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.
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.
“Nine-tenths of all good writing consists of being concrete and specific. The other tenth doesn’t really matter.”
It’s easy for us to be vague and general when we write. But that’s not how we experience the world. The world comes to us specifically: the red of a rose, the moaning of sirens, the squishiness of slugs, the snap, crunch and slippery saltiness of potato chips. But too often developing writers don’t linger on things long enough (or like my father teaches his fifth graders to do: hover), whether they describe an image in a sentence then they’re off to tell us about the next, or they’ve supported a claim with a vague reason or two, then they’re off to write that fourth out of five paragraphs. Either way they don’t hover to allow their readers to discover or experience it for themselves.
I repeat myself repeatedly in class and in feedback to students: be specific, use more details, more evidence. What I’m longing for is for students to clog their writing with more details, more images, more specifics. At least that way there will be more to choose from and work with and patterns will become more apparent.
I have ways and means to help students be more specific, but I’m rethinking them all because they don’t seem to be very effective. Rethinking, nothing. I’m ditching them altogether because I found something I’m hoping will work much better: Lynda Barry’s Six Minute Diary.
Let me show you what it looks like. This is one of my Six Minute Diary entries from a recent-ish visit to Hawaii:
This format fit my needs perfectly. It was the first time my kids had been to Hawaii and I wanted to capture the experience without spending my time writing a nightly novel, which is what our trip deserved. The trick is to spend two minutes jotting down what you did (or what happened) and another two minutes tracking what you saw (and/or heard as I did here). Then you spend 90 seconds drawing something from the day and a final 30 seconds transcribing something someone said.
Barry says “having to write it down makes us begin to notice when we notice something. We remind ourselves to ‘save’ it for the diary.” It also helps us hone in on the specific. Because we’re going to have to draw something we focus on what we actually see, and our ears are tuned in to the specific because we’re going to transcribe verbatim what we hear.
Then we get closer to how Barry describes the best way to write, “Let the image pull you. You should be water-skiing behind it, not dragging it like a barge. Writing should take you for a ride.” That’s how I recognize good student writing, when I feel like the writer is taking me for a ride. And I know a writer needs more support from me when I feel as if their writing is dragging me along their sentences from a barge, or worse, from a horse along the raw desert floor.
So whether you’re a student in my class, or just someone who’s hoping to capture your world with a tighter net, try out the Six Minute Diary for a couple weeks and see how it focuses your eye and tunes your ears and pulls them closer together with your hands and fingers as you write.
Watch the video below and be timed by the master herself, Lynda Barry.
That’s what each of my students received on the first day of school.
So, as you can imagine, things started off a bit awkward. A new year, new class, a new teacher standing outside his door shaking everyone’s hand as they entered. And boy, there’s something just a little off about this handshake here.
Let me explain if you don’t know this about me already. I was born without thumbs.
Most students seemed a bit surprised to get a handshake at the door, especially a thumbless one. They were even more taken aback when I tracked down a couple students who slipped by me. When I asked who I missed, no one fessed up. I picked them out of the crowd eventually.
A few students needed a reminder to use those thumbs of theirs to tighten up their grip.
One student refused to shake my hand. “I just saw you last week Ziebarth,” she said, as if some law kept her from formally greeting her teacher too often in too short a window. I persisted. She caved.
I LOVE that we’re kicking off our Teacher Challenge with a personal greeting for each student. Traditionally, on the first day of school I memorize every student’s name and then practice them over the first week of school so I can consistently match their face with their name. I can’t imagine doing otherwise! I’m responsible to know these students, their strengths, their weaknesses, their learning styles. The least I can do is learn their names before I expect them to learn anything from me.
Memorizing their names is difficult enough, but greeting each student is probably tougher.
We only have seven minutes between class periods and if it takes any time at all to erase the board, clean up after the previous class, or do any last minute preparations, students stream easily into class before I can get to them. Then, like on Friday, I literally ran between the students who snuck in early and the students who were just entering the classroom. It was like catching sand with a sieve. The students got a kick out of my frantic ping-ponging between them though, so it was worth it.
One period I had to resort to greeting them on their way out of the class. I definitely prefer greeting them as they enter, but better late than never.
On the second day I welcomed students with a fist bump. It just happened that way. I like to mix things up, avoid ruts, and there I was fist bumping my way through 37 students in less than seven minutes.
The third day I used my elbow. Elbow bumps are a very effective way to greet someone who’s lugging around a tower of books in their arms.
By day three the students were totally hooked. If they had missed their greeting, they’d come up to me to get an elbow bump. Then students started suggesting other greetings, a high four, high eight, the turkey!
This challenge has been so humanizing. It’s way too easy for students to slip into class, unnoticed, take a seat, fly low and avoid a teacher’s radar for the entire class period. Maybe even for days at a time. Then they’re just a seat, a name on a chart, a grade, a face in the crowd.
Greeting each student on a daily basis shows that you respect them as people, as members of your community, your class. They are part of your class, right? It’s not their job to greet us. They are our customers, our students under our stewardship. They deserve a smile, a hello, a handshake. With or without thumbs.
When I walked into class this morning I flipped out over one of my students reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, one of my favorite reads ever. Lost in my enthusiasm for the book, I grabbed the book from her desk, clutched it to my chest, and rocked back and forth, performing my twitterpation for the book in front of the class. Unknown to me, this student, Tiffany, had purchased the book for a friend and she sat silently in horror, terrified at my handling of the book. When I noticed the nervous juxtaposition of her broad smile and arched brow, she said to me, “Mr. Ziebarth, I’m a courtly lover.”
Talk about juxtapositions. I had no idea what she was talking about.
“You’re a what?”
“A courtly lover of books. Just like the essay we read over the summer,” Tiffany said.
Well shame on me for not recognizing what should be a common allusion. She was referring to the essay “Never Do That to a Book,” by Anne Fadiman. As she reminded me of the essay, another student, Tabatha, blurted out, “Me too!” as she quickly produced from her backpack a copy of the next novel we’re reading, The Catcher in the Rye, lovingly embraced by a padded manilla envelope. A small group of students burst into chatter about how hard it is to write in their books, while others proclaimed how much they enjoy putting pen and pencil to page, marking their books and making them their own.
Fadiman calls this drive to draw and annotate in books a “carnal love.” She explains, “to us, a book’s words [are] holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them [are] a mere vessel, and it [is] no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated.”
I don’t care how my students treat books, just that they love them.
Me? I’m a book lover of the latter sort, as you can tell by the photo of the Murakami novel above. See the little dog-eared corner of the first page? I did that. Much to Tiffany’s courtly-lover’s chagrin.