World’s Most Invasive Character Speed Dating

Students get ready for a round of speed dating to discover their characters and possibly love?

Today my peer tutor, Serena, a Senior in SCAPA’s Literary Arts program, lead my class in a character development activity so fabulous, I wish I could claim I developed it myself.

Some Background:  We’ve been unpacking the power of point of view in short fiction, specifically looking at where the language comes from in models like Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation,” Gish Jen’s “Who’s Irish?” and John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” This week, we are looking at characterization as the point from which every element naturally stems – detail selection when describing setting, the word choice in dialogue, and the action/reaction in scenes with other characters.  The objective of this lesson is to allow students to explore their character in a safe environment in order to understand the motivations and back story of the point of view character.

The Setup: When Serena was a sophomore, my students participated in a character development activity where students had to walk across the room or tie their shoes or order coffee or drive a car in the skin of their character. It’s method acting meets creative writing class. As Serena and I talked about her lesson plan, she recalled that the activity wasn’t very successful for her because she didn’t really know her character yet, and she wasn’t quite sure how they would walk or talk or drive a car.  She recalled that the class was hesitant to stand up and walk around in front of other students in their character’s skin, because as Freshman they were barely comfortable in their own skin. So she came up with this idea she called “World’s Most Invasive Character Speed Dating”  The purpose of speed dating is, of course, to find a compatible match, but the purpose of our activity was to provide students with ready-made questions and a limited time rotation process to interact with another person as their character

The Activity: We set up the desks in the room in pairs and numbered each pair with a set of odd/even numbers (Ex. 1/2, 3/4, 5/6, etc.) Students were directed to sit down anywhere. On each desk, Serena had placed two questions.  She had 20 different questions total. Some of them were innocuous (What is your eye color? Hair color? Is it natural or dyed? Do you have a birthmark? Tattoos? Where is it? What about scars? How did you get them?) but some of them went deeper into the psychology and back story of the characters, (Have you ever been in love?  What is in your refrigerator right now? On your bedroom floor? On your nightstand? In your garbage can?) and others delved even deeper ( Do you have any powers? If not, if you could pick any power, what would it be? Would you use it for good or evil? If you had to commit a murder, how would you execute it? Where would you hide the body? What weapon would you use? ).  Some of the questions she cabbaged off character development websites, others from speeding dating websites, and others she made up.  Students spent about 4 minutes at each table.  The even number characters stayed seated, and the odd numbers rotated to other desks when time was called.  Since I was not running the show, I participated as a character: a nine-year-old Christian fundamentalist named Charlotte Bromagen who fancies herself as a neo-Joan of Arc with a loose sense of mission.

How Did It Go:   This was one of the most successful activities we’ve done all year.  Several students completely forgot who they were, and actually became their character, adopting tics, mannerisms, dialects, facial expressions.  As they moved through the speed dating, they invented complete back stories, motivations, secrets, dreams, and fears for their characters.  After the activity, Serena asked them to reflect in their notebook.  Students commented that they were surprised when they started to answer as their character.  “As the activity went on, I built up my character and got more and more into it,” commented one student. Some of them were so method, they had trouble coming out of character.  As they made the rounds in the speed dating cycle, they reported, they were forced to react, not as themselves, but how they imagine their character would react.  Hmmmm… that’s exactly what good writers do. ♥

 

 

 

 

 

Spring Break Observation Logs: Teaching Kids to Witness

On the Friday before spring break, my classroom has the kind of frenetic expectancy that exists between a lightning bolt and a thunder clap.  Kids are jangly and wrangly.  Into this fray, I wade.

“I have an assignment for you over spring break,” I yell over the din. They begin to groan.  Spring break is about breaking and springing, not working. I know. I get it. But this is so important.

“I’m giving you these little notebooks.” I wave a little notebook around. Perhaps the novelty shushes them. The notebooks are pocket size with 80 small pages.

“I want you to write down anything you see, hear, touch, taste, smell or feel during the seven days of our absence from one another. Everything. Everyday.”

They are intrigued.

I’ve been passing out little notebooks over spring breaks for about six years now.  In 2009, my AP Language class read Joan Didion’s masterpiece essay “On Keeping a Notebook” and were duly inspired to take up pen and paper and practice the art of observation.

The point is simple:  develop a habit of noticing things and writing them down.

This is not a diary or a journal of weight loss, profit margins, egg sales. I want them to cultivate a writerly habit that some of my students already have: compulsive recording. But even more important than the chronicling itself is the action that comes before the chronicling: the noticing.

Everything becomes a rich opportunity.  Every detail becomes a brush stroke in a story; every drifter or butcher or bus driver becomes a character.  Or they don’t.

There’s a snippet of the lyrics “knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door” in your head, and there’s a dog that looks like your priest walking down High Street. On the radio someone is looking for used tires and they want to trade a baby crib for them. Someone has scrawled on the bathroom wall: If your parents didn’t have children, it’s a good bet you won’t either.

It means whatever it means.

In a culture of high stakes assessment, common core cramming, and standardized breathing, this project is refreshingly simple. Teaching students to observe their world with no other objective than merely witnessing it is absolutely vital.

“I want you to look like a writer,” I say to them.  “Stick this notebook in your back pocket, the string of your bikini, the side of your backpack, and become obsessed with collecting notes, looking at the world like a writer would.”

“How will this be graded?” asks the front row handwringer.

“It’s a pass/fail assignment. You’ll get a 100% if every page has something on it or you’ll get a zero.”

“But what do we write?” says the still dubious cynic in the back row.

“Phrases that tickle your fancy, phrases your geography teacher says, phrases your grandma says, phrases you hear at temple, phrases your sister whispers in her sleep. Notes from a lecture, notes from a talk show, notes from the underground. Gossip you hear, gossip you make up. Sermons. Songs. Poems. Lists. Jokes. Riddles. Lies. Mysteries. Tall tales. Visions. Dreams. Revelations. Secrets. Graffiti. Facebook updates, Twitter shout outs. Headlines, bylines, hashtags, short lines. A toast someone gives at a wedding, a farewell someone gives at a funeral. A scene you see, a scene you think you see, a scene you make up, a scene you wished you’d see. Wishes you had when you were five, wishes you had last year, wishes you have right now. Disappointments that have hurt you, disappointments that have inspired you, disappointments you’ll never get over. Fears you project, fears you hide. Lists of things your friend carries in his wallet/purse. Lists of things you carry in your wallet/purse. Conversations you overhear at the coffee shop, at the gas station, on the street, in the cafeteria. Conversations you imagine two people having, conversations you have with imaginary people, conversations your parents have when they think you’re not listening, conversations your parents have when they know you’re listening. Description of people in Wal-Mart, descriptions of people at the bus stop. A dream you have while asleep, a dream you have while awake, a dream you have while someone else is talking. A new word you want to remember, a new word you make up. The names of your future children, future pets,  future company, future empire. Good titles for your life story, your novel, the Lifetime Original movie of your life. Any more questions?”

Didion says:  “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.”

Here’s to a spring break they’ll never forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of 1 + 1 + 1 + 1

(This story occurred at Lafayette High School in Fayette County, Kentucky.  All other names and places have been changed to maintain confidentiality of the persons involved. )

On Wednesday of last week, I noticed two of my students, Nicki and Victor, discussing something back and forth.  They appeared to be arguing over a piece of paper Nicki had in her hand.  She’s probably found a note from another girl in his book bag, I thought.

It was the last period of the day about three minutes before the bell.  I was tired and wanted to go home too, but I wandered over.

“Is there a problem here?” I said.

“I’m going to give this to Mrs. Prather,” Nicki said to Victor, who rolled his eyes.  Nicki stuck out her hand with the note. “Here. Victor found this in the hall, and he thinks it’s nothing, but it might be something.”

I took the paper and unfolded it.

“Dear Dad,” it began.  It was a letter of heartbreak, chronicling a life of neglect, a father in jail and an absent mother.  No signature, written lightly in pencil.  The thing that caught my eye, as it had caught Victor and Nicki’s, was the writer’s intent to end his life this weekend.

I have nothing to live for. No one wants me.

“I thought you could do something,” Nicki said.

“No name on it.  It could be anybody’s.”

“That’s what Victor said.”

“There are 2000 kids in this school. Did you just find it in the hall?”

Victor nodded.

I re-read it.  “It might even be an assignment for English.”

“I know,” Nicki said.  “But it might not.”

Just then the bell rang. My students filed out.

I re-read it again and noticed something.  In the middle of the letter, the writer mentioned how the only person who cared for him was “Mr. Kraft.”

On the way to my car, I stopped off at the counseling office.  One counselor was still in her office.  Kendra was busy, a stack of files on her desk.

“This is a long shot and I don’t even know if this is serious,” I said. I gave her the note, and she read it.

“Wow. Who is this Mr. Kraft?”

“I don’t know.”

“He could be anybody. A teacher, a boss, someone at church.”

“Yeah, I know.”  I looked at the clock.  I was anxious to get home. “I just thought I’d pass it along to you.”

“Thanks.” Kendra eyeballed her stack of work. “I’ll see what I can do. Maybe this Mr. Kraft is a teacher in our district.”

With that, I left school.  If the note was authentic, his life – the details that the writer had mentioned— was more than any child should have to endure.  Because I teach writing, I read a lot of student stories, and they all carry the burden of some kind of pain – poverty, divorce, addiction, depression, alienation, bullying.  Some are real. A lot are merely venting exercises.

Driving home, I hoped this kid was just writing to get the pain off his chest. I hoped he wasn’t serious about ending his life.   I asked God to keep him safe, whoever and wherever he was.

The next morning, there was an email in my inbox from Kendra. She and another counselor, Stephanie, had found him.

“I just wanted you to know. I did some investigating and I found a Mr. Kraft at Wilson Downing Middle School. He’s a seventh grade Social Studies teacher,” she’d written.  “I emailed him, and he knew who the student was. The counselor at Wilson Downing had actually contacted Stephanie last week.  The student is being taken care of.”

 

During my first year in Fayette County, the district brought Manny Scott to speak in Rupp Arena to its 6000 employees.  Mr. Scott was one of the original Freedom Writers, a group of kids who had been labeled “unteachable” until teacher Erin Gruwell used writing journals to transform their lives and chronicled their journey in the bestselling book, The Freedom Writer’s Diary.

Manny Scott is now a sought-after motivational speaker, and the day he came to our district, his message was titled “The Power of One.”  His message to the teachers, the bus drivers, the administrators, the adults was simple: You have the power as an individual to change someone’s life. (Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2013/11/17/2937224_rise-from-poverty-inspires-motivational.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy)

The story of this note proves Mr. Scott’s maxim.  Last Wednesday, the power of one, or a series of ones, saved a child from his own despair.

Every single person who passed that note down the chain was needed.  From Victor picking up the note, to Nicki to giving it to me, to me handing it off to Kendra, to Kendra tracking down Mr. Kraft, to Mr. Kraft having created a relationship with a child that went beyond Social Studies, to Stephanie who contacted the child’s counselor, to the counselor connecting with the child and executing services on his behalf.

The power of one plus one plus one equals all of us.

Sitting in my chair, I looked around at the 40 desks in my classroom.  Every single desk represented a precious life, a unique story, a life full of joy and hope and promise.  Every One was important. Every single one.

No Grades: A Twelve Week Commitment to Ourselves

Alfie Kohn, in The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms, says “students who are lucky enough to be in schools (or classrooms) where they don’t get letter or number grades are more likely to want to continue exploring whatever they’re learning, more likely to want to challenge themselves, and more likely to think deeply.”

Recently, I decided to embark upon a test of this theory. As I have mentioned before in this blog, I am no fan of grades. I am disinclined to grade my students’ creative efforts as their writing is always plodding somewhere along Wallis’ Model of Creativity between preparation to incubation to illumination to verification. Some students move through these stages at lightning speed and start other projects; some nurse their projects along for months, deliberating and considering every step in one stage before bursting forth into another.

However, teachers in our district are required to update our online grade books weekly, so I’m required to record something.  After a particularly ugly round of reading quizzes dropped my A-addicted students into the B category, the natives were restless. I proposed to my students a radical system:  what if I gave you an A, so you could stop obsessing about your GPA and concentrate on writing instead?

“Is this some kind of mind game?” said Blair, a whip-smart cynic in the front row.

“Not at all,” I said.  “I’m going to give you an A, so we can get on with the greater business of Art.”

Grades, unfortunately, are often used as goads to motivate the academically inert.  But unlike the majority of classes I’ve taught in a general education population, I don’t have to convince these kids that writing, reading, or learning are worthwhile endeavors. My students have chosen to be in this program. They auditioned and were selected from dozens of applicants seeking a spot in the Literary Arts program, and they have the drive, talent and zeal to write that goes beyond a mere grade.

That being said, I’m still a little leery about embarking on so radical a stance since my students are products of nearly a decade of being told that grades were somehow representative of their mastery of a subject.

 

I have put this theory to the test before.  Eighteen years ago, I was teaching AP Lit in a rural public school in eastern Kentucky. My students felt the pressure to keep their grades up was interfering with their ability to enjoy, engage and commune with, and ultimately understand the literature we were reading.

I drew up a contract granting them a 98% for one six weeks period; I would continue to teach, issue tests, assign essays, and give students real and meaningful feedback on their mastery of the subject, but no test they took or essay they wrote would be given a numerical score.  They already had an A.  With the grade question effectively settled, we could embrace quality learning, driven only by curiosity and intellectual engagement.

The first two weeks after the contract was signed, I thought I had hit upon the elusive educational magic bullet; my students were on fire.  We read Crime and Punishment. We had brave discussions. We scribbled out lusty essays on themes and motifs and symbol.  But, as we continue through the unit, I noticed a decided flagging of enthusiasm.

By the middle of the unit, only two kids read Sons and Lovers, and by the time we got to Jude the Obscure, I carried the discussion, all of them looking forlornly at the floor, ashamed at their lack of motivation.  They reported later that their other classes that were still demanding grades took their attention. They stated honestly they didn’t have the maturity to learn without grades.  Ultimately, they needed something external to motivate them to stay on track.

At the time, I concluded learning must be somehow linked to a measurable product, and I parlayed this experience into a nice article (Mandrell, Liz. “Zen and the Art of Grade Motivation.” English Journal 86.1 (1996): 28-31). I resumed my regularly scheduled programming the following six weeks, but I never forgot about the nascent experiment that had lost its brilliance in the waning days of my students’ senior year.

 

I was 29 then; I’m 47 years old now, and I hope this experiment will be different for a variety of reasons.  Different classroom culture, different season of my teaching career, and a different grade level.  My current guinea pigs are freshman and sophomores, not seniors who check out by March anyway.

This time, I let the students vote on this experiment.  In a class of 21, eight students wanted grades, and thirteen students did not.   The students who did not want grades, however, were convinced by the effective arguments of the thirteen, and all 21 students signed contracts that granted them a 98% for the progress period.

This time, I also let students set their own group norms, so that the group—

instead of the individual student working up singular motivation to stay on track without grades—could encourage, support, and ultimately, police each other.  Their norms are:

  • Participate in workshop and feedback
  • Best effort always
  • Respect the community with support – Golden Rule
  • Productivity
  • Hold each other accountable
  • We are All Leaders
  • Prove Ms. Prather wrong!
  • Be mature human beings.
  • Keep on keeping on.
  • Set personal goals to keep individuals motivated.

 

And so it begins… I will be blogging throughout the next twelve weeks on their progress. I am as excited as they are about the possibilities of this brave new classroom!