Empowerment through Language...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Back in the Saddle

Now that I am fully supporting as a poet, editor, and teaching artist, my cycles are revealing themselves. The summers have become a period of reading and writing, for the most part. I can spend time on the front porch or the back deck, especially because my wireless router provides mobility. Autumn is when I teach a discussion seminar, Viewing the World through Changing Lenses, for the Renee Crown Honors Program at Syracuse University and generally a course or two for the Downtown Writer’s Center. Then, in late fall, my work in schools begins and I am back on the road through the spring blossoming.

This fall I had a terrific experience with all three classes while I also completed the revision and finer edits with Quraysh Ali Lansana on our book, Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry, Literacy, & Social Justice in Classroom & Community, which will be available from Teachers & Writers Collaborative in February 2011. The Honors course included nine very talented college students with a tremendous commitment to themselves and the learning process. The DWC courses were equally fulfilling; both for adult writers, one was an intro to poetry and the second was an advanced workshop for poets who have engaged in the DWC PRO Certification Program. Since I live by the motto, “teach what you want to learn,” immersion in the craft and facilitating the exploration of two groups of writers gave me reason to keep myself sharp at all times. Best part is that, now that Our Difficult Sunlight is completed, I can go back to the pile of poems that have been sorely neglected and perhaps finish several book projects.

I also had a quick turnaround trip to Orlando early Thanksgiving week to join a panel of remarkable colleagues to present a post-conference intensive workshop for the National Council of Teachers of English. This day focused on the power of writers in the classroom and it was an honor to be invited to share my perspective as an independent teaching artist. I do wish I had been able to attend more of the conference because there were countless workshops I would have loved to sit in on as well as network with teachers while soaking up the Disney brainwashing.

After Thanksgiving, I packed up the suitcase and the car trunk and hit the highway for my first residency of the 2010 – 2011 school year. What an amazing 10 days with middle schoolers. I was invited into a wider variety of classes this year, my sixth in visiting this school. I was with literacy classes to support stronger reading and writing skills, standard English classes, enriched English classes with advanced students, and several self-contained special education classes. We did so much together. Some of the students worked with my premise of reading poems as if engaged in a video game. Other classes were writing memoir poems utilizing a framework of “Six-Word Memoirs.” Still others were creating persona poems, one class even developed their personas in response to completing S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. This also meant I finally read the novel myself so I could ask pertinent questions. Although this novel is often assigned reading for young people, my secondary education preceded its popularity. But now I have still another tool in my work.

I get to be so creative in this arena. I become not just educator or poet but Game Master, storyteller, confidant, even inspiration sometimes. The only part I don’t love is disciplinarian but there are times when it is necessary. Boundaries must be maintained for the good work to happen. I will outline a few of my favorite moments with these young minds next week. For now, I am nursing the cold that followed me home through the snow last Friday, the general outcome of my return to K-12 classrooms year after year. It is such a rewarding career, one that took me most of my adulthood to achieve. I feel valuable and fulfilled, and quite sniffly.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Living as a Lifelong Learner

Everything I know about teaching I have learned through my experiences in the classroom. Sometimes these lessons are due to trial and error. Other skills are the result of my continual professional development that is the result of the example of the terrific teachers I work with year after year. Every teacher gives me something that I can use not just with their students but with other classes as I continue in this work as a teaching artist.

This morning, one of my host teachers gave me a very simple suggestion that will make my lessons so much more student driven and meaningful for us all. She suggested from her experience in the past few years that, when asking a question, give the students a few moments to discuss the question in peer partnership. Students are often sitting with partners or in small groups. Allowing a short exchange to discuss theories and responses before bringing their thoughts to the collective, and the "authorities" at the front of the class makes so much sense. This creates a learning environment that is much more student driven. The other thing I sensed is that it reduces some of the "performance anxiety" some students may feel in answering a question.

None of us wants to be wrong, particularly in a public forum. We are embarrassed if we wave to someone thinking it is someone we know, but we are mistaken. Taking the risk to answer a question in front of peers may be very challenging for some students so they may withdraw. This is even more plausible with a teaching artist since there needs to be the time to create safety in sharing between students and visitor. I will be using this approach from hereon in. I look forward to observing how my discussions progress from the effort. I think there is tremendous opportunity for even more exciting responses and perhaps I will not have to "pull" so much from students. They will be ready to share their ideas because they will already have taken them for a test drive.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

What's Up with All the Bullying?!

I have started my 2010-2011 teaching season in public schools now that the fall sessions of my university honors course and two adult classes in poetry have been completed. I am working for these first two weeks with middle school students, ten different classes, five per week, and the skill sets for each class vary. This means multiple approaches to language, literacy, reading poems, writing poems, inference, and all the other elements I find ways to include in my conversations with these young minds.

Over the summer, I worked with my colleague and dear friend, Quraysh Ali Lansana, on our book for teachers and teaching artists, Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry, Literacy, and Social Justice in Classroom and Community (scheduled for release in February 2011 by Teachers and Writers Collaborative). In one of our essays, I addressed a clique of 9th grade young women who managed to disrupt their class day after day, not just while I was visiting but throughout the school year.

One of our peer reviewers asked at that time if we were going to touch on the current issues of bullying among young people, since the essay did not speak directly to that point. I did not directly witness these young women acting as bullies but I did see them as reluctant learners who were much more concerned with their own images and interests than educating themselves or allowing others to learn in the classroom environment; for this reason, I did not want to add that element to the essay.

There is a lot of business being generated these days surrounding bullying. This seems to be the big push in schools and the media, supported with key news stories of bullying incidents, many of which focus on sexual preference and gender issues. Tragic as these cases are, bullying is nothing new. In society, we may recognize more ways to act as bullies, especially in the realm of social networking, where there have been a number of cases that have led to desperation and suicides. It is awful.

In my early teens, instead of Facebook and You Tube, we had slam books. Notebooks with students' names on different pages would be circulated among classmates, who would anonymously state how they felt about those named. With the lack of accountability for one's words, it was possible to say horrid things about another. Then, if the student who was "slammed" got the book, that person was faced with all that malice of thought. It was extremely hurtful and often ran under the radar of teachers and administration.

In junior high school, the punches that I experienced daily for weeks as I passed a certain student in the hall between classes also ran under the radar until I stood up for myself and challenged her with the fact that I was not going to retaliate because I help no grudge against her. I said I did not understand why she was trying to get me to fight or why she had singled me out but I was not going to react. If she felt she had to continue hitting me, so be it, but I was not going to raise my hand in return. She stopped. I don't know why. Maybe I was just that strong. She then became a friend in the hallways and class rows, protecting me from other bullies. We lost touch as we moved into high school.

The business of bullying includes books being written, dramatic performances being created and staged in schools, discussions on National Public Radio and in professional development in-services. Many artists who work in schools are totally focusing on this element. Teachers are being guided to include this element of character development into their core curricula. Administrators are struggling to intervene, as are guidance counselors and social workers.

But I contend that bullying is modeled everywhere in our society yet we punish our children and youth for mirroring it in their actions. Our elected officials bully each other on the floors of the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as in state legislative bodies. This year's election cycle was nothing but bullying. It was offensive and expensive. More than $3 billion were spent on television ads alone in November elections, obscene amounts of money that could have been spent on so many deficit concerns in this economy.

We witness bullying among the pundits on both sides of the political spectrum to the point of insult to our intelligence. And the bullies are very well paid. Most of us are struggling to keep up and there are radio and television opinion makers being paid $22 - $50 million a year to shoot their mouths off.

We see bullying among adults in sports. We witness it in industry. We see it among nations and we see it among gangs in American neighborhoods, driving communities to huddle in their homes while thugs roam with guns. Then we see the NRA bully our legislators and our Supreme Court into turning a blind eye to justice and reason.

We are witnessing hypocrisy and holding our young people responsible for behaviors that are inundating our culture and experience every day. It must stop and children will not stop being bullies if adults are bullying them to "do as I say, not as I do."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

The weather is turning rapidly toward winter. The trees are baring themselves to the wind and rain. Halloween is just 10 days away and my birthday comfortably slid by last week, leaving smiles and a knowledge that I am blessed with a multitude of friends and beloveds. The garden needs to be prepped for the long winter sleep and I have lost three of my towering maples in the past 2 months. There is much light but it seems somewhat naked in the yard.

So where was that summer?! It was hot this year, that is certain. But I spent most of the season planted in front of a fan and my computer working on a book project. Five years ago, I started to notice that there were so many rich and poignant experiences in the classrooms where I was teaching that I needed to capture them. I started a list of ideas for essays. I found that list one steamy afternoon this summer as I was working on final stages of the draft of the book that will appear this winter.

Approximately 3 years ago, my dear friend, colleague, fellow poet, Quraysh Ali Lansana, suggested that perhaps the seed in my brain for a book on poetry in the classroom would be a terrific collaboration. As is frequently the case, he was correct.

We debated, we scrapped, we drafted, we outlined and researched, and we have a book! Although the planning and first stages moved slowly, once we agreed with Teachers & Writers Collaborative to create this entity and we had publishing contracts, we barged forward at a furious pace.

The summer was a marathon of writing and the most amazing experience of putting words to page from that swirl that is my brain I have ever experienced. Working in collaboration with another writer was quite remarkable as well. 

We completed the draft manuscript with 100 more pages that the contract called for but we agreed with our publisher that it is far better to have more than we need than less. This called for a major amputation after first review from T&W. We managed our "slash and burn" edit from 314 to 197 pages in 4 intense days. There is no way to describe the effort adequately. It was still insanely hot for the Northeast. We kept our tempers. We worked hard. We did it!

The full essays will be repurposed for print in trade journals in the writing, education, and arts-in-education fields. Other sections, paragraphs, sentences, whatever the excess, were either stripped out completely or saved for later. We are already formulating ideas for book two.

The comments are coming in now from our peer reviewers. I admit that I was nervous! It is my first venture in critical writing to this degree. My partner is used to this part. I am relieved to have the affirmations we are receiving, as well as some editorial guidance that will serve the final product.

I see the end of the writing process not far beyond my reach. There are so many to thank, I  cannot even start the list here, beyond my partner, our publisher/editor/ally Amy Swauger and her staff, all those who have read the drafts (both friends and peer reviewers), and the funders who have made the publication possible. I have learned a great deal about negotiation, sharing creativity, and what I believe I have learned from my work thus far. I have discovered how writing in tandem is exhilarating. And frustrating. But it is all worth the effort, and this is a serious understatement.

So now, we will finalize this project and begin a new part of the journey: the promotion of Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry, Literacy, & Social Justice in Classroom & Community. This will be a game changer in so many ways, not just for me and Q, but we believe for teachers and writers nationwide. We want to share what we have witnessed and how we have delivered poetry to students and teachers for more than three decades between us.  We aspire to providing many professional development sessions. We hope that we sell a lot of books too!

I will keep you posted and next year, I hope to do more gardening.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Favorite Poems and Getting Hooked...

On a recent conference call with colleagues regarding a creative project, one of the poets in the conversation stated that he will always remember the first time he read a poem by Alice Walker. That moment of poetry created an impression so lasting that he wound up seeking the path of poet himself.

We all have that one poem that jarred us into the art form. That poem that made us say, WOW! Or gave us reason to say, "Holy cow! You can say that?!" Or "Hokey smokes, you can write it that way?!"

When I was 13 years old, on a sunny afternoon, I discovered William Blake's "The Tyger" reprinted in some magazine and I was mesmerized by the words, all that lay behind them. I ran to the kitchen and read the poem to my Mom. This was a fabulous sharing between us. For me, I was discovering something truly magical in language. My mother was seeing that her daughter was developing not just as a budding young writer but as a thinking individual. Unfortunately, she died a few months later so she has not seen the result of that moment but I trust she knew what was coming.

The other day, I was preparing for an adult writing workshop at the Downtown Writer's Center. I wandered around the internet for tribute poems to meet the theme of the weekly writing prompt, when I landed on e.e. cummings' "somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond" I had to say the poem out loud, as I have done countless times since I first read this poem in high school. This is the poem that I first truly fell in love with, a love poem itself but so much more. The perfume off the tongue as I speak the words, the caesura that pause like a moment between gusts of summer breeze, the passion so understated, the curious syntax and graphics that cummings brought to the world or poetry, all of it was familiar and comforting.

Robert Pinksy created the Favorite Poem Project from this same sort of moment. We all have a connection to poetry, just some of us were bludgeoned by poor teaching, a stern grandparent, who knows. But the poems stand the test of time and memory. Go back to that poem you first remember. Speak it to the clouds. Give yourself the gift once again. A flood of memories will ensue, giving you reasons to write new work, reasons to smile, a moment to reflect.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Master Classes! On TV!

By chance recently, I was knitting and wanted something either stimulating or amusing to watch on television while I finished a sweater project. I am an HBO subscriber so I frequently look at their special programming on demand to see what I may have missed.

To my delight, there is a new series called "Master Class." The series documents a program called "Youth Arts," which fosters young artists (it seems they are graduating seniors) throughout the US through fellowships to attend master classes with artist innovators who generously share their wisdom and experience. Twenty-seven minutes of master class for each of us as witnesses to the process.

I must say that I love discourse on artistic process. I adore "Inside the Actors Studio," I watch Shatner and Costello interview artists, I look on Ovation and Sundance for process-oriented reflections of those who make art in any form. Process is more important than genre or medium for me. And I refuse to be complacent in my learning or belief system about my art form, or art in general. I can be very parochial and I need to be on guard all the time, permitting opportunity to stretch, or recognizing it. 

The first that I watched was Edward Albee with four teen writers. I was as interested in how he shared with these eager students as I was in what he said about writing. I learned from both and was so inspired.

Next I watched Liv Ullmann with five young actors. She learned as much from them as they did from her, with very touching, honest moments. I learned from all of them.

Then came the episode with classical singers working with Placido Domingo. The glee of these students was infectious.

Last night I watched the fourth, featuring Jacques D'Ambois and five astounding dancers. His glee as they developed a new piece, as he changed the dance by changing environments, everything he shared about the relationship between time and movement moved me to a new interior environment.

Go see for yourself. If you do not have digital cable or HBO, go to the HBO web site and watch on your computer. But watch these shows. They are more than inspiration; they are professional development.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

D-U-N and the Universe Is Captured in a Video!

Good morning on the first Saturday of my transition from my teaching year to the rest of being a poet for the spring and summer. Yesterday I completed the K-12 teaching schedule for 2009-2010 and I am ready to unpack my suitcases and travel totes for a few months.

I noticed, when I logged in, that I have received 1400 hits to the site since I put in the counter (Thanks Linda E. for still another resource!). Although I have no idea how visitors get to me, other than those of you I know, I am delighted. Thanks. I would be very grateful if you passed on the link to my thoughts if you know anyone who may be interested. 

This year is has been the second year of my independent status as a teaching poet. Although the past 5 months of my concentrated teaching time has been demanding, I now have the freedom in life to attend to some of the aspects of being a poet that I have had to deny for many years of working a day job:

Reading: Between meeting the time demands of working a more traditional job, even if it is in a more creative field, and the amount of reading nearly any job I have worked has required, I find that pleasure reading slipped into an oblivion for a long time. This is regrettable because reading is so intrinsic to growing as a writer. Now I recognize that part of my "job" is to read...anything...everything. If I sit with a book for a morning, I have to remind myself that I am working.

Gardening: When I was a young poet, the last time I remember seeing my materal grandfather, Cleveland McConnell, at a family reunion, he took me for a short stroll away from everyone for a few moments. It is one of two times that I remember speaking one on one with my grandfather about who I am as a human. That day, on the shore of Oneida Lake in upstate New York, he told me, his first grandchild who yearned to be a poet, "Georgia Ann, if you want to be a poet, you need to do two things in your life: live in the country and grow a garden." He explained that the lessons of these two experiences at some point in the writer's life will contribute to a greater sense of the craft. After 10 years of living in my home, my first garden of my own, I enter this 11th growing season with a calmness but eager to pull weeds, mulch, balance my rocks, redefine the patterns, feel the sun on my back and hands.

Journaling: I go in spurts but it is easy to get busy and neglect the pen and the purity of the next page waiting to be filled. I wonder if journaling is a cure for arthritis? It is good for my hands and my soul. I cannot possibly capture everything daily that causes me to wonder, marvel, or freak out. But I find peace in the process and sometimes I get too busy.

Being Still in Meditation and Observation: Nuff said there. I will strive for more. The world is a beautiful moment. I must deepen this connection more regularly as I move through my existential development, cherishing this quiet Saturday morning more and more because, in truth, it is all any of us has. Now if I could just learn how to sleep soundly again. I lost that capacity years ago.

I wish you all peace, power, and poetry. I will write more of the miracles of my school year and all the incredible moments with students I experienced soon. Right now, I am going to be quiet for a few and let this new morning sink in a bit, knowing that I will not be anywhere but home on Monday morning. I urge you to do the same. 

P.S. To assist you on the transition to quiet, take a moment to view this YouTube video from the Hayden Planetarium! It is humbling and beautiful. Michael Wiggins, the daily blogger for the Association of Teaching Artists, posted the link and now I share the wonder with you. Thanks to the Planetarium for creating it and to Michael for sharing! Go now...into space...with this short film, The Known Universe from the American Museum of Natural History:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Life Lessons Never Stop

I am often like the students I teach. I get easily distracted and I do not track thought in a linear progression most of the time. Given my yearly schedule as a visiting writer, the number of classes that I teach in each school in a week or two of a residency, and the amount of materials I have to lug from one room to another on a daily basis to do my work, it is common that I leave a trail behind me. Teachers are used to me running into their rooms looking for books, water bottles, files, my clipboard, etc. I also have to adhere to that 4-minute span between classes and adjust to the temperament of the next group of students on the way. So I sometimes space out and leave things behind me.

A few weeks ago, I was teaching in a middle school. During a free period, I was working on a computer in a teacher's room, much as I am now. I checked email, my blog, did some research on a series of poems I am writing, general business. I have a collection of quality pens, often fountain pens, each with different colors of ink for various moods and purposes. As I also wrote about last spring, I have a black leather pen case (thanks to the inspiration and cajoling by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson) to keep the pens well. That morning, the last day of my residency, I gathered up my papers, journal, and other materials I had spread around me quickly to throw into my tote bag and resume teaching. I left the pen case on the table next to the computer without realizing I had done so.

By Sunday I realized my pens were not in my bag. I was nearly 4 hours away at home and I retraced my Friday. Monday morning I called the school and spoke with the teachers I figured I may have been visiting when the pens disappeared from my sight. One teacher emailed me later to say that she found the case but, regrettably, not the pens themselves.

I have developed an air of detachment about this. Although it will be a good chunk of change to replace them, the pens are replaceable and I fully accept my responsibility for being lax in the first place. My choice was to ask the teacher to please communicate to her students that I would not seek any punishment or retribution and that I would fully respect the person who could return the pens, making amends for bad judgment.

I asked the teacher to explain that these are my tools, just as the tool belt laden with well balanced hammers, sturdy tape measures, etc., are the house builder's tools. I also described all the pens because they are very distinctive, as are the colors of ink. Another step for me was to contact a student with whom I had developed a line of communication to ask him to put word out that Ms. Popoff would appreciate the return of her property.

The most ironic thing is that the pens would soon be useless to whomever had taken them because the ink is only available on line for each of the pens and the method of refilling the ink reservoir is tricky at best. I had hoped this would contribute to reason.

I understand theivery and wanting things that are attractive. It happens all the time. I even have to admit that, as a middle-schooler, I got nabbed for shoplifting. I had to go home and tell my parents and have them call the store manager. It was humiliating and taught me a lesson I never forgot and it ended my career of petty larceny. So it is no surprise that the pens disappeared.  They are WAY COOL!

I decided to wait, to see if I had enough social capital in the school to have the pens come home to roost. After a couple of weeks, of enlisting the watchful eyes of several key students, etc., the pens never reappeared. I can order two of them on line. I can replace the third, a handmade wooden fountain pen with a great nib, when the annual summer craft fair opens in downtown Syracuse and that artisan returns. I imagine the pens will wind up in the back of someone's drawer, useless testimony to their poor choice.

I will also write a letter to be read to the students next week and I hope the teacher will comply. I will express my regret that someone disrespected me, the teacher, her classroom's sovereignty, and his/herself not just once but twice; the first in stealing the pens in the first place, the second in not having the courage to return them. I do appreciate that they did not take the case as well. It was just getting broken in. I have more pens at home that need to nestle in the softening leather. When I get back from my last 3 days of my year as a visiting writer, I will fill the three berths and then get on line and order the clones of the ones I lost. Next year, I will only carry commercial pens into school. That is my lesson. But I also acknowledge that it is the first time in 10 years that I have been victim to sticky fingers. That is a great track record. I will also try to be less like a child and take responsibility to keep my things in order from one moment to the next. I am sure my host teachers will appreciate that well.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Sometimes I Just Want to Be Identified as Poet

I wear so many hats. I always have. The list of jobs, affiliations, the huge Venn Diagram of my spheres of influence is confounding, at best. I have been a multi-tasker since I was young, the daughter of a multi-tasker. I have always thought being busy nonstop was what life is all about.

I am nearly through the school season this year, just 2 more weeks of teaching this month and I am done for 2009-10. I will end with high schoolers. There are a lot of implications in teaching high school: the ability to assume a deeper conversation (at times), the hope that skills will be keener, but the tests can be just as challenging, even frustrating. But I have also found that every age group or grade level provides me with blessings and challenges, during which I always have the opportunity to grow. 

This week, before I head to my last residency of the year, I will first go to Denver for the annual AWP conference, a gathering of writers...thousands of writers. It boggles the mind. Words will be everywhere. Discussions on craft, panels discoursing on the minutiae and the grand understandings, readings, sneaking away with friends from other parts of the USA, a couple of beverages to be consumed, most likely. Then there is the trick-or-treating at the book fair! Yahoo!

For years, I only attended arts-in-education conferences because that learning strand was necessary to the job I held as well as to the development of my practice as a teaching artist. Since I became self supporting as a freelance teaching artist and poet, I have discovered a new relationship with the definition of work. Now, when I sit down with a collection of poetry by a friend or emerging writer who has been recommended to me, it is not cheating; it is a part of my work. One of the best aspects of my new career path has been the beauty of reading again. How can a writer grow if reading is not a habit? 

At AWP, I will attend some of the Writers in the Schools Alliance events to listen and share. I will also be sure to find readings by poets I love or want to hear how the cadence of their voices mold their language. I will sneak off for a couple of meals in a small group of other writers. Perhaps I will find a group of writers identifying with the label "Dancer" at some point and blow off some steam from sitting in an ocean of words. I will have 3 days in which I will wear one hat...the one that reads "POET" in purple embroidery, the invisible hat that I wear underneath all the others every day.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Buttermilk Torture - Middleschool Instruction at Its Best

I have been immersed in middleschool energy since January. There are those who do not appreciate this age group but I love this age for many reasons. And I love how I can goof on them in ways that give the students new perspectives. That is my job. I am asking students to look at the world, to look at language, to look at themselves in expansive ways that may be outside of the norm. Adolescence is an age in which individuals are very self-focused so using that focus as a tool to open eyes to a broader view is very exciting.

Yesterday, as a part of study of the wonderful memoir poem, "Knoxville, Tennessee" by Nikki Giovanni, I stopped at the grocery store at 7:20 a.m. to find foods referenced in the poem. Okra was not available fresh so I decided I would use the internet for photos instead. I had to bother two produce department staff for a bunch of collard greens. I found disposable cups and a quart of buttermilk for taste tests.

Ah...the taste tests. What drama! The faces as the cups were raised to lips to sample the half-teaspoon of the liquid were priceless. The retching, the hands grasping their own necks, the groans, it was all predictable and humorous. This is not an adventurous age for culinary experimentation but they did indulge me. There were those who were more polite about the experience. Each class also had at least one kid with a huge smile declaring, "Hey, I like it!" Brownie points for those young gourmands!

I have been working with this poem for nearly 3 years at all grade levels. We have wonderful conversations about family traditions, about church hats, about our favorite foods, etc. My personal favorite conversation is always about the origins of okra and how it got to the North American continent. I speak to the imaginations and empathy of students to consider the courage and tenacity of that one person kidnapped hundreds of years ago from their native African soil who managed to cling to a pod of okra all the way through the horrid ordeal of the Middle Passage to bring that one element of home and life before identity was stolen from them. I thank my mother for giving me the taste for this vegetable and I thank whomever it was who brought it west to plant in new soil so that now, I can pick those small pods from the bin at the store and prepare them for my dinner.

I do not thank my grandmother for making me drink buttermilk on a hot summer night when I was very young. I don't love it. But I do love asking students to experience its taste and select similes and adjectives that reflect their opinions. "Nasty," "disgusting," "old cheese" are common. I had to laugh as I asked the one student who said, "It takes like sweaty armpits" just when it was that he had that experience. He caught my humor, thankfully. He did not ask for seconds on the buttermilk though.

And, since every teacher I work with gives me a new tool or perspective on my work, I thank my colleague who keeps a bag of Dum-Dum lollipops in her drawer as rewards when earned. I will never do the buttermilk sampling again without that vital tool!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I Am Confused! Blaming Teachers Is Like Blaming Privates for the War!

A quick note before I run to my next class:  today's news broadcast that the state of California is issuing pink slips to 22,000 teachers, on top of the 16,000 laid off last year. This is not the only state facing this sort of difficult decision and who will suffer? Other teachers and all students!

I recently looked on line to see a news headline stating that the Kansas City School District is closing half of its schools due to budget issues and the economy. Additionally, I hear the President calling for greater accountability, proposing privatization of schools and more charter schools, as well as creating a climate of competition for much needed federal funds for effective education of our youth.

New York State schools are unexpectedly losing millions and millions of dollars in the middle of the school year because our state is nearly bankrupt and the state legislators are embattled once again.

I am a huge fan of our President but I think that the current education policy that this administration is developing is something that he has DEAD WRONG. How can teachers accomplish effective education of our youth as states are going bankrupt and the local and federal funding is so much less than is necessary to meet the needs?

Teachers are being blamed for so much beyond their own control.Teachers are expected to teach today's youth with an untenable challenge of:
  • a huge increase in the number of students who are within the Autism Spectrum;
  • high divorce rate and split families;
  • violence in our communities that is unprecedented, making even our schools unsafe;
  • an economy that has likely impacted families everywhere that undermines the safety and well being of the youth in desks before them;
  • emotional, developmental, and learning disability needs;
  • lack of technology to meet the 21st century requirements;
  • some teachers do not even have textbooks for their students (they have to photocopy lessons and generally with a restriction on how much paper and copier use they have access to during the school year); and/or
  • poor nutrition for students of all economic classes that affects learning and brain function.
We revere the tall man who can dunk or hit a ball and pay him mega-millions! We see physicians bill outrageous amounts for moments with us when we are sick. We see financial and insurance executives earn tens of millions in bonuses on top of their multi-million dollar salaries. Teachers who mold the minds of the future may earn $50K?! What?! And then those same teachers will spend hundreds of their own dollars to supply their students and classrooms with paper, pencils and pens, highlighters and markers, glue sticks, books, construction paper, rulers, instructional supplies and posters for their room, maybe even their own chalk to write on the blackboard. Add to it, tissues and hand sanitizer for the flu season that seems to be year round now.

I am confused. Department of Education Secretary Arnie Duncan and President Obama are placing the onus on the teacher.  Do we blame the low-ranked enlisted man or woman for the course of any war? Do we blame the secretarial pool for the failures of Wall Street?! Do we blame the groundskeepers when the football team has a losing season? In a blog and letter I emailed to his office last spring, I challenged Arne Duncan to send a check to every teacher in a public school for their personal annual outlay as a part of the stimulus package. No answer. Now they will sell teachers out for the privatization of our public education?! I am waiting for definitive rebuttal from the teachers' unions as well. I repeat...I am baffled. Can someone show me the logic?  It totally escapes me.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

A Brief Visit Home

Last week, after 2 days of my start with middle school students, encounters with the demons that plague classes with substitutes because the teachers are out, wondering why I even do this work, the snows hit. The storm of all storms for the Northeast. It was unlike any winter storm in 30 years for New York, New Jersey, parts of Pennsylvania, all places not as equipped as Central New York in dealing with the repercussions. It was also that heavy snow that is more water than ice, causing much damage.

Wednesday morning was certainly a snow day. I relished the fact that I was awake early, coffee in hand, and a day to myself in a home other than mine so I had fewer distractions, or so I thought. I spent a great deal of the day tending the fire. I was all Laura Ingalls Wilder in my brain. I had my knitting, a number of books, my journal, and then there was the artful act of observing the snow globe world through the window. 

Thursday morning the weather seemed just as ominous but my computer did not show a closing on the school web site. How could this be?! It was horrid outside. Then I realized that my page was not loading properly...magically the red font of a weather emergency displayed itself as the connection was made to the greater world. Day 2 and this one, I slipped back into bed for a nap. What luxury. And the day of fire tending would rest before me once I rose. I settled into a lovely peace.

Thursday night I thought I would be able to take a train from Poughkeepsie to NYC on Friday morning to attend one of the last of the Association of Teaching Artists board meetings of my waning term of service. Most of my colleagues had made it safely into the city from their homes and since I would not be in the classroom, as I had anticipated, I was delighted that I would be able to attend after all.

But that notion was put to rest by an unplowed driveway and a plow guy with a broken plow, coupled with the dreadful weight of that wet heaviness that was deeper than the hubcaps of my little car that I often describe as Shaquille O'Neal's rollerskate.

My friend Lani, with whom I was staying, had cancelled her plans to drive to Boston for the weekend in an act of prudence. Since Saturday marked the celebration of Purim, Lani was going to bake her famous hamatashen and she agreed to teach me.

I love when I get to be student. I watched her mix the dough, stir the ingredients and cook them down for different fillings, then the rolling of the dough, the portioning, the careful press to make the triangles that are the essence of this tradition. I tried the rolling and Lani was patient. I know she had knots in her stomach. It was a good time for her to wash some of the mixing bowls and pans while I made a mess of my first attempt. And when we cut our circles from the sweet thin dough, my little triangles hardly looked like an adult was involved. I felt like a 5-year old again but I also saw the benefit of experience.

The house filled with the perfumes of cookies baking, coffee in the pot, and fires at both ends of the house. There was music. Lani told me of her joy in walking through the halls where she works delivering the pastries to friends and colleagues. She shared the Purim story with me. And we sampled all the flavors. Yummy they were.

The universe made the decisions for us. We needed more to stay put than to wander out. In the afternoon, we went out to play in the snow for a little while, as well as survey the damage to the trees from the weight of the precipitation. Lani declared that she had never made a snow man as she packed a snowball. She is from Los Angeles. Snow men are not part of the culture. Since I have not made a snow man since I was approximately 9 or 10, of course we had to put ourselves to the task.

We giggled like kindergarteners. We rolled and patted our "snow chick" because it was obvious that she had a gender. We made her beautiful, a talisman to the day of peace and grounding. She has already melted but we took pictures so she is immortal. Lani made snow angels but the snow was deep and she needed to be pulled out. I was full of laughter.

When I returned to school on Monday, it had been 5 days since I had seen the teachers and students. Many of the kids had shoveled for cash and were proud of their industry. I think in an odd way, many of them were ready to be back in school, back in their routines. My routine and process was back in place as well, although I had to regroup five different groups of students and bring all of the brainstorming to the forefront. But I was rested and optimistic.

Three days later, I got in my car to drive home for 4 days in my own space. I did banking,  paid bills, took my car in for well-overdue maintenance, had brunch with my friend Jennifer, watered my plants. I read a month's worth of posts on my friend Jill's blog, as well as entries in Linda's. I made bread in the bread machine as soon as I got home. I realize now that I need much more respite than I used to require. Perhaps that is where inspiration resides. Maybe that is the cave where the poems rest. And that is where I center and remember who I really am.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Today's Homework

Today's Homework
      for Juan

His was a simple request.
Can you write a poem...right now?
I faltered for a moment. 
We had just met, his class before me
a pool of new faces, of challenges.
Why should they trust me?

Instead, I offered to create a poem
as homework.
I have homework every day.
I would make words tie together
in knots and rhythm to weave
verse as currency to buy attention.

The young man is like so many.
A cloud hides his light, the brightness
shielded from exposure, from ridicule.
I question often.
Why are classrooms full of storms
and flannel gray veils?
Where do brilliance and curiosity reside?

The next day he asks
Miss, did you do your homework?
I give him my blank stare.
My cloud has settled in.
The night before, I was as distracted
as leaves blowing
on a November morning.
I had forgotten.
I was them.

Another day, again he called for my work,
evidence that I, too, pay attention.
It's only fair.
My requests seem simple enough.
My assumption is bold.
Respect, engage, create.
I face the clouds, the gray pall hovering
over the throngs of faces behind those desks.
I pray to bring sun to a dull day.

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...

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Beautiful Learning Minds

I have ended my school days this week with a self-contained class of children with special needs, just four, plus their teacher and aide. When I walk into a classroom, I have no preconceived notions and when I am scheduled for special education classes, I have to assess the potential and adapt my lesson plan or activity on the spot. I am fortunate that I have a skill for improvisation and response in the moment. It comes in handy in any teaching circumstance, actually.

First, let me say how much I appreciate the commitment of these two educators to their students. I do not mention the teachers I work with by name, nor the districts in which I am working, in order to protect the identity of students, and I wish I could break my own rule and call out the teachers. But let me, instead, just say that the primary teacher is in her second year and I see her exhibiting so much authenticity in her relationship with the students in her room.

My first visit, of four scheduled, I realized very quickly that the four young faces before me wanted to be a part of my activity but I needed to change my approach quickly. I knew that we had to move, do something kinesthetic, and I took cues from the teacher. We made a river with the words in the Alphabet Poem, after the search throughout the room for the letters they needed to find.

The teacher was able to see her students recalling the learning they had achieved this school year so far from a perspective she never gets to have, as participant observer. They kept giving answers that showed they got it. The teacher and aide were totally surprised at the responses. And encouraged. Then we did some dancing and all of us had an opportunity to laugh and stretch together.

Day 2, the students showed how much they remembered from the day before and it exceeded our expectations again. We danced like animals in the poem, we danced like birds flying over rivers, streams, ponds, we danced like we were waves hitting the beach. Then we all did the hula, at the prompting of one of the four young ones. Again, the teacher witnessed her children in moments of great success.

Day 3, we started by reviewing the Alphabet Poem to talk about other words that started with key letters. As the students started saying what they know about words, the sentences they spoke were so poetic, I started listing them on the interactive white board, realizing that we were writing a poem together. It turned out so wonderfully. And the teacher and I taught each other new skills on the board as wel cpatured this poetry from the lips of the kids. We did happy dances as each of the animals we discussed as we composed our poem. Again, the teacher was surprised and delighted by the responses she heard.

Today was my fourth day, I returned to the classroom to four eager learners. We read their favorite dinosaur book together. We surprised the aide returning after a day off with the poem that illustrated so much achievement. We celebrated the poem and then we sat to draw the illustrations of what each remembered of the poem and the pix were fabulous. I cannot download them for some reason this evening so it will have to wait until tomorrow but I promise you will see some terrific art!

I left them to return to their routine after 4 days of play with words, movement, joy. But we won't forget each other and by my just joining them for a few days and changing the focus, we all saw these beautiful children as beautiful learning machines. I hope that they saw themselves as successful as well.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Little Miracles Every Day

My busy season has started. I am blessed with bookings from January through mid-April and perhaps more will unfold. I lost a couple of weeks that were in the plan due to a school rethinking its budget but I will still be ok. I also have gotten a handful of smaller opportunities that replace a portion of that income so all will work out, I am sure.

This is the way I live now, independent and with trust that all is well and the highest good for all involved will unfold. The pace of my life is still busy often but not frantic as it was and I have more time for life in its fullest. I am learning how to pace my income and outgo to get me through the times with no work and it is remarkable that it has worked.

Tomorrow I finish my current residency with 6th graders and a teacher I love working with so I can spend 2 nights in my home and head out of town again to another school in a different part of the state. I have to say goodbye to about 75 students who have given me their trust and respect. They have also truly engaged in the creative process that I have invited them to share with me. This has been a great experience for us all.

I have seen children who never apply themselves in class produce poems they are proud of, stay focused, and complete tasks. I have seen a student offer to partner with a student with seeming cognitive challenges during a peer review session and not receive input herself, just to be a good classmate. I have witnessed young men who rarely share their emotions write of the death of their beloved grandparents, their favorite pets, the challenge of their own chemotherapy in facing cancer. I have watched as young ladies who have been witnesses to domestic violence speak openly in verse and somehow strengthen themselves in the process.

These students have been patiently investigating a single poem by Nikki Giovanni with me for 3 days, unfolding meaning for themselves and learning new skills. They have learned how the brain will interpret language in a completely different way just because a series of line breaks have shifted a sentence into smaller phrases, making way for breath.

And they have laughed with me as well as at me, which was always the appropriate response. I will leave them tomorrow and we will all be sad for the parting. But I trust that I leave behind something of value and they have all given me treasures I will hoard for those days when I think I haven't accomplished a thing. Thanks to my host teacher for the amazing educator she is and for inviting me to gain so much from her students. I am honored, grateful, and blessed beyond all comprehension. This is my life and livelihood. Imagine that!