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

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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.