#WhatIWrite: A National Day of Giving Voice to Learners and Educators

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:

Consider the Day lily

“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.

Captured by Earth’s Orbit: Photographer: NASA/AFP/Getty Images

“ 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.

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.