April 11, 2016 - Michael Salinger
American School of Warsaw, Poland
“I’m too busy to have the poet visit my classroom”
This is a sentiment that Sara and I are familiar with – especially in the upper grades of an IB Diploma or AP school. Not so at the American School of Warsaw. We visited and wrote with grades six through twelve. It was a pretty great visit all around – due in no small part to the librarian – Bonnie’s – attention to detail.
This one came off like it was on rails -smooth and on course. We started with three different assemblies – one for the middle school, one for the high school and then culminating with a raucous elementary presentation, plus we wedged in a visit to a 7th grade creative writing class. We made contact with every student in the school on our first day. When we walked the halls with Bonnie afterwards we got smiles of recognition and greetings – we had become a known commodity to the student body. It made our transition into four successive days of teaching in the classrooms so much more fruitful.
There are times when the schools bringing us in skip these assemblies because they don’t think they have time – but these early contacts really make the experience so much more successful. A little time invested up front always pays off.
Pre-Planning Rocks the Lesson: Of Mice and Men
It paid off when I visited with a ninth grade teacher Steve, before our scheduled session – this short meeting allowed us to discuss what his class was studying and for me to craft a lesson specifically for them. We ended up writing found poems from one of four selections excerpted from Of Mice and Men. We then had the kids work together to combine their work into pieces for two voices. Just a little bit of pre-planning and the lesson rocked. Themes, foreshadowing and tone all emerged from the pieces kids crafted by close reading and peer discussion of their passages.
Ditto with Jon’s 11th grade IB Lang and Lit class. A little pre-session chat and I was able to pull out and amend a lesson I had written earlier in the year to deconstruct a Duffy poem – we were also able to come up with customized lesson on extended metaphor that referenced and used John Gardner’s novel Grendel as a basis in Alan’s 12th grade class. A little pre-planning combined with the instructor’s self-confidence to allow a guest lead their class for a day and success followed.
Just like the old adage about spending money to make money – you have to expend a little time up front to save a bunch of time later. Sara and I come into a classroom with the plan of teaching practical writing strategies – good communication skills and the prioritization of information gathered through reading that is then evidenced in short written text. These are lessons that not only work on current subject matter but all upcoming curricula – rather than taking time away from the specific goal of the day – these ideas and strategies offer formative assessments for current and future lessons. It’s more akin to teaching an essay format that can be used to evidence understanding in any circumstance than text specific questions and answers. Planting minutes to save hours.
A Little Risk Equals Big Rewards.
The teachers at the American School of Warsaw were willing to give it a shot and I believe together we succeeded. But what if the lesson hadn’t worked? It happens – the best laid plans and all – what if a day gets burned? Is it really the end of the world? Can we really not afford a single day out of our schedule? If this were true there would be no away games for sports teams, snow days, or any other extra curricular activity that might cause a kid to lose class time. We ask our students to take risks every day – shouldn’t we be willing to do so as well? Do we really want to stay put – teaching the same lesson, texts, and ideas year after year?
It seems to me AWS has a long-range view in mind for their kids – just the fact that there IS a 7th grade creative writing class warms the cockles of my heart. I’m not saying that the students and teachers of AWS aren’t busy – they are as busy as any other school on the planet. I’m just saying that they obviously aren’t too busy to know that sometimes one needs to make time.