Writing Is…Totally NOT School!

As the days grow shorter I find myself reflecting on my summer work at UNH and for sure, the Writer’s Academy is always a highlight.  It is that one time in the year where I have a group of students for more than just an hour or two.  They are with me and my co-teacher and for an entire week and in that week we get to focus on just one subject, writing.  As a teacher this is a form of nirvana.  No grades, no homework, no behavior problems…just a bunch of shy, crazy, outgoing, creative, interesting, motivated, goofy, enthusiastic and yes sometimes even awkward writers coming together to write.  Or as defined by one 6th grader when asked to sum up their week in 3 words wrote on his poster “totally not school.”


Giggling girls writing.


Writing in nature’s classroom


Writing Rocks!

Writing is a passion for all of us, instructors included and our camaraderie is palpable as we talk about what we tried at lunch and laugh at the different events of the morning and we share these stories while the kids gather to eat and get to know each other and make friends.

The kids who show up  are writers, they want to write, they want to improve their writing, they are giving up a week of summer and dedicating it to their craft and because of this a community of writers is quickly formed.

This year in thinking about these young writers, from 5th grade through High School, I wondered how they saw writing or would define writing in their own words.  So I stole an idea from an amazing artist and friend, Laura Gaffke who created a similar public art installation that focused on the idea of beauty. (You can find her on Facebook as well as on her blog, http://lauratwotina.com/)  I decided I would create our own version and ask students or anyone walking by to write to the idea of “writing is…”


Our Public Art Installation. Writing Is…

My co-teacher, Karen Atherton provided the materials for my vision as she lugged in a 20 pound crock with sand in it to keep the tree up that she had her husband cut down from her back yard.  She also showed up complete with lights for the tree and these were no ordinary lights, no, they were pink flamingoes and green palm tree lights.  So we set it up in the hallway and asked that all of the different groups at one point add to the installation.  Tags and markers were left by the tree for anyone to write to at their own convenience.


And while our installation was not quite as pretty as Laura’s, it was quite interesting in it’s own right. Reading through all of the tags after they were removed it seemed as though there were 3 distinct categories that these definitions fell within.  There was the “one word” club where writing was summed up in one word including writing is…art, powerful, cathartic, individuality, fun, history, truth, freedom, understanding, translation, happy, love and supermegafoxyswesomehot!  Writing is…Life!

ImageThen there was the therapeutic genre where many students poured their hearts out about what writing was to them in terms of healing, expressing emotions, revealing secrets and discovering self- awareness.  Some of these are hauntingly beautiful including,

“Writing is a therapeutic; a way to escape one’s own mind.  It is creating your own little world where you get to be in control.  Writing is awesome”

“Writing is a discovery of yourself.”

“Writing is putting your mind on paper.”

“Writing is how I stay alive.  If my thoughts stayed in my mind they would overrun the senses and I would think too much and then I would be gone.”

“Writing is a way to…release the feeling I hold in that my friends wouldn’t understand about.”

“Writing is a way to create a deeper self.”

“Writing is the most intimate for of self-expression.”

“Writing is a way to cope with pain/problems for me.  Everything leaves my mind, and stains the paper instead of me.  And that’s why I’ve grown so close to writing.”


Writers gather around guest author, Lisa Luedeke

The third category was more about how it was an act of creative expression and use of imagination, imagery, poetry and voice.  Here are some of these:

“Writing is indescribable.  An experience.  An image painted with words.”

“Writing is a struggle against silence.”

“Writing is the way the moonlight touches the silky ocean in the middle of twilight.”

“Writing is the spouse of music.”



“Writing is a way to entwine souls, so we can touch each other through distance and time and language.”

“Writing is your own adventure.  Your own world.  A place were you have freedom to do whatever you want and make anything happen.”

 I end with this one intentionally because I believe on many levels this also defines the writer’s academy in general.  We recently received a letter from a former student who wrote us to let us know what the writer’s academy was to her.  Here are her words.

My name is Kimberley and I am writing to thank you for a particular summer of the Writers Academy.  Nine years ago, in 2004, I met a classroom of middle schoolers like me, who would rather write stories and keep journals than play wiffle ball in the middle of July. In this class, I met fellow student Haley, and we instantly became friends.  We continued attending Writers Academy every summer until we were too old, going to the Dairy Bar and people-watching in the MUB and inventing their ludicrous backstories.  

Haley and I didn’t live in the same town, and attended rival high schools.  The only interaction we would have ever had is from opposite sides of the football field. Without Writers Academy, we would have never crossed paths, but I’m extremely fortunate we did.  We remain best friends to this day, and we just returned from a two week cross-country road trip, driving out to Los Angeles.  Of course, because we didn’t meet at Writers Academy for nothing, we kept meticulous journals the entire way, and are currently working on a screenplay based on our adventures. When we make it big, we’ll credit Writers Academy for bringing us together.

Thank you again for the wonderful program!


At the risk of sounding boastful I agree, it is a wonderful program.  One that continues to grow and thrive as more and more writers come to us, but at the same time there is a sadness that comes as well because everything I teach at the Writer’s Academy is grounded in how I teach and taught as a teacher in the public school system.  THIS WAS SCHOOL!!  Freedom, choice, adventure, passion, play and life were all part of our everyday curriculum and yet this is no longer the case.  And while it keeps us in business I still long for classrooms to honor choice, time and genuine response where learning is “totally not school.”

Dear Mother, Dear Teacher

Dear Mother,
I wanted to update you on your son’s grades for biology per your request in the last email.  He could really use someone quizzing him the night before a test on the vocabulary.  I give flashcards out so it makes studying a little easier, along with a review sheet and practice problems for each test. If Zach is studying he is doing it passively, like reading through his notes, but what he needs to do is actively write down or perform practice problems, with the notes put away, so that he sees exactly where his weaknesses are and study those topics.
I think Zach tends to coast along and he could do with some more study time at home.  It is hard for soph boys to see how mediocre grades can affect their future track in life.  I think expecting B’s from Zach is reasonable and he could do it, if he gets a little more organized and motivated.  I also wanted to tell you that I update powerschool at least once a week, so you can always log in and check on his progress there.  You can also check on his attendance record and number of tardies for the year.   It is a great tool for Zach to monitor himself and for you to feel like you know what is happening while letting him remain autonomous.  You can set it up to send you emails once a month or biweekly, so you don’t even have to remember to do it. I also have a moodle site that has all of the homework assignments and upcoming test dates, so that you can help Zach become more organized and prepared. My moodle site has guest access so you don’t have to log in, but you will need to login to Powerschool with a username and password.
If Zach could get his homework done well and on time and spend a little more time studying for tests, I think you would see a drastic increase in his grades in class and on tests. Zach is always polite in class and has a smile on his face, so his personality will get him far and with good grades he would have even more opportunities. Please contact me if you have any questions or comments, Teacher
Dear Teacher,
Thank you for getting back to me.
As I read your report on Zachary I am reminded of an article I read recently.
I hope you will read it and read it with an open mind.  It talks about how kids these days are different in terms of their technological savvy.
Here it is!!
We are teaching a new generation and while flashcards may or may not have worked for us, this is  a new generation of  thinkers!  As a fellow educator I feel it is our job to figure out where they are and to meet them there…at least half way.
Zach’s lack of engagement is often labeled as “lazy” or as you stated that he does not “study well”.  What exactly does it mean to study well and who has ever taught any of our kids to actually “study well”?   What if flash cards don’t work for all students?  Haven’t we come further than flash cards and rote memorization? Or could those flashcards perhaps at least be digital and interactive somehow?
I just want to ask that you read this article and consider that I am in schools all over the state where  I am seeing first grade classrooms with smart boards where kids are constantly using and engaging with technology and even Skyping with their penpals out in California!  In a 3rd grade classroom teachers are using Edmodo to allow their students to ask questions in on online community where they can feel safe to explore subjects of their own choosing.  Fourth graders are blogging, 8th graders are a part of Good Reads and the list goes on.  Unfortunately, short of power point, I cannot think of even one technologically driven assignment that Zachary has done and our High School was built completely outfitted for such advancements.  Have you seen that television recording studio?  Why aren’t students creating TV shows that talk about the impact of biology in their community…just a thought!
I would expect A’s of Zachary and beyond because he is smart and he gets things easily.  You would only expect B’s.  How sad.  Shouldn’t we expect A’s from all of our students and help them get to A’s if they are not there??  The problem lies on many levels though.  He IS motivated and organized when he is invested in something.  School is out of touch for him and for many around him.  And while the prospect of learning biology through a video game might seem outlandish, I can tell you that when there is even the slightest hint of using technology in an assignment Zachary is all over it.  He spends hours taking and editing his own videos.  What if he could “create” something to show his learning to replace an assign and test kind of teaching?  Can you imagine the possibilities and all we could learn from these Digital Natives?
I teach in classrooms from first grade through the graduate level and my question to myself is always the same…if they (my students) are not getting something then what can I do to help them to come to a fuller understanding?  I want thinking…not just memorization for a test that is gone the next day.  I want my students to connect and interact with what they are learning  and how what they are learning might impact who and how they are in the world.  Biology has so many implications for this kind of thinking…but right now I don’t think Zachary thinks biology has anything to do with him.
My daughter went to Phillips Exeter and she LOVED biology because they sat around and discussed biology!  She is now at Kenyon college as  a Biology major.  I wish that Zachary had an opportunity within the public schools to learn in a socratic method…but for some reason we rule that out as impossible and we stay with what we know.  Assign and test.  Assign and test.
The irony is that the technology that teachers have been given, powerschool, is one that only encourages the mentality of assign and test to get the grade.  Emphasis is SO heavily  weighted on  grades and not what is being learned.  So many of our kids are not motivated by grades anymore.   And the stories I could tell you about parents fighting with their kids over homework EVERY day!  I did that all last year.  It nearly killed me and my relationship with my son. Powerschool only added to the anxiety as we would look at the grades and he would talk about the things that had not yet been posted…the homework that he did pass in and every teacher is incredibly different in their use of Powerschool.  I stopped looking at Powerschool and am now looking at my son.
This kind of constant helicopter parent monitoring is not only ruining parent child relationships, but it is also sad that it is the part of technology that teachers have been offered in a world of SO much more to be offered.  I can tell you there are parents who check powerschool hourly.  How is that creating responsible and independent learners to go out into the world?  They need to fail in order to learn, but there is very little room for risk-taking and failure of any kind for our kids.  I feel sad for them as the greatest things I ever learned in life often came from failures.  Are we afraid to let our kids fail?
And your final paragraph speaks of opportunities….and the lack of opportunities Zachary will have because the opportunities offered to him right now are so narrow.  THAT is the greatest rub of all.  It says conform to or your chances in life are well…less than stellar!  The system as is, is designed, particularly with Powerschool, to work against students.
If Zach gets a 0 on a homework it takes 5 A’s for him to make that up.  The scale is heavily weighted towards failure…NOT success!  In my mind an A and an F should average to a C?  Right?  No.  In this point system it averages to an F.  There is very little room for risk taking and even less room for less than perfection.  It is a tough world for these kids to thrive in when their other worlds are so rich with color, light, movement, flexibility, technology and a fast paced life where they are connected.  Zach is unplugged at school…I only wish you could see him “plugged in” in the worlds that matter to him and that together we could find a way to light up the hallways of our schools where classrooms were interactive and students were truly engaged and not just  “getting through” this period to get to the next.
But I am a dreamer.
Please do take a moment to read this article and consider it’s implications as well as the fact that it was written in 2001….and perhaps consider dreaming alongside me and leaving the flash cards behind.
Thanks for “listening”.

The Not So Common Core Standards: Potential Implications and Meaning For Us All

We live in a country that was founded on differences.  As I write this, I recall images of Felix Baumgartner free falling out of a hot air balloon from space.  We value this ingenuity, this creativity, this originality, this risk-taking. We live in the land of the free and yet everywhere you look, particularly in public education, it would seem we have collectively handed over our freedom in the name of compliance, consistency and the oh so not “common”, known as The Common Core.


The powerful noblemen have doled out their marching orders to us, the commoners and we had better comply or beware.  David Coleman and Susan Pimenthal, co-authors of the Common Core Standards, are not educators.  They have not spent time in classrooms on the front lines and yet they have determined the core, the central, innermost, or most essential part of education.  So the question is…what does this mean for the public education of our students, your kids, my kids and those of the future?

The Common Core Standards document initially reads as somewhat benign.  Who would argue the idea that there “should” be a core of standards that all students in this great nation strive for?  (Although I tend to avoid “shoulding”on myself at all costs)  How could one oppose standards, ensuring success for all students?  (I mean if over 40 states adopted this then it must be great.)   Who would dare even oppose such a notion?  (And if you do oppose then what is wrong with you to be such a “curmudgeon” or a “whiner”.)  At the risk of being both I will go on.


Read this kindergarten standard keeping in mind many 5 year olds show up to school and they do not even know their letters and they are beginning to lose their baby teeth.   For some they have never even attended preschool and this is their first school experience.  They are filled with wonder, curiosity, creativity and a natural desire to learn.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.K.1 Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book (e.g., My favorite book is…).

I would argue that this is a more realistic standard for our 1st or 2nd graders.  Do we want our students to succeed or do we want to set standards that are so out of their range of normal development that they fail even before they begin?

And while I realize there ARE 5 year olds all over the nation who are more than capable of performing this standard, there are just as many who are not.  There is nothing magical about being 5 that means you are as developed as the other 5 year olds sitting next to you, not to mention that our boys are typically at least 6 months behind our girls.  And if this standard was something to look at in terms of a goal to work towards, I would have no problem with it, but it will not.  It will be seen as what is expected as “common” for all students.  We are starting out leaving over half of our kids behind.

There is no such thing as kindergarten anymore with these standards.  Sorry kids, no time to learn your letters, learn through play and be 5 years old as the standards expect you to show up to school reading informational texts closely and writing persuasive essays already.  Put away the sand tables and the blocks and the dramatic play areas there is work to be done.  And this begs the question, why are we so concerned with the academic side of the child without including the social and emotional sides?  They all work in connection with each other and without each given it’s due the scales are tipped toward disaster.


The Common Core standards alone are not  bad.  In fact, in my work with schools there are great conversations that are happening as a result of this document as it asks us to look at where we are and what we are doing and what areas we need to improve on.  This is all good reflective practice and if it started and ended there…we would be able to say to ourselves, “This too shall pass”.  But will it?  Never before in public education has there been such a broad sweeping, nationally accepted document.  And while states all over the nation are adopting this document, two groups are being paid millions of dollars to come up with the best assessments (See PARCC (http://www.parcconline.org/achieving-common-core) and Smarter Balanced at (http://www.smarterbalanced.org/)).


And therein lies the rub.  The high stakes testing piece to this latest “one size fits all” movement will come out in the year 2014 and I am predicting that at this point everything will change.  Schools all over the nation will be failing these tests and large publishing companies will be at their doors with the next magic bullet that will “solve” all testing deficiencies.  Have we learned nothing from No Child Left Behind?  The idea of “teaching to the test” will take on more power and energy than ever.


This is not about good education.  This is not about educating our kids.  This is about making money and in order for that to happen we must first create an enormous problem.  Failure is the best reason for anyone to buy anything!  Overweight?  Buy this pill or that diet.  Failing schools?  Don’t leave it up the professionals within the schools to figure out what they need, because publishers know so much more. Students?  Who are they?


We need to return to conversations about our students and what is or is not developmentally appropriate, what our students need for instruction in the moment based on their thinking, their questions and how they see the world.  Would you ever take an infant and force them to “walk” down the stairs?  NO!  But physical development is something concrete.  Cognitive development, on the other hand, is harder to understand and yet we forge ahead with the idea that if we place unrealistic expectations on our students then they will just rise.

They will not rise unless they are ready to rise!!  Those who are not ready will fall and hurdle  to the bottom of the stairs with nobody with be there to pick them up as there is a test to teach to and quite frankly, “I don’t give a  sh!t what you think or feel.”  This is a quote from David Coleman, one of 2 co-authors of the Common Core.   He has also taken on the position as head of The College Board 2 months ago.  This organization has more power over the future of all of our students and now this man will also align the SAT’s and test preps with ‘HIS” common core.  There is even talk of test scores being attached to kids GPA’s.  Can you say conflict of interest?


Why and how, I must ask, have we allowed one elitist man from Harvard to have so much power over our entire system?    A man, who only cares about what he thinks.  Watch him as he demonstrates his version of a close reading on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTCiQVCpdQc) with A Letter From Birmingham Jail.  Or don’t, unless you really need a nap!  THIS is the future model for good teaching?  He is completely in his own head and unaware of his audience.  This demonstration both scares and depresses me.

And yet, why is it that those of us in education are the first ones to jump on to any wagon that happens to be going by, regardless of what band is playing?  Where has our responsibility to question gone?  Why are we not asking about what band is playing?   Why are we blindly following the pack? Let’s question what is happening here before it is too late.  Let’s take a risk, jump out of that balloon and take the plunge toward thinking and questioning what this means for our kids, our teachers and the future of our entire public educational system.

PS In my next post I will discuss some ways we can become actively involved as I discuss opting out of testing and events we can attend to show our support.