When I first read the article’s headline phrase asserting that busyness is a sign of an unhappy person, I bristled.
I’m busy! Show me a teacher who isn’t busy. But this month, especially, has been filled with travel and new challenges. Happily, all of this busyness has had a lot to do with the big questions surrounding the meaning of life for myself and in some ways for my students.
I attended some wonderful panels about pedagogy, stayed for free in an incredible AirBnb thanks to a dear friend and poet, Carrie Padian, and had time to catch up with new and old writer friends along the way.
My cousin Polly and her daughter/my cousin Mabel happened to be in town to check out Occidental college as Mabel will be graduating from high school next year. They were able to attend my reading for Cambridge Writers Workshop and we got to enjoy an all-too-brief-but-cherished visit.
It was an exhilarating and exhausting four days made more intense by the knowledge that I would be returning to Los Angeles the following Saturday.
On Saturday, April 9th, I flew back to Los Angeles in order to teach a 2 day workshop to a cohort of teachers, most of them AVID teachers from San Diego, at the Museum of Tolerance. The purpose of my workshop was to instruct teachers how to incorporate activities and curriculum from the Creative Visions Foundation’s offshoot, Rock Your World.
(I’ve written about both CVF and Rock Your World, here.)
It was so thrilling to work with Linda Blanshay, the Director of Programming, at the Museum of Tolerance and her facilitators. The site itself is incredible, and when used as a backdrop as well as a focal point for instruction in the RYW curriculum the experience became pinch-me-is-this-even-real amazing.
I was also able to meet and spend time with the founder of Creative Visions Foundation, Kathy Eldon. My students were so excited to see my picture with her because they have learned all about her son, Dan Eldon--the impetus behind her foundation and a continuing luminous inspiration so many youth and people in general. She's a hero of mine, so this was really the frosting on a trip-of-goodness.
In any case, this kind of busyness was the best kind! In the last two weeks, I've been able to consider the pedagogy of teaching writing, and take a new essay about teaching for a spin at the Cambridge Writers Workshop reading. I've been able to gather ideas from the fantastic group of teachers regarding the development of writing skills by way of studying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And, I've found time to reflect on my heritage, and on my life’s purpose. I wrote about some of those considerations here.
Another special moment was meeting a teacher from San Jose named Tiffany Hamm. She was part of the workshop and has my birthday! We discovered this as I was reading aloud a description about Holocaust survivor, Renee Firestone. Tiffany exclaimed that she was also born on April 13th. It felt ‘bashert’ as my Grandma Rose would have said--destiny.
From the fantastic teachers in my workshop, to the reflective time throughout the trip, to the wonderful connections and potential possibilities I now envision for my students, as well as professionally, this trip was a game changer.
It is the middle of 4th quarter. My sophomores are 7 chapters deep into their study of Orwell’s Animal Farm. My Creative Writing class is finishing up The Kite Runner and preparing in earnest for Poetry Night and AP Literature students are taking practice tests galore as well as studying poetry.
Here’s a more detailed look at each grade level and their activities...
10th Grade English/Animal Farm
When I began teaching at CHS, my then-department chair, Wendy Anderson, clued me in on a great activity she used to enrich the study of the novel.
Students form their own ‘countries’. Each country must then select a ‘dictator’, and a variety of other positions such as educator, and secret police. The country must be named. Then, students create 10 laws they must follow and the consequences for breaking such laws, a flag and eventually an anthem. Nationalism is established.
The teacher is the ‘supreme’ dictator. Mrs. Anderson was dubbed O Supreme Leader. (My students have named me Colonel Burn, B-Dawg and B-Money over the years.)
On the board, each country’s name is listed and then the teacher can distribute or take away points as he or she sees fit. (The points do not impact grades at all--it’s a competition for a pizza party with rootbeer floats) The goal here is to create an atmosphere that is uneasy, but never harmful, of course. The students experience unfair treatment by way of points distribution and begin to strategize against me and against one another.
Last year, students staged a complete rebellion in my Honors S3 class. ⅔ of them refused to come to class having received permission from the administration to rebel while I was away on a field trip. Those who did come to class were immediately rewarded with goodies and points.
Our Vice Principal began calling for students to join the rebellion over the classroom loudspeaker. It was incredible! When the students did return, they were amped up and upset because I had disbanded their countries (moved their desks). They began to complain loudly. It was a perfect teaching opportunity!
I asked them why they rebelled in the first place. Their leader responded that they were unhappy with the unfair distribution of points. I then asked, “Why are you focusing on the seating then?” It got quiet. I said, “Just like the pigs in Animal Farm, you became removed from your original intent and purpose for your rebellion--you came back to class in search of more power and comfort, huh?” BAM.
This year the students remain incredibly creative. They are declaring war on each other by way of academic quizzes, rock-paper-scissors and homework completion. They are forging alliances. Last week, one country declared a Karaoke war against another. I admit it didn’t tie into the book at all, but it was so much fun and ended up in a five minute sing-a-long which led to some unexpected and rewarding class bonding. Magic. And when we resumed our serious study of chapters 6 and 7, students were able to bring classroom tendencies as well as world events into the discussion. This is one of my favorite all time units.
I look forward to it every year. Each year is different and every class brings something new to the game aspect of the unit. We then move from our study of Animal Farm into a unit on Irony, Persuasion and Propaganda--and it’s such an easy, natural transition. I’m happy to answer any questions if you think you might be interested in giving this a whirl in your classroom. Just drop me line or comment below.
This week I found a wonderful activity by Emily Strait on Teacherspayteachers.com, that instructs students to create a Postsecret postcard from the perspective of a character in The Kite Runner. Postsecret is a blog in which anonymous secrets are revealed on postcards then posted weekly.
Ms. Strait’s lesson includes sample postcards in her lesson which I appreciate because the site, while a favorite of mine, often has secrets that would be inappropriate for the high school classroom.
I will post pictures when all of the postcards are submitted as the ones that have been turned in so far are really cool!
Students have also revised and settled on a theme for this year’s Poetry Night. They are now using erasure or blackout poetry as their backdrop and focus activities on the big night. Their official Poetry Night slogan is We Cannot Be Erased. This theme is so great as they are seniors and this enables them to consider the Imprint they want to leave behind.
Again, lots of practice tests! However, last Thursday, students watched my favorite movie, Freedom Writers.
They are going to compare themes from the movie with contemporary poetry and write in-depth analytical paragraphs about their findings.
Perhaps it’s because we’re so busy.
Still, this kind of busyness begs for critical connections between material being studied and lives being lived. I think that’s the best kind and hope my students do too.
Now, as most teachers eventually say, it's time to grade. I have a long road before I'm caught up on the grading front, but at least it is a beautiful one.