Citizen Schools Apprenticeship: Week 2

I learned A LOT this week, and it was HARD! A crazy week with my work life and my personal life had me walking into the classroom Thursday afternoon tired yet hopeful. I left the classroom exhausted, deflated, and with a lot to think about. Still, that night, when I should have rightfully been getting to bed, my head was still spinning with ideas for the next class and ways to improve.

My Students
Since I had perfect attendance and a new student this week, my class is now up to 10! I had a fairly quiet peaceful group of 7 last week, but this week, they were a riled up 10—partly because they’ve been dealing with unusual schedules and odd schooldays due to (everyone’s favorite friend) the TAKS tests. There was a lot of distracting behavior, talking, gossiping, and overall off-task behavior. We should have diffused the situations sooner by breaking them up into smaller groups, and I should have been more authoritative in keeping the group on task and on time. They had excess energy, and none of my activities this week let them expel that energy in healthy ways. Keeping the distracted and loud, off-task students also stole some attention away from the quiet, on-task ones, and if we were both attending quiet students, the loud ones stayed off-task. We need to both be on the move at all times, switching around to different students and tables more.

What we were supposed to be doing

  • Reading time (Too much energy to sit still, )
  • Agenda and teachbacks (went okay, with some prodding and reminders of the Story Ingredients we learned last week)
  • Quick Draws (draw fruit for 5 minutes straight…hard to keep them focused for even this short time!)
  • Examples of sketching/editing/process in a design project from work and in personal writing (very attentive, lots of interest)
  • Artist Profiles (defining the stories we take in, stories we tell, and our future stories. Like pulling teeth. They were distracted, chatty, and generally didn’t see the point in taking this seriously, I think.)
  • More Character Work / Setting Work (Because characters were at different levels of completion, there wasn’t clear instruction given on my part of what they should have been doing. I should have split them into those who needed to create new characters, and those who were finished who could move onto creating settings. Very loud classroom at this point. A ruler was broken—I talked to them about respecting our supplies, much of which were donated. The student said sorry to the class, and I hope I handled it all right.)
  • Close / Clean Up / Dialogue Journals (handed back the few that were brought back this week and explained the new schedule for turning in Dialogue Journals Monday so I have time to write in them outside of class time. Weak ending. I should have previewed next week’s lesson.)

Dialogue Journals
First impressions: the students really respond to them and like writing in them. Ironic, however, to read an excited and generally positive letter from a student while she is at the same moment acting out or having a hard time in class this week…and then having to write a positive response to the letter while feeling stressed with the present behavior. (Need to read up on social psych and how group dynamics cause differences in behavior and attitude.)

What’s Next
Next week, we will introduce the themes the students will be writing their stories about, and they will team up. Students will work on their final WOW! as pairs and will have peer editing groups of 4. We/I have yet to figure out how to do this! It needs to be fair, as conflict-free as possible, and make sense. I know on the most part, I disliked random team groupings as a student, and honestly, I’m afraid of some of the pairings that could happen if we do it completely randomly. But since one of our “New Leadership Skills” we are focusing on this semester is teamwork, it is on us as a class to work through any conflicts that DO arise. I think the teams will be formed on a combination of topic interest, skill levels, and some level of chance. If you have any ideas about games or activities we can use to group students, let me know!

Deltas / Lessons Learned

  • More structure in our classroom: smaller groups, assigned seats, and clear expectations & rules explained and reinforced verbally and visually. We are going to focus on RESPECT and TEAMWORK.
  • More clarity: I need to give clearer instructions, clearer explanations (of reasons why we are doing this, what our end goal is), and clearer expectations (this is quiet reflection time vs. this is hands-on work time vs. this is group discussion time). Verbally and visually.
  • More teachbacks, more systematic. After every activity. Are you listening? Are you learning? Popcorn-style vs. strong silent hand that gives a clear picture of what kind of answer is expected. Involve everyone (also difficult). And definitely end class with teachbacks.
  • Context and results. Students aren’t seeing our semester together as time spent working toward our final presentation WOW! I need to put this end result in front of them again, and have a visual timeline to help them see why we’re doing the things we’re doing and what we have left to do. I hope that once they start working on their own stories, they can invest themselves into those projects and have something to work towards. Time to move on from the background/foundation work I’ve been trying to get them to do; they need to see results, and they need to have some personal goals related to projects they have ownership of.

The rest of the semester is going to be tough, but I hope the class ends up with projects they can be proud of. I have to keep reminding myself of the big picture: these students have important stories to tell, and we can help them tell those stories. That is why I started this journey with them, and I will keep reminding them of it. I haven’t done a good job of saying those exact words because I have been distracted as much as they have, barreling through my activities trying to get things done on time. But I need to. Say those exact words. Over and over again. Your stories are important. We are going to tell them. I think in the process, we as a class will deal with respect in a lot of ways (respect of each other, respect of our time together, respect of supplies, self-respect, showing respect, etc.). So we’re building character in the students as the students build characters. I hadn’t planned on this, and it will be a tough part of this semester. I have to keep my expectations high. Whenever friends refer to my apprenticeship students as “kids”, I usually correct them because naming is important, and I want to think of my students as students or storytellers and NOT as kids. Yesterday, they acted like kids, and I was calling them kids in my head, but I need to self-correct. This morning, they are once again students, and I’m going to give them the chance to stay that way—or maybe even to become young adults.


A Collection of Communication Tools

As I try to teach about storywriting, storytelling, and storyreading, I am having to truly analyze the roles that reading and writing have in my life. In the process, I’m also getting a clearer picture of what kind of communicator I am—my strengths and weaknesses are readily apparent in a classroom setting in front of a sometimes unforgiving audience.

One big thing that jumps out at me: I tend to pontificate in writing and to speak in vague terms in conversation—particularly when I am not an authority on a topic but have strong feelings about it anyhow. There must be a way to reconcile and to strengthen all my modes of communication. As I try to remember what I have learned, I realize I already have most of the tools I need, even if some are out of practice.

All the lessons from my “past lives” as journalist, designer, and artist show me the way to better communication. Journalism teaches us to listen more than we talk. It also teaches us to hone in on the details; a specific story about specific people is much more compelling than vague textbook generalizations about a broad topic. Journalism teaches us how to brainstorm on topics and to delve ever deeper until we know something inside and out…design teaches us the same; “content is still king and queen,” as Mr. Tufte says. Drafting, sketching, editing, getting feedback, revising, user testing, and connecting with the audience are crucial to all three. All three teach us how to gather massive amounts of information, distill it, and then create something new of it. Organization, an open mind, and risktaking are part of deal—you can’t ignore any part.

Can you say this about many other professions as well? Perhaps. Yet these were the ones I was drawn to; I believe it’s because all three are intrinsically forms of storytelling. In addition to pasing on the skills and processes I have learned, I also have to utilize them in the teaching itself. What are teachers, but another form of storyteller?

I have been writing since I was a young girl and reading since before then. Writing comes pretty easily to me now, and it’s tempting to think it’s just a natural gift. However, that would be glossing over the long years of study and practice in the interim, which have prepared me well for this next leg of my journey. In this way, my “past lives” aren’t really in the past, as their skills and lessons are continually evolving in the present. I need to remember what I’ve learned, respect how I learned it, and honor the people who have taught me.

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!

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.