life, teaching, Uncategorized, writing

Dear Teacher: Thoughts on a New School Year

It’s that time again: Parents prepare to send their kids off to school for the next go-round, hoping that this year will be the best so far. Teachers eagerly decorate classrooms, plan vivid and engaging lessons, check class rosters, and pick apart data.

As someone who spent 15 years in the secondary classroom before moving into higher ed, I distinctly recall all the dreamy potential that this time of year can represent for parents, students, and teachers — it’s a blank slate, a fresh start, and a million other tabla-rasa cliches rolled into one. It is hope and nerves. It is the smell of paper, the satisfaction of checked-off lists, and the promise of a brightly lit, welcoming space away from home. It is its own magic.

But the real work is about to begin. The daydream of clean faces, happy chatter, and new clothes will soon be supplanted by young people facing issues from abuse to homelessness (and more). The shiny technology and glossy posters will matter less than empty stomachs and forgotten texts. Teacher, what will you do then?

I don’t mean to quell the inspiration of a new year. I really don’t. Love those new stickers for your gradebook. Enjoy the cool, smooth plastic of fresh whiteboard markers. But also understand that the highs of August wear off quickly, and if you don’t love teaching and students, endorphins and dopamine will only last so long.

Teacher, I hope you are excited by those learners seated before you. I hope you are just as passionate about your subject as you have ever been and that your passion is virally contagious. I hope you have ideas for activities, strategies, and projects that will make Disney World seem dull. And above all else, I hope that the instructional fire within you burns bright All. Year. Long.

I wish you all this not just because I’m a parent, not just because I’ve been there, but because our profession (and our youth) need you now more than ever. Amid the bickering about pay scales, the ingratitude of an uninformed public, and the ever-increasing demands of governments large and small, remember your calling. Education isn’t just grading worksheets and administering assessments. It truly, truly is touching lives, leaving a legacy, and yes, making the greatest differences.

Maybe you won’t be a movie teacher like Jaime Escalante or Erin Gruwell. Maybe you’ll just be yourself, whatever that means. But you are exactly the person that at least one student is desperately seeking. Be the calm in their storm. Be the high point of their day. Be unforgettable.

America, its children, and its future are relying on you. We know it’s hard. We know there will be days of frustration, tears, and inimitable joy, sometimes all at once. Teaching means poetry. You chose this life, and we so deeply admire you.

Greet this year with greatness, and then nurture it, sustain it. You can do it, our children can do it, and tomorrow will be better because of it. This is your time. Inspire.

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poetry, publishing, teaching, writing

The Joy of Literary Volunteerism

For about six months or so now, I’ve been volunteering for a local arts organization. I’ve provided workshops, seminars, and even the occasional reading. Here’s what I’ve learned: The most rewarding part of being a poet is passing on the joy of writing to others.

Sure, that sounds trite, but it’s true. And it’s not that I hadn’t grasped this notion previously. I mean, I’m a teacher after all. But here’s the thing — teaching adults who truly want to learn the craft is a world apart from teaching English courses for a paycheck.

I get to have a good time discussing poetry and how to make it, and newbies find out a few tricks and techniques that perhaps they hadn’t considered. My favorite is the generative workshop, where we use various prompts to craft the beginnings of new work. That silent hum of concentrated creativity fills the room, and you can tell that vivid things are happening in everyone’s mental theater. It’s almost (cliche warning) magical.

And while I love my day job and all it provides, for sheer joy of teaching, it’s hard to beat the volunteer space. No grades, no homework, just genuine fun with words. I’ve also noticed that giving back a little something to the craft that has meant so much to me restores my passion for the written word. Watching people grasp the potential of poems reminds me why I do this work, and believe me, it is work. But it’s a labor of love, certainly.

life, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

A plea for my students

If you read these posts regularly, you know I’m not in the habit of asking for things. I believe that people read what I write because they want to receive something, not necessarily give something. But today I approach all of my site followers with a simple request.

This year, my creative writing students will be writing and making (binding) their own novellas. For that to happen, we need a bunch of supplies. In fact, more supplies than my little department budget will allow me to afford. To address this issue, I’ve started a DonorsChoose page that allows my friends, family, followers, and others to donate to this cause.

I’d deeply appreciate any donations you can offer. They don’t have to be big. In fact, if each follower of this blog gave $1, I’d reach my goal by day’s end. If you are fortunate enough to be able to give more, please do so. My student writers are incredibly gifted, and they deserve this opportunity.

Summer School
A group of my students complete a literacy project connected to short stories we’d read.

To help out these budding Hemingways, Dickinsons, and Shakespeares, please follow this link:

https://www.donorschoose.org/project/novella-notebooks/2080290/?rf=link-siteshare-2016-07-teacher-teacher_3033778&challengeid=20799041

My students thank you, I thank you, and literature’s future thanks you. Let’s make something special happen for these kids!

poetry, Uncategorized

The Catharsis of Found Poetry

FoundPoetry1It was the end of the first week of school. Students in my creative writing classes had been pounded all week with Strunk & White, William Zinsser, and the thousand and one unofficial “rules” of good writing. It was time for expression. It was time to put the “creative” back in creative writing.

I thumped a load of TIME magazines down on the table at the front of the classroom along with scissors, glue sticks, tape, and construction paper.  Then I began explaining found poetry: that crazy-but-sometimes-deep hodgepodge of discovered, connected everyday language. My challenge to this group: “Take seemingly disparate words and phrases from these publications and bring them together in a way that appeals to your mind.” No limitations other than that. Just cut and paste. Form something that makes a semblance of sense to you — that’s it.

Then something magical happened. Students began to string together words and phrases in unexpected ways, forming verses about topics ranging from racial prejudice to missing class because of nature’s call. Some were expectedly cliche, but others struck a nerve, both in their authors and in me as their teacher. It was splendid. It was creative. It was (pardon the triteness) inspiring.

This was not the first time I’d seen the “cut and paste” exercise used — teachers have known about newspaper poetry and similar tricks for years. And of course, I’d been fortunate enough to have a grad school professor who encouraged us to use this exercise to loosen up our own creative muscles before. But when these high schoolers were set loose on the project, there was an unusual fervor in the air — it was as though they were finding treasures that would help display their souls. After a long week of reading the advice of the old, the dead, and the mundane, found poetry was just what the doctor ordered.

For us as writers, the occasional dabble into arts and crafts can likewise be a refresher.  When faced with being stuck, the switch to tactile-kinesthetic arranging of words like refrigerator magnet poetry or word tiles can allow another part of the brain to do the work for a while. And sometimes, when monotony brings us down, colorful paper and scissors and paste can also remind us of a simpler time — one that perhaps inspired us to undertake the writer’s journey in the first place.

For more examples of my students’ awesome work: https://sites.google.com/site/harrisoncreativewriters/

 

poetry, Uncategorized

An Address to New Teachers Everywhere

A group of summer school students work on their 3D maps of Ship-Trap Island, our project from the short story The Most Dangerous Game.
A group of summer school students working on their 3D maps of Ship-Trap Island, our project from the short story The Most Dangerous Game.

If my loyal readers will allow me, I would like today to take off my “poet’s cap” and put on my teacher’s mortarboard instead for just one post.

As summer draws to its end and a new school year eagerly waits right around the corner of the calendar, I feel the need to post something here for all you newly hired teachers and professors. I, too, was once that first-year teacher. Now I serve as a mentor to up-and-coming educators. In that capacity, I have composed a brief address to teachers new to my school. I feel that this address would benefit teachers in any school, but especially independent schools like my own. Here, for your encouragement, is that short speech:      

ADDRESS TO NEW VANGUARD TEACHERS
By John Davis Jr., educator and poet

Before you lies an incredible journey. You have the chance to truly and positively change lives if you take advantage of this moment in your career. At Vanguard, you can teach as you have always wanted to teach, and you can become the servant leader that American education so sorely needs today.

Here is the place where your grandest experiments and classroom daydreams can come to life, if you let them. Now is the time that all your compassion, all your patience, and all your skills will be needed daily. You will have to hug children that others have found unlovable, and you will have to give structure to students that have never known boundaries. You will need to prepare your best advice for broken hearts, best-friend betrayals, and even divorces and deaths. These students need your voice, and they need your shoulders.

They will seek you out to tell you of all their firsts. When they pass their driving exam, compliment their shiny new permit photo. When they lose a beloved family pet, put your arm around them and console them. When they fail at anything, encourage them. When they ask you the hard questions, be honest with them.  They’ll respect you more for the truth than for some typical grown-up cliché. And at the end of the day, real life is really what they need to hear about the most.

They will bring you food they have cooked in culinary arts. Eat it enthusiastically, even if it’s horrible. They will show you pictures of what they plan to wear to prom. Tell them that it’s incredible, even if it’s hideous. They will proudly exhibit their latest woodworking project for you. Tell them how artistic it is, no matter how loose-jointed and awkward it may look.  

Dress like you’re the boss, but be prepared to get sweaty, dirty, and even occasionally bruised. But know above all that the labor, the grit, and the pain are all worth it. You will become to these students a parent, an older sibling, and eventually, a fond remembrance. Even when they go off to college, they’ll spend part of their break coming to see you again if you’ve done the job right.

And when they have long since graduated, found their way, and started adult lives of their own, rest assured that you will be a main character in the stories they tell their children. Your advice, your lessons, and your every idiosyncrasy will be recounted for another generation, not because you are a sage or a superhero, but because at one time in one child’s life, you cared.

Give them your 100 percent every day, even when you feel like you only have 10 percent left. Laugh with them, share with them; invent new games with them. The greatest stories of your teaching life are ahead of you, educator. Be prepared.

 

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Pick Five: A Burnout Prevention Strategy

handfiveIt’s that magical time of the academic year when teachers and professors are thoroughly sick and tired of everything school-related, and unfortunately, that also sometimes includes students. I know, I know. Those in the pedagogical arts are supposed to be compassionate souls who never tire of their charges — that doesn’t stop us from being human, however. Every year about this same time, when I feel the negative vibes besetting me daily, I have a little routine that I choose to follow that also serves me well as a writer. I pick five.

Here’s what I mean: I teach juniors and seniors in high school. Among my juniors, I pick out five or so that I know I can and will make a meaningful difference to in the school year yet to come, when they are seniors. My seniors, of course, are graduating, so it becomes my priority to begin thinking ahead for the next go-round. Who among those 11th graders will I impact in a way that makes me their most unforgettable teacher? How will I reach them profoundly, leaving my impression on their future? By “picking five,” I find a reason to stick around for yet another year. Even if I’m only there for those selected few, I know I will have achieved a purpose that is greater than succumbing to my stress and shucking the whole thing in favor of real estate sales or marketing (not that there’s anything wrong with those professions; they’re just the first couple that sprang to mind).

For writers (and poets especially), this strategy requires a little tweaking: Pick five writing goals that you haven’t achieved (realistic ones), or choose five poetic forms that you haven’t yet mastered. I’m still trying to write a reasonably decent villanelle, for example. Don’t try to force words into those forms of course — that never works — but allow those forms to become subconscious targets. When inspiration next strikes, see if one or more of those forms might be fitting for the topic. For writers of other genres, maybe your “five” can be some new narrative devices or dialogue tricks that you haven’t tried out. In any event, identifying five goals can be beneficial for just about anybody.

So, as summer vacations await and beautiful weather beckons beyond your window, don’t quit your day job. Think of five reasons to do what you do best. Maybe those five things, whatever they happen to be, will keep you in the game a little longer and preserve your sanity.

poetry, Uncategorized

One writer’s addiction

It isn’t alcohol. It isn’t drugs. It isn’t even something more abstract like attention or recognition. No, it’s office supplies. That’s right — stores like Staples, Office Depot, OfficeMax, and the wealth of other such outlets are my Achilles’ Heel.
As I’m beginning to prepare for my next residency in the UT MFA program, I have now the perfect excuse for going on huge buying sprees at my local office supply stores. “I just know I’m going to need these (whatever they are that is usually unnecessary).” My wife, bless her heart, has endured my office supply addiction now for the last eleven years. She’s very understanding about the whole thing.
I think there’s a combination of factors working against me in stores like Staples: 1. I’m a very sensory person (see “poet”). The smell of fresh paper, pencils, pens, notebooks, and other such items brings back a range of pleasant memories, and for me, those happy recollections are absolute kryponite.
Next, there’s the happily-colored environment that makes you feel like you will have such great fun if you just buy one more ballpoint pen. Of course, you get the thing you bought home and inevitably, it isn’t the party that was promised, but you still have something tangible and enjoyable.
Finally, there’s genetics. My family line, consisting of professors, teachers, and writers, has always been one drawn to office supplies. My father collects fine writing instruments, and my mother will buy almost anything in “cute” packaging. So, from a hereditary standpoint, I guess I’m disadvantaged also.
This time around, I’m avoiding the big office supply warehouses. I have accumulated everything I need to be the student and writer I have envisioned myself becoming, and I know that, should I need another index card/binder clip/printer cartridge, those things will be available. Hopefully, my budget and my brain can begin to heal from this endorphin-crazed pattern of behavior. Pardon me while I go sharpen a fresh box of No. 2 pencils. More to follow…