Getting to the heart of writing workshop

I wasn’t sure how the day would go.

There were a lot of strikes against it before it even started.

Normally when I facilitate writing workshop training for teachers they’ve specifically signed up for it. They want to be there. This year, due to an oversight somewhere at the district level, the workshops weren’t scheduled. At the last minute, this workshop training was added as Day Two of Balanced Literacy (as Day One focused only on reading).

Meaning that teachers who signed up learned that they had two whole-day sessions to attend instead of one.

How would they feel about that?

Normally the overview of writing workshop alone is spread across three afternoons. Now I had to condense it all into one day.

Nothing like prioritizing content . . .

And, with the adoption of a new curriculum, writing workshop—and balanced literacy—won’t be offered to K-5 teachers any more. Just to K-2.

I felt I’d landed in no man’s land on some dismal shore, ineffectively beating back the waves of despair crashing all about me.

But I chose to keep my footing on a solid foundation, to hang onto all that I value about writing and teaching writing. The lifeline. Not just for me, but for the children, for their teachers.

This has to be worth their while, I sighed to myself.

And I got to work revising the training.

The day of reckoning comes. I start with who we are and why we’re here, rolling right into the what of writing workshop: Create the conditions for good writing to occur (credit Donald Graves). Understanding that writing workshop is not a program, is not about a product, but is a time set aside to fall in love with the craft (my definition) and to learn the real writing process.

Then we go deeper, into the why of writing. It’s at the very core of being human.

I read aloud to my participants:

Five-year-old Paul writes. Children want to write before they want to read. They are more fascinated by their own marks than by the marks of others. Young children leave their messages on refrigerators, wallpaper, moist windowpanes, sidewalks, and even on paper. 

Six-year-old Paul doesn’t write. He has gone to school to learn to read. Now that he is in school, the message is, “Read and listen; writing and expression can wait.” Paul may wait a lifetime. The odds are that he will never be truly encouraged to express himself in writing.

Paul will wait and wait to write because a higher premium is placed on his ability to receive messages than on his ability to send them. Individual expression, particularly personal messages in writing, will not be valued as highly as the accurate repetition pf the ideas of others, expressed in their writing. Since Paul will write so little, by the time he graduates from high school he will think of himself as a poor writer and will have a lowered sense of self-esteem as a learner. He will have lost an important means of thinking and will not have developed his ability to read critically.

-Donald Graves, Children Want to Write

I notice, as I read this, how heads begin to nod in acknowledgment . . .

Next we read portions of two articles with quotes from people in the business world. How young would-be employees have a hard time organizing their thoughts and articulating them, and that, when possible, employers should hire the better writer, because writers understand how people work, have better interpersonal skills . . .

We read these even though the participants of this training are K-2 teachers. 

Because this is where all the writing begins. 

Here, with them.

Then I read a bit from Colleen Cruz in The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, how a boy, Robert, discovers what his personal essay is really about. This is in a chapter entitled “I’m Finding Some Student Writing Repetitive and Boring.” Cruz writes: “Kids, and some adult writers, have a subconscious need to write about particular topics, but they don’t understand why.” Robert had chosen the topic ‘Christmas is my favorite holiday.’ His reasons are food, presents, and videos. While conferring with Cruz, Robert finally says that watching videos is the most important  thing about the holiday because his family had recorded every Christmas; he goes deeper and deeper into the meaning, until: “Since my dad died, Christmas is the only time I get to see him. My mom can’t stand to watch all the videos at any other time. But on Christmas she lets us watch them, and it’s like we’re all together again.”

The why of teaching writing: We owe it to the children to find their stories, to tell them.

It begins with our finding and telling our own.

Here’s where I carve out time to write in this workshop training. We lift lines from our writing to create an interactive poem; we brainstorm for more writing with heart maps (credit Georgia Heard).

At this point, I have to gently ask the teachers to stop writing.

For we’ve reached the how of writing workshop, beginning with minilessons. The vehicle for teaching standards and process, for modeling, for creating that atmosphere, those conditions, for good writing to occur. Opening the windows for student ideas to flow. Choice, voice. Meaning and mattering.

And it’s time for lunch. I tell the teachers that when they return, we’ll spend the rest of the afternoon on the backbone of writing workshop: Conferring. It merits its own what, why, and how. Academic feedback in the effort to reach a goal, growth versus grades, meeting each child, each writer, individually . . . .

As they exit, the teachers seem happy. They leave sticky notes with their “gots” and “wants” on a chart. Personally I celebrate that the “gots,” pictured at the top of this post, far outnumber the “wants.”

Their notes revive my spirits. I’ve a sense of standing on a shore just as the sun breaks through the clouds. I feel the warmth of it. I can almost hear distant gulls, or something, calling and calling, wild and free; I can taste promise like salt in the breeze.

We’re not even done; we’ve only just begun.

I believe it’s gonna be a great day, after all.

*******

-Bits of the teachers’ final reflections at the end of the day.

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.

 

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.