Toward the end of the school year, I head up to the campground in the northwest corner of Connecticut, and I teach poetry in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
I work in a district where our fifth grade still experiences an outdoor education program each spring. I say “still” because so many of our neighboring districts have discontinued these programs–budgets are tight and instructional pressures are intense. I am so lucky to be able to share this time with students!
Throughout the day, I had four separate groups rotate through a poetry workshop.Every child wrote at least one poem–some students wrote more than that, and some of the poems were incredible. “It’s a perfect day to write a poem,” one boy said as he headed off to a bench overlooking the lake. I loved his enthusiasm, but not everyone embraced the concept of poetry writing quite so openly. Driving home–before I turned up my country music–I thought about the successes and struggles of the day, and I had three distinct reflections, reflections that will serve as reminders whenever and wherever I am working with writers of any age.
One boy lay on his back on a bench, his eyes closed for the first five minutes of his writing time. Had I been in a classroom, I probably would have redirected him, nudged him, reminded him that writing time is for writing. However, outside, on a beautiful day, I chose to leave him alone. When he sat up, he wrote, and when he shared his poem, we gasped. He’s not a child who typically takes anyone’s breath away with his writing, and his poem. Took. Our. Breath. Away.
Writing takes percolation time. While some students are experts at avoiding ever getting started, some students thrive when allowed time to percolate, incubate, and establish their thoughts before writing. Generating ideas isn’t always visible, and sometimes, still waters run deep. It’s so important to respect different approaches to the writing process.
Another child chose to try a poem from the perspective of a bench. Her bench was lonely, wishing someone would sit on it. I wish I had taken a picture of the poem because honestly, there wasn’t much about it that was even remotely poetic. But when I read it, I reacted to the content. I wish I could remember exactly what I said so I could duplicate it, but it had to do with the emotion I could feel within her words–that there was such a sense of loneliness in her poem. She nodded, and when I left her, she wrote a poem about a lonely fir tree, stretching its branches and waiting for its maple friend to return from its winter disappearance. Her poem inspired her classmates to clap their hands in admiration when she read it during our share.
Sometimes the content and the meaning live underneath the surface, hiding within the letters, words, and sentences. Sometimes writers don’t even recognize the meaning until a reader reacts. Sometimes just reacting is more important than teaching.
I was working with another teacher from our school, and she said to me at the start that she wasn’t much of a poetry writer. This morning, she sent an email to all of the teachers involved in the camp. She not only shared her enjoyment of the day, but she also shared one of the poems she’d written. (I think she wrote three!) Her writing and her poem inspired the students and added to the energy of the day because it was a great poem and because she was right in there, doing the work, grappling with the pencil and paper, interpreting and integrating the instruction, and going out on the metaphorical limb with all of us sharing her work.
One of the most important things writing teachers can do to improve student writing is to write. When teachers write, magic happens. Yes, teachers learn the metacognitive processes of written expression by doing the work themselves, but they also build the elusive and critical component of community when they share the struggles, risks, rewards, and joy of writing.
I’m so grateful that our district has held on to this experience for students. As much as it’s for students, it’s also for the educators. Sometimes taking the learning far away from the walls of the classrooms can lead to important reflections about the work we do.
I am the Writing and Social Studies Coordinator in Simsbury, CT, and I love what I do. I get to write and inspire others to write! Additionally, I am the mom to four fabulous daughters and the wife of a great husband.