To Write is to Make: Reflecting on Paul Oh’s Words

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I read a Medium post yesterday morning, “Writing as Making” written by Paul Oh. Paul is a favorite educator and one of my earliest connectors (@poh) on twitter. He serves as a Senior Program Associate for the National Writing Project. As always, Paul’s voice causes me to reflect on our work in schools to create authentic experiences that help young people make meaning as they develop a sense of their own voices and agency in their own learning.

This past week as I’ve walked schools newly open for the ’15-16 school year, I’ve observed children of all ages finding paths to learning through writing. I’ve seen children already writing individually or in shared experiences by choice and by design. I’ve noticed children belly writing on the floor, perched on couches, chairs, or standing at tables – most often choosing to not just sit rigidly at a desk when given a choice. I even walked a nature trail on the third day of school with fifth graders who paused on their own to note-make and sketch as they observed cardinal flowers, stinging nettles, sycamore leaves, bag worms, and beetles. I’ve witnessed a variety of writing tools in the hands of children, deliberately chosen depending upon the task at hand.

writing1When children have choices in how they physically orient in space, in the tools they use, and the words they select to represent their own thinking, their writing comes alive through the process of moving words from inside to outside of themselves. Teachers with writing process expertise listen and look for entry points to help illuminate next steps with children to increase their expressive complexity as they learn to write and write to learn.

writing7writing2writing11

Even as we value the importance of writing, a principal asked this question recently. “Why do our youngest children write so freely and with excitement, yet seem to disengage as writers as they move up through the grades?”

writing5writing14I wonder if we’ve moved so far afield  from why humans became writers in the first place that we’ve forgotten that writing was invented as a timeless communication tool for making and sharing truth, ideas, beauty, stories … rhyme.

Today in our standardized world of education, test prep writing work and writing tests contrive a kind of writing that lacks purpose and meaning to children. In such a world, children who begin school as curious language learners lose their earliest sense of voice when made to over and over practice writing designed to teach them to perform well on tests.

Yet, we all know teachers with expertise who intensively study how to facilitate writing15children to develop more complex and authentic writing. They know writing begins inside a person as a reflective exploration of experiences, interests, and questions. They believe writing can be joyful for children and adults alike. They value that children have something important to say and share with others – from their classmates to the world outside their school doors. Such teachers listen and look for entry points to help illuminate next steps to increase children’s expressive complexity in using language as they learn to write and write to learn in a variety of forms of media – including digital connectors.

writing19This morning, reflecting on the best of writing teachers I’ve known across decades brought me back to Paul’s premise of “writing as making.” And, his words led me to reflect on the question of “why do we humans write?”

Here’s my response with a twist on his post.

Writing is Making .. It’s a reflection of our capability  to capture the stories, images, and artifacts we make — and it happens today through old tech such as pen and ink and #2 pencils and new tech including phone note-making apps, trans-disciplinary media, and Google everything. Writing helps us makes meaning: who we are, our questions, what challenges us, our accomplishments, our I-searches to inquire, discover, and explore curiosities, and our potential to change ourselves, our communities, the world. Writing makes our ideas, information, and imagination come alive for and with others in whatever ways we choose to search, connect, communicate and make.

SPES-japanese-garden

Connectivity, Connections, and Connectedness #iste2015 #satchat

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SATnewjSaturday morning, #satchat entered my room live from #iste2015 in Philadelphia…

I was still in couch-based PD mode although the crowd was gathering in Philadelphia already and I hoped to soon connect face-to-face with friends and colleagues there. Some I know from past “in the room” interactions. Others I’ve only met in social media. However, through the power of my home wifi connectivity, coupled with past connections I’ve made in the twitter PLN, I feel as if I already know many from the PLN even if we have never met face to face.

In fact, I learned about this phenomenon at the first ISTE conference I attended. I was overwhelmed with the numbers, the offerings, the opportunities. I felt lost until I landed with the @writingproject team who were hosting an offsite opportunity to write collectively inside a Google doc. I felt welcomed by Bud Hunt (@budtheteacher) and Paul Oh (@poh)from the National Writing Project and others who were working to build together a digital narrative of learning that day. That moment shifted me into a reflective pause about the power of the PLN to be something more than just a casual exchange of resources.

This experience soon after entering the world of the PLN in Twitter circa 2009 (thanks to @paulawhite)  cemented for me that today’s connectivity opportunities come when people value the connection of relationships and take the time to sustain personal and professional connectedness. I began in 2009 to watch teachers inside my school district connecting with educators from around the world and I realized that the district I led was becoming more of an educational agora and less of a walled garden as each new member journeyed into social media. I even wrote about my observations of how twitter tore down my district’s walls in EdSurge.

In my reflective pauses over the years, I have come to believe….

Tool Users

Middle School Tool Users

What we accomplish as humans – invent, design, make, build, engineer, construct, create, communicate, enact, learn- comes from our interactions together whether connecting face to face or in online communities. The power of community learning has always allowed us to connect and leverage our talents, capabilities and competencies to learn more brilliantly together than apart. We consult, share, learn, teach, mentor and apprentice in ways that have become so naturally a part of our DNA that we seldom stop to consider how much of our learning occurs outside of the mostly passive 20th environments we label as school.

The genius of humanity becomes amplified through our relationships – virtual or face to face…. 

techkidToday, we see the restoration of human-centered learning in our interactions online such as in #satchat, at pop-up learning cities such as #ISTE2015, and across classrooms being linked by current and #futureready initiatives to ensure that educators and our learners can take advantage of the world’s curricular resources.

Knowledge no longer belongs to a few sages. Libraries are no longer the source of static and limited physical learning artifacts. Much information – data, ideas, history, science, formulas – is freely distributed for often no more than the simple cost of taking the time to find it. Experts and expertise abound online.

The world is now as Pascal Finette says ” a global communication network” ….

IMG_4750We are all part of that whether we show up to meet, greet and hug each other in the same space or simply gather in virtual caves, around virtual campfires or connect and collaborate in virtual maker spaces.

 

 

 

Walking on Air: Remembering Seamus Heaney

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And yet the platform here feels more like a space station than a stepping stone, so that is why, for once in my life, I am permitting myself the luxury of walking on air …. I credit poetry for making this space-walk possible.”

Seamus Heaney’s lecture to the Nobel Foundation recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1995

I woke up at 3 a.m. and in the early morn I could almost hear Seamus Heaney reading “Death of a Naturalist” on a YouTube video, perhaps preserved for all time. I’d driven down one of the old roads of Virginia the day before, a road that reminded me of another Heaney line from “The Wood Road.” In the dark, I turned to my phone and tweeted out the line with an image I’d captured from the side of a gravelled lane.

woodroadHow many times in the lives of humans do we connect moments together in the night only to figure out why in the light of day?  What compels the subconscious to make sense of that which is important to us when the conscious forgets?  When I opened an RSS news feed from Ireland mid-morning I knew why Heaney had slipped his voice into my night dreams. Today. August 30, 2014. The first anniversary of his death.

I’m reminded on this anniversary that it is a poet’s words that make the content and context of humanity accessible to us all. Poets make meaning for us – the artistry of converting image to word.

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

(from “Exposure”, 1975)

Poets solve conundrums and, like mathematicians, they subtract the extraneous and leave the essential, the perfectly constructed theorem on the blackboard. They notice the world; quantum word mechanics who machine together patterns of space and time.

He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

(from “Clearances”, 1986)

Poets create lines of code, a complexity of action no less sophisticated than the work of a great programmer.

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

(“Postscript”,1996)

And, poets seek to understand as philosophers, seeking unknown answers to questions asked.

….  Where had we come from, what was this kingdom
We knew we’d been restored to? (from “Leaving Going, 1993)

Why cherish the words of poets in a time when we educators are told it’s far more important to focus today’s children on informational texts than poetry?

I am no poet. I studied science. I taught science. My love of science has shaped my interests and my perspectives on education. At the same time, I know we humans have always reflected the importance of  the cultural spaces we inhabit. Cave paintings under flickering firelight, images created on walls before poetic word.  The ancient language of Beowulf,  spoken aloud by Seamus Heaney as poetry was intended to be shared. NPR’s anthology of rap  and fifth grader ‘Savannah‘ who wrote “Waiting in the Dark” so many years ago in the school where I was principal.

Why poetry in 2014? Poets explore the richness of what makes us human, placing words perfectly into the air for us to hear.

Poets link the disciplines of learning. Poets evoke the faces around us. Poets remind us we humans are more than the training manuals and research texts that some would say define us in this century.

Heaney’s poetry did all of that for us.

 

 

 

#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.