My Joy Write group was given an invitation to observe. So I’ve been trying to carve out some time to slow down and notice, sketch, and think. Something that is often easier said than done. But my second week of CSA flowers called me to try my hand at sketching again. This is as far as I got before my head was flooded with ideas for writing:

Drawing brings me back to my high school and college art classes. I always took art classes as my break from a heavier course load. It was my mental break. The period I looked forward to, where my brain didn’t have to work quite as hard. In high school, the courses were just what I needed. I could do no wrong and I was free to create, never worrying about being right or wrong.

When I got to college, I figured I’d continue with the art classes. I signed up for a sculpture class my first semester. I was the only freshman. Already filled with anxiety about being away from home, I remember sitting in that studio unable to take a deep breath. Looking back, maybe I was too rigid at that time in my life for that particular class. The teacher was excited by the eclectic junior girl who went dumpster diving for materials and created life-size sculptures that made no sense to me.

Later, in drawing class, we spent hours drawing and painting negative space. Mine never had the right shape. I remember the teacher stopping by my drawing table, to point out the angles I was missing, how my shapes weren’t right, and how I should be using more of the paper. I just wanted to draw. I didn’t much care for negative space, but I tried.

When I finally settled on a painting minor, I also settled for the one painting instructor at the small college. I had originally turned to art classes for the freedom and the joy it brought me. College art was proving to be too serious. It seemed that no matter what I did in painting class, I couldn’t please the teacher- I was being graded after all.  I even got a B one semester! (It seems so absurd to be graded for painting as I suppose it does for writing- that might be a post of its own some day.) It wasn’t until I was exasperated and at my wits end trying to “paint right” that I adopted a style, not at all mine. Then my teacher started to take notice and get excited by my work. That was when he started to pull up next to my easel, face illuminated, offering praise instead of suggestions- no longer taking MY paintbrush to “fix” my canvas. So I became a painter that didn’t didn’t really like what I was painting.

This week, I’ve been reading Feedback That Moves Writers Forward by Patty McGee. Chapter three has my mind whirling. It’s called “Feedback Fundamentals” and it just speaks to everything I believe and feel writing instruction and feedback should entail. Patty McGee outlines four fundamentals of feedback:

  1. Discover the Writer’s Identity
  2. Set the Tone
  3. Use Formative Assessment
  4. Deliver Feedback That has the Power of Three

It was the idea of identity that really has me thinking. I’ve always believed that true success in the classroom relies heavily on relationships. If you aren’t connected to a student, you don’t have much. In the chapter McGee says, “Essential to effective feedback is to know our young writers-who they are, what makes them tick, and how they identify their strengths.” She goes on to say that this identity is so important because “when a writer possesses a positive and strong writing identity, he or she is more inclined to invest in writing with passion and engagement.” The book has many suggestions for ways to get to know your writers and even examples that show the power of knowing a writer’s identity.  These ideas about identity connect to the thinking I’ve been doing related to Ralph Fletcher’s, Joy Write, and working towards fostering more joy at school in general.

During my second year of teaching, I had a third grade student in my class,  Named Ben. Ben was a really bright boy but had some struggles when it came to reading. He worked with our amazing literacy specialist regularly. Looking back, she was such a gift to him, and to me as well. She knew how important a reading and writing identity was. Ben was pretty down on himself about writing, mostly because the physical act was so straining. Donna, our literacy specialist, would end her sessions with Ben by typing stories he would tell her. They would print them out and Ben would read the stories to himself back in the classroom. He saw himself as a writer. I can still see the way his face lit up reading those stories.

So back to my painting. My instructor clearly didn’t take the time to know me and help to uncover my identity as a painter. Ultimately, my identity was lost as I haven’t picked up a paintbrush since college.

I now, more than ever, believe that my own identity as a writer matters as a teacher of writing. I’ve been working hard these last few months to live a writerly life, to write regularly, and to figure out who I am as a writer. Honoring identity is important. This is something I’d like to prioritize in the fall as we work to bring more joy to our writing workshops. Identity, for students and teachers, just might be one of the keys.



Thank you to Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life. I started the Slice of Life challenge in March of 2017. I was inspired by the community of writers that I found. So I have continued to “Slice” every Tuesday. You can find out more and read other Slices here.

13 thoughts on “Identity

  1. there were so many meaningful points in this post!! I want to read it again to make sure I am taking away every aspect you intended 🙂 great read – and I love the pictures of your artwork. acknowledging identity is HUGE in general, but especially in teaching because we are molding the kids for the future. thanks so much for sharing!!

    if you want to read mine..?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this post. Patty’s book had so many aha moments for me too and validated what I believe about writing identity. It’s so sad that your painting identity had to be pushed aside. I recently read that Donald Graves said you can’t teach a child until you know 10 things about him. I want to bring the joy back too!


  3. I loved the way you connected the need for writers to have their identities validated to your own art. I guess that we all need that safety and acknowledgment to move on and create. I have that book on my Kindle and really need to get started with it, as it sounds like it will really help me (and the writers I will meet next week). Identity and community are a big part of our first days together.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow! Powerful story here! The connection between art and writing here is clear and thought provoking. When I was reading about your time in college where you found a style but not yours my first thought was – the teacher took the play out of art and that is how you got lost. When I look at your sketches and paintings now – there is a sense of play and discovery. The play and discovery is how you will uncover YOUR style – your identity. I hope all teachers take on this play themselves – then it will, I think, transfer to the writers in their classrooms!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is such a thoughtful post and I am so glad to have read it this morning. I agree with you –and find your thoughts about identity to be important.

    Identity as an artist is fluid. I am composing a style after 18 months of fairly intensive work,daily. Technique is so important for it allows us to represent our ideas/feelings in ways that become practiced–bevit with words or paint.

    Experimenting seems st the heart of this–as does agency.

    Thank you for your post. I plan to write more and look up the book you referenced.


  6. Thank you for (as always) getting me to think and rethink the work we do with kids. Are we really working to help children uncover their identities? Isn’t this possibly the most important work we do as teachers? How do we give feedback that is meaningful is we don’t really know our students?
    p.s. I didn’t know you were an artist!


  7. Had a chance to see Ralph Fletcher speak last week at Heinemann. The video is up on their media, you may watch as well. I was struck most about the greenbelt feral writing where we don’t comment at all, we just let it happen through benign neglect. That’s what I love about my blog. Sometimes people are moved to respond, other times it’s just for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great entry. The identity piece is so important. I want to read this book, now. I also hope you’ll go back to painting. That identity as a painter was just lying dormant for a few years. Now it’s ready to emerge, with Patty McGee, instead of that professor. as the mentor. It really is an issue, especially in elementary school, that many kids will do and say what they believe will please us. We have to confer with them in a way that allows them to think for themselves before we make our “impression” on them.

    Liked by 1 person

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