I write to feel, to think, to live, to connect, to make sense, to communicate. Why I write and what I write cannot exist separate from each other.
What I write at work remains pretty basic; responding to what often can be a thousand email week, constructing the routine memo, and personalizing handwritten notes to say thank you as often as I can. Work-related writing is taught and modeled in the administrative world as purposeful to communicate specifics, philosophical underpinnings for the work we do, responses to concern, and clarifications of why, how, and what will come next. Unfortunately, work writing often subtracts faces and stories from the words of strategic planning, operational procedures, and policy, using edu-jargon as second language. In the important correspondence of work, I believe in using story, metaphor, image, and analogy as key writing tools that might help others, in spite of the disconnections among people often separated by space and time, to sense-make words into contextual understanding. Here’s an excerpt from a letter I wrote to educators, circa 2007, that I hoped would clarify why we need to pause and hear our children’s questions as well as ask our own:
“Dear CAI Participants:
Day lilies in bloom each summer always remind me of a question – and they remind me of when my son was four years old and possessed all the curiosity and passion that he could bring to bear in his intention to make meaning from and understand the world in which he lived. We were picking day lilies one day and I shared with him that a day lily blossom only blooms for one day – a little later in the morning, he came to me and asked the question – “Mom, why does a day lily only get to bloom for one day?” I really didn’t have an answer to the question – I still don’t but when I see day lilies I am always reminded that it is the nature of children to begin early in life to ask the what questions .. followed soon after with the whys and finally the hows. Often times, the best of who we are as learners seems to get lost in a school day where both teachers and students feel there is little time to ask questions, make meaning from content, build relationships, or experience learning in such a way that we hold onto it for a lifetime…..”
What I write in blog posts emerges from images in the world – butterflies hovering on pink thistle blossoms, a snake curled on my arm around an iPhone – and from people whose stories inspire; the fifth grade poet who writes despite a mother who burns her writing to start wood stove fires or the former female astronaut’s reflections on her flights around Earth. I write publicly in such posts to share perspectives, the successes of educators and the learners they serve, and to remind myself that the sum of us connecting together is greater than each of us working alone. The following is an excerpt from a blog post I wrote after an assistant principal’s meeting.
“ This week, I also chatted with assistant principals (who meet together monthly) about our current work to stop our own version of the 20th century shuttle program. We discussed one entry point into a different kind of space exploration – learning spaces where kids search, connect, communicate, and make learning in and out of school. They described their own perspectives on the meaning of space, what optimal learning looks like in contemporary spaces – wherever those spaces exist, and what they see and hear among learners experiencing optimal learning.”
What I write at home is often private – Google docs filled with inner dialogues, narratives that merge internal and external fictions of life, and responses to that which feels important to remember. Such writing serves as a personal recording of reflections that began long ago, now just memories of the unlined pages of a childhood diary, one hidden under sweaters in a cedar drawer, brass keyed to password protect my words from a mother and little brother. Over a lifetime, I’ve tended to toss out such writing, rendering legal pad pages into tiny strips of paper, and then into embers and ashes that’ve floated away over time into blue skies, gray clouds, and the dark of night. Now I write under blue skies or in the dark of night, saving my words in Internet clouds, password protected with alpha-numerics designed to keep the world at bay. The following is an excerpt of personal narrative about a trip to Ireland.
“I’d heard about the rain, the mist, the fog, the hail-showers long before I stepped onto Ireland. My son (who’s a far better writer than I could ever dream of becoming) once wrote a piece in high school about his favorite water colour, grey-green. It’s a colour that lacks transparency, obscuring and blending together the world we see behind its slight, mirrored surfaces.”
What I write reflects an understanding that writing is a pathway to learning. I learn from what others write. I learn from what I write. It was a hard-fought lesson after I started teaching to learn how to put words on paper again after years of red-inked papers from first grade through college, to make meaning from words, not to meet someone else’s expectations, but for my own purposes.
The person who had the most influence on me as a writer, Margo Figgins, pushed me to write in a writers’ project with teachers in the open space middle school where I worked almost three decades ago. She once said, “ The words on a page are simply that. If you don’t won’t to share them or you don’t like what you wrote, then ball the paper up, and toss it in the trash. Your words belong to you alone.” Another time she said, “If you want others to value writing, you need to write with them, share your writing. When you make yourself vulnerable as an administrator writing with teachers, they will be more likely to do the same with students.” And, “ Voice is power. Give children a voice as writers and you give them power in their lives.”
In reflecting on what I write tonight, I picture myself years ago, sitting in a hard plastic chair, in a middle school classroom after school, on a warm almost-summer day thinking, “I don’t know what to write.” I remember hearing her voice, “if you don’t know what to write, write that down over and over until words start to flow from your pen – because they will.” I did, and eventually the words began to flow.
They weren’t particularly interesting words, but those words became the story of how I broke my mother’s mother’s chocolate pot. Glued back together, it’s never been quite the same, but my story became the next chapter in the story of that pot, one for my mother’s children’s children.
When I was done with that story, I realized I had learned something very important about the power of writing. What I learned from Margo, writing teacher and poet in her own right, has influenced me for a career to value what they write as one of the most important gifts we can give to young people.