Open Mic Blog

SPOTLIGHT: Jennifer Stapleton

Posted on December 30, 2013 at 6:45 PM

 

 

 

 

Jennifer Stapleton
Teacher, Writer, Dreamer

  

   

 

  

I’m a

                 daughter

                 sister

                 friend

                 poet

                 long-ago-wife

                 mother

                 teacher

                 lifelong learner

                 writer

dream

                undiscovered

                in an old, yellowed, lace glove

                in a forgotten, silk lined pocket

                of a scratchy wool coat

                in the cobwebby attic of a house

                         

I’ll never own.

                                       

                                       * * *

A few weeks ago, a dear writer-friend posted on Facebook a question: What happens to a dream deferred? My mind immediately whispered, “It dies,” but that is too sad to post, too sad to be true. I responded what I hope happens, that the dream plants itself in the heart and waits for the sleeper to awake. I’m a dreamer by nature. I always have been. I dream dreams for myself. I dream dreams for others. I dream dreams of others, those who have lived in lives passed, and of those who I’ll never know except for in my dreams. Growing up, my family always called me a dreamer and worried that my feet would never touch firm ground. It is this dreamer mind that gave me my writer’s heart, that drove me to become a teacher. 

                                 

I wonder if other professions hear, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to be a …” as much as I have. I wonder what stifles the dreams of those who want to become teachers. We are all teachers in our own ways, whether we want to admit it or not. We teach our children to be polite, to mind, to lie, to steal, to die – all without ever having a content standard or a lesson plan to guide us. We teach others how to do the things we love, how to fish, crochet, build, create. We teach others how to get out of the things we hate, cleaning, laundry, homework. All the things we teach, all without standards, all without tests. 

                                                

During my first full-time job as a teacher, I began to teach my students to write stories. I was a silly, new teacher who naively assigned my students to write stories by saying, “Write a story.” The first question was how long did I want the story to be. A page. A page was a good length. A page sounded official. A page sounded writerly. The “stories” I received were anything but writerly and reading through an entire page was painful, though at times laughable. I had a problem. I had to teach my students how to write a story and I had no idea how. I found a book in the closet of my classroom that featured pictures of people and scenes on overlays. Pulling the cart with the overhead projector into my room, the class began writing together. I put a picture on the overhead and we created names for the people, discussed their personalities and characteristics. We dreamed up and argued their stories. What would they have to tell us, if they could speak? Together we outlined their stories and wrote each on the board. After writing this way with my students for weeks, I slowly began to realize my students were telling their own stories through the pictures. 

                               

Soon, I realized students told their stories in all kinds of ways. A student running into the room saying, “You’re not going to believe what happened!” was greeted with, “Stop and write it down! You are not allowed to share or tell anything that isn’t on your paper.” Students told their stories through jokes, moaning over problems, sighing aloud when a certain someone seemed to be ignoring them. My students turned into walking stories. I gave them a place to voice their stories. Each day I would give them a writing prompt. The prompts were usually authentic, such as Tell me what you did this weekend or Tell me about your first love. Yet, not until I became a Writing Project teacher did I see myself as a writer teaching others to write. 

                                  

I joined the Three Bridges Writing Project at Marshall University in the summer of 2007. It was a hot sweaty summer, where I sat in my house trying desperately to put something on paper I thought others would want to hear. June was the longest month that year. June was also the month where I officially introduced my dreamer self to my writer self and each, in turn, to my teacher self and they merged– somewhere during long, intense days of writing groups–into the same person. It was this new person who returned to the classroom to teach writing that fall. 

                                     

I can’t tell you, at least not in one blog post, the ways my teaching writing changed. It did not change all at once and still changes even today. For instance, this school year changed everything about how I teach writing. The implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the Ohio Improvement Process brought fear into this dreamer-writer-teacher heart. Staff meetings informed me I didn’t know how to teach writing, nor could I teach it without extensive worksheets and graphic organizers. I threw everything I thought I knew about writing and teaching writing out the window. Flash forward to December, quarter exams and the narrative paper. Although I gave my students daily prompts and every graphic organizer I could find, when the time came to write a narrative no one believed they had a story to tell. The narratives were the poorest writing I have seen from my students all year–and I ain’t talking grammar either. 

                                 

Worry filled me. Looking at my students, I became angry. I had reduced writing to a formula, a set of graphic organizers, a meaningless test. I had left behind the beautiful words and phrases of authors. I had left behind the amazing craft that authors place in their works to open our eyes. I had left everything that was important to writing out. I had to make this right, had to make my students truly write. I began to bring in my favorite works. I read stories aloud to my students and we discussed what made the writing “good.” After reading Cynthia Rylant’s In November, each student picked a month to describe using her text as our “graphic organizer.” Did you know that in July food is a red, white and blue color, tastes like the gunpowder from a firework, and melts on your tongue? After reading The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, students chose their own fairytales to retell through the villain’s eyes. Who knew that Ursula was actually Ariel’s nanny and Flounder was a shark who proved to be a bad influence? Imagine our surprise when Cinderella’s stepmother told of finding out that Cinderella had eleven little brothers and sisters. Eleven! No wonder Cinderella had to help with the chores. 

                                     

I’m still nervous. Just last week I put out a call to my fellow writing project teachers for books they use to teach writing. I’m not nervous about meeting content standards or the ability of my students to write. I’m nervous that I’ve wasted so much time worrying about how to do what those who aren’t writers were telling me to do. I’m nervous that I so easily doubted what I knew to be best, that I may do it again one day. I’m nervous that I didn’t teach my students to listen to their dreams, that instead I encouraged my students to defer their dreams. I’m nervous my dreamers will fail to wake this year and fully see themselves as writers.

                                                  

                                     * * *

 

Jennifer Stapleton lives and teaches in the Ohio River Valley. Aside from reading and writing, she loves to spend time with her son, Trey, and their two rescue cats. In the growing world of technology, one of the things Jennifer finds to be hardest is trying to keep up a blog–she has started several and has yet to maintain one for more than two or three posts. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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13 Comments

Reply Laura Treacy Bentley
1:44 PM on January 1, 2014 
Welcome, Jennifer! Your students are SO lucky to have you for a teacher. I hope that you start and continue a blog in 2014. I'm happy that the writing project merged your dreamer, writing, and teacher self all together!
Reply Christina
2:09 PM on January 1, 2014 
Hi Jennifer,
I bet your students not only learn but have fun in your class.
I have a blog and soon discovered how hard it is to put in regular entries; I tried writing promotional stuff about current novels but simply couldn't keep it up. I made up my mind to write about what interests me and might fascinate others. I post a couple of times a week. It's fun. Another thing I did was to post one chapter a week from one of my novels that never found a publisher.
Good luck with teaching, blogging and writing.
Reply Jennifer
9:10 PM on January 1, 2014 
Hi Christina!
Thanks for the blogging suggestions. Just a few weeks ago I joined a group that posts to a blog, "Slice of Life," every Tuesday. The first week I posted on Wednesday. This week, I just forgot. I saw a suggestion on the web that said for 2014 blog what you are thankful for or something that you want to remember. For the most part, I think the reason I don't post to my blog is the lack of response. When I write on paper, in a journal, I am writing just to get it out. When I write on a blog it is a different writing altogether, as in I expect it to be a conversation of sorts. Even if no one comments on one of my Facebook posts, something about the "like" makes a connection to others for me.
I look forward to checking out your blog!
Send any good topics my way.
Reply Laura Treacy Bentley
10:44 PM on January 1, 2014 
Two things: 1) Tell me about the beautiful dog in the photo with you. 2) I think many of us have favorite books on writing we could share with you. I still love Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury and Story by Robert McKee.
Reply John S Birch
9:39 AM on January 4, 2014 
Hello, Jennifer:
I like your blog. If you find it tough to keep a blog going, why not do a post once a month? I've been running mine for nearly two years and it has getting on for 11,000 hits.

Check it out at www.JohnBirchLive.blogspot.com

Happy New Year!

John B
Reply Jennifer
2:29 PM on January 5, 2014 
Hi Laura!
The dog in the photo with me is Phinneus. He is a therapy dog. During exam week for last quarter, I had his owner bring him into school for my students. I wish I could post the pictures of the students with him (but I don't have parental permissions). Their smiles tell quite a story! If you happen to be interested in Phin, his owner has a group on facebook for him and another therapy dog, Digit. The group is closed; but if you message Teresa Huddle (of Ironton) or look her up in my facebook friends, I'm sure she'll send you an invitation.
Reply Jennifer
2:31 PM on January 5, 2014 
Hi John!
That is a wonderful idea - to post to my blog just once a month. That takes the pressure off! I appreciate your suggestion and I am going to check out your blog - so thanks for giving me the link!! I hope to steal some ideas from you. ;)
Reply Jennifer
2:51 PM on January 5, 2014 
Laura,
I added your two suggestions to my books on writing list at Amazon. The link is http://amzn.com/w/1ET5NRJFYWIIE
I was wondering if any of your readers have books they would like me to add to the list?
Reply Jennifer
3:04 PM on January 5, 2014 
For those of you who may not be writers or teachers (but I dare to say we are all writers - whether we embrace our inner author or not; and you already know I believe we are all teachers...): I would love for you to tell me about a significant experience you had with writing. Share with me and I'll share with you!
Reply rita quillen
4:24 PM on January 5, 2014 
Teaching writing is nothing like teaching any of the other content areas. It is an art, a counseling session, a spiritual exercise, a self-help group!! ...None of which can be reduced to handouts and exercises and spreadsheets! :-) Sounds like you know what you're doing, though, and your students will do well in spite of any bureaucrats or pinheads or bean-counters.
Reply Jennifer
9:44 PM on January 5, 2014 
Rita,
That is so true! When I first started writing (with NWP) and sharing my writing, I was a mess! I'd laugh or cry...sometimes I just had to tear the paper up and then would be digging bits of it out of the trash two hours later and fervently taping it back together. Imagine my surprise to find that writing is also like this for my students!! I always caution them: sometimes you are too close to a writing. You want to write it, but maybe you aren't ready to. Or, maybe you are ready to write it but not here or now. Maybe you are ready to write it at home, in the bathroom, with the door locked, and the shower running while you sit on the floor with your journal propped up on the toilet.
Reply Jennifer
10:01 PM on January 5, 2014 
I've received three love letters in my life. One from a teenage boyfriend. One from my long-ago husband. One from a woman. Two of which I kept. One is tattooed on my ankle.
The teenage boyfriend asked me how I was doing and then ended the mercifully brief, albeit most words misspelled, "letter" with: Whips and chains excite me. When I didn't return the sentiment...
Reply Jennifer
10:10 PM on January 5, 2014 
...he broke up with me. My fourteen year old heart was crushed. I think I threw it away after mourning our mature relationship for three days.
My husband (at the time) hand wrote a card placed in a vase of roses the day our son was born. "To my wife. You are so beautiful and strong." He had no idea just how strong I am. I have the card tucked inside my son's baby book.
The third love letter came from the strongest, most amazing woman I know. And it was delivered a couple of weeks after she died. The woman is my mother. I found a card she had mailed me for Christmas, postmarked a year earlier. Strange that I found it right on top of my desk a couple of weeks after she passed away, unopened, just waiting for me. Her swirling writing so beautiful to me that I, fearing I'd lose it, had it copied and tattooed on my ankle. Any morning I may be in the shower, shaving my legs, and find a love letter from Mom. "I love you bunches." That was my mom!