Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Vinnie Ream and the Middle School Student: An Open Invitation

The first time I saw a photograph of Vinnie Ream, I was taken by her intelligent eyes, lively expression, and the abundance of chestnut colored curls cascading down her shoulders. Barely five-feet tall, she stood next to a clay bust she had sculpted of Abraham Lincoln. It invited further investigation, and only after I'd read of her feisty personality and the battle she waged to sculpt Lincoln during a time when no American woman dared to proclaim herself a working artist, much less a sculptor of presidents, did I completely fall in love with her story, determined to bring it to life in a children's picture book biography.

It's a similar process for my own students, minus the president, the diminutive stature, and the hair, of course, but the goal is the same--draw them in! From the moment my 8th graders cross the threshold of my classroom, I'm hoping to entice them with an explosion of color, opening their eyes to all that room 228 has to offer by coaxing them to look closer, maybe even fall in love with one of the hundreds of books lining the shelves, or the writing journals they'll use to explore the essential questions about literature in connection with their own lives.

"If you lie down to rest on the green grass, watch the sunlight glisten and the leaves glow; coax the birds to come and sing to you . . . Watch the ants toil and take from their patience. Watch the spider weave its web and take lessons from its skills. Listen to the thousands of voices and hear how busy nature is. She does not lose a moment. She does not tire. Why should we?"
--Vinnie Ream

"She for real?" a student asked after listening to Vinnie's opening quote from Vinnie and Abraham. A teenager's world is the antithesis of solitary contemplation. From texting friends, downloading music, and updating tweets, to middle school relationships realigning with Kim Kardashian speed, fast is what middle schoolers do best.

Persuading them to slow down long enough to read, contemplate and write, much less re-write, is a teacher's greatest challenge. In the language arts classroom, providing students the opportunity for choice through reading and writing workshop helps foster a sense of autonomy and purpose. At Orange City Schools, they embrace the idea that young adult literature has rigor and relevance, and back this philosophy with financial as well as educational support in the form of teacher training workshops, Junior Library Guild subscriptions, book fairs, extensive classroom and school libraries.

An additional way to connect with students and embody Vinnie Ream's philosophy of passionate persistence is through sharing my own struggles as a writer. Nothing cheers teenagers more than hearing that their teacher has been "dumped" (hundreds of times!) through rejection letters that I've received from publishers. Better still are the editors' red-penciled criticisms containing corrections and suggestions for improving my writing.

After Lincoln was assassinated and Vinnie beat out all the renowned male sculptors of the day, winning the commission to create the life-sized statue of Lincoln, she invited the public into her artist's studio in the Capitol to watch the work in progress.

It was a brave and risky invitation. All those naysayers and critics betting that it couldn't be done, gazing over her shoulder as she worked, waiting for her to give up. After all, she was just a young woman, still in her teens, and most people thought that she would certainly fail. Still, she showed up and worked hard day after day until she had completed the Lincoln statue that still stands in the Capitol Rotunda today.

Similarly, at the beginning of every writing assignment, students need to ignore the inner critics and silence the naysayers that exist in their own minds. They must be persistent like Vinnie and have a fierce determination and belief in themselves and their voice. Most importantly, they need to be willing to slow down, take the time to explore, and risk making mistakes while focusing on the process and not on the grade.

At the end of the school year, our 8th graders take a class trip to Washington D.C., where they will have the opportunity to view Vinnie Ream's famous statue of President Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation in his hand. Hopefully, her creation serves as a reminder of the invitation extended at the beginning of the school year to join our community of readers and writers, and also as a promise to return one day, sharing their own adventures and celebrating their creations. Part of the joy in teaching is learning how our students' stories turned out!

Posted by Dawn FitzGerald, author of Vinnie and Abraham.


Elizabeth S. said...

I recognize this book cover from my school's library (I'm a librarian). I loved reading this essay! Those kids are very lucky to have such an enthusiastic teacher. And that classroom just looks absolutely wonderful!!

Anonymous said...

Wow! I wish I had had an English teacher this passionate about writing and teaching! I bet her students love her!