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All posts for the month October, 2011

Power in a Blank Sheet of Paper

Published October 27, 2011 by Susan Woodward

First of all, I want to admit that I got the idea for this exercise from a teacher on FaceBook.  Secondly, I want to say that this was probably the most powerful lesson in Symbolism that I have ever given in my 15 years of teaching, and I intend to use this from now on to introduce the concept.

I teach 9th grade English, and I’ve been working using Visible Thinking tactics to better reach my students.  As a lead in to the short story “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst, I wanted to find an exercise that would teach students about the power of symbolism in literature.   Who says that FaceBook has no value other than social networking?

I had students take out their writing journals and a clean sheet of paper.  In the journals, they had to put the heading “Symbolism” at the top.  They were then instructed to look closely at the clean sheet of paper sitting on their desks and to write (in the journals) anything that they saw about the paper.  They had to preface the notes with “I see…”.  I then asked them to preface a few sentences with “I think…” as they continued to look at the blank sheet of paper.  The kids looked at me like I was nuts, but they wrote in their journals anyway.

As soon as they finished writing, I told them to take the sheet of paper and crumple it up.  They could stomp on it, they could pound it, they could bite it… but they just could not tear it in any way.  That they got into.  Kids were balling up the sheets, throwing them on the floor and jumping on them.  One put the wad of paper into his mouth and chewed on it (I had to tell him to be careful about ripping it).  Then I had them put the wadded paper on the desk in front of them and repeat the writing exercise.  They had to preface each section with “I see…” and “I think…”.  They seemed to have more to say this time because it took them a bit longer to do the writing piece.

Once they finished that, I asked them to very, very carefully (so as not to rip it) unfold the crumpled ball and flatten it out as best they could.  While they were doing that, I instructed them to say, “I’m sorry” to the piece of wadded up paper.  Ok, so some kids got silly with it and started kissing the paper while apologizing, but they managed to get them opened up without tears.  Some were trying to use the edge of their desks to run the paper along it to try to flatten it.  Once they were ready, I had them repeat the writing exercise, prefacing with “I see…” and “I think…”, but this time I added the extra component of “I wonder…”.

After they finished that portion of the exercise, they then had to write their own definition of Symbolism… whatever they thought that Symbolism meant.   As a sign that they were completely done writing, I told them to hold their symbols high in the air (the pieces of paper).   When all students had the papers over their heads, I told them to now hold the paper right in front of their face and look at it while I talked.

As they looked at their papers filled with creases and footprints and, in some cases, saliva, I told them that they were looking at a symbol of a bullied person.    The creases in the paper symbolized the effects of bullying, and even though the paper was still whole and as completely usable as its unmarred counterparts still in the notebook, it will never be exactly as it was before it was crumpled.   I told them to remember that even though they said, “I’m sorry” to the paper as they were unfolding it, no amount of apologies could take away the scars left behind.  The creases may lesson over time, but they will never fully go away… much like the hateful behavior left behind by bullies.  Unkind words and brutal actions leave their mark, even if the one who did it says, “I’m sorry”, or “I was just kidding…”.   Kids sometimes just do not realize the power of words, especially negative ones.

I then asked them to write in their journals about the exercise.  I wanted them to write once more, “I see…”, “I think…”, and “I wonder…” after they were told about the meaning of the symbols.  I also asked them to write about the effectiveness of symbolism based on this exercise.

As I explained this, some kids laughed.  Some kids got very quiet and then hurriedly picked up their pens and started writing when prompted.  Some put their crumpled papers down and just looked lost in thought for a bit.

One in particular hung his head down, staring at the blank paper.  It was the boy I wrote about in an earlier post who had been bullied by many of those same kids sitting in that room at the moment.   I knew going into the exercise that this was going to impact him, but I felt it was an important lesson, especially the part about still being whole in spite of the creases.   I also asked the students to carefully fold up the pieces of paper and put them in their pockets to take with them and to look at from time to time throughout the day.  That one boy was very meticulous about folding his paper and putting it in the pocket of his binder.  I also asked that they share the exercise with their parents and ask them to sign the paper so that they could be returned to me the next day.

I have been holding onto these signed pieces of paper for five months.  Many may have forgotten about the exercise, so I will remind them when I return the pages to them before Spring Break.

All in all, I felt that it was a very powerful exercise.  Sometimes people don’t realize just how much power their unkind words can carry… and now I hope that some will make that connection and stop the crumpling.  Even if only a couple of kids got the message, that’s a couple fewer potential bullies for the time being.

I hope and I pray, though, that there will be a whole lot fewer for life.

Lessons from the Yellow Brick Road

Published October 22, 2011 by Susan Woodward

Every time I get ready to plan my Hero’s Journey unit at school, my mind turns towards three films in particular: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and The Wizard of Oz.   And “story” just happens to be the monthly topic for our Soul Matters group at church, so it really seems important for me to pay attention to “story” in my life.  Today, in particular, I’ve been feeling pretty “Ozzy” as I sit and think about my path work, especially after re-reading my last post.   Recognizing that it’s my own fears that stir the inner conflict with my Shadow self, it seems as if what I’d most like from the Wizard of Oz myself would be to help me find my courage.

It’s interesting that Dorothy meets up with three characters along the Yellow Brick Road, all of whom express their desires for the same things that Dorothy herself needs.  It is also interesting that the man in Kansas (Professor Marvel) who pointed out that Dorothy needed to go home because she’d hurt her family is transposed into the Great and Powerful Oz of the Emerald City.  He points out to Dorothy (in Kansas) and to her companions (in Oz) what they should have been able to see for themselves all along.

The Scarecrow claims that he doesn’t have a brain, but the Wizard points out that he had one all along.  Even though he exhibits cleverness in outwitting the apple trees, the Scarecrow just didn’t recognize his own intelligence without some outward symbol to “prove” its existence- a diploma.   When Dorothy took off with Toto to get away from Miss Gulch, she really wasn’t using her brain.  She was simply reacting without thinking.  She didn’t think about the impact her running away would have on those who loved and cared for her, particularly Aunt Em.

The Tin Woodsman claims that he can’t feel anything because he doesn’t have a heart.   The tin smith who built him forgot to put one in, but he is the most sentimental of the three companions.  Like the Scarecrow, he needs some outward symbol to prove that he has just as much love and caring as anyone who has the physical, blood-pumping organ that he desires- something tangible that he can look at as a reminder.  And so he is given a heart-shaped testimonial with a built in clock that ticks.   Dorothy’s running away from home and hurting those who love her can be seen as almost heartless.  She is more concerned with and seems to care more for herself and her dog than her family.

And then we come to the Cowardly Lion.  He claims to not have any courage, but throughout their journey, he exhibits great amounts of bravery when the need arises.  All he needs is a medal from the Wizard as an outward sign of his courage.  As this relates to Dorothy, it takes more courage to face our problems than it does to run away from them.

Brains, heart, courage— thought, feeling, bravery– that’s what I need to integrate on my own path.

When the Wizard leaves Oz, he puts the three in charge of the land in his absence.  Their combined talents — the wisdom to know the right thing to do for the people, the compassion to think about the needs of the people, and the courage to actually do what is best for the people– might create a land of peace and harmony.  Of the three, though, I see courage as the one of the three that would keep things in proper balance.  It’s one thing to KNOW what’s right, another thing to FEEL what’s right, and an entirely different thing to actually DO what is right.   Of the three, I think that the Lion is the key to that balance.  For harmony, all are required.  To be brave but not know what to do or not care about others would be futile.  To know what to do but not care about others or not have the courage to carry out what’s right is also futile, as is wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve but not knowing the best course of action or having the guts to do anything about those one cares about.  And so with the “healing” of her friends, Dorothy is also “healed”.  She learns about looking for her heart’s content beyond her own back yard, but only after she saw from her friends what it meant to use one’s brain, heart and courage.  Only then could she return home.

I want to be “home”– balanced.

So… it’s that balance that I need to work on within myself as I roam through this desert.  Hmmm… interesting that Oz was also surrounded by a great desert.  Perhaps, like the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Lion, I need reminders of my inner gifts.  I shouldn’t NEED reminders, but I guess they serve as affirmations in times of feeling lost or alone.   Like the Scarecrow’s diploma, my degrees in my office remind me of how I am able to use my brain.  Like the Tin Woodsman’s testimonial, pictures of my children are a daily testimony of my love for them, and gifts they have given me are reminders that they love me in return.  However, what I do not seem to have on display are any signs of my courage.   I do know that I HAVE courage– I’ve made several trips through Hell and have managed to survive– but what I don’t see on a daily basis is any outward symbol on display.   The Lion continued to wear his medal so that he wouldn’t forget– where’s my “medal”?

Maybe that’s why I still struggle with inner fears.  Maybe, like the Lion before he “found” his courage, I have a tendency to forget those times when I have been brave.   Its purpose would not be to sit and gaze at it all day.  I don’t stare at my degrees, and I don’t constantly sit and stare at the pictures of my children– but I do like having them there to notice from time to time.

It’s usually when I am feeling pretty stupid about something that I happen to go into my office and I’ll notice the diplomas.  Then I usually remind myself that I can use my brain, and pretty soon I’m feeling a bit more confident about thinking things out.   When I get out of the “God, I feel so stupid” mind-frame, an answer to the problem usually seems to present itself.

It’s when I am feeling sad and lonely– particularly since the final break-up of a long term relationship– that I do pick up the pictures and think about each child in turn, or I see something that one of them made for me or gave me as a gift, and then I remember that I always have them, no matter what.  Their love, and the love of supportive friends, will serve to remind me that I am never alone.  Remembering that I am loved will help to keep me from flitting about trying to find love in all the wrong places.  If I am ever meant to be with a partner, then it will happen– but not because I used loneliness as an excuse to go on the prowl.    I am open to the possibility of a partner appearing in my life one day, and that is enough.

I think that if maybe I came up with some kind of outward symbol of my personal courage, the inner struggle with my fears will be better dissuaded.   If, on days when I am feeling most fearful or riddled with conflict, I had something that my eye could happen to fall upon– like the diplomas and the pictures– it would help me in the same way.  So that is what I am going to concentrate on… creating a visible reminder.

Of the three Oz characters, the only “mortal” one was the Lion.  While the Scarecrow was physically torn apart by the winged monkeys, he didn’t die.  The Tin Woodsman stood for many years rusting away holding his ax mid-air, but he was still alive.  Only the Lion can grow old, get sick, and eventually die.  And if courage dies, the other two won’t be as strong because the balance will be broken.  However, the Lion is also the only one who has the power to reproduce and pass his legacy on to the next generation.  In that way, courage might never die, and balance might be able to be maintained.

I do find it also interesting that, of the three characters in the film, only the Lion has a song of his own.  While all three sing a version of “If I Only Had a _________”, the Lion is the only one to have a solo number when he sings “If I Were King”.

That’s what I need to do for myself.  Not only will it be helpful to have some kind of symbol as a reminder on days when I feel weak, but I have to keep courage alive.  I have to pass it on somehow.

And so I write this.  I write to remind myself to work to reclaim my inner courage, and I write to try to pass the idea of courage onward.   And perhaps re-reading this from time to time will be all the reminder I need to face my fears and make peace with them.

Facing the Shadow: “Path” by Apocalyptica

Published October 20, 2011 by Susan Woodward

Wow.  That’s all I have to say every single time I watch this video.  This is such a vivid, fabulous depiction of the inner conflict and facing the “Shadow” inside.  How appropriate for me right now that it is entitled “Path”.

I love the “call and response” between the live performers and the shadowy figures on the wall.  I can especially feel the angst as it builds through the music, and when the “stand off” occurs, I feel the rise within my own soul.

As I continue through this desert path with the sun looking down on me, the only other “living” thing I see is my own shadow.  It is a part of me, both outside and in.  I suppose that part of working through toward solitude is befriending that shadow part of myself.   I know it’s not necessarily the “dark side” of me, but the things that I keep hidden, both consciously and unconsciously.

The conscious parts are easy to discover… the things about myself that I would just as soon keep private and hidden from the world.  Some parts I’m ashamed of, while others are simply just too personal to bring out into the open.

The unconscious parts are much more difficult to discern.  Sometimes things pop up and I ask myself, “Where the hell did that come from?”  “What made me do that?”  “What drives me to want this, that, or the other thing?”  These have a way of coming out unbidden and when they do, I begin to feel anxious and feel almost as if I have to beat them down.  The anxiety comes from not being able to control when or where these behaviors, attitudes, or impulses pop up.   I guess that’s what I see in the video… that struggle for control.   Maybe the darkness of my shadow is my collective fears that I feel the need to conquer.

There’s that pause in the music where the one musician is tapping on his knee, waiting for a response– that silence before the storm of full confrontation.   Then both sides are in a frenzy of conflict and it seems as if the Shadow is conquered… at least for the time being.  But is conquering what I really want here?

The more I think about it, though, the more I seem to believe that I need to be gentler with my Shadow self.   What I think would make the transition toward solace much easier for me is if I befriend those parts of me that are hidden.  And not that the Shadow part is evil… just in darkness, out of sight from everyone else.  For the regrets and shame from things in my past, it would serve me better to acknowledge their presence, know that they will never truly disappear because those things are a part of who I am and who I have become over the years, and to simply let them dwell there in peace without trying to beat them down.  But those will be the easier parts to befriend… the conscious ones.  It’s dealing with parts that pop up by surprise at various times in my life that catch me off guard and cause anxiety… and then the whole “fight or flight” instinct kicks in.  Except, in that situation, that there’s no flight from what’s a part of you… just fight.  I am not sure how to keep that inner part under control so that I don’t end up in full-blown self-conflict and attempting to beat myself down.

Perhaps the conflict I feel inside could be better resolved by taking the time to really LOOK at the conscious parts first.  Heck, since the sun is bearing down on me in this desert, it’s right there all the time.  There’s no hiding it here.   I can allow myself to feel whatever emotions that go along with what I find, and then moving through the desert won’t be as lonely when I befriend myself.  Once I am at peace with those parts, maybe I’ll figure out a way to discover the unconscious parts.    What does lurk deep in my soul?

I’d like to figure out how to get a look at what’s hidden just beyond my view.   There must be a way to tap into what is unconscious and bring it forward… but I think that finding a way to curb the confrontational attitude that I often take toward myself might be a step in the right direction.

Beasts and Bullies

Published October 17, 2011 by Susan Woodward

As I go through this whole Bell’s Palsy thing, I’ve been a bit nervous about how I look.  My ego is feeling as deflated as my facial muscles!  However, I never actually worried about being made fun of by students (they wouldn’t dare make fun of me to my face!) or having them disrespect me.  It was all in my own mind about how I have felt about myself.  Besides, I know that I can handle student disrespect and “bullying” without turning it on myself.

Unlike my nearly 50-year-old self who isn’t undone by the likes of a 14 year-old’s comments, unfortunately, there are young people who do not feel as strong to protect themselves against the bullying of others.  It makes me sick to see kids hen-pecking and tearing away at another student’s esteem for any reason.  Especially with the media attention on teenage suicide as a result of bullying, I am extremely concerned about this in my school, particularly about a young man in my class.

He’s bright… so bright that he actually has a 100 in my class.  No easy feat, let me tell you.  He’s articulate, has strong analytical and critical thinking skills, and is a very strong writer.  Sadly, it has been brought to my attention that he is being bullied by other kids in the class.  Not that it has ever happened within my eyes and ears, for I would have ejected the offenders immediately.  I work hard to maintain a respectful classroom atmosphere so that everyone will hopefully feel free to contribute without fear of ridicule from anyone else.  Of course, this is when I am physically present.

But then there was a day I wasn’t.  I was out sick, and there was a substitute in class.  We all know what happens to class decorum when a sub is present!  I’m not sure of exactly what happened or how it came about, but I do know that there is now a young man in pain because of the insensitivity of others.  Somebody went so far as to join our classroom website under a bogus account using this young man’s name only to post inappropriate material.  As much as the person who pulled the stunt thinks this is just some fun joke, let me tell you… this is a form of bullying, and it will not be tolerated!!

While I pray that this young man would never go to the lengths of those other unfortunate souls who were the object of humiliation at the hands of others, after all the media coverage, the fear will now always be there.  I never want the world to lose another intelligent, sensitive soul to the pain of some other person’s thoughtless words and actions.

As part of my vigilance on my path, I will play the defender.  I will seek to encourage the bright, sensitive spirit of all students, and if any get caught up in “mean girl” or “bad boy” games, I hope to steer them in a better direction.  Isn’t there enough intolerance in this world?  How will the next generation handle the BIG problems of this world if, while they are young, they are not taught to accept one another?

“Check, Mate”

Published October 16, 2011 by Susan Woodward

Q – QR5

Q x Q (!!)

Kn x Q

 

Why drop your mouth in amazement?

You dangled her right in front of me, daring me—

You’re the one who thought I’d run

And do all I could to hang onto something

So obviously important

In order to keep her in

Reserve for later,

Just in case…

“I never expected you to do that”—

You’re damned right!

I’ve learned it’s better to not have expectations;

That way, I can never be disappointed again.

You took it for granted that I would

Never make such a huge sacrifice—

As a result, it cost you your most precious piece,

Your Queen,

And, ultimately, the game.

“Player”

Published October 16, 2011 by Susan Woodward

Like a chimp swinging

Branch to branch

Easily through the trees,

Attaching itself firmly

To the next before

Releasing the

Hold it had on the last,

Being mindful of the branch’s location

In case it needs to fall back on that

Anchored limb left behind.

Maybe the branches will tire and

Refuse to take part in this

Game being played

And let the chimp fall to travel

On its own two feet.

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