National Writing Project

Writing a Bicycle

By: Kathleen O'Shaughnessy
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3
Date: 2004

Summary: O'Shaughnessy, a teacher of teachers, offers tips and exercises for other leaders of workshops so that the process of sharing classroom expertise can become easier for all.

 

When teachers form their own questions and seek their own answers, teaching becomes an exciting intellectual experience. When one teacher's questions and knowledge drive change in the classroom, other teachers begin to feel confident to speak publicly about what they know. They find their public voice.

—Karen Ernst, A Teacher's Sketch Journal (1997)

I often speak in metaphors when I'm talking to my sixth-graders about writing and reading, and the metaphors become our shortcut language for the concepts to which I've introduced them. One day, while I was reviewing the set of comprehension strategies we'd been practicing all week, I explained that although we'd practiced them separately, the idea was to blend the strategies into the unified process of active reading—in much the same way you blend all the mental and physical components of bike riding into one concerted effort. And with practice, I promised them, applying the various strategies while reading would begin to feel as natural and easy as riding a bicycle.

Ethan, whose attention blinks on and off like a lighthouse, tuned in just as I mentioned the bicycle; I recognized the characteristic tilt of his head and long, slow blink that signal he's missed something.

"Where'd you get lost, Ethan?" I asked him.

He leaned over and picked up a green marker. "I heard you say this," he said, and he wrote on the whiteboard between us: "Writing a bicycle."

"Writing a bicycle" stayed on the board for days because we all liked it so much, and it has become our metaphoric shortcut for the writing process. When we do imitations of published poems, we're "writing with training wheels on." When Scott got stuck in the middle of his "Dirt Wars" story, he called me over plaintively, "Help, Ms. O. I hit a bump and fell off my bike. Gravity—aargh!" It's a pretty good fit for the process of finding something to write about and getting the words on the page: trying to move forward while you balance audience, purpose, diction, and voice on your handlebars.

Student writers aren't the only ones who get knocked off their metaphorical bikes. For teacher-writers trying to write about their practice, there are many bumps in the road that discourage them from even getting on the bike. There's the ubiquitous but no-less-valid lament: I don't have time. There are our notions—holdovers from dreary textbooks or research assignments in college, perhaps—that professional literature is dry, dense, and voiceless. And there's the paralyzing certainty that we have nothing to say or no idea that someone hasn't already come up with. In the invitational summer institute at the National Writing Project of Acadiana, we use writing exercises to help the teachers we've selected get over these bumps and gain the confidence to share what they've learned in their classrooms. Following are a few examples of some of the bumps we have all hit.

I don't have time to write. I say this, but I write anyway; I've just had to redefine writing. Writing doesn't always mean putting ink on a page. I was writing last week, when I began reorganizing my classroom library—now, in the middle of a chaotic time, one week before Easter break, three days before midquarter progress reports, two weeks before my book order for next year is due in the school's business office. The custodian who cleans my classroom thinks I've lost my mind, and she may be right. I've pulled the several hundred books off their shelves and out of their alphabetical orderliness, and they now lean in precarious piles on the floor, waiting to be collected into baskets labeled with author's name, series title, or theme. I do not have time to rearrange my classroom library right now, but I'm doing it anyway. Time, it seems, is just like closet space. There is never enough of it; but I also will always find room for that new pair of shoes I've fallen in love with.

So I'm writing, or at least prewriting, while I sort books and stew about my seventh grade curriculum. I don't think whole-class lectures and discussions of teacher-selected books are effective methods for those students in my class who are at the very high or very low end of the ability continuum, but that's the way seventh grade has always been taught at my school, so that's the way I've been teaching it. As I dust empty shelves, I think about Tyler. I found out recently that he is so aware of his vocabulary deficits that when I make him identify words from our class novels to add to his vocabulary list, he always checks with a couple of "smart girls" first, to make sure he isn't choosing "stupid words that everyone else already knows." And there he sits in the same seventh grade class, reading the same books as Hugh, who took the SAT to qualify for a gifted program and earned a verbal score that most high school seniors would be thrilled to achieve. I sort books and think, and eventually I'll come up with an idea to try, just as I came up with a new way to organize my library. Once I've tried it, I'll sit down and write. For now, my bicycle may be a stationary one, but I'm still pedaling.

Writing rarely means long, uninterrupted stretches of time at my desk. Kim Stafford, in The Muses Among Us, explains why he keeps a tiny notebook in his pocket at all times. "My writing would be doomed if the realm of writing were limited to long stretches of solitude. They are too rare. But good luck comes also in sweet morsels of tranquility lasting only a few seconds. My life of writing is rooted in the fragment. And the tiny notebook is my tool" (2003, 30). In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says she has "often written with the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table" on which she lays out her fragments so that she can "pace out the work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, bent over rows with full hands like a gardener" (1989, 46). Anne Lamott keeps a one-inch picture frame on her writing desk: ". . . it reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame" (1994, 17). Like these writers I respect, I've come to appreciate the value of fragments of writing, little bits of thinking that fit into whatever small pockets of time I find. I keep a classroom journal nearby at all times, in and out of the classroom. Even on the busiest days there are stray tranquil moments when I can grab my journal and jot down something I've just tried, or just thought of, or just heard a student say. I've learned to trust that, over time, the fragments may add up to something I value enough to give real writing time to.

Exercise: Try writer Gish Jen's version of a writer's notebook. She carries around a spiral-bound stack of index cards, and when anything catches her attention—a snippet of overheard conversation, an unexpected juxtaposition of words or ideas or images—she jots it on a card. When she's back home, she pulls out the cards she's written on and files them by whatever categories she devises. Then when she's ready to write, she pulls out a set of cards and looks for some connections among them or just an interesting spark of an idea.

Exercise: Try writing in a classroom journal for a week or so, but don't attempt to identify big problems or to find solutions. Simply record moments from your days with no evaluation or interpretation of the event's importance. Often the events that capture my attention mean nothing in particular to me at the moment; my journal entries are just verbal snapshots, what Tom Romano calls "rendering experience." Include as much actual dialogue from an event as you can recall and fill in the rest with reasonable facsimiles.

Professional literature is boring. In some cases, this is probably true, and although the same can be said of novels, that doesn't provoke novel readers into swearing off the entire genre. Still, a lot of teachers adhere to this sweeping generality about teacher books and journal articles. Recently I asked for feedback on a book proposal from my writing group, and my friend Ed began his response with, "I don't read teacher books; hate the stuff, but. . . ." I know the stuff he meant; I used journal articles as sleeping aids more than once in graduate school, but I've also stayed up late many nights reading engaging teacher books.

Tom Romano couldn't have gotten away with calling his book Writing with Passion if it hadn't shown his passion for his work. "In that high school creative writing class, we did pour forth language using it to explore inner and outer worlds. We cultivated a writerly stance of boldly launching a line of language. . . . We sought truths about what we experienced and what we imagined" (1995, 3). Barry Lane sometimes makes me laugh out loud. One chapter of After the End (1992) is called "See Dick Revise. Revise, Dick, Revise." Karen Ernst's writing makes me feel like I've been in her classroom and wish that I could be. "The room is silent as the third-graders draw the preserved animals I have borrowed from the nature center. Leon leans over and turns his head as he tries to capture the seagull. Ben kneels on the floor, occasionally looking at his sketch to see where his pen has been" (1997, 138).

In spite of such models to the contrary, many teachers still assume they must adopt a dry academic voice if they're going to write about their work. I've seen it happen often in summer institutes; the same teacher whose personal narratives made us laugh to the point of tears reverts to formulaic transitions and impersonal pronouns when he or she turns to writing about a classroom practice. But there's no reason to leave our voices at the classroom door. Any subject that a writer has passion for can be written about with voice and style.

Last winter a teacher at school shared his tea supply with me on a cold, damp day. The teabag he gave me was produced by a tea company called Numi, and the unbleached paper wrapper it came in was covered with text that instantly revealed the company's passion for its product. I brought the wrapper home and compared it to my box of Luzianne Family-Size Tea Bags. Under Numi's brand name is written the individual product's name: "Monkey King Jasmine Green Tea." Under Luzianne, I found "orange pekoe and pekoe-cut black teas." The next most prominent text on the Luzianne box reads "Specially blended for iced tea." On the Numi wrapper, it says,

I shall be a cloud,
you the moon,
and this our tea.

The directions for making Luzianne tea read as follows:

Bring cold water to a rolling boil. Pour water over tea bags. Steep for 3 to 5 minutes, depending on your preference. Remove tea bags and serve with sugar, lemon or milk, as desired.

This is how to make a cup of Numi Monkey King tea:

Bring the freshest of water to a boil. Immediately pour over a bag of Monkey King and, like full leaf tea, steep 2 to 4 minutes, to desired strength. Due to the delicacy of green tea, careful attention is needed to capture the full taste. Enjoy!

It never occurred to me to wonder about the person who wrote the text on the Luzianne box. It's simply a box printed by a machine; who knows from where the words came. But I have a picture in my mind of the author of the Numi tea bag text. This person likes poetry, values tea, is willing to spend time and take care with things that matter to him, and, if I had to guess, I'd say he wears Birkenstocks. I like him; he reminds me that it's okay to be a person with preferences and passions while I'm writing about my work.

Exercise: Jot down, in simple chronological order, some event that happened in your classroom recently that particularly pleased or annoyed you. Rewrite the vignette in a specific voice. How would the Numi tea aficionado tell the story? How would the class clown of your faculty relate the event over lunch in the teacher's lounge? Tell the story as if your audience knows the students. We do know your students; they're our students, too.

I have nothing new to say. While all of us could allow ourselves to get caught up in this thought, I'm not worried about it when I grab my journal or sit down at my computer. Anyone who has taught in public schools for any length of time knows that new is highly overrated anyway. We've all lived through almost as many new answers to the woes of education as we have years of experience on our resumes. Granted, when I first read Nancie Atwell's In the Middle in 1990, the classroom I found there was brand-new to me. I'd never imagined teaching the way Atwell described it. Someone, sometime, has to come up with something new once in a while, but it doesn't have to be me or you.

These days, the books and articles I enjoy the most and learn the most from present familiar ideas. They simply let me see those ideas through someone else's eyes and in someone else's classroom. When I entered Karen Ernst's artists' workshop while reading A Teacher's Sketch Journal, it was familiar to me. I could see myself in her chair, with a laptop instead of a sketch pad, with kids stretched out on the floor around me, writing instead of drawing; the model of choice and coaching she uses is very like my own. Reading her book helped me think more deeply about ideas and methods I'd already considered and with which I was already experimenting. When Tom Romano wrote, in the preface of Blending Genre, Altering Style (2000), about believing in "the value of approximation, the necessity of good faith participation, and the blessed inevitability of growth and development," it wasn't a new idea to me. I'd already given myself the pep talk, examined my teacher's conscience, and decided that I was doing the best I could by my students, even if they weren't yet all the writers I'd like for them to be. Reading it eloquently stated by an author I trust was just the extra dose of reassurance I needed to keep going.

I read books and articles by lots of teachers but not because I hope to find brand-new ideas in every text. I read them because each author has a unique way of looking at and talking about questions we all wrestle with; each is a unique individual. And so am I. And so are you.

Exercise: Look around your classroom with "public eyes." What do the physical elements in the room communicate to an outsider about what goes on there and about what you value? Write about the areas of the room that don't seem right to you or the areas that you love best. What teaching moments, lessons, problem students, successful students, discoveries, or stuck points do you associate with the various elements of your physical setting?

Exercise: Find your own metaphor for your teaching. Make a fast list of the activities you spend time on outside of your classroom—your hobbies, passions, the things that make you feel good. Pick an activity from your list (or a set of activities that seem related) and make a fast list of the qualities about you that draw you to that activity, the things that make that activity a good fit for you. Start writing about how those qualities are useful in the classroom or how some might help you if you made a conscious effort to bring them into your working life.

References

Atwell, N. 1990. In the Middle: New Understanding About Writing, Reading, and Learning. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook.

Dillard, A. 1989. The Writing Life. New York: Harper Perennial.

Ernst, K. 1997. A Teacher's Sketch Journal: Observations on Learning and Teaching. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.

Lamott, A. 1994. Bird by Bird. New York: Doubleday.

Lane, B. 1992. After the End: Teaching and Learning Creative Revision. New York: Elsevier, Reed.

Romano, T. 2000. Blending Genre, Altering Style: Writing Multigenre Papers. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.

Romano, T. 1995. Writing with Passion: Life Stories, Multiple Genres. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.

Stafford, K. 2003. The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press.

About the Author Kathleen O'Shaughnessy is a co-director of the National Writing Project of Acadiana, Louisiana, and teaches English and a reading/writing workshop at the Episcopal School of Acadiana in Cade, Louisiana.

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