My Hope for Students

PAGES Program, December 2019

The end of the 2019-2020 school year was, to say the least, unconventional; to say the most, it was awful! Community building is a huge part of my classroom environment and “office hours” via Zoom meetings just don’t compare with the face-to-face, one-on-one interactions we have while physically at school. The anxiety we all felt while watching the daily press conferences about the novel coronavirus invading our world, our country, our state, and our city could not be collectively shared and dealt with. We had to rely on words sent through routers and the cloud and Zoom calls to convey our feelings and our fears.

The art of writing contends with this dilemma. Words can convey the most beautiful sentiments, but the warmth of a hug from a loved one is felt deep into your soul. So the challenge for writers is to make their readers FEEL something akin to that soul warming hug. Or sometimes to FEEL like a slap in the face or like a constant rolling tide. The challenge for writers is to accurately convey with only words what is easier to demonstrate in person, face-to-face. 

Sometimes writers get it right. Jason Reynolds, Laurie Frankel, James Baldwin, Zadie Smith, Earnest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Erik Larson, Angie Thomas: they do that for me. They bring words to life in my mind, in my heart, in my psyche. I FEEL something when I read their words. As a teacher of English literature, language, and composition, I want my students to FEEL the power of words as I do when I read them. 

Sometimes the recommended reading in our curriculum does that. Certain passages in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby can evoke the feeling of desperation in the reader that both Gatsby and Daisy feel because their love is forever doomed. Similarly certain passages of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird can evoke the feeling of frustration in the reader that Scout feels when confronted with the injustice of the charges brought against Tom Robinson. 

But sometimes it takes a rap lyric to evoke the same feelings of desperation my students are experiencing as they witness peaceful protests being met with police in riot gear. And sometimes it takes a YA novel about police brutality written by a young black woman to evoke the same feeling of frustration my students feel at the injustice of seeing yet another black body abused or killed by white police officers. 

Writing, while not as personal as face-to-face contact, can evoke FEELINGS that turn to action that lead to change. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this and used it to fuel action by blacks and whites during the Civil Rights movement. James Baldwin also knew this and used it to spark conversations around the globe about the position—and potential—of blacks. Ibram X. Kendi knows this and is using it to educate us on the impossibility of racial neutrality. Robin DiAngelo knows this and using it to define and destroy white fragility based on the socialization of white supremacist ideas.

My hope for my students is that they recognize the power the pen holds. And that this power has helped create the feelings that prompt people to take notice and change their thinking. And that these feelings can fuel change. And that they can, with practice, write words that evoke feelings that might make this world a little less scary or that might fuel change that will make this world a little more safe. I hope that they realize their written words can feel like that soul warming hug I so desperately want to give them right now.

~ Cassie Coggburn, Westerville South High School


Home is Where the Classroom Is

Here we all are. All in the same sinking boat, waving but not drowning, or is that the other way around?

Either way, we’re all doing the same: teaching from home, trying to manage our own anxieties and stresses, with the added struggle of trying to teach from a place which many of us have never had to teach from.

But here we are. Doing what we do, and trying to navigate emails, LMS messages, frustrated colleagues, worried, stressed, jaded and/or apathetic students. I’m lucky in the fact that I have an amazing student teacher who is taking the brunt of a lot of this for me for the next couple of weeks, in order for her graduate on time and actually try to find a real job next year. She’s getting most of the messages, she’s leading the Zoom classes, the video mini-lessons and the grading. I.AM.LUCKY. I also do not have children, so am not having to wade through that added struggle, burden, joy, etc.

However, I still have one class and the bulk of that class has my Pages students in it from earlier in the year. Women’s Studies (the semester before was Mythology) is my only “teaching” responsibility for the time being. And considering it’s an elective, they are pretty engaged with this new way of learning.

We had our first Zoom meeting today. It was wonderful. I’m not crying, that’s just dust or a hair in my eye. We didn’t even get to the mini-lesson today. It didn’t really matter in the end.

We got to discuss our frustrations, our worries and got to see other humans! It was lovely.

At one point, a parent of one of my students video-bombed, hugged her daughter and looked into the camera and said “Thank you for checking in with her and everyone else in her class. You guys are doing a great job…” Stop it, now I am crying!

In this particular class, I have many seniors who are not going to New York, will most likely not be having their Prom and probably won’t even get to walk with everyone. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of what other issues some of them are facing (parents furloughed, loved ones getting ill, some of their parents working in the medical field or are essential workers). That list could go on and on.

Yeah, we didn’t have a proper lesson today. But nine of the twelve students who were able to show up had 45 minutes little bit of normality.

Jess Haney, West-Liberty Salem HS, Pages educator-in-residence

A Pages Lesson to Leave With

Creative writing is a must. This seems obvious enough as I finish my fourth year in the Pages Program, but if I am being completely honest, creative writing had dwindled to practically nothing when I sat in on my first teacher collaboration session. Over the years, I got lost in the standards and the need to teach argumentative writing, outlawing the personal in student work and constantly pushing them to analyze the so what. Is this good writing? It can be. Is it the only writing? It shouldn’t be.Т 

I always knew that. My parents never held onto a particularly well-written essay about Melville’s Moby Dick from my 10th grade year, but there is a piece I wrote about my grandfather that was formatted, printed, and framed by my mom as a gift for my aunts and uncles; the piece still hangs in their houses twenty-five years later. For the record, I hated Moby Dick as a fifteen-year-old and can’t remember a word of that essay; the piece about my grandfather, though, is forever in my memory just like the person it’s about.Т  The difference was, and still is, in completing writing that mattered personally and beyond a single text.

So, why did I move away from creative writing a little more each year I taught? Time. The clock is always running between bells, between holiday breaks, between quarters, between first days and last days. The cliche of “so much to do with so little time” rings true with teaching. Then there is the dilemma of how to grade it or if to grade, whether to share it in writing groups or not. It’s personal and that makes it complicated. We see more of the individual who is writing the piece than how well he can argue about a required text; who I am to evaluate the meaning and value of the first?

Required creative writing provides students the time and a place to get to better know themselves, which has also allowed them to discover what they believe and what is worth fighting for. Consequently, this has also allowed them to better understand the characters from our reading. Creative writing and essay writing are not mutually exclusive. One can and does support the other. Just as we search for supplemental readings in support of the novels we read, the Pages Program helped me as a teacher to find the supplemental writings in support of student learning. Confused about a character’s motivation? Take all of those quotations you’ve been collecting and create a Found Poem; what rings true when you combine passages from throughout the book and then pare them down to what you see as the most essential? What do you see now after another round of cuts? Is something new revealed when your work is handed to a classmate who completes an interpretive, dramatic reading? Ultimately, in these exercises I end up responding to a student’s revelation:Т  Yes, the author did realize that she was doing that. Write about it!

Students can take what they find through creative prewriting and create an original essay or not. Both forms of writing establish an argument as much as both forms can be (and should be!) original and creative. One doesn’t always have to be a means to an end or the path to the other. Either way, there is proof and beauty in the writing. And that proof and beauty turn into voice, a more natural voice, and individual style for student writing.

-Stacey O’Reilly, Big Walnut HS, Pages educator-in-residence

Trust the Process – A letter to my Pages students

Trust the Process

A letter to my Pages students: (I am just like you!)

I am nervous and anxious, constantly in a state of brainstorming before the Pages planning begins.Т  Wondering which class would receive the partnership best–wondering if my ideas will connect with the big ideas, wondering if the resident artists would meld with the students and the process. Remembering to trust the process.

Open sharing about expectations, remind me that we all experience jitters when meeting people for the first time, and hope for connections. We all desire to be the kind of educators that make the conditions just right for students to discover themselves, exchange ideas, and push beyond limitations. We want them to know that art can make a life. Nothing is easy, but exposure to examples of those who have mastered the creative hustle and live a life of passion can spark a vision in a young mind.

We become family as we pull on our struggles. Mine through words and lay out phrases on the paper that tell of our human experience. I realize that people are starting to see me. They no longer see the outfit I chose to wear today, or the way I styled my hair, or the size and shape of my physical body. Through the words I so carefully arrange on paper, they see my battle with disclosure, but my willingness to be vulnerable, and my visionary thinking. I find the kindness so often sought after, like sunshine on a dull, cloudy day.
When Michelle Sipes comes to coach you in your steps outside your routine, I watch your apprehension in the cooperative movement, eager to gain a new perspective. I watch your foot fall into the new spaces at the Wexner. I see your eyes open wide in the spacious room crowded with “truisms” from Jenny Holzer, making connections and grasping to make the foreign familiar. I catch you barely missing a step on a marble, because I imagine you did not expect to see them on the floor of Maya Lin’s work. I listen to the whistling from the record player as you carefully select a scan from Ann Hamilton to take home as your own. I see you, not just your physical body, but the experience you bring to the table, the expansion in your mind, and the open minded, independent creative thinker you are. I see your potential and I am so proud of you.Т 

Growth happens with steps outside your muscle memory. Unpack what you know and lay it out on the table so that it can be ironed out to find meaning and bundled up with new potential. Map out a new path to move forward. Step outside of your comfort zone. Find ways to let people know that you have something to say.Т  Discover the anxiety on display from visual artists. Wonder about the motivation behind the materials and the purpose of their placement. Treasure the value in your own interpretation without judgment. Trust the process of bringing the intangible to form. In time, the cloth is made, thread by thread. Trust the process with me.Т Т 

Strengthening Memory Through Arts-Integrated Experiences

What do we remember? The blur of objects, a yellow bird, a clown, polka dots, the dead owl, a monkey, the plaid shirt, stripes, colors, a wall of inflamed sayings, marbles on the floor, thousands of nails mapping fragile bodies of water. We remembered how we felt as we looked, up high, down low, somewhere in the middle. We considered how little we look, at each other, at everything else, when we are together, learning. We remembered the shapes of objects, ideas, our bodies moving, in the classroom, in the galleries. We remembered what it feels like to keep something we know or have experienced, with us.

While looking at art, talking about it, we remembered because memory is held in places we did not expect: on the edge of our wrists, in between the flaps of our journals, inside the folds of our pockets, at the tip of our tongues. The art seemed to help us remember things. Concrete and abstract things: colors, shapes, sounds, words, joy, anxiety, dismay, hope. Somewhere in our minds, eyes, limbs, in the open air, in the volume of the room, we were all holding on to things that we were learning as they collided with things that we already knew.

Students sitting around a table writing and working with Ann Hamilton's art

Students in the classroom working with artist-in-residence Michelle Sipes; using Ann Hamilton’s artwork as a text.

While out in the classrooms and at the Wex, by the look on students’ faces, many had not considered we could learn like this: standing up, crouched down, rearranged, on the floor in an art gallery, up close to a wall of words, underneath the sound of whistling drifting from the record player; in front of clusters of nails precisely placed and shaped like a body of water protruding from the wall; surrounded by thousands of marbles gathered and spilling as waterway, as river, as bloat, as flood.

How do we grasp these somewhat intangible things? How do we make a space to hold them alongside other notions in our minds that come and go? Where do we put the ideas, concepts, that we are not required to learn for school, for a test? How do we know what to keep and let go? When we are learning with art, we practice giving ourselves permission to get comfortable with learning to think, remember, as tools for life, instead of memory as a short-term transactional response.

A New York Times article by Dr. Perri Klass, talks about the relationship of arts education and memory; highlighting the work of Dr. Mariale Hardiman, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. Hardiman does research about learning and retention. Hardiman, a former school principal, now does research with children and memory, where she looks at how the arts play a vital role in the working memories and information retention of K-12 learners.

In Hardiman’s article “The Effects of Arts Integration on Long-Term Retention of Academic Content,” she maintains that the arts and arts-integrated learning, allows students to think about information in new ways which seems to support retention of what is learned.

Thinking back to our visual arts pre and post visits in the classroom; when Pages artist-in-residence Michelle Sipes, encouraged us to use our whole bodies to look. We noticed where the sunlight hit the spaces in the room. When we looked longer; we found the deep scratches, thin stray lines jagged and crisscrossed on the wooden tables. When we looked high and low, we noticed how narrow we keep our pathways. How small we keep ourselves. How we rarely practice noticing things. In the visual arts classroom, with art educator Mindy Staley, and her students from Whitehall-Yearling high school, we opened up about how we can move our bodies to look, to notice things around us in new ways. We trusted how our muscles knew what to do. How looking, moving, longer, opened up our pathways to capture some things old and new.

Students in an art gallery looking, thinking, writing.

Students looking and writing in the galleries with Jenny Holzer’s “Truisms.”

In the galleries during the exhibition Here: Ann Hamilton, Jenny Holzer, Maya Lin, with English/Language Arts educator Enddy Stevens, and her students from Walnut Ridge high school, we discovered a dozen ways to name Ann Hamilton’s piece when an object reaches for your hand – shaped stone. The work is a photograph draped ceiling to floor, of a circular object, a Pre-Roman artifact. “What is this?” a student asked. The question was followed by a collage of ideas rattled off by her peers. Maybe it’s a prehistoric tool, a burnt bagel, a spectacular silver bell, a broken wheel, time. One student said it reminded her of her grandmother. While we looked and listened to each other, students did not self-censor due to fear or embarrassment. Instead, they dug into themselves to think, to unearth things lingering in the backs of their minds. They did not overly consume themselves with getting the right answer. Instead, these students remembered what they already knew, deep down underneath the rigors, rules, and repetition of thinking and learning. However, it was that time and space in the galleries; that invited learners to take notice of their own imaginative ideas. Realize those ideas had meaning, and could elicit surprising connections that were worth thinking about and keeping.

 

-Dionne Custer Edwards

Frankenstein: Accessing the Text through Stitches and Stories

Daily we wear marks on our bodies that tell some piece of our story. How often do we take ownership of those stories and tell them in the way we want them to be known? Too often outsiders make assumptions, ask insensitive questions, pass judgement, or assign meaning to these memory markers. I wanted to encourage students to write their own versions of the stories behind their marks. Are these marks imperfections or embellishments? Marks of growing stronger or grappling to overcome loss? Full disclosure, I began thinking of scars because of the requirement for our 10th grade honors students to read Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. Former students claimed to be as scarred by stumbling through the difficult novel as Victor’s Creature was by his creator’s greed. Scars and our marks became the link between the classic to our present.

For us to better relate to the struggle between Victor and his Creature, we began by cataloguing our marksㄧbirthmarks, scars, moles, burns, streaks, frecklesㄧthrough journaling. From there, the amazing Amelia Gramling, poet and resident artist with PAGES, guided us as we brainstormed our most meaningful marks and the physical regions where we feel our strength lies. Using concrete metaphors, we brought description and insights to parts of the body. We pre-wrote communally, passing the page from writer to writer. Each first line began with a metaphor, the middle two lines showed action, and the final line included another metaphor. A student example for the hand was: “The hand is a feather/ Moving delicately across the page/ Flying free through the air/A hummingbird.”

We moved from prewriting to reflecting and shaping the stories we wanted to tell about our individual scars. AТ red patch of skin on an ankle became a story about walking over a rocky shore into the ocean for the first time. An indention on the chin told a tale of walking the family dog down a little stretch of sidewalk before the dog bolted, taking the walker with him. Stretch marks on the back of legs acted as a reminder of outgrowing the title of smallest kid in the class. Т Т 

In Frankenstein, the Creature’s physical scars carry no bearing on his self worth until he attempted to interact with another living being. The Creature’s realization about how others saw him led to the story behind his origin. Chased off because of his disfigurement and intimidating size, the Creature spirals into loneliness prompted by misunderstanding, fear, judgment, and rejection. I feel that, through our writing and sharing, we empathized with the Creature’s struggles and conquered some of our own. We tapped into our insecurities by bringing to the light these imperfections we were taught or encouraged to cover up.

Our next step was to map our discoveries symbolically on the outline of a body. Bringing our stories together, we took on the roles of both Victor and the Creature as we created a single life-sized body where we individually sketched our chosen marks. Our stories were stitched together on this body just as Victor pieced together his creation. But where the Creature never found his voice or acceptance in what he was and where he came from, we Т supported each other in sharing our vulnerability through storytelling. We declared what could be seen and what remained hidden within; we gave power to each other’s stories through acknowledgement and shared experience. Т 

The outcome was commiseration for the Creature and each other. We gained a better understanding of the novel and developed a stronger understanding of ourselves and our class community. We aren’t the only ones who experience observers putting their spin on our stories. We all know the line, “It’s alive!” and probably think of Frankenstein, except this quotable exclamation wasn’t penned by Mary Shelley in her novel. Hollywood added this line to the 1931 film version. Students know the line, but now they know the truth behind it all. With a bit of coaxing, writing, and mapping, we uncovered that the Frankenstein of their Halloween memories is far from Victor’s Creature. He’s actually much closer to us than originally thought if we take some time to comprehend his story and open up about those marks that record our own.