What’s in a NAME?

Need: Give blog a name. Not just any name, either. It’s got to be creative and tell readers what it is I’m going to blog ABOUT.

Solution: Find inspiration in recent conversations about teaching and learning.

The power of a name. Celebrities are notorious for selecting names for their poor, unsuspecting newborn babies that they believe to be powerful and unique. They range from the strong, to the funny, to the absurd: Erykah Badu named her son Mars (I’m assuming after Mars, the god of war, not Mars Bars), while Scary Spice gave her daughter the name Phoenix, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Continue down the list, and you’ll find Zephyr, Zowie, Audio Science, Peaches Honeyblossom, Bear, Moxie Crimefighter, and Blanket, to name (pun intended) a few. Most recently, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian decided their daughter deserved a direction of her very own – hence, North West. While, admittedly, these names often serve as fodder for all manner of jokes, all of these parents had one desire in mind: to give their children names that were meaningful and special.

This has been on my mind recently for multiple reasons; for one, my students and I have been immersed in Romeo and Juliet and discussed this at length. But today, I’m thinking and writing about this because you may be wondering to yourself, “Why is a blog, written by an educator and about education, titled ‘Necessity + Creativity’?” Valid question. Not only would I like to explain the title, but I also need to establish a focus in order for my blog to really be successful. This post serves as a way to do that, because necessity and creativity serve as driving forces in my writing, my daily life as Mrs. Weissenborn and as Sophie, and now, my blog.

Here’s how the name was born:

I had the privilege of attending a transformative and inspiring national convening, Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (aka: ECET2, follow our posts on Twitter at #ECET2) in Snowbird, Utah this February, thanks to the generosity of its creator and benefactor, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I continue to work on a blog post that will do my experiences in Snowbird justice – though I’m not sure I could ever truly do so – to be posted in the (hopefully) near future, if I can ever bring myself to press “publish.” However, I mention this to you now because it has everything to do with the title of my blog.

At ECET2, I was asked to do a filmed interview for a project the Gates Foundation is working on (this is admittedly vague, as I have little information about this project. I’m looking forward to hearing more about it in the future!). The interviewer and I were chatting away about my work with my students and what I’ve learned about the Common Core in nearly two years of immersion.

[A little bit of background: when I joined the New Teacher Center and the Santa Cruz / Silicon Valley New Teacher Project in my first year of full-time teaching, I also joined a pilot program, in which a group of new teachers learned and implemented the tools created by the Literacy Design Collaborative. LDC is aligned to the Common Core, as is my school, so I have been fully implementing the standards in my classroom for the past two years.]

As we talked about my experiences and what I’ve learned from work that has been simultaneously exhausting, intellectually stimulating, and rewarding for myself and for my kids, I mentioned that one of my biggest challenges in implementation is the Common Core’s increased expectations for text complexity at every grade level. This is compounded by the reality that in addition to the need for comprehension of these more complex texts, according to the Common Core, students also need to be able to engage in more complex tasks in response to, and/or using, these texts. Add to this another layer: many of my students are struggling and resistant readers (teachers across the country are saying to themselves, “Yeah, what’s new? So are mine.”). Most speak Spanish at home, and/or learned English as a second language. Not only that, but they are 21st century learners who struggle to appreciate or connect to literature written by “some dead white guy” hundreds of years ago. Who can blame them? I certainly don’t. As a student, Romeo and Juliet was far from my favorite (understatement), and I didn’t “get” it (an even greater understatement). Getting my students to “get” Romeo and Juliet, the language of which is far from accessible, and other complex texts is a need I am met with constantly with the Common Core. Which, by the way, I LOVE. Students need to learn to tackle texts like this not only in school, but in the real world. Enter… me?

I told the interviewer that my first few years of teaching Romeo and Juliet were fun – who doesn’t love feuding families, violence, angsty teens, intense passion, plans gone awry, dirty puns, and a tragic ending? But, I was continually frustrated by the lack of depth of comprehension, understanding, and, therefore, critical response / analysis. I knew they were capable, but the language (Shakespearean and figurative) was what seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle standing in our way. We were getting bogged down by just “getting” it when Juliet asks, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” As opposed to engaging in a discussion about whether the names we give (or are given) truly hold meaning and power.

This year, I decided, would be different. But in order to facilitate a different Shakespeare experience for my students, I needed… SOMETHING. It couldn’t just be new strategies, new activities, revision of the writing task – those changes happen every year and were still not making the difference. I reflected on my unit from previous years and realized that I didn’t want my students to slog through the 1993 version of the play, with no modern translation and no context, ever again. A play, I realized (duh), is meant to be performed. It loses so much of its power and complexity when read from the 2-dimensional page. It was then I landed on what it was I needed: new texts! But I didn’t want to water down the beauty of the play as it was originally written, and I still wanted my students to tackle the original text – I knew they could do it. I remembered a workshop session I attended at the 2012 CATE (California Association of Teachers of English) conference about using graphic novels in the classroom. The presenter had shown us a copy of Macbeth as a graphic novel, complete with Shakespeare’s original text. So I did some research and discovered that there were many graphic novel versions of Romeo and JulietYES! [I’ll tell you more about this and about using graphic novels in an upcoming post – too much information and too many practical tips to write it all here, and I digress.] But how was I going to purchase brand-new class sets?

Answer: DonorsChoose.org, a website on which teachers can post a “project” (request for funding) to their website, and anyone can donate. Once the project is funded, DonorsChoose purchases the resources requested and ships them directly to your school. It is absolutely a miraculous endeavor, and one I highly encourage you to check out. So I created a project, asking for 80 copies of the version of the text I wanted (check it out here). I sent emails to my colleagues, my friends, and family, and posted the link on my Facebook page. Three days later… the entire project was funded. I was blown away. (More on DonorsChoose in another post, too.) My students got new texts! In return, I have had more fun, and more in-depth discussions about the play, than ever before. It has truly been transformative for both myself and my students.

The interviewer was excited by my story, and praised my creativity. “How did you come up with such a creative solution?” she asked.

I told her it was necessity (the need to help my students tackle a challenging text, the need to do things differently, the need to make Shakespeare come alive for my students, the need to fund this endeavor) that led to a search for a creative solution. It’s that simple. I, and my students, needed something, and I needed to figure out a way to make it happen. So… I did.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the most creative solutions I’ve come up with in my (short) career as a teacher (and as a person) have been brought about by necessity. So that’s how I will frame the ideas I share and reflect on in my blog. I’ll write about a need I am currently experiencing (or a need I previously experienced) and the solution(s) I’ve come up with to address this need. Or, I’ll write about a need for which I have yet to come up with a solution, and pose questions for which I’m searching for answers. Necessity + Creativity is born!

Like those celebrity parents, I’m hoping that my name for this blog will be meaningful and unique, and will guide my little newborn blog into adulthood with purpose. It will be a way for me to organize my thoughts and my writing, to share it with you in a way that makes sense. I can’t wait to see it grow along with me – it’s both terrifying and exciting to put a little piece of myself out into the universe!

Those Who Teach… Do.

You, I’m sure, are familiar with the old saying about those who can’t and what they do: they teach.

But contrary to that saying, I am a firm believer that those who teach, should also… do. If I ask my students to write, I should write. If I ask my students to think critically, I should think critically right along with them. I know, earth-shattering, right? It sounds so simple and obvious – a given. And yet, it is not quite so simple in practice.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have let my own practice as a writer, a reader, a creator, sometimes (ok… often) fall by the wayside. I’m a teacher by day, by night, and even in my dreams, so I spend my time obsessively honing my educraft, which comes at a price. I find myself with less time to do the things I love, including those activities listed above. Even as I write this, I can feel my brain resist the cognitive workout of rusty synapses. When I write now, it’s often a lesson plan, a PowerPoint slide, a writing prompt. I love to write creatively, but at 8 pm after the hour-long drive home and lesson planning and most likely grading papers or scouring the Internet for more, better resources for my upcoming lessons, I lack the inspiration, motivation and resilience necessary to write a sentence, erase it, rewrite it, erase half of it, rewrite again, and so on. But I find myself musing on the importance of this recently, thanks in part to a post by my former camp counselor-turned-food-guru Gabi Moskowitz of BrokeAss Gourmet fame detailing “10 Reasons You Should Be Blogging”, and in part to my transformative experiences at a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation convening (ECET2) in Snowbird, Utah this past week (more on this in my next postings).

Those who know me, know I have plenty to say. About teaching, learning, the current state of education, what I’m doing with my students, and the TV series I’m currently hooked on (Dexter, but I won’t bore you with that here). If I am to be better and do better, though, I need to write, read, create, and this blog will be the external proof of that. It will be a place for me to muse, question, reflect, share resources and new ideas, and tell you about ways in which necessity is leading me to be creative in my practice as an educator and as a learner.

So today, here’s what I’m thinking: The concepts and skills I teach in my classroom are concepts/skills that, to my core, I believe to be key to success in life. Education should not just be theoretical but also practical. If I’m doing my job, my students will learn that these skills are not only necessary today in order to do their homework, but also after they leave my classroom, regardless of the path they choose. It is crucial to be able to express your thoughts and ideas clearly and compellingly in the real world, to learn from and engage in discourse with others, to be able to problem-solve, and to publish your own work – now, in this 21st century, more than ever. If I am to teach my students how to effectively employ these skills, I need to hone my own craft. If I am to wax poetic about the importance of public speaking and communication skills, well then, I’d better speak and write publicly. Communicate. Learn myself, so that my students and I can engage in discussions about the process. The practice. How it went this time, and how we plan to grow between now and the next. I need to show them, through doing myself, that what I say is true.

Those who consistently strive to write eloquently, speak passionately, read critically, collaborate effectively… we are teachers, formally or informally. Those who don’t… well, this blog isn’t about them, is it?

[Today this is for my grandfather, who was so proud of my work as an educator. I love you.]

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