Every teacher knows the week before school starts is one of the busiest of the year; a week that leaves little time for reflective, thoughtful writing. I’ve decided that working through some of the mentor texts in Linda Rief’s The Quickwrite Handbook is a realistic option to keep me writing during these first few weeks of school.
This week, Linda’s suggestion to borrow the phrase “Life is short…” from Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones,” appealed to me. Here is my response:
Life is short, so on the last Sunday of August, the day before school started, when I still had piles of books I wanted to read and at least one poem I wanted to write, I drove for half an hour to meet my friend.
Life is short, so we met at a place where we could walk in the sunshine of a late summer morning through a field still wet with dew and bedecked with the lacy offerings of a thousand spiders and talk about our busy week, our busy children, our busy lives.
Life is short, so even though there was laundry to sort and rooms to vacuum, we drove to a diner where we drank hot coffee and ate fluffy eggs and ignored the hustle and bustle around us and talked some more and worked on the crossword puzzle, just like we used to when she lived down the street, enjoying the easy comfort of our long friendship, a friendship that makes this life beautiful.
As summer winds down, I’ve been thinking not only about what I accomplished (closets cleaned, books read, poems written), but what I didn’t do. For many years, my in-laws had a very rustic cabin on a lake in “down east” Maine.We spent many weeks there over the years. Going to camp was right up there with Christmas and birthdays for my boys. The cabin was sold long ago, but for some reason, I missed it more than usual this summer.
When I was young at the lake, I woke to the sun shining through the trees, making puddles on the floor of the cabin’s loft. I skipped stones across the glassy water and paddled a canoe to the island near our cove. My brother and I ran wild through the forest and built a fort to defend our territory. We swam in the cold water and searched for unusual rocks on the beach.
When I was young at the lake, the air smelled of pine trees and we picked wild blueberries that grandma baked into a pie. On rainy afternoons, as raindrops pinged on the roof, we sat on the porch and put puzzles together. On clear nights, we watched meteor showers from the beach that were better than any fireworks we’d ever seen.
I fished for trout with my grandfather from our rowboat. Grandma always clapped when we presented her with our catch. Then she breaded each fish in cornmeal and fried them in her big cast iron skillet. Once a year, we drove to Machias for lobsters and corn on the cob. On those nights, we felt like kings as pulled tender meat from bright red claws and licked our buttery fingers clean.
When I was young at the lake, we fell into bed, exhausted from the day’s adventures, and drifted to sleep to the lullaby of loons.
Linda explains that “these quickwrites are seeds of ideas, the beginning of a piece to be worked on right away or, at the very least, captured for later use.” I can easily imagine revisiting “When I Was Young at the Lake.” I can imagine a poem emerging from these lines, or maybe a picture book. Even if these memories never get farther than this post, my memories of the lake are always in my “deep heart’s core.” (“The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” by W.B. Yeats)
“Habit is a cable; we weave a thread of it each day, and at last we cannot break it.” ~ Horace Mann ~
One of the professional books I’m reading this summer is Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind, by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick. Published in 2008, this book outlines “a set of behaviors that discipline intellectual processes” and provides teachers with strategies to integrate them into “instruction in every school subject.” (p. 12-13) These habits “are dispositions that empower creative and critical thinking.” Costa and Kallick’s work begins with the same premise behind Carol Dweck’s work with growth mindset. That is, “intelligence is a set of teachable, learnable behaviors that all human beings can continue to develop and improve throughout their lifetimes.” (p. 12) During the coming school year, my colleagues and I will be working to incorporate these habits into our daily work with children. This, of course, will include modeling.
This tweet from Jane Yolen last week instantly provided a modeling strategy for three of the sixteen habits of mind:
* Gathering Data Through All the Senses
* Creating, Imagining, Innovating
* Responding with Wonderment and Awe
Writers won’t get far without these three habits, but we all know we have plenty of students who tell us “I don’t know what to write about.” Kids are so distracted by the world available to them through the myriad of devices to choose from, they can’t concentrate on any one topic for long. By modeling these habits in particular I think we can help our students focus on the world right in front of them. When they do that, they will find plenty to write about.
All of this was swirling around in my head when I went for a walk this morning. As usual, I had my phone with me because, for me, taking pictures is a form of prewriting. It didn’t take long to find five new ideas for writing.
How could you not respond to this view with wonderment and awe? I was reminded of the way the sun streams through the trees at the cabin in Maine where my family spent many summers. My boys canoed to an island in the middle of the lake and spent entire days being wild in the woods. I could write a story about their adventures.
2. Again, a scene of wonderment and awe. This could inspire a poem or be woven into a scene in a middle grade story idea I’ve been playing with.
3. I was truly shocked to see this heron land on the road right in front of me! This is destined to be a poem, I think. It could also inspire a nonfiction piece about herons or birds of the neighborhood.
4. This is my cat Noodles. He likes to be included and often follows me to the end of the driveway when I leave the yard. Doesn’t he look sad at being left behind? This could inspire a small moment story or a series of adventures Noodles might have throughout the day.
5. This swallowtail butterfly was trying desperately to fly, but appeared to be injured and couldn’t get off the ground. I gently moved him into the grass. When I went back to check on him, he was gone. I hope he was able to fly away after resting.
After sharing these images with my students, I will take them outside so they can respond with wonderment and awe as they gather their images that will inspire them to create, imagine and innovate. I’ve used similar strategies with students in the past with mixed success. Part of the reason for this may have been because we didn’t do this kind of activity often enough. Consistent trips outside to gather ideas will help students develop these behaviors into unbreakable habits. I’ll let you know how it goes.
A few weeks ago, I happened to notice a hummingbird perched near the top of a tree in our yard. I hurried for my camera. Of course she had flown away by the time I settled myself in front of an open upstairs window. But I’d seen her near this tree several times during the week, so I waited, hoping she’d return.
My patience was rewarded and she posed for me at the top of a branch. Unfortunately, the photos weren’t great. Only the bird’s silhouette was visible. So I moved over to the other window. Bingo. Now her colors were clearly visible. She even hovered for a moment, showing off her delicate wings.
As I looked at the pictures after she flew off, I was grateful I’d moved to the other window. Shifting myself a few feet, changing my perspective just slightly, gave me not just a clearer view, but a more complete image. I recalled the wisdom of Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan in their book, Assessment in Perspective: Focusing on the Reader Behind the Numbers (Stenhouse, 2013). If you have any questions about literacy assessment, this book is a must read. But more importantly, Clare and Tammy explain in detail the importance of “triangulating …multiple sources of [assessment] data to illuminate, confirm, or dispute what you learned from an initial analysis of one piece of data. (Italics added.) How often does a child’s performance in the classroom not match data we have gathered through an assessment? Too often.
The key is to gather information from multiple vantage points, including informal and/or qualitative data gathered through observation. Pulling all this information together provides a much clearer image of who our students are as learners, as readers, as people. When we have this deep understanding, or what Clare and Tammy call “the stories of our readers,” we can plan and provide instruction that is responsive to their needs.
As July turns to August, I’ll be spending time thinking critically about which assessments I use to gather the information I need to get a clear, complete image of my students. Only then will I be well equipped to do the most important work of all: to help my students grow as readers, as thinkers, as people.
You hear the roar of the water before you see it. Then you face thousands of gallons of water cascading twenty feet down the face of a rock ledge, creating a foaming, turbulent froth just above where your raft is about to launch for a trek down-river.
In July of 1976, when the rest of the country was swept up in Bicentennial celebrations, I gazed up at this waterfall in awe and relief that no similar falls waited downstream. The river that stretched in front of me was strewn with boulders. Little riffles of whitewater danced around them and clouds billowed in the sky above. Dense stands of pine and oak lined both banks of the river. I was ready for an adventure!
Little did I know what a ride I was in for.
The first two rapids were easy. Our raft bobbed up and down like a cork over the gentle, rolling waves. The splashes of cold water were refreshing after an hour in the hot July sun. By the time we got to Lunch Rock, I felt like a pro. I inhaled my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the favored lunch of paddlers everywhere. Soon we were back on our way.
My future mother-in-law, was paddling at the front of the raft, showing me the ropes. “We’re coming up to Dimples,” she said. “We have to head straight for a boulder, then paddle hard right to miss hitting it. “Big Jeff out of Baltimore,” an old family friend, was steering at the back of the raft. “Don’t you dare dump us in this rapid!” she warned him.
“Never!” he laughed.
Again, I heard the roar of the water before I could see what was ahead. This sounded as loud as the waterfall at the put-in. “We’ll be fine,” Jeff reassured me.
The once meandering current picked up speed and swept us into a ribbon of waves. A boulder as big as an elephant loomed up before us. “Paddle!” Jeff screamed. I dug my paddle into the water and pulled with all my might. But it was too late. The raft hit the massive rock head on.
Before I really knew what was happening, I was in the rushing water, beneath the raft. Gasping, but trying to stay calm, I got myself out from under the boat. Somehow, I maneuvered myself and the capsized raft into and eddy at the bottom of the rapid. Dripping and paddle-less, I managed to turn the boat right side up.
But now I was on the other side of the river from where my mother-in-law-to-be and Big Jeff had washed up. The rest of our crew had gone ahead to “play” in the next rapid and were unaware of our plight. Miraculously, my paddle washed up next to me. With a whole two hours of rafting experience, I climbed back into the raft and guided it safely across the river.
By this time, the other paddlers (including my boyfriend!) had realized we were in trouble and came to our rescue. Fortunately, no one was really hurt. Shaken up? Absolutely! But aside from rubbery arms and scraped shins, I was fine.
After a rest on the rocks, we piled back into the raft and made it to the take out without any more mishaps. I survived my white-water rafting initiation! But “Big Jeff out of Baltimore” never heard the end of dumping me in Dimples!
Yesterday, Jo Knowles shared a writing warm up as part of the Teachers Write summer writing camp urging writers to “know where you’re going.” She also observed that “most general advice, if you think about it long enough, can be applied to writing.”
Jo’s words were still echoing in my brain as I headed out for my morning walk. When I paused to check the progress of the rebuilding of my neighbor’s stone wall, I thought, “Of course! Writing is like building a wall.” Not advice really, but certainly a useful metaphor.
These talented stone masons have a direction, they know where they’re going. You can’t see them in these photos, but there are two strings precisely positioned on either side of this trench to guide construction. What else can we learn from these stone masons about writing (and teaching writing)?
Notice the huge rocks forming the foundation of the wall. This will stabilize the wall against the forces of weather and time and prevent it from crumbling. Without a strong foundation, our writing often falls apart. More worrisome to me, though, is how writing workshops can crumble if we don’t take the time to establish the rituals and routines that are the bedrock of any successful workshop.
Look how many rocks they have! They will never use them all in this wall. Just as these craftsman need multiple rocks so they can choose exactly the right one for the right spot, writers need to write and write and write. This will ensure they have plenty of material on hand as they craft personal, meaningful writing.
Themen building this wall clearly know what they’re doing. They have a valuable skill, honed through years of hard work (see above). We also have skills. One of them is to help students view themselves as writers with stories to tell and ideas to share. Without this vision, writing is just a task to complete (or not). Students have to share our vision of what is possible through writing—or at least see its potential: providing the opportunity to “write something personal and powerful.” (Gallagher & Kittle, 2018, p. XV)
These ideas aren’t new or groundbreaking (pun intended!) But it’s important to revisit them. During these long summer days, when the demands on our time are different, take a few moments to consider the importance of laying down this bedrock, of building this foundation, layer by layer. Reflect on the year that was and use those insights to refine a vision for the coming year. Without it, we won’t know where we’re going.
Today is really only the second day of my summer break. (I don’t think the weekend should count.) I am working hard at looking busy and being productive. But honestly, I haven’t accomplished much and feel a little adrift.
One thing I have managed to do is read the first chunk of I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson for an online reading group organized by Sally Donnelly. This Printz Award winner and Stonewall Honor Book was on many Best-Book lists when it was published, deservedly so. At first, I was so caught up in the story that I missed the nuances of Nelson’s writing. I’m rereading now with ever-increasing awe at the power of this book.