Mindful

Shattered

This is my phone.

Was my phone.

During a drive to school, where a thousand things awaited me, I realized I didn’t have it. Pulled over. Searched my bags.

No phone.

—Where had I last seen it?

Charging. That’s right, I remembered plugging it back up for a full charge to get through the day.

Turned around, went back home.

Nope. Not there.

I finally used the Find My Phone app on my iPad and within seconds, my phone was revealed to be about a quarter mile away, in the middle of the road.

Because — I have no recollection of this, it’s just obvious — as I loaded bags, notebooks, stacks of paper into my car that morning, my mind off and running miles ahead in a dozen directions, I made the unconscious, fateful decision to put the phone on the trunk.

I drove to said location and there it was, facedown on the pavement, shattered, tiny shards of glass pricking my fingers on retrieval.

At the moment, the greater marvel to me wasn’t the modern magic of pinpointing the exact location of my lost phone (while trying to imagine the extreme unsettledness of never finding it), or that I was so thoughtless (more than a little alarming). I marveled instead that the phone held onto the car that long before sliding off. Astonishing.

It was inoperable. Dark screen with an occasional flickering of gridded lights that grew weaker and weaker, like a monitor for a little dying creature.

So I set about the repair process — in this case, replacement — which is costly both in dollars and in time, meaning that my one second of not being mindful diverted valuable time and energy from the day and the important things I needed to do. The phone tethers me to my sons, wherever they are. To my husband, still recovering from heart surgery, in case he should need me. To my colleagues, who will text with questions or to ask me to come to their classrooms. The phone is an effective lifeline to the people who matter most to me.

It dawned on me somewhere during this ordeal that I held a metaphor in my hands: Relationships.

I thought about the cost of not being mindful in relationships. How they can get so far off track if we aren’t paying attention. How hard it is to get back to a good place when this happens, if we are not ever-mindful of words, actions, signals, choices. I thought about all the emphasis on relationships in education, usually in the context of teachers building relationships with students to help them thrive as learners. But even more important are the relationships between the adults in the building; if there isn’t collegiality, professional trust, and a true spirit of collaboration, all relationships suffer and the children pay the price.

Mindful. Such a proactive word. A few seconds of investment to avoid the time, energy, and costliness of repair, before things get off track and slide away.

Before relationships shatter.

Knots

Last week was my spring break.

From school, anyway.

I spent almost the whole of it cleaning my house and purging stuff that should have been pitched long ago (which I vow to do every time I watch Hoarding: Buried Alive, chills crawling up my spine, icy fingers squeezing my heart). As I worked through closets, drawers, cabinets, the garage, I actually felt lighter myself, like a ship might feel when its ballast is tossed overboard. Of course I thought a lot, wrote a lot in my head while I worked, metaphorical stuff like we don’t often get to lighten our own burdens and decluttering is not just liberating; it’s healing. Basically all sorts of take-charge-of-your-life analogies, for that, in essence, is what I was doing, reclaiming my life from a surfeit of junk.

Until the knots.

I was on such a roll in the garage, once it was cleared, dusted, and swept (it’s much larger than I remembered), that my eyes fell upon the dog’s leash which hangs on a peg by the door.  It’s a moderately heavy chain, as Banjo, our yellow Lab, is an enthusiastic, massive beast, pushing 100 pounds.

There were knots in said leash.

This irritated me.

To an inexplicable degree.

My husband usually takes Banjo out in the mornings, and our son, Cadillac Man, will do it later in the day. How can they just let the leash get knotted like this? Are they going to let it go until it’s one giant ball of metal and of no use whatsoever? Do they know how lazy and uncaring this looks? 

Those were—alas—my thoughts.

Being on an organizational rampage, as it were, I couldn’t just wait for one of them to undo these maddening knots. In fact, I didn’t even think of waiting for them. If you want something done . . . I wanted the knots out, right then, so I set about it.

It was harder than I expected.

Chain links, especially tightly-knotted ones, don’t “give” very easily. I thought about my many tangled necklaces, how I sometimes poke a needle through the tiny chains until knots loosen enough for me to pull them out. I would need a tool. Say, a flat-head screwdriver.

At first, poking the knotted leash with the screwdriver did nothing.

I poked harder. 

Stabbed, to be precise.

Still nothing.

I discovered—well into an hour of beating at the first knot, my determination mounting by the moment—that if I also twisted at the knot while I struck it, the one link holding up the works would finally shift, and then the knot could be worked out.

The second knot came undone much faster.

The last knot was nearly the death of me.

I went for the WD-40. I WOULD GET THIS KNOT OUT.

Between a liberal coating of oil and my manic chiseling, voilà! A knot-free leash! After two hours of intensive focus. This was the highlight of my day.

Which is actually sad, in retrospect, but we won’t dwell on that now.

I hung the lovely straight leash back on its peg in the garage, admired it proudly for a few minutes—how it glinted in the afternoon sunlight, seriously—and then I went inside the house to plot my next attack on another project.

Consumed by my various missions, I didn’t think to mention the leash to my family that night. The next morning, I got up early and remembered, so  . . .  I will just take Banjo out myself. 

The very thought of using the nicely-untangled leash made me irrationally happy. I got dressed, put on my shoes, bounced out the door, reached for the leash, and . . .

THE KNOTS WERE BACK!

ALL THREE OF THEM!

“ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” I shouted.

Banjo cowered.

I collected myself enough to rub his belly and console him.

After taking care of the dog, trust that I hunted my husband down. There he sat in his chair, watching TV, sipping  his morning coffee.

I marched right up to him.

“DID YOU PUT KNOTS BACK IN THAT DOG LEASH?”

He looked at me like I’d lost my mind (highly probable, at the moment).

“Yeah, I put them back!”

“I spent two hours yesterday getting those knots out! Do you know how hard that was? I even had to use WD-40!  You couldn’t think to ask WHY the knots were suddenly gone? You just go and put them back without bothering to say anything?”

“I need those knots! They help me hold onto the chain better!”

I stood very still, many more unspoken words withering in my brain. My husband has arthritis. It often affects his hands and wrists. He also struggles with depth perception, having lost an eye three years ago. It never occurred to me that the knots had a purpose . . .

As if right on cue, Cadillac Man drifted through the living room in his pajamas and mad-scientist bed-hair (he is letting it grow).

“Hey,” he said. Then, after considering our faces: “What’s going on?”

My diatribe degraded into more of a lament: “I spent two hours yesterday getting the knots out of Banjo’s leash and your dad put them back in.”

“I need those knots!” my husband reiterated. “I was glad you put them there in the first place,” he told our son.

Cadillac Man raised his eyebrows. “I never put those in. I don’t know how the chain got like that.”

His father: “What? I thought you did!”

I sighed.

For it doesn’t matter how the knots got there the first time, even if I was right in my original hypothesis: they happened and kept happening because no one stopped to fix them.

What matters is this: That our worst knots in life occur from a lack of simple communication and our utter failure to see from a perspective other than our own.

The next morning, the knots were magically gone again. I thought my husband had relented, perhaps, or taken pity.

But no.

Cadillac Man undid them.

“I’d already told Dad I would take care of Banjo, so he doesn’t need those knots.”

I cannot say who’s really right or wrong anymore in this whole knotty scenario, only that it’s best to move on . . . and bless that boy.

Metaphor

For metaphorMorning glory. Jason BolderoCC BY

Following a poetry unit in fourth grade, the teacher invited me to collaborate on arts-integrated assessments. We set it up by having students choose 1) Poetry concepts they learned and 2) The vehicle for conveying their understanding, one of the multiple intelligences: arts smart, math smart, music smart, body smart, self smart, people smart, word smart, science/nature smart, and one extra that we added, tech smart.

Students could collaborate if they’d selected the same “smart.” They were free to think and design as long as the activity or product defined or represented the selected elements of poetry – imagery, personification, alliteration, simile, etc. Some students chose to make games and puzzles (math smart) with their poetry concepts. Some went straight for Chromebooks. Some preferred sketching and drawing (later in this process one student who struggles with academics will show me how she intentionally incorporated perspective and 3D elements in her art smart visual representation of imagery). A team of body smart students began choreographing a dance to define three concepts. One student wanted to write a song. 

So much excitement, so much brilliance, yet no one picked “metaphor”— the word sat all alone on the chart where students placed their names beside the poetry elements that they wanted to demonstrate.

And no one chose “word smart” as the mode. They had, however, written their own poems during the unit.

I pointed out that word smart is naturally interwoven with music smart in writing a song, and with body smart in the chants accompanying the dance. Words play their part in slideshows, in the puzzles and games, and in all the conversation the kids were having about how to best represent the concepts in these ways.  

As for metaphor . . . the students grinned. With lots of teeth. “You said you’d give us a model.”

Ah. So I did. Is that why no one picked “metaphor” and “word smart”? Was this a conspiracy?  A throwing down the gauntlet?

I smiled inside myself. I would have chosen metaphor anyway (I think). And what better “word smart” way to convey its meaning than through poetry?

When I returned, rough draft poem in hand, I posed a question: “First, I need to make sure you know for yourselves what metaphor is. How would you define it?”

Their responses:

“An image that stands for something else.”

It helps paint a picture in the reader’s mind.”

You can’t say ‘like’ or ‘as’ because that’s simile. You have to say something IS something else.”

A comparison.”

Wordplay.”

Really, guys? And none of you picked metaphor? Seriously?” I asked in mock exasperation.

Giggles. They sit gathered round my chair, on the rug at my feet, these young sages waiting for me to read.

What is metaphor?

Metaphor is the sun behind the clouds

the heavens reaching long, shining fingers

down to the earth of our minds.

Metaphor is the moon on the ocean of knowledge

bits of silver smiles shining on a dark surface

that’s always moving, moving, moving.

When I say that home is the velvety warmth of my dog

and the laughter of my family around the dinner table

that’s metaphor.

What is metaphor for?

Well, meta means beyond.

Metaphor is understanding

in a deeper way.

Without metaphor

imagery is a just a strange skeleton

without flesh and color

something we don’t recognize.

Metaphor is what we know

helping us to see better.

Metaphor is new glasses.

Metaphor is the cloak

thrown over the invisible

to make it appear

and have shape

and make sense.

Without metaphor

poetry would shrivel

and maybe die.

Metaphor waters the poet-tree

and keeps it alive.

That’s meta.

That’s what it’s for.

Metaphor.

In one motion their hands went up to flutter or “sparkle” in silent applause; I had a fleeting sense of being in a beatnik coffee house, minus the sound of finger snaps. Of course these artists, mathematicians, scientists, all, will be chomping to give me specific feedback with the rubric that I helped them create. They’ll do it thoroughly and gleefully, rest assured.

Such a jewel-encrusted, double-edged sword, teaching.

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 me encountering those unknown worms long ago: First do no harm.

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.