Something to say

All you have to do is open

All you have to do is open . . . Mike HartnettCC BY

If you want to absorb rich dialogue, hang out at a hair salon. I keep thinking that a lively full-length play could be derived from the banter and candidness between a stylist and clients, with minimal staging needed. Conversations are not constrained; there are no boundaries, no topic is taboo.

I confess that I cannot help listening with writer’s ears every time I visit my salon. Not that I eavesdrop. Nobody whispers. It’s all just out there.

So it was, while waiting for my turn at a recent appointment and helping myself to the coffee bar, that I heard a woman with her head in the nearby shampoo bowl mention the word writing to her stylist (visualize how I froze, ears perked, coffee stirrer held aloft):

“My son never liked writing. He didn’t do well at all with it until he went to college. When I saw his first college paper, I actually said: ‘What? YOU wrote this? You didn’t get somebody to write it for you?’ But he’d really written it himself. I couldn’t believe it!”

They laughed together as the stylist lathered up the client’s hair.

I stirred half-and-half into my coffee, thinking: The boy finally had something to say.

I don’t know who he is, this college student. I don’t know where he attended school or anything about him other than those few sentences. But as I sipped my hot cinnamon dolce, I wondered about those statements.

My son never liked writing. 

What made that change? What drove him to pour the words onto the page and to hammer them into shape? Was this the first time he felt passionate about his topic, whatever it was? Had he ever been able to choose his own topic before, one that mattered to him? Did he have any authentic writing experiences in elementary or secondary school, or was it all formulaic, step-by-step, assigned for a grade? Surely this college paper was assigned, too, but apparently something new—within the writer—had given it life.

He didn’t do well at all with it until he went to college.

What was his process, or was it just real for the first time? Did someone in college give him feedback on his strengths, validate his ideas? Did he visit the campus writing lab for help with this paper? Or was there a professor who inspired him, stirred his interests, made him realize he had a voice and something to say, at last?

I caught myself sighing between swigs of cinnamon dolce. Why, why, why did it take him all the way to college to “do well” as a writer?

Maybe it’s simply freedom. His not being confined by what’s all too often considered “writing” in school, but being able to articulate what he really thinks, what he feels in the depths of his heart, and having a safe, supportive venue for communicating his perspective to a real audience, even to the world. Maybe he got a professor who loves to write, who showed the students how and why to write. All I know for sure is that SOMETHING was the game changer for this young man; even his mother was amazed. Could it be that someone finally believed in him? That’s where the true business of education begins—in throwing doors wide open, not in closing them. Learning and understanding are like coming from a stuffy closet into a living room, or from a comfortable living room into the whole vibrant outdoors.

Or the hair salon, where you can speak what’s on your mind, where someone listens and responds, where voices are not constrained, where there are no boundaries, and no topic is taboo.

Writing changes the world

All good things must come to an end . . . while I do not believe that phrase entirely, it certainly applies to the Teacher Summer Writing Institute sponsored by my district.

And what an ending Day Five brought.

With a focus on “Writing to Reform” and the driving question How do we use writing to change or transform our classrooms, schools, communities, society, for the better?—a panel of professionals addressed our K-12 cross-curricular educators who’d spent the preceding four days growing as writers and teachers of writing.

These gracious panelists: A Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army currently working on his PhD at North Carolina State University, a nuclear engineer, a kindergarten teacher and a first grade teacher who attended the district’s first Teacher Summer Writing Institute last year,  a freelance writer,  a high school English teacher, and a rising high school freshman.

A hallowed hush descended on the room as the panel was introduced and began to speak with authority on the power and influence of writing.

Q: Why is writing important in your profession?

Lieutenant Colonel: I can address this from three perspectives: As a professor, as an engineer, and as an Army officer. As an officer, the way I write a report on subordinates determines the rest of their career. In this kind of writing I am required to be concise and effective in a very short period of time. As an engineer, I must communicate in writing the plans, drawings, and procedures from the structural engineers to those who will build. I am published in a number of professional journals and I must teach my students to communicate effectively as civil engineers. I teach them to write as the Army taught me when I first came to West Point: Precise language spoken precisely.

Nuclear Engineer: My work is writing—procedural manuals. These are a product of words and documents. My biggest struggle with young engineers is that they think what matters is their technical ability, but it doesn’t matter how much you know; if you can’t write effectively, you look stupid. The flip side is if you can write effectively, you sometimes look smarter than you are. I always thought of myself as a strong math and science guy. When I was applying to enter the university to study engineering, I took a series of tests to see which courses I was eligible to skip. The only ones I tested out of were composition and writing. Writing—not just writing, but being able to write well—is necessary to success. Because I could write well, I was able to advance in my career in ways that I couldn’t have otherwise.  The ability to write well is absolutely critical to perception and success.

Kindergarten Teacher: The great thing in kindergarten is that everybody sees themselves as writers. They’re excited to put their thoughts on paper. They do it with so much enthusiasm. Without a lot of opportunities to write, they develop poor self-efficacy.

First Grade Teacher: I communicate constantly in writing with parents, administrators, and colleagues. I work with instructional teams to revise and edit lessons for first grade. Writing instruction is not all about the technical aspects. A teacher must be able to model excitement and the creativity of writing. This affects students in so many ways; they begin to see many avenues and their own potential. Writing changed the way I teach, even the structure of my day; when you write, you use every part of your brain and you’re better at everything. We get less resistance from students than when we’re just technically-driven. Get the creative part in and make it purposeful.

Freelancer: I make my living by writing and it comes down to two things: One, I have to effectively communicate a point, and Two, I have to tell a story. I have to be engaging. I have to write well, yes, but the real talent lies in the storytelling.

Lieutenant Colonel: If I could add here—even in technical writing you have a story to tell and you have to know it, or you’ll ramble.

Rising High School Freshman: For me, writing helped build my vocabulary. I’ve learned to research to better understand a topic and find evidence. And I’ve learned to look for inspiration for writing.

Q: What is something that you wish all teachers knew about writing? 

First Grade Teacher: All students can write. They all have something to say. Help them find their voices through writing. It opens up the whole learning process. It transforms them. I had an autistic student who didn’t speak but we worked on writing and suddenly he had so much to say. He filled up journal after journal. His mother told me that every time they went to Wal-Mart they bought more journals. He was able to write what he could not speak.

Kindergarten Teacher: Teachers have to be risk-takers. Let loose of the reins and give the job back to the students. Don’t think all the time about covering genres and following the unit plan—take a step back, give the students a framework, and turn loose of your hold. Let the STUDENTS do the writing instead of you doing all the hard work.

Freelancer: I can speak to empowerment. I teach writing to prisoners in North Carolina. It’s a powerful thing to see, someone with no voice suddenly having a voice. Despite all the restrictions, if you can write, you are free. 

Co-Facilitator (Me, interjecting because I can’t contain myself)That’s because our need to write is universal; it’s about the human spirit.

[Nodding heads all around]

Nuclear Engineer: This reminds me of the movie Freedom Writers with Hillary Swank, how she had a class of students out of control, struggling with so many aspects of life and how people didn’t believe in them . . . she gave them journals to write about whatever they wanted, and they only turned them in to her if they wanted her to read them. Before long, she had stacks of journals to read. The class was transformed by the students finding their voices through writing.

Q: How did you learn to write? 

Rising High School Freshman: It started at home for me, but I remember the first time I enjoyed writing in elementary school. We got to write a Halloween story and it was so much fun, so creative. I became a strong writer when I learned more technical parts in seventh grade with argument writing.

Freelancer: I was the kid writing community newsletters and putting them in people’s mailboxes . . . I had older sisters and I learned a lot about writing from them.

First Grade Teacher: I always found writing hard. I cried over papers I had to write in college but I had a great teacher who had us read Oral History by Lee Smith. That book changed my life with the love of story and writing.

Kindergarten Teacher: My senior year of high school is the first time I got a writing assignment with really “juicy” content, comparing literature to current events. I began to be a critical writer when I was working on my Master’s degree, writing on things I was passionate about connected to education and research.

Nuclear Engineer: I learned to write well in high school. I had great teachers, but students can be very immature . . . we took a poor view of the English teachers. They were called “the three witches” and “the dragon lady” for pushing the students to be better writers. I’ve felt bad about it over the years. At reunions, I’ve discovered that many of my classmates have also realized the benefit these teachers gave them years before . . . their contribution to students goes beyond what these teachers ever knew.

Lieutenant Colonel: I thought I knew how to write until I got to West Point. It’s intentional on the part of the Army English teachers to point out that there are always things to learn. A professor actually wrote WTF? in the margin of one of my papers. I had to ask what that meant and he told me . . . What was missing in high school was FEEDBACK. West Point gave so much meaningful feedback. To graduate from West Point, you have to pass a three-hour professional writing exam that’s written by hand; you must pass even if you have a 4.0 GPA, or you’re going back home. Practice and feedback are key. So, I thought I knew how to write when I went to get my Master’s, and again when I started to be published . . . but every time, I had something to learn—there are always things to learn.

Q: How have you used writing to advocate for change? 

Lieutenant Colonel: I’m on a committee for the sustainability of the built environment for engineers in the United States, part of an international task force for standards of sustainability of the built environment for the entire engineering industry. I have to communicate to readers the importance of the way we use our resources . . . again, I must use precise language, spoken precisely. Even in this work, I must tell a story and why it’s important. I have to know my audience to be effective—the way I  address a four-star General is different from the way I address a lieutenant. You affect change differently by how well you write.

Nuclear Engineer: The way I use writing to advocate for change is usually through problem-solving. The nuclear industry is “siloed,” insular, versus the way other industries communicate with each other. I write about safety and health-related functions for equipment. There are less than a hundred nuclear power plants in America and few manufacturers are willing to jump through hoops to meet nuclear standards, as the certification process is very expensive and the market is so small. We must use commercial suppliers and certifiers to figure out the quality of equipment . . . they’re as good or better than those in the nuclear industry and less expensive. I must be able to convince other people of this in writing when I go to Washington to speak to the regulation committee on leading change for cost-saving in the nuclear industry. Again, I am telling a story, and what matters is how well I tell it.

Audience Member 1: I am beginning to redefine story in my mind . . . you have a story in every content area, how you interpret information, what you do with it . . . .

Audience Member 2: I am seeing how vitally important it is that we write in every class, every day.

Lieutenant Colonel: Yes. Problem-solving is the story of the engineer. Do the math; now it makes sense. That’s the story.

Kindergarten Teacher: We advocate for change when we work together as teachers. Everyone needs to grow as a writer, to be brave enough to create change. When my colleague and I took the information from last year’s Teacher Summer Writing Institute and created professional development for our staff, teachers were shocked at the writing they produced and the emotions they felt. It changed their beliefs about themselves as writers. They wanted to keep going but we ran out of staff development days.

First Grade Teacher: We made that writing experience interactive and gave our teachers things they could use in the classroom, such as how to get the students to self-assess their writing, to be aware of the progress they’re making, and to get them exited about it.

Freelancer: I write for change in things I’m passionate about—nature, the environment, diversity, making the world a better place. I want people to understand, to be educated about these things, but I have to be careful in my approach. I can’t just write an article about the importance of losing our pollinators, for example; I have to couch it in a story of a beautiful garden. I am currently writing an article on knowing who our neighbors are, so that we can understand each other. Although I write from this base of belief, I have to inspire while I educate. I will inform and educate through story, by writing about ethnic markets and the diverse foods.

Rising High School Freshman: I wrote a speech on changing gun laws.

First Grade Teacher: I write to parents a lot about the impact of technology and social media on children. They’re losing a sense of sympathy and empathy for others.  I write to promote conversations in families, because relationships are being affected and people don’t always realize it. Kindergarten and first grade students don’t know how to regulate their emotions and responses to others.

Kindergarten Teacher: Listening is so important. Being able to speak your mind leads to understanding the need to be an active listener which leads to formulating opinions—we have to be able to talk to each other. To converse.

English Teacher (via Google Hangout): I encourage students to write about issues important to them, to get their facts, to start small. I ask, “What’s your motivation? What’s your position?” They have to be clear in this in order to persuade, and I encourage them to write letters to editors on the things that matter to them.

Q (from audience)I would like to know the main things that you would tell high school kids about technical versus narrative writing.

Freelancer: You have to know how to articulate an idea.

Lieutenant Colonel: Map the story out first. People forget that in technical writing there’s still a story to tell. Even though there are charts, figures, bullets, there’s still a story. Technical writing is usually more precise than narrative. Most high school students’ experience with writing is about a book they didn’t want to read in the first place. They often don’t get to write about what matters to them until they go to college and get in their major.

Nuclear Engineer: I think there are more similarities than differences between technical and narrative writing, such as conciseness. My brother is a writer and editor. I once wrote a paper that I was pretty proud of and asked him to take a look. He said, “You’ve taken 2000 words to say what you could have said in 1000.” Without knowing anything at all about my topic, he cut the paper by half and it was so much better. I was shocked by how many unnecessary words I’d used, how much flowery language. That applies to any type of writing; you’re not always trying to whisk the reader away to Narnia.

[Aside: How personally delightful that a nuclear engineer should reference Narnia! I am compelled to support his point with writing advice from Narnia creator C.S. Lewis himself: “Know exactly what you want to say and say exactly that.” ]

Q: What’s your writing process? 

Rising High School Freshman: It’s different depending on the type of writing. When I get an idea I want to write about, I do research. I start collecting facts and evidence to support it. I get inspiration from a lot of things and sometimes I have to start writing even if I am not sure of the beginning or the end, because I can go back to those.

Freelancer: I know my idea because it’s my assignment. I do a major word dump first to get everything on paper. I keep a notebook in my bag and one by my chair, even while I’m working on the laptop, to capture ideas. I label files on my computer with the name of the article I am writing and I dump articles I might use in it. Once I’ve written everything out, I start “whittling away”—it’s organic, I just sort of know what fits. I keep rearranging until all that’s kept tells the story I want to tell. I save everything I cut in a “might use” file. I am in a couple of writing groups and I always have someone look at my work before I send it for publication. I have a friend who’s not a writer, but she’s a reader, and she’s excellent for telling me if the story makes sense or not.

Lieutenant Colonel: When I’m writing an article for publication, I can’t write an introduction or an abstract first. I write the research first and then I write the introduction and the abstract.

First Grade Teacher: I brainstorm and prewrite in my head. Then I write it all out by hand, get it all down. What I want to say changes while I write. I do a lot of research for support while I write, to be sure of my own understanding of the topic.

Kindergarten Teacher: I write a lot of curriculum. I brainstorm and map on paper first, then I go to the computer. Once I’ve finished writing, I take a break to let things marinate. Then I look over it and send it to teachers for their suggestions. I’m slow, methodical, and careful.

English Teacher (via Google Hangout):  My writing is all over the place! I get through the drafting as soon as possible. I go back, paragraph by paragraph, to be sure I said what I intended to say.

Engineer: The best word for my process is iterative. I have to keep going over what I write. The only way I am going to make progress with the writing is to schedule chunks of time to immerse in the level needed to get it done, such as four hours with no distractions.

Q: What parting advice can you give to K-12 teachers about the importance of teaching writing?

English Teacher (via Google Hangout): Students have to have big chunks of time to write. I tell them that if you want to get better at writing, you have to write.

Lieutenant Colonel: Your writing style follows your learning style. If your learning style is sequential, that’s how you’ll write. If you’re a global or big-picture learner, that’s how you’ll start writing; you’ll bring in the steps later. However your students learn is the most efficient way to teach them to write, because that’s how they process information. How I process information is how I will communicate. It takes time to know the students.

Nuclear Engineer: People who come to my company who are poor writers —it is immensely difficult to turn them into even mediocre writers. This is why the kindergarten through through high school teaching job is so important.

Freelancer: Technology use starts so young—KEEP TEACHING WRITING. We are becoming writers who don’t write. Even as professionals. An example of this: Doctors communicate by email now instead of phone calls and just this week I received a message from my doctor in which you appeared as u.

*******

Throughout the panel discussion, I wrote notes so fast that I can hardly decipher some of them now; I filled multiple pages of my notebook, front and back.

As I listened to this panel of extraordinary people speaking on the universality and power of writing, these two thoughts took shape in my mind:

In the end, it’s all about story. For all of us.

Writing changes the world.

I thought about the one word I’d chosen earlier to encapsulate the entire week’s experience: Sanctuary. A safe place to be, to write, to think, to arrive at deeper knowing. For everyone.

The panel discussion came to an end. The second annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute came to an end.

But I know that within each person who was there, something new has begun in some way. As a writer, as a teacher of writing. When the world within us changes for the better, so does the world itself.

That good thing never ends.

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

 

Thirty-four words

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“Teaching Practices That Position Students Closer to Reading and Writing Excellence” presentation, Kelly Gallagher, NCRA, 03/19/2018.

When Kelly Gallagher gave the keynote address at the North Carolina Reading Association last week, he cautioned educators about overwhelming student writers. He said: “Start off small when modeling. Use high-interest models.”

Before students write an essay, for example, they might write a 100-word memoir after the teacher models it.

Gallagher doesn’t begin there. He starts even smaller.

He shared the example of the “34-word story” he uses to inspire his students—that of Olympic speed skater, Dan Jansen, as seen in the photo above. Gallagher plays this Visa commercial at the outset of the lesson, to illustrate the impact of these few words:

He knows what he’s doing, Kelly Gallagher.

As if the hearts of the audience members weren’t pierced enough, he then shares this “34-word story” written by one of his students:

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“Teaching Practices That Position Students Closer to Reading and Writing Excellence” presentation, Kelly Gallagher, NCRA, 03/19/2018.

The absolute power of words.

Just thirty-four of them.

*******

Challenge: What would your “34-word story” be? I experiment with my own. . . .

A teacher once told me, after seeing my performance in a play: “I didn’t think you had it in you.” Guess what, teacher? There’s a lot more in me, too. Including the last word. 

I asked a friend to read my first blog post for feedback. She said, “What’s your niche? You need to target an audience.” I said, “I write for humans. My niche is the world.”

When all’s said and done, and my time here is over, I will go celebrating these things: I lived. I loved. I was loved. I got to write about it all. Thank you, God.