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The goal isn’t to turn these teachers into published authors...it’s to have them live the experience – to stare at a blank page, to grope for just the right word, to with a second rewrite. We want them to discover again how incredibly hard it is to write well. We want them to experience the terror of what their students feel when asked to write. Think back to your own education. Did you ever see a teacher write anything other than a lesson plan, report card, or referral to the principal? We want to reinforce the idea of teacher as model.
My teaching partner in the workshop, Peter Sears, and I have read all of the stories submitted over the years. Sometimes at the end of a full day of teaching, I sit down for a one-on-one conference with a teacher to go over his/her story. There’s a good chance that my brain is a little mushy after reading so many stories in a day – in much the same way that the teacher’s focus sometimes might wander in his/her own classroom. I may have read the story too quickly, or be confused as to what it’s about or where it’s going. First drafts, even for excellent writers, are usually pretty lame. But what I always see in the teachers’ stories is the risk they’ve taken and the determination to make it better.
Many times in the eight years I’ve been running this program I’ve questioned why I’m doing it and why I’m taking time from my own writing. But it is during those one-on-one editing conferences with the teachers that I answer my own question. Each teacher has taken this class, investing precious time and energy, to make himself/ herself a better teacher. I want to do what I can to help. And sometimes that means plying them with Starbucks coffee, or doughnuts, or M & M’s, or books from Borders. A reward for hard writing.
In this era of school budget cuts and increased criticism of our schools, it’s easy to point a finger at the problems, e.g., weak curriculum, hidebound leadership,dwindling resources, problem learners, ineffective training, overcrowded classrooms, do-nothing legislators, or a lack of parental involvement. Sometimes it seems almost overwhelming. But one thing consistently provides us hope: the teachers.
THERE ARE TWO PILES REALLY: the one you see and the one you don’t. The pile you see is 130 sheets of notebook paper, some wide-ruled and some college-ruled. On each sheet is an assignment waiting for comments, class credit or a grade. These 130 samples of handwriting vary from meticulous script to illegible scratching and appear on papers that may be crisp or tattered. The Pile is there in a dusty corner of my mind whenever I eat or drive or go out to dance. I may burst through my front door exhilarated at 6:00 p.m. or drag myself home exhausted at 1:00 a.m. Regardless, the Pile waits up for me patiently – never prodding but ever present. It grows and shrinks through ten school months until finally, in mid-June sunshine, what little is left of it sprouts legs, romps off my desk, and swan dives into a deep pool of recycled paper. By this time, the Pile’s creators already have jack-knifed into local swimming holes and headed off to high school. You probably see this as a pile of drudgery, a stack of trash that exacts from me several hours of lonely concentration several nights a week for thirty-six weeks a year.
You probably pity me. Don’t. Remember, this is only the pile you see, not the pile I see. I look forward to the calm, electric hours when I am most alert – very late at night. This is crucial teaching time spent evaluating what already has been learned well and planning what will come next. Encouraged by soothing, surrounding stillness, the Pile speaks to me in the various voices of its authors. As I sift painstakingly through each sheet in turn, I hear as music the exact pitch, tone and timbre of each student’s unique voice struggling to communicate something important to me in a language that is, to him or her, new and foreign. Through daily assignments over the course of a school year, I see teenagers in goofy-grape braces flinch in frustration or grin with the glow of understanding. In language not native to her ears or tongue, one brunette in chic jeans and a tight-fitting tank top declares confidently, “Soy de Las Vegas, pero me gusta más vivir aquí en Oregón con mis amigas tontas.” (I’m from Las Vegas, but I prefer living here in Oregon with my silly girlfriends.) A dance team member shows temerity. Her quavering utterances are correct but curt, for fear of stumbling in her climb to the next rung on the ladder of proficiency. “Soy de Portland como mis amigos,” she writes. (I’m from Portland like my friends.) With abandon, our blond student body president flirts boldly; he didn’t get to be head of student government by following the maxim, “Look before you leap.” “Soy alumno norteamericano,” he begins his tease. “¡Me gusto las chicas!” (An attempt to say, “I’m a male American student. I like girls!”) I am warmed with the thought that all of these teens have something that they’re just dying to tell me. Not one voice is mute. I write back, at first in short, easily understood phrases. But as the year progresses, my responses pose new language puzzles for my students to solve; so that this act of assessment transforms itself into 130 individualized Spanish lessons. Here with this Pile, I engage in thoughtful conversation with each of over one hundred teenagers several times a week. This heap of dog-eared papers, which appears to you to be so dead, pulses with the beat of 130 teenagers starving to learn something challenging, exciting and useful. Although in class, some may be too cool or self-conscious to risk a misstep, on paper they all feel safe enough to jump right off a cliff. My comments of encouragement and gentle correction will guide them, until they can stitch together a parachute or grow wings. To me, this Pile is beautiful. Can you see it now?