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Opening a Space to Help Others and the Spirit to “Lean in”

I sat at the Heinemann breakfast at NCTE listening to those who knew and learned from him honor the legacy of Donald Graves. Penny Kittle began. She spoke of Don’s ever mindful mission to “open the space to help others” and how he had a “lean in” spirit. Everyone he spoke to knew he listened, knew he truly cared about who they were as people as well as who they were as teachers. Penny said Don had a “settle the soul” effect on those he encountered, even strangers in an airport on the way to NCTE after 9/11. In a time of turmoil, Don publicly read poetry.

Every individual who spoke that morning shared a credo, rooted in the influence of Donald Graves.

We listened, enthralled in the passion and purpose that bound us together as educators — all attending a conference intent on improving our practices to better instruct the children we teach.

I have only felt this kind of community two other times in my career:  once at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Literacy Institute, the other at the North Star of TX Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute in 2009.

In class this week, my students and I read a poem that lead to a discussion about indelible moments, not just the ones that mark us with memories we cannot shake, but the ones that infuse us with new found understanding, new purpose, new hope. They change us for the better.

My experience with North Star changed me for the better. I owe a lot to this writing project.

I had only been in the classroom three years, and I was newly assigned to teach AP English Language and Composition. I didn’t have much of a clue. That summer I met other educators, who like Don Graves, had that “lean in” spirit. They knew how to “settle the soul.”

Dr. Carol Wickstrom lead with wisdom and wit and listened as I expressed frustration about my lack of preparation to teach an advanced writing class. Kip Nettles demonstrated daily routines of writing workshop instruction and modeled how these moves could have lasting effects on writers.

I grew to love the other teachers who attended that ISI with me that summer. We wrote. We shared. We worked hard to learn the meaning of authenticity in writing instruction. We cried as we read our writing, and we cried as we listened to the heartfelt writing of one another.

Heather Cato showed me how to “play” with technology and taught me how to effectively use it for instruction. She became my dear friend, thinking partner, and first writing collaborator, and along with Molly Adams, we started the blog Three Teachers Talk.

Few people know the history of Three Teachers Talk, but I tell it when I lead professional development, which thanks to an ever growing move to Secondary Readers and Writers Workshop has been quite a lot.  In that history are the roots of what Don Graves modeled so ardently:  How do we open the space to help others?

We started writing at Three Teachers Talk as a way to share how we internalized what we learned through our National Writing Project (NWP) experience. We wanted to help others welcome authentic choice writing practices into their instruction. We wanted to stay connected as friends and collaborators.

Molly and Heather have since moved to other great spaces in their careers. I am sure they write other places now:  Molly at her high school and with NWP and Heather as a curriculum and instruction leader in her district. I follow (stalk) them and celebrate their successes. I will be forever grateful for their listening hearts and “lean in” attitudes, especially Heather who shouldered me along at a time when I wore heavy boots to work each day.

It’s belonging to a community that brings out the best in who we want to become. When we surround ourselves with those with the same passion to learn and grow and share, we learn and grow and share passionately — or at least we learn how to open the spaces to do so.

Another North Star TC Amanda Goss opened a space for me when she told me about the UNH Literacy Institute and that I could take a class from Penny Kittle. I did, and my world shifted. My teaching took on new meaning as did my writing, and I met the friends who now write with me at Three Teachers Talk.

So many North Star TC’s have opened spaces for me that have helped me grow as an educator and as a human:  Audrey Wilson-Youngblood, Carol Revelle, Dr. Leslie Patterson, Marla Robertson, Juanita Ramirez-Robertson, and Holly Genova, Whitney Kelley, and Amber Counts.

Thank you for “leaning in,” “settling my soul,” and walking with me on my journey to become who I want to become.

In the summer of 2013, I sat in a class at UNH and listened to Penny Kittle and Thomas Newkirk talk about the influence of Donald Graves on writing instruction. They co-edited the book Children Want to Write, compiling his writing, research videos, and presentations to teachers and spoke warmly of their mentor, Don. In chapter one, they write:

“We used to joke that after a talk, a line of teachers would wait to speak to Don. And each one would say some version of, “I thought that you were speaking just to me.” That was his gift, an uncanny sense of empathy and understanding for the situation of teachers…Before the advent of No Child Left Behind, he saw the negative effects of mass testing — testing is not teaching, as he claimed in one of his book titles.

“But more significantly, he could articulate, and even dramatize, the reasons we all went into teaching in the first place — the challenge of monitoring the progress of students; respect for the decision making and reflection (even improvisation) of thoughtful practice; the rock-solid belief that student learning is tied to teacher learning; the need for focus on the key goals of learning (cutting through the curricular clutter); and his belief that no system or program — even those drawn from his own work — could predetermine the decisions a teacher must make. He stood like a rock in the face of anything that diminished this form of learning. It is a message more critical now than when he was presenting three decades ago.”

Ten years into my teaching career now, I embrace Don Graves message. I thank those of you who have helped me get here. I can only hope I can emulate his “sense of empathy and understanding for the situation of teachers” and stand “like a rock” as I teach my own students through the lens of Don Graves teachings:

“Teaching…[is] a form of research; it [is] real intellectual work” (6).

“…create the “conditions” for writing to occur and for students to become invested in their work” (11).

“Children want to write” (15).

“People want to write” (20).

“…when students cannot write, they are robbed not only of a valuable tool for expression but of an important means of developing thinking and reading power as well” (20).

“A democracy relies heavily on each individual’s sense of voice, authority, and ability to communicate desires and information” (20).

“Good teaching does produce good writing” (21).

“Writing is most important not as etiquette, not even as a tool, but as a contribution to the development of a person, no matter what that person’s background and talents” (21).

“Writing contributes to intelligence” (21).

“Writing develops courage” (22).

“Inane and apathetic writing is often the writer’s only means of self-protection” (22).

“Writing also contributes to reading because writing is the making of reading” (22).

“Auditory, visual, and kinesthetic systems are all at work when the child writes, and all contribute to greater skill in reading” (23).

“The ability to revise writing for greater power and economy is one of the higher forms of reading” (23).

“Children want to write before they want to read” (23).

“Neglect of a child’s expression in writing limits the understanding the child gains from reading” (24).

“…if writing is taken seriously, three months should produce at least seventy-five pages of drafts by students in the high school years” (26).

“Seldom do people teach well what they do not practice themselves” (27).

“Children may see adults read and certainly hear them speak, but rarely do they see adults write” (27).

“A single completed paper may require six or more conferences of from one to five minutes each” (29).

“Without information a student has nothing to write about” (31).

“Writing is the basic stuff of education” (35).

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