Learning as a Deeply Personal Experience: On Teaching Readers and Writers

The buzz of Mentor Texts has been around for quite a while now and while I like this idea, what I don’t like is that our young writers are often instructed to use a particular mentor text for a given time as assignments.  Using a particular structure to do this, instead of exposing them to a variety of ideas and texts and then helping and guiding our students to figure out what would work best for them, the writers.

What would happen if we asked our young writers to first think about what it was they wanted to say, to write about, to read about, to discover and then come up with the best way to express this?

When my daughter was first diagnosed with leukemia I kept a journal and wrote down every single little detail of our experience.  It was exhausting to get onto those pages all that I felt I needed to.  Her every reaction to every drug, the times she received the doses, the different emotions experienced, missing my 8 month old at home.   I quickly fell behind and was angry that I was missing so much of what I thought I needed to get down, in the name of control.


Book of Poetry by Dan Rothermel

 And then one day someone brought me this small book called, Sweet Dreams, Robyn written by Dan Rothermel.  It is a collection of poems he wrote about his daughter with cancer.  This book transformed my writing life.  Suddenly, I had the permission and allowed myself to write in poetry finding it easier to get down all that I wanted to without getting muddled in all of the pros it took.  In the words of my Dad, “less is more” in writing.

With the death of my father I had this same experience as I was meandering through the blog world I found a blog that just spoke to me.  She writes a fictional piece about the death of her mother and says,

“It came together when I was working on a blog post about Wallace Stevens one of my favorite poets. His “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” was on my mind while I was reading Paul Harding’s Tinkers.”

Her mentor  Wallace Stevens gave her what she needed to capture what she wanted to write in fiction and I instantly knew that this too would be the perfect way for me to capture and process my father dying.  Snippets of strong images that I needed to get down on paper and so her blog became my mentor text.  It was more than perfect.

You can find her blog at  http://deborahbrasket.wordpress.com/

So here is my version, based on the ideas I stole from her that she stole from Wallace Stevens. 

13 Ways of Looking at Death Just Before, During and After


I called him on the phone, his voice weak and wavering as his hand fought to keep the phone still.   “Hey Dad, how are you feeling?”

“Bad.  This is Bad.  What I have is really bad.”  I cringe, as I know he knows it is bad.  Sepsis.  Blood infection on top of pneumonia not to mention his COPD, heart disease and diabetes…

He has never said it was bad before.  He always said,  “It is getting better.

It is bad.



His oxygen cord lies on the dirty floor as it takes her a moment to realize there are no lines crossing his face, lines of plastic jewelry tubes that have become as permanent as his glasses.  He is not getting any air.

And she wonders…just how long has he been without oxygen?

She calls the nurse and insists he gets a new one.  Nurse never responds to the absence of his air or how long he has been without it.




She is alone with him, Red Sox images flashing in the dark room, sound blaring while she simultaneously plays Candy Crush.    He wakes, peers over and says, ”You are still here?  I really appreciate that.”

I smile. 

And we go on like that for hours.

The Sox won.

Won the AL East Title.  He is not aware.

She hoped it was a good sign.

She is always looking for signs.



Today is a good day.  He is out of bed, sitting up in the hospital chair as she enters.  He starts talking, “You know I sat up all night trying to remember the kids names.”

She thinks it must be all of the grandkids that he is forgetting…he continues…

“I know I have 3 kids.  2 daughters and a son.”

“Yes that is right” she replies, as he looks up at her and says, “The first daughter is Lisa.” 

“Yes Dad, Lisa is your first daughter.”

“Then there is another one, you, what is your name?”

Her 10-year-old self emerges and screams inside, YOU named me Dad!! Don’t you remember?  I have the coolest name in the world because YOU made it up. 

That’s enough of this name game.

We gotta get him the hell out of this hospital.


Me, My Dad and Lisa



My once virile father sits perched on the kitchen island pursing for air.  How did he get in the house so quickly?  My brother in law carried him in, like a baby in his arms, but he was amazed at just how heavy he really was, all  filled up with 9 days of hospital IV fluids so he had to stop to rest.

We still laugh at the absurdity of my Dad sitting with his feet swinging on the kitchen counter.  Who says you don’t go backwards?

He then carries him the next leg into the bed where he will remain until he dies.



Each breath is a struggle and you can tell it actually hurts.  Never mind when he coughs.  He just wants to feel better, but he doesn’t really as he tries to negotiate in his head that he is now home and how he thought being home would make him feel better…but he doesn’t.  Now what?  You can see it coursing across his forehead like the GMA banner in Times Square.  Now what?  Now what?  Now what?



Doctor came to the house.  Yes, in 2013 a Doctor actually came to meet the needs of his patient.   There is a God.  (See previous post on Systems)

Dad chose hospice.  Visions of nurses, social workers and support at our side danced her head as she wondered…does he really know what he is choosing?

She is sent up to the Local Colonial Pharmacy to get the “hospice kit”.  A box filled with drugs and lots of other things medical that you don’t want to know about never mind even think about using.

She is the chosen one to give her father his first dose of comfort packaged in a needless syringe to be administered orally.  Flashbacks of shoving chemo filled syringes disguised in chocolate pudding to her 3 and a half-year-old smack her in the face. 

Click…she re-enters that mode and just does what she has to do.  She has been here before and she just does it.  Nurse Ratched is back in the house. 


My brother arrives a few minutes after giving my Dad the morphine. 

The pill that he was begging for. 

The morphine that I was afraid of. 

The morphine that came without the nurses and the social workers and the volunteers to help us through this process.  

Where in the hell were those hospice people she had heard so many wonderful stories about? 

All they got was hospice in a box that had to be refrigerated.

 It was just My Mom and I with my Dad yelling at us, “Will you just give it to me for God’s sake, I don’t  care if it is the wrong dose.”

 He begged for relief as we became more and more agitated and unsteady in the moment, dropping syringes, reading and rereading the prescription and even calling the pharmacist. 

And finally I  just gave it to him as he gasped for air and I suddenly realized we too had been as negligent as the hospital.

His oxygen tank had run out.  No wonder he was desperate for something.  How many ways are there to torture a man?

And they left the room when her brother arrived. 


Jamie and Dad


Morphine overdose.  Her brother horrified that we left him alone with a his father who was fine and talking with him one minute and then was suddenly hallucinating and trying to get out of bed.  His strength mammoth as my mother got in bed behind him to restrain him.  He could not walk on those big boats of feet filled with fluid. 

I call the VNA.  I reach out for those hospice people who were supposed to be there and tell him we need help ASAP!!!!! 

He responds that giving morphine is an “art” and not that you gave him too much but that if he had been there he would have started with a lower dose.  After telling her this for the 4th time she wants to reach out and punch him through the phone…then why the HELL would you hand it over to an amateur?

He arrives at the house and starts talking about the “art” of dosing morphine again!!!  She sees red and runs from him to avoid physically clobbering him.

Next Time…I give him ¼ of the recommended dose. 

Thank you, Honorary Dr. Brother James. It says you can give it every 30 minutes.  One quarter of a dose lasted him 12 hours. 




He lays in bed and sleeps, or so it seems, soundly for days on end.

The question dancing through the house…”when will it happen?”

The family has their own form of hospice in a “Come to Jesus” kind of scene from a bad Lifetime Movie.  We all give him permission to go, hands on, tears flying.  Sister Lisa actually seems to be cheering him up to the pearly gates.  Everybody says their peace and then we all continue to sit with big red puffy eyes, exhausted and we wait.

He doesn’t go.

When will he go?

He doesn’t go.

From the background Cousin Anne tells us, “He isn’t going to go right now, it doesn’t happen like that.” And snaps us out of our delusions that we can will him to go in that moment.


The sleepless nights wear on as brother and sister get up at different times to peek in to see my mother sleeping next to my yes, still breathing, father.

Exhaustion settles into the house and takes a seat on the couch alongside us.

Maybe he is not going anywhere.  Maybe he will live forever.

Meals are delivered.  They are all amazed at how they just show up and are so thankful because eating and food have not been on their radar.

Dad has not really eaten or had anything to drink for over 12 days.

Unless you count 4 little bird bites here and there.  I fed him his last scrambled egg from Lisa’s chickens a couple days ago.  No solid food since eating 5 bites of that egg.  No water.  Nothing.

How does the human body beat on?  Especially one we all thought was so fragile?

His Hands don’t even look like his anymore they are so filled up with fluid,  boxers hands.

Every moment stretches on as you wonder…when will his last breath be?  Who will be with him?  She wonders all of these things as she crawls into bed with him and rubs his back and quietly cries for her Daddy while the Red Sox blare on the radio from the bedside table next to us.  

“How can something so natural be so unnatural?”  son James wonders.


She wakes at 8.  Walks downstairs past her sleeping brother and sees her mother making the bed around her father’s still body.   His breathing has changed.  It is short.  Very short.  She says, get the morphine.

I know I must give him him the rest of the syringe…the same dose I administered 5 days earlier…it was what he needed.  He was hardly breathing.

Mom is on his right.  She is on his left. 

He opens his eyes for the first time since the morphine began.  The biggest widest eyes you have ever seen and he looked over at my Mom and she said, “Look at those big beautiful brown eyes.  I love those eyes.  They have not been that open in years.  I wonder why none of you got those eyes?  I am the dominant one.”

“I always wished I had gotten those brown eyes I respond as his eyes then slowly trail to find me on the left.  He stares right at me for a moment and then it is as if he is looking to something beyond me.  He holds that gaze for what seems like forever before he moves his sights straight ahead and opens them even wider.  He was seeing the light.  He liked it.  He felt peaceful as he took one long deep breath and closed his eyes.

“Is that it?”  Mom and I looked at each other.  It seemed to be.  No pulse. 

And then out of nowhere one last little breath just to mess with us as we laughed. 

Dad died.

8:15 am on Sunday, September 29th, 2013.

It was beautiful.


Dad and Mom taking flight on Chappy



She misses him.  They all miss him.  She is not sure what to do so she talks about him.  She remembers him.  She reads.  She writes about him.  She laughs at his Donald Duck impression stored away on her computer.  She shuffles through years of pictures and marvels at how great he looked for so long regardless of his health issues.  She thanks her Mom for keeping him so healthy for so long.  She misses him.  Every day.

He was a great man.

He had 9 lives. 

He lived every one of them fully.

He was her Dad.



I love this piece because for me it captures all that I want to remember and all that was there during this incredibly intense, scary, weird time.  I feel better after reading about others experiences and then writing my own.  

What would have happened had I been in a student in class and I was asked to write a recipe or a persuasive essay from one character in my assigned book to another when all I could think about was my Dad?  Do we consider the lives of our writers, where they are and what they have to say and what they are interested in reading about?

I would argue that right now we teach the writing and not the writers.  We teach the reading and not the readers.  We think about checking things off. Persuasive Essay, check, Informational Reading, check, Memoir, check, Close Reading, Check.

What would happen if we trusted and guided readers and writers to know, to figure out what it was they wanted to know more about, what they wanted to say and then focused on helping them discover the best way or ways to read about it and say it?  If we gave them the time to read others and think to themselves, “Hey, I could write something like that!”

Reading and Writing are my “go to’s” when I am trying to figure something out, process emotions, inform, wonder, preach, question, express, persuade, create, think, communicate, get lost and so many other things.  What if the goal of every reading and writing curriculum was to help our readers and writers see reading and writing as a “go to” and not just a series of assignments to be completed, but tools for life?

And while this all may seem incredibly personal for a blog on education, I believe I am finally finding my stride in that a real and true education is deeply personal. 

And I wonder…are we  afraid of this authenticity?  These truths? 

And even as I consider posting this, putting it out into the world, I question myself.  Do we want to hear or read these truths?  Why do I put it out there?  And while I know none of these answers I only know that I will…


Follow the link below to read my Dad’s obituary beautifully written by my sister, Lisa.







18 thoughts on “Learning as a Deeply Personal Experience: On Teaching Readers and Writers

  1. Thank you so much for writing this and then having the compassion to post it. I love the way you are able to make the connection between such personal and painful experiences with the wider world of teaching/communicating. “What if the goal of every reading and writing curriculum was to help our readers and writers see reading and writing as a “go to” and not just a series of assignments to be completed, but tools for life?” I feel that what teachers are asked to do nowadays is to rob students of exactly the tools you so elegantly write about. But for those of us who know the value and power of words, reading and writing will over and over again save our lives and maybe the lives of others.

  2. I am glad you wrote. This is raw stuff, but I am grateful to enter your experience, if only for a moment. “How can something so natural seem so unnatural” feels like the right response. Please accept my deepest sympathies.

  3. Your passion for the written word is exemplified in your magnificent recollection of your Dad’s final days. Truly a tribute to your incredible father and memorable piece for your family to treasure and hold close to their hearts.

  4. I love what you write here about teaching writing, and I agree it does start with what it is we want or need to say, and from there we choose the form. Your story of father’s demise was sad and lovely and moving. Thank you for sharing. And thank you too for mentioning the story I wrote. How wonderful it makes me feel that it inspired you to write yours!

  5. Oh my gosh! I am so glad that you decided to share both stories about your Dad. It is seldom lately that I am moved by a writer. Then again maybe I was thinking of my own Dad’s passing. He asked my mother at 3:00 a.m. to call me and she replied that it was 3:00 in the morning and couldn’t call me at that hour. He apparently just rolled over and died in bed without her even realizing until morning. I often think about what he wanted to say or tell me and I guess I will never know. I was always told how much I was loved.

  6. Oh, Tomasen, this is so amazing–and so needed–on so many levels. First, like one of your other readers, it found myself reliving my own dad’s death and cherishing those moments that at the time seemed almost too hard to bear. And it powerfully brings home the power of details to move us to the core. And, of course, the whole connection between form and content, how each informs the other, and how important it is to discover the form that can best convey your content–and to encourage students to engage in that process of discovery as well.

    This is what words were meant to do.

  7. Tomasen- what a gift! I woke up to find this in my email inbox. You are so right on with teaching the writers not the writing. I wish more people could see it that way. Your story gave me chills as i I was with each of my grandmothers as they passed. I try to explain what beautiful experiences they were, and I don’t think people get it. You capture that last look, last breath, and the quiet emotional peace– and they are gone. Thank you for writing this – ah, the power and healing of writing!

  8. Absolutely beautiful, Tomasen. It brought tears to my eyes. What a gift your dad was; and what a gift you are, for so eloquently sharing your story.

  9. I loved reading this, Tomasen. What a powerful, courageous piece to write and share. In many of your entries, it’s clear that your relationship with your dad was an incredibly strong one.

    The points you made at the end really resonated with me. So often we ask kids to write in certain genres and/or about certain topics when they need to write something else. We don’t often allow students to write as a way to process their ideas and/or emotions. I get wrapped up in the genres I know I “need to teach” and have often been guilty of teaching the writing instead of the writers. I know this year is going to look very different, and like you keep saying in class, we have an opportunity to make positive changes.

    • The question of “how” comes to mind as I read through everyone’s responses and I am thinking a menu might not be a bad place to start. For example, if we made up a menu of all of the different genres we experimented with these past two weeks, what would that look like? And from that menu, which item meets your appetite for what it is you want to write? Exposure to different forms, structures and genres is inspiring as we have seen in each others work. And I truly believe we are going to have to be flexible more than ever as we move into this coming school year, whatever it is that may look like. Thanks Kim.

  10. This made my heart hurt in all the best and worst ways. Thank you for sharing your experiences so openly. The part where you question what it would have been like to be a student asked to write something assigned by your teacher when all you could think about was your Dad struck me. I had a student lose his dad to Covid this spring. He remained in class with us by choice while his dad was sick, and during that time he was excused from assigned work, but I keep wondering if I could have done more for this boy to help him see reading and writing as “go tos” like you say to process his experiences. I’m not sure that I could have or if I would have been able to have that sort of conversation with him. This was a situation that every teacher was informed of, but what about the things students are dealing with that we don’t know of? I’m not sure what it would look like to have every student working on their own individual pieces that would be best for them in that moment in time, but that certainly is the most authentic form of writing. Part of what is so daunting about that is that we as teachers need to relinquish some control and organization to make that happen. Scary, but if not now, then when?

  11. “It was Beautiful”
    I can’t quite describe what happened to me at this line, but in short: I sobbed.

    This piece is so raw. So honest. And I’m still having a hard time swallowing that lump in my throat as I write this. Your question: “Do we consider the lives of our writers, where they are and what they have to say and what they are interested in reading about?” really gets me thinking. I always feel like I’m doing a decent job conferencing with students about books to make sure they’re finding texts that speak to them, but when it comes to writing, I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s a check-list: personal narrative, persuasive, informational….. etc.

    Taking this class, I’ve been in the same boat. I’ve craved inward reflection, and I can’t say this would have been a meaningful two weeks if I had been forced to research something or write about something I wasn’t invested in. Thank you for being vulnerable with us and giving us free rein to explore what we needed. As Melissa mentioned above, it is definitely daunting when you have 85 students going in 85 different directions… but what could they learn? What may they produce when they’re truly invested?

  12. The emotion really comes through in this piece and I cried reading it. The conversations and descriptions of your dad really pulled on my heartstrings. I also really love how you talk about the idea of control and about getting ALL the information down but finding freedom in poetry. I think poetry can be healing because we have to say so much with so little words. The lines aren’t usually that long but every word has so much meaning and importance.

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