Something From Nothing: Monica Wilbanks

Monica, right, with her daughter Megan.

Monica, right, with her daughter Megan.

The fact that I have the ability to create something from nothing with my words will never cease to amaze me. One of my writing goals for 2013 is to land at least one interview per month with a person (or people) whose creative work I enjoy or appreciate or am otherwise inspired by. April's interview is with Monica Wilbanks, who I first met when I observed her class during my job interview at the first school I worked at as a full-time teacher. (Also. I know it's actually May, but I didn't have a computer last week! Also, it's the end of Teacher Appreciation Week, so consider this me appreciating one of my dearest teacher friends.) Over the years, Monica has inspired me to be a better teacher, to try new things (like knitting!), to stand up for what I believe, and to fight fiercely on behalf of the poor and underprivileged. Hopefully you’ll be inspired too.

Q: When did you decide to become a teacher? What factors went into that decision?

A: I can't remember ever making a conscious decision to become a teacher.  It's just the normal course of major in Literature, what else are you going to do?  I don't think I ever thought of myself as wanting to be a middle school teacher...after all, I loved the literature (say that one with a snooty accent).  However, the job that was available was the one I took, and 15 years later, here I sit.  Same building even.  And, most days, I love it. Turns out, I was a middle school teacher all along and didn't even know it.  

Q: I think of teaching as a very creative endeavor. Do you? If so, how would you describe your creative process when it comes to lesson planning and instruction? 

A: Yes, for sure creative.  Teaching is a combination between an art and a science...cliche, I know.  Unfortunately, most of the art and science of lesson planning and instruction has, as my career has progressed, been removed from the classroom.  

How would I describe my process?  I figure out what I really want the kids to "get", the concept that is deepest, most profound, and requires them to think.  Then, I employ the "what-if" procedure.  What if we did this? That? Sometimes, the crazier the idea the better. 

So, right now, my eighth graders are reading The Diary of Anne Frank.  What do I want them to get?  I want them to understand that literature reflects who people are...that we can connect to universal ideas, of hatred, of struggle, of perseverance through that literature.  What if I had them keep a diary themselves, as they learn about the Holocaust.  What if, after they find out what happened to Anne then they find out what happened to them?  Will they get it?  Will they connect to the literature and history on a deeper level?  Let's try it and see!  

Q: What are some of the aspects of teaching that demand creative energy day-to-day? 

A: Juggling. Kidding! Ok, kind of kidding.  However, what to do with Joe when he comes to class for the 8th time in a row without so much as a pencil and who has no intention of doing anything that day, and balancing out the issues of Mary, who can't sit next to Susan because last week they were the best of friends and now they despise each other and spend their whole class period mean-mugging each other while managing parent phone calls, data collection, the unexpected lock down drill.

That's just the surface juggling.  Then there is the subterranean juggling...trying to figure out how to teach what you know needs to be taught even though current district and national practices often run at odds with what classroom teachers know needs to be taught.  

Q: Where did your knack for creating (knitting, urban farming, etc.) come from? Are those things you’ve always wanted to do? Things you’ve always been good at? 

A: That's a good question.  I have no idea.  I mean, I grew up on acreage until I was in eighth grade, and we had a huge garden and animals.  Knitting?  No idea.  I like the idea of taking one thing and making another.  You take some dirt and a seed and you make a tomato.  You take a tomato and you make salsa.  You take a string and a couple of sticks and you make a really cool pair of socks.  

Q: What are you planning on growing on your urban farm this summer?

A: So, farm might be a bit of a misnomer, as I can't seem to find anybody that'll let me have chickens in their yard and I think my HOA might have a problem with chickens on my patio.  Plus, it's not really free range if they are in a cage on the porch.  I just have the kind of stuff that you pick off a plant, so we'll call it a garden.  I've got a really small area, so just some herbs, tomatoes, peppers, oh...and beans and carrots.  I read today that you should put your onions and carrots together, so I might be doing onions and radishes too.  Oh, and chard and spinach.  It's amazing how much you can squish into a tiny area. I have also found a willing victim who's going to give me part of their yard too, so the sky is the limit.  Except for the chicken thing.   

Q: What are you planning on knitting this year?

A: Socks!  No one can ever have enough hand knit socks!  I just finished a couple of baby sweaters.  Plus, I bought a book about fair isle knitting, so I would like to teach myself that.  It's super cool!  And a bit scary...changing colors, steeking (that means cutting something after you've knit it) Yikes!.  

Q: How do you think your other creative endeavors (knitting, urban gardening, baking, etc.) influence your teaching, if at all?

A: Funny, I hadn't really thought about it until you put the two together. I guess they are all kind of related.  Taking products in the raw and coming out with something people actually least that's the hope.  Knitting, baking, growing all teaches you two things...One, there is no instant gratification. Anything worth anything takes time.  Two, you have to forgive your own mistakes.  Nothing is ever perfect.  My knitting has flaws...sometimes ones that are super obvious and some only I can see.  Nonetheless, I started with yarn and I ended with socks.  That's pretty cool.  The same is true for baking, gardening, teaching.  It takes time, it takes patience, sometimes it's ugly and dirty, but in the end, you end up with something better than what you started with.  

Q: How do you think your teaching influences your other creative endeavors?

A: I often say that I knit so that I don't kill people.  There is something super cathartic about the step by step of knitting or cooking that helps process the day.  It also has taught me patience, to not stress about things I can't control.  I'm not done yet though...I love the idea of a community garden...of letting kids get outside and away from their xboxes.  I want them to get their hands dirty and actually MAKE something.  There is a pride that comes with that that is immeasurable.  I just need somebody crazy enough to do it with me.  

Q: How do you encourage students to become creators? As a teacher, what things are you able to do to nurture creativity in your students?

A: This is such a difficult question.  I don't think, despite all the evidence that says that the new economy is going to require creative thinkers and problem solvers, that we do a good job in education of allowing our students to create stuff.  Forget that, we don't REQUIRE them to create stuff.  We only require that they fill in bubbles and then we pretend that tells us everything we need to know about their mastery of a topic.  

I tell my students that if the only thing that I teach them how to do is fill in a bubble, then I haven't done my job as a teacher, that my one and only job is to teach them to think for themselves.  So, I guess in that way, I am asking them to create the most vital of all things, themselves.  

Q: How has your ability to encourage/nurture creativity in your students changed over the years?

A: I've become bolder, less afraid to take risks.  I like to think that I teach outside the lines, or at least I like the idea of teaching outside the lines.  I've learned not to stress over the small stuff.  

Q: What do you think the average taxpayer should know about what happens to childrens‘ creativity in school?  

A: That they are paying for the for profit testing industry to turn their children into a series of data points that are meaninglessly removed from what their students can do and, more importantly, who their students ARE.  Now, they are trying to figure out a way to "measure" progress in band, art, pe...but the only way they can measure that (outside of actually ASKING THE TRAINED PROFESSIONAL, which they refuse to do) is to create a bubble test.  Seriously!  Who wants to live in a world where Picasso and Beethoven and Jesse Owens are reduced to bubble tests!  ARGH!  This topic makes me so angry.  I think I need to pull out my knitting needles...stress over something I can control.