11 July 2017

Seeking Contradictions

The Teachers Write virtual summer camp with Gae Polisner, Kate Messner, Jo Knowles, Jen Vincent and friends officially starts this week!! 

I'm not ready, for all kinds of reasons. Like, 
  1. How scary is it to say, "I'm finally gonna start writing a novel today." Such a huge endeavor! It's not like I don't have material: I have a ton of research and the family history that sparked the idea in the first place. 
  2. Maybe I'm overwhelmed by too much family history material? I've got two characters based on that family history. But I don't really know them—yet—despite a plethora of facts.
  3. I have no idea how to write a historical fiction novel. Maybe it's not a novel. Maybe it's a short story? Is it prose or verse? Maybe I should start writing and see what it wants to become?  That's what I do with yarn when I'm trying to get to know it. I just start knitting and see what happens. 
  4. How to start? I don't know where the beginning is, or I'd start there. Maybe I should just start writing and wherever the beginning is located, it'll surface eventually.
Really, for someone who claims to be a teacher of writing, I have no idea how to do this thing. (Does anyone? Seriously, that's not rhetorical.) 

And then there's the little voice in my head who is one tough bitchacho. She wonders, "Aren't you just a coach of teachers who may or may not teach writing, Jenny? I mean, how relevant are you now that you're an instructional coach, not a classroom teacher?" There it is: The brutal truth about one of my deepest fears.

My inner critic/bitchacho reminds me of the character Svetlana from the tv show Shameless (which is most definitely not safe for work, school, or some homes. But watch! Decide for yourself!) Svetlana, both the tv character and my imaginary inner critic are brilliant, sexy, and cruelly honest. Elbow propped on the arm of my faux leather couch, she lounges gracefully, cigarette held lightly in elegant fingers, shrewdly calculating my worth with narrow eyes. She deconstructs both the living room chaos and my psyche with cool detachment.

"Jenny, you start things. You never finish. You like starting only." She places the cigarette between her lips with a delicate air of certainty, inhaling and exhaling luxuriously slow. "See the unfinished knitting and piles of books to be read?" She waves her cigarette hand with a flourish, pointing. "You have two computers, ipad, iphone, and Chromebook all within reach from chair. You distract yourself to death and accomplish nothing."

I quit smoking nearly 30 years ago, but stress, crafting the paragraph above, and Svetlana (both tv and my imaginary frenemy) make me want to start again, right now. Right. Now. But my husband stated that would be a "divorceable" offense back in 1996, and no one is truer to their word.* Plus I'm asthmatic, so it'd also be a death sentence. Picking at the peeling couch, Svetlana says, "You'll end up alone. Or dead. No smoking." 

---------- (Break for a bowl of ice cream) -----------

Okay, I'm back and plagued with questions.

First, the asterisk (*). Can you believe he only named one? Ah, youth.

So anyway, why am I so compelled to tell this story, yet not compelled to plant my butt in the chair, put my fingers on the keyboard and DO IT? Do I even like writing, or do I like having written?

Do I want to write my family history or do I want to tell a good story based on my family history? And can it be a comedy? History was funny, right? 

"But you are not funny," Svetlana curls her legs up behind her on the couch and settles in for a long vigil of doubt planting.

Svetlana on Shameless is complicated, both endearing and ruthless. I love her, and I hate her. Yet, I am fascinated by this character who has morphed into my demon slash muse this evening. And this reminds me of a lesson I learned from Matt de la Peña on his author visit to my school a couple years ago. He said that he searches for the contradictory truths in a character: that a character might have committed an awful crime but also be compassionate enough to give up his crowded auditorium seat for a younger girl. And once he discovers the contradiction, he feels like he knows the character. It may not become part of the story, but it's part of the back story. This tension of opposite truths is essential to fully fleshed characterization. Most of us humans, as well as ALL the characters on Shameless, are deeply flawed, yet we have varying degrees of redeemable qualities. I don't know the contradictions of my characters. But I feel better knowing this is a goal. I had to write my way through to this part of the blog post to reveal this lesson I already knew. 

Why am I doing this to myself?!

I believe in the power of writing teachers who write, who wrestle with ideas and pin them to the page. So, despite the sleek Svetlana's blunt, demotivating truths, I'm gonna reread the advice I have always given my students from Anne Lamont's Bird by Bird about the "one-inch picture window," that is, narrowing focus to a manageable goal. In this case, my goal is to discover the contradictions in my two main characters.  I'm going to accomplish this by doing what I asked them to do: WRITE.

Then I'm going to follow the best advice for life I've ever been given from my former assistant principal Dave Meyer: "Let it evolve." It's brilliant because it applies, no matter the situation.

Stay tuned for progress. Perhaps I can ignite that spark into a decent flame. 

So piss off, Svetlana!  

01 June 2016

Defy the Stars

Dear Class of 2019,

On this, our last day together, and also the last day of my 22nd year of teaching, indeed, the last day of my traditional classroom teacher career, at least for now, it seems like a good time to reflect.  Yet I have avoided this moment for months. I did not want to say goodbye. It seems too final. Too sentimental. I might cry if I let myself think about how much I will miss the classroom, though I’m excited about the change in our futures. I find myself overwhelmed, so instead I will tell you a small story that’s really about, among other things:

* A teacher 
* Some hope
* A lot of Membean words
* Some Socratic Circles
* An author virtual visit
* A bunch of good books 
* Arguments about who gets the good chair
* And quite a lot of shenanigans

Seriously, looking back on our time together, I can’t recall a single day I didn’t look forward to 6th Period in Room 4.  It is my sincerest hope that you felt the same.  This room, this community, is a safe space because YOU make it that way, and I thank you for your generosity to one another.  In an interview, John Green said,  “What I like about reading together is that we all make it happen together. Of course even amid shared experience we’re still alone… each reading of each book is unique. But what a comfort it is to share readings and experiences. How lucky we are when we get to be alone together.” I saw this magic in action after we read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  It was Homecoming Week, and I was concerned about some “traditions” that have come into existence in recent years: jello-wrestling and “Daddy’s money greenout.” As we discussed the essential scene in the book where Arnold plays on the rich, white basketball team against Rowdy and poor reservation team, I tossed out the question: “How would Rowdy and Junior feel if the Reardan fans started chanting about how rich they are? Saying ‘Daddy’s money’ and wearing green shirts and ‘making it rain?’” I watched the eyes widen and people in both circles lean in. Many of you were offended on the characters’ behalf, yet others chimed in with “It’s a tradition!” and “It’s all in good fun!” Some of you were uncomfortable at the tension between wanting to carry on a tradition and not wanting to be like the kids in the book. It was a stimulating conversation that allowed us to enter the scene, bringing our shared life experience with us to shine a new light on the situation in the book and in our own lives. I challenge you to create a new ritual that might become a tradition, one grounded in positive sportsmanship and empathy, if you have the courage to speak out and lead by your fine example. That was just one amazing gem of a day among many this year. How lucky we were to "be alone together" with this story in a place where everyone’s ideas are heard and valued. You are an eloquent group of serious talkers and listeners.  

As I think about the threads that tie our readings together, I am circling around some central questions:
Why is humanity so violent?  How do we stop the cycle of violence?
What does it mean to love someone? (friends, family, romance, love, lust)
How and where do you find hope when you are desolate and lost?
How do we define ourselves? What happens when you choose to define yourself outside of the boundaries set by your culture?  What happens when fate forces you to live outside those lines?
What happens when society defines you differently because of your outward appearance?
Scylla or Charybdis?  (Homer’s version of “Would you rather…”)  Reservation or Reardan?
What should or shouldn’t we read and talk about in school and why? 

As you head off to the high school, think about Junior’s observation, “Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.”  This is actually the central struggle of many of the characters we’ve studied like Hans, Liesel, Katniss, Romeo & Juliet, Rashad & Quinn, Ryan Dean West, Robbie and Austin. It is also a central struggle of adolescence. Don’t let your individuality be snuffed out by the communities to which you choose to belong. Each of you is valuable and precious the way you are at this moment. Keep true to your internal compass and choose your own path. Don’t let your friends, your team, your enemies, or your community choose for you. My deepest hope for you is to continue to discover who you are and for you to be that authentic self as much as possible.

One quotation that has been returning to me again and again lately is Romeo’s quote, upon hearing of Juliet’s alleged death, “I defy you, stars!” Though it’s ultimately futile, there’s a raw bravery in rejecting fate or what others define as your destiny. If Romeo would slow down and think things out for a minute, he COULD have defied his stars. As Finn, in Andrew Smith’s 100 Sideways Miles says, “We feel as though there are no choices we’d made through all those miles and miles behind us that hadn’t been scripted by our fathers, and that our futures are only a matter of flipping the next page that was written ahead of us.” You are NOT trapped inside a script or destiny written by others. You create your own destiny. If your “stars” are obstacles or a trapped mode of existence, flip the script. Defy the stars. Get after it!

As I look back on the year, and on my career, I am reminded of Liesel’s thoughts in The Book Thief, “When she came to write her story, she would wonder when the books and the words started to mean not just something, but everything.”  Books and words have meant everything to me for as long as I can remember. They are my escape, my refuge, my strength and my hope. Sharing my love of them is my legacy to you, whether I’m reading aloud, providing you reading time, placing the right book in your hands at the right time (my superpower!) or providing you with a classroom library. Stephen King said, “Books are uniquely portable magic.”  May that magic be a part of your life always, especially when you don’t think you have time for it.  Make time. Squeeze it in during lunch or before bed. You won’t be sorry. In Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith, Austin tells us, “History shows that an examination of the personal collection of titles in any man’s library will provide something of a glimpse into his soul.” Well, you’ve seen a glimpse into my soul by the books lining the walls of Room 4.  I hope you found a little piece of yours here as well. I will leave them for the next generation of students to discover.

You have tolerated all my teaching experiments with gracious engagement. You have embraced my commitment to open my room to student teachers and given them positive growth experiences they will never forget. You have challenged me to continue learning how to be the most effective teacher I can be.  I know that I failed you on multiple occasions and that we didn’t cover everything you wanted to learn. In 22 years, the one constant is that there will never be enough time. But the great thing about learning is that it never stops. And I have faith that you will all pursue learning for the rest of your lives. Maybe writing, or genealogy, or knitting, or archery. The key is to figure out what your future teachers’ passions are and learn all you can. ALL of us have something unique to offer, so embrace the challenge, padawan learners!

I celebrate you today.  You ARE ready for the next stage. I just hope they are ready for you!  As Margo says in Paper Towns,  “It is so hard to leave—until you leave.” Enjoy this day, but don’t long too much for the past.  The best days are always ahead of you. But in the days of darkness, treasure this gem from Sherman Alexie:  “Humor was an antiseptic that cleansed the deepest of personal wounds.” No matter how wounded, laugh as much as much as possible.  Find the irony, the absurdity, the slapstick silliness and hyperbole in your situation. You might still be on the downward spiral, but it’ll be more fun if you laugh all the way down. Who says you’ll never need what you learned in English class in real life?!  Please keep in touch, and remember, when all else fails,  read, write and seek enlightenment.

Make wise choices!

Mrs. Paulsen 
aka Five Feet of Fierce (or Fury)

25 March 2016

"B" is for "Bruce Springsteen" / Thunderstruck

Originally posted at Literacy & NCTE Blog 
 This is a guest blog by Jennifer Paulsen, President of the Iowa Council Teachers of English.
Photo Credit: Erin Miller. Jennifer Paulsen and Mitch Adams, Legislative Assistant to Representative Dave Loebsack
I was due for a bit of serendipity.
A three-hour flight delay in Chicago played havoc with my Washington, DC, fantasy librarypalooza plans: Library of Congress, Folger Shakespeare Library, and Daughters of the American Revolution Genealogy Library in one fell swoop fell through, and I had settled for a majestic whirlwind sweep of the Library of Congress, losing my beloved hand-knit purple hat in the process. Then a torrential downpour turned my scenic evening walk to meet an old friend for dinner into a challenging obstacle course, wading through flooded streets sans umbrella, trying to follow unfamiliar directions on my phone while keeping my reading glasses dry enough to see and my contacts from being washed from my eyes. Alone in a strange city, I was soaked to the bone and exhausted by the time my cab deposited me on the hotel curb after a lovely, if uncomfortably damp, late dinner. I fell asleep uneasy, hoping the very late arrival of my friend Erin would bring sunshine and courage.
I had not attended a political gathering of any sort, unless you count my grandfather’s kitchen table, since the 1987 Iowa Caucus. A short stint on the Iowa Core Commission completed my nonvoting involvement with government. But when NCTE President Doug Hesse issued a challenge at the 2016 NCTE Convention Affiliate Breakfast to send a delegation to Washington, DC, for NCTE Literacy Advocacy Day, I felt called to a learning opportunity that might be beneficial in representing the interests of our Iowa Council of Teachers of English (ICTE) membership. So Erin Miller and I, president-elect and president of ICTE respectively, had traveled a long distance to meet with our representatives and advocate for literacy education. To say the least, I was out of my comfort zone. But Erin makes me feel brave, so with her very late (or very early, depending how you frame it) arrival on the scene, I prepared to seize the day.
Jennifer Paulsen, Erin Miller and Congressman Dave Loebsack
Our first item of business was an invitation from Representatives Dave Loebsack (D) and David Young (R) to Coffee with Your Congressman. As we signed in and wrote our name tags, we were warmly welcomed by a young man who, as it turned out, was also from my adopted hometown of Cedar Falls, Iowa. I studied his friendly face, dark hair, and blue eyes while he examined my name tag again, on finding out Erin and I are teachers.
“Mrs. Paulsen?” he asked. “I think you were my teacher.”
Incredulous, I asked his name again.
“It’s Mitch Adams. Class of 2003. Aren’t you the one who was crazy about Bruce Springsteen?”
And there it was. A precious gift of surprise. After thirteen years.
“Yes! That’s me! We studied Springsteen lyrics in Modern Literature.”
“‘Thunder Road’ was my song,” he said.
“My favorite!”
“I know! That’s why I picked it. Did it get me extra points?”
We dissolved into laughter, his sweet smile and merry eyes recalling his seventeen-year-old face to my mind, and I saw him clearly, lanky form half-sitting, half-leaning over a friend’s shoulder, laughing in the row of orange desks parallel to the windows in my old classroom at the high school, before the renovation.
We chatted about his friends and siblings and his job as a legislative assistant to Representative Loebsack as he smoothly steered us toward the refreshments, introducing us to the other staffers. He slipped away to visit with newcomers as both representatives introduced themselves. It was a lovely, lively conversation of personal connections and mutual interests marked by genuine curiosity about NCTE’s positions, which we would discuss in more detail at our afternoon appointment with Representative Young. Both men and their staffs were gracious hosts, and I looked forward to continuing the conversation.
As Erin and I worked our way toward the door, I found Mitch so that I could take a picture and say goodbye.
“‘Thunder Road,” I laughed, shaking my head, still not believing I’d come all this way only to find a bit of home waiting to sustain me.
“I think of you whenever I hear it,” he chuckled.
As far as legacies go, I’ll cherish it, Mitch.
My heart soared as Erin and I headed to our next appointment, the chorus rolling to its explosive apex in my mind, “Hey, what else can we do now? / Except roll down the window / And let the wind / Blow back your hair . . .”
I floated through the rest of the day on this sweet serendipity. Fearless.

Jenny Cameron Paulsen is an English teacher by day and ninja bookworm by night who grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, and now lives on a farm in Cedar Falls, Iowa, with her dear husband Chuck and her teenage son Tommy. For the past twenty-two years, teenagers have been her chosen people.

25 September 2015

A is for Attending (not Assuming): #reflectiveteacher Resumes!

Image courtesy of http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/ the-alphabet/images/22186936/title/letter-photo
I know I'm a better teacher when I'm blogging my reflections. Luckily, @teachthought has provided me with a challenge I think I can work with: The Basics of Reflective Teaching Slo-Blog. As suggested, I have adopted an ABC framework, twenty-six entries relating to reflective teaching to be posted at any time this year rather than a 30-day challenge. Let's see what happens!

One of the things I struggle with the most as an instructor is paying attention in the moment. I get so caught up in teaching, and finding the handouts, and figuring out what we're doing next, and remembering which class did what yesterday, and WHY IS THE TECH NOT WORKING???!! I get so mired down in the classroom minutiae that I’m not always attentive to what students are trying to tell me, in words or in actions, much less reflective about what it means.

In my intervention notebook about a week ago, I noted that one of my students was spending a great deal of time staring into space instead of reading. I will call her Ana. Every day I have to personally invite her to start reading while nearly everyone else in the class is already into the routine. This particular day, she had a great deal of difficulty continuing to keep her eyes on the page. When her eyes weren’t wandering around the room, she was talking to her neighbors. I was getting pretty irritated she wouldn't buckle down and focus. I felt like we were developing a negative relationship because of it.

These anecdotal records are very helpful snippets of thought and often lead to further reflection, when I can carve out the time (which is not often enough).  I made an important follow-up error though. On the first day I noticed her lack of focus, instead of just writing it down in my record, I should’ve sat down next to her and listened her thoughts on why this was happening.  But I didn’t.

In all the hustle bustle of the of the forty-five minute class, I struggle to implement conferences in a systematic way. However, I had an Aha Moment when Kylene Beers suggested in this Facebook post that perhaps instead of just recording book logs, we should have kids answer some check-in questions about their independent reading. So I took those questions and made them into a reflective document to get some much-needed feedback from my 132 students. While it doesn't substitute for a conference, this feedback can clarify immediately who is most in need of one at this moment.

What I read on Miss Ana’s reflection humbled me. When asked, “How can I help you read more?” she responded with, “Help me find a book that will help me stay focused.” When asked if she enjoyed her reading, she said she had trouble finding books that would keep her focused and interested. She’d been reading a complicated fantasy book, one she picked up during a "speed-dating" with books activity, for about a week and a half. She was two-thirds of the way through it, but she was clearly not engaged.

This is my fault.  

I was not attentive to the clear signals she’d been giving me.  I was treating her like a discipline problem rather than a kid who needed a better book match.  She didn’t know she had permission to quit an independent reading book. If I had taken a moment or two to attentively reflect on what might be driving her behavior, I could’ve helped her solve this problem a week ago. Instead, I assumed 1) she was not an avid reader, and 2) she knew my “rules” for book abandonment.

When I sat down and talked to her during our intervention period of the day, I said, “You know, I just read your response on the reading check-in, and I was wondering, what was the last book you read that helped you stay focused?”

Ana’s shoulders relaxed immediately. Whew! She wasn't in trouble! She was anxious to tell me about the Canterwood Crest books and her interest in horses. “Can you help me find another series?” she asks.  This “reluctant” reader wasn’t resisting at all! Why, why, why had I not simply visited with her about her reading earlier?!

Immediately, I thought of Miranda Kenneally’s book Racing Savannah, a volume in her terrific series featuring strong, female teen narrators in the fictional Tennessee community of Thousand Oaks. This particular book is about complicated family and class relationships, as well as a teen romance, on a Southern horse farm. I don't have a lot of books about horses, though we raise horses on our Iowa family farm, but I can certainly find them for Ana! I told her to abandon her current book, unless she really wanted to finish it. And most importantly, I told her she didn’t need my permission to do so.  

She is in charge of her independent reading choices.

I asked her to spend ten minutes with this new book to see if it was right for her. Then I walked away and watched. She did not look up once in those ten minutes as the book sucked her into the lives of spunky Savannah, the horse trainer's daughter who wants to become a racing jockey, and Jack, the bright and privileged son of her dad's boss. It was the first time all year Ana read for ten straight minutes.

After a five-minute break at the bell, she spent ten more minutes reading without interruption.

In fact, all week, she has not looked up from her book during reading time, nor has she talked to her neighbors. Yesterday, when I announced it was time to transition to our lesson, she actually groaned, “But this book is SO GOOD!”  Such is the power of the right book, in the hands of the right kid, at the right time. (Thank you, Ms. Kenneally!)

Ana asked if I could help her find a series because most kids, like adult readers, want to hear more about the characters they love, want stories that continue, and they want to know they have a plan for what to read next. A series is one of the best ways to accomplish that. Ana already knew this! If I’d been paying closer attention, I would’ve remembered it, too.

I turned an engagement problem into a discipline problem. But Ana is self-disciplined when she's focused and engaged. All I had to do was pay attention, listen, and act accordingly.

Today I told Ana, I had picked up her next book at Barnes and Noble over the weekend, a new Thousand Oaks book called Jessie’s Girl, about a country music singer. The surprised smile on her face was worth so much more than the cost out of my pocket. A little attention goes a long, long way.

30 November 2014

Future Dreams for Education

Day 24:  What are your dreams for education in the future?

I dream of:
longer class periods
smaller classes
more think time
more collaborative time

23 November 2014

White Board Wonderland

Day 23 How did your Attitude of Gratitude work out – tell us about it.

Well, I have to say that the "attitude of gratitude" challenge has been a raging success. When I thought about getting student involvement, I thought immediately about how much they like to write on the board, and since I either use the projector or the easel pad, it was no great loss to give up the whiteboard to student control. 

After the first day, they needed little coaxing. Often first hour reminded me long before the bell that I needed to post the gratitude prompt on the board. Occasionally, something cheeky would appear on the board, and after consulting the urban dictionary, I would erase it between classes.  : )  After all, they are in junior high. One day, the word "root" kept disappearing from the phrase "root beer" and someone would notice and correct it.  For the most part though, their gratitude statements were sweet and endearing and fun, like most junior high kids.  I even got in a few teachable moments for spelling and punctuation, as students were strict about proper rules being followed on the board (if only it transferred to their writing, alas!)

As time went on, more and more teachers' names appeared, and so I shared my gratitude board with the staff via email. Since then, multiple teachers have come in and posted their own gratitude on the board. So it would seem the gratitude is indeed infectious. And I'm feeling happier, just as the gratitude challenge website promised I would.

I really like keeping the whiteboard interactive, and I'm wondering how to modify the prompt for December. Perhaps we could count our blessings?  At any rate, I'm sure we'll think of something to last us until March Madness when the board becomes a Tournament of Books. 

See more pictures at http://mrsjenniferpaulsen.weebly.com/gratitude-challenge

22 November 2014

It's all my Husband's Fault--Family Traditions

It’s all my husband’s fault—the knitting, I mean.  Worried his Great-Aunt Carol was getting on in years, Chuck predicted the family tradition of awarding all new family members matching hand knit Christmas stockings would die out, unless someone younger took up the craft of knitting.  His mother assured him she could figure it out.  But ignoring her, he turned to me and his brother’s wife Debbie and announced, “I nominate you two.”   Debbie stated she wasn’t remotely interested and helpfully pointed out that Chuck could learn to knit.  He was simply too busy, or so he said, so that left me.

Curiosity overwhelmed me.  Why was my husband being so sentimental?  Was this so important to cause him to open his emotional lockbox and let a feeling escape by verbalizing it?!  In front of his family, no less? He never fails to intrigue me by exposing never-before-suspected mysteries in his personality. 

Hope rose in my heart.  Was it possible I could become more to his family than Wife-of-Chuck or Mother-of-First-Born-Grandchild-Tommy or Liberal-Democrat-with-Disastrous-Financial-Mind? I mean, since bearing the first grandchild, I was pretty much only useful as a taxi for said child.  The thought of adding Knitter-of-Christmas-Stockings to my short list of roles intoxicated me.  Visions of knitting needles danced in my head.  I could uphold a family tradition.  I could belong! 

Eight years after that fateful conversation, I completed my first Christmas stocking by recreating the pattern on graph paper from the stocking I got as a wedding gift.