Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Stealing Like Teacher Artists (Thanks @AustinKleon) and Wola! Solid Writing from Beginning Teachers @fairfieldu Just Like That

I have a terrible tendency to push a metaphor as far as I can. It's not that I push it like Salt-n-Pepa, necessarily, but I do extend it with props, humor, a Target credit card, and the multiple intelligence that famous scholar Howard Gardner seemed to neglect, humor.  I've had copies of Austin Kleon's Steal Like An Artist in my library for years (because those who know me buy it for me saying, "You need to read this book!"). Yet, I've never made the time to read it or to learn from his expertise.

Knowing I'm an academic and I'm always reading something, I seldom have time for reading the books given to me (Yuck! It's disgusting, right?), So, I decided I'd do something that would guarantee I would finally read the gift. I assigned Kleon's book in a graduate seminar on teaching writing in 3rd - 12th grade!


The thievery quickly began.

The purpose of this post is not to rewrite everything that Austin Kleon shares in his confessional, yet to acknowledge how his useful, advice book (nicely coupled with Ralph Fletcher's The Writer's Notebook, Kelly Gallagher's Write Like This, and Graham, MacArthur, and Fitzgerald's Best Practices in Writing Instruction) helped me to achieve my purpose in a graduate seminar. I simply shout out to the universe (and Austin Kleon if he finds this haphazard post), to say "Thank You."

In my graduate course this semester I have in-practice teachers, students fresh into a graduate program, professional writers, English as a Second Language teachers, scientists and mathematicians. Knowing my audience and their diverse needs from such a course has been tricky. Still, the notion of 'thieving as thinkers' and 'reading as writers' has been the commonality we all can share. Stealing like a n Artist, now, is a mantra. Since the beginning of the semester, I've used a notion of thieves as a major symbol for the work we are unraveling together:  we are thinking about writing in mathematics, thinking about writing in comic strips, thinking about writing for AP Lit exams, thinking about writing to provide information, etc. The key - and this is a National Writing Project key - is to read as writers!

It seems to be working, too.

Last night, my students and I read poems written and/or promoted by poet Jack Powers, as well as models from my buddy Kwame Alexander's books. With folded arms, goose steps, pouting lips, and a few tantrums from content-area teachers I learned that many of my students (who are adults) do no write poetry, cannot write poetry, do not get poetry, and resist poetry at all costs. Having to write poetry late on a Tuesday night was, to them, like having their individual finger nails peeled off phalange by phalange.

Yet, bring in best practices, Kelly Gallagher, Austin Kleon, Ralph Fletcher, and models from my friends and guess what? The room of graduate students suddenly achieved a series of on-the-spot poems that replicated the points being made. They were embarrassed to share (so shy), but I was in awe of what everyone could write in 10-15 minutes. They got it, and better yet, I hope they will replicate it in their own teaching.

Some blacked out poems while others wrote in two voices. A few looked at narrating a sports poem while others explored location and dates. We had models. We deconstructed them. We discussed what every poet was doing in their work. Then we stole. We borrowed. We thieved. We reconstructed.

They wrote.

I should share, too, that in my courses students kick off the evening, one by one, with a writing prompt they design. The student that opened things up last night did a clever activity where she handed everyone paint templates (colors with exotic names you can pick up at any Home Depot for free) and then made us draw from a hat a particular fairy tale she divided on thin slips of paper. Her directions were to rewrite the tale we pulled from the hat using the colors on our template.

I picked out Little Red Riding Hood, although my hues were purple and blue (I rifted on the fact that all of us are idiots, thanks Shakespeare, and that Mother Goose and the Grim Brothers really set out to write Little Hyacinth Flower Hoodie Girl, but it was too much of a mouthful). The writing exercise was fun and my student proved the point! All stories have been written, but the creative storyteller finds an innovative, new way to redesign a story (or genre) so it connects with a modern generation to communicate something original (which all of us are).

Ah, it's Wednesday and I need to prep for another radio show. (Hmmm, can I steal like a radio announcer?). Feeling good about my students at Fairfield University and loving the addition of Austin Kleon to my course, I am loving the masks I found at Targets (bulk, too) and the mustaches that completed the metaphor. We were thieves. We stole.

But onward, I must go! Happy mid-week, everyone.

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