Why Do I Write?

By Donna Brown, TCTELA Middle Level Section Chair

Why do I write?

The simple question that has made me stop and think.  What is the why?  I write not because of a “why.”  I learned that I write for a need that must be filled. Without writing in my day, I would feel empty, confused, and wandering without purpose. 

One day, while pondering this question, I tried a little experiment by not writing at all. I could not write electronically or with any writing utensil.   I could not respond to texts, make lists, write down information I was learning or information I needed to produce.  I could not make a record of anything I learned, I thought, or  I created.  I assumed the day would pass with all of the items I needed to accomplish at home.  There were a few errands to run so there would not be a tremendous amount of writing required for that day.  I could return phone calls instead of texting.  No problem.  It was not like I was at work where writing was needed. 

Little did I realize how much writing impacted my life.  A couple of friends texted me, and I called them back with one ending the phone call saying “just text me tomorrow.”  As the day progressed, we went on a hunt for new flooring options.  That was ridiculous.  I could not remember prices, materials, qualities, or dimensions.  My husband became so frustrated that he began recording information.  To make sure I did not write, I left all the paper and pens at home.  There was not a single thing in my purse to record information.  I did feel lighter but served no purpose. I started taking pictures of details until I realized that technically that was a record of my thinking.   At one point I almost resulted in getting out a tube of my favorite lipstick to capture information.  By mid-afternoon, the experiment was over.  I had not gone 8 hours without being able to write.  I bought a pen and a small journal to finish the day.

I always envisioned myself the kind of writer that would have books filling the shelves of homes across the world. I would be a writer that would inspire others with my words.  I would be like my favorite writers, Maeve Binchy or Isabel Allende, with best sellers that would be translated into multiple languages.  I would be the writer where my stories would transport the reader to a land where present time did not matter. 

Now, today, I am the writer that supports me.  I am the writer that finds peace and calm in her world by putting words down on paper.  I am the writer that teaches others to write.  I am the writer that confers with teachers and students on how to use writing to make a difference in their world.  I am the writer that sees her students succeeding in multiple arenas of high education and the workforce.  I am the writer that writes daily just like breathing. 

A Man of Letters

by Kristen Nance, Texas Voices Editor

The letters began with an off-hand comment between two business associates.

“I’m taking my family to Washington, D.C. to celebrate the Bicentennial.” My dad tossed the thought out onto the pile of small talk after a meeting. On the plane home, Bill Palmer grabbed a legal pad from his overstuffed briefcase and penned his first epistle to my father and our family. It was an eleven-page summary of the sights to be seen and bargains to be had in our destination. This was Bill Palmer’s way, and the beginning of a thirty-year friendship recorded in letters.

 Bill had a room upstairs in his Hollywood home he had claimed for his own, safe from the maid and his wife’s attempts to organize him. Wide windows opened onto a view overlooking the city below. Souvenirs from his travels, mementos of his children, plaques and awards from work, and Indian artifacts filled a wall of bookshelves. The other walls of the room wore a mural of family photos and favorite Republicans. In the middle of the room stood an old, scuffed desk, wood warmed from years of use. An old coffee mug labeled “World’s Greatest Dad” held pens pilfered from various hotels, with the matching notepads and the day’s newspapers scattered nearby. Photos of his son and daughter and his beloved Charlene, still his starlet after all these years, faced his chair. A miscellany of boxes held Indian arrowheads and a collection of odd stamps. Here in this cluttered sanctuary, he wrote the letters that became such treats to his friends.

Sitting in the creaky chair, he read the day’s newspapers with scissors ready to clip a coupon or a sports score as the need arose. He read with friends and family in his mind, peering at the words through their eyes. A newspaper article, an editorial cartoon, even a restaurant advertisement might trigger a sudden thought of someone special. When something caught his eye and started his heart to thinking, he quickly clipped, then snatched the nearest hotel pen and pad and wrote—real letters, communication safe from the intrusion of text messages, emails, and the electronic shorthand they generated. His large, strong hands struggled to keep pace as his quick mind raced through advice, inspiration, encouragement, and laughter. Though angular and crisp, his forceful handwriting had a conversational grace that drew the lucky reader along from word to thought to joke. Red ink might pop in to emphasize an idea. Anticipating his reader’s comments or laughter, he might physically pause in the letter, and then continue with his own wry humor. Letters to my dad usually included a sports clipping detailing the latest battle of his high school alma mater or an editorial cartoon reflecting their shared irreverence and sense of the absurd. Bill’s letters were concrete, elegant reminders of, “I thought about you today and wanted you to know.” Although impulsive bursts of friendship, these letters were masterpieces—bright strokes of word and deed.

Once written, these masterpieces deserved proper frames.  The box of stamps on his desk held a variety of values, colors, art, and themes, all purchased in bulk from a discount warehouse on the East coast. He carefully selected a hodge-podge of stamps, exactly totaling the day’s fare for a letter’s journey, and each with a special message for the recipient. My father’s might have included great personalities from jazz, history, or sports. Addressing the letter might include hand-written asides, comments on the stamps, or clever nicknames the postman must have hated deciphering. I picture Bill carrying the letters to the mailbox and raising the flag, satisfied with the results of this daily, deliberate chaos.

The post office must have had a time counting up the pennies in each stamp. But the letters flew across the country, landing in mailboxes and delighting friends. The whole family knew a Bill Palmer original and shared the event of its arrival.

When my twelve-year marriage ended and my daughters and I were finding our new path, I received my own original Palmer. Instead of a random clipping, the news from my father of my finalized divorce generated a letter to me. The impulse to comfort, encourage, and inspire hope sent Bill to his desk. I had never met him but knew his letters well. When I found my own letter addressed in that firm handwriting and decorated with brightly colored stamps, I pulled it reverently from the mailbox. On my envelope, stamps cried out, “Give me liberty or give me death,” celebrated the American woman and love, exhorted us to swear “hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  Bill added a bright red “and women” to Thomas Jefferson’s quote. The thoughtful words were written on a card depicting a 19th century U.S. cavalry victory with a Teddy Roosevelt-like lead rider. Bill called my new life “bright, grand, and glorious.” I could hear his own battle with cancer in his urgent advice to cherish my children, celebrate my family, and live each moment of life in hope. I determined to follow his advice.

One fall shortly after, the letters stopped coming. We knew the scissors lay still, the stamps undisturbed, and the pen silenced. There would be no more delights in the mailbox. The lost art of letter writing may have died with Bill Palmer. Bill wrote letters to honor his friends and to communicate his commitment to them across miles. He wrote letters to celebrate the people he loved and the things they cared about. He wrote letters to connect. His dedication to the art and purpose of letter writing nurtured friendship across the miles and over decades.

 My father still has a collection of his letters, including the epic that began their friendship, and I treasure mine. In an age of electronic abbreviations, Bill Palmer sent pieces of his heart with each scrap of newsprint and sealed his letters with good wishes. Our hearts were filled, faith renewed, and hope inspired.

Ideas on Professional Development

By Stephen Winton, TCTELA recording Secretary

I have had the good fortune to learn from amazing colleagues a few ideas regarding professional development.  The principles of crafting good PD are often the same as planning a quality lesson. Here’s a few thoughts:

  1. Follow the gradual release of responsibilities model of instruction.  

Pearson and Gallagher (1983) suggest that learning best occurs by first modeling the strategy (I DO), followed by guided practice (WE DO), before independent practice (YOU DO).  Therefore, planning a PD or a lesson often begins by thinking, “How will I model and demonstrate? How will the learners practice what I modeled collaboratively?” Often in a one-hour PD there is not the time for independent practice, but in longer PDs this may be possible.

2. Never teach reading without a text in your hand.

A phrase I heard from a friend and mentor Judy Wallis, we should ask ourselves if we are simply talking about reading or modeling with authentic texts.  PowerPoints and worksheets with inauthentic examples are both disengaging and abstract. Find texts that will be accessible and meaningful to your audience.  This means the facilitator or teacher needs to read a lot of texts that are meaningful to the learners. I often spend the most time I planning a PD or lesson think about which texts to use.

3. Whoever is doing the talking is doing the learning.

We all have sat through professional developments where the lecturer delivers a PowerPoint for an hour without pause.  We are on the verge of falling asleep, and we are college-educated adults who are often paying or being paid for attendance!  Frequent turn-and-talks and discussion on reading promote engagement in learning.

4. Don’t rush, but keep it moving.

It’s balancing act in pacing a PD or a lesson.  Move too fast and you risk frustrating the learners, too slow and distractions creep in.  Usually when I’m giving a PD and the phones come out it’s a sign to move on. And remember not all learners move at the same pace!

5. Remember the professional literature.

Most quality PD touches on the professional literature and research, through quotations or short article studies.  Similarly, learning from our published colleagues brings new ideas and depth to our lesson planning.

6. Invite uncertainty.

Learning often occurs when we are unsure and try out new ideas. The above phrase from Peter Johnston counterintuitively suggests uncertainty is a good thing.  By asking open-ended questions with multiple right answers, we allow the learners to explore their own thinking rather than try to guess what is in the presenter’s or teacher’s head. If we explicitly state there are probably many possible interpretations to the text or idea at hand, we encourage learners to take intellectual risks.  History is made by those who think differently.

7. Aim beyond the test.

Some administrators might jump at the chance to send teachers to PD with titles like “10 Tips on Passing STAAR!”  But oftentimes these direct assaults on test-preparation are quick fixes that ignore the more substantial work needed to grow readers and writers.  Similarly, the goal in the minds of educators, to pass a test or to inspire authentic learning, is often a clear predictor of the quality of instruction.

Adults and children learn in much the same ways.  In my work, my teaching has informed my professional development work and vice versa. The joy that comes from teaching and learning alongside colleagues and students in is often much the same.

 

Reference

Pearson, P.D. & Gallagher, M. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8 (1), 317-344.

The above article originally appeared as:

Winton, S. J. (2018). Ideas on Professional Development. The West Houston Area Council of Teachers of English.  The ELAborator, 19(1), p. 14-15.




Collaboration and Compromise Calm Chaos

By Diane M. Miller, Ph.D., TCTELA President

Texas, Our Texas! All hail the mighty State!
Texas, Our Texas! So wonderful so great!
Boldest and grandest, withstanding ev'ry test
O Empire wide and glorious, you stand supremely blest.
God bless you Texas! And keep you brave and strong,
That you may grow in power and worth, throughout the ages long.

When my mother was born, the third line of our state song was a little different than the lyrics she fondly taught me. Every time my sister and I sang “Texas, Our Texas” with patriotic gusto, Mama would remind us—with some measure of indignation—that largest had been replaced with boldest when Alaska was admitted into the United States in January 1959. Apparently, giving up such geographical superiority was difficult for my mother! However, the word boldest is just fine by me. Bold means “showing an ability to take risks” and “confident and courageous” and “having a strong or vivid appearance.” Those descriptions fit our great state more accurately, perhaps, than a word referring to real estate.

The advent of the Common Core State Standards required a bold response. Texas policymakers refused that one-size-fits-all mentality and ensured that Texans would continue to craft our own standards. Yes, it would have been far easier to just accept the national set of standards and forego a lengthy revisions process that has sometimes been messy and has always been demanding, but that is not the way bold Texans do things, especially when those bold Texans are passionate teachers!

Instead, our SBOE initiated their 22-step protocol for standards revisions that brought teacher workgroups, appointed experts, professional organizations, ELAR/SLAR teachers, and the general public to the table. In fact, this new protocol became the model for other subject areas that followed.  To all our TCTELA members who responded to our statewide survey, worked on a writing group, participated in the two iterations of the TCTELA TEKS Forum, or emailed TEA or your SBOE members, thank you! Unlike prior revision efforts that were characterized by frustration, the recent round of revisions was rich with teachers’ voices, and our work played a huge role in that.

In a state as gargantuan (albeit smaller than Alaska!) and diverse as Texas, compromise is necessary and often—even though it may seem like small defeats in the moment—helpful for crafting a more informed and inclusive solution in the end. In comparing the recently adopted TEKS to the current TEKS, I am encouraged by the result of our collaborative efforts. I do not see that we have sacrificed too, too much in the grand scheme of things, especially when compared to the current genre-constrained, Fig. 19-necessary TEKS. Of course, there are areas over which we may disagree, but letting go of some things helped us to maintain the bigger accomplishments such as inclusive strands that cohesively unite listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

The revised standards may not be perfect (what in this life ever is?), but I think that the ELAR/SLAR teachers of Texas are getting a document that will encourage growth in instruction and in learning. Now, it is up to all of us to interpret those standards through our research-based instructional lenses and to support each other in robust professional development. 

No state standards can ever be all things to all people, but the art of intelligent compromise and respectful collaboration is critical in a state as bold as ours.

The Artful Do-Over

By Diane M. Miller, Ph.D., TCTELA President

One of things I treasure most about teaching is the powerful do-over that we get each year (or even each semester).  We push our students to be lifelong learners, of course, but it is incumbent upon us to emulate that eternal sense of wonderment and discovery.  I always tell my students—pre-service teachers—that a reflective novice is a better teacher than a stagnant veteran.  Each year should be viewed as an opportunity to research the latest best practices, fine-tune your classroom environment, enrich the diversity of your classroom library, and more authentically support your students’ learning.  Experience is valuable only when the power of the do-over is embraced!

In The Numberlys, William Joyce and Christina Ellis (2014) graphically narrate the ultimate do-over in a picture book that would be a perfect read-aloud to kick off your year.  In the beginning, we encounter an orderly, numbers-only, gray world without “books or colors or jellybeans or pizza.”  Next, we are introduced to five friends who are “wondering if they could do something…MORE.”  Dissatisfied with the status quo, the friends embark upon a project to create something “DIFFERENT.” At first, their results are “awful,” but with hard work, they produce something “artful.”  When the friends share their newly created alphabet, they fill their gray world with multi-colored, lexical “amazements.”  At the end of their very industrious day, they are able to rest, proud of their “something new, something different, something more.”

Each new year of teaching provides teachers an opportunity to accomplish this type of transformative work.  What will you learn with your do-over this year?  While we may not create alphabetic metamorphoses, we do teach children to read, write, think, and contribute to their worlds in meaningful ways.  Here’s the thing:  we are doing that work, year after year, in shifting worlds.  That is where the do-over concept comes in.  Last year was not wrong, necessarily, but how will you push yourself to make this year the best it can be with an ever-changing set of variables?   

The upcoming year brings new boundaries to cross, new topics to explore, new distractions to mitigate, new learners to inspire. In her influential book The Right to Learn, Linda Darling-Hammond (1997) argues that diversity in our classrooms—in curriculum, texts, experiences, and people—empowers students’ thinking and participation in society.  She advocates a multicultural approach, noting that such work can “help students to develop an analytic frame for life in a democracy, seeing problems and ideas from many vantage points” (p. 126).  In the current atmosphere of inflammatory tweets, fake news, and shifting loyalties, our students must be equipped for “analytic” lifelong learning.  As I consider Darling-Hammond’s words, I can hear song lyrics: “What the world needs now…” (David & Bacharach, 1965).  

To make this year’s do-over more “artful” than “awful,” consider ways in which you will recognize and embrace the various lenses, diverse voices, and multiple pathways inherent in our Texas classrooms.  

References:

 Darling-Hammond, L. (1997). The right to learn: A blueprint for creating schools that work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

 Joyce, W., & Ellis, C. (2014). The numberlys. New York: Moonbot/Atheneum.

 David, H., & Bacharach, B. (1965). What the world needs now is love [Recorded by J. DeShannon]. On This is Jackie DeShannon [Album]. New York: Imperial Records.

A New Writer’s Notebook

BY TRACY KRIESE, NCTE LIAISON


Shopping for a new writer’s notebook always takes time.  It’s not easy to find just the right one: the right weight, the right cover, the right feel of the paper and look of the lines on the page.  

When I was in junior high, a package of loose-leaf was my favorite choice for writing.  At back-to-school sales, Mom would buy reams of notebook paper, and it was perfect for my creative efforts:  no page count limits, no chad-messy margins, no stiff binding to limit the movement of pencil and pen across the page.  

Loose-leaf paper offered fresh starts, a seemingly endless supply of them!  A new day with new ideas? Just grab another stack of paper and get started.  College-ruled was best for creating rosters of starship crews and planning their voyages into space, that final frontier, always with a captain who was strangely similar to James Kirk.  Wide-ruled paper was best for drawing the floor plans of the ranch houses my fictional families lived in, families that always had a girl in them named Jamie or Jodie and a neighbor strangely similar to Ken McLaughlin, complete with a horse named Flicka.

Planning what I was going to write was as much fun as the writing itself, each blank page holding the promise of escape into another time and place.  Not a word of the writing that came before was there to remind me of abandoned efforts or unfinished ideas, and each new writing project seemed like it would be the best one, the one I’d take to completion.  I wish I still had those loose-leaf pages from decades ago, but of course, they are long gone.

I didn’t start using composition books until after I became a teacher. I soon found that it was easier to manage 150 uniformly sized writers’ notebooks than it was to collect and carry home 150 spirals of different proportions and weights, so eventually every school supply list I sent out had “composition book” as a requirement. I started using one for my own writing, and I’ve never looked back.

Now dozens of composition books sit on my office shelves, preserving my ideas and musings and messy drafts for days when I’m ready to revisit old thoughts and find in them new beginnings.  Most of the posts in my personal blog come from composition books that I’ve gone back to and excavated. I try to teach my students what I’ve learned about “old” writing: that it’s worth keeping, a valuable glimpse into who we once were, and who we’re becoming.

In fact, this post began in 2009 as a writer’s notebook entry.  That summer, I sat on my back porch swing writing about the fun of having a brand new writer’s notebook, one with just the right cover, just the right pages, just the right look, weight, and feel. I’m glad I captured my thinking on that summer morning, and I’m glad I saved that old notebook.

What do you look for in a writer’s notebook? Do you revisit your old writing? Share your thoughts in a comment here.