Category Archives: Writing Project

Being Seen

In the early summer of 2008, I found myself at a pre-retreat with the Northern California Writing Project.  I sat in a circle of strangers, many of whom would become dear friends.  But I didn’t know that then as I tapped my foot against the leg of my chair and tried to ignore just how much nervous sweat was trickling from my armpits.

It was my first encounter with The Writing Project and I promised myself two things: I promised I would stick to my diet.  Secondly, I promised myself that any time the facilitators asked someone to read a piece of writing aloud, I would volunteer.  I kept one of those two promises and let me tell you, that brownie cake was worth every bite.

My promise to volunteer to read my writing aloud came out of a two-fold desire.  I desperately wanted to overcome my fear of public speaking.  More importantly I wanted to get the most out of the retreat as possible.  I’d never been to a writing retreat before and after seeing the ever-increasing sweat rings darkening my shirt, I wasn’t sure the facilitators would ever invite me back.  I knew that getting the most out of the weekend meant stepping out of my comfort zone, clearing my throat, and reading some of my writing.

Out loud.

To other people.

Who are writers.

Yikes.

One afternoon the director said to the lot of us, “Write the story of the student you will never forget, the story that keeps you up at night, the story that you still think about.”

In that moment, I knew just the student, just the story.  One so painful that I’d not spoken of it before, let alone put it on paper.  I put my pen to paper and began to write about the student who broke my heart and made me get real about teaching.  I wrote with unflinching honesty.  I wrote with a flame that left me singed and raw at the end of each writing session.

I wrote the story that visits me in the still minutes of sleepless nights.  And when it came time to read aloud, my own trembling voice gave voice to his story, my story: the story of how I failed to see the real him.  I wrote about how that failure taught me what it means to be a teacher and what it means to see, really see, my students.

I worked on that piece for the rest of the summer and throughout the following school year.  In the summer of 2009, The Writing Project sent me to a retreat in the spare desert of Arizona.  I took this piece out again, fine tuning it-adding a word here, deleting words there, restructuring paragraphs until it was finished.  Actually finished.  At that retreat I put on my big girl pants and some extra deodorant and showed it to an editor.  He encouraged me to submit it to a certain professional journal.

I did.

It was rejected.

Time and again it was rejected.

It was rejected enough times that I stopped submitting it and left it in a dark corner to mold or do whatever misfit pieces of writing do when abandoned.

Last year, the director of the Northern California Writing Project forwarded a call for submissions to me.  It was a call for teachers to tell their stories in an anthology.  I flipped through my writing samples and decided to send out that same piece one last time.  And if it wasn’t chosen, I’d retire it, sound in the knowledge that it had served its purpose, even if it never saw the light of day again.

You can imagine my shock when I received a letter back from the editors that my piece had been chosen.  Not only had it been chosen, but it would be the first story featured in the book.  I just about fainted.  I placed the letter in the place of honor-on my refrigerator, of course- and waited with anticipation for my story to make its debut.

Last week a package arrived in the mail.  I recognized the return address immediately and tore the brown envelope open.  And there it was-the book with my story.  I’d held that story in my heart for years and now I was holding it in my hands.  Not only that, but other teachers have held it in their hands and recognized their own experiences within mine.  The most exciting thing is that after reading my story and others featured in this book, teachers are putting pencil to paper and writing their own stories.  Stories of the student they will never forget.  Stories they think about in the still minutes of sleepless nights.

When I lay in bed at night, cloaked in the quiet of my own house, I think of this little boy who taught me about what it means to really see my students.  I pull the covers under my chin and I fall back asleep, grateful that after all these years his story is finally being seen.

I’m Going to Uganda. Wait, WHAT???

Yes, dear reader, you read the title correctly.  I’m going to Uganda.  Little old me in big, beautiful Uganda.  I can hardly sit still typing those words.

In June I’ll be spending a month in Gulu, Uganda volunteering at a school populated by orphans, former child soldiers and other children in need who possess leadership potential.

Back in December, I felt God stirring me to make use of my summer in a new way.  Usually I have a big bike adventure, raising money for LiveStrong or some other worthy cause, but this summer I’m taking on a whole different kind of adventure.  After watching a video about two regular guys  who built an entire brick school out of dirt, I knew I wanted to be part of the work happening in Northern Uganda.

But what did I have to offer?  I’m not a foreman or an architect who can create a school.  Trust me, you do not want children occupying a school built by me!

I’ve got three skills.  I teach.  I write.  I ride my bike really far, albeit very slowly.  Really, I’ve only got two and a half skills at best.  Apparently that’s enough because an idea began to take form in my mind and heart.

What if I ventured to Uganda and helped the students write their stories?  What if I published their stories in a book, with all of the proceeds of book sales going back to the school?

All of a sudden it felt like all my summers with the Northern California Writing Project learning to teach children to love writing were coming to a pinnacle at that very moment. I could use my heart for writing with kids to help these children write their own stories.  With a pounding heart and trembling fingers, I emailed my idea to an organization working in Uganda.

Then I waited to hear back from them.  I waited to feel confirmation from God that this was what I was meant to do.  And then I waited some more.  I waited for weeks.

I didn’t hear a thing.

Then it struck me, chances are if I wasn’t hearing God, it wasn’t because he wasn’t speaking-it was because I wasn’t listening.

So I did a daring thing.

I turned off my television for 10 days.

I know it doesn’t sound very daring, but for me it was.  I decided that for 10 days, I would actively pray and listen for direction.  In the third day of my fast from television, the organization emailed me back.  They loved my project idea and specifically wanted me to work with students in Gulu.  I was thrilled and began to plan the details of my project and trip.

Since that time, Northern Uganda and the Ugandan children have received a lot of press about the oppression inflicted by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army.  In a time when many people are voicing opinions about the turmoil in Uganda, I know that now is the right time for me to go and help give voice to the stories of the students there, to let their stories speak for themselves.

Anatomy of an Acceptance Letter

In the not so distant past, I received my first rejection letter.  Oh my, it hurt.  This piece was one of those ‘open a vein and write’ kinds of pieces.  It was about a particularly wrenching time in my teaching career, about a child who created a safe place for himself.  His story broke my heart and writing about it crushed me all over again.  I was sure this piece would resonate with other teachers who’d walked in my very shoes.

I submitted it.  And was rejected.  I submitted it again.  And was rejected again.  Time and time again, I sent this piece out and it returned void.

I was just about to tuck this piece away and give it a rest when a friend of mine sent me a call for submissions for an anthology about what it means to teach.  I dug my brave face out of the drawer and sent in my piece again, steeling myself for another rejection.  I didn’t think about it much.  Let’s face it, after receiving so many rejections, I wasn’t holding my breath.

And then one day my inbox flashed a message from the editors.

My heart began to pound.  My palms dampened with sweat.  I swallowed my nerves and opened the message.

Here it is, with my inner dialogue in italics.

Dear Alicia,

Well, at least my name is spelled right.  There’s nothing worse than receiving a rejection letter for Alisa or Alisha or Alice.  Seriously, I don’t even sound remotely like an Alice.

It is my pleasure to notify you that we would like to publish your essay, “The Escape Artist,” in the Spring 2012 Rogue Faculty Press publication, What Teaching Means: Stories from America’s Classrooms.

Wait, what?  I think they said something about pleasure in relation to my piece.  Just a sec, let me read that part again.  

Well, would you look at that, they want to publish something I wrote.  

I might pass out.  Is it lie down to prevent fainting or put your head between your knees?  I’ll just try both for good measure.

To help us during this stage of the process, please send an email, as soon as possible, that includes:

1. Informal confirmation that you will allow us to publish your work. Contract will follow. 

Um, yes, and-wow a contract sounds very official.  I think I need to breathe into a paper bag.

2. Your current mailing address for sending a contract packet and, eventually, your copy of the book.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to fully appreciate this e-mail while laying on my back with my head between my knees as I breathe into a paper bag.

3. A short professional biography (150 words) that will accompany your piece in the book. There is one below as an example. We are including these because we want to give our readers a sense of the people behind these stories.

150 words for a professional biography?  How on earth am I going to come up with 150 words for a professional biography when I haven’t done anything yet?  I teach.  That’s 2 words.  Wait, I teach writing.  Phew, only 147 to go.  I’m pretty sure noodling around with poetry and stuff doesn’t count.  I’m 100% sure that practicing staying upright on my bicycle doesn’t count as ‘professional’ in any arena.  I’d better get off this couch and actually DO some professional sort of stuff so that I have something to write down.

We want to let you know that we will copy edit all the pieces for punctuation and grammar.

o thank God

Oh thank God.

Oh, thank God!

Once we near the publication date in April, we will be developing a promotion and publicity plan for this book. We are already extremely proud of the collection, and we will be doing everything we can to get these stories to the people that we believe should read them. 

Wait, people are actually going to read this?  Is it hot in here?  I don’t feel so well.  I didn’t know armpits could sweat this much in an air-conditioned room on a temperate day.  That phrase “dying of shock” is taking on a whole new meaning right this second.

Congratulations and thanks again for sharing your story with us. We look forward to working with you. 

That’s because you haven’t met me yet.  Should we ever have the pleasure, I will be the tall girl with sweat cascading down my brow and a huge grin on my face.

Sincerely,

__________ and __________*

Editors, What Teaching Means

Wait, editors-as in more than one-decided my piece was good enough?  Well, I guess I’d better clear my schedule for the book tour.

*Names were omitted to protect the innocent.  I also didn’t want you googling them and letting them in on the secret that I’m just a regular girl who dreams about being a writer someday.

Surviving Open House

Have I mentioned that I published a book with my class this year?  Oh, only 100 times?  I published a book with my class.  There.  101.

Here it is.  I love the way it turned out.  (I can say that because my kids wrote all the words and one of my all time favorite parents snapped the photos.)

Have I also mentioned that my body shuts down when I have to speak to groups of people?  In my head I know everything’s fine, that I am actually NOT going to die, but my body FREAKS OUT!!!  Sweat pours out of my armpits, knee pits, shins, neck, and head.  As my head lets the floodwaters loose, my curly hair which I have painstakingly straightened, kinks up into a tangled bird’s nest of curls.  Then my voice starts to tremble and my hands shake.  Which makes me sweat more.  Which makes me shake even more.  Which makes me sweat more.  You get the picture.  It’s horrifying.

So things like Back to School Night and Open House are nightmarish.  A full room of parents expecting me to be knowledgeable, poised and sure of myself.  Fat chance.  The sure of myself thing I’ve got down pat.  Wait, never mind.  It’s the full of myself thing I’ve got down.

Anyway, those nights have always put my nerves on red alert.  Until last night.

I have stumbled upon the secret to surviving Open House.  No wait, I stumbled on the secret to making Open House fun.  Open House and fun?  Surely those words can’t exist in the same sentence.  Hell has obviously frozen over.

Come close, I’ll let you in on the secret.

Our books arrived a week ago and all week long we’ve been giving copies to important adults.  We presented one to our foster grandma.  She cried when we gave it to her and has spent every afternoon showing it off at her senior citizens home.  We gave one to our librarian who promptly put it on display.  Our principal came down and we presented him with a copy.  He talked with us about the power of words and later that day I noticed his copy in the hands of a few higher ups.

My kids were dying to take home their very own copy, but I made them wait.  I made them wait all week, which is like 10 years in 6-year-old time.

Yesterday as they cleaned out their desks and made our room ready for company, I handed them each a copy of their book.  They put it on display with their other work.  Some kids had a few extra minutes before school let out.  Know what they wanted to do?  They wanted to sit and read their book.  Let me tell you, my heart just about burst watching pockets of kids read their book, a book they’d penned with their own hands.

At 6:00 sharp, I opened the door and a flood of students and parents and aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents rushed in.  It was great to have so many people, but I was a little confused.  Usually the extended family doesn’t make an appearance until our Spring musical.

Then it hit me, they were there because of the book.

As soon as I opened the door, kids tugged their parents by the hands over to their desks.  They bounced and squealed as they showed their parents the page they’d written.   Mothers cried.  Grandmothers bought extra copies.  Parents flocked to our photographer and thanked her for capturing such beautiful shots of their children.  Dads shook my hand and mothers embraced me.

The room buzzed with excitement the entire hour.  I walked around taking photos of the whole thing.  Even with hundreds of people packed into my little classroom, I didn’t sweat a drop.  My armpits were remarkably dry.  My hair didn’t kink even the slightest bit.

It was a beautiful night, a night when proud authors released their book to a roomful of adoring fans.  It was a launch party, first grade style, which was so much better, and so much less sweaty, than the dreaded Open House.

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.

My Oak Tree

Saturday morning I pedaled to school to co-facilitate a writing session for teachers.  We always begin with a quick write and Saturday’s prompt went something like this: If you weren’t here, what would you like to be doing instead?

My answer was obvious.  Saturday mornings are for bike rides.  In fact I’d pedaled to class and scheduled a bike ride for the afternoon, too.  There is something peaceful about pedaling out of town.  Away from piles of laundry.  Away from my job.  Away from the noise.  Away from everything except my legs turning the cranks and my heart keeping time.

My favorite place to ride is out to Millville Plains, where the wind whips through the tall grasses in the Fall and the wildflowers paint the fields in the Spring.  Some days, the hands of the wind press against my back and lift me up the hills.  Other days the wind rushes against my face and I am strong enough to climb the crest despite the wind’s advances.

There is an oak tree, a lone oak tree, standing atop the plains.  She is impervious to the wind, snow, sun and anything else nature throws at her.  Oak trees can live to be 200 years old.  In fact the oldest oak tree is 400 years old!  I don’t know how old my tree is, but surely she is the matriarch of the plains.  She’s been there as long as I can remember, the umbrella of her crown a favorite resting place for cows.  In the summer the shadow of her crown provides respite from the harsh sun and in the winter her branches are shelter from the rain.

I ride by the tree, pushing uphill, keeping her trunk in my line of sight.  I think of how I want to be like that tree, impervious to things at work that press against me, threatening to uproot me.  I think about standing tall for the things I believe are best.  Best for children.  Best for teachers.  Best for the world I live in.  When I ride Millville Plains, I can’t help but think of that tree all the way home.

I’ve yet to see my tree this season and still she comes to mind.  As Congress cuts funding for education, I think of my tree and square my shoulders as I type out letters to my elected officials.  They need to hear about how class sizes bursting at the seams create little space for relationships with students.  They need to hear how important the NWP is in creating teacher leaders who empower their students to carve out their own voices on canvases of blank pages.  They need to hear about how the NWP rooted me deep in practices that translate into a beautiful writing community in my classroom, in my school, in my city.

I’m blessed that my oak tree is just a bike ride away.  When I need to be reminded to be strong, to stand up for my beliefs, I visit my tree.  She is always standing proud and tall over the plains.  She compels me to do the same.

LOVE, Part 3

When I was a kid we lived near the Rogue River and on sticky summer days my family would head to the river.  My big brother would walk the riverbank filling his pockets with skipping stones.  He’d tromp along picking out the flattest, smoothest rocks and then he’d fling them with a flick of his wrist and they’d dance across the water.  I tried in vain to make my own rocks tiptoe across the water, but I always chose rocks that were too lumpy, too big.  I’d heave them into the water and after a satisfying splash, my rocks would sink to the bottom, the river rippling great rings in their wake.

Enough time has passed since sharing about the LOVE statue with my colleagues that I can look back on it and see beyond my quivering hands holding the paper, beyond stumbling over my own words in a room so quiet that my nervous vibrato seemed to echo off the walls.  When talking with my colleagues, the heart of our conversation was my desire not to miss opportunities to act in love because I was too wrapped up in my own life to notice opportunities that are sometimes quite literally right in front of me.  I talked about how it’s easy, especially this time of year, for me to be caught up in the inertia of my own life.

I mentioned previously that some of my dear colleagues shared what they wrote about what it means to love and that their writing moved me.  Two things that they wrote stand out in particular.

The first is this: love means loving even when that affection is not reciprocated.  The enormity of that statement is something I’ve thought about daily since our time together.  It’s something I struggle to put into practice and by the nods in the room, I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one acknowledging that unsavory part of myself.

The second thing that has stuck with me is what a teacher wrote about compassion.  This teacher lost her husband to cancer last year.  Currently another teacher’s husband is in the same fierce battle.  Through tears in her eyes and over the muffled crying of just about everyone in the room, the first teacher shared about how love means acting with a depth of compassion only birthed by her own loss.  This teacher gets a gold star for bravery.  To write about her loss and how it has changed her and then to share about it in a staff meeting amazed me, amazes me still.

Each day since our staff meeting, teachers have sought me out telling me their stories, telling me about ways they’d acted in love in light of our meeting.  Teachers began doing things like collecting money to help pay for cancer treatments and writing notes of encouragement to their students.  I was delighted by their actions, but the thing that surprised me most and tickled me to my core, was that teachers took additional time outside of the staff meeting to finish the quick write we’d done.  Oh, that our students would experience that compulsion to write!

My experience at the staff meeting harkens back to my memories of throwing rocks into the river.  I threw my rock into the water and my little LOVE story rippled out in beautiful rings.

I’m left thinking then, what if writing in the classroom was like this?  What if more teachers mustered the courage to share their own writing, to talk about big ideas, to use writing as a vehicle for growth, both academic and personal?  I have a feeling that if we looked at the heart of writing as closely as we look at its structure, then profound change would occur.

My family moved away from the Rogue River and into the backyard of the Sacramento River, but I never did master the art of skipping stones.  And I’m okay with that because right now I’m filling my pockets with rocks.  Big, lumpy ones.  Come January, during the first session in a writing series, I’ll start tossing my stones into the water.  This time I hope they won’t skip across the water.  No, I hope they sink down deep and ripple wide.