Monday, March 30, 2015

Lessons Learned from the Director's Chair

Last Friday was Summit Christian Academy's performance of  Pilgrim's Progress -- the second play I wrote, my tenth play I've directed, and my third time directing this particular play. I have to say . . . this show probably gave me more gray hairs than any yet. A bunch of new actors in their first full-length play who didn't understand the importance of memorizing lines early. The week of the performance is not the time to get your lines down! And now they know this. :) Yet they still pulled off two great performances on Friday. The power of prayer, people.

The stress I felt this last week sent me back to the very first play we did in Sioux City: "The King and His Dancing Princesses." About fifteen 3rd-5th graders, in their very first play, with a newbie director and newbie producer . . . wow. I distinctly remember about half-way through thinking, "What made me think I could do this?"

I've always loved acting, but now I think I love writing and directing more -- and this was a surprise to me. I never thought I'd be willing to give up the spotlight, but here I am enjoying the behind-the-scenes much more. God has used this "hobby" to teach me so many things. Like . . .

. . . that I'm not really in control of anything. That was a huge adjustment during that first play I directed: realizing that I could only do so much. At some point, the kids themselves had to step up and make this happen, and I couldn't make them do it. All I can do is try to make them want to do it, and give them the tools to do it. In the end, it's all out of my hands.

. . . that my precious words I've written are not as important as I think. I remember a drama performed at our church in Sioux City that got particularly butchered in content as the actors struggled through. The worship leader announced to the congregation at the end of the service that the piece had been written by me. I muttered under my breath, "Well, that somewhat resembled something I wrote . . ."  I've had to learn over and over to let go of my script; it's not going to come out as I planned it. And that's okay.

. . . that learning a new skill comes from imitation. With my beginning student actors, I usually have to show them exactly how I want them to deliver a line, how I want them to stand or move, how loud and slow they need to speak, everything. They mimic me. And eventually, after two or three plays, they start to feel in their own bodies what it feels like when it's done right and they then internalize the skill. It was an awesome thing to direct my last play with my high schoolers in Sioux City and see just how far they'd come. I've applied these lessons to teaching writing as well. We learn a new skill through imitation and repetition.

. . . that the personal growth of my students trumps a good show. Never have we put on a show that I couldn't find some aspect of the performance I wished we'd done better. But in every show, the students have learned something important. They learned how to project their voice. Or they learned how to focus and pay attention. Or they learned how to sympathize with a character-type very different from themselves. And those things are far more important than whether the final performance was stellar quality or not.

So, what did this last group of students learn? The group that didn't get their lines memorized until the final week? Well, not only did they learn that Mrs. K knows what she's talking about when she sets deadlines . . . but I suspect they've learned something about learning. My suspicions are that they were "going over" their lines all that time; they just didn't do what it took to actually learn them. And I have suspicions that similar things are happening with their schoolwork. They "go over" a grammar worksheet enough to get enough right answers to get enough points to satisfy their parents. But they don't do what it takes to learn the grammar concept.

And now I'm excited at the prospect of watching my students learn how to learn in the last couple months of school. If that actually happens, the new gray hairs from the last week will have been well worth it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

That Was One Weird Gift

My friend Julie gave me a surprise birthday party the summer before my senior year, and my friend Kevin gave me a weird gift. Kind of a cool gift, but kinda weird, too. Weird on many levels.

First of all, it was "wrapped" in leg of jeans. He cut the leg off of an old pair of jeans, put the gift inside, and sewed up both ends. I had to cut the jeans to get the gift out. Creative . . . funny! . . . but very weird.

Then, the item I actually fished out of the denim was a decorative wooden box, about seven inches square. Very pretty . . . but I wasn't sure what to think of this. I mean, yeah, it was pretty, but why exactly was he giving me this box? Was it, like, a jewelry box? Was there some meaning behind it? Was it a joke gift? It's not really the kind of thing a boy gives a 17-year-old girl that's his good buddy. I turned it over in my hand a few times wondering how to respond to this -- and getting no clue from everyone around me who seemed as stumped as I was.

"Open it!" Kevin said. Whew! I thought. There's something inside! Now it'll make sense. So I opened the lovely box and found, lying on a pile of potpourri, a sea horse skeleton.

Yes, an actual skeleton of a sea horse. And again, I was stumped.

Because again -- it was kinda cool, but kinda weird. Very delicate and fascinating, but also rather creepy. And again -- who gives this kind of thing to a 17-year-old girl that's your good buddy? Where in the world do you even find a sea horse skeleton anyway? And again, nobody around me was sure what to think of this gift either.

You see, Kevin was kinda like that -- cool, but different. He grinned enthusiastically and gushed about the thing: "See? It's a sea horse! Isn't it awesome?" I wasn't sure if he really meant that or if he wanted us to get the joke and crack up. If he was sincere, I didn't want him to feel bad that we thought his amazing, unique gift was a joke. But if it was a joke, I didn't want him to feel bad that it fell flat. I was totally stumped.

I'm still stumped. I have no clue why Kevin gave me a sea horse skeleton for my 17th birthday.

But you know what? I kept that thing for years. Kept it in the jeans for a long time, but after a while, I tossed the leg of jeans and just kept the box, on a shelf with other decorative items in the house. The potpourri dried up, but the sea horse still lay on it inside.

And guess when I needed that sea horse? When I was homeschooling.

During our study of the ocean, I pulled out that box and showed my girls the skeleton of the sea horse and they ooohed and aaahed to beat the band. For that morning, I was the coolest homeschool mom in the county to have an actual SEA HORSE sitting in a potpourri box on my shelf.

So, there you go, Kev. Thanks for that moment of glory! I'm sure that's what you had in mind way back in the summer of '85.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Struggle Is Real

My husband falls asleep each night in, like, ten minutes. I mean, he turns out the light, rolls over, and starts snoring, just like that. Well, he doesn't snore anymore now that he has his CPAP machine, but in his spirit, he's sawing logs -- in about ten minutes.

This is just unfathomable to me. As a child, it was normal for me to lie in bed for a couple hours before I finally dozed off. It still takes at least thirty minutes, I think, on a good night.

I asked him last week, after you turn out the light to go to sleep, what are you thinking about? What's going through your brain? He said he usually starts to pray and falls asleep while he's praying. Well, what about the nights you don't fall asleep praying -- what are you thinking about? Oh, he's thinking about how comfortable the bed is . . . how cozy the blankets are . . . and then he's asleep.

Are you kidding me?

I told him about how my brain works when I try to go to sleep. An image will come to mind, completely unbidden -- say, of one of my students. And a scene will replay in my head of something that happened with her that day. And then my mind (again, completely of its own accord, I don't will this) will start imagining something I should have done when that event happened. Or what I should do or say to her next time that happens, or next time I see her. Not in a fretting, worrisome fashion; I'm not stressed or upset; it's just thoughts going through my brain.

Well, Hubby said, if I have those kind of thoughts come up, I just figure there's nothing I can do about that right now, and it's time to go to sleep.

Excuse me? What do you mean, you just figure? There's no "figuring" involved here! My mind runs unprovoked, without activation by my will. In fact, to turn the thoughts off is what requires an effort of the will -- and the effort it requires is so strong that it keeps me awake. (As my daughter would say, the struggle is real --  punctuated with a hashtag.)

Tell me I'm not weird. Tell me he's the oddball. The blessed, lucky oddball.

I wonder now if this is all by nature or nurture. I suspect I have taught myself over the years to allow my brain to work this way at night. (There have been benefits -- I have had flashes of brilliance at 3am that ended up in a script or a lesson plan.) But might it have done this no matter how I trained it?

In any case, I'm hoping I can re-train. I took a class at my church in New Jersey where we learned to meditate. Perhaps I need to re-visit those lessons and figure out how to empty my mind when it is to my benefit to do so.

Because falling asleep in ten minutes . . . oh, Father in heaven. How glorious would that be!

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Gracious No

My girls are getting old enough and mature enough to make some insightful observations about me that I probably need to take to heart.

The other day, I was kind of whining about the fact that I expect to be asked if I would be willing to lead a BSF group next year. They're launching a new study about Revelation and are expecting a huge influx of "alumni" and new people, which will mean they need more group leaders.

I don't really want to be a group leader. It means meeting way early on Monday mornings, coming early on Tuesday nights, finding time during the week to make contact with my group members . . . all things that just sound like burdens and stressors right now on top of everything else I have going on (see my last post). But I know there will really be a need, so (I bemoaned to my daughters) I should probably do it.

That's when my daughter made this gentle, respectful, therapist-like remark: "You seem to think that whenever there is a need, it is your job to fill it." Her sister nodded sagely.

Well . . . uh . . . hmmm.

When you say it like that, it sounds like I have a problem. Of course there are needs out there that I'm not meant to fill. I actually have gotten pretty good at saying no to certain things. I learned long ago that, if a job entails my being in a room with a bunch of children on a regular basis, it is probably best for all involved that I not participate. A kid person, I am not.

And there are other jobs I am pretty useless at. Finding or making costumes would be one. I'm lucky to dress myself in the mornings -- I can't dress my actors.

So, I guess I have decided that when a job comes up that I can do, and especially if there's a real need, I have no excuse not to step up.

But my girls may be right that I don't need to take on every such job. Yes, BSF has meant a lot to me, and I would love to give back to the organization, but if I'm stretched too thin, I'm of no use to them or anyone else I am serving.

And the thing is, there really are other people who can serve as group leaders. Some of the other jobs I do require a more unique skill set that I happen to have. Fewer replacements for me are available.

So, I've been praying about this BSF thing. And praying differently than I usually do. I tell God, I really don't want to do this job out of obligation. If I'm going to do it, I want to do it with enthusiasm and passion -- my group members would deserve that from me. If He wants me to be a group leader, I'm asking him to make me excited about the idea, so I accept it because I want to do it. Otherwise, I'll graciously say no. At least, I think I'll say no. I'll try really hard to say no, anyway.

Darn it. I really thought I had this "Just Say No" thing down.

Friday, March 13, 2015

My Crowded Mind

I'll be blunt: I have nothing profound to say today. If it weren't for the fact that I try to make writing a discipline and I've been lax on that discipline in the last couple weeks, I wouldn't even attempt a blog post today at all.

One reason I have nothing profound to say is because I have so many different strands of thought going in my mind right now that none of them can dip very far beneath the surface to find deep connections in my psyche. Wanna hear about all those strands? Sure you do.

- The Film Festival -- which I wrote about last post. Still going through tomorrow. The director of a local homeschool theater company jokingly suggested that I should teach a film-making class this summer since I'm all excited about the concept now. Which really was a joke. Until I thought about it more. And now I'm actually stupid enough to be considering the idea seriously. (Just what makes me think I can teach a film-making class? I have no idea. But, you know, I asked myself the same question in the middle of directing my first play . . . "What made you think you could do this??" And yet I did it.)

- The School Play -- which I am directing. This project has been a challenge on many levels. Many beginner actors. Very little rehearsal time. Limited storage for props and costumes. Little to no access to our actual performance space until the final dress rehearsal. So many details . . . it seems like this play is on my mind at some level 24/7. Two weeks from today is performance day . . .

- School Next Year -- I wrote earlier about how my daughter's high school is not continuing and we're trying to start a homeschool co-op. Lots of research and thought and planning going into that. Plus, I'm teaching the English for that co-op . . . even more research and thought and planning. And I'm starting to wonder if I just want to do the history myself, also. (Believe it or not, I may prefer that to hunting down and paying for a curriculum that I may not end up liking.) Always on the brain . . .

- Grammar -- I offered to help the school come up with a new grammar curriculum for the whole school -- because what they do now isn't working well. And because I love grammar. So, I will find myself at times just thinking through grammar concepts, and ways to teach them, and what needs to be taught before what, and on and on . . .

- Launching the Eldest -- My older daughter has a lot of significant things happening in her life right now. She's doing a College Plus program called Navigate that is supposed to help her find focus and direction for her life. She's getting ready to start classes at St. Philip's College in the fall. She's buying a car (well, we will own it, but we're walking her through the gruntwork of the purchase). She's looking for a job. She's getting ready for her boyfriend to possibly move to San Antonio in a couple months. And in all of this, she needs our support and guidance.

- Curriculum Writing -- The company for whom I write Bible study guides just sent me transcripts of the DVDs for my next assignment, a Bible study over the Song of Solomon. I have five weeks to write leader guides for six sessions. Scripture about loving God, His loving us, etc. etc. . . .

- Summer Drama Camps -- The afore-mentioned homeschool theater director asked if I'd be willing to teach any other drama camps this summer. So, the idea of a two-week performance camp for elementary kids is also shaping in my mind . . .

- Junior High English Classes Next Year -- I will still be teaching junior high literature at Summit Christian Academy next year, and occasionally thoughts about those classes start floating through my head . . .

- English Classes THIS Year -- And this school year isn't over yet: Don Quixote and Tale of Two Cities are still on my plate before summer break, among other things.

- Driver's Ed -- for the younger daughter -- she's itching to start.

- Bible Study Fellowship -- still have to keep up with this. (And I'm bracing myself to be asked to be a group leader in the fall . . . can I really add that to the pile?)

- Prayer List -- there are several people I've felt strongly convicted to pray for that God keeps bringing up at random moments . . . Now -- they need you to lift them up right now . . . 

- Birthdays -- both of my daughters have theirs at the end of April. Which I just remembered the other day.


- Tan pants. My daughter needs them. For the play. I hate clothes shopping so much, this may be the item on the list that weighs on me the most.

So there. A tour of the innards of my mind this Spring Break week. Aren't you glad you're just visiting and not living here for the duration? :)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Yeah, We Could Make Movies

So, I haven't blogged for a while. Science fair, spring break starting, family in town . . . you know how it goes. We're on spring break this week, but I still won't have an excess of time, because the San Antonio Christian Worldview Film Festival.

Our school was given two free student passes, and our principal offered them to my daughter, the budding young actress who loves to edit video. (The festival organizers graciously allowed me to use the second pass so she wouldn't be going alone.) It's a five day event: two and a half days of workshops and two and a half days of film festival. We get into the whole shebang.

I wasn't sure how excited to get about this at first. For one thing, this is my spring break. I have all sorts of stuff I need to get done this week -- lesson planning, curriculum writing, costume shopping, plus just all the family stuff that gets put off until "I have some extra time." Going to this thing all day for five days would really kill my Spring Break productivity and make me scramble for the next several weeks.

But I also wondered how beneficial it would really be for my daughter. If these workshops are for
serious film-makers, how much would she get out of it? She may not have the base knowledge or background to even understand what they are talking about.

Never fear. "Film-Making 101" with Stacie Graber to the rescue.

Our first workshop yesterday. Perfect. Everything we needed to know about the basic process of putting a real movie together. Oh, my goodness. Are we both psyched now!

The second workshop was more of an acting workshop (Exploring the Spiritual Lives of your Characters), so it had immediate use for us also. And it was also inspiring.

I have always had in the back of my mind that my daughter might enjoy something in the area of film-making someday. But not until yesterday did I realize how doable this is for her NOW. How much potential there is for her to use these skills and interests of hers TODAY. Or soon, at least. I'm listening to the speakers and thinking, "She could make a short film to submit next year."

Next year. Holy cow. That's exciting!

What's more, I'm thinking, I would enjoy this. Not every part of it, but certainly the writing. Certainly the directing. Certainly the whole create-the-vision-for-this-thing part.

Daughter and I talked on the way there yesterday about how conferences like this are often a lot of "rah-rah" to get people excited about their topic . . . and how susceptible she and I are to the "rah-rah." We are easily excited. But really, I think this is something worth our getting excited about.

So, "rah-rah"! Let's see what comes of this.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Case For -- and Against -- Science Fairs

It's Science Fair week. Oh, joy. I have very mixed feelings about the Science Fair thing.

On the one hand, I understand that it is very valuable for students to go through the process of the scientific method -- generating a question and hypothesis, designing a study to test it, testing it, analyzing the results. It's one thing to understand the method in your brain; it's another thing to actually put it to use. It's a thing to be used, not merely understood.

On the other hand, the scientific method is a laborious, meticulous process, and for those who are not naturally so inclined, it is exhausting. I suppose once a year isn't too much to ask of a teenage student, but . . . sigh!

On the one hand, I realize that coming up with your own original question that you want answered should make the project more interesting and more practical.

On the other hand, "original" and "practical" hypotheses are challenging to come up with -- and often end up being very challenging and difficult to test, which only serves to make the whole experience a negative one for the student.

On the one hand, I understand that science teachers and science fair judges get very tired of seeing the same "old reliable" projects year after year, to the point of wanting to puke.

On the other hand, there's a reason that those old reliable projects are old and reliable -- THEY WORK. And they are doable for the less scientifically inclined. It is better for such students to have a successful project from which they learn the necessary skills and concepts than that they have a flop of an experiment that only teaches them that they hate science.

On the one hand, I realize that knowing how to present your information creatively is a valuable skill in itself, one that will serve our students well in the marketplace. And I know of students who live for the making of their presentation board -- that's their reward for trudging through the actual experiment.

On the other hand, the time and energy and money and stress that goes into some of these tri-fold boards -- and the parental one-upmanship they put on display -- is unnecessary and unbeneficial. Maybe even harmful.

My girl's experiment is done. Her lab report is written. She just has the presentation board left, but that's the part we both hate. I figure, we'll print up stuff and tape it to the board and leave it at that. Her best friend is the Pintarest-type who will have the tri-fold that blows everyone away, and we'll step back and give her that glory. It's not worth that much stress to us.

And then next week is Spring Break. Whew! Summer will be here before we know it.