Friday, July 26, 2013

Teaching Artists: The Power of Crafting Learning Objectives

I just spent a four days teaching at The Wade Edwards Foundation and Learning Lab.  It is a center for high school kids who want to work on academic and life skills.  They have a computer lab, conference room and a large classroom.

I've done some storytelling for them during the school year when the place is used for a drop in center, but this week, I was teaching there.  I had seven kids signed up for my workshop entitled "Stand and Deliver"

Four days, I made the trek out to Raleigh to spend three hours each afternoon with six students from age fourteen to seventeen.  (one of the kids decided this wasn't for her after the first day)

I'm always nervous right before I encounter a group of students.  I am more nervous teaching than anything else.  I worry about everything.  What if I don't have enough material?  What if they are bored?  What if I can't explain what I want them to do?  What if I can't reach them? What if I don't like them?  What if.....  I'm certain the problem I have is that I have no control over the students.  I can't make all of them articulate, focused, eager to learn or anything else.

It always makes me sit down and think about the fact that I really dislike teaching.  I do.  That doesn't mean I don't do it.  I do.  That doesn't mean I'm horrible at it.  I'm not.  That doesn't mean it is fun.  It isn't.  The thing about it, though, is that I kind of love going through it.

I love the transformation.  I love watching people who were sure they couldn't do something discover that they can.  I love watching people nail something and exalt.  I love watching people feel confidence where they were certain they would never be confident.  I love the process of watching people unfold.  I like being part of that.  I like lots of things about teaching, but I don't necessarily like to teach.

This last week, my six students made amazing strides, well, they couldn't help it.  One was there because her mother made her come.  One was there because she was curious about the subject content. One was there because he was starting to give more presentations and he wanted some tips.  Three were there because they were terrified about standing up in front of an audience.  If that is the starting point, well, the only way to go is up.

We did a combination of learning their personal foibles when speaking, getting acquainted with the other members of the class, practicing to not do the things that are likely to trip them up while presenting, and playing games.  The first five minutes of class the first day I found out what they fear most, and then I made them go to the front of the room and introduce themselves.  They were terrified and they all looked like deer in the headlights.  The last exercise of the week is they had to go to the front of the class, introduce themselves and say something.  The first day they thought they are going to die for that five seconds.  The last day, they made two minute extemporaneous speeches without prompting and they did it very well.  I was impressed and tickled. They had a great time.  The seventeen year old told me afterwards that he recommended they have me back every year.  It was lovely.

I had a swell time.  I loved the process.  I loved working with the kids.  I would do it again, but that is neither here nor there, because, you know, I hate teaching.

However, if you cannot get away from teaching, I have a single tip that helps me through

Create Teaching Goals/Objectives for Each Day.

Teaching objectives are wonderful.  They are a way of stating what you want the students to accomplish over the course of the day.  The goals must be active goals and not passive.  Stay away from phrases like 'will learn', 'will watch', 'will understand', because you can't actually be sure any of those things happened.  Each objective should be measurable.  Below is a list of possible goals.

Students will articulate the three different parts of a story.
Students will participate in a short story creation exercise.
Students will choose colors for their maps.
Students will create islands in small group.
Students will speak for one minute on their chosen subject.
Students will color one apple.

You get the idea.  Each exercise the students do should be articulated by your goals.  If you can't articulate why a student is doing something, or understand how it relates to your overall workshop goals, then perhaps you rethink your exercise or how you run the exercise.

I tend to create two levels of education goals for each workshop or residency.  One set is the overall goals of the workshops.

Each participant will be able to tell one story.
Each participant will be able to model proper breathing techniques.
Each participant will be able to create non-pedestrian sound.

After I decide what I want the participants to be able to do at the end of my workshop or residency, I figure out what I need to do to get them to that end goal.  I build my exercises into the teaching time with an eye to helping participants achieve what I want them to achieve.  Some exercises have other applications, and that is fine.

My attitude about teaching is that you cannot teach anyone anything.  You can facilitate learning, but that's it.

Below is an example of two days of a five day residency about space.

Overall goal:  Students will explore the solar system in creative drama space.

Day 1:  Earth is in Jeopardy

Students will participate in discussion
Students will work in small group settings
Students will research planets in the solar system

Introduction;  I will come in and tell the students that I am from NASA and that we have come to a crisis.  We are in a death spiral and the adults can't come up with any new ideas.  We've come to them because we need people to think of things we have not.  We have the ability to build their technology, but we need to have new brains thinking of things.


Activity 1 -  Why is the earth in jeopardy?  Discussion

We will discuss the various things that cause problems on the planet.  We might discuss everything from global warming to war.  We talk about poisons in the environment, and unsustainable farming.  We discuss the population of the earth and the fact that there are lots of hungry humans.  Students are encouraged to use whatever they are talking about in social studies as well as anything they've read or even heard.

Activity 2 - Study groups

Students will research various bodies in our solar system

Students are put into groups of four or five.  They discuss the various planets in our solar system and talk about their atmospheres, whether humans could live there, and what sorts of interventions we would need in order to survive there.  Students are encouraged to see if there are any resources in the room to help them make their decisions.

After they finish their research and their discussion, each group must decide if they are going to try to leave the earth or if they are going to try to stay on the planet.  Each group, regardless of their choice needs to start making plans to survive the environment.

Day 2:  Plans

Activity 1;  Recap of the day before.  Students get to work planning their next moves

Students will create plans for interstellar transportation
Students will create technology to terraform whatever planet they wish to occupy
Students will begin to make lists of supplies
Students staying will plan how to deal with the upcoming natural disasters i.e. flooded coastlines, extreme hurricanes, volcanic activity, earthquakes etc.

As you can see, each day there are goals.  The activities are designed to make them do what we want, which is research space, which they will have to do if they wish to travel through it and establish a colony somewhere else.  The students who decide to stay will discover, on day three that they cannot save everyone and they have to leave the planet anyway.   They will be two days behind everyone else and will have to scramble to make plans.  Either way, by day four, they are in the process of figuring out how to get off of the planet.  They all give us their reports about the plant they are choosing and how they are going to transform the planet and how they are going to get there.

Quick side note:  I had a blast teaching this residency...the kids and teachers did as well.  Still, don't get any funny ideas, I don't like to teach.

So, my tip for successful teaching even if you don't like it?  Clear cut goals.  Obtainable objectives.  Fun that encourages learning.

So, Good Luck and Happy Teaching!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Writing: The Terrifying Act of Converting Your Thoughts to Print

I do this on a regular basis.  I sit down and attempt to make the swirling miasma that runs through my head sit still long enough for me to quantify it.  Sometimes, this is a non-starter.  I just stare at my thoughts, and they stare back, and there is no meeting in the middle.  Sometimes, they are yelling at me, but my body is too antsy for me to stop and listen.  Sometimes, my thoughts and I come together, and I write furiously, only to discover some hours later that it isn't worth keeping.  Then, there are the moments when it all comes together, and I write something I think is worthwhile.  Then, I submit it and sit back and wait for the rejection letters!

That is, in essence, what it means to be a writer.  Even established writers get rejection letters every now and then.

In the last couple of months, I've watched a couple of people who don't usually write, sit down and do some writing.  I was surprised.  Not because they were writing, writing seems rather second nature to me, but at how nervous they were while doing it.  I guess I'm so used to dumping my brain out into print I rarely realize how personal, revealing, intimate and naked you get when you write something.  Your words always say more about you than whatever subject about which you happen to be writing.

I get really deep in some of my projects.  So deep, in fact, that when I resurface, I doubt anyone cares as much about what I'm doing as I do.  it makes for disheartening work, sometimes.

The key to dealing with the discomfort of writing, is to write.  The key to dealing with the discomfort of sharing your writing, is to share it.  Sometimes it is horrible, and you will be embarrassed.  Sometimes it is brilliant and you will be joyful.  Sometimes it is 'meh' and you will be frustrated.  The key, is to keep at it.

Writing is one thing at which you can get better if you keep practicing it.  This is something I have to remind myself when I get frustrated.  It is something I have to keep reminding myself when I get lazy about the work.  it is something I have to keep reminding myself when I am on fire and can't stop writing.

There are many people who tell me they think they want to write a book.  There are people who are certain that the book they want to write is better than anything out on the market.  I say, go for it.  Write.  We need more people who have brains wired for this sort of activity.  We need more people trying to remake the world one literary word at a time.

Words have power.  Sometime they have too much power.  Some words get no notice and have very little power.

Recently, I was talking to a good friend of mine about this series of satire books I'm writing.  She laughed as I explained what they were.  She said to me, "They will be well written, and most probably fascinating, but because of that, they aren't likely to be popular.  Why don't you just crank out some schmaltzy, light pop fiction with a hunky teenage monster boy and a waifish girl, or something like that?"    We had a good laugh and then I went back down the rabbit hole of this bizarre idea I've got floating around in my head.

Oh well, we are what our brains make us, and sometimes our brains do not tread into popular culture.  Mine certainly doesn't.  I have always been an 'outlier' when it comes to what most people enjoy.  When my brain belches forth ideas, they come from that reality.  I love what I do, and most of the time I enjoy what I am writing.  Understanding it may not be popular doesn't stop me from bringing it forth.

If you love it, then just go for it.  Who knows, there may be at least one other person out there as goofball, and off the wall as you are.  Even if they are the only person who buys your book, well, then you found one person to touch.  That's better than if you never wrote anything at all.

Then again, you could always win the Pulitzer.  Anything is possible.

Happy Writing

Round up July 1, 2013

Well, it has been almost a month since the last time I got around to posting in this space, and, as usual, my brain just wouldn't allow it.

I have a number of fascinations that keep me from my blogging duties.  They include science, politics and family.  When all of those things hit me at once, blogging is impossible

I will not go through all of the various political things going on in NC or Texas or in the Supreme Court.  This is not a space for that, though I am beginning to think I need a space for that.  So, since I haven't been in touch lately, I thought I'd do a quick round up of the stuff that comes through my email box.

First up, I want to give a huge shout out  to Mark Goldman.  He is a fantastic source for all sorts of info about storytelling in his neck of the woods, tips, ideas about working with kids and fun.  Not only that, he offers coaching.  If you want a great resource, click his name above and sign up for his newsletter.  He gets one out on a regular basis.

The Montgomery County School System in Maryland is now taking orders for the catalogue they send to schools.  They also are in the process of auditioning artists if anyone cares to check it out.

The North Carolina Arts Council is forever keeping us informed of various events both live and virtual to get us ready for the school year.  Here are the most recent.,

TEACHING ARTIST HANDBOOK: Tools, Techniques and Ideas to Help any Artist Teach.
Written by and for teaching artists and arts educators this book can be used as a complete guide to developing one's own teaching practice, and also as a reference or professional development text that covers  wide range of questions and issues of teaching artist work.
The book is available now through University of Chicago Press.  Special offer: 40% discount ($11.97 per copy) to staff and artists affiliated with state arts agencies, and to agencies that wish to purchase copies of the book for their teaching artists through August 30, 2013.You can purchase the book directly here: To obtain the 40% discount enter this discount code at checkout:  [TEACHING13] This code is good through Aug. 30, 2013. To place a bulk order with a purchase order, or if you require an invoice please contact Lauren Salas at the University of Chicago Press,

Check out how Marlon Torres adapted seven categories of analytical questions in order to “have them in my bones, sort of speak.” 

Check out this short interview with Chuck Close, painter, on NPR, talking about how he survived school by learning through the arts:

This NPR interview speaks to the need to measure creativity and its importance in learning:

Sheila Kay Adams got it going on!  Congratulations!!!!

The National Endowment for the Arts named Sheila a recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship, recognizing her artistic excellence and contributions to our nation's traditional arts heritage. I am so proud of my long time friend!  And I am delighted that honoring Sheila Kay also shines the light on Appalachian culture and storytelling.

Connie Regan-Blake sends out a lovely newsletter to fill everyone in on what's going down in her world.  it is lovely and something worth reading and perusing.  If you would like to receive, Story Windows, go to her facebook page and leave her a message.  She sent info about Hawk And Ivy, and posted a wonderful video

Elizabeth Ellis sent out her newsletter, which tells you how to reach her and what she's up to, but most importantly, her new book From Plot To Narrative came out and it is just waiting for you to snag a copy.

The NSN conference in Richmond, Va is fast approaching and I will need someone else's eyes and ears since I won't be able to go this year.  

So, there's the round up.  Now, I will go on trying to post other stuff!