Dear student…

That email you sent.
Almost didn’t open it.
Seemed like random spam.

Thank God I did, though:
I hope you remember me…
the little girl who

halfway wrote a book
‘bout five or six years ago…

-How could I forget?

Never finished it
but now I’m writing this one…
-You are still writing!

You can’t know the gift
it was, assisting your craft
as it developed

the pure joy I took
from the spark in your child-eyes 
born of storylove

-that’s YOUR gift, you know.
Your storytelling power.
It’s grown stronger, still.

And your plans, to be
a therapist. A healer.
An author. Oh, child

you have no idea
what your words have done today.
I read them again

and again, amazed
by your remembering me.
I compose my thoughts

to respond to you,
most of all to say that you’re
unforgettable.

*******

I wasn’t this child’s regular teacher but the school’s literacy coach, supporting writing workshop across grade levels at the time. Her fourth-grade teacher asked if I could make time to work with her as she had fallen in love with the craft and wanted to write historical fiction. We carved out the time; we made it happen. I blogged about it in 2017: Tripping the write fantastic. That teacher invited the student back a couple of years later to share her writing with a new crop of fourth graders. I blogged about that, too: Still tripping the write fantastic.

In the recent surprise email that sparked the poem I posted today, the student also wrote: “Every now and then I’ll read what you wrote about me on Lit Bits and Pieces, and it always makes me smile and feel inspired.”

That, Dear Student, makes ME smile and feel inspired. ❤ Can’t wait to see where your writing takes you!

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge…for teachers must write to teach writers.

Thanks also to Allison Berryhill who hosted an Open Write on Ethical ELA with prompting “a poem to a student.”

Photo: “Steal Like An Artist – ‘Write the book you want to read’.” Austin KleonCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Pencil wizard

Once upon a time, I said that writing is the closest thing there is to magic.

Here is why.

Magic is not, well, magic. It is a lot of work (or why would Hogwarts exist? Just saying).

Writing is a lot of work.

Work (a lot of it) makes the magic happen.

Here is a true story of magic moments at the end of this dystopian school year (know that I am suppressing the urge to compare virtual learning to disapparating, i.e., teleporting from place to place, or essentially vanishing). After end-of-grade testing—I said dystopian, right? What does the State expect this data to look like?—a fourth-grade teacher sent me a note:

One of my students has been writing a story in his free time. He wants to read it to the class. He knows it needs some work and I am wondering if you have any time to help him? He’s not usually motivated to write…

I made time. I would shift heaven and earth for this.

He came to my room wearing a giant grin, clutching his pencil and notebook. I recognized the cover—it’s a notebook our district distributes to teachers. His teacher must have given it to him especially for his story, for in grades 2-5, our district doesn’t use writing workshop any more (and that, Dear Readers, is a whole ‘nother tragedy for the telling on another day).

“Come in, come in!” I said. “Have a seat here beside me and read me your story.”

Without giving too much away (for the story is his): It’s a fantasy, a battle between humans and wizards, the protagonist a young wizard with power to make living things grow. The student read it all aloud and then we went back to make some changes for clarity and flow, with my asking:

“What exactly do you mean here, when…”

“What is it you are trying to tell the reader? What do you want readers to think or feel here?”

“Think of an action to add here, so readers or your audience can better see what’s happening in their minds, like we do when we watch a movie. What are you seeing here in your own mind? That’s what you need to get across.”

“What’s a better word choice here, to make the meaning clear?”

While the boy thought and elaborated aloud, I began typing the story. As I read the lines back to him, his face glowed: “Perfect! That’s amazing!”

“That is the power of revision,” I told him. “When you start writing, it’s all about getting your ideas down. When you go back to make the meaning clear, by adding these kinds of details and taking out what you don’t need, that’s where all the magic happens.”

“We’ve made a lot of changes,” the boy observed, “but it’s SO much better.”

And yet the story remained the story he wanted to write.

We’d changed city to town, people to townspeople. He made the stylistic choice to capitalize Humans. We’d added transitional phrases to keep the readers from falling out of the story. We added gestures for the young wizard when he makes vines grow (“I need to see how the wizard does this,” I explained). The student vetoed my suggestion to go ahead and incorporate “earthbending power” (a phrase borrowed from video games): “I am not ready to tell readers yet about earthbending power,” he stated. —Such a tone of authority!

“All right then! You’re the author. Save it for when the time is right in the story. Just make a note here to add earthbending power later.”

And then the word tome… “Is tome the word you want here, where you say the wizard found a tome in the laundry?”

“Yes. It’s a big book of spells.”

I blinked. “Indeed! That’s impressive. Just make sure your readers know what you mean here, that they can see and understand what you mean by tome.” It became an ancient tome of spells, hidden in a robe in the laundry, that the young wizard began to read “without realizing the power he now carried”—those are the student’s own words, not mine.

And thus I spent the last days of school this year watching the love of writing take root and flourish in the heart of a child…magical, indeed, in a year where so much felt anything but, even in some of my own writing of late.

As I write this morning, sunlight streaming in my window like all the glories of summer on the cusp, I recall my final words to this child as he carried his typed version away in a bright yellow folder: “Keep writing!”

In my mind’s narrative, I add: Young word-wizard, with earthbending power.

For that is the magic of writing.

May he cultivate it all of his life.

Imagine. Indy Sidhu. CC BY

with my thanks always to Two Writing Teachers, a community dedicated to the craft, power, and love of writing, for all Humans.

A bit of legacy poem

For Day Twenty-Six of National Poetry Month

Testament 

I cannot measure
how much time remains
in the hourglass
of my days

sand grains
steadily trickling
more than half
already gone

yet still refining
polishing
my existence

with words

let them be
the worry-stone
worn smooth
slid into the pockets
of those I encounter
a cool indented
presence of calm
for the holding

let them be a beckoning
a turning inward
toward crystals
forming in the geode void
the amelioration
of hollow places

let them be
like the curious folk remedy
of my childhood
jars of strange white peach rings
with heart-colored centers
floating in witch hazel
(which has nothing to do
with magic; the etymology of the name is
pliable)
cure for bruises and
what ails you

let my words be
a gauge for life-giving rain
collected
yet flowing on
and on
a good measure
pressed and shaken
poured out

a testament of love
for the new life

coming

Habit acrostic

with thanks to Ruth Ayres at SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog, for reiterating this truth: “Habit is essential for writers. If we develop a habit that allows us to enter into writing, then we will write more often.” She encourages the “magic” community to pay attention to the routines that make blog writing happen.

I am a morning writer. I love the rich, dark silence of the sleeping world around me, the freedom to hear my own uncluttered thoughts, the anticipation of gifts from the burgeoning day. I love the neighbor’s rooster, how his loud crowing wafts through the stillness; there are a few roosters in this neighborhood and sometimes they echo each other in a chorus of wild, rustic, joyful aliveness. It is a song of my soul. For a second, I have a sense of my young grandfather a hundred years ago, preparing for his farm chores, walking the fertile land he cultivated and loved all of his life, as darkness turns to light.

And so I write.

An acrostic, for Day Sixteen of National Poetry Month

Hallowed
Are these moments
Before the dawn
Immersed in words
The breathings of my being

If you are looking to write more or to develop a blogging habit, consider joining the vibrant community
at SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog.

Writing

With special thanks to Dr. Kim Johnson who hosted Ethical ELA’s Open Write last week with the invitation to compose “Your Life’s Table of Contents” poems. There is no formula, just lots of freedom; Kim said: “I started thinking about how I might write a table of contents organizing the poems I have written over these past few years, in verse…Imagine you are creating a collection of your own work, and try your hand at an organizing poem to be a table of contents or any other feature of a book.

My poem is based on a timeline of my writing history, starting at age 6.

My Life’s Writing Anthology

Bible story plagiarized
in blocky big letters
on lined newsprint paper

All About Me
carefully rendered detail
teacher-praised

Myth of Shoeani
on the origin
of shoes

Dr. Heartbeat, Dr. Heartbeat
a play composed
around four words
heart
lion
clock
—I forget the fourth

The Poetry Years
of rainbows
friendships
love
loss
even a baby dragon
rhythms of my soul
attempting to understand
itself

A short story
a mystery
a secret
a little girl
kept safe

All-nighter
research paper
on the function of 
King Claudius
in Hamlet
—still tied two of my best friends
for the highest marks in class

Oral tradition
of grandparents
put to paper
for the first time

Novel ideas
captured in notebooks
beginning to live
even if 
they haven’t breathed
in a while

Critical research
on children’s fantasy lit
taking the last of my strength
and the humanities prize

Short stories
hammered out
within word counts
for competitions

Mentor texts
for students
and teachers
learning how to write
and to love
memoir
essay
story
fantasy
poetry

The blog:
the archive
the scrapbook
of my writing life
my love letter
to words
and the world

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 23, I am writing around a word beginning with letter w. How could it NOT be “writing”?

The baby dragon

I am not sure what inspired me to write this poem as a teenager. Likely it was born from a love of fantasy and mythology. Perhaps I was just playing with rhyme. Maybe I was feeling silly. Or all of the above. The only thing I’ve changed from the original is some punctuation.

Nevertheless, consider yourself forewarned, should a baby dragon drop in to visit YOU

Once, a baby dragon

dropped in to visit me.

He flew right through my window

(he’s not too bright, you see).

He was quite a charming fellow

with enormous, greenish scales,

quite polite, this dragonlet,

who came to hear my tales.

I told him one of Pegasus,

the horse with wings of gold.

I told him one of Camelot,

of days when men were bold.

The dragonlet, he loved these tales!

He begged and begged for more;

once he laughed so very hard

he burned down my front door.

I told him of the Lion King

who secretly had sworn

not to tell the whereabouts

of the only Unicorn.

When morning’s light awoke me,

the dragonlet had gone.

The only trace I found of him

was on my neighbor’s lawn.

Photo: Baby dragon. Derek Hatfield. CC BY

Dear Writing

As a participant in the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers, I will be posting each day for the month of March.

What better way to start than by expressing my love for writing? Or, to be exact, by expressing my love TO writing for the profound impact it’s had on my life.

Inspired in part by Kobe Bryant’s retirement love letter, “Dear Basketball.”

*******

Dear Writing,

It occurs to me that I’ve never told you how much you mean to me.

It is time, for you mean more now than ever before.

I remember when you first materialized. I was, what, about six years old? I wonder now whether I discovered you or you discovered me, sitting there at the coffee table in the living room, wide-ruled paper in front of me and a fat pencil in my hand. All I know is that it began with story. A pull, a beckoning, a desire to get what was swirling inside me onto pages. By some great alchemy, my blocky letters, erratic spelling, rudimentary sentences ceased to be merely themselves; combined, they became something distinctly Other.

And there you were. Almost a living, breathing presence.

I didn’t know then that you’d come to stay. That as I grew, you would grow with me. That you would, in fact, grow me, always pulling me to more. To think more, explore more, discover more, strive more, play more. To be more.

Do you remember the diary Grandma gave me for Christmas when I was ten or eleven? Trimmed in pink, little girl on the front, with a brass lock and tiny key. Do you remember this entry: “I wrote a story that I hope will be published”? Whatever happened to that diary—? To that story? They’re lost in time. No matter. I can see that page in my mind to this day; is it you that keeps this memory alive?

People began to notice our relationship early on, didn’t they. Teachers who said it was a good thing, who gave tips on how we could be stronger. Friends and family who told me to stick with you: Please keep writing. I owe them all for how they shaped you and me.

Where would I have been without you in my teenage years? In the early days of my marriage? Those were the poetry years, the journal years, when you let me glimpse the beautiful inside the uncertain, when you compelled me to pour out my heart. You were bigger than my anguish, my anger, my fear. You channeled it all, absorbed it all. Ever how circuitous the path, how violent the storm, how steep the mountain, how dark the night, how deep the pain, you were there, leading me to safety, to calm. Even now, I reach for you and you are there. Like the ocean, you bring forth unexpected treasures. And healing. When my emotions and energy are spent, washed clean away, you reveal over and over one thing that always remains: Hope.

For there’s always more to the story, to the ones that I create, to the ones that I live. I think that’s one of the most important lessons you’ve taught me: This chapter of life is ending, but a new one is about to begin. Embrace it. It’s one of your most extraordinary powers. As amazing as your ability to mine my memory. With you I am any age I ever was. I sit on my grandfather’s lap once more; he walks with me, holds my hand. I hear his voice. I am in Grandma’s kitchen while steam fogs the windows, in her arms as she rocks me and sings: Jesus loves me, this I know . . . I see my father’s blue eyes, hear my mother’s laughter and the whir of her sewing machine late into the night. With you my children are still little, my husband is young, black-haired, healthy, whole, and out on the court shooting hoops. And every dog I ever loved comes bounding back to me in absolute joy, all my shortcomings forgiven.

With you, I relive it all. The parts I am proud of and the parts I’m not; the moments I cherish and the ones I survived. With you, they all become a celebration of living, of learning.

I learned long ago that I can harness your power to attack but you showed me that it doesn’t bring me peace; you taught me, instead, to defend. Not as a warrior with drawn sword but as a careful guardian of my own mind and heart. Not by destroying, but by edifying. You enable me to walk in another’s shoes and see through another eyes, to understand that fighting doesn’t move the hearts of others, but story does.

There’s something of the divine about you as well. Marvel of marvels, how a spark in the human brain becomes a thought and a thought becomes substance because of you. Like something from nothing. Ex nihilo. It’s how God created, speaking the world into existence. With words. Without limits. Anything is possible. Believe. To me there’s a sacredness behind the human spirit’s desperate craving to create, to express, to be heard . . .

Which brings me back to being six years old, at the table, pencil in my hand.

And you will outlive me. You are my record, what I leave behind.

Let it be the best of me.

Know that you’re an inextricable part of who I am, one of my life’s greatest gifts. Meant to be given. And so I give you away.

I am grateful beyond words.

I love you.

Fran

A poem written at age sixteen

Lost

It started with a feeling.

It led to a word.

Lost.

It led me to look for a beautiful book, The Lost Words.

I couldn’t remember where I put it.

I looked everywhere.

It’s lost.

Ah. A theme.

Maybe it’s the dreary January dusk, or the drizzle, or Monday.

Maybe it’s the news. Lost lives.

Maybe it’s growing older and being reminded of things I loved long ago, like koalas, because of a book my grandmother read to me, and wondering how many koalas are left in Australia now. Wondering if there are enough eucalyptus trees left in that charred landscape to keep them alive.

Maybe it’s everything.

So much is lost.

I am not lost.

Just caught in layers of lost, like being wrapped round and round with invisible tulle.

It’s there.

I feel it.

Cocoonish.

That’s what sent me searching for The Lost Words as reading it suited my mood. The book is a glorious creation based on words that are disappearing from the dictionary. Words about the natural world that children don’t know anymore. Lyrical verse, majestic illustrations, making something beautiful of something lost . . . it was calling me to reread it. The very thing I needed.

But I can’t find it or remember where I last left it.

It’s really lost.

Naturally that beckoned lost associations. Lost people, lost friends, lost dogs, lost moments, lost time, lost things. Lost opportunities. Lost relationships, lost trust. Lost vision, especially in the educational world of late. Lost sense, lost direction. Lost ideas that I didn’t write down (although I am better about it now than I used to be). Lost dreams, so vivid and clear — what great stories they would make! — disintegrating as I wake, alas. I can’t seem to hold onto the dream and wake up; too often I am left with odd fragments.

But even in my tulle-swathed, piece-y malaise, never lost hope. No, not that. Never lost faith. Never lost love, because, if it’s love, it’s there forever.

I lost interest in reading tonight. So, I write.

Never lost words, not for me. Not yet. They find me, somehow.

And tomorrow I’ll find that book.

Photo: Lost. gwenole camus. CC BY-SA

Why I Write 2019

The National Day on Writing invites me to examine my writing history: Why DO I write, really? And why do I love it?

I don’t know exactly when the desire began, only that it manifested itself early in life.

It had nothing to do with the hateful formation of letters on paper. My handwriting was never pretty. Even now my letters aren’t uniform; I scrawl my thoughts onto a page lightning-fast, before they escape me.

That’s what writing is. Thoughts. Ideas. The attempt to capture and convey images, emotions, sensations.

It has everything to do with words.

I fell in love with words long ago on my grandmother’s lap as she read book after book to me, the prosody of her voice like the waves of the ocean rolling on and on and on. Endless, musical, alive. Her voice buoys me to this day. I hear it still; she is never far away.

At age six I gathered paper and a pencil, sat at the coffee table in my living room, and wrote a story that I’d heard many times. No one said Do This. The compulsion came from within. The writing was for me and no one else. It simply needed to be done and I wanted to do it. So there I sat, laboriously printing my ugly letters, making words to what I believed was the most beautiful story in the world.

I wrote because, in the days before the Internet and cellphones, Grandma wrote letters (with perfect penmanship) in which she included books of stamps so that I could mail letters back to her.

In my adolescence she gave me a diary with a lock and key (two keys, actually, in case one got lost). I flooded those pages with the secrets of my young soul, such as the angry suspicion that my parents had adopted me, whereas my sister was their real child, and: One day I want to write a book. I hope it will be published!

And so I wrote.

One teacher, then another and another, strategically placed throughout my education, said Keep writing. Here’s what you do well. Here’s a thing that can make your writing even better. They asked me to read my work to my classmates, who said Keep writing. Oh, and will you help us?

Throughout my teens poetry called to me. It said: You hear my music. Show me. Come, dance. Don’t think about perfect steps. Just listen and follow what you hear.

—That’s pretty much how I write everything now.

And the books, the books, the books . . . who and what would I be if I had not loved reading so? All genres, all my life. New words, new information, new ways of thinking, new things to explore and imagine. New motivation to write with the same power as the writers who stir something my very core, as our cores are clearly made of the same stuff.

So, to this day, I write. Because I love story, real or imagined. I write with and for children who have their own stories to tell. I write to cope with people and situations that I cannot change and to remember all that’s good in my life. I write my celebrations and my losses. I write not to wage war on the world but to find peace in myself, where finding peace with others begins. I write to forgive myself and others. Not with words that destroy, but those that build, that create, that go on in the belief that the chapter to come will be better than the one before. Even when pain is woven through it, so is joy. Because that’s life. And love. And writing. I want to store it all it before the hippocampi in my brain (I envision these as two seahorses, yes) stop recording my memories and before the ideas evaporate and the words don’t come any more.

Until then, on a sea of words, the rhythm of life rises, falls, and calls: You hear my music. Show me. Come, dance. Don’t think about perfect steps. Just listen and follow what you hear.

And so I do, with a heart full of gratitude.

That is why I write.

Living literacy

Every year, my school hosts Literacy Lunch.

It is a time for families to come share in the love of reading, writing, and learning in classrooms, followed by a meal together in our cafeteria.

Literacy Lunch has sometimes been a vehicle for explaining English Language Arts curriculum, and shifts in standards, to parents. Mostly it’s a time for students and their families to collaborate on literacy activities. We’ve had poetry slams, writing cafés, and a “Step Write Up” carnival. We’ve invited families to SWiRL (speak, write, read, listen) and we’ve gone “wild” about reading (with the school decorated like a rainforest). 

Even though it’s hosted in the middle of the day, Literacy Lunch remains one of our school’s best-attended events. Three days are designated: One for kindergarten and first grade, one for second and third, one for fourth and fifth. Some families come all three days to spend time with their children in different grade levels.

The comment we receive most often from parents: Thank you for this time with my child.

It tugs on the heartstrings, for a parent to tell you this.

When it came time to think of a theme for Literacy Lunch this year, part of my mind kept latching onto the idea of celebrating families themselves. They are, after all, the fabric of our school community, the thing that makes it unique. They are our greatest resource.

Then, in February, Two Writing Teachers ran a blog series on “Teaching Writing with a Social Justice Lens.” Co-author Kelsey Corter penned “A School Can Be the Change”, a breathtaking post on identity, culture, heritage, power, action, and the vital importance of honoring each other by sharing our stories. It was based on her school’s work and the book Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension by Sara K. Ahmed.

I read these introductory lines of Kelsey’s over and over:

More than something we do, school can be the place where literacy is a way of living; a means for understanding the world and our place in it, that which shapes perceptions and molds identities.

The words turned round and round in my head:

Where literacy is a way of living

Literacy . . . living

—Living literacy.

“Well, that’s it,” I announced to my colleagues. “That’s my vote for the theme of this year’s Literacy Lunch.”

For, in truth, while the children  are growing as readers and writers, their stories, all of our stories, are unfolding each day that we live; our families are a fundamental part of that. Every one is unique, every one valuable.

And so it was agreed upon, and the children got to work on Living Literacy: Celebrating Me in Pictures and Words.

It began with them tracing their hands to make flowers, one for each homeroom—a whole garden of beautiful, diverse flowers.

In our lobby and cafeteria, every homeroom was represented by a flower made from students’ traced and decorated hands. Many students artistically conveyed their personal interests – such as hobbies or a favorite book, like Amal Unbound, seen here. Some students across grade levels decorated their hands with flags from their native countries. 

Teachers and grade levels planned identity-related activities for students to share with families:

img_2220.jpg

Student bios with 3D photos hang from the ceiling of a first-grade classroom.

Many families helped compose student name acronyms. 

In an “All About Me” book, a first grader describes herself.

A kindergarten class asked parents, teachers, and peers for words to describe students. They created camera snapshot posters for a “Picture Me Successful” display (“Drinks a lot of water” may be my favorite descriptor of all! Talk about being observers!).

In third grade, students made booklets of various types of poems and collaborated with families in writing some.

One first grade class published a book of their animal research, with a back section recounting highlights of their year together. These books were presented to families at Literacy Lunch.

Even our tabletop flowers in the lobby and cafeteria were handmade by students.

Second grade families collaborating on “I Am From” poems. 

Fourth grade families collaborated on a “Books are windows and mirrors” activity – analyzing book characters, seeing others, seeing self.

Fourth grade’s hallway display: “My ideas can change the world.”

Fifth graders show families how to create name/identity word clouds in new Chromebooks.

This photo, to me, captures the “Living Literacy” theme almost more than others: Parents recording second graders as they perform a song and dance demonstrating their learning from the study of butterfly life cycles (they also integrated math and visual art). I look at this and I think: WE are living literacy. 

At tables in the cafeteria, families were encouraged to write notes to each other. 

We write when it’s meaningful to us (I hope Mommy is okay, too).

A few notes of feedback from parents

They came. They celebrated. Another Literacy Lunch has drawn to its close – this seemed to be the best note on which to end.

Many thanks to my colleagues for this annual collaborative effort. 

To our families: THANK YOU for coming, for sharing, for being a vital part of the story we live each day. Be happy. Hug. Have fun. Inspire. Love. Sing.

And thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for the ever-flowing wellspring of inspiration, from which I drew the idea for this year’s theme.

My cup runneth over.