poet, playwright, performance artist, editor & teaching artist

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Chicken Soup for the Teacher's Soul--

writing process through the lens of a teacher's classroom experience 

[Writing from recent workshops]

During this intensive seminar for teachers, Diane Gallo guides participants in writing stories from their own classroom experience to develop writing models. Using the writing process & story conferences to develop their stories, Diane helps teachers to extend the concept of personal writing into their own classroom practice.

These personal experience models will help teachers better understand how to structure writing plans that relate student writing to activities that bear on the NYS ELA Standards and which prepare students for tests - especially 4th grade & 11th grade Regents - that ask students to make literary connections to one's own life.

By studying ways of working with student writing models, teachers will better understand how to help students develop confidence and pleasure in their writing, observation and thinking skills. In the process, teachers can help to establish & deepen the classroom community, teach tolerance, understanding and respect, and promote a safe environment in which both students and teachers can learn and grow.

Teacher comment: 
I feel as if I should have paid for the privilege of being in your class today...instead of being paid, myself. Such an inspiring way to begin the school year, and so much I can bring from it to my students! Thank you. 

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Writing from recent workshops

Going the Extra Mile  by Suzanne Erle
"All year I had pushed my students to 'go the extra mile'... I knew that some students did not receive these words favorably; after all, it simply boiled down to meaning more work.... Right now I don't care whether they learned their grammar lessons or their literary terms; this message was a life lesson...."  read it all
The New Kid
by Stacy Blodget

" I remember vividly my principal coming to tell me I would be getting a new student who was placed into the foster care of a family in our district.…he had never attended a single day of school before, he didn’t know his letters or numbers...." 
read it all

The New Teacher ... 
by Larriean Comis 

"This was my first open house and I needed advice from the veterans. Will many parents show up? Should I prepare a speech? How long should my presentation be? The answers were no, no and don’t worry about it....How could they have been so wrong?"
read it all

Judy Davis on coping with a student's death

"...The organist is warming up. Snatches of hymns float into the emptiness, and then die away. I sit down next to Rose. She is shivering...."
read it all


Barb Reardon on judging a student's gifts 

"... when I read Edward's poem I was stunned by the beauty of the language. The subject was insightful, the writing powerful..... However, rather than feeling blessed to be reading the work of such an obvious talent, I concluded that the poem was not his...." read it all
The New Kid  
by Stacy Blodget

Although this experience occurred within the realm of teaching, it actually should be classified as a significant life event. I will never forget my first year teaching, and especially a student who joined my classroom in October of that school year, Cruz. 

how to write his name, or any skills even the most limited fourth grader generally knows, the more apprehensive I became. 

That night I went home and thought, “Why is he being placed in my classroom?” and “What am I going to do with him when I have 20 other students also needing my attention?” 

The next morning I got to school early to prepare for Cruz’s arrival. He arrived about 10 minutes before the other children. I can remember watching him look around the room in awe of what he saw before his eyes. It was as though this city boy with more “street smarts” than most adults was realizing this was a place where he could come and be a child, an opportunity he had never had before. 

Immediately at that point, my worries faded from worrying about Cruz academically to focusing my attention on making Cruz’s life a happy place and making him realize how special he in fact was. 

As the school year progressed, so did the bond Cruz and I shared. He admired me, but not nearly as much as I admired him. He was determined to learn, and in fact was a very bright boy who had never been afforded the opportunity to learn. He practiced his letters, numbers, and name writing hundreds if not thousands of times each day. He mastered letter and number recognition within a week and letter – sound correlation within a month. When he left me at the end of the school year, he was able to read and perform math on a second grade level. But, most of all, he had the opportunity to be in an environment where he knew I loved him, the kids admired him, and he felt wonderful about himself. 

Although Cruz is now in 9th grade at another school, I still receive letters from him updating me on how his life is going. Learning that school is about a whole lot more than what academic subject matter I can give to my students was a significant life event 
for me because I now invest time and effort into each school year on all my students making sure each and everyone develops feelings of worth.
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The New Teacher ...
by Larriean Comis

I remember thinking that the oxygen must have leaked from the room. Why else would it be so hard to breath? For a chilly November evening, room 111 was unusually warm and stuffy. My mind was racing and the more my inner voice told me to stay calm and concentrate, the more out of control my thoughts spun. Why do these things always happen to me?

It was not as if the year had started out with a bang. Teaching middle school English/Reading was proving not to be what I had dreamed of. As a matter of fact, the majority of the time it downright sucked. The students were much smarter and worldlier than I was. Quite frankly, the world was their oyster and the majority of them had already, at the tender age of thirteen, harvested the pearl. They were as bored with the canned reading program as I was. Thirty-one adolescents, seventh period each day, was definitely not a good thing. But since this was my first teaching job, what I had worked so hard for, I was determined to make it work. This would be a success, even if it killed me.

By mid September I had a firm grasp on the tools of survival. A series of quick mini lessons each followed by a pencil and paper activity would keep the natives busy. And busy natives didn’t have a whole lot of time to rock the jungle. And, as we all know, administrators appreciate a quiet jungle. Success, maybe not, but survival, YES!   

Just two days ago, I had walked down to the basement of our pre-civil war building and visited the teacher’s room. I hadn’t frequented this place much mostly because I considered it a health hazard. In the back right corner of the room an ancient ditto machine stood, like a statue erected to those educators who have gone before us. Ironically, this antique was not tired and ready to retire. She remained determined and gave off an aroma that I honestly believe some of my colleagues fancied. I, on the other hand, could only think on the big C (cancer). There had to be some sort of health code violation, but I was desperate. This was my first open house and I needed advice from the veterans. Will many parents show up? Should I prepare a speech? How long should my presentation be? The answers were no, no and don’t worry about it. I’d be lucky to get a handful of parents all night. I should probably bring a book, I’d need it.

Sixty-eight. Sixty-eight anxious eyes piercing a hole through my skull.  How could this have happened? Why is this happening to me? What am I going to possibly do? I think they can hear my heart beating. They say to never let them see you sweat; I’m thinking that they can see my sweat. I swear I’m getting dizzy. The overhead fluorescent lights seem to be dancing. Dancing and laughing. “How could you be so stupid and unprepared? Ha Ha Ha.”
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Judy Davis on coping with a student's death

As I enter the sanctuary, I am chilled to my very center. I decide to leave my coat on. The teachers on my team have planned to arrive early, in case some students do. The organist is warming up. Snatches of hymns float into the emptiness, and then die away. I sit down next to Rose. She is shivering. She smiles, but it splinters at the edges. Students begin to arrive, in pairs and trios. Many are holding each other's hands. Several boys sport baseball caps, defiantly backwards. A few arrive with parents, marching bravely in the lead. The aromas of bubble gum and Tommy Girl mingle with the cloying scent of flowers. The place hums now with nervous conversation, which the organ prelude soon overrides. The sanctuary is warmer now, but when I reach for Rose's hand it is as cold as mine. My breath catches as the casket containing our student is carried up the aisle.

What I learned: 

Grief turns out to be a surprisingly sensory experience. Sharing it in a story conference first sharpened, then palliated it. I think my students need to share their stories as well. 
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Barb Reardon on judging a student's gifts: I remember talking with Edward. Sitting between us, on the desk in the back of the classroom, was Edward's poetry paper. The sun was beating warmly on our backs as I faced the somewhat pudgy seventh grader. It was my first teaching assignment. I was interning at West Middle School, and Edward was one of my students. His poem had been a response to a homework assignment. "Write a poem describing an emotional experience. Use sensory language," I instructed. 

Later, when I read Edward's poem I was stunned by the beauty of the language. The subject was insightful, the writing powerful. In his work he told of his grandmother's occasional visits, and how these visits upset his surroundings. Edward described how his mother would rearrange the furniture, making him feel like a stranger in his own home. However, rather than feeling blessed to be reading the work of such an obvious talent, I concluded that the poem was not his. Edward had copied the work from a published source. How else could this quiet, unassuming young man have written such an eloquent piece? I had other teachers read the work as well. Each one felt the poem was exceptionally executed and thought that I had some reason for doubt. 

Now, what was the right thing to do for my student? It seemed apparent that he had stolen the words in order to get a good grade, but that was no excuse! Finally I determined that the best way to help Edward was to take him aside and discuss the seriousness of his act. Of course, I would have to give him a failing grade, and the situation would be uncomfortable for both of us, but wasn't that a part of my job? Wasn't it best to set him straight so he would not plagiarize in the future? 

And so I confronted him. I will never forget the look of sincerity on Edward's face as I hesitatingly asked questions about how he chose his topic, or if he had written any other poems in the past. "Your poem is exceptionally good." I told him. "Are these truly your feelings?" I asked. Looking back Edward must have guessed the reason for my probing, if so, he never let on. Quietly he responded, "Yes, those are my words and my thoughts." 

Looking at his face at that moment, I knew that I had been wrong. Edward was truly a gifted young writer and I had had the honor of having him in my class! Quickly I ended our session and thanked him for coming in to speak with me. However, true closure would be much harder to receive.

I often wonder what became of Edward. I think back on that time, eight years ago and I am ashamed to have made such a wrongful assumption; I am embarrassed by my self-righteousness. I pray that Edward is writing still and that he has somehow forgiven my ignorance. 

This experience has helped me to become a more thoughtful and understanding teacher. Each time I address a student, I am aware of the power that my words and actions hold. I've chosen to use this influence to build encouragement and trust. I am grateful that this experience occurred early in my career, it has made me a better educator and person. 
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Going the Extra Mile
by Suzanne Erle

I remember the last day of English class this past year. My room was sweltering, the fan vibrating noisily, the students displaying animated faces in knowing the year was quickly coming to a close. It was a bittersweet moment: I was not quite ready to say goodbye, yet it was time.

All year I had pushed my students to "go the extra mile," rather it be in their descriptive writing, their analysis of a story, or studying for a spelling test. I knew that some students did not receive these words favorably; after all, it simply boiled down to meaning more work. But I kept it up, risking negative opinions toward me, even though I am a teacher who wants to be "well-liked." Yes, the year had been peppered with my voice, "Remember to go that extra mile." Now it was time to share a very personal story with the kids - one that I want them to carry with them as they leave my door for the last time. 

Right now I don't care whether they learned their grammar lessons or their literary terms; this message was a life lesson. 

The room becomes unusually silent, students shifting in their seats, sensing something important is about to happen. My neck and face begin to blush with a too familiar warmth. I need to do this without crying. 

Confused looks stare up at me as I start telling the story of my childhood neighborhood, how we all played together, boys and girls of various ages. Even my mom, along with a few others, would join us in games of softball and kick the can! Oh, it was great living on a dead-end street. And then there was Larry Peters, poster-boy handsome with his sandy blond hair, blue eyes, and that deep golden tan he developed life guarding at the neighborhood pool. 

Larry was a bit older than most of us, and he didn't really "play" with us like his little brother Ralphie did. But all of us girls sure had crushes on him and could count on a smile and a kind word from him. A boy scout, a good student, he possessed the qualities that would have made any mother proud. I explain that the Binghamton Post Office Annex Building was actually named after him. And how many people do you know who have had government buildings named after them?

Then I turn to an old newspaper article and begin to read, my voice now faltering, keeping my eyes focused on every word:

"Larry Peters was a 23-year-old Marine sergeant when he was killed in action in Vietnam on Sept. 4, 1967, during his second tour of duty. He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for bravery in the engagement that cost his life....Larry completed his first tour of duty in Vietnam early in 1967, and was not obliged to return. But he signed on for another six months there, largely out of his affection for the people of that ravaged land. 

"The feeling was mutual. The villagers...called him 'Sarjah Pete' and invited him into their homes. He learned the language, he helped found an orphanage for Vietnamese children, and when home between tours he collected clothing for children in the orphanage. 

"Larry went back to Vietnam in May of 1967...now a squad leader....While on patrol, Larry's squad came under machine gun and small arms fire from a dug-in enemy force. Larry maneuvered his squad to assault the enemy position, and, without regard for his own safety, stood up in the open to direct fire. Larry sustained a leg wound, but continued to call out targets to his squad.

"He was wounded again, in the face and neck, when an enemy mortar round exploded nearby. When enemy troops attempted to infiltrate between his squad and an adjoining unit, he struggled to his feet and resumed directing fire, and once again he was shot down.

"Hit twice more, he persisted in his efforts to supervise and encourage his men until he lost consciousness and died,' the citation read. 'Inspired by his selfless act, the squad regained its superiority and once again carried the assault to the enemy.'

"Larry Peters would have been 52 today. Instead he remains forever young."

I look up. Tears are welling in several students' eyes. It is a moment charged with emotion. I make sure, for one last time, I look each one of my students in the eyes. And then I say, "This is what I mean by "going the extra mile." You may never be called on to be in direct enemy fire, like Larry, but there will come a time in your life where going the extra mile may make a difference, in some very important way, in your or someone else's life. 

The bell rings. We all are a bit startled by it. It is the first time all year that I feel the timing is perfect. And I say a little prayer in hopes that my life lesson will, indeed, be carried out that classroom door.

What I learned:
I have always strived to make connections between what is going on inside my classroom's four walls and what is going on in my students' real lives outside those walls. Diane Gallo helped me to discover that another important thing going on is that I am introducing the concept of a "life philosophy" to my seventh graders. Embedded here is the issue of what actions need to be taken to carry out a life philosophy? This is a thread that I intend to weave throughout my curriculum this year. 
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