10 Poems to Make You Better People: #1 – “Invictus” Is How We Move On, No Matter the Obstacle

As tragedy strikes in Oklahoma, residents find a way to carry on. We should all have such hope inside us. - AP photo

As tragedy strikes in Oklahoma, residents find a way to carry on. We should all have such hope inside us. – AP photo

So the test scores are in.  I’m happy.  I did my dance. The last blow didn’t knock us down!  But an unusual suspect dropped by this afternoon because “I want to talk to you about my scores,” he said.  After popping his invisible suspenders about his science, math, and social studies scores, he frowns and screws around his face for a fleeting second, shakes it off, and then begins to reveal feelings of great achievement tinged with bewilderment….

“But I tried something new.  I wrote my essay as a conversation. I mean, I thought it was a great idea – but maybe they didn’t get it. I mean, it’s what we worked on.  I thought it worked. I guess it was too ‘experimental’ or something.”

This is my diamond-in-the-rough writer who wouldn’t dare do anything experimental six months ago, and this is the same person who told me more than once, “Miss Adams, I’m not a writer. I’m going to be an engineer.” And now he sits before my desk, pensive, with, dare I say it… is that what I think it is… disappointment in his craft? He’s become his own worst enemy – the self editor.  And inside, I am thinking, I did it.  I really did it.  I helped make this thing before me – this person who feels he deserved a different shake from standardized essay graders, this person who hopes his writing has meaning and significance beyond his own periphery, this person who now thinks what he writes should matter and should be recognized. I love how when I share what I love about writing, somehow, somewhere, it trickles down into a warm pool of wonderfulness in a world rife with under-appreciated prose. When he left my room, he had shrugged it off like a winter coat. He again was bulletproof to the critics who don’t know him, who don’t understand him, who don’t “get” him.  And again, we can see great writing for what it is when we read it or write it, incorruptible by the critics beyond ourselves.

And somehow, this is connected to my other experience today with graduating seniors, who no longer care about my song and dance about great writing and reading beautiful British literary prose.  In fact, I’m lucky they are arriving on time, right? But today, something magical occurred that doesn’t often happen in school classrooms for a variety of reasons.  We stopped.  We smelled the roses.  And the discussion that followed afterwards was inspiring.

#1 poem to make you a better person? “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley.

Found this copy on... Pinterest.

Found this copy on… Pinterest.

“Invictus” is Latin for “unconquerable,” “invincible,” “undefeated.”  It also means “irresistible.” We talked about what this really means before and after reading the poem.  My students mentioned things like hope versus hopelessness, finding a way to hang on in face of tragedy and despair…. such as in the news today.  In Oklahoma.  We ended up talking about what tragedy really is, how we cannot truly understand it in the same way as those who experience cataclysmic destruction, and how in the world people hang on, smile, rebuild, and even stay, in the face of darkness, tears, horror, punishment, and bludgeonings that leave the heady “bloody but unbowed.”

In Texas, we see it closer to home.  Cleburne. Granbury. West. And further away in Boston, and in Moore, and in Sandy Hook, and in New Jersey and in Long Island….  “Invictus” is hard at work, combating sorrow, fighting circumstance, climbing out of the pit, and vanquishing the darkness, even with a tiny matchlight.  And as my students and I discussed how people find a path out of tragedy, our talk led to some enlightenment about racism, and poverty, and war, and hunger.

As our talk drew to its close, we couldn’t help but talk about Nelson Mandela, his 8-foot cell, and his unwavering commitment to a change that no one saw or believed could occur, a future which he knew in his soul was possible.  What “Invictus” seems to mean to Mandela took a new hold of my class, and was only enhanced by the reading of the poem, ever so gently, in cracked, heart-breaking clarity by Morgan Freeman in the trailer to the 2009 film of the same name.

I wish I could have found a way to bring the concept of “invictus” up to my downcast student whose writing was not rewarded as he had hoped, without sounding weird or trite, or out of context.  It wasn’t the right moment.  But “invictus” is always something we should seize hold of, white-knuckled and determined, when we find obstacles in our path, challenges to our faith, and experiences of great loss. When we read poetry with such a profound impact, as Henley’s poem has and leaves us in equally profound silence, we cannot help but see the glimmer of hope that often should not be.  We forget that regardless of the measurement assessed by the jury of our peers and the court of public opinion, we have something that cannot be taken.  We have something worth preserving. We have something that can drive and captain us, when the promise of security seems to be so far out of reach.

So as my graduates get ready to face the world, full of promise and certainly a few (hopefully not too many) hardships, at least they are somewhat bouyed by Henley’s sage reminders about the steely persistence of the human spirit.

In many ways, those graduates are masters of their own fates.  And with unwavering possibilities, the future rises to meet these captains.  These people with unconquerable souls.  And maybe, just maybe, they will not bow to fear.

And this, too, is my prayer for those putting back together the shattered pieces of lives undone by recent catastrophe.

Simus invicti.

Photo Courtesy of Red Cross via WSBT website

Photo Courtesy of Red Cross via WSBT website

Finding Forrest. And New Ways to Connect with Reading and Writing about the “Real.”

This was drawn by an amazing artist, Jashar Awan. On the link, he says he was inspired by a NYT review of the novel, The Wettest County in the World. There is more information about Jashar Awan here: http://jasharawan.com/.

You know, I promised to blog, and I haven’t blogged.  Too many classes to teach, too little time for writing! This is not how I wished to spend all of my time.  But let’s not get bogged down in that – I need to find a way to do some short spurts…. I have just finished tweeting during one of my favorite hours of the week, #pblchat.  Something magical happened afterwards when I tweeted an author who is my latest distant mentor about teaching writing, but first let me provide a little backstory.

I started teaching dual credit ENGL 1301/1302 this year – that’s freshmen comp and rhetoric for those not familiar with the numbers and acronyms. College in high school, with a little project based learning mixed in – it’s an interesting class.  I have a lot of freedom, and although I use a writing workshop model for teaching, I want students who don’t read (mostly what I have) to be exposed to as much rich and rewarding and impacting texts as I can find and have time to integrate. We have been working on using our distant teachers, using that #nwp tenet to its nth degree. Mentor texts.  The whole deal.  I live for finding a new text to share.  But today I stumbled onto something.  It’s the nonfiction-fiction thing. I really stops me in my tracks as a reader, writer, and teacher.  I’ve always been in love with this kind of writing, this style of storytelling, these books, these authors.  They’re not just my distant teachers – they are my friends.  My colleagues. Mano-a-mano, we take on the most reluctant writers and readers and teach them how to tell a story, and tell it slant, and tell it good, and tell it true.  All at the same time.  Each week I want them to meet someone new.  We love Frank McCourt, and Natalie Goldberg, and bell hooks, and Sarah Vowell, and Laurie Halse Anderson, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Rick Bragg, and Leonard Pitts, Jr., and I go could on and on and on.  They have favorites.  I have mine, too.  So far, I have hit a homerun with all but one.  And today, we turned it into a really nice save.

I used an excerpt from Matt Bondurant‘s, The Wettest County in the World, recently – just passed out a copy I made from my personal copy of the book, of one page of description, rife with imagery and onomatopoeia and sensory language and all manner of delicious words that aren’t just for the mind but for the soul.  I mean, yes, I have read the entire copyright manual – I know, I know.  But I couldn’t resist – I had to put a page of it into my students’ hands.  I needed them to see what I saw.  I have read the book in snatches, because I fell in love with the story of those Bondurant boys from the recent film, Lawless, which to my chagrin was COMPLETELY SNUBBED by all things Oscar recently.  (That’s another blog.)  I plan to wear this book as a jacket this summer – really feel the words, let them wash over me, become like old friends and comfortable shoes.  I mean – Bondurant is truly a master of words.  If you haven’t tapped into his stories yet, do.  And soon. I put him up there with Rick Bragg.  And that – that is saying something. I love a Pulitzer.  (Dr. B, it will come. I’m convinced.)

But they didn’t bite. They didn’t like it.  They didn’t see it.

I went back to my mental drawing board and thought about the nonfiction-fiction issue.  I mean, in 1301, we work on more nonfiction than fiction – and creative nonfiction is my forte.  I can teach it.  I can do it.  I write, they write, we share, etc. I mean, I’m too chicken to try and get published, but who is talking about that? I’m so “do as I say, not as I do.”  We read aloud, we discuss, we table talk, we argue, we mimic style, and we read aloud some more.  The whole nine yards. But this time… this time, it didn’t work.  Everything else I shared, they loved.  This one, which was one of the greatest gold mines of language I’ve found so far – it just didn’t work.

And after some time, I figured it out – it was too much to ask in an excerpt without any context on those Bondurant boys, Prohibition, real gangsters in the late 1920’s.  I mean, if we want them to read Gatsby or Their Eyes Were Watching God, shouldn’t we show them how the other half lives? The half that made the hooch people were smuggling to sell and dying to buy? So we did a little Q & A. We did a little meet and greet with Dr. Bondurant on the screen. I pulled up his bio, his website, his picture – talked about how he teaches (or did? Still there? Not sure!) right down the road at the University of Texas at Dallas. He could be their teacher in 2 years.  (Man, are they ready for such greatness? I probably need to step it up….) We did a little flash research on that “Spanish lady flu” that Forrest Bondurant, a key player in the Wettest County saga, catches and miraculously survives, and on those 18th and 21st amendments…..  They knew stuff.  They knew 1933 and 1929 and Al Capone and tommy guns. They surprised me with their knowledge that 20 minutes earlier they seemed to be devoid of when prompted. We even listened to Tom Hardy share Forrest’s words of wisdom in a brief clip onscreen. (One girl said, “Miss Adams, I have no idea what Forrest said. I just couldn’t stop watching his lips.” I mean, I’ll take whatever hooks them, you know?)

Then…. we read the excerpt again.  With new eyes.  Thinking about Forrest’s bout with the flu, about that garish cut across the neck that left him near dead, about Maggie in that red dress with the gold chain and a valise that carried not only her secrets but an identity she let slip in and out like the shadows over the mountains at dusk, about what actually created the real scars they both wore, and how  a beautiful woman could sit night after night with a Bondurant like Forrest and only listen to the radio. Only LISTEN. (“What?” the kids say.  “Just the radio? No way.”  No kissing? No sex? Scandalous!)

And somehow, in the 90 minutes of our class that passed today….  Forrest came to life. He walked around our room.  He showed them his “mouthlike” scar.  And they understand what a Bondurant meant when he said, “Nothing can kill us.” What believing one is invincible really means.  What living really means.  How the respect and lack of fear for death makes a man brave, gutsy, and not the least bit bluish and hollow-chested from some Lady Flu that killed more healthy than sick. For my students, Forrest Bondurant stood ten feet tall in room 310 today.

So I told them – now go home and write something like that.  Make someone larger than life on paper.  Let us meet them.  Let them walk around our room when we read about them. Don’t worry about it being good or publishable or amazing – just tell a good story about a person you know who is larger than life to you.  Look at their eccentricities, their little catchphrases, the glint of their eyes when they are keeping a secret, and what things are really kept packed in a suitcase that they take on the road.  Do what Matt Bondurant does with his going-for-the-jugular (a la Natalie Goldberg) diction and powerful life reflection.  Don’t hold anything back.  And if you have to show a little ugliness, it’s all good.  Everyone has those skeletons in their closets.  They tell a tale that stands on its own two feet.  Sometimes not a bit of exaggeration is needed because the nonfiction looms larger than the fiction ever wanted to.

And thank you, Dr. Bondurant.  Your family and Franklin County found some new fans today.  One student even wanted to check out the book from my classroom library after class.   That’s what it is all about.  Creating more readers and writers, helping them read and write things that matter, and not just for college or work.  Stories like yours, reading about others or writing our own, are what we stay alive for and want to make more of – one page at a time. I can’t really teach it, but I can show it, and I couldn’t today without your help.

Postscript: As I was blogging this, Dr. Bondurant himself tweeted me back. I am so incredibly honored.  Maybe we should collaborate on this.  I’d like to use more of the book as I revamp the class for next year in my collection of memoirs and nonfiction-fiction “teachers” I bring to my students.  What do you think? I’ll even take a Skype call. My kids would never get over actually having a connection with a real, living author, especially one with such a powerful voice for storytelling.

A Brief Conversation with Matt Bondurant

Follow me @finchgirl10, and Dr. Bondurant @mbondurant.

“More Than Noise: How Speaking and Listening to Learn Enhance Literacy and Confidence in All Subjects”

Here is my presentation from the 2013 Best Practices STEM conference, sponsored by Aggie-STEM center and Educate Texas, on Jan. 24, 2013 in San Antonio, Texas (Menger Hotel).

Presentation slides (my original power point):
More than just noise_ADAMS_stemconf2013

Excerpt #1: A passage by Rick Bragg from Southern Living, September 2012 issue:
Original Article
PDF photocopy from my actual copy of SLRick Bragg excerpt_Southern Living

Excerpt #2: 2 pages of Prologue from All Over But the Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg, Random House, 1998.
Full text online
PDF photocopy of my actual copy of the novel: Rick Bragg excerpt_Shoutin’

Please email if you have any questions or want to collaborate in the future!

Come Fly with Me – Box Not Required

“I guess I’m more of an outside the box person.  I haven’t really been inside a box in a while.”
– An English I Student-

That is what he said. We talked about paper airplanes a few weeks ago in English I and started talking about thinking outside the box.  We made paper airplanes.  We flew them. In English class. It was pretty awesome. And somewhat disruptive.

I know nothing about the science of flight.

But they did.  They talked about wing span, resistance, jet stream, gliders, jets, tailwinds, and a whole bunch of other things I had never heard of.  I mean, I’ve stood at the crest of Kill Devil Hills in Kittyhawk overlooking the sea and the Outer Banks, the wind whipping my face with salt and sand.  I’ve looked down the long line where Wright planes once flew, the grass green and soft beneath my comfortable walking shoes.  I know very little about the science of flight except that I get in a plane, it stays up, I don’t die, it comes down, I get my passport stamped.  But I do know about dreams and imagination.  That was all I wanted to tap into with my Sam-I-Am Box Talk.

See? (You can also find this video for free here, but the book is really neat and worth the cost – it contains a DVD.) So yes, we were heading towards a conversation with 14-year-olds about thinking and working outside the box. They wrote things like the line above, which really rang true for me.  I haven’t been in the box in a while.  I took a new job – finding it was hard because so many people wanted me to climb back inside the box, to not rock the boat, to go at teaching with traditional, safe methods.  I kept telling my mother: “Well, once you’ve taken the mustang out of the corral and cut all of her ties, how do you get her to go back in?”

Didn’t they know my blog was about singing, not roosting? We don’t just sit and watch learning and life happen here. I’ve never been able to do that.

But I had forgotten about the box with my own students.  We’ve gotten kind of lazy about our attention to the box, and how we can step outside of it any time we want at our wonderful school.  So I had them read some of their responses to the box question (are you outside or inside, why?) posed by the video again and think about the paper airplane activity.  My 9th graders and I talked frankly about the 16 people who didn’t do their writing homework for today for their big newspaper project.  We read our responses to the box question and talked about how being outside the box can affect our attention and work ethic. How sometimes creativity is its own double-edged sword.  They mused, agreed, nodded, smirked, smiled, and also looked ashamed – all across the room.  We finished our talk and they got back to work.

Within about 5 minutes – they had their mojo back.  They remembered where the box was and they cast it aside and got excited about their propaganda projects on The Existence of Bigfoot, Unicorn Awareness, Promoting Teenage Hygiene, Bikini Bottom Fish Rights, and The Revolutionary Onslaught of the Uses of Duct Tape.  And suddenly – the box wasn’t even in our classroom anymore.  Everyone was outside, galloping like crazy people towards the limits of their imagination….

I sort of felt like singing, “come fly with me, let’s fly, fly away….” Out of the box, that is.

Bad Teacher/Failing Writing: Blogging by Telepathy?

Well, ok. Much like this beautiful rhinoceros at the Caldwell Zoo in Tyler, I have had my head in the wall regarding this blog. I suck at blogging. My last entry was 8 months ago. Apparently I was blogging via ESP – I mentally sent the blogs while I ate, slept, taught, graded – yet, nothing appeared on the blog wall.  Hmmm. Guess that doesn’t work. And I had been cooking along so well… but I just fizzled.  I quit.  Life happened and blogs moved to the back of the filing cabinet in my brain.

But I am not a quitter.

So here’s the deal – to my 1 follower, I make this promise: I will be blogging at least once a week.  I will try to get on and blog about what is happening in my classroom at least once a week.

Yoda: There is no try.  There is only do or do not.

Ok, so not trying – DOING.  I am teaching freshman composition and rhetoric now, ENGL 1301. The Big Show. No little regular class now -well, I have a few still – but teaching that class has brought me to a new level of anxiety: how do I stay ahead of the curve? Right now, I am hoping to move them towards writing more confidently, with gusto and no holds barred, going for the “jugular” as Natalie Goldberg says (it’s one of our favorite tips and truths about good writing), and in my test kitchen of 1301, I am trying some new things. As a PBL teacher, I do really want to explore the marriage of writing workshop and PBL. With presentations and opportunities to submit to journals coming up, and as I grow as a dual credit college teacher, with one foot in the regular high school world and one foot in the world of higher education, I have to evolve myself. I have to write about what is happening – even if it is just for me.

So it is my solemn vow to blog more. To write more.  To explore. To question. To hope. To not try but do. And to push my 1301 students to new heights as writers who publish.  Do as I say, AND as I do. :)

Dear One Reader who Subscribes to This Blog:
I give you permission to tweet terrible things about me if I don’t keep my promise to write and publish each week.

I hear that web-based cattle prods are now available on Amazon, if you feel that is more effective….

This bird sings. Next gig: STEM Best Practices Conference, Jan. 2012

Things are happening so quickly that I haven’t had time to blog! I will be presenting with colleagues at my STEM campus in Longview at the STEM Best Practices Conference this weekend, Jan. 12-14, at Moody Gardens in Galveston. Our presentation will be Friday, Jan. 13 (yikes!), from 10:30-11:30. We will talking about “Square Peg, Round Hole,” and how to combat difficulties with interdisciplinary planning across science, history, engineering, and English – using a dystopian unit a colleague and I have been developing for two years, which I have actually been able to implement this year for the first time. I’m really excited about the prospects! People will get to work with their hands and make stuff using Google SketchUp in our session (we hope!). Should be fun! I’ll be tweeting, whether our STEM people tweet or not!

New blog post on Three Teachers Talk

I’ve posted on my collective blog with colleagues Amy and Heather, Three Teachers Talk, called “5 1/2 Blogs to Engage Online Readers: We <3 You.”  This time we are talking about reading online to enhance digital literacy.  Let me know what you think!

More later!

Most Recent Diigo Finds 07/20/2011

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

hope is the thing with feathers….

I was inspired by this quote posted by a good friend today, on his blog, a wonderful nugget of wisdom from Martin Luther:

“This life is not righteousness but growth in righteousness, not health but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished but it is going on, this is not the end but it is the road. All does not gleam in glory but all is being purified.”

[For more truth and inspiration like this, please feel free to check out my friend’s blog, who posted this, my now distant pastor but still good friend, Ted Wueste, at http://akalt.wordpress.com/ , or @tedwueste on Twitter. He is currently on sabbatical, but has been traveling, hearing the voice of God, and impacting lives over the summer in various spots around the globe.]

Interestingly, it takes me back to a bird-like thought: Dickinson.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.
~Emily Dickinson~
[found on http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/hope-is-the-thing-with-feathers/%5D

Too true. Hope perches in our souls, waiting to be released. It asks nothing of us. It is just…. there. As I enter this last week of school, I have hope, hope that I will accomplish my tasks, that my ideas for new projects and methods of doing writing workshop are endless, and that next year will bring a new crop of students who have touched my heart just as much as this group of sophomores that leave me.

So sing on, little bird in my soul.  Time flies.

new tweety on the block: finding my pbl groove [ #pblchat #pbl #edchat @biepbl ]

Please excuse my hashtags.  I am learning how to tweet.  It’s crazy.  It’s like blowing my ideas up like a balloon, tying on a colorful string, and letting it float away, hoping someone finds it and the tag with your name on it, so they can say, “Hey, I found your balloon.  Cool.  It floated all the way to ____.”  Actually tweeting right now is nerve-wracking and causes anxiety for me.  But I’m here, as I said in my first tweet.   I’m trying.  I thought I was tech-savvy.  But twitter and blogging have opened up an entirely new world for me.  I lose myself.  I’m not even paying attention to the current 1-0 Rangers-Royals shutout or the newly trim Jeff Francoeur, who I still love because he was a Ranger for a little while….  Instead I’m blogging about my new squeeze: pbl.

Project based learning has reignited my passion as a teacher.  I’m in a STEM academy in Texas, and I find myself digging around in my novels, short stories, poems, and dramas for even the tiniest science/tech/engineering/math link.  I long to be innovative and share my ideas.  Having a PLN (professional learning network?  right?) is new to me – I’ve only ever had the comfort of my hall buddies, the lounge or cool lunch meeting spot, my North Star of Texas Writing Project buddies, or my favorite little teacher partners in chopshop crime, @HeatherCato and @AmyRass.  (Who got me finally onto twitter in the first place….)  The idea of reaching out over the web, just using some @s and some #s — that’s crazy!  Look at this world we live in!  So tonight I have educated myself for a bit on #edchat, #pblchat (which isn’t really official yet but I think we should kick it off), #edtech, and have found a few distant teachers and gurus to guide me. 

PBL is my bread and butter… most of the time.  It’s so hard to make it happen every day.  I need more conference periods and less sleep to make those pbl units to climb off my yellow legal pad and laptop, and come to life and work.  When they work, it’s magical.  It’s magical what happens to my students, what love they find in literature again, what enlightenment they bring to our classroom discussion and to each other….  I want to be better for them.  I want to plan better.  I want to execute a driving question that’s killer, that stops them in their tracks, that really perplexes them, that really brings it home: how can I make the world a better place by learning about this?  How can I have a global impact because of this? 

I found this and became re-inspired (can you be?) all over again, on the Buck Institute (@biepbl) blog, called Experts and Newbies: Bloggers on Project Based Learning.  It’s fantastic, by the way.  Really good stuff.  Dayna Laur blogs about people’s most powerful personal experiences in a learning community, and had this to say:

Many teachers attempt some elements of PBL. However, many teachers forget the important role they play in the project process as the facilitator. Students still need guidance. As teachers manage the process of PBL, they quickly discover that their role as facilitator is even more crucial to the learning process than it ever was in the more traditional classroom. Guiding students in their learning through PBL is both challenging and rewarding. It is in a supportive environment that the process of feedback and revision occur. Creating a supportive classroom environment is as imperative as creating a challenging, authentic, PBL task. (Experts and Newbies blog, 11 April 2011)

I hear you loud and clear, Dayna.  Supportive classroom environment?  Check.  Challenging, authentic pbl task?  I’m on it.  I have big goals for the summer, and that is #1.  I have to get my pbl groove back.  If I’m going to be the Patron Saint of PBL, spreading the message to the masses of East Texas and beyond, being excited isn’t enough.  Dreams need feet, so I must get moving. 

Anyone with me?  Let’s make some plans together that will not only excite and engage me in learning, but more importantly, will do so for my students and my community.  Let’s move our nests a little closer together.

teamwork at it's finest: i'll pick through your feathers if you'll do mine.... ummmm, ok.