Saturday, August 29, 2015

If you ask the question...

Every year, after close to ten months together, I ask my Room 216'rs to write me a letter. Hopefully by that point in the year, they trust me. They would typically have taken 3-4 anonymous surveys and have fully understood that there were no repercussions for their honest feedback. I ask them what they enjoyed and didn't, what I did well, what I can do better?

I don't require letter writers to sign their name and I don't require that everyone write one. This year 27 of 28 wrote me a letter and all of them signed their name. Trust indeed.

I hold on to the letters until late in the summer until it's a little easier to let them go. Something I'm not ready to do when I collect the envelopes in June.

The humidity of August saw me unpacking the boxes that were sealed up in the hot of June, when I realized I hadn't opened 'em up. When I got home from organizing the 2000+ books that make-up our classroom library, I risked some paper cuts and started ripping them open.

The notes were honest. Candid. Some were surprising. Some were not. I knew that I wasn't the right teacher for a couple of them. All the letters will help me become a better teacher.

I always tell my kids, if they figure out a way to forget the criticism and remember the praise, to give me call, because I'd like to know the secret.

I've received feedback from anonymous surveys and 360 feedback processes for the last 20 years, but it's different when you've let down a kid. I asked the question and I'm glad they answered.

It wasn't all disheartening.

One of my kids detailed how she thought I was a little crazy, how my jokes were lame, and how she mostly thought it was the best year of her life. Hopefully a short lived accolade. She thanked me for helping her to realize that she was capable of much more than she ever realized.

I tucked her letter into the book that she wrote during her lunch periods this year and self-published the piece to a hardcover novella. She signed her letter "from the girl who now believes"

If you ask the better be prepared for the answer. I'm glad I asked.

Thanks for reading.
Follow me on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

It Started With A Tweet

Not a frown in the bunch
LaSalle's 6th Grade with Malcolm London and Kevin Coval

Every year has its moment that define that particular class. It's the moment that when you talk about a particular year or student, you reference that event or experience.

This year's keystone memory was LaSalle Elementary's Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB) poetry performances and a visit from some LTAB greats.

I don't think it's a stretch to say that poetry in not at the top of a 6th graders list of favorite subjects. My lessons have improved over the years and I've gotten better at teaching the different types, their structure, their rules and such. But, anyone that knows me, knows that I'm not really a rule follower, which is why I think I like free verse or slam style poetry so much.

The kids love it too. I can't say that the affinity is universal, but it's darn close.

I think the appeal is that they begin to believe that their words matter at this point in our poetry unit. Of course I talk about word choice and sentence construction the entire year, but poetry- especially slam poetry - carries the weight of relevance and meaning.

As we start to explore free verse poems, I share the feature length documentary "Louder Than A Bomb" a film that follows four groups of Chicago area students as they prepare for and compete in the world's largest youth slam competition. It's a remarkable film about some remarkable kids.

The film inspires. My kids see themselves in the movie's compelling characters and can readily identify with Nate, Lamar, Nova, Adam and Nate and others. Their lives are not ideal, majestic, or free from strife, but what my kids see in these kids on screen is that despite having to navigate their age, community, and circumstances, they are doing great things. Great things with words.

I share spoken word free verse poems from the past and the present from Mos Def, Saul Williams, and Malcolm London. This year I had an entirely new resource, The BreakBeat Poets, a chronological anthology of poets edited by:
  • Kevin Coval (Louder Than A Bomb co-founder, poet, author, and Creative Director for Young Chicago Authors) 
  • Nate Marshall (Featured in LTAB, Author, Zell Post-Graduate Fellow at UofM, rapper, and founding member of the poetry collective Dark Noise) 
  • Quraysh Ali Lansana (Poet, author, and faculty member of the Creative Writing Program of the School of the Art Institute and the Red Earth MFA Creative Writing Program at Oklahoma City University). 

The BreakBeat Poets

The collection of poetry (from Haymarket Press' description) 
This is the first poetry anthology by and for the Hip-Hop generation. It is for people who love Hip-Hop, for fans of the culture, for people who've never read a poem, for people who thought poems were only something done by dead white dudes who got lost in a forest, and for poetry heads. This anthology is meant to expand the idea of who a poet is and what a poem is for.

Our class ordered a copy and when we received it, we tweeted Kevin Coval about our excitement. His reply spurred us into action.

We contacted the eminently helpful and patient Tammy Job, Young Chicago Author's School Liaison, set a date, and started our preparations for Kevin and Malcolm London (TED Speaker, 2011 LTAB winner, poet, activist, and educator) to spend the day with #Room216.

We sold candy bars among other means to raise the modest fees to host two of the world's best for a writing workshop. The timeline was tight, but as the end of the year approached, we got it done.

Friend of #Room216, Rosie Woods (ABC-57, South Bend) previewed the visit with LIVE-Remotes from our School and was very gracious with her time afterward.
Miss Woods did a great job covering the event throughout the broadcast, which featured interviews with my kids and sharing of one of their performances. So thankful for her enthusiasm, energy, and encouragement of my kids. ABC57 News -Hashtag to the Girls Maybe the best part of the story was that she shared an ensemble piece created by four of my 6th grade girls. Kevin Coval when describing their piece said "those girls were spitting fire." True enough.

Malcolm and Kevin were simply fantastic. Despite their stature and accomplishments, not a whiff of pretense or air of superiority. They were extraordinarily approachable and genuine. They were at the end of a long week of travel and we were their last stop before setting foot in their homes, but you felt that they didn't want to leave. Wonderful.

They shared a couple of their own pieces and watched as a few of LaSalle's poets performed their works. As the afternoon progressed, they workshopped generating ideas and organizing them into poems. They taught us how to use words to inspire, words as power, words to cause change. We wrapped up the day with a a quick Q&A and a group picture.

A great day for all!

and a hint of things to come.

And it all started with a tweet. A tweet that helped my kids feel Louder Than A Bomb!

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

Some cool guys in this photo. Two outta three is not bad.
Malcolm London (L) Kevin Coval (R)