This girl is on fire…….

I  LOVE the lyrics in this song and find the lyrics so inspiring. It’s intresting that the images Keys chose revolve around her daily life with kids and family, day-dremaing, and alone-time.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J91ti_MpdHA]

My questions:

How do I harness my internal fire to ignite the work I want to do?

What does it mean to have such a passion that you are on fire?

What comes to your mind when you think of being on fire?

Enjoy this wonderful, uplifting song.

Improv in the Classroom: Creating a Safe Place for Exploration

What do you think of when you hear someone talking about improv? For me, the first thing that comes to mind is the hilarious scenes from Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the TV show with Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, and Wayne Brady.  After watching the show for a number of seasons, I thought I knew what improv was—making up songs like Wayne Brady and being funny without much preparation. So how did I come to see improv as a way to create a positive climate in my classroom? It all started with a class at Everyman Theater where I encountered three life-changing rules.

Rule #1: Say “Yes, and…”

A couple of years ago I took an improv class with a talented Baltimore actor named Bruce Nelson.  Bruce began the class by going over the rules of improv — the first and most important rule is to say “Yes, and…” Simple enough. Whatever your partner says or does, you must say yes, and then build on it. Why is this rule number one? Because in improv, you are relying on your colleagues to help you create a story where there is none. If you throw out a line or a question and your partner says no, the scene flounders.  In the professional writing classroom, a student may be brainstorming around a problem and come to me with a solution that I think is problematic. If I say “Yes, but…,” and proceed to list my concerns, even though I avoided an outright no, the student may feel the hurdles are too high to jump and decide to forego the project or shut down some interesting research avenues.

On the other hand, if I say “Yes, and…” to the idea, the student feels validated and sees an open window of possibility to consider. Using “and” in a comment is expansive; it serves as a both a validation and an invitation. Using “and” also helps the instructor to keep an open mind when dealing with topics which may seem strange at first.

Ruel #2: Make everyone else look good

In improv, you are working as a team, and in order to be successful, you have to help your colleagues. If a colleague flounders, you can assist with a prop or a line to get them started. This rule helps to foster solid teams and build positive group interactions. In the classroom, this rule works a similar kind of magic. If everyone in the class feels they have something to contribute, they are more likely to volunteer and to take risks. They know your classroom is a safe place, a place where people will pick them up if they fall. This rule can also serve as an effective team-building  tool to share with students. Every team has members with a variety of strengths. If you can encourage students to assign tasks based on strength rather than in an arbitrary fashion, you can help them to build a strong team that knows how to capitalize on gifts and minimize flaws or weaknesses. Who doesn’t bless the day some colleague did this for them?

Rule #3: Keep the energy going

You are in a scene and it’s moving along really well. Then you get a fabulous idea and begin moving in an unexpected direction, thinking everyone else will follow. But, no one is prepared or even has a clue as to your direction, so the scene loses focus and stalls. Why? You couldn’t maintain the flow of energy. In class, perhaps someone comes in with a new approach to class discussions or a suggestion for a different format for the next paper. A few other people are excited as well. As the teacher, you recognize this may be a bigger project than they are ready for. And despite your hesitation, you decide to capitalize on the positive energy in the room, the delight on the students’ faces, and the promises of great results. In the end, you are glad you jumped in despite being afraid of the waves. Your students learned a valuable lesson as well: enthusiasm plus initiative and teamwork can accomplish surprising things.

Rule #4: Celebrate mistakes

One of the oddest and most enjoyable improv games I ever played was called “Trying to Fail.” We all stood in a circle and had to answer whatever questions the leader called out. If we got a wrong answer, everyone clapped for us. The goal was to be outside the circle before anyone else. First challenge: each person had to name three car models from the 1940s. Needless, to say, it was a short round with lots of failure. But the lesson? We all celebrated each other’s mistakes. More importantly, we had fun. The latest brain research tells us that in order to create, we have to make new connections with what we already know. This happens best when the person is relaxed and feels safe. By looking at mistakes as tools for opportunity, we can help our students grow in their willingness to explore new territory. By helping them to ask what they learned rather than to correct their mistakes, we help them gain confidence and empower them to venture into the unfamiliar with confidence.

There are no Wayne Brady moments of catchy tunes in my classroom, and no one falls over chairs and pretends they are acrobats, but I hope my students feel freer to explore and take risks because I know a little bit about how to say “yes, and” to the many possibilities each class offers.

Reading Banned Books in Baltimore

Reading Banned Books in Baltimore

 Imagine you are a high school student who is eagerly reading and discussing books about kids whose struggles resonate with your own experiences. You love the books, and you read every chance you get-on the bus, in the car, even after you are supposed to be asleep. Even though you’ve struggled all through school, you’re on a different path now. Learning is more fun because you can see how reading books relates to your life, your struggle, your desire for a better world. More amazingly, after all the years of failing grades, you are finally passing everything, including the state graduation test. School has become a place you enjoy, rather than a place to avoid. Then one day, you hear a rumor: The school board wants to discontinue your literature program.  It makes no sense to you or your classmates, who are also much more engaged in their learning and experiencing success similar to yours. It’s got to be a joke. But when the school administrators show up in your classroom one day and begin packing up all of the wonderful books you’ve read, you know the rumor was true.

The scenario described above actually happened to The Mexican American Studies program in Arizona.  Despite the success of thousands of students, despite students passing the state graduation tests, despite students successful enrolling in college, the program was shut down.  State Superintendent of Schools Huppenthal enforced the ban and stated that the books at issue were being removed from the schools because they presented a biased picture of American history that shows  “Latino minorities have been and continue to be oppressed by a Caucasian majority.”   This seems like a pretty obvious assertion from where I sit.  So where is the harm?  Why did these books need to be removed from the classrooms immediately, in some cases, disrupting classes?  What books could possibly warrant such a radical response?  For a more detailed accounting of Arizona’s radical act of censorship and information on some of the books deemed worthy of banning, take a look at Jeff Bigger’s  article from The Huffington Post where he interviews a teacher from the Mexican American Studies program regarding the program and why Shakespeare’s The Tempset  was banned. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeff-biggers/tucson-ethnic-studies-_b_1210393.htmls.  For further information on another book in the program, read this interview with Dr. Rudolfo Acuna, author of Occupied America, A History of Chocanos.  Dr. Acuna is a professor, historian, and social activist who teaches at California State University at Northridge. http://www.readersupportednews.org/opinion2/275-42/9628-arizona-shuts-mexican-studies-classes.  I don’t know all the details of this unfolding crisis, but isn’t there a middle ground?  If people are upset or disagree with either what is being taught or how it is being taught, wouldn’t the community be better served by a dialog or mediation process?

After I read Bigger’s article, I reflected on my own reading experiences, grateful, that I had never directly experienced such an act of censorship. Then I remembered Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown.  In the late 1960’s as a student in a Catholic girls’ high school in Baltimore, Maryland,  Manchild in the Promised Land  was my summer reading assignment.  I remember this, not for the book itself, but for the controversy that it caused among some parents.  While I don’t remember many details from the book, I do remember my feelings as I read it.  I remember feeling confused by the world that Claude described, a world filled with cramped housing, street gangs, and people using heroin.  A world where people were afraid of the cops and kids went to reform schools.  Claude’s world was not my world, but I read his story with interest and fascination.  I remember feeling admiration for Claude simply for surviving and making a better life for himself.  I also remember the day the anonymous letter addressed to “The Parents of Ann Bracken” showed up at my house.

I could hardly wait until my father came home from work so that I could find out what was in that letter.  After both my mom and dad read it, they showed it to me.  The parents who wrote the letter had excerpted some parts of the book that they considered offensive and inappropriate for 15-year-old girls. I can still see the single-spaced pages and feel the vitriol and anger that poured from the letter.  And I remember my mom and dad’s reaction: they did nothing to stop me from reading the book.  They didn’t even call the school. They simply told me that sometimes people don’t like books that are about real life and some of the awful things that happen, but that shouldn’t prevent anyone from reading the book.  The sisters who ran the school were also undeterred by the letter.  A few days after the anonymous letter arrived, we also got one from the principal explaining that she had spoken to the parents about their concerns, and that we would still be reading the book as assigned.

In retrospect, that incident with Brown’s book taught me a valuable lessons that I appreciate more with the passage of time: ideas are meant to be challenged and debated, controversy is a part of life, and most importantly, that books can take you to places you may never otherwise experience.  I also appreciate that my parents trusted me to read something that other people wanted to hide from their children.  The irony of the whole Manchild in the Promised Land story is that my high school is located in a poverty-stricken area of Baltimore where most of the people live in Section Eight housing, the kind of place where Claude Brown may have grown up had he lived in Baltimore.  I remember thinking: If we could all go to school there, why couldn’t we read stories that might enlighten us about the kids who lived side-by-side with our school?  Why was that book so threatening?  Was it the cussing, the drugs, the sex, and references to prostitution?  Or was the book threatening because we were in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and the social order was being challenged daily—on our streets, in the evening news, and in the Congress?  With the benefit of hindsight, I am guessing it was more the implicit challenge to the social order that started the anonymous plea to ban the book.

Ask any student what makes a class worthwhile and they will likely tell you that they want to be challenged and engaged.  They want the material to relate to their lives.  And when it does, students will be with you all the way and work with surprising zeal.  Arizona’s  Mexican American Studies program engaged the students by providing reading material that spoke to their lived-experiences.  The teachers provided a safe space for them to discuss and process the ideas presented.  The kids were successful in school.  But people deemed the discussing of controversial ideas dangerous and the books were removed, boxed up, and put in closets.  But what about the ideas?  Those are not so easily disposed of.

Out of curiosity, I looked up a listing of frequently banned books in the United States and realized I had either read them myself or I had taught them in a literature classes.  Many of the books on the list are some of the most influential and memorable books I have ever read, including: The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Huckleberry Finn, 1984, The Canterbury Tales, and Catch 22, and To Kill a Mockingbird.  To my way of thinking, the purpose of teaching literature is to explore and challenge ideas. A good teacher will always engage the students with some of the historical background information relevant to the novel.  Then as the students read and encounter ideas and experiences through engaging with the novel’s characters, the class can discuss and reflect on the ideas, often applying them to current situations.  Many teachers even assign novels in the context of history classes, as my college professor did by assigning The Grapes of Wrath and Babbitt.  Both of those novels explore important time-periods filled with social change and upheaval.  The Dust Bowl and the Oakies made a whole lot more sense to me as I travelled with the Joad family and experienced the hunger and desolation that swept our country in the Great Depression.

I consider myself fortunate to have read so many of the banned books.  I especially appreciate my parents for their open-minded response to a call for censorship and for their unflinching honesty and willingness to discuss controversies. I remember how reading The Diary of Anne Frank opened the door to a discussion of the Catholic Church’s actions during the Holocaust.  I challenged my mother’s assertion that “things could have been worse” (probably for Catholics), and went on to learn more about that time by reading Hitler’s Pope many years later. I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird and our family discussing the unfairness of trials and the illegal lynching of Tom Robinson.  And it was my mother who served as an early model for activism when she read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring-and then paid us pennies to pick dandelions instead of spraying the lawn.

I am left to wonder what my life would have been like if I had never read those novels or discussed the ideas explored in them, if that one angry parent had won. And I am fortunate that my parents and my teachers were both open-minded and sensible when it came to encouraging me to explore the world of ideas found in literature.  I am also lucky that the adults in my life modeled positive ways to engage with conflicting opinions. And finally,  having both parented and taught adolescents for a number of years, I know that the surest way to get a kid curious enough to read something is to tell them they can’t.  Are you listening, Arizona?

Know Wonder

Have you ever had to do a Powerpoint presentation of just fifteen slides?  Easy, you say.  I sat  down this morning and put together a slide show on the theme  Know Wonder for the Mindcamp Conference in Toronto in a few weeks.  Word play is what helped me to make connections — the way the words no and know sound the same and mean something entirely different.  I didn’t have much time to look for graphics, so I pulled from my own photo collection from recent trips to Venice, Galway,  Dublin, and the Cliffs of Moher.  In about twenty  minutes  I  had generated my presentation with a few simple graphics and spare words on the slides.

But this is just the beginning.  This presentation will be part of an evening event where I will be given five minutes to present my show, but I will only have my first and last slides.  The thirteen in  the middle will be randomly selected by  Tim Hurson, Mindcamp’s Mastermind.  I will not know any of the content of my show until I am up in front of the audience……….Check back  in a few weeks and I will give you the low-down on Part two of Know Wonder!  Here is the original slideshow.  I hope you enjoy it and welcome your comments.

Know Wonder Slide Show

Just do one thing new….


I spent a week in Italy in July of 2007-actually, I spent six days in Venice and one day riding a train to Trieste, looking around, having lunch, and coming back to Venice. It was absolutely amazing! To be in a foreign country alone, to be able to go anywhere, do anything, eat fabulous gelato, drink great espresso…..and all those amazing sights. Venice is truly a magical city-steeped in mystery, lore, and magic.

People ask me all the time, “How did you learn to speak Italian?” Well, it was really simple-one word at a time, practicing over and over. I bought CDs and listened to them while I drove to and from work. Actually, trying to learn another language kept my mind off of worries or anxieties surrounding my work as a special education teacher in a large, suburban high school. I also bought several books to go with the CDs and would read the dialogs, memorize the phrases, make flashcards……it was actually fun! I hadn’t attempted to learn another language since college. Back then, I was fluent in French and I had taken two years of Latin in high school, so there were a lot of links already in place in my brain. I actually used my knowledge of French and Latin to help me learn what I call “baby Italian.”

I could ask for food, get directions, buy things in a shop, order and send back wine, listen to the train announcements, and engage in basic conversation. People told me, “Everyone in Venice speaks English,” but my experience did not confirm that. There were many people who spoke a few words of English, enough to make a quick transaction. But if you wanted anything more, you needed to speak Italian. So I used to say, “Capisco bene, ma parlo come una raggazza piccola.” which means, “I understand pretty well, but I speak like a little girl.” That was pretty frustrating for someone who is articulate and enjoys writing and conversing as much as I do.

So what was the point? Why did I go alone and why would I bother to spend four or five months learning the basics of a language for such a short trip? Actually, going to Venice alone was about overcoming fear. See, I had never, ever gone to a foreign country before where I did not speak the language. I HAD to speak Italian if I wanted anything…..and it was really empowering to know I could navigate alone in a foreign country, find all the places I wanted to see-except the Biennalle Art exhibit-and spend about 90% of my daytrip to Trieste navigating in Italian. Yes, sir, if you can do that, you sure as heck can quit your job and start a business…..

Seriously, my “one tiny step” approach to learning and my success in venturing to Italy alone gave me a sense that I could succeed at pretty much anything I decided to focus on. This past year has been a year of major change-I lost about 15 pounds and two sizes, learned Italian, went to school in Ireland at Trinity College, and started my own business. My success with things in the physical world-like losing weight and speaking Italian-has given me the confidence to dare to succeed in other realms as well. And so far, so good. I am giving workshops, I have speaking engagements, and I will be presenting at the Maryland Writer’s Conference next May. Amazing….all I had to do was make a space….and that took all the courage I could muster. One line kept me going, “Leap and the net will appear.” So far, the leap is grand!

Next year…maybe a “Journal Journey” in Europe. Lets keep dreaming!

What’s improv got to do with it?

Anything is possible

A couple of years ago I took an improv class with a talented Baltimore actor named Bruce Nelson. I have seen Bruce in several local plays, and always enjoyed his acting. The characters he has brought to life include an elf based on David Sedaris’ memoir of working as a Macy’s elf at the flagship New York store on 34th St. Because I wanted to feel a little looser in front of an audience — I am studying drama in education — I decided I needed some actual training in the art of acting. Improv seemed like the logical place to start. It’s improv, right? How hard could it be?

I walked into the darkened theater, hoping to slip in quietly because I was a few minutes late. Bruce was going over the attendance list and checking everyone off. “You must be Ann,” Bruce nodded in my direction. I slid down in my seat and grinned as I slipped off my coat.

Eclectic is the word that comes to mind when I think of the 20-35 people who made up my classmates. Most of them were a good bit younger, and there was a mix of men and women, though we outnumbered the men by about 3:1. Bruce began the class by going over the rules of improv — the first and most important rule is to say “Yes, and…” Simple enough. Whatever your partner says or does, you must say yes, and then build on it. Hmmmm, that could make for some interesting scenarios. I squirmed a little in my seat and hoped I wouldn’t have to say yes to anything too outrageous. As it turned out, Bruce’s ground rules worked so well that everyone enjoyed the surprises that came along with our agreement to “Yes, and.” Surprises like creating 10 lines of dialog with only a beginning and an ending line….you had to make “I love peanut butter,” and “The pope would never approve,” work in your scene. Or create a relationship with a passenger named Zeb knowing only that you were in a car going to work and your name was Mathilda.

Thinking back over other theater-related experiences, I had encountered some improv before Bruce’s class when I went through the Creative Emergence Process with Michelle James. In this program, no matter what we did, Michelle smiled and said “Yes, and…” whenever we said “No” or hesitated with “But.” She even challenged us to eliminate the word but from our vocabulary and replace it with and….Try this exercise and see how changing your words can actually change the way you are perceiving the world. Saying “And” opens doors, affirms another person, creates a feeling of flow. Saying “But” on the other hand, shuts a door, marginalizes others’ opinions, and negates possibility. Just give it a shot for a day, and you’ll be amazed at how many opportunities come your way for changing your response.

“Yes, anding,” as we call it in improv, has had a powerful impact on my life. I say yes to all kinds of opportunities in the course of a business day. I think of this practice as being similar to following new roads on a map – You just might find your dream-house as you wander in unknown territory. I said yes to a friend when he asked me if I was interested in writing a paper on journaling in business education. The topic was somewhat new to me, and I knew I’d learn something. The real impetus was the possibility that the paper, if accepted, could land me a trip to Madrid and the opportunity to present at an international business conference. My inner cynic snickered a little every time I worked on the project, and my shining optimist won out and finished the paper on time, sending it off with grand hopes.

The deadline for acceptance notification passed. One day late, then three…finally, I got an acceptance email and celebrated with my co-authors, Alexei Mateev and Rick Milter. I thought I’d be presenting with Alex. However, about a month before the conference, he accepted a free trip to China – once he determined that I would be all right to present alone. “Yes, and…” I thought, “I’ve never done anything like this before.” Excitement mixed with some jitters as I realized what exactly I’d said yes to. Presenting a paper at an international business conference in a foreign country…..My shining optimist is sitting tight, patting my hand, and whispering, “Yes, and you’ll be fine. You can do this. How exciting!” I’m glad there is room for her in my carry-on.