A Year in the Life of a Writing Teacher

Reflections on Teaching and Writing from a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant

How I Spent My Summer Vacation (SI in the Valley – Week 4)

This final week was hard. Nearly every one of us was caught off guard by tears at some point as we realized we only had 4 days…3 days…1 day left. Although it is difficult to describe the experience to someone not in the room with us, I think it all comes down to community.  That is a buzzword nowadays but for the Writing Project it has always been foundational. Even in the late 70′s, before that word was used to describe what writers need to thrive, it was an essential piece of the NWP puzzle.  What amazes me is how quickly that community can form when the participants are committed, passionate, and eager to improve their practice.

We need to engage in the big ideas of teaching, argue about what matters, listen closely to an opposing view, and thus form our opinions with evidence and reflection.  Hmmm – sounds like something our students should be doing too, right?  That is the part of the Summer Institute I love most; the idea that until you experience what your students go through, you cannot really teach them.  The ‘I’ becomes a ‘we’ and that changes everything. Now you are on a journey of inquiry together, both learning as you go.

Diversity matters, too.  Our lone non-English teacher, Julie, is an art teacher at an alternative school.  Our cheerleader, she brought us joy every day with her boundless enthusiasm and deep compassion.  She helped us not to fear the blank page, not to fear art, and ultimately, how to be brave. Sometimes our students need us to be brave for them and with them. Thank you, Julie.

Margaret was our rib-splitting, non sequiter spilling, hilarious release valve.  From her innocent use of ‘Hit it & quit it” to “How’s your eyeball?” she helped us laugh every single day.  She is also a gifted writer whose voice is strong enough to identify her writing within the first paragraph. What a gift she must be to her students. What a gift she was to us. Thank you, Margaret.

Amy, a 4th grade teacher, was our deep well.  Quietly, she took everything in, then released it back in gorgeous poems or prose. We would nod our heads and think, ‘Oh, now I get it…” She helped us feel not only what she was feeling, but what we needed to remember.  She got to the heart of the matter every time and added depth to our experience.  Thank you, Amy.

So willing to share her journey, Meghann gave all of us encouragement to share our own.  She was the open door through which we traveled to new learning.  Her total commitment to her students reminded us of the standard we should be setting for ourselves.  Always open to new ideas and strategies, she was the role model for listening. She heard each of us and we knew it.  Thank you, Meghann.

Spicy Julie added to our experience by the wealth of her own. From stalking James Taylor to hosting our first social afternoon, she always provided interest to our days. A fountain of resources, she shared willingly and her lively manner captivated all of us.  I know her students cannot wait to come to her class because we couldn’t wait for her to come into ours.  Thank you, Julie.

Our warrior was Nicole, an AP English teacher who shared her strength in fierce, powerful, eloquent poems and prose. She made us think more deeply…about everything. She was intent on making meaning from her students from every presentation and every experience during the summer.  Her focus centered us. She is a force for reckoning and we all benefited from knowing her.  Thank you, Nicole.

Responding to the needs of her high school students, especially those reluctant boys, Mallory taught us about responsive teaching.  She reminded us that the only ones who really matter are the students sitting in front of us and our only responsibility is to reach each of them, whatever it takes. Her coaching mentality was infectious and hilarious, a winning combination. Thank you, Mallory.

Jennifer amazed me in her presentation with her ability to reference every other participant, either by their presentation or personality.  Such care she took in noticing our uniqueness and showcasing it for all to see!  I’ll bet she does that with her students, too. Our connector, she was rightly chosen as our continuity contact, the one who will keep us in touch in the months and years to come. Thank you, Jennifer.

We were lucky enough to have a resident poet, Rhonda, as well. She synthesized our learning into lyrical phrases whether through a response to beautiful words or a dedication in our anthology. She captured the essence of each and elevated all of us in the process.  A veteran of 40 years in education, she continues striving to better meet the needs of her students. What an inspiration she is. Thank you, Rhonda.

Our founding mother for our SI site, Mary Tedrow, shared a statistic with me recently; 98% of teachers who participate in the National Writing Project remain in education throughout their careers. Spend a summer with educators like those described above and you will understand why. They just don’t come any better.


SI in the Valley – Week 3

We are running out of time.  This experience that seemed like it might go on forever will end next week.  We’re not ready.  The community that has sprung out of our passion for teaching and learning feels too necessary to not continue. Really, what will we do without each other? I know I will be a better teacher because of my time with these amazing women.  I know they feel the same way.

This week we traveled to George Mason University to meet another Summer Institute group and share a presentation on revision.  Mark Farrington, writer extraordinaire, returned to the NVWP this summer to lend a hand (hurray!) and taught us how to revise our own writing.  Time spent with other teachers and writers cemented the value of this summer work for all of us.

Later in the week, Mallory taught us how to build voice by using actual shoes! (How clever is that?) Julie walked us through many strategies to help our struggling writers (boys) build fluency and confidence.  Meghann taught us how to step out of our students’ way and let them write to a real audience and create real books through NANOWRIMO http://ywp.nanowrimo.org/ . We participated in a Socratic Circle with Jennifer’s guidance and it worked! We were abuzz with possibilities by the end of the morning.

Transformative experiences can be hard to articulate.  This is a problem.  The professional development experience at the Writing Project is not like any other. Our teachers tell us repeatedly, year after year, summer after summer, that it is the most powerful professional experience of their lives.  Even though it’s difficult to describe, we need to find a way to do it.  We have explain to administrators and superintendents and politicians that what we are doing here matters. Ultimately, of course, the beneficiaries are our students. They will return to classrooms where their teachers are on fire about the year ahead. Don’t you want your child to have that teacher?

The Fellows worked hard this week preparing for the Slice of the Summer Institute; a chance to share their experience with some important stakeholders such as principals, superintendents, and department heads as well as teachers they know who they want to entice into participation next summer. It was exciting to listen to them planning and collaborating, trying so very hard to bring their excitement for the SI to  life for people who were not in the room with us.  I know they will do it brilliantly because that’s just who they are.

How lucky your child will be to have these teachers in the fall.

No Comments »

Summer Institute in the Valley – Week 2

Sometimes we need to be in a room with other people who love what they do, too.

This week we shared a Writing Marathon day with two other National Writing Project sites. Over 40 teachers  met in the morning on the pedestrian mall in the historic part of our city.  After some brief introductions, the distribution of maps and visitor guides, and the formations of smaller groups, the writers ventured forth.  They visited the independent book store, the library, the Civil War museum, and as they meandered, they wrote. Some wrote phrases, others returned to work already in their journals, and more wrote new pieces as inspiration struck. Many groups ate lunch together and extended their discussion of writing and teaching, finding common ground across grade levels and disciplines. The day culminated with a readaround at our local high school.  As the writing spirit moved them, writers would stand and share their newly created or freshly revised pieces.   A sonnet and found poems delighted us. A narrative about the kindness of strangers and a passionate spoken word poem about teaching children in poverty moved us to grab tissues. We laughed a lot, too, feeling the special camaraderie that comes with people who understand how important our work is and how crucial it is that we keep ourselves up to the task.

We also heard two wonderful presentations this week about how to help teenagers understand poetry and how to help all our young writers remember to play with words.  These teachers, one from fourth grade and one from AP English 12, showed how much we have to learn from one another.  Both gifted educators, they revised and tweaked and worried over their presentations, wanting so much for it to be just right, and for each of the audience members to get useful information that we could adapt to our own teaching situations.  They succeeded brilliantly.  Their humor and humanity shone through. Such lucky children to have these wonderful teachers.

Writing groups met twice over the week and we are growing in trust and honesty, trying to help each other make our writing better but still supporting the writer as we do.  It’s a delicate balance but as we struggle with it, we are learning how to do the same thing with our students; how to be careful and truthful, how to focus on the writing but still understand the emotions behind it, how to ask questions that might lead to insights, how to gauge the writer’s strengths and build on them, how to illuminate places where the writer to reader connection is broken.  This is complicated work, make no mistake.

The fellows (teachers) are hard at work planning a ‘Slice of the Summer Institute’ for the last week.  Administrators, principals, and other decision makers are invited to come and witness the hard work of the fellows over the summer. The fellows are focused on making these powerful ‘higher-ups’ see the magic that happens every summer in SI’s across the country.  Teachers teaching teachers, growing a community from the ground up in a few short weeks, a community that will make a difference in kids’ lives for years to come.

Sometimes we need to be in a room with other people who love what they do, too.

1 Comment »

2014 Summer Institute in the Valley – Week 1

Teachers taking time out of an already shortened summer to learn how to get better at teaching. Sounds like it should be a headline, doesn’t it? Every year thousands of teachers from all levels, content areas, and backgrounds come together in the National Writing Project’s Summer Institute.  Sites across the country seek nominations of worthy applicants, hold interviews, and select the very best of our profession to become Fellows for the summer. Last week was the beginning for our group and what a week it was.

We start off every day by writing for half an hour.  What a gift to be able to sit and write unencumbered by lesson plans, small children, or buzzing cell phones.  Our start coincided with the writing camp for teachers started by Kate Messner called Teachers Write http://www.katemessner.com/blog/ so some of us use that as our starting point. As I look around the room I see some writing furiously, anxious to get the words down before they are lost.  Others are gazing, thinking, wondering.  All are quiet, gathering thoughts and words.

Each of the Fellows must give a presentation of a lesson that worked for them that might be adapted for other teachers to use.  They are very nervous in front of their peers, though all are exemplary teachers. It’s different with kids they’ll tell you and these teachers want so much to be good, to have the others gains some knowledge or skills from their sharing. So far, they’ve been wonderful. We’ve learned about creating visual journals, making online magazines (e-zines), and using mentor texts to extend our students’ writing. Each presentation has added to our tool kit for the fall. We are getting ready.

Some afternoons we meet in Writing Groups so we know what it feels like to share our work with others and receive feedback.  Gradually, we learn to trust each other and to be honest yet kind.  Our goal is to make the writing better.  Through our discussions, we do. We are learning to write about what matters, to write about the thing we need to write about, to write the stories only we can tell.  We laugh, we cry, we learn what community feels like.  It feels really, really good.  We want our kids to feel this, too.  We want to learn how to make this happen in our classrooms.

We read articles about reading and writing and discuss them like grownups.  We agree, we disagree, and through our discussions, we determine what kind of teachers we are and what kind of teachers we want to become.  We love teaching, every one of us.  We are willing and ready to do the work it takes to become the kind of teachers our students deserve.

It’s an honor to be part of this process.  That sounds like a headline, too.

No Comments »

Sarah Kay & Anis Mojgani

1 Comment »

What the Politicians Don’t Tell You

I am headed into Day 4 of ‘Camp’. No, it’s not bug juice and swimming lessons but professional development for teachers of reading and writing provided by our English supervisor. It’s been wonderful.  We get presents like colorful pens and sketchbooks, time to collaborate with other like-minded souls (our table group calls them peeps), and the opportunity to think deeply about what we teach and why and…how to do it better next year.  There are 24 participants and there was a waiting list.  This is the summer.  We are officially ‘off’ but we are here instead. The politicians that bash teachers’ easy schedules don’t tell you this.

I’ve noticed over the week how deftly the facilitators model for us what they want us to do with our students.  They teach us a new strategy or technique. Then they make sure we understand it by talking to one another about it and asking clarifying questions.  Then they let us go ‘play’ with whatever it is we just learned.  Eventually we apply what we’ve learned to an actual lesson, one we might (and probably will) really use next year.  We are working hard to hone our craft to make learning better for our students.  The politicians that moan about teachers’ incompetency don’t tell you this.

All professional development for teachers should follow this model.  The National Writing Project uses it as well.  Teachers teaching teachers. There is nothing more motivating than being in the presence of people who are passionate about kids and learning.  We lift each other up with our ideas, strategies, and experiences. We become better by sharing what we know works with real kids. We become better by reflecting on why something worked or why it did not.  We become better by being given information and resources that help us connect better to our students, our curriculum and to each other.  We become better when given the opportunity to discuss our teaching with others who ‘get it’. The politicians who complain that teachers are lazy don’t tell you this.

In a few weeks, the National Writing Project’s Summer Institute will begin.  Four intensive weeks of teachers teaching teachers. There are three groups coming together in Northern Virginia, and hundreds more across the country.  Teachers dedicated to helping students be successful learners, so dedicated they give up vacations and time with their families to improve their craft and elevate their art.  The politicians don’t tell you about any of this, but know that it happens anyway.

1 Comment »

Our Heart

Matt is the heart of our Block 8 class.  He is the head cheerleader, the trailblazer, the first one with the high five. He has been this way almost from the first week of school.  Somewhere along the way he decided he was going to love our co-taught class and he didn’t hesitate to tell us so. It was very affirming, I must admit.  Where one student might say, ‘This room looks like a kindergarten!” because of the colors, lighting, and comfy spots, Matt would walk in and say, ‘I just love this class. I feel like I can be myself in here.” Teresa and I would smile at each other and say, almost simultaneously, ‘That’s what we were going for!”

His goodwill is not reserved only for teachers, however.  When we read our writing aloud and someone is feeling shy, Matt will yell, ‘C’mon {insert name here} – you GOT this!’  When giving feedback, he always has a positive comment, even when Teresa and I are hard-pressed to think of one. He is also willing to put himself and his feelings front and center, thus allowing everyone else permission to do the same.  I think I can safely say he has had a positive influence on everyone in our classroom, include his teachers.

Yesterday we had our 2nd Annual Poetry Slam.  It was amazing. The poems were moving, funny, thought-provoking, and, in some cases, disturbing (in other words, exactly what poetry should be). The audiences were wildly enthusiastic, the judges impressed, and the teachers grateful that it went off without a hiccup. In order to be eligible for the ‘Grand Slam’ which involved all the other 7th grade English classes, students had to compete in a classroom slam. They read their poems and then a panel of 5 judges from within the class scored them on a score of 0 to 10.  Top and bottom scores are dropped, and the middle three added together to determine 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place.

Matt was one of the winners for Block 8.  Along with him were two boys, Adam and Jax, with powerful poems of their own. In fact, when Matt heard the boys’ poems in practice, he threw out his original poem because he didn’t think it was as good as theirs was.  He spent days revising, tweaking, adding to his poem. He wanted Adam and Jax to see him as an equal. All three of them won the classroom round. On the day of the Grand Slam, they sat together in the auditorium, encouraging each other, teasing each other, and cheering each other (and the other poets) on. They were the only poets in any of the 7 blocks who cheered for poets who were not in their class.  They didn’t see it as a competition as much as a celebration.

Matt was more nervous than I have ever seen him.  He has begun to consider himself a writer which means the stakes for him are higher. What people think of his work really matters to him because it has become part of who he is as a person.  He performed well although he went a little too fast and I was afraid the judges might have missed some of the words.  Jax listened to the feedback from the class and read his poem perfectly, pacing exactly right and expression at the end when the poem demanded it.  Adam’s poem was brilliant – about life being a series of doors with choices all along the way – a metaphor with depth and beauty.  He read a little too fast as well, but the words were clear and strong. Teresa and I were so very proud.

Matt won first place. Sometimes the good guys win.


1 Comment »

The Magic

Do you ever get discouraged about reaching all your kids in the time you have allotted?  I sure do.  I have kids I worried about from Day One and kids I didn’t even know I needed to be worried about until day before yesterday.  Then there is the lovely habit my kids of making me believe they have ‘it’ when in fact, they do not.  They’re knee deep into an ‘awesome’ book one day and the next they tell me, ‘Oh, I abandoned that one, it was boring.’  Or they write me a gorgeous lyrical reading response letter one week and the next week they don’t bother to turn one in at all.  What gives, people?  Can’t I help you turn into a reader and writer and then just let you fly off to books and stories on your own?  …Not so much.

The good news is that discouraging days are often divinely followed by wondrous, magical moments. Moments that give me my footing back and help me believe that the path I so carefully stake out for our students is the one they need to be on.  I posted earlier about the ‘awesome’ book Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller.  I’ve slowly been rolling out some of the ideas from the book (from my 2 pages of legal pad notes – single spaced) with the kids, not wanting to overwhelm them with my enthusiasm.

One of her ideas is to have the kids do small, informal, book commercials.  Now I’ve been doing book commercials for a couple of years, but always by me, not the kids.  Hearing a 7th grade boy talk to other 7th graders about the excitement of The 11th Plague is WAY better than Mrs. McG. talking about it – DUH! So, trying to appear subtle, I threw a sign up sheet on the board and said if anyone wanted to recommend a book to the class they should add their name.  I watched during silent reading.  No one signed up.  The timer ticked down to 1 minute – still no volunteers. ’Well, that was a great idea that didn’t work, I thought to myself.’

The timer went off and suddenly, Huntley yelled out, “WAIT! I wanted to sign up to give a commercial!” I hope my jaw didn’t drop.  In my head it certainly did.  This was Huntley, our dear boy who is frequently absent and hates to read.  He is on book 4 for the year and all of those 4 have been a struggle.  Look up reluctant reader in the dictionary, and there is his cherubic face.  But, here he was, strutting to the front of the class (the FRONT OF THE CLASS!) to talk about The Darkest Path by Jeff Hirsch.  He said it was, ‘adventurous and exciting’ and  he ‘couldn’t stop reading it’. He went on to say that ‘Jax might like it, he likes the same kinds of books as me.’  All this time, I thought he wasn’t really listening.  Turns out…he was!

At writing time, I told the kids the story of how our cats, Ron and Harry (yes, THAT Ron and Harry) came to live at our house.  I showed them a picture of the cute little kittens who arrived together in a little tiny crate to meet our very large black labs; Paddy and Molly.  Paddy ignored them completely (I’m still not convinced he actually knew they were living here) and Molly has made it her life’s work to turn them into dogs so she can play with them.  So far, it’s not working but she hasn’t given up yet.

the new boys in town


The kids were to write for 5 minutes about what happened next, after Ron and Harry left that crate.  It could be realistic, fantasy, or a combination.  The only rule was keep writing and see where it leads.  At the end of the 5 minutes, Huntley wanted to share his writing (has not shared ANY writing since the first day of school). He got a round of applause for his adventure story.  Jason also shared, the same Jason who has mostly done comic strips stories since school started.  He also got an enthusiastic response from students and teacher alike.

Since both of  these responses could not have been more uncharacteristic Teresa, my co-teacher, and I were astounded.  Why this day?  What clicked that hasn’t clicked before?  What is it so we can do it again???

I think there are two possible answers.  One is that we teach what we value.  For Teresa and I, the relationships are the most important thing. We want them to feel cared for and nurtured in a deep and abiding way.  We appreciate kindness and thus, the kids are extremely thoughtful.  We value reflective reading so the kids strive to notice the words on the page and the effect those words have on them.  We encourage writers so the students take every opportunity to find the golden lines in a piece shared, or insist that the writer continue writing so they can see what happens next.  What we emphasize is what they notice. That’s step one.

The second part has everything to do with them and very little to do with us as teachers.  After all, our students could notice what we wanted but still reject those ideas.  I have students in every class that are not buying what I’m selling.  This group does, though, in part, because of the level of trust they have created with one another.  They feel safe. They critique without being mean. They encourage with conviction.  They have each other’s backs and they all know it.  Because of that, they can relax and be who they really are, write what they feel, read what they want, and, in the process, lift each other and themselves up.

A group this caring? They can move mountains.  They can create beautiful art.  They can even  pass tests.  And they can give their teachers a little magic to make it to another day.

1 Comment »

Why I Heart Donalyn Miller

Over winter break, I read Donalyn Miller’s second book Reading in the Wild and I was struck again by how she articulates what I and many of my fellow teachers feel but have never said.  Those thoughts at the edge of your brain that you just can’t quite grasp?  She not only grasps them, she figures out how to do them with real kids and then she writes books that tell you how to do them with your real kids, too.  How cool is that?

The Book Whisperer changed my teaching life, as it has millions of other teachers as well.  Suddenly, what we had always thought might work, that kids should be able to pick their own books, like real readers do, was in a BOOK!  Not only that but people, important decision making people were taking notice. Now, we hear self selected books and say, ‘Of course – duh!’ but when the book first came out self-selected reading was NOT what was happening at any school I taught nor in any of the schools my own children attended.

I read The Book Whisperer  over the summer in 2009 while helping with the National Writing Project Summer Institute.  It went through that group of teachers like a whirlwind. Each day we’d come in saying, “Did you read about the____?” and “I LOVED when she said _____________”. That summer resounded with ‘Amen, Sister!’ directed at Donalyn Miller, this wonderful teacher and author who was giving us permission to do what we really wanted – fill our students with the joy and magic of reading.  We were all inspired to head back to our classrooms in the fall, ready to rock the literacy world. We could not wait for school to start!

In the years since, my respect for Donalyn (I can call her that because I introduced her at a conference and she told me I could.:) has grown in direct proportion to the results I have seen with my students.   She gave me permission to do what I knew was the right thing for kids.  If someone questioned me, I could point to her book on my shelf and say, ‘Read that and you will understand that this is the way we should have been teaching reading all along.’ Many of my administrators did read it and became champions of it, too.

Through the years, most of my kids became real readers because of what I learned from her book.  My kids knew what it meant to be in the ‘Zone” (lost in a book and the world falls away).  They rejoiced at the end of every quarter when we had days where we celebrated by reading – only reading – for the language arts block.  Their totals for books read climbed ever higher, far surpassing any totals PBW (pre Book Whisperer). They knew how to intelligently discuss their favorite books as well as why they liked them. They became experts at recommending books to each other and even started a ‘Leave a book, take a book’ swap in our classroom to increase circulation.

Now comes Reading in the Wild, just when I needed it.  This nagging thought had occurred to me sporadically over the years when I’d see my former students in the hallway.

 ”What are you reading?” (to the student who read 84 books the previous year)

“Oh, nothing really, not for fun, we have Literature Circles and we get assigned our books.”

 ”Well what about outside of school? What are you reading at home?”

“I don’t really read at home that much.”  

My heart sinking, I would wonder what happened – how could you be a real reader one year and let that passion go?  It didn’t make sense to me but I told myself that I couldn’t control what happened after my kids moved on.  I could only do what I could do…yadda, yadda, yadda.

Guess who already thought about this problem?  Guess who wrestled and studied and worked to find an answer?  Guess who wrote a book (with contributor Susan Kelley) to help all of us?  That’s right – our very own Donalyn Miller.  She tried to codify what it means to be a real lifetime reader.  How do they act?  What do they do?  What are their habits?  And most importantly, what can we, as their teachers, do to instill these habits for a lifetime, not just a school year?

Here are three of my favorites:

1. If you suspect one of your students is ‘fake reading’ (and come one, we all have at least one of those in every class) there is a form in Reading in the Wild that you can use to observe said student for 10 minutes.  When all the boxes show ‘staring off into space’ instead of ‘in the zone’ you have real data to use when conferring. ( The first step to recovery is admitting there is a problem…) My co-teacher and I have these forms copied and ready for Block 5 tomorrow. :)

2.  Like most teachers, I teach a mix of Honors, Academic, and Team Taught classes.  Most of my true Honors kids would read even if I told them not to.  They are already addicted.  Many of them are perfectionists, however. (It takes one to know one, I know…) When I assign reading 30 minutes for homework, they find half an hour (or more) of time, sit down, and read.  Donalyn tells them (and me) that ,’Hey – we lead busy lives – it doesn’t have to be 30 minutes all at once!  If you always have a book with you, you can read while waiting for your little brother to get done with soccer practice, or while your Dad runs into the drugstore, or your bus is stopped in traffic’.  She created a nifty little form, The Reading Itinerary, where the kids track, for a week, where and how long they read.  This seems to me to have double benefits – my Honors perfectionists can relax a little and give themselves permission to read in smaller increments and my reluctant readers can have a multitude of places where reading can actually take place.  My B Day kids get theirs tomorrow.  They will keep track for a week and we’ll regroup.  I fully expect some revelations when we do.

3. I struggle with meeting with all of my kids during reading time.  I try, I really do.  I make charts and create new conferring sheets, and schedule it out so I get to talk to everyone in two weeks.  It never, ever, ever, works.  Most of it is my fault because they’ll tell me something interesting about their book and then I think of a book it reminds me of and then we’re off and chatting away like I only have one kiddo to talk to…but I don’t.  Well, Donalyn does table conferences.  She sits down with a team of kids and talks to all of them at once.  (Yes, she has a nifty form for this, too.)They get to hear each other (you know they listen in to the one on one conferences anyway) and make recommendations, and discuss genres, and write books on their ‘Someday’ lists and you can do 4 people at once! I’m telling you, this woman is a genius.

Well, I could go on and on about why I heart Donalyn Miller.  I just hope she knows how much she has meant to the teaching profession.  I hope she knows that she has really made a difference in the lives of children.  I hope she knows I am a better teacher for having read and embraced her books and that I am not alone.

I hope she sells billions and billions of books:




1 Comment »

Friday’s Gift

I had a terrible week. An uncle that I loved dearly passed away.  Grades were due. I had 120 memoirs to read and grade. My team members were grumpy and out of sorts (including me!). The computer wasn’t working so e-mails and screen projections for lessons were a struggle.  None of the lessons seemed to come together like I had envisioned them…then Friday afternoon, last block, was upon me.

I will be forever grateful that this is a team taught class because it enabled my wonderful co-teacher, Teresa, to experience the wonder with me. Since the lesson plan wasn’t  really working anyway, I decided we’d throw it out and just have a read-around.  We put the chairs in a circle, gave everyone their completed memoirs back and went over a few pointers:

You may read all, part, or one golden line from your memoir.

You will listen to the author and record beautiful words, or examples of figurative language, or a place where he/she made you feel something and write down your compliments on a sticky note.

When the author is done reading, pass the sticky notes to him/her so that when he/she gets discouraged about writing later on (which we all will) he/she can pull these out and feel encouraged.

Do not write, “I liked it. It was good.” unless you give specific examples for both!

And so we began.  Jason wrote about getting his pet rabbit from an ‘old prospecty-type guy’ and we all laughed. Katie described why she loved going to the beach so much ‘I am completely happy there.‘  and we nodded in agreement.  Some kids were too shy to read themselves and asked other people to do it for them.  That was OK – it was the writing that mattered anyway.  Matt wrote a story he thought was about his love of music but was really a love letter to his Dad.  Casey described a terrible trip when she was ignored by family and friends and nearly drowned in a wave pool.  We were all incensed on her behalf.

Then Ellie read her story about her cousin, Jack.  When Teresa and I read it, we thought she had mistakenly stapled two unrelated stories together, the first and second page were so different.  But when she read it, it made complete sense.  She began with a happy memory of her cousin and her at camp, then she quoted a beautiful hymn, and ended with the news of Jack’s death and her reaction to it. She made it almost all the way through before she broke down and had to leave the room.  She wanted me to finish it for her and I tried my best.  When done, it was silent except for the sounds of sniffling.  Then one of the kids said,  ”That was a big brave!”  He was right.  When Ellie returned to class she was inundated with high fives, hugs, and pats on the back.  They knew what it took to read that piece aloud and they wanted her to know they were grateful that she did.

Having already read the memoirs, I tried to balance the sad with the happy.  Adam, completely red, wrote about kissing a girl (on a dare) on a trip to Ireland.  We loved it. Jax wrote about driving a car for the first time at age 6 and when he finished, everyone shouted, “That was SO you, Jax!” The same voice was in A.J.’s piece where he wrote about a basketball game so thrillingly that I now feel as if I know what that feels like and I haven’t set foot on a basketball court outside of gym class since…well, ever! My favorite line from his story was his reaction to a ball hog on his team, ‘Wait – when did Coach hire Kobe Bryant?’ That is SO Adam!

Michael read his story about a Halloween night when he hid in a tree, dressed head to toe in black, to scare little kids.  He was pretty sure the 5 year old he scared first has not been trick or treating since that night.  We were all secretly pleased that it ended with the tree branch breaking, and him falling to the ground.  (It seemed like karma to many of us.) Michael’s story prompted a story from Connor, who has not volunteered to say one word since school started but went on for several minutes about a similar experience.

Then it was Rebekah’s turn.  She wrote about her ‘Granny’ s death from cancer.  She balanced the sad with the happy so beautifully that she made it almost all the way to the end.  Then she collapsed in tears and Teresa read the ending for her.  When she finished, the kids spontaneously stood up, applauding and cheering for Rebekah’s ‘big brave’.  As I turned back from delivering the last memoir, I saw A.J. with his arm over his eyes.  The all boy athlete was crying, too.

Kaivon read last. His was a story of a poetry recitation he did in 5th grade.  I was his teacher then, too,  and I was there when he recited.  He captured the experience perfectly.

Our class became a family that day.  We laughed, cried, comforted, and praised each other.  It was wonderful.  As I tell the kids all the time,

‘Writing can make your life better.’

On Friday, it did.