Still Surprises

Often lessons I think will be magical, fall flat.  But sometimes, it’s the little lessons that take off and surprise me.  This a week, a quote from Stephen King (of all people!) did just that.

Our English block is divided in half timewise but united by topic, with a 5 minute Brain Break to mark the transition.  In Readers’ Workshop we were discussing theme – a tough concept for many 7th graders.  We discussed how often the theme is revealed in the plot; something a character says or does or how they react to or change from an event can reveal the author’s theme or message.

We read Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson earlier in the week and we noticed that Chloe, the protagonist, changed because she never got a chance to make things right with the new girl, Maya. Of the theme theories discussed, we decided, ‘Be kind whenever you can.’ was the best choice. So, on this day at least, they ‘got’ theme. 🙂

After our Brain Break we always do Beautiful Words as an intro to Writers’ Workshop. These could be a video, story, poem, or in this case, a quote, followed by 3 minutes of uninterrupted silent writing.  Then we share. (One of my writing mentors, Don Gallehr, taught me, ‘Writing is a muscle that needs exercise to grow stronger.‘ so Beautiful Words is my attemps to honor that advice.) This quote was from Stephen King, the horror writer, and was:

‘A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer.  But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.’

When the three minutes of writing were over, nearly every hand shot up to share.  This is an unusual occurence.  Rarely are so many students inspired at the same time.  Many students agreed with Mr. King.  Sam said, “Ever scar is a story waiting to be told.” Mary said, “No one else has the scars you have – those stories are yours!’ Very few students disagreed with the first part of the quote. They are convinced that everyone can be a writer, that each of them has stories only they can tell.

The surprising part was the level of passion this quote generated.  Many students disagreed with the idea that you actually have to be scarred in order to be a writer.  Trip said, “I don’t think there is anything wrong with writing about happy things!” Connor agreed, “If you only write about the dark stuff, it will just make you depressed.” But Mackenzie disagreed, “You have to write about things that matter to you or they won’t matter to the reader. Not everything is sunshine and lollipops.”

The discussion became very heated as some students felt strongly that it was indeed possible to imagine and write about a scar as vividly as if it had actually happened to you in real life.  Mason said this, “If I’ve had a broken arm, I can still write about a broken leg – I may have to do some research but the experience is similar enough for me to imagine the rest.”  Jason vehemently disagreed, “If you have not gone through the experience first hand, you will never be able to write about it as well as if it actually happened to you.” Each class was fairly evenly divided about this issue, again something that rarely happens with 7th graders.

What I loved most about this discussion was the fact that these 12-13 year old writers were thinking deeply about craft, about what it means to be a writer, and what it means to write well.  I wish all the teachers who don’t really believe every one of their students can be a writer could have witnessed this discussion firsthand. And it’s only October…


Another Chance

As I said in my last post, this will probably be my last year as an English teacher. I’m determined to get things right, to do things the way I know they need to be done for my students, and to keep my focus only on them.  One of my favorite things about teaching is the chance to start fresh each year, a continual do-over that allows us to be better teachers.

Here are 3 things I want to remember this year:

  1. If I want kids to be honest in their reflection and their writing (which I do – otherwise why bother?) then I have  to create a safe community even though I feel like it takes up too much time. I’m not going to rush this process this year as I have in the past.  I start to feel behind and then begin to throw out the teambuilding games and the classbuilding activities. But we need those connections. And we need those connections to be strong so that when it comes time to take a risk, we know we will have the support we need to write through that hard memory and come out safely on the other side.  They will never be real writers if they are unwilling to take risks. They need a space that values their bravery in sharing their difficult truths.
  2. English is a risk taking environment. More than any other discipline it requires so much of who we are as people in order to do it well.  You have to be able to let yourself go in order to get lost in a book.  You have to be willing to lay who you are out in the pages of your story so that we can see the truth and match it to ourselves. I have to be willing to do all that and more with my students. When they watch my vulnerability in our shared stories, they have permission to write theirs as well. It doesn’t work to just tell them to be honest.  I have to show them they can do it by doing it myself first.  This is a challenge for me but I can do it because it’s an even bigger challenge for people who are 12 and 13 years old and trying to figure out the whole world.
  3. The most single important thing I can do for my students is to hear them – each and every one of them.  When they talk with me, I want them to know I am listening. When they show me something, I want them to know I am watching. For many of my kids, this is an easy task. They are open and talkative and secure in their place in their family and the world. This year I want to connect with the fringe kids – the ones who try so hard to fly under the radar they nearly disappear. In the past, many of these kids have stepped into the spotlight during our Poetry Slam. They blow everyone away with their beautifully crafted words that shout who they are and what they believe. I don’t want to wait until April this year. I want to see them and hear them before the end of this first quarter.  I don’t want anyone to disappear.

Being passionate about reading and writing (I really do believe they both will make your life better) also matters. My passion may carry some kids through until they find it on their own. I’m OK with that.

Last Beginning

My students ask me all the time if I want to be famous.  I don’t.  I wouldn’t mind the fortune part, don’t get me wrong, but I like quiet, I like solitude occasionally, and I much prefer my own life.

This is my last school opening as a classroom teacher.  After 35 years, I plan to become a school librarian. So, in this my last year, I’m going to work really hard and try to do things the way I know in my heart they should be done.  So maybe I do want to be famous, but only to my 7th grade students…


I want to be famous

to misunderstood seventh graders

who don’t believe they can

…when I know differently.


I want to be famous

to the reluctant readers

who don’t yet know

books will make your life better.


I want to be famous

to battle scarred ADHD boys

who don’t realize I raised one of my own,

so I really don’t mind if they stand up to work.


I want to be famous

to the shy girls who hold back

so unsure of themselves they melt into the walls.

“I see you.” I want to say. And mean it.


I want to be famous

to the blood stained writers

who’ve only seen red slashes

across their beautiful words.

“Choose you color.” I’ll tell them.

“We’ll work together until the words match your heart.”