Sunday, November 23, 2014

What I Took From NCTE

At 5 o'clock on Saturday morning the elevator stopped and a poet stepped on. Paul Janeczko spoke in an earlier session with poets Georgia Heard and Rebecca Kai Dotlich. At the end of the session I asked a question about conferring with students about poetry--about easing my mind about how I tread so much more lightly than when we confer about an essay.

Janeczko was great. My favorite insight of his was his response to the question of when did he know he was a poet. He quoted William Stafford on being asked, "When did you start becoming a poet?" Stafford replied, "The real question is: when did you stop?"

But here we were twelve hours later on an elevator together, and Paul Janeczko and his great, grey Walt Whitmanesque beard, said good morning--calling me by my name--and then he said, "I am going to pee."

Reading this as Janeczko willingly engaging me in a verbal joust, I couldn't help raising an eyebrow.

He clarified, "Level P. I'm going to Level P, but I'm having trouble finding it." We made more small talk and shared a laugh.

And then the elevator doors opened and we stepped into an arrest. Two policemen ushered a handcuffed woman into the cold morning just as we reached the lobby. We paused.

I paused to gawkat the arrest. He paused to ask a hotel employee near the arrest about Level P.

And off we went agreeing on the confusing layout of the hotel and conference center. He walked much faster than I did. He inched ahead of me. I had to pick up the pace in order to wish him a good day, before he turned right toward Level P and I turned left in search of a cup of coffee.

from Firefly July by Paul Janeczo & Melissa Sweet
And I thought for a bit about how lucky I was to be at the NCTE convention.

I wondered if my teachers in the 70s and early 80s ever had the opportunity to hear writers talk about writing.

I remember seeing my elementary school teachers as moms who happened to be leading our classes in the same way that my cub scout leader led us through arts and crafts in her kitchen. I saw my middle level teachers as friends with one another. Some reached out to us and got to know us. And I thought of my high school teachers as cartoon characters--I doodled them relentlessly.

I didn't think of teachers as colleagues--as part of a network of other educated men and women interested in their subjects--until college. At Temple, I became aware that my professors were writers and researchers and readers and thinkers. And they had expectations higher than I thought I could ever reach.

In a graduate class, Dr. Robert Storey shredded an essay of mine on Ibsen. He wrote that I had a sophisticated perspective of theater, "but the prose--oh, the prose." He wrote that he worried that I wanted to become a teacher. I didn't hate him for that comment. Or the grade.

I felt so far away from where I wanted to be. Twenty-three years later and I still feel far away.

But this weekend was about inching closer with others also wanting to inch closer. That is what NCTE felt like to me--a large collection of positive colleagues taking control of who they were and who they could possibly be.

I teach writing and I struggle with writing, but for a long weekend I had the opportunity to hear writers talk about writing...and they shared information measured in ways exceeding testing.

I heard teachers share ideas and experiences--young teachers, veteran teachers, retired teachers, and everything in between. Teachers who counted their failures as enthusiastically as their successes. Teachers of all ages and experiences who just wanted to learn.

I met a first-year teacher who was at her fourth NCTE conference. She went three times in college.

I met people who retired from their building, but not from being an educator. And never will.

I met an editor, Tracy Mack, who choked back tears when talking about working on a manuscript with Pam Munoz Ryan. She called it her Carnegie Hall moment. If I ever had an agent or an editor, I hope that they would feel that way about my words--the words I have been working on since Dr. Storey's comments. And no the irony of his name is not lost on me. I would love to write enough inches--great, moving, inches of text--and send them to him and thank him for indirectly showing me a ruler...and expecting me to create something worthy of being measured.

And I met lots of writers. Lots and lots of writers.

I love writers for the same reason that I love educators who are in it for life.

No one retires from writing, for each written word carries us an inch closer to where and who we want to be.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Truth & Generosity

The grace of connecting with students can sometimes last over lifetimes.

This week, Victoria Marini, literary agent at Gelfman Schneider in New York City, gave my 8th graders advice about their writing. Using Twitter, my students fired off questions about writing to the literary agent all day long. And, all day long, the literary agent responded. I was so proud of the questions the kids asked her. What they are writing matters to us and having the unique opportunity to engage with Torie was not lost on my students.

At one stage, an 8th grade girl looked up at me from her iPad and asked, "how did you connect with this literary agent?"

I taught Torie.

And the girl's face lit up. She didn't expect that answer. She said something along the lines of how cool that was as she made sure others around her knew what I had said.

Yep, years ago...I taught Torie.

Well, I "directed" her in the middle school play back in the late 90s. I remember casting her as the Dauphin in Henry V because I thought she had the natural instinct and sensitivity for it. More specifically, during auditions, I could already envision her playing the moment when the Dauphin receives the king's message that England would not give up. England would fight. The significance of that moment is that the Dauphin can see that this brash English King will win. That France is up against it even though they outman and out "gun" England. I knew she would play the significance of that moment. I knew she would "get" it.

It is 17 years since we worked on that play together, and I remember those decisions and I remember her sincerity as a person and as a young actor.

Torie came along on a school trip to the University of Wyoming that I organized. I set up a week long visit for fifteen kids interested in pursuing the arts in college. One of the professors, Leigh Selting, was so open to the idea that he let my students sit in on college theater classes and organized special training sessions in voice, fight, dance, set design, acting for the camera, et al. My kids even prepared monologues to deliver in front of their theater faculty. As Torie performed her scene from Paul Zindel's The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Professor Selting turned to me and whispered, "She's so goooood. She's the real stuff."

I'll never forget that either.

When Torie went to high school she came back and assisted me with the middle school play. This act inspired many others to also help. For many years I often entertained anywhere from 6-10 student directors from the high school. Torie started that. And then she graduated. And, like so many of the kids we teach, she vanished into her life.

We lost touch until recently.

I reached out to Torie just as my current students were starting to write their collaborative MG novel. Fortunately, the timing worked out for us and Torie connected with my students on Twitter just as we started to read and comment on each others work.

As we shared our thoughts and questions about each others' work on post-its, we read them and crafted questions for Torie. Students were milling around the room, reading and writing, talking and felt like a writer's studio. We were experimenting--together. We were talking about writing--together. We were thinking--together. We were creating--together.

And we also had someone help us. Someone who was just like them not too long ago. Someone who sat in these desks yesterday, and took the time today to model giving back and sharing.

When I knew the adolescent Torie on the stage, I made a point of drumming home the two words "Truth & Generosity" to my young actors. I did it so often I put a gold plate on our drama award that read "Truth & Generosity." We talked about it every day. We really did. That is not an exaggeration. We would talk about how we can find ways in our life to practice both of those virtues. For us, then, it was as simple as listening when someone else was talking, listening when someone else needed us.

Initially, I thought this blog post would be about the cool experience my kids had with writing, or Twitter, or a literary agent. Instead, I think what sticks most to me is the importance of how we make kids feel in our classrooms. And this week, a former student helped me make my current students feel like writers...they feel it...they believe they can do this. For some kids, it is the first time that they think of themselves as writers.

Thank you, Torie! Some connections do indeed last over lifetimes.