Indiana Teachers of Writing Writing Project/National Writing Project

See below for links to the local Writing Project site, as well as the NWP website:



Here are some of my own writing samples from the ITWWP Summer Institute 2007:
Asking Our Students to Take Risks
Every day I ask my students what I hope is a thought-provoking question to inspire them in their daily journal writing. Sometimes the questions are related to a previous reading or the work we have been doing in our textbook. Other times the questions are designed to give me insight into the experiences, beliefs and perspectives of my students. Often I throw out examples or brainstorm approaches to answering the question before I leave my students in peace to the painful process of beginning to write in English. I ask silly questions like, “If you could have a super power, which power would you choose and why?” (Clearly flying is the way to go!) or “If you could ask the President one question, what would it be and why?” My questions are not usually deep, but hopefully generate some thinking before my students begin their writing.

Often my students are curious to know what my answer is and I am normally very comfortable revealing my answers. Every now and then I become aware of the invasiveness of my questions when I realize that I do not want to tell the students my honest response to the questions. I like to think of myself as an open book, a painfully honest person, and I hope to be that one teacher who will tell kids the truth, even when it is hard. However, I suspect that each of us reserves some of our deepest and most private thoughts, reluctant to share them with the general public. I always give my students the option to skip the question and write about anything, but most of them feel compelled to answer the prompt, even when they claim to hate it. I think I am beginning to understand their reaction.

Our prompt today followed a reading of “All the Places to Love” by MacLauchlan. The story is poignantly illustrated and simply, but beautifully, told from an agrarian perspective, and it takes me back to my own family’s roots in farming. The prompt question asks “What place has made all the difference in the world to you?” As I considered the prompt, several places with deep meaning flashed through my imagination, and I caught myself almost immediately rejecting them all as potential writing topics. Why? The truth is that I am not sure I want to share those memories, the lushness of those places, and the deeply personal and intimate experiences of those places with an unknown reader. Maybe if the reader had been with me and experienced those places with me, I would be more willing to take that risk, but even that kind of sharing would potentially expose me as someone who read too much into the moment or embarrass the reader, who saw the whole event completely differently. The painful truth is I am uncomfortable giving what I ask from my students every day, and even more revealing, I do not want to share the very details I look for in good fiction. This realization opened a flood of introspective questions for me: Am I a nothing more than a reading hypocrite, a kind of voyeur into the lives of fictional characters? Have I attempted to establish a learning environment where kids take all the risks while I impassively protect myself? Can authentic learning really happen in a classroom where the teacher is self-protecting?

It is tempting to avoid self-revelation. There are “safe” places I could describe, like my adolescent bedroom where I poured my heart into singing John Denver’s poetry, licked my teenage wounds, hid from my family and submerged myself into the lives of the characters of my books. There are riskier, but more meaningful places, like the pine woods I once walked into alone, and suddenly felt such a primitive reverence for the beauty and the quiet serenity of that place that I was moved to eliminate my human trappings and sink down into the pine needles for a moment of mute worship.

Which is easier, to allow you to laugh at me soulfully singing along with John Denver, or to allow you to imagine me naked at age 14, in a wood only a few steps away from civilization? And, of course, by now you are wondering about the really interesting stuff I have not told you about, and rightly so. Telling our true stories of place is a way of standing naked in front of an audience and allowing the audience to pass judgments on our most vulnerable parts. Some of us are more comfortable naked than the rest of us, but perhaps we all need to be retrained in our reading and writing skills and learn to establish permissions for truth-telling as we all struggle to tell our stories. Who knows? Maybe I am not the only one who has knelt naked in the forest? We will never know if we do not find the courage to tell our deepest truth.

Final Reflection

As I cast about in my mind for a way to summarize the experience of participating in the Writing Project, I found myself without words or coherent thoughts. My fellow Summer Institute members will be amazed to imagine me quiet, but it does happen from time to time. Finally I realized I needed a prompt, so I created my own. In my search I stumbled across a favorite quote from Anne Morrow Lindbergh, one of my favorite writers, and she inspired me to share it with you. Here it is:

I began these pages for myself in order to think out my own living…but as I went on writing and simultaneously talking with others…these chapters, fed by conversations, arguments and revelations from men and women of all groups, became more than my individual story, until I decided in the end to give them back to the people who had shared and stimulated many of these thoughts. Here, then, with my warm feelings of gratitude and companionship for those working along the same lines, I return my gift.
From A Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1965, pages 9-11

Regretfully, I am not the writer that Lindbergh was, but I am realizing that what made her a great writer was that she did the same things we have been practicing together these last few weeks. Here they are in no particular order:
1. Morrow set aside regular, inviolable time to write, even when she did not feel like it. (Think “writing on demand!”)
2. Morrow often went away to a quiet private place to think and to write. Sometimes the time was productive, but she often felt that nothing was coming from the sacrifice her husband and young children made in order for her to be gone. Very likely the time away gave her time to think, which she benefited from when she was back home. (Many of us have viewed this experience as a time to be “away” in our minds, if not our bodies. Like Morrow, our productivity might not show up in our work until we are back in our teaching context.)
3. Morrow knew the value of talking with other writers. Writing in isolation is lonely, and she needed trusted friends to share her ideas with, vent her frustrations with, and celebrate successes with. We need that collaboration, too. The Writing Project has allowed us to develop trust so we can encourage, push and prod each other, and genuinely be happy when one of us does well. I am counting on that collaboration to continue.
4. Morrow sees writing as a way to make sense of the world and her life. This is an emerging realization for me, but one I want to pursue. I have witnessed some of my colleagues experience healing from old wounds as they wrote about their lives. We know our students need to find safe, productive ways to express themselves and work out their own demons.

Our time together has been emotional, exhausting, inspirational, collaborative, frustrating, encouraging and convicting. It is hard now to remember what my expectations might have been before we began, but the Summer Institute has far surpassed anything I might have imagined. Such a wild ride with such a disparate group of travelers; I wouldn’t have missed it for anything!