Katherine Bomer Speaks About Her Newest Book

I have admired Katherine Bomer’s work for a long time. Her books are exquisite.  Her love of children shines through when she speaks in front of a small group or delivers a keynote address to a huge audience.  Her warmth is genuine from the moment you meet her.

Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student’s Writing was a book I anticipated purchasing long before its release.  I had heard about it a few years ago when Katherine was looking for student writing samples from teachers around the country.  I kept checking back on Heinemann’s website every so often to see if it was out yet.  A few months ago I received a postcard about Hidden Gems‘ impending release.  I purchased it and read through it slowly, savoring everything Katherine had to say about finding the beauty and wisdom in every child’s writing.

Katherine answered several questions about Hidden Gems, as well as a few other things I wanted to her thoughts on (e.g., the Common Core Standards and how to get away from looking at student writing with a deficit-only perspective).  Her responses to my questions are extremely thoughtful so take a few minutes to read them before picking up a copy of Hidden Gems.

STACEY: Why did you write Hidden Gems?

KATHERINE:  The impetus for writing Hidden Gems came from spending the last two decades as a teacher and as a professional developer for teachers of reading and writing.  Before I went into teaching, I was a poet and worked in various professional, editorial, technical writing capacities to support myself. What I learned and came to understand about writing is that for some reason, even if you are writing a feature article about hot air ballooning, putting words on paper/computer screen can feel like you are opening yourself from the inside out; you are putting your little heart in your hands and begging the world to please not stomp on it.

Yet stomp, we do.  Through corrections of grammar and spelling in the margins of papers, to scored essays on state writing tests, we continually send the message to kids, “You can’t. You didn’t quite. You won’t be able to.”  A tiny minority of students reacts to that kind of response by “trying harder.”  But most kids just shut down, turn off, and become adults who vow never to write another word unless forced to.

I wanted to reverse that trajectory by recognizing the moving, exquisite, funny, and beautiful ways that kids DO write, though it may not fit into the descriptions inside test rubric boxes. When we notice and name these points of beauty in their writing, kids actually beam, and they fall madly in love with writing and want to learn to revise and make it the best it can be for their appreciative readers.

STACEY: What has the response been like since Hidden Gems was published earlier this year?

KATHERINE:  I feel blessed by the responses to my book that I’ve received.  Often, the responses are so moving, they make me teary eyed!  People are telling me that the book is “foundational.” Teachers say they can no longer look at their students’ writing without seeing something beautiful and brilliant in it. University educators have written to tell me that they plan to use it as a text for their literacy methods courses.  Schools are forming study groups around the book, an idea that pleases me immensely because I believe the work of looking at student writing with appreciative eyes is most successful (and most fun!) when done with colleagues. When many eyes are looking at a piece of struggling writing to find beauty, it can make the writing seem to open layer by layer, like a flower blooming. It’s magical when that happens in a group of teachers.

STACEY: How do you get teachers, who have spent years looking for what’s wrong with student writing (e.g., problems with Standard English) to finding the beauty in student writing?  How long does it take to change someone’s mindset when it comes to looking at student writing?

KATHERINE:  First, I want to emphasize that I believe the deficit paradigm that many in education have toward student work comes from two sources: their personal history as a student at the mercy of the red pen dripping ink all over their own writing (with a belief that this is how people learn the “correct” way to write), and the increasingly narrow and punitive evaluations placed upon student work by our current culture of grades and testing.

So, to begin to loosen the grip of those two (and more) strong forces takes some time, but mostly it takes courage to work against the grain of our grades-and-test score-happy education system, and it takes an open heart.

In my professional development, I use the stories of teachers’ own experiences as writers to prove that hurtful comments and grades have indeed scarred them for life and made the majority of them fear and despise writing. Then, I offer solutions for helping motivate their own students to want to write and revise more. We can do this by instead of constantly looking for the errors and the missing pieces in kids’ writing, we first name each student’s strength and teach from there.  It takes some time to learn how to name the good qualities inside even the scrawniest, most illegible piece of writing, but we can do this by slowing down and approaching the task of reading it with the expectation that we will find beauty.  We also need to broaden our personal reading lives, taking in the sound and look of contemporary writing and of new digital genres, and trying to point to and name places where we admire the craft of the writing. Then we can translate that same practice to our own students’ writing, often realizing that our kids write like some famous, published authors!

STACEY: You talk quite a bit about structures for having students read and talk about each other’s writing.  Many teachers will often say something like, “As soon as I partner-up my students to talk about their writing, they talk about everything but their writing.  That’s why we don’t have writing partnerships/groups in my classroom.”  What are your suggestions for dealing with this?

KATHERINE:  When we give kids multiple audiences for their writing, we create kids who can’t wait until its writing time each day. All writers need and want to be read/heard, and students especially need tons of in-the-moment, live response to motivate and help them revise.

The way to help kids get better at being good live-responders to writing is to give them constant practice doing it.  At first, many kids will absolutely believe they’ve been granted extra “chat room” time—woo hoo!  Rather than abandoning the idea of kids talking together about writing, however, we need to set up successful structures with our students’ help:  How many times per week will groups meet and for how long?  How will the groups form? Where will they meet?  How will we keep the noise level low enough in the classroom to be able to hear each other?  And especially, what do productive writing groups look and sound like?

Then we need to teach kids how to be in groups. How to focus attention on one person and not just be waiting until it’s my turn to share.  How to notice and name something each writer does well.  And how to respond in ways that will help the writer revise, without being critical or hurtful.  Kids learn what to say about someone else’s writing by imitating what we say about their own writing in conferences and minilessons.

STACEY: How do you come up with the ideas for your books? Tell me about any new projects you’re working on.

KATHERINE:  I have probably 3,000 ideas for books written in a dozen writing notebooks.  Ideas are never my problem—finding time to write them is the issue. I am a slow writer and heavy reviser, so my books appear with years in between them.

Ideas leap out at me constantly.  The best ones are usually in response to something that bothers me, something I want to change, something that I feel is missing.  And I get those simply by watching my own teaching, and watching kids in classrooms—what are they doing or not doing; how do they feel about that; and how can the experience be better for them?

I also tend to need time to recoup after finishing a project like Hidden Gems, so even though I have several thoughts for the next project, I won’t know which to choose until I’ve had some time for introspection.  Of course, I do continue to write in my notebook most days of the week!

STACEY: What effect do you think the Common Core Standards will have on writing instruction?

KATHERINE:  I shall remain forever optimistic and hope that the new Common Core Standards, in states that adopt them and seriously use them to shape curriculum, can only result in MORE writing in classrooms!  The Standards state that all students, K-12, must “write routinely,” for both extended time periods on projects and in short bursts, spending “significant time and effort” on their writing.  Our students are not responsible for establishing this “significant time and effort,” teachers are. So I believe this must result in daily writing time for all kids, K-12.  That may seem obvious to many, but in my experience as a professional developer, daily writing, in every grade, not just the grade (4th, 7th, 10th) with the writing test, has not been the case.  So hooray–write every day!

My major criticism of the Core Standards is that the genres set forth for kids to be writing are basically the same three each and every year, K-12.  So if states do take that seriously as a way to shape curriculum, we will have scores of kids who are bored out of their skulls with “argument” and “informative/explanatory” and “narrative” and who will never experience the power of memoir, literary nonfiction, poetry, drama, graphic and digital literacies, and more, for teaching how to write well.  My hope is that states, districts, and individual schools will figure out how to provide multiple genre possibilities for K-12 kids to write in a variety of genres and in digital environments.

And one last sadness about the entire framework for the Core Standards:  I wish it weren’t called “College and Career Readiness,” as if those were the ends and not the means for living full, rich, compassionate lives.  I wish it could be called, “Life Readiness.”  But that might be too “new age, touchy-feely” sounding for our country just yet.

STACEY: If you could share one tip with teachers aspiring to write a professional book, what would it be?

KATHERINE:  If I would offer just one tip, I would say to find a writing partner, or better yet, a group of others writing professional books, for all the reasons I outline in Hidden Gems and in my earlier answer about why kids need to be in writing groups.

(Plus, also…go for it!)

Click here to read a sample from Hidden Gems.