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.
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
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.