A Space for Creativity to Bloom: Classroom Makeover Via Donors Choose

Your sacred space is where you can find yourself over and over again.”

-Joseph Campbell

I have had many different classroom configurations in the past 20 years. Each year I like to change things up a bit. I believe that the environment of a classroom has a huge impact on how students learn.

If these walls could talk what would they say? I’ve ruminated over this question often. Year twenty-one teaching in this classroom. Hours of discussions logged, inquiry, questions, and projects. We’ve laughed, cried, and have even grown frustrated with each other. We are human beings in this classroom – full of frailty and potential. Hope and dread. Dreams and ambitions. I try to encourage my students to believe their stories matter. Our voices and being able to communicate clearly are vital. Hopefully, the take away has been growth, deeper understanding, and the curiosity to keep creating.

I put in over 6 hours on my classroom yesterday and several hours each day this week. I had a huge pile of boxes arrive from Donors Choose Some of the supplies for my Lunch Bunch Club (salad fixings and a snazzy new retro styled refrigerator and microwave) came in, plus, new standing desks. The tall tables are commercial grade, metal, and super sturdy. I actually ordered black ones, but they were no longer available. So I had to get red. I’m thankful – because I think the red is fabulous! The students can stand or have the option of two different stool heights (based on how tall they are). I even put the tables together myself (I didn’t dare ask my husband – who usually puts my furniture together- because he is busy building an addition on our house).

I had several projects on Donors Choose funded to start a club with my students to help them learn about food from different ethnic traditions. We had 37 cookbooks donated, cooking tools, disposable plates etc., and ingredients. Since we live in a rural area my students have little exposure to food from different cultures. We will break bread together, make connections, learn valuable culinary life skills, research different cultures, and engage in food writing. I promise to share a more detailed blog post once we get started.
Bright red & retro. I can’t help but smile – it feels so cheerful!
These tables were easy to install. Each one took approximately 15 minutes. I had 7 donated in a Flexible Seating project by Donors Choose.

While I’m exhausted after a busy week of professional development and getting back into my school mindset, I’m excited to welcome my students into our classroom Monday.

It’s a relief to have flexible seating back after last year’s more rigid rules due to the pandemic. I had to bring in desks so all my students could face the same way. I was so happy to haul those desks out. I still have some finishing touches to add – and more boxes are on the way for our Lunch Bunch.

Donors Choose has been life changing and I am extremely grateful for the kindness of friends and strangers who help me transform my classroom into a magical and beautiful space. Not just the furniture either – books, school supplies, and all of the creative projects and opportunities I’m able to give my students. Here’s to year #21. I can’t wait to start encouraging my students to write, read, record the world, and think critically. Our words and our stories matter!

The tables turned out to be more than I had hoped for. The “Where’s Waldo” themed artwork was created by a former student. When your last name is Waldo, like mine is, you have to beat people to the punch. I can’t tell you how many times I (and my husband his entire life) have heard people say, “Where’s Waldo.” 🙂
A life-sized Waldo. Courtesy of Donors Choose!
Several years ago I had these futons and colorful rug, and pillows donated via Donors Choose. The padded bench and cubes provide additional seating and give me extra storage. This area is a great incentive for good behavior and it’s a great place to hold parent teacher conferences. My creative writing students love to cozy up and write. I am enamored with this seating area and love that it makes my room feel more “homey”.
My high school students are always curious about my diplomas. I graduated from Forest Park High School in Crystal Falls, Michigan and attended Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for my undergraduate degree. I also have two masters degrees from Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan.
My desk and chair were funded via Donors Choose last year. I also had lamps and LED bulbs funded a few years ago – to prevent glare from our florescent lights. My students noticed a huge difference in how the light impacts headaches etc. It provides a much more calm and soothing environment.
speakers, hand sanitizer, positive message signs, Kleenex – Yes, you guessed it – Donors Choose.
When my step kids were in elementary school I loved to visit their school building. I was always in awe (and quite envious) of the cute decorated rooms. I thought to myself, “High school classrooms can be charming and creative too!” It became one of my goals to make it happen. Thank you Donors Choose and all the generous funders.
It was my dream to be able to switch from desks to tables for my students, and my district could not afford to provide them. Therefore, it was truly life changing to have all these tables and chairs funded via Donors Choose. I love my students to be able to collaborate and conduct writing workshops, it provides more room for me to circulate the room and make sure that they are on task. The standing desks allow students to stand if they prefer to work that way and they allow me to utilize the outer walls that would otherwise be wasted space. I can easily have a class of 30+ students and not have the room be overly congested. For smaller classes I can have the students spread out.
While I like using the lamps, sometimes we need the classroom to be brighter (especially when I have to proctor standardized tests) so I do have some filters on the light fixtures. I had a project funded via Donors Choose to filter the remainder of my florescent lights. That will be my project in the next few weeks. It makes a HUGE difference in the quality of the light in the room.
I also have added a few personal touches to the room. We are located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and my family loves traveling to Alaska. So one of my themes this year will be adventure and encouraging my students to dream big. We will be creating bulletin boards with pieces of writing and artwork around this theme. I had drawing paper, a copious amount of markers, and art materials funded via Donors Choose.
This was my classroom last year. I tried to make the best of having to add desks and be mindful of maintaining social distance (the desks appear close in this photo, but they were rather spaced out). I had both face-to-face and online students and was able to teach f2f most of the year (we did get shut-down for several weeks after Thanksgiving due to an increase in Covid cases in our area).

Thank you for visiting my classroom. I hope I have inspired you to check-in to Donors Choose and post a project. It’s a remarkable organization that has transformed my classroom environment and my teaching practice in so many ways – physically, emotionally, and academically. It impacts morale in ways that cannot be put into words. As a teacher, it feels empowering to know that others support my students, believe in our schools, and have faith in my classroom practice. I have been able to provide my students with resources and projects that would not have been possible without Donors Choose.

I am grateful to the kindness that has been bestowed on myself and my students from CEO founder Charles Best and his incredible team. I am grateful for the companies that provide matching grants and to family, friends, and even complete strangers that have provided us with so many resources. When I retire I plan to find a source of part time employment and all my earnings will go to fund Donors Choose teacher projects to pay it forward.

I love my students. How fortunate I am to be entrusted with their education. I’m thankful to be able to share a sacred place with them – a classroom where we can find ourselves and learn about our place in humanity. ❤

Here is my Donors Choose page if you want to check out the 52 projects that I have had funded over the years.

How to Organize a Creative Writing Class (Ideas for Teachers)

“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”

― Ray Bradbury

I genuinely enjoy teaching all of the classes on my workload. This year I am teaching 9th and 11th grade English and in previous years I have also taught 8th, 10th, and 12th grade sections too.

Teachers are not supposed to have favorites, but I have a confession to make. I do.

Creative writing.

While I celebrate all of my student writers, there is something about a group of teenagers that choose to take creative writing as an elective. While there are often a few students who may be taking creative writing because of credit requirements, or because it fits best with their schedule, most of my students in 7th hour are prodigious wordsmiths.

This year I am thrilled to have a positive, creative, and quirky group. They cheer each other up and on, they openly share their writing, and when I ask them to write – they do not take shortcuts, but instead write, write, write their hearts out.

Many of my CW students take my course more than once (some all four years of high school) and for the fall semester we focus on fiction and in the spring our focus is on poetry (though I am flexible with the genre they choose to respond to a prompt. After all, I understand deeply the sudden urge to break into verse or how some things can only be said in narrative form). Since many students take my class multiple times, I try to switch things up for them so they are not doing the exact same assignments year after year. While this may sound like a chore, I love the creativity that this affords me.

My philosophy about creative writing class is that it carves out precious time every day for my students to write. Therefore, we write daily. Not every assignment is graded (most graded assignments are credit or no credit) and students are encouraged to share with each other what they are writing. While I make sure to read everything that my students turn in, because they are generating such a large volume of work I cannot give feedback on everything they write (especially with my workload of 4 other f2f classes and 2 other online). Therefore, I ask students to let me know which particular pieces they would like me to look at closely so I can give constructive advice.

Ultimately, my priority is to create a creative writing class and environment that I would have thrived in as a teenager. I have always loved to write and it is what truly makes me feel alive. I want to share this passion with my students and help them find their voice and understand what a special and rare gift self-expression through our own writing is.

We do not have textbooks in creative writing and often the assignments I give come into being spontaneously. Honestly, some of the best ideas and assignments are developed on my thirty minute commute to work. There are several books on writing that I do draw on for lessons (I will share titles and ideas in future blog posts).

This year, due to Covid-19, I am teaching one face-to-face section of creative writing and one online. Therefore, I decided to come up with a weekly schedule to keep us organized.

Creative Writing Weekly Schedule (this is the basic framework I work around).

MONDAY: Student Generated Prompt
Each student at the beginning of the year submitted a writing prompt and I select one each Monday. Their prompt can be a photograph (visual image), a song and/or song lyrics, a passage from a novel or short story, a YouTube video, a piece of writing that they wrote, a comic strip, a news article, or anything that provides inspiration. They must include any information and/or instructions that they want to provide to the class. I feel that this

TUESDAY: Independent Project Work Day or Writing Contest Work Time. This is one day a week where they can work on a writing project that I have assigned or that they are working on as a personal journey. We also enter several writing contests and this gives them time to write. If a writing contest deadline is near, Tuesday gives us the opportunity to conduct writing workshops and give small or large group feedback on writing.

WEDNESDAY: Character Journal.
Many fiction authors discuss the “background work” they do to create realistic, colorful, and meaningful characters. They put a lot of work and attention into fleshing-out these characters and “getting to know them”. These characters become as “real” to them as you and I. Some authors experiment with their characters by writing about them in various scenarios and even going so far as to sketch out how they would look. For my students’ character journal I ask them to choose a character to develop. They can start simply by choosing a gender, an age, and some basic information about how they look etc.

After several entries, if students want to switch and work on another character that words as well. In the past when I had students develop character journals they had great success with them and some of their prompts they were able to turn them into stories and some even started turning them into novels.

I tell my students that they are not to worry about perfection. They should experiment with language, dialogue, and challenge themselves as a writer. The point of a character journal is to PRACTICE their craft.

THURSDAY: Focused Free-Write.
I assign a prompt.

FRIDAY: Flipped Day.
Our Covid-19 school year plan has a Flipped Friday each week. That means that only teachers report to school on Fridays and our face-to-face students learn online. This helps give teachers time to contact students and guardians, grants time for grading and creating online content for distance learning assignments (create Google Slideshows and videos etc.) It also is teaching our face to face students how to learn online in the event that our district gets shut down again.

My ultimate goal for Flipped Fridays would merge my Face-to-Face and Online classes for a group Read Around. Each class member would share something they wrote that week. They could share an excerpt or an entire piece – 2 to 5 minutes each)

Flipped Fridays would also be a great day for a writing workshop. Students could be assigned groups or partners to give each other constructive feedback digitally using Google docs.

Like most teachers I have a wide and varied community of teachers that I network with (both locally and nationally). I often am contacted by other teachers when they have the opportunity to teach creative writing and they ask me for advice.

One day my goal is to publish my own book (I suppose I would call it a text book of sorts) on teaching creative writing with the various prompts I have developed over the past two decades. That idea helped me create this blog. I thought until I have time to flesh out a manuscript, I could ruminate on the idea here and stimulate my own creativity and hopefully give other educators some ideas for their own classroom.

So stay tuned for more creative writing classroom tips. My plan in the next several weeks is to share some of my writing prompts that are tried and true in my classroom.

Please leave a comment if you have any questions and most importantly carve out some time for your own creativity. What are you going to write today? ❤

Make sure you follow my blog and like my Facebook page for more ideas about teaching writing.

This is me writing many years ago during a Writing Marathon that I helped organize for the Upper Peninsula Writing Project (National Writing Project)

Life Outside the Classroom

“Listen–are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”
― Mary Oliver

The beginning of the school year always hits me with a wave of exhaustion. I try to be gentle on myself, after all, it is a shock to the system after several months of being out of the classroom. As I near turning fifty, I am noticing that it takes a little longer for me to bounce back. This year, even more so, because of the Coronavirus pandemic. In our district, we closed up our buildings mid-March and returned in September. I have never been so happy to return to work!

It has been quite an adjustment for me wearing a mask all day while teaching. While we try to build in short mask breaks outside for our students, we have been presented with many extra challenges that has altered our teaching routine. However, I have reminded myself many times that going back to work is always a big adjustment in contrast to my summer routine. Yet, teaching is my calling. I cannot imagine doing anything else.

Last Monday was definitely a Monday. Even though this is my 20th year of teaching, each Sunday night I still get that anxious feeling. I didn’t get enough accomplished at home. I didn’t get enough school work accomplished. I am sure I am not alone.

At the end of the school day Monday, when my stepson Lukas came into my classroom, I let out a huge sigh. He too looked tired. So we both sat down and I told him a story.

When I was in college, I worked as a waitress at Marc’s Big Boy in the Grand Avenue Mall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Two sweet little old ladies used to come in and order “dessert first”. They’d gossip, cackle, and enjoy their hot fudge sundaes. Then they would order dinner (usually meatloaf or liver and onions). I knew to deliver their dinner to their table in a to-go container.

“Amy,” they’d tell me, “when you are our age, you get to eat dessert first! Life’s short. If we ate our dinner we wouldn’t have room for dessert.”

I loved waiting on them and always looked forward to their sage advice.

I remember this job fondly, and all my shifts were not as positive as my weekly chats with these two sweet women. Yet, it was a formative and eye-opening experience for this small town girl. I was learning about life up close by serving the public. When I truly paid attention, people were serving me wisdom. At times, more so than my brilliant professors at Marquette University (that I didn’t nearly appreciate enough at my young age).

As a teacher I often sprinkle my lessons with stories like the one I told Lukas on Monday. I remind my students to pay attention to the world around them and the people they meet. To listen to the stories of their grandparents tell and to talk to their parents. To not just answer questions with a shrug and single word response. To be engaged, alive, and connected.

To pick their heads up out of their digital devices and to listen more.

To pay attention to the wisdom glittering all around us.

Not everything we learn comes out of the classroom.

Truth-be-told, some of the most vital life lessons happen outside of an educational institution. Yet, the key is finding ways to connect these nuggets of wisdom with our own passions and curiosity about the world. School gives us an opportunity to explore our strengths and weaknesses, it allows us to network, and build our knowledge and skill base.

Monday was a long day. Like my colleagues, I had a list of things “to do” that was a mile long. I could have stayed at school for several more hours and I still would not have been finished. But sometimes you have to take care of yourself, and your family, first.

I told Lukas him that I was cashing in my dessert first before dinner card.

So we did!

He happily obliged. 😉

A Chocolate Concrete Mixer with Cookie Dough.

Monday I made time for something sweet and time for play.

What could be better than frozen custard, a boy and his dog(s), and a gorgeous place than we can call home? We all need a sacred place where we can unwind and recharge.

When you get to be my age, you learn to appreciate it all.💚

Lukas with our House Wolf Apollo and my husband’s Work Wolf K9 Nitro.
Autumn has arrived on our farm and everything is burnished and beautiful.
Gray sky and sunflowers. Our lives are full of metaphors if we pay attention.
The ponds my husband built for me (and our ducks) are my happy place!
My hydrangea starts out with frothy white blossoms which turn rosy with tinges of auburn.
Two Good Boys. ❤
I may be tired and overwhelmed at times, but I have so much to be thankful for. I love my students and my job. What more could I ask for?