I Believe in Do-Overs

I shared this personal essay as a model when my juniors wrote personal essays this year. Twelve BHS students compiled their essays into this ebook: This I Believe: Bengal Writers on Life

I used to think education was being told the answers by an expert teacher, memorizing the answers, regurgitating the answers, and then forgetting the answers. But that isn’t an education at all. It’s a game, and I’m sad to say I was good at it for many years. I learned how to truly learn outside of school, and it wasn’t until much later that I began to connect the dots between frustration, failure, and learning. The first time I remember sustaining frustration long enough to experience success was when I was thirteen, and my grandmother had another one of her crazy ideas.

My sister and I spent a couple weeks at my grandparents’ house each summer, and my Granny Helen always planned projects for us. We learned to sew, crochet, cross-stitch, dry flowers, and play the piano. When I was thirteen, my grandmother decided that she and I would sew a quilt, while my sister crocheted rugs from RIT-dyed gym socks. Granny Helen had an issue of Woman’s Day, and the title of the magazine article for her inspiration was “The Eight-Hour Quilt.” While I am sure an experienced quilter could have made the quilt in a day, it took us two weeks.

The quilt pattern was for a round-the-world quilt, using blocks in different colors that create diamonds from the center out—a pattern where the placement of colors makes errors glaringly obvious. We gathered material, read the directions, and cut our pieces. I vaguely remember sewing strips of fabric together in mostly straight lines. Next, we began to assemble the strips to make the pattern. That is when the trouble began. The blocks had jumped out of order. There were black blocks where the blue ones should have been, and pink in the green’s place. Nothing was working.

“Is this right?” I asked, standing at the ironing board, pressing the seams and frowning at the miscreant blocks.

“Hm? No, no, that can’t be right. How did that get there? Here’s the seam ripper,” Granny said. I hated sewing it wrong, and often felt like I had failed. Granny wasn’t condemning or angry; she just handed me the seam-ripper and shrugged her shoulders. Do-over.

I sat down and pulled out the thread, releasing the blocks. Then I  realigned the blocks correctly, and sewed another straight line. Do-over.  After the tenth time or so, I realized where I had gone wrong, why the pattern was off. By shifting one block, the rest of the pattern fell into line.

 

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example block from bloomerie fabrics via flikr

 

I’m pretty sure the cutting alone took eight hours. The piecing (putting together the blocks) took most of a week. Then the border and backing took a few days, and Granny and I crouched on the hard living room floor together tying off the corners with embroidery thread.

When we finished, the quilt was beautiful. It had taken two weeks and more do-overs than I could count.

I believe frustration and failure are the path to learning. I believe in second chances and do-overs. And I believe long-lasting success and fulfillment comes from learning to live in the space that lies on the edge of frustration, always pushing myself. If I am not willing to learn, no one can help me. If I am determined to learn, no one can stop me.

~ Mrs. Weems, winter 2017

The junior English classes of Weems, Pederson, and Liggett wrote This I Believe essays as a part of our writing curriculum. Twelve brave students submitted their essays in our ebook collection: This I Believe: Bengal Writers on Life, Winter 2017. Take a look at their terrific work!

Why We Gotta? Here’s Why.

Every year it comes up. I’m waiting for it. Excited to hear it asked.

Mrs. Weems, why we gotta learn words we’ll never use or read hard texts or (or insert whatever you think you won’t use later)?

I get excited, because here’s the answer:

How do you know?

You have no idea what you are capable of accomplishing, and therefore you have no idea what you might need. Why limit yourself? If I had limited myself to what my seventeen-year-old self thought I would need for the future, well, I’d have an impressive collection of Aqua Net hairspray and Michael Jackson albums to go with my jams and jellies (which are not food by the way- super-bonus-points-that-don’t-exist if you can come show me a picture).

You are taking challenging classes. You may not see all the applications. You are tired and working and overwhelmed. You don’t see how this is something you will need. But learning to work through challenges is EXACTLY what you will need.

You’ll also need compassion and the ability to ask questions.

You will need to face words, people, and situations you find foreign.

You’ll need to understand multiple perspectives, especially those different from your own, so you can make empathetic, educated decisions about your family, community, and world.

You will need to continue to learn how to learn, because you will create jobs that do not even exist today, and for those, you’ll have to teach yourself.

Growth is never easy– the moment when things are hard is the moment you are on the threshold of something new.

When you think you cannot learn one more vocabulary word? Don’t give up.

When you are sure you can’t study ten more minutes for your history test? Don’t give up.

When you have split three pencils trying to work that equation for math or physics? Don’t give up.

(Side note: Snapchat streaks? I give you permission to give up on those.)

Otherwise…don’t give up. Astonish yourself and us with your hard work. Do it.

P.S. for my fellow parents: Allow me to give myself a public pep talk and feel free to hum along:  If I have to hear my son or daughter gripe about Spanish or Geometry (or insert the whining flavor of the day) just one more time I feel like my eye sockets might burst. What I want to do is tell them how to do it right. What I want to do is jump in and help. But what I need to do? Take a deep breath. Tell him he has what it takes. Tell her I love seeing her stick with something difficult. Tell them I’m proud when they work hard and don’t give up. In short, I need to let them own their learning. (WARNING: THIS IS NOT MY DEFAULT SETTING.)

Parents, we’re doing great, and our kids are nearing the finish line for this chapter of their lives (*cue tissues please*). Let’s run alongside them as their biggest fans. We’ve got this. Don’t give up.

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Writers at Work: Blackout Poetry

Poetry is one of the best ways to expose yourself to language. You don’t have to connect deeply with every poem you read, but always read poetry slowly and aloud whenever possible. Delight in the word choices, images, and emotions. Blackout poetry begins with a printed page and seeks to find interesting word choices that are left behind to reveal a new work. My Advanced Creative Writing class has been experimenting a bit with the form. Enjoy!

Annotations 101: Why

What are annotations? Annotations are interactions with a text or media. They can be notes about the perspective, claim, evidence, questions, or comments.

Why teach and require them? The short answer (for people who read the last chapter first– no judgment here!): Stronger literacy skills and critical thinking, as well as better evidence for writing.

The longer answer:

I spend quite a bit of time at the beginning of the year requiring students to annotate different types of texts and media for different purposes. Many of them groan and ask why. Why annotate when I know what I think? Why annotate when I could just talk about it?

Here’s what I tell them: Annotations are a way to make your thinking visible. They force you to read more actively, instead of letting your eyes scan across a page (or multiple pages) until you reach the end and have no idea what you’ve read.

Here are the two questions students need to ask (and answer!) before reading:

  • Why are we doing the reading?
  • What are we going to do with the reading after we’re done?

The answers will vary depending on the field or discipline, as well as the type of information. Sometimes a teacher will answer these two questions before you read, but many times, they won’t. This isn’t a criticism or a disadvantage, because for the rest of your lives, you will read or view material without being given an assignment. Use this time to practice defining purpose for yourself.

Why are we reading? Some possible answers might be: to master material for a class, to try something new, to learn how to fix something, general research, grow as a person, etc.

What will we do with the info? Some possible answers: condense into notes for study, share with a team or friend for collaboration, use info to build something new, apply info to a new problem, combine with other info for research, etc.

I give students specific things to watch for in shorter, difficult texts, because I want them to have strategies and practice for reading longer, harder sources and material.  In addition, I am teaching them how to approach different types of information– you don’t read a poem the same way you read a short story. Here is the annotations guide I give students to help them learn how to improve their annotations in fiction and nonfiction texts. My juniors have already received it, and my sophomores are working toward this model.

Want to see an example? Here are some great annotations by a student in one of my English 3H classes (who graciously gave permission to post his work).

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Notice how he identifies claims, support, asks questions, and shows he is reading well. When he wrote his response to this article, it’s no accident that the support he used in his paper was directly linked to the annotations he made as he read. This is ultimately the best reason to annotate: to collect ideas for response and sharing.
Annotations model the listening skills needed to understand our information and media-saturated world, as well as provide support for asking better questions of what we see and read. This is the heart of literacy for our students at the high school level and beyond– not learning how to decode words, but how to decode meaning and apply it in new contexts for a variety of purposes.

Asking the Wrong Question

I did quite a bit of reading and listening this summer about habits, creativity, and work that has led me to believe we are asking our kids the wrong question about their futures. From the time they are little, we ask:

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

We expect them to answer with a predictable profession. This worked well fifty years ago when a person could reasonably expect they would work in one industry most their adult lives and retire with a nice pension. Maybe even twenty years ago. Increasingly though, I read and hear about people who change career fields two, three, four times or more over the course of their lives. It’s not just millennials either (I am exhibit A). How do we prepare our kids for a series of jobs, some of which haven’t even been created yet? How can we instill resiliency and help them learn to adapt knowledge and learning in a fast-paced global workplace?

We have to ask better questions. I’ve been experimenting with a couple that might help a student find their way more quickly. See what you think:

  1. Who are you? What strengths, passions, talents, and network can you develop that will guide you to become a resilient, healthy individual– the best version of yourself?
  2. How can you harness your personal inventory of skills, relationships, work ethic, and creativity to do meaningful work and make a difference in our community?

When we ask kids what they want, they often say “To be happy” or “To have more/enough money.” But what does that mean? Happiness is an elusive goal, especially if we depend on outside circumstances to supply it. “Enough money” is largely dependent on how well I live beneath my means and how I prioritize what is important to me. It all comes back to knowing myself and using my inventory of skills and passion for a purpose.

I have four children, two in high school. They don’t know what they want “to be,” and I thought I was struggling to guide them, largely because I’ve been thinking of it as choosing a vocation instead of as developing a resilient individual who can thrive in any environment. But I realized our experiences traveling, moving, reading, and expanding perspective are actually preparing them for whatever is ahead. There’s a famous quote by E.L. Doctorow about writing, but it applies to life as well: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I’m shifting the way I think about their future, and choosing to help them set goals for today to develop skills they can use in any field. If they know how to learn and adapt, they will be ready for anything.

High school can be a terrific place to discover passions, talents, and strengths, and I wonder if helping them explore various fields, uncover their strengths, and valuing process over product might be a good start.

What do you think? How can we ask kids better questions to prepare them for their next steps?

Getting Ready

School begins in a short week and a half. I am busy buying sticky notes, rearranging my desks, checking my febreeze supply, prepping lesson plans, and writing my guiding questions for the year. I had a few in mind in May, but my goodness, this summer has been hard and loud and overwhelming at times.

A friend recently wrote a piece about returning to nature to find solace when the world seems to be spinning out of control. Her meditation on the ocean reminded me of the question Whitman asked and answered in a section of Leaves of Grass, and his words encouraged me:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,

Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
                                       Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
~Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1892
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My friends, we are still here and the powerful play goes on. Let’s contribute a verse that makes a difference for years to come– that we will be remembered for our compassion and fierce grace.
Students, what are your goals this year? How will you contribute a verse?
Teaching friends, what questions are you asking yourself this year? I’ll share mine next week.

photo via Pixabay, CC public domain

In Defense of Play

When my creative writing classes worked on creative nonfiction, I spent a week or two helping them collect dozens of ideas. Creative nonfiction lends itself well to childhood memories, and I decided to try something to shake some of those memories loose, while helping students analyze their own creative process.

I assigned a day of play.

It took me a couple days to pull together the materials: play dough, legos, water paints and paper, coloring books and pencils, and fort-building materials (sheets and duct tape). On the day of play, I dragged four bags of fun from my car to my classroom and waited in anticipation— this was either going to be phenomenal or a complete flop.

As they came in, I directed them to choose one of the activities from a list on the board and to play for the period. I wish I had video. The questions came rapid-fire:

“How will this be graded?”
“What for?”
“Are you serious?”
“Is there a rubric?” (I nearly died.)
“What’s the catch?”

I had decided ahead of time that I would not interrupt the process with explanations or analysis. I was determined to get them to play. My answer repeatedly was: “No catch, no grade, just play.”

Most cheered. Some whined. But everyone chose something and began. As soon as the lids came off the play dough and the sound of digging in the lego bin ensued, the mood shifted.

“I remember this smell!”
“Can you find another wheel for my car?”
“I haven’t done this in a long time.”
“Can I stay in here the rest of the day?”

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Most were relaxed and jubilant by the end of the period. Some spent the period frustrated with their creation. Most telling? No one was on their phone, except to take pictures (which I asked them to do). When I called for five minutes until cleanup, there were groans and protests.

As they left, I heard statements like:

“I feel so relaxed.”
“That was more fun than I thought.”
“Can we do this again tomorrow?”
“I forgot how much I loved doing this.”

And my favorite, from a junior with a pretty intense schedule:
“I really needed this. It was completely therapeutic.”

The next day, we had a debrief, first in writing and then aloud. When asked how they felt when told to “play,” the answers were all over the map:

“I kept waiting for the catch.”
“I wasn’t sure what you meant.”
“It felt stupid and condescending.”
“I thought maybe you didn’t have lesson plans.” (HA!)
“I was so happy.”

When asked to analyze their creative process and choices, most students admitted they chose something they knew they could do and either replicated something they had done before or followed a model online (yes, some students looked up examples— from play dough to drawing inspiration). Most noted that they took a minute to envision the final product and then set about making the medium match their vision. Others just began playing and let the free form become a shaped product. Only a few (out of 100 students) tried something they had never done before.

I think their experience mirrors what we see in a society where failure is associated with shame. Students (and adults) are either afraid of or completely oblivious to opportunities to take creative risks, even in non-threatening environments where the price of failure is low. I expected to see some of this, but I was surprised how many didn’t take more risks. I shared the findings from Tom Wujec’s Marshmallow Challenge (it’s a design challenge–not an eating challenge). He found the groups who developed and tested prototypes, failing multiple times in the process, tended to be more successful than those who sat and tried to plan it out in advance in their heads—and kindergartners were one of the most successful groups.

We discussed how they felt emotionally, intellectually, and socially during the activity, and all but my few frustrated artists said it was the most relaxed they’d felt in school in a long time. When asked why it was relaxing, students had a number of ideas from “no grade pressure” to “being able to use my hands to create something.”

Many gleaned memories to use in their writing. Some were nostalgic, “I realized this was the last time I would probably play at school, which made me a little sad.” Some students found their story in the actual activity, like the student who was thrilled to help build a fort, saying she had never done it before.

At the end, I revealed the three-fold purpose of our activity:

1. Collect childhood memories for writing.

2. Analyze creative process and risk-taking.

3. Demonstrate the need for space and down time for optimal creativity and performance in any field.

When I planned the activity, I thought the second objective was likely the most important, but after hearing their reflections, I found the third one was nearly foreign to my students who stand in front of a firehose of information and connection all day long, both academic and social. A few students came in later that week and said they had dug out their coloring books or paints at home— to help them relax. As we fight depression, poor social skills, over-dependence on devices, and over-scheduling in our lives, I wonder if creating more directed and undirected down time and space would help us reconnect with the best versions of ourselves. I think it’s worth exploring with a bit of play.