a quote from my favorite author

“The most solid advice, though, for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

-William Saroyan, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Your Story, You Reading My Story

“The tiniest story in your life can deeply touch another.  You cannot know the effect your story might have.” –SARK

This magnet clings to a file cabinet beside my desk at school.  Its sentiment is not new to me. But new to me is the depth to which I embody this message as a teacher of readers and writers.  New to me is the strength with which I impart this message to the readers and writers in my classroom.

Following the NCTE convention, I could feel the power of story everywhere I went.  I carried it with me.  Story settled itself deep inside me—in the marrow of my bones.  

I returned to school after the NCTE convention the day before we were to be off for our five-day fall vacation.  With the power of story pulsing through me, I presented my 8th grade students with a challenge (I prefer challenges to homework, myself): Collect a story during the five-day weekend to share upon their return to school.  No writing.  No worksheet.  Just carry the story back to school with you in your heart.  Be ready to share it with us. 

I answered questions about what the story had to be about.  Anything that you connect with, that has meaning for you.  I explained that talking and (better yet) listening to family members was a great way to gather stories.  I didn’t have high expectations, but I sure had high hopes. 

Upon our return to school, we spent the first day back sharing stories.  Sharing our stories.  We laughed when J described his father goofing around by putting on his brother’s graduation suit, which was way too small for him.  Our mouths watered when R told his story about eating his grandmother’s tamales.  We got teary-eyed when A talked about her first Thanksgiving after being separated from her brother.  We got goosebumps when K told how his uncle survived during the Vietnam War by hiding under a solid oak table, the only structure that didn’t collapse, during the bombing of the building where he was stationed.  

We shared our stories.

The power of these stories has lasted far beyond that day of sharing.  These stories deeply touched people.  These stories were raw and humble.  They were not polished or spectacular.  And yet, these stories deeply touched people.  

Today, I got to the point in the book Life is a Verb: 37 Days to Wake Up, Be Mindful, and Live Intentionally where I was charged with my first ‘Do It Now Challenge.’  After dancing for two minutes like a 5-year old (the first task on the list—a task for which my husband spontaneously joined me), I was prompted to write for three minutes nonstop about what brings me joy.  Although dancing with utter abandon was clearly on my mind, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the power of story to build connections.  Connecting with people—really being present and connecting with people—through story is what brings me pure joy. 

This, today—this slice of life opportunity to share and be shared with—this is what brings me pure joy.  This is what deeply touches me.  Your story, you reading my story deeply touches me and brings me joy.

Monday, December 26, 2011

One Little Word 2012: nudge

This is a word I have found myself returning to again and again lately. 

It works for my teaching life: I want to nudge the writers and readers in my classroom forward.  I don’t want to drag or push them.  Nudging almost denotes a sense of invitation—a sort of encouragement and inspiration to do better, to be better. 

It works for my writing life:  I want to nudge myself forward into uncharted writing territories this year.  I am ready.

It works for my personal life:  I want to nudge my loved ones to work towards their dreams.  To do more than just accept the world as it is, to be more than complacent.  I want to nudge myself to make time, to prioritize, to move closer towards what I want in life. 

It works for my life: I want to be open to the nudges I receive from those who care about me and who see possibilities for me that I may not be receptive to myself.  I want to notice when I am being nudged by the universe.  I want to respond to those nudges for they might be just the push I need to engage with my life—to really LIVE this year.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Visions of a Train Set

He woke up at 3am with visions of a train set tugging him into consciousness.  He had to solve the puzzle. 

It was his dad’s train set.  The one he grew up with.  The one his daughters grew up with.

He had found someone who knew a guy who could repair the engine on the train.  He had fastened the tracks and the village to a board.  He had cut an identical board to hide the wiring. 

Now, he just had to figure out the wiring.  In which order do the wires get attached to the transformer? He had to get the wiring right or risk ending up back where he started: finding someone who knows a guy who can repair an old train set that has been shorted out by faulty wiring. 

So, at 3am, he pulled on clothes and headed to the garage.  To his workshop.  He decided to start with the light bulbs.  He remembered seeing a small envelope marked “extra light bulbs” in his father’s familiar handwriting.  Handwriting he has missed for almost 25 years. 

As he hunted for the envelope, the puzzle of the transformer continued to work its way to the front of his thoughts.  He is a man passionate about blueprints, and this transformer was quickly becoming a diagram in his head.

His fingers reached for the envelope.  He gently squeezed it open and tipped it to spill out the old bulbs he intended to test.  The bulbs spilled out along with a folded, yellowed paper that had once been torn out of a tiny notebook. 

His eyes had not entirely woken up yet.  They had yet to catch up with the pace his mind was setting in working on that wiring diagram. 

So, he squinted to read the old red lettering from his father’s hand:  “wiring diagram for train station.”

The puzzle of the train set that tugged him into consciousness at 3am was solved.  He set to work deciphering the directions, given to him by his father long after having let him go. 

He set to work creating a new set of directions (or a “reversion” as he put it in his charming way of remixing words to suit his needs).  One day his daughter is going to need that diagram.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


I like people until they give me reason not to, she said.

Some days they just drop like flies, though, she added.

Today was a drop like flies day.  I keep trying to find a way to write through it, but I am not getting very far. 

I tried focusing on the young people in my life because they are my reason for so much doing. 

I tried focusing on my husband because he is always on my side.

I tried focusing on my mom because her voice of reason is never more than a phone call away.

But certain other grown-up people just keep busting into my thoughts.  I think this might be what Ruth was talking about when she said that sometimes she justdoesn’t feel like blogging.  It’s not really about the writing.  It’s about the sharing. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Putting Group Writing Conferences Into Action

Yesterday, I posted regarding my new understandings aboutconferencing with student writers.  Today, I attempted to capture how powerful the changes I have made in my conferences have been.  The thing that struck the most when I was first exposed to this idea at the NCTE conventionwas that in a group conference each student has the opportunity to learn about four pieces of writing, instead of just one (their own).  What an authentic way to learn about a variety of writing styles and possibilities!

We are drafting letters to authors as part of the LettersAbout Literature contest.  V shared her draft, asking for feedback about whether or not the anecdotes she included were clear and effective.  Her peers were readily able to give her positive feedback, but they were less forthcoming when it came to constructive feedback to help V make changes to improve her letter.  So, I gently modeled, hoping the group would catch on as we continued (realizing that this is a skill we might have to work to develop as the school year progresses, but definitely a skill that will be worth the time).  I shared with V that while the anecdotes she chose were clear, she did not do enough to connect them back to specific details in the book about which she was writing.  V took my feedback happily and we moved on. 

Next, it was J’s turn.  J read his draft, asking for feedback on run-on sentences.  I chose not to jump in and correct him.  I knew it would be difficult for us to hear run-on sentences, as opposed to seeing them during an edit.  However, I decided to sit back and see what the other writers in the group thought.  J’s letter was already a second draft and I think he was having difficulty finding a weakness to ask about.  He had a clear So What? and his details from the text were clearly balanced with, and connected to, anecdotes from his own life.  It was a fair struggle, especially with this being our first conference of this nature.

That’s when a most beautiful thing happened.  When J read his letter, V noticed something.  She noticed that he perfectly balanced specific details from the text with his own anecdotes.  Do you remember the weakness in V’s letter?  There was no way I could have helped her in a one on one writing conference that would have been nearly as powerful as learning from J was.  Immediately after identifying a need, V was able to hear a model of writing from a peer that directly addressed her need.  Amazing. 

It is so worth slowing down to listen and talk to my student writers.  I used to think I had to save every ounce of class time by reading papers at home, post-it-noting my ideas, and cycling through a stack of conferences (instead of a room of student writers) as quickly as possible.  Not anymore. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

New Understandings of Conferring With Student Writers

I feel like Jonas as he fled the community in The Giver by Lois Lowry.  As Jonas got further and further away from the community (as measured by space), his memories weakened.  This is much the same way my memories are weakening as I get further and further away from the NCTE convention (as measured by time).

It seems to me that the best way to hold on to my memories is to put these new ideas into practice and build new memories grounded in my experience.  So I am.  And it feels incredible. 

Based mostly on a workshop led by Douglas Kaufman, Penny Kittle, and Linda Rief, I have begun a small revolution when it comes to writing conferences in my classroom.

I am sure I am going to expose myself as a complete moron for not doing this sooner, but I honestly didn’t know any better.  Until now.

The presenters started the workshop by showing ancient video footage of Donald Graves conferencing with a group of students.  I have never conferenced with a group of writers at a time in any manner other than to target a pre-determined skill deficit, which they all shared.  This is the scary thing for me about professional growth.  To grow I need to open myself up to being truly reflective, to really being honest with myself.  Sometimes honesty is hard.  Sometimes it makes me feel defensive.  Or even worse, inadequate. 

That footage made me want to change. 

After watching three more clips, from each of the presenters’ classrooms, I started to understand more deeply how and why I needed to make a change.  So I did.

I started by modeling what the conferences would look like using 4 student volunteers to role-play.  I affectionately called this model our “dead writers’ conference.”  I teach middle school.  Enough said.

Each student had a copy of a piece of writing as well as pre-planned question to ask for feedback about his piece:

Tupac: “Things That Make Hearts Break” Is my ‘So What?’ clear?
Shel Silverstein: “Sick” Do I have enough detail?  Can you visualize what I am describing?
Edgar Allan Poe: first stanza of “The Raven” Does my writing have rhythm? (Poe was a plant.  He was the rascal who thought if he asked about a strength, then he wouldn’t have to change anything- this was to model that no suggestions just make revision more difficult, it will not go away)
Dr. Seuss: a page from Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are  Does my writing make sense?

While we walked through the model conference, the rest of the class acted as observers in the field, like Jane Goodall (or as one student suggested, NBA recruiters). 

Each dead writer took a turn sharing the question he had for the writer’s group—what he wanted feedback on, specifically.  Then he read his writing.  The rest of the group responded using post-it notes.  We started by sharing one thing we noticed about the writing (maybe something we liked, but at least something we noticed that is not negative).  Then we went around and gave feedback based on the question that had been posed.  At the end, the writer was given the feedback post-its to attach to his writing and use while revising. 

Upon presenting this model, the field observer students said that they like how professional the conference felt.  Another student brought up the possible issue of having a piece of writing that is too personal to share with a group.  We discussed ways to deal with that.  Students suggested meeting with a carefully suggested group just for that piece of writing or requesting a one on one conference with the teacher instead. 

End result, my students were as itchy to try it out as I was.  It was seriously a, “Hey kids, I saw this in some movie clips, and I think we can do it” moment.  And they were with me. 

Today, that modeling was put into action.  I have only led two conferences this way so far.  And I am sold. 

Some takeaway thoughts from the NCTE session with Kaufman, Kittle, and Rief:
  • When doing Quick Writes, have students stop mid-sentence.  This allows them to pick up their thoughts more easily if they continue writing at a later time. 
  • The writing conference is a learning event, not a teaching event.
  • During conferences, listen to the writer read his/her own work.
  • During conferences, look for elements of craft that interest me as a co-writer who can learn from the writer with whom I am conferencing. 
  • Shorter writing conferences are more effective than longer conferences.
  • If students could only learn one thing deeply, they should learn how to write a good lead—the lead directs the rest of the draft.
  • When it comes to high stakes writing (i.e. college applications essays), the writing conference becomes more about he writing than the writer.
  • Every writing conference should empower students to write more.  If you are not empowering students, make a change.