Monday, December 03, 2007


I honked and braked and slid my way right on up to the Marriot Marquis located in New York City’s Time Square on Thursday November 15, 2007 just in time to join the more than 8,000 members who came out for NCTE’s Annual Convention to hear Jonathan Kozol, Amy Tan, and Ishmael Beah along with other authors, activists, and teachers working together for the change THEY will make happen.

And as I boarded the plane that Sunday afternoon and started to “write off the page” in my spiral notebook my reflections took this form …

Slide down … scoot left … then right …. and make yourself comfortable in the contradiction or the belief that it is just fine to NOT have a linear, pounded out, absolute understanding of who you are and what your students are suppose to know RIGHT NOW and how this next 20 minutes with these 22 kindergarteners is going to unfold, unravel, and shake to life. Instead take solace in your understandings of yourself as a learner, a teacher, and summit negotiator, knowing all along that your district’s “scope and sequence,” though useful as a generic roadmap, can’t chart the course for your class and your children in your town on this day, for that path is currently being drawn in the trenches with finger-paint.

Relieved—that is exactly how I felt as I sat in the session entitled “Why Don Murray Matters” and listened to Tom Romano (in the company of Nancie Atwell, Ralph Fletcher, and Tom Newkirk) talk about how Murray was “suspect of rules and even his own pronouncements” and that there was actually great sense and congruency in the statements “say one #%^* in your draft” and “get it all down” because in our symbiotic identities as writers and writing teachers we align our writing and our teaching with our notions of the world that minute with that student—and that alignment is alive and in motion. So… the writing simply can’t follow a prescribed path, because before you know it that pre-drawn, straight line is reflective of a world you simply are no longer part of.

So what do we do?

We “write off the page” as Nancy Atwell suggested to a packed audience and find our “so what” and it is that “so what” not the “scope and sequence” that will forge innovation. Then, as Peter Johnston, in his joint session with Ralph Fletcher and Katie Wood Ray, reminded us, we “give a damn” as we look out into our world and say “something is wrong here and someone needs to do something about it and I think it will be me.” And we take up what Johnston described as Agency and promote choice—first in our students when we say, “I see that you have decided to focus in on your parents’ divorce in this piece—that is what good writers do—they make a conscious decision about what is important” and second in ourselves when we say to our principal, “Yes, I have decided to use my classroom’s PTA funds along with my own money to purchase this set of novels, because I have made the choice that my first obligation is not to develop surface-level decoders but to grow critical readers.”And when our students begin to “read like writers” (as Jane Hansen has whispered in their ears to do) and take ownership of the rich words of the authors, their new colleagues, that we have introduced them to and they go back to their desks and write something amazing, as we know that they will, we resist the urge to get into what Katherine Bomer referred to in the WLU opening session with Carl Anderson and Teresa Caccavale, the “linguistic sparring ring.” Instead we take the lead of literature critics and say, as Publishers Weekly said of Amy Tan’s novel the Joy Luck Club, “Your piece is intensely poetic, startlingly imaginative and moving” and resist the rubric language of, “Your details are placed in a logical order and the way they are presented effectively keeps the interest of the reader.” Because—as writers and as humans we know that it is often the illogical and the quirky that makes us stand up and say “YES … Amy Tan is indeed talking to me.” Because there is not one of us who nostalgically recalls, “Wow, I really liked that manuscript I wrote or that lesson plan I taught or that Thanksgiving dinner I prepared that was linear and orderly and everything came out just as it was suppose to with no surprises” —because the learning takes place in the rub, the surprise, the contradiction.

So—as Johnston reminded us “lets give a damn” about what we know about teaching and learning and celebrate the daily chaos, the unexpected, that lets us discover something new and pushes us far beyond the demands of our textbooks, and basal readers, and senators and into authentic, holistic discussions with students and other educators about what we will do TODAY because as the upcoming 2008 Annual Convention theme reminds us, “Shift Happens.”

And I invite you to continue this conversation at WLU’s Literacies for All Summer Institute (July 17-20 in Tucson, Arizona) and help to start new discussions by submitting a conference proposal (Deadline December 18, 2007).

Until then…

You colleague and friend … Dorothy Suskind