The Power of Modeling

Posted in Teaching, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , on September 28, 2015 by Vince.Puzick

I’ve written six 500-word (or so) memoirs this past month and a half.  That’s due, in part, because of my love of the genre, but primarily these memoirs were composed as part of the instructional process as I guided two classes of high school sophomores (their triptych memoir as discussed in the Kirby’s article “Contemporary Memoir:  A 21st Century Genre Ideal for Teens”) and four classes of seniors through the process of composing their own memoirs.

Modeling is a powerful practice in the writing classroom — if not in all classrooms.  I wanted students to hear my thinking processes as I grappled with the same assignment in front of them.  My modeling moved from the initial brainstorming to uncover potential memoir topics (I used a couple of different strategies — “Stones in the River” and “Map My Neighborhood” — to approach the assignment) to drafting and revising the essay, and cleaning it up with some editing strategies.  We did Peter Elbow’s “looping” strategy to get to the heart of the reflection of the memoir — why is this memory even significant?  At each step of the way, using the document camera, my students listened as I thought through my own writing.

As an aside, one of the examples of instructional modeling I have experienced as a student was on the South Platte River with my friend and fishing guide, Steve.  As he taught me the techniques for putting a dry fly on the water so that it floated naturally to entice fish, he modeled the casting motion, watched as I attempted the same, and guided my “revision” process standing there side-by-side.  He didn’t “tell me” how to cast. He showed me.  He didn’t demonstrate and walk away.  He demonstrated then responded to my attempts with guidance, praise, and (because he’s my friend) some good natured kidding.

One discovery I made in this instructional practice is that I need to be careful as I talk through my process.  I want students to maintain ownership over their own papers, so I want them to mimic the thinking and decision-making process.  I model the thinking so they can follow a similar process to make decisions about their own writing.  One of my favorite questions I pose to myself and, later, pose to my students begins “What if…?”

  • “What if I develop this potential topic with some details and see what I discover;  is it meaty enough to pursue?”
  • “What if I craft these two sentences into one?”
  • “What if I break this paragraph into a couple of paragraphs to change the pace and emphasis? (Yes, that would mean that I may have a one-sentence paragraph.)”

So I wrote one in each of my classes.  Why?  Why didn’t I just fudge it and show subsequent classes the brainstormings and drafts that I did in the earlier class periods?  Simple.  The product at the end of the brainstorming session is only as valuable as the process to develop it.  I liken it to downloading a PDF of a powerpoint from the Internet rather than actually being at the presentation where the powerpoint was used.  Sure, I have a product — but I don’t hear the nuance, hear the thinking behind the slides, the inflection of voice, the speaker’s laugh or the asides.

Students benefit from hearing the thinking behind the arrows moving their eyes around the brainstorming; they need the reasons why things are scratched out and written over in the draft;  they need to hear how the ideas originally in the last paragraph end up being presented earlier and throughout the essay instead of lumped together at the end.  They need to hear me grapple with a decision, struggle with a revision, rethink where I was going as I head where the memoir needs to go.

While none of this may seem particularly new or groundbreaking, as I worked through the process with students, it became clear how powerful modeling is to give guidance, to stimulate thinking, and, ultimately, to release responsibility for their own work.

Posted in Teaching on September 6, 2015 by Vince.Puzick


Posted in Teaching on September 6, 2015 by Vince.Puzick


The Memoirist at the High School Reunion: Part 1

Posted in People on August 23, 2015 by Vince.Puzick

Mining for gold.  Drinking from a firehose.  Kid in a candy shop.

Whatever idiom used, when you fancy yourself to be a memoirist, going to a high school reunion is not just a trip down memory lane.  It’s not mere reminiscing, this conversation over finger foods;  it’s priming the pump.  It’s kindling for the fire.  It’s prewriting.

I spent about eight hours with folks from my high school’s graduating class, the class of 1975 from William J. Palmer High School, this past weekend.  From teammates on the baseball team, to the academically motivated kids I passed in the hallways but didn’t really share many classes, to the band kids, smoker kids, kids who climbed on rocks — the 100+ or so who made it to the 40th reunion mingled and shared stories of the past and current stories of their present.

In more than a couple of conversations, I started questions with “Do you remember …” which must be some sort of memoirist mantra.  The memoirist is cursed;  remembering isn’t just about the memory filtered by time and distance and shaped by other experiences.  The memory isn’t just about recalling the facts — or something resembling the facts.  As Mary Karr said in her Paris Review interview “More important than remembering the facts, I have to poke at my own innards.” It’s about finding some meaning in the remembered experience, some emotional truth in the facts.

I’d ask “do you remember …” in part to confirm that the experience did, indeed, happen but also to see and hear the emotion behind their recollection.  Did they cringe or grin?  Grimace in disbelief at the “man, we’re lucky to be alive” memory?  I didn’t look at their response to be a mirror of my own recollection (it couldn’t be!) but as a way to access my own response, my own emotion to that memory.

Members of Palmer High's 1975 baseball team. Missing some key guys, though!

Members of Palmer High’s 1975 baseball team. Missing some key guys, though!

So the memoirist at the high school reunion gets to hear different perspectives around shared experiences — which are not shared memories.  A bunch of boys were sitting in the booth in the back of the Bon Pharmacy enjoying cherry cokes (when they actually had to mix the cherry syrup with the Coca-Cola at the fountain) when Dave P (maybe 13 or 14 at the time) snagged that housefly right out of the air and then, for twenty-five cents, swallowed it down.  Taken separately, that event is just evidence of the strangeness of teen boys;  in the bigger context of my life around Bonny Park, it speaks of a time and of relationships that were impactful. Similarly, we were all at Gerry Berry Stadium when Tony S, paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident several months before graduation, received his diploma, pushed across the stage in a wheelchair.  Yes, the scene was emotional.  But it is an event in a larger memory landscape that has meaning, that shapes me, that is part of the arc from the booth at the pharmacy to graduating from high school.

Mary Karr says “With memoir, you have the events and manufacture or hopefully deduce the concept.”  I have the events — and a headful of notes about more.

So if memoirs are beyond the “what” of remembering;  it is the “why” of remembering.  What is worth writing about?  And why is it worthy of that time, energy, and emotion?

I’ll need to get back to you.

About Family, Family History, and Proximity

Posted in Observations, People on March 24, 2015 by Vince.Puzick

My childhood home was at the north end of Colorado Springs. Not the Historic Northend as some of the new street signs read. Further north than that.  Where Cascade Avenue basically came to an end cutting through fields of yucca and prickly pear cactus and few trees.  The north end. Nothing really historic or glamorous about it.  Just the outskirts of town.

I grew up bordered by my father’s family.  Aunt Millie. Aunt Mary.  And when I was still a baby, Grandpa Nick and Grandma Eva.  Aunt Dorothy — who had married my Uncle Steve.  For some reason, a reason I hope to discover or at least hypothesize in this current writing project, all of the Puzick clan stuck together and carved out a little niche of four households barely a half a mile apart.  Not only within walking distance, but, if the wind was blowing right, within shouting distance of each other.

Not so with my mother’s family.  She and her siblings — two brothers — spread out from their South Dakota and Wyoming childhood homes and pursued their independently from one another.  Reunions with them seemed special because the times together were infrequent.  Cousins were born and got so much bigger since the last time we saw each other.  Little kids grew into teens then adults.

So we had this great and immediate proximity to the Puzick side of the family.   Not so much with the Wertenberger side, my mother’s side.  And so with this proximity we knew the Puzick story.  The coal mining side.  The immigrant Serbian side.  The German side was distant.  Less intimate.  Overshadowed.

And the richness of a family tapestry cannot be fully seen in the threads of one texture.  And so this writing project is the other thread.  to be continued …

So you’re a native!  So what …

Posted in Observations, People, Places on February 4, 2015 by Vince.Puzick

I was having breakfast a few weeks ago with a new friend who recently moved to Colorado Springs, and during the conversation I said “I’m a native.”

“You’re the second or third person I’ve talked with in the last few weeks that pretty quickly points out that you’re a native of Colorado Springs.  Why is that?”

It’s an interesting question.  In our very mobile population, it is almost expected that people will move to different parts of the country or, living in a city with five military bases such as Colorado Springs, different parts of the world.  When I ask, I’m usually expecting the answer to “where are you from” to be something other than Colorado Springs.

So from my friend’s response, my blurting out that “I’m a native” must seem, what, a little prideful?  Does it come across as creating difference – “you’re new, I’m a native”?  — and therefore maybe a little arrogant?

I have pondered why it is important to express, blurt out even, that I am a native of Colorado Springs.


Perhaps it is out of nostalgia.  I remember when … the north end was not even “The Old North End.”  The north end of Colorado Springs was basically north of Uintah Street, or maybe even north of Fillmore.  The north end ended where Nevada Avenue merges onto I-25.  Rockrimmon was simply the site of the old Pikeview coal mine and, more when I was growing up, high school woodsies and keggers.

Penrose Main on Cascade Avenue was simply Penrose.  The 13-story red and white building was the only Penrose Hospital in town.  And Penrose was a visible and meaningful landmark in the town.  Until the Holly Sugar building was built in the early 1960’s, Penrose rose up out of the tree-lined streets of the north end like a beacon.  One could always orient one’s self by finding where he was in relation to Penrose Hospital.  And when it is your place of birth, it grounds one in familiarity, foundation, reassurance.  Coupled with the fact that I was born there, Penrose was also where my mother was trained and as a nurse and then employed for some 40+ years.

The Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo breakfast was a small town event.  So was the 4th of July gathering in Memorial Park.  The population throughout the 1960’s was only around 90,000 residents.  Today, the 4th of July event draws more people than that to the Park.

I remember when the Manitou Incline actually had a train car that pulled people the mile up.  Those were saner, simpler times.  And Jones Park was a hiking and backpacking experience where you would not see another hiker (and mountain bikes were not even invented) for the entire weekend.

Does it just come down to nostalgia?  Maybe it is just due to the fact that I am getting older faster and reminiscing more often and more deeply.  The old and familiar of Colorado Springs still serves as my anchor despite the changes.  I love walking down Tejon Street despite the loss of Michelle’s ice cream, Lorig’s cowboy boots and hats, Hibbard’s pneumatic tubes where your payments zoomed out of sight and where the elevator was tended by an elevator man.  I love the presence of the Fine Arts Center even though I do not take advantage of the richness of it as often as I should.  Despite my own liberal leanings, I think NORAD is awesome, the Academy is beautiful, and Fort Carson (where my uncle worked) is pretty cool.

But maybe my blurting out “I’m a native” is also about roots and place, about the rootedness in where you “grew up.”  When I told my friends in California, after living there for all of the 1980’s, that I was moving back to Colorado Springs, they thought I was crazy.  (I’m sure it was, ironically, native Californians who mostly responded with this disbelief.)

But there is something about waking up with the sun-reddened granite of the Pikes Peak summit greeting you on fall mornings that lingers bone deep.  (It is also knowing “Pikes Peak” has no possessive apostrophe and being OK with that despite being an English teacher.)  It’s knowing the effect of the chinook winds, that today’s snow may be gone by sunset tomorrow.  Or even later today.

It’s knowing that despite living in the most conservative of all counties in Colorado, we weathered Proposition 2 twenty years ago. It means we can enjoy a rich arts community even if it feels tiny at times.  It means despite our growth, we can enjoy nature experiences within our city limits and wilderness experiences within an hour’s drive.

So, yeah, I blurt out that I am a Colorado Springs native.  It’s a statement that says welcome to what I have known for many years, and it serves as the segue into the near-apology of “I know, things could be better here.”  Maybe it’s a bit protective of a life that once was and is not the reality today.  Maybe it is an invitation that says let’s continue to create a space together that has all the closeness of a small town but the richness that 400,000 people may bring.

“Tending to” Regrets

Posted in Observations with tags on December 30, 2014 by Vince.Puzick

Over the last several months I have been thinking a lot about “regret” — both the concept in the abstract and two specific regrets I have somehow managed to tote along in my life for quite a while.

There are two competing perspectives, it seems to me, about “regret.”  One school of thought holds that you can’t escape having regrets; they’re part of our human make-up.  When we look back on our lives at different points, we wonder “what if” or question a decision made along the way.  Friends around me have said, “There’ll always be regrets. No escaping.  It’s human.”  I’m not a believer in “everybody does” or “it’s part of being human.”  What’s the spiritual solution to the mental obsession of regret?

Another school of thought says “get on with your life, no looking back, no regrets.”  As that great philosopher of the late 1990’s said, “It doesn’t matter. It’s in the past.”  Rafiki, from The Lion King, then goes on to say “You can either run from it, or learn from it.”  The Swami Sivananda may have influenced Rafiki’s thinking:  “Do not brood over your past mistakes and failures as this will only fill your mind with grief, regret and depression. Do not repeat them in the future.”

The question that has been running around my head, then, for the past several months, is how do you get to that place of “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it”?  Of course, the past is past and what is done is done.  I get that. But just saying it doesn’t end the thinking or sometimes the downright obsession with the regret.

In 1975 (yes it goes back to the summer I graduated from high school), I was denied admission to Colorado State University.  My math scores were too low to be admitted into the College of Forestry and Natural Resources.  CSU recommended that I attend Fort Lewis College in Durango, take my math and other general ed courses there, and then transfer to CSU.  I decided in June of 1975, while working at the Colorado Outdoor School in Vail, not to pursue that path.

Instead, I worked in a factory for a few weeks and then re-applied to CSU as an Undeclared Liberal Arts student.  And I was accepted.  I went for one semester and withdrew again.  During the next 13 months, I worked the night shift at another factory.  When we got off at midnight, I would go home (usually after a stop at the Tam-O-‘Shanter Pub on Garden of the Gods Road) and write for two hours or so.  I’d write poems, short stories, one act plays usually based on my experiences in the factory and the people with whom I worked.  Motivated by the desire to write, I decided to return to Colorado State as an English major.

33 years later, after some minor turns and some major changes (like getting sober 31 years ago), I have been committed to my career in education.  It has fulfilled me and I would like to believe that I have made an impact in people’s lives over the past 28 years devoted to this honorable profession.

So, where is the regret?

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to learn to fly fish — which has meant hours spent in nature, in the mountains of Colorado, in the natural resources we are so fortunate to enjoy within such close proximity to our home.  It has rekindled my inner young adult’s spirit:  the guy who backpacked nearly every weekend from 9th grade through high school, who cross-country skied in the Colorado winters, who had two summer jobs of outdoor leadership after graduating from high school.  The 20-year old’s voice keeps whispering to me “what if…Fort Lewis College… Colorado State.”

And over the past two and a half years, I have the had opportunity to write a blog for a local fly fishing shop.  As I have developed my own fly fishing skills, I have had the opportunity to interview fly fishing guides, to write about some of the spectacular experiences Jannetta and I have had in some of the most beautiful country in Colorado.  I have had the opportunity to advocate, at times, for the preservation and conservation of our natural resources, specifically cold water fisheries and wilderness preservation.  It’s probably the most sustained writing I have done —even in its sporadicalness — over the past several (many, many) years.  So the young adult factory worker, the one who was motivated to return to college to study the craft of writing and literary arts, is passing me mental notes:  “what if … you had pursued writing more aggressively after CSU rather than heading into the field of education?”

Grace Slick captures the essence of my two somewhat interwoven regrets:  “When you get older, it’s not about what you did that you regret; it’s what you didn’t do.”

As I write this, I see the beauty of my own life right now: the rich profession I have enjoyed for nearly 30 years;  the opportunity to spend considerable time in the outdoors pursuing fly fishing (more than a hobby or pastime and closer to an obsession) AND with the person I love; the chance to write about that obsession, er…interest on a frequent basis.

(Amazing how writing will do that — reveal some truths about one’s own life.  I’m not dissatisfied with what my life looks like and still …)

In studying “regret” — not the kind that could be defined by past actions (because two things can happen with those:  karma or making amends) but the type of regret that can be defined as inaction or not accomplishing something — I have discovered this:

Henry David Thoreau writes “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret is to live afresh.”

I have probably attempted to smother the sorrow of not pursuing the academic path offered by CSU’s College of Forestry and the sorrow of not pursuing more aggressively my own desire to write.  Thoreau’s comment to “tend and cherish” is more how I try and live today. His admonition to not “smother your sorrow” is, for me, right on target.  It has never worked for me to try and stifle, smother, or deny my human emotions.  Why do that with feelings of regret that surface?  The question becomes: what to do with them?

“Tend and cherish” until it becomes a “separate and integral interest” sounds like detaching (with love) from the regret while also realizing its essence.  For whatever reasons that a profession in Forestry or a more active engagement in writing did not materialize (addictions, then lack of focus, then lack of resolve), the “integral interest” is still with me.  Who we are and what we know at a given point in our life form the foundation for our decisions made at that point. I think that what remains, the integral interest, will need to take a new form than they may have taken 30 years ago.

The road down the College of Forestry & Natural Resources and the road down total immersion in writing are still seen from my rear-view mirror.  Any regrets that have traveled with me, stored away in the trunk of the car, can also allow me to “live afresh” on this road I have traveled.  They don’t have to be smothered but, instead, freed to bring energy into this day.  I think their essence will be part of my recovery as the two converge to meet on the banks of a river.

William Shatner says “Regret is the worst human emotion. If you took another road, you might have fallen off a cliff. I’m content.”

As am I.

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