Beyond Our Sky

Part of my dad died on the long trek across the nation from California to Mississippi in 1973.  He left behind the many rich and rewarding years he had served the country with NASA after Nixon cut the funding for the space program.  He was ejected from the program to relocate himself and his family to a small town on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.  An electrical engineer, who had played a huge part in putting the first man on the moon, left behind the stars and rockets of his dreams for the waves and spray of a shipbuilding southern city.

Even after leaving his dreams behind, he remained in love with space and all things extraterrestrial.  When our family of six had been settled for a few months, the headlines of the local newspaper announced that two men were claiming to have been picked up and probed by strange creatures on the banks of the Pascagoula River.  It was then dad knew he had arrived for his calling as the man who would prove that outer space aliens did exist.

My dad made his contact with the two men, and for months after the Mississippi Herald shared the announcement he spent evenings engrossed in extensive interviews and tape recordings setting about his own probing adventure into the minds of the men.  The discourse led to sketches that vividly documented the encounter with the aliens.  Dad reveled in the stories the two men shared—how the alien ship had hovered over the banks of the river, levitated the men into the ship, one drawn into the whirring monster of a ship as the other stood frozen in fear. They shared how the aliens poked about in every orifice of their bodies while they lay strapped to a cold, surgical-like table.  Eventually, a 45-RPM record of the interviews was cut along with grosses of fabric patches, my dad’s rhetoric of choice.  All of the painstakingly created artifacts were shipped and distributed nationwide in anticipation that the story would go viral.  What my dad yearned for was that the evidence provided would be considered reliable and his belief of the existence of intelligent life form in outer space would be authenticated.  It would have meant the opportunity to engage further in the exploration of the universe-a bridge to return to his love, the cosmos.

But while my dad worked ardently to document the believer’s side of the story, working against him in forces were the local police and the military.  They administered lie detector tests and blood tests followed by a full battery of psychological investigations to determine for themselves the validity of the men’s story.  Unlike my dad, they combed through the evidence attempting to uncover holes in the testimony and agonizingly painful recollections of the men who were ultimately deemed sane, less than inebriated yet still under the influence of alcohol, and not fully proven to be liars.  Worse though, after all the months of investigations, they were forgotten, left alone to live out their traumatized lives, suspiciously not worthy of being fully believed.  It also left my dad’s dream of proving extraterrestrial life and the possibility of a place in the space program crushed, again.

Not too long ago, a young writer, attempting to bring to life the story from almost a half a century gone by, searched out and found Hickson, one of the “alleged” witnesses of the encounter.  He was living a simple life, trying to forget his experience that brought him a few months of fame, albeit not the most favorable in light of his current state of being.  He had managed to disappear to the small town having lost contact with his nocturnal fishing buddy, who himself had fared emotionally much worse afterward for his audacity to share what had happened to him.  Hickson was not very interested in talking about it again, but was willing to share that he still stood firm in his statements of that fright filled summer evening.  He reiterated that he wanted to be left alone stating that his wish was to be made clear if the article was ever published.   The reporter made no claim to his own theory of life in the heavens one way or the other, rather he wrote his goal was to examine further the testimony of the man, and to glean any information of the event that may have surfaced since the early years of the investigation.

I used to pull out my personal copy of the 45-record on occasion.  As a teacher it made for a good Socratic Seminar; the picture of the patch that I produced during the discussion particularly generated interesting conjectures and syllogistic conclusions.  There is a published book on UFO’s that also provides a snippet of the story of both men.  When I shared it with my students and told how my dad gathered the men’s evidence and supported his claims with their testimony, I claimed that I didn’t think my dad’s purpose was to get rich, monetarily anyway.  Although I do remember conversations he had with my mother about how much money he had sunk into the endeavor, and how he had hoped that it would pay off.  Rather, I shared that my dad wanted more than anything to make his dream come true, which was to provide reasonable evidence for the world to gain a general acceptance that life as we know it on Earth may not be all there is in the galaxy we live in or even those galaxies close to ours, such that they are.  He wanted to prove that life exists that is the same or similar to ours here on Earth.  Although he was an agnostic by practice, and did not believe in a higher power as many spiritualists and Christians do, he was not inclined to be so self-centered as an Earthling not to believe that there was something or someone out there beyond what could be seen and not yet proved.  And if that dream could have been verified and accepted by man, that would have meant that he was rich beyond any amount of money that would have ever lined his pockets.

My dad has passed on now.  My hope is that he has found his bliss among the aliens beyond our sky.


Applying What I Learned From The Southern Arizona Writing Project

Building A Community Of Writers:

A Reflection On The Writing Process


I have been teaching for 20+ years, and until this past year obtained the same results in my students’ writing: stories or essays most fat with errors ranging from spelling and grammar to thinly outlined ideas and skeletonized or faulty organization. As a reflective teacher, I ended each year with the promise that I would do something different the following year, particularly developing better procedures to encourage students to revise their written work and that of their peers. I blamed the students for their lack of attention or willingness to revise. Adding to all of this was the students’ belief that an assignment was finished when a name and date were written on a final copy, many almost mirror images of the original. Understandably, every year my students made marginal improvements in their writing.

Unfortunately, I contributed to my students’ pushback to make significant changes to their writing. I collected their work and set about the task of correcting all their mistakes. Albeit an honest attempt to assist the students to see where they had the greatest room for improvement, I marked their errors leaving them nothing to do but to review the corrections, record the 6-Traits grade in their “Completed Assignments” list, and file the scratched up text in their portfolio. Even though the writing they created should have guaranteed greater improvements due to the sheer amount they produced, the instruction I provided lacked the foundation and language necessary to build a community of writers able to employ the necessary writing processes. I continued to create a nominally effective writing class.

Being a reflective teacher, I naturally provided a student reflection piece to my instruction. I created revision checklists, conducting short ‘lectures’ of what to do with them. The checklists included stems that asked, Have you revised?, Have you edited?, What did you revise? and of course the accountability component of Write the name of the person who revised or edited your paper. As my teaching experience progressed, I added modeling to my lesson plan. I picked a couple of compliant students and contrived a writing workshop session. It helped a little, and I felt better about my instruction. Yet my students’ writing habits were in effect static.

As a rule, I made a least one revision to the checklist format each year, all the while thinking that I had made it better. Yet last year, during the planning stage of my Teaching Demo during my ISI experience with The Southern Arizona Writing Project, a review of my most recent checklist and ensuing discussions identified the root of my students’ confusion and ‘willingness’ to use it. The tool was too prescriptive, hence the rationale for haphazard results. Review of student work revealed most changes to my students’ texts were in the area of grammatical or lexical adjustments. Ideas and organization were rarely developed further, if at all. The challenge for me then became to rectify my approach to the Writing Process assuring that revision behaviors lead the way and editing brought up the rear.

The introduction of the Writing Protocol from The National Writing Project transformed my instruction. It built in fidelity with a research based script for its implementation. The power the shared language had on the dynamics and efficacy of my instruction was immediate. Introducing students to the language of Bless, Address, and Press and front loading them with simple phrases such as, “I like how you….” or “I want to know more about…” provided a foundation to assure that my students could begin to provide feedback to each other immediately. The protocol left me free to listen to students’ writing giving me the ability to provide on the spot feedback rather than viewing a hard copy submitted at the end of the class. It alleviated the temptation for me to “mark it up.” Additionally, the protocol set up the critical modeling component of a well-rounded lesson for my students.

Having the opportunity to write about what they wanted was crucial in the early weeks of developing the community’s culture. Consequently, students’ writing was of high interest to their peers. Students were actively engaged in listening from the beginning. The community of writers developed and gained momentum even as students were required to write more difficult formats, such as persuasive and argumentative texts. Because of the modeling and their peers’ assistance, students learned to find their own voices and vocabulary for feedback. Moreover, they were able to critique their own writing as they shared in their writing groups. Even during Author’s Chair many students were able to make notes for revision as they read their work.

Reviewing the myriad videos and photos taken throughout the year, I liken the community of writers I facilitated to the life cycle of the butterfly. They were eggs when they entered the classroom door, feeding on the time devoted to writing and talking about their interests and what they had written. They broke through their shells as they applied the Writing Protocol practices, modeling and hanging on to procedures and adding to the layers of a shared language. By the last part of the year my students had broken free of their chrysalis’ exploring language for its various purposes. They flew in various directions exploring different content and formats, but they remained focused on the need and desire to search out the nectar of feedback from each other. It was an amazing and productive year, the best for me, so far. I am excited for new eggs in the fall.