Nourishing the writer in the writing teacher.

All week long, Heinemann Publishing has been celebrating  Don Graves on their Facebook page, featuring his groundbreaking  work, and asking educators this question: To honor Don Graves, help us keep his legacy alive. Tell us your story. What inspires your teaching?  

And, all week long, educators like Nancie Atwell and Mary Ellen Giacobbe have been sharing stories about how Don Graves influenced them, inspired them, and changed the way they taught writing.

As I’ve read their offerings, and then returned to my copies of Graves’ work, his interviews and YouTube clips, I keep returning to two central ideas: our kids have stories to tell, and, as their writing teachers, we needed to write ourselves.  Here’s how Graves put it in an interview with Scholastic Instructor:

“ Write yourself. Invite children to do something you’re already doing. If you’re not doing it, Hey, the kids say, I can’t wait to grow up and not have to write, like you. They know. And for the short term and the long term, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by writing. All of us need it as a survival tool in a very complex world. The wonderful thing about writing is that it separates the meaningless and the trivial from what is really important. So we need it for ourselves and then we need to invite children to do what we’re doing. You can’t ask someone to sing a duet with you until you know the tune yourself.”

So, in my work as a writing workshop teacher, I have also worked on my own writing. I blog,  I participate in the Slice of Life community, I  keep writing notebooks,   I sketch stories, and I write with my kids on a regular basis.  As a writing teacher, I am never more conscious of my writer self than when I sit next to a  student and ask Carl Anderson’s perfect question, “How’s it going?”

And , when we begin discussing the writing piece at hand, our conversation is writer – to -writer:

  • what writerly moves have you made?

  • what would you like to do next as a writer?

  • let me show you some moves writers make.

  • let’s try these out together.

What makes this conversation authentic, is the fact that both of us – student and teacher, meet as writers.   We are singing a duet, and we both know the tune.

But, in our busy  lives as teachers, finding ways to nourish the writer in our writing teacher selves  can be a  challenge.    First, there is the  challenge of finding   time.  Then, there is  the challenge of finding new inspirations, fresh ways to discover writing topics.    I haven’t figured out how to address the issue of time – perhaps I never will!  But I have found some new avenues for inspiration.

One, is to read what writer-friends have to say about their writing lives.  Blogs are wonderful for this purpose; so many  writers and teachers are generous about sharing their writing lives, and I never fail to learn something new about format, intent and technique through reading these entries, posts and slices of life.

Every once in a while, one of these friends is brave enough to give these  digital musings printed  form, as poet, YA author and literature professor   Jeannine Atkins did with Views From a Window Seat.

JCAtkins Views from a Window seat front cover

Her insightful thoughts about the work and craft of writing nourish the writer in me; these are ideas about creating characters, plotting story lines, and revising that I can read about , put to use in my my own writing, and then share with my students.  And then, there is the lovely way Jeannine sets the scene – we can learn so much about  craft moves about setting and mood from passages such as this:

The porch is a little too chilly.  The yellow irises are crunched, no longer stalwart but limp from the rain.  Hummingbirds have retreated, so the columbine look lonely.  I fetch a shawl, fingerless, gloves, and thick socks.  My plan is to look straight out into the trees at the edge of the lawn and settle into the place where I left my characters. ( pg. 53).  

As my kids would say, “You are so there, reading that!”

   I’ve also found writing idea banks in the most unlikely places, my friend Sue Clary’s antique- filled barn and home gallery, for instance.  I don’t know how she does it, but Sue is able to find a remarkable assortment of beautiful, and unusual things, posting her finds several times a day on her Facebook page, McCartee’s Barn.  Often , a photograph of one of these discoveries will spark a notebook entry and then a sketch for a picture book.  Here’s just such a writing journey:

immigrants chest
The inspiration: a photograph of an immigrant’s chest by Sue

photo (36)

My notebook sketch and free writing

Although I’m still wrestling with what to do with this particular writing idea, it came in handy yesterday morning during a conference with a student who was struggling to describe an important object in his narrative.

“Do you get what I mean?” he asked, having described his predicament.

“I think I do,” I replied, and then showed him the way I’d sketched out the trunk , mapping my questions first, and then layering my descriptions and beginning a narrative.

“I’m not sure where I’m going with this story,” I confessed , “but my sketching gave me a much better idea about what I want this trunk to look like and be about.  I think the story is ready to take shape now.  It has this mystery feeling to it that I really know I want to work with and develop.  Would a sketch like this help you figure out your object and its place in your story?”

“Sure, I’ll give it a try,” he said,  getting to work on his sketch right away.  Tomorrow, I’ll check in to see how this has helped .  In all likelihood, he will have something to teach me in return.

For that is the way writers learn: we nourish ourselves with as many ideas and inspirations we can find, experiment with our writing, share the results, and learn from each other. We all have stories to tell.