Archive for the Teaching Category

Having a Voice

Posted in Arts and Creativity, Healing and Recovery, People, Teaching, Writing on April 8, 2018 by Vince.Puzick

Rob Lessig had a vision. It wasn’t too sharply focused, and it was admittedly a bit of a crazy idea, but it all centered around one idea: “stories are relevant.” He wanted to create an event that would showcase storytelling and all the different modalities through which we tell stories: film, poetry, art, music. And the Storytelling Festival was born.

Rob, English teacher at Mitchell High School and founder of Ghost Factory Press, said the idea had its origin when he took a class on “narrative theory” a few years ago. Sounds like an English teacher, right? And the idea grew to fruition.

Saturday, at the City Auditorium in Colorado Springs, high school students, their teachers, and community members gathered and moved through small auditoriums in the building to take in student-produced films, a fashion show, dance, jazz concerts, and rock and roll sessions. The theme holding the evening together was story – how do we tell them, in what genre, and with what craft?

I hung out in the halls of the City Aud to check out the student art for sale, but my main focus was on the slam poetry event. Last spring, I had the privilege and honor of judging the Slam Poetry contest featuring students from Colorado Springs District 11 high schools.

The Storytelling Festival had a twist – the Teacher Poetry Slam. Teachers from D11 schools spit their best poems in fevered three minute poems. Students and audience members snapped fingers when they were moved and “ooohhed” and “ahhhhed” at lines that particularly sung to them.

hosts

Student hosts provide some comedy before introducing the next teacher-poet.

The Teacher Poetry Slam ended in a three-way tie!  Dan Reicks from Russell Middle School, Sarah Hook and Andrew Ziegler from Mitchell all received PERFECT scores for their performances!

I was able to catch up to only three of the teachers who participated; other participating teachers were either swarmed by their students or they had made their way to some of the other events in the Aud.

I asked Miranda Popp, a teacher and colleague of Lessig’s at Mitchell High School, what was the power of slam poetry for these students. “It’s the empowerment itself. It gives formerly voiceless people the spotlight,” Popp said. Slam Poetry often is very introspective with topics ranging from commentary on social issues, to identity, to abuse, to questions about gender. Miranda said that slam poetry is healing: “the speaker heals from saying it; the others heal from listening to it.”

Slams are competitions among poets and are judged on delivery and language use, as well as the message delivered. This isn’t your restrained “poetry reading”; slams are performance art. While some slams can be a bit aggressive (for lack of a better term) in crowd response and scoring, the teachers in D11 have done a great job to create a positive event — seen in the vulnerable topics the students choose and the supportive spirit the audience offers.

Todd Hegert, an English teacher from Palmer High, agreed. “Slam poetry is so strong on word play, in language, and in telling a story” that it sets it apart from other poetic forms or events and it is “more compelling” to the current student population. “They get to tell their story, talk about the world around them, work toward solutions.” In the long run, Todd says, these “young voices are equipped with the language to shift the political and social landscape.”

One teacher I could not interview, but all three of the other teachers mentioned, is Chris Hartman from Coronado High School. His work with students and his efforts in creating the student Poetry Slam competition are recognized by students and teachers, alike.

“I love how this night showcased students and the arts,” Popp said. “Arts are so important to our students, and show that our students are human beings. This is more important than the standardized assessments” that are so much part of their educational world.

 

Lessig agreed, saying that once the expenses are met, the rest of the proceeds from the evening will be donated to arts education in our community. He reminded me that all the events tonight – the films, music, art, dance – were student created.

“The arts build community,” he said. And, as the program for the night’s event stated, “Stories create our world.”

 

dic-tion-ar-y

Posted in Observations, Teaching, Writing on October 1, 2016 by Vince.Puzick

I’ve always been relatively neutral in the hard copy book versus kindle versions debate. I like the feel and touch of paperbacks or hardcovers, but not having those formats is not necessarily a deal breaker for me. I understand the sentimentality of holding a book in one’s hand, maybe marking cool images or commenting on passages in the margin. And I get the convenience of having five or six or ten novels on my Kindle – easily accessible at any point. The highlight and annotation features on the Kindle are great to use. Regardless of format, it’s the content that stimulates my thinking or moves me emotionally.

This past week, though, when I was visiting a second grade class, I was intrigued by the student’s introduction to dictionary work. She was working with a small group of five students and introduced the task to them.The teacher admitted it was a rough intro; we’ve all been there as veteran teachers. You just slightly underestimate kids’ readiness to tackle the learning.

The target word, pulled from the students’ reading, was “horror.” The teacher distributed five copies of the Scholastic Children’s Dictionary and students dug in. The teacher worked with them on header words at the top of each page. When all the students were on the page with the beautiful picture of the horse, she directed their attention to the different entries until they found “horror.”

At one point, a girl in the group said, “This is hard. So many words!”

And it was at that point that my note taking on the class took a turn. I continued to listen and watch, but my attentiveness shifted to reflection rather than observation. She is so right. So many words on that page. And so many pages!

I went back to my elementary days and the fascination with dictionaries. We had dictionary games in fifth and sixth grade. The teacher would give us a word and we would try to guess the definition. Then the students with dictionaries would find the word, read the definition, and we would laugh if we were far off and cheer when somebody was close to the definition.

In all honesty, during my second grade classroom observation, I got a bit sentimental and nostalgic for those hard copy dictionaries. I watched as kids negotiated their way through the thick book, possibly the thickest book they have held in their hands.

I realized that with Google and with Siri, I can do a search or simply ask for the definition of a word. On my Kindle, I can click a word and see the definition. As can the students in that second grade class. And all of a sudden I felt a bit of sadness for them.

I loved having that dictionary open on my desk in Mrs. Meyer’s sixth grade class. And not just to find the target word of the day or to seek out the definition of the word she called out. I liked reading the word above the target word and the word after it. I liked to flip a few pages and find some random words to explore.

And I remember being introduced to the Oxford English dictionary in Dr. Boni’s class at Colorado State University and having the same reaction as the young second grade scholar: “So many words!”

To-do List: Things I Have Never Written About (but maybe should)

Posted in Observations, People, Places, Teaching, Writing on September 28, 2016 by Vince.Puzick
  1. Colorado Springs. I have written about places before – different houses we’ve lived in, places I have hiked or fished. Mesa Verde. Lost Creek Wilderness Area. But I have never written about my hometown with any real focus or commitment. I was born and raised here, have seen the changes that time and people have brought to the city, and have observed how things have stayed the same, too. I’ve wondered about the identify of the place – home of Fort Carson, the Air Force Academy, NORAD, Focus on the Family (a transplant from California). I’ve pondered Penrose Hospital – the first building to rise up over ten stories, my mother’s employer for 40 years, my birthplace. I’ve thought about the neighborhoods – Wood Avenue, Tejon Street with tree-lined homes of doctors, lawyers, and Colorado College professors. Of Roswell, the homes of blue-collar workers from the assembly line who worked with my dad. How Colorado Springs sits at the base of Pikes Peak, America’s mountain, the Colorado 14er furthest to the east. It’s not a mountain town or a town on the prairie. Military town? College town? Tourist destination? Olympic City (I heard that on the TV)?
  2. Baseball. America’s pastime. My boyhood passion. I played in little league baseball starting when I was eight years old and played through high school. I was on the Red Sox, the A’s, the Orioles. We played “homerun derby,” 500, wiffle ball at Bonny Park. We mimicked our heroes – Reggie Jackson, Clemente, Bob Gibson. Me mocked our foes – Pete Rose, Yaz, Wilbur Wood. I played epic one-on-one pitch-and-hit battles with my older, southpaw brother. He struck me out way more often than I got hits off of him. I chased him through the fields surrounding our house, me waving the bat above my head. I was never a good loser. Ten summers of organized ball. Family vacations postponed until August and built around little league schedules – Saturday morning games, afternoon practices. Championships were celebrated. Losses were mourned. Friendships made.
  3. My Mother. I have written relentlessly, filled up reams, about my father. I have only rarely written about my mother. Short bursts of an image of her, a recollection of a conversation, or her devotion to a nursing career. I wrote a poem about her once, “Sestina for the Nuns,” about her work at Penrose Hospital, run by the Sisters of Charity. I have down some notes, and I have certainly pondered her life, but I have not written about her with the same sustained energy and focus that I have about my father. Maybe it is the same as poetry; we are motivated by the pain of the human experience to write poetry more than we are motivated from that place of beauty and peace. Maybe it has been easier to write about the dysfunction of my dad than the strength and consistency of my mother. I have not written about our evening conversation at Penrose Hospital, her first bout with lung cancer, when the loudspeaker said “Visiting hours end in 15 minutes” and I stayed another 45. The staff, her colleagues, understood.
  4. Reluctant Readers. I was a reluctant reader throughout high school. A typical high school boy (some may argue that it doesn’t have to be typical), I was more interested in baseball, backpacking, and eventually beer than in books. I was, still am, a strong reader, but in school I would make my way through the assigned reading and basically call it good. I’d devour Sports Illustrated. Outdoor Life. Field and Stream. It wasn’t until I worked in a factory, White Automotive, after dropping out of college, that I became interested in the written word. And my interest was borne from the impulse to write while working on the assembly line at Whitco. And it wasn’t until I declared myself an English major – due to that interest in writing rather than reading – that I turned the corner as a reader. I was naïve, in fact, when I declared as an English major and came to realize, you know, how much actual reading that academic major required. Add on a minor in history and my nights were spent in Morgan Library on the CSU campus.
  5. Fatherhood. I was 36 years old when my daughter was born. I have written some things about her – poems, mainly, and occasional observances of her life – but I have not written about my own observations about and experiences as a father. For a long part of that time, I was a single father. Jessica’s mother and I were divorced when Jess was about a year old, so I experienced being a parent with shared custody. When Jess entered middle school, she lived with me for all but her 8th grade year. I haven’t written about the joy of watching her mature. I haven’t written about the conversation in the kitchen that gradually grew heated as it headed to an argument and then, in a memorable moment, turned to provide such a lesson. So here it is: I was standing at the kitchen sink, rinsing that night’s dinner dishes. Jessica was leaning against the doorframe between the kitchen and the dining room. I don’t recall the topic of our conversation, but it was escalating. I finally said to her, “Jess, I am learning what it is like to parent a 16-year old.” She looked across the kitchen at me and said “And I’m learning what it’s like to be 16.” But I haven’t written about that.
  6. Teaching. For nearly 30 years, I have pursued my career in education. The first 15 of those years were in the classroom. I have written a brief article or two about specific strategies or instructional practices, but I have not explored my own philosophies, perspectives, or experiences in the classroom or in my roles outside of the classroom. I haven’t written about the moments that evoked great pride in my students: the student journalists on the Palmer newspaper (The Lever); the scores on the IB exams; the conversations about Song of Solomon, Mary Oliver and Eavan Boland poetry, the narratives we wrote. Mike and Ian emphatically pointing at the book and yelling “Let’s go back to the text! Where’s the evidence?” I haven’t written about those less-than-stellar moments of my teaching – the sarcastic response, the dropped f-bomb, the poorly planned lesson. I haven’t written about the tears shed at the loss of a student due to a heart problem, the ache in my heart hearing about a student suicide, the collective grief over Columbine.
  7. On Keeping a Notebook. Or this one could be called Regrets. I have had maybe two dozen attempts at keeping some sort of a writer’s notebook for a long, long time. Only in the last 5-7 years, though, have I routinely written in one. I have had some great starts in the past, but I could never really settle on what the notebook should “look like” – what should be written, how should that writing sound. None of that matters. Not the way entries look on the page. Not the way they sound. Dated or undated entries. Should it read like a diary or like Lewis and Clark’s journals? Visuals and drawings like da Vinci? None of that matters. Just get stuff down. Instead, I only have memory and recall to draw from. So I should write about writing … I should write about keeping a writer’s notebook to those who are reluctant to do so or not sure why or what or what it should look like. Just show up. Lined or unlined? College-ruled or narrow? It. Does. Not. Matter. Writing does.

 

The Power of Modeling

Posted in People, Teaching, Writing with tags , , on September 28, 2015 by Vince.Puzick

I’ve written six 500-word (or so) memoirs this past month and a half.  That’s due, in part, because of my love of the genre, but primarily these memoirs were composed as part of the instructional process as I guided two classes of high school sophomores (their triptych memoir as discussed in the Kirby’s article “Contemporary Memoir:  A 21st Century Genre Ideal for Teens”) and four classes of seniors through the process of composing their own memoirs.

Modeling is a powerful practice in the writing classroom — if not in all classrooms.  I wanted students to hear my thinking processes as I grappled with the same assignment in front of them.  My modeling moved from the initial brainstorming to uncover potential memoir topics (I used a couple of different strategies — “Stones in the River” and “Map My Neighborhood” — to approach the assignment) to drafting and revising the essay, and cleaning it up with some editing strategies.  We did Peter Elbow’s “looping” strategy to get to the heart of the reflection of the memoir — why is this memory even significant?  At each step of the way, using the document camera, my students listened as I thought through my own writing.

As an aside, one of the examples of instructional modeling I have experienced as a student was on the South Platte River with my friend and fishing guide, Steve.  As he taught me the techniques for putting a dry fly on the water so that it floated naturally to entice fish, he modeled the casting motion, watched as I attempted the same, and guided my “revision” process standing there side-by-side.  He didn’t “tell me” how to cast. He showed me.  He didn’t demonstrate and walk away.  He demonstrated then responded to my attempts with guidance, praise, and (because he’s my friend) some good natured kidding.

One discovery I made in this instructional practice is that I need to be careful as I talk through my process.  I want students to maintain ownership over their own papers, so I want them to mimic the thinking and decision-making process.  I model the thinking so they can follow a similar process to make decisions about their own writing.  One of my favorite questions I pose to myself and, later, pose to my students begins “What if…?”

  • “What if I develop this potential topic with some details and see what I discover;  is it meaty enough to pursue?”
  • “What if I craft these two sentences into one?”
  • “What if I break this paragraph into a couple of paragraphs to change the pace and emphasis? (Yes, that would mean that I may have a one-sentence paragraph.)”

So I wrote one in each of my classes.  Why?  Why didn’t I just fudge it and show subsequent classes the brainstormings and drafts that I did in the earlier class periods?  Simple.  The product at the end of the brainstorming session is only as valuable as the process to develop it.  I liken it to downloading a PDF of a powerpoint from the Internet rather than actually being at the presentation where the powerpoint was used.  Sure, I have a product — but I don’t hear the nuance, hear the thinking behind the slides, the inflection of voice, the speaker’s laugh or the asides.

Students benefit from hearing the thinking behind the arrows moving their eyes around the brainstorming; they need the reasons why things are scratched out and written over in the draft;  they need to hear how the ideas originally in the last paragraph end up being presented earlier and throughout the essay instead of lumped together at the end.  They need to hear me grapple with a decision, struggle with a revision, rethink where I was going as I head where the memoir needs to go.

While none of this may seem particularly new or groundbreaking, as I worked through the process with students, it became clear how powerful modeling is to give guidance, to stimulate thinking, and, ultimately, to release responsibility for their own work.

Posted in Teaching on September 6, 2015 by Vince.Puzick

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Lit as Protest

Posted in Teaching, Writing on September 6, 2015 by Vince.Puzick

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Lessons Learned from Aspen

Posted in Observations, People, Teaching on June 9, 2014 by Vince.Puzick

Aspen sat in Row 11, Seat 14 at the Dodgers vs. Rockies game on Sunday.  She captured our attention when she passed the row she was sitting in and her grandfather (we think it was her grandfather) started calling her name.  She was on the stairs about at row 3 when she heard him and made her way back, a little sheepishly, to her seat which was directly in front of mine.

I’m guessing Aspen is about ten or eleven years old.  Her multi-colored stocking hat was sort of sassy, distinctive and gave me the impression that Aspen may be a bit of a free spirit.  She had a little black bag with some sort of colorful images on it, too, that she kept her things in.

I’m always a bit intrigued by young children at ball games. Sometimes they just don’t have the patience to hang in there and watch a game for two or three hours.  Baseball is particularly challenging, at times, because the action can be so far away.  At other sports events, basketball and hockey, you can feel more intimately connected with the game because of proximity to the players and action. The extra-curricular activities, little shirt giveaways and contests, help keep spectators entertained at time-outs and slower moments of the games.  At Coors Field, they do a nice job with the big screen to keep us entertained.  And people watching at baseball games is fun.

As we settled in to the game this rainy Sunday, people huddling together to pretend it really wasn’t so damp and chilly in early June, Aspen and her grandfather also settled into the afternoon.  Aspen sat at the front of her seat, sort of on the edge of her seat, as the game picked up.  She never leaned back in the seat as she watched the game and did a little people watching of her own.

Every now and then as the game went on, Aspen and her grandfather would get into some conversations that appeared a little, for lack of a better word, “intense.”  And this is where I had my lesson from Aspen. Again, she did not sit all the way back in her seat.  She only sat about half way back. When her grandfather talked, she turned her torso one-quarter of a turn so she was facing him a little more directly.  I could not see her grandfather’s face or hear the content of the conversation.

As her grandfather spoke, Aspen’s eyes narrowed a little and stayed focused on his eyes. Sometimes they scanned his face.  But her eyes stayed attentive.  She’d nod.  Her nod reminded me of my own daughter’s action when she was about that age. A nod that said “I get it … keep telling me more. I’m with you.”  She would add a word or two in the conversation.  Then she would be attentive again, listening.

I was reminded, again, once more, of the power of listening.  Attentive listening.  Watching Aspen reminded me that active listening is done with more than ears.  It is a whole body act.  She listened with her ears, for sure, under that multicolored hat.  She listened with her body turned toward her grandfather.  She listened with her eyes, glued to his, scanning his face, attentive and engaged.

In many ways, I was glad I could not hear the content.  Aspen’s lesson was about listening behavior, the physical act of listening.  You can learn a lot from an eleven year old who is curious, inquisitive, engaged.

Oh, one last important lesson from Aspen on this cold, rainy day.  Start the day with Dippin’ Dots.  An inning later, make the move to cotton candy. (She had a great strategy: don’t take the plastic wrapper off;  instead, eat the cotton candy one finger-pinch at a time by reaching up under the packaging from the bottom.  It keeps the cotton candy undisturbed, and, if you get tired of eating it, you can then save it for later.  Aspen didn’t need to save any for later.)  And then to finish off the game, warm yourself back up with a hot chocolate.

After all, you only live once and you are eleven.

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