Open Mic Blog
|Posted on December 30, 2013 at 6:45 PM|
in an old, yellowed, lace glove
in a forgotten, silk lined pocket
of a scratchy wool coat
in the cobwebby attic of a house
I’ll never own.
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A few weeks ago, a dear writer-friend posted on Facebook a question: What happens to a dream deferred? My mind immediately whispered, “It dies,” but that is too sad to post, too sad to be true. I responded what I hope happens, that the dream plants itself in the heart and waits for the sleeper to awake. I’m a dreamer by nature. I always have been. I dream dreams for myself. I dream dreams for others. I dream dreams of others, those who have lived in lives passed, and of those who I’ll never know except for in my dreams. Growing up, my family always called me a dreamer and worried that my feet would never touch firm ground. It is this dreamer mind that gave me my writer’s heart, that drove me to become a teacher.
I wonder if other professions hear, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to be a …” as much as I have. I wonder what stifles the dreams of those who want to become teachers. We are all teachers in our own ways, whether we want to admit it or not. We teach our children to be polite, to mind, to lie, to steal, to die – all without ever having a content standard or a lesson plan to guide us. We teach others how to do the things we love, how to fish, crochet, build, create. We teach others how to get out of the things we hate, cleaning, laundry, homework. All the things we teach, all without standards, all without tests.
During my first full-time job as a teacher, I began to teach my students to write stories. I was a silly, new teacher who naively assigned my students to write stories by saying, “Write a story.” The first question was how long did I want the story to be. A page. A page was a good length. A page sounded official. A page sounded writerly. The “stories” I received were anything but writerly and reading through an entire page was painful, though at times laughable. I had a problem. I had to teach my students how to write a story and I had no idea how. I found a book in the closet of my classroom that featured pictures of people and scenes on overlays. Pulling the cart with the overhead projector into my room, the class began writing together. I put a picture on the overhead and we created names for the people, discussed their personalities and characteristics. We dreamed up and argued their stories. What would they have to tell us, if they could speak? Together we outlined their stories and wrote each on the board. After writing this way with my students for weeks, I slowly began to realize my students were telling their own stories through the pictures.
Soon, I realized students told their stories in all kinds of ways. A student running into the room saying, “You’re not going to believe what happened!” was greeted with, “Stop and write it down! You are not allowed to share or tell anything that isn’t on your paper.” Students told their stories through jokes, moaning over problems, sighing aloud when a certain someone seemed to be ignoring them. My students turned into walking stories. I gave them a place to voice their stories. Each day I would give them a writing prompt. The prompts were usually authentic, such as Tell me what you did this weekend or Tell me about your first love. Yet, not until I became a Writing Project teacher did I see myself as a writer teaching others to write.
I joined the Three Bridges Writing Project at Marshall University in the summer of 2007. It was a hot sweaty summer, where I sat in my house trying desperately to put something on paper I thought others would want to hear. June was the longest month that year. June was also the month where I officially introduced my dreamer self to my writer self and each, in turn, to my teacher self and they merged– somewhere during long, intense days of writing groups–into the same person. It was this new person who returned to the classroom to teach writing that fall.
I can’t tell you, at least not in one blog post, the ways my teaching writing changed. It did not change all at once and still changes even today. For instance, this school year changed everything about how I teach writing. The implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the Ohio Improvement Process brought fear into this dreamer-writer-teacher heart. Staff meetings informed me I didn’t know how to teach writing, nor could I teach it without extensive worksheets and graphic organizers. I threw everything I thought I knew about writing and teaching writing out the window. Flash forward to December, quarter exams and the narrative paper. Although I gave my students daily prompts and every graphic organizer I could find, when the time came to write a narrative no one believed they had a story to tell. The narratives were the poorest writing I have seen from my students all year–and I ain’t talking grammar either.
Worry filled me. Looking at my students, I became angry. I had reduced writing to a formula, a set of graphic organizers, a meaningless test. I had left behind the beautiful words and phrases of authors. I had left behind the amazing craft that authors place in their works to open our eyes. I had left everything that was important to writing out. I had to make this right, had to make my students truly write. I began to bring in my favorite works. I read stories aloud to my students and we discussed what made the writing “good.” After reading Cynthia Rylant’s In November, each student picked a month to describe using her text as our “graphic organizer.” Did you know that in July food is a red, white and blue color, tastes like the gunpowder from a firework, and melts on your tongue? After reading The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, students chose their own fairytales to retell through the villain’s eyes. Who knew that Ursula was actually Ariel’s nanny and Flounder was a shark who proved to be a bad influence? Imagine our surprise when Cinderella’s stepmother told of finding out that Cinderella had eleven little brothers and sisters. Eleven! No wonder Cinderella had to help with the chores.
I’m still nervous. Just last week I put out a call to my fellow writing project teachers for books they use to teach writing. I’m not nervous about meeting content standards or the ability of my students to write. I’m nervous that I’ve wasted so much time worrying about how to do what those who aren’t writers were telling me to do. I’m nervous that I so easily doubted what I knew to be best, that I may do it again one day. I’m nervous that I didn’t teach my students to listen to their dreams, that instead I encouraged my students to defer their dreams. I’m nervous my dreamers will fail to wake this year and fully see themselves as writers.
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Jennifer Stapleton lives and teaches in the Ohio River Valley. Aside from reading and writing, she loves to spend time with her son, Trey, and their two rescue cats. In the growing world of technology, one of the things Jennifer finds to be hardest is trying to keep up a blog–she has started several and has yet to maintain one for more than two or three posts.