I find myself drawn to authors
Who write honestly about their lives.
The joyful, the horrific, the messy in-between,
Obsessive prose that consumes their lives,
Resulting in pages vibrating with voice.
I have many mentors,
but I have just one hour,
to write this Tuesday-afternoon-blog.
Time is ticking,
So here are authors who first come to mind:
Bill Bryson finds the humor in the subtlest of objects--
From him I learn to look for life’s minutia.
Anne Lamott finds light within the darkness--
From her I learn to find hope in the hopeless.
Erik Laarson finds stunning events from history
and infuses them with real, human emotions.
From him I learn that we live history.
And one day, we too will be pegs on a timeline.
Toni Morrison writes about lives so different from my own.
But are our lives really all that different?
Don’t we all travel down different pathways of pain?
Isabel Wilkerson writes about a Great African-American migration,
About the South when I live--
About the escape of those who felt trapped by it--
And she teaches me a history I should have learned in high school.
Pat Conroy rewrote his childhood over and over again
Hoping to make sense of it.
I don’t know if he ever did.
I don’t know if I ever will.
Ernest Hemingway, the opposite of Conroy,
Wrote simple, direct, and unadorned.
There’s so much we can say,
In just a few well-connected words to form a sentence.
Harper Lee, with just one book,
(I don’t count the second)
Never expected the success that came with Mockingbird.
She taught me that you write what you know--
And sometimes the whole world resonates with it.
Langston Hughes, my GOD, LANGSTON HUGHES!
Montage of a Dream Deferred,
Mother to Son,
I learned it’s okay to be jealous of a writer’s talents.
This list is short,
One day I'll add more,
Mentors who speak to me when I read their work,
And admire it from a distance--
As a fellow writer reading away, just traveling through.
Teachers abound in Yolanda’s prekindergarten class. When Joshua announces his need to create a house, Jazmin and Katie answer the call.
Joshua: I need to make a house.
Jazmin: I know how to do it. Here…let me do it for you.
Katie (interrupting): I can teach him. You do it like this (makes a house on her paper). You make a square.
Jazmin (angry) to Katie: That is not how you make a house!
Katie (defensive): Yes huh.
Jazmin: That’s a little one. I do big ones.
Katie (angry): That’s how you make a house Jazmin!
Jazmin: Joshua…look…this is how you make a house.
Jazmin (gives Joshua a blue crayon): Here..use this.
Jazmin and Katie confront each other in this exchange with Joshua. Jazmin is the “house-drawing” expert in the classroom and her classmates know this. “House-drawing” is part of her writing identity. And she is proud of her ability to successfully draw homes. Katie, who just learned how to make homes (mostly by watching Jazmin) intrudes on Jazmin’s writing territory. Homes are Jazmin’s domain and Katie is a trespasser. Eventually, Katie backs off and allows Jazmin to take charge. But this short burst of conflict reveals the power struggle that happens when young children take ownership of certain written symbols.
How do students negotiate power and identity in a writing classroom? In a classroom where peer teaching is valued and encouraged, interesting conflicts emerge. Students who create symbols that are admired by classmates relish in their classmates' desire to learn from them. But such peer teaching comes at a price. When kernels of knowledge are offered to others, and imitation becomes the standard practice of the learner, the peer-teacher becomes less defined, less identifiable. Jazmin is not the only house-maker in the class. Katie now joins her. Jazmin must battle to retain her authority and she is successful in this exchange. Joshua retains Jazmin's counsel and Katie backs off. Jazmin has held on to her power….for now.
In a fifth grade classroom Jack, Brandon, and Bo engage in a peer revision group. Each boy shares his writing and asks for specific feedback. Jack shares his alien story and wants to know what he needs to add to make the alien invasion more exciting. Brandon shares the next chapter in his growing graphic novel and asks the other boys to help him make it more funny. And Bo discusses his informational how-to about various skateboarding moves. He has five cool moves illustrated and labeled and needs ideas for other moves.
When the discussion dissipates I lean in and ask, “I noticed some great discussion happening in your group. What did you learn from one another?”
Jack, “I wanted the alien invasion to be epic. I already had about 1000 ships landing and the aliens taking over the Earth. And Brandon gave me a good idea about the aliens having these huge, ginormous eyes and whenever a human looked into their eyes the aliens would have mind control. So I am going to add all sorts of ways the aliens started controlling the humans. And turned them into their slaves!”
Bo, “And I got some new skateboarding move ideas. I already wrote how to do an ollie, a grind, a carve, a goofyfoot. But Brandon told me about a kickflip so I’m adding that to my book. And he also explained a McTwist to me. So I’ll put that one in there, too.”
I wondered, “What the heck is a McTwist?”
Brandon, “Oh, well when you’re up on a ramp, you like launch yourself up really high and hold your board and turn around like 3 or 4 times. I can’t do it yet. But one day…”
I ask, “So, normally you confer with Ms. D about your writing, but today you had a chance to talk with one another about your writing. In your experience, what’s the difference?”
Brandon, “Ms. D is a great teacher and she has a lot of great ideas to help you with your writing, but she doesn’t also get my humor. So, when I’m working on my graphic novel I don’t think she really knows how to help me make it funny.”
Bo, “And she has NO IDEA about skateboarding!”
The boys laugh until Jack speaks poignantly about the difference between a teacher-led conference and a conferring led by a group of peers. “Ms. D knows a ton about writing. A ton! And she gives us lots of great ideas about beginning a story or ending a story to keep readers into it. She’s really good at telling us places where she’s lost and where we need to add stuff. But there’s a lot of things she doesn’t know that Bo and Brandon know. Like, she really has no idea about skateboarding, but we do! So we can give Bo much better ideas about other skateboarding moves. That’s why we like meeting in groups. We can teach each other.”
We teachers don't have all the answers. That's why we need to make space for many teachers in the classroom. Sometimes, the best teacher for a boy writer is another boy writer.
This past month, as I scrolled through my Twitter feed, I saw a post by Tanny McGregor about sketchnoting. As part of Smokey Daniels’s new book The Curious Classroom, Tanny offers her beautiful sketchnotes to summarize the information contained within each chapter. Her sketches piqued my own curiosity. So, I began to explore. First, I started sketching myself.
Then, I watched Tanny’s and Shawna Coppola’s video from their #EdCollaborative talk:
As I watched the video, I sketched notes:
I started to bring sketching into my reading life as well. This past week I read The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. This book features 8 characters—4 mothers and their 4 daughters. Each chapter is told from the perspective of each. And within each chapter were slice of life stories. To keep each character straight in my mind, I decided to draw sketches as I read.
In my doctoral program at the University of Virginia I took a seminar on Comprehension. And the one thing that I took away from that seminar was the concept that comprehension happens during the act of reading. So, to have students write responses to questions after they finished reading a text doesn’t necessarily capture the thinking that happens while engaged in reading.
At ILA this summer I am co-presenting a session about Infographics with Katie Kelley and Lindsay Yearta. I’ve always thought of Infographics solely as digital acts. But I was wrong. Sketchnoting, when done by hand, is also a form of presenting information graphically. And I thank Tanny McGregor for teaching me this.
Last night, on Facebook, Mary Howard and Travis Crowder asked me to consider the following question: "At what point are students taught to write well?" I decided to post my response to this question (with a few revisions) on my blog.
First, I love the challenge of contemplating this question. And I'm sure I'll have more to add as I keep reflecting on it. I did my dissertation work in a pre-kindergarten classroom. Sixteen four-year-olds gathered together, day-after-day, and wrote. What did their brilliant teacher do to encourage this? The teacher:
So: "When are students taught to write well?"
Students are taught to write well the minute they step into a teacher's classroom where these conditions are fundamental rights for the writer.
About the Author
Brian Kissel is an Associate Professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His focus is writing instruction. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Hattie and three kiddos: Charlie, Ben, and Harriet.