Archive for the Teaching Category

The Cat and the Hat and I are the same age

Posted in Observations, Teaching, Writing on April 10, 2011 by Vince.Puzick

One recent morning, in honor of Dr. Seuss’s birthday earlier in the month, I was privileged to read to students at Carver Elementary School in Colorado Springs. I could have chosen any appropriate book, really, to read to the students, but I wasn’t sure which grades would be my audience. As I looked at the choices in the media center, my eyes were drawn to an old favorite: The Cat in the Hat. Even though before I chose the book I was told that I would be reading to a 2nd grade class, then a 4th grade class and I would wrap up with a class of kindergarteners, I stayed with my gut decision. How could the good Dr. let me down with The Cat?

I was proven right. The experience was different for each class, and it was a valuable experience for us all. I was remind — and reminded the 2nd and 4th graders — that you cannot get tired of a book you love. We had all had experiences with the book…but we are older and different now, I told them. I love to re-read a favorite book. They all things to share, too about the book: new insights and favorite memories.

The kindergarteners were wide-eyed and a bit in awe of a 6’4″ man whom they had never met before read them an unfamiliar book. But they loved it..this mischievous cat, a talking fish, two kids flying kites in the house, and waiting for mother to get home.

The book has withstood the test of time, of course, and reminds us the power of language, the appeal of rhyme and of illustrations, and, as evidenced by the engaged look of the 4th graders and the thoughtful comments they had about a well-known story, being read to never grows old.

Here’s to another 54 years, Cat.

The Text, The Tweet, and Ernest Hemingway

Posted in Teaching, Writing on March 25, 2011 by Vince.Puzick

I suppose my passion for Hemingway first surfaced in college when Dr. Zoellner (about whom I have written earlier on this blog) taught several of Hemingway’s short stories in freshman English. Of course, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” was on the list, and we may have read “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” Later it was For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. Despite all the criticism leveled at Hemingway, I was intrigued by his writing; what male wouldn’t be: bull fights, fist fights, African safaris, fishing the banks of the Two Hearted River. Growing up in the midst of the feminist movement impacted perspective, naturally, and probably for the good.

When I went on to actually teach some Hemingway, I found a text called The Hemingway Review published by Ohio Northern University. The only edition I have is the Spanish Civil War Issue which includes Hemingway’s 30 NANA Dispatches. I don’t know how else to say it…the book is pretty cool and has become sort of a prized treasure of mine. In it, the editors explore Hemingway’s cable dispatches as he covered the Spanish Civil War. The discuss The Field Notes that led up to the dispatch: “The writing of a dispatch usually began with field notes of some sort. Either in a notebook or on quarter-folded pieces of paper , Hemingway jotted down his observations as he went along” (93). Later, he drafted his story “sometimes in a cablese style adopted by correspondents to cut down on cable costs by reducing the word count” (93). One set of his notes turned into the short story “Old Man at the Bridge.” Other observations that he made were notes used in For Whom the Bell Tolls. (In fact, in creative writing classes, I used to hand students a piece of paper folded into quarters and then take them on a walk around the building to make notes. Homework that weekend was to take more quarter-folded sheets and head to the mall, a restaurant, the street corner and take notes. We’d draft some into poems or stories later.)

I had been thinking for the past several months how Hemingway would have used platforms like Twitter or Facebook. Instead of his notes on folded paper, he may have sent Tweets from his phone directly from his location. Give him 160 characters (to type — not to develop) and see what sparse prose Hemingway would craft. Then I read the NY Times Op-Ed piece posted by Jim Burke on Facebook: Teaching to the Text Message. Andy Selsberg makes terrific points about precision and eloquence. His examples of what types of shorter writings can be valuable for our students to try are authentic types of writing that students encounter every day and probably produce every day as well. I see a plethora of opportunities for students produce concise writings that are rich, eloquent, and demonstrate a command of language to express a sharp insight or make a precise observation of the world around them.

Instead of saying “put your cell phone away,” I may be asking students to take them out and text me their responses.

Young America League Football

Posted in Observations, People, Teaching, Uncategorized on January 25, 2011 by Vince.Puzick

Like millions of American boys growing up, I played pee-wee football in the fall. Here, it was called Young America League (YAL) football and was sponsored by the Colorado Springs’ Park and Recreation department. I played a couple of positions from the time I was 8 until 8th grade.

I was a Packer fan, then, and my idol was #15, the quarterback, Bart Starr. First of all, and incidentally, I enjoyed the almost poetic consonance of his name: Bart Starr. (An aside: perhaps it was this fascination with linguistic features of the athletes that caused my football career to end so soon.)

In 6th Grade, I bought a book by Bart Starr that was a primer on quarterbacking technique. I read that book. And I studied that book. I’d go out in the small side yard at our house on Nevada Avenue or across the street in the medical center parking lot and practice every lesson in it. I had the techniques down for fall practice. I was especially proud of my ability to lateral the ball to a running back just like it was described and pictured in the book.

A few practices into the 1969 season, we were ready to run-through a more full-blown offensive practice. I was trading off at the QB position with some short dude who was fast and pretty smart — but I don’t think he had read the Bart Starr “Playing Quarterback for Dummies” book (I don’t think that was the actual title). I knew that I had that advantage.

So we were running this sweep where the QB would turn, take a few steps parallel to the offensive line, and then lateral the ball to the running back who would, no doubt, take off around the end of the line for a touchdown. I took the snap, took my steps, and in Bart Starr-esque form (see picture 3), lateraled perfectly to Rocco Villani, our running back. The ball slid through his hands and to the ground.

“He’s spiraling the pitch!”
“Puzick, pitch the ball the RIGHT way,” barked the coach.

Next snap, I took my two steps, and sent another perfectly spiraled lateral to Villani.

“Puzick! Quit spiralling the gosh-dang ball and pitch it right.” Evidently the coach had not read THE Book either. I’m sure he saw me as either uncoachable, stupid, or something other than very well-read on quarterbacking technique.

Another snap. Another spiraled pitch to the running back. Another tongue-lashing.

It was that autumn evening, the sun setting behind Pikes Peak and the chill of dusk spreading over the grass at Bonny Park, that I took my last snap at Quarterback. Damn you Bart Starr. Damn you reading. Damn you Coach “Gosh-Dang.”

Inscription: Writers I Have Met (DRAFT)

Posted in Arts and Creativity, People, Teaching, Writing on November 2, 2010 by Vince.Puzick

So I was at the CLAS conference this past weekend and one of the speakers kept mentioning names of various writers she had met, their little quirks, maybe a nugget about their approach to writing. It wasn’t name-dropping to impress her listeners, necessarily, and by the end of the presentation you realized how incredibly rich of an experience, in sum, she had meeting these writers. So it got me to thinking…who are the writers I have met and what is the sum impact of those encounters?

The first two writers I met were at the same event in Denver in 1977. I first met Yusef Komunyakaa when he was a student at CSU and was attending a poetry reading by Adrienne Rich. I went to the event with Victoria McCabe, a poetry instructor at UCCS. We met other folks from CSU, too, including Bill Tremblay, an English professor. The encounter with Rich was brief and uneventful. A quick introduction and she was gone. After the reading, though, Victoria and I went to somebody’s apartment and talked about Rich, poetry, and, no doubt, the state of the world. I was 20, working in a factory in Colorado Springs, and taking a class or two at UCCS. Later, when I had returned to CSU, Komunyakaa wrote in his chapbook, Dedications & Other Dark Horses, “To Vince — Hopefully this book gives you a glimpse into the eyes that I see through. Hopefully I am where the heart takes root, where the blues begins in all of us. Yusef K.”

Although it is not a “meet” the author encounter, this is a pretty cool story. In 1981, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. I read with interest the announcement about a poetry reading in Cody’s Bookstore in Berkeley — a bit of a drive from Palo Alto, but worth it. The poet reading: Adrienne Rich. I made the drive over and listened to her read — this rather small, Jewish woman, who moves me with her poetry. She signed her book A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far. In 1986, when I was in the Stanford Teacher Education Program, Adrienne Rich was a guest professor. I went to one of her lectures, sat way in the back, and at the end of her class session, went down to her podium. Reintroduced myself to her and explained I had seen her in 1977, 1981, and now. She laughed, held my outstretched hand for a beat or two after the shake had finished, and we went our separate ways.

Two years later, in March of 1988, I heard Yusef Komunyakaa read in San Francisco. He was, by then, a professor at Indiana University. He was on his way to winning the Pulitzer Prize. In my copy of Dedications he wrote “For Vince — Here in California where the light brings out the hidden images. Peace & Magic, Yusef”

I had a long drought of book signings in the 1990’s. It wasn’t until the summer of 1999 that my inscriptions took on a new momentum. At that time, I was teaching English at Palmer High School and had the opportunity to go to San Antonio as one of 26 teachers selected for the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute. The focus was Mexican-American Literature and Culture in the Classroom. It was a seminal summer for my teaching / education career.

At that Institute, I was honored to meet Rudolfo Anaya who inscribed my copy of Bless Me, Ultima — one of my favorite novels to teach. He wrote “Vince – A Great Future! Rudolfo Anaya” I met other Latino and Latina authors as well: Pat Mora who wrote Aunt Carmen’s Book of Practical Saints and inscribed my copy with ‘For Vince, Joy! Pat Mora July 1999.” Cristina Garcia, in her lovely novel about three generations of Cuban women called Dreaming in Cuban, inscribed “To Vince, Good luck with your writing. Cristina Garcia.” A young writer named Sergio Troncoso wrote “To Vince: I hope you enjoy these stories about the moral character of my community in El Paso. Sergio” Elva Trevino Hart, in Barefoot Heart / Stories of a Migrant Child, wrote “For Vince — from my heart & hands to yours– with Love, Elva 7/17/99.”

One of my favorite inscriptions is in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. I told her the copy was for my daughter, Jessica, and she wrote “Para La Jessica. Felicidades! Many happinesses to you today — always. Sandra Cisneros. July 9. 99.” A few weeks later I was honored to have dinner with Ms. Cisneros. I was encouraged by the professor who proposed the NEH Summer Institute to contact Cisneros. I emailed her and waited. She replied. We could go to dinner Saturday night. Well, the conference was over Friday night and I was driving back to Colorado Springs the next day. She replied we could go Friday, but it would have to be after her dance class. We agreed to meet at a local smokehouse. I was a bit surprised at her choice. When I showed up at the restaurant, I was only mildly surprised that she had a chaperone. It was her house painter who, she explained, was there because she did not like to meet people alone. I could understand. Our conversation ranged from Mango Street, to the act of writing, to the fact that it is difficult to be a teacher AND a writer at the same time because the creative energy is aimed at creating engaging lesson plans not on the writing a writer may choose to do.

When I talked briefly with her about Mango Street she said “it seems so long ago that I wrote it” and that echoed the sentiments expressed by Anaya when I spoke with him about Bless Me, Ultima. For novelists, those works are old news. At this point, Mango Street was 15 years old (published in 1984) and Ultima was 27 years old (1972). Talking about these works, they both showed the pride similar to that of a parent for a child with the recognition, too, that lives move on. Cisneros was just working on Caramelo. Anaya was working on mysteries. What they did talk about was commitment, to routine, to dedicating time to writing every day.

The poets, on the other hand, were a bit more … immediate … in their response. Poets see the world through image, or insight, or impulse, or maybe an intuitive moment. In two lines, the poet expresses an image, an inspiration.

So the impact of those encounters…these encounters with writers let me know that craft is the result of work. Writers write.

In Memoriam: Dr. Zoellner

Posted in Observations, People, Teaching, Writing on March 21, 2010 by Vince.Puzick

I was a late bloomer when it came to academics.  I didn’t go to college right out of high school, and when I did enter Colorado State University in the spring semester of 1976, I was enrolled in Dr. Robert Zoellner’s Intro to Literature class.  It was the first of four semesters I would have with him during my college career.

During that first semester, we read what could be deemed pretty typical fare in college freshman literature classes:  a novel or two, a handful of short stories, some poetry, a play.  Grades were based on a mid-term and a final essay, written in class, in blue books.  I’ll never forget Dr. Zoellner’s comment scrawled across the last page of my exam:  “Mr. Puzick, You have a fine mind for literature. Your analysis of Rich‘s “Orion” is by far one of the best in the class (I am at the bottom of the stack), but your discussion of Hamlet, on the other hand, is weak and perfunctory.  You were clearly rushed for time.”  I remember going to the dictionary, first, and looking up the word “perfunctory” — a word not used by many of my high school friends or college dorm peers!  His words stick with me today because they set the tone and expectations for my own study of literature for the next 3.5 years (and beyond — into my own classroom teaching):  commit to your interpretation, be passionate in your expression of that interpretation, and watch the clock.

At this year’s Colorado Language Arts Society’s Spring Conference, I learned from Dr. Bill McBride that Dr. Zoellner had died.  I didn’t catch the date of his death, but Dr. McBride said that there were no funeral services, no obituary, no notice except for a few phone calls from the office secretary to a handful of his colleagues.  He said Dr. Zoellner’s last few years were painful — hunched over from physical conditions, a painfully slow gait, isolated from others.  I think Dr. Zoellner was a troubled soul — and it saddens me because of the impact he had on my life.

Dr. Zoellner was either loved or hated by his students.  I doubt any students could have had either a “neutral” or “moderate”opinion of him.  He was old-school in his approach to literature but taught me the power in close reading and explication de texte.  All that mattered to Zoellner was what was on the page, between the covers, in the body of the work.  And he was, no doubt, a chauvinist.  In 1976 and beyond, many of the female students in my classes found him coarse, crude, offensive.  I do not question nor doubt their feelings and perceptions of him.  While he could certainly teach the likes of Rich, he was at his best with Melville (see Zoellner’s “The Salt-sea Mastodon“), Hemingway and Robert Penn Warren.  And Faulkner.  The man could teach Faulkner.

If my memory is correct, each course I took from Zoellner was at 8:00 a.m. MWF.  He was usually on time, walking in either right at 8:00 or maybe a minute or two late.  If he came in late, as soon as he crossed the threshold, he would offer an apology — or mutter it might more accurately express his tone.  If he had not put out his cigarette before coming in the building, he disposed of it right when he came in the class.  At times, his eyes were a little bloodshot, weary, but intense.  He stood about 5’8″, maybe a little taller, and had short cropped light brown hair.  He was old school. He was blue-collar in his approach to life and to work. He could have just walked out of the Gates Rubber Plant in Denver.  He’d plop his book down on the table, turn to wherever we last left off or wherever he might want to start that day, and begin working his way through the text.  Discussion was minimal — usually non-existent.  Perhaps a question or two to the class and then back into the text.  Classroom relationships were not his forte.

The other three courses I had with Zoellner were Survey of American Literature (from 1917 – 1945 and then 1945 to the present) and English 505: Major Authors: Faulkner.  We studied something like nine novels that semester.  I was the only senior in the course; the rest were graduate students.  On the Friday before spring break, Dr. Zoellner asked the class what we should read over the break.  Nobody had a response.  “What would you like to devote your time to over the next nine days,” he asked again.  Leaning back in my chair, I blurted out “The Hamlet.”  Heads turned and eyes glared.  Coming in at about 450 pages, it wasn’t a popular choice among my classmates.  “Great choice, Vincent.  The Hamlet it is.”

I  had gone to Dr. Zoellner at the beginning of that last semester, the Major Authors’ semester, and for some reason felt it necessary to tell him that I had taken his courses four semesters and not once had he called me by name. When he actually said my name in the last semester of my undergraduate career, I felt somehow acknowledged. I suppose I looked to him as a mentor, certainly in his handling and negotiating of challenging texts, and felt somehow I had arrived (even if I had to ask!).

I had gone to him earlier, too, in the beginning of my senior year, and asked his advice as to whether I should enter the professional semester for secondary education.  He suggested that I graduate and then head out of Colorado.  Head to LA, he said, or Chicago, or New York — somewhere there were home offices for large corporations.  See what it was like in the business world or the world outside of education.  “Schools will always be around.  See what else your liberal arts degree will bring you.”

I took his advice.  Graduated from CSU in May of 1981, travelled west to the Silicon Valley, worked for five years in the private industry, and then recognized my own need to work in the world of education.  I contacted Dr. Zoellner to see if he would write a letter of recommendation for graduate school.  “Certainly, I will,” he said, “sure thing, Vincent.”

When I entered CSU in January of 1976, I was a confused 18-year old.  I didn’t know my place — shifting course from factory work to college campuses more than once — and didn’t really have a destination in mind.  Dr. Zoellner helped shape the direction my life was to take.  To think of his last days and years as disconnected, pained, and isolated hurts my own soul.  Thank you, Dr. Zoellner, for the literature you taught but more importantly for the guidance you gave when you least suspected it.

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