Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why I Write

In honor of the National Day of Writing

Why do I write?

There are LOTS of days I ask myself that question. They are usually the days where I’m staring at a blank page trying to start a new project or a new chapter. Or days where I’m looking at a draft that is a pile of drivel, and I recognize it as a pile of drivel, but I have no earthly idea what to do to de-drivel it.

On those days, I walk around snapping at any soul, young or old, silly enough to cross my path and speak to me. On those days, I really start to question my career choice. Seriously. Who do I think I am anyway? Why would people want to read the pile of goo I’m generating? And how am I supposed to teach writing if I can’t get my own to gel?

But then, when I slog on, reaching out to my writing peeps who remind me that they think I’m smart, who are willing to drop a critical lens on my goo, when I follow Joan Didian’s example and park my behind in the chair and glue it there instead of “going into town or out to the garden” day after day after day, something eventually “breaks loose.”

The ideas coalesce. The words of all of those people whose shoulders I am standing on come together in a way that makes sense, and suddenly I’m riding this massive Pacific style wave all the way to who knows where, adrenalin pumping and hands shaking because they can’t type fast enough.

And that moment, that moment of pure joy at words on paper that make sense of the storm of my thoughts, is why I write.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Motivating Efficient Reading?

Part 1: Learning to Listen

It’s no secret to any one who knows me or has read anything I’ve written in the past decade that I’m not a big fan of the Accelerated Reader Program. But I’m trying to change my approach.

Through other work this past spring our Writing Project site connected up with a scholar and improvisation artist. He introduced us to the concept of “Yes and . . .” where instead of jumping on the table and screaming something like . . .

“NO! These types of programs are sucking millions of dollars out of our already strapped education budgets and creating deficit notions of children and children reading!”

. . . I would listen very closely to what the promoters of this program are saying in the school and find a way to say, “Yes! And . . . .”

I wrote to Lil and Lacy for some help.

Lacy and Lil,

I need you two to help me find a way to "yes and" AR.

How do we approach this?

I know I need "yes and . . . " but I can't figure out how to do it.

Thanks for your help!


When I read about AR my teeth hurt--and then I try to think about people who made it work for them without getting caught up in the competition and consumerism and "levels."

I bet at some point--they could get in a place to have the students deconstruct the AR tests--figure out how the test think about "what counts" and how limiting and limited those perceptions are. It could happen that the children could see how testing works and why it is a problem in the BIG picture, but no big deal in the scheme of things.



You might say: “ Yes! And, you all really want to support excitement about reading and are thinking of ways to create more access to books!” And, we could work within the framework of the literature circles and book clubs teachers are already doing to expand that! AND that would also match the inquiry approach the school wants.


Part 2: Hearing

Learning how testing works . . .


S: A 5th grade student reading on the 11.8 level according to the Star Reading Test

F: Frustrated teacher attempting to “work with the system” that asks her to use Accelerated Reader and requires students to test on 5 books per quarter and get at least an 85% in order to have the test “count.”

S. I missed two questions on my AR test on that huge book I read about the Civil War. Can I please go back and look at the questions so I can see how I missed them? I really felt like I knew this stuff and I couldn’t see how my answers were wrong. Plus, the test won’t count since there were only 10 questions.

T. What I great idea! But I’m sorry; the program won’t let you do that.

S. Oh. Well, maybe I could just re-read the book and then take it again. I really want to understand what happened since I have to take these tests 5 times per quarter and make at least and 85% or it doesn’t count. Plus, it’s bugging me that I have a couple of my facts wrong. I’m really interested in the Civil War and I want to make sure I’m getting this stuff.

T. I totally understand that. Unfortunately, you’ll have to choose a different book. The program won’t let you take the test again.

S. Oh. Wow, so I’ll need to read 6 books this quarter. I’d better get busy!

T. Well, you’ll just need to start choosing shorter books so that you can get this done.

S. Oh! Okay then. Short books. Got it. Thanks.

Later that day

S. Guess what, I did what you said. I went to the library and got a short book, read it and took my test. 100. 3 down two to go.

T. Fantastic. Keep it up!

S. Right – this way, I can finish this stuff up this week and then have the rest of the quarter to really read and learn.

T. ( Sighs ) Right. Let’s get the testing out of the way . . . Smart kid.

Part 2.5 And I think Yes, and . . .

Yes, and . . .

while we are doing all of this talking about books and reading, in the background school is about picking the shortest books for the test and “getting it out of the way.”

Yes, and . . .

the grade, the currency of students, is wrapped up in the “get it out of the way” reading. So which has more value?

Yes, and . . . .

the place where education dollars are being spent in this big cycle of testing is the place that “doesn’t matter.”


Monday, March 28, 2011

Images of Possibility

If I had to name the most important thing I’ve gained from over a decade of being a part of UNCCWP it would be the gift of the image of possibility.

The possibility of teacher “real” writing and “real writing instruction” in a North Carolina 10th grade English classroom where I was “responsible” for the State Reading Test, the PSAT AND the State Writing Test . . .

The possibility of nurturing my own writer self and publishing a book, and some articles along with some literacy essays and even a poem . . .

The possibility of researching my own classroom and inquiring into the thinking of my students WITH my students . . .

The possibility of working and thinking and writing collaboratively with other smart teachers . . .

But since last Monday, a student of another National Writing Project teacher from Oakland, CA has given me powerful images of possibility.

Last Monday, G Reyes and some of his students from Youth Roots were the keynote speakers at the UNCCWP Spring Writing Conference. A young man named Eric, spoke to us with eloquence about the power of writing and digital composition in his life and the life of his friends. The kid explained hegemony in a way that I’ve never been able to. And I mean he used the word . . . hegemony . . . with the ease and knowing of ordering your eggs just the way you want them for breakfast. This kid gets Gramsci!

And then his teacher, with his permission, told his story. Eric is that kid. He’s a frequenter or the principal’s office and his teacher (and principal) say they are just trying to convince him that he’s “not grown yet.” That he doesn’t HAVE to do it alone. That he can count on them.

That kid.

And That kid stood in front of a room full of teachers and said, “This is what you need to know!” And every one of us furiously scratched his every word onto our note pads, daybooks, tablets . . . and etched them into our memories.

Powerful, POWERFUL possibility right there.

And that dear elected officials is WHY NWP needs to be funded.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Beyond the Eyes

Deep wells of brown


through a forest of lashes

topping off the



A sea of sun-kissed curls


as the head cocks.

The knife edge mind


its surrounds with



As he wiggles

in a chair, or explodes

from the rug, or runs

down the hall


from blue block to blue block

To hang

from the



Or arms himself

with a large stick,

assumes a samurai stance

and lays waste

to the tall grass

concealing threats

visible only

to his finely honed


He is a boy

with no need

for adults,

or approval


never mean

“He’s all boy”

they say


patting his head

while shaking theirs.

But they don’t see

past the curls

the eyes

the grin.

They don’t look down

to the

constantly moving




To the flaming



Of a terrified boy

frantically working

to carve

a safe place.

What Writing Project Teachers Do

I met Samantha for the first time in the stack of Holocaust diaries. While the other papers are at least a page long and often longer, her diary is about a 4th of the page. There are reversed spellings all over the page, I can’t decipher a few of the words, and the graphite is dark and smudged with the effort of the person holding the pencil and transferring her thoughts onto the paper. If I’m honest, I know that this paper frightens me. It looks remarkably like something my kindergarten son would write. It is the kind of paper that people put into my hands and ask, “what do we DO with this.” It is difficult to get past the conventions to the writer’s thoughts. And yet, what is on the page, once deciphered is disturbing, even for a Holocaust diary. She writes of rape. The alarm bells go off. “What do we DO with this.”

I talk with her teacher. He tells me that she is an “EC” girl who “reads below grade level.” He tells me that she is “an angry girl” and lets me know that he feels that her “anger has come out in this writing.” He also lets me know that though he has been able to get her to “cut and paste” or copy words from a book onto paper to answer a question, this is “the first time that she has shared her thoughts on paper” and his face is awash with his pride for this big step she has taken, his concern for her, and what will happen if this writing is “published.” What do we DO with this?

I meet Samantha one-on-one. She knocks quietly on the door of the empty classroom I’m using to interview students and I double check my list to be sure I’ve asked for the right girl. She’s not who I was expecting. He hair is pulled back into a short pony tail, her soft, baby-face cheeks stretch into a sweet, shy smile. “I’m Samantha” she all but whispers. And then she meets my eyes. Soft, brown and wary. Very, very wary.

We begin to talk about her writing. Here voice is steady and strong. She is smart and articulate. She tells me how important she thinks it is that these pieces will be published in a movie. She wants people to know what happened during the holocaust and she recognizes to power in her own voice in telling that story.

She also tells me how she doesn’t really like school, how she used to get in trouble in elementary school, and how there is “too much drama in this school.” But then she says, “I used to be in a lot of drama before, but I got my stuff together now!” I cheer and she sits up straight, beaming and says, with a quite confidence “I’m proud of myself!”

But then I ask her about other writing and she tells me that she just doesn’t write on her own time, that she doesn't really like to write. I think the interview is over, but I ask, “is there anything else you’d like to tell me about writing.” She pauses, sizes me up and then tells me about a book she wrote in 2nd grade about a “really, really sad, bad time in [her] life” that she doesn’t “normally talk about much.” She tells me how hard it was to write, but then comes back to that theme she had at the beginning of the interview. We write so that others know what happened, so that it can help them. The power of her own voice and her own stories have made an impression on this young woman and she is empowered, compelled even, to put both out there. She leaves and I think “What do we DO with this?”

Two days later, I go to the classroom to snap some pictures for the movie I’m making to publish the dairies. I see Samantha again. The articulate, animated, shy smiling, powerful girl is gone. She sits as far back in the carefully arranged backless classroom as possible, slouched down in the chair, eyes on her desk. Her face and body language read “stay back” and “untouchable.” Her classmates raise their hands in response to questions, chattering and whispering with each other on their communal quest for the right answer. Samantha remains immobile, staring. Her teacher calls on her. She slowly raises her eyes, sighs and smacks her teeth, looks back down. He presses her to consult the book. She slowly raises her hand to it, slams it open and flips pages with a feigned boredom. He gently presses her, telling her she can do it, then moves to another student. I wonder, “what do we DO with this?”

* * *

I recently shared Samantha’s story in a National Writing Project conference. Her voice, rang through the room as we all sat, looking at her writing. “I’ve got my stuff together now. I’m proud of myself.” Afterwards, an audience member said, “This is the real work” pointing again to Samantha’s writing. “This is what Writing Projects teachers do.”

Writing Project teachers search out all the layers of students and their writing. They look beyond what is on the page and into the whole child, and into the socio-cultural history that child brings with her. They recognize growth and change before the numbers can show it, and they help students to do the same.

They also learn from their students. They know that they don’t have all of the answers. They answer the question, “What do we DO with this” with more questions for the student, for the student’s family and for other teachers. They share the stories of these students and they ask collegues what they see in them. It is this constant state of reflective inquiry and collegiality that makes up a "master teacher" and the UNC Charlotte Writing Project has made that space possible for me and for my thinking teaching colleagues.