This week, I was able to once again attend a professional development workshop in-person! No Zoom, just educators getting together in a large space – listening and thinking; talking and laughing – the essence of true learning. We were all thrilled to be out in public once again, even if we still had to don masks and socially distance. We were together and that’s what mattered. The workshop was offered by the Rutgers Center for Literacy Development, directed by Dr. Lesley M. Morrow. I have been attending workshops presented by the center for the last twenty years, and I am on the board, helping make choices on presenter offerings and other logistical matters. The presenter for this particular workshop was Kelly Gallagher, and the title of his presentation was Building Readers and Writers: Moving from Compliance to Engagement. I have seen Kelly several times before. His expertise is teaching high school writing, which has no direct connection to me in my present role. I figured I would relax and listen and not worry about learning something. But of course, I was totally surprised.
In the course of Kelly laying out the importance of writing with students, he said something that sparked my interest. He talked about the notion of writing without a plan – writing to discover what you think and know. I do this all the time when I compose my blogs. I think of a topic, roll it around in my head for several days, and then start to write. I don’t make an outline, a web, or a Venn diagram. I just write. And then I revise. And revise. And revise. Many, many times. Eventually, I edit, and then I hit the publish button. The week before, I was discussing this very idea with Hadley, one of my private students who is a gifted 6th grade writer. She expressed her displeasure of having to always write a plan before she writes at school. She insightfully stated: “Sometimes I have an idea, but I don’t exactly know how the story is going to go until I start writing and meet the characters.” She is perfectly right, and I empathized with her, explained why the teacher was asking her to make a plan, but also encouraged her to write without a plan at home and with me. Hadley and I often write together, stopping when stuck, reading our pieces out loud, talking about where we might go next, asking ourselves, “What does this story need now?,” and then continuing to write quietly. I treasure these times when we are in the flow of writing.
Kelly explained that the “Writing process includes daily practice with finding and shaping words to express ideas, creating confidence, flexibility, and joy. He spoke eloquently about the importance of volume in student writing. Writing needs space and time to grow. It isn’t perfected overnight. A writer has to create, explore, discover, take risks, fail, and start all over again. It is the teacher’s job to help design that time and space, that love of story, that sense of adventure.
At one point during the workshop, Kelly had the attendees read the poem, “Learning the Bicycle” by Wyatt Prunty. Then he asked us each to select a line that stood out to us, write that line on a sheet of paper, and then start writing off of the idea we had selected. We got to work. I selected the line: “And her certainty she will always fall.” It jumped out at me as I read. “Yes, that’s me, always ready to fall, waiting for the moment, tense and certain.” I began to write, crafting a poem that pleased me.
The next day, I was working with Hadley. We were finishing up reading Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. We had about 20 minutes left in our session. Poetry would fit in perfectly, so I read Wyatt Prunty’s poem to her, and I asked her to select a line and then start writing. Hadley took up her pencil and leaned her head toward the paper.
After several minutes, Hadley lifted her head. “I’m stuck. I don’t know how to end it,” she declared. I listened as she read her poem aloud. I didn’t have to give a word of advice. Hadley picked up her pencil and put her head down again and started to write. Quickly, she finished and said, “ I’m done, but it doesn’t make any sense.” She read the entire poem to me, and I was stunned by its deep beauty. I was surprised that a twelve-year-old girl could express her self-doubt so clearly and maturely. I told her how incredible her poem was, and she looked at me with her dark brown Hadley eyes and said, “But what does it mean?”
I turned to her and smiled, “What do you think it means? What were you trying to say?”
She implored, “I don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Do you know?”
I took a breath and a chance. “I think it means that you are growing up, and the girl on the inside doesn’t always match the girl on the outside. You are trying to find your identity.”
Hadley pressed her lips together in thought and nodded her head. “How can you write when you don’t know what you are thinking?”
I smiled again. “Well, that’s what we’ve been talking about: writing without a plan, writing to discover what you are thinking. It takes time. And sometimes it surprises you!”
My words seemed to satisfy Hadley. She picked up her pencils and put them back in her case. Our writing time together was done for now.