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.

A word for 2019

A friend gave me a treasure box of gifts for Christmas.

One of the items in it was this gilded 2019 planner.

I already have a (rather large) daily planner for mapping out my workdays—I write in pencil because, as I accommodate the teachers I support, the course of each day shifts constantly, and I make lots of notes. Part of living the coachly life. I’ve learned to embrace it.

So I look at this beautiful planner and think: How shall I use it?

I could give it away, except that don’t want to, it was given to me with love, and I have come to understand that things come to us for a reason. There’s a purpose for this little planner.

I look at it, shimmery and new, just like the year itself, lying before me.

Beckoning, almost.

I will use it for something personal, then.

Maybe for my writing. To map out a timeline, to hold myself accountable for completing things. Or perhaps as a bit of a notebook, recording new thoughts and ideas before they get away, before I have the chance to play with them and flesh them out. I could capture images until I have time to explore why they struck me and what they mean. I frequently use the notes app in my phone for this but the planner has more “space” for movement, for expression. Not to mention sketching. I could carry it with me, keep it by my bedside.

Or I might even be able to use the planner as a sort of manuscript style sheet. For I’ve lots of things that need to be written, rewritten, or simply finished.

However I slice it, then, the planner invites me to plan.

And to write.

And there’s my word for 2019.

It’s something I already do, that already defines me, so it seems superfluous, but it’s the word, the action, that calls to me most. With the greatest sense of urgency, tinged with excitement.

—WRITE.

Here’s to your own unique adventure as the golden cover of 2019 opens.

Take it, live it, to the next level.

Treasures await.

And one of them is your story.

Important things

On Day One of school, I had a conversation about informational writing with a third-grade class.

I asked them if they know what informational writing is.

They said, “Writing that helps people learn things. Important things.”

I read excerpts of three different texts aloud to them, and then I asked:

“Why is informational writing important?”

They said:

“We learn about our world and why things work like they do” (after reading about the sun).

“We learn about friendship. We learn about relationships. We think about why we need each other” (wait—we’re in what grade? That’s right, third. Those are their exact words after a page of Owen and Mzee: The Language of Friendship. If you don’t know it: An orphaned baby hippo is brought to a park to share the habitat of a grouchy, 130-year old tortoise and . . . well, you need to read it).

“We learn about history. We learn from the past. Like why things like wars happen and what to do different, so they don’t happen again. We learn things that can save our lives” (after a page of a book about the Titanic, a topic that never, ever fails to captivate third-graders).

I basked in the glow of their words, their thoughts, their voices. Eight years on the planet and they already know so much.

My task: To channel this knowledge and energy into their own informational writing as they study the craft.

I asked one last question: “So, what do you think about informational writing?”

A general “It’s so interesting!”

Day One.

We’re off and running.

 

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.

Seeing me

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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.

 

Like Superman

Superman

Superman. Ian HarveyCC BY-SA

I’m seated at the old computer table, listening to second-graders read. Poetry conferences, we’re having. Revisions and final edits before their teacher sends everything off to publish a class book of poems.

“Is it my turn? It is it my turn?” he keeps asking me, from his seat in the middle of the room.

Actually, he’s not on my list of students that his teacher asked me to meet with. So I say, “Not yet. Not yet.”

He manages, somehow, to sneak between his classmates. I look up from notes I’m making to find his impish face beaming up at me. His tiny body wriggles in the chair beside me.

“My turn!” he insists.

I call across the room to his teacher, who’s also conferring with students: “May I PLEASE work with our friend here?”

“Yes, sure!” she answers. “I’m about to meet with him, but if you want to  . . .”

If I want to?

How can I say no?

“Okay, YOUR TURN! Read your poem to me,” I tell my exuberant conferee.

Grinning, he shoves his paper over to me.

There’s nothing on it. Not even his name.

“What, you haven’t written anything yet?”

He shakes his head. He’s still smiling. “No! But my English is bigger!”

He remembers.

At the beginning of the year, I assessed his reading. Just as I was about to console him on his having missed all of the words, he patted my arm and said, “You have big English. Me”— he patted his chest— “little English.”

His perception of everything around him is astonishing.  Whether he has all the words for it or not.

I’ve noticed, in the hallways, that he doesn’t greet me as Haley! anymore. Now it’s Hi, Mrs. Haley. That when I say How are you? he says, I’m good.

“Yes,” I say, “your English is a LOT bigger. That’s for sure. Now, this poem. What do you want to write about?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“Well, what do you like?”

His face lights up. The response is immediate: “BASEBALL!”

“Okay, so, what do you want to say about baseball?”

I take the paper and pencil.

“I like baseball,” he says.

“Perfect.” I write down the words. “That’s your first line. What else?”

“I like hitting the ball with the bat.” He acts this out. He’s a boy full of endless energy.

“Great. That’s your second line.” I write it down. “What else can you say about playing baseball?”

He thinks, gets excited, garbles his words. Something about running . . .

“Wait, slow down. Did you say running?”

He nods, bouncing in the chair. “I run like SUPERMAN!”

Superman . . . 

The first time I saw him, over a year ago, when he came to the United States, to our school, he had no English at all. Unused to a school setting, he frequently had outbursts because he couldn’t communicate his wants, his needs, his questions, his feelings, anything.

He was a frustrated, forlorn soul.

Wearing a Superman shirt.

My first words to him were, “Hey, you’re Superman.”

I pointed to the on his little shirt.

He didn’t understand, but he smiled.

Now, he understands.

Within five minutes, the poem is written. I point to every word, reading to him, then he points to every word, reading back to me. I watch him bounce away to his desk to copy the poem over in his own handwriting.

I write, too:

So you run like Superman when you play baseball.

Maybe you really mean that you fly

because you do

because you ARE Superman.

We shall stand marveling in your wake

it’s a bird, it’s a plane

it’s you.

Supersonic.

*******

For an earlier encounter with my little friend, read Big English

For the record, poetry is an excellent way to help English language learners—really, any student—write more. Poems can be brief with less emphasis on conventions. Energy can go freely into capturing images, ideas, emotions, and building vocabulary.