Monday, August 31, 2015

When did you start enjoying writing?

When did you start enjoying writing?

One of my new students wrote this question to me on a form modeled after an exercise I borrowed from educator Lee Ann Spillane:

What strikes me about the question is that I have an answer beyond a basic "Oh, I have always loved writing" or "This one teacher inspired me..."

I started to enjoy writing when writing started to me. Not for school. Not for any assignment. When I started to write for me I started to enjoy it.

It happened organically. 

I was in graduate school and I fell in love for the first time. Sure, I had crushes and girlfriends in high school and when I was in middle school. College too. But this time, falling in love unhinged my bones from my muscles from my nerves from my breath. Love made me a puddle but she did not know me well. We were not a couple.

So I started to write to her.

Outside of The Rodin Museum--the first museum I loved.
It was all I could do. Yes, I talked to her--but I was a puddle, remember. Writing let me be sincere. Writing let me experiment with letter writing, poetry, sketching...everything. Writing helped me sort out of the jumbled mess of bones and nerves in my gut and it allowed me to take a breath, reorganize myself, and reach out to her--my audience of one.

This is when I started to enjoy writing. I found out so much about myself. It was at this point where I started to try other art forms even though I had no experience with them: painting, sculpture, sketching with charcoal.

Writing opened doors for me--not only to express myself to my first love but also it encouraged me to try new things. It gave me a new perspective. I thought about things differently. I realized, as a writer, that even though I still knew so little, writing (and all of the arts) could be a way for me to explore and learn so much more about the world.

Since then, I have not stopped writing or trying new things. I believe being a writer has introduced me to ballet, the orchestra, opera, different types of theater, photography, in addition to all kinds of painting techniques and artists.

I love writing today, yes, but when it all started for me it all started with a girl.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Reading the World: 8. Argentina

Two Riders Resting, by Johann Moritz Rugendas
German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas travelled South America to paint. While crossing Chile and Argentina, he suffers injuries during a storm on horseback which render him grotesque. Once recovered, he continues to sketch and record the landscape.

Soon, one of this two wishes (to experience an earthquake or an indian attack) appears. Hundreds of indians raid a settlement used to these attacks.

Rugendas, suffering debilitating migraines from his injuries, records the raid from a distance with charcoal and red pencil. The story ends long after evening has fallen with the artist entering the indian camp, sitting with his sketch pad, a drawing each of them up close.

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, by Cesar Aira is a work of fiction which brings a portion of nineteenth century Chile and Argentina to life. The book, patient and deep, establishes just enough of a background to understand who the artist is and why and where he is traveling.

What interests me is the artistic journey of a landscape painter towards wanting to sketch and paint the fearsome indians up close. Landscape, by its nature, is the wide angle if the viewer is sitting in a dark theater--we are at an arm's length from the subject matter.

The closer an artist represents his subject the more potential for the psychological. The closer we are allowed to approach as a viewer or reader, the more likely we slip into the clothes of the actors onstage...and share the experience.

As the story evolves, Aria thrusts Rugendas as deep inside nature--beautiful and fearsome--as one could be. He writes Rugendas into the middle of a lightning storm. On horseback, alone in the middle of the night, rider and horse are by lightning:
The charge was flowing out of the animal too, igniting a kind of phosphorescent golden tray all around it, with undulating edges. As soon as the discharge was compete, in a matter of seconds, the horse got to its feet and tried to walk. The full battery of thunder explodes overhead. In a midnight darkness, broad and fine blazes interlocked. Balls of white fire the size of rooms rolled down the hillsides, the lightning bolts serving as cues in a game of meteoric billiards. The horse was turning. Completely numb, Rugendas tugged at the reigns haphazardly, until they slipped from his hands.
Maybe I am completely wrong with what I take away from this book. The interplay of landscape and close-up, artist/writer and viewer/reader strikes me as a central theme--and strikes me as something I'm dying to talk about.

I really enjoyed this story--the writing was a pleasure and the episode was detailed enough so that I not only gathered what happened but also why it mattered--I was allowed to share in the experience. This is a story about being an artist as much as it is about any viewing any one artist from a distance.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Reading the World: 7. Australia

from The Arrival, by Shaun Tan
Immigration has become a topic of great interest to me--and feels very much like a life-long interest. Immigration, tied in with culture and family, comprise the bones of the story.

Tan writes about his experience developing The Arrival on his website, "I was reminded that migration is a fundamental part of human history, both in the distant and recent past.

In Tan's story, a father from an unnamed land travels to another unnamed land. He leaves his wife and daughter behind as he attempts to earn enough money to send for them to join him.

We encounter giants, shadows of monsters, strange fruit and vegetables, indecipherable language, astonishing vehicles, foreign customs, and a feeling of being a complete and total outsider.

The fact that there are no words in this book did not bother me in the least. The progression of images connected me closer to the main character, the immigrant father. I learned with him. I felt confused and uncertain. I lived his struggle to find food and a semblance of a steady income.

Actually, I can't imagine this book being "written" any other way.

from The Arrival, by Shaun Tan
And I suppose the feeling I encountered as a reader, is the backbone of my experience. I felt more than I saw or digested as traditional text. The uncertainty which each page brought was welcomed.

The main character not only succeeds because of his grit and perseverance, but also because of the kindness of strangers. He encounters people with their "silent" stories to share. These people sympathize with his circumstance and help him make it.

I am looking forward to placing this book in my classroom library and asking students what they think this story is about--I really can't wait to hear some of their take-aways from The Arrival.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Reading the World: 6. Angola

Credit: Angolan contemporary artist: Atonio Ole
As I read, I jot down observations and questions, or I research current headlines written about the country at hand. Caught up in the charm of Ondjaki's The Whistler, I did not stop to write anything. The pleasure of the language was enough.

However, at a loss to write something about The Whistler looking at headlines helped provide a touch of context:

Angola Prison and the Shadow of Slavery

The New Yorker-Aug 19, 2015
Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick's photographs from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, which were taken between 1980 and ...

Voice of America-Aug 14, 2015
JOHANNESBURG—. In the last decade, the nation of Angola has pulled off what some experts consider an economic miracle, transforming ...

Inonge Wina commends Angola

Zambia Daily Mail-Aug 20, 2015
VICE-PRESIDENT Inonge Wina has commended the Angolan government for putting in place a successful social protection system that ...

Angola regime rules in apartheid style - activist

News24-Aug 16, 2015
Johannesburg - From beating women to unleashing dogs on protesters, Angola's government runs the oil-rich nation with an apartheid-style ...

Clearly, Angola has been immersed in volatile change--growth and loss--over recent decades. Further digging brought me to an article about Angolan art by Joanne Thomas in USAToday:
"Contemporary life in Angola is hard. According to World Factbook, the nation has the lowest life expectancy in the world at 38.2, and 40.5 percent of the population live below the poverty line. These impoverished conditions, in conjunction with prolonged civil unrest, have marred the continuation of cultural traditions. Celebrations and traditional ceremonies, for example, were largely interrupted or discontinued during the civil war."
Thomas' objective was to explore Angolan art--previously ignored and forgotten. To have a hopeful, gentle book like The Whistler emerge is remarkable. For me, as I continue to think about the book itself, what matters more is that beautiful art is present and emerging from Angola. The Whistler underscores the importance of art in all its forms for all cultures.

In trying to match an appropriate image with this blog post, I fell into a blog called Angola Rising: Dialogue of Ministry in Angola; A Land Rising from Past Challenges. Specifically, I focused on a post about emerging Angolan art.

In it, Angolan artist Antonio Ole says, “The world is in transition. And during transitions there tend to be artistic explosions, explosions of creativity. Right now, everyone should be alert. Interpreting the world is part of what we artists do.”

My take away from the experience of reading The Whistler is that it exposed me to art as language, as a way for human beings to evidence that art emerges, can still live, even without the nourishment I (blindly) assume all art comes from.

Ole goes on to say, “I feel very inspired by this positive energy. Development is not only about education and health; it is also about the evolution of a cultural identity."

The Whistler, and in a bigger sense the blossoming of art in Angola, gives me a new lens to view...and think about...the world, yes. But it also gives me a new lens to think about me and my place in the world.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Reading the World: 5. Albania

Adrian Limani, flourished bulb
What happens when you read a novel by an author "hailed as one of the world's greatest living writers" (according to the bookjacket) and you struggle finding any way "in" to the book?

You don't put it down even though the little voice inside your head is telling you, "just put it isn't going to work out for you...put it down..."

I did not put it down. And the little voice did not go away.

So, I took notes on an envelope doubling as my bookmark as I read--not because it was difficult or to keep track of a tangled plot--but because I could not connect with the book. I kept looking for a thread to latch onto.

Part Orwell, part Kafka, part Beckett, The Palace of Dreams is Ismail Kadare's attempt at creating his version of hell. And for much of the first half of the book I engaged (a bit) even though the little voice inside my head kept murmuring, "weird..."

Wishing I knew more about Kadare's homeland, Albania, I jotted down thoughts which seemed like metaphors worth digging into later:

--the influence of dreams
--outside influences on dreams
--the value of dreams from the peasant to the king
--what kinds of information needs secrecy?
--when do dreams need to be kept secret?

And then I felt myself grasping to use anything--any shard of an historical context of the relationship(s) between the Albanians and the Turks. Kadare threaded a theme of "shared power" (and shared knowledge) and it made me curious about how historically oppositional cultures find common ground. This interesting line on page 68 kept the little voice inside my head quiet and hopeful for a beat:

"Sharing power doesn't just mean dividing up carpets and the gold braid. That comes afterward. Above all, sharing power means sharing crimes!"

But, like much of what I found interesting, this theme fell flat for me and the little voice inside my head railed on and on, "told you...if you are not enjoying a book just put it down...Kadare won't be offended because he did not write it for you anyway."

Unfortunately, the book did not work for me. I lost track of any slight scent of engagement once I reached the last 1/4 of the story as the plot just unravelled like old, cheap yarn--leaving me with little to want to discuss with other readers. For me,  The Palace of Dreams went from weird and interesting to dull and disconnected.

The reality is we are all not going to connect with every book...irrespective of author or reader, culture, or era. I believe the hype about Kadare and maybe I should give something else of his a shot.

But for now, it is on to another country...

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Reading the World: 4. Armenia

Credit: The Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute
An eyewitness account of the butchering and slaughter of Armenians by the Young Turks, Armenian Golgotha sickened me as much as it informed me. 

The challenge in reading accounts of epic atrocities is being left with what happened without the bitter balm of why it happened. Survivor and author, Grigoris Balakian, covers what happened, when it happened, where it happened, who it happened to, etc.

Not many pages were need to cover why, because as is too often the case, the why is hatred. But hatred seems far too pale a word.

While I write that the account sickened me, I acknowledge that it is an important book to read. The murders are savage. That is all I will write to that detail. Yet, this year is the much publicized beginning of the centenary, or 100th anniversary, of WWI. I do not see much publicity that the world is entering the 100th anniversary of this Armenian Genocide. Perhaps it is overshadowed by the Great War? Is the Armenian Genocide lumped into the estimated 17 million killed and 20 million wounded in WWI?

It is very difficult to write about the savage hatred which human beings inflict on one another but the pain of such savage hatred is my take-away from this book--moreso than Balakian's remarkable escape and survival. The pain is just embedded in each line:
The wretched Armenian mothers who were unable to take thier underage children (two to six years old)--children who had fallen ill from starvation, extreme cold, and the hardship of the long, half dead or in the throes of death--had to leave them on top of the already dead. Tearfully, the eyewitnesses told us how two large mounds of corpses of thousands of Armenian children rose up in front of Kanle-gechid, among them also numerous children who had not yet died and who extended their hands, searching for their mothers (225).
Each day I become more of an advocate for sharing family history and culture. I even dabble in a podcast encouraging others to tell their family stories. And, for the most part, the stories people choose to tell are the good stories, the happy memories, and fragments discovered in documents. But I have to add, that the difficult stories are also necessary for us to share and read. Understand, this is a part of what I asked of myself when taking on a "reading the world" challenge; nevertheless, nothing quite prepared me for such sadness and pain. Even in moments of great kindness and comfort, Armenian Golgotha is a difficult but necessary account to stomach:
Resting in a clean, comfortable bed, I felt for the first time in long months that mine was a life fit for human beings. I pulled the blanket over my head--when an unstoppable sobbing burned my throat, and I began weeping bitterly. It was not tomorrow's worries that were causing me to break down: it was the memory of erstwhile happy days, when we had the good fortune of lying in a clean bed like this every night. For who knew, perhaps tomorrow I would again end up wandering over mountain or valley, and being hunted down (267).
Armenian Golgotha takes its place as one of the most personally challenging books on my shelf.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

More than just us

Fred Quattrone
In Episode 6 of the I Remember podcast Fred Quattrone discusses where his love of family came from and the implication of keeping the extended family together today. 

A particular highlight of this episode is Fred's recounting of a Quattrone family reunion where all Quattrones which they could possible contact--a few hundred--were invited to meet one another back in the 1980s. The seminal idea for this all-inclusive reunion came from a cousin ripping pages out of telephone books while working on the road just to see how many Quattrones were out there...

Regarding family reunions and the annual Quattrone family toast celebrating the arrival of patriarch Ferdinand Quattrone to America 114 years ago, Fred said: is all about us having this multi-generation thread so to speak...of showing, in my case my grandchildren who are anywhere from 2 to 8, that there is more than just us...but it makes them see part of a bigger picture...that they feel secure in, I think, and that they get to know their roots... 
With roots in Pellaro, Reggio Calabria, born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Fred grew up among crowded and joyous family dinners, many cousins, aunts, and uncles, and grandparents who modeled the example of the importance of familial love which he shares with his grandchildren today. 

You can play the podcast on the player below and you can also find it on iTunes. Simply search "I Remember podcast" and it should come up for you. Anyone wishing to participate in the podcast by sharing an element of your family history or culture, please email me at

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Reading the World: 3. Algeria

Algeria, by Dana Kyndrova
Forgiveness can only ever be shared. Regret can only ever be owned.

What the Day Owes the Night, by Yasmina Khadra takes its place among the most meaningful novels I have read in a long while. The note on the first page of the novel, "Yasmina Khadra is the nom de plume of the Alergian army officer, Mohammed Moulessehoul, who took a female pseudonym to avoid submitting his manuscript for approval by the army" grasped my attention before I read the first line: "My father was happy."

What do I have to learn about that part of the world, of culture, of history and humanity?


And even after finishing the novel, I am really only aware of just how much I have to learn to and experience.

However, what strikes me immediately about this specific book and experience is that the writing is just a pure pleasure--especially the similes and metaphors (of which there are many):
The wheat fields billowed over the plains like the manes of thousands of horses galloping.

Oran was a city of airs and graces, people referred to her as la ville americaine, and every fantasy in the world was becoming real. Perched on a clifftop, she gazed out to sea, pretending to languish, a captive maiden watching from a tower for Prince Charming to arrive. She was pleasure itself, and everything suited her.

Beyond the writing, the reason why I took on the challenging of reading the world is on full display here. While the struggle for Algerian independence comprises the setting of the novel--I found myself researching as I read--the familiarity how the characters interact carries the day. By familiarity I mean irrespective of Arab or European, I recognized jealousy and love, fear and honor, prejudice and sorrow, et al. 

Being human is familiar.

I found myself wanting to talk to someone--anyone--about the struggles between Arabs and Europeans, the wealthy and the poor in countries just like Algeria, the roles of men and women in different societies, the fact that love and honor is not a privilege of race or culture, the unwieldy tangle of the word "duty"...duty to family...duty to culture...duty to is all here, woven together. 

So many moments of "duty" in the novel bring me back to the title What the Day Owes the Night again and again:
  • What does the father owe the family?
  • What does the mother owe the child?
  • What does the individual owe his/her culture?
  • What does the lover owe his/her lover?
We could get more specific:
  • What does Younes owe himself?
  • What does Younes owe Emilie?
  • What does Younes owe Madame Cazenave?
And my questions go on and on. These questions only scratch the surface as the book begs to be read and discussed. I'm dying to discuss it with someone--so, please, if you read this novel and you stumble upon this blog, please leave your thoughts about the book--I'm all ears (or eyes).

Finally, as bring the blog to a conclusion, I want to add how much I was affected by the balance in the novel. The author's gift and skill and being able to weave extended kindnesses among extensions of cruelty; oaths of silence with oaths of violence; and deep chasms of regret with micro-thin lifelines of forgiveness made everything else work together so well. 

I really loved the experience of reading What the Day Owes the Night because it had me thinking, has me thinking, and will continue to challenge me.

What do I (we) owe...

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Reading the World: 2. Afghanistan

"Refugees" by Afghan artist Akbar Khurasani
Inspired by the blog A Year of Reading the World: 196 countries, countless stories, I have set out to read the world as well. The more I explore the concept on the web, the more people I find who also set out on this quest. For me, on its surface, it is about exposure and challenging my purview.

While I have read adult novels and YA novels by international authors, I can't recall reading them through the lens of wanting to expose myself to more of the world: Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie; Shooting Kabul, by N.H. Senzai; Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, et al. As strange as it feels to write, I have always read (I believe) just for the sake of a good story. I'm not embarrassed by that point. But I also realize that writing and reading is too powerful a stone to not turn it over in my hands and gaze into it in new ways. I feel the same way about film.

For my first novel, I started alphabetically by country (Afghanistan) and read The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi.

The setting struck me. The entire story occurs in one room. In the center of the room, a war hero lies on mattress. He is motionless, breathing, perhaps conscious. A bullet is lodged in his neck. His portrait hangs on one wall alongside a khanjar or dagger.

The curtains, tattered with holes, hang miserably over the only window. No electricity exists. Gunshots, the groan of tanks, boots on gravel interrupt the story just as quickly as they fade into the distance.

Fog, smoke, darkness. Rain. Patches of blue sky. Thin veils of sunlight. The crunch of broken glass underfoot. Stale bread and a slice of onion. Soot. Spiders. A dead fly.

The setting of The Patience Stone was present in its grittiness.

I am reminded of set design for theater. No amount of light, electricity, paint, wood, or dry ice can create a world on stage without an artist's eye behind it. By that I mean some directors and stage designers fail as much as some succeed. Some take risks. Some cram imaginative ideas onto a set even when it really does not work. A great set design and execution is a part of the story telling experience.

With that in mind, the setting in The Patience Stone resonated with me. As I read, I felt present in a darkened theater. Rahimi led my eyes around the stage. He brought in my sense of hearing. He let me linger. He let me stare at the stillness on his stage.

I am comparing it to when I saw W;t in the late 90s and how I was struck by the rawness of emotion--and nothing distracted me from that grounding, central experience. The rawness of emotion in The Patience Stone came alive because of the setting. This was not a story taking place in no time and no place--but a story taking place in a very specific time and very specific place. And it mattered.

And all it took was one room.

The scorched Earth (and lives) in The Patience Stone are what I will take with me moving forward as I continue to read the world. I will file this away for when I return to Afghanistan for another novel.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Choice is Key. Choice is Access.

Created By in Category 
In about two weeks, school will begin for me. It may be three weeks away for others. Yet, we can all agree, the summer is in its twilight and soon, very soon, we will meet our newest students. Often, new students come expecting to have knowledge delivered to them: "Are you going to teach us grammar? Tell me what I did wrong. Tell me what I need to do to get an A."

And, yes, I understand that approach to learning; it is appropriate for some aspects of education. However, in a few weeks, not only will a new school year begin, but new writer's workshops will embark in thousands of classrooms--where answers are not given but discovered.

And it is in these classrooms where students will be invited to join the teachers in uncovering answers, truths, and technique.  

I find that students rarely see this model coming. They enter the writing classroom with preconceived notions. They carry rumors and incomplete fragments of experiences from students who passed through the classroom in previous years. 

Most, during that first week, will be absorbing the predictable structure of writing workshop as they experience it for the first time. Most will focus on the explicit meaning of writing workshop: writing space and time, reading nooks, and frequent invitations to confer. As teachers, we will patiently wait for student attention to digest the implications of the implicit element of writing workshop: the gift of time and choice. Time and choice--freedom--will stop some students in their tracks. For others, it will provide an early comfort.

Poetry helps me ease students into the world of time and choice with writing. Poetry helps me relieve the pressure of being invited to write on the first day of class. And the second day. And the third.

We write every day? some may wonder.

We start by talking about and writing about poetry--not so much what does it mean, but what we notice. Students can not be incorrect. These early conversations go a long way towards establishing a foundation of a comfortable writing community. 

When one student notices a word choice, another might notice a full line, while others might note the punctuation, the organization, the spacing...

Often during these early conversations, students may not know the terminology of what they are referencing. And in other cases they know the terminology--such as repetition--but do not necessarily think of it as a writer's tool.

This open forum can take 5-10 minutes in a class period or longer if the need arises. It enables an environment of inquiry and conversation. In this structure, the teacher plays the role of recipient, listener, and guide--we adjust to the students. We are not in a hurry to point out the repetition in a poem if they do not see it right away--perhaps repetition comes in another poem tomorrow or next week. Perhaps all we discuss today is the fact that the poem made us laugh, or think, or sad.

The consistent use of poetry in mini-lessons throughout the writing workshop can also be supplemented with children's picture books. Again, these books are short enough for students to read through within the structure of a class, and they so often deliver a powerful connection when we ask, "So, what did you notice?"

When invite students to tell us what they notice, we build vocabulary, a tool box of writing strategies, and confidence. The better students become talking about writing the better students become as writers because when they can articulate--think--writing they can own it.

As Lucy Calkins writes in The Art of Teaching Writing, "Teachers...will learn about some poets, teachers, and children have answered the question of what's essential in poetry, but rather than telling our students these characteristics, we'll want to invite them to join us in finding out what they are."

This is the key to the power of writing workshop. This is the key we invite students to turn because once they understand that this key exists, they realize that the key fits perfectly inside their locks. They can insert it, turn it, and pop open a world through writing that they did not believe they were capable of accessing.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Organization Elevates Process Over Product

The Classroom, by Karen Elizabeth Tornoe
Tara Smith's blog post Creating Classroom Environments: Setting Up For the Middle School Writing Workshop reminded me of the importance of organization in setting up a writer's workshop.

More specifically, the important of maintaining and using three distinct spaces for student writing matters: a writer's notebook, a classroom portfolio, and an online portfolio. In my classroom, there have been years where the writer's notebook also served as the classroom portfolio--thereby only utilizing two spaces. A mistake I learned to grow from.

The consequence of not having such a structure has been that some students have drifted to drafting only online--which is not a bad thing in and off itself. I draft online when I blog. However, that habit has then lessened the impact of the writer's notebook in my classroom. Some students used it well, yes. But too many students drifted away from the notebook and just set to writing online--everything, every stage, by midyear. And once that happens it is a challenge to move students back to the structure.

Smith's blog reinforces the distinction among the three spaces:

  1. The notebook is where ideas play on the page. Students can list, sketch, free write, etc. 
  2. The classroom portfolio is where drafts are roughed out on writing pads and stored.
  3. The online space is where writing is polished and potentially published.

Two of these three spaces contain unfinished writing. This structure elevates process and unfinished writing over final products. As a community of writers, we can't help but be immersed in unfinished writing where conversations never end and possibilities and opportunities for growth always exist.

The finality of an online portfolio or a polished product is something to treat with respect because an emphasis on product can take over the mindsets of our classrooms like weeds in a garden. We can do so much good work, but it can be overrun if we are attentive and if we do not have an organizational structure in place.

As it is true in gardens, implications arise whether we do or do not attend to process.

Five years ago, I left a post-it note on a section about elevating process over product inside my copy of The Essential Don Murray: Lessons from America's Greatest Writing Teacher to remind myself, "Type this up as a reminder to yourself--and see it everyday." 

Murray writes of the implications of teaching process, not product:

  1. The text of the course is the student's own writing. 
  2. The student finds his own subject.
  3. The student uses his own language.
  4. You are not teaching a product, you are teaching a process.
  5. The student is encouraged to attempt any form of writing which may help him discover and communicate what he has to say.
  6. Mechanics come last.
  7. There must be time for the writing process to take place.
  8. Papers are examined to see what other choices the writer might make. He is learning a process. His papers are always unfinished, evolving, until the end of the marking period.
  9. The students are individuals.
  10. There are no rules, no absolutes, just alternatives.
When the structure of the writing classroom falls apart or has never been established in the first place, then it is difficult for the writing teacher to lead his students through the benefits of the ten positive implications of process as defined by Murray.

Setting up the middle school writing classroom takes time and thought--it takes a plan. Many wonderful people have written about how to set up your space: Don Murray, Don Graves, Lucy Calkins, et al. And now another great place to start is with Tara Smith's blog Creating Classroom Environments: Setting Up For the Middle School Writing Workshop

I am wondering if other teachers have also witnessed part of their organizational structure fall apart? or not work for some students? The first few days really set the tone regarding joy and freedom and writing--but even before any of that begins, it is essential that we make time to create a space and an organizational structure in order to best invite and sustain that joy and freedom in writing.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Confronting My Own Bias

A week after presenting at a Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project graduate course, Grammar Matters, I received an envelope chock-full of thank you notes from the participants in the mail. Among the cards, one teacher wrote, "Thank you for helping me confront my own bias about grading."

That statement, confronting my own bias, energizes me.

Not that the note in any way, shape, or form validates any sense of right and wrong or who has the answers and who does not. To the contrary, it reminds me that I am and will forever be in that place as well--confronting my own bias. In other words, growing.

In ten years I will be able to see through the lens of further experience and exposure to mentors--and that kind of growth is invigorating. I am not afraid of knowing that I can, will, and should grow--even though I am twenty years in to the profession--actually, especially since I am twenty years into the profession.

I was reluctant to confront my own bias for far too many years. I did not reflect, read, or write. I simply taught. And I believed I was doing a good job. I wanted to do a good job. My intentions were sincere and from a good place. However, in retrospect, how paralyzing (even just reconsidering) that  former mindset feels now. I was paralyzed within my own bias and I could not recognize it.

Side note: that bias includes more than grading. I have carried biases in writing, grammar, assessment, classroom management, reading, et al. Much of my bias came from not only how I was taught but also how I came to cope and learn.

A team of mentors helped me confront my bias. Donald Graves, one of those important mentors, never met me. But I meet him again and again through his writing. After reading the thank you notes today, I pulled out Writing: Teachers & Children at Work to read from Graves's valuable insights again.

What strikes me today in Writing: Teachers & Children at Work is that Graves tells us children want to write--even on the first day of school:
"Children want to write. They want to write the first day they attend school. This is no accident. Before they went to school they marked up walls, pavements, newspapers with crayons, chalk, pens or pencils...anything that makes a mark. The child's marks say, 'I am.'" (3)
This is the beauty of Graves in my world. He writes so many lines--let alone passages--which serve as a flashpoint--an invitation--for me to confront my own bias.
"We have all heard the groan in the classrooms, 'Do I have to copy it over?' This is the popular understanding of revision. Put a good manicure on a corpse. (4)"
We could go on and discuss Graves--and I hope I spend the rest of my career (and life) doing just that with colleagues (new and familiar). But here, today, I just want to point out that when I read Graves I not only find compelling statements, but also I find an educator who displayed humility and curiosity. take that lesson to heart. 


I try to practice humility just as much as I try to practice his concrete teaching points on writing and children. Humility is not always easy, but it is a conscious choice. Graves knew he wasn't perfect, and he embraced the energy of humility (scary! thrilling!) in his life's work. Writing and children invited him to confront his own biases and therein made him feel alive in his work. 

When people or experiences or places make us feel alive, we fall in love.

And so I appreciate the teacher who took the time to write to me in a note, "Thank you for helping me confront my own bias about grading." I imagine that kind of challenge made him feel alive and energized for September.

I am right there with him. Thank you, Jim. Have a wonderful year!

I am wondering what other experiences teachers have had which helped them feel alive, confront their own bias, or even fall in love with the craft of teaching and/or writing...

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Running to Music, no. Running to Historical Podcasts, yes.

I have never been a runner. Oh, I have tried. I ran laps for high school sports. I ran laps to try and lose weight as an adult. I'd piecemeal it together--run the straight aways on the track, walk the curves. Running never lasted--flat feet, cankles, and more than twenty years overweight--and running is really the last thing I ever really, truly, want to do.

Today, I jogged & walked four miles. I had never come close to putting that kind of distance together other than walking. 

Two things enabled me to reach that modest goal: 

  1. the Jeff Galloway training method of running intervals
    • in my case I am jogging for 30 seconds and walking for 45 seconds
    • I do these intervals for time (30 minutes) on Tuesdays and Thursdays and run the intervals for distance (4 miles today, 5 miles next Sunday) on Sundays
  2. I don't listen to music. I listen to podcasts.
    • the sameness of familiar music doesn't pull me in
    • the focus needed to follow someone reading or reciting new information sustains my attention and deflects any chance of my talking myself out of running
I imagine a majority of runners who listen to something listen to music. I am wondering about those runners who do not listen to music.

Other than music, what do runners listen to? Why? Do some prefer the silence? Their own thoughts? In what way does their auditory running partner of choice harness their attention as the podcasts do for me?

By the way, the podcasts are not just any old podcasts. Right now, the Revolutions podcast is my running partner. The podcast explores the world's major "Revolutions"--the overthrowing of major regimes: "The Late Troubles" in Britain in the 1640s and 1650s, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, etc.

I joined the podcast with the French Revolution since I finished reading Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts a few weeks ago. Each episode lasts about twenty minutes. I like that it is a sustained, detailed, and fresh sound which is not music. As I jog, I can focus on the information and not play mind games with myself about my aches, strains, and doubts about distance. 

Music encourages my mind to wander. When running, I am finding that does not work for me because my mind wanders right back to what I am doing...and why am I doing it!

As I gear up for running my first half-marathon in November, I am planning on going back to the beginning of Revolutions and listen to podcaster Mike Duncan's take on the English Revolution ("The Late Troubles) which lasts about 509 minutes or just over 8 hours. 

No, I am not planning on taking that long to run the half marathon, but it will be nice to know that I'll have plenty of Revolution to pull me through the run...just in case.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Reading the World: 1. Nigeria

In an effort to help students grow as readers, we conference one-on-one about their choices. How they find books. What they like, don't like, want to try next. So much of the reading in my classroom is driven by choice.

Some conversations drift towards goal-setting. Specifically, we discuss reading books by authors from different parts of the world or books based on characters from diverse cultures. We discussed noticing authors: where they were from, what was unique about their life experience, and what details made it into the authors' bios.

It was a new way for some of my students to find books. And some found it an interesting challenge.

Swallowing my own advice, I decided I wanted to read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It would be--as far as I knew--my first novel by a writer from Nigeria. It arrived and took a space in my book pile beneath my standard, comfortable fare of nonfiction and contemporary fiction: Napolean: A Life by Andrew Roberts, H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, et al. I have enjoyed the 12 books I have read since early June.

And then I started Americanah. For the first 75 pages I felt uncomfortable. At arm's length. Painfully aware of my inability to connect with the characters or the experiences of an African getting one's hair braided in America, I felt impulses to abandon the book.

I stuck with it because the discomfort of not knowing is ultimately what I want to coach my students to overcome. Exposure to fragments of the world--even if it is through a novel--is desirable.

As Americanah developed, I found my reading gaining momentum. In the back of my mind I forgave my lack of comfort and just let the story take me with it.

By the time I reached the last 100 or so pages I took breaks to browse for my next uncomfortable book--the next book to stick a finger in my chest--the next book to challenge me to look out and abroad. To pay better attention.

I found Ann Morgan's blog, A Year of Reading the World where I was introduced to a word which described my reading habits: anglocentric. Ann Morgan wrote this about herself and I connect with her. I can admit this about myself and seek to change it.

Ann challenged herself to read at least one book by an author from all 196 countries. On her blog she lists all of the books she read by country. And so, now, I will start to work my way through the As and order my first few selections to start blending into my book pile.

Multicultural literature goes largely untouched in my classroom even though I have several dozen selections of diverse books on a clearly identified shelf.

And even though my students have written about their own cultural backgrounds and family histories, and I have book-talked multicultural titles, man of my students's reading lives also look anglocentric.

The challenge is bigger than me, but clearly, the challenge starts with me. I need to be a better model.

I am wondering how multicultural or diverse books do in other classroom libraries? And I am wondering what people discover about the reading choices of their own students or children? Do we contribute to the anglocentric reading model? Is it avoidable? And, if I can ask just for the sake of conversation, is the problem I am alluding that it may be?