The other day I was beginning the novel A Separate Peace with my 7th grade English class. They were looking at me quizzically as I tried to explain to seventeen 12 year olds what it is like for time to pass and then to go back to a place you have not seen in years and for which you have felt both love and hate. I suddenly put down the book and said, “Come with me.” Teenagers being teenagers, they were not going to ask too many questions with liberation from the classroom seeming a ready prospect, but one more curious student ventured to ask where we might be going. I looked back at him mysteriously, already ten footfalls ahead, and said again, “Come with me.” Luckily, I teach at The Benjamin School, a private Pre K3 -12 day school, and most of my students have matriculated there since pre-kindergarten days, so it didn’t take them long to figure out our destination, a destination indeed from their past, a destination which even in their small scope of life and experience, could put them in the frame of mind of the fictional Gene Forrester when he looks again after 15 years at those stairs and that tree. The comments were fast in coming as we stood before the great brass bell that the founders of our school, Marshall and Nancy Benjamin, had put in place over 50 years ago after hauling it all the way from Illinois in a Hudson, so weighted down by its cargo that it was stopped by police in Kentucky who suspected that “revenuers” were coming through with a load of moonshine. “I used to ring the bell at 5th grade patrol.” Do you remember how in 3rd grade, we wanted to ring the bell and be 5th graders?” The student who asked where we were going then jumped up, tagged the bell, causing it to ring briefly, and we all ran across the school yard, laughing to avoid detection. As we walked back across the campus, I heard another five or six stories of adventures and mishaps that students had encountered as “little kids.” We went back to class then and resumed reading the novel, a little more in touch with our haunted protagonist, a little closer because of our shared adventure. Likewise, when we read Book I of The Iliad I stop to tell my students about a show from the olden days called Dallas and how when Season 9 premiered, Bobby, who had died at the end of Season 7, was written back into the show by sloppy writers. “What happened?” they ask, suddenly interested. A moment later, we are unexpectedly, but very germanely, watching Bobby Ewing on YOUTUBE explain to his shocked wife, Pam, as he steps out of a shower stall, that he is not a ghost, that he never died, but that she has merely been dreaming for the entirety of Season 8. The kids, of course, yell things like “That is a rip off!” and they go home that evening and probably tell their bemused parents that they are going to binge watch Dallas on Netflix. But that is alright; they also know what a deus-ex-machina is, a short cut by a lazy writer, and the next time Homer throws Minerva quickly into his epic poem to stop Achilles from killing Agamemnon, they don’t forget the phrase. The Deus-Ex-Machina of Bobby’s never having died on Dallas and Pam’s shock at finding him in the shower and learning that the entire past year has been a dream. Often, teachers facing professional development days need drawing along as much as any recalcitrant class. In my capacity as a curriculum coordinator and then an academic dean I have found that the same techniques of eclectic hands on involvement are the necessary hook to open them up to expand and rediscover their own teaching passion and so fuel new learning adventures. At a recent professional development exercise I held for our faculty in August, staff were asked to bring back synopses of novels and films whose plots center around teaching. Then teachers were asked to envision the film that would be made about their own careers. Who would play them? What would the tagline of their films be? I knew I had them when our sometimes skeptical athletics chair mused aloud as to whether Gloria Estefan (whose music he very much admires) would sing the theme song linked to his film. I told him I thought she would. The theme song for the film of the same name in which Meryl Streep played Roberta Guaspari , a music teacher who would not give up on her impoverished and unmotivated students until they made it to Carnegie Hall. What’s the name of your teaching bio-pic? I also try constantly to help our staff re-envision themselves as students and so become better teachers as they experience the difficulties and frustrations of learning things they do not know or find difficult. I have recently been reminded of this phenomenon myself when I presumed to take a Crossfit class far beyond my physical capabilities. Sweating and gasping in an open air warehouse at 5 am and looking quite ungainly, I wondered what my more adept, fitter classmates were thinking about me. I wondered too if the teacher, all of 18 and high fiving the other 18 year old trainers while paying little attention to the individual progress of the likes of me, thought I was stupid, and if I should stop huffing just long enough to explain that sometimes I am a slow starter, but really I would get it. I hoped against hope that when I accomplished some little task correctly, the teacher would notice and say something. Unfortunately,this was not to be. I went away from the class convinced that more than every once in awhile a teacher who has forgotten what it means to be a student, needs to go out and try to learn to do something that he or she is just awful at. Go ahead, spend an hour doing the thing you least excel at. I promise you that when you go back to your classroom the next morning, you will rediscover the best version of yourself as a teacher. You will remember that just because you have a doctorate in your field, the kid sitting in front of you does not; you will remember to not take some little person’s victory for granted; you will praise him or her genuinely, but on the contrary, you won’t devalue that praise by giving it away cheaply like those mocking aphorisms emblazoned on those overpriced t-shirts that they sell in that Crossfit gym of which I am no longer a member. Administrating. Planning divisional curriculum. Helping other teachers to become the best they can be. Teaching. Inspiring students to find their voice. Why we do it, how we do it…. I could throw a lot of jargon and education experts’ names at you that sound great on a syllabus or a resume or a school website. I could tell you I am a Socratic teacher, that I listen four times more than I talk, that no question is ever stupid and no answer is wrong, that I really don’t teach – I facilitate learning and demand absolute excellence of effort from every student and teacher of whatever ability all the time. But really at the end of the day, it’s only words. This is because I believe the key to teaching and to inspiring other teachers is probably as simple as those three words I uttered before I took my students to see the bell that day or that other day when I got our Athletics coach to start tapping his foot in time to 90’s pop songs, imagining himself a cinematic exemplar. “Come with me.” If you really mean it, and if you have triggered their imagination, they will come, and they will learn. This is why I teach, and this is how I help others to teach because ain’t no curriculum in the world no matter how great that’s gonna make them feel the wind in their hair if they haven’t gotten in the car with you first.
In the late 1980’s I loved Thirtysomething, the show with the ensemble cast that depicted the travails of yuppydom amongst a group of friends in upper middle class Philadelphia. I would curl up in my sofa bed (the springs of which my much older back would not now abide) in my studio apartment on the upper west side and watch every Tuesday night at 10pm. Legit Old school. No DVR. NO On Demand. If you aren’t old enough to remember this show, it doesn’t matter. I just want to talk about one powerful episode that has stayed with me for years because of what it says about the writing process. The name of the episode, written by Joseph Dougherty is Michael Writes A Story, and it’s worth watching if you care about the craft of writing. Ok, so the main character, Michael loses his job, and at loose ends, wondering how he’s going to support his wife, daughter, and new baby on the way, indulges in a little escapism and decides he’s going to take a writing course at the local community center to finish up that novel that has always been inside of him but has never seen more than a short draft (It’s called The Girl With the Kool-Aid Smile, and from that I think we are to infer that perhaps it is better that it has seen nothing more than a short draft). Anyway, when Michael arrives at the first class he is full of obnoxious bravado and believes the other students there will be “novices” and that he will just be sharpening his skills. As he enters the class he runs into Nancy, his best friend’s estranged wife who, coincidentally, is also taking the class because she is trying to write a children’s book. She is an artist by trade , so the pictures of her children’s book come easily to her, but she is far less sure of her ability to write or tell a story in words. The writing teacher, Ivy Dunbar, is played to perfection by the actress Lorinne Vozoff. Ivy is clearly not an author of blockbuster airport reads. You are quickly made to understand that her work has an erudite, academic following and that Michael and Nancy have both read her as undergraduates. Ivy has flyaway hair and no makeup. She is a bit heavy. She has the look of someone who is more concerned with the life of her characters on the page, than life itself. Ivy as a teacher is not dismissive of her students, but neither is she about to coddle them. She begins the class by giving Michael, Nancy, and the rest of the assemblage some pithy advice. She says, “I am not going to teach you about writing. You already are writers or your wouldn’t be here, believe me. But you do all need to get past where you are, past the need to stand between the work and the reader so he’ll know how clever you are. Because good writing is writing that appears not to have been constructed, but to have ripened like a banana. The key to this is honesty. There are no rules in writing except honesty. If you learn that, you will have spent your money well.” Who doesn’t wish they were in that writing class? Ivy gives the class the first assignment. She says not to spend more than an hour on it because she is just checking everyone’s “basic wiring.” She asks them all to write about a parting. Right after class, Michael and Nancy go for coffee at a diner. Things are a bit weird because Nancy’s estranged husband is Michael’s best friend . Michael and Nancy order coffee, begin talking, and it soon becomes clear to Michael that Nancy is waiting for someone. She tells Michael that there is a new man in her life but that she doesn’t want to go into detail because Michael is so intertwined with her ex-husband. The new boyfriend shows up and then in a subsequent scene we see Michael trying to fulfill Ivy’s first assignment about a parting. This is where fascinating aspects of the writing process come up. Michael does not need to grasp for subject matter for his assignment. That much is clear. The story that he wants to tell, the one that is on his mind and in his soul is the one of sitting with Nancy in that diner and feeling so conflicted about seeing his best friend’s wife moving on with a new man. But Michael has a problem. If he writes this story as it happened, how can he read it aloud in class the next week? Nancy will be there. Michael tries to solve the problem by setting his story about the events in the diner in a kind of cheesy film noir setting with the characters’ portraying himself, Nancy, and the new boyfriend like Mickey Spillane gangsters and gun mauls. At one point, the character who is supposed to be Nancy is described as wearing her “chemise the way lesser women wore diamonds” and later she opines that she and others are all “socks in God’s hamper.” Meanwhile, Nancy, with unassuming innocence, her belief intact that she knows nothing about writing, writes about a parting as well. She writes in third person about the day her estranged husband, left the house for good. Her prose is honest, spare and arresting. She talks about the moments after he leaves and how she could not remember later whether they had “kissed or shaken hands” and how after he was gone she “walked about the house turning on the lights.” As Ivy’s incredulity quickly indicates during the next class, Michael has not gotten the assignment right. “Socks in God’s hamper?” she queries sardonically when he finishes reading. On the other hand, Nancy has nailed it. And the reason why is patently clear. Nancy has been honest and told the story in her soul. Michael, due to his conceit about his skills as well as the complicated circumstances of the writing class, has not told the truth. He may have had valiant reasons for being dishonest, but the writing doesn’t care. Writing, as Ivy Dunbar told us, demands honesty, and Michael has not only lied, he’s done exactly what Ivy told him not to do: stood like an orange flashing highway barricade between himself and his reader, throwing around phrases like “God’s hamper” and “ennui” so everyone thinks he is clever. Spoiler Alert: No one does. Ivy is pretty merciless, Michael is chagrined, but one thing is clear. Michael really needs to tell this story because despite the fact that it is logistically difficult for him to tell it with Nancy in the class or the fact that Ivy panned his first draft, he keeps motoring through draft after draft. In a subsequent scene Michael is talking with Nancy’s ex-husband who, clearly a bit regretful over the split with Nancy, tells Michael that when he and Nancy were in college and he had to go away for a weekend, he gave her his watch to wear so that she might feel close to him. When he returned and they made love, he says he remembers the watch on her wrist hitting the headboard of the bed. Nancy’s ex husband asks Michael to tell him if Nancy starts wearing another guy’s watch. Hearing this, Michael in fulfillment of another one of Ivy’s writing assignments, hauls out his whole cast of Mickey Spillane characters again, spewing mixed metaphors and hackneyed similes, but amongst all this verbiage, he includes one image that breathes and lives. His female character may be wearing a frock of chemise the way lesser women wear diamonds, but she also wears a watch which when she is in congress with her lover hits against a bed headboard and marks off the seconds and minutes of life. When Michael reads this new assignment in class, Ivy is no less exacting but she gives him one word of encouragement. “I liked the watch,” she says. Ivy may well have liked the watch; it was true and honest, so honest and well written that even submerged in the Mickey Spillane prose Nancy, who is sitting in the seat aside Michael, recognizes it and rubs her wrist, clearly feeling naked and violated and betrayed. Michael may have just crossed an ethical line, but he got honest and the writing got good. I don’t know Joseph Dougherty, the writer of this episode, but I wish I did. Dougherty’s episode does so much more than tell a good story. It tells a good story about how to write a good story. It brings up the ethics of telling someone else’s story, the exacting demands that writing can have on one’s life, and the notion that writing is not a substitute for living, but what I took away from the episode 30 years ago in my little studio apartment on West 66th and why I still remember it today and use it in my writing classroom is because of its basic premise. Dougherty underscores that some stories demand to be told, and if we get in their way with subterfuge or big words, we do more than dilute them, we destroy them. We’ve got to learn to be quiet enough to hear those stories roiling around in our souls and then brave enough to let them tell themselves without our egos getting in the way. Sounds easy but it’s not. And the task becomes even more challenging when you try to help your students access their soul stories. What’s your soul story? Can you hear it? Stop and listen. Cristina James , May 12, 1017
Welcome to the first blog post from soulstoriesdna.com! My name is Dr. Cristina James, and as an English teacher, curriculum coordinator, and academic dean of long standing at The Benjamin School, a private PreK 3- 12 school in southern Florida, I am always looking for new curricular innovations to make learning meaningful, interactive, and dynamic. To me, curriculum is meaningful when it disrupts the normal classroom activities and the students’ expectations of what is going to constitute their English assignments. So, enough with student PowerPoints depicting the themes in To Kill A Mockingbird! Enough with the dioramas depicting East Egg in The Great Gatsby that all the dads made anyway! We need to shake up our classrooms and our students and surprise them and fill them with wonder. Believe me that nothing will disrupt your students’ thinking more than telling them that they are not going to write the regular old critical essay about the book they are reading in class, but that they are going to write about what they care about and then speak their truth aloud to their school, the community at large and, through the use of the TEDx youth platform, the world. They’ll give you that Scooby Doo look of incredulity. You know the one: when Scooby says:RUOH? This translates from Scooby Doo to Middle School English roughly as: “Who me? I’m only 12. I don’t want to speak to a crowd! I don’t want to talk in front of people!” But that’s when you disrupt them even further and say, “Sure you do! And when they tell you speaking in front of crowds isn’t their thing, you tell them, “All the more reason to face your fears and get up there!” Now that you’ve got their attention, you mention that when they deliver that talk, they are going to be on a platform that has hosted such luminaries as the magician David Blaine and Bill Clinton and Bono! Yup, that’s right. Tell them they are not just going to give a speech in assembly, but that they are going to deliver a TEDx youth talk. It will make them crazy–but you’ll have their attention! Start showing them TED and TEDx talks that speak to them. Haul out the classics like Dyana Nyad’s Never Ever Give Up and Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking and then start to show them ones by kids their age. All of a sudden, you are going to find yourself with a group of kids who are no longer just disrupted like Scooby, but are likewise filled with aspiration at the idea of getting ready to take the stage at their own licensed TEDx event and share their ideas. That is the reason this website is called soulstoriesdna.com. I am always searching and refining how to teach students how to write the soul story that comes from deep inside of them, so deep it is part of their DNA, but DNA also stands for “Disrupt and Aspire.” I write to you now having just wrapped our second annual student driven TEDxThe BenjaminSchool event Muthos. This website and this blog will chart my journey getting students ready for that event, but this website is not at all a how to on running a TEDX youth event. You can read the TEDX manual if you want to do that, In fact it’s not about the event at all. The TEDx youth event is really just the party that celebrates the culmination of the soul story curriculum we use in our classes to evince these TEDx talks from our middle school writers and speakers. Soulstory dna is about the work that must come before such an event: being a writing teacher and champion of one’s student, accessing those ideas inside of them that lead to inspired writing. There is no doubt that the prospect and promise of taking those ideas onto a stage where they will be heard fuels the enthusiasm for the writing process, but accessing their soul stories to begin with is what I’m all about. Getting your students to find and write and speak their soul stories teaches them the value of their voice, of transferring that voice to the written page, of transferring that written page to the realm of oratory, of stepping out of their comfort zones, of espousing self-acceptance and acceptance of others, and of inaugurating a positive digital footprint. So get ready to learn all about soul stories and how you can use them too in your curriculum!