What is literacy?

Museum of the Navy

Quarterman shipfitter looks at blueprints, 1943. Museum of the U.S. Navy

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another and empowers them to achieve things they never thought possible. Communication and connection are the basis of who we are and how we live together and interact with the world.” 

International Literacy Association, 2018

On the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. In the face of changes in staff, in curriculum, in differing perspectives on literacy instruction.

I am defined by literacy. I’ve loved reading and writing all my life. My professional work is literacy: As a coach, I collaborate with teacher colleagues across grade levels on how to best teach English Language Arts in ways that meet the needs of all students.

When it comes to defining literacy, I rely on the International Literacy Association, for no two dictionaries, and hardly any two people, seem to have the same idea of it. Some believe it’s just reading and writing. But it’s so much more . . . .

In the ILA definition several things jump out at me, beginning with

the ability to interpret

in any context

I think of my grandfather.

Over a hundred years ago, my grandfather left school to work on his family’s little North Carolina farm. He married during the Great Depression. When tenant farming, sharecropping, and other odd jobs like painting houses weren’t enough for him to “make a go of it,” Granddaddy rode with men from his hometown to Newport News, Virginia, in hopes of landing steady work at the shipyard.

Granddaddy became a shipwright, responsible for helping build the keels of ships, less than a year before Pearl Harbor;  when America entered World War II, production continued around the clock with the invention of a new thing: aircraft carriers.

He made his living; he took care of his own. He retired from the shipyard when I was five. He and Grandma moved back home and there I spent my childhood summers.

In the evenings he sat in his recliner while Grandma and I sat on the living room floor. She spread the newspaper out on the carpet, handed me the “funnies” section, and then she read the rest of the paper in a loud, clear voice to Granddaddy—his years around industrial equipment in the Yard had made him hard of hearing.

I eventually asked:

Why do you read the paper to Granddaddy? Why doesn’t he just read it?

He can’t, Dear. 

Why? Is something wrong with his eyes?

No, no. He just never learned to read, not much, really. He quit school in the fourth grade to help on his family’s farm, you see . . . .

I was stunned. This was the first time I’d known of anyone who couldn’t read.

It hurt my heart for him.

But I later learned that he could read intricate blueprints and build to those precise measurements. That’s what he did at the shipyard all those years.

It’s something I can’t do.

 the ability to identify, understand, interpret

using visual

materials across disciplines

and in any context

My grandfather was always a farmer first; he read the days, the seasons, the weather.

He read nature. When he and I came across strange worms gliding over his front sidewalk, he couldn’t identify them but instinctively knew to leave them alone. Decades later I researched them (land planarians) and learned that if he’d tried to crush or chop them up, every piece would have replicated and they would have destroyed the good earthworms that kept his garden so abundant and healthy.

Signs, symbols, meanings, he understood. Not in or from books, but from life. He possessed visual-spatial acuity. Keen intuition. He read the times in which he lived, comprehended that the way of life he and the generations before him had known was passing forever. He reached for better things. He worked hard. He collaborated with a lot of different people. The shipyard management eventually asked him to be a supervisor, and that’s where his courage ran out. It required regular paperwork. He declined the position.

My heart ached again, deeply, on learning that.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another

and empowers them to achieve things

they never thought possible.

That belief is behind everything I do with teachers and students.

The greatest man I’ve ever known indirectly taught me, years ago, that reading and writing are the keys to opening doors of possibility and opportunity. He also taught me that literacy is so much more, long before this digital age.

We have to be able to read words and ascertain their meaning, but our survival depends on more. We must be able to read the times, read people, read what we see, what we are creating. And make sense of it. We must interpret. That’s the entire, inherent value of reading and writing in the first place.

We must communicate well with one another, recognizing that each of us possesses different strengths, all of which are valuable to helping each other. Communication is the keel on which all good relationships are built. We must speak, but we must listen more, absorb more, understand more.

Communication and connection are the basis of who we are

and how we live together

and interact with the world.

My grandfather survived—his family survived—because of his clarity of vision and sense of purpose.  He knew he lived through unique times. In his last years he preserved his life experiences for future generations not by penning a memoir but by recording his stories on a set of audiotapes. I don’t think he ever knew just how unique, how extraordinary, he was. In my mind I see him now—thick white hair, plaid shirt, gray pants with a black belt, black shoes, his big, wrinkled, work-worn hands folded in his lap, leaning back in his recliner listening to my grandmother reading. In addition to the nightly newspaper, she read the Bible through to him each year.

And so, on the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. I think of the constant adaptation of teachers to the times and the changing tides of literacy instruction; of students, each of whom has strengths and gifts that may not be obvious at first. I think of their futures and know that clarity of vision and a sense of purpose are vital to their learning and well-being. To all of our well-being. I think of my grandfather reading complex blueprints and going forth to build something previously unknown in a vastly changing world. I think about life literacy as well as literacy for life. How we live together and interact with the world.

For, in truth, we are building the world.

*******

Here’s the story of Granddaddy and I encountering those unknown worms long ago: First do no harm.

A fine mess

After being away on vacation all last week, my first order of business on returning home was to check on the four baby house finches that hatched in the wreath on my front door. I’d been chronicling their development daily, so I knew many changes would occur in my absence.

Here is what I discovered:

1) The babies are now well-feathered; their skin-head mohawks have become mere wisps upon their downy crowns.

2) Two of the babies can fly. They sailed out of the nest this morning as I approached. The other two stayed put, their bright little eyes regarding me with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension.

3) Their nest is one spectacular conglomeration of droppings.

To be fair, the droppings are only around the rim; the mother collects them there. What a job, building a wall of excrement. Worse than diapers. When I first wrote of the perfect, flower-graced nest, the pale blue eggs, the hatching of the tiny pink nestlings, I concentrated on the beauty and wonder of life. I pointed out that the collective noun for a group of finches is a charm.

And charmed I was.

There is nothing charming about that nest now.

The fledglings themselves, of course, are enchanting. They’ll soon be gone, the circle of life will go on, and all that will remain of these magical moments is a monumental mess.

But that’s the story of life. It’s messy. It can’t be comprised solely of breathtaking beauty and newness; if it were, we could not recognize these moments for what they are. They’d lose their value. Only when contrasted with ugliness, hardships, and pain can we see and cherish the beautiful when it comes. We inevitably deal with messes, some that occur naturally, some created by others, some of our own making. Therein lie all the stories . . .

Which makes me think of writing. This nest is a tangible (although I do not wish to touch it) reminder of these commonalities:

-Life is messy.

-Writing is messy.

-Thinking is messy.

-Teaching is messy.

To do any of these well, we have to be willing to accept and even embrace the messiness. We must certainly persevere through it to arrive at the beautiful. It takes courage, stamina, and a lot of hard work, to write well, to think well, to teach well, to live well.

The strength to do so, I believe, lies in believing that the beautiful will come. It’s all a matter of trust, of faith. And pressing on.

Although I was appalled by the quantity of accumulated—um, bird-doo—around the nest, I was also amazed that two of my four little finches could fly. Last night they couldn’t; today they can. Tomorrow the others might.

This is a message to me about readiness.

Everyone arrives as a writer, a thinker, a teacher, a good practitioner of life, in their own time. Lots of messes will be made along the way. Sorting this out is what grows us. One by one, as children, as adults, as long as we live, we are continually growing the necessary wings to fly beyond where we are. And it’s truly a collective, collaborative growth; we are to nudge each other when needed, but not too hard, too soon. We’re not to hold back, to hold one another back, simply because we cannot see all that lies ahead and for fear of navigating the unknown. Knowledge comes by trying. By experiencing. By taking risks. There’s an implicit difference between throwing caution to the wind and taking a leap of faith, that being potential self-destruction versus healthy maturation. These finches know. As the day wears on, I watch the two fledglings that can fly going back and forth from the eaves to the nest, coaching their other two siblings on how to do it. See see see, I hear them cheeping. A bit at a time, a bit at a time. At any moment, those last two are going to get up on that nasty, messy rim and let go.

In more ways than one . . . .

So you make a mess. So what? So you’re alive and growing.

Tomorrow you stretch your newest feathers and find you can move on.

To where the beautiful awaits.

Enriched

Coyote pups

Four Coyote Pups by Den. Colorado. nature 80020CC BY

As sixth grade ended, my teacher recommended me for a summer enrichment camp.

“You’ll love it,” she said. “Every day for two weeks, you’ll get to study drama, writing, and photography.”

I desperately wanted to go.

When I brought the paperwork home to my dad, he frowned.

“I don’t think so,” he told me.

“But, Daddy, it’s a special thing. You have to be invited by your teacher and I get to study drama and writing. It’s going to be so much fun. I can even ride the summer school bus to get there every day—please, Daddy?”

“It costs, you know.” He sounded tired.

The attendance fee, I think, was twenty-five dollars. Maybe thirty. It didn’t seem like a lot to me, but I knew Daddy worried about bills. My mother had ongoing medical expenses; my sister and I took weekly allergy shots. I knew not to bother Daddy when he sat at the table with the checkbook—I wouldn’t go near the kitchen at all, for then he wore a worse frown than the one he was wearing now.

No point in pressing him. I went to my bedroom, shut the door, and cried.

Later that day, or maybe the next, Grandma called. After chatting awhile with my father about news, how our all of our relatives were in their little North Carolina hometown and how everybody was there in Virginia, she asked to talk to me.

Daddy handed me the phone. It had a long cord—really long. From its wall mount, the phone cord reached the floor. It would stretch from the kitchen down the hall to my room, where I could sit on my bed and talk in private.

“Hi, Grandma.”

“Hello, Dear,” she said, the warmth of it like June sunlight bursting through a break in the clouds.  “I just wanted to hear your voice.”

My tears welled again. “I miss you.”

“Is something the matter?”

I told her all about the camp, about Daddy saying no because of the cost.

“How much is it?”

I told her.

“I’ll pay for it,” she said, uncharacteristically crisp. I could almost see the lift of her chin, the flash in her blue eyes. “I believe children should have the chance to do some things they really want to do.”

“Thank you,” I sniffled into the phone.

“Let me talk to your Daddy.”

And so it was that I went to the summer camp on the benevolence of my greatest advocate, Grandma.

Riding the bus with high school kids having to attend summer school in order to pass their grades was an adventure unto itself, but beyond that, camp was a laboratory of creativity.

I encountered pantomime for the first time, communicating story with the body, without words. I wasn’t especially good at it but some of my fellow campers—aged eleven, twelve, thirteen—were astonishing. One boy mimed being closed in by a shrinking box so well that the box was virtually visible. I watched, holding my breath, enthralled.

The drama teachers grouped us into fours, gave the groups four words, and challenged us with writing cohesive skits with these four words embedded in dialogue. My group’s words were—to the best of my memory—lion, clock, heart, flies. We were timed on the writing of the skit and the rehearsal of it, including the creation of minimalist props out of construction paper. My group, with me as scribe, wrote a farcical story of a doctor having to treat a patient who was attacked by a lion and who got away by throwing a clock at it, to which the Groucho Marx-esque doctor remarks: “My, how time flies!”

We entitled it “Dr. Heartbeat, Dr. Heartbeat” after a TV series that none of us really knew much about except that it seemed weird and therefore perfect: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. 

We performed last for our fellow campers, to a standing ovation and teachers wiping their tears at our over-the-top slapstick antics. Yours Truly played the hapless doctor.

We studied fairy tales; we wrote and illustrated our own, to be “published” in laminated books we could keep. I wrote “The Littlest Mermaid,” having long been captivated by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Ages before Disney brought us red-headed Ariel, my pink-haired mermaid battled jealous bullies. When I wrote The other mermaids hated her, the writing teacher said, “Hate is a strong, terrible word. Do you think it belongs in a story for children?”

I revised: The other mermaids didn’t like her. 

Ever since, I’ve thought about the power of one word, and when is right or not right to use it. And audience. And whether children should be shielded from the word hate, and when are fairy tales just for children?

In photography class, we campers built cameras from shoe boxes, learning about light leaks and timed exposures. I was able to produce a picture of a basset hound (they don’t move a lot) and my classmate sitting in a tree. The teacher explained that we were “photojournalists”—we’d write about the process of building and using our cameras, what worked, what didn’t, and why. He then encouraged us to write stories about the images we took and developed.

For a final writing adventure, the writing teachers invited us to look through a stack of glossy, full-page photographs. I chose two: One of a single coyote standing in a canyon, the other of four little coyote pups. I was taken by the animals’ beauty and the warm, reddish colors of the rocks.

Trouble was, I knew nothing of coyotes beyond the Road Runner cartoons. The animals in these photos were unexpectedly magnificent.

Thus began my first real foray into research. It began with place: Where do coyotes live? I needed to know. At home that night, I cracked open a dusty encyclopedia from the bottom shelf of the living room bookcase. After poring over the coyote entry, I chose Pueblo, Colorado, for my coyotes’ home. And having learned, somberly, that man is the coyotes’ worst enemy, I had an idea for a plot: Survival. After the mother or the father coyote is shot, the mate takes the pups on a journey to a new home. I also encountered the word ravenous for the first time . . . and when my teachers asked me to read my story for the gathering of families at the program on the last day of camp, I mispronounced it, saying that the coyotes ate ra-VEEN-yus-ly. “I wish I’d heard you read it aloud first,” a teacher apologized. “It’s RA-ven-ous-ly.”

Alas. Reader’s vocabulary.

It was decades and decades ago, but the richness of the camp is with me still: Every day an adventure, with something to discover, to explore, to synthesize into something new; an extension of myself, what I love, who I am. A wealth of learning compounded with interest, over time.

That Grandma made possible, because she believed it was important, even necessary. I later learned how much she wanted to take piano lessons as a child and her family couldn’t afford it. A charitable young preacher’s wife eventually taught her how to play.

And, ever the angel wielding the sword on my behalf, Grandma was willing to take a piercing in return; she sent me to the camp even though she knew it would shorten the time I’d spent at her house that summer.

Because, for some investments, the payoff is incalculable. Grandma understood this.

And even then I understood that I was, in so many ways, enriched beyond measure.

Help

Help

“Help.” James JohnstoneCC BY

As I entered the darkened cinema auditorium, an attendant handed me a pack of tissues.

Foreshadowing at its best.

The tears come at various points throughout the viewing of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—the lovingly documented life and work of Fred Rogers.

Mr. Rogers operated from a profound wellspring of love and empathy for children. At the outset of the movie, he’s young, seated at a piano. The film is black-and-white. With his hands on the keys, Mr. Rogers speaks of modulations: “It’s fairly easy to go from, say, a C to an F,” he says, playing each chord. “But to go from an F to an F-sharp,” he models, “you must navigate all sorts of things.” He saw the new medium of communication, television, as a means of helping children navigate the modulations of life. Fears. Changes. Questions. Emotions. A country at war. Hatred. Not understanding. Divorce. Illness. Death.

I watched and listened with the ears of an educator and the heart of a writer. This is my work, too, I thought, only my medium is paper and pencil. 

Then, after having helped generations of children through the modulations of life, came 9/11.

Mr. Rogers, then retired, was asked to help, his voice, his presence, once again a ray of light, this time cutting through incomprehensible darkness. In the documentary, the sorrow is etched on his face. He spoke of being tikkun olam, “repairers of creation.”

With his words I saw the world in all its brokenness, violence, despair . . . and thought, It begins with the world inside us. Repair begins there, within each of us, before we can work on the world without.

I thought of children I’ve known through the years, finding their voices through writing, facing their fears, overcoming them, gaining strength and courage. Children who have suffered loss and grappled with it in their own words. I’ve read the haunting account of a child being tortured in another country and celebrating his new life in the United States. I thought it was fiction until the third-person changed to first near the narrative’s end; the teenager was writing about himself. A second-grader whose mother was remarrying and her fear: “Will my stepfather like me?” A fifth-grader lashing out at her mother in the very first line of her memoir over how many times they’d had to move, and how it hard it was to have any friends.

And with the words that came from within, anger eventually melted to forgiveness, fears pointed toward hope, insecurities gave way to confidence and validation. With the writing, the stories became those of enduring, of overcoming, of celebration.

Repairing within.

I thought about how some educators look at writing only as a means of retelling what you know from what you’ve read, or a standard to be delivered, assessed, and crossed off a list. No time for this “touchy-feely” kind of  thing . . . yet the one thing that best helps children understand themselves, the world around them, and their place in it, is writing. Freedom versus constriction. Discovering potential, seeing possibilities, problem-solving. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Why is the goal “college and career ready?” How about life ready?

For the modulations don’t end in childhood, do they, Grown-Up.

Mr. Rogers spoke of his own childhood and what his mother told him whenever there was a catastrophe, or news of tragedy, on the air; she said “Look for the helpers. There will always be helpers, even if on the sidelines . . . because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

Look for the helpers. Repairers of the world.

Then be the hope.

And . . . write.

Writing changes the world

All good things must come to an end . . . while I do not believe that phrase entirely, it certainly applies to the Teacher Summer Writing Institute sponsored by my district.

And what an ending Day Five brought.

With a focus on “Writing to Reform” and the driving question How do we use writing to change or transform our classrooms, schools, communities, society, for the better?—a panel of professionals addressed our K-12 cross-curricular educators who’d spent the preceding four days growing as writers and teachers of writing.

These gracious panelists: A Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army currently working on his PhD at North Carolina State University, a nuclear engineer, a kindergarten teacher and a first grade teacher who attended the district’s first Teacher Summer Writing Institute last year,  a freelance writer,  a high school English teacher, and a rising high school freshman.

A hallowed hush descended on the room as the panel was introduced and began to speak with authority on the power and influence of writing.

Q: Why is writing important in your profession?

Lieutenant Colonel: I can address this from three perspectives: As a professor, as an engineer, and as an Army officer. As an officer, the way I write a report on subordinates determines the rest of their career. In this kind of writing I am required to be concise and effective in a very short period of time. As an engineer, I must communicate in writing the plans, drawings, and procedures from the structural engineers to those who will build. I am published in a number of professional journals and I must teach my students to communicate effectively as civil engineers. I teach them to write as the Army taught me when I first came to West Point: Precise language spoken precisely.

Nuclear Engineer: My work is writing—procedural manuals. These are a product of words and documents. My biggest struggle with young engineers is that they think what matters is their technical ability, but it doesn’t matter how much you know; if you can’t write effectively, you look stupid. The flip side is if you can write effectively, you sometimes look smarter than you are. I always thought of myself as a strong math and science guy. When I was applying to enter the university to study engineering, I took a series of tests to see which courses I was eligible to skip. The only ones I tested out of were composition and writing. Writing—not just writing, but being able to write well—is necessary to success. Because I could write well, I was able to advance in my career in ways that I couldn’t have otherwise.  The ability to write well is absolutely critical to perception and success.

Kindergarten Teacher: The great thing in kindergarten is that everybody sees themselves as writers. They’re excited to put their thoughts on paper. They do it with so much enthusiasm. Without a lot of opportunities to write, they develop poor self-efficacy.

First Grade Teacher: I communicate constantly in writing with parents, administrators, and colleagues. I work with instructional teams to revise and edit lessons for first grade. Writing instruction is not all about the technical aspects. A teacher must be able to model excitement and the creativity of writing. This affects students in so many ways; they begin to see many avenues and their own potential. Writing changed the way I teach, even the structure of my day; when you write, you use every part of your brain and you’re better at everything. We get less resistance from students than when we’re just technically-driven. Get the creative part in and make it purposeful.

Freelancer: I make my living by writing and it comes down to two things: One, I have to effectively communicate a point, and Two, I have to tell a story. I have to be engaging. I have to write well, yes, but the real talent lies in the storytelling.

Lieutenant Colonel: If I could add here—even in technical writing you have a story to tell and you have to know it, or you’ll ramble.

Rising High School Freshman: For me, writing helped build my vocabulary. I’ve learned to research to better understand a topic and find evidence. And I’ve learned to look for inspiration for writing.

Q: What is something that you wish all teachers knew about writing? 

First Grade Teacher: All students can write. They all have something to say. Help them find their voices through writing. It opens up the whole learning process. It transforms them. I had an autistic student who didn’t speak but we worked on writing and suddenly he had so much to say. He filled up journal after journal. His mother told me that every time they went to Wal-Mart they bought more journals. He was able to write what he could not speak.

Kindergarten Teacher: Teachers have to be risk-takers. Let loose of the reins and give the job back to the students. Don’t think all the time about covering genres and following the unit plan—take a step back, give the students a framework, and turn loose of your hold. Let the STUDENTS do the writing instead of you doing all the hard work.

Freelancer: I can speak to empowerment. I teach writing to prisoners in North Carolina. It’s a powerful thing to see, someone with no voice suddenly having a voice. Despite all the restrictions, if you can write, you are free. 

Co-Facilitator (Me, interjecting because I can’t contain myself)That’s because our need to write is universal; it’s about the human spirit.

[Nodding heads all around]

Nuclear Engineer: This reminds me of the movie Freedom Writers with Hillary Swank, how she had a class of students out of control, struggling with so many aspects of life and how people didn’t believe in them . . . she gave them journals to write about whatever they wanted, and they only turned them in to her if they wanted her to read them. Before long, she had stacks of journals to read. The class was transformed by the students finding their voices through writing.

Q: How did you learn to write? 

Rising High School Freshman: It started at home for me, but I remember the first time I enjoyed writing in elementary school. We got to write a Halloween story and it was so much fun, so creative. I became a strong writer when I learned more technical parts in seventh grade with argument writing.

Freelancer: I was the kid writing community newsletters and putting them in people’s mailboxes . . . I had older sisters and I learned a lot about writing from them.

First Grade Teacher: I always found writing hard. I cried over papers I had to write in college but I had a great teacher who had us read Oral History by Lee Smith. That book changed my life with the love of story and writing.

Kindergarten Teacher: My senior year of high school is the first time I got a writing assignment with really “juicy” content, comparing literature to current events. I began to be a critical writer when I was working on my Master’s degree, writing on things I was passionate about connected to education and research.

Nuclear Engineer: I learned to write well in high school. I had great teachers, but students can be very immature . . . we took a poor view of the English teachers. They were called “the three witches” and “the dragon lady” for pushing the students to be better writers. I’ve felt bad about it over the years. At reunions, I’ve discovered that many of my classmates have also realized the benefit these teachers gave them years before . . . their contribution to students goes beyond what these teachers ever knew.

Lieutenant Colonel: I thought I knew how to write until I got to West Point. It’s intentional on the part of the Army English teachers to point out that there are always things to learn. A professor actually wrote WTF? in the margin of one of my papers. I had to ask what that meant and he told me . . . What was missing in high school was FEEDBACK. West Point gave so much meaningful feedback. To graduate from West Point, you have to pass a three-hour professional writing exam that’s written by hand; you must pass even if you have a 4.0 GPA, or you’re going back home. Practice and feedback are key. So, I thought I knew how to write when I went to get my Master’s, and again when I started to be published . . . but every time, I had something to learn—there are always things to learn.

Q: How have you used writing to advocate for change? 

Lieutenant Colonel: I’m on a committee for the sustainability of the built environment for engineers in the United States, part of an international task force for standards of sustainability of the built environment for the entire engineering industry. I have to communicate to readers the importance of the way we use our resources . . . again, I must use precise language, spoken precisely. Even in this work, I must tell a story and why it’s important. I have to know my audience to be effective—the way I  address a four-star General is different from the way I address a lieutenant. You affect change differently by how well you write.

Nuclear Engineer: The way I use writing to advocate for change is usually through problem-solving. The nuclear industry is “siloed,” insular, versus the way other industries communicate with each other. I write about safety and health-related functions for equipment. There are less than a hundred nuclear power plants in America and few manufacturers are willing to jump through hoops to meet nuclear standards, as the certification process is very expensive and the market is so small. We must use commercial suppliers and certifiers to figure out the quality of equipment . . . they’re as good or better than those in the nuclear industry and less expensive. I must be able to convince other people of this in writing when I go to Washington to speak to the regulation committee on leading change for cost-saving in the nuclear industry. Again, I am telling a story, and what matters is how well I tell it.

Audience Member 1: I am beginning to redefine story in my mind . . . you have a story in every content area, how you interpret information, what you do with it . . . .

Audience Member 2: I am seeing how vitally important it is that we write in every class, every day.

Lieutenant Colonel: Yes. Problem-solving is the story of the engineer. Do the math; now it makes sense. That’s the story.

Kindergarten Teacher: We advocate for change when we work together as teachers. Everyone needs to grow as a writer, to be brave enough to create change. When my colleague and I took the information from last year’s Teacher Summer Writing Institute and created professional development for our staff, teachers were shocked at the writing they produced and the emotions they felt. It changed their beliefs about themselves as writers. They wanted to keep going but we ran out of staff development days.

First Grade Teacher: We made that writing experience interactive and gave our teachers things they could use in the classroom, such as how to get the students to self-assess their writing, to be aware of the progress they’re making, and to get them exited about it.

Freelancer: I write for change in things I’m passionate about—nature, the environment, diversity, making the world a better place. I want people to understand, to be educated about these things, but I have to be careful in my approach. I can’t just write an article about the importance of losing our pollinators, for example; I have to couch it in a story of a beautiful garden. I am currently writing an article on knowing who our neighbors are, so that we can understand each other. Although I write from this base of belief, I have to inspire while I educate. I will inform and educate through story, by writing about ethnic markets and the diverse foods.

Rising High School Freshman: I wrote a speech on changing gun laws.

First Grade Teacher: I write to parents a lot about the impact of technology and social media on children. They’re losing a sense of sympathy and empathy for others.  I write to promote conversations in families, because relationships are being affected and people don’t always realize it. Kindergarten and first grade students don’t know how to regulate their emotions and responses to others.

Kindergarten Teacher: Listening is so important. Being able to speak your mind leads to understanding the need to be an active listener which leads to formulating opinions—we have to be able to talk to each other. To converse.

English Teacher (via Google Hangout): I encourage students to write about issues important to them, to get their facts, to start small. I ask, “What’s your motivation? What’s your position?” They have to be clear in this in order to persuade, and I encourage them to write letters to editors on the things that matter to them.

Q (from audience)I would like to know the main things that you would tell high school kids about technical versus narrative writing.

Freelancer: You have to know how to articulate an idea.

Lieutenant Colonel: Map the story out first. People forget that in technical writing there’s still a story to tell. Even though there are charts, figures, bullets, there’s still a story. Technical writing is usually more precise than narrative. Most high school students’ experience with writing is about a book they didn’t want to read in the first place. They often don’t get to write about what matters to them until they go to college and get in their major.

Nuclear Engineer: I think there are more similarities than differences between technical and narrative writing, such as conciseness. My brother is a writer and editor. I once wrote a paper that I was pretty proud of and asked him to take a look. He said, “You’ve taken 2000 words to say what you could have said in 1000.” Without knowing anything at all about my topic, he cut the paper by half and it was so much better. I was shocked by how many unnecessary words I’d used, how much flowery language. That applies to any type of writing; you’re not always trying to whisk the reader away to Narnia.

[Aside: How personally delightful that a nuclear engineer should reference Narnia! I am compelled to support his point with writing advice from Narnia creator C.S. Lewis himself: “Know exactly what you want to say and say exactly that.” ]

Q: What’s your writing process? 

Rising High School Freshman: It’s different depending on the type of writing. When I get an idea I want to write about, I do research. I start collecting facts and evidence to support it. I get inspiration from a lot of things and sometimes I have to start writing even if I am not sure of the beginning or the end, because I can go back to those.

Freelancer: I know my idea because it’s my assignment. I do a major word dump first to get everything on paper. I keep a notebook in my bag and one by my chair, even while I’m working on the laptop, to capture ideas. I label files on my computer with the name of the article I am writing and I dump articles I might use in it. Once I’ve written everything out, I start “whittling away”—it’s organic, I just sort of know what fits. I keep rearranging until all that’s kept tells the story I want to tell. I save everything I cut in a “might use” file. I am in a couple of writing groups and I always have someone look at my work before I send it for publication. I have a friend who’s not a writer, but she’s a reader, and she’s excellent for telling me if the story makes sense or not.

Lieutenant Colonel: When I’m writing an article for publication, I can’t write an introduction or an abstract first. I write the research first and then I write the introduction and the abstract.

First Grade Teacher: I brainstorm and prewrite in my head. Then I write it all out by hand, get it all down. What I want to say changes while I write. I do a lot of research for support while I write, to be sure of my own understanding of the topic.

Kindergarten Teacher: I write a lot of curriculum. I brainstorm and map on paper first, then I go to the computer. Once I’ve finished writing, I take a break to let things marinate. Then I look over it and send it to teachers for their suggestions. I’m slow, methodical, and careful.

English Teacher (via Google Hangout):  My writing is all over the place! I get through the drafting as soon as possible. I go back, paragraph by paragraph, to be sure I said what I intended to say.

Engineer: The best word for my process is iterative. I have to keep going over what I write. The only way I am going to make progress with the writing is to schedule chunks of time to immerse in the level needed to get it done, such as four hours with no distractions.

Q: What parting advice can you give to K-12 teachers about the importance of teaching writing?

English Teacher (via Google Hangout): Students have to have big chunks of time to write. I tell them that if you want to get better at writing, you have to write.

Lieutenant Colonel: Your writing style follows your learning style. If your learning style is sequential, that’s how you’ll write. If you’re a global or big-picture learner, that’s how you’ll start writing; you’ll bring in the steps later. However your students learn is the most efficient way to teach them to write, because that’s how they process information. How I process information is how I will communicate. It takes time to know the students.

Nuclear Engineer: People who come to my company who are poor writers —it is immensely difficult to turn them into even mediocre writers. This is why the kindergarten through through high school teaching job is so important.

Freelancer: Technology use starts so young—KEEP TEACHING WRITING. We are becoming writers who don’t write. Even as professionals. An example of this: Doctors communicate by email now instead of phone calls and just this week I received a message from my doctor in which you appeared as u.

*******

Throughout the panel discussion, I wrote notes so fast that I can hardly decipher some of them now; I filled multiple pages of my notebook, front and back.

As I listened to this panel of extraordinary people speaking on the universality and power of writing, these two thoughts took shape in my mind:

In the end, it’s all about story. For all of us.

Writing changes the world.

I thought about the one word I’d chosen earlier to encapsulate the entire week’s experience: Sanctuary. A safe place to be, to write, to think, to arrive at deeper knowing. For everyone.

The panel discussion came to an end. The second annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute came to an end.

But I know that within each person who was there, something new has begun in some way. As a writer, as a teacher of writing. When the world within us changes for the better, so does the world itself.

That good thing never ends.

Stone speaks

img_4963

Author Nic Stone shares her passion and insight with teachers.

I scribbled notes as fast as I could while Nic Stone spoke to the gathering of teachers yesterday.

Stone is the author of the young adult novel Dear Martin. She’s straightforward, funny, warm, and passionate about reading and writing. The teachers are K-12 cross-curricular educators from across my district who’ve chosen to attend our second annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute—an entire week dedicated to growing as writers and teachers of writing. As a co-facilitator of this event, I sat in the back of the room for the panoramic view: The writing guru, seated comfortably on a tabletop, delivering her wisdom to the crowd who eagerly awaited.

Here are my favorite words of Stone:

“Literacy is about collaboration. Reading and writing are collaborative efforts. We have to be able to talk to each other.”

“I wanted to write from an early age but it took me until age twenty-eight to really try . . .  finding your voice is validating yourself and what you think and feel . . . READ what makes you think and feel.”

“Write for yourself first.”

“The beauty of writing is that it is always in your head.”

“You don’t have to write every day, but you have to develop the habit of writing.”

“Writing is solitary. Storytelling is collaborative.”

“Schools with the highest reading and writing successes are those where students have freedom to choose what they want to read and write about. Kids see each other doing it.”

“These are conversations you should be having in your buildings: Why do standards exist? What does it mean to be literate?”

“That you keep on doing the work without answers . . . that shows your amazing strength.”

“There’s no room for being wrong in American schools. Kids need to know it’s okay to fumble; it’s how they learn  . . . they need a soft place to land.”

“Reading and writing can unpack fears.”

“There’s no better way to help students find their power, their agency, their validity as human beings, than in the beauty of books, in words, in writing.”

“The thing about research is how one thing leads you to another. Everything connects. Reading and writing are all about connecting. Our connecting to the world around us, our connecting to each other.”

“Emphasize the fun in research.”

“For authentic writing, voice is more important than grammar. Let students drop commas, play with punctuation, write run-ons, fragments . . . tell them they have to know the rules before they’re allowed to break them.”

“All first drafts are garbage. They’re supposed to be.”

“Do yourself and the kids a favor: Don’t grade first drafts. Assign a date to have students finish them. They’ll have a sense of accomplishment in just finishing. Then after a couple of days, have them go back and revise.”

“I finish writing a draft before I revise, or I’d never finish.”

“Do what’s best for you to get your work on the page . . . it’s just not in the first draft.”

“Your writing doesn’t have to be be good to get an agent. It has to be good to get an editor.

“Always be working on something else. Always.”

“I’m amazed at the compassion I’ve developed just from writing books.”

“Writing is my life. I can’t not do it.”

Stone opened and closed our time together with three-minute timed free writes; the closing prompt: Now that this mess is over, I feel . . . 

My final lines in response, in my journal: I feel validated in so many ways, as teacher, writer, human spirit.

For all of these connect.

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Kindred spirits: My co-facilitators and I with Nic Stone.

*******

See my post Write me for more background on the Summer Teacher Writing Institute and the value of teachers as writers.

That kid

Legos

Legos. qrevolutionCC BY

I woke up thinking of him today.

Don’t know why.

Maybe it’s because another school year just ended and memories are flowing thick and deep, like they always do.

Maybe something subconsciously reminded me of the collective sigh of relief when he finished elementary school and moved on a few years ago.

I am not sure.

But here he is again, so clear in my mind.

He arrived every morning long before the school doors were open, jumping, running on the sidewalks, talking to himself, singing. Staff spent the first few hours of each day trying to calm him down.

My first real encounter with him came in third grade when I, as the literacy coach, worked out of the room across from his classroom. In better moments, he’d appear without warning in my room: “What do you do in here?”

“I plan reading and writing lessons. Sometimes I have reading groups in here. Want to read with me?”

“Naw,” he said, wide-eyed, shaking his head emphatically, bouncing back to his room just as the teacher realized he’d left.

In the worst moments, the teacher came to enlist my help.

“I need a breather,” she said once, gray-faced. “I can’t do anything with him today. Can you please just stay in the room for a few minutes?”

So I stepped in. Everyone was seated, working on something, except . . . that kid. He was standing by a classmate’s desk. Taking things off of it.

“Stop it!” she kept saying.

“What’s going on?” I asked her.

“He’s taking all my supplies that I’m trying to use for this project,” said the exasperated girl.

Leaning down to his eye level, I addressed that kid: “Did you ask her permission to borrow her supplies?”

He snorted and flounced away from me. He kept grabbing pens and markers.

Firmly accentuating every word, I said: “Leave her things alone. If they aren’t yours, do not touch them without permission.”

At this moment, I realized the whole class had stopped working to watch.

He didn’t return the items. Instead, he marched to his desk, took out a wrinkled piece of notebook paper, wrote a word on it, and waved it around in the air:

Bitch

I took odd satisfaction in his spelling the word correctly.

Just then his teacher returned from her “breather.” In fractions of a second, she absorbed the scene. She was livid. The rest is a blur, her ushering that kid out of the room while the others bent quietly back to their work.

He wrote me a note of apology while doing his time in the assistant principal’s office. Delivered it to me himself, later that day.

He’d drawn flowers all over it.

That was the beginning of my being his “safe place.” When he couldn’t function in the classroom setting, his teacher sent him over to me for a few minutes, until he was able to return. One day was especially bad; I cannot remember the details of his actions. His teacher, red-faced and teary-eyed, escorted him over and immediately returned to the rest of her class.

Pacing back and forth like a caged animal, his eyes suddenly landed on the Legos on a table in the wet area of the room. Without a word, he sat at the table, and, block after block, immersed himself in building.

Presently his teacher came back, and on seeing this, turned to me. Turned on me, actually:

“Why are you rewarding his behavior like this? Why should he disrupt the class completely and get to come over here and play?” This teacher, usually so mild-mannered and nurturing, was angry to the point of visibly shaking.

Caught off guard, I took a step back. “I didn’t think of it as a reward, or even playing. He’s decompressing—this seems to be exactly what he needs.”

She stared at me for a long minute. Then she turned to that kid and said, “Are you ready to come back to class?”

He got up without a word and followed her.

Many more times that year he came, played with the Legos for a little while, and went calmly back to class.

I learned, talking to him, listening to him, that his mind functioned in overdrive. Warp speed. Hyper-curious. He asked questions other students didn’t think to, without reservation. He noticed minute details that others, adults included, frequently did not.

Such as, seeing me walking toward him in the hallway: “Hey, Mrs. Haley! Where are you going? What’s wrong with your hip?”

“What?”

“Your hip. One’s higher than the other.”

I looked at his earnest face, stunned. He was right; a touch of scoliosis left one hip slightly higher than the other, which plagues me every time I have to buy pants or jeans, making sure the one side is long enough.

He was also a math whiz. Scored high on his tests. Reading, not so much. He did decide to read with me a time or two. I later watched him work hard on his reading test, but there were too many things vying for his fractured attention; too many choices, too many strategies to remember.

But he tried.

And then he went on to middle school.

One day, at the end of another school year, I was walking through the parking lot with boxes to place in my car when I heard, “HEY, MRS. HALEY!”

—That voice!

A human projectile came from nowhere and threw its arms around me, tight.

That kid.

“Hey!” I said. “It’s you! How are you?”

“Good!” he said. “How’s that hip?”

That kid.

That rare kid, with rare insight and gifts that many may never see.

Woke up thinking of him today.

God, please let him make it.

Most meaningful moments in school: A student’s perspective

Jumping for joy

Jumping for joy. kilgarronCC BY

“So,” I ask the student, “what are some of your favorite memories from all your time in elementary school?”

She’s working on her fifth grade graduation speech. Making this farewell address to the school is part of her official role as Student Council President. She’s struggling with framing her thoughts, which is why I’m here.

She looks off in the distance, past the walls of the room where we’re sitting, scrolling back over the chapters of her young life. I wonder what she’s remembering. Maybe a time she accomplished something she thought she couldn’t? Winning a class competition? A book that a teacher read aloud? A moment in a lesson when she learned something powerful that will remain with her for the rest of her life? I hope that’s it because I want to know it. And tap into it.

Finally she smiles. “There was this one time my first grade teacher just started tossing candy around the room.”

I blink. “Um, okay . . . why did she do that?”

The student shrugs, still smiling. “I don’t know. I don’t think there was a reason. I just remember she had a lot of candy and she started tossing it around for us and the other classes.”

Six years of elementary school and this is her favorite memory.

Having nothing to do with learning, achieving, growing, or rationale . . . but everything to do with spontaneous joy.

“All right then,” I say as I jot notes. “You can put this in your speech. Maybe call it the time you remember it ‘raining candy’ and explain what your teacher did.”

“That’s good,” she nods.

“Can you think of any other special or meaningful moments from all your time here?”

I wait as she scrunches her face a bit, thinking hard. Then another big grin:

“Yeah, the time the fourth grade teachers got together and sang to our classes.”

They sang? I never knew they did this. I’m curious. “Why did the teachers sing to you?”

“Just for fun, I think.”

Her eyes are so bright.

We finish fleshing out the draft of her speech. She is pleased. As she heads back to her classroom, I walk the hallways, replaying the conversation, mulling the moments that hold significance for such an accomplished student.

Just simple, unscripted, uninhibited moments when teachers were having fun.

How few and far between are they?

But how priceless to students, in the long educational scheme of things.

I walk on, carrying both the lightness and the weight of it.

How do I inspire them?

Inspire

Inspire. chattygdCC BY 

The crowd of educators goes to lunch, posting their “gots” and “wants” on a chart as they exit the morning’s session on growing young writers. My co-facilitators and I look over these sticky notes, preparing to address the “wants” in the afternoon when the participants return.

One note in particular grabs my attention:

I want my students to be excited about writing and to write more. How do I inspire them?

“It’s all yours,” say my colleagues.

I smile.

This is what I love.

Educators talking about inspiration. It’s vital to professional development, to the work that we do

To inspire, one must first be inspired.

Author Avi, in a Skype with students at my elementary school a couple of years ago, defined inspiration as breathing life.

Writers are life-breathers.

So are teachers.

Lucy Calkins, speaking of launching writing workshop, says: “No matter how tentative and insecure you may feel, role-play your way into being confident of yourself and your children because they will hitch a ride on your enthusiasm.”

It’s more than modeling the writing; it’s modeling a passion for writing. It’s digging deep within yourself to find your own stories, your own ideas, your own stances, and giving life to them . . .

The crowd returns. Little knots of teachers, support personnel, and administrators spanning kindergarten through high school, chattering, laughing. They take their seats one by one; an air of expectancy settles over all as my co-facilitators and I respond to their “wants.”

It’s my turn.

I want my students to be excited about writing and to write more. How do I inspire them?

“If we want students to get excited about writing, we must be excited about writing. We must write more ourselves, for ourselves first. Walk the walk; if we’re telling them writing is important, we’d better be writing ourselves. That’s why I started my blog, to keep me writing consistently. Tap into your own memories, the things that matter to you. Write in front of the students; show them every step of the way, how the ideas and images come to you, why you want to say what you’re trying to say, why it’s important.  That’s authentic writing. Tell students writing is the closest thing to magic that there is. Show them the power that’s in it. That what THEY think and feel matters. Good writing is labor-intensive; they have to get a taste of why it’s worth it. Tap into their emotions; there’s always a way . . . help them see that writing isn’t just something to be done for school for a grade, over and done. Writing is about life itself . . . .”

Breathe life. From your writing to theirs, from your soul to theirs.

There’s a whole world within each young writer. There’s a world around them that they’re grappling to understand. A world with a place for each of them. We don’t create these worlds for them. We just open the doors.

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.

On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

– Arundhati Roy

Your why

Last Friday at school our professional development centered on finding our whys. For we are not made of what we do; we’re made of why we do it.

In a YouTube video, comedian Michael Jr. puts it this way: “When you know your why, you have options on what your what can be.” To illustrate the difference between knowing what and knowing why, he calls on a member of the audience (a school music director by the name of E. Daryl Duff) to sing a few bars of “Amazing Grace.” Duff’s voice is resonant, beautiful. Michael Jr. then asks Duff to sing as if a couple of specific, tragic things had happened to him; the transformation is stunning. Duff sings in a higher key with a vibrato full of emotion and energy—see the “Know Your Why” video).

It’s a perfect example of how our power, our potential, lies in knowing why we do things.

So, my colleagues and I got to work on finding our whys. 

We were to map at least five peaks and valleys in our lives; if we needed help, we could use a memory prompt based on the work of Simon Sinek:

Our principal modeled the activity first (let us remember that good teaching and good writing have a primary rule in common: Show, don’t tell). The peaks and valleys didn’t necessarily have to be milestones in our lives, but experiences surrounded with much meaning or emotion, maybe turning points, times we gained knowledge that changed us. The more specific we could be in listing several significant life events or people that made an impact on us, the better we’d get to our why. 

Mulling the suggestions and the need for specificity, I chose these events, people, and moments that first came to mind as being beyond the norm:

Thinking of such experiences and writing them can be emotional, but sharing is where the emotion really kicks in.

Laughter. Tears. Reassuring hugs.

In pairs who were moderately comfortable with each other, but who didn’t know each other really well, we shared some of our peaks and valleys. We didn’t have to share everything we wrote, just the items we wanted to share. We told why we chose these points in our lives and what stood out about them. While one partner read, the other listened for connections or patterns in those life events, made notes, and then the roles switched.

We then shared what we discovered about one another.

In my case, my father’s sudden death (my lowest valley), reading “The Murder of Robbie Wayne, Age 6” in The Reader’s Digest when I was a young teen, my birthday party when my mother invited a boy who had bullied me, and a boy who did one of the greatest acts of kindness I’ve ever seen back when we were in 5th grade (I wrote about it: The Valentine) all connect to my present notions of fairness, doing what’s right, and being an advocate.  My having asthma as a child, my husband’s loss of an eye to disease two years ago, and my return to college to finish after a span of many years have a common theme of overcoming. The others—my husband’s ministry, my grandmother’s belief in me, my volunteering to do a play with elementary students when I was still in high school, my blog, the professional development I’ve led in writing, my boys’ individual accomplishments in music and leadership, and the high school teacher who saved the lead role in The Matchmaker for me to read in class—are tied to inspiration.

Synthesizing all of this leads to drafting a why statement comprised of our contribution and our impact:

To _____________________ [contribution] so that ___________________________ [impact].

Mine, at the moment, is this (still working to tighten it further):

To inspire others so that they know they can overcome obstacles and setbacks.

This is why I do what I do; some of the whats are literacy coaching, encouraging others to write, and writing this blog.

I wonder, now, how many colleagues—how many people in the world, actually—have their whys and whats aligned. Seems to me there’d be incredible frustration, anger, anxiety, depression, imbalance, and utter lack of fulfillment when whys and whats aren’t aligned, when people don’t recognize their contribution or see the impact they can make. I think of people in jobs that don’t match their whys and how such dissonance makes for misery.

In The Art of Coaching, Elena Aguilar writes of a teacher struggling with classroom management. The man couldn’t bring order because, when he was in school, he suffered being stereotyped and devalued by a teacher. Being the authority figure for his students felt like he was doing the same to them. He went into teaching because he had a genuine love for the kids, but his core beliefs, his why, the very essence of who he was, wouldn’t allow him to establish the needed structure.

He couldn’t change his why; he could only change his what. He ended up leaving the teaching profession.

“When you know your why, you have options on what your what can be.”

We are not what we do.

We are why we do it.

Knowing that, as Robert Frost might say, makes all the difference.