Save the National Writing Project

Of Paint and Poetry: Strengthening Literacy Through Art.

“Van Gogh screwed up,” a student proclaimed. “He chose such bright colors and sharp angles so the painting seems full of energy. If he wanted to show his friends how relaxing and peaceful his house was so they’d come visit him, he should have used softer colors and more rounded edges.” Another student agreed, “Yeah, he should’ve done another draft”.

This dialogue did not take place in an art class. Instead these students critiqued Vincent van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles in my English classroom. We had just begun a discussion on word choice in poetry. Too often my students use any word their thesaurus supplies or any that serves their rhyming need with little thought of intentionality. Though I have railed against this practice in the past, I made little headway.  The poems created after this mini-lesson linked to art are more successful. Coming at it from another perspective – a visual one- is key to this success. It is not, however, how I ever thought I would teach reading and writing.

Taking the Long View: Lessons Learned from Rocio

“You know how the bus goes?” she asked in a panic. No, but we’ll figure it out together.” I was taking Rocio home one day when she’d stayed after for extra help. Because her family didn’t have a car, she’d never been driven directly to school. As we wended our way through most of the district following the bus route, she pointed the homes of her friends along the way. After driving for fifteen minutes, we found ourselves right where we’d started. We both laughed when she pointed and said, “Look there’s the school again.” Two more turns later and we were at her house.

Rocio was one of 125 eighth graders I taught in a suburban middle school about an hour outside of Philadelphia. English Language Learners comprise about thirty percent of the school’s student body. Most come from a highly impoverished state in Mexico, Guanajuato, to work in our town’s mushroom industry. At the time I marveled not that Rocio couldn’t take us to her house directly, but that the bus route was so circuitous. Now when I look back on my year with Rocio, I more fully understand that learning can be circuitous too.

Remaining Seated: Lessons Learned by Writing

Every time my writing group meets I’m working on something new. That’s not because I’m such a prolific writer. It’s because I’m such a prolific avoider. In the past year I’ve written a first draft of an article on English Language Learners and literature circles, a first draft of an essay on heroism, a first draft of a piece on the potato famine. Even as I sit here now I am avoiding revising an article on using art in the English classroom because I know that it will be hard.

Writing is hard. Professional writers will tell you that. At this moment I am struggling to keep myself from jumping up to find quotes from Patricia MacLachlan and others to support this point. I know Don Murray’s book, Shoptalk, will give me just what I need. But what I really need is to remain at my keyboard and write.

As a teacher of writing, writing is one of the most important things I can do for my kids. I need to put myself in their place on a continual basis so that I more fully understand what I am asking them to do. How can I know what difficulties they face if I don’t face them too? How will I know what strategies to suggest if I have not tried them first? How will I know the joy they experience when they are genuinely pleased with a draft if I have not felt the same joy? English teachers will often say that they are too busy teaching writing to write. For most that means they are too busy grading papers to write. What they fail to understand is that they will produce better writers if they pick up a pen for something more than evaluation. If they do, they will learn far more about teaching writing than any instructor’s manual can ever tell them.


These are the introductions to three articles I’ve had published in the past ten years, articles that never would have been written had it not been for the National Writing Project. Prior to my participation with NWP, I never dreamed of attempting such a thing because I didn’t see myself as a writer. Because I write, I am much more reflective about my teaching.  Moreover, the ideas contained in these articles were grown through my relationship with other teachers across the country in networks established by the National Writing Project.

Simply put, my students are better writers and readers because of my involvement in NWP. We must do everything in our power to see it refunded, so that no teacher is denied the opportunity to better herself for her students. Ever.

Published in: on March 21, 2011 at 12:08 am  Leave a Comment  

Know Thy Students


I recently attended my elementary school reunion. That’s right – elementary school. Lest you think I’m a junkie for nostalgia, you should know that I haven’t been to any of my high school reunions. Though I was editor of the paper, played sports, performed in music groups, I reasoned that in a class of sixteen hundred I wouldn’t know enough people who attended  to make it worthwhile. No worries of this kind  for a Hiawatha reunion, especially when it was organized by two of my all-time favorite teachers, Mr. Biglin and Mr. Naso.

“You used to live next to the Auditores, didn’t you?” Mr. Naso remembered my mom was a nurse and my dad a principal. He told me he would never forget the story I wrote that won a county writing contest.  That my teacher recalled so much about me is not so much flattering as it is amazing. It’s been thirty-two years since I was in sixth grade. Meanwhile I often can’t recall students’ names months after I’ve taught them – pieces they wrote, where they sat, who their best friend was yes,  but not their names.

What makes Mr. Naso’s memory all the more impressive is that he can recite this kind of information about most of my classmates. While my girlfriend and I struggled to remember who was in our class ( Despite being good friends through junior high school, I hadn’t remembered that she was in my class), he knew not only where they lived as kids, who their brothers and sisters were, but also what they’re doing now. Mr. Biglin, my fifth grade teacher, can do the same thing.

Both men were very good teachers. I remember falling in love with the political process in Mr. Biglin’s class. It was the first presidential election I’d ever paid attention any mind. His explanation of how the system worked and passion for the process has stayed with me. Of course, this was also the year we needed to learn about hygiene – the necessity of showering daily, using deodorant, and the like. This  advice was dispensed by someone we saw as a big brother who gave us the skinny on what grown-ups do. The following year Mr. Naso demonstrated multiplying and dividing fractions over and over to me through my tears. He asked us to create our own Utopias and watched as they played out. When he wasn’t calling me a “woman’s libber”,  he applauded my every effort. But more than their adeptness at delivering material, I will always remember their kindness.

Both men encouraged me to play whatever game of ball the boys had organized at recess despite the boys’ reluctance to have me join them. I wasn’t proficient at any sport, but they knew I wasn’t welcome to gossip with the girls on the swings. When I won that short story contest as a sixth grader, Mr. Biglin came in to make a fuss over me in front of the rest of the class. Mr. Naso challenged girls in our class who were trying out for an all-star softball team when they hadn’t played as I did at recess. They saw my struggles and went out of their way to make my days just a little bit brighter.

More than wanting to reconnect with kids from the old neighborhood though I had a wonderful time doing so, it was because of these acts of kindness that I drove five hours to see them. I needed to say thank you. It turns out that they continued to teach me that night. Everyone in attendance had a similar story to tell about the two of them. I need to be more than thankful. I need to be mindful to be just as attentive to my own students. To know them and show them I care. To be the kind of teacher Mr. Biglin and Mr. Naso were for me.

Published in: on August 22, 2009 at 8:15 pm  Comments (1)  

A Day in The Life of a Summer Institute


I wrote the following after our first day of class to catalogue all that we did. I decided to steal liberally from Mark Twain and write it as if I were Huck Finn, which explains Mark’s consternation above.

You don’t know about me without you have spoken with a friend who’s taken an Institute by the name of The Summer Writing Invitational; but that ain’t no matter. That Institute was made by the PA Writing and Literature Project, and your friend told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Maggie, or Kathryn, or maybe Jon-Paul. Course, some stretchers is likely to improve a story, so don’t mind’em none.

Now the way that the day winds up is this: Brenda and Judy made us write for twenty whole minutes about “And so it began…” Lots of us struggled to get our brains working so early of a morning, but eventually we allowed to being a little intimidated and excited at our prospects. A few gals are in the family way and shared about that. Though some of us were afeared about reading our writing aloud, it was an awful sight of words we made all piled up at the end.

Well, that Brenda then gave us some colored goop and asked us to make something important to us out of it. Me, I made a raft, but some other folks made dogs, and cowboy hats and one nice lady made a mouth eating peas. Course, no grown-up lets you play  less’en they want something else. That Brenda made us write some more. Then we read part of an article by a right smart feller named Don Murray, so we could think on our writing process. Well, what do you think about that?

Next Judy asked us to recount every blessed thing we dun yesterday. It took me a while to get it all down. Oops, I forgot to put frog-giggin on my list. Then Brenda asked us to sketch some place important to us to help our memories. I chose the Widow’s house.  Even though she tried to civilize me, she’s right nice, treating me like kin and all. I like drawing. It slows my brain down, so I can concentrate. Then that Judy asked us to make a list of things we love, hate, can’t forget – a whole passel of stuff. It took a spell, but I think I got a few ideas for some stories I can tell.

After some vittles for dinner, we had to write a whole bunch more. Land sakes, my hand wanted to fall off! We was supposed to try out a few of our ideas from the morning. This writing’s hard work. We also got to talk a piece about some stories Judy wrote and what we think about plans versus just jumpin’ in. If you know anything ‘bout me and my friend Tom, you can guess what I had to say ‘bout that. Some feller invented some terms for helping your writing like Explode a Moment and Shrink a Century. I tried ‘em and they’re not half bad, though that purty gal from New Jersey said that feller was crazy and she ought to know. She’s met him face to face.

We was pretty wore out by then, but those two ladies kept at us. They asked us to meet in small groups and decide on a plan to show what we think is important from what we read in the book they give us at the beginning of the month. I like that. I mean, I like the book and all, but I do like listening to what other folks say before I put my two cents in. I guess they’d call me a lurker on that blog thingy they keep going on about. I can’t help it if I’m shy like that.

Just when we thought we was done, they give us new copy books. (Now Pappy won’t holler about buyin’ me one.) They wanted us to think about our day and where we stand with our writing. Tonight we’re supposed to work on a draft of our stories and think some more on what we want to teach the class purty soon. I don’t mind telling you – I haven’t worked this hard in a while, but the folks in my class seem real nice and Jim keeps tellin’ me that an education can’t be beat. Nonetheless, as soon as I could, I lit out ‘fore they could ask me to write more plug thing.

Want more information on the National Writing Project? Check out

Published in: on July 2, 2009 at 1:58 am  Leave a Comment  

Learn From My Mistake




Have you ever been tempted to take short cuts on your computer, like not saving to the network server? I used to all the time. I can’t any more because my hard drive is fried. Seven years of work, seven years of writing down the tube.

When I get a new one (which I hope will be sooner rather than later), I will become a fervent fan of the server as well a domestic devotee to an external memory device that I”ll use just in case. I don’t want to find myself in this mess again.  Don’t let yourself get into this one to begin with. Save everything everywhere!

Published in: on May 23, 2009 at 7:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reading like a Writer


Usually when I use this term, I am speaking of the act of bringing your writing self to the page – paying attention to the author’s craft so as to emulate it in your own writing. Yesterday I heard Kelly Gallagher speak. His most recent book, Readicide, is phenomenal. So much of what he says makes a great deal of sense to me, including what he calls “first draft reading”. I almost always read non-fiction text at least twice. The first is to get the lay of the land or schema. I might also come away with a pretty good feel for what the author is saying. The second time through is to really synthesize the author’s message as well as to attend to style and language. These might not be achieved at this stage, but if it’s something I have to read, I’ll give it another go or two.

I never thought of describing my process as drafts of reading, but that’s just what they are. Notice I said that if I have to read, I’ll reread again if necessary. If I’m not compelled to read a particular piece for a class and the text is that dense, I’d probably abandon it instead. Our kids rarely have that luxury. So let’s show them how to do a close reading of a text as Gallagher suggests. They will get much more of the particular text we’re using and will bring this strategy to future readings of difficult pieces. For more on Gallagher and his books, go to

Reading like a writer means more than trying on someone else’s parallel structure or use of enjambment. Being willing to revise our understanding of text (and teaching) is just as important.

Did I mention Kelly’s a Writing Project person?

Published in: on May 5, 2009 at 6:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

Kill your darlings


Have you ever created anything so beautiful, yet so impractical? So amazing in what you conjured seemingly from nothing that you won’t allow yourself to see the forest through the trees? (Pun fully intended) I think it happens a lot in education. We invest so much time designing curriculum that we won’t allow ourselves to see when it isn’t working. Just as Ralph Fletcher advises us in What A Writer Needs, we have to be ready to “kill our darlings” when what we’ve crafted isn’t serving our purposes no matter how much we’ve come to admire our handiwork. Our students’ literate lives are counting on it.

Published in: on April 23, 2009 at 11:50 pm  Comments (2)  

The Rules of the Game


We went bowling the other night to blow off steam after a day of National Writing Project meetings. There’s a place nearby that serves great drink and dinner offerings laneside. Jean told us she’d never bowled before and was somewhat hesitant that she’d injure herself. The rest of us assured her that despite the contact made between the ball and the pins that bowling was not a contact sport. She agreed to try and then proceeded to clean our clocks. Beginner’s luck met our incompetence brilliantly. She nearly doubled everyone’s score.

I was largely untroubled by this as no one would attribute great skills in this arena to me, but after a run of no contact at all between the aforementioned ball and pins, I noticed that the computerized scorer was calculating the speed of my throws. While I had little control over where my ball went after it left my hands, I did know how to throw it faster, and so this became the object of the game for me. I’d announce how many miles per hour I’d throw and then do my darndest to make that happen. If some pins fell down too, all the better. A guy a few lanes over was trying to do the same thing apparently. His throws were largely twenty-five mph or better while mine hovered in the mid-teens, but I did knock down more pins than he did. I’d say we were having equal amounts of fun.

Struggling readers and writers attempt to change the rules of our games some times too. Copying quotes without attributing them might be a sincere effort to cheat or a sincere effort to be done. When their comprehension lags, they might power through novels too. “I didn’t get a lot out of it, but I finished before you” one might say. Or they might skip the book altogether  at the first instance of frustration and go directly to Cliff notes. How do we alter these behaviors? There are many answers, but one of them has to be explaining what we do when we hit roadblocks in our learning and what we do about them. No one will win the game unless we do.

Published in: on April 7, 2009 at 1:24 am  Leave a Comment  

The Road Less Traveled


I’m back after a little hiatus while I studied Spanish in Mexico. (Did I mention I’m on sabbatical?) Today I explored Longwood Gardens with my brother and sister-in-law who are visiting from Chicago. I’ve been there many times, but each time I go, I always find something new. Because it was a bit raw out and not much had bloomed yet outside, we spent a lot of time in the conservatories. I found myself paying a lot more attention to the history of the garden and their creator, Pierre S. DuPont. We learned that the pipe organ there is twice the size of the one at Radio City and the parquet floor of the ballroom was made from recycled gunstocks from WWI rifles.

Both the conservatories and the gardens are so large, no two trips are ever alike. We meandered to our hearts’ content among orchids and cactus, daffodils and poppies. The only thing I saw twice was a very content tabby cat.  And that may be why I paid more attention to what I had merely glossed over before – because I came upon them unexpectedly in a different context and so was willing to look at them in a different light. How often does this happen in our learning I wonder? Should we be working to insure it happens occasionally for our students as well?


Published in: on March 26, 2009 at 6:16 am  Comments (1)  

Learning Curve


I worked on the blog a bit this week though the changes weren’t all that noticeable. I added an image of a typewriter to the previous post for several reasons. First, because I love old typewriters, and this gives me an excuse to decorate with one. The second is because I didn’t know how to post a video of Don Graves. The video would have been a little off focus, but the new learning would have been way cool.  Finally, following a dictum of Donald Murray’s, the rules of the blog have made themselves known to me – every post must now have a picture.

I learned what a blavatar is and thought I had created one based on Sue’s card. It’s supposed to appear where the W is in the address line as well as serve as my avatar when I post on other people’s blogs. I found the video on WordPress’s website very helpful, but apparently I misunderstood how to apply it. I’ll try again in the future.

I did successfully add other WordPress blogs to my blogroll. I searched on the website for those that dealt with writing and education. Those that I liked I added. I read their blogrolls and added those that I liked that I found there too. I also added one I accidentally found when I Googled a Jen Bryant book and the Discover Writing Social Network after I obtained permission from its creator. I didn’t know the etiquette for this since it’s not strictly a blog.

I also added some categories to my posts. I’m still not sure how they differ from tags. I read the support page (where I stumbled onto blavatars) and on the forum. I asked around at the Writing Project. No one else seems to know so far.  I think this distinction is important to driving  people to my blog.

I’m still not sure if the RSS thing is working or not and/or if not, how to fix it. I also really like what Sheehy has on A Teacher Writes. He calls these super quick posts Miniblogs. I’d like to do something similar, but can’t figure out how. These would be perfect for the shout out I want to give Captain Sullenberger’s My Turn column.

As time goes on, I’ll let you know when I conquer these (How hopeful am I?) and other challenges. Stay posted.

Published in: on February 23, 2009 at 3:28 am  Comments (2)  

Well-intentioned does not equal well-designed



I’ve heard Donald Graves speak many times. I even hugged him once. I believe most of what he says like that of the other Durham Don, Donald Murray, to be gospel, but it’s his statement to a roomful of teachers that we should write our assignments with our students as “it saves a lot of stupid writing” that’s been on my mind a lot lately.

Last week I sat with a very recent former student, who when asked what I might do differently with my future students, advised me to spend more time on writing. I sat forward, puzzled. We had in fact spent a great deal of time writing. Did she love it so much that she wanted more? Sadly, no. What she thought I should have done is given her the formula to good paragraphs that her social studies teacher provided for her. “You know, I wish you had told us that every paragraph should have between seven and eleven sentences, and the order we should put the sentences in…”

I was flabbergasted. I tried to be diplomatic without undercutting my well-intentioned colleague. After all, here was a content teacher trying to teach writing, not merely assigning it. “Well, I disagree philosophically with that practice, but if that’s helpful to you, great.” We moved on to other matters.

This weekend I worked with a close family friend on a four-page research paper. Four pages doesn’t sound very daunting, but this articulate, well-read junior who rises at six on weekend mornings to begin working on homework sat stymied. Her English teacher had set so many parameters around this particular assignment down to detailing how many sentences should be dedicated to each of seven different objectives in her introductory paragraph alone that they overwhelmed this excellent student.

Like the history teacher I mentioned earlier, I believe the teacher who created this assignment and the one hundred fifty notecards it required to be equally well-intentioned. They want their students to write well, to prepare them for college and beyond, but are going about it all wrong. If they follow Don’s advice and complete their own assignments, they’d quickly see the error of their ways.

I’ve followed this advice and found to be wanting several times. Whether it’s not allowing enough time to complete the task well or commanding too many unnecessary preliminaries, each time I either revamped the assignment before I assigned it to them or did so as we went along with egg on my face. Either way we were both spared inauthentic and painful writing. I can assure you these missteps will not be my last, but at least I recognize them now.

Recently I wrote and submitted two grant proposals. Each required you to follow a format, detailing what material should be covered in each paragraph, word length, etc. While I appreciated having guidelines, I felt constrained as I argued why my particular projects deserved funding. I wanted more latitude to develop my case before the grantors. I’ll find out soon enough if I was sufficiently persuasive to earn the grants. If I don’t, I’ll always wonder whether my words or my projects weren’t strong enough.

I’ve written before on the necessity of teachers of writing to be writers themselves (see for the article if you’re interested), so I won’t go into that now. But if you can’t or won’t commit yourself to this, at least attempt your own assignments. You’ll discover what you’re really asking your kids to do.

Published in: on February 16, 2009 at 1:57 pm  Comments (1)