What’s YOUR Center?

It was the end of the first marking period at “Rydell High” and “Frenchie” was scrambling to make the deadline for her students’ grades.

She needed extra time.

It was a Friday–my day to be in the classroom.

So I took my chance to teach my first real lesson.

Something that I learned about the 10th graders from the curriculum planning meeting I sat in was that the 10th graders (and even some of the other grades; French and I were having the seniors do the same assignments) were going to be doing self-reflecting work out of a book called  7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. 

This book has a lot of really great writing prompts and issues that are brought up that we pose as prompts to the students.

So quickly, Frenchie and I threw together an idea for the students to work with this book–a book that they all were expected to have.

There is a chapter in the book that talks about “Centers“. These “centers” are basically categories of priorities: “school centered”, “friend centered”, “parents centered”, “work centered”, etc.

Every day, we give the students a writing warm-up, and since this specific day I was in-charge of…well…everything. So I decided to make their warm-up somewhat relevant:

What is currently your top priority?

Before I revealed the actual prompt (above), I made sure to give them a little more of a chance to have background knowledge on the topic, so I asked

What is a “priority”? What does that word mean?

I took a few suggestions from the class, all of which were related and accurate, and then posed the warm-up question. I asked for a time-keeper and asked him/her to put 5 minutes on the timer, and asked if they could let us know when there was one minute left.

I made sure to write with them (my top priority was to write my thesis on Peter Pan…).

When time was up, I asked for a few to share out what their top priority was and why. Many of them said things like “getting into a good college”, or “getting an ‘A'” in a specific class.

We then made sure that everyone had either their 7 Habits book or a packet of photo copies Frenchie and I made during 1st period Prep.

I read the first section which introduced the concept of “centers”, then turned it to the class and asked for volunteers to read aloud.

After the gist of each section was read, I stopped the reader and asked someone else to summarize briefly the driving point of the portion read (“Pause. Let’s talk real quickly about what he’s saying here…”). With the end of each section, I asked for a new volunteer to read next.

The process moved pretty quickly, and moved quite efficiently. It began a little slowly–as my aunt (a 6th grade math teacher in AZ) says, “I became a dentist with how many teeth I had to pull!” After about the second pause in reading, though, the students seemed to understand the process and became much more responsive. The amount of hands raised to offer-up answers, definitions, explanations, and examples increased tenfold by the end of the class period.

Once we finished the reading, I went up to the board and asked for the class to make a list of all the centers the author addressed in his chapter. I also told them, that they should all take out a piece of paper and pencil or pen and write the list at the top of their own page.

When the list was completed and in front of them, I said

“Okay, with the last five minutes of class you’re going to get a head-start on your homework. For homework, I want you to write 350 words–preferably typed–telling me what your life’s center is right now. You can have multiple centers, one center…For example, if I was to write about my centers I would say that I have a heavy emphasis in my school center, friend center, and work centered.”

By the time I finished explaining the homework, they had two minutes left, so they had already began to pack their bags and put their portfolios on the shelves.

This sounds like a lesson that went swimmingly, perfectly, even. But it wasn’t.

I guess in explaining one of the centers, I used the term “y’all”. I’m from Las Vegas, where we speak like that. But a few of the students, of course, caught my diction. In expecting a relevant comment, I called on–let’s call him Jimmy–Jimmy in the back:
“Ms. S., are you from here??”
“…no…”
And I asked for someone who actually had a relevant response to my question. Instead, I got more guesses as to where I was from:
“Are you from Virginia??”
“North Carolina?”
“Maryland?”
To refocus everyone I made sure that one thing was clear:
“I’m not telling you where I’m from! Now let’s focus, c’mon, guys!”

Luckily, that was the end of that.

In response to their questions, though, I plan to make it into a game. I’m going to try and connect English and writing with geography and U.S. History (since they’re taking that class, too). I’m going to give them hints each time it’s brought up like:

I’ve lived in 6 states. 5 of those states were all a part of the Union in the American Civil War. Guess one state and explain why you think that is a state in which I have lived, or why you think that is the state I am from.

We’ll see how it goes…

Cursive’s Out, Technological Fluency’s In.

So I was able to get a glimpse into two separate classrooms at “Rydell High”.: one with Miss Lynch, who teaches 10th grade (Honors and Track 2) and 11th grade (Tracks 2), the other with “Frenchy”

who teaches 10th grade (Track 3, and Honors) and 12th grade (Track 2). On Friday, I spent the day in “Frenchy’s” classroom watching how she facilitates sharing and writing exercises. I was able to watch students’ reactions to each other’s writings as they were shared in front of the class.

It’s always a bit daunting no matter how old you are to share your own writings.

I watched as senior, “Henry”, one of the quieter of the class, reluctantly got in the front of the classroom and read aloud a piece handed out by Miss Frenchy. It wasn’t even his own piece, yet he was still so nervous and anxious to get back into his chair. Miss Frenchy, however, knows what she’s doing, just as the authors of Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing point out: “building confidence is our first job” (70). By getting the most shy students in the class up in front of their peers, leading discussion, she is trying to promote an open classroom environment, one where everyone’s writings can be shared and go judgement-free.

In her 10th grade classes, she had students volunteer to read aloud their assignment due that day. The assignment was: Imagine yourself in twenty years. Who is around you, what are you doing, what is your life like? Write about it.

There were students who got up and shared that they were going to be a lawyer with a family, one girl wrote that she would be hopeful to have Miss Frenchy in her life in twenty years (Frenchy was of course touched to tears by that); another girl wrote about how she’s never seen herself getting married, yet she had a son, was a single working mom, and she did her best to make ends meet (and her creativity–she began the piece in media res and finished it right where she began–was AMAZING). Some students shared about just how they had no idea what their lives would be in twenty years, but they wrote about what they aspired it to be. These students are amazing.

I was able to run a warm-up writing activity, and this is where the important part of this blog post comes. In Chapter 4 of Inside Out, the authors write about different writing activities to do in the classroom to open up the community, and get everyone comfortable. They, of course, touch on fluency, and how important it is to establish a routine and ritual in the classroom, so that students know “I walk in the room, I grab my portfolio from the shelves, and I open the binder up to a blank piece of paper, ready for the warm-up writing.” This exact routine is how Frenchy has her class structured (it’s still early in the year for them, though, so reminders are needed every now and again). As part of another assignment from another education course, I had to interview students. After telling Frenchy about my interview questions, she asked if I wanted to use one for the warm-up in the next period. Of course I wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity! My warm-up question was:

Tell me about your dream school. What does it look like? Sound like? Smell like(!)? What are your peers like? What about the teachers?

After the five minute writing was over, I asked for volunteers to share what they wrote about. After a little coaxing from Frenchy, reminding them of class participation grades, a dozen hands rose. As I pointed to each student, they, unprompted, rose out of their desks to “Stand and deliver“. The piece that stood out to me most of all was delivered by a very adamant student who focused on supplies needed in his school. (Let’s call him Jimmy.)

Jimmy’s ideal school was one where no student had to carry around heavy text books, notebooks, and pens and pencils. Jimmy’s ideal school was one where every student was issued a laptop, or better yet,

an iPad/tablet where all of the required books and readings were already downloaded; where instead of having to write by hand which is exhausting and tedious they could type everything out and classes could be a lot shorter. No one would have to worry about their device getting stolen because everyone would have one. And on top of that, everyone would have to check out their device every day so the school could keep track of it.

Though Jimmy’s idea would be quite convenient, to say the least, it’s so sad to me that students no longer wish the write out the things they’re thinking, but need to type them. With the increased rate with which technology is advancing, the internet is expanding, and the digital world is becoming more and more normal, it could be easy to think that writers’ fluency has increased right along with it. I have overheard students whine and moan about taking out a piece of paper to brain-dump for five minutes because they “can’t write as quickly as they think and they lose their thoughts more quickly.” This is a common sentiment with many writers!

Even the authors of our text books acknowledge that apparent “quasi-writing”s that are done daily by teens are actually writings, and therefore they help to increase fluency.

Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, then, because I really enjoy writing down on a piece of paper. And what happens if your iPad or laptop breaks one day? You need to know how to write, not matter what you’re writing, with a pen and paper. Either method increases students’ fluency, allows them to share out their thoughts and feelings in a comfortable space, and really allows for creative expression. I know as I was going through middle and high school, the iPhone wasn’t even a thing yet, there was no such thing as unlimited texting, and we passed notes in class

instead of sending a text message under the desk. The best part about writing notes to each other: you got to play with your own handwriting.

I think that’s so much more fun than using WordArt and fonts made up by the software companies. But maybe, again, that’s just me.

 

Also, by the way…the SATs, ACTs, and other standardized tests taken in an academic life requires the test-taker to copy verbatim a paragraph written in script.

The Creativity of Writing According to Amy Tan

I watched the TED Talk “Amy Tan: Where does creativity hide?”, and holy cow! I knew that she was an amazing writer with quite a complicated background, but I didn’t realize just how much she had been through. In her short story “Two Kinds”, Amy explores the relationship between her mother and herself, and how she reacted to her mom as a child. (The story is called “Two Kinds” because her mother, while young Amy butts heads with her, left Amy some wisdom about children: there are two kinds of children, the kind that obey their parents and the ones who rebel. As a child, Amy was forced to take piano lessons, and after a horrifying and scarring performance, Amy decided to forever give up on the piano, forcing her mother to give up her dream of having a famous and successful child. With her dream, Amy’s mother also seemed to give up any hope and apparent love for her daughter. The two did not talk much the whole rest of Amy’s life, right up until the day Daisy, her mother, died and left Amy the piano on which she took lessons as a young girl.)  However, it was not until this TED Talk that I realized both her brother and father died relatively young! A death of such close family members is a struggle, to say the least.

She is funny, charismatic, witty, and so intelligent. “Creative” is a word that should not even need to be mentioned when referring to Amy Tan because her writing says enough of that itself.  However, in her lecture she helps us define what it means to be creative. She says specifically that it’s asking questions; questions about life events (“why does it happen?”, “how does it happen?”, “what did I do to make this happen?”) are what Amy says to keep in mind when writing because those questions will help drive a story’s events and reactions.

She doesn’t give the word “creativity” a definition because it is more of a concept than anything, I think we can all agree. What she does give is a process with which one can work and better their creativity. She says not to “tell the audience about it because then all you’d be doing is saying what it is.” Amy is definitely an advocate for the “show, not tell” philosophy of writing (as am I). She also seems to work best with metaphors. She says her worst habit is constantly finding associations between things in life (“And I find a lot of them”, she says.). This is to take the initial object or idea and find is meaning–why is it there?–and thus, eventually, finding the meaning of your story.

Amy mentions some theories of where creativity comes from, and where the writing process takes you that included beliefs such as:

Creativity comes from a part of the brain that not everyone has

“The Uncertainty Principle”–always asking if what you’re writing or thinking is correct or the right way of thinking.

“The Cosmological Constant”–That moment when your focus becomes clear and you begin, as the writer, to notice little “hints” but realize that those little “hints” have been there, obvious, the whole time. I interpret this idea as a moment of epiphany; that moment when as you’re writing and worried that you’re not going to direction you’re meant to go in, you look back and you realize just what it was you were to be focused on, and at that point, it all makes sense.

Her final bit of information was that you, as the writer, need to put yourself in the setting, in your writing. She literally goes to the village multiple times of which she was writing, but I don’t think that it needs to be interpreted so literally, especially when many writers create settings from their imaginations.

So, with all of that in mind, I would like to connect Amy’s advice and breakdown of the creative process to teaching. How can we as teachers (and future teachers) cultivate and support such creativity in our own students? I know my classroom will more than likely just SCREAM creativity, as an English classroom.  However, I know that not every student I get in my desks will be of the same “I LOVE TO WRITE, AND I LOVE ENGLISH” mindset that I am in every moment of my life. To remedy this, and try to nurture creativity from those students a good place to start is always going to be with exploration of individual interests.

In high schools all over, students are no longer required to only read one book with the rest of the class, but they are given an opportunity to choose among three books or so, allowing them to decide to read a book that will (hopefully) hold their interest. The same can be done with writing assignments! Allowing students to choose for themselves shows that we, as the teachers, care about what they want. I sincerely believe that creativity is within every human being, it just needs to be brought out and the best way to do that is to allow them to individually explore their interests. When anyone is more interested in one topic other the other, they’re going to be excited to do almost anything surrounding it.

If a writing assignment isn’t one that cannot really stray from the point of the assignment at all (for example, maybe the assignment is to demonstrate some themes in The Great Gatsby), use your own creativity first and give the students different modes of demonstration. For instance, (sticking with the idea of demonstrating themes found in The Great Gatsby) allow the students to choose among writing a responsive essay, or creating a visual representation (when I first read Gatsby, we created a timeline of themes, motifs, and symbols, for example) of their choice and write an explanation of their project; you could even try to give a creative writing-based assignment to allow students to show their understandings–re-write the novel in a present-day setting, for example.

Giving the students options and the opportunity to take the assignment however they see fit allows those students to be as comfortable as they want to be with the assignments. We can’t force students to be “creative”, but we can support them and be welcoming to their level of comfort in the creative realm.

1. Who I am…

My name is Heather Shalita.

I am an English major with a minor in Secondary Education in Pennsylvania. 

I am passionate.

I am articulate.

I am excited (and exciting).

I am creative.

I am always learning.

I am curious.

I am open.

I am interested (as well as interesting, if I do say so myself).

I am a traveler.

I am a writer. 
I have been a writer since I knew how to string words together on a page. I’ve always loved to write stories, both about myself and of the fantastical. I was asked on the first day of class: “If you could write a memoir about your life, what would it be titled?” Though I still don’t quite know the answer, the title does not matter. It’s the content, the style, the voice used that matter more. 

Everyone is a writer. It’s just a matter of honing those skills to draw out one’s ability. It is then our job, as teachers, mentors, and role models to help students find their greatest abilities. Through the course “Writing to Improve Literacy” I hope to learn some of the best ways to help myself and my students find their inner-writers.