Sunday, April 23, 2017

April is National Poetry Month, and there are lots of ways to celebrate. One of them is to write poetry. But you don’t write? You don’t write poetry?  Let me introduce you to the Bonsai Story Generator.

The Generator is one of my favorite spots on the Internet.  The story of the generator is a simple one.  A group of writers exchanged white elephant gifts during their holiday get-together and one of them used a pencil and strips of paper inscribed with sentences derived from members’ stories to create a “Christmas tree”. In the online version of that tree, users feed text into the generator, click on a button, and receive something new and different.
“Story Generator” is a misnomer.  The process doesn’t produce a story so much as an evocative collection of words. I find the output fertile material for generating all types of writing.  I’ve “bonsai-d” my own writing to produce new iterations of poems or generate text when I was trying to chop through writer’s block. To celebrate this month of poesy, I started with raw prose materials and then pruned the result into a poem. 

     I took the post “What Students Leave” from my tumblr site, copied it, pasted the contents into the generator, clicked the “Bonsai this Text” button, and instantly perused the result.  Much of the prose that resulted is the background for the graphic at the top of this post. 
How did I turn all that prose into a poem? I looked for phrases that intrigued me, moved them around, and then filled in stuff until I liked the way it sounded.  Basically, I remembered Tom Robbins’ explanation of how poetry is made: “…by f**king around with syntax”.  I have a pretty casual aesthetic.  I ask myself, “Does this look/sound cool?” and “Does this make me feel something?” So when I thought the poem looked good, sounded cool, and made me feel something, I stopped.
This is the poem that resulted:

Try it out yourself! I’d love to see your results, so post them in the comments to share!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Back to School Stations

The idea of using stations in a high school classroom is a popular one, and with back to school time here or looming for some, it’s gaining traction.  Jennifer Wolfe’s post,No More Lectures: Try Back to School Stations Instead describes using them in her middle school classroom.  I tried them out in my high school speech class, and loved it!
Using stations achieved several things: the process allowed students to move around my room, had students using the interactive whiteboard for once, gave me feedback on students so I could get to know them, and helped us accomplish some minor tasks that would suck up too much time if we did them as a class.
I created five stations: a survey about the class content on the interactive whiteboard, a computer station to complete the Personal Report of Communication Anxiety online, a postcard selection site, a personal survey for students to fill out, and an introduction to our first speech assignment. My room is a good sized one, with a projector and interactive whiteboard, a pod of students computers (3 out of 6 currently working), and 10 rectangular tables arranged into five squares. This is a partial view of my room. A bit of the computer pod is visible off right, under the shelf of trophies.

One motivation for using stations was the idea that students spend a lot of time sitting and listening the first couple of days of school.  I agree that listening is an important skill, but I had promised students on the first day that in our speech class, we spend more time doing stuff than in a typical class.  Setting up stations gave us all a chance to circulate, with a purpose.
The interactive whiteboard in my room is a constant challenge to me.  I appreciate it, but I always feel that students don’t use it enough.  I met the challenge by making the whiteboard one of the station sites.  I set up a survey on Google Forms to solicit students’ opinions about which of the four topics in the class they were most interested in studying.  The survey, which you can find here, is short, and students simply clicked on “Submit Another Response” when they were through and tagged another student to complete the survey. 
     Another station had students complete the Personal Report of Communication Anxiety online.  This is a wonderful tool! The results help me see which students might need extra support or different strategies to speak in front of the class confidently.  I simply added a link from my website to the online version of the instrument and then have students record their results on and index card.  At another station, students filled out another kind of survey, linked here.  Since I ask them to use complete sentences to answer the questions, the responses also serve as short writing samples.
     At the postcard station, I left a pile of postcards from which students chose one they especially liked and addressed it to themselves. I posted instructions about to address a postcard (a skill most freshman don’t seem to possess) and ask them to drop the cards into a basket.  At some point in the semester, I’ll find something positive to share with the student, jot it down on the card, and mail it.  If we do this as a whole class, it takes a lot of time since some students complete it easily and others agonize over the choices.  Making this one station in the rotation made the process flexible enough I didn’t feel guilty about implementing it.  I try to have a variety of cards.  Last year I purchased a set featuring art from Pixar; this year I added some with animals done by different artists.
     Aside from the activity at each station, I learned more about students as they completed the activities.  Who was able to complete the stations on their own? Who needed to be told where to go next, even when the instructions said they didn’t need to do the stations in any order? Who helped their classmates problem-solve? I left each hour knowing more about my students even before I collected the work at each station and reading it.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Museum is Open: CLMOOC Make Cycle #2


     I did it again.
     I set out to make one thing and ended up with something completely different.
     Object: to explore this week’s theme of “Reciprocate With Gratitude and Generosity” by making something to honor Ray Maxwell and Deanna Mascle for their influence on me during the clmooc. Simple plans to start with: use Google Drawing to create a poster. One page, two people, words and images.
     But why specifically Ray and Deanna? Well, Ray’s introduction, and his confession of the importance of poetry in his life, still sticks with me.  His passion is one example of how important poetry is in a lot of people’s lives.  And Deanna, well, her introduction, too, ringing the changes on the many ways to share who she is, caught my attention. Into the second week, her foundpoem and illustrated tanka were beautiful expressions of the spirit of the clmooc.
     Not happy with Google Drawing. Love a museum background from PPT, but it fits badly, and how will I post the finished poster?
     Hmmmm…looking at Sheri’s Found Poetry stuff.  It’s growing.  Google Slides! What if my tip of the hat to Ray and Deanna were a room in a museum?  An interactive museum.  Ray and Deanna are there, their respective pictures framed, but there could also be interactive stuff and links to things to watch or listen to.
     Set up a slide. Import the background. Rough out the design by inserting shapes. Look around the web for content.

     Back at the Found Poetry slides to grab the URL. A little laboratory of collaboration here. What kind of museum has only one room? And shouldn’t there be a front door? Can I do that, just set it up and declare it the “CLMOOC MUSEUM”?  The wisdom from Field of Dreams applies to the mooc: “If you build it, they will come.”

     So now, a museum.  
     A front door, generic in appearance for now, but ready to be spruced up.

Want to design the front door? Go to
     A room celebrating Ray and Deanna by becoming a window to online poetry of different varieties. 

 Visit to visit the museum or build your room

     And empty rooms, waiting to be filled with artifacts and things of interest, to celebrate and document, to arouse amusement and wonder. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Getting in the Flow

     The last computer class I had was in high school, over 30 years ago. I had already completed Typing with Mrs. Grimmett, one of the most useful classes I’ve ever taken, and my senior year I was in a small group of students that got to play with the brand new desktop computers in the little lab down by the cafeteria.
I remember writing short blocks of rudimentary code, that the book we used was olive green with some red, and that we played computer golf.
And that’s about it. 
Computers did not interest me, really. They weren’t a necessary part of my continuing education. In fact, I went through 6 years of college, through my MA, without using a desktop computer.  I had one undergraduate professor who allowed us to handwrite our final paper because he insisted on footnotes, having no affection for the new, probably transitory idea of parenthetical attribution and endnotes.
I used a souped-up typewriter during grad school, one that would show four or five lines of text on a tiny rectangular screen and then save a (smallish) paper and print it out on command.
Even when I got my first post-grad job, it was a big thing when the community college learning lab in which I worked installed touch screen computers for the nursing simulations.
When I began teaching high school, there was neither a phone nor a computer in my room. Now there are 7 computers belonging to the school in addition to the smartphones most of my students have.
Anything I know about tech, from using Word to cultivating a Professional Learning Network with Twitter, from depending on PowerPoint in designing programs for our shows to creating ‘pinnable images’ for my blog posts, I have picked up from colleagues and students with very little formal training. Edcamps, #clmooc, techie debaters and actors, they have all been excellent sources for an education in edtech of all kinds.
Here’s what I know, and have known since the perky presenter reminded us of the Little Caesar’s “Pizza, Pizza” catchphrase as we ‘double-clicked’ our way through our first faculty desk-top training so many years ago: hands on is a hand up.
The last day of school this year I experienced a little meltdown. I won’t go into details, but the professional development scheduled the last half day before we were released for summer was frustrating. Granted, we could actually touch the computers, but that was about it.
And in that moment, I had a flash of what students feel like when they are constrained by a class that is covering what they know, what they are good at doing, and they just can’t move on to something new. If my emotional thermometer was rising, an adult with (usually) adult coping skills, then how must students feel at times? I wanted so badly to start clicking, dragging, and uploading to try out the new Learning Management System.
Today in the #clmooc, I learned how to use a new program and layer images. Jan Chow has some very useful and very clear instructions on her blog that let me play around with something new and add to my skill set. On my own schedule, I read her instructions, I followed the directions, I problem-solved when needed, and I ended up with this (not entirely relevant) image:

Full disclosure: the mooc has inspired poems, sketches, and blog posts as well. It’s not all about digital makes. Or cows.
The opportunity to play with something new is liberating! Once you figure out you can’t break anything on the Internet, getting your hands dirty by experimenting can present incredible stretches of that “flow” that comes with intense immersion in a task. May all teachers, including me, remember that when we meet up with our students this fall.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Drawing on Connections: A Reflection on Make Cycle 1


Several influences converged today to bring me to this post.  In the CLMOOC G+ community, Susan Watson posted a slideshow with some good questions about the influence of photographic images.  The Daily Connect gives us a day of grace, and in exploring past posts, I found this one. And then, I find myself near the end of the first Make Cycle, reflecting on one of the key words of the week for me, “liminal”, by literally drawing out my ideas.

When I was in third grade, we lived in a duplex in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.  In the other half of the duplex lived a family with a teenage daughter.  She drew…a lot. And I looked up to her, I think, and wanted to ‘be a drawer’ too, so I started to copy her style.  One of the many pieces she showed me was of a woman in a Dolly Parton-like jumpsuit with a blank, mannequin-like face and a huge, teased hairdo.  The hands were rudimentary, indistinct, and for a long time, that is how I drew them.
     Drawing is a way of knowing ourselves and understanding our world and what we learn, and I used it without much examination of why I was using it for a long time.  I wish I had some of the drawings I can remember so clearly: from eighth grade, the wedding dresses I would sketch on notebook paper for friends at lunch, or the page of little drawings of what people were wearing around my Florida middle school when I was in 7th grade, or the Native American dancers with huge buffalo headdresses I drew for a social studies project in a New York middle school social studies class.
 At home, I would sit in a chair in the living room with a drawing board my Dad had cut from a piece of board and draw fantastic dresses, inspired by Bob Mackie and Edith Head, my two favorite designers.  I went through countless newsprint pads and used pen or pencil, whatever was at hand. For a while, I would go to fabric departments and ask for their discarded pattern books and copy the clothes from them.
And now, drawing is a way of knowing, expressing, and understanding for me.  The egg from earlier this week, which grew from some people expressing how overwhelmed they were by the flood of content in the CLMOOC:  

My sketches while thinking about the meaning of ‘liminal'.

Throughout the year, I draw as a way of planning and expressing. In reorganizing the new desk in my classroom a couple of years ago, I drew it and labeled the draws with their functions.  As the first day of school nears, I sketch out room arrangements and bulletin board ideas. In trying to describe an upcoming show, I take a marker and cover the whiteboard with rough, quick, drawings of sets and costumes.
I don’t think I’ve examined before how important expressing myself visually is in my daily life, but I realize that even the little charts and graphs, arrows and parentheses in my bullet journal show how it is not just words, but pictures as well that let me order my world.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Should It Stay or Should It Go? A Life in Food

Aside from two fully employed adults, our home houses several thousand books.  Because we don’t practice the “one in, one out” philosophy in acquiring them, the books overfill the shelves and are stacked on flat surfaces around our home. Yet, I often can’t resist picking up another book I haven’t read from the 25 cent table at my favorite book store or a pile at a library sale.
Thus this series, “Off My Shelf,” where I take a book from a shelf or a pile, read (or reread it) and decide whether it stays or goes.

The piles of books on my shelves are like strata of earth.  Each layer says something about the time and place I acquired them. I bought Judith Jones’ The Tenth Muse: My Life inFood at a bookstore in Dallas last year.  Now that I’ve excavated it from its resting place and read it, I regret taking so long to get to it.
Judith Jones was a major figure at the center of the culinary world in the mid-20th century.  After editing the groundbreaking Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Jones found her niche, midwifing a series of books written by people to whom food mattered.  Her stories of finding just the right person for each book are engrossing.  As an editor, she was always looking for people who had strong connections with the food of their culture from an early age. Madhur Jaffrey, Claudia Roden, and Irene Kuo came from disparate cultures: Indian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese, but they all, in Jones’ words, had “…grown up in a household where food was honored and…felt compelled to recover those food memories.” These women wrote seminal works on each of the cuisines from which they came. 
Besides introducing Americans to international cuisines, Jones also helped document American food.  James Beard, the gargantuan figure of mid-century American cuisine, helped and advised Jones and she returned the favor when she introduced him to the Californian Marion Cunningham.  Cunnigham not only became Beard’s right hand, but also edited the revised the classic Fannie Farmer Cookbook, reinstituting it as a key text in American cooking.  Still, Jones reminiscences about her inability to find good, traditional Southern food in restaurants and the difficulty of locating someone who could document such food.
And then she met Edna Lewis.
Edna Lewis cooked the food that acolytes such as Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams remembered from their childhood and still craved and she served it at a restaurant under New York’s Queensboro Bridge.  The book that Jones helped Lewis write, The Taste of Country Cooking, is a book of days filled with the food Lewis grew up eating in the American South. It’s revealing that when Jones asked Lewis why there was not Thanksgiving menu in the quintessentially American book, Lewis told her that her family had celebrated Emancipation Day instead.   
“Just as in real life we come to know someone through his or her connection to food, so in fiction a telling aspect of a character’ s personality surfaces in his or her feelings about eating,” Jones writes.  She makes a good case for how authors use details about what their characters eat…or cook…to reveal what is fundamental about them, invoking authors such as John Updike and Ann Tyler to illustrate her point.

I bookmarked so many passages to copy in my commonplace book and read the recipes at the end of the book hungrily.  This memoir deserves a space on my kitchen shelves with other culinary essays, and more than that, it inspired a reading list of books because it’s clear from this one that her passion as an editor, just as her skill as a writer, was to channel an author’s wisdom and enthusiasm into print. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Should It Stay or Should it Go? Paris Edition

     Aside from two fully employed adults, our home houses several thousand books.  Because we don’t practice the “one in, one out” philosophy in acquiring them, the books overfill the shelves and are stacked on flat surfaces around our home. The books with the best address, upright on one of the sets of shelves handmade by my father, or my uncle, have been with me the longest. Some of the oldest have been through eight moves or more, from my adolescent home to the house where I live with my husband today.
       Yet, I often can’t resist picking up another book I haven’t read from the 25 cent table at my favorite book store or a pile at a library sale.
       Thus this series, “Off My Shelf,” where I take a book from a shelf or a pile, read (or reread it) and decide whether it stays or goes.
     Half a dozen books by expatriates of various kinds populate my “to be read” piles.  Paris in Love by Eloisa James is by an author and professor of English who packs up her family and moves to Paris for a sabbatical year. 
     The impetus for the move comes partly from James’ experience with breast cancer, an early stage case that merited a mastectomy but left James bereft of the clarity that her memoir reading had told her she should expect with a cancer diagnosis.  After the experience, she found herself getting rid of possessions, to the point that she and her husband had some words over a few of his books that found their way into a donation box. 
     Both James and her husband Alessandro are academics, so they took advantage of a sabbatical year, selling off house and car taking their teenage son and preadolescent daughter to Paris to live in the 9th arrondisement for a year.
     James’ goal when she left for Paris was to write four books. She found herself mostly writing Facebook posts, and this book is a compendium of those, some of which have become extended essays. The tone of the entire book is light, and her family stories are often amusing, especially those revolving around her daughter’s transcontinental school shenanigans.
     In general, she puts the best face on their family’s adjustment to another culture.  The stress is apparent only a couple of times, and even then laughter prevails. Of family plans to visit the catacombs, she writes:
Me, at breakfast, to Alessandro: “The catacombs sound so interesting! In 1741, a man wandered off, and his body wasn’t found for nine years. Let’s take the children this afternoon.” Moment of silence…then gales of laughter.
Later, she relates the stressful account of a family trip to the Loire valley to celebrate their son’s birthday.  The trip exposed some marital tension and ended up giving James herself flashbacks to a terrible summer when her parents were splitting and her father provided only beef tongue for his adolescent daughters’ lunches.
     I appreciated James’ love of chocolate, her writer’s eye for the small details of Parisian life (the pink shirted bankers, the grooved limestone facades of the buildings in her neighborhood, the city light that penetrated the curtains of her apartment), and her ability to tell a story without making everything a morality play.
     Yes, there is something to learn from her book. For theatregoers, it may well be “…once the main character is dead, the play is over.”  For all of us, it is to go where you want to go while you can, emotionally and physically.  James writes, finally, and without any fatalistic overtone, “So this book is my phone call---not from the top of a mountain, or even the top of the Eiffel Tower; the “here” is negotiable. It’s so beautiful here. You must come before you die.”
     Again, a book I enjoyed, and one that made me reflect more than most.  But not a book I feel I need to keep. I will pass it on to someone or trade it in for another.

     James also writes popular romantic fiction and her website can be found here.