By Barbara Morris
I was six when I was shopping in the store with my mom and saw something unusual. A tall black woman in a simple pants suit pushing her toddler in a shopping cart. Yes, in this Long Island neighborhood that was an unusual sight. The wiry little girl with her hair in two tight braids with pink bows and a flowery pink dress to match was fidgeting and whining like any toddler in a shopping cart and her mother was shushing her, but differently than my mom shushed me. More urgent, like their lives depended on it. I watched the little girl with fascination as children watch each other in stores. And there was an awareness I had.
I went home with a thought in my mind that I pondered for hours, days, hell, perhaps a lifetime. Here is what I, alone in my room playing with my white dolls, ruminated on. Why had that child been born black? Why not I? But something more. I felt lucky, and I pitied her. I understood, not that I was better, but that IT was better to be white than black. Where the fuck does a six-year-old get the audacity to pity another human being?
Where indeed? My mother told me stories of being raised in a Pennsylvania state home and being teased by other children and reprimanded by the adults for playing with a younger black child. I suppose she was trying to teach me compassion. But she inadvertently taught me racism.
My father taught it to me, too, when my older sister called him racist, and he became incensed and indignant. “I am not. I just smiled and held the door for one of them at the store.”
My cousins who lived in Ozone Park overtly taught me racism when they proudly told stories of confrontations they had with black students at “their” school, calling them names that sounded like venom spewing from their mouths. “Why do you hate them?” I asked. “Because they’re black,” they said, as if I was the idiot.
I knew it was all wrong.
But fast forward ten years to a perfect May evening when Charles Robbins, one of eight black kids in my high school and drop dead gorgeous with dimples that surfaced often with his easy smile, and warm brown eyes that a sixteen- year-old girl could live inside of, at least for one summer, rode his bike to my house and knocked on my door. My father answered. It was not unusual for me to have boys knocking on my door, not because I was cute, but because I was a tomboy who could play an assortment of pick-up games in the dead-end across the street. No big deal for my father to watch me go off, basketball or baseball glove in hand, with a boy known or unknown to him.
That night, looking out the front door at the boy who asked if I was home, my father pivoted sharply to where I stood in the hallway behind him and glared at me. He clenched his teeth and spit that familiar venom, “Get rid of him.”
As I sat on the porch with Charles, I felt my father’s presence everywhere, especially in the open window behind us. I did not know why Charles was there. I suppose he saw something in me that he liked when we were in math class together and I didn’t even know he was watching. Charles liked me enough to look me up in the phone book and pedal his way from one end of the school district to the other and knock, unannounced, uninvited, but hopeful. And I know I could have liked him. He could solve for x, make other kids laugh, do brave things, and most important, he looked at me like I was something other than a first baseman. But whatever he saw in me in school disappeared that night when I went mute on that porch on that warm spring evening with my handsome gentleman caller. Not because I was shy.
I wrote in my diary about it May 19, 1981. “My father was really mad. I hope Charles never comes back.” He didn’t.
"Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it." (Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale
if only we could change the parameters
whereas a month ago
one of life's collective pauses was perhaps
the hush between the previews and the feature film
which was a mere pause between
those only at the theater
with all of us living our own
on our own
what of the pause of a collective tragedy?
9/11 and the New York blackout of '03
were pauses for the greater metro area
if connected by blood
or some other ties
that wreaked havoc on our emotions
is a true collective pause
a rolling pause
for the entire
it adds time
saves the time of our commute,
of our errands, of our outings
time which can be used now
to call into question
the origins of our structures
of who holds power
this microbe upends us
it can take down the very strongest of us
with a single breath
or unwashed hand
it can prop up the very weakest of us
who care for others
whose genetics or good fortune
keep the invisible beast at bay
so what if
in this pause
we take time to examine
the evidence of those before us
we take time to rethink
and strategize on how to
we'd have to work together
we'd have to be optimists
we'd have to be democratic
but with strong leadership
we'd have to have a shared vision of
we could start again
we could take the reins
but our anxieties will take hold
our divisions will spear us
because this thing
and our fears
will lead us
right back to
the already known
the white man's
tried and true
-Heather Glick, April 23, 2020
Submitted by Dr. Jane Maher
The 2018 Summer Mini-Institute met on June 25, 26, and 27th with eight participants, teachers from K to college, from Queens and Long Island. Our diversity in terms of grade level and student population (ranging from students with special needs to college-level creative writers) enabled us to learn from each other and to recognize the common practices and goals we all share as writing instructors.
Of most importance, however, and this is always the case with LIWP, was the opportunity to talk and write about our teaching and to take the time to concentrate on our own writing. On Tuesday, June 26th, Kathy Sokolowski introduced us to the ways she uses Twitter and social media with her third-grade students and their parents to enhance learning, writing, and communication. The participants were so enthusiastic over the possibilities of using Twitter that we are hoping to devote a Saturday morning workshop to the topic so that Kathy can share and expand on her ideas for other members of LIWP.
As one of the culminating activities of the mini institute, each of us took a few minutes to jot down something we learned for the first time or something that was reinforced during our time together. We agreed that we would not write our names at the end of these quick writes; instead we would simply present them as a collection of reflections from teachers who learned together and from each other in a setting that was safe, comfortable, and provided an opportunity to reflect honestly and thoughtfully about the important work that we do.
*Always remember to recognize students’ strengths when commenting on their writing;
*Use models to inform and inspire your students;
*Twitter can be used with students at the elementary level;
*Give students time to edit in the classroom where you and their peers will be available to help and collaborate;
*Keep each student’s personality in mind as you comment on their drafts and especially when you make corrections;
*Never forget that what you are teaching your students will alter the course of their lives;
*Meet your students where they are, not where you thought they were or where you think they should be;
*Learn from your students; give them a chance to be the experts in the room;
*If even one of your students is feeling frustration or feeling inadequate over his or her writing, you must react and respond immediately and with sensitivity;
*Remember, it’s not the writing, it’s the writer whom you are trying to influence and encourage;
*Offer choices in writing topics and prompts whenever possible; even better, let your students create the prompts;
*Be thoughtful about why students show resistance: it could be that you are asking for too much too quickly, or it could be that you are not asking for enough.
Thanks to all of our participants for making our time together so valuable and enjoyable—leave it to the Long Island Writing Project to find a way for teachers to enjoy working together less than a week after the end of the school year!
Vanessa Applewhaite-Senior, Hempstead School District
Francesca Ciolino-Volano, Nassau Community College/Queens College
Andrea Floresta, Lindenhurst High School
Ivonne Garcia, Hempstead School District
Jane Maher, Nassau Community College
Jane Rossi, Levittown School District
Beth Smith, Nassau Community College
Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski, Saltzman East Memorial, Farmingdale
Jennier Volta, Freeport School District
By Barbara Suter
For at least three decades I have been a member of a non-profit professional organization that I am today calling My Happy Place. This past Saturday, I drove 45 minutes to a community college campus which has housed this group throughout its four-decade history to attend a workshop on using digital technology to empower learners. The workshop was being presented by a younger teacher friend I'd made several years ago when attending a workshop. Her topic was of interest to me as I am devoting some time to cultivating community connections to provide "authentic" opportunities for learning for students.
Flattening the School Walls & Empowering Students to Learn Anytime, Anywhere!
Gone are the days when students only completed assignments for their teacher and the learning would come to a halt when school was closed. With digital tools, students can share their ideas with the world and learn and create all the time! Spend a Saturday morning with the Long Island Writing Project on February 3rd and hear how third grade teacher and LIWP Co-Director Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski has been working to flatten the walls of the classroom and inspire students to be curious learners, readers, writers, and creators through every season. Share your ideas on ways you inspire students to keep the learning going!
As I strode across the parking lot toward the building where today's gathering was taking place, the silence and emptiness of the campus on a Saturday morning allowed me to reflect upon my personal experiences with this group over this long stretch of time. The organization to which I am referring is the Long Island Writing Project, located on the campus of Nassau Community College on Long Island. It is a local offshoot of the National Writing Project which began in 1974 at the Graduate School of Education in Berkeley, California and is one of 200 plus local sites spread throughout the 50 states. The simplicity of its mission is the foundation of its success: Practice what you preach.
The National Writing Project focuses the knowledge, expertise, and leadership of our nation's educators on sustained efforts to improve writing and learning for all learners.
Writing in its many forms is the signature means of communication in the 21st century. The NWP envisions a future where every person is an accomplished writer, engaged learner, and active participant in a digital, interconnected world.
I have learned more about teaching and writing through participation in this group than through any other professional development I've been privy to during my 25-year teaching career. Most of the PD programs in which I participated over the years, some by choice, others required by my school district, never adequately addressed my particular pedagogical interests. As an elementary ESL teacher and as an adjunct in the English Department at Suffolk Community College with a high minority student enrollment, I was perpetually seeking ways to improve or refine my teaching practice, while addressing the specific needs of my limited English-speaking students at both the elementary and college levels.
Although most of the PD offered through the LIWP did not specifically target the academic needs of English Language Learners, here was a place where teachers are considered lifelong learners and where the conversation is always teacher directed and student focused. Teacher practices and opinions are highly respected and exchanges between teachers are encouraged; in fact, they are at the heart of every workshop I've ever attended. Although each workshop has a specific purpose, the model for every workshop is a presentation by a practicing teacher; several pauses during the presentation to allow for quick writing responses to the topic being presented; a followup discussion of the topic with all the participants sharing their "takes" on the topic.
Teachers love these workshops because they are supportive, reflective, imaginative, practical and they offer a sheltered place where teachers can honestly share their own practices and concerns in a nonjudgmental way, while learning ways to augment or enhance their teaching and writing skills.
I retired from teaching three years ago, yet I still choose to attend these workshops because I continue to benefit from them; they help me continue to thrive as a life-long learner and educator. The conversation goes on...over the weeks, months years and everyone is always welcome to join in. I have seen many young teachers launched into amazing careers thanks to the support they are given and the confidence they gain through participation in this organization. Its grassroots, no-frills, low-budget, democratic model seems to really appeal to those of us who have been lucky enough to discover the LIWP and participate as members and participants over the years. The three women who are codirectors of the organization receive very little compensation, yet they devote much of their precious free time to keeping it alive and current despite their own full-time careers and family responsibilities. They are there because of their commitment to writing, teachers and students.
There have been periods of my professional life when I have been very active in the LIWP and other periods when I may not have attended for a year or two due to other obligations, but I have always felt welcome and comforted by the fact that the LIWP exists: It is My Happy Place.
*This post was first published on Two Writing Teachers on January 24, 2016. It is reposted here with permission.
By Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski
Last week, Donalyn Miller wrote a Nerdy Book Club post, entitled “Getting on the Bus.” She wrote, “I am intolerant about teachers and librarians who don’t read. I recognize this failing, but I have seen the power that a teacher or librarian’s knowledge of books has for students and the lack of interest children have for reading when their teachers don’t know much about books.” Donalyn wrote passionately about the need for teachers and librarians to be readers themselves and to share that reading life with their students. She issued a challenge for all of us in the “choir” she was preaching to, that we should have more conversations about helping other teachers to “get on the bus.” She said, “It’s not enough to count our blessings when our own schools and the schools in our communities do more to engage teachers, children, and families with reading. Children’s reading lives should not depend on their luck in getting a teacher who knows about books or a school with a librarian. All children deserve these opportunities. Every year.”
Donalyn Miller’s post was one I couldn’t put out of my mind. I responded to it on my personal blog, Courage Doesn’t Always Roar, last week. Stacey Shubitz, TWT’s Chief of Operations and Lead Writer, commented on my post and asked, “How do we preach to those who aren’t writing daily to get them to be teachers who write?” Donalyn challenged us as readers, but now we were considering the idea of educators as writers, and the importance of that for students. How could we further spread the message, that being an educator who writes is important, beyond what we are already doing?
In an interview with Scholastic, Donald Graves was asked if he had to choose one thing teachers should do when teaching writing, what would it be? He answered, “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.”
Katie Wood Ray addresses the idea of teachers as writers in her book What You Know By Heart: How to Develop Curriculum for Your Writing Workshop. She states, “This is why so many of us try-at least once- the things we are asking students to do in our writing workshops. We live in the world as writers, searching for and capturing ideas for writing. We keep notebooks with these ideas in them. We take some of those ideas and grow them into something bigger that we eventually write for real audiences or for other reasons that matter to us. We draft, revise, and edit those pieces. We share them with others and deal with their feedback in our revision. We write in a variety of genres and forms. We write about the same topics in different ways. We give our writing away to others, finding out how scary that can be, and how joyous. Basically, we try to do for ourselves the things we are going to teach students how to do.” Later, she writes, “We write so that we know what to teach about how this writing work gets done. We write so that we know what writers think about as they go through the process. We write so that our curriculum knowledge of the process of writing runs deep and true in our teaching. We write so that we can explain it all. (2002, 3)”
Yes, here at Two Writing Teachers, we write. We are a community that shares our Slices each Tuesday and all of March. Many of us blog at other times as well. Some of us are published authors of books. Some of us have spent summers with local sites of the National Writing Project, giving up weeks of summer freedom to explore what it means to be a writer. We keep notebooks and have special pens and give our writing as gifts. We share our writing with our students. But are we representative of most educators? Do most students learn to write from a teacher who regularly engages in writing? Do most schools promote the importance of educators writing?
This is a multifaceted topic with no simple solutions. I have many questions around this issue, including:
Educators- to write or not to write? That is the question, and here at Two Writing Teachers, we would confidently state our answer. We firmly and passionately believe teachers should write. We believe students benefit when they are led by a teacher who writes. We have a feeling you agree, but what about your colleagues and administrators who might not be as certain? How can we be the writing ambassadors in our schools and communities? We look forward to the conversation!
By Dr. Jane Maher
Two weeks ago, I got a longer-than-usual email filled with questions from Rachel, a young woman who is going to be teaching a non-credit writing course for the first time in the college program at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. She will not be teaching the course until Spring 2018, but she plans ahead. At the beginning of the summer, I had agreed to mentor her. We are good friends, we work well together, we respect each other, we do everything we can to support the program, and Rachel believes I am qualified to mentor her because I have been teaching writing for 20 years at the prison and for 35 years on the “outside.”
We had initially agreed that the best way to begin would be to email questions, thoughts, ideas, suggestions for readings, and we spent most of the summer doing this. I also forwarded scores of articles, blogs, websites, anything that I came across that would help Rachel to get a sense of the incredible resources available to us as teachers, and I’m hoping to get her to a few of our LIWP Saturday Series events. (Rachel took education courses as an undergraduate, but she does not have specific training in the teaching of writing.) Although I was sending everything from ILA, NCTE and Education Week articles to videos from the Teaching Channel, I felt confident and comfortable because Rachel responded in one of her emails: “I want to let you know that I really appreciate everything you have been sending and have been looking at it all.”
Rachel’s questions in that email were reflecting the concerns of all new teachers. But her questions were also reactions to some of the information and advice I had already sent to her. I had talked about the relationship between reading and writing, leading Rachel to ask, “How do I teach reading? How do I help students work on their reading skills?” In response to information I had sent about pre-writing as part of the writing process, Rachel asked, “Is pre-writing about organizing your writing at this stage or just writing? Do you believe in outlining? Do you provide other strategies for brainstorming?”
At about the same time I received Rachel’s email, I had begun to review my students’ essays from last fall in order to revise my syllabus and assignments as I prepared to teach WRIT 101 again this semester at Bedford Hills. (I teach WRIT 102 to the same cohort of students in the spring semester, so I am able to teach more effectively because I already know the students, their skills, their learning styles, and their interests—and they know me.) I found myself looking at my former students’ writing through the lens of Rachel’s questions, and I began to think more deliberately about the way I was going about mentoring Rachel. Up to this point, I was pretty much just passing information along, information that I thought she would find useful, information that addressed some of her questions, and information that I felt would inspire her. Rachel is one of the smartest people I know, and I remember thinking that she would find the field of composition studies engaging and important.
The question that made me really begin to examine the way I had been communicating and mentoring Rachel was one about sentences: “In the article you sent about developing voice,” she wrote, “it talks about sentence fluency. Is it okay to teach them to use short sentences?” I knew immediately why Rachel was asking this question. She is one of two full-time administrators of the college program at Bedford Hills, and in that capacity she often tutors the students, reviews their essays with them, mentors and supports them when they feel overwhelmed or when they are not earning the grades they want. And the students who seek help are often the ones who are struggling the most, thus Rachel has first-hand knowledge of what writing looks like when it is messy, disorganized, unclear.
I could have answered Rachel’s question in any number of ways, from citing more writing theorists to sending her a copy of NCTE’s position on the teaching of writing, but I was finally beginning to realize that I was guilty of what we accuse so many graduate education programs of doing: All theory, no practical, hands-on exposure. As someone who has been teaching not only credit-bearing, but basic (non-credit, developmental, remedial are some other terms used for these courses) writing for so long, I still harbor a secret suspicion that even the best theorists do not see, much less have to respond to and assess, the sentences our least proficient student writers produce.
I know the kind of sentences that had led to Rachel’s question because I know the kind of sentences Rachel has seen as she worked with the students in the learning center—some an entire page long, some unclear, some containing so many ideas that the reader has to work harder than the writer to figure out the relevance or meaning of the sentence, no punctuation. It did not take me very long to find such sentences as I reviewed my former students’ essays from early in the semester. I realized I needed to talk with Rachel about these sentences, and I needed to talk in such a way that Rachel would more deeply understand that we, the ones responsible for somehow fixing these sentences (read: these writers), must never view our students’ sentences as evidence of their deficiencies, because this leads us to the very solution that Rachel had suggested: to make their sentences shorter. As if getting our students to write less will make their writing clearer, more “correct.” Or worse, somehow hide the fact that they can’t write. I wanted to choose sentences that were problematic, but I wanted to show Rachel that every sentence students write contains evidence of their strengths as thinkers. Our task is not to get them to write shorter, simpler sentences; rather our task is to help our students to see that their sentences can be rethought, reorganized, rewritten, so they reflect what the students mean to say, make the connections the students mean to make, and lead to other sentences that develop their thoughts and ideas. I had been sending material to Rachel and she had been reading it assiduously, but I had been ignoring the most effective teaching tool of all: the students’ writing. It had been so easy and satisfying to send Rachel information and to hear back from her that she was “looking at it all.” But I had forgotten the most important component of teaching writing—the writers themselves.
I will continue to send Rachel articles and links and blogs and TED Talks and NCTE position papers, and titles of books and essays and articles that take my breath away that I want to share with my students (and that I want Rachel to share with her future students), but we have also decided to meet once a week during this semester to look at my students’ writing. To talk about it. To learn from it. And to become better teachers as a result of this time-consuming, difficult, challenging, but engaging and important work.
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?
LIWP Guest Bloggers
Each month, a 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