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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Psychic Teacher?

One of my Monday class students arrived earlier than his classmates, so we sat down at my teaching table together, and I asked, "So...What's new?" He paused, and I quickly added facetiously, "And don't say 'babies' or 'butterflies about to hatch'!"

His already big, brown eyes widened and he grinned, speechless. I thought he was trying to understand my joke, but then he blurted, "Oh my gosh! I was about to tell you that my teacher just had a baby and we did a butterfly project in school today!"

"Are you teasing me?" I asked, laughing.

"No, Mrs. Lipson!" He joined me in laughter.

"Haha, maybe I'm a psychic teacher! I predict that you'll write something wonderful today!"

We exchanged smiles as the other students arrived. I still don't know what possessed me to answer him that way before he could even answer me!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

An Exercise in Specific Word Choices and Empathetic Perception

In The Geography of Girlhood, a poetry novel by Kirsten Smith, a poem called "How My Father Sees Us" inspired me with the idea for a writing prompt that would use the opening words of each of Smith's four stanzas as an organizational tool to create an original work. After reading Smith's poem aloud, and discussing the word choices and structure, I presented to my students the following prompt: Write a poem, or a poetic piece of prose, titled "How My ____ Sees Me [or Us]," structuring the stanzas or paragraphs based on these opening lines from the stanzas of Smith's poem (but changing the pronouns--and making verb forms agree, of course--as needed):

To him, we are... (This could change to "To them, I am," or "To her, we are," or "To her, I am.")

Because of us, he's...

He tells us he hopes that...

We will be...

I explained that the exercise aimed to challenge their use of vivid images and details, as well as their empathetic ability to see themselves through others' eyes. Kirsten Smith's vivid details of the sisters identified as "we" and "us" in her poem, include "piles of lingerie," "dented fenders," "a trail of CDs," and "a chip in the paint." We discussed how such objects reveal a lot about a character, and I asked them to choose their own details based on their power to paint a persona. Not only were the resulting details from my students vivid, but their pieces were remarkably poignant.

Some examples of vivid details I recall from the notes I took during class:

"To her...I am never around to help, always working on 'less important things.'"
"To him, we are a pile of stinky gym shirts left on a bench."
"Because of me, she's always running out to the store to get more food because I 'never stop eating.'"
"She's given me a life full of lessons that will be appreciated later...even though I may not even give her credit today."
"To her, I am an excuse for her not to have to talk at the table."
"To her, I am a shopping spree and a 2-hour phone conversation with a friend."
"To her, I am a reason to be nervous."

I even wrote my own poetic response to the prompt while the kids were writing theirs. I've posted it on my other blog: www.susanllipson.blogspot.com. The title is "How My Kids See Me." Perhaps I should write "How My Students See Me"? I can already think of one detail: "Because of her, our words end up posted anonymously on a blog." I think they should all start their own blogs, and post their works in their entirety, like my student Erin does; check out her blog at www.howtooverscheduleyourchild.blogspot.com (Congrats to Erin, by the way, for winning a distinguished California Teachers of English award!)

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