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Monday, July 1, 2019

Sitting on the Steps of the Tilt-a-Whirl

June 24, 2019

For years, I taught middle and high school in Thornton, Colorado. Then when the school year ended, I joined my husband and traveled on a carnival. That experience shaped who I was as a teacher. The following blog was written as a reflection of those years of being a carnie and getting to know people I might not have encountered in any other parts of my life.

Stevi back in the day
Sometimes you have to look backward in order to move forward.

August was nearing an end and soon the show would move on: Belen, New Mexico for Burning of the Devil, Santa Domingo for the corn dances, and eventually on to El Paso to wait for winter to end and the spring to begin, but I was heading home. For 13 summers after the school year came to an end, I spent the summer traveling with the Kastl Show, a family carnival that traveled through Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico. As always I left before the season came to an end since the school year was about to begin.

Often before I drove away, I would sit and watch for a minute or two, soaking in the details that shape a carnival. I would notice the gleam of the Ferris wheel and the sagging canvas lining the cat rack and English pool games. I would listen to the grind of the merry-go-round with its tinny carousel music competing with the aching metallic sounds of rides. But after  I  drove away, there would be no more greetings of “Hey, Teach.” No more would I hang out with the  Stretches, the Vinnies, the Surfer Rays on the road. Instead some version of them might sit in the desks in my classroom.

Would I recognize them?

And often I recalled those nights that had been long when the locals strolled down the midway, pink cotton candy in one hand and a new but dusty teddy bear in the other. Mornings would come only too soon, and when the heat wasn’t too much, the carnies slept in. Morning was my time to enjoy the quiet and slip into my book. 

It was one such morning in Buena Vista when I was sitting on the cold metal steps of the Tilt-a-Whirl, Thorn Birds in hand, when Stretch joined me. Tall and lanky, he could pass for a young Ichabod Crane. Hair a mess and clothes greasy from working on the rides, Stretch sat down beside me. Because his top front teeth were missing and his bottom teeth caked with plaque, he was hard to look at, but his story was one that hooked me. Fresh out of the boys’ reformatory down the street, Stretch was trying to find an entry point into adulthood. The townsfolks wouldn’t hire him, but the carnival offered him a job and a place to sleep. He never mentioned his family nor the reason why he spent two years locked up, but he knew that school hadn’t worked for him and his future was uncertain. When he saw my book, he asked about it and then confessed that he had never read a book until he was in the pen. There he read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance once and then twice and then three times. “Only book I ever read,” he said, “and I know I’ll read it again. It saved my life.”

I wondered if I’d have a Stretch in class next year. And what ninth grader would I sit next to and just listen to his life story? Would I be able to help him find the book that sparks hope?

Many summers Vinnie would stop by to talk when the crowds were slim and the business slow. That particular summer as I filled the shelves of the Guess Your Age game with beanie babies and cute plastic bracelets, I could hear Vinnie teasing me about an over abundance of cheap girlie prizes. It was in Buena Vista one summer when Vinnie took me into his confidence. “You hit 25 and you’re a buzzard. No way am I going to be a buzzard. Not going to make it that long.”

He was right.The next winter well into his 24th year of life, he drank too much and suffocated in his own vomit.

And how many Vinnies will sit in those desks in my classroom? How many students will be certain their lives would be short and their destinies out of their control? And how will I know?

And then I remember Surfer Ray from a few summers back. He had been on the show since he left the army. Only now and then did he drop hints about his life in Vietnam, but often he told who ever would listen: “Not something you want to know about. Not something you want to be a part of.” He too would join me in the morning on the steps of the Tilt-a-Whirl when he wasn’t hung over. We’d talk philosophy and history and he wasn’t showing off when he quoted Kant and believed in the pessimism of Nietzsche. 

He earned his nickname Surfer Ray by drinking too much on most nights, passing out, and pissing in his sleeping bag. In winters he’d live in a cave outside of Aspen. “Don’t have to deal with people that way. Just me and my nightmares tucked away in a safe place.”

A few years back, he failed to join us in the spring and no one knew what happened. But I did see him one more time. He was standing on the corner of Speer and Colfax holding a sign: “Anything helps. I served the country in ‘Nam.” I drove on.

And what about those young Surfer Rays? Will they be in my classroom too? Will I recognize them or will I just drive on?

Sometimes you have to look backward as you move forward. I have to remember Stretch and Vinnie and Surfer Ray and know they were young once and in need of someone who would join them on the steps of the Tilt-a-Whirl. So what about the upcoming school year? 

Would I pull up a chair next to my ninth graders to just talk -- and listen?

Monday, June 11, 2018

Writing Our Way Out

I wrote my way out
When the world turned its back on me
I was up against the wall
I had no foundation
No friends and no family to catch my fall
Running on empty, with nothing left in me but doubt
I picked up a pen
And wrote my way out (I wrote my way out)

--Linn Manuel-Miranda, Aloe Blacc & Dave East

As a teenager struggling with an elusive mother and a father living thousands of miles away, I picked up a pen and wrote and wrote and wrote. As a wife in a troubled marriage when I felt like the world had turned its back on me, I opened my journal and wrote my way out of the confusion. As a newly divorced woman, I opened my computer and pounded away on the keyboard, working to understand the new world I found myself in.

Writing was therapy but so much more. Those journal rants led to new understandings; confusion found its way into poems; and writing a short story became a way to navigate a world that I controlled. I wrote my way out of traumatic times and wrote my way into a life of tranquility. 

But I also wrote my way out of some not so smart teaching moves. Through writing, I reflected on my classroom practices, and through the writing, I discovered gaps between my beliefs and my actions. Through the writing, I came to understand.

I wrote my way out personally, professionally time and time again.

In my professional development world, we talk about parallel pedagogy: using the pedagogy with teachers that we would hope they would use with their
students. And so I use that concept of parallel writing pedagogy to think about students. Do they get that opportunity to write their way out of anything? Do they get that chance to use writing to ponder an event, to celebrate a moment, to question an action, to discover and to find joy? Do we invite them to use writing to explore, to meander, to deviate from the expected? Do we invite them to pick up a pen or open their computer and write their way out? Do they know that “when the world turns its back on me” or when you’re “running on empty” and “nothing is left in me” that they can pick up a pen and write their way out?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Launching the Writers Notebook: Authenticity, Vision, Ownership

Just a few of my writer's notebooks

November last year I sat in a teacher’s classroom chatting about her hopes for the year. I looked around her room and saw a library filled with books that any middle schooler would want to read and commented on one of her walls, filled with photos of 6th graders at the local zoo and letters they had written to the newspaper and city commissioners about the horrible condition of the zoos.

“That was the best unit we did last year,” she explained. “Their passion, their work, their dedication impacted this city.”

Her cell phone rang, and she excused herself to talk to a parent of a new student and invited me to look around the room.

This was a teacher whose work made a difference for kids and for the community. I knew that her classroom was one that I would want to linger in. Thinking about this, I glanced through Kai’s writer’s notebook and read his entry dated about a month earlier:

Ever since I was little I have wanted to be two things an engineer and a writer for a tv show. I always wanted to be the guy that was funny & smart about how he was funny. I spent fourth and fifth grade learning about shows like “The Simpsons” or “Sienfeld” two very different shows but still very funny. I spent this time writing a show called “Grasious with other people’s money” & I made about 12 20 min episodes & my older brother said it was bad so I flushed it down the toilet, my dream with it.

And this was his last entry. The following pages were blank.

When she returned from the phone call, I asked her about Kai’s entry, and she admitted that she hadn’t read it. “I have the hardest time with writer’s notebooks. I know they’re important, but I just can’t figure out how to make them work especially with everything else that we have to do.” Her honest answer was one that I hear often from middle and high school teachers: the will is there but the skills for sustaining the writer’s notebook aren’t yet in place.


Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this teacher and reflecting on why writers’ notebooks are so important to me. In fact, I can’t imagine teaching writing without that notebook. Why? Because I know that’s how I work and I know how valuable that notebook is to me.

What I wish I had asked that teacher is about hers. Does she keep one? When does she turn to it? How does she use it? Is the writer’s notebook (WNB) a part of her writing routine?  

Here’s what I’ve come to learn: a teacher has to know from the inside out the value of a WNB. Keeping one has to be authentic, starting with the teacher herself. Without that insight, teachers have a hard time sustaining their students’ use of a WNB. Too often either the WNB fades after the first month or two or morphs into another school task: an assignment the teacher made, a commodity to be sold for the payment of a grade.

And here’s what else I’ve come to learn: launching the WNB matters. But launching means creating a vision for the power of a WNB and designing the work so that students have ownership in it.


I needed a vision for my WNB before I became ridiculously attached to it. For years I used my WNB as a journal, a place to keep notes from presentations and random thoughts on education. I called it my WNB but it was really more of a journal or a learning log, not a place that was the “junkyard of my mind” or a “compost heap” (Rosanna Warren) or “a place for seeds” (Ralph Fletcher). My use of a WNB began to shift when I started looking carefully at WNBs that others kept: Penny Kittle, Linda Rief, Don Murray (even though he called it a daybook). And then I started collecting quotes from writers about their WNBs:

Into my notebook goes anything that is interesting enough to stop me in my tracks -- the slump of a pair of shoulders in a crowd, a newspaper entry, a recipe, "chewy" words like ragamuffin. . . For me, it all begins with a notebook: it is the well I dip into for that first clear, cool drink. --Rita Dove

The words do not take me to the reason I made the entry, but back to the felt experience, whatever it was . . . It is the instant I try to catch in the notebooks, not the comment, not the thought. --Mary Oliver

I started playing more with my WNB, adding photos I wanted to write about, trying a poem out, playing with colors, wishing that I could make mine as beautiful as Linda Rief’s.

So what would I do to launch that writer’s notebook? First, I’d share several of my WNBs. I’d share several because each of my WNBs are a bit different. In my electronic notebook (yes, I have one of those), I have a section for collecting cool words and poems I love, but in my WNB, I’m playing with white space, thinking about how I can write sideways or create a concrete poem. I have entries about the passing of my dog: a poem, a Facebook entry, a vignette. Students would see how in some of my WNBs I’ve created indexes and divided my notebook into sections, using sticky notes to separate those sections: Here’s where I keep goofy words I’ve read, and here’s where I’ve copied down poems that I love and might emulate, and there’s where I’m keeping random thoughts about a topic I’m exploring. They would see that on the first page I’ve written myself a letter about my hopes and plans for this WNB, but this opening letter is a new routine for me.

I might also show a few entries in my WNB that were seeds that grew into future writing. I imagine that I might make a photocopy of a few entries and then show how they turned up in Clock Watchers or Just Right Challenge or even in this blog. And why would I do that? To show how sometimes WNB are storage units and sometimes they’re gardens where seeds are planted, as Ralph Fletcher states.

But not only would I share mine, I’d share the journals of famous people along with their quotes. I imagine that I’d make a poster with excerpts from Ray Bradbury, Einstein, JR Rowling, some pop musicians kids might know, and then
I’d pepper the room with books like Steal Like an Artist and Joan Didion’s South and West. I want them to build a vision for the WNB that includes the myriad of ways that writers and thinkers use WNBs. I want them to know that the WNB is authentic – something that happens in the world outside of school.


Too often – and lordy, was I guilty of this! – teachers co-opt WNBs – with the best of intentions. They become objects to meet the demands of assignments rather than a vehicle for a writer to play and take risks and gallop around with ideas galore. Teachers -- again with the best of intentions -- set up a section for vocabulary, for taking notes, for collecting grammar rules, for responding to prompts. They worry about accountability. But I want students to set up their WNBs in a way that works for them and to be accountable to themselves as evolving writers. I want them to own that WNB and to see that the WNB is much more than a task the leads to a grade. I want to show students like Kai how their WNB might be a place for them to study a genre, like he did as he studied The Simpsons and Seinfeld.

I think of Daniel Pink’s triad of elements that lead to motivation: autonomy, mastery, purpose. Those three elements need to be in place. Autonomy (or choice): a metaphorical room of my own (thanks, Virginia Woolf!). No one assigned sketch noting to me, I got to decide. Purpose: No one told me my purpose. I got to discover it and then write about it in my opening letter to myself. Mastery: No one told me what I had to master. I had my own purpose and knew that I could work to it.

Does that mean I wouldn’t assign quick writes or have students create heart maps or make lists of their writing territories (ala Nancie Atwell) or study and emulate craft? Oh, we’d definitely do all that, but I’d urge students to figure out what else they needed in order to grow as writers and then to set some goals. For instance, they might want to write daily outside of school for a month. Or they might want to analyze more craft in writing than what they’re doing in class. They might want to play around with different genres or include more art or make reading and writing connections. I want them to have ownership of the WNB.

And how would I know that they’re using their WNBs? Conferences. A routine for conferring with students during reading or writing workshop is to check with them about how the WNB influenced their reading, writing, thinking. When I confer, part of the conference would be to look through WNBs and to gently nudge through questions about how their current writing project was shaped by seeds planted in their WNB – a positive presupposition. Before a Socratic seminar, I’d ask how the WNB helped them prepared for the seminar.

To remind myself of the potential demise of the WNB, I’d tape this reminder from the Two Writing Teachers blog next to my computer and I’d use it in a whole class or small group discussion:

It’s a sad fact that our middle school “Lost and Found” bins seem to collect so many writer’s notebooks in particular.  Whenever I leaf through these, I invariably discover that they are used mainly for note taking, with a few sketchy entries and a few responses to prompts.  In elementary school, writer’s notebooks are introduced with much fanfare and joy, decorated with such celebration, and remain at the center of daily writing work.  Something of this joy and purpose seems to get lost in middle school, just when most kids feel ready to explore deeper ideas and experiment with their writing voices. 

I want students like Kai to keep thinking in the WNB: to take risks, to be vulnerable, to play. I don’t want blank pages following a few entries. WNBs are much too important to let them just gather dust on the shelves of our classrooms.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Plastic Flowers

The snow crunched under our feet as we walked the dogs by the lake. Grey clouds hung low, and the geese looked as though they were huddled together for any kind of heat that might come from being a flock. Jim continued his winter rant: “Three more months of this? We need to move to San Diego.” Mick wagged his tail, ignoring the cold and pulled on his leash to pee on someone’s dead lawn. But instead of taking aim at a bush, he lifted his leg and relieved himself on red, purple, and pink flowers, little plastic things with fake leaves jetting up and down the stems.

So out of place, such a sense of fakeness in the winter wonderland surrounding us. Given Mick’s desecration of them, it might have been better if the gardeners had planted a fake fire hydrant instead.

Jim looked at me, patted Mick approvingly on the head, and stopped complaining about winter. “Who would plant plastic flowers?”

“A lazy gardener, maybe.” I thought how much easier they were than what we did in the garden: no weeding, no aphids crawling in and out of the blossoms, no rust caused by too much water, no deadheading, and color year around. What a deal.

“Yep,” I repeated, “a lazy gardener.”

When I talked to Cali not long after that, I listened to her complain in a tone that reminded me of Jim complaining about winter. “Grandma, I have another five paragraph essay due tomorrow.”

And then that image hit me: those fake red, purple, and pink flowers, those little plastic things with fake leaves jetting up and down the stems. Those phony things parading as flowers. How different were those fake flowers from those phony things marching around in schools parading themselves as essays. Just plop in a thesis at the end of the first paragraph. It could sound like this: There are three reasons that everyone should have a garden. And then figure out a topic sentence. It could go something like this: The first reason is that everyone likes a garden. Next step: easy. Give two or three examples. No problem. Easy, peasy. Reason one, color; reason two, pretty, reason three: nice. And then do it again, two more times. Easy, measy, peasy. Just count the paragraphs, add up those sentences, and put a period at the end of each sentence.

Yep, fake flowers. No wrestling with ideas, no struggle with purpose or audience, no pulling hairs over organization. Just five simple paragraphs and call her good. There’s an essay for you.

Oh, yeah, I can hear granddaughter’s teacher say: They have to learn the basics and then they can move beyond the formula.  That’s like me telling the lazy gardener that he had mastered the structure of his artificial garden and now he could forget the plastic and move on to the real thing.

What exactly what are those basics that they have to figure out? A write by numbers? A collection of sentences and words without the basics of thought? A simple recipe that requires little decision making on the writer’s part?

Oh, if it were so easy then I’d tell Rick Reilly, Annie La Mott, and even Penny Kittle to set down their pencils or close down their computers. No more thinking needed. Just fill in the blanks and send ‘er off.

Next time we walk by that garden with plastic flowers Mick may not be the only one who lifts his leg.