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.

Writing identity

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I want to be riding the contours of my students’ writing—not judging it. 

Ralph Fletcher, quoting poet and writing teacher William Stafford

Day Four of our Teacher Summer Writing Institute opened with reflection on the quote above.

“I think the use of the word riding is significant,” said a colleague. “It means that students should be in the driver’s seat with regard to their writing. The teacher is a passenger.”

Another participant chimed in: “The word contours really stands out to me. I think of waves”her hands move through the air as if tracing curves, rising, falling—”and how the path of each student’s writing is so different, because they’re all in different places.”

With a focus on “Writing to Transform,” teachers spent the better part of the day exploring the research and impact of specific feedback, along with tools and approaches to conferring with student writers. They practiced with each other.  Teachers at the secondary level discussed the use of Screencastify and Google Keep as a means of giving feedback to large numbers of students.

They continued writing pieces from yesterday. A science specialist told me: “I started writing poetry and I couldn’t stop. I went home last night and wrote more.”

I listened to her, feeling as if I were living in a dream, straddling the line between reality and ethereality. Reminded, yet again, that the need to create is embedded deep in the hearts of humans.

We all took some time to reflect on our own writing histories, moments that shaped us into the writers we are at present.

For there’s a why to the writers we are.

I walked my colleagues through my own writing history (having spent much time pondering this recently). I made my first feeble attempts at writing stories just because I wanted to around age six. I don’t remember any more writing until about fifth grade, when I had great fun creating “The Myth of Shoeani” on how shoes were invented (we were studying mythology) and an autobiography that drew praise from the teacher regarding my “vivid detail.” I recall how surprised I was by the compliment. I went through a heavy poetry-writing phase in junior high, clearly a means of surviving my adolescent self. As a young wife, I suddenly realized that I was the bridge from the past to the future; I began recording my grandparents’ stories. How glad I am now that I did. My grandmother wholeheartedly encouraged my writing, believed I had a gift for it . . . but that’s what grandmothers do. Even as I won recognition for literary criticism and placed in short story competitions, as I amassed stacks of unfinished stories and mentor texts written in front of students as models, I thought of myself as someone who loves to write, who loves to encourage others to write, not “a writer.”

Not sure exactly when the shift occurred, only that it wasn’t so long ago.

The realization that writing is not just something I do.

It’s who I am.

A writer.

“Something we must remember,” I told my teacher colleagues as they began contemplating their own writing journeys, “is that we are currently helping to shape our students’ writing identities.”

Riding those contours, as individual to each student as patterns to snowflakes.

For we do not transform our young writers.

Their own words will.

We just help them harness their power.

From our place in the passenger seat.

When writers believe their words matter, nothing can stop them.

-Ruth Ayres, Enticing Hard-to-Reach Writers

 

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.

Tripping the write fantastic

Fantasy

Fill your life with love. Dianne LacourciereCC BY-SA

Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable. – Carl Jung

Her teacher sent her to me, to confer about her writing.

Not because the student is struggling.

The student, a fifth-grader, had written twenty pages of complex plot and extraordinary dialogue that revealed character personality and motivation.

“It’s amazing,” explained my colleague. “Out of the blue, she’s just taken off. I thought you could give her some pointers – her story is really good.”

The student, delighted at the prospect, immediately sent her work to me via Google Docs. Here are things I am thinking about, her message stated. She’d made notes about characters, problems with the story line, where she wanted to go with certain parts.

For a moment I felt transported to the future, as if I were an agent or editor receiving book ideas from an established author.

I read the work, praising the strength of the writing on sticky notes: Powerful, believable dialogue! and Excellent descriptive detail – I can “see” this scene vividly.

I looked for a couple of major areas to improve – only a couple – and they had nothing to to with spelling, format, or conventions at this point. The pressing thing at the moment was keeping those rich ideas flowing and clarifying this young writer’s meaning in some spots.

The child, beaming, comes to confer with me at the appointed time.

I sit beside her at my table:

“Ok, I have to know what inspired you. Clearly anyone who writes this much and this well – this dialogue is better than what I’ve seen some adults write! – is very inspired.”

Giggles ensue. “Well, it started with the fantasy writing unit in class. I got this idea of a girl who went back in time to the days of slavery. I am bad at history” – more giggles – “but that time period interests me, especially since my teacher read Chains to the class. That book made me want to go back in time and rescue some of those people, so that is what my main character will do. And she will meet her great-great-great grandmother.”

“That,” I say reverently, “is a story a lot of people might like to read.”

She goes on to share additional ideas that she got from other books like Serafina and the Black Cloak. 

As she speaks, I mentally toast the power of the read-aloud and student-selected texts.

To the student, I say: “Let’s go over what you’ve done here.”

I explain that switching narrators and times is using multiple story lines – “very advanced,” I tell her.

She grins.

I show her places where she lost me: “This is called a plot hole. You know what’s in your head and what you mean to say, but you jumped too fast and lost your reader.”

She nods. “Yes, I see that now.” We discuss ways she might want to fix it.

Off she goes.

That night, the Google Doc returns with revisions and questions.

Today she appears in my room, announcing: “I rewrote the entire first chapter. I felt that readers needed to know a little more about my main character’s life and her family in order to get the rest of the story.”

“Ah,” I reply, “exposition and backstory. That will help your readers.”

We look at the changes together.

“What we have to watch now is your pacing. Don’t spend too long on the beginning or you’ll lose readers – they want to know where this is going, so you want to speed up the less important parts and slow down at the more important ones.”

“And watch for plot holes,” she laughs.

“Indeed,” I smile.

Her ideas come fast and furious, and before we know it, time is up. As she turns to leave, she asks: “When is the next time we can meet?”

My turn to laugh. “Ask your teacher.”

At the end of the day, I return to my room to find a folded paper on my table – a schedule for when she can confer with me every day through the rest of the year.

I think of J.K. Rowling, who said that the idea of a boy wizard fell into her head on a train ride, when she had nothing to write on.

I think of C.S. Lewis, how an image of a faun carrying Christmas presents in the snow popped into his mind.

I think of Suzanne Collins, who grew up on her father’s stories about the effects of war.

I think of my young writer’s inspiration, and how fantasy and fairy tales help us work through the problems of the real world.

I recall telling my young writer: “Stick with it. You will be a famous author one day. I’ll come to your book signings.”

Giggling, she’d replied: “And you will be my famous helper.”

I look at the little conferring schedule in her handwriting, and smile.

We are tripping the write fantastic, she and I.

 

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Why I write 2016

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I write because it’s the closest thing there is to magic.

From words spring worlds.

Worlds of understanding, perception, knowledge – of humanity and of myself. I write to explore the world without and within, the real and the fantastic, the important and the insignificant, the extraordinary and most certainly the ordinary. Where there are ideas and images, there are words – lanterns for encircling thoughts, illuminating objects and scenes, mystically shining from one mind to another.

I write because the narrative voice in my head is continuously composing, often drowning out other important things.

The power of story compelled me to write when I was six years old, sitting at the living room coffee table with a pack of wide ruled paper and a fat pencil. A few years later, a teacher said, “What vivid descriptions! Keep writing.” Every year thereafter, a teacher strategically appeared to give a refining bit of feedback: “Wonderful writing. Here’s a way you can make it even better … and keep writing!”

I kept writing, even when my dad grumbled, “Why are you wasting so much notebook paper?”

Today, I write with children. I witness their discovery of their own voices, their courage in putting pieces of their souls on a page. I share in the excitement of their creations, in every little triumph over challenge. I work to empower teachers as writers, for the empowerment of student writers, that all might tap into the magic.

And I keep writing.

I write to wrap a cloak of immortality around everything I have loved – what was, what is, what will be.

I write to scatter the ashes of all my yesterdays, to walk in the light of all my tomorrows.

I write to celebrate having lived.

In honor of National Day on Writing, October 20.

Reflect: Why do you write? What have you wanted to write, but haven’t yet? Carve out a pocket of time today and begin. Tomorrow, repeat.

 

Making it real

 

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Image: Porch front. Liz West CC BY

Many of the second graders were bent over their desks, writing. Others were rereading their work with pencils in hand, like diminutive journalists editing reports in a newsroom. A few more looked off into space, thinking, before returning to the pages lying before them.

One of the joys of my role as literacy coach is getting to write with students and teachers across grade levels. The previous day I had come to model realistic fiction writing for this class, focusing on how to bring the stories to life with detail and dialogue:

“When I write realistic fiction, ladies and gentlemen, I often use what has happened in my own life. That’s why you were sad when my main character’s favorite toy got ruined – you felt what she felt, because it was something that had happened to me. I could give a lot of descriptive detail because I really lived it. That’s why you laughed at the conversation between my characters, because those were real conversations I had when I was that age. I just let my characters say those things. If you want to bring your realistic fiction to life, try using some things you have really seen, said, done, or felt.”

The children decided individually whether dialogue or more detail in setting was the thing they most needed to work on, and today I was back to see how it was going. One by one, I knelt beside them to hear revisions they’d made. I noted excited twitches as I approached – these kids knew their work was better.

I paused by a desk where a girl was absorbed in writing. I remembered her piece from the day before, in which she described a porch where two little girls were having a conversation. When she’d read it aloud, I could envision the girls sitting together on the porch, but the dialogue didn’t seem to be about anything in particular. “Try to think of what might matter to these girls,” I had advised. “Are they happy about something? Worried? Think about what matters to you and see if you can help your characters have a meaningful conversation that a reader would want to read.”

Now I knelt beside her. “Do you want to read your writing to me, or keep working?”

“I want to read it to you.”

She did. As I listened, a line from Emily Dickinson’s letter to a publisher sprang to mind, asking if her verse “was alive”: Should you think it breathed – and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude . . .

“What a major improvement in dialogue! This part, here, where your main character tells her friend that she’s excited about getting a stepfather to do things with, but is also a little afraid – that’s the best line in your story. This is where it really comes to life. It’s great writing.”

She looked up at me, eyes big and solemn. “I did what you said. That’s how I feel. My mom is getting married again.” And she bent back over her writing, drawn like a duck to water or a swallow to the air, a compulsion I fully recognized, for when we write, we are putting pieces of our souls on the page. Facing our fears, meeting ourselves where we are, daring to hope, finding a safe haven, maybe to heal. Even in the second grade.

Very real, indeed.

Reflect: What truth will you write about today?