For the next few weeks after Spring Break, I’ll be doing a writing residency at Chickahominy Middle School in Hanover, VA, where I’ll spend five or six sessions working closely with kids on their writing.
I love visiting schools because it reminds me of my teaching days. Years ago, I was on the faculty of what was then the Palm Beach School of the Arts. It was a dream gig in most ways because I got to work with young people who were admitted to the school based on their interest and talent, both of which they had in abundance.
Some of those kids went on to become writers and editors in print and media, more or less the way I did. Others chose different paths. It doesn’t matter to me, to be honest. What’s important is that they had a few years to experiment with their voice and their creativity. I like to think that my classroom was a safe, if imperfect, writing bubble where we could laugh and experiment with styles and stories. I hope they left with a taste of the power and joy that comes from being able to conjure a reality from thin air or, more importantly, from being able to name your life experience in a way that connects you to others.
These days, when I go to classrooms, I turn to an approach that resonates with me. My friends, Isabel Campoy and Alma Flor Ada –prize-winning and respected authors and researchers – have a terrific book called Authors in the Classroom: A Transformative Education Process. It advocates for parents and teachers to write along with students and to engage in a process that celebrates the idea that we’re all authors, in one way or another.
MM: We are all creatures of story…from cave paintings to the Russian novel. And yet, so many people struggle with writing. What blocks people from thinking of themselves as writers?
IC: There are 237 steps to climb to my high school in Alicante, and I remember my struggle to find an important topic for my daily writing exercise before I reached the door of my classroom. By step 180 I used to slow down, not only to catch by breath, but to give me more time, hoping that some great idea would pop up. I think that fear of not having a brilliant story to share, starts for the majority even at Elementary School, and for many, it is the end of the road in a writing career. Writing is more than an intellectual exercise; it is a romance with words, words that find a vacant silence to fill it up with wonder, curiosity, expectation or love. Our universe is made up of “vacant silences.” There is room for seven billion stories, one written by each person in this tiny planet.
MM: What, if anything, do you think is missing most in how writing instruction is handled in our schools?
IC: Perhaps not understanding the difference between “authorship” and “writing” is the answer to your question. The freedom to let the mind run free on the page should never be policed by Mr. Grammar, of Ms. Syntax. Authors, at any age, should not be paralyzed by spelling, punctuation, verb tenses or appropriate structures. Their main focus should be on describing with detail the circumstances of their plots and the features of their characters, the maintenance of a tone, or the surprise of an ending. And ONLY, only when all of that is on the page, then we can all change hats and be the best managing editors, and copy editors we can be. As you well know, we published authors, spend a year writing the story and four years correcting it. Teachers should be “Acquisition Editors” those people who discover the talent in a writer and offer her a contract many years before the book will be ready to be published.
MM: Your book presents a strong case for encouraging teachers and parents to participate as writers. Why is it important for the adults in children’s lives to be “authors” too?
IC: Together with my co-author, Alma Flor Ada, we have researched the positive effects in a child’s life of a strong home/school interaction. When teachers give themselves permission to author and write a personal story to share with their students and with the parents of their students, they are sharing more than a story, or an anecdote, or a poem. They are sharing their willingness to be vulnerable and authentic, sincere and fun, hard working, and an equal in their learning community. They become models of writing. Their books, telling the story of their name, or how they became teachers, or what are their goals for their students, or who is an important person in their lives, or where do they come from is shared with students and parents. Their books travel to the home, where parents will read them, and then, will respond with a book of their own to share with their children and the teacher of their children. Authorship existed many centuries before those stories were written. Parents can become authors, through pictures, drawings, film or the written word. The important thing is the story. It is wonderful to see a community where teachers and parents see themselves as equals, sharing the importance of their students/children’s education.
MM: What is your favorite exercise from the book?
IC: I think they all contribute to that spirit of understanding we try to foment but perhaps the last topic “Where I come from” because it provides the opportunity to share our humanity. None of us chose parents, country, race, language, or the social circumstances of our birth, and what it is important is to honor your roots and keep going forward. Reflecting on these issues and realizing either our strength or our privileges, is a positive tool for a transformative education.
MM: Do you have a favorite or memorable experience of using the methods you describe?
IC: For the past twenty years, together with my co-author Alma Flor Ada we have taught this course in perhaps 40, of the 51 states in this country. Alaska was a favorite workshop! Also in Oaxaca, Mexico; Puerto Rico, Madrid, Spain; Guam in Micronesia; Bulgaria, The Czech Republic; Amsterdam; several universities in Canada like Toronto, and Winnipeg, Manitoba. We are no longer surprised by the candor and willingness to share we find in the audiences around the world. We encourage them to realize that every one is the protagonist of their life and the secondary character of many others. Being the protagonist of your book is a humble experience but a power tool to inspire transformation around us, in order to create a better world.