Citizen Schools Apprenticeship: Week 1

I am involved with Citizen Schools this semester and will be blogging about it, so I thought I’d give you an introduction the program and what I’m doing.

Citizen Schools
Citizen Schools
is a voluntary-enrollment after-school program for middle schoolers that was started in Boston and has spread to other urban areas. In Austin, students spend Mondays/Wednesdays on AIM (aspire, invest, make the grade) homework time and Tuesdays/Thursdays participating in apprenticeships led by volunteer Citizen Teachers, culminating in public presentations called “WOW!s”. Other explorations, service days, and field trips happen throughout the semester.

My Apprenticeship // Paper Stories
I am leading an apprenticeship at Bedichek Middle School on Thursdays (90 minutes each week for 11 weeks) that is focused on “Paper Stories.” Students will be creating their own graphic novels using the medium of collage. We will then publish our graphic novels online for our WOW!

My Students
I have 9 sixth and seventh grade students. They got the chance to hear short presentations for all the apprenticeships to then choose which one they were going to participate in.

Week 1
We have started thinking about story ingredients and character development. Students got to read copies of Amelia Rules. Then we got to cutting—creating silhouettes of ourselves in paper that we then traced onto a background sheet. We held the two silhouettes together with brads and then wrote external traits / physical characteristics on the outside silhouette and internal characteristics / dreams / goals / feelings on the inside. Do our inner and outer selves match or conflict? We ran out of time, so we’ll have to explore that a bit more next week.


Pluses and Deltas
A quiet group overall. Students silently read at about the same pace and seemed to be engaged with the material, though I forgot to ask for their feedback on Amelia in my rush to get them to the third activity. They seemed to enjoy creating characters out of themselves, though some took longer than others because they needed to create the “perfect” silhouette. I should ask more questions throughout, make my transitions stronger, and have the students participate in more teachbacks instead of watching me write their answers on the board (slow and tedious, a time-waster).

Dialogue Journals
This was an idea I got from my Literacy Austin training from one of the great speakers and fellow tutors, Alina. This semester, each storytelling student got his/her own one with a note from me already inside, and ideally we’ll write letters back and forth in them. A way to get to know each other better, more space for questions, and an introduction to the idea of a “sketchbook” in their lives. I had started some with adult reading students at Literacy Austin, and some took to it more than others. The consistency and quality of writing always depended on the student’s interest, his/her schedule, and his/her commitment—not to mention his/her organization. I’m interested to see what the middle schoolers do with them.

Up Next
We had written and submitted 10-week plans, but mine has already changed a lot as I shift my focus away from “creating by understanding the mechanics of graphic novels” to “creating through storytelling.” Developing characters, plot, themes, and settings for the final product will take up the bulk of our time now. Next week: Students will create their personal Author Profiles and explore the role of storytelling in their lives. Perhaps this should have come first, but better late than never.

If you want to help

  • Paper and fabric donations. A good excuse to clean out that craft drawer.
  • Suggestions for age-appropriate comics/graphic novels/illustrated stories—particularly about friendship, journeys, or “reaching your future dreams and goals.”
  • Age-appropriate comics donations. A good excuse to clean out that bookshelf.

Thank you to all who have already donated. I will most likely need volunteers later on in the semester, too. And of course, you can lead your own apprenticeship in the coming semesters on whatever topic moves you!


A Pun, A Toy, & An Idea

1. Appeel is an interactive exhibition. “Once off the wall, the stickers ask to be sticked somewhere…”


2. Action Types introduces the idea of unique typefaces to children. Hybrid creations are also a possibility.


3. The Photographic Dictionary is one of those why-didn’t-I-think-of-that eventualities.


Of Fear and Opportunity

I spent much of the weekend in fear: what have I gotten myself into; I’m in over my head; what was I thinking? Which triggers the normal reactions (in me, it’s flight, not fight): this is too tiring and too hard; I can’t do this; what if I don’t really want to do this?

Talking it out sort of helped, but what really got me over it was reading. Some of the library books I had, from a past gluttonous trip to check out nearly every offering on childhood literacy, were due. I sped-read through my Sunday. There are a few books that cause me to calm down and get excited simultaneously. These are books which speak of child development, how we learn, and classroom environments that foster empowerment and curiosity. In reading these books, I cannot help but start to think of ideas for our future classrooms and our future lessons together.

I read once that a key to knowing what you are meant to do is if you continually have questions about it. Curiosity is a divining rod, capable of pointing you to buried riches (“of the soul”), if you are pure of intention and honest with yourself.

The other part of my fear dissipated when I went back to work Monday morning and came face to face with the harsh realities of our sinking economy. The design firm I work at (and countless other businesses around the nation, the world) is staggeringly different from what it was six months ago, and we are cutting again. I’m conflicted about all of it. While it pains me to watch colleagues lose their jobs and struggle with their new circumstances, I’m not sad that it is due to the fact that all retail development has dried up. That was half of our business; and it has stopped dead in its track in most of the world. I cannot weep that there will now be fewer mega-malls and condos in our midst.

Our nation is finding its way again. Our industries are readjusting. I cannot speak with any authority on the economic woes that plague us, but I do get the sense that there is so much left to do.

I get the sense that we have too many businesspeople and not enough teachers, too many entrepreneurs and not enough humanitarians, (in Texas) too many chemical engineers working for Big Oil and not enough civil engineers building bridges. It will be difficult for many people who are losing their jobs to find another one in their field—maybe simply because the field needs to change. Your old job may not be needed in this new world, but maybe a retooling of your industry or a rethinking of your skillset can be useful.

My conversations with friends who have recently lost jobs nearly always end with “there are so many people worse off than us, we are still lucky.”

Social responsibility, poverty, disease, infrastructure, urban planning, peace, education, healthcare, the environment, etc., etc., etc….take your pick: there is a lot to do. Comfort zones be damned, our world deserves better.

Chrysalis Code

I am making big changes in my life as I move from the professional field of design into the professional mine field / field of dreams that is education, yet these changes feel less like a career move and more like the realization a truer self. Perhaps an apt metaphor is one we marvel at as children—the preparation work from caterpillar into chrysalis and the metamorphosis of chrysalis into butterfly. The butterfly has never had wings before, and it is a steep learning curve leading up to the first flight; but fly it must, and it’s quite a lot less daunting once one realizes that flight is in her genes and destiny.

I know a lot of what I write these first few months is going to sound lofty, romantic, and naïvely grand. But write, I must. I know that in the process, when times get tough and the going gets rough, when I am most challenged by students/ situations/ bureaucracy/ myself, I will need these words as nourishment, reminders, and a self-code by which to check myself, my work, and my actions. Will I be able to live up to the many ideals and grand goals of my chrysalis stage—this stage when I am full of hope and as yet unhardened by failures and frustrations? These basic guiding principals may evolve and change, but cannot be compromised, even as they are tested again and again.

The following is what I observe in the best educators; it is what I strive for.


  • be on the entire time they’re around students
  • be with it. Almost all-seeing in their observation of who’s acting out, who’s fading into the background, who’s losing interest quickly, and who needs a little extra attention.
  • be quick on their feet. Always ready to turn any situation into a positive one. Quick diagnosis of bad situations, why someone may be acting a certain way, and act quickly to remedy it and/or turn it into a teaching opportunity.
  • have their wheels always spinning – always asking (even in the moment) how can I make the lesson better? Quick and accurate assessments of interest level, experience and skill level, frustration level, excitement level, level of comprehension, and levels of true learning.
  • always be prepared. Plans, back-up plans, plans A thru F, and fall-back plans.
  • be educators, mentors, role models, psychologists, sociologists, demonstrators, administrators, janitors, mediators, diplomats, cheerleaders, tutors, coaches, supporters, friends, a guiding force. (a guiding light, if you’re lucky enough to get to that point.)
  • have a steady hand, a steady gaze, a steady character. Students must know that what they expect of you is met, and consistently.
  • be clear and fair. Students must know what is expected of them and understand the structure of the day. Examples, models, guided experiential learning.
  • be respectful of diversity of students’ personalities, learning styles, interests, situations, backgrounds, and the students themselves.
  • be positive
  • respect the student’s opinions, voice, choices, and the need to voice his/her choices.
  • skeptical yet not cynical
  • be everything they want their students to be. Nice, respectful, hardworking, engaged and engaging, serious yet fun-loving, grateful, curious, mindful, citizens, analytical, appropriate, patient, tolerant, gracious, ethical, enthusiastic, hopeful, brave, honest, balanced, healthy, willing to try new things, always striving for challenges, willing to fail and to learn from failure, et. al.
  • be always conscious that students (and teachers) are striving to do things for their true rewards (accomplishment, ethics, a self-written code) rather than candy or coolness or “because we said so.” (Level VI, Rafe Esquith)
  • be strong, flexible, and quick.
  • be students themselves. The steep learning curve at the beginning will eventually flatten out, but even then, we must always be striving to learn more and to continue learning from experience and from the students.
  • create sustainable models of education and self-learning within one’s own classroom, for the public education system as a whole, and within students. If a teacher can help a student create and nurture his/her own self-learning and life-long curiosity, that is the best we can do.
  • unabashedly and unapologetically enthusiastic
  • engage the community and his/her students. Reach out, connect, re-connect, and make those connections ever stronger. It does take a village. There’s work to be done to reestablish the ties that live in our ancestor’s memories as vital life forces.

Preparing to be a teacher, learning to be a teacher, and being a teacher… it will make me work on improving my worst traits, and it will make me face my greatest fears. In some ways, it is merely a road to becoming my best self. But that is only a side benefit. The gift of focusing on others’ growth and learning will, of course, increase your own growth and learning, which will then enhance others’ growth and learning, which will, of course…you get the idea.

Time to fly.


To delight. To create. To teach.