Friday, August 26, 2016

The Language Of Poverty: Reframing That Story

I remember one of my first teaching experiences when I was a young teaching artist in Chicago. I was in a school in an impoverished neighborhood. In one of my classes, a kid lost a dollar bill. I made an announcement that if anyone found it, it belonged to this child.

Not five minutes later, a child found the dollar bill and announced he'd found it, and was going to keep it. I pointed out that we knew who it belonged to and he should give it back. He refused.

I asked, "If you'd lost a dollar, and someone found it, wouldn't you want them to give it back to you?"

"Yes," he replied.

"Then return the dollar to her." 


I don't remember how that ended. I believe the teacher got involved and it was a mess. 

I taught in several impoverished schools that year. I realized something.

I was not an appropriate teaching artist for this population. I didn't understand these children. I didn't know how to reach them. I didn't know what I should be trying to achieve. My lack of understanding inhibited my efficacy in their learning environment.

I understood that a different approach was needed, but I had no idea what that should have been, or how to make that happen. My concern was that I could be doing damage. I certainly felt that I was, and there was a teacher who let me know in no uncertain terms that she thought I was.

That was twenty-eight years ago.

I perform in schools in impoverished areas all the time. I do workshops with kids in those schools, but I haven't taught any residencies in them.

I am a huge believer in literacy strategies and language acquisition tools in the classroom and at home. I am a huge believer that almost any child can be reached, it just requires the right keys, and I don't often know what those are.

This morning, as I went through my daily news input before getting down to work everything stood still.

My brain, as it often does, went a bit nuts after ingesting this information.

Disclosure: The article is long but worth the read.

The Findings? People who are exposed to long-term violence, privation, malnutrition, toxic pollution, danger, and or abuse from childhood have less developed brains. They have poorer problem-solving skills,  less empathy, more impulse control issues, and a whole host of other cognitive processes that make functioning in our society difficult. 

The story that unfolds is more about how this one girl manages to overcome the neighborhood and the violence and fear that surrounded her to head off to college.

The key seems to have been her parents working hard to make sure that despite everything around them, they kept their girls as safe as they could, and away from the world on the other side of their walls, and a single teacher who encouraged and supported her.

In her discussions about her life, the words 'safe' and 'warm' came up over and over again. She had places where she was okay, and she could still the fear. Those islands gave her a chance for a better life.

One of the points the article makes is that it isn't enough to work with the children of poverty, we must also work with their parents.

One of the takeaways was a fear that certain demographics in our country would be demonized because of this study, and a new Eugenics push could be spawned.

The biggest point the article makes is that we need to fundamentally rethink how we educate, interact with, and help people who live in poverty.

The private infrastructure we have now is not so much about helping people in poverty as it is about taking advantage of some of the problems, and pointing in confusion at others all while saying 'We Need To Do Something!' without having a clear idea of what we should do.

For Profit Prisons
Debtors Prison
Prisons and Poverty
Day to Day Expenses

The public funded elements of helping people in poverty are sometimes fueled by misinformation, ideological disagreements, and outright harmful decisions. Our government often tries to balance its budget on the backs of the poor and disenfranchised.

Drug Testing Welfare Recipients
Cutting School Lunch Programs
Government and the Poor

Our country and the world at large are fraught with situations of our own creation that ensure a segment of our population is going to struggle to find a productive place in our civilization.

Homelessness - Link to a post I did about telling in an affluent school and then one that serves homeless children in the same week telling the same stories.

So, I looked at the article. I considered all of the things I've read in the past, and the work I've done with so many children and it leaves me still.

I am fighting the despair.
I am fighting the anger.
I am fighting the frustration.

I am trying to be empty of these things so I can think. I am waiting for there to be clarity so I know how to go forward productively and without bitterness for what we do to each other every day, and what I must continue to try to do on whatever small scale I can.

I can't solve this problem by myself.
Nobody can solve this problem alone.
This work we must do together.

The realities are daunting.

The answers will be financially painful for some, and they will fight tooth and nail with very deep pockets to keep this system in place.

The answers will be uncomfortable for some, and they will deny them for everything they are worth loudly and with giant megaphones.

The answers will require a profound rethinking of how we educate our children, and that will require a revamping of everything from grad school to how we train our educators, and there will be those who claim it won't matter.

We have so much work to do.

Do we as a creature have the will to do it?

I don't know, but there are things of which I am sure.

This is why politics matters.

This is why how we fund schools matters.

This is why what we teach our children matters.

This is why we must show our children positive images.

This is why we must continue to tell stories...even the hard ones.

This is why I am trying to be still this morning. This is why I am trying to be empty.

Happy Taking It One Story At A Time.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Everyone Has Special Needs: Laying the Groundwork for a Successful Encounter

When I do public shows, I tell the audience what my plan is before I perform. 

I do this for several reasons. 

1) Many of the people in the room may have never encountered a storyteller, and this gives them some idea of what is about to happen.

2) There are always children who are hungry, antsy, upset (for whatever reason) or just plain bored before it begins. This gives everyone a chance to know how long they have to sit, and what will be required of them.

3) Sometimes I ask what kind of stories they want. Do they want me to sneak in a kind of scary story? Should we do something really silly? I adjust on the fly as I get feedback.

4) This creates a very important bond with the audience. I'm asking their permission to let me conduct a tour through the imagination, engage in conversation with talking animals, suspend their belief as I turn into various objects, emit wild noises, and generally remake the space they are in with nothing more than my voice, face and body. There is a certain amount of trust I need!  

5) Last, and most important, it gets the very diverse group of people in front of me used to seeing a woman with dreadlocks, dressed in what is often a voluminous non-mainstreamed looking outfit, moving and speaking in a stylized way, all while using grammar, inflection, diction, and language that may or may not be familiar to them.

I never do reveals. I like people to get a chance to encounter me before they have to engage in telling with me. I discovered early in my career that if I do reveals, the audience might need time to get used to me before they can listen to me, and I can lose up to fifteen minutes while they try to decide who or what I am.

I've found over the years, that every single audience has special needs. I have to meet them wherever they are.

Figuring out how to do that is the trick.

The needs are varied. They include people who need sign language interpreters, participants who cannot see, adults and older teens who present as children, or children with a wide variety of  behaviors, abilities, and responses that might be distracting...and toddlers...yes, for me toddlers and children younger than two years are the most special audience members.

Sometimes I am successful at reaching these audience members, and sometimes I am not.

Before I ever begin, I've learned that it is important for me to ask organizers if they know if there are going to be members in the audience who have needs that will be unique to them.

You might ask, 'Why are you singling them out? Why does it matter?'

It matters because the adjustments I can make will not diminish the experience for anyone else, but they might very well help these participants enjoy the stories.

Some of the adaptations I make are as follows.

1 - Be aware of jump moments and loud sounds. (I love loud sounds in stories, but not everyone does. Jumps are fun, but only if you have good recovery.)

2 - Pacing is very important. Make sure that you are allowing the participants to experience the tale at its fullest based on their needs for processing time. Tell the interpreter what you are planning to do. 

3 - Depending on your audience, adjust the amount of detail, movement, sound, or asides you offer. 

You never know who is going to be in your audience, or how they are going to react to you.

In March of 2014 I was in Fredericton, Canada. I had a show at a playhouse. Afterwards, I sold books and CDs, answered questions, and took pictures with kids...and grown ups!

There was one adorable little girl wearing something my daughter would have left the house in when she was little. She took a picture with me, and she and her mom left. Afterwards, I got a link to a blog post her mom wrote about what had gone on the morning of the show.

At the Fredericton Play House

I was humbled. It made me think of all the reasons why I do this work. It makes me consider how much work there is left to do. It made me consider my abject failures and those small triumphs someone shares with me.

I go into this new performance starts in September...promising to do my best to be there for anybody who needs stories. I promise to be as patient as I can. I promise to challenge myself, and the audiences I encounter, to go as deep as we will, and share as openly as we must.

I promise to do my best to learn whatever it is people are trying to teach me.

I believe that sharing stories is the first step on the path to understanding each other...even when those stories are hard.

To all of my fellow artists - Good Luck in the 2016 - 2017 touring season!

To all of my fellow travelers on the raising children roller coaster - Good Luck and don't kill and eat them. That's illegal.

Son is in his 2nd year at RIT my daughter is at NCSSM

To all of my fellow educators, let's get with the knowledge enabling!

To all of my fellow humans who are going to be making the circuit around the sun for the next 365 days, let's see to it that as many of us arrive safely on the other side of this year as possible!

Let The New Performance Year Begin!

(Bangs the Gong)

Happy Learning!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Power of Words: Reaching the Reluctant Reader

Photo Credit Jonathan Van Ark

I am not a reluctant reader. I have never been a reluctant reader. My insatiable desire to be wrapped in the printed word started when I was about four years old, and it has never abated.

For my bibliophilic brethren and sisteren, this sentiment is neither odd nor novel. Of course books are our life's blood! Of course we can think of few things better than curling up with a stack of beloved tomes, or a new series, and shutting out the mundane for a few days as we page our way through entire worlds of knowledge or entertainment.

As a young person, I did not understand anyone who did not share this love. How could anybody not love books? How could anyone not love reading?

Well, many years, and lots of life later, I understand that lots of people do not love reading. There are many reasons why they might not like it...or might think they do not like it, but that is neither here nor there. The question for educators and parents is about improving a student's motivation to read.

The approach that makes the most sense to me is outlined in a book called I Read, But I Don't Get It by Cris Tovani.  Simply put, people who read well and effectively read strategically. This process comes naturally to some, but not others. For reluctant or struggling readers, they must learn how to read strategically one step at a time. Unfortunately, we don't teach this process in school. If you don't intuit it, you are out of luck. (Since writing this piece, I have been told that there are places in the country where teachers are tackling the process of reading. I hope this becomes a movement!)

So. What does a 'good' reader do?

- Relate the text back to their own experiences
- Look for clues or subtext in the words and images
- Consider the outcomes of the events as they unfold
- Consider what they think might happen
- Come up with what they might have done if they had written the story.
- Restate ideas and concepts in their own words or thoughts
- Approach text with specific goals in mind
- Consider the way the author uses words and context to develop ideas or evoke images
- Follow characters as they develop
- Connect with the text on multiple levels

Question 1: How on earth do you teach all of that?
Question 2: How do you get someone who doesn't want to read in the first place to do any of that?

A friend of mine, Mark Spring, works with an organization here in Durham, NC called Student U. They just had their culminating reading project in the summer middle school program. This is what they did.

The sixth grade students were assigned the book The Outsiders.
There were four classes of sixth graders.
Each class was only assigned one fourth of the book.

Only having to read 1/4 of the book made many of these kids cheer. They wouldn't have to read the whole 'boring' thing.

Each class got a roll of butcher paper.

Every single page of their quarter of the book was printed and glued down to the top half of their roll. This left lots of blank space.

The students made notes around the pages about vocabulary they didn't know, defining the words in bright markers.

They looked at events on each page, and made comments about how those events related back to things they had heard about or experienced.

They shared ideas and hopes and wishes in that empty space. Ideas about their own lives as well as the story unfolding before them.

They made predictions about what they thought would happen. They recounted times when they had the same kinds of feelings as the characters. They gave advice to the characters.

They drew pictures that represented ideas or feelings.

They made predictions about what would happen if the characters made certain choices.

The space around the pages filled with the work of the readers.

At the end of the summer session, all four classes gathered. They taped their sheets together and each class got to see what the other classes had done.

I was invited to the Scroll Event where the sixth grade unfurled their scroll. I walked the entire book, page by page, and saw how the kids had chosen to tackle their quarters.

Sixth graders are funny. They were complaining about how hot it was, how much their arms hurt from holding up this long sheet of paper, and any other thing kids complain about, but any time I asked about the section they were holding, they would snap right out of complaining mode, and start telling me about what they'd contributed.

These kids were extremely proud of the work they'd done. I heard about their budding political beliefs, their particular thoughts about the Duke Health Systems, the words they'd defined, and how they felt about the characters.

When the scrolls were finally together, what lay before us was a page by page graphic of the amount of work your brain does when you are deeply reading a piece of fiction. It was fascinating.  Then came the kicker.

Mark asked, "How many of you read the whole book?"

Almost all of the kids raised their hands.

Despite only being responsible for 1/4 of the book, and not having time in class to read, most of them read the whole book on their own at some point this last summer.

They couldn't resist the lure. They got seduced into reading by reading. It was a beautiful thing.

There is joy in reading. I am glad these kids got to feel it. Now, if you'll excuse me...Mary Stewart is calling.

Happy Reading.