Inspired to Teach: Thoughts from a teaching artist in training

by Daniela Ugaz

Daniela UgazDaniela moved to Tucson about a year and a half ago to start her MFA. Since then she's been spending some of her time writing, some of it teaching, some of it reading, organizing, scrounging up money and, without which none of the other things would be possible, napping! Life is good.

Part I.

I started working with kids when I was twenty. That was four years ago. Now that I think about it, actually, I babysat a couple times when I was in my early teens. It was a little boy. I don't remember his name anymore. I didn't like babysitting very much, I remember that. And the boy's mother stopped calling after I lied a few times, saying I couldn't, saying I had a swim meet or play practice. The next time I worked with kids I was a teaching assistant for a summer journalism workshop for "at risk" middle schoolers. Those kids were hard on me, or maybe I took it that way mistakenly. I'll never be president, one of the boys once said to me. The teacher had just said something like you can be anything you want to be, as long as you set your mind to it. I didn't know what to say to him. I liked the idea of that job more than the job itself.

What changed?

The winter following that summer, I got involved with Street Pulse, a non-profit "homeless run" newspaper. I put homeless run in quotations because about half the organization was homeless, the others were students and retirees. I got involved for many reasons, most of which I didn't understand and still don't. These are the ones I could articulate (and these seemed good enough to me): I was breaking out of a year long relationship and felt terribly needy for new projects and new people; and Every time I stepped out my apartment door I saw Jeff. Jeff was a homeless man in his forty's. He wrote articles for and sold the newspaper. Jeff had (and still does have) beautiful eyes. I'd buy a paper from him and sometimes buy him a cup of coffee which, after a while, we got to sharing as we sat together, he, talking, both of us huddled because of the cold. He pointed out the changes Madison was going through--cost of living on the rise, low income housing getting sparse and the recent gentrification of the south and east sides. One day he invited me to a Street Pulse meeting. I went. I went again and kept going.

Street Pulse was a very young organization, a year and a half old. There were only fifteen or so members. I'd never been involved in anything like it. I fell in love. The thing I found most striking, and it's something I couldn't put my finger on until sometime after, is that these people, the members, put together a product and did so without the aid of money or professional guidance. I had, without realizing it, believed that in order to do anything one needed a degree to sanction one's ability to do so. The other thing about Street Pulse was its size--so tiny. This infused the group with an air of potential; every idea one of us came up with could easily be tried out.

A few months into my membership, Jeff Suggested I lead a journalism writing workshop. People needed someone to guide them through the writing process and who better, Jeff pressed, than me. I was one of the few in the group with a higher education in writing. I agreed to do it. I was wildly unqualified and unprepared. My "students" were adults who bore hard and complicated pasts and also trumped me with their years of wisdom. Let's face it, I was practically in my teens. I was not particularly gifted either. When I spoke my ideas bounced around, sometimes without logic, and I could hardly hold onto one long enough to let myself finish any one of them, I easily got flustered, and I easily fell into a bashful silence. But no one in Street Pulse mentioned my shortcomings. The members kept coming to my weekly writing workshops, where we went over various components of basic journalism writing and acted out our roles, me as teacher, they as students. Again, I didn't realize this until later (after I'd graduated and stopped going to meetings and moved across the country) that my time teaching (or pretending to teach, playing that role as best I could) with Street Pulse, was the first time I accepted getting taught while teaching. I was humbled, teaching these adults, and I understood that I couldn't possibly prepare myself for what they threw my way and so I succumbed to learning on the job. I yielded to that joined, reciprocal relationship between teacher and student, where both teach and both learn.

About a year later I started volunteering at the YWCA children's shelter in Madison. It was an after school child care position overseeing twelve year olds. This time I liked the idea of the job and now I liked the actual work too. There's something about kids. And we're all kids, really. We all have our moments of needing to be reassured and coddled and questioned and led. Really what I mean to say is, there's something about teaching.

Part II.

Before Laynie Browne's class, "At the Intersection of Teaching and Writing," I'd never written a lesson plan. I'd planned activities centered around one topic of study, but I'd never planned out--five minutes by five minutes--a series of activities that would walk a class through that topic. It was hard. It was like learning a different language.

I thought my first two lesson plans were golden, when in actuality they were little more than vaguely planned out games that seemed more focused on getting messy and wiggling around than learning. Seemed, I say. They lacked focus and direction, but I thought and still do think that they're worthy, and that they teach. One of them called for making PB&J sandwiches while listening to four different kinds of music before I eyed my group of kids and mischievously declared, Now write about it! I held onto that lesson plan because I do think that it's worthy, and through the course of the semester, after getting feedback from Laynie and after getting to watch my classmates perform their own lessons in class (something that taught me tremendously) I revised it. I sharpened it. In one phrase, what it lacked: instructions to myself as to how to be a guide. It's one thing to make sandwiches while listening to music and another thing altogether to be guided through observing yourself making sandwiches while listening to music, observing what you smell and feel and hear and see, and observing your thoughts, and observing yourself observing yourself. To be able to record this is big stuff! It's taking hold of experience, it's writing towards yourself, not just about yourself but towards yourself, because by singling out the emotions you choose to single out and by naming these you are not describing, but covering ground, reapproaching, seeing from a different angle, seeing something altogether new. How to guide and facilitate this is the ultimate question. Time management; careful directions of each activity; mentally going through a lesson plan and the students possible responses to it; striving to push; only simplifying directions, language, jumps from activity to activity; never simplifying concepts; always being on the lookout for worthy ideas to share and ways to share these--these are tools this class has helped me consider and reconsider, tools every guide needs.

I'd like to add that I finish this blog post with a nod to the class (and therefore to Laynie) not because it's an obvious, easy way to end but because I find it remarkable and exciting and worthy of sharing how, through this class, I've learned so very much about lesson planning. It's a delicate responsibility to teach and we are all teachers. I'm looking forward to using my new tools with my class at Sam Hughes and with the beautiful kids at Casa de los Ninos and when I babysit and in my writing and with my parents and with my boyfriend and when I read and when I daydream...

Created on: 
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Arizona Board of Regents