One of the first things I put up in my office for this new job was a quilted tapestry about three feet square. It’s an Amish star on a dark green background, composed of diamonds ranging in hue from turquoise to wine. I’ve had it since my first teaching gig, sixteen years ago, when I bought it from the artist, a colleague who was retiring (to quilt more). Years before, she had been my own 8th grade English teacher. We read A Midsummer Night’s Dream in her class, and she called us “toads.”
Recently I read the latest issue of the The Journal of the Northern Virginia Writing Project (Volume 29, Issues 3/4). In it, grey-mustached site director Don Gallehr, among others, reports on the National Writing Project’s annual meeting, explaining the evolution of the current leadership structure by going all the way back to Jim Gray’s founding of the Bay Area Writing Project in 1974. While Don’s long been a colleague and mentor, I never knew Jim Gray (I was busy in Mrs. Pursinger’s first grade class around that time), but a teacher from TJ with whom I shared a trailer and by whom I was ushered into the mysteries of “IBET,” the integrated 9th grade program, had taken classes with Jim at UC Berkeley. Pam raises llamas in West Virginia when she’s not teaching the latest generation of TJ freshmen to eschew obfuscation or delight in the Odyssey.
At the back of this issue, Don remembered Bernie Glaze, who died this November. A giant in Fairfax County and the Project, Bernie had influenced me when we crossed paths at Mount Vernon High School, late in her career and early in mine. She got me onto a character education committee and the next thing I knew I was chairing it, working with students to codify community service in a Book of Gifts and later supervising service at the school in the IB program. In some ways I can look back on that and see the seeds of my urge to build a canoe with TJ kids, or why I am now in a position to help kids make good choices as a Dean here at Congressional.
I don’t know Peter Stephens, but he had an article in this issue of the Journal, called “A Year Later: How the Summer Institute Played Out in Room 613.” A newly-minted Teacher Consultant, Peter wrote about how his own teaching had changed after becoming one. His second point was, “Be both linear and flexible about the writing process.” I liked his nod to Yeats as he reflects on the messiness of real writing: “ ‘Recursive’ suggests a nice spiral—maybe a falcon’s widening gyre… [but] what serious writer follows anyone else’s process? Any such center cannot hold.” I circled languidly above my own third quarter this weekend, thinking about the terrain below and how I would guide my students across it.
Yesterday in class students began writing towards an autobiography, part of a unit we’ll weave into the reading of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. This is my take on a course of studies inherited from my predecessor here, thirty year English teacher Margaret Quadrino, also a T-C. She left generous notes about the units she’d developed over the years, including a “family history project” that has become part of the lore and culture of the eighth grade experience. How will I stitch together these parts with other scraps I’ve gathered?
Rather than write the story of their life complete, I’ll have students do a chapter. Deep not broad. To figure out which one, first they must write a table of contents, organizing their story into six or more sections and describing the content of each. This assignment, I realized, was similar in form to the book proposal I’ve been pecking away at recently. Again, my own writing informs my teaching of writing.
To help students conceive their story, I reviewed different ways to brainstorm for an autobiographical writing: a chronology, of course, but also a web or a list or a geographic map. I kept in mind Peter’s admonition to let each kid discover their best mode. Writing with the students, I tried a web one period, and a list the second. I ended up with cars: from my parents’ poo-brown wagon, in the back of which I bagged newspapers at 6 am, to the orange microbus I bought when waiting tables after high school, and on through today’s sturdy Cherokee plastered with stickers from family vacation spots like “OBX” and Vermont, cars can tell the story of my life.
Just another day’s lesson, but, like my tapestry, pieced together with a thousand diamonds of different hues. Together, their neat geometry is my teaching. The scheme is colored by my ongoing association with the Writing Project, and more broadly, all the teachers I’ve had and known and continue to work with today.