Monthly Archives: July 2013

Becoming a Hometown Teacher: “The truth is… I am Ironman.”


 If you’ve seen the movie Ironman (2008)you’ve already probably got the reference–after becoming an improbable, impossibly cool superhero who saves humanity in spite of himself, the multimillionaire Tony Stark is required to deny any allegations of being the-man-behind-the-suit at a packed press conference. He is expected to preserve his personal identity and slink quietly away with his secret, as we’ve seen Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, and Clark Kent do time and time again. But, at the last moment of the film, Tony decides to do things his own way. As cameras flash and he starts with “The truth is…” Tony pauses thoughtfully. Then, he throws a curveball that flouts every superhero’s most sacred rule. He just goes ahead and says it:

“I am Ironman.”  And fin.

That line is the perfect punctuation to a film that is masterful in many ways, principally as a character study of Tony “Ironman” Stark. It’s also the line that I’ve started to use as a metaphor for my new role as a teacher in the Communications department at the local high school in the community where I live.

For my whole teaching career thus far, I’ve been more or less harboring a secret identity. Long commutes drew very clear boundaries of space between work and home. Especially in my first couple years of teaching, I found a sense of safety in the fact that my teacher self was completely separated from my “mild alter ego.” As a beginning teacher, the sheer effort of creating and maintaining the role of in-control, assertive expert from 8am to 4pm was exhausting. There was a heavy aspect of performance to my hours in the classroom, where I was still doing the interior work of convincing myself that I could handle the authority I’d been given. I was trying on the suit, as it were. I, like Ironman, accomplished things both heroic and occasionally haphazard. But I was very content to leave the mask at work, whether the day’s outcome had been good or bad. I could always escape to a place where nobody knew me as Ms. H.

Around my third year of teaching, I started becoming much more confident and comfortable in the classroom. My teacher identity had become less and less of a disguise, and more of a natural extension of who I was. Just as Tony Stark tinkers with his suit in his basement lab, I was constantly modifying my mannerisms to more exactly reflect the kind of teacher that I found myself becoming. My classroom demeanor, still assertive, became more organic and playful while remaining smart. I grew immensely in confidence and professionalism, and not just during teaching hours. Before I knew it, I started to actually wish for a teaching situation where I was no longer an import. I wanted to know the impact of being an active part of the community where I taught. My flight patterns were becoming more complex and reliable, and I felt ready to take credit for them.

Here, at the cusp of my fifth year, this wish has been granted as I try out, for the first time, living and working in the same community. I will see my students at the grocery store, the gas station, and at the Memorial Day parade. I will have colleagues and parents living just a few doors down. I will wave at familiar faces when I go out exercising. Most of all, I will do what I do best as a teacher of reading, writing, and thinking–I’m here, and I’m excited about it.  I’m ready to let the full gamut of my reputation as a teacher flow into my “real” life. I get to be a leader in my own city, and impact it positively and visibly. I get to share a sense of community with my students.

And, anyway, like Tony Stark, I’m ready to own up:

I am Ironman.

Writing = Community


We’ve reached the final day of the UW-Milwaukee Writing Project 2013 summer institute. Being a leader in this community has been so positive for me, and it’s work very worth doing. The more I am involved with people associated with the National Writing Project, the more I want to meet every single one of them. The experience of growing together as creative and professional writers, and of grappling together with the big questions surrounding the teaching of writing in our schools is one that engenders a highly satisfying mix of professional work and personal closeness. It’s a phenomenon I’ve experienced many times in my life… those that share and develop their writing together form strong, trusting, personal connections.

As a facilitator, I enjoyed mentoring fellow educators through the inquiry and presentation process. Leading a writing critique group was also a natural, fulfilling role for me. But I was also learning from my colleagues as much as I was mentoring them. As I reflect on the most thought-provoking presentations, I found that my biggest takeaway from the summer was a re-affirmation of this fact: Writing cannot be separated from community. Writing fosters community, and strong communities support the development of successful writers in turn.

Mrs. S’s presentation on the implementation of writing circles in the classroom (after James Vopat) reminded me anew that providing a safe and smart classroom community where student writers are expected to share, connect, and uphold one another will help young writers flourish and take ownership in their work. In combination with strong teacher leadership and modelling, students will develop immensely as writers because of the daily supportive community provided by their writing partners.

Ms. C’s work was oriented around the idea of using writing as social action (guided by Randy and Catherine Bomer). Listening to her work, I was refreshed in my goal of making writing authentic, purposeful, and immediately useful in my classes. In order to see the change we want in our local communities, we need to take action. When students discover the power that comes with an ability to write in diverse genres with a strong sense of purpose/audience/tone, they unlock their ability to create change in the community where they live. It is our social responsibility as educators to train our students in this regard. Young people need to have the experience of composing for a cause, of using writing to solve problems, forward new ideas, and articulate what is important to them here and now. Writing for an authentic audience to create social change empowers youth in our local communities and sets them up for a lifetime of responsible citizenship.

Mrs. R’s research took the picture even bigger as she discussed the use of fulcrum and texture texts to forward students’ writing skill (as recommended by Sarah Brown Wessling) in conjunction with their sense of cultural understanding and global citizenship. This presentation made me think hard about the connection between literature and empathy. Students who use texts from many varied perspectives surrounding a place, time, or culture will in turn create work that reflects a fuller, more nuanced understanding of the world in comparison to those who process informational text alone. Asking students to create and consider texts of many different textures–both fictional and non-fictional–helps them avoid the “danger of the single story,” as Chimimanda Adichie calls it. In other words, it allows them to step into the lives of others as global citizens, able to relate compassionately to voices outside their own. Writing requires the forward-imagining of the various reactions, thoughts, and experiences of others, and positions the author’s identity in relation to the world around them. When students understand that, they grow to comprehend and respect the richness of voices that contribute to the chorus of the collective human experience.

Thank you, UW-Milwaukee Writing Project participants, for your work in bettering the teaching of writing in Wisconsin, and for the reminder that without strong writers, strong communities cannot exist. Whether in our classroom, our towns, or our world, the power of writing is the key to learning and progress.


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Digital Storytelling around the Media Campfire

We’re almost through with week one of the Writing Project summer institute, and I am once again amazed at the knowledge base and cumulative creative power of all our participants and leaders. On Wednesday, we had a Digital Storytelling Workshop day led by educator and Minnesota Writing Project site leader Candance Doerr-Stevens. (Follow her on Twitter @digflicks). She has also made the slides from her presentation public: see them here! There are wonderful bits of research, pedagogical processes, and example digital stories to be found.

Candance’s infectious energy made the entire day go by in what seemed like a flash. As we learned about the applications for digital storytelling in the classroom and crafted a video piece of our own, I found myself thinking about how participating in the creation of stories through the form of online content is so much more than just “playing on the computer.” It’s taking part in the new, digital tradition of storytelling. Our inner thoughts, emotions surrounding ideas, creative imaginings–in the old tradition, it was rare that these elements of story would ever leave our own homes. Scrawled words seldom traveled beyond a pile of closeted notebooks. Images filled dusty shoeboxes or albums on the bookshelf. But this new digital storytelling makes the world our family room, and we are able to turn our words inside out to craft messages that reach other people around the world. The post-millennium era is often criticized for alienating us from one another as we all stare at our smartphones, but I’d argue that the internet is actually making us into a global family at a crowded, ongoing reunion… We are all out here online together, and it’s easier than ever to share stories instantaneously over space and time. Just as occurs during family reunions, sometimes harsh words are uttered, and sometimes people share a little too much personal information. But often, there is also the bearing of truth, the sharing of support, and the chance for meaningful conversation. Teachers need to be able to help their students be a good family, and part of that is knowing how to pass a good story around–to use Gloria Steinem’s term–the “new campfire” of media. The internet is the new family room, and young people who can wield the power of sound, image, and words to tell stories worth telling are those who will shape and inherit our culture. We just have to look and listen.

See the digital story I created during the workshop below! I used Windows Live Movie Maker to create my video. Both this program and iMovie come standard on Windows PCs and Macs respectively, and are easy to learn and use. If you haven’t ever dabbled in them, now is the time! The only way to learn is to do… I found, edited, and repurposed images and sound to create a new product, with credit to the original authors at the end of the video. As the purpose of this work is solely for personal expression and as an educational example, it is protected under fair use.


Crucial Creativity: Addressing State Standards While Fostering Creative Student Authorship

In this post, I’ve attached the materials from my July 8th teacher inquiry workshop at UW-Milwaukee. Teachers, please feel free to cite my PowerPoint as you plan your writing curriculum to rationalize your teaching of creative writing while still maintaining alignment with the Common Core State Standards. If you are interested in or have questions about this workshop, please contact me through the Universe as Text Facebook page. (See link on navigation bar at the top of the screen.) 🙂




Presentation preview: crucialcreativityworkshop


A Creative Writing Rap

As the research saga for my writing project inquiry unfolds, it is producing several unexpected cool things. For one, I got to talk in person with Kelly Gallagher at a wonderful workshop based on his book Write Like This, hosted at Port Washington High School on June 28th, and got a lot of unexpected insight on my research topic in the process! [P.s. If you don’t already, you should probably be following Kelly Gallagher on Twitter. He retweets a lot of amazing resources, and he himself is an amazing resource. Buy his books–they are immediately useful in your writing classroom.]

Another cool thing, which happened today, is that I had a breakthrough associated with the way I want to facilitate the interactive part of my Writing Project workshop on day one of the summer institute. Since it will deal in part with writing rap lyrics for informational and argumentative purposes, I wrote one of my own as a model. The lyrics, and a link to the actual track, are below. (Yes, that’s me rapping as well.) Why not take risks? As Gallagher says, “I go, you go.” Enjoy! 🙂

Young teacher, just comin’ up: stand up, say your name, get attendance done
I had a class of kids who trusted in me to show them things about the world that they never had seen
I taught writing, putting ideas on paper and screen, how to make what you say match up what you mean
I saw young women tell stories, young men discover poetry—saw words sing like winds that
brush the leaves of birch trees.
And it would overcome me, the importance of that career choice
Even a child without a house can find a home in his voice, you know?
The power of art, resilient truth of the heart,creative visions strong enough to tear self-doubt apart:
These things are vital. They fulfill a human need—to say, “Hey, these thoughts? They come from within me.”
Wielding fiction to become an intellectual force. It means more than simply analyzing a source.
To really know how to write, you need to know how to fight—cause a motion, emotion, make words take flight.
And you would know that, if you spent time in a high school every day.
The room is filled with secret poets who have something unique to say.
After I taught for a few years more, the state adopted this idea called the Common Core,
where certain standards are set, skills that students should learn, and teachers must abide if they
expect to earn.
Looking through, I wondered where creativity went; the amount of literary writing dropped to twenty
percent, and Poetry no longer is ever required. This country’s writing curriculum is being rewired.
The guy who wrote it actually gave as his reasoning: “No one gives a shit about how you feel.”
He said that writing stories won’t lead to jobs that are real.
So what are we to do about a poverty of fiction? Trying to uphold the right to use imagination?
Discuss and debate, knowing students need to create, backing up our techniques with research done by big names.
And what’s more, we can’t be scared of what the core offers; it’s our job to skillfully train our young authors.
There are notes in the standards about teacher discretion, and it’s there where we can find the space to
alter our lessons to preserve the tradition of creating rhymes, and storytelling just like Homer in the ancient times, because words unfurled are the way to connect with the world. You know?
Informational writers might one day work at Wikipedia, but it’s the storytellers who create the new media.
A writer who makes us see through his mind’s eye is gonna be the “check out my Pulitzer Prize” guy
But even those who put literature aside after high school are smarter knowing how to use narrative as a
tool: Sell me a boat, or convince me to vote, inform my health and my views, help me relate to the news.
You need stories to do that, to touch the cares of people, to define cultural ideals about good and evil.
Listen, turn the page, press play, that’s how the themes of our era were made.
I want to put a notebook in every kid’s hand with a cover that says “make us understand.”
Using writing rich in metaphor, real life knocking down the door, getting yourself unstuck, whatever you
can drum up. Show me love or heroism, show me visions of the future.
Uncap the joy of sunlight or the pain of ripping out a suture.
Create an image, tied to a message, tied to life.
I give you freedom to actually learn how to write, where what’s real and imagined combine.
Make possibilities that you are the one to define.
You are the one to define


Listen by clicking here: Creative Writing

Beats provided by The Passion HiFi ~ Thank you!