Giving Voice

It all started with a bike ride a few years ago.  Successful heart surgery compelled me to pay the gift of health forward.  I joined Team in Training to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  In exchange for $2100 in donations I would have the privilege of riding 100 miles around Lake Tahoe.  I’d never ridden more than 6 miles, even then I had to stop for a snack half way through.  I didn’t even own a road bike.  And I’d never raised money for anything before.

My husband bought me a road bike and I started cycling around town.  Pretty soon I was riding to the far corners of our county and then some.  A few weeks in, I still had no idea how to raise $2100.  So I did the only thing I could think of.  I wrote.  I wrote letters to my family and friends asking for their support.  A few hundred dollars arrived in the mail.  I still had a long way to go and so a month into training, I e-mailed everyone I knew and told them all about my month of cycling.

I wrote about my first crash.  I wrote about accidentally swallowing flies.  I wrote about riding along the riverbank at sunset.  I wrote about my adventures and misadventures alike.  And at the end of the e-mail I begged for donations reminded people how to make a donation on my behalf.  Donations steadily found their way to my mailbox.  And so the next month I sent out more tales from the bike.  I met my donation goal, surpassed it even, but to my surprise my friends kept asking for more stories from the bike.  And so I continued writing.

Then one day a colleague caught me in the lunchroom and said “Hey, I’ve been reading your bike e-mails.  You can write!  You should apply to the Writing Project Summer Institute.”

I responded with an eloquent “Huh?  What’s the Writing Project?”

That summer I got my answer.  I was accepted into the Summer Institute where I spent three weeks with a roomful of colleagues, reading cutting edge research and grappling with what authentic writing looks like within the walls of our classrooms.  I listened to my colleagues present lessons.  I gleaned ideas from college professors and kindergarten teachers alike, finding innovative and meaningful ways to teach my own young writers.  The studying, reading, and presentations were invaluable, but the most important time for me during the institute was time spent writing.  After all, the best writing teachers are writers themselves.

We began each day with writing.  I learned to face the terror of the blank page.  I experienced the beautiful rhythm of writing as a daily practice.  I learned to cut through the fat of what I thought writing was supposed to sound like and instead I wrote honest, sinewy stories of students who faced overwhelming circumstances with measures of bravery I can’t begin to possess.  Their stories broke my heart all over again as I put them to paper.  I wrote about children who made me laugh.  I wrote about the tender-hearted little girl who rubbed circles on my back when I returned to school after the death of my father.  I wrote the gritty and inspiring details of their stories and in doing so I found my voice.

Last weekend I was riding my bike in terrible conditions.  Icy rain pelted my face and the winds whipped around me at a mild 35 miles per hour.  The wind was so loud that I couldn’t even hear the music in my earbud.  I was left alone with my thoughts for the better part of 30 miles.  My thoughts turned to the current round of budget cuts that will eliminate the National Writing Project.  I thought about my classroom writers workshop and how so many of my young writers are finding their own voices, scratching out the stories of their lives in the silvery lead of #2 pencils.

I thought of my solemn little one who writes about her baby sister, her sister who died a year and half ago.  My little one wrote about the feel her sister’s feather soft cheeks against the palm of her hand.  When I asked her if she wanted to change the word ‘feel’ to past tense, she explained that she wanted to leave it as written because she can still feel her sister’s skin in her memories.  She’s learning that writing allows us retain what is dear, even when we can’t hold it in our hands.

I thought of my little boy, recently transplanted from Maui.  He’s a whirling dervish of a kid, who only sits still when he’s writing in his notebook.  He tells me he’s not a writer, but dazzles me with phrases like “I have brown eyes, coconut eyes.”  He’s a writer.  I know it and soon I’ll have him convinced, too.

I thought of my little girl who wrote this about her mom, “She is pretty like white, shiny milk.  She is so beautiful, I can’t believe it.  It knocks me down how much I love her.”  Her mom spent a good part of the year wrapped in bandages, recovering from brain surgery.  This little girl is learning the healing power of words.

Out there pedaling my bike into the unforgiving wind, I realized that everything I do with my young writers springs directly from the lessons I learned from my time in the Writing Project.  It crushes me to think that budget cuts will prevent other teachers from experiencing the same thing.  Surely teachers researching together, writing together, standing together cannot be seen as non-essential at a time like this.  That kind of work must be the foundation on which we build schools where we hope our children will do the same.

I find myself at a bit of a loss on how to effectively convince the President to rescind his proposed cuts.  Once again I find myself doing the only thing I can think of.  I’m returning to the blank page and filling it with my story and the stories of my students.  In sharing our stories, I give voice to the critical work of The Writing Project.

In the same way I asked friends and family to take a stand against cancer, I’m asking you to stand with me for education.  Please consider writing a letter in support of the National Writing Project.  Click here to read sample letters and to learn more about the NWP.  Your voice matters.  It’s time to speak up for writing as an essential part of every child’s education.  It’s time to tell your story.

11 thoughts on “Giving Voice”

  1. If these children can come up with metaphors and similes as you describe they certainly ARE writers. I think the incorporation of remarkable metaphors and similes are as important as any other element of a novel or poem or any prose for that matter. Without them the piece is vapid.

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    1. Carl, I think your experience teaching was with older kids, right? The beauty of teaching younger kids is that they naturally speak in figurative language. All I do is point it out in mentor texts and talk about why authors use similes and metaphors and they run with it.

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      1. Bonnie, I tried all weekend to write this post, but it just wasn’t coming together until I had some good think time on my bike. Better late than never, right? 😉

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  2. Your stories of your little boys and your little girls are so vivid and poignant and touching that my goosebumps and giggles are literal. Every piece I read makes me miss the classroom more.

    You can count on my support. Thanks for spreading the word.

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    1. Thanks for your support, Hippie. It just confounds me that writing can even be viewed as a non-essential unworthy of funding.

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