Big Sky Lessons

by Elizabeth Maria FalcónCotton

Kimi Eisele's blog, "Big Sky Lessons: Reflections from a traveling teaching artist in rural Arizona" is a fantastic site for teaching inspiration. A recent blog post, "Lessons in Softness" reflects on a teaching experience she had near Safford on the San Carlos Apache reservation. Students had been asked to write an animal fable in one week, and Kimi was there to guide them through the writing process. She discusses the struggle she experienced between getting students to write and allowing students to discover what they have to say through creative movement and play.

Here is an excerpt from her blog post from one of the class periods where they explored animals through creative movement:

"We push the desks to the corners of the room and quickly sweep the floor. I plug in my speakers. I modify a favorite introductory movement activity called "Six Treasures," which I learned from Dance Exchange and use all the time. We turn the treasures into animals. A snake slithering, an otter rolling, a jackrabbit sitting, a coyote on all fours, a bear standing, a road runner running. The kids do the movements. The music is playing. They are smiling and laughing.

Then we do some simple walking. Find a partner. Stand opposite your partner on one side of the room. Two lines facing each other. First you're a coyote, passing another coyote. Walk toward the center of the room and pass each other, without bumping. Next you're an eagle, walk toward each other, keeping your eyes locked. When you get to the middle turn around and walk backwards, keeping your eyes locked. If you keep pace with your partner, you'll arrive at the same time and won't have to look behind you. Eagle eyes. Do that again, faster.  Next, you're a mountain lion. How does a mountain lion move? "Fast." "Quick." "Sneaky." Yes, sneaky. How about "stealthy"? You know that word? Now you do. Walk toward your partner.  Very slowly. Very stealthily. Keep your eyes locked. Don't make a sound.

Fourth graders. Walking toward one another. In slow motion. In absolute silence. Can you imagine? That's what happens. It's not me. It's mountain lion. Stealthy. Silent. Soft."

Interview with Kimi about Big Sky Lessons blog

1) Why did you start your blog? Who is your audience?

I started my blog as a way to engage more with the teaching work. While I love bringing arts experience to children in rural communities, the travel and driving can be exhausting. It's hard to be away from home, and several times last fall I found myself dreading the Sunday evening departures before the school week. I knew I had to find a way to engage more fully with the work. I started the blog as a challenge for myself to do that, to dig in more, to give more to the process. I also wanted to be writing more, period, and to return to non-fiction, which I had not written for years.

I have good subject material. Children. The fireworks of brain expansion! The experiences with the students are almost always poignant or funny or odd. And so often a particular moment will have that "zing" that we writers can recognize--that tiny moment that somehow illuminates something bigger, a picture window worth looking through for further reflection. That moment that becomes a metaphor, or compels you to sit and make sense of it on the page, that moment that somehow begs to be re-told in some kind of written story. There are lots of those moments in teaching, and in life, really, if we're paying attention.

I don't know who my audience is. Friends and family, I suppose. They're the ones who give feedback and say nice things or challenge things I've written. I would like to expand the audience, though. I think some of the issues in rural Arizona schools shed light on national education issues and on arts education in general. But I have no idea how to do that.

2) What are the goals of your blog?

My goal in writing the blog is to keep myself awake in the work. By that I don't mean that I'm falling asleep on the job. That would be impossible given all those wiggling bodies and the music and that my charge is to be there and offer something exciting and new. What I mean is that by writing about my teaching weeks, I tend to stay more alert and awake to both the tiny details of the day (the long black strands of hair that swirl across classroom floors on the Apache Rez, the cotton in the fields near Safford, the way a school librarian/teacher's aide will lower herself to the floor and roll across it enthusiastically as soon as the opportunity presents itself) as well as the bigger picture themes (how dance can help students become better writers, why special education funding should never be cut, how AIMS testing sadly sabotages creative teaching and learning). Because I've given myself the charge to post something afterward, I'm paying more attention along the way, synthesizing and connecting and noticing more than I might otherwise. It's lovely, actually. Having an assignment is a beautiful thing for a writer.

Beyond that personal goal, I suppose I'm also trying to give outsiders a peek inside the classroom, a view of arts education, a view of rural Arizona, a view of teachers that are overworked but still willing to learn more, a view of the wonderful abundance of uninhibited childhood creativity and the occasional breakthroughs that can happen when a teenager, otherwise too cool for school, might momentarily recall her own capacity for joy because of her engagement in the artistic process.

3) Where do you go for blog inspiration? Are there other blogs similar to yours that you admire?

I don't really read other blogs, except sometimes TC Tolbert's or Richard Siken's or Donna Steiner's (though reading them is more about getting inspiration for living and remembering the exquisiteness of language than it is about getting inspiration for my blog). I think it's safe to say that I draw inspiration pretty exclusively from the kids and the landscapes and whatever pain or joy is happening in my own heart.

4) Are there other online places you go to for lesson plan inspiration?

When I've got nothing of my own, I do what every teacher probably does. I search Google for lesson plans. Then I tweak and twist and modify. Also, I've been using Liz Lerman's Dance Exchange Toolbox for years and have deepened and developed those basic exercises in so many different contexts, I could probably do them blindfolded. I've also used the book Poetry Everywhere a lot.  And, of course, since I also teach Poetry Joeys at the Poetry Center, I have found Verse! to be a wonderful resource.

Created on: 
Monday, December 6, 2010
Arizona Board of Regents