13 Things I’ve Learned About Writing

shelf sampling
shelf sampling

Lucy Calkins has long been a curriculum mentor of mine.  Her writing for teachers expanded from her work at Teachers’ College and  reaches far beyond New York City.  Over the years, I’ve followed her work, wrestled with her curriculum and seen the amazing writing produced by students who are lucky enough to have teachers who guide and listen to them authentically, deeply, intently.  Lucy brings remarkable knowledge and compassion to the writing process for children.  The clarity of  her body of work guides legions of teachers to bring out the best in student writers.  When I first viewed her video Being a Good Writer: Writing tips and strategies from Lucy Calkins, I felt as if she was speaking to me; only in the final seconds was it clear that she was speaking to students.  Then again, writers are all students, walking similar paths, following a similar process with unique challenges and joys.

One year while I was teaching third grade, I put myself to the test.  The writing test, figuratively speaking.  During our daily writing workshop, I committed myself to spending part of each of those 50 minute blocks to my own writing. That brought on it’s own inherent conflict (How will I conference with writers? How will I assess their progress? How will I be able to observe their work to offer reminders and reinforcements?). Eventually, I admitted this was a lofty and unrealistic goal, so I revamped that to spending part of one writers’ workshop writing AND  two personal blocks of writing outside school hours.  It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t always fun. But within a few weeks, was hooked.

Writing became a challenge I looked forward to but yet was still reluctant to share it with others.  I soon decided the only way to get over this fear wasn’t, in the words of Pema Chodron, to “itch it” and let it grow larger, but to be with it and share it with others so I could witness where it would go.  By letting go of my attachment to “it” (i.e., my writing), my blog audience grew and I learned many lessons.

Here are just 13 things I’ve learned from writing like we ask of children:

1. Writing is hard. Really hard sometimes.

2. Writing is messy at first, but then often brings great clarity.

3. Writing can bring up feelings of insecurity and fear, but also pride, joy, satisfaction and relief.

4. Writing can serve the writer, the audience or both.

5. Writing is a process. A time-consuming one. And sometimes an all-consuming one. It needs to be scheduled and that time revered so the process can unfold.

6. Writing can offer quite solitude or feel like solitary confinement.

7. Writing can be enhanced by technology and it can also bring up a whole crop of new, technical issues.

8. Writing needs to be a commitment to be rich and meaningful (See # 5 above).

9. Writing often never feels like it’s over. There is almost always more (Again, see #5 above).

10. Writing offers so many ways to consolidate and synthesize experiences and information, and just as many ways to continue growing.

11. Writing is a goldmine. Keep digging, be persistent, and you’ll be rewarded.

12. Writers – all of  us – need support. Good organization and planning, a cheerleader to keep your spirits up and a mentor to ask you tough questions that move you forward when you’re stuck and validate your hard work.

13. Writing is to be shared. Somehow, someway, even if it’s something you read aloud to yourself and bow to yourself in gratitude and appreciation.

I’m writing a lot these days and I’m reading a lot of other writers.  I look to the work of Lucy Calkins for inspiration, along with other writers and observers of life and learning,  such as Caltha Crow, Chip Wood, Peter Bregman, Jonathan Fields, Jennifer Weinser, Maya Angelou, Malcolm Gladwell, Jonathan Kozol, Anne Lamott, Anna Quindlen and many, many others.

Who do you read for inspiration?

What have you learned from writing?

How have you learned to empathize with child-authors?

I’d love to read about either in the comments…

Painting, Chatting and Child Development

Between the ages of three and six, children are “egocentric.”  In the truest sense, they  interpret the world from their own point of view.  Their  world revolves around them.   As Piaget’s research showed, they tend to think everyone else  thinks or sees the same things they do.

Around the same time, the are also entering the early stages of cooperative play.  As Nancy Carlsson Paige writes in Taking Back Childhood, “..children this age often love to play together, and they usually play best when their interest coincide – that is, when they like to do or play the same things.”  As this interaction between two three-and-a-half year old  painters illustrates, children are just reaching out to others, but are still firmly rooted in their own world.

Elle and James (pseudonyms, of course)  are using craypas, liquid water-color paint and books with photos of leaves to paint leaves.  The only guideline was to one color paint at a time.

James (looking at Elle’s work):  I have green. Now I am going to out some yellow in mine.  (Dips in yellow jar).

Elle (looking sideways but not turning head):  I am going to put some green on MINE.  That okay with you?

James:  Yeah.

Elle: It’s good to share.

James: I know, I know.

side by side

The pair resumes working  and they  share amicably and then begin quietly discussing the colors on their leaves.

James: Look at my beautiful side, Um… look at mine!

Elle:  Look at MINE!

James: Ah, mine is beautiful, MINE IS BEAUTIFUL!

Elle:   This is how we make beautiful colors! I  have green now! LOOK!

James: No it WAS green!

Elle: Look Miss Lisa! We made green.

James: No, I tell ya, it WAS green.

Elle: Well, that’s how I made it!

James: That’s how I made it.

Elle: I made it!

working together, talking together

After experimenting with splatter painting, the two quietly and  independently bring  their paint jars to the sink to clean up their brushes and jars (but not necessarily the collateral splatters, until they were pointed out!)

To the casual observer, this interaction is simply child’s play. After years of teaching, Chip Wood’s workshop on Child Development Matters, provided some recalibrating of my teacher’s eyes.  Chip spoke so eloquently about the characteristics of development from ages 4 through 14 and how teachers and parents can capitalize on the strengths of each stage.  So while these two nearly -fours were beginning to talk to each other in meaningful, interactive ways, the conversation would slowly creep into a near-conflict as each child’s perspective began to take precedence.  Then as  their egocentric nature bubbled up, the ensuing silence allowed them to refocus on painting and the conversation would pick up again.  Other times, a seemingly small disagreement heated up and a simple question like, “what else could you do with the paint?” or “is there another way you could share?” helped these two painters quickly re-engage in a more calm manner.  As a result of reflective questions, these children were given the space to develop their interactions without the pressure to comply with absolute rules. These small conversations about paint and their work are practice for the give and take of cooperative problem solving that comes regularly in upper grades and throughout life.

Stages of development are cyclical, typically lasting about 6 months.  Checking  in on where your child is and how you can support him is  something you can schedule for around birthdays and half birthdays. Whether you’re a teacher or a parent, taking time to reflect on developmental hallmarks and growth patterns periodically can help bring out the best in children.  It also lets you to see their world better through their eyes and perhaps even get a chuckle or two along the way!

Ernestine Buckmeister Teaches Us A Lesson

The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister by Linda Ravin Lodding

Last week I wrote  Patience, Grasshopper with 6 tips for settling into the new school year.   As I revised it, it occurred to me that I left off some pretty basic ways families can slow down and live in the present moment, as they settle into new routines. And then I remembered the valuable lessons Ernestine Buckmeister teaches us.

In fact, these are so basic, these lesson  stare us in the face yet often defy recognition.

  1. Play. Be silly. Pretend.
  2. Be outside. Observe. Enjoy.
  3. Once in a while, scrap the busy calendar.

Just ask Ernestine, and she’ll show you.  She’s the uber-scheduled heroine who pals around with Nanny O’Dear each week. Ernestine’s calendar includes yodeling, yoga, karate, and knitting, just to name a few.  Like many children, Ernestine’s  busy schedule is set up by her well-meaning and loving parents, who themselves are so busy at work, that have outsourced the supervision of Ernestine’s schedule to the trusted and venerable Nanny.

Any of this sounding hauntingly familiar?

Sure, we’re all busy.  Especially if we are raising kids and working to ensure there’s a roof over head, food on the table, and generally provide for the myriad of needs and wants that come with raising a family. It’s easy to think the hectic pace is just “us.”  Recently, I asked a friend how she was, her was her response was, “ah, well (l-o-n-g sigh)… You know, I am in that marathon that starts September 1 and ends in June.”  Yikes.

But most of us can empathize.  It might feel like you are isolated or perhaps that you are an 0utlier, but you are not alone. But as a teacher who sees dozens families do the same juggle each year, believe me, you are not alone.  Most of us are doing “it”  – the marathon, the juggle, the merry-go-round, the circus, whatever name you give “it.”  Some of us have the courage stop the madness and slow down. Even little Ernestine summoned the courage to stop for an afternoon. Be brave. Be bold. Stop your own personal circus just for an afternoon. If you haven’t tried it, plan on trying it. Go ahead, put it in your calendar and see what happens!

Engage your family in a discussion about what the new schedule feels like. Do you have kids that like to have something most days? Or would they enjoy an afternoon home with you to putter around? Honor those plans to take a day off.  Research shows our kids need that down time from unstructured play, so no need to beat yourself up for skipping those yodeling lessons. Time in the back yard or painting at the kitchen table along side of you will give your child time to decompress, consolidate learning from a full day at school, connect to you and broaden expressive language or problem solving skills. If you don’t feel like you can make a preemptive strike, then tread carefully. Watch for signs of over load.  And when the schedule feels too full, patience is waning,  or a cold is coming on –  take a tip from Ernestine. Schedule a day off and see what joys you can find!

Need some convincing? Let Ernestine show you or herself.  Check out her story with a  peek at the pages.

Once inside, I think you’ll concur. Linda Lodding skillfully captures modern-day childhood at it’s best and not-so-best. Well-intention parents, like the Buckmeisters, often forget that time with loved ones, time alone and certainly, time and space to explore and play are critical to childhood.   Lodding’s tongue-twisting names,  hilarious text, and lessons on the importance of play are complimented by Suzanne Beaky’s whimsical illustrations.  It’s a combination that immediate attracts and then sustains the readers’ attention to create a lasting story that let’s us all find  personal connections. Ernestine is sure to earn her place among such classic literary  heroines as Clementine, Eloise, Madeline, Ramona and Junie B. Jones!

Kevin Freddy, the Blue Turtle

It’s been seven days of preschool or just four days, depending on whether my friends come three days or five. I’m nursing my first cold but I’m also already in love with these wee ones.  Like having a new-born, the first few weeks in preschool are full of energy, effort, and often, sheer exhaustion.  The love comes slowly, but surely, as we get to know each other.  There’s so much in front of them that’s new and different. Some are excited. Some are scared. Some are overwhelmed. And so are the children of these parents!   We’ve begun to see those irresistible smiles and hear those giggles as these three-year olds become aware and engaged in their new home away from home.

One day last week, one of my wee ones was having a particularly hard transition. There were tears, as we’ve had each day.  Buckets full.  Four of us sat nibbling on snack, suddenly the whimpers and shaking on my lap stopped and he yelled, “Miss Lisa – A SPIIIIIDER!” Of course, all four boys shuffled away from the table right away.  We let the big ‘ole daddy long legs back out the window.   As we watched him scamper away, the former crier remembered the box turtle we had watched the day before on the playground.  As they recanted what we observed, I was silently praising the Mighty God of Arachnids who seemed to be responsible for  squelching  this morning’s sadness.   I snapped back into the moment to notice that all three boys were excitedly talking about yesterday’s turtle to each other (real give-and-take conversation not always heard among threes!).

Their collective memory was that this box turtle was blue.  It was clearly time to seize their excitement and move on the blue turtle concept.  “You know what we could do today? We could make a blue turtle for our room!”I suggest with nearly as much enthusiasm as my friends.  They looked at me in disbelief and then started cheering, “blue turrtle…yeah!”  Our conversation quickly turned to what it would look like, what we would need, and what the turtle would have – a sword (“actually, at our school we keep everyone safe and a sword wouldn’t feel safe.”), a magic wand (“that’s possible.”), or a motorcycle (really not sure where this came from but they all seemed convinced our turtle should ride on one, so that might come next).

a sketch of our ideas

So as our first mini-project, these boys helped me gather our materials.  We talked through what shape the turtle would be, how many legs it would have, and how big the head would be relative to the shell.  We discovered how to use stubby paint brushes and work together to paint the shell and legs. We searched high and low for materials to use for a head.  As the turtle dried, we moved to imaginary play with small animals and the habitat we built on a low table.  Their minds were still on the turtle, and we began to discuss the name.  The former crier was insistent that it would be “Kevin.”  The others agreed and one added, “we can call him ‘Freddy’ for short!”

painting blue and green

Moments before we packed up to go, someone noticed (the 2-dimensional) Kevin Freddy was dry.  We had already crumpled paper to stuff his painted shell, so we quickly assembled Kevin Freddy.   As lots of proud smiles and loving hugs were exchanged,  we said good-bye for the day, knowing Kevin Freddy would be ready to introduce to the rest of our friends the next day.  When I returned alone to our room,  I hung Kevin Freddy on the wall and smiled.  We had made significant headway in building our class community, beginning with a feeling of safety and risk taking these little guys got from capitalizing on their impressions of a box turtle and subsequent conversations. These wee ones were able to share their ideas and become engaged in their own learning.  Surely, this was just the first of many collaborations  to come this year.   Kevin Freddy serves as reminder that simple actions of listening and engaging children gives them both the permission and freedom to  grow. And the for me, yields the added bonus of making all the effort so worth the investment!

Kevin Freddy, put together

Every Life Has a Story To Tell

Teaching is a tough profession. I was surprised to learn from Mike Anderson that there is actually research that places it in the top 10 most stressful jobs.  (Gosh,  I didn’t think it was that bad!)  Anecdotally, we do know the stresses of school are multi-layered – from the increased demands to meet testing standard and/or school standards, the impetus to do more with less (human resources), a variety of learning styles and needs, the day-to-day schedule in most school, and oh, yes, a family and personal life.

But folks do it every day.  Thousands of excellent teachers work far more than 35 or 40 hours a week, refusing to turn in receipts for items they purchase, reading books, attending conferences on their time and often at their expense, and working with children and families in more ways than they are “required.”

Exceptional teachers are passionate about learning – their student’s learning and their own learning.  They also have deep interests in some aspect of learning – content, stage of development, curriculum, some niche of their work, which drives them to know more and do more.  They get lost in that quest to know more and begin to connect the dots – many of them doing so with amazing skill and insight. Sometimes that’s in the gathering of materials or the presentation of a lesson or the teaching space. Or in the daily interactions with children and the careful words they choose to listen to, guide and move forward with a child.

Often, these passionate teachers put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to reflect on what the observe, the data they collect, the musings and wonderings of how those smaller pieces fit together to answer questions, drive instruction and enhance the learning experience.  Not everyone is in a place to write and share their observations and wonderings, but it’s an invaluable practice we all should embrace at least once in a career.

Every life has a story worth telling.  Often it’s simply the logistics and white noise of life that hinders you from moving forward and writing.  As with running or swimming  or kicking a bad habit, once you get into a regular groove, you will find it to be something you look forward to. The payoff for the time invested becomes clear as soon as it’s solidified as a habit.

Where to start? Start small. Simple. Start with a medium you are comfortable with using. A moleskin journal stashed in your bag that you jot notes in over a cup of tea or while you wait for the train. A word document you keep a date with twice a week to reflect on classroom life. That nifty voice-recorder feature on your smart phone that you can ramble on to as you commute home (and if you’re a real techie, you’ll get it transcribe with voice recognition software!).

If journal writing isn’t for you, look for a colleague (in your building, in another or even on-line) with whom you can regularly engage in dialogue about your practice and each offer each other a safe and genuine venue to listen and move forward without judgment or expectation.

If you start this process and hold yourself accountable to your personal and private editorial schedule, you’ll be surprised at how enlightening it can be. Reflective writing can bring clarity to an issue, remind you of those small and large victories won every day, and can help you deepen your teaching.

John Dewey (yes, a distant relative) identified three characteristics of reflection that are worth keeping in mind as you reflect:

  • open-mindedness – be willing to listen to more than one side
  • responsibility – the careful  consideration of the consequences of your actions
  • whole-heartedness – a commitment to seek every opportunity to learn

These characteristics can be simultaneously simple and complex. Honesty is at the core of  this dichotomy. By keeping your observations factual and being true to your feelings, you’ll be able to get to the root of the issue or see opportunity in a new light. Be open to the feelings journal invokes. Honor the responsibility to own your own development as a person and a professional. Dig into your observations, writing and teaching with whole-heartedly and see what you gain.

If you’re already a journal-er, then keep on going! Share your work or encourage a colleague. If this is new to you, be brave, my friend. Make a commitment to write a few times a week through Thanksgiving and see where you are with your writing, your teaching, and your sense of your self.  Who knows, you might end up sharing that story you have to tell with some readers!