hills pop up like giant gopher trails
and we stand on them like explorers discovering a new world
tall trees and pine cones and scattered bird calls
across the green winter grass wind strips the leaves
foot-long pine needles
spike open the sunny air
in the Peace Garden
Looking at the small stones from the Peace Garden — I wanted to capture the sunshine of a warm California day in winter, a surprising warm day after a week of freezing temperatures–the tall trees, the long pine needles, the deep rifts of bark. We can add more elements of creativity and surprise to our writing by doing the unexpected and trying something new. I usually try to appeal to the senses by including color and detail in my writing, and this can also be added at later stages of writing. Everyone sees and hears something different in the Peace Garden, and we make those choices visible in what we write. Do we see Gandhi, King, Chavez and Addams? Do we reflect on the library building or the hills? Everyone sees something different. In silence, we make a certain claim about what it means to be present, what it takes to appreciate the moment, and what we gain when we stand still to notice our surroundings. I think it takes a certain amount of self-awareness and self-ease to reject distractions, to quiet the mind and be present, to be aware of what is right in front of us. Some people like to be moving all the time, to be as active as possible, but this also can mean constant distraction. We have to be present to be good writers because we use our powers of observation to write, and if we move too fast, we miss a lot.
Creative writing exercises usually provide some guidelines and some structure but also leave a lot of space for interpretation and style and content. Because I love writing, I usually love a good prompt that gives me a sense of freedom and space. The Peace Garden at Fresno State creates an ideal space for reflection to jump-start creative and personal writing. Like Richard Wright told us, writing needs to be done in isolation, and writing also takes time.
In high school, a thoughtful and caring English teacher (Mr. Abraham) sat down with me sometime during junior year to catch me up on work I’d missed while absent. I remember talking about a couple of things in that meeting. We talked about active verbs, for one thing. He told me I should always try to replace “to be” verbs with action verbs to make my writing stronger and more descriptive. I really don’t remember exactly what he said because this meeting probably happened in the fall or winter of 1984/1985. I do remember I told him, “yes, I already do that,” and he was surprised that I knew it already. That part of me that loves to be right has preserved this memory. Who knows? Maybe my writing didn’t show that I knew it. Passive verbs are tricky that way. They sneak in even when we’re trying to keep them out. However, some other talented English teacher at Andrew Warde had beat Mr. Abraham to the punch, either Mr. Bell in freshman year, or Mr. Pagani in sophomore year, both such talented teachers that either one (or both) of them had taught us this lesson already. (I was extremely lucky to have extremely talented English teachers in high school. This, I know.) We also talked about our readings because I was really offended by James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (1841) with its negative, stereotypical depictions of Native Americans. I was reading Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name (1967) at home, and although also an Anglo writer, her depictions of indigenous culture of the Pacific Northwest ran circles around Cooper’s flat, negative, ridiculously simple ideas. Also, who didn’t read Island of the Blue Dolphins in the 1980s? So even as a suburban, white sheltered teenager in Connecticut somewhere north of New York City, I already had some strong opinions about culture and cultural representation and the need to reject false stereotypes.
But I digress because I intended this post to mostly examine active verbs. That reinforced lesson, that time that Mr. Abraham took to catch me up, to talk about grammar and literature, to talk about how to improve my writing made an impact on me that I still remember some thirty years later. Active verbs when used to replace dull, flat, vague, generic passive verbs can make all the difference between clear writing and unclear writing, between dynamic description and vague generalities, between knowing exactly what you’re talking about and just kind of sort of knowing what you’re talking about. Because active verbs force you to pin down exactly who did what, to make a claim, to take a stance, to give up being passive yourself and stand up for something you believe in. This sounds like a tangent possibly, a soapbox suddenly appearing in this post, but active verbs do force you to choose your words more carefully and more consciously. You have to decide to replace that vague, all-purpose, ubiquitous “to be” verb with something more vivid and real. You have to take the time to find them and fetch them up, like so many balls scattered across a hardwood floor. You can leave them there for your reader to trip on and wonder what the heck is going on, or you can clean them up and pack them away and replace them with better active verbs which will act like lights on the path or stones lining the trail. That trail for me keeps unwinding, and the journey of writing carries us forward slowly but surely every day. Seize the active verb and build a way forward, a way that we can see.
Racism in Richard Wright’s Black Boy reveals the repression of intimidation, the pain of retaliation, and the grief of loss felt by African Americans living in the South during the Jim Crow era. Wright graphically describes his experiences of white racism throughout the book taking us from his nascent understanding of the meaning of racial differences to his growing awareness of the importance of his own racial identity and his passion and purpose for combatting racism. Wright shows the links between the silence caused by intimidation and the liberation discovered through writing about racism in the South. He puts us in the place of his childhood vividly with all its hunger, struggle and loss, from the lynching of Uncle Hoskins to the random acts of violence that he witnessed in multiple workplaces. Racism in the South threatened the livelihood of any successful African American and repressed the hopes of any ambitious young African American. Wright’s ambitions led him to Memphis, Chicago and New York in his search to grow as a writer and to have his voice heard in a meaningful way. Writing became his ticket out of the poverty and inequality he experienced for decades until the publication of his groundbreaking novel Native Son in 1940.
As Margaret Walker and Jerry Ward told us, Richard Wright stands as a model for any writer who wants to write honestly about experiences that come from the gut, that come from real life. And as Amiri Baraka told us, Wright helped raise the awareness of millions of people of the struggles of African Americans as a people, as a whole. Experiences of race relations and white racism that were life-threatening, psychologically damaging and spirit-crushing were made visible by Wright’s writing of his youth growing up in Mississippi. Only during his young adulthood in Chicago during the Great Depression did Richard Wright find a meaningful sense of community and hope through his witnessing of the hardships of the whole community. Only then did his self-imposed isolation and alienation start to slip from him showing him a way forward, a path for action in the future. Wright’s powerful writing continues to teach us lessons today about the nature of racism itself, and the psychological, physical and economic consequences of gross inequality.
Note: We’re doing some blog posts for my Winter Session class which is why I’m posting about gardening during a week of freeze warnings and covering up succulents in the yard!
Writing to me is like tending my garden. I read recently that you can find creativity in subtraction. In gardening weeding is subtraction, sometimes pulling out live weeds and sometimes pulling out dead spent plants. Either way the garden becomes more beautiful by changing its shape, opening up new spaces as dead or useless plants get taken away. In writing I try to take away clunky language when I edit, finding lyricism in the words on the page like uncovering a colorful flower hidden by weeds. I frequently write more than I need to so cutting out whole sentences usually improves my writing by making it more concise. A garden always renews itself, and in writing I can always find something new to write about. Dirt and seeds or pen and paper, I get to express myself and create something new. The process of growth happens slowly just like the process of improving my writing happens slowly as well.
Writing takes work the same way that gardening takes work. I need to make a conscious effort to water, weed, prune, and my garden constantly reveals surprising results, like the geranium branches transplanted a few weeks ago sprouting tiny new leaves or the zinnias that keep blooming well into winter. Writing helps me uncover what I’m feeling and thinking under the surface, and gardening also helps me step back to get some perspective. Just getting my hands in the dirt is literally and psychically grounding. (People always say that gardening is the cheapest kind of therapy.) I love the colors of my garden, and I love to record details and colors in writing, turning an image or a metaphor to catch the light. One summer I “planted” a metal bottle tree which comes down from African and African American folk tradition in the South and honors the spirits of the ancestors so I planted it near the anniversary of my mother’s death. It adds a sculptural element and a mystical element to the garden that has a hidden depth, and writing also has hidden depths, with each reader bringing their own experience and interpretation to the page…
Day 30 of the Reflective Teaching Blog Challenge from Te@chThought
September 30– What would you do as an educator if you weren’t afraid?
“I know you’re afraid but being afraid is alright. Because didn’t anyone tell you? Fear is a superpower. It can make you faster and cleverer and stronger.” ~ Clara, from Dr. Who, current season
Most teachers I know are pretty fearless. You can’t get by as a teacher, really, unless you have the courage to stand up in front of a crowd of young people who see everything and have their own opinions about what they see. This may be TMI, but I think I just had one of those dreams of being naked in public. Instead of being scared I was casually walking out of the house in my underclothes and waving to someone I knew. I was feeling cool and confident. I’m not even really sure where I was going because then the dream shifted to somewhere else. Waking up, I was pretty surprised by the dream because I’m really not that physically confident. I just watched a TED talk recently that was all about power poses, and I keep trying on the Wonder Woman pose to kick-start that confidence. I think I’ve also had those dreams about trying to get to class on time and getting lost on an unfamiliar campus, winding endlessly on different roads and feeling anxious because I can’t get to class at all, let alone on time. However, as I wrote earlier this month, and in the epigraph for this post, Clara recently said that fear might be a superpower, because it makes us more human. It’s wise to be afraid when the fear keeps us from making dangerous mistakes, like jaywalking on a busy highway. The blog challenge this month has taught me that I would like to be unafraid to try new things, like Twitter. I’m not a Twitter user in my personal life, but I know lots of young people use it, and we could experiment with creative writing in collaborative new ways.
Being unafraid means also that I have to tell the truth all the time. I have to not be scared of students’ disapproval. Students don’t always like their teachers all the time, and that’s OK. I still have to communicate my expectations for learning on a continual basis, and I need to provide the strategies for my students to succeed. I also have to be unafraid to let students fail. It does happen sometimes, and I can’t always stop it from happening. At the college level students are more independent, and they have busy lives. Some have other priorities besides doing all the reading and succeeding in my course. I have such a passion for what I teach that I hope to overcome any and all reservations or lack of commitment through my enthusiasm for what we get to learn. It is a privilege to study what we study and to consider the contributions of those who came before us. I need to be unafraid to let students choose how they will be and how they want to succeed. I don’t want students to conform to what they think I want. Choices are so important in any classroom, and I try to open up those choices with every reading and every assignment that we undertake. Being unafraid means embracing complexity and difference and even disagreement. We can still have some common understandings even when we don’t agree 100 percent. The lessons lie in the dialogue and in the close readings we explore together. Today a couple of sunflowers opened finally in my front yard, and they turned out a dark deep red. We can find surprises just like that in the classroom, but we have to listen to everybody, and not just ourselves.
Day 29 of the Reflective Teaching Blog Challenge from Te@chThought
Monday, September 29- How have you changed as an educator?
Wow, only 1 day left for this blog challenge after writing this post. I’ve learned a lot from this blog challenge for September. I’ve recognized some areas where I want to grow and taken steps to start learning in those areas. I also think that I’ve learned (again) to be less hard on myself and to forgive myself for mistakes. As teachers, we learn by doing and we learn to try more than one approach, to keep trying until we find what works best. I’m not sure if I’ve changed much overall during this month, but I’ve learned where I still need to grow. Also, I’ve changed in some ways not because of what I’ve written but from reading other teachers’ posts. Teaching at the university level is different in some ways than K-12 teaching and in some ways exactly like it so we belong together as colleagues. Reading other teachers’ blogs gives me new ideas and new perspectives. I just have to make an effort to do it. I felt some of the questions for this month slip away from me, like a fish off a hook because I couldn’t always relate to the question. I would grapple with it as best as I could and then let it go. I also feel like a goldfish in a bowl swimming in circles with this writing. I don’t expect to have a huge reading audience, and I’m not trying to promote this blog to gain more followers. It’s really for myself, for my own process of reflection. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve written 750 words daily for over a year now on a site called 750words.com. It’s based on Julie Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, and she suggests writing morning pages for a brain dump to encourage more creativity overall. This blog challenge helped give some new purpose to that habit, and I also learned a lot along the way about my beliefs about teaching. As someone who has taught for about 17 years, I do consider myself a veteran, but I also know plenty of teachers more experienced than me. And we can learn from each other no matter how long we’ve been teaching. Newer teachers give us inspiration too. We’re all in the same boat. We always continue to learn and grow, and that’s the challenge really, to remain open, to not get complacent. I’ve sometimes thought that because I care deeply about what I teach and who I teach then that’s enough. I didn’t have to worry too much about mode, but learning new strategies for method in this blogging community has opened my eyes, making me seek out new methods, especially with technology. There are whole new fish to fry. That’s probably enough fish metaphors for one post – I should have sushi for lunch or dinner!
Day 28 of the Reflective Teaching Blog Challenge from Te@chThought
Sunday, September 28- Your thoughts: should technology drive the curriculum or vice versa?
This question doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. However, looking at the current context of education, it feels a little too corporate for my taste. Bill Gates would certainly like to invent curriculum, e.g. his “Big History” project even though he is certainly not a Ph.D. Technology is a mode. It is definitely not content. And for it to “drive” the curriculum almost seems to suggest that technology would change content. I think it seems this way because of the this or that format of this question. Curriculum and technology are two separate things that can complement each other, but one cannot replace the other. For me the curriculum creates the feet to carry us forward and technology can function as hands to give us more to do. I specialize in African American literature, African literature and South African culture and politics. Technology doesn’t change the fundamental content or lessons that these areas of study offer us. It advances and diversifies our opportunities for offering that content, but it doesn’t change what Frederick Douglass did or said, what women in South Africa did to protest apartheid, or what Chinua Achebe wrote about. This month has offered me lessons about new technology that I want to explore, especially using Twitter in the classroom, and also going completely online for particular class sessions that would give us more flexibility in our schedule with asynchronous instruction. This question actually worries me a little because of the implicit corporate angle. The power and money of tech companies should not influence school districts as much as they do. Teachers’ expertise is already embattled enough in the high-stakes atmosphere of testing and the endless push to raise scores. Let teachers be the experts on our content. We worked really hard to get where we are, and we’re tired of people not recognizing our training.