Saturday, September 26, 2015

As A Matter of Artifact: A Daring Tale, Full of Risk(-Takers)

     Even now, I sit here and struggle.

     I struggle to put into words what it looks like, feels like, sounds like to take a risk in my classroom. Risk - it's a word fraught with negative connotations to most of us. A risk is something you HAVE to take.  You calculate a risk. You weigh the risk. You stay away from risky business ventures. But, visible learning is asking us to redefine our emotional connection to the word.

"JJL Visible Learners are comfortable taking risks."

     We have been asked to post an artifact that represents how we've encouraged risk in our classrooms. Guh.  An artifact. What should I try to dig up? I checked Websters for clarification.
an object made by a human being, typically an item of cultural or historical interest.
"gold and silver artifacts"

     An object. When I think of artifacts, I imagine ancient tombs, artwork, a dusty map, and Indiana Jones. Does this mean I need to show a shining example of risk-taking, or can I take a picture of kids with their hands in the air? None of that will mean anything if you don't know my students like I do. A picture with a bunch of students with their hands in the air doesn't tell you what we were talking about - it could be that I just asked them all who would like a check for a million dollars. An example of a student's writing or written work won't tell you a tale, too much is subjective in the beholder's eye. How is the beholder to know that risk was involved for that student to write what he or she did? Perhaps the child is already an open book, waiting to be praised for their depth and honesty in their writing. How is the person viewing the artifact to know that there was a risk taken, encouraged by me?
     Am I the only person who struggles with this? Did everyone else reach into their grading bag and pull out the perfect object or example that says it all? Am I a failure if I can't find the right object? Do I encourage my students to "be bold" or "take a risk and put yourself out there" or "try it out first, bravely go where you haven't gone before"?
     Since the day we were given this assignment, since feeling this confusion and failure, I've searched for how to relieve it. I've been more conscious in my wording to students during discussions, conferences, instruction, and conversation. I've added the intention to my feedback of making them feel the need to challenge themselves, to feel that trying something new or challenging, even if they made mistakes - even if they struggled, was the goal. Have I done this before in years past? Yes. Have I done it so regularly, so intentionally? No.
     So, as a now-focused observer, I'm starting to open my eyes to all the risks my students are taking. Everything from standing up and identifying that they believe they should be putting themselves out there more, to trying on the persona of a "smart kid", to choosing a book that is tougher than anything they've ever read before, to writing about something painful with honesty, to admitting guilt for something done wrong, to raising a hand for the first time to answer a question or give an opinion, to behaving in class because there is a real desire to engage in the work of reading and writing, Each risk seems monumental to the student taking it, and to me, their teacher - who is saying this is a place that is safe to do that.
     I don't have an object, man-made or otherwise, that represents all of that. Again, I felt let down by my own lack of creativity. A discussion with my colleagues revealed that many of them felt the same way. (Whew!) Our conversation also helped me discover that I was right now in the very same position many of my struggling students were, feeling like they feel on a daily basis. What was the cure? More research? Perhaps. Jump in and try something different? Definitely. Time to take a risk.
     I went back to Websters to start my research, and I'm pretty sure I needed to do what I urge most of my students to do when they look up a word and don't understand how to use that first definition: read on.

something observed in a scientific investigation or experiment that is not naturally present but occurs as a result of the preparative or investigative procedure.

     Yeah. I am changing my practice as I'm trying to observe and document this behavior of risk-taking, and it's having an effect. This reflection is my artifact, because I have to take risks as an educator, reflect, try something different, in order to get my students to want to do the same.
     This is my artifact.
     How about the story of "Tommy"?  He's a kid who struggles to focus on any academic endeavor. He's the kid who can't sit still. He's a kid who can discover a thousand ways to fake out a teacher, but secretly wants to be challenged enough to be engaged.
     He's a kid that struggles outside our school with his home life. He's a kid who struggles showing any weakness to anyone else, especially at school, because he lives his life knowing that any weakness will be exploited and lead to humiliation, penalty, or neglect. He's a kid who wants the attention of everyone, who wants to swagger through the world with all eyes turned to him in amusement or adoration. He's the kid who will, when he feels safe, sometimes use words or phrases that he knows will make things awkward because it feels a little like power. He's the kid who tests every boundary, because he needs to know he can still be welcomed after he has.
      He's a kid whose thoughtless words often spill from his mouth with no filter, the shrapnel of them injuring those around him who don't wear the armor of swagger - and those who do. He's a kid, who when this is brought to his attention, gets tears in his eyes for the shy kid who finally raised his hand to participate for the first time and he giggled and repeated that student's words because they were said with a childish rounding of a letter, rather than clearly - crushing that student's first brave offering. He's the kid who finds a way to silently apologize to that other kid and now protects him from everyone else, includes him where he wasn't before included.
     He's the kid that when he blurts out something during a discussion, I know he's not serious, but when he raises his hand - which he has begun to do more and more - he contributes something deep and thought-provoking and different than every other child. He's a kid who, when he is given the most challenging of the available tasks, engages with the "smart kids" who are doing the extension activity with him, debates the meaning of words in Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage..." speech from As You Like It with incredible fervor and impeccable logic.
     And it's only September.
     How far can I get "Tommy" to go this year, with the help of my colleagues who see the same emergence of an incredible learner, smart, motivated, and confident? How many risks will he attempt? How many other students will follow his lead?
     I'll take a risk and say, "All the way."

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Devil's In the Details, #TeacherPoets Challenge 3 - Write About An Object

We were asked to write about one object, taking in all the details, then create poetry from it.

I actually started and re-started this challenge a number of times, not finding the right object.  I'm sure if I'd really worked at it, any object would do. Chris Lehman used a strawberry - something passionate and organic and beautiful in its own right.  He always makes it look so easy.  But any object SHOULD do, right?

Wrong. Poetry works from a wellspring of passion, like all writing.  Heck - like all learning - like all art.

No matter how many times I wanted to write odes to my Starbucks cup, the well was dry (well, except for the coffee - but that didn't last long.)

After much hemming and hawing and false starts, I started looking at what I was writing with and what I was writing on.  The fountain pens I use are a relatively new fixation for me.  I have only been using them consistently for the last two years.  However, I have long had an affinity for yellow lined notepads - standard sized, not legal.  I have always found them the most pleasing to write on.  I wrote my first play and a good portion of my first novel on those yellow pads.

So, here it is.  My poem about an object (Not a Red Wheelbarrow):
Yellow Writing Notepads

By Jessica Wisniewski

It is not a sunny yellow.
It is a serious, post-it note yellow,
business-like, but still welcoming.
The “best” ones have thick, slick pages,
like stationery for stodgy lawyers
but I prefer the cheap ones.
The pages are softer, more cloth-like
They drink in the ink of my fountain pen
their thirst blurs the edges of my marks
So that the letters of my words bleed slightly
Into the serious field of yellow
Just like the 28 inkpen blue lines
Marching down the page, left to right, in tight formation
Like rows of soldiers, waiting for their orders
They leave a window of open field at the top
For titles
For doodles
For notes
For names
The platoon of precision is interrupted, bisected
By dangerous double lines of red, a barrier
Set to the left margin; top to bottom, unbroken,
But breaking the page to protect that left space
What lives there to protect?
My afterthoughts?
My asides?
My corrections?
My additions?
There are no holes to mar this first, but secondary column
No expectation of attachment to other pages in a binder
My thoughts can flow together – or not – with the lifting
Of this finished, filled, fully realized page
Sliding against itself to reveal the ghosts
Of my previous thoughts through the translucent sunlight
Of the paper, revealing a new, clean field to sow
Awaiting the plow of my pen
The seeds of my thoughts
Growing together
Tangling and Tumbling across the page.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

This Moment, It Is Everything

There are moments in my day as a teacher that I look into the eyes of a child and see confusion.

I am prepared for this, ecstatic to be able to serve the purpose of learning by finding a new way to explain or guide a student to explore a different angle or discover their true question that they might quest for the answer with renewed purpose. In that moment, I have served a child and served the profession.

There are moments in my day as a teacher that I look into the eyes of a student and read disinterest.

I am prepared for this, overjoyed to focus the full force of my passion for beautiful words and stories and the writing of them, sharing the satisfaction from having reached into the obfuscated depths of a text that feels too too too hard to navigate and pulling light and meaning from it, or to throw down the challenge of reflection and humor and curiosity to see a spark alight in those eyes.

There are moments in my day as a teacher that I look into the eyes of one the members of our class community and find defiance.

I am prepared for this, ready to use a gentle word, a firm reminder that we are the stuff of excellence here, or a carefully-placed bit of humor or an invitation to smile in their path; to discover the root of this reluctance to embrace our work and the precious time in which we have to do it, to give them the space to lay down the heaviness of pain that they wear into my room on their shoulders, and so to see the defiance fade to relief then to vulnerability and trust.

But...There are precious few moments where I look into the eyes of one of my students and see tears only to watch it turn into a watershed moment before my very eyes.

Today was such a day, and for the first time, after eleven years of teaching eleven-year-olds, I finally felt prepared.

We began this year by reading a touchstone text together, RJ Palacio's amazing book, Wonder, together.
This layered, deceptively simple novel tells the tale of Auggie Pullman, a boy going to school with other children for the first time as a fifth grader, having been home-schooled due to a severe craniofacial abnormality. His story is told believably, matter-of-factly even, by his voice, but also by the voices of those around him: his sister, his two new friends, an old friend, and even his sister's boyfriend tell their parts in their own voices. All are Team Auggie supporters. We see all the events of the story told and retold from a different character's perspective, lending readers plenty of aha moments and empathy where before there might have been anger. It is a brilliantly written book, designed to make readers question what it means not to judge someone too quickly.

The one voice whose perspective was missed almost universally by readers in my classroom over the last two years (and in most other circles as well, I understand) was that of Auggie's fifth grade tormentor and nemesis, Julian. After spending so much time learning not to judge a person without walking a mile in their shoes, my students wanted to find out WHY Julian chose to be so relentlessly cruel to Auggie. They wanted to understand him, find redemption for him. So, when Palacio published the e-book called, The Julian Chapters, last week, I knew I had to end the year with this.

As in Wonder, the chapters cover many of the same main events, flashing back through the school year, adding Julian's (ahem) unique perspective to each one. At each turning point in the plot you can see my students' faces alight with hope that Julian will tell us SOMETHING, ANYTHING to help us like him, make him part of his community again. And, thus far, Julian has disappointed and angered them (so have Julian's parents, but I won't spoil anything for you). It has become almost a game to my students, when we are getting close to a make or break moment, to debate each other over whether Julian will do the right thing or not.

Today, we reached a point in the story where Julian goes too far. A lot too far. In more than one situation. Worse, he is so entrenched in his own narcissistic rut, that he becomes almost monstrous. I wish you could have been there to witness the shocked gasps and angry muttering and exclamations of outrage that filled our reading space.

In discussion of this turning point moment, I posed a question that Julian's friends asked themselves before deciding to join Team Auggie too. It had to do with what Julian MIGHT have done in a situation that he was not present for. Julian claims that he would have done the right thing, but other characters are reluctant to believe him.
My students were reluctant as well, considering the awful deed of Julian's they had just uncovered and his reaction to getting caught. Each of my students waved evidence and examples of his past misdeeds and cavalier attitude like banners, marking him guilty, guilty, GUILTY.

Except one girl.  When it came time for her to speak her piece, she quietly, patiently asserted that Julian would have done the right thing if he had been there. Immediately, I had to quiet the other students who wanted to jump on her belief and stomp it out with all their evidence. The crux of her defense was that she just didn't believe that Julian was so "bad" that he would have stood by or joined in on physically harming Auggie. She kept coming back to her belief that Auggie was at fault too, for not standing up for himself in the face of Julian's bullying.  I asked her for clarification, "So, Auggie is at fault for provoking Julian's behavior?" Her chin quivering, she nodded. I was baffled, but she stood firm. She had ceased looking around at her classmates at this point, not wanting to engage their accusing eyes, instead looking straight into mine, looking for acceptance of this thought.

I was torn,  not wanting to undermine her brave choice to speak out in defense of the undefended Julian, but I also sensed that she was trying to paint a pretty face on an ugly moment in her own experience.

I looked into the eyes of this little girl and I saw tears born of fear.  I gathered my own evidence to confirm this as her eyes welled up and she tightly rolled her lips into her mouth and took deep breaths through her nose to force back the tears.

"How did Auggie invite Julian's anger?" I gently prodded. She shook her head and a tear escaped down her cheek as if running away from notice.  "Was Auggie ever mean or nasty to Julian?"

She looked down at her lap, her cheeks coloring slightly. "It was just because he was ugly," she mumbled, retreating, conceding the point. But then she brought her eyes to mine again, beseeching me to see something in them of her truth.

"But that doesn't mean he couldn't change," she chanced, her chin firming up.

"You are absolutely right," I assured her.   There was a sigh of relief at the finding of common, acceptable ground, the tension escaping the room as we transitioned to our writing time.

I sent her to get a drink in order to let her finish collecting herself, but I met her in the privacy of the hallway to make sure she was okay. As gently as possible, I invited her to share what had so affected her about Julian's situation that she would brave the wrath of the class to defend him. She blurted out that it had brought back feelings about a situation from a year ago, a time when she had been guilty of following otherwise funny, good-hearted friends into tormenting a girl in their class. She had always been able to rationalize her role in the bullying by claiming that the other girl should have stood up for herself.

Still overfull of emotion, she broke into tears again, claiming, "I knew it was wrong, but these other girls weren't bad people. They just kept picking on this girl, and so did I. I don't want people to think- I don't want to think that I'm all bad! I don't have to be like that forever just because it happened before!! I can be good person! I AM a good person!"

I gave her a hug and reminded her that we all make mistakes, sometimes cruel ones that hurt others, but that we all have the capacity to grow into better people if we learn from them. She wasn't sure if she deserved this forgiveness, but she didn't want to be the person from the past either.

"You were the only one who stood up for Julian in there, Kiddo.  You have changed. You have learned, and maybe this moment is what you needed to take that final step.  That guilt you have for not standing up and defending that girl against your friends last year, has made you determined not to do it again. The pain that you're feeling right now by facing your own mistake is a powerful thing to learn from. I'm proud of you for figuring out that everyone deserves a second chance, both the victim and the bully."

As we walked back to the classroom, she said, "I still think Julian would've stood up for Auggie against those seventh-graders. I still think he'll find a way to be a good guy."

"Yeah.  Me too, Kiddo.  Me too."

This moment, it is everything.

It is everything that reading books can do to help us understand our world.  It is the moment where we realize that we are all sometimes the victim and sometimes the bully. That we realize that we are all deserving of forgiveness, that we all have the capacity to change and be better people.  More so than even Auggie's story, told by the people who all supported him, Julian's story makes us face true ugliness - the ugliness in ourselves, name it, learn from it, and seek forgiveness.

As ever, Choose Kind.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Sliver Poem - #TeacherPoets Challenge 2, Week One Assignment

This first official poetry challenge from Christopher Lehman's #TeacherPoets online workshop got right to the heart of one of my personal stumbling blocks as a writer - writing about a pebble instead of a whole beach.

He challenges us to define big emotions using small moments - like Nancie Atwell does in her "Write About A Pebble" lesson from Lessons That Change Writers.

My first attempt at this went wildly out of control. I desperately needed to release the emotion of a moment of great vulnerability that had happened a few weeks before, but it was so complex that I kept adding bits of the history surrounding the moment to clarify all the nuances...blah, blah, blah.

It took sitting down again, weeks later, with time and determination on my side, to re-start that poem.  Even so, this is merely a first draft with some minor tinkering and revision.  I feel as though there may be more to cut out, but I also feel as though I've hacked off all the shooter vines of the surrounding history and focused in on a single moment that embodies this  huge emotion for me.

She Threw It All Away
by Jessica Wisniewski

It seemed to weigh down her hand.
But everything does, these days.
The thin, winter tree limb of her arm extends,
Lengthy, so frighteningly fragile
Out to the twiggy, alien grace of her fingers, clutching the bottle.

She drops it in the trashcan
And instead of the light, hollow pong of empty plastic
There is a dull, sloshy thud of a muffled church bell
When she casts off the nearly full nutritional supplement shake,
Her body’s nourishment, foregone.

In a fleeting moment of remorse,
She clutches her shirt hem, nervous in the face of her rebellion,
Expression trembling between two worlds.
The ghost of her old self, full and joyful,
Scared of her own defiant act.

But a second face is not sorry.
This new mien is marked by jagged angles and shadow.
A demon’s smirk twists her lips and dulls her eyes.
He dares me to say something to her, anything.
The sinister fiend of ED brashly extending his middle finger.

Lava rises, heating my skin, speeding my heart.
The mama bear inside me rears up ready to bellow and battle,
But at what? I cannot roar away the parasite
Without marring her, the already bruised child on which the demon feeds.
I cannot untangle her from this puppet master’s strings with fire.

Instead, I retrieve her true, precious smile from my memories,
A beloved talisman to clutch as I prepare the prayers of exorcism.
But even as I ready my gentle warfare
She turns and walks away too soon, leaving me deflated, sick with stymied words,
Wishing I could bear this burden for her.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Why Poetry?

I'm excited to be able to join many other teachers nationwide this April to celebrate National Poetry Month by reading, writing, and workshopping each others' poetry, guided by Christopher Lehman in our #TeacherPoets hashtag on Twitter and our TeacherPoets circle on Google+.

Our first assignment for session one was to answer the question, "Why Poetry?"

by Jessica Wisniewski

Photographs aren't the only snapshots.
I want to save this moment
But prose requires padding
So much extra
That the sleekness of a moment
is lost
in a blanket of stuffy
packing peanut words.

Moments that are glints
of melted butter sunlight
in verse
are smothered by the 
superfluous necessities
of prose.

This moment finds
a home
on  welcoming page.
Vast waterfall collages
of emotion,
Distilled into bright,
sharp facets
that reflect our liquid lives.
Filling our square holes.

Grasp and hold that moment.
Examine and taste.
Sniff and consider.
Admire or dismiss.

Take a snapshot of my soul's life,
And you will find poetry.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Top Ten Reasons Why Another 4+ Inches of Snow Today Is Not the End of the World

10.  No one can really predict the end of the world, especially a weatherman.  Not even Chicago’s own weather wunderkind, Tommy Skilling. Just ask the cult leader who prepared a surprise party for the end of the world and was wrong.  Three times.

9.  Heightened appreciation of warm drinks and hot showers.

8.  The opportunity to entertain the local birds and squirrels with my strange geometrical modern dance with a shovel.

7.  Shoveling is a good workout. It has the added bonus of being able to feel superior to people with snowblowers…who have the added bonus of feeling superior to me with my happy little plastic shovels.  Epic Neighborhood Win! 

6. The fluffiness of the stark white flakes is reminiscent of marshmallows.  Icy marshmallows of hurtiness.

5. It clued me in to the nefarious conspiracy to commit the perfect murder that was brewing in the gutters above my front porch.  I have curtailed your evil plot, damnable giant icicles!!

4. I can now place an add on Craigslist listing the giant mounds of snow around my driveway and against my fences as, “Carriage-house apartments for itinerant Eskimos – unique fixer-upper opportunity!”

3. Brownie points with the husband for manning up.
2. I have always wanted to live in Colorado, but was afraid of the scary, scary mountain shadows. 

1. The right to complain about winter just a few more times before I have to change my whole schtick into, “The Top Ten Reasons Why Another 102-degree Day Is Not the End of the World.”