I am Not Your Mother

Dear Students,

I am an under-payed adjunct faculty person teaching introductory courses in theatre, courses that you take to fulfill your arts requirement.

Although I am not a full-time faculty person, I am still an experienced and well-trained professional. I hold an MFA in directing and have directed numerous successful and well-received shows. I also hold a Ph.D in theatre with a specialty in Theatre for Youth, which means I’ve read, researched and written on a wide range of subjects. In addition to teaching Introductory courses, I’ve taught advanced level courses in Non-Western Theatre, Theatre for Young Audiences, Feminist Theatre, Studies in Drama, Theatre for Social Change, Puppetry, and Theatre History among others. I’ve also, which is unusual for many professors who specialize in one field, taught Intro and advanced level courses in Writing, Research Writing, Honors and Education. In other words, I am a well-rounded, experienced teacher.

The Day I received my doctorate.

The Day I received my doctorate.

My job, as I see it, is to:

  • create a course that lasts the entire semester
  • develop a syllabus that outlines this course (I spend hours on this, and try my best to stick to it).
  • prepare for lectures and or course presentations for each class, as necessary
  • create interesting assignments that reinforce or support the learning goals of the course, and explain my expectations for those assignments
  • grade assignments in a timely fashion
  • answer your questions or meet with you when you have problems
  • keep tabs of your attendance and participation
  • lead class discussions
  • answer your e-mails
  • turn in grade reports and other official documents required by the school, in a timely fashion

In addition, as a concerned teacher in an arts discipline who likes to challenge her students and explore new ways of teaching, I try to:

  • create interesting assignments that ask my students to think creatively
  • create assignments that allow for students to use their strengths. While I believe it is important to have written assignments, I try to provide assignments that will allow people to use presentation or art skills as well.
  • since this is a theatre class, provide opportunities to make presentations, act, and/or try some of the other skills required in the world of theatre.
  • avoid doing things like testing memorized facts, but rather ask my students to think about how what they are learning in my class might relate to their lives or the real world.

Nowhere in those lists does it say that I am supposed to be your Mother.

As one of the assignments for this class, I asked you to attend a performance of a production put on by your peers at the college, and write a review of this. I selected this production because it was less expensive than attending professional theatre, especially with your student discount, and it was on campus, so you shouldn’t have had any difficulty finding it or finding parking. I told you about this assignment on THE FIRST DAY of class, and reminded you as it approached.

“Where is it?”

“How much does it cost?”

“Where do I find tickets?”

“When is it?”

These questions dominated the classroom for several weeks. I did my best to answer them, repeatedly.

Then, this past weekend, mother nature threatened us with another storm that (upon initial reports) could have been of epic proportions. It fizzled out to be a cold, slimy, mixture of rain and snow that didn’t do much except create an incredible wonderland this morning.

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However, to be cautious, since I thought the shows might be cancelled, I came up with two alternative options of other shows that would happen on campus later this semester. I sent that information out to you. Some of you, it seems, have chosen to pursue those options instead, and I can’t penalize you for that. But, that’s not what this letter is about.

It’s about the fact that I am not your Mother.

After I sent the e-mail with the options I got numerous e-mails asking things like:

“How do I know if the show is cancelled?”

You all walk around with these fancy pieces of technology that have the power of accessing the internet to look things up, and–even more amazing– can enable you to talk to other people and find out information. If you wished, you could pick up these amazing pieces of technology to either look on the school website to see if anything has been cancelled, or call the box office for news. This is how I would find out myself, so why must I do it for you?

Because you want me to be your Mother.

Dear, dear students. You are adults, or on the verge of being adults. It is your decision if you want to come to class and be there on time, although class participation does affect your grade. It is your decision whether or not you do the reading, although I often do check-ins on the reading which is part of your grade. It is your decision whether or not you want to do the research and preparation required for your group projects. I am willing to help you with suggestions, but I cannot do it for you. On the creative projects, where I ask you to make design choices and present things to the class, I specifically created them to allow for all types of presentations. I have given you the guidelines, but I refuse to give you line by line instructions. If you are not willing to break out of your comfort zone, and want me to spoon feed you all the information and details as to how to approach a project, then you are in the wrong class.

I am not responsible for your inability to organize your schedule around my class. I don’t ask for much, just that you come to class. I know that this assignment was outside of class hours, but I gave you plenty of notice (approximately 6 weeks) so there should be no reason you can’t arrange your work/play/ or whatever schedule around seeing one show.

When you miss class, I am not responsible for making sure you know what you’ve missed. I’m not responsible for sending you the handouts and making sure you know what assignment is coming up. I’m happy to send that material to you, or make it available on-line (where you can find most of it already), if you contact me about your absence, but you must initiate the contact. If you have been absent for a long time (because of illness or something else major), and expect to turn in all of your assignments, it would help if you contact me before you’ve missed the classes, not after you got back.

I’m not an ogre. I’ll work with you and help if you have situations, but I’m not your Mother. I’m not going to just allow you to do things on your own time because I feel sorry for you. You need to show some initiative, take responsibility, and acknowledge that my time is as valuable as yours. I am not at your beck and call 24 hours a day. I am not responsible for taking care of your issues the moment you have them. While I check my e-mail often, I don’t have a phone that notifies me every time someone wants to send me something. Nor do I want one. I actually have a life outside of this job, and I try to keep that time separate from the time I work.

Even though work often bleeds over and my paycheck gets smaller and smaller.

I am indeed a Mother. Yet, I try to teach my daughter some responsibility and initiative. This past weekend, we went on a family outing to a winter festival at the nearby botanical gardens. “Bring your snow gear,” I said to my daughter. “We will be outside.”

She brought them, and then left them in the car. “I didn’t think I needed to carry them,” she said.

“I don’t tell you to bring things just because I want to tell you to do something,” I said. “You can go back to the car and get them, or you can do without.”

She did without. Should I feel bad? No. She made her choice, and she suffered the cold-handed consequences. She still got to pet an alpaca, however, which I think is pretty cool.

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I humbly request that you recognize that there is a difference between an Instructor and a Mother, and act accordingly.  Actually, I hope that you show more respect to your mother than you currently do to me.

Sincerely,

Dr. Kramer

Things that Defy Logic: The Gender Wage Gap

The other day I got an e-mail from someone who had found my blog “after searching for people that have referenced or mentioned salaries and wages.” She told me she was “part of a  team of designers and researchers that put together an infographic showing why the gender wage gap continues to be a growing concern.”  I responded that I was always interested in learning and understanding more, but I didn’t promise her I would spread the information any further.

Today I’ve decided to share that infographic, for reasons I’ll explain below. Click on the image to reach the original web source.

Provided by: LearnStuff.com

While I acknowledge that my salary struggles may have more to do with the  inequity in how universities and colleges pay adjunct faculty, who do the same amount of work (or more) per credit hour as full-time faculty but often get payed ridiculously low wages, I can’t completely prove that my gender does not play a role. As a matter of fact, I know that in the past I have been paid less than my husband for similar work, despite the fact that his highest degree is an MFA and I hold both an MFA and a PhD.

But that’s not the only reason I’m sharing this.

The other day I had an interesting conversation with some of my female students. You may recall that I am teaching a course at a university in another state that is known mostly as a business school. This reputation means that the percentage of enrolled female students, though growing, is nowhere equal to the percentage of male students. When I’ve taught theatre classes of any type at other schools, the females usually outnumber the males in my courses. This differed, sometimes, in my Freshman Comp and Research Writing courses, but overall I would say that throughout my career teaching in academia I’ve taught more women than men.

In this course, Studies in Drama, 12 out of 26 students are female. That’s almost half, you argue, but it would have been a greater difference if I hadn’t scared away about 7 males on the first day of class. While there have been a few duds, overall this class has been excellent. In general, however, the women spoke more than the men throughout the course.

One of these women was checking in with me about some research she was doing on the effect of sleep deprivation on college students. (What does that have to do with theatre, you ask? That answer will have to come in a later post, when I am able to share specifics about their creative final project I mentioned a while back.) She showed me her annotated bibliography for an article entitled “Sleep Habits and Patterns of College Students: A Preliminary Study” from the Journal of American College Health. In the abstract of the article it says,

 “In their sample of 191 undergraduates at a rural southern university, they found that most of the students exhibited some form of sleep disturbance and that women, in general, reported more sleep disturbances than men did.”

“That’s interesting,” I said.

“What is?” she asked.

“That women report more sleep disturbances. Do you think it’s because women feel more pressure to succeed?”

“I think it’s true at this university, at least,” she said. [Note, these might not be her exact words, but the gist of what she said.]

This led to a discussion about how women perform at this specific university. “I think we try harder because this is a business school with more men,” my student said. “We make sure we’re prepared. We take the lead in projects. We lead discussions.” Another female student agreed with her.

In my experience of this class, she’s very right. The women in this class work hard to stay ahead and compete against the males. I would add, however, that in my experience of almost any class I’ve ever taught, women almost always take the lead.

Of course there have been hard-working, outspoken males in all my classes as well (there are a few in the Studies in Drama course), but I’d say that the predominant leaders in any of my classes were female.

Is that because I am female and enjoy mentoring female students, or is it because these women were more committed toward succeeding in my classes and in school overall?

Here’s what I realized as I thought about this conversation and looked at the infographic, the only reason men get paid more is because they have a penis.

That defies logic.

All of my students in the Studies in Drama course are seniors. The majority of them will find work before they graduate in May, or continue on to graduate school. At least one of the women has already found a  job, while many of the men have been going on multiple interviews. Most of them will be working in business or accounting or some related field.

Most of these women will be paid less, despite the fact that they will work harder at their jobs to prove themselves and do well.

That defies logic. It makes sense to pay a person more who:

  • performs better
  • has a higher degree or more training
  • works harder
  • takes the lead
  • contributes new ideas
  • has special skills that contribute to job success
  • etc.

It does not make sense to pay a person more who

  • has a penis.

As the above infographic shows, this is an issue that should concern everybody, because the way women are treated affects every other aspect of society.

Disrespecting anyone based on gender, race, sexuality, or any other defining characteristic  that is outside their realm of control, defies logic.  In my opinion, glorifying and rewarding anyone based on those characteristics also defies logic.

Will we ever live in a world that realizes that a penis is really only necessary for a few biological activities and has nothing to do with a person’s ability to work, to achieve, or to lead? I certainly hope so. If not, I think it’s time for vaginas to take over.

Why Write? A Reflection on Writing vs. Talking

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been meeting with a few students who wanted the opportunity to revise their midterm take-home essay exams because they were not satisfied with their grades.  As I sat down with each one to go over their paper, I realized that, for the most part, they understood the material and could express their ideas clearly when talking to me about them. The problem came when they tried to put their words in writing. They simply cannot express themselves as clearly or logically in a written form.

After talking to these students, I returned home to my 9-year-old daughter who moans, groans and complains every time she has to write a paragraph–and she has a lot of paragraphs to write this year. “I don’t know what to say,” she says. “Can you help me?”

“What do you have to write about?”

Sometimes it is a response to a reading, or a prompt to use her imagination and tell a creative story. I will ask her questions, and she can (usually) answer them. If she can’t answer them, I tell her to reread the passage, and then she is able to answer well. In terms of creativity I’ve heard her make up stories inspired by something small, and sat through endless puppet shows created by her and her friends. She has also written numerous poems that you can find sprinkled throughout my blog posts. But, when it comes to assignments for school, she struggles. Her topic sentences are often vague. Her supporting details are sometimes weak. Her concluding sentences non-existent.

Like the college students, she struggles with conveying ideas in a written form.

As a teacher, I’ve often struggled with my own inability to understand why people have difficulty writing. I know, it sounds naive, because everyone has skills that differ from each other. But expressing myself in words has always come naturally to me. When talking to these students or my daughter, they express themselves in words. So why, I wonder, is it so difficult to put those words onto the page?

It’s possible, I suppose, that the difference lies in how people use their brains. The students that I have been working with are predominantly business majors, so I am sure their comfort with numbers, statistics, and graphs is much higher than my own.

But still, that doesn’t explain the gap between the ability to talk fluently about something and the ability to write eloquently and logically about the same topic.

Perhaps the difference lies in how we perceive writing. To me writing is part of my thought process. When I need to work through a problem or an issue, I write. When I am frustrated or angry about something, I write. At times I have even written letters or e-mails to explain an important issue to someone. I am more confident in my ability to express myself in writing than I am in my ability to talk.

Why? Well, as a talker I have a few habits that I have never successfully broken, especially if I am nervous:

  • I giggle
  • I talk with my hands
  • I pace.

In other words, I do all the things I shouldn’t do if I want to be a great speaker. Somehow these habits in addition to my short stature makes me seem less authoritative even when I am the expert in the room.

However, when I write nobody knows what I look like. Nobody hears the giggles or sees the talking hands. Nobody notices my quirks and my pacing.

When I write, I become the speaker I wish I could be.

For me writing is my language of comfort. For my students they communicate in other ways. In Introductory Theater courses I usually give an option for my projects which allows for any type of presentation; including written papers, performed scenes, artistic projects, etc. I try to leave it open-ended to allow for the variety of learners that come to my classes.  For this upper-division course, however, which is filled with seniors, I am requiring written research/analysis papers as their final project.

Am I doing them an injustice by demanding that they express themselves in writing?

These are students who will soon walk out into the world. Most of them will enter the world of business. Most of them will never have to write another long paper. They’ ll never have to do library research. They’ll never have to turn in a written document with a well-thought out argument.

But then again, maybe they will. If they want to move up in the business world, they need to be able to express themselves clearly. They need to be able to write  well-constructed letters; develop well-thought out and researched reports. They need to be able to express themselves in ways beyond the numbers and graphs.

In other words, they need to be able to write.

And I need to be able to speak the words I write.

We all have something to learn.

 

 

The Many Passions (and Confusions) of Lisa

I sat in the bookstore coffee shop, green tea latte at my side, and prepped for the course I am teaching at a nearby university in Theatre for Young Audiences.

A course in my actual field, what a luxury.

Suddenly, as I read the chapters from the book selected for this course (which I went along with as I wasn’t sure what text to use) I found my chest constricting, and a tense feeling in my shoulders. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and wanted to scream or cry despite being in a very public place.

A panic attack settling into my system. A moment for me step back and reflect on what I was feeling and why.

Deep breaths and listen to the silence.

I am a really good teacher. I challenge my students, I make learning fun, I set high expectations, and at the same time I work very hard to help all my students find a way to succeed.

But I’ve lost the joy of teaching. It was sucked out of me because of too much bureaucratic bull#$%* and because of a system that lets the priorities of a powerful few become more important than the needs of the students. I lost the desire from having too many students who plagiarized, or too many who expected–no demanded–to be handed grades rather than to earn grades. I lost the passion by having to fight too hard to even teach what I teach best, or create what I create best, against people who were so caught up in protecting their territory that they didn’t want new ideas, new talent, or anyone who might challenge the status quo.

Yet, I still love teaching when I have a classroom full of students who are open to exploring and seeing the power of learning, no matter what the subject. And I still love directing theatre when it is about a process of creation and exploration rather than trying to become a star and make lots of money. And I still love writing, even if I don’t know where it is heading.

This class (in the one meeting we had so far) seems to be full of students who really want to be there. Well, except for the one student who has already texted me with questions like “where do I find . . .?” “Do I type it into Google?” “How do I look it up?”  “Can I find it at Barnes & Noble?” Questions that I expect people of this generation, raised on technology, to know how to answer. They have more computer skills than I do, or at least they should.

So why did my throat constrict? Why did the panic set in?

I was reading about things I feel passionately about: like the importance of including arts education into the system; or the excellent tool that theatre  is to teach all kinds of skills and educational lessons and reach different types of people; or the need in any culture for theatre and performance and arts programming that reach all levels of society. I didn’t agree with every statement in the book, but still it is a book about my passions.

So why do I feel like crying?

The answer lies in my experience in Slovakia, particularly the time with the Roma. The answer lies in my current struggle with words and search for focus and simplicity. The answer lies in the multiple incarnations of Lisa, and in my inability to figure out how to market myself so that I am DOING rather than only teaching others how to do.

Not that teaching is a bad thing, but if I am not practicing what I preach I feel like an imposter. The answer lies in my imposter syndrome.

The answer lies in the fact that I have lots and lots of passions and projects, but without a deadline, without a “boss”, without a guarantee of a paycheck or some kind of acknowledgment from an outside source I can’t seem to accomplish them. The answer lies in the fact that I don’t have enough self-esteem to do things because I want to, I simply look too much for validation from outside when I know that I should be able to find satisfaction in myself and my projects, and in the joy of sharing what I love.

I am constantly saying that the process is as important (if not more important) than the product, that the journey is the reward. But when it comes to my own life, I can’t get past the block of feeling like I failed somewhere along the way.

This has got to stop!

I look in the mirror and I do not see what other people see.

I look at my list of accomplishments and I do not see what other people see!

I thought that I had finally gotten over this in Slovakia. As a matter of fact, I even wrote this:

 

Am I only able to find peace and purpose when I am away from my normal environment? Am I only able to see myself when someone else leads the way?

Somehow I must find a way to merge my passions with my abilities, and to become my own support “boss”–the person who gives herself deadlines and achieves every dream with or without validation from others.

My journey began in Slovakia, but now I have to face the painful stuff and move through it. The answers do not lie in an outside source.

The answers lie inside of me.

Non-Communicative Future

Yesterday morning in my Comp I class I had them share what they had written for the Portfolio Project that was due.  In the portfolio I had asked them to evaluate themselves as students/learners/writers as well as revise one paper and set some goals. I started doing this type of project in another school, and for the most part feel that it is a successful project. I still feel that, even after grading the projects yesterday, except for one thing. Many of my students don’t know how to communicate. Most of them shared their portfolio in as few sentences as possible–not expanding or explaining unless  I asked questions, barely even listening to each other talk. After that, I vamped for the rest of the time (as I had expected it would take longer) talking about learning, why we need to take writing classes, how would they form their ideal comp class, anything that came to mind. (I used up my material for the last class tomorrow, now I have to think of something else).  But, in typical fashion, two or three of them spoke and the rest stared at me in silence. This has been my semester in this class. It might as well have been a class of three people.

I was teaching writing. I helped some of them improve in grammar and the ability to support an argument. I helped some of them improve as readers, or just gain confidence in their ability to learn. That to me is a success.

But many of them still don’t know how to communicate.

In part of the “discussion” yesterday we talked about the changing forms of communication. For example, the fact that more people function by text messages now than any other form of communication. I mentioned how important it was to learn to write proper e-mails and things. Later in the day, I got this e-mail from one of the students in the class:

“Dear Ms. lisa what would be my grade in the class?!?”

That’s it. That was the extent of the e-mail. Now, let’s forget about the fact that they still haven’t figured out that I am Dr. I just wanted them to call me Lisa, but I usually get one of the following: Teacher,  Ms. Lisa, Mrs. Kramer, Mrs. Lisa, nothing, and on rare occasions Dr. Lisa or Dr. Kramer. But, setting that aside, my name is not capitalized. He didn’t sign it. And he wrote this one sentence when I told them that I would be figuring out the grades and let them know on Friday.

Students today do not know how to communicate.

Vicky, at Little Miss Everything, wrote a post today called “My best friend is a screen” that asks if our future will be this

Sadly, I think we are heading to some form of that. I don’t necessarily believe that everyone will be a fat slob (although there is potential for that too). But I do think that we are losing the ability to communicate face-to-face. We are also losing common courtesy and respect for each other, as our skills in face-to-face communication dwindle.  How often have you sent an e-mail and never gotten a reply? Not even an acknowledgment that the person received your e-mail? How often have you made a phone call asking for a return call and never gotten the call back?

I am guilty of these errors myself. I am bad about writing thank you notes and thanking people for invitations. I’m trying to get better. I don’t like to talk to people on the phone, but I will and I will call back. Sometimes I prefer to e-mail, but I always respond to e-mails. I’m not perfect, but I try.

I worry though that we are raising a generation of people who will never try, because they are too buried in their own pleasure. In the self-evaluation I had several students admit to: texting or listening to music during class, or falling asleep intentionally. But then the following statement would be something like, “I respected my teacher and my classmates.”

Is this respect? Where are we headed in a world that does not respect each other or know how to communicate?

Sorry for the RANT! But what do you think?

[Update, another of my favorite bloggers chose to write about this topic today as well. Check out her post  ” A World Without Words”.]

Learning to Write, Writing to Learn

GDR "village teacher" (a teacher tea...

Image via Wikipedia

I feel that I have learned so much through writing of all types, from research projects to blogs. I’ve learned about myself. I’ve learned about other people. I’ve thought about new ideas, and revised old one’s. Writing is crucial to who I am as a person.

But today I feel like I’ve learned  nothing at all.

What have I gotten myself into?

Next semester, in addition to directing a play and teaching theater classes to college students as well as children, I will be teaching two Comp I classes for the local Community College; one in person, one online.

No problem! I thought to myself when I agreed to do this. I’ve spent the last 4 years teaching Freshman Comp courses at a 4 year college. I can do it.

Bam! Bam! Bam! That’s the sound of me pounding my head on the wall.

Seriously, I know I can do it. I’m a good teacher. I’ve had intense semesters in the past. I’ve had success with students, as well as a few failures. I accomplish more the more I have to do.

Yet, as I work on the syllabi for the coming semester (I’m one of those people who likes to have them done before break so that I can relax more) I realize that the obstacles are new:

  • I’ve never taught an on-line course before, so I need to learn a whole new way of interacting with my students.
  • The text they use is different from the previous school, so I have a new approach to things and new readings. (Which is not a bad thing).
  • The student population here is a little more challenging. Not that it was easy in my former job, but I find it really difficult to teach students who either never come to class or never turn anything in.

So what is my solution to this insanity? Add more complexity to my courses. I’ve decided I want my students to blog. I plan on adding a blog site for my students (and possibly students from other sections). They will be able to contribute new posts. They will be able to respond to each other’s posts. The blog will also be accessible to the public.

Why? Why add this craziness to a group of students who may never like writing; some of whom have basic challenges in grammar.

I believe that the way to become a better writer is by writing. reading other writing, and writing some more.  Knowing that you have an audience helps.  since we teach about purpose and audience, what better way to help them learn than providing a purpose or an audience. If the students realize that their audience moves beyond myself and their classmates, maybe they will approach writing with a different attitude.

Or they will run screaming and I will lose students faster than a tornado.

Stay tuned for this grand experiment.

Oy vey!

Update: If anyone is interested, the new blog is http://icccompositionpage.wordpress.com/. The grand experiment has begun!

Satisfaction with Mediocrity

Math Cards Icon

Image by Sagolla via Flickr

I just turned in my grades for the past semester.

As usual, my emotions are a mixed bag: relief that I finished (early this semester); frustration at myself for what I didn’t accomplish; elation because of the few students that I actually reached and saw shine; anger at the students who were willing to scrape by in mediocrity.

This last feeling is the most frustrating for me. I have seen it in numerous situations lately; not just in the classroom but in people’s general attitude toward life . There seems to be a willingness to accept the mediocre. Why work for an A when a C will do? And, if you don’t get the A, then of course it is the fault of the instructor, never oneself. If you are getting less than a C, particularly an F, you can always beg for withdrawal as long as you can come up with a heart-wrenching explanation for why you never bothered to attend class or turn anything in. I am giving lots of “F”s this year.

I gave an assignment for students to create a portfolio of their work. “Lay it out nicely,” I said. “This will be useful for you in the future. Create something that you would turn in if you were applying for a job. Create a cover, label your images . . . etc.” I get a collection of images labeled with a blue pen. The cover is notebook paper, blue handwriting scribbled across.

I give the students the opportunity to create a final that is interesting to them, where they can latch onto whatever intrigued them throughout the semester and pursue that topic. I set guidelines, but I allowed. I get, an odd mixture of well thought out work merged with half-accomplished efforts.

This is not just a refection of the school I am at, but a general attitude of students today.  They want knowledge handed to them in the simplest way possible, and then they want some kind of guarantee that all of this work will lead to a lucrative job. I cannot give those guarantees, because I would never hire them. If I owned my own company, I would only want to hire people who are willing to put something more than mediocrity into everything they do. I want to work with people who can find inspiration in anything, so that they do it all with joy. I want to work with people who are not satisfied with a C.

I wonder if this is a reflection of American culture. Have we become so complacent that we are somehow “the best” that we no longer strive to become better. I hate to think that the best we can do is middle of the road.

What do you think?

Show Don’t Tell, From Page to Stage Version

Each of my young students has a magic invisible box.  I gave it to them a couple of classes ago, after they did excellent jobs at whatever the activity of the day was.

These boxes can grow or shrink to hold anything imaginable in them. They come when called, or can be stored in a pocket. When they are opened, each student can pull out their dreams or their nightmares, things to make us laugh or things to make us squirm in disgust. There are no rules except that they are supposed to show the rest of the group what is in the box so that the group can guess.

One student made her box grow significantly and then dove in to bring out whatever was inside. She made a magnificent display of this action. But then, as she climbed out, she told us “I’m all wet. It’s a squid.”

I didn’t correct her at that point because of her enacting the hunt in the box.

Two students later, a younger student opens the box, pulls something out and promptly says “It’s an octopus.”

“That’s cool,” I said realizing I should have corrected the other student, “But you need to show us, not tell us what is in the box. How can you show us an octopus?”

She turns her hand toward her face and says, “Aaauuuggh! It’s got me!” (Which, I might add is a typical response for this girl. She loves screaming and acting horrified).

“Okay,” I say, still wanting more showing, and less telling. “Everyone help her get the octopus legs off of her.” The students rush to her aid, pulling legs off one at a time. By now there must be multiple octopuses, because I count many more than eight legs. But, at least my point was made, as revealed by the students who followed showing me a dog and a microphone without a single word.

Show, don’t tell.” The axiom every writer knows and perhaps struggles with took on new meaning today, as it came to life beyond the page.

I’ve always known that my training in theater and improvisation has influenced me as a writer. It makes me more confident writing in first person and writing dialogue. I sometimes struggle more when writing in third person because of the narrative focus of that form, rather than the character focus.  This is a reality that I have come to accept about my writing, and I am working to deal with it.

But, as I began to settle down for the evening, the phrase “Show don’t tell!” flashed into my head along with this vision from my class this morning. I am trying to get my students to enact the living version of show don’t tell. Wow! Is this something that I can offer other writers?

A few years ago I wanted to offer an Extended Studies course that explored this concept; using improve and drama in the classroom techniques to motivate writing of all sorts, not just plays. I thought it would be a really interesting way to explore character and relationships or develop problems that then could be placed in a story. I’ve used improvisation and reenactments in lesson plans for young people to introduce a variety of topics.  My favorite has been creating a mysterious island retreat which they get to explore and uncover clues. They find books in the library of a creepy old house and each have time to read some of them. (All enacted in their imagination)  I then ask the students to write a page from the book and then share that writing. The results are always fascinating!

I never did get a chance to offer that class, but I think the time to explore that option has come again. Playwrights often use improvisational workshops to develop their plays, so why not fiction writers of all sorts? Or people who write poetry? Or memoir?

While writing is an individual act, it doesn’t have to be a lonely one. I am learning that through the blogging community. Now, I think, the time has come to make my two passions come together in a new and interesting way.

Anyone care to join me?

The Power of Facebook

Daniel-Marios---World Wide Web

Image by Marshall Astor - Food Pornographer via Flickr

As usual, one of the first things I did this morning was turn on the computer to check my various e-mail accounts, read a comic or two, and catch up on Facebook. This morning, one friend had posted a video that I tried to watch yesterday, but couldn’t because I did not have a good internet connection. This video, Gay Michigan student defends suspended teacher – Yahoo! News shows Graeme Taylor acknowledging his sexual identity to a room full of adults in defense of a teacher who is facing disciplinary action after asking a student to remove her Confederate flag belt buckle which, in that particular town, is associated with hate.

Now, I don’t know the legal ramifications of this particular case, especially regarding freedom of expression. But, my reaction to this video, as to many that I have seen and reposted recently was “Wow! We have lot of brave people in this world, who take small steps towards bettering the world.” I got a tear in my eye.

This got me thinking about the changes that have come about in society because of the internet, particularly social networking sites like Facebook, media sites like Youtube and blogging sites like WordPress. I know there are negatives, the time suck alone sometimes make me aggravated by the end of the day when I feel I have accomplished nothing but stare at a screen and chat with friends. But the computer is not to blame, nor is Facebook. If I don’t have control over my own behavior, than I have only myself to blame. I also recognize that, in some ways, people are losing the ability to communicate without texting, or e-mailing. We’ve lost the art of letter writing or talking on the phone.  Many of the students I see of all ages, struggle when presented with the necessity to communicate in person, or to present ideas in front of a group. Those are definitely things to be concerned about.

But then I think about the knowledge that is at our fingertips because of these sites. I have wept over inspirational videos of Graeme and “It Gets Better.” I have been angered by comments from politicians  who speak inane gibberish trying to destroy any hope for this country. I have laughed at kittens drinking water. I have watched people selflessly helping others. I have read inspirational words from friends and strangers. I have made new connections and renewed old ones. I have helped friends facing hard times, and been helped myself. Because of the new knowledge, I have become a little more political–signing petitions and writing letters for causes I believe in. Maybe what I do seems like a tiny drop compared to people like Graeme, but I may not have even done that without this tool that makes me expand my horizons from the comfort of my own home.

This doesn’t man I will never leave my home, or have never left to fight for what I believe in. I have done that all my life. What is interesting, though, is that (for people who own computers and take advantage of them) this tool can enable anyone to help even in the small way of simply pushing send.

I still value the letters I get (although I don’t write many myself anymore). I will always value holding a real book in my hand rather than reading it on the screen. I love face-to-face conversations with dear friends, and even the occasional phone call (I’ve never liked talking on the phone). Yet, I have to acknowledge that this little screen in front of me has truly broadened my world. It may also have made the world  a little more dangerous, but I hope to learn to use its power to promote good.

After all, technology is here to stay.

More about BHS: When Passion Saves the Day

A short time ago I wrote about the amazing success that my high school had in turning around student grades by incorporating reading and writing into every classroom. (Making Connections with Words A Powerful Tool in Education). This success story has made national news, Large School Prompts Academic Turnaround – CBS News Video, and continues to be studied by Harvard University. The above video clearly shows the power of adding writing (as well as reading,  speaking, and reasoning) into every classroom to improve test scores as well as overall learning and helping students move on to college.

What interests me the most about this story, besides my close connection to it, is that so many people are surprised at the success rate of this program. What is so surprising about it? Human beings learn through communication, through language. Whether it is spoken, written, or signed our earliest learning is how to communicate our wants and needs. Young children absorb language and meaning at an incredible rate when you think about it. The move from simple sounds to express need, to full conversations seems to happen at lightning speed (even though, yes, it takes a couple of years). So why are we so astonished that incorporating language and communication, through reading, writing, speaking and reasoning, will help people learn. To me it seems like common sense.

Now I acknowledge, some people learn things more easily than others. I struggled through math, myself.  Last year, in my daughter’s first grade classroom, they approached math with more word problems. The students were able to place the problems into real-world situations, and the end results were always expressed in both a math equation and a sentence. “Sarah bought 8 balloons, but 3 flew away in the wind.  Sarah had 5 balloons left.” Now, I don’t know yet how that applies in higher mathematics, but it shows that, by incorporating writing things can make more sense.

The other thing this program has going for it, which is almost more powerful than language, is the passion of Dr. Szach and all the teachers to make it work. When you get people together working towards a common goal, amazing things can happen. I’ve known that feeling myself when putting on a show that seems doomed to fail, but in the end comes together better than expected. The teachers at BHS did not throw their hands in the air and say it is hopeless. Instead, they worked together to find a viable solution. Even those who were “doubters” eventually climbed on the bandwagon. I’m sure that every teacher does not necessarily agree with every decision, but they went along with it for the good of the students with astonishing results. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that could happen in other areas of society (ahem, government officials, this means you!)?

Go BHS! Go Dr. Szach! Now let’s use this example to really make change.

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