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

Handwritten Pages

I still find evidence of my past when cleaning out a desk drawer, when flipping through a book from a previous class, when rediscovering a journal. I relish opening the pages, reading and remembering who I was and what I thought through these little written time capsules. From which name I used to mark the book to how I annotated, I find reminders that allow me to piece together a timeline of my growth as a reader, writer, and teacher. Sometimes I feel like my personal history is laid out in the handwriting alone.

As a new teacher, I required my students to journal about what we were reading, how it connected to their lives and why. Journals seemed the best place to tuck away informal student writing. On Fridays after school, I lugged a crate full of student journals home. I was vigilant in protecting their journals and leaving no mark of my own on their pages. Over the years, and with the addition of one-to-one technology, we stopped journaling and started filing everything away in Google Classroom. The writing has changed, too, becoming more argumentative and less personal reflection. Though I have grown in many ways as a teacher compared to those beginning years, one thing I missed the mark on was moving away from journaling.

Through the Pages Program, all students are gifted a journal, the perfect journal of just the right size to tuck into a bag or carry in a hoodie pocket. As I watch my students grow excited over receiving their journals, I realize how much rarer it is for them to have a place to express themselves freely, to recordТ random ideas in their own handwriting, to capture little moments and ramblings from their everyday lives through sketching and jotting down quick notes. My students love their journals and customize them to express who they are at this specific moment—teenagers looking forward to so many decisions and possibilities throughout the next year and a half that they sometimes forget to pause in the moment. They forge on with what is due tomorrow—day after day, quarter after quarter—until summer break. A journal encourages them to take time for themselves to express their creativity and capture snapshots of themselves without a grade attached. Journals live beyond final bells and holiday breaks. My hope is that one day, when all of their decisions are made and final transcripts sealed that their journals will reveal some forgotten memories about them before they moved away, went to college, bought their first homes, popped the question.

Sometimes we get so caught up in what we need to do that we lose track of what we should do. This is true for students and teachers alike. I no longer carry journals home on the weekends; actually, I don’t look at them at all unless a student asks me to read something. I will continue to gift students these safe places to be themselves in writing. Journaling matters even more now than those earlier years in my career, upholding the necessity and benefits of documenting a personal and individual handwritten factor in this one-to-one technology world. No one will ever accidentally happen upon Google Classroom and have his past open before him. But, our Pages journals can do just that.

An Essay in Pictures

I worry sometimes that we are losing a little more of our creativity each time we work through the writing process. Typically in AP Literature and Composition, we write and we write; we read a book, then we write a paper. Writing becomes less about expression and more about a culminating essay to earn the grade. I want(ed) to shift the writing to keep my students from sleepwalking through another prompt. Good writing is good, creative thinking. For my students to see this, we needed to break our routine. So, we wrote essays in pictures.

The idea came from an essay shared by our school librarian called “Why Your Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming” written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell. This text acted as inspiration for what the students produced. Initially after we read Gaiman and Riddell’s text, a few students criticized it. They thought it was oversimplified and childlike. Most likely, their reactions came from a fear of switching their routine. They know the writing routine for an essay; this assignment meant change and looking at an argument in a new way. We talked about what their freedom to create could look like on this assignment if they chose to dig in. We also had an honest conversation about what their grades would look like if they took a creative risk. To break our writing routine, students needed permission and guarantees about the impact on grades. With that settled, we jumped in together.

As any good thinking begins, students worked in pairs, collaborating and putting their heads together. I wanted these partners to push each other to move beyond their first ideas and not allow the other to settle. This meant that the students worked with people in the class they normally don’t work alongside. After our partnerships were established, I gave students time to talk. I wanted to build in time for students to talk to each other to figure out their common ground. What was a topic that they both felt passionately about? As the ever-influential Dionne Custer Edwards, creator and director of the Pages Program, says: What are students willing to put their “time, talent, and treasure” behind? Т 

I liked seeing students work from their passions. They saw an example of an essay in pictures, but that was all the prompting I provided. Less, especially for students at an honors level, can be so much more. I wanted them to freely develop an idea without connecting it to a certain prompt, class text, or provided model. Expectations set limits sometimes as students want to give whatever they think their teacher wants. I wanted them to create a piece for themselves that could then inspire and influence their peers without limits.

When the essays were sketched in black and white and writing combined, we took a day to separate into groups and share. We worked in two groups to produce a more intimate setting. The topics for their essays in pictures ranged from adoption defining a family to purebred puppies sold for a profit. Students wrote about the need to detach from technology, what it means to identify as a member of the LGTBQIA community as a teen, and the need for better understanding and support of mental illness.Students were open to what their classmates presented and so complimentary. I appreciated the love that they shared with each other and how they were surprised at the hidden talents this assignment revealed about their classmates. Students received shout outs who are normally too quiet to share their work.

Overall, I am thankful for the reminder this assignment provided. Sure, we need some routines, writing and otherwise; but the more we can break away from those patterns, the more we feel free to capture our creativity without permission the next time.

A Note of Thanks to James Thurber and Bryan Moss

The arrival of bryan-teachingBryan Moss, an amazing resident artist with the PAGES Program, in my classroom made me think of an article I read years ago about James Thurber. Thurber, who became known for his humorous short stories, Т was rumored to doodle little comics to clear his head before writing. He promptly threw the doodles away, thinking little of them. E.B. White shared an office with Thurber and, finding the sketches, submitted them for publication at The New Yorker where the two worked together at the time. Thurber’s sketches proved to have just as much to say as his written works.

I love this story about Thurber because it reminds me as a teacher of the different forms thinking manifests itself in. I love Bryan Moss for sharing his creativity and freedom of expression to guide me and my students beyond typing another essay. As honors 10 students, they take comfort in following the same formulaic structure; they pride themselves on nearly mastering it for the benefit of passing standardized tests, maintaining GPAs, and my fear, pleasing their teachers. While students proving their mastery on an end of the course test and vying for valedictorian are realities, we cannot lose sight of providing students with a safe place where expressing themselves in a unique, individual way is encouraged and celebrated. Obviously, students are not standardized. And, I hate to think that my class played any part in making students lose sight of the beauty and power of their own words. With Bryan, we sought spontaneity and individuality over a robotic prompt.Т tori-working

So, what did we do to merge what students were accustomed to writing with a fresh approach? By inviting Bryan into the classroom, we invited colored pencils, crayons, markers, glue, wine corks, construction paper, scissors, tin foil, painted rocks, feathers, and pipe cleaners into the classroom,too一the high school classroom. With this smorgasbord of items, we asked students to create something that represented themselves. Students were at first hesitant, but then they seemed to channel some form of their younger selves when they were less concerned with being right and more concerned with making something.

Once students completed their work, Bryan scrambled them so that each student moved to a desk with another classmate’s artwork and journal on it. Students wrote in their peer’s journal about what they saw in the piece before sharing their interprelauren-writingtations with the whole class. Then, the student artist was given a chance to respond to the interpretation presented. This worked brilliantly as student critics brought power and meaningТ to a piece that the original artist may have been too shy, humble, or subconsciously unaware of to own. Student critics also encouraged the creator to rethink his or her choices; was the piece really saying what they thought it would or should? This reflection prompted a new way of viewing the possibilities in their writing as well as their reading of other’s work. There was also beauty in receiving feedback in real time on the spot from their peers because, as a class, we established group permission and support in taking creative risks both with what we find in a piece as well as how we develop our own ideas.

And here’s the twist, the critical thinking generated by nudging students (and their teachers) outside of our comfort zones only enhanced those essays we later tackled because students felt free to experiment with the what and the how of their topics. James Thurber and Bryan Moss remind us that doodles and creative pieces have just as much to say, and prove just as much a challenge, stuffas those 5-paragraph essays; critical thinking doesn’t need to be three pages, double-spaced, and in 12 point font. Sometimes the best place to begin is with some twine, a glue stick, and a painted rock.

Meet our PAGES 2012-13 artists-in-residence

William Evans is a writer, instructor, and performer from Columbus, OH.Т  He is the founder and host of Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam and the President of Projecting Murals, LCC, a nonprofit organization founded in 2009 that connects artists with schools, community centers, and correctional facilities to encourage artistic expression in Columbusт€™ youth.

William is one the most successful performance poets to come from the state of Ohio.Т  He has appeared twice on the finalist stage at the National Poetry Slam, most recently in 2011, as a member of the Writing Wrongs National team. He also finished 11th at the Individual World Poetry Slam in 2009.

William released his first full-length manuscript, In the Event You are Caught Behind Enemy Lines in August 2009 through Penmanship Books of Brooklyn, NY. He has also published a chapbook, Humble Shell Casings ( 2009), and has produced two CDs, Measure (2007) and Living in the Hour Glass (2006).

 

Kim Leddy is a writer and high school English instructor from Columbus, OH. She currently teaches juniors and seniors at The Mosaic Program, though she has been teaching English in Columbus for twelve years. She received her Masters of Education, focusing on Creative Arts in Multicultural Learning, from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2005.

Kim also manages the content of food section of 614 monthly magazine, contributes articles to 614т€™s arts and living, and edits Food City, a biannual food magazine.

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Chelsea Phillips is a third-year Ph.D. student at Ohio State University. She holds an M.F.A. in Dramaturgy from the Shakespeare in Performance program at Mary Baldwin College and the American Shakespeare Center and a B.A. in English from Bryn Mawr College.

She has presented at numerous conferences around the country on subject ranging from Shakespeare in performance to devised theatre. At Ohio State,Т Chelsea works on the University’s partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company implementing the RSCт€™s Stand Up for Shakespeare program in local schools. This year, she is helping to plan and execute a culminating Young Personт€™s Shakespeare Festival in May of 2012, which will feature local students performing Shakespeareт€™sТ MacbethТ andТ Romeo and Juliet.

 

National Day of Writing, Oct. 20

Here’s a lesson plan from the NYT Learning Network highlighting National Day of Writing

The Learning Network: Why I Write: A Celebration of the National Day on Writing, Oct. 20

By KATHERINE SCHULTEN

Published: October 7, 2011

Why do you write? With our partners, we’re inviting the world to answer that question on Twitter on Oct. 20, by posting your message, and the messages of your students, to the hashtag #whyIwrite. Learn about this and several other National Day on Writing projects, and please, spread the word!