Writing Moves

Or, The Writing Conversations Get Into Your Head

Thomas Newkirk explained that “fluent writers have moves they can make…moves that are crucial for fluency.” But what are the moves student writers can make, especially our EL learners?

When writing personal narratives or realistic fiction, fluent writers notice they can make a movie in their mind and then tell the story, getting it on paper bit by bit.  It’s like a video – play. Pause. Write that bit.  Play. Pause.  Write that bit…

Fluent writers can almost act out a scene as they write it down.  And as the scene gets on paper, the writer has conversations like, “What did my character say here?”  “How did the other react?

Fluent story writers ask themselves while they are writing, “How do I want my audience to feel here?”  “What does ___ look like?”

When writing essays the writer might think, “What else can I say?” and keep writing to push more thoughts.  And Lucy Calkins conversational prompts come to mind here, such as, “Another thought I have…” and “This makes me think…”

In persuasive writing the writer might think, “What would someone who disagrees with me say?”  So, Newkirk says that “writing fluency is the ability to prompt myself.”

So, I’ll try one.  “Where should I go next?” (I think I’ll go for a concluding summary.)

I think this is the real curriculum in demonstration and example, modeling writing and thinking aloud with a group in a lesson:  the writer’s self conversation moves the story or essay along. And the more of these little bits, these conversations we’ve got going in our head, the more our thoughts can flow out onto the page.


What? Tuesday Again??! Already!

Those writers at Two Writing Teachers set the bar very high with the challenge to post every Tuesday, share the blog link on their Slice of Life Tuesday section and read and comment on at least 4 other teachers’ writing.

I love it.  And yet, here I have become chair-shaped on my seat, having written another section of a grant report due Friday.  My lower back feels arthritic from the sitting.  Guess I did some of that today at school, too.  Really, all I want to do is stretch out with pillows under my reading lamp and fall back into Saramago’s Blindness. 

Ha, ha, ha.  What is really funny is that it is SL-OOO-WLYYYY dawning on me that I missed the Tuesday writing thing.  By gum, it’s Wednesday.  That’s why I rolled the trash and recycling bins out.  That’s why I’m ready to turn in earlier than usual.

Hilarious.  Not even close to the bar…sliding around in the sand, not jumping anything.

So much for super stamina.  I don’t have to write a slice of my life, because a ridiculous blob of it is here, recorded this day.  This day full of new GATE class, scheduling SST’s, and offering tools to teachers.

Maybe.  Just maybe I’ll get it next Tuesday!


Greetings Asilomar!

Dear New Friends at Asilomar,

Our excitement to meet you overflowed as soon as we got your emails.  We googled your districts in utter joy of getting to know where you are coming from.  We welcome you to Asilomar Session #10!

We will be holding our workshop in Willow Inn #2, which is small enough for us to gather, but large enough to allow for deep learning.  Our Friday night begins with unpacking stories and drawing a metaphor for who we are as writing teachers.

Saturday carries us into what motivates EL writers:

  • go beyond first impressions and prescriptions
  • read student writing like it’s gold
  • discuss cultural beliefs about writing a la Peter Elbow
  • participate in minilessons
  • partner practice to give feedback
  • reflect and ask questions

And Sunday, we clean out closets and support each other in our new plans!

What Motivates EL Students to Write Well: Goodness or Correctness?

Now that Asilomar 65 is looming on the two-week horizon, and L1, my pd partner in crime and writing buddy, and I finally carved out time to meet, I’m noticing every comment or question around me that pertains to writing and English learners.  Now that our study session is populated – with real people — now we can fine tune the discussions and activities around our topic.

And yet, I cannot seem to carve out many minutes on my own to get back to that doc in Drive.  I am in two days of Instructional Coaching Training and heading into a grade level meeting tomorrow to see how I can assist 4/5th and still also be an intervention teacher.  And thinking of the Saturday lab model, writing workshop with live students for teachers to write and confer with…Of course Thursday night is back to school night and I don’t even have a letter yet for GATE parents — and I give up on my idea to have a letter to each first grade family whose children I am doing Leveled Literacy with.

So, Monday, my special treat for me arranged months ago, was that I spent a day in Writing 3-5 with Lucy Calkins teaching.  She is so inspiring, so honest and so smart about writing instruction.  I am still wanting to go back through my notes, especially with after-school writing intervention coming up.  Ugh, and I lost a teacher to overwhelm on that field.  In the Oakland Marriott, I sat in the front and center and took copious notes.  I got some gems — and some powerful reminders to apply to the work L1 and I will be doing at Asilomar.

The title issue of goodness is not from those kids who finish and hold their work out to you asking, “Is this good?”  It is from Peter Elbow’s challenge in Vernacular Eloquence (one of the denser books I have ever chewed through) in which he calls for a cultural shift from our obsession with correctness and to begin discussing what goodness looks like in writing.

Well, there’s kind of a narrative thread in here somewhere.  The coaching day was built around the power of language and listening to engender trust.  The writing workshop day was built around understanding the arc of units and the key things to teach for every genre.

I will carry all this, somewhat like the squirrels who are running along the fence boards carrying things for storage, until I can put it to use.  Teachers coming over Sunday to pass on the baton for the next Saturday writing workshops in our series.

This is how expository it gets in my head when there’s a lot going on.  And I’m needing time to digest.  Our Asilomar session title pulls out a narrative thread….

Once upon a time there was a veteran teacher who always wanted to do well to get it all right.  She really wanted things to work and not fail.  Then, somehow, life shifted for her and she began to want to be good — even if, to hell with it, everything didn’t get done. And in spite of not ever getting things to work perfectly.  So, she worked hard and remained conscientious about keeping agreements, however, what she really cared about changed.

Her heart began to care about the people around her and their issues, not the products.  And she cared about contributing.  Her desire to be right was overridden by an irresistible urge to share what’s good.  To be good.  To practice goodness.

And she lived happily ever after into the next week, when, perhaps the schedule eased up a bit.  But more likely cultivating goodness to Thanksgiving.


Slice of Life

I will take a big one, please.  One with figs and almonds.  A big slice of life.

Today is day 30 of Whole30 — a month long discipline of eating only whole, healthy foods and not eating sugar, flour, grains, alcohol, etc.  The result for me has been that I’ve avoided some of those afternoon sugar crashes that are usually accompanied by more sugar.   You know what I do when I am tired in the afternoon?  Just feel tired.

Also, I’ve been out in the early a.m. every day doing a walk/run/walk and have begun to build a bit of stamina.  Mercifully, this process has been under cover of darkness while I try to find my stride, my wind and the strength.  So, I am feeling more fit and enjoying the journey.  A spring in my step I hadn’t felt in awhile.  So the exercise will continue…

It seems that I now have had a bit more inner strength to deal with disconcerting news calmly than I would have had under normal unrestricted, slightly indulgent diet routines.  Definitely I felt the pull on Friday nights to have the numbing sensation of a glass of bubbly.  Mostly I didn’t miss the drinking.

My start of the school has been sweeping, expanse and challenging.  Saturday my idea to have writing workshop for teachers taught with live students in the room worked.  Not only did people show up, they enjoyed it and got some writing done and learned strategies.  Teachers at my school have been wonderful, some facing big challenges, and there have been a few downright awful tantrums thrown.  The latter is not fun, but I’m not taking it personally when people create negativity.

Oh, I was challenged to get my work done this a.m. being the designated principal what with kids having meltdowns and issues, but somehow I managed.  Some Tuesdays it is all quiet on the Western front, and sometimes I remember why I didn’t go into admin.

My Donors Choose items arrived today, a big box with things for building and exploring simply machines, rockets, environmental labs on biodegradability, etc.  These are goodies to launch my GATE class to pique curiosity and observation.  I feel very lucky.  And challenged to figure out how to best put this all to good use in the time span before letters and photos go to my generous donors.

And today after school, I was in a 3 hour introduction to instructional coaching, also attended by my assistant superintendent, which was quite good.  I felt validated being there.  And I’m inspired to do the eight days of training ahead and apply it on my campus.

I get to go to coffee Saturday with L1 where we will likely do some pd planning on our Asilomar session.  My younger daughter is coming down Friday night to dine with mom and me.  These little things are wonderful to look forward to.  I feel glad and peaceful and strong.

I will keep many things of the Whole30 challenge — and probably do it in another month.  I won’t go back to some of my careless habits.  It feels good to feel good.

And my writing cat, Mickey, has sat by my desk under the lamp, napping but listening to the rhythm of the clicking of the keyboard.  It’s good to have a loyal cat.

This is my slice.  I hoped to write a sketch of how it feels to finish a challenge that helped strengthen me.  I know it isn’t polished narrative, more a blurt.  And now, I get to read more of my copy of The Memory of All Things before I turn in.




I think I’ll just do my job and manage the work flow – more like the work tide — as best I can and stay detached because, I’ve been an interventionist a long time, and I should retire in a year or two. I get that distance and remove and then I start assessing first graders.

Today I brought J. in, unsure whether he would read with me because he was a pre-reader all through kindergarten.  He was known more for his behavior demonstrations than his learning.  And J. comes from a broken family.  Nevertheless, we were talking as I walked him to my classroom.

As he sat down, I introduced him to the dog puppet, “Chili Dog,” who loves to listen to kids read.  J. told me he had two cats, that are kittens.  And two hamsters but they are dead.

I showed him the list of sight words and he picked out a few, very few he recognized. When I urged him just to try some of the others, he clued me in, “I don’t do words.”

So, I got the level A nonfiction text and introduced it.  He “wrote” into the story using the pictures and I asked him to point at the words.  He seemed surprised there were only three on the page.

The record went on like that a few pages, kind of rocky, but he was drawn into the park and the playing in the text.  When he got to “I can jump,” he stopped after can.

“Wait a minute,” I said.  Your name starts with that letter!”

“I don’t know my letter sounds,” he corrected me.

“Um, you can say your name, so you know the sound of that letter…”

He reread the line and said, “I can jump.”  I clapped.

Then he read the rest of the book without hesitation.  Interesting.

As we chatted while I was returning him to his classroom, I learned that J. really likes to paint.  Like loves to paint.  “I do, too!” I told him.

“Will there be painting in this room?” he wondered aloud.

“We’ll be drawing a lot!” I countered, and that’s a kind of writing you know.  Painters need to know how to draw.  Then I pointed out the print of Red, Blue and Yellow and said the picture was by a man named Kandinsky.

“Oh, I’ve heard of him,” said J.  I suppressed my incredulity.  I just think that, even though he’s starting at kinder level, I can teach this guy to read.

And that’s when I get hooked.  It’s the kids.  It’s not the program. It’s the kids.

People of Clay

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My next door neighbor is a clay, tile and pipe cleaner artist and one of my writing desk windows looks out to his backyard filled with bushes, trees and life size sculptures.  In June Ted Fullwood participated in our neighborhood open studio.  I had been looking at this 3 foot tall cookie cutter man, a piece unlike anything else Ted has done.  I bought it and placed “Henry” as Ted dubbed in my backyard by the garden.  He has overseen the chrysanthemums blooming out and the heritage tomato produce masterpieces.

I have been puzzled by the magnetic quality of this piece, a bit surprised I bought a clay sculpture. I finally realized I like to draw a gesture style outlined person as the simplest of cartoons, like a moveable gingerbread man shape.

Sunday was the monthly writing group, No Bad Sundays, and, thinking about it on Saturday, I knew what I want to explore.  I voice recorded a memo to the effect that I want to make a graphic novel that is memoir, except that the main character will be this clay shape kind of drawing, very simplistic and fluid.  And what is most important will be writing and drawing without reference to gender, race, age, nationality…possibly not time references…even though I am drawing on events, some poignant, from my own checkered history.  If the reader begins to suspect, or figure out it is me, that’s fine.

I drew a quick sketch in the group on Sunday and then wrote the memory for half and hour.  I learned, as I read it aloud that I’ll need to draw, write, and then draw more frequently because a who chunk of memory poured out and, while it bore the pain and loneliness of those events, it was confusing to my listeners when I read it aloud.

Then a clay artist who writes talked to me after and suggested I used one of those wood armatures to sketch my clay person in various poses, which I thought about as I drove home.  Then the idea came to make a cookie cutter shaped person of fabric and cover the wooden armature, so that I can get fluent with this character in sketches.  A flat thing has to look like it is bending and moving in 3-D.

Writing without reference to gender was difficult, yet I think it necessary.  I want the reader to co-create the character fully with me.  And, the drawing acts as kind of a mask, a safe place to write from, as some of my experience, like every one of us, includes some suffering and some novel twists and turns.

So, here I am writing about writing.  And, this idea is taking hold, maybe because it has come out of the roots of some time in the making.  I know that a blog is not the format for this work.  I will continue to post something here, at least on Tuesdays.  Mini-stories from school and slices of my life as an interventionist.




My Proclamation

I am fired up! So I am going to write it and not think twice when I hit publish!!!

I have felt the tightening in my stomach during the staff breakfast pot lucks, as I scooted about the school, feeling too new and as if I still had not yet penetrated the walls to be able to join in the merry conversation and sweet treats of a shared breakfast. But I did not let that stop me and I kept my presence in the school, smiling and saying hello to everyone.

I have had teachers tell me that they learned nothing from the time we spent together (five days). Time spent planning lessons, time spent debriefing, time spent observing, time spent reflecting and it had all come to nothing, according to these individuals. But instead of calling it quits and burying my head in the dirt, I woke up the next day, apologized to the teacher and asked if for the following month they could sign up for another coaching cycle so that I could try again to support their work.

I have had days when everything went wrong: I left realia at home and this realia was a crucial piece of my demo lesson. I didn’t bring a spoon so that I could enjoy my yogurt. I didn’t have time to plan my debrief, so I walked empty handed into a lion’s den. I deleted a key email and now I didn’t have a template that I promised to give a teacher. I wore the wrong shoes and my feet squished and compressed, are screaming. I couldn’t find the right handout for the PD session and then went 10 minutes over the time. But instead of seeking employment at an Oreo factory and fulfilling my dream, I stuffed a bag of realia in my trunk along with a pair of kicks, set a pad of large post it notes on my clipboard, and shoved a box of plastic cutlery into my desk drawer. I relived that day and made a decision that I would not let awful days ruin my spirit. That I would decide when my day would be bad and that I would not let it fade my smile.

I refuse to let others tamper with my desire to better education. I will not succumb to petty trifles as forgetting objects or not having enough handouts. My work is much more important than that. I am relentless and this perseverance matters much more than talent or intelligence. Because this ensures that I will not stay down. I will not let anyone or anything keep me from the things that I know are right and good for children. My effort matters more than anything because it is what will make me a better person, a brighter person prepared for anything, and a person to fear because I…will not…stop!

This Morning

It’s the second day of meetings and trainings at my school district.  It’s also day 2 of Whole 30 for me, a food cleanse.  I was out for my 2 mile walk-with-intermittent-moderate-running mixed in.  As I came up the side street near my house a neighbor was pulling up to intersection in her little blue VW bug.  Laura rolled down the window.

“Are you retired?” she asked. She’s a teacher, too, but at a different school district.  At first I was surprised, then I realized it was the likely explanation for me not being in my car, usually a bit earlier than her.

“Oh! No, I’m on my way to a training this morning.  Kids start next week.”

And we bid each other good luck.  And I was a teensy bit late for that training this morning which is very out of character for me.  I reset my departure time for tomorrow.

Year before last I engaged in the fantasy that I was retired, but was just showing up for my day gig because I value my work life.  “Yeah, how’s that working out for you?” my sarcastic friends and colleagues wanted to know.  I think it helped.  A lot.

Last year I didn’t have a master plan…except survive a new principal and try to have a life.

Well, this school year, as I really am closer to retirement, I think I have the mantra.  It occurred to me a couple weeks ago that

1) I’ll never be young and pretty again

2) nor will I be slim,but

3) I want to be fit.  That much I can do.

I think my tactic with school this year is to not buy into the numbing  and stay fit and alert.  Many of us teachers know the numbing with food, complaining, booze, etc. that we think helps us cope with the sheer exhaustion of teaching.

Yes, I have drawings on my desk and healthy reminders of vacation to prompt me to not obsess over my job.

So I am putting more energy into exercise expecting it to give back.  Wow, if I put my 10 minutes of meditating in there, too, without getting up at 3:00 a.m. I’d be cooking.  So far, except for moments of feeling a bit weak and shaky in the afternoon, I feel great eating whole foods and avoiding the processed flour, sugar, alcohol, etc. that’s on the NO list.  The yes list has so many things I really like.

So, no I’m not retired.  I’m not living like I’m retired.  I am working on fitness.  And showing up for those meetings and contributing where I can.


A Lesson from Childhood

Today served as a reminder of something I experienced when I was about ten years old.

My mother caved in to my longing for a cat. And one day soon after my birthday, in the heat of July temperatures that can easily hit 110, we drove to one of her friend’s homes. She led us to the backyard where there was a small storage shed. There, prancing and hopping beneath its cool shade was a group of little kittens. They chased and bit and pawed at each other. Bright eyes looking everywhere. I instantly knew which one I wanted. It was all white except for some spots of different shades of brown mixed with black. I would later learn that this type of cat was called a Calico. I took it home and my mom christened it Polkas.

A year later Polkas got really fat. It looked like she had swallowed a football. Her large, overblown stomach swung from side to side as she walked. I was too scared to touch her during those days, but still spent countless hours watching her lick the overgrown mass.

We were watching TV, cartoons shown in the afternoon, when we heard tiny screeches and little meows. We stared at each other, our open mouths revealing what we each knew was happening. Kittens! Polkas! We rushed to the sounds and found Polkas on my brother’s bed, pinkish blood staining his sheets as a wet kitten emerged. Polkas licked it vigorously and then lay her head down again. We watched. We said nothing. Life was coming into the world in front of us. Finally the last kitten came out, Polkas gave it three exhausted licks and lay down, closing her eyes, surrounded by that wet mass.

One month later, I came home from school and eagerly searched the floor of my room. I found Polkas and what remained of her brood beneath the rocking chair. It seemed that she could not find the best spot for her young family as each day I came home, I would find her in a different place. I examined the kittens from afar and saw the tiny black one laying at Polkas’ feet. It looked very weak. Each of the previous few days I had come home to find a dead kitten. One was dying every day and it looked as if this one might be next. Wanting to help, I gently moved it closer to Polkas’ belly. The tiny thing just raised its head and opened its mouth in an effort to meow, but no sound came out. I lifted its little head, but it did not go near the nipple. I tried to angle his mouth and put his face into the belly, but the kitten would not respond. Desperate, I shoved one of the other fatter kittens away. It meowed in protest and Polkas glared at me, but I didn’t care. This kitten was going to make it and I was going to do whatever it took to keep it alive. I held his head, practically shoving it into the nipple and did not let him go for quite some time. All I wanted was to help. To help keep this little life on Earth. Help. Help. Help.

The next day, as soon as I came home from school, I ran to my room. I found Polkas beneath my bed with three kittens. I slowly stood up and searched the rest of the room. The tiny black body was in a corner of the closet. Lifeless. Cold.

I learned a lot from this life lesson. A lot about life and a lot about me too. The way I coped with this pain was that I didn’t have another pet. Years later, my older brother gave me a kitten, again for my birthday. But, knowing what would eventually come, I let my other brother take care of it and it became his cat. This way I didn’t have to carry as much emotional pain when it got hit by a car and died during the night, alone in his cardboard home. I am not cold or emotionless, but sometimes it is just what has to be done.

Laura & Lorena: Inspiring Teachers to Write