Teaching the Teachers

 The one time I wish I had a cell phone…

And not a regular old cell phone either. One with video function. That’s any old cell phone, you say. Okay, then; I guess any old cell phone will do.

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And all I’ve got is this stupid web cam.

What was I itching to capture? A group of teachers doing the cha cha electric slide during one of my sessions at the Ministry of Education’s Summer Institute, acting out part of a chapter from my book Musical Youth. And, as one teacher pointed out, no two group presentations were alike or drawn from the same bit of prose in spite of having the same part of a chapter to interpret. One of the groups had one teacher, playing a girl (Nicola?) in the rehearsal, demonstrating the shoulder shrug-neck snap-chest pump–hip sway-hop to a teacher acting as a rhythm-less Zahara stand-in. It was one of those rare moments where as a writer you get to see something you envisioned come to life and where as a workshop facilitator you get to see participants shake off their inhibitions and embrace an activity. True confessions: I would be an absolute fail at attempting the dance I wrote about in Musical Youth but the Nicola-teacher she made each moment sway in to the other like the child of Africa that she is and by the time she was done with the other teacher she kind of had it too. It was a beautiful thing to witness, and one of many moments of unlocking imagination and making literature come alive during my three days facilitating this workshop for a sometimes revolving door of teachers. I had 25 registered, I believe, but ran out of my 25 handouts more than once. Which is a good problem to have.

Over the three days, we studied the anatomy of story. They wrote and shared their own creations guided by prompts.

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Group story presentation. Photos by (teacher) Tiffany Azille-Henry.

They created pieces in response to their favourite works of art – after insisting that they had no favourite work of art – discovering, in the process, that art (and inspiration) is all around us. Without leaving the room, we moved from Malawi to Jamaica to New York and spent quite a bit of time in Antigua, we visited with Anansi and snake and turtle, we explored how story can be used to open up conversations with young people about the social and cultural issues of our times, about the realities of their lives; about the opportunity to interpret, and the freedom to re-write and to provide alternate endings. We looked for stories in other places – like songs, and we sang. One of my favourite segments came when after listening to, watching videos of, singing along with, dancing to, and discussing songs in which artistes interpreted their world, after they groaned when I asked them to group up and do the same (it was the end of a long day and we were all tired), they came up with some of the BEST writing they’d done so far. That was at the end of day two – they wrote about growing up in Antigua, they had us chorusing their plight in calypso, they gave us humour and nostalgia, they wrote about being teachers (the kind of testimonial that, though quiet in tone, made the church say Amen). We had fun that afternoon, and I’ll never forget that one teacher who, as she finished up the journaling they had to do at the end of each day (and at least twice a day), asked me if I’d ever been a teacher and told me I had very good teaching strategies. This in spite of their jokes about my handwriting (it’s bad), in spite of the fact that sometimes when they got going discussing the topics I laid out, it was all I could do to get a word in edgewise (you’d think teachers would grasp the concept of raise your hand and one person at a time, right?). For so many reasons none of which have any thing to do with the Summer Institute and none of which I will get in to here, little as she knows, this teacher’s acknowledgment and affirmation (and those that would come at the end of my final day with the group, what they said outright and what they wrote in their evaluations) was a validating, heart-filling, joyful moment for me.

It wasn’t all fun and games (though we did play games and we did have fun) – setting up the sessions was a mini-lecture on the necessity of creativity (and the value of creative writing) in the classroom – and the exercises were all meant to spur discussion or model approaches to encouraging creativity in the classroom, stressing the importance of being innovative and looking for opportunities. We watched and discussed a TED Talk which spoke to kids being educated out of their creativity, the way the system is set up – a talk the teachers related to as our post-viewing discussion revealed. They expressed an openness to the idea of finding creative ways to respond to (interpret, express, respond to) the literature they and their children interact with and creative approaches to educating, period. Which is the goal really.

Art used in this workshop included but was not limited to excerpts from my own Musical Youth (as mentioned) and The Boy from Willow Bend, Anansi including but again not limited to Barbara Arrindell’s How Snake Stories were Renamed Anansi Stories as published in Womanspeak: a Journal of Writing and Art by Caribbean Women (with, note to Barbara, one of the teachers asking me about its availability online), a story from the Commonwealth River of Stories, Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl, Ashley Bryan’s Beautiful Blackbird, Wadadli Pen past winning stories – one by a teacher Margaret Irish’s The Skipping Rope, one by a secondary school student Liscia Lawrence’s The Day I saw Evil (I like how impressed they were with the level of the writing, considering the author’s age at the time), and college student (at the time) Gemma George’s Stray Dog Prepares for the Storm (which both amused and spurred spirited discussion which was good because with each of these stories we looked at how story could drive discussion on social issues and give students an opportunity to explore how they feel about them). We also engaged with several songs and short vids which I tried to keep all regional if not local; all culturally relevant and possessing storytelling features and elements that we could use.

I also distributed copies of some of the books I had on hand (as a prize to the winning team after one of our word/story games – they called themselves appropriately and perhaps as a self-fulfilling prophecy, Champions). These included the last of my author comp copies of Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Musical Youth, The Boy from Willow Bend, and other books like Mary Robinette Kowal’s Of Noble Family, Marlon James’ Book of Night Women, and Colleen Smith-Dennis’ Inner City Girl. There was also a memoir by the actress who plays or played Drucilla on Young  and the Restless. Those all went.

It was heartening that they were particularly keen to have books by local authors – and, when I shared the book lists/bibliographies on the Wadadli Pen website, surprised by the sheer number of local books which they could potentially use in the classroom of which they had not been aware.I gave them a resources list at the end and encouraged them, with all of the hardware and internet access we’re supposed to have now, to utilize online resources as well.

I think you can tell that this was fun, productive and effective. Or so they said in their blind evaluations (excerpted below):

“I gained a wealth of knowledge about different books and ways I go about teaching my class how to write a story.”

“I wanted to learn new tips in assisting my students. I did.”

“I enjoyed writing poems and working actively in groups. Awesome experience.”

“My favourite part was interacting in my group. I have learned a lot.”

“Usually I am a shy person. Through teachers’ interaction I was able to read what I would have written.”

“A wonderfully informative and interactive presentation.”

“It was a learning experience and it was well done.”

“Great delivery overall. Inspired.”

“I recommend that all teachers at the infant level be involved in these activities.”

“Good how she managed to cater to all our needs – the primary school and secondary school.”

“There is a lot to be gained.”

Most important to me was what they gained and how they see themselves applying it in the classroom. The gains, as listed by them, included “Various ways to encourage children to write…A deeper appreciation for literacy…To encourage creativity in our students and examples of the different ways… Many different fun ways to include and foster literacy…Storytelling using music and movies…How to engage my students in creative writing successfully…Different activities that can be used in the classroom… A variety of strategies that can be used to encourage reading and writing… I think most of all it would be the prompts used. I can do this with my Grade 4…To help students to develop creative minds. Don’t shut them down.”

I also asked them to share their favourite bits because what they enjoyed doing can tip me as to what works but can also prompt them as to what might work in their classroom. Their responses: “engaging in activities verbally, role play, interpreting written words…Singing and dancing; full participation….writing poems and working actively in groups…All the practical exercises … Playing games; writing stories, poems….Writing my story/poem and sharing with the group…The excitement generated by the activities; the high level of student participation… Song/life stories etc. Participation/games, reading etc.” And my favourite:  “All activities done were both interesting and exciting. Hard to choose just one.”

Real talk, I was nervous going in to this because while I’ve been doing workshops for a while, I hadn’t had to build a course quite like this, with this purpose, and I’d certainly never tried to teach teachers. There wasn’t a lot of prep time by the time I was approved as a presenter. Plus I’ve learned between my time in the classroom and my time creating and running workshops that I work better in interactive small group settings – 25 plus teachers in a classroom setting was a tad intimidating but I stepped into that classroom and made it in to the space I needed it to be to create that interactive workshop vibe, and was lucky to have a group of teachers who (though they were skeptical of some of what I asked them to do) did it (mostly), and that give and take made for an organic and fulfilling experience for us both. I was tired but smiling at the end of my first day but looking forward to each other day. Making it, hands down, one of my favourite professional experiences to date. One I look forward to doing again with similar groups in Antigua and Barbuda and elsewhere.

I love to write, but I keep re-discovering that I also love to find creative ways to get others if not writing then thinking creatively as well. And when you’re doing what you love, it’s not work.

by Joanne C. Hillhouse, author of several books, including The Boy from Willow Bend which is on the schools’ reading list in Antigua and Barbuda, and Anguilla; and Musical Youth now on a schools’ reading list in Trinidad and Tobago, who will continue to explore opportunities to share her creative energy and love of literary expression through workshops and engagement with groups, like teachers, who can bring that energy to the classroom.

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