My Words Are Powerful

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I don’t often get riled up by politics but with the recent election results, I couldn’t help myself. I went through various stages of depression, disbelief, and anger over the fact that our country is so divided and chose an individual who represents morals and philosophies so opposite from my core beliefs.  It wasn’t until I met with a student, whom I tutor, that my frustration transformed into rage.

My student is in fourth grade and we work together on developing his reading, writing, and word study skills. He is curious and hard working and hopes to be a professional tennis “superstar”. This is why he studies at home, so he can practice almost 8 hours of tennis each day. During last week’s session we were discussing possible topics for an upcoming research project. I wanted this to be completely his choice and on an issue that interested him. He asked me, “Ms. Sarah, how did you feel after the election?” I wasn’t sure how to respond to this. As a former public school educator, I tried to avoid any conversations around my personal beliefs or political stances. But with this simple question, I couldn’t help but tell him, I was sad and really disappointed by the results. Within an instant, he poured out so many emotions and reactions. His family is Pakistani and of the Muslim faith and even though he was born in the United States, after Donald Trump was elected, he couldn’t shake a lurking sense of fear within him. He told me, “My mom told me what Donald Trump has said about Muslims and immigrants and people he doesn’t want in this country. I’m really afraid.” 

I left my tutoring session just so upset and infuriated by the injustice and our current national situation. How wrong it is that a child should feel unsafe by the people elected to be in charge of the government? That an American born citizen could feel that their country is not really theirs! What’s even worse that the results of an election did not ignite a sense of pride or wonder but created a cloud of worry and fear. A ten year old should not have to grapple with these feelings of uncertainty or hopelessness. Driving home, my heart beat quickened and I could feel words pooling on my tongue. The words action, action, action kept repeating over and over again. How can I, a simple writer and teacher, do anything that might matter?

And then I remembered my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Harder who started me on my own writing journey. “Your words have power. You need to share them and use them.” she had told me. People don’t know what I am thinking or wondering unless I tell them. I use my blog and my personal writer’s notebooks as a way to process my own thinking but rarely do I direct my words to a specific audience, let alone a targeted person. After last week, that all changed. I went home and immediately went to my laptop and furiously typed a letter to my Senators and Congressional representatives. I insisted that they look beyond the lines of their party and change the rhetoric to reassure that this country belongs to ALL. I felt a need to demand a response as my representative. Within 30 minutes I had three freshly printed letters to be mailed to their district offices. This is what I wrote:

Dear Sen. Cornyn,

I am a concerned citizen in Houston, TX. With the recent news of the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency, there is much angst  across America.  While you represent the Republican Party, you also hold the responsibility to represent me, one of your Texan constituents. And I am writing out of utter embarrassment and anger of what the election and the discussions that are taking place in our government.

I am a teacher, Senator. I work with children in elementary students and with children who are not just of privilege and wealth but many diverse students. In fact many of my students are African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims, all who are left feeling hurt, confused, and attacked after this election’s results. As a teacher, I feel it is my responsibility to not just educate but comfort my students and reassure them that our country is good and wants the best for them. How can I do that when the rhetoric from the Republican Party and Donald Trump is one of hate? How do you help students who are afraid of the outcome of their own government? How do we comfort our children to know that our government and the people we elect are here to take care of us and have our best interests at heart?

I want you to know about one student I teach whose family is Pakistani and are of the Islamic faith. His parents are amazing citizens, well educated, and both remarkable doctors. Today, his mother told me that her 4th grade son has been crying and up all night this week, out of fear for what will happen to him because of his faith and his ethnicity. He may not fully understand what is happening in our country but he hears the news and the words about “registering Muslims” and “illegal immigrants”. Even though he was born here, he is hearing language that tells him, he does not belong.  This is not right and this is not what our country was built on.

And so, I am asking you to look beyond just the lines of your party, Senator, and consider the welfare of our youngest citizens. What message do you want them to carry with them into the future? How are YOU going to change the rhetoric and reassure Texans that this is their America. I am asking you today to use your influence to think about the  young Americans who are hurting or are scared right now after this election. I want you to think about what YOU will do to reassure us, who do not feel like this America belongs to us anymore. You have an enormous responsibility as our elected official and Senator. I trust you will make good choices.

God Bless,

Sarah Jerasa

I don’t want to just stop here. My writing has almost become the fuel to pushing me to want to be more aware and more involved in the decisions that impact not just me but my family. My words have power and it’s not just power in communicating to others. Instead, I believe, that my words have an ability to ignite me to push beyond my comfort zone. I know what I have to say matters not just to me, but to so many others. I hope that my voice only gets louder and louder and louder so our leaders and elected officials have no other choice but to listen. 

 

 

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When A Lesson Doesn’t Work

I write a lot of creative writing lessons for the students I work with. I have a large collection of tried and true lessons that are sure to get some amazing writing. But like a chef who might cook the same food over again every night, those lessons become worn and tired. I am constantly on the look out for new lessons to test out and see what kind of writing emerges.

Sometimes lesson don’t work. Like at all. And you know it as you watch the lesson fall apart in front of you. Your face becomes red and your mind begins to sprint, you think, “What can I do to fix it?”. This has happened to me, numerous times, and I hate it. It makes me second guess my natural instinct as a teacher and sometimes I feel hesitant to take the necessary creative risks with my writers. However, there are those times when a lesson can be tweaked, revised, and eventually saved from the graveyard.

13 Ways Poetry

I initially had come up with this idea after hearing a fellow creative writer talk about a project he did with 3rd graders after reading Wallace Steven’s “13 Ways to Look at a Blackbird”. In his class they read the poem and focused on how the author had 13 different ways to look at one object. Then they created inkblot paintings similar to the Rorschach Tests often using in psychology. They then wrote 13 ways to look at an inkblot.

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I was intrigued that 3rd graders could be able to analyze such a complex poem, find inspiration for their own writing, and incorporate art as well. I thought for sure, if 8 year olds could do this work, then my 6th graders could take it to another level.

I began crafting this lesson by first really examining the poem to determine what our focus for our writing could be. It wasn’t just that Wallace Stevens wrote about a blackbird 13 different ways, his writing was about the meaning a blackbird held, situations a blackbird might interact in, and the symbolism it represented. In addition, the structure of the poem captivated me as well. Short, rhythmic stanzas that invited curiosity and wonder. And so, I wanted my students to read this poem, brainstorm elements of nature, and write a series of short poems to describe their natural object in unique ways. Sounds simple right? I thought I had this totally figured out and had high hopes that this might be the pinnacle of my teaching this year. I envisioned people asking me on the street about the earth shattering poetry my students created from this lesson. However, the exact opposite happened. It flopped. Royally flopped. And at first I couldn’t figure out why.

My teaching schedule has a long break in between classes where I often try to catch up on work or plan for upcoming lessons. But this time, I needed to reflect on the disaster I just witnessed. I eventually figured out these key issues:

  1. The Students did not connect with the text. As much as I used every ounce of my enthusiasm and dramatic movements, the kids didn’t really get or care about this poem. It was so long that after the first four stanzas their eyes wandered and their attention went elsewhere. They didn’t see the beauty or awe that I did and I needed to figure out a way to get them on board. The poem is good but did I need to read aloud all 13 stanzas to make my point? Could the students still get the point that Wallace Stevens describes in many ways with just four stanzas?  I needed to narrow in the students’ focus to retain all of their attention with this poem.
  2. My sample writing was not clear. After my class brainstorms, I will often model with the class and come up with a quick sample of a piece. Usually the kids are able to help me craft a piece with me but this time, even I struggled to come up with a good example. This made me realize, “If I had trouble coming up with a solid example to show the kids, how can I expect them to do it in a short period of time.” This meant that I needed to spend my own time thinking and doing the writing myself. I had to come up with a solid example and do the hard work that I was asking my students to complete.
  3. The brainstorm was not structured. To me, the biggest part of a writer’s workshop is doing some kind of brainstorming to help get the creative juices flowing. When I invited the students to brainstorm about their natural object to look at in different ways I only gave a vague series of guiding questions about their object. I assumed they would all be on board and know what to do. No at all. Rather, they looked quizzically at their papers and struggled to put down anything. They needed a concise format that would help them generate ideas.

After much reflection, the lesson dramatically changed. I switched the focus of the lesson to looking at an object in new ways never thought before. I pared down the poem to just four stanzas to notice the language, structure, and format of the poem. I created a brainstorming format for students to generate ideas using thinking stems. I went through the process myself, brainstorming my idea. My chosen natural object was the moon.

  • moon is… taunting, bully, constant reminder, revealing of secrets
  • moon could be…. a friend, the answer to a hidden secret, a hole in black blanket
  • moon does…whisper, shines, nags, beacons, yells
  • moon means…peace, guidance, tranquility, freedom

And lastly, I wrote and created an example to share with the students. This would be my modeled piece of writing pulled directly from my brainstorm and inspiration from Wallace Steven’s poem:

 

I. Among the midnight sky the moon sits on its throne

as her subjects shine. 
II. The moon whispers
reminders of my 
hopes and dreams. 
A beacon for my secrets. 
III. The forest lays still.
Yet the moon eerily watches. 
IV. It felt like winter all summer long.
As the crisp dew waited
for the sun to return
and the moon to retire. 

The changes I made did make a difference and it was clear in the students’ writing. Instead of surface level descriptions from my earlier class, these new pieces had developed a true voice and deep thought. This revised lesson did work better and I could tell from the drastic decrease in confused hands raised wondering of what their writing should be. Instead, after having clear examples and ample opportunities to process, my students were ready to write.


Fire by Molly 

I. On the forest floor, 
the fire burns the wood
it sits on. 
II. It flows with the wind
and lights the way as a 
source of light but also
destruction. 
III. The canvas is empty 
until the red paint of fire hits it,
to create a masterpiece. 
IV. It whispers and floats up to the 
world above. 
It grows as the wood
withers below. 
V. The fire remind me of
all my nightmares and
sorrow of the day
that has past. 
VI. It shares and spreads my word
throughout the trees that is the
source of its happiness. 

Clouds – by Joy

I. Clouds are our protector. A veil covering us from the darkness of the land beyond. 

II. The white spirits against the blue infinite.
Ghosts of white,
Pure in every way. 
Angels in the fog. 
III. Stalkers of disguise.
Protectors of invisibility.
Companions that come back, 
friends of no sin. 
IV. Gateways to a hidden world. 
A world of calm, 
Where chaos is banned from invasion.
Unity’s home,
Where division is unheard of and unknown.  
V. Clouds, 
The symbols that there will be and is more,
The reminder that there is no limit. 


I never like to admit when something doesn’t work. I felt like this was such a tremendous learning experience for me as a writer but especially as a writing teacher.
When have there been lessons that have failed for you? How have you reflected and recovered from them?