Summertime Brainstorm

I Can See Better Through the Fog is a storytelling podcast series in the vein of This American Life and the Moth. It tells the ongoing story of an echo boomer’s quarter life crises, featuring life, art, love, and San Francisco. Press the play button below to hear an audio recording of this latest entry. If it doesn’t work, you may need the latest version of flash software. (click here to download). Another troubleshooting tip would be to go directly to the soundcloud website. Sit back and let your ears do the work. The text version of this entry is provided beneath the list of selected tracks.

Runtime: 5 minutes and 12 seconds.

Selected tracks: Rilo Kiley “Capturing Moods” and Justice “Newlands”

“KABOOOOOM! BAAARRROOOOOOM!” Jessica read the capitalized words softly. “Is that how loud thunder is?” I asked her. She looked back at me with her doe-ish eyes. Her blank face slowly transformed into a smiling one. She shook her head no. “KABOOOOOM! BAAARRROOOOOOM!” She shouted this time.

I’d worked with Jessica on her reading fluency over the past couple weeks. Her marked improvement gave me an immense feeling of satisfaction and pride. Today I noticed a pattern. When she could visualize and act out the text, she read more fluidly and gracefully, and with few mistakes. When she’d get stuck on a word or phrase she didn’t understand, she’d lose her footing entirely, incorrectly pronouncing words I was confident she knew.

On one occasion Ms. C had me test Jessica’s words per minute. We practiced the test passage once together, then I timed her next read. It seemed she suffered from test anxiety. Her untested read through was her better fair. On the timed read, she rushed and stumbled over words she knew and had long pauses when she was petrified by words she didn’t recognize. After the test, I had her read once more. I told her I was not going to time her. I lied. I secretly started the timer once she began reading. On this run through she was as flawless as she’d ever been. When the timer went off, she looked at me and said,”Hey!” My trick had been insightful.

Today, when we came to the last page of the story Thunder Cakes, I reiterated it’s main idea. “The little girl overcame all her fears,” I told Jessica. “Milking the kicking cow, climbing the trellis, taking the eggs from the mean hen, and going out in the storm, to help her Grandma make thunder cake. She did all these brave things because she was so focused on what she needed to do that she forgot to be afraid.”

“Good work today Jessica,” I commended her. We walked together out of the reading room. The class was lined up ready to go to lunch. There were twenty days left until the 2nd graders became 3rd graders. This meant summer vacation for them. And no more volunteering for me. I wasn’t ready to relinquish this activity. It grounded and balanced me. Plus, I felt my work was unfinished with a handful of struggling readers, Jessica among them. I was determined to build upon my skills as a reading tutor, but I had not yet sought out tutoring opportunities for the summer. I foresaw taking the summer off as a stoppage in my progress.

“I really hope you volunteer with us again next year,” Ms. C suggested as the lunch bell rang. “I’m thinking I probably will,” I replied. “In the meantime, I’m looking for tutoring opportunities over the summer. I get a lot out of reading with the kids and I’d like to improve at helping them learn.” Although it didn’t occur to me until after my talk with Ms. C, reading with kids had renewed my faith in stories. Three years working in the film industry had broken it. I found personal connection to the themes of many stories I read with the kids. It helped me understand and cope with a multitude of things happening in my life.

Ms. C responded, “I’m more than willing to refer you to my students’ parents. God knows they need the extra help. I’m sure you’ve noticed many of them need to practice their reading over the summer.” KABOOOOOOOOM! “And some friends of mine started a reading center in the Mission called 826 Valencia. They’re a great place to volunteer.” BAAAARRRROOOOOOOM! The thunderous realization was loud and clear. I could now visualize the arc in my own story I desperately wanted.

De Tales

I Can See Better Through the Fog is a storytelling podcast series in the vein of This American Life and the Moth. It tells the ongoing story of an echo boomer’s quarter life crises, featuring life, art, love, and San Francisco. Press the play button below to hear an audio recording of this latest entry. If it doesn’t work, you may need the latest version of flash software. (click here to download). Another troubleshooting tip would be to go directly to the soundcloud website. Sit back and let your ears do the work. The text version of this entry is provided beneath the list of selected tracks.

Runtime: 7 minutes and 3 seconds.

Selected tracks: The Strokes “Machu Picchu” and The Talking Heads “The Book I Read”

Mr. Allen massaged the torn paper towel until it was flat atop his stool. He then dipped a butter knife into a jar of strawberry jam. Gripping the jellied knife, he moved his hand toward the flat paper towel. His class looked on in anguish. They sat on the rug facing their teacher. Many of the kids yelled out, trying to correct Mr. Allen’s actions. He continued bringing the jellied knife closer to the fresh paper towel. Until… Spreading the strawberry jam, he moistening the once dry paper towel. His entire class groaned in disapproval. “But that’s what the directions told me to do,” Mr. Allen shrugged his shoulders and threw up his hands. He wore a smug smile across his bearded face. “I guess this is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, because I followed all the directions.” He placed a piece of bread on the jellied paper towel, drew it up toward his mouth and prepared to take a bite.

The PB & J sandwich making activity was a lesson in following multi-step instructions. Standardized district wide testing was coming in a week. Mr. Allen was prepping his students for questions involving multiple directions. He asked his kids to write down, step by step, how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He then followed their directions. “I’m gonna be soooo hungry during lunch.” I chuckled as I sat on a chair behind the kids.

After I left behind a career in filmmaking, I began volunteering at elementary schools. It’s served as my exploratory phase into the field of education. Working with Mr. Allen has been different than all of my other experiences in the classroom. Before his class, I was accustomed to giving individual attention to small groups of kids. The majority of my learning in his class has been observational, rather than hands on. He plans a perfectly scheduled and balanced curriculum. And his lessons tend to require, and receive, full, uninterrupted attention. Mr. Allen uses teaching as his creative outlet. He does not just teach, he performs. And, it seems, he does not just rest on his improv, but continuously brings great material to class each day. Many times it feels like I’m watching Paul Rudd perform monologues written by Woody Allen, only aimed at children.

“None of these instructions you guys wrote down actually help me make my sandwich,” Mr. Allen continued. “What’s missing from all of your instructions?” He called on a girl with a fidgety, outstretched arm. She answered. “More details.” Mr. Allen walked over to the white board and wrote “details” in green. “Exactly. Suspend your belief for a second guys. What if I didn’t know how to make PB & J? Think for a second. Don’t skip,” he paused and held the peanut butter up, covering the PY on the Skippy label, “over any detail.” He wagged his pointer finger in a “no” gesture.

When Mr. Allen finished his lesson, I got a chance to sit and read with one of the kids. A girl named Mary, who spoke Spanish as a first language, needed to practice both reading comprehension and the pronunciation of her Ys, Js, and TH’s. I listened to her read Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. Whenever she came across a word with a TH, she’d pronounce it as if it were a D. “Brodder. Brodder.” I corrected her each time, then had her repeat the sound and then the word. “Brother. Brother. Brudder. Brother. Bru THhhher. Beh ru THer. Th. Th. Th. Er.” Despite her stumbles, she got through a respectable number of pages with my help.

Creating a bridge between Mary’s synapses was both engaging and ephemeral. I lost myself in the activity, much like I had in all phases of film production, from pre to post. Producing and sharing my ideas and stories with a mixture of moving pictures, words, and music brought such vibrancy, purpose, and community to my life. Since I gave up film, I’ve felt a creative void. In Mr. Allen’s class I’ve noticed myself longing for more one on one tutoring opportunities, like the one I had with Mary. Despite this, something vital, is apparent in Mr. Allen’s classroom. There are other options to spur and release creativity.

The lunch bell rang which signalled the end to my day. Mr. Allen excused his students. He then tossed the dirtied paper towel from earlier into a trash bin, with the residue of his lesson permanently absorbed.

Bridging the Gap

Press play above to hear an audio recording of this latest entry. If it doesn’t work, you may need the latest version of flash software. (click here to download)