Thoughts from our Blogging Unit II: A New Year’s Wish for Compassion

As I mentioned in my previous post, my students finished the year with a unit on blogging.  It was a great opportunity to teach argumentation and the rhetorical situation. During this political season, I had no dearth of subject matter.

Maybe because I’ve been hip deep in contentious subjects for six weeks, I have been drawn to stories of harmony and humanity.  During my morning commute, two stories from NPR caught my ear.

One was about a Tennessee solider named Roddie Edmond who was being awarded posthumously Israel’s “Righteous Among the Nations,” the highest honor for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II. According to the story, it was the first time a US solider has been given this award. NPR’s Emily Harris interviewed Edmond’s son, Chris Edmonds, for the story.

Edmonds, a master sergeant from Knoxville, was the highest ranking American solider in his Nazi POW camp, and when the guards demanded all Jews in the camp step forward to be identified, Edmonds ordered every US solider to step forward.

“They cannot all be Jews,” the German commander said, according to the Yad Vashem Remembrance Center.

“We are all Jews,” Edmonds replied.

According to the story Chris Edmonds relates, the commander was furious.

“He turned blood-red, pulled his Luger out, pressed it into the forehead of my dad, and said, ‘I’ll give you one more chance. Have the Jewish men step forward or I will shoot you on the spot.’ They said my dad paused, and said, ‘If you shoot, you’ll have to shoot us all.’ ”

The second story was about John Graziano, one of the first elementary-age children diagnosed with HIV in the United States.  During a visit on NPR’s StoryCorps, Tom Graziano, John’s adoptive father, spoke with John’s elementary school principal, Paul Nilsen, about the events of 1986.  When John’s diagnosis came to light, Nilsen was adamant about John staying at his school. “We’re gonna treat him no different than we’d treat any other child in the room,” said Nilsen.  John’s classmates were equally magnanimous. In the story, Nilson recalls, “If anybody asked the kids in the room who had AIDS, each of them would reply: “I have AIDS.”

These two stories were on the air during the first week of December, two weeks before Michael Moore’s open letter to Donald Trump and subsequent social media movement #WeAreAllMuslims, but I had the same reaction as Moore to the divisive, inhuman rhetoric that has seemingly dominated current political conversations.

I am saddened by the hate and bigotry on display in our culture.  I call on all teachers, regardless of subject or grade level, to teach kids to think critically, to recognize bias, to recognize emotional manipulation and fear mongering as a weak argumentative stance, and to research claims made on social media for credibility.

Every lesson, at its core, should be grounded in recognizing our own humanity in others and striving to engender compassion, consideration, and empathy in all students.

We could take a lesson from Roddie Edmonds and the second-grade classroom of John Graziano. Yes, we are all Jews. We all have AIDS, and we are all Muslims. But unfortunately, we are also all Donald Trump and Kanye West. We are Obama and Osama, Jesus and Judas, Atticus Finch and Bob Ewell.

As Atticus says, addressing his young daughter, Scout: “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

 

 

 

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My Opening Day Lecture

Good morning. Welcome to SCAPA Literary Arts at Lafayette.

Get out your notebooks.   We are going to do some writing.  Put today’s date on the upper right hand margin.  Get in the habit of doing that when you write.  It grounds your thought in time. It answers that eternal question: when did I write this?

Before we do some writing, I want to say a few things. First, I want to welcome you to my class. I want you to know that I’m glad you are here.  My sole responsibility in this classroom is to help you become the writer you want to be.

In that vein, I expect you to write and read every day.  I expect you to struggle with ideas, words, and images.  I expect you to rejoice when you have a break through, and I expect you to persevere when you’re stuck.  I expect you to write before you think. I expect you to revise before you submit.

I encourage risk and failure. I disdain complacency and sloth. Through constant self-reflection, I want you to discover the lies you tell yourself, lies that most likely affect every part of your life.  Then being honest and devoted to love, find a way to squander that negativity.

I expect you to be respectful of others. And that means don’t touch or take anything that does not belong to you.   That also means that what is read and written in this class, stays in this class until the author sees fit to publish it to the world. That story is not yours to tell, to profit from socially, to use to hurt or exploit the owner of that story.

Even though becoming better writers is our only goal, you will achieve others along the way—you will be a better communicator and collaborator for having been a member of a community of writers. You will become a better reader of others’ writing, and because of that, you will become a better reader of your own writing.  You will discover new stories, authors, poems and poets, new writing forms.  And you will form a lasting trust and relationship with your growing self through reflection.

You will never master writing.  There will always be more to learn.  In this room, you are a part of something that is greater than yourself – a grand enterprise, the life-long pursuit of being a writer and a human.  You will learn how to do both better through constant effort.

Room 303 is a special place with a power that is built from within by you.  The degree to which you take this journey of a being a writer seriously will be the degree to which this room becomes a spark plug, a launching pad, and also a cloister, a refuge, a warm home.  I expect you to clean up every day, to put away your laptop, to rinse and put up your coffee mug if you drink coffee, and to look around your desk to make sure you haven’t left anything on your desk or on the floor around your desk at the end of class.

You are going to write more than you have ever written before, but you will be a better thinker, a better reader, and a better writer when you walk out of here next May. Writing well—both logically and beautifully— is our only goal.

Are you ready?

Okay.

What was your first memory?

Writing Walkbout: The Lafayette Version

Two writers in the wild

In addition to taking kids on a metaphorical walk in an imaginary forest, I also take them, within the first three days of school, on a  bonafide walk with a little writing thrown in for good measure. I call these excursions writing walkabouts.  Writing walkabouts have been used for centuries by writers as an individual exercise to stimulate creativity.   Dickens, Twain, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Thoreau and others all walked as a means of processing, musing, ruminating, and generally, getting their blood pumping for those long nights at the writer’s table.  In addition to reducing stress and decreasing depression, walking stimulates the imagination and provides students with stimulus that is unavailable in the four walls of a traditional classroom.

I’ve been on several writing walkabouts in large cities – New Orleans, New York, and San Francisco — with groups of writers who gather together for this specific purpose.  The walkabout takes a writer on a journey of sights and sounds, a leisurely stroll through one’s town or in a new territory, stopping along the way to write and respond. Most formal walkabouts last all day and incorporate at least two stops for meals. The basic concept is this:  you, and possibly two or three other writers, start out walking, then you decide to sit and write at a spot that appeals to you along the way.  There’s no map, no schedule, no arrangements.   Writers may write about the spot itself or write about something else–a memory or a story–that the spot brings to mind.  After twenty minutes of sustained writing, each person reads what he or she has written in the place.  No response is needed.  The readings are just offered up, then the group moves on to another spot.

During the year, I take students on a field trip for a day-long walkabout at the fabulous Lexington Cemetery, but today’s walkabout was just around Lafayette’s campus.  I had asked students to wear comfortable shoes, and bring along a pen or pencil and sturdy writing notebook.   During a regular walkabout, students would break into small groups, but today, since it was their first walkabout, we did it as a large group.  We started out on the sidewalk in front of Bluegrass SCAPA. Then we sat in the parking lot and looked across the street to a row of residential houses, then we walked down to the creek that runs behind the school, and our last stop was  near the front portico of the main building.  For the sake of time, we only shared once.

From the walkabout, some students had started the first tentative paragraphs of a short story.  Some had jotted down a few lines of poetry.  Others scribed childhood memories while others scribbled rants and manifestos.  The great thing about the writing walkabout is its ability to bring physcial movement and external stimulation to the act of writing.  During the walkabout, we heard birds, lawn mowers, cicadas, chain saws, sirens, train whistles, and we smelled and felt even more – the wet rocks of the creek bed, the dew on the grass, the sun beating down on our shoulders.  The movement jogged the memory and the bones, the blood was pumping and the lungs were full.  Good writing was bound to happen.

 

 

 

The Lost Art of Talk

One Friday, our school had an unusually long lock-down drill.  A lock-down is a drill, similar to fire and tornado drills, where teachers and students go through the steps they would take in the event of an active shooter or a hostage situation.

We have these drills about once a month. I’m lucky to have a classroom in our 75-year-old building that is attached to a long, narrow closet.  After my students hustled in and sat down, I turned off the light, and because the drill went on longer than normal, the kids started telling stories.  The moment took on a summer-camp feel. We were sitting cross-legged in a small, tight circle in the dark.

There was 100% engagement around the circle. No side-bar conversations. No one was checking cell phones.  After one kid told a story, there would be laughter or questions or a small moment of lull, until another kid said, “Yeah that reminds me about once in fourth grade…,” and we were off again, a “real or imagined narrative” rolling out naturally, first-draft fresh.

“We should do this every Friday,” somebody said.

“Can we?” another student asked.

“I like that idea,” I said.  It felt subversive, but I knew I could defend this practice in the scope of my curriculum.

I teach creative writing at a large urban school, but anyone who teaches anything anywhere on the planet could do this activity.  Oral Tradition Friday (which has morphed into just Oral Friday, with all the attendant high school snickers and winks) hits every speaking and listening standard for social studies and science classrooms as well.   Oral Friday has been going on now in my freshman and sophomore classes for two years, and it is, by far, the most successful, engaging lesson I “teach” all week long.

Professional Growth Fridays in my junior and senior classes developed along the same pattern.  One Friday, I had assigned a very technical, informational article about how writers select a point of view from which to write a story. My students had annotated the text and were prepared to discuss it.  But the weather was perfect and little birds were begging us to come outside. So I told my students to leave everything in the classroom including their painstakingly annotated margins, and we went outside, sat in a circle and discussed point of view. Specifically, we talked about how the article applied to their own writing choices. Now, we do this every Friday.  One student is elected to find an article about the professional or technical side of writing, distribute it to the class, and lead the discussion as it applies to their work.

  Sitting around in a circle talking is not a new instructional technique.  But it seems to happen less and less frequently.  The demands of covering standards and integrating technology have crowded out the oldest curriculum trick in the world – tell a story, have a conversation, talk face-to-face with another human.

When I was growing up as the youngest child in a family of five, we always ate dinner together and seemingly— although my memory may have taken a few instances and extrapolated them into an every dinner staple—afterwards we had what my father dubbed “roundtables.” I don’t remember many of the topics, which tended to center around current events, University of Kentucky  basketball, the weather – we were farmers— but I remember the feelings it gave me: the feeling of struggling to figure out how to say what I wanted to say and the more important feeling of being taken seriously by an adult when I talked.

Talking to students is a powerful instructional tool, but allowing students to talk is an even more powerful one.  Make your classroom a place where students can talk about ideas, practice the art of spoken persuasion or storytelling, or inquiry. I have elected Fridays as the day we talk because Fridays, as every educator knows, holds magical powers. The weekend stands within reach. The sun shines a little brighter.  Use the charming force of that day to initiate learning that doesn’t appear to be learning.