Friday, July 18, 2014

A book that all teachers of writing should read…Children Want to Write: Donald Graves and the Revolution in Children's Writing

This is a bit embarrassing because when I went to write about the International Reading Association's Annual Convention in New Orleans awhile ago,  I realized that I had never finished the post I had begun about  the International Reading Association Annual Convention in San Antonio that I attended last year.  Now to be fair, I was really really busy when I returned and probably my post was a bit too ambitious since I didn't get it finished!
In the early 1980's I read a book that really changed my thinking and excited me, Writing: Teachers and Children at Work by Donald Graves.  Some time after that I attended a pre-convention of the International Reading Association in Atlanta, Georgia.  Children from a local school were brought in and we were able to watch Don conference with the children and then later we were able to work with the children as well.  It was an incredible experience and when he complimented me after he watched me work with my student, I was thrilled.

 In 1986, I was the program chair of the Transmountain Regional Conference of the International Reading Association, a conference for 3000 teachers,  in Vancouver and we were able to bring Donald Graves in as one of our keynote speakers.   It was wonderful.  And I will never forget our dinner at the University Faculty Club, especially since Pierre Trudeau, our former prime minister, happened to be sitting at the next table.  Two of my heroes in the same room!  And in some ways they had things in common!  They were change agents!

In the summer of 1987, I decided to attend the Writing Institute at the University of New Hampshire which he had begun.  He wasn't an instructor but was often around and very much a gently guiding, challenging, listening force.  My instructors were Tom Newkirk and Jane Hansen, two amazing teachers.  There were 120 students with five instructors and we were all focused on writing and the writing process.  Most of us were living in three floors of a residence on the beautiful campus.  We worked hard but had so much fun.  This blog would be way too long if I tried to describe those three weeks and the impact it had on my own teaching and career,  and even the healing effect it had on me as I wrote about my marriage that had ended with that conference.

Donald Graves was an amazing person and educator. He died a couple of years ago, still active and learning I am sure.  Tom Newkirk and Penny Kittle, two friends and colleagues, previewed a wonderful new book at the convention in San Antonio, that they have edited, Children Want to Write: Donald Graves and the Revolution in Children's Writing.   They decided to do this project as they realized that young teachers were not necessarily familiar with his work and never would have the opportunity to hear him speak.

I think I am safest here just quoting, Heinemann's press release. "Children Want to Write is a collection of Donald Graves most significant writings paired with recovered video-tapes that illuminate his research and his inspiring work with teachers. See the earliest documented use of invented spelling, the earliest attempts to guide young children through a writing process, the earliest conferences. This collection allows you to see this revolutionary shift in writing instruction—with its emphasis on observation, reflection, and approaching children as writers."

I wrote last year that I was really looking forward to sharing this book and particularly the video tapes with my staff.  And I realize now that I really haven't done that!   Writing workshops are  alive and well in our school's classrooms, and very much a part of our literacy project in the district.  And I  quoted him regularly in my own classroom, " Those who find it hardest to write, often have the most to say!" "You have to be a good listener to be a good writer"  And I have had some amazing writers, and the delight the grade ones had this year with their writing was wonderful again to see.  But I know that Donald Graves was the one who made me realize how powerful writing was to our learning,  really at the core of our being, and it became the core of my classroom practice at all levels from primary to university to professional development.  And it is so wonderful that this book is here for today's teachers!

It's been a year since I retired...

Well I haven't been on this blog lately-though I have posted quite a bit on my My Beautiful Vancouver blog.  I can't believe I have now been retired for a year!  I can see how time slips away!  In some ways summer seems the most normal time because one thing about being a teacher is you are used to having summers off, though most of us at some points have taken courses or taught in the summer, but we are used to having this less structured time, time I think teachers do need to recharge one's batteries.  One thing I loved about teaching was I felt like it was like the magic slate I had when I was a child.  At the end of the school year, you were able to lift the page and all was clear so you could start again.  Of course that next year would be the perfect one, the one where you had learned from all your past mistakes.  Even at the end of May or June  in the midst of end of year chaos, I would be thinking ahead to how I would change things in the coming year.

By the end of August I was usually in my classroom, getting everything nicely ready, new notebooks and supplies out, the classroom would be sparkling clean!  I loved the beginning of the year because anything was possible.  Of course I knew that it wouldn't stay that way and that mistakes would be made and students can quickly mess up that perfect classroom, but there was always that lovely ideal picture.

When I worked at the school board, the rhythm was different.  I usually was worrying about the big literacy conference I would have to put on and there would be projects that I would kind of be in the midst of, even in summer.  The magic slate didn't clean quite so easily.  I watched a TV show where they had to put on a weekly variety show and the programmer was already worried about planning the next program before the first one had finished being aired.  I totally got it.  I was always having to put on workshops and coordinating meetings, and wanting them to be worth teachers giving up their valuable time, hopefully giving them inspiration.

Wednesday  I had my annual lunch with mojitos with Clara with whom I used to teach grade seven.  Grade seven teachers are particularly busy in June with graduation ceremonies, special field trips, lengthy report cards,the writing certificates, and just making sure everything is ready for students to transition to high school.  There also is a certain degree of drama as these adolescents ready themselves for a big transition.  The idea of that civilized long lunch  with us sitting outside with our special drinks was always kind of a light at the end of the tunnel for us.

Since I still volunteer a couple of mornings a week at school, I keep in touch with my former colleagues and the lunch was on.  It was a different year for both of us, me not teaching, and her, spending the last two weeks on strike, a strike that still is not settled.

But we had a great time Wednesday.  Clara and I always have lots to discuss!  And how do I feel having been "retired" for a year?  I feel fine…absolutely fine…Do I look forward to volunteering in September?  Of course!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Thinking of a special colleague and musings on BCTF strike...

Well one year later here I am.  I have been retired almost a year.  I was just thinking how different this was from my normal June.  In a normal June teaching, I was out straight.  I was trying to get my year tied up nicely with field trips and grade seven activities, usually trying to remember to go to a few retirements.  In addition there would be at least 28 report cards to write as well as seemingly endless certificates to sign.  In addition there would be gardening and all the other things of every day life.  By the time July 1 came I was exhausted as if I had just finished a marathon.  The good thing.  The slate was clean and I got to plan for the coming year, the year when everything would be perfect!

This year hasn't been like that even for my teaching friends.  The last week of school and all the public school teachers in BC are out on strike with really at this point no hopeful end in sight.  Instead of volunteering and offering to go on an end of year field trip or two, I visit picket lines often with baking. People say to me, " Aren't you glad you retired last year?"  I guess I am and I partly retired because I thought we could be back on strike as this is an issue which was only postponed not settled two years ago when we were on strike three days.  The government that was not teacher friendly was reelected so that was not a good omen.

Ten strikes in 40 years of teaching was really enough for me, but this current situation is just sad.  And as an observer not a participant this year, I can say that I wish more of the public could spend some time in schools and really understand why teachers in this strike are more united than I have ever seen them. The years of inadequate funding are catching up.  How well BC students do do is a credit to their teachers and their hard work!    Chances are anyone reading this blog is familiar with schools so I really don't have to go on.  I read letter after letter by teachers describing their classroom situations and how hard they have to work and how frustrated they feel, and I know that all these letters are true.  I was fortunate in that I did have a background in special education and lots of experience, and I still felt overwhelmed and worked harder every year I taught.  I loved what I did but it was challenging to say the least.

One reason I have really loved teaching is due to the wonderful people with whom I was able to work. One of my happiest teaching relationships was when I taught at MacCorkindale School and my tiny classroom (I was the Learning Assistance teacher) was off the library.  I worked there with an amazing teacher librarian, Shirley MacDonald.  It was the happiest of relationships.  She was one amazing librarian and teacher.  She was also a wonderful person.  She was a true professional, always up to date in her learning, and always wanting to know and do more.  MacCorkindale was unique in that it was an  over area school. Other than one separate kindergarten the school had four areas each with four classroom areas so that in each area there were three or four classes but in areas with no walls.  The library was open as well in the centre of the school.  We both worked with all the classroom teachers in the school.  We often did units together.  We also had the advantage of having exactly the same noise toleration so if I was just going to say please be quiet, she had already done so.

After three years there, the principal was leaving, and I thought it was a good time for me to leave as well.  I had decided I really wanted to teach my own class and there were no classroom positions in MacCorkindale so I put in a transfer.  I don't think Shirley was too happy with me because we really worked together so well.  And when I had a very challenging class in a much more challenging school the next year, I had many moments when I wondered if I had been crazy to leave.  I loved working with Shirley and was still borrowing books from her library the following year.  Then Shirley retired a few years later and moved full time to the Sunshine Coast and I kind of lost touch with her.

I was so sad and shocked when I heard that she had died a couple of weeks ago.  I hadn't known that she had cancer.  How I wished I could have had one more conversation with her!  Those three years were very important to me and much of that was due to her.

Teaching with people is special-you have a special bond.  That probably isn't true in a huge high school  or maybe you only have it with the few people you work with most directly, but I am sure it is there.  And it makes the load lighter when you have people with whom you can share in the way I was able to do with Shirley and others.  I hope I thanked her enough and I hope she knew how much I valued her expertise.  To be a successful teacher librarian requires many skills and she had them all.  The world can be a difficult place and people can also be difficult, but again I feel so privileged to have worked with Shirley and many others.  They were really angels to me!!!

I have been to retirements and I sometimes I felt as if I was at a funeral in that everyone takes the opportunity to say nice things about the person retiring as if they were never to be seen again.  But it is good in a way because we just don't always do that.  And sometimes they do move away or you don't keep in touch.  I know probably one reason I still volunteer at my old school is I didn't really want to lose that special community!  Many of my good friends are people I met in education and some of them I seem to see rarely but it is always special when I do.

I wrote this a few days ago and then left it to think about.  I went to another retirement of another special teacher and was able to see many of the teachers and administrators who had worked with Shirley as well  We all had such great memories of her!  It was hard to believe it had been 20 years since I had left that school yet so strong are the impressions… So today sitting looking at a beautiful lake at the home of yet another amazing teacher,  I think of Shirley and all the wonderful teachers out there and so wish this could have been a happier school ending… May better days come!