Sunday, October 28, 2012

31 Days of W.I.C.: Day 19 - Last Minute Panic! (Stress, Creativity, & Community)

Stress vs. Creativity

Calvin & Hobbes

We know the feeling of the victorious, last-minute inspiration (even if it never seems to turn out well for Calvin!).   But what have we learned about stress and creativity when the stress is prolonged and environmental? Would subjects' creativity processes suffer when the heat was on? The answer: yes. Creativity suffers under prolonged and environmental stress.

The study, "Environmental Stressor Effects on Creativity and Decision Making" by Shanteau (Kansas State) and Dino (Frostburg State), focuses on the question: "What happens to higher cognitive processes when people are exposed to long-term environmental stressors?". The results: "Control subjects did not show systematic changes in any of the tasks. This pattern of results suggests that environmental stressors had little effect on well-structured tasks requiring clearly identified processing strategies. Larger effects were observed however, for tasks calling for creative responses based on strategies that could not be identified in advance."  (Italics mine) This is creativity. The ability to take what you know and utilize it in an unanticipated activity. The ability even to acquire or learn requires some level of creativity. We must be able to imagine that there is an unknown and use processing required to make the vision reality.
Why is this especially important in a classroom
writing community setting?

The point of distinction lies in the idea that school is a  learning  place as well as a practicing place. If it were only a place of practicing, that would be one thing. But we know that school is place where one foremost acquires new information, and then decides what to do with it (another new set of info). It is also a place full of "tasks calling for creative responses that could not be identified in advance." It is precisely this observe/intake/decison pattern that is affected by the stress in the study. (Abstract, Shanteau & Dino)

Knowing that this pattern, key for productivity, is the one disrupted by the stress- we can see that this could be crucial when constructing our communities. Also important are the ways in which the study inflicted stress: regulated bathroom breaks that did not correspond to need, noisy background, over-crowded conditions, room temperatures that were uncomfortable.... sound familiar? Some , if not all of these, are present at some point in a typical school day. Especially, and most unfortunately, in lower income areas where the students may arrive at school having already experienced these stressors (unmet physical needs, noise, overcrowding). Just being aware that these cause stress for students may help us as we design our classroom writing communities.

This is not just important for student but for teacher. Both are affected by unmet needs for quiet, the bathroom, having enough space. Both are stressed by these unmet needs. The student needs to imagine in order to learn. The teacher needs, among other things,  that "ability to have regard for students' perspective". (Gladwell, "Most Likely to Succeed") Both of these things require creativity.  And both teacher and student must live in community.

Tomorrow: Last-Minute Panic! (Part 2)....

Friday, October 26, 2012

31 Days of W.I.C.: Day 18- Sometimes the Dragon Wins

"As this big world's always spinning
All that I thought I was winning
I never thought, I never thought I'd lose.."

"Vineyard", Jackopierce

I started my first year of teaching with the highest hopes and expectations.
I ended it  hoping to never teach again.
 It was that bad.

My favorite part of this is how apathetic the dragon is. He just doesn't care.

My brother had this picture on his bulletin board growing up. It came to mind all year. I felt like that crunchy, crisp-fried knight, picked to pieces by the derelict dragon. Two people saved me that year: Cynthia and Janet. I watched them having fun while teaching. I saw them be creative. They had a 'partner in crime'. And they let me in on it. They showed me that that great teachers use teamwork, fun, high standards, and perseverence. Great teachers reach out. Great teachers learn from their failures and keep going.

There will be times of failure... the kid you've been trying to reach gives up (or violates his parole or drops the F-bomb in the middle of a trip to the library..not that this has happened to me or anything..), the parents take the child and disappear, the lesson that rocked in your head fizzled in the classroom, your principal decides you may be the reason the education system is in dire straits, there are behavior problems you can't seem to get managed, the teacher next door is petty and spiteful, everyone flunks the big test... It's going to happen. Sometimes it will happen in front of everyone.

One of the great lies out there is that there's some sort of magical formula that you adhere to and then *poof!* success -guaranteed. There are things that you can do to get the odds in your favor, but when it comes to people (which, if we haven't noticed, there are a lot of at school), there are no guarantees. Just know that failure is as much a part of this as success. And we actually need to fail.

We need it because we have students who have done nothing but fail at school since they put their sweet feet through the door. They need our compassion. How can we teach someone to overcome if we've never faced an obstacle? We need it because we'll always have a first year teacher at our school, or someone who is having a particularly tough year, and we'll need to remember what it felt like when the dragon scorched us. We'll need to reach out. We need it because it reminds us that we really can get up and go on. We've failed and bounced back before, right?

Sometimes the dragon wins...
but, for every knight,
tomorrow is another day.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

31 Days of W.I.C.: Day 17- Your 600 Percent

His eyes were downcast.
The floor was of utmost interest.
His feet shifted back and forth.
"I only read 6 books all year."

And maybe compared to everyone else's forty or fifty, that was shabby. But you have to know, that just a few months before, this ninth grade boy read his first book cover to cover. Fifteen years old, growing a mustache, and he really read his first book. And loved it. I teach older students. It's rare that I get to see the beginning of someone's reading career. I may see it take off or fully develop but I hardly ever get to be in on the Genesis moment. I saw it. I saw the wonder of that dazed expression when the book closes, you realize it's over, and you want more. I saw him return to the shelf and choose a new one.  I saw that. I saw it six times. There may be seven wonders in the world. I have seen six of them.

I hear teachers complain all the time about how low the students who have come to them this year are. "I can't believe he's in the sixth grade and reads on a first grade level." "I can't believe they've never read Shakespeare. We have to start at square one." "These kids have never written a grocery list, much less a research paper." And I've been there. I know. The state standards tell you one thing, your principal wants everyone at a certain level, someone else has all the "smart" kids for that year (And manages to mention it. Every day.). The negative talk that comes from all of the pressure that is around us. It can suck the joy out of the day. It's discouraging.

But shaming and blaming won't help. And we do get them for a year. At the end of the year will it be be a year that they learned? Or will it be another year of being ashamed of being behind everyone else? Will we change the talk inside our students' heads? The chatter that tells them they don't have what it takes.
If we choose to try, we can alter our students, ourselves,  and our writing community.

 I started looking at it as my call, my challenge. They're not supposed to know already- they're supposed to learn. We knew in Girl Scouts to "leave things better than we found them". That became a sort of motto for me. Let's start where we are and see how far we can get. Anything is better than where we started. Let's see if we can learn a little everyday, add all of that up, and make something great.

In the case of my student:

 He either read six books all year compared to everyone else's forty or fifty....
he improved SIX HUNDRED PERCENT...
the action is the same, and both things are true... it's just a matter of framing.

The book he read..... The FIRST book he ever read.

One of the worst stressors is that of comparison. Instead of seeing his accomplishment for the miracle that it is, he was framing it with someone else's experience and completely missing the greatness. Sometimes we help people do that to themselves. Sometimes we are our own worst framers. This is another reason that we need community. Yes, there are ample pitfalls for comparison when you learn and write with others. But there are also your compadres who are the ones to see your miracle- even when you can't. If we compare, any progress seems like nothing. But if we recognize and acknowledge our starting point, we see the progress for what it is. It can be our six hundrend percent.

I told him no one had the success he had. He had improved six hundred percent. We talked about what he was reading next. How he got faster with each book. He was surprised that I liked the Alex Ryder books he was reading. We shot the literary breeze for the few more minutes, and the bell rang. I wonder if he'll ever know how that whole experience shaped me as a teacher.

I resolved in  that moment to
 choose my dreams daily
(in the end , no one is responsible for them but me)
I'll expect something great to happen
I will
read something
do something
witness something
observe, learn, embrace

I will dream a little every day,
in that way, the significant amount compared to nothing...
It's my six hundred percent.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

31 Days of W.I.C.: Day 16- Taking Notes:Jazz, Magic, & the Idea Book

"I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn't resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.

After that I liked jazz music.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.
It is as if they are showing you the way."
-Donald Miller ,  Blue Like Jazz

It was pin-drop quiet. They wanted to know, would she? Would she read what she had written? Would it be... "teachery"?

"I was seven years old, and my brother was twelve. He was supposed to be "babysitting" me. We decided it would be a great idea to play with candles, fire, and matches..."

The teacher went on to read the story of accidentally catching a small patch of green shag carpet on fire, then the screen door, and of course, the resulting attempts at a covert cover-up!

I'm sure that you've realized that  teacher  was me. The students howled with laughter at our  amusing antics, (We cut and colored the carpet with magic markers- don't even ask about the screen door!), wanted to know what happened next in the story. But the best part was when I flipped my notebook around. One student gasped aloud, "But, Mrs. Gililland," she sputtered," there are arrows, and cross-outs. That's... messy!".
They were astounded that I would have a writer's mess- but most surprised that I would show it to them.
One student grinned and said "Well, I feel better now!".
In some ways, that was the point. Relax into your process. Understand that essays and stories don't trot themselves out of our brains perfectly phrased. And that's okay.

 Our students should see us write.... and love it. If you don't love it, please do something else. They need the discovery of your love for this. They need to see the furrowed brow of deep thought, the shriek of joy for revelation, the birth of a well-turned phrase. They need to see your scratch-outs, your arrows, your outlines and drawings. It's absolutely pivotal to let them in on our process. Mentor texts work because they show a student how a certain genre operates. Your idea notebook serves as a mentor text. Share it. Talk about your thought process- especially what you do when you are stuck. By letting them in, we invite them to their own process. Showing them this possibility opens the door to their chance, their dream. Remember yesterday's post? Here's the formula: discovery plus imagination. They discover our process (and love) and they imagine their own.  

The discovery of your process, the chance to imagine and try out their own process, to refine and define it for themselves is an exploration of the imagination. The magic of sharing ideas (sometimes with yourself) and  the courage to just put them down on paper, and then talk about them, changes not only what they do, but how they see themselves:

"I never thought that I liked to write, Mrs. Gililland. But it's just that I hadn't written like this before. I didn't know it could be fun. I just didn't know my style yet, I guess. Now, I write all the time. I read essays all the time. I want to be a Sports writer. {like S.I.'s Rick Reilly}"
(E. -a boy!- 8th grade)

"Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself."

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

31 Days of W.I.C.: Day 15- The Magic of Discovery + Imagination

"The organic nature of communities of practice challenges us to design these elements with a light hand, with an appreciation that the idea is to create liveliness, not manufacture a predetermined outcome."(Cultivating Communities of Practice, Wenger, McDermott & Snyder)

Discovery happens so often through  open observation. This is a watching in which you are looking just to see what you can see. This is not watching for a particular, already named something, but for an unexpected something.  John Stilgoe, in his book Outside Lies Magic, discusses his Harvard class in which he goes syllabus-free, and has students explore and report back. There is often a student-incited panic at first. These are, he says children of "structured learning and structured entertainment". While structure is not an evil thing, it does sometimes keep the student from possibility. The same can happen for a Community of Practice writing community. Too much predetermination, over-structuring, not allowing for breathing room, creates a stifling environment in which members cannot contribute, much less grow. "Starting a community of practice involves balancing discovery and imagination" (Cultivating Communities of Practice) This balance can be understood through the very thing that Stilgoe's students explore: landscapes.


Outside Lies Magic

 History is  intertwined with community. Each whispers the other's secrets. That's one reason seeing beyond what you know is vital. Stilgoe's exploration is generally landscaped based, and that's  not so different from a writing community. We are, after all, attempting to construct something that lives, ...and lasts. Great communities, landscapes with meaning- they are built to withstand times, change, traffic, and growth.  And they are always planned with an element of 'what if', the hope of a surprise, some elastic in the seams of their construction.  "Because communities evolve toward their potential, rather than defining it up front, developing them involves imagining possibilities their members have not yet considered." (73) If we think in terms of landscapes and architecture, it is no surprise. The blueprints are revised, rewritten, repurposed. Certainly people need just as much wiggle room. And this requires both imagination and discovery.

This playing with ideas, with potential, with what could be, is imperative to growth. When we build a library, we don't build it to house the number of books we have. We build it to house a number we hope to have; that we imagine. If we are unable to look past the concrete of what is to what could be, we lose sight of the very vision that should lead us onward. Writing, and a writing community, provide the physical outlay of ideas. Writing communities that work use exchange of ideas as a constant. They embrace imagination.

Stilgoe says students should look around "simply because objects and even landscapes from the past have shaped their lives and shape them still."(7) As the physical landscapes shape our lives, so the architecture of our community is  both a giver and taker of life force.  Exploring these elements of foundation, construction , and causation lay out not only an explanation of what is, but the possible patterns of what could be.   The magic of discovery plus imagination lies in the free-wheeling, catalyst-causing nature of the wonder discovered- that each exploration "sparks curiosity- encourages serendipity".  It is precisely because we've discovered one thing that we can imagine something else.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

31 Days of W.I.C.: Day 14 - Wrestle With It Until It Blesses You

" 'Of course!' she said, 'Of course! I was just trying to think it through. Good things come, but they're never  perfect; are they? You have to twist them into something perfect.'

Joe laughed. 'You have to wrestle with them,' he said. 'Like Jacob with the angel.' "

Betsy's Wedding (Lovelace)

Jacob's Dream - Abilene Christian University

Jacob's Dream

In the biblical account (Genesis 32:22-32), Jacob wrestles all night long with the angel. Jacob turns the tables on the angel, refusing to let go until he has been blessed. Joe and Betsy are discussing a discouraging job; Joe comments that he will not let go until he, like Jacob, is blessed.

 All communities suffer trials. They may be internal or external. They may be relational, directional, or economic. But these issues don't have to deadly to a community. "If the bonds of trust and respect and the sense of common direction are strong, these struggles can become  temporary expressions of the communities aliveness." That's right. We can wrestle with this until becomes a positive for us. These very struggles may actually tell us that we are growing, stretching, learning. Strife impacts who we are, but it also tells us we are here!   (Cultivating Communities of Practice, Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder)

Sometimes a certain idea, a prickly person, a conundrum in a  community seems to be only a problem,  but don't let it go until you've been blessed. Make that situation give you (and your community) a blessing. Write the story. Muddle through the idea. Sketch a solution. Gather a taskforce. What can you get from this? What can you give in this situation? How might this turn into something worthwhile?

Like Joe and Jacob, wrestle with it until it blesses you.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

31 Days W.I.C.: Day 13- The Rhythm is Gonna Get You!

"..communities of practice are living design concentrates on energizing uses design as a catalyst for community growth and development.."
Cultivating Communities of Practice (Wenger, McDermott& Snyder)

An hour ago, everyone was about to be out the door. (And I was to be writing by myself. With hot coffee. Which is now cold.) Off on  a little trip to Barnes & Noble, plus a snack, and then meet back up for a volleyball game. The pattern was normal, the anticipation for the outing crackled in the air, ... until it was broken. The volleyball player's knee pads were missing. A frantic forty-five minute search and knee pads.  

But the rhythm wasn't broken in that step. It was broken several days before that, when the knee pads weren't put where they should have been. Not participating in that rhythm caused a ripple effect that impacted the rhythm for the rest of the week. We can all relate to this, right? That bad day started with waking up late, the flat tire, the missed meeting,  whatever... by the end, the one action in the beginning had capsized the day. 

Dr. Leslie Patterson and Dr. Glenda Eoyang of Human Systems Dynamics explain this change in patterns, and how it affects the whole, through the example of a fractal. A kind of repetitive cosmic Spin Art, Fractals are a reiteration of the larger pattern within the whole. In that, if you kept zooming into the pattern, you would see that there are repeated mini-patterns of the large pattern. So, if you add even one minute change, you change not only the point at which the change was added, but you re-design the whole.

Fractal, courtesy of

Video: Fractal Zoom Mandelbrot Corner (YouTube)

This same action happens in communities. One small decision not to participate, one negative comment, one new, hard-to-work-with-issue ... and suddenly there is a new design.

We have seen this philosophy in the application of a bad day.
But the good news is, it works both ways. In the case of the volleyball kneepads, there is now an official bin by the door for this equipment. This one change, combined with practicing the small change of putting the kneepads there, will change the pattern of that interaction. The same small-change philosophy works in writing communities as well. Tiny tweaks to schedules, people, places, times to write, equipment, resolutions, etc. can revolutionize the process, the practice, and the product. Read one new book. Apply one idea. Write in a new place, at new time, on new topic, with a new person. See what happens.

You can make tiny, incremental changes for the good and end up with a dazzling, different design.

Make a list of changes that you'd like to see.
Break that list into tiny changes.
Make one change.... and sit back and watch!

What Fractals will you set spinning today?