Seeing me

img_4994

Come back to examine this image after you read: In how many ways does it represent the information in this post? 

The big question on Day Three of our Teacher Summer Writing Institute: How do I see myself as a teacher of writing—no matter my grade level or content area? 

The day became a collage of images and symbolism.

Teachers were tasked with using postcards and personal artifacts as metaphors for teaching writing. They used these ideas as springboards into poetry and a means of writing to inform.

Then came the birds.

It began with the fact that 2018 is the Year of the Bird. The National Audubon Society and National Geographic, among other organizations, made this designation to honor the centennial of the Migratory Treaty Act, the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever passed. My co-facilitator posed this question: How do birds inform us? Group answers: They indicate coming changes in the weather, or the quality of the air. Their migration patterns have changed because the climate has changed; the birds are getting confused. That’s a reflection of society and the world, don’t you think? This segued into an activity called “Everyone Has a Bird Story.” For just a couple of minutes, teachers were challenged with a quick write about a bird (everyone really DOES have a bird story of some kind). The teachers gathered in a circle afterward, each reading one line aloud from his or her story, to compose a group bird poem. The effect was funny, strange, and beautiful. The closing question: How might we use this activity to inform student writers?  Answers: It’s a visual way to show students about organization and revision. Students can actually move around so that their poem makes more sense,  or to attain better flow. You can use this activity to physically show students how to group like ideas. It’s an easy way to show students that writing is fun. 

Just as the group broke for lunch, two birds—doves, to be exact—crashed into the windows of our meeting room. Generating both awe and alarm, they hovered, wings flapping, knocking against the glass as if seeking a way inside. A couple of us ran out to guide them away before the birds injured themselves.

Birds, ancient symbols of freedom and perspective, the human soul pursuing higher knowledge, the dove especially representative of peace, love, gentleness, harmony, balance, relationships, appearing at this gathering of teacher-writers as if invoked . . . so much to analyze there, metaphorically . . . .

Following lunch, the group spent time exploring abiding images. These are images that stay with us in our memories (and sometimes in our dreams); they usually have deeper meanings and significance than are obvious at first. One of mine, shared as an example: long, skinny, flesh-colored worms with triangular heads that my grandfather and I encountered when I was a child. He didn’t know what they were (land planarians, I’ve learned), we never saw them again,  and neither of us could have guessed what they have the power to do. They just resurfaced in memory recently; I had to figure out why. Here’s the story of that experience, if you’d like to read it: First do no harm.

Participants were then invited to take virtual journeys in their minds to capture the specific sights, sounds, smells of their favorite places. Others went outdoors to capture the same (see Abiding images for my original experience with this). Whether the journey was real or virtual, everyone encountered something unexpected or fascinating —something so representative of writing itself. The point of collecting abiding images is the intensity of focus, the close examination and capturing of the smallest detail, which might be used later in writing vivid scenes and settings that are necessary in both fiction and nonfiction, as well as for metaphor in poetry. Writers communicate information to readers through images. Teachers must be able to test and try ideas and creative processes—this is called birdwalking—through things like abiding images to inform their teaching and to communicate information to students.

And to write.

At this point teachers could rotate through any or all of three breakouts: Minilessons and content area writing, where they discussed ways to incorporate their new learning to grow student writers, or continuing to work on their own writing with the option of conferring with a facilitator, if desired.

As this vibrant day on writing to inform and “How do I see myself as a teacher of writing?” came to a close, my co-facilitators and I received the most welcome information from our fellow educators who span grades K-12 and all content areas, including ESL and AIG: These have been the most helpful sessions—I have learned so much about writing. There’s so much I want to try with my students! I am excited! How can I find more workshops like this? With most professional development, I am tired before lunch, and the afternoon is a long haul, but with these I go to lunch energized and can’t wait for the afternoon! The breakout sessions, where we choose to work on what we want to, are exactly what we need. Don’t change anything; just keep it coming!

That is like music—or shall I say birdsong?—to our ears.

 

Your story matters

img_4990

“The world needs stronger stories.

We’re here to live a story and we’re made to live a good one.”

– Ruth Ayres

The focus of Day Two of my district’s Teacher Summer Writing Institute was Your story matters, with the driving question for teachers: “Why is it important for me to see myself as a writer?”

The bottom line is that we grow strong at writing by writing. If teachers expect to help students grow as writers, teachers must be actively writing. And teachers must believe in the craft, in the process, in the transformative power of writing, if they expect students to. As Ruth Ayres states in Enticing Hard-to-Reach Writers (Stenhouse, 2017): “When writers believe their words matter, nothing can stop them.”

Our group of K-12 cross-curricular teachers took some time to delve into their own stories by charting “peaks and valleys” from their life experiences. Peaks meaning moments or experiences that were positive—not necessarily milestones like getting married, seeing your newborn child, etc., although these can be peaks. Exploring moments or memories that have stuck with us over the years, those that carry great emotion, can impart greater insight to why we are who we are (see Your why for the expanded explanation of this activity). One of my peaks, for example, is from 5th grade, when I saw a classmate  do something extraordinarily brave. It’s my definition of “noble” to this day (if you want to read that story, see The Valentine ).

Valleys, or pits, are harder moments that have also defined who we are and why. They’re often ones of loss, but not always. Sometimes the valleys are moments of despair or disappointment, especially in yourself. Yet there’s great learning and insight attached to these moments. One of my valley-moments occurred when my mother invited a boy who bullied me to my birthday party.  When I began writing this piece, I recalled only my anger at my mother and our conflict. But a funny thing happens when one continues to write . . . I learned a truth that has stayed with me, subconsciously, all these years; it continues to shape me and my relationships with other people (you may read this story, if you like: The birthday ).

So the teacher-writers explored their peaks and valleys. They watched an extraordinary Ted Talk on perspective and assumptions of others, The Danger of a Single Story,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. They read articles and books of their choosing on writing. They studied visual texts.

Their takeaways:

“Writing about the peaks and valleys was so therapeutic.”

“I loved having the space to write. I began writing about one of my peaks and my mind hopped to something I saw recently; these two things don’t seem to be remotely connected . . . I wrote that instead because the image and what I was thinking were so vivid. I don’t know the last time I wrote like this.”

“I thought about things I haven’t thought about in years.”

“It’s so cool how writing takes you to places you don’t expect.”

You stories matter. Not just to you, but to others who may need to hear them.

Write first, Writer, to know thyself.

Find your stories and to discover where they take you, and what they mean. What they reveal to you about who and why you are.

Then tell your stories. Encourage others to tell theirs.

That’s what stories are meant for.

Still tripping the write fantastic

 

Pencil sky

Pencil sky. Ricky BCC BY

She settles into the armchair at the front corner of the classroom. The students, gathered on the carpet at her feet, lean in. There’s an air of anticipation, of expectancy, an unusual sort of hush for fourth grade.

She pushes her new glasses back up on her nose. Pale winter sunlight streams from the window over her shoulder onto the large binder in her lap.

She opens it, finds the page she wants, and commences to read.

She’s not a professor, a lecturer, or even a teacher. The chair almost dwarfs her, having been designed for an adult, not a pixielike middle schooler.

She’s a former student coming back to share her writing.

The fourth graders listen. They laugh. They hardly move a muscle until she finishes the chapter, when they applaud.

She grins self-consciously, but clearly pleased.

Hands go up in the air. The questions begin:

How much of this story have you written?

Just a few chapters, but I have other stories I am working on, too.

Where do you get your ideas?

Mostly from books I read or stories I hear. I start thinking, what if there was a character who had an experience a  little different from this, like, what if a character from our time could go back to a time long ago, to a setting from the historical novels I read. Stuff like that. Sometimes ideas just come; I don’t know from where.

What’s your favorite thing about writing? Why do you like to do it?

I can make anything happen in stories I write. It’s a lot of work but it’s so much fun!

How did you get so much detail in your story?

I have to look a lot of stuff up. Sometimes I don’t know what things are called or what things were like if I am writing about long ago. Or, if I decide to write about an earthquake or anything I haven’t, you know, experienced myself, I have to know what it it would be like to live through it, so I look stuff up all the time.

The questions go on and on. She answers them all patiently, honestly, with a grace and wisdom far beyond her years.

Do you want to publish a book one day?

Yes, I really want to.

She looks right at me and smiles.

Just two years ago, she was a shy fourth grader who didn’t call attention to herself. In fifth grade, between her teacher’s read alouds and writer’s workshop, somewhere betwixt historical fiction and fantasy units, the writing bug bit hard, prompting her teacher to send this child to me for extended writing lessons in every moment we could manage.

These sessions were the highlight of many a day—what a gift it is to work with a student so passionate about writing when writing is the very thing you love most yourself. Together we tripped the write fantastic, so to speak, with me listening to her story (multiple chapters with multiple revisions), asking her to clarify portions, to add detail to others, and to fill in the “holes” that leave readers behind, where the writer’s mind leaps ahead too much.

Then fifth grade was over and she was gone.

At the elementary Fall Open House, however, I happened to look up just as she came barreling toward me from across the media center, face all aglow, her mother and younger brother in tow.

Her mother’s comment: “She’ll stay up all night writing in her bed with a flashlight, long after I tell her it’s time to go to sleep.”

But Mom’s face glowed, too, with unmistakable pride.

Now our young writer returns again, by her own choosing, to share her sheer love of the craft, to pay it forward. Watching her from the back of the classroom, I am flooded with an incomparable warmth, an inner light that a thousand years cannot extinguish. She will go on to create more worlds of her own and to people them. She will conceive more problems for her characters, how they’ll cope and eventually overcome; such will be extracted from, and parlayed back into, her real life, her own future. She’s already learned the value of a driving question and how to research for answers—a true self-guided learner, a critical, creative thinker. She’s exploring ideas, generating new ones, playing with language, writing with voice for an intended impact on readers, and inspiring others to do the same.

And she’s just eleven years old.

All this world, and those springing from her mind, from her pencil, lie ahead of her; I can hardly wait to see how far they’ll take her, how far she’ll go.

Still tripping the write fantastic. What an absolute thrill.

May it always be so.

*******

For more about this student’s initial falling-in-love-with-writing experience, read Tripping the write fantastic.

 

Memory box

Memory box

Memory Box. AntaraCC BY

This weekend I caught a bit of an interview with Jon O. Newman, a senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Judge Newman has written a memoir entitled Benched. The subtitle is rather epic, something you should experience on your own . . .

What caught my attention, however, was the Judge’s statement that “everyone should write memoir, for your children, your grandchildren.” He went onto say how valuable a person’s memories are to the successive generations, especially for the unique knowledge they impart.

These statements were both invigorating and validating to me for a number of reasons.

First: I’ve been writing a good bit of memoir here on Lit Bits & Pieces. It may well be my favorite thing to write. When I am composing a piece, it’s almost like I have “street view” of moments and people as they were long ago; I can see it all from so many angles, from within and beyond my childhood self.  Judge Newman said, “The more you write, the more detail you will remember.” It’s astonishing, really, the little things I begin to recall, one after the other, once I start writing. The images return in startling clarity. I write in scenes, small moments. I tell writing teachers that memoir is really small moments on steroids, all pumped up and full of meaning.

Secondly: I write these pieces of memory because they hover so vividly, begging a landing place, and because I truly love the time-travel. They’re meaningful to me, so I try to preserve them as best I can. What’s astonishing is the response I sometimes get from a  reader; I never anticipated such deep chords would be struck. It leaves me, every time, in wordless awe at the power, the “magic,” of writing.

Lastly, having watched my mother-in-law and grandmother suffer the ravages of dementia — and the loss of their dignity — I write to celebrate the human brain at its most glorious, the triumph of the human heart over its darkest moments, the joy and the story of lives well-lived.

In this way, my blog serves as a memory box for me, homage to those who’ve gone before, and perhaps a gift to those who come after. As the photographer of the beautiful image at the top of this post wrote: We should save part of our memories in a box . . . we may need it later . . . 

Tonight I celebrate memory. My own and the bright fragments given to me by those I loved — those I still love, for in truth, when I write, they are ever so near.

Beacon

Kerosene lantern

Kerosene lantern. hare 🙂CC BY-SA

In reflecting on my reading and writing life, I am most thankful that my tastes cover a pretty wide spectrum. As a child I devoured everything from Dr. Seuss to Highlights, from cereal boxes to Funk and Wagnalls Medical Encyclopedias (yes, really), from fiction series to biographies, from Reader’s Digest to dictionaries, as I marveled over the many meanings a single word can have. 

None of these were required reading in school.

All of this is what I chose to read, was compelled to read, from an insatiable hunger for the experiences, the ideas, the information, the emotions, the beautiful and the stark way of stringing words together, long before I thought about how hard authors work on hammering those words and phrases into something with just the right impact on readers.

Now, as a writer, my tastes run the gamut as well.

With Lit Bits and Pieces, I am usually reflecting on or exploring meanings of every-day experiences. Creative nonfiction, mostly.

Today I am sharing a short piece of fiction – for, truthfully, fiction is forever beckoning me with a capricious and winsome smile.

This was inspired by a personal challenge, a house I once lived in, and being told a long time ago that when she was a little girl, my maternal grandmother sometimes assisted her midwife mother.

-Enjoy.

Beacon

The captain’s wife was going to die.

Lily and her mother couldn’t save her.

They tried.

Vestal administered tinctures she’d made from leaves and bark as six-year-old Lily rubbed Miss Rebekah’s swollen belly, repeating over and over in her mind like a mantra: Little baby, please get borned . . . your Mama’s trying so hard.

Lily’s arms ached. The odors of sweat, blood, and tincture hung heavy in the close room. Miss Rebekah had chosen the highest, hottest point in the house and she couldn’t be moved now. Lily breathed through her mouth instead of her nose to avoid the metallic taste of blood and salt on her tongue. She kept kneading: Little baby, please, PLEASE get borned . . . .

The hours wore on; the sky darkened and thunder rolled in from the Atlantic.

Storms frightened Lily. Vestal said she mustn’t let it show. “When you live by the ocean, Lily dear, storms are always violent. Become accustomed to it. This is where thunderstorms are born, child.”

The wind moaned like a ghost under the eaves; rain slapped against the windowpanes. Lightning burst and sizzled a split second before the thunderclap shook the house. Lily jumped but she didn’t cry out. She sat trembling while Vestal calmly lit the kerosene lamp on the dresser.

Rebekah, sinking deeper in the feather bed, whispered, “Miss Vestal, would you move that lamp over to the window, please, so Captain Turner can find his way home.”

Captain Turner was at sea. Lily knew he wasn’t due back any time soon. Even if he was, he’d never see this lamp through the storm.

Vestal hesitated.

“Please.” Miss Rebekah’s whisper was barely audible, more air than voice.

Vestal carried the lamp to the sill of the window overlooking the widow’s walk. Beyond her mother’s silhouette, Lily could see the surf illuminated by lightning, billowing, foaming, crashing. Lily thought about the women at the marketplace who dressed only in black, murmuring to one another that this Carolina coast was treacherous even without storms.

Women who had watched for ships that never returned.

Rebekah groaned. Vestal flew back to her. The groan was so deep and prolonged that Lily’s courage finally collapsed. She cowered with her hands over her ears while Rebekah, just nineteen, married less than a year, made one last, valiant push before her life ebbed away. Lily knew it was all over when Miss Rebekah lay silent, her pinched face turned slightly toward the window where the lamplight flickered, then stood still.

Vestal gasped: “Lily!”

Lily scrambled to the foot of the bed. There in her mother’s hands was a tiny, motionless body. In all the births she’d witnessed, Lily had never seen anything like this.

The baby had no face.

“Oh, Mama, what’s wrong with it?”

“She’s a caulbearer! All my life I’ve heard of this! Cauls bring good luck, Lily, and healing powers. Whoever owns one will never drown. We must save it for her Papa.”

Lily watched as Vestal gently peeled the membrane, intact, from the baby’s face. Sweet-smelling fluid trickled from beneath the caul. When the veil lifted and she faced the world at last, the baby shuddered, reddened, flailed at the air; she drew a rasping, croup-like breath, then gave a mighty squall, startling Lily.

Vestal beamed.

Almost instantly, there was another sound: heavy boots pounding up the wooden stairs. Captain Turner burst into the chamber, rivulets of rain and seawater running from his hat and cloak, so out of breath he couldn’t speak. He simply sank to his knees on the floor in the circle of light cast by Rebekah’s lamp.

Lily was little, but she believed in miracles, believed that she was witnessing how many, right now? She eyed that lamp, glowing so serenely through the gloom. She knelt by the struggling captain. With a tentative hand, she dared to pat his arm:

“Welcome home, Captain. Everyone’s made safe harbor now. I think maybe you should call this baby Stormy, sir.”

As if in agreement, the flame in the lamp flared and danced.

******

Note: My original version of “Beacon” ended up placing in a flash fiction competition sponsored by Women on Writing – just one of the ways I’ve tried to push and challenge myself as a writer. Here’s their pretty fun response: The Muffin/Women on Writing Interview.

The hallway

Hallway

Hallway. DSC_003. ColinCC-BY

A large part of my job involves helping teachers and students grow as writers. I often define writing workshop as an artist’s studio, a place with time to fall in love with the craft of writing.

As I consider my own writing experiences, the image of a hallway forms in my mind. I am actually in this hallway. I can see numerous doors, one of which stands partially open, and through it I can see a window, and beyond that, trees, bright in the golden light of afternoon, probably in late spring or early summer. The branches sway in a breeze, making the leaves dance and beckon, but there is no sound, not from this vantage point. I would have to go through the door and open the window, probably, to hear the rustling, the insects, the birds, to feel the sun’s warmth and taste the laziness of a free afternoon – if, in fact, the afternoon is lazy and free, as it seems to be from where I stand.

Other doors are closed, and knowing that I can open any of my choosing sends a compelling shiver through me – each door leads to a different place, experience, and story. They are all mine to explore, at my leisure. I will never know what’s behind the doors unless I go and open them. Some lead to the past – when I walk through, I can see my family, some of whom are gone now but alive and remarkably young in this place.  They don’t seem to mind at all when I come – in fact, they seem to welcome my visit the same as they always did. If I go farther, I see old friends, classmates, even people I didn’t know well but who are somehow connected to an idea, a moment in time when I learned something or realized that something mattered. My childhood dogs bounce up at the makeshift gate between the kitchen and the living room in their typical greeting; I smell cigarette smoke, the old Kirby vacuum cleaner, the old worn rug; fried chicken also lingers in the air. But I do not want to stay and wander like a ghost here in my childhood home. I can come back another time, anytime I like.

Behind other doors are chairs where I rocked my babies. Here I sit with their soft warmth in my arms, their fuzzy heads nestled against my neck. I feel them breathing, slow, easy, contented in their slumber. I can stay here a while and just be, just rocking, holding one boy for a long time and then the other. I can see them when they are a little older, one always chipper and friendly, the other absorbed in his own thoughts, spending hours lining up his Hot Wheels or taking things apart to put them back together. They are safe and well in this place, so I will leave them here, after I kiss their satin-soft cheeks once more and tell them that I will always love them.

Other doors, I suspect, lead to worlds that I can still create, both real and imagined. I can only see so far in the future; only some things are certain and I will alternately face them and embrace them as they come. I could linger far too long in the imagined worlds, just to see what will happen, to discover the secrets and the magic, knowing all is of it is at my command.

I am surprised by the door that opens straight into the natural world. I have discovered this about myself, that the workings of nature have a strong pull for me. Some of the discoveries are breathtaking, like the iridescence of a dragonfly’s body, the precise blue and orange painted pattern down a caterpillar’s back, the powerfully sweet fragrance of a gardenia, of honeysuckle, and the tiny war-plane drone of a hummingbird’s wings. Others discoveries are not nearly as pleasant – a horseshoe crab decaying on the beach, a tobacco worm (a non-native North Carolina neighbor recoils in horror – “Is that a dragon?“) crawling on my porch rail, a scar on the wood trim by the roof where lightning struck the house. Not pleasant, but fascinating all the same. I had no idea until I started writing that nature spoke so much to me – just now, as I capture these words, the sun bursts forth from behind the clouds beyond my bay window, shining on the laptop and my hands as I type, like a validation, an invocation.

Other doors lead to mysterious places like cemeteries, where time is irrelevant. I don’t know these people, but I look at the stones, the names, the dates; I read the poems on the older, eroding ones, and I want to know: Who were you? What were you like? What was your life like, what did you love, and how did you die? What’s your story?

The most curious thing of all about this silent hallway is that whichever door I open, in whatever order, wherever I go and however far or for however long, I find myself there. Myself as I was, as I am, as I will be.

I give myself a nod.

And I write.