Writers Take Flight: My Forever Books On Writing

When I work with a group of teachers I often find myself asking the question, “Raise your hand if you are a reader.” And the room soars with eager waiving hands as I look out and see the sheer pride that comes with this identity as  reader. If I wait a bit they turn to each other and automatically start talking about the books they have read, are reading or want to read. As teachers we are, for the most part, comfortable in our identities as readers.

images (1)Then comes the second question, “Raise your hand if you are a writer.” Immediately the tenor of the room changes and small hands start to make their way up and then just as quickly glide  back into their wing holds. Very few, if any, hold their hands as highly or as proudly as before. Even those who DO write are reticent to give themselves up as “writers”. Even when I soften the question and ask, “how many of you write?” there is great reluctance and the murmurs sounds something like, “Well…I keep a journal” “Ummmm, I do like to write poetry.” And slowly I begin to see people coming out of their self-imposed closets of shame and trying on this new identity as “writer”.

Perhaps this is because writing is like nothing else  we teach. Writing is generative in that EVERY thing about it comes from the writer, whether it is the answer to a prompt or a fantastical story from beyond, it is the writer’s words on the page there for anyone to come and poke, prod and make fun of;  where as anything else we teach we are interacting directly with something, be it a novel, the scientific process or numbers. Writing does not provide this safety net. It is the writer, the blank page and the words of the writer. That is IT!! Donald Graves always used to say that sharing your writing is akin to getting naked in front of everyone. It is THAT personal.   (But I don’t mind saying that I will choose words over nudity at this soaring age of 50!)

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Photo Credit to: .flickr.com

So here are my “forever” books on teaching writing that I will always hold near and dear to my heart but more than that they are books that really changed my thinking or gave flight to my beliefs.  It was hard to narrow it down to five because we almost NEED these books more than we need any other books because the teaching of writing is always the first of the three r’s to be let go. It is the adopted step child that never seems to get its’ due and I believe a big part of this is because we have teachers who do not identify themselves as writers…yet!   I would argue that we need writing in our schools more than ever. Information is cheap. Everyone can find anything at the touch of a keystroke, but communicating that knowledge in a clear, concise and interesting way is something else completely.   I just have to start with the great “Don’s” of UNH in the names of Murray and Graves.

86709243I first met Don Murray at Young’s restaurant in Durham, NH. He met me there after reading some of my work. He showed up with a bound collection of quotes, writing ideas and the famous laminated latin phrase, “Nulla dies Sine Linea” (Never a day without a line) of which I still have as a keepsake forever. Murray in his suspenders sat across from me and talked about what I had written and then asked, “What is this really about?”. He was the most down to earth person I had ever talked with about my writing. He was encouraging and questioning and an amazing listener. The day he came to my house and asked me to “name that poem” was a story I still hold dear and tell to this day. (See earlier post Ramblings on Lobsters, Testing, Brownstones and Poetry over the John ). From his Boston Globe columns (some of my all- time favorite works of his) to his writing handbooks I would have to say that Expecting the Unexpected is top on my Murray list!

“We must allow-no, encourage-our students to make use of language to explore the inner and outer worlds each is driven to explore. And when students have found their territory, they must search it with the language-and the language skills- they have, not what we wish they had. Once they start grappling-on the page- with the meanings they need to discover, we can help them see how the traditions of form and language help clarify thinking.” Because, “Writing is not thinking reported, it IS thinking.” (Pp.102 – 110 in Expecting the Unexpected)

5157S3BDGBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Then there is Donald Graves, a former minister who when he would speak in his gentle voice, the room would instantly get quiet.   I would have to say the book that I grew up with and stuck with me the most is the brown Bible, WRITING: Teachers and Children At Work.  It that maps out the original work done in Atkinson, NH where Graves brought to Elementary school, The Writer’s Workshop from a college model. The major shift was removing the teacher from the front of the room and putting the students in charge of their own processes.

“The directive, pushing teacher began to move back from her position of control so that she could return control and responsibility for the writing to the child.” 

This was revolutionary and changed the way everyone taught forever. In the words of a dear friend and colleague, Karen Atherton, “Why do what they (your students) can do better?” It is tried and true still to this day. It is a book that should be on every Writing teachers shelves.

510ZF8P39CL._SX375_BO1,204,203,200_Wondrous Words by Katie Wood Ray HAS to be at the very top of my list. Sure I had implemented the Writer’s Workshop for years, but it was really Katie’s ideas about “reading like a writer” that changed the way I taught writing forever in that it helped me find authors to ground me when I was “winging it” with kids.  And while this idea has been adopted, stolen and borrowed by so many, I really believe it was Katie who brought it to the forefront and mapped out how she used this lens to make the teaching of writing more concrete and accessible to all. This is ABSOLUTELY a life changer, forever book on my shelf! And while I want desperately to add a Katie quote here I realize that once again, this book has flown away and been temporarily (I hope!) adopted by someone else!! I invariably lent it to someone and it never found its way back to the nest. (If  you are who I lent it to please return as soon as possible!!) I love this look, the smooth feel of it, the color, the content and absolutely everything about this book and see that my shelves are bare without it!

In The Middle by Nancie Atwell is one of those books that I have seen sustain the test of time. There are very few from my “generation” of teachers who have not leafed through, dog-eared and tried on Nancie’s teaching in some way, shape or form.

“As a writer I tell stories so I may understand, teaching myself and trying to teach others through the actions and reactions of those “people” on the page.”

516kWKLsADL._SX378_BO1,204,203,200_In the Middle reads like a  collection of stories, of teaching stories, that invite you into Nancie’s classroom, to sit down beside her and her students and see what it “feels” like to teach responsively. One of the greatest days in education was the day she was awarded the Global Teacher Prize (http://www.globalteacherprize.org/winner) as it gave credit to all of those out there fighting the fight to teach children and not curriculum. Thank you Nancie for all you have done!! It gives us all hope.

Finally I include, Minds Made for Stories by Thomas Newkirk and while you may think I am brown nosing here to include Newkirk and only Newkirk on both my reading and writing lists, be assured that they made their way onto both lists because they deserve to be here.

9780325046952Tom writes books that make me think and if I am totally honest here I find these books are becoming more rare as time goes on. Not to say there are not some great professional books out there, but so many of them are not new! They are simply re-hatched from old ideas, but are often missing the meat, or the theory behind them. Perhaps I have just been in this for too long, but I always know Newkirk will prod my thinking and in this book he does just that.

At a time where we have narrowed writing down into 3 major categories of narrative, persuasive and informational, Newkirk argues that narrative; stories are at the heart of all writing because it is through story that we are able to make sense and comprehend what we are reading. This is a MUST read for anyone stuck on the Common Core flight to writing hell!

“Voice is a constant, a human presence, a sensibility, a character, a narrator and guide. Only in a phone book or the equivalent do we get information “raw”. But in sustained writing, any information is mediated by a teller, and that teller is part of the reading experience, just as a tour guide is part of the experience of visiting Monticello. When that teller is hidden (often the case with textbooks) or undetectable we have trouble sustaining a reading. The more we sense this human presence, and feel attracted to it, the more willing we are to stay with the text.” Pp 38

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Photo Credit: thewritelife.com

What all of these books have in common as I look back at them is that they invite teachers to write and to “see” themselves as writers. While this may sound strikingly obvious, it is one of those simple things that makes the biggest impact and so with these books under your wing, hopefully you too will find the courage to let go, raise your hand high and proclaim your identity, “I am a writer!”.

 

Let Them Write!

Good Morning. It’s me again, re-establishing my ritual of waking and writing which went to the wayside in a year of grief.   The get up and go to research and write just came and went and thusly my writing has gotten downright rusty. (Please pass the oil!)

Judy Garland, Jack Haley, Ray Bolger Film Set Wizard Of Oz, The (1939) 0032138

I mean it. I have attempted to put together a cohesive blog many times since my last one and what I have put out is not pretty, but there is a certain freedom in churning out crap or what Anne Lamont, in Bird by Bird, refers to as “shitty first drafts”.  It is also what Peter Elbow refers to as low stakes writing in this article.  (Thank you Vicki Vinton for this gem!)

http://www.edinaschools.org/cms/lib07/MN01909547/Centricity/Domain/484/Elbow%20High%20Stakes%20and%20Low%20Stakes.pdf

It is just writing for the sake of writing, thinking and learning. I have lived with this knowing I will  get through it and start to find my way back into my writer’s space. It is, after all, part of the process and I honor that over product.  Right?

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I preach the holy heck out of getting kids to write everyday, but now I have seen the frazzled fruits of my lazy labor as I struggle to find words and ideas that will come together into a piece that interests me. And yet we have no problem asking kids to write on demand without daily practice. We want them to perform and score perfectly on high stakes test, but we don’t take the time to let them practice.  We don’t allow them the time to write without that pressure and those high stakes.

And it is in the time I take to practice that time becomes timeless.  When caught in the zone of imagining what might be next, in putting words to paper time just simply disappears as we are in the “zone” and don’t bother us when we are there!!.

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Ding!  A text from my son, Zachary, “ I may have just written the best two paragraphs of my life.” What? (Is this REALLY from Zachary? Texting home from college about writing?)

Second text  “We were told that we could write a short story about anything.” End text.

Ding, Third Text, “I am having so much fun with it.”

Let me see this fun!  Yes, in these texts are expressions of sheer joy.  (Who has been trampled by the big bad scary lion named rigor in education)  So I asked him to send it to me and it was honestly one of the darkest things I have ever read of his. In it I could sense the intense sadness he experienced with his recent break up with his first  girlfriend. It was riddled with long, drawn out sentences that were so effective in creating the suspense he was after. And after only 2 paragraphs I wanted to read more. Check it out!

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Now mind you this is one of those RARE moments as parents and I was just so happy and excited for him. Even in High School, when given the reigns of choice this kid can just write. And he writes well. (In my humble opinion of course) And he does so without being an avid reader.

Zachary blows that myth of “writers have to be readers” right out of the water. Sometimes we make those sweeping general assumptions  that just don’t hold true for every kid. Zach is one of those kids. I was one of those kids. I was not a reader when I was younger. You could find me out in the woods somewhere creating imaginary houses of sticks and stones or frolicking among the beaver dams or even in my room playing school.  It was my sister  who always had a book with her, preferably a Nancy Drew. In fact my only form of “reading” was my cherished collection of Ranger Ricks, a nature magazine with brilliant photographs that I could fawn over for hours and stop in between to play a hide and seek game. I read short paragraphs, but did not have what we refer to as “reading stamina” today.

I believe there are other kids of “reading”.  Perhaps we are readers of the world.  Could it be that my time spent in my imaginary worlds, pretending to be someone else and creating characters that I would “act out” in my homes made of stick and stone were fodder for future writing?  Or are those acts of imagination a form of writing in their own right?  If writing is about playing with words in worlds then perhaps it can also be done outside the pages of books.  But do we even stop to consider or ask how our kids are thinking anymore?

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Fast-forward to now and I am always reading several books at a time; one or two for work, a novel and even a dose of daily poetry.   You see we hold all of these beliefs to be true, but never stop to honor what each person IS doing!! And in the midst of all of this it takes so much NOT to get caught up in it.   Walk away from the madness. Walk away!

Photo Credit:pelicanbookstore.com

And of course there is response. Zachary texted because he wanted some kind of feedback. I blog to ignite feedback and start conversations. We write with purpose if we know there is an audience or even a potential audience.

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Photo Credit: www.cindyhayen.com

And in all of this there is a sense of honoring the individual; honoring the process or even more deeply, trusting and enjoying the process.  Believing that it will take us where we want or need to go. One word at a time we discover things we never knew we were thinking or feelings who show up in disguise. Writing, for me, is a joyful and heady experience that is somewhat different every time.. On my shelves are  books “on writing” and while I love reading those, ultimately I enjoy being an observer of my own process and seeing how totally me it really is. There is no one way to BE a writer. It just is. It just means you write. If you write therefore you are a writer.  High Stakes, myths and expectations be damned!  Let them write!

The HOPE Line is Open and Ready for Business, Honoring One Person’s Experience at a Time

I always tell people I have the best job in the world.   I have autonomy.  I am respected to make sound decisions based on the needs of my students.  I have choice and a voice that I am encouraged to use.   I have time to create lessons, facilitate discussions, envision graduate courses and then execute them with amazing professionals.  I am trusted.  This gives me hope.

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I wish every teaching professional could say the same thing.  My work is centered in the idea that we learn by doing and so whatever I am teaching or doing I engage in myself first be that a reading assignment, a writing assignment or something that I will be teaching to students.

Ultimately it all comes down to purpose: the why and the how of the whole thing.  And yet I find myself fighting for sites in which to work.  Moving upstream against a current that has such great momentum that is would seem there is no hope.  Imagine that not many years ago our Learning Through Teaching graduate level course were in over 30 schools in the area from New Hampshire, Massachusetts  and up into Maine.  We had a great many talented  consultants and our outreach was far and wide.

Our model was “in vogue” as it empowered teachers and brought them together within their own schools for professional reading, writing and dialogue.  Slowly over the years, the demand has not lessened but the funding has dried up.  The professional development of our teachers is one of the last things on a long list of budget demands.

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But there is always hope.  In fact I saw it in my class just last week.  This group is a unique group of educators who meet monthly to discuss a common professional reading in my home.  They receive graduate credit for their work, but more than that they receive support in a way that they cannot find elsewhere.

One teacher actually commented that she found herself wanting to be careful in talking with other teachers at her school about our course because they did not have the same network of support.  So on the one hand she wants to rave about what is a critical part of her ongoing professional development, but on the other hand she feels she cannot.

Another teacher was literally brought to tears as she expressed how lonely and isolated she was feeling in her own classroom and frustrated with the lack of thinking and keeping students in mind.

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A MUST read for all.

But, these teachers, after reading Readicide by Kelly Gallagher, immediately shifted their focus on reading to include the love of reading and celebrating that with students.   And you might think, really?  Isn’t that just a given?  And the answer is not anymore!!  This shift brought them back to themselves and who they know they are as educators.  And their students responded in kind coming into school proclaiming,

“I finished my book last night and it was amazing!!  What should I read next?”  And we, together as a group, celebrated these moments.

And in that one line there is hope!  Can you see it?  Just a glimmer?  Honoring One Person’s Experience. Let’s follow that light.  We are strong.  We know what is best for our students and if we can ignite a sense of readership, writership and thinkership among them then we are slowly creating a new genre of students in the name of those who care, those who want to think, those who want to read, those who want to write and will…

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And just like those Bostonians who ran towards the disaster and renewed our faith in human kind, let’s do the same for education kind.  So in this spirit please share your “one liners” of HOPE from your students, administrators, parents whatever.  What is being said to keep the hope alive?   The HOPE Line is open and ready for business, Honoring One Person’s Experience at a time.  What is yours?

Photo Credits: www.hopeinspiredministries.org,mylifelonglearningcorner.blogspot.com,info.live58.org –