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Role reversal: Writing Workshop with Linda Rief at the Boothbay Literacy Retreat


As a writing teacher, I know that I must write – and I do: blog posts, book reviews, a Slice of Life every Tuesday, letters to my students in the reading journals and writer’s notebooks,  lesson plan writing, curriculum writing, all kinds of writing.  So, why was it that I was making my way to writing workshop with Linda Rief (yes, Linda Rief – the only person on this green earth for whom I would show up for a 7:30 a.m. writing workshop right after the school year had ended) clutching my own writer’s notebook rather nervously…even guiltily?  Perhaps it was because I had not actually written in it for a while, and, knowing what I do of Linda Rief, I was certain that we would be writing.

And we did.  Every morning of the Boothbay Literacy Retreat.  Before breakfast. Sometimes even before a morning cup of coffee.

This early morning writing workshop was a role reversal for us, it was an invitation to set aside our teaching selves and allow our writing selves an opportunity to make a debut..or even take a bow.  Linda has written extensively about “quickwrites”  in her books Seeking Diversity, 100 Quickwrites,  and in the just-published Read, Write, Think, where she describes them this way:

Quickwrite, to me, means to write fast for a short amount of time, less than three minutes.  It is writing to find writing, not planning or thinking through the writing before the words hit the paper.  It is writing to find writing, not planning or thinking through the writing before the words hit the paper.  It is writing for the surprise of not knowing you were going to write what you wrote.  But it is having something to see, hear, and hold on to (borrow a line and write from that line) as you try to find ideas for your own writing.

Sometimes, Linda shared a line of poetry, sometimes an entire poem, and sometimes a series of powerful words.  We stumbled as a group at first, we were cautious about putting pen to paper, and wary of making “mistakes” in our beautiful new notebooks.  But once we began writing, once we began moving through Linda’s carefully  orchestrated sessions which moved from quickwrites to sharing and discussion, followed by  longer writing sessions and further opportunities to share and learn from each other, we began to blossom.  We began to feel like writers.  Some of my favorite memories of Boothbay are of these writing moments, when I would look up from my notebook to mull over a memory or a word, and catch glimpses of my fellow writers bent over their own notebooks, working hard to harvest their memories and imaginations, even Linda herself:

Linda rief writing

On our second day, we arrived to find seashells and buckets of watercolors and brushes on every table.  Soon, Linda began  giving us instructions about what we should do and there was much consternation: did she say trace the outline of the shell or draw an outline? should it look exactly the same as the shells we have or can we create our own shapes? It took some time to follow through, and when we were given a chance to write about the process, I tried to put into words what I had noticed:

“Why so terrified to begin with “new tools”? What makes it tricky to move from pen and paper to paints and water? Why (and how) does the medium change the thinking? In writing, there is no fear of “getting it wrong” – but introduce a new medium (art or digital writing) and there’s the immediate fear of not feeling comfortable – of not knowing how to even begin! I needed to look around to see what everyone else was up to so that I wouldn’t stand out, or be “out there” – in my shifty-eyed glancing about, I recognized my students. So this is what it feels like when I introduce something new!”

When we gathered together to share our thoughts, Linda put it all together succinctly” “We need to take risks with our students, we need to have an understanding of what we are asking them to do.” Few of us were painters, but that morning’s foray into painting led us to a better appreciation of how to lead our own students into new avenues of learning, of risk taking.  We need to find new ways to connect the written and the visual, we need to give our kids the room to experiment and play and find their way into writing – just as we had done.

On our last day, Linda began with poetry for our quickwrites, and then had us create the  floorplan for a place in which we’d lived.  I had no trouble sketching out the floorplan to my grandparents house, and could not wait to begin writing.  My rather bare bones sketch was enough to bring back a flood of memories, one leading to the next, with many surprising details vividly remembered.  When it was time to share, I was so moved and inspired by what my fellow writers were able to create: so many richly remembered stories just waiting for an invitation to be told. It affirmed what Penny Kittle had said to us later in the day: “You’ve got something to say to the world that no one else can say.”

As we gathered to reflect, I heard many teachers echo versions of what I had scribbled down: “I seem to be making a journey over the past few days – crossing over from the “teaching self” to the “self self”.  I think this is partly due to the fact that I have had so much time to write, and to explore this writing self.  I’ve had a chance to write about the deeply personal, and find memories and thoughts come alive through snatches of poetry or bits or art work.  I really, really miss this. I need to find a way to make this kind of writing an ordinary part of every day.”

There was so much joy in Linda’s writing workshop – mostly because she creates the kind of environment that encourages and invites writing: carefully culling poems, lines, and ideas to get us thinking, and then giving us time and space to create.  At the very center of this kind of writing workshop is a teacher who writes – who values of craft of writing because she or he practices it every day.  All of us left Boothbay  inspired to be this kind of writing teacher.  Thank you, Linda Rief.


Tara Smith View All

I teach Writing Workshop, Language Arts and Social Studies to sixth graders at a middle school in suburban New Jersey. This blog is my attempt to capture all the "stuff" that goes into my teaching life - the planning, the dreaming, the reading, the preparing, the hoping and (above all) the kids.
Please note that the content of this blog is my own. It does not reflect the opinions of my employer.

24 thoughts on “Role reversal: Writing Workshop with Linda Rief at the Boothbay Literacy Retreat Leave a comment

  1. What a wonderful retreat! It makes me miss my NWP community. Nothing like immersing ourselves into writers’ workshop with adults to remember what it’s like for our students. I love the reminder of the importance of risk taking! Thanks for sharing.


  2. Tara, I loved reading about your experience in Boothbay! Learning and writing with Linda Rief sounds like heaven. I think I’ll have to add this retreat to my plans for next summer! Thanks so much for sharing!


  3. Tara, you captured so succinctly and beautifully all I was hoping would happen in those morning writing/drawing sessions. Too often we don’t give ourselves permission to write. Yes, we write curricula, notes to students, articles, etc but seldom give ourselves the terror and joy of searching for those personal stories that make us who we are and how we are. I heard the grumbling the first morning– what does she want us to write?– just as I often do with my students– but when I toss out a few ideas that I know each of us can hold onto, magic happens– and we find we all have things to say, in our own unique ways that speak to others.
    I loved meeting all the dedicated, enthusiastic, energetic teachers who were with us. I especially loved seeing and hearing how they captured their voices in words and drawings by taking some risks and trusting themselves and their colleagues. My only disappointment, we didn’t get to hear everyone’s writing. I hope everyone will continue the writing, for themselves and with their students.
    I also want to mention that it was Lester Laminack who showed me George Ella Lyon’s new book Many-Storied House (on the Monday morning of the retreat!) from which I took the poems for Wednesday and the idea of the floor plan to find more writing. I immediately changed what I had planned to do this. I would highly recommend that book to others as a way into their own many-storied lives.
    Thank you, Tara. What a pleasure to finally meet you and thank you for all the wonderful ideas you share on this blog continuously. So many of us need this professional community, so lacking in our own schools, to continue the professional conversations and growth that enrich us and our students. The energy was contagious.


    • Ah, Linda! Thank you for an inspiring time…now I need to get the book Lester Laminack discovered. I love Lyon – she is, in so many ways, a writing teacher’s gift.


  4. Amazing writing trip! I need to attend the Boothbay retreat someday. I was busy assessing writers and conferring with Carl Anderson. Equally amazing! It’s so nice for teachers to have opportunities for role reversal.


  5. I love what you have shared here, Tara. I spoke a little with Linda at NCTE 13 in Boston and am so impressed that she continues in the classroom. I have seen comments about the Boothbay Writing Retreat being the best PD ever. What I feel here is the ever-present gift of Donald Graves and the hope that what he discovered, wrote about and nurtured never ends for children. And it takes gifted, experienced teachers and others committed to showing the power of real writing for kids to keep this alive. Maybe next year I can attend. I love what you wrote about your grandparents’ home.


    • I was thinking about Donald Graves, too, and all that was shared about him at that marvelous breakfast in his honor at NCTE. We are so lucky to stand on the shoulders of those wise and gifted educators – and I felt doubly lucky to be at Boothbay for that very reason. Definitely going back.


  6. So great to read your thoughts after they’ve had a chance to percolate for a while and after listening to you speak about your Boothbay experience the other day. I think anything that reminds us of what our students experience in our classrooms is a good thing. Interesting to think about the painting as another writing medium- guess it really is just about telling our stories.


  7. The experience with the shells sounds really powerful. I imagine many students would feel consternation at being given a bunch of directives in writing yet feeling unsure of what to do. I love your description of “shifty -eyed glancing about.” So true!


  8. Thanks, Tara, for sharing your writing thoughts. To me, so much of my writing during the year is focused on writing for work or a specific school. . . Not about writing for me! (Except for some of my slicing!).

    I particularly liked the stretching with the painting and poetry. What a fun week for you! Thanks so much for sharing! And of course, meeting fabulous authors in person is such a treat! I so loved meeting you this week! Thank you!


  9. I’m so envious – writing workshop with Linda Rief. I’m also inspired to write more often so I can “find memories and thoughts come alive.” I must go to Slater Park before month’s end with camera and notebook in hand.


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