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.

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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

#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.