Friday, February 21, 2014

An Open Letter to my 8th Grade Students

Dear 8th grade students,

Advised by several YA authors, I joined the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) so that I could learn more about the craft and immerse myself in a community of writers. This weekend is their annual winter conference in New York City, and I decided several months ago that I would attend.

I can tell you that I very well may be the least informed person at the conference this weekend, and I might be the least talented. Yet, I am going because writing is a challenge that I enjoy and (in the spirit of great writing teacher, Donald Graves) will probably never master.

I am 45 years old and I am not afraid or resistant to learning. It wasn't always that way for me. When I was your age I wasn't a very good student. It took me until my second year of college until I finally figured myself out and how I best learn.

Now, I'm not afraid to "not know" and I am not afraid to be the least informed or talented person in the room. I'm ok with being someone who needs to see it, hear it, talk it through, and then needs to go back and work on it alone before showing it to someone else. Actually, I went through the same journey when I made myself into a football coach.

Maybe you didn't know this (and might fail to see the connection), but twenty years ago I started coaching middle school football and didn't really know what I was doing. I bought books and videos on coaching, and I travelled up and down the East Coast to coaching clinics--to learn. On breaks, while 8th grade students were at lunch or a foreign language class, I picked up the phone and called college coaches across the country to ask them questions. I didn't know them, but I figured if I could find their number and just asked one question and avoided making myself annoying, I could learn something.

And so I made many calls. A few even told me to call back if I ever needed anything again. Honestly, I found every college coach I ever spoke with so willing to talk and share and help me.

I learned enough to move up to the high school level, and coached various positions. Soon, I became a defensive coordinator and ran a defense that was statistically the best in the county for several years in a row. Lucky to be a part of a great staff and a great team of guys, we went undefeated as a team in two out of three seasons--but I had to work hard just to keep up with everything. While that was happening, I emailed the Philadelphia Eagles and asked if I could come down and learn--then defensive coordinator Sean McDermott brought me down for a day and helped me through a few things I was struggling with.

After teaching school during the spring, I made a ritual of driving over to West Chester University and watched them practice from the hill (every day), inching myself close enough to hear what the coaches said--I wrote down everything they said and diagrammed every drill and formation that I could.

Everywhere I went (conferences, practices) I took tons of notes. I still have that stack of notebooks. Additionally, I was even asked to speak at a couple of coaching conferences so that I could share what I learned.

After showing up to West Chester everyday for a second spring, a West Chester coach yelled over to me during a break and asked if I intended to keep showing up. When I said I did, he said, "Good, I'm going to put you to work. Come on over here and help me."

That opportunity at West Chester turned into an invitation to help with spring practice for the next few years. I can't explain how much I learned. My eyes and ears were wide open because I felt like I was the least informed guy in the room, and I was the least talented. And I was ok with that. I embraced it in a way.

I had to work at it, and I worked at because I really liked it. It was fun and challenging at the same time.

My spring experiences with West Chester led to an invitation to interview for an open part-time, paid position. And I interviewed and I got it and I spent three intense seasons coaching Division II college football. All told, including the spring coaching they brought me in for, I coached at least parts of eight seasons with a college team.

Not bad for a guy who made himself a middle school coach by reading about it at night and trying the techniques the next day. Imagine how my head was spinning the first time I had to call a play in a game!

So, in many ways, just like I did as a coach, I have been reinventing myself as a writer and hopeful author. The SCBWI conference is just like those football coaches conferences I attended for years.

I can guarantee the room will be full of helpful, supportive people--people willing to share what they know, especially if you aren't afraid to ask.

My intention is to Tweet a lot of my experiences from this weekend so that you might benefit in some small way.

Maybe in the end, all I can offer you is the example of someone who is not afraid to ask, not afraid to learn, and not afraid to share. I hope you will log onto my blog and follow the live tweets in the left hand column--don't worry, you don't need to have a Twitter account to read it.

Enjoy your weekends! I am so looking forward to mine and looking forward to chatting about it with you next week.

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