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 meaningto 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.

Finding Meaning through Drama

As teachers leading the charge, we prepare by laying out a clear path with a known destination for a selected reading. I set out in this comfortable way as I stepped into sonnets with my students. It is so easy to fall into the declarations of love from Shakespeare, Browning, Spenser, Petrarch. I love reading about love in all its forms, but I wanted to mix it up showing another side of it all—a side that wasn’t just a pretty face. I found just that in “Fruit Don’t Fall Far” by Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. I knew immediately what this sonnet wasn’t; the real challenge was figuring out what it was.

So, I read and reread but struggled to settle on a meaning. I tried reading the piece with frustration, anxiety, sadness, determination. No matter how many times I reviewed it, I still wasn’t sure how to read it; maybe tBetter Madelynat was more important than having a set interpretation? I have a theatrical group this year that enjoys taking parts in plays and reenacting scenes. So, with the combination of not being able to adopt an interpretation and a dramatic group of students, we took advantage of the opportunity and plunged into a different type of analysis.

I began class by admitting that I didn’t know where we were going with this poembut hoped we could figure it out together. I gave a cold, emotionless read of the poem to the class. We didn’t discuss, question, or respond in any way; we just broke into groups with our individual thoughts.

Before class, I wrote as many feasible emotions that could be read into the poem on large note cards. In groups, students drew one emotion from the stack of cards, keeping their selection unknown to the other groups. They first read the poem again and broke out the words and punctuation marks that could be emphasized to most effectively express that emotion. They knew they would present their version to the whole class, so body language, volume, emphasis, and pacing became considerations, too. What would they stress? Why? How? No part of the original poem could be changed. They could only use what the poet provided. Next, they chose a performer and coached this person to deliver what they envisioned, keeping notes regarding their decisions on the note card provided.

Without announcing their intentions prior to their dramatic reading, the students performed bravely and imaginatively. As the audience, we commented on their choices and guessed the emotion motivating what we saw. The results were amazing, illustrating just how much power they had as readers and performers to bring an interpretation and deeper understanding to a poet’s work.

Madelyn and AvaThe destination was unclear when I selected this poem. I struggled to define Freytag-Loringhoven’s sonnet when I first read it; I found it impossible to do so after seeing each of their interpretations. Not knowing and digging through the possibilities was so much more powerful (and fun) than any predetermined meaning.

Blogging Challenge, Identity and Picassoheads

Task One: This week’s Edublog’s blogging challenge asks us to reflect on our online identity compared to our “real life” identity. On my blog site and on Twitter, I tend to keep it professional. I’m interested in education and technology and I think writing, reflecting and reading about education helps make me a better teacher. For example, I’m completing this post because it’s something I’m asking my students to do (and if you “talk the talk” you need to “walk the walk”). In “real life” I’m interested in my children and doing fun things outside of school. I usually post these topics on Facebook. My Facebook style is more personal and whimsical.

Task Two: One of our visits to the Wexner Center this year will be to experience “After Picasso: 80 Contemporary Artists.” Some students and I played around with Picassoheadwhen exploring possible avatars. I encourage PAGES students and teachers to take a look at the gallery; you might see some of our self-portraits and you can even make your own.This is a fun way to introduce some of the elements of Picasso’s style!



image: picassohead.com

Stand Up for Shakespeare through OSU

The PAGES program next year will feature for its performing arts experience I Malvolio, a re-imagination of Twelfth Night by Tim Crouch. The play is performed in modern English, but uses a minor character’s perspective creatively to reach a younger audience in a way that Crouch claims “becomes an honest response rather than a pale reduction.”

This new approach to Shakespeare is being shared by the Royal Shakespeare Company itself in their training program, Stand Up for Shakespeare (RSC). The program  connects educators with the RSC to share methods of using theatre in all ages of the classroom. RSC aims to familiarize young people with the rich texts of Shakespeare through kinaesthetic learning in a three-part philosophy called, “Do It On Your Feet, See It Live, Start It Earlier.”

Again this year, OSU teams up with the RSC for the Stand Up for Shakespeare training program, beginning at OSU’s own Drake Performance and Event Center and concluding in Stratford-upon-Avon, UK. K-12 teachers and university educators are eligible to apply until June 1st.

The full training schedule, benefits, and fees can be found here:


photo credit: malvolio3: ©Matthew Andrews 2010