Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Perspectives: Eiffel Tower Painting Party #SOL16

In 4th grade I won a blue ribbon in an art show at Mark Twain Elementary for a macaroni collage! I kept the ribbon and trekked to the alley behind my house and dumped the collage in the burn barrel. That, I tell students, was the pinnacle of my artistic life. 

I envy artists. They make painting, drawing, sculpting look easy. They see and create magic. The idea that I could "make good art" has been my life-long dream, so when I discovered THE GRAPE VAN GOGH, a local art-party studio, I saw my chance. 

Along with a couple of friends, I signed up to paint the Eiffel Tower this past Friday. Chris and I met for dinner and and headed to TGVG to paint w/ a group of 49 other inspiring artists. Our friend Pam had to cancel, so we kept her updated via texts and photos as the evening progressed. 

Since Chris and I arrived early, we had our choice of seats. Being a good student and wanting to sit as close to the model piece, we parked ourselves up front. We had a little wait, so I took the opportunity to send Pam the first text update: 

To Pam: Here's what we have so far: 

From Pam: Oh that's the best-lol.

Later, I sent pam another update: 

From Pam: Wow, that's looking awesome.

Once we moved on to the Eiffel Tower itself, I sent Pam another update: 

From Pam: Wow that looks so good!!

Notice the exclamation marks? I followed up with a confession:

To Pam: Haha! That's the cheat sheet!

From Pam: Oh good one.

When the template, which we traced, arrived, I told Chris and some ladies at our table that I'm on a 504 painting plan. I need accommodations! I need an IEP to paint successfully! Here's a picture of my tracing, which I also texted to Pam:

Here we are with our finished paintings: 

When I signed up for the painting party, I expected to create an exact replica of the original, which is pictured in the background. As the evening progressed, I began noticing the uniqueness of each "artist's" painting. We all received the same instruction, the same supplies, the same modeling, but we each brought our own perspectives to the task, as well as our own experience. 

This was my first painting party but Chris's third. I, however, was the only one in the room who had actually seen the Eiffel Tower. At one point, the instructor told us that the bottom part of our painting would be a reflection but that she didn't know whether it was a lake or a river. I showed her a picture of the Seine from up in the tower that I took last March during my trip to France. 

Early in the process, our instructor advised us to change our point-of-view by inverting our painting so we could work on the bottom from the top. Here's my inverted painting: 

Another surprise to me: We only used a small brush for a small part of the painting. Instead, we painted with a plastic knife! And we used a sponge. 

I jokingly announced that I'm decorating the faculty restroom in my hall with my painting. Right now it's sitting in the kitchen. 

I "admire" it each time I raid the fridge. It's better than my 4th grade macaroni collage, even if I didn't win a blue ribbon! 

Another perspective on the room of painters.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

I Am Writing #SOL15

I am writing.
I have written.
I will write.
Twenty pages yesterday.
Twenty-six and a half pages today.
7,202 words yesterday.
9,775 words today.

I have been procrastinating.
Putting off until yesterday
what I should have been doing for months.
Avoiding the inevitable
That's why 

I sit here writing.
I sit on the couch
Laptop on folded legs
Fingers on keys

I will write some more
Maybe more 
Maybe fewer 

I have no time for 
Writer's block.
I have a written contract 
For words
Words I thought would satisfy
And fill a longing for 
Something unwritten
Something unspoken

These words I'm writing 
Don't nourish
My hunger for words.
Not all words are good words.
Not all words need to be written.
Some simply fill a utilitarian purpose.

These cacophonous words 
Demand a place on a white page.
And so I write
And so I will continue to write
Until the last keystroke 
Marks the final white space.

Today's output. 

*By way of explanation: I have a contract job w/ a startup. I'm developing content for an app. I have had a hard time fulfilling my obligation to the company, but I'm not past my deadline. I am close, but I have a long way to go, although I'm more than half-way done. I'll say more about this experience when I finish the work. For no, this is all I have the energy to write.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Perspective: Seeing Through Students' Eyes #SOL15

Today a student in my AP Lit and Comp class decided to experiment with the eyeglasses of several other students in the class.

This, of course, represents a diversion from the curriculum, but students are a bit anxious for our winter vacation and we're digging out of a major snow storm. I decided not to pressure the class about staying on task during today's lab as I know these exceptional students will come with their essays in tow for peer evaluating tomorrow.

Included among the glasses my student tried are mine. I have an exceptionally strong prescription as I'm near-sighted, have astigmatism, and have been wearing corrective lenses of one kind or another since I was five.

The class offered comments as our model modeled his peers' eyeglasses:

"Those make me look like Harry Potter."
"Those look good on you."
"You look very professorial in a Prince of Tides kind of way." Okay, I said that!

When my student put my glasses on, he chirped: "How can you see out of these things?"

As the class entertained themselves, I poured hot chocolate for them and began thinking about how we teachers and our students see the world. Our perspectives, our worldview depends on perspective, our own and that of others.

When I began teaching this class at the beginning of the year, some of the students resisted my approach. They were accustomed to lots of test-prep, something anathema to my pedagogical philosophy.

Through their confusion about my teaching methods (some, not all), I spoke to students about my philosophy and experience. I listened to their worries about being prepared for the AP Lit and Comp test. I emailed Carol Jago about my students' desire for more test-prep and shared her response and qualifications to offer an opinion. Since I have her textbook for AP Lit and Comp on my desk, students immediately valued her input.

Today the students value the close reading we do through performance methodology; they recognize that in-depth discussions stretch their critical thinking and deepen their analytical skills; they appreciate both the in-class writes we do and the longer essays I assign that they complete outside of class.

Gloucester's blinding in The Tragedy of King Lear has dominated much of our study the past week. Both literal and figurative sightlessness has framed students' comments and writing. Through our discussions, writing, and performances, students recognize that blindness takes many forms. As one of the most often referenced texts on the AP Lit and Comp free response test, our study resonates as important to students. More importantly, by approaching the text as relevant to our lives, students gain insight into the human condition. Reducing the reason for studying Lear to taking a test, does an injustice to both the Bard and to students.

Preparing Shoe Box Staging for a scene in Act 2 of KING LEAR
It's a small class but one of the strongest classroom communities I've experienced in my career.

We all take time to look at life and literature through multiple lenses, and in doing so we see the world more clearly.

The Slice of Life story challenge happens every Tuesday via the generosity of the fabulous team at Two Writing Teachers. Check out other slices here.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Breaking Bread: The Rhetorical Power of Food in Life and Literature #SOL15

Join other slicers in the Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge by visiting the Two Writing Teacher's Blog. Thank you, TWT team for your vigilance and contribution to feeding our hearts and souls this holiday season. 

As we recover from our turkey hangover and finish consuming the holiday leftovers, my thoughts turn to food in literature and in personal narratives. 

A couple of weeks ago a student in my Communication 1101 class presented a persuasive speech about the importance of family dinnertime. This is something I've pondered for many years. 

Long ago a student (a sophomore) wrote an essay about the ways dinnertime in his home had changed over the years. He talked about a time when his family ate together and shared stories about one another's day, a time when the family talked about world events, a time when the family discussed and solved personal struggles. For this student, time changed the dinner dynamic as his siblings graduated and left home, as he and his parents became busier, as schedule conflicts precluded them from breaking bread together. In time, the student wrote, each--he and his parents--went their separate ways, grabbing a microwave or fast food meal. 

At the time I vowed that I would make sure my family sat down together at the dinner table and shared a meal at least four times a week. Dinner together became a routine we seldom missed. Often a neighbor kid joined us. 

Many years have passed since that student sat in my room, but his impact on my life, on my belief about the importance of eating together remains as clear and strong now as ever. 

Returning to the value of the family dinner, I coached my student in Comm through her research and speech preparation. Together we looked at ways students could influence their parents and family members to eat together. 

Monday, after listening to a student in speech present his name tag, after hearing this student talk about food and connect it to his grandmother, I shared with the class some thoughts about food and literature. In my remarks, I mentioned that we English teachers often offer cursory discussion about the role of food in literature, and in this context I suggested that student tell stories, write stories about their food memories. 

Following the Thanksgiving holiday, food narrative rings relevant. 

Food related topics make good speeches in both my general speech class and in Comm. In fact, a student in my night class gave her argumentative speech on Brominated Vegetable Oil, which is in Mountain Dew. After my student argued that BVO can cause thyroid problems and is a substance that has been banned in and removed from other products, I stopped drinking Diet Mountain Dew. 

In literature, food functions symbolically. 

My student's name-tag reminded me of Robert Frost's "After Apple Picking" and Seamus Heaney's "Blackberry Picking." I shared a snippet of a memory about picking blackberries with my father in the blaring heat of Missouri summers and soaring humidity. "I hated picking blackberries," I told my class. "Cocooned in long sleeves and pants, my hands gloved, and my head covered with a ht to ward of chiggers, I thought I'd suffocate." 

Then I said, "I miss those times. I wish I had known how important those moments were and how I'd long for them now. Write those stories so that you remember them. Think about using those moments to build your speeches." 

We picked blackberries as necessity. We couldn't afford to buy them in the store. We weren't Joad family poor, but we were close. I gorged myself with blackberries and sported a stained mouth and gray lips that confessed my deed as my words denied eating from the bucket. 

Food, more the absence of it, plays a significant role in The Grapes of Wrath. The Joads gorge themselves with peaches and pay a horrific, painful price for that gluttony. 

The literature in which food functions symbolically is too numerous to name, but in addition to those I'm mentioned, I think about some others: 

  • "Old King Cole": Blackbirds baked in a pie never made much sense to me as a child, but the sinister tone resonates now.
  • The Canterbury Tales: Chaucer's narrator begins his journey breaking bread and toasting his host at the Tabard Inn.
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth:  The bloody dagger scene in which the guests toast Macbeth as his descent into madness worsens epitomizes family dysfunction at the dinner table. 
  • Beowulf: Our first work of English literature offers a reminder that forces beyond our control disrupt the celebratory atmosphere of food fests when Grendel crashes the Hrothgar's party. 
  • Angela's Ashes: Frank McCourt's memoir of poverty in Ireland offers yet another Dickensian reminder that in the land of plenty, many have little.
  • Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: One of my favorite lines in literature is "The funeral baked meats did scarcely furnish forth the marriage table." 
  • Like Water for Chocolate: Magical realism at its finest with women redefining the kitchen as a place of female power rather than as a place of confinement. 
  • Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe: Is it possible to tell a southern story w/out food as a central trope? 
  • The Importance of Being Earnest: Eventually students have an epiphany about food as a symbol for and replacement for sex. 
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: Of course I can't omit the Mad Hatter's Tea Party
For more food moments in literature, take a look at "10 Great Meals in Literature" from THE TELEGRAPH.

In literature, food functions to convey ideas. Food connotes power struggles. It defines class, perhaps most successfully in the works of Charles Dickens. Writers create mimesis and verisimilitude with food scenes. This is the case in Kate Chopin's The Awakening. 

We define and understand human relationships through the fundamental human behaviors of eating and drinking. Both are necessary to our psychological as well as our physical well-being. Our identity is inextricably linked to our food experiences, and through food and our discussions about food in our classes, we can validate the diversity our students bring to the table of learning. 

We can talk through and learn through food. We can reclaim the kitchen in the classroom when we make food an invited guest. 

Let's get cooking! 

Amish Breakfast Casserole I made for my family Thanksgiving morning and for students in Comm 1101 at the end of the trimester a couple of weeks ago.