I love Austin Kleon’s advice on how to read more (although teachers work really hard at communicating to students how to avoid #4). Students in my 11th grade English class and I created photo illustrations for each piece of advice because we love to read!
Dylan loves to read about tacos! Who doesn’t?
Lizzie is always prepared!
Iman takes advantage of the class library.
Erika’s ready to chuck that book! Students aren’t used to this luxury. It gets better!
Teachers struggle to help students enjoy the books they read in class. It’s a tough gig and unfortunately our efforts sometimes have the opposite effect.
While she did so gracefully, Seena was calling me out, challenging me, asking me to put my money where my mouth is.
What she wanted to know was: Ziebarth, I’ve been watching you tweet out all your little doodles about that book you read over the summer, so what?!? What are you doing about it?
Up to that point I hadn’t committed to doing anything about my reading other than tweet out the sketches of it. Probably because my head was spinning with ideas, but a book like English Composition as a Happening needs some time to settle, digest, sink in.
I’m grateful for friends and colleagues who push and challenge my thinking, my practice, who get a little antsy when I’m just tossing bread crumbs to the world. Seena’s tweet started me thinking … What have I learned? What is my big takeaway from Sirc’s book?
Respect for the journey my students are on as writers.
Respect for my students as human beings.
What’s curious is that I’ve been changing my composition course every year, bit by bit, as my students teach me every year that they deserve and are worthy of my respect.
What this respect looks like in my classroom (and the changes Sirc inspired) is ongoing, and like Deemer says, there is no blueprint. Happenings happen. Teachers must inspire their own. Regardless, I hope to explore mine here in the near future. Stay tuned.
When you read this bit of news I’m about to share with you, you’re either going to wonder: What took them so long? or What’s the world coming to?
So what’s the news?
Oxford Dictionaries announced their word of the year for 2015. All the dictionaries do it— choose a word that’s relatively new that captures the essence of a particular year. This year Oxford’s word is:
You read that right! There’s nothing to read. Just look. Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year is not a word, it’s an emoji. The name of the emoji is Tears of Joy. But you could see that couldn’t you?
I could see this coming. I knew it was a matter of time before emojis enjoyed a wider cultural relevance. I got a good sense of that earlier this year when students and friends bombarded me with texts and tweets, out-of-their-mind thrilled that Apple had, in their iOS 9.1 update for the iPhone, added this emoji:
(To know me is to know that I love tacos)
If you find yourself wondering what the world is coming to, consider what Brad Ovenell-Carter always says, “The ancients stole all our ideas.” We’re just cycling back to our past, back to hieroglyphs and cave paintings. And remember that language itself is made up of images, visual jots and tittles that correspond arbitrarily to things and ideas. And images themselves have their own grammar. We gotta learn to read it all. And write with it all, as my friend Amy Burvall has been emphatically evangelizing for.
So before I fall too far behind this curve, here is my first emoji composition:
First came the music. It comprised a variety of instruments, perhaps imperfectly adapted to one another, and played with no great skill, but yet attaining the great object for which the harmony of drum and clarion addresses itself to the multitude,—that of imparting a higher and more heroic air to the scene of life that passes before the eye.
This passage from the Scarlet Letter is the earliest description of music as a soundtrack to life that I know of. Obviously people understood the effect of music on the soul way before Hawthorne penned this in 1850, but for over 100 years we’ve associated this “higher and more heroic air” with movie scores. A good tune adds a cinematic quality to even the most mundane tasks. That’s probably why I get a lot more dishes washed and papers graded when I put the ol’ needle to groove (still the best way to enjoy an album in my opinion). And anytime I wash the dishes, my wife thinks I’m a superhero!
Years ago when I was in New York City a couple songs in particular turned an interesting moment into pure magic. As I was ascending a staircase, exiting the 57th Street subway station, my iPod (this was pre-iPhone days), shuffling away, served up this Howard Hello song:
How perfectly cinematic, right? Especially for this suburban kid. Even though I’d been to New York City a dozen or so times before, I’d never felt its majesty like I did on that day stepping out of the subway. I was still working in the music industry at the time, so I had access to vast quantities of music and had jammed my iPod full. I was in love with hearing new music. On that day on 6th Avenue in Manhattan was the first time I had heard this Howard Hello song. I didn’t know who it was, so I checked the greyscale screen and promptly started listening to the whole album, starting again with “Intro.” That played as I crossed 59th Street and entered Central Park. The second song, “Giving Up” hit as as I drew near to Christo’s gates that lined the park’s pathways:
The guitarist’s staccato picking of the strings matched the mood of the moment as the bright orange curtains, in an explosion of technicolor contrast to the sad-colored trees, billowed in the breeze. In a beautiful confluence of sights and sounds and smells and sensations I was transported to another realm, a particular moment in time and space that I would never experience again.
Or so I thought.
It all comes back whenever I hear the swelling synthesized strings of “Intro.” It all comes back whenever I’m struck by big, bold batches of orange, whether at the Golden Gate Bridge or at my local pumpkin patch. I can finally say that I’ve experienced synesthesia as it all swirls back through my body.
Listening to music during the doldrums of the day has the same effect as the scarlet letter has on Hester—
…the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself.
And so I cannot blame anyone for moving through their day with earbuds afixed. Not even that student who tries to smuggle an earbud in under their shirt, over their collar, or beneath a hoodie. Sometimes I can’t even stand being in my own sphere.
That’s when my earbuds go in.
Postscript: I know the title of this post begs a playlist for the Scarlet Letter. So here goes. I’ll continue to add to this as inspiration strikes:
Shriekback “Hand on My Heart”
This is Dimmesdale’s theme song!
About a year-and-a-half into my teaching career I cribbed an in-class activity from Austin Kleon: newspaper blackout poems. But I didn’t want to do them exactly like Kleon. I wanted to tie it closer to my curriculum. At the time I was teaching juniors and freshman, and among lots of other things we read The Catcher in the Rye and Fahrenheit 451 at those levels, respectively. So I scratched out “newspaper,” replaced it with “novel,” and armed my students with black Sharpies, crayons, Crayola markers, anything I could get my hands on. Oh and of course they each had a couple pages from the novel we were reading.
I love poetry but I never actually write it, so this was an interesting way to try it out. —Melissa
I especially like the prompt I gave my freshmen students who were reading Fahrenheit 451. At one point in the novel, the protagonist, Guy Montag, is running from the police who are recording the pursuit and Montag imagines himself being caught and wonders what he could say, with millions watching, “in a single word, a few words, that would sear all their faces and wake them up.” So I instructed my students to imagine themselves in Montag’s place and come up with a blackout poem, boil down words from the novel into something, that would get everyone’s attention, that would shake everyone out of their comfortable numbness.
I shared my student work with Kleon who generously posted it along with my presentation to his website. The students were thrilled. Six years later and students are still impressed by that. It just goes to show you how hungry students are to break out of the classroom walls once in a while. It’s never enough really.
I felt like this blackout poem was really different from what we have been doing, so it felt pretty nice to do something new. —Hannah
After using blackout poems for a few years I wanted to do more with them, “plus one it” as my friend David Theriault likes to say. Year after year, I’d pass out the same two pages from the novels and frankly, I grew tired of looking at the same source material, so a couple years ago I decided to hand out different pages to each student. Then the idea struck! Why don’t we collaboratively black out an entire novel?!?
That’s exactly what we did. It’s a bigger project than I first imagined, so it’s taken my students and me a couple years to complete. They did their part. It took some organization and focus on my part to bring all the student work together and even then I needed my students’ help and so a few of them stepped up during the last week of school this year and helped me scan, tag, and queue our first blacked-out novel: The Catcher in the Rye.
At present, we’ve posted just under half the novel. I’ll continue to post one poem a day until we exhaust the pages. Then what? Well, we’ll start working on another novel. Probably one of the more hefty novels we read: The Scarlet Letter or The Grapes of Wrath.
On a pedagogical note: I don’t use a rubric for this assignment. I show them this presentation, student examples, then I give them the prompt: “create a blackout poem that represents one way YOU see the world.” As you can see by the main image for this post, students take the directions “black out” with a grain of salt. And I like it that way. I want these pieces to be dripping with each students’ voice and tone and self.
Even with very few criteria, some students still struggled with the assignment. Some felt limited by the criteria—
I was really into it…until the poem had to be about how I saw life. This became an obstacle. I was struggling to find something to put together. Especially with the page. I had I wasn’t able to really put something together until I forced myself to pick out something. It later became an assignment more than a work of creativity for me. —Victor
Victor’s words sting! I want to let students roam free with this assignment. Victor wanted to be free, but others might need a little more guidance, more limits. It’s an easy problem to solve. Make the criteria optional!
Lest anyone think this is a frivolous activity, well, let’s agree to disagree. I think we need more frivolity in education and manyhappen to agree. I’m still not frivolous enough! One of my playmates/mentors whose work reminds me of this fact is the ever fabulous Amy Burvall.
So that second link above is to a book I’m reading this summer by Geoffrey Sirc who argues that composition classes should look more like art classes, and he uses Duchamp, Pollack and other artists from the 60s’ Happening movement as models for what that might look like. I see novel blackout poetry as one take on Sirc’s “Student-as-Jackson-Pollock allegory. He quotes Robert Goodnough who says the composition classroom should not be “concerned with representing a preconceived idea, but rather with being involved in an experience of paint and canvas, directly.” Novel blackout poetry encourages students to “just put stuff together” (Sirc) and is a way of writing “which, ” John Cage says “comes from ideas, is not about them, but which produces them.”
Take this 16-year-old’s idea for instance:
It was like a blank canvas, except it was already filled in and you picked the things that you liked. —Trang
Novel blackout poetry employs new techniques of composition that Sirc calls for, that networked knowledge demands: “appropriating, sampling, copying, cataloging, scanning, indexing, chatting, and audio/visual streaming.” Sirc’s compositional ideal is Duchamp’s “chosen, pre-manufactured readymade.” And my students are obviously from the neo-readymade generation:
I like how the blackout poem really embodied the idea of creating your own work from something that was already written. —Celine
Novel blackout poetry also aligns nicely with the Common Core standards. I can helpyoutheretoo.
It did help me appreciate The Catcher in the Rye more and especially Salinger’s writing style because writing the poem gave me a better understanding of Salinger’s word choice and also how he fit all of his words and ideas together. —Jesse
Last week I attended Justice Whitaker’s (Santa Fe University of Art & Design) fantastic session at the Student Television Network convention in San Diego, California. One of his most interesting ideas is that it takes five generations to move from immigrants to artists. In his session, titled “Documentary for Social Change,” Whitaker argues that we need to respect the camera as a creation tool and respect the generations before us who sacrificed their time and energy so that we might have the tools and time to create art. We show that respect by creating good work, right work, responsible work, by telling the stories that happen around us, stories that we are connected to, stories that incite positive change in our communities.
Thirty students from my broadcast journalism class accompanied me to this convention, but I didn’t assign them which sessions to attend. I let them choose what they wanted to learn. I was thrilled to see almost a third of my class lined up in Whitaker’s session and I walked out of there feeling like I was in “ecstatic cahoots” (a line from The Great Gatsby) with my students as we learned together and were inspired together to be responsible artists.