learning from my mistakes

At one point yesterday, an hour into the second session of what was supposed to be three 90-minute writing workshops with middle school kids in auditorium-seating chairs, I looked at the 250 eighth graders sitting in long, deep rows in metal folding chairs in the school's library, without their notebooks, staring at me, challenging me (in the best way) to entertain them on this exciting day of all-day-long Countdown projects, and thought, I give up.

I know you've been there as a teacher, a parent, a writer, a maker-of-things, a long-distance traveler of any sort on the convoluted highway of your work- or home-life.

I saw 750 kids yesterday in three 90-minute sessions. After talking with their principal long weeks ago about how to best make use of an author-visit day, I had prepared a personal narrative writing workshop for these students centered around their summer reading of Countdown, just one of several culminating events in their "One Book, One School" project. 

Somehow wires got crossed, as they sometimes do, and I ended up punting all day long, expending every last drop of energy, presence, and voice I had, using every scrap of classroom management skills at my disposal, trying to figure out how to work with these kids and give them -- and their teachers -- something of value to take away from the day. 

I was trying too hard. I know you've been there, too. The room was too light; the projector bulb was not bright; the round walls of the library were mostly glass (and the screen was in front of that), so students en mass who were moved from station to station all day distracted us; dueling microphones squealed; kids bounced; I sometimes shouted to be heard (I know better) and the whole thing felt terribly disjointed.

When teachers asked "What happened to the writing workshops?" I took every vindicating opportunity to say, "We were supposed to be workshopping; I'd never have kept your kids for a 90-minute assembly." Which, with this many captured kids squeezed together, who have no other creative outlet for an hour and a half, is like, I promise, performing a 90-minute concert. Three times. In one day. Only I'm not Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift. 

At lunchtime, when the principal asked how it was going and I replied fine, she said, "I was in there, near the end of your second session; it looked like you were having some trouble...". I replied, lickety- split, in my justified defense, "If they had had notebooks..." and thought further ...IF THEY HAD HAD NOTEBOOKS, LIKE WE AGREED THEY WOULD HAVE, THEY WOULD HAVE BEEN WRITING, DOODLING, SCRIBBLING, DRAWING, WHILE FOLLOWING ME; THEY WOULD HAVE BEEN TOTALLY ENGAGED; I KNOW HOW TO DO THIS; IT'S WHAT I DO WELL....

But I stopped myself. I'm sure she did, too. 

Where did we get our wires crossed? I make notes on every phone conversation, I send out a detailed confirmation that lists everything we're doing and how we're going to do it, I always have a trail of email a mile long... what had happened? 

Confirmations and expectations aside, it became clear to me that work of any kind on this celebratory day was not going to work... something I think the principal already knew.

I could not compete with my own book's button-making station, tee-shirt stamping station, sixties dance-moves station, and I certainly couldn't hold a candle to the evening's Countdown-themed dance a mere hours away -- the excitement was building like a fire about to combust.

And then it hit me: I was hired to be a station, one of six stations on a student rotation schedule for the day, all stations relating to Countdown, and I somehow misunderstood my assigned role in all the back-and-forth communication. I wasn't a star of any show; I wasn't the piece de resistance brought in for this Countdown celebration. The kids who had read the book over the summer were the stars -- actually, Countdown was the star -- and I was a worker bee, just like everyone else manning their stations, and I had a job to do. And I had stuck myself in a hole.

Months earlier, when this station idea had been proffered, I said no to six 45-minute talks. ("I will lose my voice and stamina, and that won't be fair to your students, teachers, or me.") I had instead worked out an arrangement for three 90-minute writing workshops which would have stretched my energies, of course, with 250 kids per session, but I would have their teachers to help me, the sessions would be interactive, I would incorporate time for actual writing, and I would not talk non-stop all day.

But there were other options. I might have stuck with six 45-minute sessions but made them (instead of presentations, which take an inordinate energy) Q&A's about Countdown with a workable number of students. Or. I could have politely declined altogether, if this, too, felt like too much.

That 45-minute station, structured in a workable format, was -- at core -- what my client needed. And that's what I didn't deliver.

The first two sessions were back-to-back mayhem (that's too strong a word; to be fair, I did a good job, it was just too long to hold onto a group of 250 kids in those circumstances). I punted while using my prepared slides for a writing workshop.

When I got to my midday break, I broke down my presentation, restructured it, and then did a much better job in the third session -- work smarter, not harder -- by making it all about Countdown, and by starting off with a no-nonsense Q&A that set the tone, interspersing it with slides that expanded my answers and also provided more background.

It worked like the proverbial charm, for an hour and ten minutes. I was astonished and grateful. But now it was the end of the day, kids were restless, and I was done.

When I motioned a nearby teacher and told her that I was going to let the kids go ten minutes early, she balked. "NO." That's exactly what she said. "We can't let them leave here until 2:20. You've got to keep them another 15 minutes. I know that sounds inhospitable, but you have to keep them in here. What about that summer freedom book you used in the last two sessions?"

I seethed. I was spent. My voice was shot, my feet were swollen, my patience was thinner than thin. I could toss this back at the classroom teacher and make it her problem, or I could make another choice. 

As the jostling and noise crescendoed, I slipped to the computer and pulled up the slides that tell the story behind Freedom Summer. I pulled the group together again and began to tell them the story of Annie Mae who worked for my grandmother in Mississippi in the sixties. I had the luxury of time to spin it out the way I like to do... the way I rarely have time to do.

I set the stage, I compared this Freedom Summer with the Freedom Summer I was writing about in book two of the Sixties Trilogy, and then I recited the story from memory as I showed Jerome LaGarrigue's fabulous art on slides. 

The room was stone silent. It is always so, with Freedom Summer. I silently thanked this teacher (whom I never saw again) for the inspiration and connection. I promised my voice I would not talk for the rest of the day. Week. I drank some water, I signed some books, and I dashed for the car waiting to take me to the airport. 

As I grabbed my luggage in the main office, I shook the principal's hand and thanked her for the day. She thanked me for coming: "I'm sorry it wasn't what you expected; we did our best." I couldn't manage a smile. "It was fine," I said. "We did well." Which we did. But I could barely contain my disappointment.

On the way to the airport my adrenalin was still running away with me, and I was so ragged out, I began to bitch to the driver, who of course knew nothing of what I do or what the situation was, but I couldn't stop myself, which is how I realized what I was doing.

Which is how I was able to stop. I gathered up my own poor, morose little spirit and said enough, Debbie. You are just blowing off the steam from your own impending meltdown from your own surprising failure. You did the best you could, given what you did not know, and given what you came to understand. Next time will be better.

And it will be.

I'm still sifting what I learned from this, but some of what I've learned is that I want to listen better up front. I want to ask better questions. I want to understand better the concept or situation or goals for the day. I want to be able to offer ideas ("how about a 45-minute Q&A with each group instead of a presentation?") that can slide seamlessly into a school's needs and goals while preserving my own energies and brain cells. I want to say no when I need to. And I want to always remember: I am in a school to be of service. I'll work on it.

The days in schools that go like clockwork are days I love like a sister. Those are most days in schools for me. The days that beat me up are few, and they are almost always my fault. I want to learn to be grateful for them, for they teach me to be a better teacher, a better learner, a better listener. They give me something of value to share with someone else. 


  1. What a day!!!! I'm exhausted just reading about it, but "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." I won't mention that the guy who said that ended up in an asylum...

  2. Some days are like that....even in Australia! Guess we all have days like these.

  3. Haha! Well, I'm not in an asylum... yet. I take full responsibility for this day, and honestly, it was a GOOD day. It was. Lots of excitement, lots of good stuff. I met lots of fans, I became a fan. I told kids they had important stories to tell. Maybe some of them believed me. *Everyone* was great... even me. :>

    In the beginning, I thought SIX sessions? But now I see what they meant, and it would have been fine in the way they meant it, with some tweaking. We didn't know how to communicate that to each other, that's all. So I want to learn how to be aware of these different sorts of situations...

    It would have been okay, in the configuration they'd suggested (with that tweaking)... but I didn't understand it, and thought they wanted presentations.

    If I'd understood, I would have suggested Q&A and by the time they'd seated kids, we would have had about 30 mins. of Q&A for each session, and students would have been on their way, and the next group would have come in...

    Live and learn. I do think the day was a success, overall. I was (of course) aware of what didn't work more than I was of what did. Something like that... I want to be able to do my best, every day, every time, and I want schools to feel as if they've invested well and wisely.

  4. Fuzzy hugs chickie - I'm feeling your pain. e

  5. Thank you for writing about your view from the other side. Arranging and hosting author/illustrator visits make me extremely anxious. I worry about every detail for weeks leading up to his or her arrival. I angst about the size of the groupings, how well I've prepared the students, what to have for lunch, transportation, and try to "read" the teachers for how they think it's going. Not as exhausting as being the visitor but exhausting. I need to remind myself to just be...prepare well then just enjoy the visit. Easier said than done... I have some work of my own to do when it comes to author visits!

  6. Thanks, Amy B. It's a challenge from every side, isn't it? And yet, I continue to believe that author visits structured around the needs and goals of a particular school population, are an important component of a rich literacy education. I'm sure you do a great job.

    Thanks for hugs, e. :>

  7. Debbie, the thought of having YOU at a school and not getting the most from your knowledge is demoralizing! I'm heartbroken from reading about your day. I'm noticing a disturbing trend with the schools I visit. Administrations tend (at the elementary level) to plan author talks during teacher planning periods. This means the art, music, p.e., librarian, counselors...hear my talk four times. Classroom teachers do not hear it at all because, "It's their planning period!" ARGH!!! What YOU and I do with our talks is support classroom instruction, not give teachers a break. There is a principal in Nashville who changed his policy after I visited his school. He attended one of my talks and was soooo upset classroom teachers did not hear what I had to say about writing. Now, presentations are scheduled at times other than planning periods and teachers attend with their classes in the cafeteria, gym, or some appropriate area. Deborah, keep up the fight! You are one of the very good ones!

  8. Hey, Mike. You know... long years ago, when I first started visiting schools, I said I didn't want to do the standard "dog and pony show" or "cultural arts" program that author visits often were. I said I wanted to teach, and to offer up something that would last long beyond my being there, something that kids could feel inspired by and that teachers (I also wanted them to be inspired) could take and shape and run with in their classrooms. I wanted to focus on writing, in the context of reading. I wanted to offer great ideas teachers could use across the curriculum and content areas.

    That morphed into my teaching philosophy in schools. As I traveled the country, I saw that every school is both the same and different (of course), and that their needs and goals differ as well. Sometimes they really just need a celebration of literacy. Sometimes they want a writing residency.And it's my job to understand and accommodate this.This has stretched me in the best way as a teacher and a person.

    I think this understanding must also extend to teachers who grade papers in the assembly (which I rarely see now), or schools who schedule assemblies during teachers' planning periods and send in subs or specials teachers instead of the classroom teachers which makes it ten times harder to manage, and leaves little that goes back to the classroom, you are right... but the thing is... this goes with the territory in some schools.

    Who am I to tell them they can't do it that way? I don't know what they are contending with or what's happening in the life of that teacher who feels she must grade papers while attending assembly, etc. etc. etc.

    While I try my best to mitigate any misunderstandings, and to offer up what I have to offer, I also try my best to listen. To listen to what a school really needs, and to try to shape what I do around their particular requirements. That makes for a successful visit as much as anything else.

    I'm still sifting all this, and I really appreciate your comments (and supportive words!). Because of budget cuts and narrow thinking (meaning seeing an author visit as a luxury (cultural arts) instead of a working teaching partner in literacy (which not all authors who visit schools do in their programs), it's harder and harder for schools to justify the coat of an author visit, which makes it more important than ever to have a dialogue between authors and schools, in order to figure out how we can best do good work together.



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