You got the MOVES! Writing Non-Fiction with Voice, Choice and Clarity in Creativity

“Your assignment for today class is to write your state report in the voice of a snowman.”

“ A snowman?” you ask.

“ Yes, a snowman.”

ImageThis was simulated out of a conversation I had recently with a 3rd grade teacher where somewhere along the line someone thought it would be a creative idea to assign all 3rd grade students to write their state research reports in the voice of a snowman.  A snowman?  Yes.  A snowman.

“A snowman?” I asked.  Yes, a snowman.  What does the voice of a snowman sound like?  I wonder, as distant memories of Frosty’s voice pop into my head, “Haaaaaappy Birrrrrthdaaaaaay!!!”   What do snowmen have to do with state reports?   What if you have the state of Hawaii or Arizona where snowmen do not reside?  Would it be a melting voice?  A snowman?  Yes, a snowman.

And then to top it all off the report was to then be written in the shape of, yes, you guessed it, a snowman.  ImageNow call me crazy, but wouldn’t it make more sense to have a state report in the shape of the state the report is on?  Or perhaps just simply shapeless unless the writer chooses to make the report in any shape at all?

Wherever this idea came from, one must recognize that its’ intent, I believe,  was to allow for creativity in writing these reports.  My hunch is that what got in the way of this good intention was inexperience in writing,  the writing process  and how creativity can be discovered and is easily accessible to all writers through the study of authors and illustrators in ways that make sense for the writer and the purpose of the writing project. So many of us grew up without any writing instruction at all and many feel uncertain about how to teach writing.  Most teachers see themselves as readers but very few will identify themselves as writers.

So this 3rd grade teacher, Ashley and I decided to begin the journey encouraging students to create their own books on the states they were studying.  We began this unit of study with an introduction to a non fiction book called,  A President from Hawaii where we asked the students to read like writers and envision how they might use some of these techniques, or MOVES in their own writing. Image I read, did some thinking out loud, but not much before the students began to identify the many moves made by both the writer and the illustrator while Ashley charted their thinking on the white board next to us all.

As usual I found myself marveling at the kids “reading” of this text.  Amy recognized that the illustrator used a variety of techniques which included a background image that was either watercolored or collaged and then actual photographs and images were layered on top of that.

Joe saw that the photographs were delicately framed in bamboo, but not on all pages.  When we wondered why the illustrator might have made that move Michael wondered, “is the bamboo only shown on those pages where there were natural scenes in the background where bamboo really grows?”  And in looking back we identified that it was shown on the images of mountains and beaches,  but not on the pages that showed cities.

Shane talked about the bold words.  Michael noticed  how the information was embedded within the text.  I wondered going into the class if this book had enough moves in it, but of course they went deeper than anticipated.

Next, I shared a variety of non-fiction texts and asked them to take some sticky notes and do some noticing with a partner and then come back to the larger group and share one on the moves made by either the author or the illustrator that they might try.

I like this word, move, because it is more accessible to students, teachers and even non-writers.  In most professional texts these “moves” are referred to as craft, and the goal is to identify the different”craft” used by an author.  I myself I have used the word craft in my teaching but often found it did not resonate with those who were not engaged heavily in the process of writing already.  And by all means if “craft” resonates with you and your students then stay with it.  Katie Wood Ray’s description of Craft in her book, Wondrous Words is beautiful.  I am always seeking alternative ways in for writers.

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Photo Credit: craftidea.info

The word, Craft, carries with it a sense of “crafty” in that it is something that is part of an artistic process and that some are better at it than others, or that some have a “gift” for it.  Those with that gift are “writers” and those who were not lucky enough to be born with an affinity for “craft” are not writers.  Craft can be a loaded word in that it also has an underlying assumption that there is a “right” way to make the craft. (See paper plate snowman) One teacher explained that because she didn’t know what craft was that it automatically distanced her from writing and made her feel even more inferior.  She did not see herself as a writer and the idea of craft did not help her to move away from that identity.

The process of identification  is a critical one when working with writers.  Once someone actually manifests the idea of “I am a writer” then all things begin to change, as they “see” themselves as writers they find the confidence to play a little more, to worry a little less about doing it “right”, and discover the freedom to explore and try on some of the moves of others writers.

“Moves” seem to be more available to some.  Identifying these moves actually moves writers closer to that place of identification.  Anyone can try out a move.  In asking students (be they 3rd graders, 33 year-olds or 63 year olds) to try a”craft” is something that some cannot identify with.  Trying a move in your writing  is like trying a dance move.   It takes out that ethereal sense of “writer” and brings it down to earth, making writing available to writers of all shapes and sizes.

When the students regrouped to share their findings, their books were loaded with sticky notes and “moves” they would like to possibly try.  Each set of partners shared one move that impressed them the most.  The possibilities seemed endless.

So when I returned to that classroom I was eager to find out what had transpired over the week and what I found when I walked in was a very busy writing workshop with paper and scissors and computers and crayons and markers and pencils and busy writers abound.  There was a buzz in the room and so I began conferring to find out more.

What I discovered was that the “move” most decided to try was to write their reports in the “voice” of something significant from their chosen state be it the state bird, produce or in the Hawaii report in the voice of the waves.  I had to laugh  because this project started with the idea of voice and seemed to be ending here as well.  The idea of personifying something from their state took on a life of it’s own so much so that the narrator from Alabama, “Fuzzy the Peach” actually “visited” the narrator, the Cactus Wren, state bird of Arizona, on the pages of the Arizona book.  So now these kids were learning not only about their states, but about the states their classmates were studying as well.  They were collaborating and sharing ideas and admiring each other’s work and ideas during the process, finding an immediate audience with authentic feedback.   One gets an idea from another and it snowballs.  It was infectious.

I also noted how all of  the writers were in such different places and stages and that for some, the gift of time to really work on an illustration with incredible depth and detail was appreciated. “I love making this book!” Josh told me.  When I asked him why he said that it was fun, relaxing and enjoyable to show his information in a book.  I could see from his writing alone that it was not something he excelled at as his letters looked young and his words were far and few in his research, but by focussing on what he loved about his state of California, the sports teams he was creating the most detailed images in the room.

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Image Credit: inkygirl.com

I also realize having the eyes of the occasional observer are different eyes than those of the teacher who has a list a mile long of things to get done with her students and that handing that time over, even when we know it is valuable, can feel too long or too free or too unproductive.  Fortunately, this young, intuitive teacher, Ashley, understands and sees the value in what each child is doing and how individual the process of each student is.  It takes patience. Then it takes more patience. It is not easy for every student and there are always those who struggle, those who seem to be wasting time and those who are not engaged.  It takes time and it takes a great leap of faith and trust in ones’ self and the kids themselves.

Finally, I noticed was how sacred the oaktag  was to these kids.  Some cut theirs into smaller pieces to make more pages, others just talked about how lucky they were to be using such expensive paper and how it was different than any other “paper” because it was so sturdy and perfect for book-making.  One girl stroked the smoothness of the tagboard telling me how she just LOVED the feeling of this paper.

ImageAll of these things, all of these tools, all of these conversations, all of these moments are part of being a writer, of the writing process of a working Writer’s Workshop.  It is messy, it is chaotic, it is time consuming, but it is organized chaos where the voices, choices, creativity and sounds of the writers are front and center and the snowmen, well, they are out where they belong, on the playground.

Letting Go: On Permission, Patience, Persistence and Possibilities…

Zachary is a senior this year and while I have tried to keep from writing about him, I find myself in the beginning phases of grieving his impending move from home to college.  When I asked him if he was ready he simply said, “No, not really, but it will be great.”  Zachary is my possibility person.  He sees the world as something that is here for him to embrace and engage in every moment he is alive.  He truly does live in the moment.   My Dad always referred to him as the one who is always “tinkering” with something.  In many ways I think he is a lot like my Dad in that his while his grades in school are not stellar, his ideas and his passion for possibility lies deep.  It is rare he says he “can’t” do something.

His latest passion is this song, Let Her Go by Passenger (that I now know by heart as I have heard it a million times a day for about 4 weeks now) and so he has decided to learn this song on the piano.  He does not, or should I say he has not ever really played the piano.  That is Emma’s instrument.  But he you tubed it (yes, I do think that is a verb!) and from watching has begun the process of two handing the keys to this tune.  I marvel at his persistence, or in this day in educational jargon, his stamina to keep on keeping up with this endeavor.  He has the first part down pretty well, and he won’t quit until he reaches the end.  I know this because this is how Zachary learns. There is always some kind of creative process that invites him in and then he is all in.

What happens when we slow down and give each learner the permission to learn about and research whatever it is they are interested in?  What happens when there is a structure, but the content is filled in by each individual in the group?

So this year I decided to try out some of what I was preaching on my group of teachers in Dover Middle School.  I have been working with this group for years and they have one of the best collective senses of humor I have ever known.   The group has come together, I believe, even more so because of the writing we have been doing together every time we meet.  I am always surprised at what I learn about one of these dedicated teachers through their writing and I love hearing their voices develop and change with each piece they try.  They are always willing to read their writing and give feedback to each other.  In our conversations about the Common Core State Standards we also question and wonder about where the idea of freedom comes into play in public education.

And so I walked into the first class and said, “I have no class text, I have no syllabus, all I have is a workshop model and ways to guide and facilitate us through the processes of learning of your choosing.  What is it that you want to learn about?  What are some of the questions you are wondering about that you feel you don’t have the time to discover?    There were wide eyes of excitement looking back at me as the possibilities ran across the faces of some and panic across the others.  I quickly realized that one of the first beliefs we needed to look at was that  of the “right answer” as some asked me,  “What is it that you want?”  “What exactly are you looking for and what does it look like?”  Immediately I saw that although we talked the good talk of freedom, that we as adults are as entrenched in this kind of thinking as our students, seeking that “right” answer. In the words of Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  And so we have spent a great deal of time examining our attitudes, beliefs and biases.  Some of the work we have done together I took on the road as I have told this group that they are my research project as I work beside them and experience the same processes they are experiencing.

I recently presented some of this research at NCTE in Boston with colleagues and friends, Louise Wrobleski and Terry Moher.  We engaged in a playful study of “Reading the Visuals and Visualizing the Reading” and along the way we rediscovered the power of the visual everywhere we went.  Every day we sent each other new ideas, articles, links and images to spark our thinking. It was exhilarating because we were all engaged in thinking about, reading and researching the same thing at the same time and yet we each came at it from completely different angles.  It was these differences that gave form and texture to our presentation as we each defended and wrote up just what it was we intended to do with our 20 minutes of fame while at the same time weaving a common thread among us.  It was challenging and exciting.

Ultimately my part in the presentation came from the deep seeded belief that if we want our teachers/students to engage their students then they must first experience the process themselves.  Classic Don Graves.  When our participants sat down there were pictures of faces staring at them from the middle of the table.  They were asked to take one that spoke to them and then to add something to the face.  Instantly I could feel a shift of energy in the room and so I asked, “How many of you think  you can’t draw?” and almost all of the hands went up.  And while I told them not to worry, it was evident that it was a challenge for many as everyone tried to add some kind of body to their chosen face.  Here are some images I shared with them from my work with my Dover teachers and many mimicked this same behavior by adding what they “thought” was expected of them, a body.

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By Melissa

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by Tina

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Then I showed them some images from this wonderful blog, busymockingbird.com where a mother collaborates with her four year old daughter and allows her to put “bodies” onto her faces.  Here are some of those images.

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And after showing these images suddenly the world of possibilities opens up as each person is granted permission to be playful, to think beyond what they “thought” the expectation was in terms of a “right” answer, even though I said there was no right or wrong way to add to their faces.  After sharing these as well as images from Terry Moher’s students work I then asked them to turn over their faces and give it another go.  And again the energy shifted and people began to envision, talk and even giggle at what might be, based on what they felt confident about drawing and the images took on completely different shapes and forms. After sketching I asked participants to write either about their process or to bring words and life to the images they had created. Or as one Dover teacher Lisa stated on her second go, I looked at this face and as I was trying to think outside of the box, I thought, boxes, yes, I can draw boxes!  And this is what she came up with.

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by Mark

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by Melissa

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by Denise

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by Ben

The following images are of particular interest to me. The first  was drawn by an elementary teacher, Pam.   The second by Ben a middle school teacher.  What I found fascinating was that these were their first drawings.  What was it about Pam and Ben’s thinking that they got to where others often only got to on the second go?  They both talked about how they couldn’t draw bodies, so they looked at the faces and tried to come up with something that fit the face that they could draw,  but that was not a body. Essentially Pam and Ben gave themselves permission to add to the faces in any way they felt would work.   They allowed themselves to just let go and were not confined by the idea of what was “right”.

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by Ben

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by Pam

Well you only need the light when it’s burning low

Only miss the sun when it starts to snow

Only know you love her when you let her go

 

Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low

Only hate the road when you’re missing home

Only know you love her when you let her go

And you let her go.

                             ~ Let Her Go by Passenger

And while these lyrics ring in my head I think about how we all need to let go, if even just a little bit.  All of us.  I need to let go as a mother and allow my son to make his way in the world, and as teachers we need to let go.  Let go of the “one answer society rules” demands of the testing world and open up our hearts and minds to the infinite possibilities that lie within.

Stories and More: A Daughter’s Encyclopedia of Her Dad

There are so many ways to tell a story.  We just had an intimate celebration of my Dad’s life for those who knew him.  It started with cocktail hour and then it was story time.   I heard so many stories about my Dad that I had never heard. I loved hearing about his life as a boss, a friend, brother-in-law, Bumpa and of course as a father.  In the words of Eben Alexander in his book, Proof of Heaven he writes, “A story–a true story–can heal as much as medicine can.”

So how was I going to talk about Dad in 10 minutes or less and really give a sense of who he was to me?  I was thinking about the text, “Days With My Father” which started on line and is now a book, but that did not exactly capture what I was hoping to do as it only reflected the end of his father’s life.  I wanted more than that.  And then I thought back to the last time I wrote about my Dad, using Wallace Steven’s, “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”.   I wrote up 13 Moments with Dad and took it to the service.

ImageI only got through maybe half of them, but then as I went back to the piece I didn’t like it.  I envisioned something different and then I remembered the book, The Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.  If you have not read this book then it must go on your list to be read.  I scoured my shelves and re-worked the piece again.  I am thrilled with the possibilities and so I will share a few of them and they are rough. There are so many that have yet to be written, but this is where I am now and I am still struggling with each subtitle as well as how many to write.   Yet another piece of writing that is never done, but is just done enough for now to make my point here on this blog, that writing and thinking takes time and that honoring where our students are in that moment is priceless.

And again, while I realize this is a very personal piece on an educational blog and even somewhat self-indulgent, I have come to realize that living a literate life is very personal and that we need more of these personal connections to allow us to see each other, face to face.

So here we go…

A Daughter’s Encyclopedia of Her Dad

A for Always

“You need to leave the hospital right now, ”Dad’s voice echoed, quiet yet firm.   After 13 days of never leaving my leukemia-ridden 3 and a half year old Emma’s side, she was overdosed in one of her surgeries. My Dad was the first to arrive and he was the only one who told me to leave.  And so for the first time I left.  Dad drove me home to see Zachary and spend one night out of the hospital.

What I have come to realize after his death is that no matter what Dad had my back.  I just knew that if I ever needed anything he would have been there and just knowing that keeps you from ever really needing anything at all…

“This too shall pass”, my Dad’s words of wisdom he shared with me when in the throes of Emma’s illness.   And eventually it did.

B for Best Friend

My best friend, Krissy stopped by to say goodbye on her way to her new prep school hours away, Northfield, Mount Hermon.  As we stood in the driveway sobbing together and lamenting our impending separation she said, “Why don’t you come too?”

And so I went and checked out the school, knowing that we did not have the money for me to go to private school, but interested to see where Dad had also gone when he was younger.  (That was a story we all knew too well.  How he hitchhiked there 3 times and begged them to accept him and yes, they finally did.  “It changed my life,” he would say. )  Did I need my life to be changed?

He walked into my bedroom, pitch black and through the darkness he just said,  “If you really want to go to Northfield, we will figure out a way to make it to happen.”  And then he left the room.

I did not go.  I didn’t need to go.  I think I just needed to know I could go.

C for Call

I picked up the phone to hear Dad’s voice. “I haven’t seen you in a while.”  And I would tell Dad what I had been up to and he would listen and respond.  One day I was telling him the latest woes of parenting and he stopped me and said, “You have raised great kids.”  Again I was left silent.  The man of few words was speaking… and he was saying something from the heart.  “No, I mean it.  They are great kids.  You have done a really good job with them.”

What he could not see were the tears running down my cheeks as I flipped the bacon and then Mom got on the phone.  Per usual at that point he would make his exit and say with sarcastic contempt, “Well I will let you two talk for the next few hours” and he hung up.

And what he needs to know is that he too has raised 3 really great kids.

D for Dancing

I made my Dad do a Father Daughter dance at my wedding.  My mother had often lamented at the lack of dancing and nights out on the town with my father.  He resisted the idea of that dance, but just like one day when I came home from college and hugged my parents and forced my Dad to hug me back, I forced him to do that dance with me.  Not only did he dance, but he even did it with a smile.

But you must know that dancing with my Dad was more like standing in the middle of a floor where there was music playing and making slight shuffles to the right and to the left.  Rhythm was not really involved, but even standing there as he held me in dance position, right arm up left on my waist was enough.  And Mom, I don’t think you missed much not making those nights out dancing with Dad!

E for Employee

As a new summer employee at my Dad’s newspaper, The New Hampshire Business Review, I was excited to finally be a bigger part of the family business.  I envisioned learning the ropes of journalism and seeing what made a company tick.  I was assigned to work for my sister under the term “data entry”.  Day after day of entering information and categorizing it.  God forbid I actually ask a question of my beloved “boss” as she would look at me in disgust and say, “I already told you how to do that!!”  Never before had I felt like such a peon in a job.  Even waitressing was easier than trying to fit into this very tight system that had been established so many years ago where I quickly realized that being a family member only meant there were higher expectations of you and no family bennies whatsoever.  In fact, it began to seem like being family was more of a curse than a blessing…at least at the office!

One day while I was sitting in my Dad’s big black chair and spinning around like I used to when I was little I opened his top drawer to find a pen and instead I found a one and a half inch stack of checks.  My gut sank as I looked to see that the check on top was made out to Don Madden.  As I flipped through them all the same name appeared over and over and over again.  A flipbook of Don Madden checks and the implications that he was paying everyone else made me gasp.  His investment in this business ran deeper than I had ever realized.

I finished that summer and never complained again.  It was my last time working at the paper.

F for Faces

Hey, do you see the face?”  Dad would ask as he pointed at a picture, a painting or even out the window at a tree.  Whereupon we would all look and sometimes we might see it and others we would have no idea what he was seeing.  He “saw” things that others did not see be it in the visual, looking out the window or into the future political arena.

Since my Dad’s death I have started to “see” faces everywhere!!  I am taking an intense course to become a yoga teacher and in that course we are studying anatomy and all through the lessons I see faces.  Faces on ovaries, kidneys with eyes staring at me and then the profile of a young man peering out of the liver.  Every time I see one I say hello to my Dad and am forever reminded that we must look, look and then look again with an open mind and you never know just what you might “see”.

H for  Hugging

Hugging.  From that day forward every time I saw my Dad I hugged him.  Over time he came to expect it and dare I even say that he might have even leaned in first once or twice himself!  He was an interesting hugger, more of a leaner really, but still I didn’t care.  Some say huggers are buggers, but eventually they give in and realize that hugging isn’t so bad after all.

I for Indulgence

“Daddy, will you PLEASE do your Donald Duck voice?” we would plead for hours on end and usually the answer was no.  To this day is amazes me how few times we actually heard it and it was something that tickled us pinker than pink as we would laugh and laugh.  What was it that kept him from wanting to do it more?  To indulge his kids just a few more times and yet if you think back, it made it all that much more incredible when he did it.  “Less is more,” he would say if he was helping me with my writing.  “Less is more”

L for  Late

Driving home after curfew one night in the yellow bumblebee I devised a plan to pick up some speed down Page Road and then cut the engine and drift into the driveway with the lights off in hopes that I could “sneak” in and not be discovered.  As I turned in, the car slowly moved towards the barn, activating the sensor bathing  me in bright light.  Damn, I thought as I began to open the car door and realized there was movement all around.  As I looked closer I realized I had coasted into a sea of raccoons.  Big raccoons, little raccoons, raccoons swarming the car and coming towards me.  I slammed the door and began to scream, “Dad!!”  “Dad!!”  Of course he couldn’t hear me and so I layed on the horn.  Eventually Dad appeared in his boxers and shooshed all the raccoons away, saying, “Get outta here ya saps!”  As he was getting rid of them I made a dash for the house.  He followed me in and said, “You’re late.”

M for Moving

“I am calling to check in with you because we looked at a house in New London and well, I just wanted to be sure that you were okay with that.”  I paused in disbelief.  Was my Dad actually calling to ask me about their life decision?  The silence lingered and he said, “Are you there?”  “Yes Dad, I am here.”  “Well, you and your mother spend so much time together and well, I just wanted to know what you thought about us making this move.”

“Do what you need to do Dad, and I will be fine.”  And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me that our relationship had shifted so dramatically over the years but that I hadn’t even realized it.  The older he got the more he said and the more he said the more I listened.  I am so glad they lived nearby for 10 years.

S for Swearing

Dad announced as we sat on the lime green carpet during a major heat wave in 1975 that we were going on a family vacation.  Lisa, Jamie and I screamed and shouted with joy as visions of Disney rides and beaches and pools danced through our heads he said we needed to pack as we would be leaving at 4 in the morning just to get a good head start.

We woke at 4 filled with Christmas morning anticipation and settled ourselves into the blue paneled station wagon.  Lisa and I settled into our makeshift bed in the very back complete with blankets and pillows and Jamie in his own bed in the middle seat with the cooler.  Little did we know that we would never get out of the car except for the occasional bathroom break and over 14 days and 4,000 miles later having seen all of Newfoundland and even Labrador.  Oh the stories from that trip!

It was the first time I ever heard Dad swear as he got back into the car at a random gas station as Mom was handing us snowballs and candy bars to keep us quiet and we were fighting over them and anything else from being in such a confined space for too long when Dad snapped and yelled, “All you kids do is fight, fart and swear!”  I remember thinking…did Dad just say fart?

T for Tomasen

My name.  Thank you Dad for making up the most incredible, bestest, most awesome name in the world just for me.  Something about having my name always made me feel like I was different.  (It also helped that Lisa was actually a tiny bit jealous of it too as I was jealous of most everything she had, especially that incredible cassette recorder she had in Weare, but I digress!)  What I love most about my name are all of the stories it has generated.  As a man of stories, and as a great storyteller I would imagine you might have thought, what kind of name would bring great stories?

 W for Wondering

“I would like to come over, there seems to be something wrong with my computer.”  He would arrive, laptop under his arm, and I would pour the coffee as he would begin to describe in detail just what was or was not happening with his laptop.  We would sit together and I would map out the steps, write them down and he would thank me profusely for being so patient with him.  “We always knew you would be a teacher,” he said.  “The hours you would spend in your room with all of those imaginary students, we just knew you would be a teacher.

During one of those visits he told me that he was ok with dying.  He talked and talked and told me that I was  the “listener”.  I didn’t know what to do with that information today as I wonder…years later…if he would have said the same thing on the day he died.

So, as you can see there are many pieces missing, many in process, and just a sampling of an attempt to remember the stories of my Dad.

ImageJeff Wilhelm in his book on narratives tells a story about a decision-making process one of his kids was making and asked this question, “Which decision will make the best stories?”

My Dad’s life in stories was what he would have hoped for.  Of that I am sure.  What I am not sure about is how many stories are still out there, untold, about my Dad and about all of those students we work with.

We are only as good as our stories and honoring those should be a part of our daily work with students, whether reading them, writing them and absolutely always celebrating them. Period.  I mean, in the end, what else is there really?

Teacher Feature with Mark Holt-Shannon on The Common Core: Getting There Quickly

In an effort to expand the conversation here on this blog,  I would like to introduce “Teacher Feature”, a place where I will post the reflections, thoughts, meanderings, writings and ideas of teachers.  In my work I have the privilege of working with so many amazing talented professionals.  I get the best of the best.  Think about it.  They take their own precious time during and at the end of the day to meet with me.  They attend classes after school to read, write and discuss their own professional development.  They are who you want teaching your child.

This week I feature Mark Holt-Shannon, an 8th grade teacher from Dover Middle School in Dover New Hampshire. When I first walked into Mark’s classroom several years ago there was a palpable energy that was inviting and invigorating.    He instructed the kids to get their “nets” (writer’s notebooks where you “catch” ideas) and do some writing about what they had just discussed.  There were all the elements of a Writer’s Workshop up and running like a fine tuned machine.  And  I wanted to stay, be a student and experience what those kids were experiencing.

When I first sat down with Mark I was amazed at just how hard he was on himself as a teacher, constantly questioning and wondering what he could or should be doing better. (A hallmark of brilliance in my book!)   There was a sense of something that was missing for him in his teaching as he wondered, was he doing all that he could?  He talked about feeling disorganized because he never had his entire week planned out or even months for that matter as others around him did.  Sure, he had a sense of the direction he was headed in, but he talked about how that plan changed every day based on the needs, demands and understandings of his students.  In short, he is a reflective, responsive and motivating teacher of reading and writing.  The kids LOVE him!

Today he talks about how his walks to and from school allow him the time to plan in his head how to pick up where he left off the day before, but again there is a sense that he is doing something “not quite right”.  In this piece Mark comments on the current culture in education and what it feels like to be teaching every day with so much other noise going on around him at more than lightning speed with the word “rigor” staring teachers in the face of every turn.  You will also see that he himself is a talented writer who writes and enjoys what words can do on the page.

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Mark conferring with student at UNH Writer’s Academy 2013

Common Core: getting there quickly  

By Mark Holt-Shannon

How often on this trip down the road of guiding students toward becoming better thinkers and perceivers and feelers and citizens, do we get to, or think to, stop and look closely at the map?  How often do we pull over in the dark, especially before we get to that point (a crossroads, an exit sign offering choices) where we have to make a decision about the best direction to take?  Where we have to push on the overhead light and consider the options, the routes?  Scenic or quick?  Doesn’t it feel, too often and instead, like we’re just trusting the GPS?  She’s telling us to go a particular way, maybe we agree, maybe we don’t.  Maybe her directions seem logical, maybe they don’t.  But we look at our watches and do the timetable math and just do what she says, hoping for the best.  Gotta be there by morning.  Gotta be there by morning.  Why?  Because come morning, we’re dropping them at the bus station so they can start their journey to the train station.

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My problem is that I like to look at the map, put my finger on where I am, put my finger on where I am supposed to go, and look in between to see what is there that would be cool to see.  What historical markers, what natural or physical beauty, what friends do I know, what cultural experiences, food, music, language, ethnicities exist along the way that we can come in contact with?  No, if I am heading north, I don’t want to spend too much time traveling south; though I may need to occasionally.  I can agree that we need to keep moving in an agreed upon direction.  There is merit and necessity in all of us meeting at a similar place.  Why?  Shit, good question.  I don’t want to sound like too much of a hippie here.  Why?  So that we can embrace each other.  Talk about what we’ve seen and how it affected us.  Learn from one another.  Discover places we’d like to travel back to some day.  Decide maybe if we’re ready to move on, to get on the bus—if that’s what we’re doing.

Rigor is not about having to hold your pee and stay in your seat with your seatbelt fastened and not complain and have no say in the direction.  Is it?  Rigor is getting out of the car.  Not just looking at the world through the window and checking it off the list of markers we’ve passed.  Rigor is exposure and reflection.  “Look at this, what do you think?  How does it compare or contrast to something else we saw?”  Rigor is “No, you can’t stay in the car, you have to get out and step in it, speak the language, consider the beauty, consider the poverty, consider your place in it.  Try the food, listen to the music, shake the hands of the people.  Will you ever come back here?  Why?  Speak, write, listen, feel, love, read.  No, you cannot sleep the entire trip.  You have to find a way to be affected by what you are seeing and you have to make that affectation known.”  Rigor.

Why are listening to the GPS?  She wants me to go the fastest most efficient way.  But if I do that, what will I have brought with me?  What experiences and lessons and memories and discoveries will I show up with?

Seriously, what “experiences and lessons and memories and discoveries will” our kids show up with if we continue on this path of the GPS and don’t consider the journey of each child?

Thank you Mark!

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.”

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Giggling girls writing.

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Writing in nature’s classroom

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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…”

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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“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!

Kimberly

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.”

Honoring Space and Time

I walked out on the back deck this morning and to my horrors of horrors there were leaves strewn about. The first leaves fallen, physical evidence that slowly but surely the seasons are and will be changing.  And with that change I hear all of my teacher friends talk about going into their classrooms with excitement and anticipation at the prospect of a new year.  How will they set up their classrooms this year?  What kinds of “areas” can be created in this space where they will live with their students over this next year?

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Photo Credit: catchingreaders.com

This time of year seems to get earlier and earlier every year though.  It used to be that none of this was even contemplated until the official “end” of summer, Labor Day.  But no more.  College students are out shopping everywhere you go.  Sons and daughters with Mothers seeking out that perfect comforter and wall hangings to create their own sense of space, the home away from home.  My son, a senior, just out the door for his official soccer tryouts.  And yet…it is ONLY August 19th!  Much too early!

Space matters.  I find myself wanting to nest in my own home as I wake each morning with the urge to move furniture around and make things a new.  I stop myself though, reminding myself that it IS still summer and that my summer arrangements must stay as long as possible for it is, after all, our shortest season of all.

And this summer I found myself not writing at all.  This blog was unintentionally left to have it’s own summer vacation and that gets me thinking about what I need as a writer and one of the major things I need is space.  And while that may seem incredibly obvious, with 2 kids in the house it is quite difficult to come by.  And while I realize I could create the space and time and get up really early with the birds and get to my keyboard, the truth is that when I am up early I am out tending my gardens.  You see there is so little weather here in New Hampshire that is conducive to early mornings outside.  My routine is to water my plants and survey each garden to see what has happened over night.  And things do happen.

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Photo Credit: reelswellblog.com

I tried roses this year though.  They are tough little buggers and as soon as we got them into the ground they up and died.  Not really, but they looked as though they were dead.  And so I left them.  I pruned them here and there, gave them food and water and just waited.  Not until yesterday did I start to see 2 tiny roses on one of the plants.  Why now?  I wondered?  Perhaps they just needed time to adjust to the new soil.  Perhaps the food finally kicked in.  Perhaps they got just the right amount of sunshine and water for a few days in a row.  Who knows!  Maybe all they needed was a bit of space.

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My roses FINALLY bloom on one bush!!

How often do we hold these spaces for our students?  Our teachers?  Spaces where they can be who they are, take the time that they need and figure out how to write or grow or bloom on their own?  We talked a lot about this “holding of space” in my summer course (last entry!) on Passion, Purpose and Play:  Creating Real Readers and Writers.  EVERY day during our 2 weeks together these students, made up of teachers and interns had the time and space they needed to do their work. We devoted the last chunk of our day to “workshop”.  Time where  students could choose what it was they wanted to work on and how.  They could choose to read or write anything they wanted.  It might be reading for the next day in class, a novel or magazine they were interested in, or the writing they were working on.  They could go to the library, go outside to read and write.  They could confer in their triads, in partners or with me.  They could write in notebooks, on their laptops or even on the floor if they so chose!  They could choose to use this time to express themselves artistically with watercolors and other art supplies provided.

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Christian and Lexe during Workshop Time, Summer 2013

I loved this time every day as it gave me time to sit with individuals and confer on their processes on what was working and what was not.  IF the work, the homework, is so important, then why don’t we ever provide the time and space for that work to begin to happen in class?  It seems so obvious and yet on my evaluations there was a resounding appreciation for that time given.  Respect.  That is what happened.  There was a great respect for the work when there was a place for that work to happen.  Many left each afternoon with clearly defined goals on where they wanted to take their reading and writing that night.

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Maria reading Poetry, Summer 2013

And while the cliché of students blooming has been used ad naseum, I am going to bring this back around to those damned roses.  The ones that refused to just blossom.  The ones, that given the time and space eventually did bloom!  Next to it though, is the other rose.  You know the one.  The one that no matter what you do, it just stays the same.  No buds, no roses, no sign of color.  The scrawny little plant next to the blooming phlox that are going to bloom and shine no matter what I do or don’t do.  But it is there….and nothing I did changed that plant for the better.  In fact it looks much worse than when we brought it home.  When first planted it it had gorgeous pale yellow and pink roses and now it simply stands alone, no flowers, no color.  Lifeless.  And yet it is not.  And so I will wait and be patient and hope and try some new things and hope and wait that perhaps one day…maybe even next summer that it will again yield a beautiful bloom or two, but you just never know.

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Sad little rosebush..no buds!

And that is the imprecision of teaching and learning in a nutshell.  We can do all we can and still there may be those roses that will never bloom, at least not while you are around.  And that is ok.  Maybe it is not their time.  Maybe what is happening on the inside is more important than the product.  It is not always what we “see” that matters in the long haul.

And so we begin a new year…and I do so love the feeling of new beginnings.   It is what makes me a true New Englander.  As much as I hate the seasons I need the seasons. So little leaves on the back deck, I welcome you, but not entirely as I sweep you off and honor the space of summer as long as I can!

Let’s Simplify, Not Justify: In Defense of the ART of Teaching

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit. “

                                                                                                 John Steinbeck

What is the art of teaching??

In the children’s book of the Three Questions, a retelling of the original story by Leo Tolstoy, a young boy is on a quest to find the answers to these three questions:

  1. When is the best time to do things?

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    Photo Credit: kellykorenek.wordpress.com

  2. Who is the most important one?
  3. What is the right thing to do?

As Nikolai goes off to meet with the wise old tortoise to find the answers to his questions he discovers that when he is not searching for the answers, he actually finds them.   He rescues a mother panda bear and her baby from a terrible storm as the tortoise looks on and observes the boys actions.

Nikolai is still disappointed at the end of this ordeal because he is frustrated that he has not been given the answers.  The tortoise wisely tells him that his questions were answered through his actions.  He ends the story reminding the boy.

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Photo Credit: bookimagecollective.blogspot.com

 “Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now.  The most important one is always the one you are with.  And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.  For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world.  This is why we are here.”

 

This is why we are here and this is why I love to teach in a workshop because this kind of teaching and learning requires us all to be present.   These are the essential questions that matter in my teaching in the moment, an essential part of the “art” of teaching.   Keeping true to this art of teaching requires careful listening, intuition and improvisation on the part of every person in the workshop; most importantly, the teacher.  There is no guidebook to where you can check off what you are going to do because the truth is that you don’t know what you are going to teach until you are in that moment with that child.   Terry Moher, in her work on conferring refers to this as “teaching not knowing.”

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Photo Credit: wondergressive.com

 One problem is that there is so much noise and distraction in schools right now .  I would love for every person, administrator, parent, citizen and politician to go and just shadow a teacher for a day.  Yes, one whole day so that they can see first hand just what is being asked of teachers.  So much of what is deemed necessary is done so by others, it has become more about justifying every action, each student, their numbers, their percentages, their scores and less about “who” that student is and what is is they might need.

The distractions away from the simplicity of teaching our students are more numerous than you can even imagine.  There is a hurried frenzy that seems to buzz through so many schools.  Lost is the feeling of nurturing, slowness and taking each moment at a time.  Disappearing from early childhood classrooms are blocks, dress-up centers, imaginative play areas, sand tables and any element of play.  Teachers are more frazzled and students, if they buy in to this system, are as well.  The pressure to perform is on and yet…to what end?

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Photo Credit: magazine.byu.edu

When I model lessons in classrooms one of the most common responses is, “that was great, BUT, I don’t have that kind of time to allow kids to think things through.”.  I would argue that we don’t have time NOT to let them think!!  And in this I believe that we all must make choices and for me it is as simple as asking myself and grounding my teaching in these 3 questions, When is the most important time?  Now.  Who is the most important one?  The one I am with.  And what is the right thing to do?   It is to do good for the one at my side.  What if we just made it that simple?  What if that was at the very CORE of what we were doing in all of our schools with all of our kids?

More time to simplify.  Less time to justify.

It just simply makes sense to me.

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Photo Credit: http://www.etsy.com