When I read You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie, I knew I’d found mentor gold. Infused with stirring poetry, this memoir tells the story of Alexie’s less than ideal relationship with his mother and how he grieves the loss of her, what was, and what could have been.
I reached for this book Monday as I began a session of PD. On a whim, I flipped the pages and landed on the poem, “Ode to Gray,” thinking it may spark some kind of response in my audience. It’s simple enough. And lovely.
This isn’t the complete poem. I just wanted you to get the idea. There’s one more stanza. Really, get this book.
After I read the the poem aloud, I asked listening teachers to write in response.
“Think of a color, and write about that. Write your own poem, or a paragraph. Doesn’t matter. Just write about your color.”
After writing five minutes, which is rarely long enough, I asked these writers to read over their words and do a bit of revision, challenging them to add an appositive phrase somewhere in their writing. This is a directive I often use with students: We write. We read our work. We revise, often with a singular purpose that ties to a specific skill or craft move.
I walked the room, peeking over shoulders, listening to conversations — and noticed about a third of the group didn’t write a thing. Funny how some teachers are so much like some students, huh?
Maybe they didn’t get the simple task. I guess that makes sense if they’ve never been asked to write like this. I do not think that’s the case though. I heard one too many sigh and saw one too many eye roll to know I wasn’t the first presenter to ask this group to think and write.
It didn’t matter. We cannot make people eat. We can keep inviting them to the table.
Writing teachers should be willing to write.
Some teachers in that session wrote a lot — and they wrote beautifully. Adam showed me his piece about the color black. I should have asked for a copy. All I remember is the line “Little black lies.” It’s a great line.
Of all I wrote, one line holds a bit of promise: “Orange, the color of sunsets, why are you so lonely?”
And then there’s Mary. She took that little quickwrite and turned it into something tender, touching, real. She published it on Facebook and said I could share it here:
An Ode to Red
Workshopping With Amy Rasmussen
Red is the fire of your cheeks as you demand to be heard in the morning before school, on a day I was supposed to get to sleep in late. Red is the fire of mine as I scream back, frustrated, unsure of how to solve this trembling toddler enigma. You want red grapes, I gave you purple. In your mind, they are not the same.
“What’s your favorite color, Mommy?” you ask. You expect an answer.
“Purple,” I say, knowing the question that comes next. We do this daily dance, aware of each other’s rhythm.
“And what else?” you ask.
“That’s good, Mommy. Mine’s red. Red and blue. I love red and blue.”
Red is the sucker, no, the second sucker you negotiate for after getting your hair cut. Just one of the many tricks/bribes that I’ve learned along this short parenting trip we’re on together. Sticky, stained red lips, sticky, stained red teeth and sticky, stained red fingers.
“Go wash your hands before you hug me!” I yell as we walk in the house. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1…”
Red is the color of the bath water after you dump the entire bottle of finger paint into the tub.
“Bubble bath!” you shriek excitedly, giggling, red steaks strung along the sides of the just-washed tub.
Red is my heart each time I leave, and each time I return. Red is the love. All of the love, engulfing me in flames.
I see red a bit differently today.
Thank you, Mary. My kids are grown, and now I get to watch them practice parenting. It’s hard and noble work, and you will feel every color of emotion — sometimes all on the same day and sometimes more than once. But it’s that “love. All the love” that turn these emotions into rainbows. And sometimes just writing about them helps us see every moment just a bit more clearly. Thank you.
In an article by Tim Gillespie, published on the National Writing Project website, he sums up what I believe and have experienced myself as a teacher writer.
Here’s the thing, you teachers who refused to even try: It doesn’t matter if you think you can write. Just write.
What does matter is that our students see us working at it. Just like we must be readers in order to help our students find the “just right” book, we must be writers if we want to know the struggle our students face when writing.
We learn when we are vulnerable. We learn when we practice.
So I am challenging myself as much as I am challenging you: Write beside your students more. Let them see your thoughts, your mistakes, your struggles. Ask them for feedback.
If I truly want a community, where we all work to grow as readers and writers, I need to do more to get us there.
Amy Rasmussen began writing in journals at age 8. In addition to this blog, she now writes in notebooks and on sticky notes. A lot of sticky notes. She also tries to write the assignments she gives her students. She wishes she would have had teachers who wrote with her, but she does not remember one K-12 teacher ever doing so. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk