Posts filed under ‘Teaching Artist’

Day 2: 100 Summer Days Writing Challenge

Prompt #2:     Think about a character (not the protagonist) central to the plot of your story.  Write a scene from his/her perspective.  How does the scene change?  How does the tone change?  Does this perspective shift allow you to explore the conflict from a surprising or more powerful perspective?


“My big sister says we can make Cinderella do all the work. She says we don’t even have to say please or thank you. So yesterday she told her to do our chores – wash the dishes and take out the trash and feed the chickens and clean out the litter box. (I hate that job the most.) Then we just watched Cinderella do it. My big sister laughed sometimes when Cinderella made a mistake; she laughed harder when Cinderella started to cry.

My big sister says it’s not really being mean because Cinderella deserves it; deserves being treated different because, well, she’s different. Cinderella doesn’t look like us at all – she has blond hair instead of brown and she’s way too tall and she’s got big hands too. She doesn’t talk the way we do either, and I don’t even think she can read the same books we do. My big sister says that means she’s stupid. So whatever we do to her is o.k. My big sister said so.

But –

You won’t tell her, will you? My big sister? You won’t tell her I really don’t think it’s o.k? I don’t want her to find out I don’t think it’s funny. I think it’s mean; I think my big sister is mean. She can’t know I don’t like what she does to Cinderella. I think she’d be mad at me if she found out I kinda like Cinderella, if she found out I’d like to be her friend …. if my big sister would let us.

You won’t tell her, right? She might be mean to me and then I’d be alone, too.”

  1. 11:00 PM / ~35 minutes
  2. Mood: Ready!
  3. Reminder: Don’t think; write. No editing. No questioning. Permission granted to fail on the page.


May 28, 2013 at 10:47 pm 1 comment

On Saying ‘Yes’

I know it’s been awhile since I posted anything here. I think I haven’t had anything worthwhile to say. But today feels different.

My daughter teaches at a high school in Chicago. It’s a tough crowd. Between entering the door at the beginning of the school year grade levels behind their peers, gangs, guns, homelessness, poverty, varying levels of family support, discipline issues, and any number of physical and mental health issues, she has to hold on tight to the bright moments. Every day she brainstorms with colleagues about how to make tomorrow better than today. She considers what she can do again, what she can never do again, what she can tweak or add or research or amend to make a difference tomorrow.

So when she asked me if I’d chaperon a field trip with her — a trip to a local college with her junior class — because their goal this year has been to focus on being a first generation college student, to focus on what comes next and achieving more and being more and not settling for only what they can see in their lens right now, I said yes.
Leading up to the college visit she had her students write practice personal statements. One boy was excited that his teacher’s mother was going on the field trip and asked if he could send his statement to Ms. Black’s Ms. Black. And that’s how I learned F’s story:
When his mother’s mom passed away the family was put out of the house they’d shared with her. His aunts and uncles all said the same thing, ‘no room in this house for you’ — not even a space on the floor to sleep. F explained that when they showed up at his other grandmother’s house, she told them their father was a survivor and they should be survivors too. “Then she closed the door and locked it.”
So that’s how F came to live in shelters, waking every day at 6 AM to catch the bus to get to school. That’s how he came to hear, over and over again when visiting relatives, that he was a bum, that he was just like his dad, that he would never amount to anything, that he’d grow up to be a “nothing”.
But there’s something special about F that his essay revealed: he refused to believe what people said about him. Instead he looked for jobs, doing anything he could just to help the family a little bit. And when he got his first real job he used some of the money from his first paycheck to give his baby sister her first real birthday party.
Seeing his sister happy “for once” made F happy and it motivated him to work hard and strive to do it again — “to provide from time to time.” And he knows he needs an education beyond high school to make that happen.
And hearing his relatives trash talk him and his siblings motivates F to prove them wrong. He refuses to believe it to be true. Instead he wants to go to college. He already knows he wants to be an engineer.

Of course after reading F’s personal statement I wrote him back. I told him what a fine writer he was, and how much I already admired him without even having met him yet, and that I was really looking forward to meeting him at the college visit. Because I was.
When the bus arrived at that local college on Monday I was waiting to greet the class. There were hand shakes and introductions and smiles and lots of anticipation for the day. I knew F the moment he stepped off of the bus. He was the one with his arms stretched out wider than his smile — he wanted to hug Ms. Black’s Ms. Black. Sharing his story, knowing his story was heard, and receiving my simple email response all let F know he mattered beyond his neighborhood. Because he did.

It was a happy day. The kids were excited to talk with representatives about the college and intramural sports and studying and how to apply and dorm life. They were ecstatic to eat in the cafeteria — it might have been the highlight of the tour with the ‘all you can eat’ policy. And they asked real questions of the student guide who showed them around campus. They posed for group photos on the football field and wanted to stand next to the college sign for the last picture before boarding the bus back to their Chicago neighborhood. It was becoming a real possibility and they knew it was within their reach now.

A few thank you emails arrived today, but the ones that mean the most included  “thank you for understanding our goal” and “You look at people for what they can achieve and not what they fail at.”

And I was glad I said yes.

Let me say right here and now that I know having a great teacher, my daughter, in their lives – a teacher who believes that they can accomplish this goal to go to college if they work hard and study harder and stay focused — a teacher who is constantly motivating and prodding and pushing and challenging and affirming and waiting and leading and following (and reevaluating at the end of Every Day) — makes a difference to F and his class today … and all of their tomorrows — and NO test will ever measure that.

But let me confess this — my dark moment on that happy college visit day: As I looked at all of their faces — eagerly soaking up the words of the college rep (or struggling to stay awake), laughing in the lunch line as they overfilled their plates, exclaiming over the beautiful dorms and houses surrounding campus — I wondered how many would live to see the dream come true. It was an unwelcome thought on a bright blue-sky day and I pushed it away as fast as it came. But it won’t stay away. Because I live in Chicago. I know that these kids in this tough school in this toughest neighborhood in the city are in danger of not making it out alive. Violence is all around them and its force is powerful. They run the risk daily of being targeted or caught up in it.
And they aren’t the pretty kids that the news media latches onto when another young person is killed by a gun. They’re the kids you hardly hear about because of their address or their parents’ income or their test scores or the color of their skin. And so nothing happens and nothing changes and the dream eventually dies.

But  here’s what I know for sure and this thought is stronger than the dark moment:  Those kids do matter. All of our kids deserve to have their stories told … and heard. All of our kids deserve to dream and live to see the dream realized.
It’s not an easy problem to solve. I won’t pretend it is. But for now, I’ll start by saying  yes.

May 14, 2013 at 9:45 pm 6 comments

Choosing Non-Violence

I highly recommend this TED Talk:
“How do you deal with a bully without becoming a thug? In this wise and soulful talk, peace activist Scilla Elworthy maps out the skills we need — as nations and individuals — to fight extreme force without using force in return.” 

Definitely worth 16 minutes of your time! A great listen for adults dealing with adult bullying, and for all adults (and nations) who have to deal with conflict, anger, fear. That’s all of us, right?

August 13, 2012 at 9:24 am 1 comment

meet Inorri O’Neal, illustrator

In April and May of this year, I had the pleasure of working with the 4th grade students at Oakton Elementary School in Evanston, IL. The students I meet are always special, unique in a variety of unexpectedly delightful ways. In this post, I want you to meet one of Oakton’s rare gems — Inorri.
After hearing the story of The Golden Arm, Inorri O’Neal approached me. “Ms. Black, I can illustrate that story for you.”
“Really?” I asked. And then she handed me a picture.

Inorri did not exaggerate. There was the old man long in search of a wife. There was the one woman in all the land — not too tall or too short, not too talkative or too quiet, not too old or too young — who would make a ‘just right’ wife. Since the old man had two wishes — to marry and to be rich — the fact that his future bride happened to have a golden arm made her doubly attractive.
A collaboration was born. Right then and there Inorri committed to working on more pictures. With borrowed paint and a creative mind, the illustrations began to take shape.
The old woman had often questioned her husband. “Is it me you love? Or is it my golden arm?” He would always reassure her that it was his wife he loved. “Then promise me.” she said. “If I should happen to die before you, promise me you will bury me with my golden arm.”
“Of course, my love. Of course I will bury you with your golden arm.”
As fate would have it, the woman did die before her husband. He wore the blackest of black clothes and the saddest of sad faces as he took her to the cemetery to be buried — with her golden arm.
Here’s Inorri’s illustration of  this part of the story.

When the old man returned to the empty house, sat in his rocking chair, and stared at the empty rocking chair beside him, it was then that he realized, “Why? Why? Why did I bury my wife with her golden arm? I could be a rich man if I had that arm! I will return to the cemetery and retrieve it from her coffin.” Under cover of darkness, he scurried to the cemetery and began to dig.
Here’s Inorri’s illustration of the cemetery scene.

In  his haste to return to his home, carrying the golden arm close to his body, the old man forgot to close the lid on the coffin. The ghost of his dead wife escaped and went in search of the golden arm.
He thought it was the wind blowing through the trees at first. But the soft whisper grew to an angry chant. Over and over again, coming closer and closer he heard, “Where’s my golden arm?”
He hid in the closet, certain he would not be found hiding there.

But of course he was found. The sound of his wife’s voice screaming, “You’ve got my golden arm!” was the last thing the old man ever heard. The neighbors who found him dead on the closet floor a few days later could only shake their heads sadly and murmur, “Poor man. He died of a broken heart.”
We know differently, of course. But whether he died of fright or at the hand of his wife’s ghost, we may never know.

In true storytelling tradition Inorri added her own, new, ending to the story. The wife, free to roam the earth, sailed to Africa where she lived quite happily ever after.

And guess who else is living happily ever after?
That would be me — lucky enough to work with the 4th graders at Oakton Elementary School, fortunate enough to walk into Mr. Hollins’ class, and blessed to find among all of his fabulously energetic and creative students (and they were all awesome in their own unique ways and I just might write another blog about them, too) one illustrator — Inorri.

Be sure to leave a comment for Inorri. She’ll be glad you did!

May 30, 2012 at 12:49 pm 11 comments

5th Grade Civil War Project

2-day residency with 5th graders.
Girls and boys are in separate classes.
They are studying the Civil War.

So after I told stories about the boys their age who found a way to enlist or sneak into the army and fight in the Civil War — either as buglers or drummer boys, flag bearers or possibly even given a musket — after I told stories about the women who were spies and nurses and disguised themselves as men to serve as soldiers — we brought it back to the girls their age (in the girl classes), the ones left behind to help on the farm or keep the family business going.
Their job was to be one of the girls left at home, worried about a brother or father or uncle. Those girls and their mothers might have been part of a quilting circle, making quilts for the soldiers. Some of those quilts were embroidered with inspirational messages before sent off.

The girls were given the (paper) quilt pieces and a pattern for putting them together. Then they were challenged to write a poem as their embroidered message. The poem was based on a Hopi poem I had found in the pattern of ‘Hold on to …. Even if ….’.

The ‘Even if ….’ part of the poem came from the stories they’d just heard about the boy soldiers — the heart of the Civil War, not just the facts.
The ‘Hold on to …’ part of the poem was their challenge — to put themselves into that time and place and encourage the boys to keep hope.

Wow. The quilts were gorgeous. The handwritten poetry was awesome.
Here’s what they shared when I returned a week later:

Hold on to the taste of Grandma’s warm cinnamon strudel.
Even if you have nothing to eat.

Hold on to the sound of your children laughing.
Even if all you can hear is bullets whizzing by.

Hold on to how hard you laughed when Aunt Isabella told that joke.
Even if you are scared to death.

Hold on to sunshine.
Even if the sky is filled with gray clouds.

Hold on to warm summer breezes.
Even if there are bullets in the air.

Hold on to hot apple pies.
Even if all you have to eat is hardtack.

Hold on to fireflies in June, and catching them in dusty peach jars.
Even if all the light is gone.

Hold on to skating on Mr. McGregor’s pond in the winter and going home to hot cocoa and cookies.
Even if the nights are dull and the food is scarce.

Hold on to our fun nights in the hayloft.
Even if your nights are on the ground.

Hold on to swimming in the river with your family when the birds chirped and laughter was everywhere.
Even if you are in battle with bullets whizzing by and blood on the ground.

Hold on to collecting leaves on a cool autumn day with your brothers.
Even if you are sweating in the hot sun or freezing on a cold night.

Hold on to last year’s Christmas dinner.
Even if all you get to eat is dry, crusty hard tack and goober peas.

Hold on to dancing in the firelight.
Even if there’s no fire keeping you warm tonight.

Hold on to planting the oak tree in the backyard and catching fish at the swimming hole and swinging on the old birch vine.
Hold on to the flowers we picked and the stones we skipped in the river and the day I beat you at checkers.
Hold on to the day you kissed your daughter and the songs we sang and the laughter of your family.
Hold on. Hold on.


March 14, 2012 at 10:30 pm 2 comments

3rd Graders Collect Family Stories

This is long. And maybe it falls into the ‘You had to be there’ category. And it’s hard to capture magic on paper, but I’ll try.
I’m winding up an 8 week residency with 3rd graders. They read folktales from their country of origin. They found a folktale they wanted to tell — didn’t have to be from their country of origin. They’ve been learning to tell the tale and will share it with kids in younger grades next week.
As part of the project, they interviewed a family member to collect some of their family stories. I gave them a book with 10 questions. They were to interview one adult family member — ask a question, listen, ask more questions if they were curious, and only then write the interesting details. They could write in the book. Their family member could write in the book. They could take turns writing in the book.
One week later, the books came back.
The fun part was seeing both the kids’ and their family member’s handwriting in the book. For most of them — the ones that didn’t do a phone interview — it was truly a shared project.
Some kids drew illustrations. Others included photos of the person they were interviewing.
When I arrived they were so excited to share what they had learned. And they were tickled to have learned something new. And since they’d been learning all about how to tell stories, I had them share the ‘story’ — not the list they might have written and not what their family member wrote — but the story. They studied what they’d written for a moment, took a deep breath, and started to tell — hopefully the first of many tellings so that the family story becomes a true treasure often repeated. And they told with voice, and gestures, and facial expressions, and joy — applying all of those concepts from the folktales they’d been working on to this story too. It was truly an honor to witness it all.


March 14, 2012 at 9:31 pm 1 comment

Who’s Teaching Who?

Working with the writers in my favorite 2nd grade class today:

Last time I was there, Olivia – whose father had just recently died of cancer, wrote a gorgeous true story about being sad, and a tree in her back yard where she likes to sit, and when the sun comes thru the branches she thinks about him and doesn’t feel alone.
Today she shared with me a fictional story about a girl named Elizabeth “who suffered a loss” (her words) and cried and cried and cried. Elizabeth didn’t eat or play or read or do anything fun. She just cried.
Then one day Elizabeth decided to make Tear Soup. It took 3 months of crying, but finally the soup was made and just as it was finished the doorbell rang.
A friend was there. Elizabeth told her “harshly” to go away. But later Elizabeth apologized for being mean and invited the friend in and they watched movies and read and went outside and laughed. They laughed and laughed.
After the friend left Elizabeth realized she had forgotten all about the Tear Soup. But she knew she would never forget her dad.

I am in awe of this second grader.
And the healing power of her stories.
And her ability to process her grief thru writing.
And the mother who kissed her good bye this morning with the words, “Have a good day, my brave girl.”
Brave, indeed, to put one foot in front of the other and navigate this world without her father.

After I caught my breath and finished taking it all in; after I looked again into Olivia’s eyes and saw the proud smile that reached there; after I told her how much I loved her story and her writing — I stepped out of the way … of the real storyteller in the room…… the one who takes risks and writes from the heart and is willing to share and is just brave enough to hope she will make it thru this …. so she could take her book to the school’s Publishing Center.
Yep, I just got out of the way. It was Olivia who taught me today.

December 2, 2011 at 5:12 pm 2 comments

The Junkyard Wonders – Storytelling for Bullying Prevention

“What some see as bent and broken throwaways are actually amazing things waiting to be made into something new. Something unexpected. Something surprising. Here’s your chance. Forget what the object was… imagine what it could be!”

For kids who feel different or odd – maybe only sometimes; maybe all the time.
For kids who shy away from ‘different’ classmates – maybe only sometimes; maybe all the time.
For your next family read-aloud (grade K-6) select Patricia Polacco’s newest book, The Junkyard Wonders.

November 3, 2011 at 7:06 pm 1 comment

Halloween Hobo — Storytelling for Bullying Prevention

Halloween Hobo
© Sue Black

When I was a little girl, every Halloween costume was the same as the year before. You see, my parents didn’t have a lot of money. And I had 3 brothers and 3 sisters so we couldn’t just pile in the car and go over to KMart and buy seven new costumes every year. Instead, we were told to “Go in the basement and find something to wear in the hand-me-down box”.
You know what a hand-me-down box is, right? It’s that big cardboard box down in the basement. The one overflowing with jumbled up, wrinkled clothes that your older cousins and your big brothers and sisters don’t fit into any more. Those clothes will be yours some day, as soon as you get a little bit bigger. That’s the hand-me-down box.
My brothers and sisters and I – Jeanne, Jo, Mark, John, Judy, Lenny, and Sue – we marched down into the basement, sure we’d find an awesome costume hiding in the hand-me-down box. We threw shirts and pants and skirts and dresses and underwear and socks and boots high into the air. We screamed when we saw something perfect. We ended up tugging and pulling clothes away from one another. By the time we were done, the end result was always the same as the year before. We were holding over sized shirts and worn out pants and boots with holes in the toes. The Below kids were going trick or treating as Halloween Hoboes again!
But one year was different. (more…)

September 28, 2011 at 4:31 pm Leave a comment

You and Me – Bully Free! Bullying Prevention Strategy for Today

You and Me – Bully Free! Bullying Prevention Strategy –

For kids:
When you experience or witness bully behavior take these steps:
(1)   Stay calm
(2)   Say ‘stop’ if you can
(3)   Walk away – not because you are ignoring the behavior but because you refuse to accept it
(4)   Talk to an adult at school and at home

For the adults in their lives:
When a child who has been targeted reports bully behavior to you:
(1)   Stay calm
(2)  Listen
(3)   Thank them for telling you
(4)   Communicate: “This isn’t your fault.”
(5)   Find out how they’ve handled it so far; brainstorm prevention strategies; find out how your child wants you to help
(6)   Provide ongoing supervision and structure to places bully behavior occurs
(7)  Remember that targets are chosen for their perceived inability to defend themselves. Be in it for the long term: remain observant, aware, involved, engaged — keep checking back with the target, the bystanders, and the one who bullies — model tolerance, inclusion, respect, and empathy

For the adults in their lives:
When you observe bully behavior:
(1)   Stay calm
(2)   Intervene immediately; don’t ignore it
(3)   Intervene even if unsure it is bullying
(4)   Be clear the behavior must stop
(5)   Compliment bystanders who have intervened; suggest future actions for bystanders who didn’t step in this time; send them off
(6)   Check in with the target to make sure he/she requires no immediate medical/physical care; assure him you’ll check in with him later; send him off; check in later – talk, listen, brainstorm, find out what you can do to help
(7)   Let the one who bullied know the behavior is not acceptable and must stop; implement appropriate consequences(this will vary based on your relationship to the child — and we’ll talk about this in a later post)
(8)   Provide ongoing supervision and structure to places bully behavior occurs
(9)  Remember that targets are chosen for their perceived inability to defend themselves. Be in it for the long term: remain observant, aware, involved, engaged — keep checking back with the target, the bystanders, and the one who bullies — model tolerance, inclusion, respect, and empathy

August 18, 2011 at 7:35 am Leave a comment

Older Posts

Wait, Wait, There’s More!

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 26 other followers