How I’m Learning To Step Out Of The Comfort Zone Of Creativity

“The only unique contribution we’ll make in this world will be born of creativity.” ~ Brene Brown

There’s this crazy, confusing thing  happening as I get older. As I’ve passed through the decades and find myself looking at a life ahead that is bound to be on the downhill slope, I see with clarity things that I hadn’t seen before -I see the urgency to step out of the comfort zone of creativity.

Perhaps these things were never there to begin with. Maybe they’ve been inside all the time, and it’s taken this long to realize that creativity is a need, not a want.

I’ve never been what I considered the ‘creative’ type. My sister, my aunts, my mom, my grandmother – now there are women who are creative. Canvas becomes startling images of beauty. Clay transforms into object. Fabric turns into clothing and pillows and bags.

The closest I’ve ever felt to being creative was through my garden. My approach a cultivation painted with reckless strokes, sometimes wild combinations of color and texture, but always with the hands of a woman trying to squeeze beauty into my space; of one attempting to simultaneously curb and release the loveliness of a part of what makes a home. I guess some might consider parenting an exercise in creativity; I’ve always felt that if I do it well enough, my children will be my greatest contribution to the world.

Step Out Of The Comfort Zone Of Creativity

Step Out Of The Comfort Zone Of Creativity
My garden is my creative escape.

“When did inspiration promise us that it owes us anything?” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert

Writing wove its way into my life five years ago; blogging transformed my private journal scribbles into a rough-hewn, unrefined platform to practice sharing my stories for the first time. As my children aged and my confidence matured, I recklessly dove into my newly released creativity. Inspired to connect with other women – mothers and teachers and writers and like-minded creative spirits who used words as their outlet, I greedily crafted a community that lifted me up, gave me courage, and reminded me that I need to write every day.

“When you get to the place where standing on the edge is more fearful than the risk of failure, I think you owe it to yourself and your world to leap.” ~Brene Brown

And here I find myself, half-way to 51, standing on the edge of what is left of my life. I see my children launching into adulthood with grace and courage. I write and publish and share and push myself to refine, to reflect. I know the nest will be empty soon, and I’ll be left with a vastness ready to fill.

I think about teaching another 15 years, and wonder if the system will support my need for change. I’m astonished I’ve made it this far – 25 years ago, I comforted myself with the notion that there were so many possibilities in the world, and when I didn’t like teaching anymore, I would jump, hoping that the net would catch me.

Turning 50 has created a strange sense of comfort and discontent; the moments when I sit in my writing space, surrounded by all that I’ve created in this life, I feel as if there is nowhere else I would rather – or I should be. I breathe deeply and slowly and write my daily gratitude for home and family and this span of moments which weave together so exquisitely. I wonder where my creativity could lead me, and what is worth doing even if I fail.

Step Out Of The Comfort Zone Of Creativity
Looking down from my writing space.

“Failure has a function. It asks you if you really want to go on making things.” ~Clive James

And then the discontent creeps in on the back of absolute acknowledgment of where I am. I know my days are finite. I see my mothering transfer into my children as they age and grow and find their own space in the world. I wonder where my creativity could lead me, and what is worth doing even if I fail.

Now is the time to step out of the comfort zone of creativity, the time to leap without knowing where the landing is. It’s the time to trust the creative journey, and to know that whatever challenge the day presents is there for a reason.

It’s time to go on making things and continue the story.

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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Something Cool From My Classroom: Students Creating Utopias

Honestly, I don’t think we give teenagers enough credit.

They really have some cool ideas about the world. They recognize what’s messed up, what’s good, and what needs to be changed. They really do.

I’ve spent the better part of the last 25 years around teenagers every day. Many, many people think I’m crazy. They constantly ask me how I do it, why I do it and end by saying something like, “You’re a saint. I wouldn’t have the patience.”

the-giver-community-and-elders-bwAnd they’re right – about the patience part. Teaching 12 and 13-year-olds does require patience. And flexibility, consistency, a sense of humor, and enough humbleness to accept that I don’t know everything. Nothing has brought this home more strongly than the advent of using technology in our classrooms.

I’m a digital immigrant. I grew up with a typewriter and a phone that plugs into the wall. It was a big deal to get a typewriter with a correcting tape for my 18th birthday, and my first cell phone was as big a box as my son’s last pair of Nikes. I never imagined teaching English and relying on a keyboard and a screen to let imaginations soar.

But I’m open-minded, curious, and willing to be vulnerable in my classroom. I want my students to know that I value what they’re thinking and how they communicate.

This year, like most, we started off by reading Lois Lowry’s 1994 dystopian novel, The Giver. It’s always a crowd pleaser – I love the idea that it makes kids think about their communities, their families, and the danger of both sameness and ostracizing the ‘other’.

the giver

Before they read a single page, however, I have them create their own version of Utopia. With just a few simple guidelines and some directed work time, 105 8th graders solved problems of our government, created clean environments, manufactured jobs and equality in economics, developed responsibilities, educational systems and diversity in their societies using Google Slideshow.

utopias

Their vision of the future, creativity of their communities and the honesty in their presentations made me cry.

These innocent teenagers are full of ideas. They’re brimming with innovation, passion and problem-solving.

If you’d like to see more of their Utopias, click over to The Educator’s Room, where my post ‘Creating Utopia: How Kids See The World’ is featured this week.

Or better yet, ask the kids in your life how they see Utopia – and make sure you sit back and listen when they stun you with their imaginations.

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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It’s The Last Day of School – So Why Aren’t My Students Leaving?

It’s always a minimum day schedule on the last day of school, making it super hard to get anything done (yes, they want us to teach up until the last bell), as well as to have a moment to breathe, to be present, to process what is going on.

The last day of school is about both endings and beginnings. It’s a celebration and a sniffle of what we’re leaving behind. It’s more than just hurry up, get inside, close the door, sign yearbooks and you’re off.

For me, the end of the school year is bittersweet. Even after 25 years of teaching middle school, I still have yet to leave the last day dry-eyed.

My classroom starts to feel like my home away from home, I guess.

Some years it’s worse than others. I’ve had years where the tears flowed from before the first bell even rang, until long after the kids (or most of them) left for their summer vacation.

This year was both usual and unusual.

This year the tears started at home, in my bathroom, when my friend Estherlyn texted me this photo of our boys at the end of 6th grade:

ready for 7th grade!

They were full of excitement, ready to tackle the adventure of ‘junior high’ for the next three years.

And now, three years later, my tears came as I thought of all the happiness, disappointment, joy, laughter and growth they’ve experienced. I thought of the classes and report cards and homework, the basketball games, the sleepovers and dances and the lunches in my room. I thought about how they’ve managed to stay close, and how much I would miss their faces next September.

And I thought of how they’ve grown in to young men and are so ready for 10th grade.

Not a great way to start a frantic day of goodbyes and thank yous.

I made it through most of my classes-they moved too fast to allow myself to sink into sadness. We had papers to collect, “The Diary of Anne Frank” to finish watching (yes, I do end the year with the Holocaust-but remember, Anne says, “No matter what, I still believe people are good at heart.” It’s uplifting, really).

I made it through the start of each class, thanking them for this community and for doing their best. I reminded my ‘kids’ of how hard they’ve worked, how their struggles have turned them into strong thinkers and readers and writers, and assured them that they were well prepared and ready for high school.

I think they believed me. I meant every word I said.

Except they don’t know the real reason I show a sad movie on the last day is another teacher trick for hiding my tears.

I received some beautiful notes and thank yous, some cookies and  gift cards and hugs. I could feel the tears right there, but I was holding it together. Bell rings, we talk, we watch, bell rings, they go. It’s like a well oiled machine.

And then the last period of the day was upon me, my struggling readers who I’ve encouraged and cheered and danced with (can you do the nae-nae? I can!) and  read with and tried to help them get to grade level. These kids hold such a special place in my heart. The tears are close…but in this class, we must celebrate! Cue Selena and dance!

And then suddenly the 9th graders started streaming in from the room across the hall. Kids I’d known since kindergarten, when their hair was neatly combed and backpacks proudly balanced on their shoulders. Kids that had spent the last three years eating lunch in my room, loving having a place to call ‘home’.

teacher thank you cards

They handed me a thank you card, and I made the mistake of opening it in front of them. You see, when teachers don’t open gifts in front of their students there’s a reason – it makes them cry. And it’s usually an ugly cry, and the kids usually don’t know what to do.

Cue ugly cry.

The card said ‘thanks for always letting us stay in your room (or at your house)’ and ‘you’re like a second mom to me’ and ‘without you our lunches wouldn’t have been nowhere near as great as they were’.

I honestly had no idea it meant so much to them.

And somewhere in there the last bell rang, we watched them stream out into summer and I closed the door on the last day of school. The quiet was eerie. The room was a mess. I breathed deeply.

And the door burst open.

A line of 11 gangly, sweaty, smiling 9th graders entered one by one, big arms wrapping around me. The tears streamed all over again with loose abandon. There was no card or cookies, just huge, grateful smiles covering up a bit of nervousness, as one by one they piled in and said thanks, my son at the end of the line.

“Thanks for having such great friends, Cam,” I whispered as he hugged me, his head towering over mine.

The next thing I knew it was lollipops and selfies and sharing moments from the last three years.

9th grade selfie

They didn’t leave. I didn’t want them to leave. None of us quite knew what to do. I wondered if they knew how much they mean to me – how much joy they brought when they were tiny little 7th graders watching the big kids with wonder in their eyes. Do they know the joy I felt when Cam was away at boarding school in 8th grade, and they still came to my room every day? I wonder if they felt the gratitude I had each lunchtime when they would flop their big 9th grade bodies on my beanbags, pull out their food and homework and Tech Decks and just be themselves?

And suddenly, the hugs started again. The tears, the smiles, the joy oozing up from inside.

The last day of school isn’t only the final day of classes – it’s the final day of this community, this place of being together. This home away from home.

This is why I teach. This is why I’ll be back again next year.

This is why they call me mamawolfe.

last day of school - mamawolfe

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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Travel with mamawolfe: Cementing Friendships in Nicaragua

Nicaragua Casas Viejas
Cameron and Lily on the first day.

The first day in Nicaragua is often a blur. Between the red eye flight, the road travel from the airport to Managua, and then arrival at the Seeds of Learning Resource Center midday, it’s hard for me to tell the date or time. All I know is I’m feeling a strange blend of exhausion and adrenaline that helps me stay awake for nearly 36 hours.

 Nicaragua Casas Viejas dirt road

Nicaragua’s landscape is amazingly green and tropical. The sky today is overcast and the scent of smoke hovers in the air as we load the Toyota truck and head off for the worksite. Twelve kids and seven adults, coated with sunscreen and loaded with backpacks and water bottles, took off down the dirt road for the first day of our adventure.

Nicaragua Casas Viejas school
The back of the existing school, where our building begins.

The children and teachers greeted us in Casas Viejas. Currently, the community has a two room schoolhouse for preschool through 6th grade. Our job is to help construct a two-room annex to provide a space for high school students. In Nicaragua, high school is grades 5-11. For the kids of Casas Viejas, the nearest high school is over several mountain passes, about a 90 minute walk. This addition will provide high school for not only kids, but also adults in the community.

 Nicaragua Casas Viejas
Teacher Ana (left) and Ize, our host at SOL (right)

Yuri  teaches 17 preschool students, Ana teaches 22 primary students in 1st-3rd grades, and Marisa teaches 22 4th – 6th graders. The teachers also serve as liaisons for the community to provide information about the school building project.

Nicaraguans are incredibly hospitable, and go to great lengths to make us feel welcome and comfortable in their community. As soon as we arrived, Carolina, a 6th grader, quietly came up to me and waited for me to speak. She had a sweet smile, and was excited to get to know the teenage girls and me. After a prayer and singing the national anthem, she proudly danced for us.

Our work task for today was to prepare to start building one of three walls for the school.  First, we had to create a human chain to move bricks from the front of the school to the back area where the annex is being built. It was a great way to get to know some of the kids, and we were able to move hundreds of bricks fairly quickly. Cameron managed to turn it into a game, while getting to make some new friends.

Casas Viejas
Cameron begins to build a foundation.

To the kids great delight, the wall building began a bit early! Lily took right to the bricklaying, while Cameron helped build a cement foundation.

 Nicaragua Casas Viejas

This trip, I decided to be much more organized about getting to know the kids’ names, so I took a photo of these girls and asked them to write their names and ages in my notebook. I’d forgotten that photos are a huge treat in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua Casas Viejas 1 Hassel

It snowballed, and soon I had nearly every child wanting to write in my notebook.

 Nicaragua Casas Viejas

After a few hours of brick laying, we tumbled into the pickup and headed for home. We knew we’d sleep well, with the work of cementing friendships in Nicaragua has begun. The awkward introductions were over, and tomorrow the real building would begin.

Nicaragua Casas Viejas Cameron
Cameron covers his face from the dusty ride home.

How can you resist these smiles? Not bad payment for a long day of work!

Nicaragua Casas Viejas 1 Julito
Julito
Nicaragua Casas Viejas 1 Josselina
Josselina
Nicaragua Casas Viejas 1 Jose Manuel
Jose Manuel

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Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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Prepare To Take The Helm: Building Community Together

Helm (PSF)
Helm (PSF) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s funny how life circles itself around you sometimes, isn’t it?

This morning my freshman AVID students discussed the quote, “A community is like a ship. Everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.” It was one of those inspirational quotes printed in their daily calendar, meant to encourage critical thinking.

As usual in my classroom, things didn’t quite go as I expected. In small groups, I asked them to talk about what they thought the quote meant, and how they could apply it to their AVID experience or their life in general.

First, I heard several kids asking what ‘helm’ meant. Didn’t expect that one.

“It’s something you wear on your head,” I overheard one boy explain. “Like helmet.”

Well, not exactly. I do like that he’s looking at the word, though.

“I think it’s the front of a ship,” said another.

“No, it’s being in charge,” a few responded.

Now we’re on the right track. Something the person in charge wears on their head on the front of a ship. Sigh.

When we came back together, they began to share. Eventually, we talked about why it would be important to be ready to take charge, or to be prepared to step up. We talked about how communities need to have leaders, but that everyone needs to feel heard and be able to contribute.

I felt good as they went into their tutorial groups, and noticed a spark of understanding in their eyes. Their discussions were animated and thoughtful; it really seemed like they have learned to depend on each other for support.

Less than an hour later, the true meaning of the quote as it applied to my life became visible.

One of the absolute benefits of my job is my colleagues. Teaching isn’t an easy job, and teaching middle school definitely isn’t for the faint hearted. The constant rollercoaster of being around hundreds of teens experiencing puberty can send the toughest personalities over the edge at times.

That’s exactly what happened today. Someone hit their tipping point and came to me for support, lips quivering, eyes welling with tears.

Without hesitation, I listened. I empathized; I knew precisely the complete overwhelm they were experiencing. I felt the anxiety, the vulnerability, and the fear.

I took the helm. I did what I knew how to do. I tried to envelop them with safety, trust, and a sense of importance. I got help, and took action.

I actually didn’t think twice about it, and then I went back to my day.

Hours later, after the kids left for the day, they thanked me. Their message of relief, trust and belonging broadcast clearly how much my actions mattered.

community
Photo credit: planeta

And when they breathed their sigh of relief, spoke their words of gratitude, and expressed their sense of belonging, I knew. Really, it’s the reason I’ve stayed there as long as I have. It’s the people, the relationships, the community.

We realize that we don’t always have to be the one steering the ship; our shipmates are right alongside, ready to step up. They help us avoid the icebergs, clean up after a storm, and sing when our spirits need a lift. They are always ready to take the helm.

It’s funny how life circles around itself like that sometimes, isn’t it?

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Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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