I Write for Savannah (#Blog4NWP)

This week, I write for Savannah.

She entered  kindergarten, a tough little girl with stringy blond hair, pushing hard to create space for herself. Her voice resided in her fists and eyes. We learned to let her come to us rather than backing her into a corner. She lived in her own world and no entry point emerged to connect her with other children – or learning. She often spent class time watching from outside the circle of children gathered to listen to  stories read aloud by her teacher. She had no interest in the alphabet or numbers.  We knew she lived in extreme rural poverty, a child of fields and woods rather than preschools and playgroups.

Waiting in the dark,

Lonely whispers tapping on my window.

I knew we were not reaching Savannah with her every visit to the office, our every conference with her mother, and my every frustrated meeting with a  teacher who struggled to like this child.  We routinely discussed her lack of “doing school” skills and her resistance to learning.  We contemplated her promotion to first grade. In the end , we decided that Savannah needed a teacher who could help her unlock her words, thoughts, and stories.  She needed Jamie.

Sad secrets,

Movement but in silence,

Jamie, a committed early childhood teacher, was a master at creating a community space in which children learned to work and play together. She looped with her classes and was ready to pick up a new community group.  Savannah would be her challenge amidst a group of suburban “cocktail party” first graders, a group with a kindergarten reputation of chatter.

Jamie’s intuitive feel for how to enter a child’s world and figure out what she, the teacher, needed to do to get past barriers was quite remarkable. She defined herself as a facilitator of learners; young children in transition from storytellers to story writers.  If anyone could help Savannah figure out the power of voice, it would be this veteran teacher, tall, secure, with wiry grey hair that defied her efforts to tame it. Savannah, with her own tangled blonde hair, would be a match for her.  I knew Jamie was a poet at heart. I suspected Savannah might be one as well.

Blindness but no light,

Hinting colors sadly rustling.

Jamie knew she had to find Savannah through her interests, not through a curricula prescribed by educators working in Richmond. Her grasp of how to connect with children by figuring out what drew them into learning was truly brilliant. She had both been a participant and teaching fellow with the Central Virginia Writing Project and was a teacher leader responsible for building a community of practice dedicated to infusing the arts and writing throughout our children’s inquiry work.  One day she came to me with a darkly rich painting that Savannah had made after listening to Jane Yolen’s The Firebird.  “I think Savannah will become a writer from her art. It’s where we begin together.”

A family of birds takes advantage of

My hollow soul and

Builds a nest within me.

Jamie seemed to know just how to find the secrets and feelings within Savannah. The days of first grade eventually flowed into second grade; Savannah drew, she painted, she composed, she narrated and eventually she stopped taking any of her pieces of writing or art home. Jamie shared with me that Savannah’s mother used the Friday work folder’s art and writing papers to start fires in the woodstove. When Jamie spoke with her about it, she became angry that the teacher was interfering in their family.

Savannah began to hoard work at school in her own folder; one that was passed to us each summer for safe keeping until she collected it in the fall. A team of teachers  surrounded Savannah marveling at her evolving writing voice and delicate sketches that captured the natural world in which she lived. Each year, we watched her become more resilient and serious about her learning work. Her teachers did so as well. Our staff entered into deep study of writing process with Dr. Margo Figgins, UVa English Ed professor. Forming a community of practice, we committed to our own work as writers and teachers of writing, entering into year-round writing project work while reading common texts by Calkins, Graves, MacCrorie, Murray, Atwell and others. As Savannah grew as a writer, so did our staff.

On the day that Savannah’s fifth grade class celebrated their last moments in elementary school, some of us cried when she read “Waiting in the Dark” as part of the promotion ceremony. We knew she was still a “work in progress” but we had confidence in her capability to move to the next stage of learning. We worried our way along with Savannah through middle school and suffered with her when she hit barriers again in high school, leading her to transfer to a small, alternative high school in our system. I was no prouder at my own son’s high school graduation than when I stood on stage with Savannah  and watched her receive her high school diploma. Her next destination was community college.

But I do have feelings deep

Within me.

There’s a lot more story to Savannah’s life than I can share. Savannah, an elementary learner, was touched by the Central Virginia Writing Project in ways that today’s test-taking curricula never could. When she discovered her power as a writer, her life was altered forever.  She’s one of the lucky young people with the highest of risk factors who happened to land in a class with a teacher who, by both intuition and training, knew how to help her find her voice as a poet, anchoring her as a learner.

So, I write today for Savannah and in support of all the hundreds of thousands of educators who help millions of America’s “Savannahs” learn to write each year, rather than simply assigning writing.  It’s no small impact.  It’s worth the money. The National Writing Project makes a difference.

It has already begun to change

From dark to light now.

  • Savannah is a pseudonym. She has given permission for use of “Waiting in the Dark” which she wrote in fifth grade.

15 thoughts on “I Write for Savannah (#Blog4NWP)

  1. What a beautifully written post about the complexities and power of one teacher-student relationship, and how art infusion can speak where words are hidden deep into the soul. There’s no mistaking of Jamie’s talents to seek and encourage what is within one, as I’ve grown as an educator through her guidance as well. Thank you for sharing and I hope that Savannah reaches her dream.

    • Savannah’s doing just fine- has a great career post-college. Jamie has influenced so many educators, including me. We all need to pay forward what we’ve learned from her over the years.

  2. Pam,
    This is such a testament to listening, which is another thing the NWP does…it helps us all listen to the voice within. I remember struggling with my first piece when I participated in the 80s…and being into the story rather than hearing what I had to say. I remember doing “school writing” on that first piece–thinking about word choice, the paragraphs, the language I was using, and trying to pack a punch into the surprise ending I had for the personal tale I was sharing…but it didn’t work–for me or the listeners. I, like Savannah, had to find myself within–and then figure out how to share that back out to make sense of my world. I just had conversation with my students about the power of their own voice…and how they had to write for themselves…not an artificial audience. The NWP changed forever how I viewed writing.

    Your story is such testament to listening…which was one of Jamie’s strengths that worked so well to facilitate adult learning. As I worked with Jamie as an adult facilitator, I first learned to hear my voice when speaking. I can still vividly remember our presentation in Dayton, Ohio entitled, “How Do I Know What I’m Thinking Until I Hear What I Say?”

    Jamie’s questions and comments–her silences as much as her words–helped many of us find our voice as early childhood teachers. Her legacy lives on in my words as I write in my blog and share my classroom stories, insights and questions.

    Thanks for sharing this–I can only imagine the voices unleashed through the many years at Stony Point. I wish that we could create that culture in our system as you all did in that school. I wish that we could create that culture in our field!

    • Paula,

      We have amazing teachers everywhere who do this work with children- the hardest work is trying to scale the passion of teachers to study how children learn and then figure out their role in emerging each child’s unique talents as a gateway for a child to find their own learning passions. We can standardize curricula, tests, instructional strategies and end up with a great recipe actually. However, if a teacher doesn’t receive the support they need to hone the skills and knowledge of professional judgement, then all the programs, technology, other learning resources, tests, observations, amd “training” we can provide becomes just one more thing Teachers who listen to each other, to themselves, to their children, and the children’s parents begin to piece together how different the needs and perspectives are on learning from individual to individual. We create our own barriers to listening in some cases and the system creates them in other situations. Children learn to listen when they transition from storyteller to story writer. The words in their own heads take on a new meaning as they think, sort, reflect, write. Then, when children have opportunities to hear others’ perspectives, feedback and questions, they learn to listen and shift or hold a position in their use of words. Whether a child needs to be able to use speech to text, type, or pen words to create their own writing, it’s the process of taking the voice in the head and putting it on paper or screen that moves a child’s passion as a writer.

      I fear we have become so “dictatorial” in the use of prompts to elicit writing on demand in schools across the country that we’ve lost the ethos of creating a culture of writing for multiple purposes. As teachers, our own work’s often in response to the prompts thrown at us- standards, test-prep curricula, tests, and programs. Thank you for sharing- I’d like to think that a solution was at our fingertips but I fear not. We just have to keep doing what we think’s the right thing to do. That’s why I believe fighting for the national writing project funding to be expanded, not just stay intact, is a good thing to do this weekend.

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  5. Excellent post, thank you for sharing. Not just for the sake of the NWP, but for the sake of all us to realize the immense, individual impact teachers can and do have.

    • Luke,

      Thanks for your comment. I am not a writer as are the many who are NWP educators. I simply have had the opportunity to watch brilliant teachers of writing at work for 30+ years and in doing so to learn so much from them about their understanding of the entry point through relationship into teaching children, not assigning writing. Take care and know that each teacher in a classroom is the single most important contributor to a child’s learning in school. Enjoy the weekend!

  6. Hello NWP friend
    I wanted to let you know that I “borrowed” some of your post for a found poem I composed for the #blog4nwp weekend. I was inspired by what I was reading. Thank you for your words, and your thoughts, and if I had to do some slight twisting to make it work in the poem, I hope you accept my forgiveness.

    The poem and podcast is here: http://dogtrax.edublogs.org/2011/03/19/slice-of-lifeblog4nwp-a-found-poem/

    Kevin Hodgson
    Western Massachusetts Writing Project

    • Kevin

      Thank you – when i read your found poem, i was reminded of the professor who i referenced in I Write for Savannah – one of my first memories of Margo was when she led a teacher team to create found poetry from newspaper clippings. I very much appreciate your work to elevate support for the national writing project.

  7. Margo Figgins is amazing. I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Young Writer’s Workshop she founded at UVa in the late 1980s. I am not surprised her fierce love of writing, the writing process and her belief that writing can tap the best in all of us helped you reach Savannah. I hope that Savannah is still writing today, as I am. There is no greater

    Here is hoping the Central Virginia Writing Project is still going strong.


    Lisa-Anne Samuels Moore

    • Lisa-Anne,

      Write Margo if you haven’t checked in for awhile. I am sure she would love to hear from you. She is such an amazing person.

      Savannah was gifted with voice- just needed a teacher to help her find it inside her. I suspect she will always write.

      CVaWP is surviving for now- as you know the feds have cut 100% of its funding which will devastate the web of regional sites such as ours here at UVa. Best wishes for your own writing career- the Young Writers are an amazing group who seem to grow up and become experienced writers making their mark… thank you for sharing with me.


  8. This is beautiful and true. Thank you, Pam. I have spent the last few months immersed in tapes of Don Graves’ original writing work here in NH, and you have captured exactly what he dreamed of. He once said to me, “Imagine a school where every classroom was a writing workshop. Can you dream it?” Here you have one.

    Thanks for the inspiration today,
    Penny Kittle

  9. As a grad student of Margo’s and one who now prepares pre-service teachers to teach writing in a holistic, workshop approach, this story resonated with me. I find it challenging to inspire students to create this sort of vibrant writing community that makes miracle stories such as this possible, especially in today’s testing madness. I am pleased that my other UVa mentor, Jane Hansen is carrying on the CVWP torch! Thanks for your work with literacy in central Virginia, Pam!

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