Monday, October 29, 2007

Good Work, Good Friends in Dallas

This is a long post, but there is so much to share; it was such a rich week.

I left friends last Sunday afternoon -- here is my husband Jim, Atlanta poet and friend Lynn Erlicher (Alexander), and the amazing Dan Retoff, yoga instructor and yogi in his own right (from Chicago now), standing in my Atlanta driveway, about to wave me off to the airport.

I flew to Dallas where I worked in Dallas schools all week, doing assembly programs with grades 3 through 6 and writing workshops with grade 4.
I've been teaching writing across grades and curriculums for close to 20 years. I've changed my methods and practices as I have learned more and better, and yet I come back to some basics that I believe in, which one day I want to write about, and which I will probably share here at some point.

This must be my Statue-of-Liberty pose. I'm standing in front of a slide of the cover of FREEDOM SUMMER and I've got a bunch of books -- children's literature -- in front of me, some of the books I use in the classroom when I teach. I teach personal narrative writing and maintain that all stories start that way, with personal narratives. Sometimes they turn into fiction. The better we know our own stories, the better fiction we write. Wherever I teach, even when it's within the same school district or school, each school population is different, of course, and each classroom of learners is different. Teachers are different. Needs are different from hour to hour sometimes... or so it can seem.

It can be an inner-city school or a rural one, a private school or a public one, a wealthy school or a poor one, or any of the shades inbetween: I can tell within minutes of being in a classroom if it is one in which writing is valued, reading is second-nature, and mutual respect is a given. I can pinpoint my challenges within minutes -- and sometimes those challenges include the teachers. Sometimes I feel like I'm preaching to the choir, and sometimes I feel as if my every teaching sinew is being stretched to the max. Sometimes both those experiences come in the same day. And it is all good work. It teaches me.
Here's a photo from the staff development time after school on Tuesday. Teachers have so much to carry on their shoulders in a classroom. How well we educate teachers before they even reach the classroom -- and how much they want to be educated -- is crucial to how well teachers educate our children. Teaching is tied to parenting and vice versa. How well we raise up our future teachers -- how well they learn as ten-year-olds -- and how well they grow into human beings... all of this starts at such an early age, and I Have Opinions.

I'm a foundations person... show me where the beginning is, show me how it works, show me why, so I can build on that foundation. Right now I'm focusing on how we each need to tell our stories. It's one of our deepest human needs, to tell stories. They define for us how we are loved, how we belong, how we find compassion for one another, how we make ourselves safe, and more.
Melinda Hawkins, teacher extraordinaire, brought her middle school students to the McCullough assembly fully prepared after reading LITTLE BIRD together carefully, critically, and enthusiastically.

This is Stephanie Noack, who bought a class set of LITTLE BIRD for her Armstrong Elementary 3rd-grade students. She says she wants to teach them about descriptive language, among other things. And she wants to read them a story. So much of what we absorb as learners is what comes to us intrinsically through good models, good literature, good teachers.
When I teach, I have students bring their writer's notebooks to the assemblies and we begin the workshopping in assembly -- here are students scribbling in their notebooks as they make connections from my stories to theirs -- then continue in classrooms. I lug a ton of children's picture books with me from class to class, as I use them to help me teach. I think I'm reading Jane Yolen's OWL MOON to the students in the workshop photo (way) above. One Clear Moment in Time, that's what I strive for, both in what I'm reading and in what I ask students to write -- one clear moment in time.

Here is Kate, from Hyer Elementary School, where I worked on Wednesday. Kate and her mom, April Callahan, stayed up until 11pm finishing EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS the night before my visit -- I was so touched. "Are you awake?" I asked Kate. "Oh, yeah!" she said.

"Put your hands in the yoga of writing..."

And here is Natalie, from McCullough Intermediate School. Natalie dressed up like Comfort Snowberger. It was too cold to wear her lime green shorts, but she did manage a baseball cap and shirt and a Snowberger's handkerchief!

Here's a shout-out to the Uber-Librarians in the Highland Park School District who planned for a year for this week and who made it all happen: Ultra-organizer (and good driver - haha!) Leesa Cole at McCullough Intermediate School (and thanks to Teresa Morris for the applesauce cake and MORE), Laurie McKay at University Park Elementary (we didn't let rain deter us!), Janet Peters at Hyer Elementary (snappy dresser, too), Dana Phillips (who knows what is important) at Bradfield Elementary School, and Lori Riley at Armstrong Elementary, who understands how to make each child, each teacher feel important. Thanks to all these librarians and their capable and enthusiastic assistants as well -- we couldn't have done it without you.

Thanks also to HP Arts, MIS PTA, and PC Tag, teachers who gave up instructional time, and all the generous parents who made our week together possible. You help make a difference in more ways than you know.

Had dinner one night in Dallas with high school friend Sandy Thomas Telzrow. We met in the Philippines, where our dads were stationed at Clark Air Force Base and we graduated high school together at Wagner High School.

Sandy was the Homecoming Queen our senior year. I was the Christmas Queen. Two queens had dinner and were joined by a prince -- Sandy's son Eric, who teaches third grade in Dallas.

Stay awake, I'm almost done!

One more shout-out, and this goes back to Southern Festival of Books and the previous post. If you scroll down to the photo with the baseball players in the audience at Southern Festival of Books, you'll see Kerry Madden at the end of the front row. Squint. Kerry came to my session -- we'd never met and I recognized her from her website photos. We fell into each other's arms like old friends when the session was over, blathering our admiration for one another, hahaha -- writers do this, eh? Kerry writes such lovely novels about family and kinship. Her setting is Maggie Valley in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Her new book is LOUISIANA'S SONG, the second in a trilogy.

I came home from Dallas on Friday night. The Atlanta airport was hopping, as it always is, with people of all ages, races, colors, persuasions, languages riding the steep, four-across escalators up the long ride to baggage claim and loved ones. Someday I'll think to take a picture of the organized bedlam of dashikis, turbans, hip-hop jeans and baseball caps, business suits, spiked heels, shawls (mine!), flannel shirts, Braves' jackets, and more that dot the landscape in the Atlanta-Hartsfield-Jackson airport. I'm beginning to love my adopted city. Thank goodness.

We need water, here in Atlanta. I'm hoping for good rains this fall. I spent the weekend with family and have three business days ahead of me before leaving for eight days in two states: Texas again (Texas Book Festival in Austin) and Iowa City, for a week in schools.

As good as this work is, as much as it fills my soul and teaches me so much, as wonderful as are the people I meet and the geography I get to experience, I'm missing home, family, and writing so much. I'm missing my BODY -- I've gained over forty pounds on the road in the past three years. That's ridiculous! The above photo was taken at our high school reunion two years ago; can you even pick me out? I'm standing next to Sandy. I'm wearing purple. I've had some health issues this past year that seem to be solved now, so I'm going to try to shed this 40 pounds. Want to lose with me? Say yes. I need the company. I may need to be off the road.

But it's hard to stay off the road, and there are gifts held in the travel, of course. I promised many posts ago to write about making a living as a writer, and I'm going to do that, I am. I'm looking at next year's schedule and at how much more air there is around it, and I'm wondering if I can keep it that way in order to give myself more writing time. I'm going to need it, as I've got deadlines looming for the Sixties trilogy I'm writing for Harcourt, and I've got a home and family that misses me (and that I miss!) when I travel so much.

Lots of decisions to make ahead of me. I'll do some ruminating on these pages, I'm sure.

Still awake? Long post! Now I need a nap. I'm sure you do, too.