Writing your own story

I saw his shirt from across the crowded cafeteria:

Writing my OWN story.

I hadn’t seen him before, didn’t know him, but I had to go over and say: “That’s the most awesome shirt! Do you like to write?”

He smiled and nodded, eyes bright and cheerful: “Yes!”

We had a short conversation about reading and writing. He was new to our school. After this initial encounter he was quick to come ask questions if he wasn’t sure about how we do things here, always greeting me with an earnest face and slightly self-conscious smile.

He wasn’t with us long. On his last days, he asked if he could stay after lunch and clean all of the tables as his grade level headed to recess. He wiped every table meticulously, then straightened all of the cardboard trays in the serving line for the classes to follow.

I understood.

It was something he could control. A positive and productive outlet.

I never got to write with him.

I thought about students over the years and what I learned about their lives from their writing. A girl whose family slept in their car on the journey north to visit relatives for the holidays; how she woke in the morning, shivering, to find frost coating the windows. A teenager whose vivid third-person narrative about a child born in another country, who survives abuse to find a new life and family in America . . . it switches to first person at the end as he rejoices and reveals he was that child. A first-grader who wanted to write about her dog, how the police shot and killed it. Unnerved, I told her teacher, in hopes that this was just a disturbing fabrication. It wasn’t. The child saw it happen.

For all the story-loving writer that I am, I know writing is not a magic cure for the pain and scars of life. It is, however, a real coping mechanism, a positive and productive outlet, a way of seeing and dealing with and finding hope to overcome. Even in the youngest of us, many of whom already know that life doesn’t follow a neat formula, that it seldom follows a clear and sensible series of steps. I often think about what passes for “writing” in schools; it can’t always be a neat response to a text or a prompt. If we are truly to equip children with tools for life, it begins with a real response to their lives in this world. We owe them, for as long as we have them, a place to feel safe, to be loved, a way of having some control in the face of change, to find their own power despite their powerlessness.To write their own lives, even as life is unfolding.

To have hope on the journey as it takes so many twists and turns.

Time is of the essence; we don’t know for how long or short a time they’ll be in our sphere of influence. Good-byes can come without warning.

And so I quickly gathered the best tools I had at my disposal: pencils, notebooks, a couple of favorite books from my shelf. It was my way of saying Godspeed, child. Write your OWN story. Believe. Attend to your heart. Here’s a piece of mine to carry with you.

Edward knew what it was like to say over and over again the names of those you had left behind. He knew what it was like to miss someone. And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still.

You must be filled with expectancy. You must be awash in hope. You must wonder who will love you, whom you will love next.

—excerpts, Kate DiCamillo, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Circle of light

Good fairy

The Fairy Queen. Shayariel TeardropCC-BY

I have a colleague, mentor, and friend who retired a few years ago but who remains tirelessly dedicated to supporting teachers as writers. I was about to describe her here as a small, lively lady but those words don’t do her justice; she’s a vivacious dynamo. Her bright blue eyes always sparkling with energy, she’s mission-minded, a visionary, able to discern and speak hard truths with grace, even humor.

This past summer, as we co-facilitated a teacher-writer institute in our district, my friend was constantly thinking of ways to empower our attendees: “You know, if we need additional assistance, she would be wonderful; she knows so much about teaching young writers,” or “We need to think about a way to get them to share their experiences as writers; more teachers need to hear this!”

Listening to her one afternoon, as she made more suggestions on how colleagues could maximize their strengths, an image formed in my mind: My friend garbed as a fairy, walking a twisting path through an ominous, dark forest, wand held aloft, casting a welcoming light, seeing the good that’s hidden, calling it to her.

“You’re like a good fairy,” I told her, “the way you see people and empower them to find and use their gifts. It’s amazing how you’re always drawing more people into your warm circle of light, no matter how dark the path might get.”

“Oooh, I love that!” laughed my friend. “With a frog on my shoulder!”

“You know I will have to write about this,” I warned.

“Okay, just don’t forget the frog,” she said, eyes twinkling, moving on to a table to give feedback to a teacher who was just beginning to see herself as a writer. I watched as tears flowed down that teacher’s radiant face.

I thought about how I wouldn’t have been here at this institute, wouldn’t have had numerous opportunities as a literacy coach and writer if it hadn’t been for this friend who tapped me almost immediately for the work. Nearly from our first encounter, she encouraged me to use my voice, to seize moments, to inspire others, to keep pressing on, and, above all, to WRITE.

How thankful I am for her circle of light, that she drew me into it. Greater than any candle, torch, or wand, the light of inspiration passes from one to another as we march onward in the journey of life, with its inevitable twists, unexpected turns, obstacles, and darkness. Sometimes we cannot see further than our own immediate, wavering circle of light. That’s when it’s most important to look ahead, to recognize those going before us like beacons, vibrantly carrying on. Whatever comes, my friend will always be there, shining bright, holding her light as high as she can to make the circle larger . . . her little frog riding on her shoulder.

 

Write me

Write me

Write me. Menno Abbink. CC-BY

As I stood at a checkout counter this weekend, the young lady ringing up my purchase eyed my #WhyIWrite T-shirt.

“So, you’re a writer?” she smiled, scanning my items.

Someone asks me this every time I wear the shirt in public. The interest always surprises me.

And, in spite of blogging for two years, having an untold number of stories in various stages of completion since I was six, and continuously capturing ideas in notebooks for more things to explore through writing, I still pause when asked this question. Funny how hard it is to own I am a writer. 

After a slight beat, I gave the young lady my short answer: “Yes. And I teach writing.”

Although she kept smiling, a shadow crossed her beautifully made-up face. “I struggled with writing in high school,” she said. “I speak well” —unmistakable pride glimmered in her dark eyes— “but I can’t write as well as I speak.”

There was something almost apologetic in her self-assessment. A trace of shame over this perceived shortcoming.

I hear this in people’s voices every time they tell me that they’re “not good writers.”

Some of them are teachers.

And I mourn, because, somewhere along the way, others have made them believe this.

“How often did you see the writing process modeled?” I asked the cashier, already knowing the answer. “Did you see examples of what the teachers wanted you to do, to make it concrete? Did you get feedback from the teachers during the writing of your essays, to help you improve your writing?”

She shook her head. “Oh, no. We were just told ‘Here’s the assignment, here’s when it’s due.’ ”

She completed my transaction. A long line of people waited behind me; I couldn’t ask this affable, well-spoken cashier if she’d ever enjoyed writing, or tried it for fun, just to see what she could do. I couldn’t say: You think you’re not a writer, but that is not the end of your story. 

I left the store knowing that I’ll have to return for a follow-up conversation in which I will say these things and encourage her to write. Maybe I’ll even take her a journal. I have several lovely ones waiting to be used.

My checkout conversation reiterates to me, yet again, that students struggle with writing because teachers struggle with teaching it. Writing is labor-intensive. It’s time-consuming. Teacher education programs often offer very little in the way of solid writing pedagogy, and unless teachers have access to professional development that provides them with the “how” and “why”—positive writing experiences of their own—the struggle goes on. Systems, administrators, and teachers battle over a clear vision of what quality writing instruction is, what the authentic writing process is versus any program, and why effective writing instruction matters (that’s another whole post in itself). I know educators who confess to “not being good” at teaching writing. Some happen to be in positions where they are advocating for the removal of writing workshop in schools.

In truth, it all begins with So, you’re a writer?

For the answer to that question must be yes before one is equipped to be a teacher of writing.

As for me, I’d start a grassroots SAVE EDUCATION THROUGH WRITING movement if I could.

In the meantime, I content myself with helping whomever I can, whenever I can, to grow themselves as writers.

The timing of my checkout encounter happens to be uncanny; I was, in fact, preparing to co-facilitate my district’s second annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute, which starts today.

In a few hours, I’ll meet the participants, elementary through high school cross-curricular educators who are willing to give up seven hours a day for an entire week during their vacation, ultimately to benefit the students they serve. Part of our institute rationale reads:

Everyone has the capacity to write, writing can be taught, and teachers can help students become better writers.

Writing grows out of many different purposes. 

Participants will be invited to be writers and engage in creative struggle.

We become experts at teaching writing by writing.

We will coach one another as we want our students to be coached on their writing journeys.

I know great things lie in store for the teachers who are coming. Not because of anything I or my co-facilitators say or do, but because of what lies within these teachers, these writers. I anticipate my own surprises— about the craft, about myself—because it always happens when I work at writing. The wellspring never runs dry. Never. Whenever writing is involved, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected. And to let it pour.

However these teachers may feel about writing, they’re already illustrating an important truth before Day One is up and running: This is not the end of the story.

It’s a beginning.

New pages await, expectantly, beckoning:

Write me.

You can do it.

And so can that cashier . . . .

*****

See Stone speaks for words of wisdom on teaching, literacy, reading, and the power of writing as shared by author Nic Stone on Day 1 of the Teacher Summer Writing Institute.

March (writing) madness

slice-of-life_individual

I’ve just noticed how much the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life badge resembles a basketball.

I find this coincidence captivating, as today kicks off a special season of challenge for both: a month-long daily writing commitment and March Madness.

Bracket predictions are not my thing, but writing is, so I am fondly dubbing these thirty-one days March Writing Madness.

Truthfully, it’s almost madness for me to write a blog post every single day in March. A quality post, that is. I can’t share something until I feel I’ve hammered it into the best possible shape, and in a normal week, that comes to just a post or two. This daily venture is daunting. It’s expensive. I know what the Slice of Life commitment is going to cost me in time and energy. Sacrifices will be required.

But, oh, the payoff . . .

First things first: I started Lit Bits and Pieces in March 2016 as a means of stretching myself as a writer. As much as I enjoy teaching writing and coaching teachers of writing, I recognized the hypocrisy of encouraging others to write consistently if I wasn’t doing so myself. I needed to walk the walk . . . and so this blog was born. I set only two goals in the beginning: To write about whatever comes to mind and to make it uplifting to readers.

In the two years since, the blog has become a life-library for me.

I’ve relived childhood moments; I’ve explored the mysterious; I’ve turned events and things around in my mind, finding connections and analyzing meanings; I’ve tinkered with poetry, flirted with fiction, and captured precious, priceless experiences with students, colleagues, family members, and friends.

I knew when I signed up for last year’s Slice of Life Challenge—my first—that I would be pushing myself even harder, further, as writer. That was expected, desired.

The unexpected, greater payoff: My fellow Slicers. People whose powerful words kept my momentum going when I was almost out of steam, who valued what I wrote, who encouraged me to a degree that I can’t adequately convey. People to whom I owe a debt of gratitude and the honor of encouraging in return . . .

What a difference a month and a writing community make.

While the March Madness basketball tournament is about eliminating the competition (hence those NCAA bracketeers), the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Story Challenge is about cheering each other on to the very end, so that all are victorious.

Today, as I take my place in the line-up, I celebrate you, Slicers, extraordinary individuals that you are, every one of you a champion, in this arena where the joy you get is also the joy you give.

That’s the buzzer, friends . . . time to write like mad.

 

This too shall pass

This Too Shall Pass

This too shall pass – Notting Hill. Florencia LewisCC BY

Once upon a time, long ago, I drove to work in tears. I couldn’t see a way out of a certain situation. Worry had consumed my thoughts for days. Like a moth desperately fluttering at a light but never landing, so it circled round and round my brain. Like the Grinch, I’d puzzled until my puzzler was sore, arriving at no logical resolution. The weight just grew heavier and heavier.

A sudden movement on my right startled me – a white pickup truck zipping by. That’s not the passing lane. I scowled at it, then nearly ran off the road in astonishment.

The bed of the truck had a tall, wooden rack on top, and on the slats was a white sign meticulously painted with black, Old English letters:

This Too Shall Pass.

I blinked, looked again. Yes, it was real. And it was literally passing me.

I looked around, half afraid I’d see these same words on barns and road signs like something out of The Twilight Zone, in which case I’d have to consider getting help with my state of mind.

But no – This Too Shall Pass was only on that white sign, on that white pickup, passing in the wrong lane to my right.

It was there for a few seconds, then on it went, out of sight.

As did the weight I carried. It melted away in the wake of that truck. I couldn’t see the future, but I understood this momentary trouble was just that, momentary. It would pass.

And so it did.

Whatever it was.

I said it was long ago.

I cannot even remember what I was so worried about.

At all.

But that truck is vivid in my memory. I can see those Old English letters, still.

I like to think that the driver painted them because he had a great sense of humor about his edgy driving. It’s too good, really . . . .

Except that I never saw the driver, nor have I seen that truck since. I hoped that I would – I watched for it on the roads for a long time after, but it’s the kind of thing that happens only once.

Once being enough to get the message.

This Too Shall Pass.

It always does.

 

The Writing Spa

Welcome to the Writing Spa.

Please put your things down and help yourself to salt scrub – wash your hands and refresh.

Or have some aromatherapy lotion.

Listen to the soft music, the sound of the ocean with the occasional distant gull.

That fragrance in the air? That’s a pillow mist. It’s called Peaceful.

Yes, it does smell very spa-esque, doesn’t it?

Today we will write. It’s so important that teachers of writing write themselves, with and for students.

Today you write for you.

You have a choice of stations: Refresh, Evoke, Escape. Start wherever you like. If there’s time, we will get to all three; if not, certainly two.

Let me explain.

The Refresh sign bears the Isak Dinesen quote: “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.” Which salt water form grabs you first? Close your eyes and envision a scene where this salt water form played a significant role. Where were you? Who was with you? Get back into the moment – show, don’t tell.

Here’s an example, a time when tears played a healing role in my life ….

The sign at the Evoke station reads: “Nature speaks and wafts her perfumes. Capture it.” This is meant to connect us to the natural world with sounds and scents that lift our spirits and make our hearts rise. Write about any sound or any scent that does this for you, and why it has this effect. Who or what is associated with it?

I chose sound. I wrote about cicadas in the summer and what this evokes for me. I will share ….

The last station is Escape. There’s a place you long to return to – why? Who or what is connected to that place? Capture it in detail so the reader goes there with you. Share the reason for its specialness to you.

Here’s one of my special places. I only went there once ….

The teachers write. Some have tears in their eyes; some stop to look into the distance, far beyond the walls of the room, to different places, conjuring different images in each of their minds. The music is soothing. We are breathing in Peaceful. When it’s time to stop, those who wish to share their writing do so with one another; those who’d  rather not share are willing listeners, ready to give positive responses on the strength of the writing. There are more tears. There are also smiles, even a small eruption of laughter at the humor in someone’s writing.

We rotate and repeat.

For reflection, they write a takeaway for themselves and one for their classrooms. They write on white paper. 

Ball up your white paper. This is the Invigoration piece of the spa – we will now have a snowball fight! Have at it!

Much laughter ensures as teachers throw “snowballs” at one another. We stop; they choose a snowball and open it up to read to a partner. No one knows who wrote what and reflections that strike chords are shared with the group. We go another round. 

I hope you enjoyed your Writing Spa, everyone. However you view yourself as a writer, the goal for today is that you found writing a pleasurable experience. Writing must be pleasurable for teachers to be pleasurable for students. We create the atmosphere for writing in our rooms. Think of ways you might adapt what we’ve done here for your kids – pay it forward.

On your way out, by the door, there’s a basket of chocolate – help yourself to Chocolate Therapy. 

Go forth in writing wellness.

*******

I did two variations of the Writing Spa, one with teachers at my school last December and one on Monday with teachers attending the North Carolina Reading Association Conference. Improving writing instruction has been a major focus at my school for a couple of years, the most frequently-requested area of support. The spa was born from a synthesis of ideas: Teachers, however they feel about writing, need to have enjoyable experiences with it; professional development needs to lift teachers’ spirits; writing is about going deep, tapping the power that lies within us.

You are welcome, if you like, to read my sound and place pieces shared for Evoke and Escape.

I’m still working on my salt water piece.

(I finished itBaby’s breath)

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

 

 

 

 

Laughing Buddha

Hotei

Hotei Buddha. Shanna RileyCC BY-SA

“Come see what your aunt brought you!” Mom calls. 

My aunt has given me some pretty neat gifts: A shirt with iron-on letters that say Bookworm and a Partridge Family album. She’s a fun person, sometimes, like when she records us singing Olivia Newton-John songs on her tape recorder and says we sound professional, or lets me try on her wigs.

I can hardly wait to see what she’s brought this time. I fly down the hall from my bedroom to the living room.

My aunt is smiling wide. She hands me something wrapped in brown paper, saying: “Be careful -it’s breakable.”

I unroll the wrapping, pull out the breakable thing.

It’s a statue. A little bald man with a big belly and no shirt, wearing only a skirt, with his hands up in the air. He is laughing – at me, I think, because I don’t know what in the heck he is.

He’s also solid pink. A little darker than Pepto-Bismol.

I am confused. 

“I made him in ceramics class,” my aunt says, looking pleased with herself. 

Every grown-up female I know is making ceramics or macrame or decoupage. But I’ve never seen anything like this fat little pink man.

“What is he?” I ask, feeling disgusted, while he laughs at me silently. 

I think about dropping him.

My mother glares at me.

“He’s Hotei. If you rub his belly, he’ll bring you good luck,” says my aunt.

I want to say he needs it for himself, but my mother speaks up:

“Look at what’s underneath.”

I turn Hotei head down. Under the base on which he stands is an inscription:

Made for Fran with love. Aunt E.

I look up at my aunt and see the earnestness in her eyes.

She never married, never had children of her own. When I went to high school, she attended my plays, convinced that I’d make it on the stage in New York City. She directed my wedding, bought dozens of outfits for my first child. When I started trying to write short stories, she asked to read my work.

“You should send this to magazines!” she said, genuine excitement in her voice. “You could be published!”

She didn’t live to see my second child.

Hotei sat on my bedroom shelf for many years, and yes, I rubbed his belly. Some days more than others.

But I didn’t need him for good fortune, not really.

I had my aunt.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

 

 

 

But I’m not a teacher

Encourage

He’d saved his own money to buy me a Christmas present. He told his dad he wanted to go to the bookstore, so his dad took him.

He bought me a picture instead of a book and watched with great pride as the clerk wrapped it.

“I got it for my mom,” he told the clerk.

“Oh, she’ll love it!”

He clasped it to his heart all the way home.

He burst into the house, calling, “Mom! Mom! I got you a present!”

His dad said, “Son, just put it under the tree. It’s for Christmas.”

“I want to give it to her now!”

“All right,” I said,  sitting down on the couch. My little boy scrambled up beside me. “I’ll go ahead and open it, if that’s what you want.”

He watched my every move as I unwrapped the paper and pulled out the matted picture bearing the quote: A teacher in wisdom and kindness helps children learn to do exactly what they thought could not be done.

I didn’t know what to say for a moment.

“It’s beautiful, honey,” I said, hugging him. “Thank you so much.”

“Do you love it, Mom?”

“I do … but I’m not a teacher.”

My son surveyed me with huge dark eyes that seemed far older than his six years: “Oh yes you are, Mom.”

At the time, I wasn’t even a college graduate. Teaching wasn’t on my radar. Thirteen years, a degree, and another baby later, I actually became a teacher. In all of those education courses that required me to describe my educational philosophy, I wrote: A teacher is an encourager, recalling that solemn little face, those big eyes, the absolute conviction shining in them. Children, sometimes, are the greatest of sages, the most profound of prophets.

Three more years, and the boy graduated college himself with a degree in history. “What am I going to do for a job?” he asked one afternoon, a slight hint of anxiety in his voice.

“Teach,” I answered, smiling.

He didn’t smile back. “But I’m not a teacher.”

“Oh yes you are, Son.”

Before the summer ended, he had a job teaching social studies at his old high school. When he went to set up his classroom, he cleaned out the cabinets and found old tests – including his own.

He also became a soccer coach, taking his team to the championships and winning regional Coach of the Year this past season.

We didn’t seek teaching; it found us. We’ve done exactly what we thought could not be done – we do it every day, all over again.

And every day is new, if not easy; every day offers wisdom, beckons kindness, invites us to believe in others, in ourselves, every moment a chance to create, to reinvent, to overcome. It can be done.

Encourage one another.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer