Empowerment through Language...

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Here it is...the cover of "Our Difficult Sunlight"

As Quraysh and I approach the tangible joy of holding our book in our hands in the near future, here is a quick peek at the cover, with the gorgeous cover image by Joyce Owens. Thanks Joyce and thanks Teachers & Writers Collaborative. Just 2 weeks to the Chicago book launch! The tip of the iceberg in presenting this project to the world. We appreciate all who helped us get to this magnificent moment. More soon!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sunday, the Week Behind, the One Ahead

I am in the midst of a big push with my work in schools, adjusting the other elements of my work to my teaching and travel schedule, striving to finish up all the back log of pending projects one at a time until I am current and planning ahead for what is next. This is the goal of my year ahead, to achieve this clearing of the slate and creating new goals for my future.

I have the honor of this work as a poet and teaching artist. In all honesty, I am rather amazed that I am where I am, living my prime identity as my profession as well as foundation. It is not an avocation; I am and always have been a poet. The Journey of Return is complete and I am so very grateful, if not astounded.

In classrooms, I witness amazing and sometimes confounding things. There are miracles every day and it is a gift to receive the moments with students and teachers that are presented to me to appreciate. The outcome of any lesson or activity can never be fully anticipated and we do not, or should not, underestimate the power of art, the power of language, and the human spirit. We will always be surprised as we teach. And we are always able to marvel at the power of learning and the teachable moment. We also are strongest when we are willing to learn ourselves.

And we teach what we want to know. I have always been confused by those who claim that teaching (particularly as a teaching artist in K-12 education) detracts from their art, or somehow distorts, dilutes their own aesthetic or integrity. I find just the opposite. By having to explain and impart the elements of my art form, poetry, to hundreds or thousands of other human beings, be they 6 years old or 70, I am articulating my own poetic viewpoint to others in the hopes of sharing the perspective to show ways for the students to amplify their own efforts in writing. In that telling, I understand my own relationship with the craft more and more. 

I anticipate that there will always be a question that causes me to stop and consider. There are challenges to my premise and I find the need to make the argument. But mostly, it is about enthusiasm, the transfer in energy that causes momentum in the wonder and participation of a roomful of 4th graders or an adult community program intro to poetry class.

It is just a few weeks before Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry, Literacy, & Social Justice in Classroom & Community (Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 2011) is back from the printers. My creative partner and co-author, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and I are planning book launches in Chicago, New York, and Syracuse to present our premise to our colleagues and communities of writers, educators, and artists. It is exciting that, after years of thinking, planning, noting, negotiating, drafting, honing and revising, cutting, waiting, pushing, it is nearly done. Just a few days and the cycle of creation that any book entails will be complete. Soon we will have it in hand and will be sharing it with others.

I am looking forward to all the opportunities that will present themselves through the exchange that the book Quraysh and I have created will initiate, if we meet our goals with the project. We have stated our individual views of poetry and learning, our shared pedagogy and philosophy, even some of our politic, with the intention of offering perspectives that help any teacher or writer in their own teaching practice. Quraysh and I both love poetry and we love to teach. This book would not have been what it is if either of us had attempted it on our own, something we both reminded ourselves of regularly throughout the creative process.

We are proud of what Our Difficult Sunlight has shone itself to be. We are looking forward to the events and in-service workshops that we are planning now to support the book. We are hoping that we will have books in hand at the AWP conference in a couple of weeks. At the Book Fair, find information at the Writers in the Schools Alliance table. Copies will be for sale at the booth that Comstock Review will share with three other organizations from Central/Upstate New York:  Syracuse's Downtown Writer's Center, Stone Canoe, and from Rochester, Writers and Books.

Quraysh and I are presenting a panel, "The Youth Voice Amplified: Poetry and Social Justice in Classroom and Community," Saturday at 3:00 - 4:15 p.m. I am also joining a panel sponsored by the Writers in the Schools Alliance on Thursday - 3:00 p.m., titled "A Classroom as Big as the World."

There will be more announcements. For now, I am still marveling at all the students I have spent the past few weeks with and prepping for the week ahead. More about that as well. I pledge to be more proactive with my posts. There is so much to convey. Thanks for reading and stay warm. Now time for more football, a sport I am finally coming to understand. Happy Sunday and playoffs.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Coming In Off the Road

It is always a strange decompression after a week in a school. The best part of this work is the mystery to solve. What will students respond to, open their minds and hearts to accept, what new concepts may be investigated, all through a multitude of lenses from which we observe and participate in the world? 

Trusting intuition is the most valuable asset for a teaching artist. If this moment presents the opportunity for a conversation that will change the angle of perception, go for it. What is there to lose. 

This week I had the privilege of working with a small group of high school teachers and partnering with my collaborator, colleague, and friend Quraysh Ali Lansana. The same week, Poetry Alive was booked for assemblies throughout the day. The irony was that Q was a touring teaching poet with Poetry Alive for several years in the early to mid 1990s. We somehow were scheduled that day with classes that were not attending the performance in the auditorium. It was a magnificent parallel.

So much of what any of us do as educators, be it the fine large group work that Poetry Alive had been providing for years or the classroom experience that others embrace, is beyond definition and often beyond any single lesson plan.

We wait for the earnest questions, the eyes that light up n the most unexpected face, the moment in which it all gels in the conversation. Sometimes the spark of righteous indignation...compassion... Sometimes it is in the flare of a new politic. Or maybe just a marvel in the potential of language coupled with thought and empathy.

There are moments of magic that fuel teachers to keep doing what they do. This week we investigated the poetry of identity and migration with 9th graders through the poems of Rhina Espaillat, Langston Hughes, Li-Young Lee, Phil Memmer, Edward Hopper's painting, Gwendolyn Brooks and her tie between 1953 and 2011, and the world just on the other side of the window, the beat and measure of our names. We were immersed in language, curiosity, history and politics, all peppered with humor. It was a dance, it was a rush.

When a teacher agrees to invite a teaching artist in the classroom, it is a risk in many ways. There is a process of developing trust that takes time to cultivate. There is a lot at stake - the success and enthusiasm of the students being the most specific and significant but certainly not the only outcome desired.

When the flow is right, it is symphonic, it is surfing, it is hang-gliding in the cosmic jetstream. I am sure all teachers feel this way. It is an honor. It is humbling, teaching is a rush. Bearing witness to true openness to learning is an outstanding thrill and marvel. I am ever grateful for my career. 

Have a good weekend, all, and happy birthday to Dr. King. May we always remember.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Now I've Seen Everything

I am not sure why, after so many years in classrooms in all sorts of circumstances and communities, that I can find myself surprised. But darned if it did not happen again last week. I am teaching a group of 6th graders for nine days throughout January. Sixth graders are among the grouping now referred to as "digital natives." They are plugged into the grid in ways that neither Marshall McCluhan or Timothy Leary could have ever envisioned back in the day.

My first morning gave me a view of this digital proclivity that has been thus far unsurpassed. One young lady held what appeared to me to be a phone in a nice case, black and sleek. I have concerns about how many students are distracted in class by their phones and I-Pods, how many walk the halls and sit at their desks with earbud wires dangling from their lobes. This student walked up to proudly display all the notes she had taken on her phone while I had delivered my first lesson. I replied that I thought it was great that she was so interested and found so much she wanted to remember but my internal dialogue was more along these lines: "You need a phone to take notes? What happened to pencils and paper? What if the phone rings? Are you going to answer it?"

Then I noticed how many other students had their own black phones handy. They were all carrying their phones everywhere. During a break, I mentioned to the teacher hosting my visit that the young lady had shown me notes on a cell and she said (with a note of sarcasm), "Oh no...those are learning devices..."

What?! She went on to explain that each of the 6th and 7th graders had received what in essence was a cell phone without calling privileges but they all had internet access and could use the notepad functions as well. This was to be handy in all classes for note taking, web based inquiry, and even more, teachers are expected to develop lesson plans, activities, and games to support their curriculum.

Now how did this all come about? It seems that a cell phone provider in the community awarded a grant to the school to purchase these MDLs and netbooks for all the 8th graders in the interest of technological advances in the classroom. Yeah...right...

Each student is carrying this equipment emblazoned with the name of the company on it, thus marking their consciousness with the brand. Students are leaving these devices behind in classes, they are losing them, they forget to charge them properly or in time for class. As a learning tool, perhaps they are. But I have some reservations about this marketing...a cell company giving grants to purchase equipment that looks suspiciously similar to outmoded phones and small laptops in the advent of smart phones and I-Pads, and every time the students look at their gadgets, they are being predisposed to purchase product from their benefactors. Hmmmmm...what else is there to say?