You can go your own way, but…

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There is always one.

One student who pushes back against anything new. Another one who just wants to “do school” and get it over with.  Still another one who has no interest in my beloved ELA content.

Short of calling in my friend’s herding dog, how can I engage those students who want to go their own ways?

I believe the best way to engage students in through story. Not necessarily writing fiction, but living and sharing their own personal stories through the literature we read, the current events we address, and the multiple modes we employ.

Every student has a unique story, and the ELA classroom is the ideal laboratory for exploring identity as it is revealed by story and how that connects to the greater world, both present and past. It’s why I love teaching Frankenstein. The opportunity to connect science, ethics, and philosophy captures almost every student. Their opinions come from their own backgrounds, and the deeper we get into the book, the more they begin to see that literature has teeth and allows multiple interpretations. (I’m thinking I may put Waiting for Barbarians with Frankenstein for my AP class. Ask the question: who are the real barbarians and who is the true monster? That could be fun.)

Over the next few months I intend to ponder the power of story and how to tell each one. Language and story are inter-related, but how does one influence the other? What is the best way to herd wayward students into the fold of critical thinking and effective communication?

The story shall unfold.

National Parks #clmooc Make 6

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The fiWEB20150730_122355_20138025332_onal project for the Connected Learning MOOC (#clmooc) took us to explore the National Park system as an open public space. Georgia has a plethora of National and State parks along with Heritage sites, Historical sites, National Monuments, and National Recreation Areas. I chose to explore a new-to-me park in Lithonia, Georgia. Arabia Mountain is an exposed granite monadnock still relatively unaltered by humanity. There was once a quarry there, but it is long shut down and the machinery removed. Because it is not heavily promoted and the signage is less than obvious, few people walked the mountain while I was there. (Granted, it was midday in July, and the 95 degree temperature may have had something to do with the solitude.) Still, it was easy to imagine early settlers and Native Americans hunting and living here. It is vast and rugged, but upon inspection, harbors all sorts of microscopic life and plants that manage to thrive without much soil. The views from the summit are beautiful, even on a hot and hazy afternoon. Buildings and roads are invisible, so it feels remote and isolated.

WEBArabiaMtn-38 WEBArabiaMtn-43 While I enjoyed my trek, I had to consider how I could incorporate this Make into a classroom scenario.WEBArabiaMtn-49

 Science and math might be natural fits: micro-biology and ecology are obvious, and geometry students could calculate the pitch of the mountain or determine the weight of granite slabs. Literature requires a little more creative stretch to incorporate. However, upon reflection, I see a number of ways to justify a National Park field trip for an English classroom. There is the historical value of oral storytelling, which was the tradition of the first inhabitants of this land. The area was also home to a community of freed slaves (the area bordered three different plantations) that became a prosperous town through the mid 20th century. NPR did a story about the Flat Rock community in 2008. Blending the Park with this history affords students the opportunity to write a historic retelling of the community or of fictional residents. This allows the students to research life in a specific era, a particular setting, and a historic climate about which little is known. Story is a key element of preservation, although it requires careful study blended with critical and creative thinking. As research, this is far more difficult than the “encyclopedia report”  many students do, but the benefits of learning curation from multiple sources ultimately proves practical well beyond the high school years.

WEBArabiaMtn-53 Research fulfills a number of standards in the Common Core requirements, but there are opportunities to use a visit to the Parks as impetus for creative writing. Many American authors wrote about nature (Jack London comes immediately to mind), and short stories featuring the land may inspire students to dig a little deeper into their own psyche or philosophies. Poetry may also emerge as a way to capture the vast beauty of the Parks.  A haiku or tanka (even a sonnet) poem embedded into a photograph blends creative thinking, art, and a structured form that touches the highest level of Bloom’s taxonomy.

WEBArabiaMtn-80-Edit2In any education, National Parks are a treasure to consider, and many of them are accessible enough to encourage all students to visit, even if a school field trip is not allowed. Arabia Mountain is off the Path system of DeKalb County, a free to use paved greenway designed for pedestrians and cyclists. The Arabia Mountain website offers a number of ways to see the park.

A Tanka Poem about My Daydream

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Deanna DeBrine Mascle introduced me to e new form of poetry: Tanka. It is a Japanese tradition, much like Haiku, but slightly longer. Instead of Haiku’s 5,7,5 syllable pattern Tanka contains 5,7,5,7,7 syllable lines. Thematically, Tanka is like Haiku: nature, emotion, and love. I’ve always struggled with Haiku, but this form seems more approachable to me, perhaps because it is longer. I don’t  know for sure, but my Intro to Comp students will play with this form during our poetry unit next Spring.

May I go back to the beach, now?

Stories of Spaces: #clmooc Make 5

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boat-on-chattahoochie6WEBThis week’s make left me reeling with possibilities. I struggled with games and systems, but spaces and stories are where I breathe freely.The problem is not a lack of ideas, but rather, choosing which one to follow.

My first instinct was to keep the space simple and literal. There is so much beauty in the natural world that it is difficult to imagine my world without access to the river and trails along the Chattahoochee River as it winds its way through Georgia. I am grateful for a cell phone with a good camera so I can capture moments like this one. The outdoor space reminds me that my life is more than classrooms and grades and lesson plans. I am an educator, but I am made up of more than that. I am part of the world around me, something I keenly feel as I run through misty mornings.

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Growing up in California I was never more than three hours from the Pacific ocean.  The is a power in the crashing of the waves across the jagged rocks that cannot be duplicated. For me, the ocean is a metaphor for God: strong, unending, ever present, soothing, and unsafe.WEBGulfShores2015-467

Since moving across country, I have missed that easy connection to the Eternal. The sea is where my soul finds rest. I am grateful for friends who, several years ago, introduced me to a little blue house in Gulf Shores, Alabama, where we now spend a week of every summer. The Gulf of Mexico is a far cry from the wild Pacific, but the waves still beat a soothing rhythm that slows the frenetic pace of my mind. I breathe deeply, taking in the warm air and expelling the stresses and struggles that I always seem to carry with me. Gulf Shores has become my happy place, where there are no expectations, no demands, and no need to accomplish anything more than a few watercolors, some photography, and some light reading – and then only if I want to. I have the blissful freedom there to sit for hours and just watch the water and the gulls if that is my heart’s desire.

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But spaces are not always real, physical places. And there are times when the natural world is beyond reach. At those moments, the most important space is the mind. Imagination is available to everyone, no matter the circumstance. There is no constraint on what the mind can create. Imagination turns ballerinas into fairies, mirrors into passageways to strange lands, and ordinary men to superheroes. Imagination is free, accessible, and user friendly. It is imagination that creates artists and poets and inventors and explorers. It is imagination that makes good teachers great. Connected learning requires imagination.  Imagination allows current events to mix freely with classical literature and mid-century music. Imagination connects art to books, allowing students who struggle to write to find a voice. Imagination looks beyond standards to the individual students and finds ways for each to succeed.

Related to imagination is another space called reflection. This space is more challenging to access than pure imagination, but it affords an opportunity to analyze reality through an imaginative lens. Reflection requires brutal honesty, a willingness to admit wrong, and a commitment to changing course when it it necessary.

As educators, reflection is important, both in personal practice and pedagogy. When we practice reflection, we envision improved ways to connect with our students and make the content relevant to their lives. When we teach reflection, we empower our students to really own their work rather than do what they think we expect from them.  It is in reflection that we remember why we became educators in the first place: to expose teens and young adults to the beauty and satisfaction of critical thinking, creative analysis, and a world beyond the textbook or standardized test. And it is in reflection that we reaffirm our commitment to pushing back against the status quo and reaching for what is best for our students and ourselves.GulfShores2015-57WEB

Art to Writing System: #clmooc Make 4

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I tried to create an image that reflects my concept of reading to art to writing. I have one unit in my World Lit course that covers Eastern philosophy based on a book, Watching the Tree by Adeleine Yen Mah. I tend to stay true to Socratic dialogue in my classes, so my lessons are based on questions. This particular book lends itself to an art project, and I introduced students to the art of altered books. I cover the first chapters, but then I set students free to explore the rest. They choose a chapter and take themselves on a systematic journey to discover and share the lessons they learn. The final projects are often brilliant and imaginative, even from students who didn’t consider themselves at all artistic before the project began. Although they complain, at the end of the year, most students consider this their favorite unit of the year.

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As a mixed media artist, I was able to participate in Reversing Vandalisma project with the San Francisco Public Library after a number of books were vandalized. Instead of throwing the books away, the library chose to send the destroyed property to artists around the world who transformed the books into art for display. That experience inspired me to incorporate altered books into my teaching of high school students.

A couple of helpful websites about Altered Books: Altered Book, The Art of Happiness, Go Make Something, Lisa Vollrath, and Tim Holtz

All Kinds of Systems: #clmooc Make 4

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Systems. What exactly are they, how do they work, and how do they affect learning? This week’s #clmooc make revolves around systems from behavior to mechanics, and to transit. Any kind of “regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole” qualifies.  As I scrolled through my Feedly links, I came across this article: How Learning Artistic Skills Alters the Brain. Being an educator who strongly believes in the connection between creativity and cognition, I made a point to flag this one for further reading. The article describes the findings of a study published in NeuroImagea science journal dedicated to studying brain function. Leaving the article behind, I went directly to the paper to see just how studying art can transform cognitive systems even for those who do not consider themselves innately artistic.

The authors recognize that the mental systems used by artists to create differ from other modes of communication. A complicating factor is the very nature of art’s definition: there are as many motivations and techniques and genres as there are artists. The researchers limited themselves to “representational, two-dimensional visual depictions created from observation” (Schlegal, Folgelson, Li, Lu, Kohler, Riley, Tse, Meng, 2014).  They also focused on three primary areas: creative cognition, visual perception, and perception-to-action.

I thought I would find the section on creative cognition interesting, and I did, but in a way that mostly validated what I had already learned or figured out. My favorite line actually made me grin, “…the many emerging findings about both artists and creative cognition more generally have shown that creativity is a complex rather than monolithic process…” (Schelgal, et al, 441). I suppose some people who aren’t artistic assumed that creativity comes naturally, and artistic expression is as easy as breathing. Not so much. One of the reasons I stress creativity and art projects in my ELA classrooms it that, in my experience, having to approach a text from an abstract point of view requires students to analyze differently. I’ve noticed in my 20+ years in the classroom that writing clarity improves after an art project, possibly because thinking as an artist forces students to articulate precisely what they mean, rather than throw words on a page and assume everyone “gets” it because of the jargon employed. That may be something worth studying further.

What really fascinated me about this study was the MRIs taken before, during,and after the exercises undertaken by the subjects. The final results suggested that the brains of those subjects who had previous art training actually reorganized neural activity. “Interestingly, the art students in our study also improved in measures of creative thinking, specifically in their ability to think divergently, model systems and processes, and use imagery” (Schegal, et al 448). The primary location in the brain affected was the pre-frontal cortex, which also controls long term goals, planning, imagining potential outcomes, behavioral planning, short term memory, and volitional action (Tanji & Hoshi, 2008). What the researchers determined was that the human brain is flexible and able to change or reorganize through training in art. In as short a time span of three months, art training can improve cognition and the ability to think creatively, and not just learn the techniques involved (Schlegal, et al 449).

So, as systems go, it appears that art, and the systems employed to create it, may, in fact, benefit all kinds of learning. The practice of line and shape may actually influence learning at a cognitive level, affording students the ability to “think outside the box” in a variety of subjects and make connections between texts, content, and “real” life. That’s pretty exciting stuff!


References

Schlegal, A., Alexander, P., Fogelson, S.V., Li, X., Lu, Z., Kohler, P.J., Riley, E., Tse, P.U., Meng, M. (2014, November 15). The artist emerges: Visual art learning alters neural structure and function. NeuroImage,  105 (2015), 440-451. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811914009318#. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.11.014.

Tanji, J., Hoshi, E. (2008, January 1). Role of the lateral prefontal cortex in executive behavior control. Physiological Reviews, 88 (1) 37-57.  Retrieved from:http://physrev.physiology.org/content/88/1/37.  doi: 10.1152/physrev.00014.2007.

A Fairy Tale and a Dream #clmooc Make #3

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This week’s Make challenge had me stymied. The premise revolved around game design: creating, remixing, and redesigning games and gaming systems. My first thought was that I know next to nothing about video games, and although I understand the appeal (not to mention my baby brother is a lead audio director for Treyarch), I don’t play them myself. I’ve read James Paul Gee’s work enough to recognize the potential of video games as part of project based learning, but it is beyond the scope of my experience.

Then I realized that “games” did not have to mean video games. I thought of board games and tried to think of new ways to remix them for my ELA classroom. My own creativity fell short, but several people came up with brilliant ideas that I may just have to steal. Margaret Simon (@MargaretGSimon) tweaked “Apples to Apples” so that players have to use random words to create stories. Deanna Mascle composed an adorable poem from old board game names and created a Muse game that may help collapse writer’s block. My favorite may be Julianne Harmatz’s “Capture the Quote“, which morphs Uno into a close reading tool. Brilliant.

Still, my own creative process stumbled over the “game” concept. I didn’t play a lot of games as a child and I generally wasn’t very good at them when I did. As I re-read the definitions of “game” #clmooc participants had tossed around, it suddenly hit me. I didn’t play traditional games as a child, it’s true, but I did play. I read voraciously, and the books stimulated an already active imagination so that my play became play acting. It should be no surprise that I spent several active years in community theater and my first teaching job was in Theater Arts. How many of us didn’t take on imaginary roles on our play? Pirates and princesses, aliens and androids: these dress up characters take on lives when we apply imagination.

The premise of my “game” is imagination. I grew up with my imaginary friends, most of whom were fairies who lived in the giant pink flowers of my wallpaper. (It was the 70s, what can I say?) However, my imaginary world and my books took me to fantastical places beyond looking glasses, through wardrobes, and beyond time.

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“Two forces create eternity – a fairy tale and a dream from the fairy tale.”
Dejan Stojanovic

As for using this particular exercise in the classroom, I think it could be a way for students who “do school” to break out of the academic model for a moment and write or create for the pure joy of expression. It could begin with a question about childhood games and how they affect the growing up process. Who we are is largely determined by who we once were, so it is a legitimate thought for reflection. I’m still exploring this idea of “games” and I think I may be onto something useful.


Elements: mine (photography, wood overlay); Design Cuts (textures); DigiDesignResort ( a summer morning, first sun rays); Deviant Art (fairy dust wings by Jumper_stock, wings by stephanie_inlove, fairy wing by wolverine)

Re(MEdia)ted Re(media)tion #clmooc

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So, I re(MEdia)ted my last post in to a video. I also altered the title because of some of the choices I made along the way. I thought it might be fun to create a video of my Photoshop Elements (PSE) process. I went back to the saved files and did a number of screenshots in order to have a real story of the process. Some of the screen shots are just of the image I was working with, but I also wanted viewers to see the layers involved, and the only way to do that was to take a screenshot of the whole desktop. Doing that meant viewers could also see other windows open: email, Twitter, and a recipe for cold brewed coffee, depending on where I was in the project. I considered editing those out, but I thought they added a peek at the rest of who I am, so it revealed a little more about me than the PSE project alone.

This was my first attempt using Movie Maker and I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was! The hardest part was selecting music. I really wanted part of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I didn’t want to buy it. Movie Maker has a link to both Creative Commons and Public Domain music, and I was able to find another Mendelssohn piece I liked. It had the lightness of the fairy dances in Midsummer, but it was free.

It was really fun and I learned a new technique and managed to take a simple photo of a favorite flower to a number of different iterations. I am certain my students will be delighted when I assign them the opportunity to do the same.