An Idea Becomes Reality

It was the last class. The last day of school. Spring 2011. The kids were done with their final and sat in small groups, chatting, glancing at the clock, waiting for the empty, long, lovely days of summer to begin.

One group sat clustered around my desk discussing their writing. One student had written a screenplay but didn’t feel it was quite done yet. One had completed NaNoWriMo and had several more pieces in progress.  Another was looking for a publisher for his newly finished fantasy novel, and the fourth had been inspired by Ayn Rand this year and had a novel outlined with one or two chapters completed.

I listened to them, stunned. They were 14 and 15 years old and had novels completed!! I had just begun mine . . . at age 40.

I suggested that they trade phone numbers and emails, so they could workshop their pieces over the summer, and I offered to help. They liked the idea, but the bell rang, summer vacation began.

I thought about this group over the summer and wondered how I could help them with their writing. I had a few ideas but the seed for a website for them, for teen writers who LOVE to write, had been planted.

The next fall, I had a new incoming group of Freshmen and within weeks, a few asked if I would be willing to supervise a Creative Writing Club. Really?!? As soon as I started writing myself, teen writers began to appear in my life, but I had no time between working, coaching Speech & Debate, and being a mom to help them get a club started. Finally, in mid-winter, I proposed my website idea – what if we had a space online where they could post their writing, comment on it, maybe even take Creative Writing Classes? They loved the idea and the seed began to take root. Silly me, I thought it would take less time than a weekly club!

I still worked on getting these kids’ needs met at school and got my administration to approve a Creative Writing class. I wrote a course description and submitted it. Unfortunately, the powers that be “forgot” to put our newly approved course in the course catalog for registration, so no Creative Writing class. Back to my website idea.

Last spring, I resigned my coaching position which freed up my time, but the school year ended with no website and no upcoming Creative Writing Class. I spent my summer and early fall fixing that state of affairs.  The process has been a three steps forward, one-step back process. I tried to design a site myself: fail. Hired a web designer: some good but overall fail. Took a web design class online: WIN! (The Girls Guide to Web Design Rocks!!) but definite learning curve there! Took an online course on running on online business/website: WIN!! (Marie Forleo’s B-School also ROCKS!!).

I started this fall with a website in the works and a PLAN. This past fall, the Creative Writing Club finally launched. We had our first meeting in November and its been going strong. We meet every Thursday to write, learn, and workshop pieces. I completed building and designing my website and shared it with them in December – they loved it and this amazing group of young, talented creative writers helped to found . . . www.whereteenswrite.com.

They have been the most excellent group of “Beta” users, finding all kinds of elements of the site that needed tweaking, posting their stories, sharing, and being overall an amazing group of kids. Last week, I decided its ready to go “live” to the world. I “un-hid” the site from google’s search engines and so far, we’ve had a few more kids find us and log on. The seed that was planted the last day of school in 2011 is finally beginning to grow.

The site is designed for teens, ages 13-18, who love to write, who spend their free time writing and dreaming up their stories. If you know any teens who fit this description, I’d love it if you shared the link with them, so they can check the site out and possibly join our little community.

My ultimate goal is to offer online Creative Writing courses through the site. Few schools offer Creative Writing, and there is definitely a need there.

If you’ve wondered why I haven’t been posting here much, it’s because I’ve been posting there! If you’d like to join the email list without joining the community, you can do that on our Facebook page. You can also get updates in your FB news feed if you “like” our page.

What can you do?

  • Share the site with teens who love to write,
  • Check it out yourself and comment below with any suggestions you have for improvement/changes,
  • Go to Facebook and sign up for “email updates” and “like” our page if you want to stay connected to http://www.whereteenswrite.com.

On Expectations

As they say, anticipation is half the fun. We get to imagine perfect outcomes for any experience we may dream up, but when the job, book, vacation, or even the restaurant I’ve just tried doesn’t live up to my expectations, disappointment ensues.  Expectations make me focus on the outcome, not the journey, and I wonder what opportunities I have missed out on because I decided on the expected outcome before I  had the experience.  That sounds ridiculous, but its the truth.

I live in Nevada, home to slot machines in each and every grocery store. Gambling exists because of this whole idea of focusing on the outcome - players think if they just “play” one more time they’ll win big, with no attention paid to what’s happening right now which is, “OMG, I’m losing all my money!!” I tend to do this (though not with gambling) because it is often far more fun to think about possibilities rather than “what is” or “what I should be doing right now to make that possibility happen.”

This past week, I was needing some creative inspiration for a quilt, and I came across this video. It was on a site on Design Principles, which I found kind of funny, but  I loved the concrete example of people stepping up to meet expectations.  Check it out – it’s really cool!

What is the lesson here? People step up to meet expectations others have for them.  They don’t just lead to disappointment but to people achieving great things.

Last week I had a fishbowl style Socratic Seminar in two of my Inclusion 10th grade English classes.  An inclusion class just means that there are 5-10 kids in the class that struggle with the subject.  They’re generally kids who have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan ie. they require special ed. services). I co-teach it with a Special Ed teacher, so we can give those kids the support they need. It works really well because it includes kids, rather than excludes them by parking them in the “resource room.”

I have used socratic seminars in honors classes and wasn’t sure how a population of students who tend not to be quite so engaged would do. The seminar entails putting six desks in the middle of the room in a circle. The rest of the desks are set in a larger circle facing in.  Six students start in the middle and begin their discussion on whatever text we have been reading, in this case Elie Wiesel’s Night.  They then proceed to have a discussion.  If somebody wants to go in, they get up, quietly tap on the shoulder of one of the people in the middle, and the students trade spots.

The kids loved it.  I only had one student out of almost 60 (in two classes) who refused to enter the circle. They didn’t want to quit talking. Students who never speak up in class got upset when somebody “tapped them out.” My co-teacher and I were shocked.  These kids put my own book club to shame with the depth of their responses and their reliance on the text to support their opinions.

The kids were prepared. They had done the reading. They had written responses to the reading, and prepared “Big Questions” (questions that don’t have one right answer) to ask about it. I had also told them that I had only ever done this in honors classes, and it was up to them to make it work.  I set the expectation high and they stepped up.

So what’s the lesson here? I need to raise the bar, not only for myself but for my students and even my own children. Not so high that they can’t be met, but high enough that I force both myself and my kids out of the status quo where many of us (myself included) happily schlump along.

Shakespeare and Freshmen – Good Times

Think back to your freshman year in high school.  You lived through moments that defined your life . . . at the time at least.  Now, you probably can’t recall what they were.  Think back also to your English class.  Do you remember what you read? Do you remember your first introduction to Shakespeare? As a 9th grader in the USA, you probably read Romeo and Juliet.  It overwhelmed you. You had no idea what the characters were saying. Your teacher probably spent lots of time expounding upon Shakespeare’s mastery of language and all you were trying do was figure out what the hell was going on and why the nurse was so annoying.

I have vague memories of reading the play when I was 14, but now, as a Freshman English teacher, I’ve read it probably 30 or more times.  I just started my third reading so far this year.  I have to stagger them in my sections to avoid reading it with all my sections at one time.  That would be just too painful.  Not that I don’t like William, I do.  It’s just that his writing includes much more than plot and for many 9th graders, understanding the plot is difficult enough without even mentioning Will’s masterful use of language.

Some of them do get it, and that makes it worth it.  Others struggle through and ask, “Why do I need to know this?  My life dream is to be a diesel mechanic.  Will I use this?”

My answer? “Um . . . ya . . . Open to Act II.”  I wish I could say that I have some profound answer that changes my students’ lives and their attitudes toward Shakespeare, but I don’t.  The ones that get it, get it.  They borrow my complete works of Shakespeare and read several plays on their own.  I have some of these every year.  The ones that don’t get it, muddle through.  I am sure that they will live perfectly successful lives as mechanics or engineers, and they will not feel a gaping Shakespearian hole in their lives.

In any case, I shared the following video with my students this year.  They loved it, totally got the story and began to understand the differences in language between the Elizabethan era and their Texting world.  It ended up being a pretty good introduction to the play.  It made me laugh and reminded me what it might feel like to read the play for the first time, rather than the fortieth. Even “The Three Little Pigs” in Elizabethan verbage would be tough to understand without knowing the story first. Enjoy.

Five Reasons why State Proficiency Exams Suck

1)      The terrified looks on the seniors’ faces as they walk into the room to try to pass the math portion for the 8th time.  I am always shocked at some of the kids that come in because some of them are excellent students.  One came in yesterday who I had as a freshman.  She can write beautifully and often shared her short stories, poetry, and drawings with me.  She wrote for fun, loving the creative process, and earned solid A’s in English.  Is this a student who should be denied a diploma? She’s passed her math classes but higher level algebra (yes, it’s on the “proficiency” test) is incredibly difficult for her. I’m not sure that’s right.  Does she truly lack “proficiency”?    If the point of these tests is to strike terror into the hearts of students, our legislature who mandates these tests have been wildly successful.

2)      The cookie cutter approach – similar to the above comment, the test requires that we all have the same strengths.  Who decided that math, science, reading, and essay writing are the four areas that an educated person must excel in in order to be considered educated?  What about music? Creative Writing? Poetry? Drawing? Drama? We all have different strengths, and I think one of the most basic and frustrating aspects of working in the public school system is that the entire system does not get this. I get that basic skills are important, but the tests go above and beyond that.  They are also required for a diploma.

3)      The level of difficulty – I doubt that many adults, even those with college degrees, could pass it, especially the math portion.  I think it would actually be fun to give it to the legislature one day, score it, and see how they do.  I can guarantee there would not be a 100% pass rate, though I’m sure they consider themselves quite proficient.  Yesterday at lunch, one teacher, who had to read the math test aloud to students with special needs (who are also required to take the test), was shocked at the level of difficulty and commented that the language is not language that is used in the everyday workplace.  Why integers and not numbers?  I know there is a difference but is it crucial to know that to be proficient in math?  Maybe it is but I’ve earned a master’s degree, a good job, and a passing grade in college calculus, and I couldn’t tell you. What exactly is “proficient” and who decides?  I would like the legislators who think these tests are the answer to be the ones who have to read it aloud to a student, one who is trying not to cry, when he asks, “can you please just read the question one more time?”

4)      Scoring makes no sense.  Last year, the state lowered the requirements to pass the math and raised reading.  My high school had an 85- 90% pass rate on the reading test on the first time the kids took it until they lowered the scores.  Last year it dropped to about 65%.  Why did they do that? Were too many kids successful? Nobody was able to answer that question.  Now, I not only have my kids read great literature and free choice novels but also boring articles, just to practice.  Most of them say the reading is not that hard, it’s staying awake and focused for the two hours it takes to read random, boring passages about fascinating things like pyramids and deep sea ocean creatures that is the most difficult part.

5)      Lost Instructional Time – we have to test for four days, two hours a day.  Only the 10th graders and those who haven’t yet passed take this test.  Those who have passed, sleep in.  Lucky them.  They also aren’t in school, learning anything.  It’s over six hours of lost time, not including all of the class time we spend discussing test taking strategies to try to calm and prep the kids.

Now that I’ve had my rant, I will admit I do not know the answer.  I don’t know how to fix the educational system, but I do know that it must start with the individual students.  We MUST figure out a way to offer students choices and recognize that all of them have different strengths and interests.  I am not saying that students shouldn’t be able to read, write, or perform basic math functions.  They should.  I am saying that we need to have a variety of paths to achieve success, not just the one size fits all approach we have now.  It clearly doesn’t fit.

What is your paradigm?

Have you ever been asked that question?  It’s an odd question but one that high school debaters regularly ask their judges before a debate round.  The first time a competitor asked me about my paradigm before a round, I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about.  “My paradigm?  Uhhh . . . ”  Apparently, that response gave them all the information they needed because they said, “never mind” and continued with the debate.

Now that I have coached Speech and Debate for several years and even attended “debate camp,” I know my paradigm.  It is this:  “One, be respectful of one another, two, speak so that I can understand what you are saying, and three make solid, clear arguments.”  In other words, if you are a condescending ass to your opponent, if you talk so fast that I can’t understand a word you are saying, or if your argumentation lacks any semblance of logic, you will lose points.  This is not unlike what I teach my own children, be nice and communicate clearly. I suppose it’s a “mom paradigm.”

After trying to judge rounds with kids attempting to speak like this student, I think my paradigm makes perfect sense.

I try to teach and coach my students that public speaking is all about clear communication.  Does your audience understand what you are saying? Are you persuading them effectively? Can they clearly follow your arguments? Is your logic sound? Is your presentation and delivery solid or do you speak too quickly or softly?  I want my students to learn to communicate with confidence and poise, to respect their audience even if that audience is an opponent in a debate round, to craft a message that others can understand, think about, and maybe even learn from.

Today, I am taking some students to Utah to compete against top debaters from all over the country.

In order for my students to compete, I have to judge rounds, and I also had to post my paradigm on a judging website, so top high school debaters could evaluate me as a judge.  After reading through some of the judges’ paradigms, one of my students was concerned with what I might post.  “Mrs. Isaman,” he said in all seriousness, “you cannot put ‘talk slow and be nice’ as your paradigm.”  He then proceeded to read from the site.  One judge listed his “Official Paradigm” as: “Phenomenology-influenced aesthetically-interpreting post-structural theorist with an applied transformative epistemological orientation.” Huh? Is this guy serious? Apparently he is.

At first I laughed, but my next response? Oh shit. I have to judge the kids that this guy coaches?!

My students spent an hour or two writing my judging paradigm to make it sound slightly more sophisticated than “be nice and talk slow.”  Hopefully the post-structuralist theorist coach read it, understood I value presentation as well as argumentation, and scratched me from his students’ judging pool.

If not, I hope these kids can either adapt their debate style for my “mom” paradigm or deal with a judge who has an anxiety attack in the middle of a round.  In any case, it should be an interesting few days.

First Day of School Nightmares

I’ve been attending the first day of school either as a student or a teacher for well over half of my life (at 41 that’s a lot of first days of school), yet I still get nightmares about them.

They always follow the same sort of pattern:  I enter my classroom completely unprepared without a single lesson plan written or syllabus copied.  Sometimes the administration has moved me to a different classroom without telling me, another teacher has absconded with all my stuff, and my new class is full of boxes and stacked desks.

I even dream of natural disasters like lightning or floods hitting, and I have to rescue a whole group of kids I don’t know.  In every scenario, I have absolutely no control over anything; I flounder, panicked, trying to survive, as I sometimes do in my actual classroom.

I had another first day of school this past Monday, and in some ways, the nightmares aren’t so far off.  I have classes of up to 33 teenagers and see well over 150 total students.

I have students who read at a fifth grade level sitting next to students who read at a college level; kids who read classics for fun next to fifteen year-olds who have never completed a single novel; students who have traveled the world next to students who have never left this corner of rural Nevada; semi-homeless kids who bounce around from one parent, to another parent, a grandparent, or to a friend’s house sitting next to kids who have two supportive parents at home with high expectations for their success; kids who want to learn next to kids who don’t care, whose families don’t see the value in getting an education; kids who can write beautifully next to kids who struggle to write a single complete sentence.

Last week as I prepared, and during the past few days as I started to learn names and read through the first pieces of writing they submitted, I’ve been pondering if it’s at all possible to prepare enough to teach or even reach every kid that walks into my room?  The honest (and depressing) answer I’ve come up with is no, though I will try, even though it will give me more gray hair, but at least then I get a quiet moment at the hair dresser while she covers it all up.

On the bright side, I also know that I’ll teach some of them something.  There will be great days, and that is what I look forward to as a teacher.  I’ll do my best to teach each of them the power of words, to help them find and share their own voices through writing and speaking.  Some kids will discover their voice, or they’ll discover books and finish reading their first novel ever or maybe they’ll even write one.  (I actually had three students do that last year.)  I teach for those “aha” moments kids get when they understand they have a voice, they have a story, and it matters.  That is my passion; it is why I teach.  It is also why I write, to find and share my own voice.

So far, the past three days have gone well.  I haven’t had a nightmare since last weekend, and thankfully, my classroom hasn’t been struck by lightning yet either.  We’re off to a good start.