In my profession, May roars, leaving me windblown and mud spattered in the wake of the urgency to squeeze in every last bit of learning, every memorable project, and all the performances, displays, meetings, and endless, but somehow necessary, paperwork before school ends in mid June.
And May is rich. Students have blossomed into their most curious, creative, innovative, and independents selves. They seem to peak as the rains ease and the skies warm, classroom routines providing the inner rhythm, the back beat, that allows imaginations and a year’s worth of learning to come together in perfect synergy. The classroom is busy in May, with students leading the charge…both eager for school to end and reticent leave the comfortable place the classroom has become.
But there is a week in May where time crawls to a snails’ pace. State testing, mandated in public schools, demands that my students spend hours demonstrating their learning. During those times I hear each click of the clock reverberate against my eardrums. The room is unnaturally quiet as students work through question after question designed to test their mastery of third grade. The work is not too hard for my students, but it is too long…and requires them to operate very differently from our typical classroom routine.
It seems almost from birth, our students were encouraged to collaborate. They’ve learned to work in groups, sort out misunderstandings through discussion and conversations, negotiate roles and responsibilities, turn to each other for support and critical feedback…until it’s time for the test. Then they are asked to be quiet, to read and understand complex questions independently, write and revise without feedback, and sit for long stretches of time.
The minutes drag as I roam the room. I check to make sure these first time test takers are progressing through their tests rather than spending inordinate amounts of time on any one question. I search their faces, ready to intervene when signs suggest they are ready to crumble. I remind them to use their tools, to take a breath, to stretch, and to check their work. That clock slows to a snail’s pace, each click requiring the coil of the snail’s body to snap forward, oozing its slimy self toward its destination.
After the second day of testing I can feel the mood shift. Novelty got us through day one and two, but day three feels heavy. The hands of the clock are now mired in sludge. Students need more encouragement to keep moving forward. I need to summon some super powers to settle the boiling tummy, churning with uncertainty. A walk and a talk helps, we are able to settle in again.
I’m proud of my students. They did it. All persisted, all persevered, all finished the tests in front of them. And honestly, that is accomplishment enough at this stage of the game. Now we can get back to the real learning–the noisy, messy, complex, interactive projects that bring joy to the classroom. I’ll be the one who is windblown and mud spattered and reveling in the mess.
The paths we follow through life seem to be self-determined, crafted from deep thought and consideration. Carefully groomed and plotted, they take use from where we are to the next destination. We know where we are going and the most effective and efficient way to get there. Except when we don’t.
Negative space is art terminology that describes the spaces not filled in with color or design. They are the open spaces that often define those more deliberate lines, brushstrokes, carvings.
What happens when you lean into the negatives spaces? When the spaces between become the path you follow?
I think about the ways that dandelions find the cracks in the walls, in the sidewalks, along the sides of the road, plant themselves deeply and blossom–spreading both their roots and their seeds to ensure that they thrive.
I think about the blue that is visible through the openings in the clouds, where the sun seeps through and warms our shoulders and relaxes our minds.
I spy the scented geraniums hiding between the spiky arms of the aloe vera, soft pink flowers intertwined with the sharp spines of the succulent.
I notice the children who lay low, distinguishing themselves by the ways they blend in, quietly doing what they need to while others stand out, spreading their brilliant plumage like colorful peacocks.
But I know that these negative spaces are not negative, not less than, not inferior. These are spaces waiting to be defined by the traveler, marked as the feet step on this road less traveled. There are many paths that lead to fulfilling and successful lives…so why do so many insist that we all follow a single pre-determined path?
Let’s remember that sometimes the right path is the one that is yet to be discovered.
I wasn’t going to post today. After 61 consecutive posts I was going to take the day off. But today I found myself reminded of the influence and power that comes with having an audience, no matter how small.
I started the day with a twitter post from Kevin…
And then a response on Facebook from Ronald…
As I think about those responses I realize another important aspect of writing that I forgot to include in yesterday’s reflection: the importance of writing in a community of writers. In addition to Kevin, Ronald, and Sheri, there are myriad others who influence my writing and thinking–some who respond to my writing, some who post their own writing, and some who read my writing and don’t respond but make a passing comment to make me realize they read what I write. Some of these people I only know from our digital connections, some I know both from in-person encounters and digital forums, and others I see in person on a regular basis.
Knowing that others will read my writing helps to keep me accountable…not only to others but also to myself. And reading the writing (and other kinds of creating) of others, inspires my writing. This mutuality of being in a community bring sunshine, water, oxygen, and fertilizer to my thinking and my writing creating the perfect conditions for blossoming.
After 60 days of daily writing, it’s time to reflect on all I’ve learned from writing every day. My first 30 days were entries classified as “slice of life,” vignettes and stories from life as I lived it. The second 30 days were poems, one each day of April as part of my classroom poem-a-day challenge.
The first and most important lesson learned is that daily writing makes daily writing easier. The more I write, the more I have to say. That is not to say that writing is easy. In fact, writing is work. Every. Single. Day. I have my share of “writer’s block,” but when I expect to write every day, I look for strategies to push through it. Throughout my day I find myself paying attention to words, images, interactions…everything I encounter is potential fodder for my writing.
A tiny, furry caterpillar scurrying across the sidewalk grabs my attention and I stop to take a photo or two, knowing that there’s a story or a poem or a musing about life somewhere in that fuzzy body. I’m reminded that attention to tiny, perfect things primes me for daily writing.
I’ve also learned that my students need me to give them tips, techniques, and inspiring mentor texts to nurture them as writers. They need to see me as not just their teacher, but as a fellow writer who also experiences challenges and successes, who starts and stops, and even stalls sometimes during the composing process. My scribbles and scratch throughs show that writing takes effort and that it is worth the effort. Being a writer in a community of writer breathes wind beneath our writerly wings.
I’ve learned to see revision as a gift rather than a chore. Writing doesn’t have to be perfect as you lay the words on the page. Revision invites opportunities to revisit and re-see, allowing for new ideas to reshape that thinking on the page. I especially love what revision offers my students. Once they push past the idea that “done” is the goal, they are willing to rework their writing, especially when they have specific techniques to experiment with and concrete feedback to focus the reworking.
The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile. Robert Cormier
I leave this post saying now what? 60 days of blogging challenges have kept me accountable to my daily writing. Will I write tomorrow without a challenge to motivate me? Will I invent a new challenge to keep myself going? Can I keep up a daily writing practice without posting publicly? And what will keep my students writing? They will spend time over the next week or two curating their poems: selecting and revising to create a book that showcases ten of the poems written in April.
Habits are hard to form and easy to break, so I’ll be working to keep this writing habit alive…for myself and for my students.