• The Novel Unexplored

    Posted by Jennifer Flanagan on 8/14/2014

    One of the things I love about being an educator is the kaleidoscope of stories about the human experience.  Students come in that first day, eyeing me up and down, curious about how the first words I utter will impact their perception of the kind of teacher I will be for them.  And slowly, they open up, page by page, a new novel unexplored.  And as a teacher, I question the inspiration for their stories, for the way they carry themselves, for their attitudes about life and education.  I question how they came to possess the beliefs that shape them.

    Some take a bit longer to open than others; some only show me one line of a page.  And undoubtedly, every year, I find that very often, the meat of the book looks far different from the cover.  

    I had a student last year with a crippling case of shyness.  She never spoke.  I had to initiate any eye contact, often ducking down beneath her down-shot eyes to carry them back up to meet my gaze.  Each day I could see her struggle with herself, pushing herself forward against her natural tendency to hide.  I wondered what her story was, where the ties holding her back from social connection were attached.  All I could do as a teacher was try and read her the best I could and adjust my words and actions to fit her needs.  I would talk to her and joke with her, although little response would encourage me.  I would ask her questions about her assignments, but they would remain unanswered...until one day, she met my eyes without me gathering her gaze and handing it to her.  For awhile, we had a unique means of communication.  You see, I've always been told my eyes are uncannily expressive (one group of students nicknamed me "Dori" from Finding Nemo), so I began to shoot this student visual expressions - and I found that she felt comfortable with shooting back an eye roll, a twinkle, or a sarcastic wink.  This was progress. 

    Around the third week, I started assigning creative journal entries, one- to three-page entries that danced around a writing prompt of sorts.  The prompts were geared to make students THINK on a deeper level.  For example, one of the prompts asked students to choose an object - "circle think" around it - and write three pages about the object from as many perspectives as possible.  It is at this point in the year that my students typically begin to open up and release themselves from the structure of the five-paragraph essay and indulge in the creative process a bit.  Many are insecure in deviating from structure; they ask for a rubric.  They ask, "Exactly how many pages does this entry have to be?  Can I do two and a quarter pages, or will I receive points off?  Will it be grammar-checked?"  My response is always this:  "Write something you're proud of.  Thoroughly answer the prompt, and if it's a bit short, make sure it's pithy.  Regardless, if you complete the journal entry, you receive ten points for a homework grade.  This assignment is about digging deep into your brain and pulling out something spectacular.  Just enjoy the process." 

    For some reason, students are always shocked by this, by the open-endedness of my journal assignments. They  automatically look for the scoring explanation, for the detailed point description that will justify an "A."  This?  This is an alien thing to them.  This is uncomfortable.  This is a place they may roam unleashed, and they are terrified of the freedom.  And this is usually where many find their voice as a writer.  

    I always offer my students the opportunity to read their journal entries.  What pours forth often shocks me.  It's my inspiration for the rest of the year, because all of a sudden, my students are motivating EACH OTHER, and I am very indirectly involved.  Of course, the aforementioned student would not share her work.  She was paralyzed.  But, she would email it to me.  And I found that although she was silent in the classroom, she was a lion on paper.  

    She was brilliant.

    So our email relationship progressed, editor and writer, and I would give her honest feedback and she would progress.  And one day after class, she did something I will never forget.  She pulled out a tattered composition book, colorful with her doodles and scribbled with penciled words, edits, erasures and rewrites.  Her personal journal.  She spoke to me.  She asked me to read the bookmarked section, hands trembling as she held out her outstretched arms that grasped a vulnerable, tender piece of herself.   She placed it in my hands.  

    I cannot express the honor I felt.  This delicate student had found a way to trust me.  I accepted her gift graciously, and I assured her that I would not venture past the marked pages.  She met my gaze, and something in her eyes told me that she trusted me.  

    I spent a few hours overlooking her manuscript.  I typed it up for her and offered revision suggestions and words of encouragement.  She would then revise her work (which was about fifteen typed pages) and ask for more advice.  This child was fearless on paper, but a mouse in the world.  

    Ultimately, she began to live life as a writer, writing daily and slowly gaining confidence in her voice.  She completed the NaNoWriMo competition (http://ywp.nanowrimo.org/), in which she wrote a novel over a month and participated in the NaNoWriMo writing camp.  And at the end of the year, she stood on a stage before 112 of her peers and their parents and read her "This I Believe" essay (side-by-side with another student) at the end-of-year This I Believe Essay Reading.  

    The inspiration for this blog post stems from an email I received this morning:

    "Hey Mrs. Flanagan, 

    I hope you’re having a wonderful summer. 
    One of the blogs I use for writing help/inspiration is looking for teachers to interview. I kind of thought that you would be interested because you like to be helpful. More info is here:  http://writeworld.tumblr.com/post/94560029790/calling-all-teachers
    P.S. There’s some good writing advice and prompts there too! Also, I’m going to really, really miss being in your class. :("

    It may seem to some as if it's a small nugget of recognition...but for me, this means the world.  Thank you, my precious student, for reminding me once more of my calling in life.  I'm glad you've found your way, and I am so thankful for the lessons you've taught me.  I will carry them forward as I begin this school year, watching a sea of covers and waiting to see what wonders lie inside.

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  • PBS American Experience: War of the Worlds feature 10/29/13

    Posted by Jennifer Flanagan on 10/29/2013
     Attention War of the Worlds fans!

    PBS’s American Experience show tonight (Tuesday, 10/29/2013) from 9-10 is on The War of the Worlds - click the link below for a preview! Have a great evening, folks!
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  • Lessons Learned from Around the World in 80 Days

    Posted by Jennifer Flanagan on 10/22/2013
    Click here to learn about the adventures of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, who followed Phileas Fogg's example and vowed to travel around the world in 80 days!
    Around the WORLD
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  • Technology Survey

    Posted by Jennifer Flanagan on 9/24/2013
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  • Progress Reports!

    Posted by Jennifer Flanagan on 9/18/2013
     It's that time!
    Progress reports
       Progress Reports were sent home with your children today!  I'm still getting used to the new PowerTeacher technology, so I've only got two grades in so far.  I plan to have more assignments uploaded by next week.  If you have any questions about your child's grade, please feel free to email me.  Also, please encourage your children to talk to me if they feel their grade may be incorrect - it's important that students learn the importance of asking questions to resolve issues!
       It was SO WONDERFUL meeting many of you on Curriculum Night - thank you for coming, and I am looking forward to an awesome school year!
    Best regards,
    Mrs. Flanagan
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  • English and TECHNOLOGY? REALLY??

    Posted by Jennifer Flanagan on 8/13/2013

    Believe it or not, in the year 2030, fifty-one percent of jobs will involve at least some degree of computer programming/technology integration.  You may be asking yourselves,  "If that's true, then WHY study language arts?"  
    I have a friend who is currently looking for employment.  She is an English major, and she decided to use a job search engine to look for positions for English majors.  Below is a summary of just a few of the job descriptions that popped up:
    • Webpage editor
    • Social media coordinator (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace product advertising)
    • News Station producer (graphic design, text editor, script writer)
    • Marketing/Media director (advertising)
    • Curriculum development (for Ralph Lauren employees)
    •  Associate editor
    You get the point.  The face of English/Language Arts is changing.  Essay writing remains an integral part of the communication process; however, with all the digital tools accessible at our fingertips, it is our responsibility as teachers - as CITIZENS - to make certain our future leaders are being prepared to effectively maneuver within our technologically-savvy real world.  
    I would like to encourage all of my students (with parental permission, of course) to register for a Gmail account.  Why?  Google has become increasingly useful in the field of education.  With tools ranging from app creators, website templates, and online collaborative tools, a Gmail account is a portal to endless digital exploration.
     Throughout the school year, computational thinking will be incorporated into the language arts class.  We will touch upon programming language, app creation software, and a plethora of other online tools that can help students demonstrate their mastery of a concept taught.  
    A great place to go to find out more information about computational coding is www.code.org.
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