Think of Five

If you can’t think of something to write about, think of five things. It’s not just an exercise; it’s a slogan to live by.

You’re stuck, as a writer, if you can’t get past the first stage of deciding what to write about, or thinking where to start. Exploratory, tentative, risk-taking words have to get onto the paper or the screen first, before you can begin to work with them.

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 topic list can grow as an expansion of an initial idea, which spreads out into a whole territory of possibilities. 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.