Sunday, October 10, 2021


Alrighty, then. Let me think about this:

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

I have been teaching-gulp-31 years. That's right. I have been getting up every morning more or less at dawn to arrive at school somewhere between 6:45 and the first bell at 7:30. I have been blessed to have spent those years inside a classroom with an incredibly diverse collection of high school students in North Carolina and here in West Virginia. You know what? It is my passion, and I love it.

The willingness to change, to adjust to the ever-evolving needs of students, to reinvent when projects do not work anymore, to envision new possible outcomes to stories that have yet to be written. This has been my non-secret secret, and it has been my mindset to avoid the complacency and frustration that can easily edge its way into the heart of any profession, especially teaching.

I have taught seniors for longer than I can remember. I have recreated more rubrics, searched for new content, planned more original lessons from scratch that an outsider may actually say: Hey. Come on. Can't you do the same thing every year? How hard is teaching? The irony is that I have always wanted to be able to have so many locked-in, pull-them-out-of-the-folder lessons that I never have to plan anything again. I actually have the dusty, torn folders as evidence of this. Fortunately, that dream has never come to fruition.

Every year I have a vision for my class and my students, but what I do have is a collection of tried and true basic "recipes," that with minor (and occasionally major) tweaking can be used in different and unique ways for the different and unique students in my care every year.

A couple weeks ago as I was planning my rhetorical analysis unit for my seniors, I happened across an old folder that had PAPA SQUARES written in faded pencil across the tab. My colleague Besty Knorr shared this idea she had discovered on one of the many educational websites she peruses for new ideas. With her permission, I "stole" the idea, changed it, adjusted it, and envisioned how the story of my students doing this project would develop into something educational and memorable.

Allow me to give you a crash course in PAPA  squares. PAPA is a way to help students test their own understanding of a piece of rhetoric (argumentative writing or speech). PAPA is an acronym for Persona, Audience, Purpose, and Argument and is the foundational understanding for any type of analysis. Yada-Yada-Yada. Each student creates a folded, interactive square with moving flaps out of a gigantic sheet of card stock on which every side and flap has some individual part of the analysis. 

The finished PAPA square.
Caution: This is not as easy as it looks.

My English IV students had already read and analyzed George W. Bush's 9/11 speech, and they begrudgingly awaited the standard typed essay to follow. I was so excited to tell them we would have plenty of time for that later and that we were going to make-TA!DA!-a PAPA SQUARE! I proudly displayed my own square I had made years ago with its colorful flaps and text written on the inside and backside and flipside. I found it amazing and glorious, but from the look on their faces, they found it insurmountable and frightening. 

I know my students come to the table with different abilities. Any educator worth their salt knows this and creates assignments that allow individual skills to shine while developing those which need growth. Some students are great writers, some have tremendous artistic skills, some excel at math and measuring, and some can barely use safety scissors. You know what? All of this is perfectly fine when we are making PAPA squares.

When the day arrived and my students see PAPAsanity on the smartboard as the agenda for the next two days, we all settled in or attempted to flee, meticulously measured and cut paper, tossed scraps aside, learned to laugh at our own imperfections, struggled with starting over or fixing mistakes, helped one another, distracted one another. We embraced the chaos, and that is perfectly fine.

"Draw a 3" x 5" rectangle." What do we do? "Draw a 3" x 5" rectangle." Wait. Mine is different than his. It is smaller. "We are using inches not centimeters." ๐Ÿ˜€

Hey! Can we ADD-HD people move back to this table? We work better together. "Ummmm-OK? I am not sure that is a good idea, but..." ๐Ÿ˜Ÿ Great! Come on back here!

"I am moving on to Stage 3. If you are not quite finished with Stage 2, I promise I will come back to help you. Just keep moving forward." Wait! What are we doing? I am still on the first stage! ๐Ÿ˜ฒ

Are we supposed to be writing this in pen? "Yes. Blue or black ink as it says on the slide."  Wait. What? I have been writing in pencil. What do I do?  "Write it in pen." Does anybody have a pen? Oh, wait. I have one. ๐Ÿ˜ญ

Two days later, we all looked at our PAPA squares, taking pictures for the back wall where I have displayed the Live a Great Story flag I bought this summer. I had placed it back in the back of the room as a reminder to all of my seniors to embrace the daily experiences they have and find a message among all of the moments of exhilaration, stress, mediocrity, and even chaos. They were so happy to be finished with this project. Unfortunately, I had to break the news to them that there was one more part to this crazy PAPA square project-the essay.

The groans! The complaints! The eye-rolls!

I laugh in the face of adversity, particularly when I am confident a story is going to have an epilogue that unifies the message better than the actual ending. 

"We all did this PAPA square together. We all finished it, right? Here is the thing: we all had different obstacles, though. Some struggled with writing, some struggled with measuring and cutting, some struggled with their teammates, and, hey, I absolutely know that some of you struggled with me. I struggle with myself sometimes myself because I can be annoying. Now it is time to tell your story, in your own style, about the obstacle you overcame to complete this project. I want your story to have a meaningful message for anyone, even someone who has no idea what a PAPA square is or has never set foot in this class."

At this moment, PAPAsanity became something so much more than a rhetorical analysis or a folded cardstock square with colorful designs. PAPAsanity became a vehicle for these young people to attach meaning to what could have been just another meaningless project in school to them. These kids dove into this personal account by writing about some incredible lessons they learned like "(being able) to recognize one’s faults and problems (as the) only way a person can improve." Or even acknowledging (that) "there will be times you aren’t understanding (but do) not give up when things are at their worst."

I love teaching for moments just like these. I can live my own great story engaging a classroom of teenagers from beginning to end on a project like PAPAsanity while at the same time being a small part of the great story my students share about their own lives. 

Do you want to hear some more about PAPAsanity
Check out my next podcast!

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