Progress Report

My most recent post was the fifteenth on this blog. That felt to me like time to think over my “time to think it over,” and as usual I did that by watching mental videos: my newest grandson, the river of students I’ve taught, and myself, as blogger.

 Zen Meditation

During the months in which I’ve been writing these posts, and figuring out what comes next in my life, I’ve also spent a happy amount of time with Zen, who is about to be four months old.

Lately, I’ve been inspired by watching him discover his hands, which are very small.

hands lightened upAt first, when Zen was set down on one of those mats with soft bright toys suspended on long crossing wands, he waved his arms and legs with huge pleasure, but not much control. When one of his wild waves connected, his eyes opened wide, and he made a reflective comment in Zen language. Increasingly, he tried to bat those toys around his small heaven.

hands and crittersOnce he developed a little more control, he would hold his right fist at the length of his outstretched arm, intently focusing. He seemed to be figuring out that since he could use that hand, it must belong to him. I thought—and said, since he’s incredibly easy to talk to, and doesn’t yet roll his eyes when I come out with teacher talk: Yes, it’s amazing! We have these perfect tools built in!

I watched Zen work consciously, painstakingly, to practice opening his hand, before closing it on something he wanted to grasp. He got hold of my sleeve as I was changing his diaper, and I laughed. His look was a combination of who, me? and yes, I’m cool.

Now, sitting in his swing, Zen can grasp his favorite model of the cosmos in both hands.

hands and cosmos 2When he’s lying on the play mat, he has all sorts of ambidextrous fun. His left hand plays the crackly wings of the parrot; his right hand tickles a couple of giraffe feet. One evening his parents watched him manage to include the monkey, a three-ring circus. Yesterday, he pulled so hard on all these fabric friends, trying to get them into his mouth, that the entire superstructure seemed to be undergoing an earthquake, with crackly-parrot-wing sound effects. Total mayhem! Produced by a four-month-old! Whoever designs these baby toys is doing a great job.

A river of students

So that’s Zen, learning up a storm. Meanwhile, back in my own part of the state, I’m still sorting through the evidence of my past students.

binders in bagI’ve reduced a large number of boxes full of records and work samples–I won’t tell how many–to four binders, with one clear plastic sleeve for each student, all in alphabetical order: three Aarons, so far; five Bens. Etc. I’m maybe half done with that part of the overall job I’ve set myself.

Meanwhile, in my mind, for those past students who are grown to adulthood, I’m holding those layers of evidence next to who they’ve turned out to be. They travel through Nepal; they figure out the evolutionary history of squirrels; they teach kindergarten, or help middle-school city kids make videos, or become involved in their kids’ preschools; they solve problems for internet start-ups; they help cities plan evacuation routes or plant trees; they run campus businesses and theater productions; they move expensive paintings–Picasso!–from one city to another; they tackle contact improvisation classes in Italy. I love it all, and keep finding out more.

What about my more recent students? I’ve just been to the Halloween parade and community meeting, with its traditional skits. Those kids, too, when I look back and forth, now / then, have simultaneously changed and stayed the same–the same unique and vivid selves, learning learning learning.

So I’ve stepped back from the day-to-day teaching of one group of students, who tended to absorb almost all my waking energy, to look at the flow of students through all these years, like a river. Thanks to my inability to throw things away, it’s a river that shimmers with detail.

Watching myself as blogger

Writing this blog, focusing on one small chosen view after another in the landscape of school life as I have been lucky to know it, I’ve been moved again and again by the sheer power of human learning—not just at the early adolescent ages I taught, but in the strength and stretch and increasing individualization of every year that comes after.

In addition, writing this blog is a lot like watching an infant. In fact, I am the four-month-old, and way slower than Zen. But persistent.

I started working on the blog just about when he was born, at the beginning of July. I had five posts at least partly written before I took any of them public. (There are familiar patterns here. I learned to walk by holding onto the furniture for quite a while.)

codgers smilingFiguring out how to add photographs as illustrations took me days. No–I’m still getting the hang of it, so call that months. Figuring out how to scan Justin McCarthy’s hummanacraft design took over a week, even with the help of my perennial backstage helper and cheerleader, the wonderful wizard with the mustache, Alex Brown.

So far, writing has been easier than I feared it might be, because I already knew, most days, how to take risks and have fun in a first draft, how to let it lead me, and then how to throw out whatever didn’t work for me or couldn’t fit. I already knew how to revise and revise and revise. (My record, so far, is 23 separately saved drafts.) I love all the second and sixth and nineteenth chances of revision. I’d rather exercise that particular freedom than eat, or get up to put on another layer of fleece when the house cools down.

On the other hand, I still go into a steep decline immediately after hitting the publish button. Every time. Obviously, somehow I’ve felt like I had honed each paragraph as long and as well as I could in a mortal world, when I get to that point. But I hit that publish button and suddenly I’m convinced it’s all hogwash.

This isn’t just about the blog, and isn’t new. John Hodgen once described Polly Brown, poet, being extracted from a street mailbox by public safety officials using the jaws of life.

I am really good at second thoughts. On the other hand, I keep risking it all again.

This past week, I wrote to Alex Dunn. His blogs, at and at, have given me important inspiration. In each of his blogs, Alex is building up a body of perspective on some aspect of the world, piece by piece. He believes in the details, the tiny things that make each type of bird distinctive, and in the overall perspective. Like me, he’s obsessed with maps, which offer ways to view both.

In his return email, Alex thanked me for letting him know he’d had an impact. He said, ‟It is a strange thing sending writing out into the void and never really knowing what comes of it.” Yes. Like sending out poems, and feeling like they might as well have gone to Mars. It’s never been likely that someone would stop me in the drugstore and say, “Here’s what your poem (or your post) made me think about…”

But that’s what I want to know about each of these posts: Not is it good or bad? But what did it make you think about? So I’ve loved the comments some of you have written—adding your own memories of Dana’s death, or your own experience of a watershed far away from me, or your experience with teaching.

On the other hand, some of the blog’s regular readers (I’m pretty sure I can count at least five) say that you’re not sure how to comment. I can’t figure out how to control whether there’s a comment box showing, where I want it, at the bottom of every post. Sometimes, it seems, you have to click on the little blue dialog icon up near the title.

Should I say that at the end of every post? Should I keep giving people prompts for ways they might jump in? Should I just tell you, here and now, that I am most interested in what resonates, in your own story, whatever my story made you think of? Just a few of my current questions.

Although some of my nearest and dearest supporters think it’s a mistake, I do check the stats and maps available behind the scenes. I had a private cheering moment when I passed the landmark of 1000 views.

blog hits mapDiscovering I’d had a hit from someone going online in Nepal—and guessing who it was!—absolutely made my day. My week!

I try to ignore the intimidating statistics on other blogs, in the thousands every day. Is that what I want?

Right now, the most personal success–again, so much like writing poems–comes with this: putting life in words helps me cherish it. I am cherishing that life I led as a teacher, and everyone who led it with me. I’m glad that many of my readers are people who shared that with me, directly or indirectly, near or far. I feel, often, like I’m writing, and celebrating, on behalf of us all.

I do have wider, more public intentions, also, and hope to have a gradually increasing public audience. Mostly, I want to encourage people to think about authentic learning, because it’s endangered in the world around us. In some small way, I want to contribute to collective, sensible, committed mindfulness about what learning really looks like and means and needs and produces, so different from the loudest mainstream trends. I want to do that without arguing, actually, just by showing what can work, because I know it has.

So—in sum, as my attorney daughter would say—I am very glad, these days, to have the freedom to drive out the turnpike, across all those rivers, and spend some hours with Zen. Grateful that my older grandchildren are only a day’s train ride away. Grateful for more phone and email contact with the rest of my far-flung family. All of us are learning, moving from one version of ourselves to another, and I’m paying better attention now.

I’m also more aware than ever before that I was lucky-and-a-half to stumble into teaching, to teach for so long in a rare and wonderful place, and to have known so many young learners one by one by one, within the communities we built together.

Finally, I am grateful—in every word I type and then change and then change back again—for every bit of encouragement you’ve given me, one way or another, to try this and keep trying.

I hold you in the light, whether I know you or not, as I send you off to watch and cheer and cherish whatever learning is happening in your own life’s neighborhood.

Taking Temperatures

insulation mittsSomeone, in a long proud parade of projects time parent volunteers, knew she would be doing temperature experiments with her small group, and arrived carrying these perfectly designed mitts.

(If you know where the credit should be assigned, please comment!)

using temperature mitts editThe mitts are made of plastic baggies, filled with puffy stuff for insulation. For the plastic peanuts and the fleece, there are two bags, one inside another, flipped edge to edge so they could zip together and contain, between them, a consistent depth of insulation.

Into the baggies, kids inserted a Vernier temperature probe, a specially designed thermometer with a line to attach it to a computer interface. Measuring the temperatures of small buckets of ice or heated water, they examined the data on real-time graphs, which were created by Vernier software on the computer. Students could see the curve as the temperature rose or fell. The mitts let them compare the effectiveness of various kinds of insulation.

Without a live demonstration of the use of real-time graphing using probes of this sort, I find it difficult to convey the dramatic POW! of the experience. The whole activity of graphing suddenly makes more sense. Kids see clearly the relationship between the x axis (usually time) and the y axis (measurements of temperature, light, force, gas pressure, sound, proximity…or any of a number of attributes for which probes have been designed.)

Here’s a graph of a very simple trial, in which a student held the temperature probe directly in her hand. The graph rises gradually to a peak, then falls off quickly—but not instantly—when the person’s hand is removed.

heat graph

Sometimes we compared: which hand was warmer, right or left? Did that correlate with the person’s handedness in any way? Could we be sure of the correlation, or were there too many other variables, not controlled?

(In many programs, it’s possible to graph several trials on the same screen, using different colors. For example, we could graph the data from the right hand in red and the data from the left hand in green, or graph multiple trials for each hand in assigned colors. The software also provides a full table of the data, and instant statistics including the range and the mean.)

We did experiments of this sort before we had computer probes, of course, just using regular thermometers. In the very earliest years of using The Voyage of the Mimi, thinking about whales and the insulating effect of blubber, we found ways to test the effectiveness of insulation, and these mitts would have been perfect.

More recently, working with the occasional use of a small classroom set of iPads, we used a Vernier temperature probe along with a interface called a LabQuest2, to let us gather and graph temperatures outside, streaming the graphs, as they were drawn, on multiple iPads.

Here’s a group who’ve come inside to debrief. (You can see the temperature probe in Abi’s hand.) They were playing a game called Microclimate Tic-tac-toe, and looking at the tic-tac-toe grid on the small whiteboard in Patty’s hand, to review what they’d found. For now, it’s enough to say that they were searching for microclimates: localized, specialized conditions of temperature, light, and moisture.

microclimate group with Patty

ipad temp workThis group has found very hot temperatures on a large black tire on the playground. They can feel the high temps even with their fingers.

Another student uses a second iPad to watch the graph  as it’s drawn from the probe data.

temp work damp soil

Meanwhile, there’s a much cooler place nearby, in the shadowed, moist soil next to the tire.

The very compact LabQuest2 device is just visible in the lower left corner of the photo. It communicates with the iPads using one of the school’s WiFi networks.

fall projects Morgan

Here are members of another group working inside, finding the coolest and warmest temperatures they could locate in the classroom.

John reaching edited

What did we want the kids to get from all this data collection? We wanted students to join the admirable horde of humans who’ve started out understanding the world by figuring out how to measure it. We wanted students to feel comfortable describing the world in quantitative terms, in numbers with a unit of measurement attached.

In this case, measuring temperature, we wanted students to become flexible about using either Fahrenheit or Celsius, and we wanted them to operate at an intersection between data collected with appropriate measurement tools, and the testimony of their own senses, so that the numbers acquired sensory meaning.

I’m working on this post on a perfect day for searching for microclimates outside: a chilly wind, bright sun. In conditions like these, kids could easily find temperatures varying by as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit, often within a few feet of each other.

And if students were hungry for something really dramatic, we’d send them off to check the hood of a black car in the parking lot. They might never look at a black car on a sunny day in quite the same way again.

Just for Five

If you’re stumped and blank as a new field of snow, at least try writing, without removing your pencil from the paper or your hands from the keyboard, for five minutes. Just five.

The previous post focused on brainstorming a topic list, but said almost nothing about actually choosing. Although decisions often challenge me, even I can just ‟go with my gut,” as my daughter says, if I’ve brainstormed first. Students seemed to share that.

taking care of ducks recropHere’s part of the writing that came from one of the brainstorms shown in the previous post, about taking care of baby ducks.

(Once in a while, a student would ask, ‟What if I can find a way to put all of my brainstormed ideas together?” This made me think of my friend John Hodgen, a poet who sometimes seems to have done exactly that: to have noticed and listened to and named the different crickets chirping in the dark corners of his mind, and taught them to sing their brightness-against-the-dark songs together. How could I be doctrinaire about any of these instructions, given such models of make-it-your-own?)

One way or another, all of us sitting in the classroom together, almost always, could choose—just like that—and start writing—partly because this exercise only committed us to writing for five minutes.

I sat at the front of the room, at the little old wooden student desk I had rescued from the basement. (My big desk was back in the corner.) For other writing activities I moved around the room, conferencing, but for the fluency exercises I sat with half an eye on the clock and my heart in my throat, inspired by all that energy around me–and I wrote like mad, myself, for most of the five minutes.

As a young adult I attended Quaker Meeting, sitting every week in silent meetings of collective reflection and searching. In addition to meeting for worship, Quakers have specialized meetings, always beginning with silence, for specialized purposes—‟meeting for business,” for example. This intense short writing in my classroom was a silent meeting for writing, and we were all in it together, reinforcing each other.

Unlike ordinary open writing time, we weren’t asking each other questions, or getting up to consult dictionaries or spell-checkers, or losing time over punctuation, if that got in the way. We were just writing, writing, writing. The brevity—five minutes, no more, at the beginning—helped to create an intensity, a suspension of self-conscious critiquing, a focus on the act of inventing and constructing with words—and that led to some amazing beginnings.

test taking amanda croppedSome students at this age (in this case 12) are able to use conventional spelling and paragraph breaks, even in a quick first draft. 

What about paper vs. screen? I wrote in front of my students on paper, by hand, but I do this exercise at home on the computer. On the other hand, I don’t carry my laptop in my backpack when I’m out walking or bicycling, so plenty of writing, including brainstorming, happens in a paper journal. For me, different kinds of writing have emerged in the two different situations. It makes sense to me for students to be comfortable with both, if they can, and to have that additional option of switching, like having another gear on a bicycle.

With more and more computers in the classroom, I could encourage students who had already developed some typing fluency, or for whom writing by hand involved special difficulties, to use typing in this situation. Increasingly, over the past decade, students with writing challenges, throughout the older grades of my school, have been allowed to bring and use their own laptop computers. While some kids found their sheets of paper and pencils, others set up their laptops, or got settled at one of the classroom computers. It worked fine.

As the days and weeks went by, even the most challenged kids would figure it out: you can write about almost anything if you’re only committed to writing for five minutes, and if you focus on the meaning of what you’re exploring, not the mechanics.

I loved that point somewhere in the second week when kids would start looking at me warily, or actually wave their hands, in a universal gesture meaning, ‟No! Don’t you dare call time!” If everyone else seemed okay, I’d just go for it and give us a few minutes more. This could lead to sudden exhilarating jumps in word count. At the rational age of 11 or 12, kids knew they couldn’t make a direct comparison between quick writes of different durations—but they felt the power of their own stamina, and that’s what I wanted them to be able to feel.

about war2 croppedWhen I did call time, students counted words, including any words crossed out. (Those crossed out words got written first, so they represented part of the writer’s output.) Nobody was allowed to marvel publicly about how many or how few words they’d written. They were meant to compare not with each other, but with themselves, day by day, page by page in their notebooks.

I think of a child who wrote just nine words the first day, and was proud to do that, but even prouder to get to 43 after a few repetitions of the exercise format, over the next week. I think, also, of other children whose word count actually started high and went down, as they worked to figure out how to think and write at the same time. That, too, was a good thing.

So: if you need to write and you’re stuck, just write for five minutes. If you want to cast a line into the file cabinets of your mind, and see what comes up, you can make a surprisingly good start in five minutes. If you think you know nothing about a topic, five minutes is long enough to prove yourself wrong—to prove yourself ready to begin.

drawing cartoons croppedFinally, although there’s a special power to this exercise when a whole group does it together, you can do it by yourself, and kids sometimes did, in open writing time. I could see them glancing at the clock—or forgetting to glance at the clock, which is even better.

All in all, another slogan to live by.

On days when we did this exercise, kids typically had a choice for how they used the rest of that day’s writing time. A child could keep going with that piece she had just started within the exercise, and many students chose that. A child could also work on something else entirely, a story in progress, a letter to an editor, a menu, a poem–maybe a poem in the form of a menu? Some kids spontaneously began revising what they’d written in the exercise; many waited until we were all working on revision together, when I did mini-lessons to help support that.

Of course, the writing curriculum as a whole was much more complicated than this one brainstorm-and-free-write exercise. I want to write, in other posts somewhere down the road, about kids sharing their writing, and about revision, and about some specific genres of writing.

This exercise, though, was the fundamental practice, the opening of the heart, the first opening of that packet of seeds each of us carries, ready to germinate. We followed the exercise again whenever we needed to warm up, or to have a new beginning: after vacations, after the long individual research reports were finished in the spring, or after a week of very little writing time due to field trips or community events.

Writing this, I am moved all over again by the remembered hush of a class full of kids whose pens and pencils and keyboards are making the only sound; whose hearts and minds are brave, or surprised, or faithful, patient, excited—one version or another of busy. They could risk that little storm of intense composition; their hands and minds could work together that long; they could be that generous to themselves.

Think of Five

If you can’t think of something to write about, think of five things.

You have to be brave, no matter what. Still it helps, for writers of any age, to separate the work involved in generating topics from the very different kind of mental work involved in choosing a particular topic.

Here’s what can happen if you don’t brainstorm first. As one part of your mind thinks of ideas, another part tells you, brilliantly and impressively quickly, why they stink. A necessary and important but often bullying part of your mind treats each new idea as a clay pigeon thrown up into the sky of a video game, to be shot down.

In another kind of mood, more easily pleased, a writer can charge straight into the first idea, and never get the benefit of the second or third or fourth.

topic brainstorm 1 cropped

topic brainstorm quakWhen I go back to look at kids’ topic brainstorms, I’m struck by how rarely a writer chooses the first idea, having come up with alternatives. The student who brainstormed the list above chose to write about the ducks, something more tender than he might have thought of first.

He spontaneously added a sketch, and he also returned to some of the other topics on that fascinating list, later in the year.

A good brainstorming list is democratic, potentially including many flavors of initiative, because all the writer’s different selves get to throw in their two cents. Brainstorming provides a gathering place for a non-argumentative, additive (rather than combative) conversation among many selves: the logical self, the intuitive self, the irreverent self, the worried self, the exuberant self. (Never leave out the exuberant self, even if she’s inclined to go off on a flyer. She has momentum, and that’s worth a million dollars.)

If you can’t think of one, think of five.

Our first writing work of the year, aiming at fluency, began with a very open prompt, and the admonition to ‟think of five.” Five moments from the summer that stand out in your mind. Five objects in the classroom that have caught your eye. Five things you notice every morning on your way to school, or every afternoon on your way home.

‟Only five?” some kids asked. ‟Can I write down seven?” A student who said that might not be showing off.  Kids who thought naturally in the form of brainstorms found this easy, and they were asking if they could just keep going. Yes. Always yes.

For other kids it could be agony to think of even two ideas. A tremendously capable kid might harbor the most highly paid, tyrannical interior self-censor. Forget actual writing: for some kids, progress just meant brainstorming any kind of list.

topic brainstorm 3 croppedOn the other hand, sometimes two ideas could be enough. This student brainstormed learning situations that were hard for her. She wrote very effectively about her second idea.

Sometimes, while the students brainstormed, I’d make my own list, on the whiteboard where students could see it. That offered language and ideas for their minds to bounce off, and could model the democratic inclusion of many selves: my wandering-around-in-the-woods self, my family self, even my worn-out cranky self.

‟Don’t ask if it’s a good idea!” I’d say, in reaction to kids who wanted me to approve particular ideas. ‟It doesn’t matter! Write it down! Bad ideas lead to good ideas!”

When I moved away from my own list on the board, and wandered around the room, peeking over shoulders, I could feel the temperature of the group. Some days, any prompt could work. Some days, nothing would work very well. I had to be as loose as I was asking them to be—to let it happen however it happened; to trust the repetition of the experience over time.

Later on in the year, using the same engine of exploration, we’d try somewhat more demanding prompts: Five things that worry you, which led one girl to write an amazing piece about living with a challenging illness. Or five pieces of learning that you feel you handled well:

topic brainstorm 2 cropped

After a while, the prompt could be, “Think of five things you can probably write about for at least five minutes.” (That appears to have been the prompt for the work sample included first, above.)

In any case, after five minutes I’d move on to another important part of this brainstorming. With the kids still sitting at their desks or table places, we went around the circle of the room, sharing ideas.

First I said, ‟You don’t have to tell us the topic from your list that you think you’ll actually write about. Just say something.” That permission to put off a choice gave kids more room to get ideas from each other. I also wanted kids to be able to write about things that they wouldn’t announce to the group.

In one other piece of preparation for sharing, I’d ask rhetorically, ‟Are you saying your idea to show how clever you are? No. You’re saying it to be generous, to help each other. Writers help each other. They can and they need to.”

Most important of all, I’d also say, ‟If somebody shares a topic idea that rings a bell for you, write it on your own list, even if you already have five. Writers steal. They’re supposed to.” The collaborative energy among the poets I know well has been one of the joys of my life. I always wanted kids to have a chance to feel that chemistry.

As they shared ideas, I tried to withhold reaction, not always successfully. I did let myself respond to one common sign of potential difficulty. If a student listed going to camp for two weeks as a memorable summer ‟moment”, I’d advocate narrowing down, zooming in, diving in to the heart of what was interesting. We’d talk about what was meant, in this exercise, by ‟moment,” and why that could usually work better. Often, other members of the class could help that child who could only see the whole thing whole, and couldn’t, on his own, subdivide or refocus.

I’d give them a minute or so to add to their lists, once they’d heard each others’ ideas. Then they’d choose—bingo, fast—and we’d write, for just five minutes, which I would actually time on the clock.

That’s where I’ll stop, in this post. I’m planning to write next about the second “five” in this particular approach to writing fluency. If you’re stumped and blank as a new field of snow, at least try writing, without removing your pencil from the paper or your hands from the keyboard, for five minutes. Just five.

For now, though, I’ll repeat that other “five” mantra that has served so many of my students of every age, and my own writing self: If you can’t think of one, think of five. Don’t ever pretend you’re poor. You’re rich. You’re alive.

In Praise of Colleagues

When I reread my last post, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I had left out something important. It’s easy to overlook something so pervasive that you come to take it for granted. My mother goes to a new doctor, and forgets to mention the mobility and visual impairments that define so much of her present life (along with her continuing eagerness and whimsy.) I write about resources for understanding student writers, and don’t actually mention the sturdiest resource of all–my peers.

After school, teachers gather in each others’ rooms and talk shop. Not every day—there are a few other things to get done: meetings and parent conferences to attend, notes to write on the whiteboards, math manipulatives to locate, photocopies to make, plain old ordinary messes to clean. Still, at the end of the afternoon, for many grateful years I could go stand in Susan Doty’s doorway. ‟Help!” I could yelp. ‟What’s going on with this kid? Why is he so afraid of writing?” I knew she would stop and think carefully about her answer, giving me the same kindness she gave children.

farmer in Crete croppedWhen Marian Hazard taught her own class, before she became the school’s garden wizard, she would wander down to my room and share insights provoked by the most recent book she was reading, about how to help children move forward as thinkers and writers. She often had more patience than me, for reading about education, and, later, for the work of cultivating both plants and gardeners. I gained, always, from sharing what she discovered.

For a while, Kate Keller taught in a room very near my room. When she was trying to describe a breakthrough in the writing of one of her students, she could easily invite me across the hall and produce evidence. ‟Look!” she would say, pulling a file from a pile of folders. ‟Can you believe this?”

four potsOur endeavor, in teaching writing, and in all things: to meet kids where they were, to travel with them as far as they could travel, to help them recognize and celebrate triumphs, and then move forward again—all that was collaborative, in a way not necessarily visible to students or parents.

A thriving faculty conversation is a living thing, like yeast in good bread dough. Over the years I came to see how hard it must be, how delicate, for a principal or head of school to trust and support and strengthen that conversation–and how essential.

three gourdsI also learned that I had to nourish myself, because any individual teacher has to punt, again and again. On the September day when I guided a new class through their first writing fluency exercise, and one child sat in her place at one of the tables and wept for the entire five minutes, and beyond, while everyone else counted the words they’d just written—on that day, like most teachers most of the time, I was the only adult in the room. The student had only recently entered my school; nobody knew her well. So she and I shared something: both of us were stumped. I wasn’t just stumped; I felt awful.

I didn’t scold, since I knew that she was doing the best she could. We talked briefly in the privacy of the hallway. I told her that I wasn’t worried. (I lied.) I told her what was true: that I would ask her to do the same thing again the next day—to brainstorm ideas, to choose one, to write for that little chunk of time that I knew could feel like forever. She would have another chance to try.

redblue turtleI also told her that she could do what I’d done in college: write about why she couldn’t write. If she had to—and she wouldn’t be the first to resort to this at least once—she could write one word again and again, until the second word came to her, and the third.

The next day she did brainstorm and choose; she did write. Not a lot, but some, and that was all the exercise asked for. She went on, that year, to write some pieces that took my breath away. ‟Look!” I said, to whatever colleague I shanghaied that afternoon. ‟Can you believe this?”

I’m telling this story, before I really describe that exercise (next time, probably), because I don’t think there’s any guaranteed approach, exercise, bypass strategy, or technological support for writing difficulties–and because, in my experience, the best source of wisdom, the best source of quality control, came from my fellow teachers. Also the best source of energy to keep going.

Knowing the results of testing or external observation can help, but parents and teachers both can easily make too much of such things. We need to know, by asking the child and by intuiting with all our senses, what challenges a child faces; we also need to offer the bypass strategies that can help. Ultimately, though, we have to do the same basic thing again and again: ask a child to keep trying, and give her credit for everything it takes to try.

I loved my school and my colleagues because our support for each other, so consistently, was support for our highest mission. We supported each other not by blaming the child—even though that’s sadly common in situations in which teachers are hard-pressed (and teachers tend to be hard-pressed.)

pinecone with mushrooms croppedWhen Julie Olsen, having seen me in the hall with a student, asked what was going on, she wasn’t looking for a chance to commiserate about those awful kids we were stuck with. If she knew the child, she always helped me see the world of the classroom from that child’s point of view. If she didn’t know the child, she asked questions that would help organize whatever I’d been able to observe. She laughed her wonderful raucous laugh with a particular twist that acknowledged the profound challenge of teaching—but it was never a laugh at a kid’s expense.

The colleagues I’ve named taught near me, literally or in the sequence of the school’s groupings, for many years. Others, not named here, taught older or younger children in other corners of the school, and helped me understand where my students were coming from, and where they were headed.

We supported each other by honoring each others’ efforts to know each child; by holding firm, together, on the issue of class size, so that knowing the individual child was possible; and by understanding, always, for each other, that all our hearts were doing hard work.

Last but never least, in moments grabbed from the ongoing intensity of our lives, we cheered each other on by sharing our euphoria about progress. I could not have asked for more.

wire sculptures narrowerThe sketches are in thanks and praise for another teacher, Marjorie Weed, who came to volunteer at Touchstone after a long career as a public high school art teacher. She helped me encourage my students as creators and composers, by working with them herself, while I watched and learned along. Mrs. Weed inspired me to give kids time for sketching during our settling time, almost every morning. I was her “oldest and most improved student,” one of many who still value her influence.

Troubles with Writing

According to family stories, I composed mangled (but apparently highly expressive) Christmas carols, almost as soon as I could talk. I used those little wooden alphabet blocks to build my own typewriter, and then imitated my mom, tap tap tap. I was getting a kick out of writing before I could write.

Year by year, in school, I loved most the teachers who assigned the most writing. Mrs. Duleba, second grade, shared her invaluable confidence that meaning mattered more than spelling. I’m forever grateful to George Batchelder, who thought English class should be fun, and to the State of New York for saying (in 1960) that seventh and eighth grade students should have two periods of English, every day—which gave us room and time to do actual writing, as well as diagramming sentences. Oh, and to the school administrators, for letting Mr. Batchelder be my English teacher for two full years of essays with titles like “When Mother Drives Father’s Car.”

Early attempts at humor aside, all my life I have thought more clearly with a pen in my hand or a keyboard under my fingers. In a rough stretch in college, I kept myself going by writing about why I couldn’t write what I was supposed to be writing. Writing has helped me survive many kinds of hard times, and it has been a source of joy, and a vehicle for joy, a way to let joy travel into other lives, or into my own life, later.

When I started teaching, I thought, “Aha, I finally have full right to read all the papers being passed towards the front of the room,” something I got in trouble for when I was younger. Gradually, though, I realized that the hardest thing to teach can be what comes naturally to you. I struggled to understand why writing was so hard for some of my students.

StefanI didn’t take photographs of kids not writing–too mean. Sometimes, though, when I was supposedly writing along with them, I did quick sketches. So this is Stefan (now a thoroughly successful adult) curled into a pretzel to hold himself still for long enough to get a few words onto paper.

Classes and conferences and reading have helped me understand better. I’ve also extrapolated, sideways, from the many other things that challenge me, and I’ve looked carefully at my own bouts with writer’s block. As teachers, we have to value whatever we know in our own learning selves about our students’ challenges. Above all, fortunately, the circumstances of my teaching let me learn from students.

Talking with kids, all kinds of kids, it came clear to me that written language is both commonplace and tricky in human experience.

Books and a long string of PBS documentaries told me that we haven’t been using written language very long, in the evolution of the human tool set. (By tool set, I mean both our physical equipment and coordination, and our cognitive abilities.) We’ve evolved to shout, to sing, to run, to dance. Also to gossip; to complain; to give praise. (So happy, for me, to visualize young adolescents doing all those things!) What comes naturally for us can overflow usefully into writing, can claim writing as tool. Still, we haven’t evolved to write.

Writing is complicated. I once heard Mel Levine make a powerful case for this. (Like many other teachers and parents and kids who learned from Levine, I’m trying to let his wisdom survive his wrongdoing.) Levine listed things a writer has to think about, all at once: ordering sentences; spelling individual words; forming letters; using the tiny, powerful signals of punctuation; structuring paragraphs; choosing between similar words that mean different things, or different words that mean similar things.

Listening to Levine, I thought: well, that makes bowling seem simple. For me, bowling is a nightmare. I stop looking at the pins to think about my feet, and suddenly my hand is no longer holding the ball reliably, and I’m liable to drop it. I’m easily distracted by the conversation of the people bowling in the next lane. (Are they sisters? Friends? Co-workers? What’s this they keep saying about horses?) I haven’t bowled in years, but I remember clearly the sensation of trying to solve the Rubik’s Cube of my own body, to do everything right at once, with all my limbs—especially while other more interesting things were claiming my attention.

I’ve come to understand that for many kids, that’s how it feels to write, either physically or cognitively.

Bearing in mind the evolutionary novelty of it all, and grateful for the supplement of human culture (including technology), I’ve watched some kids discover that they feel fine writing on a keyboard, which removes the difficulty with forming each letter—just a keystroke does it—and makes it so much easier to control spacing and organization on a page. I’ve watched other kids get a crucial power assist from software that translates a voice into written text.

Those bypass strategies for physical challenge don’t necessarily simplify complex cognitive challenges. Writing demands enormous coordination of attention and memory, enormous stamina for making choices and weaving them together. Pre-writing activities can help to some degree. Still, like me eavesdropping on the people in the next lane at the bowling alley, a kid can very easily be distracted by what’s going on in her head, including the other way she considered phrasing whatever she started to say. Kaboom—the two phrasings have a crash collision, and the reader is left to pick over the pieces.

In one of my favorite examples of the ways kids can advocate for each other, an eleven-year-old born writer once said to me, ‟You really can’t ask R. to worry about punctuation yet. He’s trying hard just to keep the beginning of the sentence in mind while he writes the end.”

sad girlThen there’s the endless circus of early puberty, easy to dismiss as generic, but in fact a different journey, with different rewards and different obstacles for each child. There’s also emotional trouble: for example, the kid who is keeping a scary secret so huge she can barely think, let alone write spontaneously or thoughtfully, since both of those require some inner freedom.

Sometimes I watched the struggles of the child who’d been told too many times that he was a good writer, who became, with the self-consciousness of early puberty, his own impossibly hard act to follow.

That brings me back to my own experience: writing helped heal emotional wounds, helped make sense of confusing changes and challenges, helped hold and channel euphoria. Wisely or foolishly, I wanted the powers of writing to be available to every child with whom I worked–wanted that just as intensely as I wanted the magic wand that could remove all their troubles. (Not a good idea, of course.)

I cared a lot about kids, and I had faith in the power of language—and that meant I had a huge incentive to figure out the strategies I’ll write about next time, for how to help kids just get words on the page.