LIWP Writing Marathon at Walt Whitman Birthplace, May 13, 2017
*Written in the home where Walt Whitman was born
By Elizabeth Fonseca
I was here before for a poetry seminar given by Paul Muldoon and Kim Addonizio. We sat crowded in the simple room across the hall—the other fireplace in this historic home—and talked about poetry. It was so fitting in this environment—so close and intimate with the lowish ceilings—and so like poetry: the uneven floorboards and ceilings; the beautiful blue paint of moldings and door jambs meeting the scuffed-up wood of the floor; the burned-black back of the fireplace with its sooty bricks. Once again, how fitting, this time to write in the house of this writer, this giant of American letters, to write in this old house, a little dim, on a chilly, blustery May day.
What was Walt Whitman’s everyday weather? Was Walt the man as big and blustery as the poet’s persona? Or, like many poets, did he have a secret shy self? Was he reserved? Was his poet’s voice so sure, so resounding, so all-encompassing, the self he could allow out only in his poetry—yet if you met him…Was he quiet? Was he bookish? Did he need his time alone?
I celebrate myself, and sing myself from this old wooden house, from this too-cool, rainy day in May.
By Mark Jackett*
In her dotage, our cat grows profound.
She sits close to our faces,
stares into us with her jaundiced eyes,
stretches out one paw in our direction.
"These are my people. Family is all
that matters. As long as we are
together, that is enough."
She starts the night in bed with us,
but can't sleep, all her unfulfilled
dreams gnawing at her, waking
her from her restless slumber.
She stalks the silent house looking for her youth.
"Remember how you always thought, when I stared into
an empty corner, that I was staring at
dead people? You were right."
Sometimes she curses at us, chastising us for
not filling her food fast enough. "Where the hell
have you been? I'm dying, dammit!" She gulps the
drips the second the shower stops, like the water is her life
escaping down the drain. But it's alright. She's in pain, so we
forgive her hostile idiosyncrasies. Sometimes
she sits in the wet shower, not drinking, just waiting.
She wants us to know she goes in peace.
"I forgive you all the times you tripped over me as
I sat in the absolute center of the kitchen floor.
I forgive you all the times you locked me in
the basement, not wanting my rattling of the closet
to awaken you at 5 a.m. when you'd just rocked the
babies back to sleep at 2.
I forgive you all the times you yelled at me when
I threw up. I can't blame you; I wouldn't want to
clean up that mess either, especially off the carpet."
She anticipates her imminent mortality.
"Soon," she says, "when I stare into an empty corner,
I will be staring at myself."
On April 1 of 2015, I happened to see a tweet from the YA author Jason Reynolds sharing his poem for the first day of #NaPoWriMo, National Poetry Writing Month. At that point, I was very familiar with National Poetry Month and National Novel Writing Month, but I did not know that the two had been combined. I quickly cranked out a poem and posted it, and continued to do so every day over the course of the month.
Looking back at my notebook, I see that on April 27th of that year I wrote the line “In her dotage, my cat grows profound.” I have some additional notes on the page, and then on the next two pages a full draft of the poem that would eventually become “We Named Her Karma.” My first title was “Yellow,” referring to her eyes, written in green ink to contrast with the original black. I did some other revisions in green, and then some additional revisions that don’t appear in my notebook, so they must have only occurred on the computer, before getting to the final draft. I must give credit to my wife, Bevin, because I know that I made some cuts from the original draft based on her feedback.
After April of 2015, I gathered the poems from #NaPoWriMo that I thought were worth anything and started submitting them. Like all writers, in any genre, should do, I read some work from the publications that I was submitting to rather than just submitting blindly. In July of 2016, I received an email, which I saw on my phone while I was Upstate visiting my mom, telling me that Oberon Poetry Magazine had accepted my poem for publication. According to my wife, I screamed, “like a little girl” upon seeing this email. This is my first poetry publication. My poem appeared in Oberon’s fourteenth annual publication. They had a lovely publication party at Gallery North in Setauket in October, at which I was honored to read my poem. Standing in front of a group of strangers, hearing them laugh, seeing them tear up, and talking to them afterward, was one of the highlights of my life. I wrote a poem. It got published. People laughed and cried. What could be better than that?
A couple of final points. First, I submitted three poems for the Oberon Poetry Prize, and the one that was selected for publication (though not the prize winner) is my least favorite of the three. But hey, you never know what people are going to like. Lastly, while one might think so from this poem, I am not a “cat person.” That cat was a pain in my ass. But because I was writing regularly, every day doing the work of crafting random thoughts into a coherent form that could be called a poem, I managed to put something together that at least some people thought was worthy of being read by others. I hope you think so, too. Enjoy.
*From Mark: Thank you to the editors of Oberon Poetry Magazine, where this poem first appeared.
By Vincent Caravana
I never liked to write when I was in elementary school; I saw it as a chore. I can vividly remember complaining to my mother when I was given an assignment—stamping my feet and throwing a tantrum—and I can equally remember her response: “In the time that you’ve been complaining about writing this, you could have been halfway done already!” I moped back to my room and began scrawling out what was required of me. Later on that year, Miss Richmond told me my handwriting was awful and I got a C (my only one!) in penmanship. I again complained to my mother and told her to receive a grade on your handwriting was “stupid.” She told me to try harder. Such is the power of writing!
In junior high school, things weren’t much better. Again I completed the obligatory assignments. Again I dreaded them. I learned the five-paragraph formula for an essay and, as a linear thinker, I employed it on every subsequent assignment throughout junior high and high school. In this “pre-rubric” era, my grades came back in increments of five points and a 90 or better with scarcely any attention to the comments written on my paper would close out this assignment and my learning experience with it. Mission accomplished. Until the next time…
In between memorizing Macbeth monologues and creating a movie poster for The Great Gatsby, an occasional research paper would be assigned. This was no problem. We spent days in the library during class, and my friends and I had it down to a science: If four sources were required, you found five, listed four in your Works Cited page, and plagiarized completely from the fifth. Grade of 95? Check. “Watch the spacing in your Works Cited page,” was my commentary. Will do.
In English 12H (not English 12 AP for fear there would be too much writing), Mr. Merrow started to give us daily writing assignments. “For what are you most grateful in life?” “Write page 284 of your autobiography.” “Write about anything you want today. It’s a free write.” (“Anything I want?! Please tell me what the assignment is.”) This went on for several months, deep into my senior year.
“I haven’t gotten any of the grades back for these,” I said one day. He replied that he knew and told me to keep writing. Sometime after that we were assigned an essay to write on Man’s Search for Meaning. My grade was an 85 and I was crushed. Hadn’t I followed the five-paragraph formula? Hadn’t I explained in my introductory paragraph the three things I would talk about in my developmental paragraphs? Hadn’t I had a thesis and an engaging opening? This was not possible. I immediately complained to the classmates at my neighboring lockers; they couldn’t have cared less. I eventually got over it.
These mini-writing assignments eventually led to a major 12th grade honors English writing assignment, a daunting prospective opus called “My Philosophy of Life.” My dread of writing reached new heights. What formula could I employ for success here? What is the right answer? Which will earn me the best grade? WHAT MUST I DO TO PLEASE MY TEACHER?
And then one day I began the actual assignment and I thought about the tenets that had governed my existence to that point (heavy stuff!). I began to get really introspective about things. It was only then that I wrote my first outline and first rough draft. Prior to this my writing assignments had been an exercise in completion. Though drafts were sometimes required, I was of the mindset that a “draft” meant something that was handwritten; the final draft would be typed on a word processor (Brother, of course--this was the big time) and placed in an attractive report cover. (These were the things that separated honor students from the rest of the pack, naturally.) But I digress. This was the first time that writing made me think. I had started to...enjoy it.
College came and as a commuter, I selected my classes based on times. “I need a filler between 11:00AM and 12:45PM on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” Thus began my Creative Writing adventure. We sat in a circle and had to read aloud our work, critiquing our classmates’ “piece,” when it was their turn to read. “Talk to each other, not to me,” our professor commanded. The pervert to my left tinged everything he wrote with sex, and the girl to my right in a dirty flannel turned everything into a maudlin piece about Kurt Cobain. But my interest grew. I found myself jotting down ideas in the middle of the night, journaling about my day, and keeping a marble notebook reviewing books I had read and movies I had seen. (I don’t know why.) Such is the power of writing.
After college I discovered Anna Quindlen, David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, Laurie Notaro and some of my other favorite authors and memoirists. I participated in the Long Island Writing Project after I became an English teacher and continued on my “Writing has no rules” trajectory. I “gave up” three weeks during my summer, initially to earn 6 (!) graduate credits, but I found myself entertained, inspired, and engaged. The credits became incidental as I followed one particular assignment where we were permitted to find our own writing space and write about something personal. I sat on the floor in a corner and wept as I wrote on a topic not important here. Such is the power of writing.
As an inspired English teacher, I assigned my students writing portfolios and gave my students the freedom that had so enticed me to write towards the end of my teenage years. There were assignments and “free writes” and prompts and journal jumpstarts. There were drafts and final copies, outlines and peer editing sheets. Most of all, there was self-expression. When I graded them (creative writing is a terrible thing to assess since there is no rubric that is effective), I eschewed a numerical grade and instead wrote each student a personalized letter. On the last day of school when I distributed their portfolios, the quiet hush that took over the room amid the hustle and bustle of a looming summer vacation validated all of the reasons I became a teacher; the students’ smiles and pride confirmed that validation. Such is the power of writing.
My first crop of students who completed portfolios are 35; one student emailed me last year to tell me she found her portfolio and was so proud to look back on it and relive her high school days. Such is the power of writing. It has changed my life.
Vincent A. Caravana is an educator in the Lindenhurst UFSD. He has served in the capacity of English teacher, middle school and high school assistant principal, English chairperson and coordinator, and now Deputy Superintendent. He is a lifelong learner with a passion for reading and writing and is a proud alumnus of the Long Island Writing Project, which he maintains has been his best professional development to date.
By Heidi Atlas, Co-Director of the Long Island Writing Project
(featured above with the one and only Ralph Fletcher)
When do you get the opportunity to meet Lois Lowry or S.E. Hinton? Or witness Sandra Cisneros make a surprise entrance into a Harvey Daniels’ writing workshop? While some people may have measured their lives in coffee spoons, I think mine is measurable in English teacher conventions. I have been attending the National Council of Teachers of English Conventions and National Writing Project’s Annual Meetings for much of my teaching life. What extraordinary speakers and workshops I have seen and heard! I urge you, if you’ve never been to an NWP or NCTE convention, to join me!
Keynote speakers at NWP annual meetings have included the hilarious poet Billy Collins, the beloved English teacher-guru Kelly Gallagher, and Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer. At NCTE, over the years, I have been inspired by Nancy Atwell and Donald Graves, two of my favorite writing heroes. I’ve seen the late great Frank McCourt speak, and enjoyed listening to Jacqueline Woodson and Linda Christensen present. Last November I was newly-inspired by a non-fiction reading and writing workshop given by Kylene Beers, Bob Probst, and Donalyn Miller. Esteemed speakers and meaningful workshops give convention-goers a plethora of unique and interesting strategies to consider and bring back to their classrooms.
So many new ideas have emerged and come to fruition as a result of attending these conventions. Pittsburgh 2005 was one of the most memorable. I really felt the need to take some concrete action when I came out of a particularly compelling Urban Sites Network workshop focusing attention on African American learners. It was from brainstorming with people from our site and other Writing Project sites that we decided to apply for an Urban Sites grant to create a Race Inquiry Group in my school district, where the increasing diversity of the student population was not reflected in the predominantly white teaching population. We received a grant for $5000 for the first year, and gathered together a group of teachers, assistant principals, and guidance counselors to dialogue about issues of race and equity in education. We read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and pieces by Lisa Delpit and Jonathan Kozol, and wrote, reflected, and shared. Engaging in this dialogue was powerful. Our group presented workshops within our district, included students in the conversation, and continued over three years. Our Race Inquiry Group even presented at NCTE when it was in New York City.
I presented at NCTE in 2012 with Melanie Hammer, the then Director of the LIWP, on work we did with the NWP’s “Literacy in the Common Core Initiative.” It was held in Las Vegas that year, a short time after Hurricane Sandy. I remember waking up on the morning of our presentation at 6 AM to prepare for our 8 AM workshop. It was odd seeking coffee in the casinos of the MGM Grand, where a few bleary-eyed gamblers who were still hoping to make up the previous night’s losses remained at mostly-vacant slot machines. That was quite the venue for an English teacher convention! Disney World in Orlando was another unusual site for an English teacher gathering.
One fun NCTE convention event was flying to Atlanta with my then 13-year-old daughter. We had been in a mother-daughter book group for many years, and my proposal “The Mother-Daughter Book Group: Engaging and Empowering our Daughters” was accepted. We bonded as we traveled together, presented about our shared unique experience, and scouted out authors and books at the exhibits. We met many young adult authors including Laurie Halse Anderson, Paul Zindel, and Ralph Fletcher, who all graciously signed books and talked YA literature with my adolescent daughter.
The Exhibit Hall showcases thousands of books and programs for perusal and purchase. You’ll find lots of free stuff – fabulous posters for every classroom K-12, free books, and as I said, authors signing everywhere. When I left my own children to attend these yearly gatherings, I would bring back many delicious, delightful new books for them. Throw a Kiss Harry became a beloved favorite in our house, as did Kevin Henke’s Lily’s Plastic Purple Purse and Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox. Of course I would scout out the latest young adult books to bring back and recommend to my 8th graders. I loved meeting Ismael Beah, author of A Long Way Gone, who was signing books for his adoring English-teacher fans. I would do a book talk for my middle school students and tell them about Beah who had endured unimaginable pain in Sierra Leone. He witnessed his family and village decimated by rebel soldiers, and was then forced into becoming a killer himself by day and a drug addict by night. He was ultimately “rehabilitated” by the UN and brought to the US. And there was Ismael Beah – in the flesh - now signing books for elated English teachers, standing on a long line, waiting to meet this literary and real-world hero. And while on these lines, you can always hear enthusiastic recommendations regarding the latest and greatest books from dedicated colleagues in the trenches.
I enjoy one-stop shopping at the Exhibit Hall, since the convention is always held a week before Thanksgiving. One year Temple Grandin was signing copies of her new book on autism, and there was my present to bring home to my psychologist husband. I’d also bring home the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, fresh off the presses, to give to a middle-school aged cousin who devoured that series. In addition, the Heinemann booth as well as the NWP and NCTE booths are chock full of the latest professional books. There is something for everyone. This is Halloween ‘trick or treating’ for English teachers!
Perhaps one of the greatest things about attending NWP and NCTE is meeting people from Writing Project sites from around the country. I’ve had such rich conversations with Writing Project people from Oklahoma as well as Montana. One year at NWP and NCTE in Orlando, a group of us from the LIWP ran into Linda Christensen on the docks at Disney World, awaiting a boat that was to take us to a Yosemite-themed restaurant. We enjoyed an amazing dinner and meaningful conversation with Linda, author of Teaching for Joy and Justice, and other wonderful resources. It’s also a perfect opportunity to meet with our Empire State Writing Project Network (ESWPN) partners to share ideas and plan conferences together. Rooming with soulmates like Darshna Katwala and Andrea Kaufman only make these convention experiences more delightful.
NWP Annual Meetings take place on the Thursday before the Thanksgiving weekend, and NCTE begins Friday and continues through the weekend. Many school districts do allocate money for conventions, so it’s always a good idea to inquire if you can get some funding. This year’s keynote speakers include Diane Ravitch and Ta-Nehisi Coates! Hope to see you soon, perhaps in Atlanta, this November 17? Shall we say Pittypat’s Porch for dinner?
By Barbara Suter
As I listened to the high-school students recounting their stories to the audience of how they immigrated to the United States, I couldn't help but admire their courage and confidence. I remember myself at that age; timid and easily intimidated by my elders, I never would have had the gumption to "tell my story" nor did I even realize I had one to tell.
I knew immediately that the poise and articulation of these students was largely due to the influence of my colleague, their high-school ENL teacher who had invited me to this event showcasing their narratives of their life stories. She is very good at making her ENL students feel welcome and giving them the tools they need to survive in their "new world." I later learned from her that the students had also had the opportunity to work closely with two trainers from the award-winning radio enterprise known as "The Moth" in biweekly, focused sessions designed to prepare them to tell their personal stories.
The "take-away" for me of this performance was to experience the empowered "voices" of these young people, the most valuable gift they could have been given by the very dedicated educators who have worked so closely with them. I realized while listening to them speak in English that once you "own your story," nobody can change it. You are who you are, with no apologies and no excuses.
The power of having a "voice" is not to be underestimated. Without one you are invisible. You cannot help yourself or others you care about. You are not counted as someone with a claim to what life has to offer. You become the victim of forces beyond your control. We all know about and have read about people who are invisible in our culture and in others. It was clear to me after this performance that these students would no longer be invisible; they were ready to begin to claim their place in their new society and they would become responsible, as much as possible, for their own fate and the fate of those they care about.
So how does a non-native English speaker acquire a "voice" to advocate for him/her self? This is one of the most challenging parts of being an ENL teacher. Yes, you teach vocabulary, grammar, idioms, pronunciation, slang...all the linguistic components of a language. But even more importantly, you teach how to live in the new language. You model for your students how to make this new language part of their life...a meaningful part. You want them to be able to learn in this new language, to communicate with others, to be able to communicate their feelings with appropriate words, to ask questions and seek answers. You want them to learn to love English as a part of who they are.
My colleague does all these things and more. She teaches the linguistic components of English to her high school students, but she also teaches them how to use the English language in ways that will benefit them in their new lives. She knows that her students' command of English, or lack of, will either help them find their way, or become an obstacle to what they hope to achieve. This is the work I saw when I witnessed the story-telling performances of her students. They are not only using English to communicate with the audience; they are using their "voice" to make a vital connection to their new culture, to show the audience how they are the same and different, that they are not invisible.
Isn't that what we all strive for?
By Nicolette James
I strive every day to be just a little bit better than I was the day before. Whether it’s being a bit more grateful, compassionate, or disciplined, it is my daily intention to consciously improve in some aspect of my life. With the summer offering a calmer pace at which to focus on doing that, I always look forward to having the extra time to dedicate to putting bigger plans for growth into place. One of my growth goals this summer is to expand my comfort zone in a realistic way that is applicable to my daily life. I wasn’t thinking bungee jumping or mountain climbing so it was much more difficult than I had imagined to think of practical ways to stretch myself a bit. Serendipitously, my friend Kathleen provided me with a just-in-time suggestion. She recommended that I use Twitter to connect with like-minded educators as I embarked on my summer learning projects..
I have known Kathleen Sokolowski for 15 years. We met through the Long Island Writing Project where we have worked together for many of those years co-facilitating the summer institutes as well as serving on the leadership team. We share similar passions and have had countless conversations about teaching and learning. As kindred spirits, she is someone whose opinion I value very much. She told me of her fairly recent experience with Twitter as a means of connecting with other educators and explained that it has reignited her teaching passion. She shared that experience with me two summers ago, but for some reason when she suggested that I give it a try this summer, the notion stuck.
As a longtime gadget geek and early adopter of all things tech, I'm by no means afraid of using technology. I use it and teach it and embrace it as a means to living a more productive and collaborative life. I'm also a very friendly person, in person, but I tend to be pretty “unsocial” in the cyber world. I have an account on just about every social media platform since their inception, but I rarely, if ever, use them. I just never got into posting what I was having for breakfast, where I went or what I wore last night and snapping a picture in front of the location to prove it. I have always felt that if I had an experience and my own memories of it, along with the folks who were there, that was enough proof for me. I didn't see the need in having other people know about it if they weren't there. After all, why would they care? I am also a firm believer in being fully present wherever I am. For me, that means giving my full and undivided attention to anyone or anything that is before me. By definition, that also means not using my cell phone while someone is speaking to me or while my attention should be focused on the activity at hand. It bothers me that so many people seem unbothered by that. Thus, my growth challenge was born.
Ask me to speak to a room full of people-- Sure! I can do that. Ask me to try an exotic new food. I can do that too. Ask me to walk up to and hug a stranger, I don't think I’d have a problem with that. My comfort zone would still be fully intact and unstretched. But ask me to use my phone while I'm supposed to be listening? GULP. Ask me to send out a tweet about something I'm doing while I’m actually doing it. GASP! You may as well request my first born next. I know. I know. What’s the big deal, right? Well, that is a big deal for me, and so I was presented with the perfect opportunity to do something uncomfortable and perhaps even mind-changing.
I was able to face these scary demons at the Edcamp leadership conference I attended recently. During the session, I looked around at a room full of participants all with cell phones in hand. Everyone was tapping and chatting away. They were all engaging with the members in the room, but it seemed that they were equally engaged with those outside of the room as well in a way that actually contributed to the energy in the workshop. So I decided to take a stab at doing so myself. I tentatively took out my phone and put it on my lap. I left it there for a few minutes and slowly placed it on the desk. I tried not to make eye contact with the presenter so she wouldn’t think that even the last person who had been listening attentively, decided to join the others in being rude. After a few minutes, I picked up my cell and logged into my twitter account. I didn't go crazy, but during the session I sent out a few tweets that captured some of the learning that was taking place. It was the first time I had ever done that. Several moments later a Twitter friend responded and thanked me for sharing the information and said that it had made his day. Knowing that eased some of the tension that I was experiencing. I was glad to be able to share with the key statements and ideas that we were sharing with each other during the session with a wider audience. And the presenter didn’t seem to mind at all. In fact, she encouraged everyone to share twitter handles and to tweet pictures of the graphics she displayed on the SmartBoard.
Am I a convert? Do I believe that it's okay to “talk and tweet”? To divide one’s attention between tasks? No, I don't think I'm there yet. I still feel much better about giving my full attention to one activity at a time. Especially if one of them involves people who are physically in front of me. I still feel that it is inherently rude for me to text while others are talking. But I also know that “times are a changing” and perhaps I may have to as well. I don't think I'll ever become a person who shares a picture of a restaurant meal before I devour it, but I certainly plan to share more of what I have learned and how I continue to grow.
This is the end of another year of teaching
But it is the beginning of a respite for the body and soul
This is the end of another year of testing and calculating
But it is the beginning of several months with no benchmarks
This is the end of rushing to meet deadlines and multitasking
But it is the beginning of a season of being in the moment
This is the end of worrying about keeping everyone on task
But it is the beginning of a season of letting go
This is the end of frantic lunch breaks and early morning meetings
But it is the beginning of days that begin and end naturally
This is the end of worrying about assessment, particularly your own
But it is the beginning of being the person you choose to be
This is the end of one year in your life that you can't change
But it is the beginning of another year that you can
Happy Summer to All!
By Darshna Katwala, Director of the Long Island Writing Project
*Inspired from a shared reading by Barbara Suter and the writings of teachers at an LIWP Poetry Workshop
For being a keen observer and being rewarded
For being mindful and meditative and even pause
For being in the moment and carefree
For being able to juggle the emotional roller coaster
For what matters
For being human and bringing empathy to the equation
For the conundrums
For being able to make sense of the world and being cathartic
For being able to imagine and express ideas
Here’s to an exchange of words and becoming and connecting
Here’s to creativity
Here’s to engineering your own learning
Here’s to creating equity for all learners
What’s your mantra?
Find your meaning
By Valerie Domenech
I’m guilty. Ok, maybe not in a court of law, but in a court of educational morality. I am guilty of succumbing to the pressure of standardized testing, of prepping my victims for the English Common Core Regents until they are numb. And now that I have confessed, I feel the need to explain, to justify my actions, so my peers can understand my motives and I can be rehabilitated.
A relatively new teacher, I participated in the LIWP’s Summer Invitational in the summer of 2006. As we ended our summer of writing, reading, sharing, teaching, inspiring, and (plenty of) crying, I left Nassau Community College a changed person—essentially, an enriched, much-improved educator. The LIWP changed my life in so many ways, but it especially resurrected my hunger to write and to teach writing. I took with me the power to reflect, the passion to write, and the desire to share my newly-discovered bag of tricks with my prospective students.
For many years after my participation in that first summer institute, I lived LIWP. Its strategies and approaches saturated my classes. I wrote with my students in class every time they wrote. We engaged in shared readings. Almost every lesson encompassed Long Island Writing Project ideals. I lived the life of a devout LIWP Fellow, breathing and loving everything LIWP both in and out of the classroom. Naturally, when I was first introduced to the Common Core Standards, I resisted them, as they conflicted with what I had learned about writing and teaching writing from the LIWP. As a result, I vowed to continue my current approach, infusing lessons with LIWP characteristics, as I knew they exemplified best practice. I promised to continue to write, and apply one of the LIWP’s foundational beliefs: that teachers improve their knowledge of teaching writing by actually engaging in writing themselves. I reiterated to my colleagues that no matter how much the standards had changed, LIWP could fit that bill, and its strategies should continue to be employed in our classrooms.
I believe(d) that. But, as the pressure mounted to teach to the standards, the pedagogy that I knew to be best faded. Slowly, year after year, I began to write less, my students began to write more for the test, and my classroom became more scripted. We no longer did shared readings. Why should we? Sure, it’s nice to be read to and to read aloud to students, but the educational value I had once assigned to it became more difficult to defend. After all, the English Regents no longer included a listening passage. There was no time for engaging, high-interest passages or texts. Why? Well, that would be doing my students a disservice, for we all know the passages on the Regents are anything but. Write with my students? How could I? There was no longer time to waste writing for ten minutes during a class period, then dedicate all that time sharing our writing with each other, listening to the writerly choices we had all made, and celebrating our writing. No. I needed to cover as many complex texts (fiction and non-fiction alike) as I possibly could and teach my students the best strategies for answering multiple choice questions. I mean, there is definitely more merit in teaching students how to answer the many multiple choice questions they will encounter in their daily lives than there is helping them flesh out, develop, organize, express, and communicate their ideas with others. Clearly, the latter has less relevance in the real world.
But this year, I fully acquiesced. I stopped writing, reading aloud, sharing, celebrating. I started drilling, lecturing, test-prepping. There was no more room for experimenting with placement of a thesis statement in an essay because the expectation of the Common Core Regents is for students to place that thesis statement at the end of the introductory paragraph. And, if I didn’t teach that way to my students, I would most likely be doing them harm. Scorers would have to search for their thesis thereby increasing their risk of losing points. I also stopped stressing voice in writing. There’s no category for that on the rubric, so why should I teach it? Common Core does not deem it worthy enough to be included on the rubric. So, format? Rigidity? Structure? Check. Creativity? Experimentation? Liveliness? Umm…no.
So, I am guilty. Do I regret what I have done? Yes. Can I blame it on the Common Core and the pressure I felt from being evaluated on my students’ performances on one test? Sure I can. But if there’s one thing I have learned throughout my life is we can only blame others for our actions for so long. As adults, we must, ultimately, take responsibility for our actions and stop blaming others. So this is where I am now. I will no longer blame Common Core and APPR for changing the way I taught my students for these past five months. I, as an experienced educator who is passionate about teaching, learning, reading, and writing, will revert to teaching my students the way I know best. I will teach them with a fervor that will ignite in them that spark that makes them want to write and read and share and learn. Because that is not only possible but rather likely when students are allowed the freedom to explore their own styles and interests.
I am grateful I have another five months with my current students, so I can instill in them a love for English, so I can show them that writing does not always have to follow a formula. That a strong voice is valued as much as the proper citation format for the argument documents they must include in their essays. That fragments are valued if included intentionally and stylistically and that they won’t lose points based on an unyielding rubric that assesses their control of the English language. I want them to view writing as reflective and analytical, creative and enjoyable, not simply as a regurgitation of material they have just read. I can teach organization, development, and supporting details without insisting my students adhere to the strictness and monotony that is Common Core. And, I can teach them that the thesis statement does not need to be the last sentence of the introductory paragraph. Blasphemy, I know.
I almost lost my true teaching self these past five months, and although all of my students passed the Common Core English Regents, I feel as though I failed them. Now that I see the error of my ways, I must face my sentence: to undo what I have done, to risk my students viewing me as a hypocrite, and to live with the rigidity I enforced and the potential loss of creativity, enjoyment, and originality. I will no longer teach them that writing is formulaic, the very thing I fought for so long to avoid. I will teach my students the way I know works, the way I know will truly prepare them for life beyond high school, not the way non-educators think I should teach them so they may be “successful” on a test that does not measure their intelligence or ability…or mine.
By Kathleen Sokolowski
(This post was originally published on the blog Courage Doesn't Always Roar)
"You should be a writer," she says, hugging me through the tears as we stand outside the church on a crisp December Monday morning. She was my Grandma's neighbor for many years and the daughter of one of her best friends, who passed away on another December day a few years ago.
Moments earlier, I had bowed by the altar near my Grandmother's casket, climbed the steps, paper in hand. I adjusted the microphone and saw the faces of my family and some friends who made the journey. There was silence. And I began, with a composure that must have been a gift of courage from above, as I am rarely composed in the face of such sadness.
It was a special honor to write about my Grandma, to honor the beautiful life she led and the love she gave to so many. To write something and then to stand in church and read it to the family and friends gathered. It was one small kindness I could give back to her after a lifetime of kindnesses she gave to me.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about being a writer, even if you're never published, even if you're never famous or rich from your writing. At the end of the book, she writes this:
"So why does our writing matter, again?" they ask.
Because of the spirit, I say. Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh at ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on the ship."
"You should be a writer," she says and in my heart, I know I am.
The LIWP believes that "Writing Matters." As we welcome 2016, we invite you to explore all the ways that writing matters in your life. If you are interested in being a guest blogger for this page, please contact Kathleen Sokolowski at email@example.com.
LIWP Guest Bloggers
Each month, an LIWP teacher will share some thoughts on teaching, writing, and life! If you are interested in being a guest blogger, please contact Kathy Sokolowski at firstname.lastname@example.org
Long Island Writing Project