jim Lehrer, Barbara Walters, and some like them, those journalists who not only recorded, even made history, but those who exhibit temperance and a resolve for clarity and objectivity. But they are an aging, dying breed and the field of journalism is gasping for air.

I do remember Walter Cronkite as a daily element of the family life. I remember firsthand so many of the seminal clips they are broadcasting this weekend. I remember hearing Walter's voice comment from every home in the greater Westcott neighborhood of Syracuse, New York, as I walked with my boyfriend, my first love, through the thick evening air of July 20, 1969. It was otherworldly and we knew our world would never be the same.

Blessed be, Mr. Cronkite, and thank you.

That's the way it is, July 19, 2009.

p.s. Thanks to whomever took this photo. I use it with good intention, although I do not know your name to give credit. I found it on Wikipedia. I appreciate that it was there and I respectfully include it here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Lost Art of Penmanship - More Thoughts Regarding the Obvious

It is something to consider: how so many people struggle to handle a pen or pencil. Also, how atrocious so many people's handwriting is. Lastly, think about how many people really dislike writing.

I have found in my 10 years of working with all ages of writers and students that some of the frustration is that the mind works so much more quickly than the hand. The translation of thought to written word on the page is arduous for many. Slowing down the creative process to accommodate the mechanics of pen to paper is counterproductive. Add to that the basic sense of inadequacy so many people feel as writers and they are discouraged.

One way I have discovered to maintain engagement and cooperation in school settings is to get students to computers rather early in the writing process. There are many reasons for this:

1) students love computers and are used to them (at least if they are under 45);
2) they need the computer skills to survive in the 21st century and some students have limited access so school is the place where they can hone their abilities;
3) often those with attention issues will stay focused more readily; and/or
4) it is a change from the standard day, a treat of sorts, which also buys me a certain level of appreciation (a plus factor from my perspective).

This has been evidenced time and time again. I sometimes run up against the problem of not enough computers to accommodate the number of students or too many other classes reserving the computer lab so we have to plan accordingly but I want to get students to keyboards quickly. When I do, we see more productivity and creativity, as well as more willingness to complete the assignment.

I also see that I do not have to watch awkward hands hold pens and pencils in challenging positions or listen to whining. That is certainly worth it!

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Rock & Roll: Making an Argument for the Value of Performances in Schools

This one is the most basic: performances in schools or bus trips for performance-based artistic experiences does give the opportunity to teach audience skills and etiquette, sometimes the only real opportunity children receive.

Why do I even comment on this? Simple! I have become so soured on attending live musical performances, a passion that I have held since I was a child and attended my first concerts, both classical and pop. I went to my first Dick Clark Caravan of Stars concert when I was 10, and just before that, I caught a glimpse of a Leslie Gore show at what was then the Lowe's Theater in downtown Syracuse (now our fabulous Landmark Theater) when my mom needed to meet up with a local deejay for some publicity matters for her local community theater company. I was hooked.

I became hooked on music at an early age. I love telling students that the best part of being my age is that, at 55, I have lived through the entire age of Rock & Roll and I continue that path now. I received my first radio for my fifth birthday, a gift from my birth father. I slept with a transistor under my pillow in my tweens. I got a record player for my 45s and a subscription to the Columbia Record Club when I was approximately 11, again from my birth father. These two gifts were the most treasured gifts I ever received from him, true indicators that in some way he did understand me. It may have been better if he helped me pay for more of my club selections but that is all water under the bridge now.

I have gone to more concerts than I can count. In elementary school we also came to school dressed in our finest once a year to board a bus and head downtown to the Onondaga County War Memorial for the annual series of school concerts by the young Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Karl Kritz. It was heavenly, especially since I was also enamored of the Sunday youth concerts on TV conducted and narrated by Leonard Bernstein. I had an incredible crush on him. But I also had crushes on Pat Boone when I was 5, Ray Charles when I was 8, and Peter Noone when I was 10. I have always had eclectic tastes.

Once the live music bug bit me, I was insatiable. Concerts at the War Memorial, the opening of Jabberwocky at Syracuse University when I was in middle school, S.U.'s Manley Field House, the State Fair Arena, concerts in parks, bands on the fraternity porches every home football game, music was everywhere and my babysitting money went towards buying records and listening to music live.

I have continued that passion throughout my adult life as well. I often can connect with the disengaged Rock & Roll kids in class by their tribute Tshirts, especially if they are wearing an artist who I have seen live. Better still if that artist is dead. I have seen some of the greats and that is a terrific point of connection and engagement with students.

But these days, I have found the live music experience sadly flawed and uncomfortable. This is not because the music is less exciting but because we, as a society, have lost the respect for the artists that entails a sense of etiquette. People are so used to music being the background of their lives that they carry on as if they are in their living rooms rather than in a performance venue. They cannot sit in their seats for a 90-minute performance. Even more annoying - they cannot shut up!

Now, music and theatrical performances are no longer the $3.50 that my ticket to the Who or Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, or Jefferson Airplane once cost either. I have to make a calculated decision when I buy a ticket to see a performance I am interested in because it could be the difference between paying a bill or an evening of entertainment.

I have had several occasions in the past few years during which I have been so distracted from the experience I have paid for by rude, self-absorbed audience members that I have asked them to please restrain themselves. I believe that I am polite in my request but still obviously annoyed. The irony is that, in each of these instances that I have advocated for myself, I have been shunned and even tormented by these same rude individuals who decide that I am encroaching on their rights. It is absurd.

It happened again last night. I went with a friend to the Turning Stone Casino Showroom to see Zappa Plays Zappa. I spent the whole day in anticipation. We had great seats center stage one level up so Dweezel was at eye level as he fingered his guitar. A young couple came in with their beer cooler and sat in the two seats in front of us at the 8-top. And they talked throughout. Since the sound level was elevated, their talk was often shouting. They also took many turns getting up to pee, disrupting my friend and me and the people in the table next to ours each time. Then they talked more when they reunited at their seats.

At one point, the gentleman sitting across from us was about to blow. The young man in front of him, an obvious musician with a keen knowledge of the Zappa legacy, had his hand over his ear facing the chatty duo, the people behind were obviously agitated, and I was missing an incredible sax solo with the dialogue being shouted in front of me. "Excuse me..." The young man turned to me, stopped in mid-sentence, "What?" "I want to hear THAT..." pointing to the woman on stage. "WHAT?!" "You are talking LOUD."

He quieted down a bit but my friend reflected later that he sensed that the couple was annoyed with me, that I had been a "buzz kill" for their fun night out. Too bad. They were being a rude aspect of the experience and poor audience showing no respect for the talent on stage. And they were diminishing the quality of my investment.

This happens in movies as well. We are a self-centered society with our phones, our media, our false sense that everything depends on ourselves, nothing else is as important as our immediate needs. Our ring tones blasting in all environments, even the White House Press Room and church. We need a bit more Emily Post and we need to put kids on buses with expectations that they sit in their theater seats and truly listen. If they listen well and have the knowledge that will help them listen before they walk into the performance space, they will learn and they will enjoy. And maybe, when they are middle-aged, they will remember the day they dressed up and went to the symphony.

p.s. Thanks Dweezel! You carry the torch really well and you have put together a great band. I was outside of time and space, at least most of the time. Frank is dead. Long live Frank.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Finally Escaping the Imprint of Old School Discipline

I had a moment that caused me to gasp this morning as I encountered another obituary for a school mate. I graduated high school in 1971 and our class has lost somewhere between 15 and 20 members since that June. It is becoming more frequent. At the 30th reunion, as we paid tribute to the 11 who had passed, we recognized that this number would only increase from that point on. In fact, that reunion was one month before the fall of the Towers and the tragedy that was 9/11/01 for our nation and world. One of us passed just a day or so after of heart failure, I believe.

This passing was a challenging surprise. Let me step back to my 3rd or 4th grade year (not quite sure which anymore but I am inclined to say 3rd). It was a fall day, gray and damp. A boy who was in my class followed me past the street where he lived for several blocks, taunting and bullying. He threatened me and forced me into a back yard of a house on my route home, a long walk in itself. He forced me to kneel in the leaves. He was rough and it was the first time I had ever been accosted by another kid. I had long hair, nearly to my waist, curly and thick. He took my hair in his hands, wrapped it tight in his grip, placed his foot in my back and pulled as hard as he could over and over again. He had grabbed my arms too in forcing his will on me so I was hurting all over. I think I cried. I don't know why he stopped when he did but all I remember is that he stopped and left. I never knew why he did this. We had no beef, no conflict. I barely talked to him, hardly knew him. He just was a boy sitting in a desk on the other side of the room. I was stunned at the whole thing and deeply shaken, disturbed enough to cry myself the rest of the way home and tell my mother.

Mommy was fierce when she was pissed. I take after her in that. Somehow she appeared at school the next day to talk to our principal, Elsie Plato, a stern woman who looked like she walked out of a Frank Capra film in her black sensible shoes. Mrs. Plato asked me in to tell my story. Then she brought this boy in to attest to his behavior. She demanded an apology from him, which is all I wanted from the experience. Then she forced me to sit there while she took out a hefty ruler, instructed the boy to place his hands on the desk, and she smashed his knuckles with the disciplinary tool.

Witnessing this punishment was as horrifying as the threat and fear of the previous day. This boy was in so much pain because I confessed. We never spoke again that I can remember until that 30th reunion.

I would see him as we were adults in community and I always had a pit in my stomach from the lingering memory of both of the violent experiences. It had been the first time I felt true threat from a male peer and, as I grew older, it seemed deeper than just being bullied. It was always a violation and I was afraid of him most of my life.

When I was 16, I experienced date rape and I never told anyone exactly what had happened. I could not stand the shame and I could not face being forced to witness another punishment, so I pushed the memory out of my head entirely. These events are somehow linked.

But in August of 2001, I saw this man who was a bully boy, I saw a man with his wife having a great time, just another classmate looking back and noticing that life was skirting past at an insanely rapid pace. He had a stable job. He had a home, a family, just an ordinary Joe. I lost my fear that evening as we all toasted each other and our lives, our differences, our bellies and graying pates.

Today, I read his obituary and tears are there for him once again, but in celebration of his life. A Navy man, a Viet Nam vet. A good father and husband, an admirable, reliable employee. He passed away at 56. How could that be? I wonder if he remembered? I wonder if he hated me? I wonder why he hurt me in the first place? I wonder if his knuckles ever healed properly? Or his child self's pride? I wonder what his parents did? I wonder how many people will carry his memory of the fine life he led as a man? I am sure to and I am no longer afraid or ashamed. I have offered a private prayer to his family mourning his unexpected death. I will make a contribution to the charity named by the family and give myself a moment of silence to remember my classmate fondly.

Friday, July 03, 2009

A Simple Declaration

Every year in celebration of the 4th of July, National Public Radio broadcasts a reading of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, each paragraph read by a different network correspondent. This blend of voices bringing life to this remarkable document is inspiring and poignant but I frequently miss parts of it as my daily activities interrupt or I wake after it has started and only hear a portion.

This morning I woke a bit before 7 a.m. to the second half of the reading on Morning Edition, my clock radio just beyond my pillows on the nightstand. I waited for the rebroadcast a couple of hours later and I tried to stream it from my NPR affiliate, WAER FM in Syracuse, only to encounter a typical technological glitch. So I scurried to a radio and, again, caught it midstream.

I had to confess to myself that it is ludicrous that I am a 55 year old American who has, until now, never read this crucial piece of writing in its entirety. Not only have I not taken the time, initiative, whatever, no teacher ever asked me to read it. How did that happen? Norman Lear, the entertainment mogul, owns an original draft as a citizen to preserve its intention and share with other citizens and I have never even read it - 30 some odd paragraphs upon which our entire nation rests.

So this morning, I went to the NPR web site, downloaded the reading and I followed along in print. Follow this link if you would like to do the same:

What I discovered was an astounding treatise, a magnificent vocabulary lesson, an appallingly racist view of the indigenous peoples from whom we seized this continent, and deep inspiration at the same time. Oxymoron in its greatest sense. I also more fully understand the politics and history that resulted in the drafting of this document and the formation of this nation. The same issues today in many ways as I watch MSNBC, listen to NPR, tune into PBS and ABC, and receive breaking news from CNN in my inbox.

I am news junkie, this is a fact. But I am also dreadfully uninformed. This I need to change. Today I took a step. I immersed myself in the Declaration and the language of Thomas Jefferson. I started thinking about a lesson plan. I consider all before me who staked everything so I have the ability to live my life as an independent artist and educator, and to those who protect those inalienable rights this day. Thank you all.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Off and Running Again!

A quick note before I hit the road for Poughkeepsie to meet up with my colleagues Maria Marewski and Tim Sutton of the Children's Media Project and Sue Lesser from the Arlington School District. We are co-presenting a workshop on media arts in the classroom at the NECAP Conference for teaching artists in Providence, RI, tomorrow. I was up until 1:30 working on a PowerPoint loop of images from our projects together and I woke up every 45 minutes to check that I did not oversleep. Yawn! 

It is raining buckets but I have great tunes for the car (Leela James, James Hunter, remastered Bob Marley, Robin Thicke) and there is nothing a thermos of coffee cannot accommodate. More about the conference over the weekend when I am back at home. Next week, I tackle the front garden and continue the archeological dig in my office. But first, a moment of thanks to the electrician who found the burnt wire that was also burning through the cellulose insulation. No house fire! Plugs working again so bedroom lights, office outlet, and alarm clock all working once more. Thanks be to the universe and the angels for ever protecting me!

Monday, June 15, 2009

What Is Hidden in Language?

I just finished watching "Freedom Writers" for the first time. Admittedly, I should have run right out to the theaters for the first screening but I did not want to: 1) be disappointed, 2) see the same old superhero teacher flick, 3) rehash "Dangerous MInds," 4) be drop kicked into the work I do as a teaching artist for entertainment, and/or 5) all of the above. So this morning, with a huge mug of tea, I popped the DVD into the trusty machine, got out the knitting/crocheting project I am desperately trying to finish, and I finally watched the movie.

Decidedly, it is a Hollywood rendition of a process that was likely much more scary, touching, frustrating, and ultimately successful than 2 hours can accommodate. But it had a lot of poignant moments and spoke to me directly in my work, particularly one project this year.

One of the students asks Erin Gruwell (in Hilary Swank form), "Why should I trust you? Because you are a teacher? How do I know you aren't lying?" This had a deep resonation for me. I addressed this factor briefly in another recent post and these are questions I keep asking myself. I know that I have a certain intention in the classroom, in fact, with all teaching I do, even adults. But why should a student trust me, just because I ask them to or, more likely expect and demand that trust and respect? As a young person, I had not yet drawn the conclusion that not all adults could be trusted. It took me a long time to build that defense, in fact, in spite of a great deal of personal trauma, a significant death in the family, even a date rape at 16. I still worked from a belief system that people could be trusted. Sometimes I regret that now but I don't think I would change it if I had the power. I still trust and respect people until they prove to me that I cannot. But not all of our youth are given that chance, even luxury.

This is how I start with all students: I respect them. I trust them. I expect reciprocity in that respect. I maintain that respect to the best of my ability and most of the time I am given the opportunity to continue. Even students who violate my respect for them have the chance to regain it through their actions. Each day is a clean slate to me and I hope that the students in front of whom I stand see me for my intention. I am never sure and I try to be unattached to the outcome. I simply enter with a lesson plan and a hope that it serves the class in a positive way.

I recently had a very challenging experience in a school; in fact, I nearly walked away in defeat, something I have never done. In the 10 years of my practice, this was the most difficult assignment I have faced. The concerns and issues were multifaceted and very deep rooted. Something in the dialogue of the film kept echoing this teaching experience, the terminology of "these kids."

What is hidden in that label? I was told by one educator at the end of my residency in this recent challenge that I needed to "change my approach to teaching 'these kids.' " I was also told at one point that I needed to learn a different way to teach in inner city schools. This certainly surprised me since I teach at least half of my time in urban settings as well as youth community programs, afterschool programs, and juvenile detention. What was I being asked to understand here? The veil was fairly thin to me, given that this school is probably 98% African American. I was informed that "these kids have no vocabulary," so I was advised to prepare worksheets and then model creative processes through graphic organizers. I know how to do that. I incorporate elements of these things into my instruction. But I also engage students in dialogue. That was a challenge with this group for many reasons, some of which were the inherent group dynamics, but I think that since there was a lack of experience in effective, respectful dialogue that this process can be modeled as well. I am a perfect foil for that as the visiting artist. I expect that schools will anticipate that I go beyond the usual fare when I am in residence; otherwise, why hire me in the first place.

"These kids cannot..." is the overarching theme of "Freedom Writers." I was faced with a dilemma in which all 100 students during the day were being labeled similarly and had been since perhaps 4th grade. I saw at least half of the students as being willing to learn with me or able to be "won over," given the time and space. I advocated for those students instead of bailing entirely. I got a pull-out group for the second half of my residency. Even then we had challenges but far fewer and the student involvement was much greater. In spite of the evidence of involvement, the seasoned educator determined that I did not really know how to teach "these kids" and I believe she could not see the triumphs because it did not fit her scope for success. My scope is different. I saw adolescents pouring through thesauruses for dollar words to replace the penny words. They stayed focused and productive at the computers. They all wrote, they gave peer review that strengthened both themselves and their fellow students, and they produced work they were proud of in the end. Some came to spend lunch with me to not just chat but work on their poems. I earned their trust. They gave me their effort. The other half of the students had their regular lessons with their classroom teacher. I hope that it was easier for her to accomplish what she needed to do with a class half the size she usually has to work with any given period of the school day.

I feel that we were ultimately successful, the students and me. I am proud of what they created. I don't know if I will be invited back to that school but I hope so, for the students' sake. Not because I am so great but in hopes that they see that I come back for them and that the school will invest in them in this way. We shall see. Until then, I will keep growing and checking myself for my intention and my practices. I also refuse to give into the belief that I can't teach "these kids." In my own way, as I slipped through the cracks in high school and college, I see now that I was one of them. I won't let anyone impress in me a lack of belief in myself anymore. It took too long to get beyond those messages and I will work to show every child, every human I teach that they are of tremendous capacity and I believe in them.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Follow-Up to the Art of Penmanship

Friday was the beginning of the summer "no more putting off the details" mood, no more jerry-rigged anything in the house, time to get the damned plants in the ground or planters, but FIRST, the wireless router has been inconsistent for weeks and I still did not have a backup drive to support my life as it is contained in my MacBook Pro. Dangerous position in more ways than one.  

First was to start moving and archiving the 8500 photos on my hard drive. That is a slow process and somehow I have hundreds of photos in my I Photo trash can that I am not sure are garbage yet and I can't get them back into the library. hmmmmmmmm. Somehow, I suspect, miles to go before I sleep.

I also started weeding the email repository and dropped 1500 useless emails. There is a start to that effort and all the while I am thinking of all the weeds in the front and back gardens that are having their way with me in the face of my neglect. But it is just mid-June so I am actually ahead of my usual pace.

But back to the issue at hand, my control center that is my computer needed attention and I needed reliable wireless connection, as well as a new battery for the little bugger since I now get less than 10 minutes of free wheeling. So it was time to visit "The Man," Dave at Day Tech Services in Fayetteville, NY. My first source for advice, Greg Yates, directed me to him and since I struggle with the geeks at the Apple Store, I was in the mood for a real technician who could give me authentic support without a logo.

This was great! I love Dave. He totally hooked me up and his mom, who works with him (and makes sure he doesn't give everything away for free), is a writer so when I got out my trusty new pen case, she noticed immediately. I noticed the basket of hand-turned wine bottle stoppers. Nestled into the wood-topped corks were a couple of lovely wooden ballpoint pens. It turns out that Dave makes both. I know the treat I want next from Dave...a unique wooden writing instrument that will take roller ball refills. That would be the best. Dave says he can make fountain pens but that getting the parts that are reliable is a challenge. I would take a roller ball pen for blue ink in a heartbeat. Maybe a birthday present to myself.

But for now, I have a climbing rose bush, a new clematis, and a bunch of dahlias and daisy varietals to distribute around the yard. Photos later. Happy Flag Day, all, and to fathers out there, here's to you!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Open Letter to Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education

Dear Secretary Duncan:

First, I would like to congratulate you on your appointment. I trust the intention and knowledge of President Obama enough to believe that your selection for this post is the best option in his opinion; therefore, I look forward to change that you will institute to support our students and teachers, our communities, and bring them out of the current doldrums. The frustration is high among our teachers and school administrators at all levels. This frustration is also evident in many students as a result.

I am a professional teaching artist specializing in the art of poetry. I visit schools as poet in residence, generally for 3 - 5 days of contact with students in any given classroom. I have built my practice on the premise that the elements of poetry support literacy and reading comprehension in a complementary approach to the learning, with hands-on activities to reflect not just reading and writing skills but retention of material from other core content areas.

I am in contact with a great diversity of schools. Just this year, I visited 10 schools among five districts throughout New York State. I worked with approximately 70 educators in classrooms that spanned grade levels 2 through 12.  I have instructed and created poetry with nearly 2,000 students in this academic year. 

There are commonalities I have noticed among these schools, although they range from middle class suburban to very small rural, to deep inner city. Many of the schools, despite location, are Title I schools with a high percentage of free and reduced lunch (and breakfast) recipients. There are issues that affect learning in a multitude of ways. The burden to deal with them all falls on the teacher. The teacher is not just the educator imparting curriculum on their brains, they are parent, social worker, therapist, disciplinarian, nurse, entertainer.

If the child is struggling, even failing, the fault will most frequently fall on the teacher, no matter what the teacher has done in the classroom to teach the youth sitting in the desks before her/him. Many of our children have been failed by society in general and parents in particular.  There is a literacy crisis in America. The teachers are up against the wall with it and being held responsible for it. And from my perspective, No Child Left Behind has exacerbated the problem tenfold rather than solved it.

We are losing veteran educators. We are not attracting enough new talent. We do not have an educational environment that encourages creative, engaging, effective educational practices. We do have a lot of stress and resentment within the walls of America's schools.

We also have a huge budget crisis that causes teachers to pay for many supplies from their own pocket in order to best serve their students and, I might note, none of them earns anything in the order of the lowest paid NBA athlete.

I have known teachers who work in districts that cannot afford classroom sets of textbooks so they have to photocopy lessons for the classes; at the same time, there are limits to the number of copies each teacher can make each school year so they have to carefully choose which lesson plans to teach. Most teachers are regular shoppers at the Dollar Store, Office Max, Staples, Walmart, Target, KMart, buying construction paper, pens, pencils, notebook paper, erasers, scissors, chart paper, sometimes their own markers and chalk for instruction. They provide tissues, hand sanitizer, lotion, bandages for small cuts, art supplies, and books to augment the school's resources.  They also purchase many snacks because students are hungry, often very hungry. It is the teacher who pays for the granola bars, the pretzels, the cheese cracker/peanut butter packs. They may even buy water or fruit. These are generally not reimbursable expenses.

As a visiting artist, I always travel with a box of pens and pencils and extra paper to share with students. I collect every hotel pen or freebie at conferences to replenish my supply and I also raid the Dollar Store regularly. I keep erasers handy, along with tissues.

I hear a great deal in the media about how the Stimulus Package is going to be divvied up. I suggest that one of the first efforts that would move the economy forward would be to mail a check to every teacher working in public schools ($500 for middle class schools, $1000 for Title I schools and other struggling districts) as reimbursement for what they are spending from their own pockets. Teachers love their students and strive to support them fully. If you gave each of them a Stimulus check, I guarantee you that most of it would go right back into the economy (and support sales taxes) as they shop in the office supply and general stores of our nation to restock for the 2009-10 school year. 

Please consider this option seriously. I know that the teachers of this great country would not only appreciate the rebate but it might help them feel that there is hope in the future that an environment will exist that values education, our youth, and the talents of those who commit their lives and hearts to teaching.

Thank you for the courtesy of considering my thoughts. I wish you well with all your endeavors on behalf of American citizens and our schools.

Georgia A. Popoff
Community Poet/Teaching Artist
Syracuse, New York

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Another Post Script

Friday was my last day at the elementary school where I have taught a total of 2 weeks in the past month. I mentioned the student who wanted to give me her own nickname when we met the first day of that residency. While I waited in the wing's common area for a class of 3rd graders to get back from their special instruction for the day (probably art), three of the students from that first self-contained class, a boy and two girls, hurried across to do an errand from their classroom.  When they saw me, they had much to share about what was going on in school but it quickly became time that they needed to get back and I needed to head to my next class.  As the three left, the girls scurried off down the hall, the boy looked at me with a big smile and said, "Goodbye Muffin."

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.