Thursday, March 14, 2013

SLICE #14- A letter to Don Graves, during testing season

Dear Don,
February and March are for me, the cruelest months. Testing season.  They bring out the worst in me. That ugly, snarling, red-pen wielding teacher that I never want to be. And then I have to breathe. And breathe again. And again.  And remember all that you taught me about the teaching of writing.

1) Care.
You can't teach people to write unless they know that you care. How's your new puppy? How was your game last weekend? We missed you yesterday. Are you feeling better? You can't teach anyone anything until you show them that you care.

2) Model, model, model, model, model
You always said, Don, that the most important thing a teacher could do was to write with her kids. Not just talk about techniques, but actually show them what it looked like when you applied those techniques to your writing. You modeled that in all of your grad school classes, Don. Every time you asked us to write, you wrote too. One pagers, data analysis, research projects- you taught us by doing it with us and in front of us. We saw your finished products and we saw the messiness of your thinking/writing in process.

I try so hard, Don, to do that with kids. I write every single day in front of kids from kindergarten to eighth grade. I talk to them about how hard I have to work at my writing. I think, start, restart, scratch out, read aloud, rewrite, and draw arrows, just like I do in my writing life outside of school. And in this testing season, I have classroom teachers give me prompts, and I compose, right there in front of the kids. I model what it's like to get a prompt you hate, or feel like you can't write about. I want kids (and teachers) to know that writing is hard for me.

3) Respond to message first.
People write because they have something to say. They want to be heard. As a teacher of writing, my first message always needs to be, "I hear what you are saying." Always, always, always respond to content first.

4) Point out what the writer did well.
Not sure why, Don, but this testing season brings out the worst in me. Urban kids, and English Language learners to boot, have so, so, so much to learn-- about organization, about language, about grammar, about spelling, about conventions. To put it quite frankly, there is so much they do wrong. So much that will count against them as they take the state tests this week.

But that's not how you taught, ever. It didn't matter how bad/inexperienced the writing/writer was. You always found something good to say. Something positive the writer had done. And you went right to that place. "Look what you did here. Tell me how you did that. Can you do it again?" It was guaranteed that the writer would do it again. And that writer's bank account of strengths would build up. And the next piece would be just a little better. The piece after that a little better still. Writers who worked with you would grow, not because you pointed out the million things they were doing wrong, but because you honored and celebrated the one thing they were doing right.

5) Delight in the approximations. 
When I think of you Don, I always picture your smile and the laugh lines around your eyes as you conferred with writers. You were so good, Don, at delighting in approximations as signs of growth. Our writers have a long way to go, but they are growing like crazy. And I just have to relax and recognize those signs of growth. A fourth grade writer uses dialogue for the first time, and of course it's not punctuated right. But it's dialogue. And the punctuation will come. My fifth grade writers are all about academic vocabulary. Or, as they define them, words that make them "sound smart." The way they are using these words aren't always quite right. And they are often spelled wrong. But even so, they are trying.  I think of a line from the Eve Merriam poem, that I probably first heard sitting in your office.  "It takes a lot of slow to grow."It really does take a lot of slow to grow. And as teachers, we have to delight in the approximations.

6) Teach the writer one thing. 
Finally, Don, you taught me the rule of one thing.  You told me to ask myself, "What ONE thing would make the biggest difference for this writer?" Then teach that one thing. And look for it the next time you work with that writer.  Yes, it's probably true that there are 25 things this writer needs. But he/she can't learn/do 25 things at once. So teach one thing. And teach it well. And then when the writer has that under control. Teach another. Again. And again. And again. And the writing will improve.

It's testing season, Don. And it's so hard to be a teacher right now. But I wanted you to know that I think of you and what you taught me about teaching every single time I walk into a classroom. I miss you my friend!



LibraryDragon/Storykeeper said...


I loved this line "Writers who worked with you would grow, not because you pointed out the million things they were doing wrong, but because you honored and celebrated the one thing they were doing right. "

It is so very powerful. Wow! I wish our test writers could experience that.

elsie said...

What a perfect reminder of what really matters when teaching writing. It must have been an amazing experience to actually have been in his class. Wow! This is perfect Carol, I will be printing it off to remind me and others to keep these thought first and foremost when working with kids.

Linda B said...

You made my heart sing with this, Carol. I am especially in love with number 4, think it works every single time! All of it is something I wish teachers would/could understand. Did you really work with Don Graves? How wonderful is that! Thanks for taking the time to remember & to remind us!

Anonymous said...

Yes! Yes! Yes! I have to remind myself of these true things every testing season. And I have to remind myself that I teach writing all year long, and my students are growing as writers every day.

Nanc said...

I love when you write about your experience with the ultimate friend/teacher/mentor. This piece of writing captured him and his beliefs but also your own and your passion that amazing to me. When is your book coming out. Will you say you knew Nanc on the slice? I am sharing this and saving this. My favorite part is approximation and knowing the writer. xo nanc

Beverley Baird said...

Don Graves does have so much to teach us teachers about teaching writing. Loved how you summarized that great info!
And I hate this testing time too. In Ontario, Gr. 3s and 6s go through it at the end of May or beg. of June. What a terrible time - end of school/heat/and kids are getting in summer mode already. Too many teach to the test.
We just have to breath, as you said.

Michelle said...

I love how you captured your slice today! Writing this letter, pouring your heart out about students and learning and our role as teachers and writers.

I'm going to print this out and reread many times over. You have shared a wealth of knowledge and experience (with some help from your friend Don--wink wink). Ah, Nanc said it too: I can hear the passion in your voice.

Thank you for this letter! And I know Don is smiling too!

Unknown said...

This speaks to my heart so perfectly. I definitely want to share this with my campus! THIS is what matters. Love that you shared this. Such a great collection of things to remember and focus on in the next couple of months, especially. :)

Looking for the Write Words said...


What a beautiful tribute to a terrific mentor and teacher. Oh, how I would have loved to have been a student of Don Graves. We are fortunate to have his writing and writing like yours that keeps us grounded in what truly makes a difference. I too want to print this letter of yours, post it at my desk, and share it with others. Thank you. ~ Theresa

Terje said...

This is something I needed to read today. I can feel how you care about young writers and seek back to the ground advice that has led you in years. Thank you for sharing this.

Nanc said...

This man's voice will always be heard in the legacy of people who knew him, like jealous, Carol and also those teachers who taught the way he taught and read and continued to write with children and let them see our struggle. I always pray for kids and teachers across the country during this agonizing season. So glad you are still there loving those kids. xo