Opportunity is knocking, and I am flinging open that door!
Last week I found that pulling a card from the Creative Whack Pack (created by Roger von Oech) informed my whole week and eased my life in the classroom, engaging my students with more laughter and learning. The theme was “Don’t Force It.” By the end of the week, I had even more reinforcement on how important this phrase is to me.
This weekend I pulled a new card. It said: Hear the Knock of Opportunity
Opportunity is knocking. And the weird part is that it is simply what I already knew. Opportunity is knocking at my door and saying, “Use what you know.”
The 18 Month Rule
One of the things my husband taught me many years ago was the 18 month rule — it takes 18 months for anyone to settle into a job, to feel a good level of confidence, one that will carry them forward. The 18 month rule applies nearly everywhere. And it is applying to me right now.
I started back to teaching middle school in August 2013. Last month marked 18 months back in the mind frame of middle school teaching. As I reached that time segment, I found myself sifting back into things I knew before I even taught middle school — arts application and integration is essential to the middle school mind. (Everybody’s, really, but middle age especially.)
When I taught six grade for three years, I applied that approach all of the time. I had my kids reciting poems out loud, singing songs, creating towns and characters who lived in the town, pretending to sue each other in small claims court and having to argue their case before a real judge, acting out fairy tales, holding town meetings and really debating topics, creating news shows and variety shows, creating new amusement parks and schools, writing magazines which would include many different genres, writing stories from wordless books, and so much more.
Once I went to high school, I found that many of these things worked with them as well. In addition, I learned the AVID strategies and applied those faithfully. That worked great because the entire school was doing the strategies. Kids had a comfort level.
When I changed schools and went to one that did not have AVID, it was an entirely different ball game. Last year I struggled to implement strategies like Socratic Seminar with middle school age kids, especially 8th graders who just wanted to mess around. No one else in the building was incorporating these strategies. I did not resurrect what I had used when I taught middle school previously. Basically, I was just trying to keep my head above water and never looked back to my previous success.
The change began around Christmas this past year. I decided that the Titanic project I had done in my masters program would be perfect for my students. I implemented it upon returning from break and we had a blast. But right after that I began to feel the pressures of teaching for the writing test, and so three weeks were spent teaching them how to plan and write an essay for the test. It was draining for us all, and misbehaviors erupted more and more each day.
Then came “don’t force it.” I relaxed. I let my kids relax. I started to talk straight to them, and I actually was able to be more effective stopping poor behavior when I wasn’t trying to control their learning. What I mean is, when a teacher gets into the mindset of “cramming knowledge into their heads” on a deadline, all life is sucked out of the classroom and a disconnect occurs. (The other phrase that is being used is “drilling down.” I shudder when I hear it. Sounds so PAINFUL!)
I was feeling that disconnect. So much so, I think that is why I was feeling ill for about a week. Something had to give.
Don’t force it.
Then, an amazing workshop on arts integration.
Journey to Oz and the Florida Repertory Company
I originally was going to bypass this workshop. It was on a Saturday, and I wondered how this can possibly be done when we are cramming for the test? But then my assistant principal sent out an email saying what a great opportunity it was, and so I emailed a couple of other teachers and asked if they wanted to do it. Four of us signed up. Turns out we were the only four in the entire district, but that was fine with us. We had the workshop all to ourselves, and I think it gave us a greater experience.
We watched the performance of Journey to Oz, which incorporates improvisation (improv) from audience members. It was completely enjoyable. Afterward, we were taken through a series of improv exercises and shown specifically how it can help with learning concepts and content. Throughout the entire experience I just kept thinking: I’ve done that, I’ve done that….but not for a long time. Not since I left teaching six grade back in 2007.
Time to get back. It has been 18 months, and that is giving me the grounding and confidence to do what I know works. How do I know? First, because I’ve done it before. Second, because I’ve already naturally started incorporating improv and creative approaches and am continually bowled down by the response from my students — especially the very low level ones. I wrote about one of these earlier in a post called “When Love Takes Flight” (Jan. 29). Yesterday I posted a poem I pulled together from my students’ poems. These were examples of my improvisation — both of the activities I decided on that morning, with positive results.
Not only does total control of every minute of the school day prove exhausting, it also creates a resistance to learning. Improvisation — saying “yes, and” is about listening and collaboration. It gives energy. I found that I almost didn’t want the workshop to end. We were having a blast! And isn’t that the way I want my kids to feel about coming to my class? You bet it is.
I am so grateful we have the Florida Repertory Theater and their education department as a resource in our community. I am also grateful for the arts integration grant our county had, and am proud to have my students showcased in the video for the arts integration website.
The Lessons to Come
Part of the professional development includes creating and implementing a lesson plan. I already had plans for my students to write their own story, and I was planning on using The Hero’s Journey model for it. The Wizard of Oz is a perfect Hero’s Journey, so I could see everything connecting. The Florida Rep will come to our school and perform, and then my students will do the lesson (to be videotaped), which will involve retelling the Oz story in various improvisational ways, and then creating their own stories using the same method. The unit will continue on long after the recording of the lesson is done for the arts integration website.
After several weeks of feeling very up and down about everything, I now see a clear path to the end of the year. I see days of fun, play, learning, writing, acting, cooperation, and teamwork. I know we have state tests, but the idea of “cramming” is far from my mind. Instead, I see enhancement through art and structured improv activities that will engage and enliven my students in ways that we will all discover and learn together. I’m investigating more ways to do “unscripted learning” and it is pure joy. There is a new creation waiting to be born in my classroom, and I intend on delivering it with care and energy!