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.”

Monday, January 27, 2014

Soulever: An Everyday Epiphany About Word Love

This morning I had a bit of an epiphany as I got out a tissue to blow my nose. 

That’s not what you expected to read, was it?

Let me see if you can figure out why.  Here’s a picture of what stopped me dead and turned on that light bulb in my brain. 

Yes, that is a picture of a nearly empty travel-pack of tissues.  But it isn’t the fascination that the sunlight’s glint off the rumpled plastic provides, or some metaphor for desolation, or even a nascent comment about the current weather situation that caught my eye.  It is the words “soulever” and “lift” that stopped me in my morning tracks.

Now, I have seen this word combination hundreds of times since I started carrying around that brand of travel tissues, and it always gave me pause, but this morning I figured out why.  (Isn’t that a great feeling?  Like solving a philosophical puzzle.)

The word “soulever” means “lift” in French.  (My high school French teacher would be proud to know that I remembered that.) But more important to this moment of clarity was the look of the word “soulever” in conjunction with the word “lift”.  Soulever. Soul. Lever.  Lift.  Soul lever – lifting souls.  It was love at 245th sight.

I’m a logophile.  I’ll be right up front about it.  I love words.  Some might call me a word nerd.  In fact, my love of words has formed one of the most consistent patterns through my life.  From the sixth grade until last week, I have heard exclaimed, celebrated, muttered, and wondered regularly, “You use a lot of big words, don’t you?”

Yes.  Yes, I do.  But I don’t do it for the love of 50-cent words or the cachet it brings when others might hear me using them.  I don’t even use them with the intention of teaching others to use them.  I use them because they are the RIGHT word for the right time. 

 This might have gained me some notoriety in high school.  I’m not saying it was good notoriety, just notoriety. 
By the way, I really did like the challenge of diagramming sentences because I like that words could change their purpose in relation to other words.  Kind of how math whizzes like to solve math problems.  It’s weird, but I can live with that.  What I cannot live with is the misspelling of the word “Diagramming” THREE TIMES (!!!) in the blurb of this picture.  My heart wants to believe that it was an intentional misspelling, meant to gently prod the subject of the photo into a freak-out.  My life is spiced with ironies such as this.

Ever since I began to read and notice how words met needs for me – to say in glorious rhetoric, to escape to in fantastical books, to read, to plead my case fervently, to illuminate the dark corners of a conversation, to wrench pangs of emotion from hardened hearts and lift souls to soaring heights – I have been in love with their power. 

I love how they break apart and come together in new ways.  They evolve, because language is a living thing. I love how you can create words in the moment you need them, to mean exactly what you mean, and then that becomes a real thing.  (Admittedly, this doesn’t always catch on.  “Stop trying to make “fetch” happen!”)

But not just any old words.  No.  It has to be the right word for the right time.  I love that in the Inuit language of Native Alaskans, they have six different words for snow.  Think about it.  You can describe at LEAST six different kinds of snow that you’ve seen just in the last week if you live in Illinois. Because of the current limitations of the English language, we have to expend a lot of verbiage to make that distinction precisely.  If we adopted those Inuit words, we’d just be able to use one word – the right word.

That is my obsession.  A scant two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to join a merry band of other wordsmiths and storytellers on a weekend writer’s retreat in the tiny historical village of Bishop Hill, Illinois, hosted by renowned storyteller and performer Brian ‘Fox’ Ellis and his lovely partner, Kim Thrush at their exquisite bed & breakfast, The Twinflower Inn.  At this retreat, we were lucky enough to meet working writers, editors, and performers like Barry Cloyd.  Barry is a marvelous musician (and so much more), but he conducted a short workshop on song-writing that really stuck with me.

You should know that I love to sing, but I have not really considered myself a musician because I don’t read music, nor do I play any instrument.  (A regret I have time to rectify before I die.)  But I stuck around just to hear the other participants and their contributions.  While I’m still in the dark about the creation and scribing of notes, the creation of lyrics was a revelation to me.  We sat around that room, Barry and Buck Creasy strumming their guitars, the rest of us with eager ears and minds, and we created the bridge to a new song together. 

Barry talked about hearing a phrase that screams out for its song to be sung – for me, it’s the phrase that screams out for its tale to be told.  To my surprise, when put on the spot, I had crowds of words rushing to be noticed, but I had to be careful to pick the right ones – my mania.  Turns out, the right ones happened to be “sugar-dipped lies”.  That set us on a course where we hacked out each phrase until a story developed, and then we whittled some more.  It was nearly a conversation between the story and the rhythm that built every time we found the exact word that worked.  If we didn’t find the right word, Barry could put in a placeholder phrase, and move on.  Me, I was stuck until I found the right words to fill the phrase and tell the story.  Even today, I’m still trying to fill that phrase perfectly to tell the story of that woman who “transformed him with soft words” and told no “sugar-dipped lies”.

As a teacher, this lends itself to raising the level of rhetoric in my classroom.  My students know I know words.  I know how to spell them.  I know how to uncover the right words to use to paint that perfect picture of a moment with them.  I do not talk down or dumb down my conciseness with them.  In fact, I’m ecstatic whenever they stop me to ask what a word means.  I share my passion with them without giving it great thought, because it is who I am.

I urge them to “find better, more precise words” for what they really mean in their own writing.   “Good” “Bad” “Angry” and “Sad” are threadbare with their overuse by this time in their writing careers – and I remind them that they do not lend the master’s touch to the picture they are painting with their words.  It’s the difference between paint by numbers and Monet – those word choices. I urge them to seek out, discover and appreciate new words in their reading. 

As a writer, this can be an advantage or an obstacle, depending on the timing of its intrusion.  If the right word presents itself without a struggle, it can make drafting a glorious success.  If it doesn’t come so easily, it can make the drafting process a terrible slog through muddy swamp if you don’t find ways to let go and come back later in revisions.  Alas, it is a struggle for my obsession to let go and come back later.  It doesn’t want to leave the right word unwritten – that lever that may lift a reader’s soul to the heavens.  Soulever.