Thursday, October 6, 2016

A Hallelujah Moment in Teaching

I had an interesting Hallelujah moment in school today. It lasted 40 minutes... an entire class.
For those of you who don't know, in addition to writing novels like A Life of Death and The Priors, I'm a high school English teacher in Akron, Ohio at a hybrid online/traditional charter school called Akron Digital Academy. I've taught in a variety of public schools over the years--inner city, suburban, rural, etc.--but I currently teach in a school where the majority of students need far more guidance and help than just an education, as if that in and of itself is something small and inconsequential. My students are often from foster homes, broken families, families living from couch to couch and far worse, many who have children of their own and are struggling to get out of the rut they've found themselves in. The hurdles they have to overcome are tremendous.
My hat goes off to those who step into the classroom to be teacher/mentor/father/mother and so much more to our students. Teachers as a whole provide something noble and unforgettable, a successful future for our children, but sometimes our students need far more or will respond in ways even they can't predict... for better or worse. While teaching in schools where students have so many hurdles to overcome is often frustrating, there are also times a bright light will stream down from the heavens, engulfing one moment in the day that creates an unforgettable memory. Today, I had one of those moments.
There is a group of students in one class who are often loud, rude, and generally take half the period up just trying to get them back on task or attempting to get them to stop distracting other students. However, today one of the "leaders of the pack" jokingly started class by saying, "Why don't you let me teach today?" We'll call him Daquan for the purposes of this post.

With a wry grin, I told Daquan, "Take it away. You teach. The warm-up is already on the board." The warm-up question was "Why is it important to understand people's motives?" It was a lead-in to an activity about author's intent and motivation where students work in groups to create their own commercials and analyze motivation--to be linked to literary analysis in a follow-up class, a fundamental in-depth concept. I've used this ploy before, seeming to give in only for the student to find seconds later that they have no idea what to do.
Daquan sauntered up to the whiteboard with a grin, dreadlocks hanging around his face, a bag of fiery Cheetos in hand, while I stood to the side, ready to step in. However, instead of acting the comedian and just wasting time like others have done in past years, Daquan repeated the warm-up question and instructed the students that they had the normal two minutes to answer it. He then went around checking answers, even grinning up at me a few times and saying, "I really like this answer."
Daquan did such a good job that I couldn't stop him and chose to encourage him further. Of course, he didn't know where the lesson was leading, the proper questions to ask to guide the follow-up discussion, or what the next activity would be, so I guided him like I've done for actual student teachers in past years, feeding him recommendations and questions to ask, stepping in to teach and provide instructions, then challenging him to keep an eye on time while also managing the groups and making sure they stay on task. While this slowed the progress we could have made theoretically, the class actually progressed much faster than it would have knowing the antics Daquan's group would have put on, and Daquan wound up learning more at the same time. This went on for the entire class.
By the end of that period, Daquan came up and said, "Mr. K, this is gonna take Monday too, right?"
I nodded with a smile.
He tentatively asked, "Since it's gonna take Monday, can I student teach then, too?"
While I wanted him to participate in one of the groups, I knew Daquan would become even more familiar with the material having to teach it, and the additional assistance of a student leader the other students look up to--although not normally under these circumstances--was something that had benefited the entire class in multiple ways. Plus, he'd done a great job! (I'm reminded of the moment Emilio and his teacher, played by Michelle Pfeifer, finally see eye to eye in the classroom in Dangerous Minds). I couldn't help but tell Daquan how well he'd done and agreed that he needed to student teach Monday.
It isn't often that Hallelujah moments like this happen and some of your worst classes all of a sudden become a microcosm of learning and participation through the assistance of students who previously anchored it down. It's an incredible feeling and I am very proud of Daquan, a student who was floundering for what to do when he graduates. While this could turn out to be just one day filled with a solitary ray of blessed light that struck Daquan, it could also potentially lead to long-term goals and the discovery of his own motivation to reach them. Daquan mentioned that he really enjoyed teaching and is now considering it as a profession. The synchronicity of today's topic and the motivation Daquan may have found also strikes me as quite coincidental. My motives are always clear, but maybe Daquan has found some motivations of his own. If teaching is his calling, all the more power to him. If it leads him to something else where he can unlock his potential, even better. I just hope he finds success.
Only time will tell...

Weston Kincade ~ Author of the A Life of Death collection, The Priors, and Strange Circumstances

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown Official Screening Review

"Traficant was the only congressman whose wages were being garnished by the IRS for undeclared mob bribes."
~Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown

              Eric Murphy, Writer and Director

Last night my wife and I had the pleasure of attending the Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown official release in Youngstown, Ohio, the exact location Congressman Traficant hailed from and represented. The movie has won film awards and been selected to show at film festivals across the country, from Cleveland to Austin and Beverly Hills. In a special showing at the Youngstown Playhouse I got to meet the writer and director, Eric Murphy, with Steel Valley Films. You may have seen some of his other work on the History Channel, Ancient Aliens. He seemed like a down-to-earth guy who had a very long day. The feedback from viewers was great and massively overwhelming, so I can understand the exhaustion, even from success.

If you weren't into politics before 2002 and don't know Traficant, here's the trailer:

 


For Eric's first full-length film, this was one heck of a debut. It probably helped that Ed O'Niell (Married with Children and Modern Family), a Youngstowner himself, produced the film and starred in a few interviews along with fellow local celebrity Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini and college football coaching legend Jim Tressel, who is now the president of Youngstown State University. However, the bulk of the work certainly fell on Eric Murphy, and he did a fantastic job.

Congressman Tim Ryan
I must say that I was probably one of the few visitors to the region. Being Youngstown where everyone seemed to know Traficant, for better or worse, the seats were certainly filled with fans and people who had worked with the man prior to his life as a congressman. However, Eric did a wonderful job highlighting the history, both the good and bad, and explaining exactly how and why even today Youngstowners say Traficant was "our corrupt congressman" with pride. My wife Marsha has told me about the infamous Traficant for years and his Sunday morning shows, but I never fully understood how someone who could so succinctly put politicians into place with to-the-point buffoonery could be both corrupt and so well loved. Now I do. It's an intriguing tale and gave me much more insight into the region and its difficulties. The film even highlighted Congressman Tim Ryan's efforts to pick up where Traficant left off, bringing revitalization to Youngstown, a depressed city whose downfall was caused by the abrupt closing of the steel manufacturing industry after record breaking sales.

I certainly enjoyed the showing and meeting Eric. He also has great taste in hats! In fact, while there were many great lines and scenes from the movie, my favorite is still, "Traficant was the only congressman whose wages were being garnished by the IRS for undeclared mob bribes." It's a factual statement, and so absurd even I, a dark fantasy and horror novelist, couldn't make it up. So, 5 stars all the way for Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown. By all means, give it a view. You won't regret it.

Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown is currently available on VimeoiTunes, and Amazon.

Side Note: After the movie and speaking with Eric Murphy, Marsha and I stopped at a historic Italian restaurant called Cassese's MVR for dinner. It was quite good and is a favorite when we make it into the Youngstown neck of the woods. I highly recommend it. But as an entertaining end to the evening, Jim Tressel was there filling his belly, too. What a small world.


Weston Kincade ~ Author of the A Life of Death collection, The Priors, and Strange Circumstances