winter work

My life as a writer is punctuated by bouts of teaching. Sometimes, when the teaching comes thickly into my life, my life as a teacher is punctuated by bouts of writing... (continued after these photos):









I'm a writer who also teaches writing, something of a rarity in the school visit world. I decided fifteen years ago, when I started this gig professionally, to teach when I went into schools, to try and make the day as meaningful and useful to teachers as possible, to have fun with students but also work hard with them, and to offer students a way into their life stories that felt powerful and necessary, and that made bringing an author to school an investment in a school's writing program.

That decision has afforded me a living as well as a way to work with amazing people who are on the front lines with young people every day. It has given me a way to partner with good teachers and have a hand in making constructive change.

I started teaching in my children's classrooms, many moons ago. I was a freelance writer then, and teachers would ask (or I would ask them), "Could you come in and teach us how to write a sentence?" First grade. Or, in second grade, "We're working on paragraphs, could you come in and share writing paragraphs with us?" In 9th grade: "I'd like to work on research skills this year, and on revision." 5th grade: "Would you share that oral history project you do for the county, and teach us those skills?" 4th grade: "We want to create great characters!"

As I did this work, and as I transitioned from freelance work -- essays and features for magazines and newspapers -- to fiction for young people, I developed a sort of writing program I continue to define and tweak and adjust for grade levels and ages and the differing needs and schedules in schools. It is based on how I learned to write. I was mostly self-taught at the time, and I used the literature to teach me. Now I use the literature to teach.

I always begin with personal narrative, since I was an essayist first, and because I believe in and understand how personal narrative is the backbone of all other writing, in all genres. The better you know your own story, the better your writing in all areas will become. So we begin there, and segue into whatever the particular need is.

This winter has been thick with teaching. Every job I take in schools has its unique flavor and challenges and pleasures.

In Pennsylvania I worked with an intrepid 4th-grade teacher who met me at a conference the year before and decided she'd "just write a grant" and bring me to her school. And by golly she did. I did assembly sessions with just fourth grade, and we wrote on the floor, in notebooks, as I worked with well-prepared students who had read my books and were full of questions I could turn into teachable writing moments. The day was such a pleasure.

In Charlotte, I worked for a week in a public school -- this was our third time partnering with a different agenda each time -- where I did professional development with all teachers and also saw all students in grades K-5. I'd done a full day of PD with these teachers and the entire staff -- secretaries to janitors to teaching assistants -- in August, and a full day of just-assemblies with students the previous spring, so we were building on those days together. We turned the library into a classroom so that every student sat at a desk, and we were off.

Each grade was working on different skills, from biography to opinion writing to fiction to just writing one sentence, and it was my job to be able to touch them all. It was a challenge made more difficult by how sick I had become the weekend before I showed up, but we made it through, and did great work together. I drove from Atlanta to Charlotte in the teeming rain on a Sunday, went to work in the rain all week (including a two-hour delay for ice one morning! We adjusted the schedule), and drove home through the rain, back to Atlanta on Friday night, and went to bed.

A few days later I drove to Rome, Georgia, where I was a "prize" for students in grades 3-6 who had read their quota of words in their "Read a Million Words" goal. This was a day of four, one-hour assembly programs only. Some students had read RUBY as a class, a smattering had read LITTLE BIRD, and I took it from there. It's always harder to make connections with students when they haven't a frame of reference (which starts with knowing who you are, and knowing you through your books) but we did fine. I had them bring their notebooks with them. We worked on making connections, paying attention, asking questions, and they left an hour later with pages filled with notes and words and doodles and drawings -- the raw stuff of story.

Many of their teachers didn't come with them -- a lost opportunity, as I am always teaching teachers at the same time I am working with their students, but this wasn't that kind of day for them. Still, I teach, and students leave assembly psyched to tell their stories, even if their teachers haven't had the same experience and can then extend the lesson, which is what makes a school visit an investment in a school's writing program. Again, not all schools are looking for that type of investment, and I am mindful of that.

I was still hacking in Rome, but better. I had one day home before I flew to Houston, TX for a four-day writing residency in a private school, where I worked with grades 4 through 8, in an opening assembly for each grade in the gym, and then in smaller workshops in classrooms throughout each day. I had detailed advance notice of what each grade was working on so that I could fashion my assemblies and workshops to work in tandem with teachers.

Teachers came to each session and worked alongside me, although sometimes it was "just" the writing teacher for the grade and not the classroom teacher, depending on the age and grade I was working with. Still, we did good work, and students left with lots to go forward with. Some were creating characters, some were turning personal narrative into fiction, some were writing historical fiction, some were researching biographies and turning their research into vignettes. I had high expectations (as always) and students rose to meet them. It was all interesting work.

And that's the thing about being a writer who teaches. It is always such interesting work. I learn as much as I teach. I get better, every time I step into the classroom. Even what doesn't work (especially) teaches me. I have minutes to suss out a grade, a workshop group, a room full of teachers, and figure out which way I want to go. I know how to use the literature as my partner. I know how to back up when something isn't working and go another direction. I have many directions I can go in, and I pull from a rich, deep well -- broad, too -- of possibilities that will fit the situation I find myself in.

It's hard work. I don't know the students and they don't know me. Teachers who don't know me are sometimes wary, but we get past that place and end up creating a fabulous, safe writing community. It's my job to meet as many needs as I can. The one who can't sit still, the one who is too quiet, the one who is struggling, the one who is done before everyone else, the one who always wants to share, the one who is too loud or the ones who are chatty, the one who doesn't see well, or hear well, or feel well. It's a gigantic puzzle, all day long, every day, and that keeps me interested and on my toes, and happy. Happy.

And exhausted, when the day is done. In Houston, still feeling the dregs of the cold I'd been battling in Charlotte, I came back to my hotel at 3pm every day, put on my pajamas, crawled under the covers in my bed, and stayed there in the dark until a 6pm pickup for dinner. When I was in Charlotte, we held teacher debriefings every day after school, to assess how we did that day, and to see where we wanted to go the next. I got back to my hotel about 4:30, after picking up some supper at the local ("my beloved") Earth Fare, usually soup, and I was in bed and down for the count by 6:30pm every night, with Nyquil and water and throat lozenges and a ten-hour sleep. It's the only way I got up the next day.

But it's good. It's a privilege to be given a classroom for the day -- many classrooms -- and to be trusted to take that instructional time and dovetail it with ongoing classroom work, and to hand students back to their teachers, both ready to run with what they've learned. Teachers who are ready to use these new tools as they work within their various curriculums, pacing guides, and standards, not to mention testing.

I'll be in Hong Kong for three weeks in Feb/March. Jim is coming with me. I'm working in three schools, in grades 3 through middle school, and am so looking forward to it. They've all read LITTLE BIRD, for one thing. How fabulous is that.

So it's a winter filled with teaching. Funny how that works. I'll be in California next week, as REVOLUTION has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award, and I'll go to that ceremony to support my book, then on to San Francisco to research book three of the sixties trilogy. Then to Tampa with teachers only. Then Hong Kong. Then local schools in Atlanta. Then Mississippi for a conference and a school. A book festival in Alabama. Then Denver. Then home, mid-May.

Summer will be for writing.

this morning's mail

Story connects us in ways we will never know. This just in: here is a letter passed on to me from a friend who gave REVOLUTION to her 73-year-old aunt in Texas. It now becomes a primary source document for future researchers. Just as important, it serves to show how a heart becomes awake and aware in the world. I was the storyteller for Mary, and now Mary is the storyteller for me. This is how it works. I am grateful. xo Debbie
January 23
Oh, Sally,

Thank you so much for making me aware of Revolution. It has unleashed a torrent of conflicting emotions and memories in me, none of which were completely forgotten, but largely dormant.

On one hand, it reads like a barn burner, and I do not want to put it down. I love the way she worked photographs, gospel and folk song lyrics, and headlines as page dividers creating a sense of the onslaught of information which occurred that summer. (It does remind me of your saying fiction can sometimes convey events better than dry history. But she does include a lot of what to me is not dry history.)

On the other hand, because of the flood of memories and the poignant strength of the emotions they evoke in me, I can only read it in segments, sometimes as much as a chapter, but usually less. Then I have to meditate on what is happening in me, in the story, and in our country now.

Since it was published by Scholastic Press, I guess it is geared to middle schoolers. My only sorrow is that many adults who would benefit from tumbling into its pages will not find out what they are missing....

For myself, I read the book on about five levels. Four come from memories: the first as a middle schooler, one in high school, one the summer after graduation from college (1963), and one in 1964 when I was at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. The fifth is that of an aging Democrat who worked the phones for Obama in 2008, delighted in our long-term success.

The student at Gilmer Junior High got in the car with your grandfather, heard the news about Brown vs Topeka on NBC news (and later CBS) and asked Grampy, "Does that mean I will be going to school with colored kids?"

In high school, I heard Larry Pittmon and others threaten to get baseball bats and beat up N----rs who tried to come to Gilmer High. An elderly Black had died, and the relatives who went to California and elsewhere had come to town in their finest to attend the funeral. This was at the same time that the Airborne and the National Guard were confronting each other at Central High School, Little Rock. In our ignorance of how groups like COFO would operate, rumor had it that the fancy dressed black people were members of the NAACP planning to integrate the school.

The summer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I had attended a workshop by the National Conference of Christians and Jews and then stayed in Dallas to learn typing at a business school. Having no TV of my own, I went to the apartment complex recreation building to watch the march. That night I joined one of the Black members of my class with her boy friend in the Hall Street Ghetto in Dallas for supper. We talked for hours about what that huge crowd meant for the future of Blacks in America.

The next summer, after my rookie year as a Dallas public school teacher, I had a job with the State Department in July and August, 1964. Mother and Daddy honored my experiences in college in a sit-in on the SMU campus and in that workshop the year before by letting me write the editorial response of The Gilmer Mirror to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (the Public Accomodations Act).

Then I traveled to DC in late June, went to the White House as a guest of Lady Bird and Lyndon the night of my 23rd birthday, and went to work in the Personnel Department of the State Department.

The deputy director of the division I was in was a Black man. A fellow deacon of his church, the assistant superintendent of the DC schools, was shot down that summer as he drove back from his reserve duty at Ft. Bragg. He was a reserve Colonel in the US Army who was chased down after buying gas by hooligans in a pickup and shot. I can still see him that Monday morning when I came to work telling the Personnel Services Division chief, an older (55-60) white woman of the shooting.

Unlike the volunteers at Freedom Summer who sweltered in Mississippi, I got to go to the cool serenity of the Washington National Cathedral and hear a mixed choir of over 250 voices sing in thanksgiving of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

I read the headlines in the Washington Post about their efforts as I went to Capitol Hill to see the War on Poverty legislation accepted in the US Senate after the House had approved their portion.

Then in August, I joined Nana in New York City, attended Hello Dolly with Carol Channing (my adventuresome summer like Sunny wonders about) and to the New York World's Fair. From there we took the train to Atlantic City.

Selling pennants and buttons to raise funds for the Democratic Party as a Young Person for LBJ, I met youths from Philadelphia, MS who were there with representatives of the Freedom Democratic Party of Mississippi. When they learned my mother was a delegate, they lobbied me to ask her to vote for their group to be seated.

I told Nana about them, but LBJ was trying to court Mississippi votes, and did not want to ruffle more feathers until after the election. She of course did what LBJ wanted.

It would be four years later when I had promised Nana I would take the first job I was offered that I went to work for the Dallas OIC. You know what an impact that had on me. I was tempted by the Peace Corps, but Nana would never have let me go to an undeveloped country. I always think the Lord had a hand in the fact that OIC gave me my first job offer after grad school.

Well, enough meditation for now. I still have half the book to read, and I am mentally compiling a list of people to make aware of it. I definitely will see to it our Intermediate and Junior High Schools as well as the Upshur County Library have copies.

If you wish to share these reflections with your friend, the author, you are welcome to do so. I am so proud you made me aware of it. Thank you so very much.
Love, Mary