In Thanks: Books That Built a Writing Teacher
A tweet from my friend Heidi on Saturday made me stop and think. She asked, “What books and reading experiences would form your reading autobiography?” inspired by an idea shared by Donalyn Miller at #NCTE15. Such a great question, to reflect upon the journey of books and texts that influenced your life as a reader and teacher. It got me thinking about the books that I’ve read that have influenced me as a teacher of writing.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” I feel that way too. I have read so much through the years and the voices of the authors have challenged me at times, validated me at other times, and shaped how I think about students, teaching, writing, and learning.
On the day before Thanksgiving, I wanted to give thanks to the books and the authors who have helped me grow as a teacher of writing. These books together create a sort of autobiography of my life as a writing teacher and I am grateful for these wise works.
The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy McCormick Calkins: This was the first book I bought before my first year of teaching back in 2001. Over 500 pages, this book was no joke, and as a new teacher with a lot to learn, I read and highlighted with a sense of urgency. There was much for me to learn and no time like the present to learn it! Memorable quote: “Let’s not ever fool ourselves into thinking that our time with students does not matter that much, that it’s only the home that makes the difference. Our teaching can change what kids pack in their suitcases; it can help them cherish the intersection of a gravel driveway and a paved road; it can invite them to do wheelies as writers, readers, and learners. Our teaching matters more than we ever dreamed possible.”
Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year by Esme Raji Codell: During my first year of teaching, I was a little desperate to read about other teachers and how they were surviving what felt like a pretty impossible job. I read about Esme’s first year with admiration for all her creativity and energy, and empathy for the difficultly she faced. In the years before blogs and the opportunities for teachers to share their tales from the classroom, this book was my first realization that teachers could and should write about their teaching. I’ve returned to this book often through the years and shared excerpts with teachers through my work with the Long Island Writing Project. Here is a favorite part: “The closed-door teacher anarchy I suggested seems so scary in theory, but in reality, I see it already exists. In my opinion, the prefabricated curriculum and board mandates that are concocted to hide this state of affairs can work two ways. They can be benign suggestions that make talented inventors out of teachers. Or they can make it so people who don’t have anything to share can still work, since their scripts are made up for them. Nobody really knows which is happening when the teacher closes the door. At worst, mediocrity. At best, miracles.”
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott: As a participant in the Long Island Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute (ISI) in 2002, we were asked to read Bird by Bird prior to the first session. At first I was confused about why we weren’t reading a book about teaching writing, but I was soon drawn in to Anne Lamott’s wisdom, humor and ideas on what it means to be a writer. I went on to co-facilitate several summers of the ISI and have read and reread Bird by Bird many times in the last 13 years. Favorite lines: “Even if only the people in your writing group read your memoirs or stories or novel, even if you only wrote your story so that one day your children would know what life was like when you were a child and you knew the name of every dog in town- still, to have written your version is an honorable thing to have done. Against all odds, you have put it down on paper, so that it won’t be lost. And who knows? Maybe what you’ve written will help others, will be a small part of the solution. You don’t even have to know how or in what way, but if you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like its own little lighthouse. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
The Writing Workshop: Working through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hart Parts) by Katie Wood Ray with Lester Laminack. When I was a new-ish teacher, I often participated in morning inservice classes taught by my former principal, Dr. Eve Dieringer. I still remember being surprised and happy that I was given a copy of this book to keep! Reading a professional text and discussing it with colleagues was such a worthwhile experience and Katie Wood Ray has become one of the writers whose work always resonates and pushes me forward. I loved Lester Laminack’s sections of the book, where he shares what published writers have to say about topics like writing routinely and learning from other writers. Quote that still resonates: “In the highly politicized world that we live in, it is more important than ever that we be as articulate about our practice, and being articulate is what helps us keep our faith when things do get hard or when we feel threatened from the outside about our beliefs. We need to be able to explain to ourselves and to others very clearly both how and why we are doing what we are doing. It steadies us to be articulate.”
Interactive Writing: How Language & Literacy Come Together, K-2 by Andrea McCarrier, Gay Su Pinnell and Irene C. Fountas. From 2003-2014, I taught kindergarten. It was a special privilege to work with the youngest learners and a kindergarten child’s progress as a reader and writer is an amazing thing to behold. One of my favorite professional texts for teaching writing was this one. Interactive writing was the bridge to help my students move from where they were to where they needed to go as writers. Beyond a rich description of the theory behind this technique, there were so many practical, exciting ideas to try with students! One of my favorite lessons, inspired from this book, was using interactive writing to write our own class version of The Little Red Hen, after we had read multiple versions of this classic story. In our version, our hen baked cupcakes. We invited another kindergarten class to come in and listen to our collaboratively written class story and then we all shared cupcakes. Important line: “We want to support children in using what they know to get to what they do not know yet.”
Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice by Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz: Last year was my first year teaching 3rd grade, and after ten years of teaching kindergarten, I had (have) a lot to learn about third grade writers. I cannot believe I never discovered the Two Writing Teachers blog until last winter, but finding this community was like discovering inspiration and kindred spirits! Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres created this community and co-authored the book Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice. I ordered Ruth and Stacey’s book and found it to be incredibly helpful as I learned how to navigate writing workshop in the upper grades. The book is filled with so many ways to improve writing workshop and feel joyful while doing this work. It is a book I come back to again and again as I work to become a better teacher. Lines I love: “This book is for anyone who believes in the power of writing workshop and wants to continue to refine his or her practice. We realize the teaching of writing is complex, and it is not just nice to know you are not alone or the journey, it is a necessity. If you have ever wished for daily doses of encouragement, tips, challenges, advice, and understanding during the school year, this book is for you.” (I would add this blog is for you too!)
Notebook Know-How: Strategies for the Writer’s Notebook by Aimee Buckner. Aimee Buckner’s work is incredibly readable, teacher-friendly, and energizing. She shares strategies for helping students to make the most of their writer’s notebook and makes the whole process so easy to understand and apply. Words of wisdom: “I now realize what writers have been trying to tell us ‘nonwriters’- that we shouldn’t write for significance, but rather that we should write as a habit. Sometimes we’ll write something significant and sometimes we won’t. It’s the act of writing- the practice of generating text and building fluency- that leads writers to significance.”
The Unstoppable Writing Teacher: Real Strategies for the Real Classroom by M. Colleen Cruz. In this book, Colleen Cruz takes our most common complaints as writing teachers (“I never have enough time”) and speaks back to them in a way that is helpful, real, and understanding. Early on in the book, she writes about sand mandalas as a metaphor for teaching and it has stuck with me ever since: “The sand mandala is meant to be a reminder of life’s impermanence. That anything made by humans is not permanent. The value of the sand mandala is in the process, the thinking, meditating, and learning as the creation is happening. The finished piece hardly matters because it was never meant to last… This reminds me of teaching.”
Learning from Classmates: Using Students’ Writing as Mentor Texts by Lisa Eickholdt: The premise behind Lisa’s brilliant book is that we can and should use our students’ writing as mentor texts for the class. Lisa provides helpful ways to organize your student mentor texts, forms you can use as you analyze their work and lessons to help students learn from their peers. I created a Voxer book club for the Two Writing Teachers community around this book and it has been just an amazing experience. Lisa is part of the group, which is such a gift to have the author herself be able to join the discussion. Speaking and listening to colleagues discuss particular aspects of the book, and teaching writing in general, is a daily shot of inspiration, encouragement, and advice. In my journey as a teacher of writing, this book marks a milestone moment as I have jumped out of my comfort zone to share my stories here on Two Writing Teachers and through organizing a book club with Voxer, something I had never done before. Lisa’s line I love: “Cynthia Rylant is a fine writer, and some kids will reach her level, but many won’t. When I compare most of my students’ writing with children’s literature I use in my classrooms, I see a large chasm between the two. What we all want as teachers is to help more children become better writers. Using student writing as a mentor text can help us achieve this goal.”
One last text I must mention is Mem Fox‘s “Notes from the Battlefield: Toward a Theory of Why People Write,” originally published in “Language Arts” Volume 65 No. 2, February 1988. When this was written, I was a third grader myself. Times have certainly changed, but the message in this article is one that has not. If you have never read this piece, give yourself a gift this Thanksgiving weekend and read each word. It is a manifesto for why we teach writing the way we do and why writing matters, why we need to “ache with caring” about our writing and why our students need to ache with caring, too. I have so many favorite lines from this article, but I will share this: “I don’t mind if you, dear reader, forget most of what I have written in this chapter except for one phrase: ‘to ache with caring’. If we as teachers ache with caring it will, perhaps, be possible for us to create classroom communities within school communities in which writing matters because it’s done for real reasons by real writers who ‘ache with caring’ for a real response. My hope is that through the grimy windows of my particularity we’ve been able to peer into a more generalized world; that we can now move into that world as agents of change so that our students write more, write more often, write more effectively and with greater willingness and enjoyment. I wish we could change the world by creating powerful writers for forever instead of just indifferent writers for school.”
I am so grateful for all the authors who have shared such important work in the world, influencing me and my students every day. I am grateful for the Two Writing Teachers community and the opportunity to share my teaching journey here, in this community of educators who care so much about the power of writing and the awesome responsibility we have as educators. Thank you for welcoming me so warmly and helping me to be braver in sharing my stories. As someone who has loved reading about teaching, it is parts humbling and thrilling to now be writing about teaching on a regular basis here at Two Writing Teachers. I am filled with gratitude for the opportunity and the chance to grow alongside all of you. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving friends!