Writing teacher rhapsody

Globe with gold suspended in water

Writing time.

Expectancy painted on their faces.

They know something’s coming,

just not what, yet.

But something.

Ideas.

Their own.

In this moment

I’m just the crossing guard

from the unit 

to the universe.

Ever expanding.

They do not know, yet,

that they’re made 

of the same stuff as the stars.

That the stuff without

is always calling

to the stuff within.

They are children

but not too young to discover

they’re oceans

containing more than simply

water 

and salt.

But I know 

there’s millions of pounds of gold

infinitesimally dispersed

throughout the oceans.

Here is where

those priceless grains 

rise to the surface

take shape

become substance.

Now is when they start spilling

onto the page

to shine

with a light of their own.

The whole of my task

is to stir

release

and be swept away.

Today

 

Bubble in reeds

Today … a bubble in the reeds. Claudia DeaCC BY

Today held some rare things.

A teacher said, “Come sit with me while I do my reading groups. I don’t learn by watching but by doing.  Just be there with me and jump in when you see a way I can make them better.”

A third-grader read me his rough draft about experiencing an eclipse, relating his understanding of the science behind it, yet conveying real fear at watching the sun go dark. I sat, listening, in awe of his inspiration, his words.

Another third-grader read her narrative draft to me. How she helps her grandmother to dress and brush her teeth, but not wanting to, wanting instead to go outside and play or watch TV . . . . I sat blinking back tears as she spoke her truths recorded there on the page. She has no idea how powerful this is. How powerful she is. And she’s eight.

I walked down an empty hallway and suddenly heard song—a student coming up the stairs, walking back to class, singing to herself in a vibrato that almost sounded trained. I turned around to see her moving her arms and hands in time with the words. Sign language. I didn’t know she could sing. Or sign.

Had I somehow fallen into a parallel universe, a facet of paradise, maybe, where beauty is multiplied exponentially? Somewhere over the rainbow?

But no, these were only moments in a regular day. Wondrous bubbles against the usual backdrop. Shining, ethereal, iridescent.

And all I really did was show up and listen.

Tell your stories

Tell your story

You Can Tell Your Story. Cate StorymoonCC BY

“As a teacher now I make a point of sharing my personal stories as a way of connecting and building relationships with my students … My hope is that my students can feel their classroom is a safe space for sharing their unique background stories and experiences.”

 —Julian Rolden in I Wish My Teacher Knew by Kyle Schwartz

The staff at my school is participating in a study of the book I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids. At the first meeting, we were asked to share a quote that resonated with us.

Several lines struck me, but the ones that went deepest were of a teacher making a point to share his personal stories with his class.

I thought of how teachers create the atmosphere in their rooms; where personal stories are valued, individuals are valued. Story is where humanity meets. Where we see, understand, and feel for each other. Story is where identity and belonging begin.

I thought about teaching writing, primary grades to adults. In the end all writing is about life, about having lived, about recording images, observations, emotions. To share with others is to make an impact. As I share snippets of my life in the modeling process, it spawns questions and conversations but most of all an electric synergy in the air, as writers of all ages come to realize the power of their own stories.

Last night I was invited by a dear colleague to share some of my writing with students during their family literacy event. I brought a stack of stories written over the past few years in front of classes. After a brief description I let the students choose between memoir, realistic fiction, and fantasy for me to read aloud. I explained that while memoir is a real experience, writers also weave pieces of their real lives into fiction.

And so I read my work to the students, who opted for fantasy and fiction. I was a stranger to them in the beginning, but somewhere in the sound of my own voice reading my own words, in the sudden stillness of the young bodies seated around the foot of my chair, something changed. It wasn’t visible or tangible, but it was there. Born of curiosity, interest, empathy, rapport. I was a stranger no more after the readings when the questions came, as students wanted to know more about the characters and was I going to keep writing about them and what pieces of these stories were the ones I’d really lived.

The time grew short; I answered the questions, all the while thinking how I’d freeze these moments if I could so that I could go on watching their faces as they absorbed the words. I’d stay there always, encouraging writers to find and tell their own stories. Many lingered at the end and I knew it was, it is, it always is, the power of story, that kept them wanting more, that stirred their own thoughts, feelings, ideas, images that they, too, need to share.

I packed my bag, walked into the throng of strangers at an unfamiliar school, and didn’t feel alone.

Making space

Anyone who’s ever worked in kindergarten or first grade knows that emergent writers often write strings of letters.

For example:   The flowers grow.

Sometimes the strings of letters are much longer and harder to decipher. A next teaching point would be working on the concept of words.

Enter Mr. Finger Space.

He’s a handy little tool for young writers, to facilitate their thinking about each word they’re trying to write and to begin making spaces between them.

I have, as you can see from the leading photo, a colorful collection of googly-eyed Mr. Finger Spaces ready to get to work.

Today as I passed by the jar, this gathering of Spaces seemed so beguiling that I thought: There’s a blog post in this. Somehow. 

I snapped a photo and went on my way.

I knew the accompanying story would come. That’s how it always works. A spark of inspiration, given time to grow . . .

This time it came pretty quickly.

As usual, it didn’t arrive as the expected story. Not about a little writer employing a cheery craft stick—I mean, a Mr. Finger Space!— to compose a sentence of separate words for the first time.

No.

It came after a conversation with a colleague about her wonderful weekend getaway, reconnecting with old friends, reliving priceless experiences:

There’s so much I’d forgotten, that I haven’t thought about in so long . . . it was incredibly meaningful to have those memories come rushing back. How important they were, those times we shared. I loved every minute of remembering and at the same time was saddened by how much I’ve lost because day-to-day responsibilities take all my focus . . . you know there’s not room to carry it all around in your head all the time . . . .

You need to write about them now, I told my colleague. My friend. Those memories, while they’re freshly stirred. Preserve them before they leave you again. Spend time going back in your mind, immersing, and you’ll be surprised at what you can recall.

I know this to be true from my own experience, over and over again.

A sigh. The longing was etched on her face: Just how to find the time . . . 

That’s when the googly eyes of Mr. Finger Space appeared in my mind; I immediately understood the message.

Moments of love and laughter, priceless gifts, slipping away under the weight of just living. Fragile strings of memory running together until the beautiful meaning is nearly obscured . . . .

The only way to stave off such loss is to push this often senseless, insensitive, jumbled-up world back, if only for a few precious minutes, in the midst of every run-on day. To breathe. To plunge deep into the recesses of your mind, to know yourself, who you are, and what really matters. Feel the stories pulsing through your being. Fight for them, to keep them alive.

Find the words. They’re all there, within you. They just haven’t been put into organized form yet.

Make the space. 

Put your pencil to the paper. Just start.

The rest will come.

Bear with the writer

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On the cusp of his twenty-first birthday, my younger son, Cadillac Man, is finally giving me some gift requests. Let me clarify for readers new to my blog: His code name here is Cadillac Man because of his lifelong love of the car. Earlier this year he inherited his grandparents’ 1989 blue (the official color is “Light Sapphire”) deVille.

I might also have dubbed him Music Man for his other abiding passion.

I’ve written about his love of music developing long before he started school, how he can listen to songs and immediately replicate them on the piano. He gets interested in an instrument and teaches himself how to play it. He’s studying music and voice in college, the only degree he ever considered: “It’s either this or I’m not going to college.”

He does not, nor ever did, love academics. He’s intelligent, well-spoken, witty, dutiful, kind, generous of heart . . . and managed to get through his educational career reading and writing as little as possible.

So imagine my joy at his birthday requests:

“Mom, can you get me Brian Wilson’s memoir for my birthday?”

A BOOK!

“Done!” I responded with glee. Cadillac Man has been researching—of his own accord—the history of The Beach Boys and their music; he has immense respect for Brian Wilson and his musical inventiveness, particularly with complex chord progressions. He shares things he’s learned every day and I revel in his allowing me entrée to this part of his world.

He relates how, when he was little, going to sleep in his bed at night, he could hear his older brother in the next room playing CDs of The Beach Boys.

“It was the vocal harmony that drew me,” he says. “That was the beginning of it all.”

Cadillac Man was hired as a church music director at age seventeen. He plans and leads every aspect, coaching instrumentalists, vocalists, and choirs.

“I think in music,” my son tells me as we walk together in the evenings, both of us having decided we need this exercise. “I hear a melody in my mind and I can hear different instruments coming in at different spots. Sometimes it’s so loud and clear that I’m not even aware of other things around me.”

I am riveted, for I understand this: I think in a loud narrative voice with the same effect. Words, words, words, always words, turning round and round, shifting, recombining . . .

Cadillac Man is still speaking: “Can you also get me some blank music notebooks for my birthday? I’ve tried using computer programs but they’re glitchy. I’ve lost stuff. I need to be able to actually write what I am thinking.”

Notebooks. For writing music. For writing in the way that he thinks, for capturing what comes to him inside of his own head . . . this is what writers do. I think of the brain research about the movement of writing generating more thought.

Yet he doesn’t think of himself as a writer. Not in the way he knows me to be a writer, or in the way he was expected to write in school. He’ll own that he’s a reader, as much as he looks up information. But never a writer.

This is about to change; I sense it just as I can sense a change in the seasons by the first subtle difference in the temperature, or a shift in the sunlight, or a by scent carried on the breeze. The portending of something significant taking shape.

I look at many notebooks online, thinking, What will he like best? Plain? What color? This one with a treble clef or this one with piano keys? 

I finally have to ask: “Which of these music notebooks do you like?”

My serious-minded, turning-twenty-one-year-old examines the options.

“I like the one with the bears on it,” he says at last.

So whimsical. Who’d have thought.

And so the gifts arrive, waiting to be given on the big day, a celebration of this milestone in my son’s life, not just in chronology, but in the pursuit of his joy and passion. A celebration of the gift he is and the gift that he has.

Involving writing. Not the way, honestly, that I usually think of it . . . but in the way that he thinks. In his own profound way.

How my heart sings.

To every parent and teacher who’s struggled, labored, wept, despaired over that child who doesn’t want to write . . . do not give up.

Bear with your writer. There’s a way. Talk, but listen more. Banging on the door will never get you in, but the way that the child thinks will. What the child cares about will.

Meet the child at that portal and when it’s ready to open . . . it will.

Here’s to the blank pages and all our stories, all our songs, to come.

*******

Cadillac Man’s surprise gift: Tickets to the Brian Wilson Pet Sounds concert this fall. Brian said of his career: “I wanted to write joyful music to make people happy” and that “music is God’s voice.”

I celebrate how this wove itself into a little boy’s dreams, long ago.

Artifact

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Sometimes I think about the writing process more than I do about what to write. Like the origin of ideas, how the barest glimmering can turn into something substantial and take unforeseen shapes altogether during the writing. A breath of a thing becomes a breathing thing—for inspiration means to breathe in, to breathe life into. When I start writing my glimmer or breath of an idea, as it grows, shifts, and takes on a life of its own, it draws other things to it. When people say, “I don’t know how you manage to see these connections and string them together this way,” all I can say in response is, in the end, all things are connected. If you follow the glimmering threads far enough . . . .

Such was the case in my summer writing workshop for teachers. My co-facilitator asked fellow teacher-writers to bring a personal history artifact, something that holds a story about who we are or about a significant time in our lives.

My “default” artifact is a locket that belonged to my grandmother; her uncle gave it to her in 1930 when she was fifteen. She gave it to me when I was fifteen.

But I’ve already written about that: The locket.

I had trouble choosing another artifact. Why should it be so hard? We’re surrounded by pieces of our personal histories in every room in our homes, in our workplaces, even in our cars, sometimes . . . .

A thought hovered: There’s the cross necklace Daddy gave me at Grannie’s funeral. 

Nearly twenty years old, it still glitters like new, and there’s plenty of symbolism and story wrapped around it, for my father didn’t often give gifts, nor was he expressively religious except for a keen interest in eschatology. That he should give the necklace to me on that occasion (Grannie wasn’t his mother but his mother-in-law) is especially poignant.

I ought to write about that . . . yet, I hesitated.

I know! All those pictures I just had developed—if anything’s personal history, that is! Some years ago I’d gathered all my used rolls of camera film, placed them in a giant Ziploc bag, and promptly forgot about them. I’d finally remembered and had the photos developed (do you know how hard it is now to find a local place that will do this with same or next day service?). In these images, many loved ones who are gone smile at me afresh from decades past. Layer upon layer of stories to tell . . . .

Yes, this is an unusual sort of artifact . . . I definitely need to write about this.

The thing—the idea—certainly had a breath, a glimmer.

But it didn’t seem to be quite ready. I got the feeling that it didn’t want to be written about just yet.

I decided to take both, Daddy’s cross necklace and the old newly-printed photos, and as I prepared to leave the house that morning, another image glimmered in my mind. Rather brightly.

A sand dollar.

I have a few that I found years ago, and while I find them beautiful and compelling, I didn’t really think a sand dollar would be an artifact especially representative of my personal history. But . . . as the glimmering was suddenly there and I’ve learned not to question but to trust . . . I fetched the largest sand dollar, packed it carefully in a box with tissue paper, and took it with me to the workshop.

Guess which artifact I ended up writing about.

Of course.

I found this sand dollar on the beach when walking in the last weeks before my first son was born. There’d been a storm. The sand was still damp, the beach littered with seaweed and shell debris. The sand dollar, however, was whole, which is rare—they’re fragile and I’d never found any here before.

I don’t know why it drew me, just this morning, as a special artifact. It wasn’t something given to me, like Grandma’s locket or Daddy’s cross.

But maybe it was given, from beyond . . . .

I’ve just now recalled that, when I was born, my grandfather gave me twenty silver dollars. He did the same for all of the successive grandchildren. Sand dollar, silver dollar. Wealth of the sea, wealth of the earth. Gifts. Celebration. The coming of children, the next generation, the endowment of hopes and good wishes of those who’ve walked before. Like my younger self on the beach, I am walking the path of generations, I am the bridge between the past and the future. The sand dollar I have in my hand is really a skeleton. It was once a living creature. It’s symbolic of faith and strength despite its fragility and it comes from the ocean, which symbolizes life, continuity . . . .

It occurs to me now that the sand dollar is connected to the other artifacts I considered writing about, Daddy’s cross necklace, given to me unexpectedly at Grannie’s funeral, and the pictures from the old film I just found and had printed. All together they say: These are your life-pieces that endure; you will endure. Oh and I almost forgot that I just had my DNA tested. When I got the results, I marveled at the migratory history of my ancient ancestors, the story of their survival. I hadn’t expected the rush of profound gratitude to all of them for living, that I might be here now. I am here, whole, because they were here. I carry pieces of them within me. 

I found this sand dollar, the skeleton of a living thing, on the beach while walking after a storm, while carrying my firstborn. I walk the path of generations.

We go on.

My co-facilitator’s voice gently broke the hush in the room, we teacher-writers having been immersed in our thoughts, our words, recording on paper:

“Now, how can your artifact drive your teaching of writing?”

I wrote:

My sand dollar can drive my teaching of writing in so many ways. It’s a metaphor for writing:

-Just start walking. Like I did on the beach. Just start writing,

-Until you’re walking, you don’t know what you’ll find.

You’ll have surprises. Rare things will come, if you keep at it.

These gifts are waiting, meant just for you.

I looked at the sand dollar and I know, if it could look back at me, it would have winked.

Teach Write

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How amazing these words are that slowly come to me.

How wonderfully on and on they go.

Will the words end, I ask

whenever I remember to.

Nope, my sister says, all of five years old now,

and promising me

infinity.

—Jacqueline Woodson on learning to write, “The Beginning,” Brown Girl Dreaming

Writing is, in many ways, a celebration of life. Of our stories that we live out each day. Of discovering our ability to change the course of our stories even as we are living them.

Believing in the power of writing and the need to share our stories, today I celebrate the vibrant work of my friends and colleagues at Teach Write.

Teach Write is dedicated to teachers of writing and teachers as writers. Founded on the knowledge that teachers often struggle with writing instruction and with ways to grow as writers themselves, Teach Write provides a treasure trove of ideas, connections, support, and opportunities to contribute—everything from coaching to tips to daily writing opportunities.

Check out their website and resources: Teach Write.

Also check them out on Twitter: @TeachWriteEDU. Participate in their #TeachWrite chats on the first Monday of each month, 7:30 p.m. EST.

As a teacher desiring to grow as a writer, consider joining the Teach Write Facebook Tribe.

It’s my honor and pleasure to have a small part in the great work that Teach Write is doing to encourage teachers, from discovering I AM a writer to going forth and instilling the same in children. My contributions as guest blogger:

March 9, 2018: What Community Is and Why It Matters

April 11, 2018: Thinking in Poetry

May 8, 2018: When I Stick With It

July 9, 2018: The Power of Feedback and Risk-Taking

October 10, 2018: Writing is My Elixir

November 9, 2018: A Taste of Memoir

Thank you, Teach Write, for the invitation to write . . . for that is sometimes all that a person might be waiting for.

To write that first word, to take that first step, on the journey toward infinity.

Kilroy

He flew back to me from long, long ago.

My memory of him is dim, fleeting. I can only see partial scenes, the way a migraine sufferer is unable to look directly at objects because of a big gray spot but can see things around the periphery.

In a summer writing session last week, my co-facilitator challenged participants with quick-writing a bird story—for “everyone has a bird story.”

I have quite a few, some of which I’ve already written.

I looked at the page, waiting, my thoughts circling like birds themselves, tiny dark things against a whiteness, when suddenly there he was, crisp and clear, his black feet gripping the black perch, his crested blue head tilted, white face gleaming, a bright, black-rimmed eye regarding me with curiosity.

Oh, I breathed in my mind, I’ve been wanting to write about you! I’d almost forgotten.

He blinked, ruffling his beautiful blue, black-striped feathers. He watched me expectantly.

Kilroy.

*******

Aunt Jack’s house is different from anyone else’s. It’s full of stuff but not messy. I feel a strangeness here. Maybe it’s the animals. A big, speckled brown bird with a white ring around its neck and long tail feathers stands on a hunk of wood. “A pheasant,” Grandma explains. Aunt Jack is her youngest sister. The deer heads mounted high on the wall watch me with their big, soft eyes. I am scared of the bear head and its disconnected feet with sharp claws up there. On a shelf stands some small cat creature, the color of sand with brown spots. I think its mouth is open and its teeth are showing but I look away and hurry past.

I’m in a zoo of dead animals. Stuffed. Someone killed them all.

I do not know who or why.

Aunt Jack is small with a white, heart-shaped face, always smiling. She has brown hair almost to her shoulders and brown eyes as big and soft as the deer. She’s always moving, even when she’s sitting. I like to listen to her talk; her voice is like music, her words quick notes skimming through the air like stones tossed over water, or sunlight flickering through tree leaves on a summer afternoon. As much movement in her light voice as in her slight body.   

She’s always happy to see me, hugs me, says my name in her pretty, musical voice, and I remember how I have the same name as her father. Because it’s also Grandma’s middle name. It’s a special thing. 

I follow Grandma and Aunt Jack from room to room. When we go back through the living room, I see him.

On a tall, black perch, in front of the backside of the sofa.

A blue bird with a white chest and black stripes on his body.

I think he’s stuffed, too.

But his crested blue head tilts; a bright, black-rimmed eye regards me with curiosity.

“Oh!” I say, coming to a dead stop.

Aunt Jack laughs. I think of wind chimes.

That’s Kilroy. He won’t bother you, honey.”

“He’s your pet?”

Yes. I found him on the sand by the river when he was just a baby, so I brought him home.” 

Kilroy blinks, ruffling his beautiful blue and black-striped feathers. He watches me expectantly.

I take a step closer. I have never seen a bird that wasn’t in a cage inside a house before.

A living one, that is.

“Hi, Kilroy,” I call in my friendliest voice.

—Squawk! 

I jump. He sounds like Grandma’s screen door opening.

Grandma and Aunt Jack just laugh.

Kilroy smiles.

I swear.

*******

I don’t know how long Aunt Jack had him, or how many times I saw him. He was free to fly around the house, and I don’t remember any droppings. If I remember correctly, he stole shiny things like pens, rings, and coins, and hid them, sometimes behind the refrigerator, and he liked to crack nuts open and eat them.

I try to imagine my great-aunt walking on the sandy riverbank by her home, discovering the fledgling, carrying him to the house, feeding him by hand. Kilroy was devoted to Aunt Jack. The most enchanting part of their story is how he’d wake her in the mornings by walking on her chest.

Aunt Jack couldn’t have children. I can only guess how much she loved Kilroy, the living spot of color and joy amongst all those dead, unblinking creatures.

The grayness overcomes my memory here; only a little bit’s left around the edges. I can’t recall if Kilroy was allowed to fly in and out of the kitchen window. Maybe. But I’m not sure. It’s too far away, too dim. The memory, like gossamer, disintegrates when I try to touch it.

What I do know is that one day he flew out of the window and never returned, although Aunt Jack went out, calling and calling for him.

And that she still felt his little bird feet walking on her chest every morning, long after he was gone.

Blue jay feather

Blue jay feather. Robert NunallyCC BY

My last remaining aunt tells me that Aunt Jack did leave a window open enough for Kilroy to come and go as he pleased. He’d peck on the window when he wanted her to open it. When Aunt Jack was outside, he’d fly to sit on her shoulder. Remembering Kilroy piqued my interest in blue jays; I had to look them up. They can live twenty-six years in captivity and usually around seven in the wild. And they aren’t really blue. The color is produced by their feather structure scattering light— if a feather is crushed, the structure is ruined and the blue disappears. The feather is dark brown or black. Blue jay feathers, then, are illusions of light. 

No illusions, however, about blue jays symbolizing energy and vitality—Kilroy embodied it, in all his blue glory. As did Aunt Jack herself.  

 As for the dead creatures: The stuffed bear and wildcat are apparently from another early memory that’s merged with this one over time, but my last aunt says there were definitely stuffed birds on Aunt Jack’s mantel. I opt to leave the bear and the cat in the story with apologies to Aunt Jack, who’d be delighted, I think, that she and Kilroy are still remembered.

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