In Transit

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA recent blog post From the Bookshelf of Emily J. called Writing While Wet got me thinking.  Where do I find my inspiration?  No, I don’t mean the things that inspire me, I mean WHERE do I find a space in the day to be inspired, to think, to plan?  For me, it is in the commute.

The American Commute:

In the states I did my best planning in the car.  Home and school never seemed to be quiet places.  And although I might have sat at my desk filling in my plan book, the best lessons always came to me between the door of my house and the door of my classroom; 15 minutes of uninterrupted thinking time.

It sometimes came by listening to “Morning Edition” on NPR.  After Katrina hit New Orleans, so many tales of woe and destruction led to an incredible poetry lesson.  Found poetry is sometimes easier for students to write than using their own words.  It makes them less self-conscious.  If I use someone else’s words then it can’t be wrong, right?  The students watched 10 minutes of MSNBC coverage, made huge lists of words, phrases, wrote down impressions from video footage.  Then they wrote.  Some poems were dark and brooding.  Some poems spoke of hope and rebirth.  Ultimately all the students felt proud of what they wrote.

The German Commute:

Here I ride on the bus.  I peer into the faces of the Gymnasium students as they frantically cram for a quiz or exam.  I watch them scribble down their homework as we bump along through the forest.  I wonder where the older commuters are going so early in the morning.  The ride is 4 minutes with about a 7-minute walk.  And in those 11 minutes I do my best plans for the day.

One morning I was struggling with how to start a new unit based off of a collection of short stories titled Global Tales.  I wanted my students to see that their culture can be their inspiration.  And that when we read these stories we see how alike we are, yet at the same time we get a glimpse of what life it like in another culture.  What can we learn about other cultures through their stories?  At the same time I had a terrible ear-worm.  My daughter was addicted to a children’s Christmas CD and “In Der Weihnachtsbäckerei” was playing over and over in my head.  Then that was it.  Children’s songs!

I instructed my students to take a few minutes and think of their favorite song that they remember from kindergarten.  They were to write as much of the song down as they could.  After a few minutes the clackity clack of pencils on paper subsided.  I then said….what is the lesson that the song was trying to teach?  We discussed that often a song in school is used to help us learn something about getting along, sharing, cleaning up, etc.  They thought, contorted their faces, complained they couldn’t figure it out.  I waited patiently.  Then they had it and their hands went up.

The Japanese boy read a stanza of his song, then he explained how it was about working together.  And in Japan there is great importance put on the WE as so many struggle to live in such a small area.

The German girl sang out “Hähnchen Klein….” and half the class piped up to sing a long.  So I asked, what is this song about the chickens trying to teach you?  For her it seemed that the actions of the song were more important.  She and her classmates acted it out and explained the song was really about teaching the students teamwork.

Then there was the British boy,  “Ring around the Rosie.”  I hadn’t expected this, but he was smart, he knew what he was doing.  Seventh grade boys love the gross out factor.  The kids seemed to know the song, but he was the only one in the class besides me that knew the song was actually referring to the stages of the Bubonic Plague.  Lots of “eeeew!” was heard as the girls listened to his explanation.

Last Minute vs Planned Out

I’m not trying to say that I frequently plan my day in 11 minutes but I do leave myself open to the call of a new approach.  I think in order for the inspiration to take shape in my mind I must have first spent some time working on the problem.  I might work on a new idea for a unit for days.  I have the tasks, the handouts, and the assessment complete.  Then in the midst of the commute the deeper more engaging idea comes forward.  I go back, adjust the plan, and put it into action.  I don’t get upset that “I’m done” and have to go back and change things.  Editing a hand out or an assessment only takes a few minutes.

Looking back on the last 14 years I can think of some great last-minute changes I made like:

– Rigging a classroom simulation of a US Presidential campaign so that the team with the fewest people lost the popular vote, but won the electoral vote.  Don’t tell the kids that while passing the states out randomly, I always randomly gave one team Florida, Texas, California, and Ohio.

– Taking the kids out side for a test.  Draw all the landforms you can see and label them.

-Creating Coldmanistan where my students had to present to President Frio a new sustainable energy plan.

-Instead of writing about the consequences of that unfortunate family’s actions in An Inspector Calls I had my students write about the consequences of buying their favorite consumer products.  What are you really supporting when you spread that spoonful of Nutella goodness on your toast?

So the challenge is staying flexible.  Listen to that voice inside you that says “Hey!  What about doing it this way?”

Where do you find your inspiration?

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