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  

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  

Excuses, excuses


I’m just coming to grips with the loss of my work for the past seven years. Though I have said out loud many times that it is lost, I have not said it in my heart. I keep holding out hope that the IT guys at school will find it all evidence to the contrary.

What’s problematic besides all of the work that needs to be redone are the excuses I’m giving for why I’m not moving forward with other projects like this blog as if they all hinge on recovering, retyping the missing files. Reminds me of the times I’ve blamed my administrators, colleagues, the state department of education for my lassitude, etc. Sound familiar to anyone else?

One of the great things about the summer is the chance to take stock of not only what we’ve done right during the school year, but also where we’ve fallen down a bit, and work to make it right. Admitting failure is hard. Repeating it because it’s easier is not an option. I’ll do better.

Published in: on June 9, 2009 at 1:54 am  Comments (3)  

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  

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)  

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)  

Crocheting my understanding


Last week the women in my family began Crochet Club, an idea borne out of Kate Jacobs’ Friday Night Knitting Club. Barbara is an accomplished crocheter and the rest of us are not. We thought the rest of us should learn from her while we could and we knew we’d all enjoy each other’s company. So after a quick supper Barbara pulled out a few pattern books for us to choose projects from. “Wait a minute,” I thought. “How we will all learn if we’re all working on different things?”

Courtney chose a pocketbook made up of a fleur -de-lis pattern. (Not what it’s called in the crochet world, but I both don’t know what it’s called and wanted to give you a visual image.) Rosa chose to make circular potholders made with three different colored yarns. I decided on a poncho. Each pattern came with instructions, which we read, and we were off to the races. Barbara showed each girl how to get started. I was okay initially. I know a smidge more than they do, having worked on the same afghan for almost twenty years. What can I say? I get bored easily. But then I forgot how to perform a very simple stitch. I trusted my fingers’ muscle memory would kick in if given the chance. After a bit of practice, it did.

And did chaos ensue while we three worked on completely different projects, their only commonality  that they all started with the letter P? Of course not. Barbara as I said before is a master of her craft. She was able to step in and show us when we’d gone astray, answer questions when posed to her, and offer encouragement at our fledgling attempts. Because we’d each chosen something we wanted to work on, something we would be able to use in our lives, motivation for learning was high. Come to think of it. This happens in workshop classrooms all over the country. Kylene Beers in When Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do says “A workshop approach does not mean the teacher doesn’t teach. It does mean that you provide specific information that students need to help them accomplish whatever they are working on at the time.” When given time, choice, a real reason to read and write (or crochet), and a knowledgeable teacher, deep learning takes place. If only we’ll let it.

So it shouldn’t have surprised me how well we all learned that night or how eager we all are to sit with yarn again. It seems I need to learn what I already knew over and over again.

Published in: on February 6, 2009 at 12:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hello world!

I am a confirmed technophobe. Some, including me, might go as far as to call me a Luddite.  Don’t get me wrong. I think lots of technology is way cool, but much of it seems over my head, and some of it, frankly, seems complicated just because it can be. But as I said to my husband this morning, “If you can’t beat’em, then join’em.” I hope as is true in most of the rest of my life, by attempting to create with technology, I’ll grow to understand more of it.  And if not,  at least I’ll learn more about my own learning, a topic that as an English teacher and professional development provider is near and dear to my heart.

The name of the blog is taken from an article I wrote a few years ago for  Voices from the Middle, a journal for middle school English teachers, published by the National Council of Teachers of English. In it I quote Mary Vorse, who said, ” The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”


A member of my writing group and no slouch of a writer herself, Sue Michel, created this card to congratulate me on publishing this article.

A member of my writing group and no slouch of a writer herself, Sue Michel, created this card to congratulate me on publishing this article.



So here’s the other reason for the blog. As a Fellow of the National Writing Project, I know that the best teachers of writing as those who write themselves. I do send some pieces out into the stratosphere occasionally, but this might keep me a bit more honest. Let’s see.

Published in: on February 4, 2009 at 1:21 pm  Comments (2)