Two of my favorite books to use for mentor texts in teaching writing are: Love that Dog and Hate that Cat by Sharon Creech. Who, by the way, has written some beautiful children’s novels.
I love these books because they depict a boy’s experiences in writing. He says his teacher, “knows his brain”. This, by far is my favorite quote in any book that I have read to my students. Teaching can be boiled down to an A and B multiple choice answer:
(A)You understand your students’ brains.
(B) You do not understand your students’ brains.
This week, I had a few moments where I knew that my efforts, as a teacher, were not meaningless.
I am working with a precious student who has writer’s block. The debilitating experience that renders the mind void of words. This phenomenon only happens when there is some writing assignment due immediately. She talked to me about her thoughts and feelings about writing. I was floored with her candor. I was also kicking myself for assuming that writing is easy. It isn’t always easy for me, so why would I think it would be for a ten-year old? Again, the humbling smack in the face of teaching knocked me into an educational wasteland.
I had lent her the book, Love That Dog. I asked her what she thought of the book. I received a shoulder shrug. Of course, I asked again. She turned the book over and said, “This says it all”.
The quote on the back of the book read:
” I tried. I can’t do it. My brain is empty.”
So, of course, my eyes welled up-without my permission. Her eyes filled with tears. We stared at each other for a few seconds. I had nothing. Her brain was empty. How did it get that way?
I love writing. I never thought I was particularly good at the craft. But, there are times the words on the page express my inner workings more than my incessant ramblings. I have retreated to writing when all other forms of communication failed me.
In second grade, I was supposed to write a story about my summer. My summer sucked, so I made up a story. I put my brother on a raft, in women’s clothes, on the Chattahoochee River-never to be found. I remember standing in front of the class, making up the entire scenario. The ideas flooded my mind, and I couldn’t stop the madness. When my teacher realized that it was a fictional story, she reprimanded me and sent me to my seat. After that, I rarely spoke. Instead, I wrote.
I have had dark times where writing was my enemy. The words were absent. My thoughts were cliché and I had nothing worth putting on paper. That is when I hate writing. Where do the words come from? How can my combination of words make any more meaning than someone else’s? I am writing this blog after spending uncountable hours writing essays for my reading class. There are nine. I have completed eight. Even Bon Iver and Cold Play couldn’t pull me from the depths literary Hades.
I contribute the mafia-type diatribe to my math class to my exhaustive writing experience. It went something like this:
“Remember, don’t leave your simplified fractions in the form of an improper fraction.”
“To nameless student: What did you get for number so and so?”
I felt my eye twitch. I closed the door to my room. (Swift yet powerful move). I heard myself discussing fractions as if they were small children whom we were neglecting.
Later that morning, during math:
STUDENT: “I’m confused.”
ME: “What part do we need to review?”
STUDENT: “All of it.”
So, I reviewed it all. I also gave out guilt candy.
Writing is the ambiguous, murky skill that comes from a part of us that is intangible and unquantifiable. Ask a five-year old to describe a pumpkin and you might get:
“pmkn rng hlwn”
Ask a ten-year old to describe a pumpkin and you might get:
“The blistering orange pumpkin glowed from the front step of my house. It eyes blinked from the flickering candle inside.”
Ask me to describe a pumpkin right now:
“It’s orange and rotting on my doorstep. What more do you want?”
This blog is an attempt for me to come back to reality with my teaching. I have bad days with writing, but I value the craft. I am lucky to know some brilliant writers. I aspire to write something meaningful. But, I really just want the kids to enjoy extracting the words and images from their minds, and carefully placing them on the paper.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to my gifted first grade class. I was talking about my professor and my reading class. They asked me:
“Do you live there?”
“Do you go home?”
“Who is your teacher?”
“Does she live there too?”
Again, the lesson went in a direction that was not anticipated. I encouraged them to write my professor (profecr) letters.
She wrote back. On college letterhead. With sketches of herself and pictures of her dog.
I brought the typed letters back to the class. We spent time reading them, and talking about what she said. Then the class began writing her letters, independently. Apparently, she hadn’t answered all of their inquires. But, I was happy to see how writing had made its way to my first graders-without them knowing it. My professor is passionate about what she does. She wants us to respect literacy instruction. Really, she wants us to do it right, and not mess up another generation of kids. And, I have fourteen first-graders who think she is Athena. (They relate everything to the gods and goddesses, after our mythology unit.)
I chose this portion of a child’s letter, because it is the same question I have been asking myself since the summer. Also, anyone I know who is in graduate school, for education, has verbalized these same questions. I particularly enjoy how my professor changed her “discourse” to match the level of the student. Oh…I just used a term from class. (I won the fight with the white-out bottle as I covered the names of my student and professor.)
I liken my reading class to running. There is a moment during a long run that you realize that you have over-extended yourself. This usually occurs when you are half way to your destination. The thought of running further paralyzes the body, while the notions of making it back in one piece-is unfathomable. I’m at the unfathomable stage. I sat down to write my essays for class, the other night. I thought of my student and I typed:
“I can’t do it. My brain is empty. I hate writing.”
My friend who helped me teach playwriting, to my 5th grade class last year, told the kids to write, I don’t know what to write about on their papers when they didn’t know what to write.” The freedom this gave them was amazing. It worked. I am continually reminded of the temperamental nature of writing. This strategy makes it o.k. to having nothing to write about.
My reading class is over in a few weeks. My essays will be done. My odd poster project will be completed. Then I’ll sign up for more classes that will prepare me to be a better teacher. For now, no more peer-reviewed articles. No more essays.
When my brain isn’t empty, I’m going to try to complete two personal writing projects. Or read a book. Or sit and stare at leaves. Maybe, I’ll just be thankful to know that, eventually -I will LOVE THAT WRITING again.