National Writing Project

Beyond I Am

By: Michael Taylor
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 9, No. 2
Date: 2004

Summary: Taylor shares how a summer institute community-building activity turned into a before-and-after example of how participants become better writers in the institute.

 

It's commonly accepted in the National Writing Project that teachers who participate in a summer institute surface at the end of the experience as more knowledgeable and competent writers than they were when they entered. Over the years we've heard many testimonials to this transformation, but it's unusual to confront hard evidence of the "before" and "after." In this piece, Michael Taylor builds a convincing case that there is good reason for teachers who emerge from the institute experience to proclaim, "I am a writer."

At the first 2003 meeting of the Tampa Bay Area Writing Project (TBAWP) Summer Institute, Director Pat Daniel and Co-Directors Kathy Orapallo and Karen Kelley plunged us into a community-building activity to create an "I Am" poem. The poem frame provided a series of verbs ("I wonder," "I hear," "I see,") that served as the basis for a personal statement. The purpose of this exercise was not to create poetry for the ages but to give us a start at getting to know each other better. Here's the poem that came out of our whole-group collaboration:

I Am

I am an enthusiastic and creative teacher
I wonder if I'm contagious.
I hear hesitant pencils on paper.
I see furrowed brows.
I want to make a difference.
I am an enthusiastic and creative teacher.

I imagine the places we will go together.
I feel I'm in the right place.
I touch hearts and minds.
I worry about the future.
I cry when I lose.
I am an enthusiastic and creative teacher.

I understand I'm only one person.
I say, "You're welcome here."
I dream big dreams for them.
I believe in possibilities.
I have hope.
I am forever an enthusiastic and creative teacher.

After five weeks in the institute, we revisited this poem with the idea of tinkering with it. But one of our colleagues, Rita Williams from Chamberlain High School in Tampa, thought we should do more than tinker. "We are better writers than we are giving ourselves credit for," she said. She suggested we depart from the whole-group effort and rewrite the poem, working in four groups. We were to catch the spirit of the earlier poem without being restricted to the frame, and we were not limited by the structure of the provided verbs.

The members of each group drew on their experiences and struggles as writers and tried to capture those efforts in metaphoric language (a device pretty much lacking in the earlier draft.). When one participant noted that learning to write was like learning to dance and developed that comparison by suggesting that relying on a teacher to edit your work was like learning dance steps by standing on your father's feet, the extended metaphor of writer as dancer emerged and several participants contributed powerful phrases. Musical images tumbled through the discussions because participant Michael Picone had—just a day or so before—directed us in exercises that explored the sound qualities of words by having us recite provocative words aloud in various rhythms. The exercises were part of his teacher demonstration, "Sounding Off: Playing with Language, Developing Writers," as a way to teach vocabulary lessons to enliven poetry.

Participant Mary Reed's demonstration on using history to prompt creative writing by visiting local Tampa graveyards suggested ideas of heritage, legacy, and Tampa's Latin history, which, in turn, suggested connections to the tango, samba, and rumba. About this time, ideas, phrases, and connections joyously exploded forth in each group, in large part because we had spent five weeks filling each other with inventive demonstrations, creative minilessons, and ideas generated by book discussions.

The result of our small-group collaboration? After 20 minutes, we had four individual stanzas and several groups of additional phrases. Rita suggested that I take those efforts home and work them into one piece. Here are the results of this effort compiled from the suggestions of 24 summer institute participants:

I am a writer trying to be a poet.

I am a scribe, a sage of rhetorical expression, wondering, reflecting, and listening for rhythm's threads.
I tango instead of tap dance across the page.

I am a word dancer ready to climb off of my father's feet and dance on my own.
I glide through the lexicon strumming syllabic melodies, while witnessing the significance of a moment mirrored in articulated impression—often . . . an awkward, clumsy dance.

I salsa to the staccato strut the syntax demands.
I choreograph language within rhythmic confines, yet I succumb to the semantic plunge the arabesque implores.

I can not separate the dance from the dancer or the writer from the writing.
I fear none of my ideas are original, and . . . stroke the keyboard again and again without writing a word.

I am a writer seeking one poetic line.

I respond to the pressure of the push in the small of my back, a trusted partner, a muse who exhales ideas I inhale.
I respire to alternative beats of the waltz within words in search of memories.

I resurrect a heritage lost, merging past and present to refine a legacy.
I slide inside moonlight to find measures laid across symphonic bars.
I find cadence on the surface, and a counter measure in the depths.

I return to a merengue meter and prance, entangled within word beats of a metamorphic dance.

I am a writer praying for just one more word.

I samba in limbo, improvising on a blank page.
I rejoice in nuance, the gentle wave of laughter in the swivel of linguistic hips.
I rumba to renegade rhythms infecting the beat, tampering with the dancer's tread.
I seek nature's pulse in an effort to render a poetic whirl, a concluding caprice.

I am a writer in a poetic dance.

TBAWP Collaboration—July 9, 2003

"The `I Am' poem and similar frame poetry are fantastic ways to help students get a springboard for writing. But, eventually, everyone wants the freedom of no training wheels. Soaring rather than wobbling is exhilarating," wrote Elizabeth Denisar-Babin, one of our participants, about our group effort. She continued:

Working in small groups was really important. People need to feel validated by the inner circle of cheerleaders that they respect and trust. To offer suggestions and risk the criticism of an entire class is too scary for most of us. In these situations, we drift into clichés.

Truly successful collaborative writing works only after a group has gelled. As one of the authors of this poem, I see the many reflective voices—the many layers of this poem—and understand how intense and intimate we had become in our writing community. This was not a show-off piece but rather a true expression of the evolution in our writing journey. This experience has made me evaluate how important the classroom environment is to the writing process.

About the Author Michael Taylor is a Tampa Bay Area Writing Project teacher-consultant. He teaches seventh grade language arts at Meadowlawn Middle School in St. Petersburg, Florida.

See the related articles:

Reading in the Summer Institute: How, Why, and What
By Nick Coles and Richard Louth

Digging Deeper: Teaching Inquiry in the Summer Institute Demonstration
By Art Peterson

More Thoughts on Reading in the Summer Institute
By Lucy Ware

Keith's Question
By Bill Connolly

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