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:
- Discover the Writer’s Identity
- Set the Tone
- Use Formative Assessment
- 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.