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!

Alternatives and Activism: Reclaiming the Conversation on Education

This weekend I will join educational colleagues, professionals, parents, students and friends at Barnard College in New York City to “take back” the Conversation on Education.  Does it strike me that this is close to the name of my blog?  Why yes, and while it initially inspired me to make this trip, it was more about the idea that “we” can actually DO something about what is happening in the corporate takeover of our public school systems.  This is the blurb that made me sign-up.

“If you want to move beyond the focus on test scores, performance outcomes, standardization, and data aggregation, if you are tired of seeing your students deprived of real educational opportunities, if you worry teaching is being reduced to test prep and educators are losing their autonomy and academic freedom, and if you believe all our children should have access to a curriculum and extra-curriculum that are far more engaging that stripped down cram courses or subsistence level job training, then this is the conference for you.”

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And if that didn’t convince me then this panel of experts certainly did!!

“Hear speakers such as Susan Ohanian, Barbara Bowen, Carol Burris, Zakiyah Ansari, Juan Gonzalez, Barbara Madeloni, Ceresta Smith, Brian Jones, Nikhil Goyal, Ann Cook, and Shino Tanikawa and join with your colleagues to mobilize resistance.”

But of course the real kicker is that last line, “join with your colleagues to mobilize resistance.”  What a great line!  At first I recall being in college and while taking one of my initial  courses in education we were assigned the task of doing something we had never done before.  The goal was to get out of our comfort zones and to reflect on that experience.  I chose to go to a local anti-nuclear demonstration.   I did not have to do much to dress the part as anyone who knew me in High School or college knows that I came by the “crunchy” quite naturally.  What I remember the most about this rally was the collective energy and power that I felt there.  It was exhilarating, amazing and empowering.  It was a place where I began to develop and strengthen my voice.

Flash forward, too many years to count, and I find myself at dinner in Ohio with my daughter and 6 of her college friends at a round table where the discussion centered on the increase in tuition for students going abroad, a policy that was delivered to students at an informational meeting.  They were outraged at the way it was handled and so I asked them, “What can you do about this?”   Their collective reply was “nothing”.

They felt they did not have a voice in the policy at Kenyon College even though they entered 2 years prior with a very real sense of what the cost would be for the 4 years.  I talked to them about a Grandfather Clause and what they might be able to do.  This tuition increase was a major hit to most of these kids and yet the overwhelming consensus what that they did not feel empowered, they did not believe they had any voice; they did not believe that anything they might do would matter.

And so, in my not so subtle manner I started asking questions and suggesting ways to let their voices be heard.  By the end of the meal they were fired up and had grand plans to set up a table during parents weekend to bring attention to this issue, as parents were never formally informed and would not even know until the tuition bill arrived in the mail.  And while they had visions of posters and signs and standing up for their rights…none of this actually ever happened.  Why?  Because ultimately they did not believe it would matter.

Isn’t college the perfect place to get  involved in make change?  Have we lost this generation to the cow towing and conformity that they have had a steady diet of?   Or have they just not yet discovered the power of their voices?  Or, are they right?

Looking again at that last line…I get a different feel.  We will gather to “mobilize resistance” and it hits me, these are wartime words.  These are the words of troops and lieutenants.  And I wonder…have we really come that far?  Is this an all out war?

I don’t know the answer to these questions.  I do know that I have such passionate discourse about what is happening and that while blogging about it has helped me to research further and write down my thoughts I realize it is not enough.

I want to join the collective voice of others at the rally.  I want to begin the process of change with like-minded people who are not going to just sit at the table and watch this happen.  I want to join with the forces that believe we CAN and WILL do something.   I want to show this younger generation that there is power in numbers and activism and alternatives to just accepting whatever comes down the proverbial pipeline.  I want to model that they too can have their voices be heard.

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Photo Credit: teacherscount.wordpress.com

So…here I go…off to the Big Apple.  Perhaps I will dig out one of my old Indian skirts, find a complimentary embroidered shirt and sandals for the occasion….and had I thought of it earlier I could have even gotten a perm, “Wonder Tomasen…activate!”

For more information on this conference check out the blog http://reclaimingconversation.blogspot.com  It will also be live streamed.