Friday, April 30, 2010

Survival Strategies

I somehow managed to survive my first year in grad school. I have also managed to (almost) finish my first year of teaching. Additionally I managed to do more than just survive in a long distance relationship; we are thriving and I can't wait to spend part of my summer in California with the boy.

Now that I have all this time on my hands, I've been reflecting on the things that have kept me sane these past eight months. Here is what I've come up with:
  • A good support network of friends and family
  • Poetry Poetry Poetry
  • Hugs from my students
  • Yummy breakfasts at Quiet Storm
  • Watching my poetry take new direction
  • Eating, drinking and being merry
  • Hulu and Netflix streaming
  • Reading the amazing Weave submissions
  • Manilla file folders
This list is in no way exhaustive, but it's a pretty good range of some of the places I've found solace. I will admit there were some other, not so healthy ways I've used to cope with stress (binge eat pizza all weekend!). I'm still learning a lot about stress management and what works well for me. From experience I've learned that no one thing is the cure all for everyone. I'm also learning who I can and cannot lean on, which is stressful in and of itself.  It's a process that I will continue to refine this summer in preparation for next fall. What are your stress management techniques?

I have also been thinking a lot about my thesis. I've been to read a book or so a day in order to really allow the work of others to shape me and my poetry. I want to be well prepared in the fall in order to ground myself amongst the work of others before me. What are you reading now? Suggestions?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Delcious Chapbooks + Back to Back Readings!

Just an update on some readings I'm doing next week. I'll be reading it up Friday and Saturday all over place (well, maybe just two places) and you should be there. Where? Read below to find out. And after that, check out the funny video my friend Robert made about Word Circus! A literary launch of independent publishers. Come and get your chapbooks. Delicious, delicious chapbooks.

Poetry Reading Final
Reader of Poetry
4/23/10 @ 7:30pm
Chatham University Pittsburgh, PA

AVA Poetry Reading
Reader of Poetry
4/24/10 @ 7:000pm
Shadow Lounge/AVA Pittsburgh, PA

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Teaching & Preparation

Last week I did very little in the way of preparation for my poetry lesson. I planned my lesson very quickly the day before and I decided to not include work from a famous poet. I'm not sure why. I suppose because I wanted them to have more time to write and read their poems out loud. I also wanted to play some writing games. Things I discovered during this lesson:
  • Always plan more than you think you need. Even if you don't get to everything, it's good to have a back up plan in case they finish quickly or just aren't engaged in the activity you plan.
  • Students might not be as excited about a project as you are, no matter how hard you try.
  • Environment will have a large affect on the productivity of your class. If you have an easily distracted group, consider your space with caution.
All of these things affected my lesson last week. I was ill prepared on a number of levels. Since my lesson was planned in haste I did not have time to consider a very hands on activity. I planned on having the students work collaboratively by playing a surrealist writing game, Exquisite Corpse. While they thought the name was cool, they did not enjoy the activity. They did not understand how the lines connected and kept trying to get them to "make sense." Also, these particular students are very attached to their own work so they did not like working collaboratively. While at first I found this unfortunate, I realized that I probably should have done more scaffolding beforehand, giving them samples of other collaborative poems. Their lack of interest also seems to be connected to their emotions; they simply like writing on their own and take pride in each poem.

Because the first activity did not go over well, it really set the tone for the rest of the class. The students sort of devolved into simply wanting to read their own poems in front of everyone, but would not listen when other students read aloud. I attempted to model and reward good speaking and listening skills, but perhaps by the end of the day they simply were not able to pull things together. We also were in an environment that made it difficult to focus. Most students were sitting on the floor in an area that was decorated with colorful wall paintings and objects hanging from the ceiling. They were also distracted by the teacher elevator and wanted to play with the buttons. It just kept getting worse and worse.

While I feel like I learned a lot from this particular class, it really was a tough experience. I never really totally lost control of the students, but I did have to continually re-engage them. When you are working with this particular age group (mostly 10-12 year olds) it seems that knowing where they are developmentally would help. If I really gear activities toward being hands on and social, they will be more engaged. I also found that if I can appeal to universal feelings through poetry, like feeling excluded, students really respond.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

One Down, One to Go

I am almost finished with one year of graduate school.

(Hang on, I need to write those words again.)

I am almost finished with one year of graduate school.

Ok, yeah that's about right. Well, sort of. I technically still have the summer and next summer too. But how did I get here? This time last year I was just getting accepted to my MFA program. I applied late, got accepted in April and from there on things became this spiral of events and movements, back bends and flips through fiery hoops. It also seems I will survive one year of teaching. How I managed both at the same time, I might never know.

I do have some insight. So much in fact, I feel that I may have actually become less wise, but more self-assured. By less wise I simply mean I am beginning to realize how much there is to know in the world. How much knowledge, the sheer number of words that have been put to the page, and how I will never read them all. I think I have learned so much about myself this year that I might need years afterward to process much of it. But I've also learned that life does not slow down or wait for you to catch up.

I have a lot of options in terms of my career and lifestyle that I have to begin researching. Should I go on for a Phd? Should I teach for a couple years first? Should I attempt a Phd in something else? I also have my personal life to consider. My partner lives in California and I would like to move to be closer to him. California is apparently desperate for public school teachers and I can easily transfer my teaching certification from Pennsylvania and look for work teaching middle or high school English and writing. I could also stay in Pittsburgh and continue teaching at my current job, since I have really enjoyed working with the gifted population.

With so many options, its no wonder I'm stressed.

I just dropped the SO off at the airport. He was in for a long visit and it's always so nice when he's here. But just when I get used to having him around, he has to leave again. In order to deal with this emotional stress, I'm going dancing on Saturday. Hardcore. I need to boogie away my tense muscles.

This is Just to Say, Hello Flying Octopi

Everything about teaching is tough. Most of it turns out in a completely different way than you expect. You have to be ready for a flying octopus. The unexpected. You plan and plan and then everything goes in a different direction. Students hear what they want. They behave in ways you could not expect. What you thought was clear, is jumbled and muddy. Perhaps that with experience, planning becomes more fluid and flexible to allow for these unexpected turns. You eventually prepare for flexibility, for the unexpected, for the flying octopi.

I planned a fun poetry lesson. I think it went over pretty well. It did not begin as I had expected. One of my students, the one from last week (who is not actually) named Samantha, was reluctant to come with me this week. Last week she would have jumped at the chance to come write poetry with me. She was the reason I offered to plan a simultaneous poetry lesson, while my friend Jeremy taught fiction. Well, this week, Samantha's friend was back. And initially her friend did not want to come with me. I managed to convince them both that poetry was going to be so much fun.

Then, again to my initial surprise, throughout the lesson, Samantha behaved strangely. She was put off by the praise I gave other students and seemed defensive if someone wrote a poem similar to hers (we were all using the same prompt, so they were bound to have some commonalities). She would accuse them of copying and at one point crumpled up a poem she wrote and threw it behind her. In short, she liked the one-on-one attention from last week, but got jealous this week. I should have seen that one coming.

I decided I could not give into her behavior. I praised her as much as I praised the other students. She really is exceptional at writing weirdly mature image-rich poetry. Another student has a particular gift for haikus. Samantha's friend has a knack for using grand, sweeping, "poetic" language in her poems. Other student poems were sweet, fun and playful. I praised each student for what they did well and encouraged each to try something new. I did my best.

Another surprise for me was the students' interest in performance; these poets are particularly interested in reading poems out loud to one another. One student even memorized the poem we studied, "This is Just to Say" by William Carlos Williams. It makes sense in hindsight, since this school system has a big focus on the arts, music and theater in general. I hope I can tailor the lessons to their interests more and more each week. Perhaps we can all try to memorize one verse of a poem too. I would also like to bring in a performance poet or a slam poet to do a reading for this group. I think they would love it. I also want to try to do a poetry exercise where we take the students outside and write poems on the sidewalk with chalk. As long as they are writing, I am fine with whatever aspect of poetry they want to explore.

I think that parts of this preparation, teaching and reflection process with get easier. They also seem to peak at different times of the year; when starting new projects or getting new students. Any changes or shifts. I will keep this in mind when planning future lessons. I will also think about perhaps trying to catch those flying octopi.

Cool image taken from Bone Singer Art.