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."