Socratic Oath: Do No Harm—A Teacher’s Oath

Regardless of the age, location, or demographic one teaches, the first principle of all educators should be: do no harm.

So, yes, I borrowed this from the Hippocratic Oath—the oath physicians take before beginning their practice—and, yes, I can imagine a world where we educators take a similar oath before commencing our classroom practices. This particular component of an educator’s oath—let’s call it the Socratic Oath—is essential to keep in mind as too often teachers think their content and their curriculum and their assignments are the most important things in the universe and should be regarded as such by every student at all times. As a parent and facilitator of educational opportunities (the term “teacher” doesn’t work for me), I know this to be totally bogus. School is all too often an experience of being powerless in the face of adult domination which masquerades as guidance, and the young adults I teach seem to have picked up on this prior to their entering our classroom space as juniors and seniors.

Do no harm should be our first responsibility as educators so we do not force our Beowulf essay assignment down the throat of a student who has more pressing matters at home like: being child-care providers for their siblings while mom works nights, performing in a off-school grounds performance space like a theatre, working late at Chipotle and then going to check in on their ill hospital-bed-confined granny afterwards. Not sure where you teach and work, but where I am in the city in Columbus, Ohio such occurrences are not as rare as we might hope; in fact, based on the evidence I have, at least a third of my students find themselves in comparable circumstances at home. So what are we to do?

Do let them—at least occasionally—negotiate a mutually beneficial due date or altered task due to their circumstances—some might call this differentiation or personalization, both of which are, of course, all the rage right now.

Do hold them accountable to the freshly negotiated due date and altered task—no one is saying allow them to do less, just to take a path more appropriate given their external challenges in life. They are, clearly, at a disadvantage in life compared to their non-swamped affluent suburban counterparts, but they won’t catch up taking zeroes for missing deadlines.

Do let them feel safe enough communicating with you to open up about their circumstances, not only to build and strengthen rapport, but to foster your empathic drive as their instructor and—like it or not—as their mentor—every adult mentors every young person each time they are observed adulting, and the truth is how we treat them and how we act as adults sticks with them far more than the learning objective we point at the board and lecture about.

Do remind them that you want them to do the learning and to do the work as that is what is important—regardless of when it trickles in to you. Your main focus should be to help them learn and grow as human beings, not to teach them to meet deadlines and rigidly imposed submission timelines. Yes, deadlines are important and in life you have to meet them to survive and thrive, but, no, high school is not the time where meeting deadlines is the number one most important thing. The number one most important thing right now is to help our young people learn and grow a little every day, to aid them in working toward becoming their best self, and, yes, that does eventually culminate in a conversation and expectations about the importance of meeting deadlines for school, work, and beyond. That said, some projects and a given student’s home situation may merit an extension, and teaching young people to negotiate for extensions hones their interpersonal persuasive skills as well as their ability to ask for what they want from a person in a position of power over them.

Doing no harm also implies breaking any and all rules imposed by any entity that may negatively affect your students. You must be their caretaker, the one looking out for them, their protector, even. You may have some problems in your lap as a result, but any administrator worth their salt should understand your move was out of respect for human dignity, and not malice. As an example, I was once asked to have the students take their third practice ACT section test of the day. We had just spent the entire morning doing the same, and one more section may have emotionally broken this somewhat emotionally-fragile group, so, I opted out. I technically didn’t do my job in that one brief moment and I’ve zero regrets. Instead, we discussed best practices like mindful meditation breathing for managing stress, anxiety, and typical young adult emotional mindsets like the fear of the future, the fear of failure, and the fear of not being successful—of not being enough. The conversation we had as a class far out-weighed in value any practice ACT ever taken in history. Yes, practice tests are helpful and important, but, no, not in that moment, and as the professional on duty that day I knew my students best and I made an executive decision. Later, I did, I admit, inform one of my principals just to be open and do my due diligence as a professional, and luckily—as I’ve no union protection—they understood and trusted that I made the best choice available in the moment for the people with whom I was teaching and learning in the room.


Do recall Maslow’s Hierarchy which, from this article’s vantage, suggests the deeper work we aspire to work through with students is not feasible until their physiological needs are met—such as working that evening job so they can contribute to the family’s food supply or for their rent payment. Helping their uncle move, and thus being unable to meet their research paper topic deadline, is important for their sense of belongingness and familial affection and adjusting this deadline to help them cope through such a moment is the humane thing to do—and I will always be a human being before I am a teacher.

For me, do no harm also suggests we must teach material that is directly related and applicable to their lives and that, yes, it is our job to ensure this is happening and that we’ve properly persuaded the students of the value of our current educational endeavor. As author and consultant Simon Sinek suggests, explain “the why;” explain the reason behind the work in order to create more buy-in, trust, and engagement. We are teachers not just of content, but—more importantly—of life. Accordingly, we must give our students equipment for living in the context of our content areas every single day, not just when it is convenient or when it’s in the standards—these are standards, remember, ultimately dictated by politicians whose expertise is law (supposedly), and not education or the advancement of human consciousness (that’s our expertise, and we should own that without apology).

The standards of every teacher, if they want to avoid doing harm, must include matters that directly give students the tools they will need now and in the future to create a meaningful, happy, and purposeful life. Indeed, using the English Language Arts to make better decisions, to advance one’s personal perspective, agenda and objective, to stretch toward self-actualization, and to become the best versions of ourselves as human doings—is at the very beating heart of my practice. May the blood-jet of your practice be the same and may our students all benefit, adding value to the world we make together.

–Aaron Sherman is a facilitator of educational opportunities at Arts & College Preparatory Academy, a charter school, in Columbus, Ohio. He was able to make the leap from teacher-priest at a prestigious Catholic school in Toledo, Ohio to a primarily LGTBQIA, formerly-bullied, and artistic school community without issue because he adapts to fit his students, and not the reverse. He lives and works for his #5Family, and to bring about a better tomorrow today for all those with whom his students interact. If you have additional amendments to his idea of the Socratic Oath, please comment below as he’d love to hear your suggestions. You can find him on YouTube sharing everything he knows to all who will listen, one day at a time: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9al6_jSyNthNs5E3838VOw and on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/aaron-sherman-b776b516/ and on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/Aaron_n_Wndlnd

Cloning Socratic Seminar

After viewing Never Let Me Go as part of our PAGES experience at the Wexner Center, students were eager to learn more about human cloning.  We read the following articles in class: “Human-Pig” Chimera Embryos DetailedWhatever Happened to Cloning? and The Science of Human Cloning.  Students read independently and together, annotating their texts and generating questions.  Questions fuel Socratic Seminars!

Socratic Seminar is a great way to get students involved in a text- questioning, analyzing and citing.  If you need more information about what a Socratic Seminar is, guidelines, or forms, I like this Teacher Resource Packet.

On the day of seminar, we sat in a large circle.  Students were expected to contribute to the discussion meaningfully at least three times (asking a question or responding to a question).  When applicable, they needed to refer specifically to one of the texts.

I was impressed with the discussion and the willingness of students to participate!  We could have easily spent two days on this.  Some interesting points and questions that students came up with are:  cloning clones, how to define what is right and wrong, and the need to evolve and change.  Students came up with interesting analogies and even brought in the issue of cloned food.  You can see our notes here:  Human Cloning Seminar Notes.

There are a lot of variations you can try with seminars.  If you have a large group, you could split into two circles, creating a fishbowl (inner and outer circle).  Students could then have a partner with whom to collaborate.  Each circle would have the chance to discuss in the inner circle, while the outer circle tracks their partners and writes notes of anything additional to bring up next.  If students are struggling generating questions, or if you don’t have a lot of time, you could use teacher-generated questions.

Poetry: Broadway and Black-Out

Poetry: Broadway and Black-Out

Broadway:

Raise your hand if you are familiar with Hamilton, the latest broadway craze sweeping the nation. If you’ve never heard of it, check out this website to listen to a few songs from Hamilton: http://www.hamiltonbroadway.com/

For those of you who are die-hard fans, read on.

This spring, I chose to teach some songs from Hamilton to my Creative Writing class. Because Lin Manuel Miranda has been said to do “exactly what Shakespeare does… He takes the language of the people, and heightens it by making it verse”,  I thought this production would be perfect to teach skills students normally consider “dry, confusing, and boring”: assonance, consonance, perfect rhyme, and internal rhyme (McCarter).

First, I had students independently explore a website that built an algorithm for breaking down the rhyming patterns within Hamilton songs: http://graphics.wsj.com/hamilton/

This was a valuable experience for all students because they were able to see the patterns appear in real time within a variety of songs’ lyrics. Even better, they could check for patterns within songs by some of their favorite artists. 

The next day in class, students worked together to annotated poetry for the skills we studied previously. I printed a variety of stanzas from famous poetry in large fonts and taped them to the top of desks throughout the room. With a partner, students marked up the pages using colored pencils and highlighters; at the end of class, we talked about the techniques they found most effective and interesting. Overall, this approach proved more effective than traditional approaches I’ve attempted before.   

Black-Out:

Next, we moved on to black-out poetry (a type of “reduction poetry” that you probably have heard of). If you haven’t tried this in your classroom, it is definitely worth the time. All you need is an old, cheap book from Goodwill, some black markers, and colored pencils. Every time I teach this lesson, students are amazed with their ability to create an original, creative poem; even students who normally hate poetry love black-out poetry.

Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Tear out the pages from the old book you chose (I know, it hurts, but it’s worth it!),
  2. Supply each student with a pencil and black marker,
  3. Have students skim the page for an anchor word–a word that sticks out to them,
  4. Circle words/phrases around the anchor word to fill out your new poem, and
  5. (Literally) black out everything else. (You may also use white out if it’s available.)

If you want to be fancy:

  1. Assign students’ a theme to follow; this is especially effective if you are doing this alongside a thematic unit.
  2. Encourage students to incorporate a creative drawing in their poem.

Here are some examples from our classes:

“I turn my words into art instead of suffering.”

“She did not blink. Perhaps, she’s fighting demons. I believe her.”

“Time meant nothing. We were laid on the table into two perfect squares.”

“Love is magic. Over the years, the work itself inspires passion. Those who find it seem enlightened and serene.”

 

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. A 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.   

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  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.  

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.

 

A Painting to Remember: A look at Jacob Lawrence’s The Watch Maker

Collection: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution.

Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn

“Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957”

At first glance The Watch Maker looks like a lost Picasso, sandwiched somewhere between1932’s Le Rêve and 1937’s Guernica, but upon further examination that notion quickly dissolves. Almost a decade after Guernica, in 1946, a 29 year old Jacob Lawrence graced Black Mountain College with his heavy symbolic painting of a blueberry black man with a loupe in his right eye and a pupil-less left eye (blind to his surroundings) as he tinkers with the gears of a watch. At the bottom of the painting, we have a gold trim brown table showing there is room for us, the viewers. The painting is very dense at first appearance. We are overwhelmed with colors that push forward – attacking our eyes. Clocks are littered randomly all over the canvas and each of them reading different times. What could Lawerence possibly be saying when we are blinded by vertical pinstripes and horizontal green walls?

Let’s deal with the obvious; why a watch maker? A watch maker symbolizes the creation of time. We submit to the construct of time the same way we submit to this painting. After you settle into the painting, you become slightly disoriented. The green wall is locked within horizontal black lines. As we trust the gravity of Lawrence’s world, we are disrupted by the catawampus table. The imbalanced table tells us how unpredictable and fragile our world really is, but the watch maker shows us that with patience and focus we will get through.

And what about the gold statue of Diana in the bottom left hand corner? Is it just a coincidence the clock creates a half crescent moon? Diana’s body is naked just as her bow is empty. At first glance it is too aggressive of a symbol compared to the others in the painting.

Diana, the Roman goddess of the moon, is an archaic and obtuse symbol within the modernity of the painting . The assumption would be to recognize and deconstruct the symbolism of Diana, but Lawrence isn’t using the Roman goddess in her traditional meaning. The same way Lawerence is showing us the discipline of the watch maker, he is showing the connotation of Diana as an archer. Take into consideration the amount of practice, patience and focus an archer must have when hitting their target. All noise and chatter dissolves into the background and the target enhances. Diana’s arm runs parallel with the watch maker’s right arm. What was once a vacant bow is now equipped with the watch maker’s black arm, tool in hand, hitting his target with pen point accuracy.

Lastly, we see different shaped clocks. They all have different times, causing the viewer to feel that the times may have literal meaning, but once again Lawrence is more subversive than that. The non-temporal nature of the clocks is an emphasis on their personalities and character, as if the watch maker has spectators. Think of the clocks as people, and time as their personality. We all have different perspectives within time, but we all believe and agree in the laws of time. Either as a clock on the wall or sitting at the table with the watch maker, we celebrate the watch maker’s dedication to his craft and take pleasure in the world he is constructing. The same way we take pleasure in Lawrence’s dedication when creating the painting The Watch Maker.

Dystopia is Now: Viewing Never Let Me Go in Trump’s America

In an interview with MTV, Andrew Garfield, co-star of Never Let Me Go, explains what he views as the heart of the film. He states: “What is at the core of the story is a very human story, discussing what it is to have a soul, and how you prove what a soul is.”

For Garfield, it isn’t about science fiction, alternate realities, or evening cloning. It’s about answering that single, haunting question: “Do we have souls?”

That’s the question I’ve been pondering as Pages gears up for its final experience and America crashes into 2017 with national confusion, fear, and disbelief.

I didn’t vote for Trump last November. Perhaps you didn’t vote for him either. But still stunningly enough, come next Friday, that man will step into the most important role in our nation. At first, I had a lot of anxiety that the Pages Media Arts Experience fell on inauguration day. I was concerned about protests, logistics, traffic issues. Part of me didn’t want to distract myself in any way from what was happening in our capitol that day.

Now, I think there may be value in the intersection.

In any futuristic flick, we expect science fiction to give us a perspective of the world turned on its head, a cautionary tale about how we could go wrong. We look to dystopian literature to represent the world as it shouldn’t be so we can sit back on our couches and comfortably be made to “think.”

But the brilliance and, maybe irony, of our film experience landing on inauguration day is that in 2017, America is the cautionary tale. We are already living in dystopia. And it should be anything but comfortable.

I’d love to engage with students around this idea. How in contemporary America, there might  not be a Hailsham gallery, but we are still othering. We are still demanding proof that the marginalized prove their humanity. Time and again, we insist that they demonstrate their existence has value, that they deserve equal rights, that their lives matter. Today, we don’t send people to donation centers, but we keep humans bound within socio-economic, racialized classes. We treat their suffering as currency to maintain a status quo that benefits the white and rich. Our silence reinforces that somehow this is normal, that this is how we survive. We become fluent in looking away.

On Friday, as Pages intersects with Trump’s inauguration, we can’t afford to look away. We can’t afford to not engage. Like Tommy and Ruth and Kathy, we remind ourselves that our lives and the lives of others are valuable simply because they exist. Like the main characters of NLMG, we turn to art. Through Pages, we make art not to prove that we have souls, but as a subversive reminder in the an unwavering in belief that humanity belongs to all of us.

–Joy
Photo: Edge of the Frame

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,  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. 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 meaning 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.

Students as Teachers

Aristotle once said that “Teaching is the highest form of understanding”. As a teacher, I know for a fact that having a “high understanding” of something definitely does not mean I know everything; it does mean, however, that I understand a concept well enough that I can analyze it and break it down.

What if students were able to do this same thing? Think about what a student would need to do in order to truly teach a classmate how to simply, for example, make a grilled cheese sandwich:

  • Identify students’ prior knowledge,
  • Organize the lesson into logically sequenced steps,
  • Determine which concepts are too complex and need to be conquered in smaller chunks,
  • Anticipate students’ questions beforehand,
  • Arrange the classroom to best facilitate learning,
  • Consider all learning styles, and
  • Assess progress.

If we were to look at Bloom’s Taxonomy list of learning domains, we would find that students would need to engage not only the highest critical thinking skills (the creating and evaluating domains), but all of the learning domains listed.

After discussing Black Mountain College, a school based in student-led learning experiences, our class began to wonder about the teaching and learning process as well. They asked questions like “What value is there in students stepping into the role of the teacher, teachers stepping into the role of student and allowing students to truly take control of their learning?” Our class decided to just give it a try.

Part one:

The process begun with a question posed to each student: What can you teach another person to do? Some ideas were simple, such as threading a needle or choosing the best brand of colored pencils; other ideas were multi-step processes such as baking a cake, playing a cello, or writing a book; others still were slightly more abstract such as controlling your emotions or loving yourself.

Generating ideas showed students the wide array of skill sets found in our single classroom. They were able to come to the conclusion that each person in a learning community both has something to “bring” to the table as well as a responsibility to “take” something from the table.

While discussing, one brave student asked of his own, “Why does this matter?”

A great question. I gave the example of teaching someone how to cook an omelette: Is there anything truly important in knowing how to do this? Probably not. At least, there is nothing magical, necessarily, about making an omelette. Right? Maybe it’s not about the omelette, though. Maybe the act of cooking an omelette is more about knowing how to take responsibility for yourself and being aware of how to cook healthy food in a society ridden with people suffering from diabetes and heart disease, all stemming from obesity. It’s the larger lesson, we decided, that truly matters. 

Part two:

Teaching a lesson to their peers would be a valuable activity in itself, sure, but as true Pages students, we had to integrate art. What would a Black-Mountain-College-inspired lesson be without art? This is where Bryan Moss came into play.

Bryan, being the artistic-teaching genius he is, had the idea of showing students how to make mini comic books. In these comics, students could illustrate their step-by-step instructions for others to use as instructional maps. (If you are interested in knowing how to make these for your own class, you can just type “mini comic book” into Google and several instructional guides will pop up–I checked.) Mini comic books were the perfect artistic tool for this particular activity, but I am sure a plethora of other creative methods could be used in place of this.

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Part three:

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img_20161205_133216644_burst000_cover_topThe last part of this lesson was, obviously, to teach. You could do this as a whole-class activity, but we opted to instead break the class into three smaller groups, each having its own teacher. Each group was given approximately 10-15 minutes of instruction time. Afterwards, I pulled the “teachers” into a group for a brief recap, asking them to consider what went well and what needed to change. Then, we rotated, giving each teacher another opportunity to instruct their lessons with changes. Some students opted to use their mini-comic books as aides while others preferred hands-on instruction. Each “teacher” was assigned a reflection due the next day to assess what they took away from the activity.

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This lesson sequence is by no means finished, so if you decide to take this on in some capacity, or if you have in the past, please share!

Happy teaching!

Questioning, Processing, Collaborating

Like me, many of my students were moved by Shawnee, Ohio.  They described it as “moving,” “inspirational,”tear-inducing,” “physically painful,” “spectacular,” “genius,” “emotional,” “exhausting.”  It was a sensory deluge many had never experienced before, and as we moved to Socratic discussion on Monday, it was challenging to tease out and discuss HOW they got to that place and WHY.  We had experienced something profound, but teasing out sound and soundtrack, layers of voices, moving images and still images, past and present, tragedy and triumph eluded us. They could discuss the Q&A deftly, but the performance was jumbled, hard to unpack.

In my mind, this experience was a new model for our summative midterm: an amalgamation of oral history, personal experience, sensory writing, artifacts, images, sounds.  We can use these techniques to create our own vignettes. My students were unconvinced that this was feasible. Too much work. How can we do all that?  My goal in the next 6 weeks is to convince them they can.

As we moved through the week, an article in the New Yorker resonated with the performance we shared. I shared it with students and asked them to use the concrete details in one of the photos to write poetically or narratively about ONE image. Constraint is the key to productivity sometimes.

I have created a strong culture and community of readers this year (largely due to Kittle’s SSR model and choice reading), but students resist some of my attempts at being a community of writers. As I asked them to share their work, they resisited.  Rather than delve into the details lovingly-wrought in their moleskin journals, they stared at images on their computer screens summarizing their thoughts, refusing to open up. Was their writing unshareable?

img_1002 img_1003 img_1005 img_1006 img_1008 img_1021 img_1026The writing was thoughtful, exquisite, true. But how can we make room for more than 5 voices in the classroom.

Amelia and Dionne visited the next day, aware of our strengths and struggles.  It was a day to foreground process, to probe and question students, to question their assertions to help them show the ideas behind their reactions, to open up spaces to collaborate and write.

Students were supposed to bring in sounds from their homes and neighborhoods to swap and share. Some did. Some didn’t. Amelia improvised. Noah shared his sound from the back yard, and we shared his sound as a community of writers. (1) Amelia asked us to listen with our eyes closed, sussing out the layers of sound and the timeline of sounds. (2) We listened again. (3) In our journals we started with “I hear…” and listed as much we could. (4) We passed our moleskins to the left and with our peer’s observations, we rewrote the first lines with synonyms, adding our own voices, reetching the images gifted to us by our classmate. (5) We passed our moleskins to the left, and read the previous lines out peers had written. Again, we rewrote the sentence with synonyms. (6) We passed our moleskins to the left, but this time we shifted course. We wrote antonyms — a contrast — to the preceding lines. (7) Lastly, we shared, but time eclipsed our noblest goals. The bell rang. (8) Furiously, I scribbled my number on the board and exhorted the students to “text me a pic of your collaboration!” Here is a sampling. img_1040

and one of my favorites:

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Today we did it again (new sounds, new directions, similar passing and collaborating). We made sure to share. After we wrote, we circled up, we listened, we discussed. We keep building a community of writing, and we invite you to join us.