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.

A complex problem, a multi-faceted solution

Posted in People, Teaching, Uncategorized on December 22, 2012 by Vince.Puzick

I’ve read the NRA press conference transcript, nearly 2500 words of what Wayne LaPierre, NRA’s Executive Vice President, deems a call for “decisive action” toward securing our schools.

The NRA’s plan of action – to be pursued immediately in order to be in place in January when our kids return from their holiday vacation – is called the National Model School Shield Program.  At the heart of the plan is for an armed police officer to be situated in every school in America.  LaPierre’s plan is to ensure that a “good guy with a gun” is a short minute away from any intrusion from a “bad guy with a gun.”  He argues that despite the strained resources on police departments nationwide – and, I would add, school budgets – Congress should appropriate resources now to ensure that this School Shield Program is in place.  He argues that despite these limited resources, trained and courageous police officers and retired police officers (along with a long list of others) are willing to be “deployed” right now.  In essence, he is calling for an armed peace-keeping force in our nation’s schools.

The NRA’s proposal attacks “the media” as immoral and refusing to look closely at its own contributions to the current social crisis.  The media, he argues, refuse to look at its violent movies, offensive music, blood-spattering video games as causes to our mass murders in public schools.   He argues that “[r]ather than face their own moral failings, the media demonize gun owners.”

He situates the NRA position to be one of taking the moral higher ground – with the cause being to protect our children.  But not once in the nearly 2500 words of his argument does he make one concession that perhaps we should revisit and seriously look at current gun control legislation, or the availability of assault rifles (in fact, he criticizes “the media” for not even getting the terminology correct — but what does it matter what the correct name of the weapon is?), or the availability of ammunition of the weapons. In short, he blasts “the media” for its continued glorification and glamorization of killing through video, song, and games.

No doubt, any single-sighted approach to solving the current social situation is going to be insufficient.  A complex problem requires a multi-faceted solution.  No single condition is sufficient to produce the crisis; no single-pronged solution is going to solve this epidemic of mass killings.

No single party is going to concede or compromise its position if it appears that no other party is willing to compromise its position.  We have created a culture right now of “either/or” rather than “both/and” for working toward any meaningful compromise.  We see the dichotomy as we approach the fiscal cliff; we see it in our rhetoric about gay marriage, religious and spiritual beliefs, gender equity.

So, what might it look like to truly engage in meaningful dialogue in a society which values individual freedoms?  What might it look like to pursue a solution to a complex social crisis – mass murders — in which there are several contributing factors none sufficient in itself to produce a culture in which young males can strafe movie theatres, malls, college campuses and first-grade classrooms?

Our national dialogue must:

  • Revisit gun ownership laws Yes, let’s protect the Second Amendment.  And let’s not generalize and stereotype all gun-owners of being capable of mass murder.  However, let’s make meaningful laws about ownership and production of assault rifles, automatic and semi-automatic weapons, that are available.  Let’s even look at the term “sport shooting” which seems to be part of the rationale for the availability of these weapons.  The NRA, in its assault on “the media,” should take a reflective look at its own moral and ethical landscape.  Does “sport shooting” with assault rifles do anything but glamorize the ownership of these weapons?
  • Renew the conversation about mental health policy and care in our nation:  This conversation should also include education policy and practices in our schools.  The recent mass murder shooters have been described as intelligent, brilliant even, and with mental health issues.  And, again, let’s not generalize these individuals’ behaviors to the whole population of others with mental health issues.  I do think that as we discuss mental health care in the United States, we also need to revisit the legislation for providing education to students with special needs.  Do our public school environments, facilities, and resources effectively meet the needs of our students?  I am sure that my education colleagues who closely serve our special needs population may take issue with this concern.  However, if we are going to have a serious dialogue about a multi-faceted, complex issue, then we need to consider all sides of the issue.  If we are going to look closely at mental health policy in the United States, then we need to consider those policies within our educational system, as well.
  • Revitalize our dialogue about being male in our society:  One look at the profile of the mass murderers reveals a police line-up, if you will, of white males in their late teens or early twenties.  As we look at other statistics concerning gender, we see that enrollment of males in our colleges and universities is on the decline.  We see that males are medicated more for such conditions as ADHD and ADD.  This, alone, is a complex issue within a complex issue.  As a society, we have done much in the past 40 years to redefine responsibilities, ambitions, and opportunities for girls, young women, and women in our society.  Have we done enough to support boys, young men, and men in that transformation.  Regardless of how slow this progress may seem for women’s rights and progress, the transformation of our cultural expectations on young men may be revealing itself in unhealthy mental and physical health of our males.  Again, we may be in a position of “either/or” rather than “both/and” thinking for our young males – and females, as a matter of fact – as we look to broaden the ambitions and opportunities for them.  That is, just as young women entering the professional world battle between “either” being a professional woman “or” a mother, we need to become a culture where we can be “both” a professional woman “and” a mother.  Have we effectively addressed a similar dichotomy in the world of masculinity?  We may have made strides for males that it is rewarding to be a “stay at home dad” or for a father to be much more involved in his child’s life than in a generation ago.  But do we do enough to help adolescent males negotiate that emotional and psychological terrain as they are growing into young men?  Do we help them address the competing demands on their lives – as we watch them dropout of high school, fail to attend college, or not enlarge and enrich their late-adolescent lives?
  • Address meaningful reform movement in public education:  Has a focus on standardized assessment and achievement in our public schools diminished the most meaningful role that our schools may play in a child’s life?  Have we become a test-prep nation rather a life-prep educational system?  In our efforts to become competitive in the global economy, have we diminished our capacity to be compassionate, empathetic, collaborative in our human economy?
  • Rejuvenate our voices toward spiritual health:  We saw a glimmer of what the conversation could be like during the Sunday night, December 16, vigil following the Newtown massacre.  Regardless of the path toward spiritual health – Christian, Muslim, secular humanism, Jewish, New Age – we need to foster the health of our soul regardless of individual belief.  We need a collective consciousness toward a spiritual health in our nation.  Regardless of whether we are a “melting pot” or a “salad bowl,” we need as much attention to our First Amendment rights as we do to our Second Amendment.  What we need are voices in our country to continue to foster a larger Self, a wholeness to our individual lives and our collective lives.  I was moved not only by the spiritual and religious voices at that Sunday night vigil but also by the juxtaposition of the religious and the political.  The religious voices preceded the political voice of President Obama.  What if that were always the case?  How can we meaningfully change the context in which our conversations take place?  How do we change the language to inclusivity, to multiple avenues for a solution, to the handshake of “both/and” rather than the finger-pointing of “either/or” and dichotomous polarization?
  • Heal.  Something is wounded in our nation.  Rather than merely call for policy change and a single-sighted solution for complex problems, mournful cries to “fix something” – we need to heal.  But to heal, we need to acknowledge the wound.

At the heart of the issue is not the gun policy, nor the mental health issue, nor the gender issue; those are contributing causes.  Those are factors but they are not, in themselves alone, sufficient causes for the epidemic of mass murders we suffer today. We voice our sorrow but do not change our collective behavior.  Rather than purposeful actions toward deep-rooted, meaningful change, our response is a short-lived emotional sorrow.

Each of us cannot do everything.  But we all can do something.  Let the change begin with me.

The Day After

Posted in Observations, People, Teaching, Uncategorized on December 17, 2012 by Vince.Puzick

I remember preparing for class my English class of April 21st, 1999.  It was a Wednesday, the day after Columbine.  First period would be the most challenging in some ways — the students’ first chance to be in class together after a night that was too long, too draining.  Of course, many had talked to each other on the phone the night before.  They had talked, hugged, probably cried in the halls in the morning before class.  Class time, though, would be the first time that we came together as a tiny little community — a community of learners, a community of people who truly cared for one another — and I felt inadequately qualified for what those first 50 minutes of the school day might hold for us all.

How do you prepare at all for the kind of conversation — or  no conversation? — that was about to unfold?  I decided that I needed three plans … and would have to just rely on my own gut instinct to read the class that I had come to know so well over the prior months.  I would need to take their lead:  were they needing to talk as a group?  were they needing to just return to the normalcy of the class and continue with the lessons we had been working on since Monday?  or would it need to be some blend of those two?

I went into class prepared for all three scenarios.

What I knew I would get from this class was unfiltered, raw emotions and probably some deep reflection on the events of the previous 15 or 16 hours.  They were my IB sophomores — smart, insightful, lively…and only 14, 15 or 16 years old.  Littleton is 60 miles away from us.  I did not think that the students would have personal connections with any students from Columbine High School.

I was wrong.  Jesse knew guys from their football team because of summer leagues and football camps.  Other kids had friends either from the school or friends of friends from Littleton.  It was closer to home than I thought.

I let them talk.  And talk some more.  And get quiet in a reflective moment when they knew — but could not articulate — the feelings that a classmate was either expressing or trying to express.  They looked to me not so much to lead a conversation but to provide a safe place to have the conversation.  And we did.  What they needed — what we needed — was genuine connection, honest and safe dialogue.

When the energy was almost exhausted from the room, when they had connected to each other’s lives in ways that made the world safe and ok again for them right there and then, I shared the only piece of literature I brought to class that day,  an excerpt from Donne:  “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

I shared that the deaths of the teens 60 miles to the north of us diminished me.  We all feel, grieve, cry, and mourn people with whom we have distant connections because we are involved in mankind.  We cannot lose that.

Assault Art

Posted in Observations, People, Teaching on December 15, 2012 by Vince.Puzick

Sandy Hook Elementary. Aurora movie theatre. Virginia Tech. … Columbine.

Such horrendous acts are too complex to reduce to simple cause-effect relationships, to reduce to simple answers answering a complex and bewildering “why.” I want to offer this thought, though, knowing it is probably inadequate and insufficient.

One of the reasons I love being an English teacher and a student of literature — being brought to tears by poetry, being moved to consider my own tiny existence in the aftermath of a performance of a Shakespeare play or an O’Neill drama — is that, as has been said so often, literature conveys the human experience. Literature, a window into another’s experience and a mirror of my own, serves to nurture my vulnerable soul. It’s why I go to art galleries, why I “bother” to take time out during my summer or during a vacation to go to a museum, a concert, or a gallery. The arts — dramatic, literary, visual, musical — touch, move, inspire, awe me.

And I wonder about the effects of decreasing attention to these arts in our schools today. English classes should serve up heaping spoonfuls of Mary Oliver like metaphorical meringue. We should feast on Hemingway. We should have mounds of Morrison. All kids should receive a birth certificate and a library card when they enter the world. They should — we should — celebrate the human experience with a mandated trip to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and a summer performance by Theatreworks. Immediately after immunizations, children should be prescribed one story read to them. Two if they are feverish. Daily doses for a lifetime.

My point is this: In a world growing more complex with interdependent relationships across the room, across town, across zip codes, across area codes and time zones, we need the window of literature even more. We need the glimpse into our shared experience.

Maybe the solution is not so much in controlling guns or threatening to snatch away what people argue is their Constitutional right. Don’t get me wrong; I cannot, for the life of me, fathom why a person needs an assault rifle for any sort of “sport” shooting; their sole purpose is to inflict as much damage in as little time with as little effort as possible. The very name — assault rifle — is an assault on reason and civility.

But maybe we need to think and act differently to find a solution. Maybe the solution is not just in limitation and restriction. Maybe it is to be found in expansion and inclusion. Maybe white males (it’s always white males, isn’t it, behind the mask, under the body armor, firing the weapon?) would be less likely to pull the trigger if they recognized the humanity in “the other,” and perhaps if they were in touch with their own.

Maybe part of the solution is thinking bigger — where we recognize each other’s humanity, where we peer through the window of literature into the lives of others and into our own reflection.

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