The Daily Texture of Progressive Education

My Year to Think It Over took almost two years, actually. Every week or so I looked through my overflowing boxes of teaching souvenirs, revisited twenty-five years of life in an extraordinary learning community, and returned to these questions:

  • What did I learn, over time, about collaborating with young adolescents?
  • What learning adventures were particularly memorable, and what seems to have helped them work?
  • What am I still learning from the comments of past students, now adults?
  • What can I give back, out of the gift of all that time doing what I loved best?

Alhambra Caroline and IsyWhen I started the blog, I had stopped teaching. Finally I could write more: savor wonderful moments, and reflect on them; give credit to people who deserved it; give voice to ideas and practices that had guided me; honor students whose descriptions of their experience had transformed mine.

I began writing posts one by one without any realistic schedule–I really thought a year would do it!–and without any overall plan. Very soon threads of continuity began to emerge, willy-nilly, and those stretch across the screen up at the top, below the butterfly.

If you click on those headings, you’ll find an introduction to each strand, with links to posts exploring that strand. You can also click on the topic headings below.

reading on floor croppedPower in Literacy   I worked mostly with kids who were 11 or 12 years old. Often, in our mixed-age class, I spent two years with students. Across any time we had, students developed real and flexible fluency as readers and writers. With increasing confidence, they used reading and writing to explore the world and their own emerging identities. This heading title includes the word power, because that’s what I saw: I watched kids–in a world and at an age in which they can so easily feel powerless–taking up the effectively magical powers of literacy with contagious pleasure.

Journey of Man portraits 2 editedBeing Human   Within an interdisciplinary approach, we could draw on both science and social studies–and anything else–to explore our human evolution and the voyage leading to who we are. We could grapple with issues our species still struggles to work out, about how to live together. Eventually, students often dragging me along, we arrived at questions this basic: “Can we come to see each other, all over the world, as cousins? Over time, could that change the way we view the notion of race? Or the costs of war? Or the goals of economies and governments and communities?” If you give them the chance, young adolescents will tackle amazing things.

Our Places Max 2bA Sense of Place  What do we mean by “a sense of place” or “place-based education”? What can kids gain from exploring and coming to know the places they call home, and the places they share with others, including school? How far can a vivid sense of place reach, and what skills support that reaching? How can we respect and honor–and take responsibility for–the places that nourish us? These posts explore the teaching and learning of geography in its largest meanings.

Serious Playfulness  Here I gathered posts about our explorations of mathematics, projects river model0001various branches of science, and some related matters. Obviously “serious playfulness” is my own wacky term, but it means what it says: we were serious in our goals, but the ways we pursued them were playful oftener than not. Playful didn’t mean games based on television quiz shows. It meant true inquiry; open-ended questions; working together, taking risks, and getting dirty; discovery and surprise.

playground sprinkler run croppedTogether  This overview gathers posts that explore social and emotional learning: learning to care for each other, learning skills for working in a group, learning both kindness and resiliency. This strand also includes a series of posts about not using grades, because, in our experience, other kinds of assessment worked better to support authentic collaboration and community.

average 2010 betterWhen I first began this blog, and composed the About page, I wrote out of that clarity that can come from life in the trenches. “The world is full and busy and loud with ideologies about what works in education. I want to revisit some real experiences that worked for real live students, and think about why and how.”

It would be thrilling if my school’s approaches became–soon!–the norm not only in published research results, but also in mainstream practice. None of us should hold our breath. In the uphill battles we still face, I’m going to keep these posts available as long as they seem to be useful. Rereading, I’m deeply grateful for both experiences: to have lived that richly challenging and rewarding teaching life, and to have taken the time to “think it over” afterwards. I’m grateful to everyone who felt that this was an important thing for me to do, and said, “You can do it.” (Alex Brown, you’re at the top of that list.)

hands and imaginetsThrough this writing, things I’d learned from teaching reached forward into my present.  Attending writing workshops at UMass Boston’s William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences, I felt again how overwhelming and exhilarating learning can be for the learner. Visiting my dad as he slipped further into dementia and spoke much less, I watched him learn to play a game oriented around spatial relationships. My math teacher self talked to my daughter self, helping her.

Am I done here? I’m not sure. I haven’t explored some topics, or told some stories that feel important. But at this point I am more involved in other adventures.

Meanwhile, however you’ve found this blog, I’m glad. I feel like the host of a fabulous potluck feast. In effect, I’ve spent years working with wonderful cooks. Enjoy! Be emboldened! You can reach me, if you want, at the most obvious email address for someone named Polly Brown. I don’t like to write it out, because robots search for such things–but you’re very unlikely to guess wrong. Or you can share a comment.

From my new adventures, I wish you well in whatever you may be exploring or daring to try, in your own learning life.

Writing to Learn, Writing to Nourish Community

cheryl reading and grinning lightenedMy friend Cheryl Perrault is a poetry Johnny Appleseed, planting seeds, serving as a powerful mentor for poets lurking in the shadows of their other selves. She encourages us to give more generously whatever we have to give, and wants us to see that we have jobs to do as poets in the world–some in situations in which the word poem is never spoken, in which we are poets operating undercover as teachers or therapists or healers–or carpenters, or chefs, or farmers, or physicists.

When Cheryl entered my writing and teaching life, one of the first things she did was to give some of my students a place to read their poems. This happened as part of her poetry and music series Wake Up and Smell the Poetry, which takes place one Saturday morning each month, in the recording studios of the Hopkinton, Massachusetts Community Access channel, HCAM. (Edited video recordings are used in HCAM’s broadcast programming, and can also be watched online. The ongoing series is available to any community video channel that requests it.)

From this series so full of treasures, I still treasure most the experience of listening as my students read to adult strangers. It’s the kind of memory in which I know exactly where I was sitting, in semi-darkness, stunned by the bravery Cheryl elicited from them, too.

Russian Music elegy edit

My grandmother played these pieces in a 1917 edition, from which this is one page, loved to death. They’re still in print, though, hooray, so I can play from pages easier to handle.

Here’s an example of Cheryl’s impact on me. Because of her, I’ve performed–many times, by now–a poem-and-music version of a poem called “Russian Music for Piano.” As I was preparing a reading for a place with a piano, Cheryl suggested that I could play, between sections of the poem, parts of the simple piano pieces the poem describes and traces through my life. Every time I’ve repeated this performance I’ve come to understand both poem and music in new ways, deeply grateful to my listeners for the glimpses into their own lives they’ve shared with me in response.

Last week, Cheryl asked me to be part of a blog-hop. (I like calling it a blog tree.) I’ve learned that mostly I should do whatever she suggests (even if I rename it.) The assignment involved answering some questions I usually dodge: What am I writing / working on? How does my writing differ from other writing in its genre? Why do I write what I write? How does my writing process work? What are my future plans for my blog? In my answers, I’ve focused on writing about teaching, and also on writing poetry.

You can read Cheryl’s very different and fascinating answers to the same questions, at  I’ve persuaded a few other writers to do the same on their blogs, and you’ll find their responses to the questions sometime soon, on the blogs I list at the bottom. Meanwhile, I’ve linked to great things they’ve posted recently.

What am I writing/working on?

In my poetry, I seem to be turning a corner, right this very minute. I recently became gloriously overwhelmed by a writing workshop at the Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences, at UMass Boston. I went there wanting to write more bravely and accurately about my father’s war, and its impact in his life and within our family. Sometimes intentions bear fruit directly as well as indirectly, and most of the new poems I’ve been drafting rise out of the experience and encouragement and rich provocation of the Joiner Institute. (You can read some about my teacher-as-student experience at the Joiner here, and some thoughts about writing as peacemaking here.)

I’m still revising my full-length poetry manuscript, What There Is. Do you live next door to a publisher who’s searching for poetry manuscripts? Please let me know. (Okay, joke. If you went excavating, you’d probably find at least one poetry manuscript searching for a publisher in every corner mailbox you pass. Or you can imagine the equivalent in electrons–since poetry submissions increasingly happen online.)

Meanwhile, I continue to write about “the daily texture of progressive education,” trying to do justice to the experience of teaching in a place where I could truly come to know and work for my students. I’m also trying to describe what it was like to learn with my students, and with parents and colleagues.

How does my writing differ from other writing in its genre?

My poems are more structured than some, and less structured than others. They’re simpler than some and more complicated than others. Here’s a tiny sample, if you scroll down. I never intend my poems to be puzzles–I don’t think most poets intend to write puzzles–but I figure it’s legit to expect a second reading.

I love giving live public readings–but I’m also interested in each poem as a visual object on a page, in the effects of line breaks and stanza breaks and margin choices. Emphasis on the word choices.

I’ve been told that my blog entries aren’t actually blog entries; they’re essays. That’s probably a fair critique.

Why do I write what I write?

I write in short forms because it feels right to me.

Grace Paley, when asked why she wrote short stories instead of novels, answered that life is too short for the writing of novels. I’d say the same thing, only more so. Life feels too short even for short stories! I love working on poems short enough so I can carry them around in my head, but still long enough so I can get into trouble, and swim back to shore through the writing and revising of the poem, learning as I go.

Blog entries are the poems of the creative non-fiction world. Snacks. Well, no–tweets are snacks, I guess. Maybe blog entries are light meals to be eaten on the trail? But I’m still working on how to construct the smallest, tightest package of ideas that also feels rich enough.

Here’s another kind of answer: Both my parents wrote poems which weren’t published but had a life in the family and community. (I’m spending some of my time this summer helping my mother work toward a new collection of her poems.)  To me as a kid, writing poetry seemed like a normal thing to do–as if I’d grown up in Russia, say, or some other parts of the world. (Yet another kind of luck.)

I’m not going to say I have to write, but my life is immeasurably more thoughtful and more joyful, both, because I do. That’s what I’ve wanted to give to the hundreds of students I’ve worked with as children or adults. Thoughtful includes responsible, and joyful includes wild and spontaneous. So there you are, dancing in that same duality–or “creative tension”, in the words of Dick Zajchowski, formative Touchstone School Head–that I’ve sought to embrace in all my teaching life. Serious playfulness. Playful seriousness.

And here’s yet another kind of answer: Sometimes I think that I might shamelessly pretend to write, in order to have the pleasure of friendships with other writers. In some overwhelmed or blocked chapters of my life, that’s been approximately the case.

How does my writing process work?

I have no idea how my writing process works. I have no method except paying attention, and no philosophy except the learned benefit of giving myself permission to engage in a phenomenally inefficient language activity.

I’m slow, at every kind of writing I do, especially poems–and slow at almost everything else I do, also. Quite a few people live in here, and what I say in ordinary conversation often seems messy or slipshod, and true to only a minority of them. In writing I’ve learned to give all those selves a chance. The process of revision, very important to me, is a kind of coming to consensus. Increasingly, though, I hope for the kind of consensus in which different voices can live side by side, and be a chorus instead of a riot. (Still, somewhere down the road I might want a riot instead of a chorus.)

My future blog plans:

I’m posting this on two blogs, on an old, neglected one called Villages, and also on A Year to Think It Over.

I’ve never had plans for the poetry blog, and it’s not exactly about poetry. Pin me down and I’ll say Villages is about virtual villages created by language. I’ve enjoyed imagining myself as a member of a village that includes Charles Darwin, or the Canadian writer Val Ross, or all the people I love, finally in one place. But I have no idea what will happen next there, and this will be only the fourth post.

What about the blog about teaching and learning? I do expect I’ll come to a time when I’m ready to move on. I hope I’ll be able to keep paying for the domain, so those anonymous wonderful whoever-you-are people in Australia, the country of my most faithful audience, will still be able to find the posts they like.

blog reader countries map editReaders arrive from other countries, too. In the past few days, for example, the blog has been read by people in Vietnam and Kazakhstan and Brazil and Cameroon and Serbia (among others)–and even the United States. Monitoring my blog I refresh my memory of geography. A world map highlights the countries of readers, and if I scroll over the country list I see larger outline maps of each of them. This makes me feel both fascinated and thwarted. I wish I knew more about all those people (and their villages)–but Word Press hasn’t yet developed that kind of oversight.

Several people have suggested that my blog entries about teaching and learning may have another future as a book. For  the time being, though, it works well for me to focus on one little knot of energy at a time, without worrying about larger structure. Does that sound suspiciously like the freedom within which I like to approach each new poem? Or the freedom I tried to give my students? Hmmmmm…

And now, here’s your reward if you’ve made it this far through the longest blog entry I’ve ever written. Here are links to blogs by three writers I respect, enjoy, and highly recommend.

Alex Dunn works as an environmental educator with magical power to turn kids on to the night sky (just as an example.) I’ve watched him in action with my own students. He also writes two blogs. The Daily Bird New England tells me when to wake up and view species who’ve just arrived. Tree swallows! Moogle Gaps feeds my map obsession. I’ve used the links to send you to some recent posts I enjoyed.

Polly Ingraham has taught in all kinds of schools, including a charter school where she taught with my friend Kate Keller. She writes about all sorts of things, including overlaps between the secular and the sacred, in a blog called The Panorama of a Pastor’s Life. Here’s a recent post about The Fullness of Time  and an organization called A Better Chance.

Colleen Redman lives and works as a poet, photographer, and journalist in Floyd County, Virginia. In one way her blog is very local, focused on the community of artists and musicians and craftpeople and farmers who call Floyd home. Reading Colleen’s posts about her community I figure they’re lucky to have her, and I start thinking about the individual in community from a new slant–Colleen’s! She also writes funny, observant, and moving poems, and you can find her reading aloud a wonderful poem about her brothers’ deaths, here.


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. 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.