Getting to the heart of writing workshop

I wasn’t sure how the day would go.

There were a lot of strikes against it before it even started.

Normally when I facilitate writing workshop training for teachers they’ve specifically signed up for it. They want to be there. This year, due to an oversight somewhere at the district level, the workshops weren’t scheduled. At the last minute, this workshop training was added as Day Two of Balanced Literacy (as Day One focused only on reading).

Meaning that teachers who signed up learned that they had two whole-day sessions to attend instead of one.

How would they feel about that?

Normally the overview of writing workshop alone is spread across three afternoons. Now I had to condense it all into one day.

Nothing like prioritizing content . . .

And, with the adoption of a new curriculum, writing workshop—and balanced literacy—won’t be offered to K-5 teachers any more. Just to K-2.

I felt I’d landed in no man’s land on some dismal shore, ineffectively beating back the waves of despair crashing all about me.

But I chose to keep my footing on a solid foundation, to hang onto all that I value about writing and teaching writing. The lifeline. Not just for me, but for the children, for their teachers.

This has to be worth their while, I sighed to myself.

And I got to work revising the training.

The day of reckoning comes. I start with who we are and why we’re here, rolling right into the what of writing workshop: Create the conditions for good writing to occur (credit Donald Graves). Understanding that writing workshop is not a program, is not about a product, but is a time set aside to fall in love with the craft (my definition) and to learn the real writing process.

Then we go deeper, into the why of writing. It’s at the very core of being human.

I read aloud to my participants:

Five-year-old Paul writes. Children want to write before they want to read. They are more fascinated by their own marks than by the marks of others. Young children leave their messages on refrigerators, wallpaper, moist windowpanes, sidewalks, and even on paper. 

Six-year-old Paul doesn’t write. He has gone to school to learn to read. Now that he is in school, the message is, “Read and listen; writing and expression can wait.” Paul may wait a lifetime. The odds are that he will never be truly encouraged to express himself in writing.

Paul will wait and wait to write because a higher premium is placed on his ability to receive messages than on his ability to send them. Individual expression, particularly personal messages in writing, will not be valued as highly as the accurate repetition pf the ideas of others, expressed in their writing. Since Paul will write so little, by the time he graduates from high school he will think of himself as a poor writer and will have a lowered sense of self-esteem as a learner. He will have lost an important means of thinking and will not have developed his ability to read critically.

-Donald Graves, Children Want to Write

I notice, as I read this, how heads begin to nod in acknowledgment . . .

Next we read portions of two articles with quotes from people in the business world. How young would-be employees have a hard time organizing their thoughts and articulating them, and that, when possible, employers should hire the better writer, because writers understand how people work, have better interpersonal skills . . .

We read these even though the participants of this training are K-2 teachers. 

Because this is where all the writing begins. 

Here, with them.

Then I read a bit from Colleen Cruz in The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, how a boy, Robert, discovers what his personal essay is really about. This is in a chapter entitled “I’m Finding Some Student Writing Repetitive and Boring.” Cruz writes: “Kids, and some adult writers, have a subconscious need to write about particular topics, but they don’t understand why.” Robert had chosen the topic ‘Christmas is my favorite holiday.’ His reasons are food, presents, and videos. While conferring with Cruz, Robert finally says that watching videos is the most important  thing about the holiday because his family had recorded every Christmas; he goes deeper and deeper into the meaning, until: “Since my dad died, Christmas is the only time I get to see him. My mom can’t stand to watch all the videos at any other time. But on Christmas she lets us watch them, and it’s like we’re all together again.”

The why of teaching writing: We owe it to the children to find their stories, to tell them.

It begins with our finding and telling our own.

Here’s where I carve out time to write in this workshop training. We lift lines from our writing to create an interactive poem; we brainstorm for more writing with heart maps (credit Georgia Heard).

At this point, I have to gently ask the teachers to stop writing.

For we’ve reached the how of writing workshop, beginning with minilessons. The vehicle for teaching standards and process, for modeling, for creating that atmosphere, those conditions, for good writing to occur. Opening the windows for student ideas to flow. Choice, voice. Meaning and mattering.

And it’s time for lunch. I tell the teachers that when they return, we’ll spend the rest of the afternoon on the backbone of writing workshop: Conferring. It merits its own what, why, and how. Academic feedback in the effort to reach a goal, growth versus grades, meeting each child, each writer, individually . . . .

As they exit, the teachers seem happy. They leave sticky notes with their “gots” and “wants” on a chart. Personally I celebrate that the “gots,” pictured at the top of this post, far outnumber the “wants.”

Their notes revive my spirits. I’ve a sense of standing on a shore just as the sun breaks through the clouds. I feel the warmth of it. I can almost hear distant gulls, or something, calling and calling, wild and free; I can taste promise like salt in the breeze.

We’re not even done; we’ve only just begun.

I believe it’s gonna be a great day, after all.

*******

-Bits of the teachers’ final reflections at the end of the day.

Last times

To commemorate my last post of the month-long Slice of Life Story Challenge with the Two Writing Teachers community—this is my second year of completion—I write about “last times.”

Yesterday I shared the “first time” heart map template from Georgia Heard’s Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing. I use these templates when I lead professional development for teachers in writing; it’s astonishing how often I hear teachers say, “I used to love writing but I don’t do it anymore.” More frequently, I hear: “I’m not good at teaching writing.”

The first step is simply to start writing.

The first and last time maps are excellent guides for this, and, furthermore, when teachers have taken these back to their classrooms, they tell me they’ve been amazed at what they learned about their students: “One of my boys wrote ‘the first time I rode a camel’. The class was so intrigued that he had to tell the story right then! We never would have known this if we hadn’t used the first times map.”

On to last times . . .

Here are mine, maybe to be spun out into full stories, one day:

The last time I walked through my baby’s nursery before moving. My older of two sons was born when my husband was in his first pastorate. The parsonage where we lived was a former sea captain’s house, built in 1915 (the year my grandmother was born), two blocks from the Chesapeake Bay. The congregation was mostly elderly; there hadn’t been a baby in the church, or the parsonage, for a long time. I was just twenty-two when my husband and I moved in, and I got to choose the wallpaper for the bedrooms. For the room that adjoined the master bedroom, I picked an ivory paper with little muted-red hearts between dusty blue stripes. A year later, I bought ivory crib sheets and bumper pads along with coordinating quilts and wall decor all adorned with these same little rustic hearts, teddy bears, and rocking horses. Our son was three when we left the Eastern Shore of Virginia to serve a church in North Carolina. I walked through the empty nursery last, where the only the little hearts remained on the walls; I stood there, running my fingers over them, and wept.

The last time I had really long hair. From kindergarten and first grade, when my hair was cut in an assortment of horrible shags, not to mention my cowlicks, I wanted long hair. By fifth grade, it was finally beginning to happen. In sixth and seventh grade, my hair reached down to my waist, was parted in the middle and as straight as a stick. In eighth grade I had a crush on a boy in my algebra class. He sat behind me. He’d speak to me occasionally, sometimes asking for help (which shows what dire straits he was in, to ask ME for help with algebra). I decided to cut my hair solely to get this guy’s attention . . .

The last time I played kickball. That was about a week ago! Due to a series of unfortunate events, there was a shortage of substitute teachers at my school on fourth grade’s quarterly collaborative planning day. I found myself taking a class to recess. It was a sunny, first true spring-like day, and the kids produced a kickball. “Mrs. Haley, will you pitch for us? Pleasepleasepleaseplease?” I haven’t played kickball since I was ten years old . . . but I was good at it, so . . . I took my place on the pitcher’s mound. My beginning teacher in kindergarten, walking past the game with her class on the way to the gym, stopped to gleefully take pictures.

The last time I quit a job I disliked. I’d had enough. I told the employers so and walked out. I never went back. Better things came along. Since then, when colleagues and friends have spoken of how much they detest their jobs, I’ve asked: What are you going to do about it?  Life is too short to be spent doing something that makes you miserable every day.

The last time I performed in a play. I was in my second year of college. I planned to be a theater arts major, having performed in numerous high school productions, and I’d just auditioned and been accepted to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. This really sounds like a story of beginnings, doesn’t it? To stay immersed until I left on this huge new venture, I performed in community theater. At the audition for the very next play, after receiving my letter of acceptance to the Academy, I walked in, saw the handsomest man I’d ever seen in my life . . . and got married that summer instead of going to acting school.

The last time I went to my childhood church. My husband and I attended the service honoring my retiring childhood pastor, who’d become mentor to my husband, the last of over fifty young men my pastor ordained into the ministry. The church building was large; I remembered how, as a child, I’d occasionally run upstairs—there were flights and flights of stairs, some of them not adjoining; I’d have to run across some entire floors to pick up other staircases—and I’d go as far as I could, up to a little door with a dark window. I tried the doorknob. It was locked. I wondered: What’s behind there? Can I go any higher? Is God on the other side, somewhere? Who keeps the key?

The last time I spoke to my grandfather. He was dying of lung cancer, at ninety-two. He stayed at home with hospice care and refused morphine. From his years around loud equipment in the shipyard, Granddaddy was notoriously hard of hearing. He never talked on the phone for this reason, but one day when I called to see how he was, he answered the phone. Grandma had stepped outside. I talked to him for just a few minutes, almost shouting into the phone so he could hear me. He understood every word. I said, I love you, Granddaddy. You’re safe in God’s hands. He said, emphatically: I love you, Honey, and there’s no better place to be.

The last time I saw my dad. It was the week of July 4th. I’d come home with my boys to stay a few days, as Daddy wanted to take us to the shipyard to see the fireworks. He was retiring at the beginning of October, after almost forty-one years as a security guard, so this would be the last time, the only time, we’d get to do this. There’s a lot to the story that I’m not up to telling, even now; maybe one day . . .  so we went, my boys and I. As I sat there in the dark, watching the sky explode in lights over the vast, beautiful river of my childhood, sipping the ginger ale Daddy brought to share, I thought: Surely this is the beginning of better times. Daddy’s going to have more time to spend with us now. In my heart, I celebrated for him, that his working days were just about done, that soon he could take it easy and enjoy life . . . I could never have imagined it would be the last time I’d see him.  In September, just three days before he was to retire, he died with a massive heart attack. In uniform, on his way to work.

Writing about last times can be so hard, so hard, so hard.

But not always . . . as my workshop participants tell me, there’s that last car payment, that last mortgage payment, causes for celebration, indeed. Maybe even a step toward health, as in the last time someone smoked a cigarette.

So I close my thirty-one day writing streak, celebrating that I made it to the last post, celebrating my fellow Slicers who did the same, who wrote alongside me, who walked a part of the journey with me every day. Here’s to writing, friends. Here’s to sharing each other’s stories as long as we can, though perhaps not daily until next March.

Thank you all.

Here’s to your first and last times, to what’s in your heart, and to life.

Keep trusting.

First times

Georgia Heard’s book, Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing, has been out for a couple of years now, but when I facilitate writing workshop training for teachers in my district, many still haven’t heard of heart maps.

Since the first step in being an effective writing teacher is to write, I show teachers how to use this tool for themselves first.

The photo is of Heard’s “First Times” heart template. I’ve filled in many of my personal “first times” which can be spun into stories. Such as . . .

The first time I had a serious injury. I was in the fourth grade, on the playground, standing on a tire cemented to the end of a pole (two of these poles would be used to hold up a volleyball net; this pole was lying down, and I was standing up on the tire’s edge) with the intent of jumping and grabbing hold of the tallest chin-up bar. I missed. I broke my left arm. When I get around to writing this story in all of its gory detail, I must also include my dad, who came to take me to the orthopedist. He brought me an old, smudged doll that I didn’t play with anymore. It was humiliating, but at the same time, seeing him there, holding that bedraggled doll I’d outgrown, his face pinched because of the pain I was enduring, I understood that he was trying to help in the best way he knew how. Yes, I’ll need to write this story, one of these days.

The first time I directed a play. I was a high school senior and my drama teacher was  asked to send two students to the elementary school to lead a small production for advanced learners in the fifth grade. I was chosen to direct the play and a classmate was chosen to teach the students some of the tech, such as scenery and lights. One little boy in the elementary group was painfully shy; I gave him the role of the bad-boy motorcyclist and, well . . . I need to write that story.

The first time I cried over a book. Fourth grade again. The teacher read Charlotte’s Web to the class. Later in the year, she read Old Yeller to us. I didn’t think I’d live through fourth grade (broken arm notwithstanding).

The first time a teacher praised my writing. Fifth grade. The class had written “All About Me” books and the teacher complimented my description of the allergy medicine I had to take. Until this moment, I had no idea my writing had any real value.

The first time I felt sorry, really sorry, for my father. When he got paid at the end of the week, he would cash his check and go to the store for our family’s groceries. Once the shopping was done, he’d put the rest of the money in the bank. One day, when I was a young teenager, Daddy got in line with his loaded cart, reached for his wallet to pay the cashier—and discovered that his wallet was missing. Along with his whole week’s pay.

So, I walk teachers through the process of brainstorming their own “first times” for writing inspiration, before we ever talk about how students might use the heart maps.

And the teachers write. Some stare off into space, thinking; others smile. There’s not a lot of tears when we write about first times.

Those tend to come when we write about last times.