A Year of Healing, Part 2: Writing

“Reading is like breathing in, writing is like breathing out.” -Pam Allyn

“There are cracks in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” -Leonard Cohen

When I wrote the first part of this blog post, published in late November, I found ideas that I could not shake from my conscious mind. I composed my healing process in terms of books, but I could not speak fully to the experience of healing without mentioning the writing piece—my notebook. Reading was my saving grace during this past year, but my writing notebook became my safe space, the place where I could spill my emotions with impunity. As I devoured books, I collected my thinking in my notebook through reflection, character analysis, conversations with the authors, letters, and drawings. I established a healthy writing routine, too. Early in the mornings, as I sat listening to the whispers of a new day, I wrote and wrote. My reading life, fueled by a fervent visceral drive, needed a place to land. And it landed inside my notebook.

Over the course of the year, I watched as the landscape of my notebook changed. Because of my emotional trauma, my senses awakened more deeply—I noticed the poetry of sights, of sounds, of smells. I lingered in passages, in shades of meaning, in images and phrases; books gave me the language I needed to express myself when I felt that anguish had silenced them. Responses to language intensified and words transformed into sustenance. Writers seemed, through their poetry and prose, to extend their hands, full of lively language, and say, “Here. These are for you. Use them.” And I did. I filled my notebook with poems, quickwrites, and passages from books, something I had done before, but this time, I was crafting inside my notebook with a fervent purpose. When something in my reading life moved me, I photocopied it and affixed it to a page, underlining the pieces that spoke to me and writing my thinking beside those lines. I truly learned what it meant to write beside something, illustrating in a vibrant new way Penny Kittle’s concept of writing beside a text, which I thought I understood before, but now more truly grasp.  

My notebook was no longer just a reaction to my reading. It became an existential reflection of me because I wasn’t just reading to fall in love with a book; I was reading to heal and understand myself. My writing became braver as I took risks with the art, the form, and the ideas I was willing to think about and craft. When thoughts exist in our minds, we can suppress them; however, writing them forces us to confront them. I was writing, but honestly, the words were writing me. As I composed, they lifted from the page and pulled the fragments of my heart together. 

I first noticed changes in the artistry of my notebook this past summer. I read like a fiend, but the remarkable changes took time to notice. Writing always takes time. When we launched writing workshop in my classes this school year, I talked with students about patience. “We will write everyday,” I told them, “but it may not always be beautiful writing. You will struggle, you will procrastinate and possibly stare at the blankness of your screen and notebook, but writing each day will nourish your fledgling writing lives. You will craft plenty of things you are not comfortable sharing, but your confidence will grow as you continue to write. Sentences will be clunky, stories will be predictable, and you will wrestle with ideas and words. But this is part of the process and I need you to trust it and participate in it.” I could speak these words with a deeper confidence and conviction because I had watched my writing process evolve, strengthen, and move because I nourished it with daily writing and fueled it with heavy reading.

Word Imagery 1

This word imagery spread was one of the first I created at the beginning of last year inside my writing notebook. I decided to abandon the stream-of-consciousness writing, which was the dominant form inside my notebook, and deconstruct a passage from The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz. I saw myself as the tree, nearly dead and losing the brightness that once resided there. This was a risk because it was a sharp contrast to the form I most often crafted in. Emotional pain had pulled me from the comfortable space I inhabited, and as a result, I wrote and crafted in a more abstract form.

Betrayal 1st Draft

I abandoned poetry several years ago, believing that my muse was dead and I had no reason to ever exhume such practice. After reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and re-examining The Art of Description by Mark Doty, I decided to enter the world of poetry again. Here rests my thinking about betrayal, an idea I began wrestling with because of my own personal experience with the sharp pain of betrayal. Writing about my feelings gave me a front-row seat to the moment of betrayal, and although excruciating, I was able to step outside of the moment and view it as an observer. A different stance helped me heal because I could see it clearly through the lens of poetry. I’m not sure I understand why, but one day, I know I might.

Book by Billy Collins

Billy Collins’s poem “Books” was one of my favorites. It is a cerebral poem, one that begs re-reading. I am still not certain I understand his idea fully, but what I do know is that he captures so much about books and the act of reading. I was compelled by his poem to think about my own reading life and how reading moves me. A love of reading was often mocked and misunderstood in my past relationships. This poem helped me reconnect with the many reasons why books matter so much to me, even in the interim when I forgot how much I loved reading. I turned to art to express my thinking. When I collect student notebooks, I see they have taken me up on my offer to draw their thinking. And so often, like I do, they write beside their drawings.

The Whispers 2 page spread

I left this mortal plane to live in the fictive world of The Whispers. Written by Greg Howard, this gorgeous book transported me to the distant past and gave me the healing balm I needed to push through the last bits of emotional pain. His rich poetry and ideas are everything. And the story is exquisite. Words eluded me, but I could think through color. Language became art. When juxtaposed with the word imagery piece, my journey and willingness to create are apparent. The palette of color, the absence of white space, and the absence of words show my growth and experience. This is me, knowing I am stronger.  

I wanted you to step inside my notebook with me. I wanted to give you a brief tour of the pieces that were a result of intense reading and daily writing. I wanted you to see that with time and patience, a writing notebook becomes a repository of thinking. And students need this. We get so caught up in the idea that writing has to be graded or evaluated by a rubric. But it’s the process of writing that helps us figure out what we have to say and how we can unpack our own thinking and feelings. Our kids are victimized by unfair writing instruction, and they believe that writing is only a form of assessment. What they don’t know and what we so often miss is that writing is thinking and heart work. Without that element of understanding, writing becomes another standard of learning, a useless measure of proficiency that will satisfy a checklist but not burst with life and passion inside our hearts. I gained a stronger understanding of what writing does because I wrote, not because of evaluation. Students—and adults—need to experience the same thing.

I share this deeply personal space with you because I am confident in the healing properties that writing and crafting afford. The more we write, the more we understand ourselves, and our journey is catalogued in the sentences and creations that fill the blank pages of a notebook. In the midst of heartache and pain, writing was my saving grace. Reading helped me heal, but I needed a place to exhale the wisdom, beauty, and hope I found in books. My notebook was that place. This past year was bitter and traumatic, but putting pen to paper each day breathed new life into my work as a teacher, writer, and human being. Writing helps us process emotion and trauma. It helps us learn, unpack, and explore our own interiority. Writing gives us a way to make meaning. That’s what it did for me, and I want students to know that the same process that helped me heal can help them. Life is so often unpredictable, and heartache has a way of metastasizing into an unbearable presence. Reading was my oxygen. Writing helped me learn to breathe again.

When I speak with students now about the writing process, I often put my writing notebook under the document camera and share with students my own writing, the raw and real, explaining to them where I started and how I wrote through the experience to heal and to understand. I ask them to embark on a similar journey of self-discovery through writing. I am speaking from the evolution of my writing notebook. I want students to know that writing is a way of knowing, a way of healing.  And as they write, growing beside their thinking, I want them to see writing as a relevant method of excavating their own interior landscape, discovering the passageways out of seemingly insurmountable darkness. I want them to experience the freedom writing can bring.

So I ask you to pick up your pen, grab your notebook, start writing, and share your process with your students. There are cracks in the surfaces of our lives, but that’s part of the beauty of living. We read, breathing in story and borrowed sentences. Light shines, pressing into the broken parts.  And we exhale with words and renewed ideas and the page before us illuminates.



A Year of Healing, Part I

A year ago, someone I loved severed every cord of trust that existed between the two of us. Heartbroken and devastated, I retreated into a gray haze of living, numb and fractured, yet determined to keep moving forward. Responsibilities—teaching, contributing to my professional community, and finalizing a manuscript—tethered me to reality, and while I yearned to distance myself from everything, I remained loyal to my work. Many mornings, I left my feelings and emotions inside my apartment—tear-stained pillows, empty tissue boxes, remnants of depression—and entered my workplace with a veneer of happiness, prepared for a day of working alongside students and fellow teachers. One thing remained consistent throughout this time, though: books were my haven, and I was and still am thankful for the comfort they provided throughout the pain of the betrayal I felt.

My very being, my existence, is rooted in my love of books and reading, of words and meanings, of writing and crafting. Ask the people who know me and they will tell you that every fiber of my being is saturated with book love. For me, to live is to exist in the world of books; to heal is, ultimately, to read. As days turned to weeks and weeks amassed into months, my reading life intersected with texts that I needed. I realize this now. Subconsciously, I was reaching for books that would provide balance to my internal dissonance. So much of living exists beneath the placid surface of consciousness; somehow my psyche knew I needed these books, and I indulged the inclination. I’m glad I did, because in the end, I fed and nurtured my reading life, and in turn, without my realizing it, my reading life fed and nurtured my soul.

I did not recognize the healing balm of my reading life at the time because I was intensely focused on not hurting. We all want to be loved, but betrayal forces us to retreat and protect our hearts. And I saw this thread run through these books and many of the others I devoured.In retrospect, it all makes sense. Hunger by Roxane Gay, The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs, and Social Intercourse by Greg Howard were books that gave me a sense of understanding and healing, even as I read the painful, searing, and heartrending passages that reminded me of my own fractured self. Words and sentences sutured the wounds in my heart; I no longer felt alone.

When I found Marilynne Robinson’s gorgeous writing, especially Housekeeping and Gilead, I found myself engaging in conversations and themes of memory and consciousness, where characters found themselves reflecting on the past to interpret the present. I took my cue from them. Suppression and repression are how I’ve dealt with difficult experiences in the past, but with these books, I found myself confronting them. John Ames, the protagonist in Gilead, provided a history of his family, exhuming memories from long ago to help me make sense of life, love, and faith. I walked with him across the terrain of remembrance, and in a way, I carried his thoughts with me as I recollected the anguish of this past year. I needed his wisdom. And the wisdom of the myriad characters from my reading life.

As with many things in my personal reading life, I always consider the links to my classroom. From my dear friend, Laura Robb, I learned to value the way books make us feel. Most often, when students say they’ve finished a book, I ask them, “How did this book make you feel?” I want them to consider the heart connection because making meaning of texts begins with a transaction, something Louise Rosenblatt would insist is the most important aspect of reading. The way I felt when I read books such as Clay’s Quilt and Southernmost by Silas House and Beloved by Toni Morrison was not bound by hefty analysis; instead, I roamed through life and experience with the characters and made sense of my own circumstances through theirs. These books nurtured me and provided clarity as I trudged through time; they mended the fragments and offered another way to see the world. I’m glad I nurtured my reading life because it nurtured me. And this is the same thing I want for my students. I want them to read and read and read some more because eventually, their reading lives will provide the healing balm they need as they continue to grow and learn and experience.

For the past few years, I have worked to remove the barriers that have separated my teaching life from my personal life. I am by no means open with kids about everything in my personal world, but I am more transparent than I have ever been. Teaching students means being true to myself, as Dr. Gravity Goldberg would say, and to teach this way as an English teacher means to merge the narrative of my reading habits with the expectations and hopes I have for my students. This past year of reading and healing connected me more intimately to my classroom because I began focusing more on how students related to texts, not on how much they were analyzing them. Together we spent time responding authentically to books, allowing our reactions and feelings to lead us into interpretation. The atmosphere of my classroom changed and as a result, many students developed a love of reading.

Books give us a chance to know ourselves. I have spoken countless times about the need for choice-based initiatives in the classroom. I have worked alongside teachers and kids in developing an understanding of this work we do as readers. Thinking beside adults and children is a passion of mine, and I always link my reading life to love and joy. But I have never thought about the nourishment a reading life provides. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the way my reading life would care for me. It sounds crazy, but that’s exactly what it did. It nudged me. I want students to become intrepid readers, ready to open a book or enter a text without fear. I want them to grow into capable readers, striving for challenge. But most of all, I want them to fall in love with books because stories are full of dreams and magic and hope. They show us the world and the people, either heroic or ignoble. They help us live our lives. And they help us see our self-worth.

Just last week, Brandon told me how much he loved Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz. Before this year, he was a self-proclaimed non-reader and he wore that label proudly. Just last week, he finished his eleventh novel of the year. I think of students like Brandon who have never loved books, but are entering young adulthood, an overwhelming and turbulent time when life feels unbalanced. I hope the books he has read this year will linger in his heart and give him the equilibrium he needs to sustain himself throughout his adolescence and adult years. I believe they will. Who knows, Brandon may be faced with a heartbreaking experience and think back on his reading life. And perhaps one of those books will give him the strength and grace he needs to withstand hurt and pain and anguish. That’s the power of a reading life.

That brings me to you, dear reader. If you are reading this, you either support my efforts as a writer and teacher, or you’ve landed here because of a Google search. Whatever brought you to this article, I thank you for reading to this point. I may not know you, but I do know that we are in this important work together, guiding students to developing a love of books and a passion for story. I ask that you work alongside me this year to engender a love of reading in your students, because the book they read in your classroom next week might offer the forbearance, grace, and hope they need later in their lives. This past year of healing was not what I expected, and at this point last year, I was wading in a sea of despair. Books lifted my spirits, and I am confident that books can provide the same for all readers, especially the younger ones among us. Let’s lead our students to develop reading lives that will nurture them now and in the years to come.

I look forward to hearing your story.

You Can’t Hurry Love

“Students will read, if we let them.” -from Sparks in the Dark

“You can’t hurry love / You’ll just have to wait…” -Holland-Dozier-Holland

Last Friday marked the end of the tenth week of school. We’ve been in session for a little over a grading period, and in that time, I’ve learned so much about the new students I am blessed to learn alongside this year. The first day of school was filled with an almost palpable excitement for students—connecting with old friends, describing events of the summer, guessing at the culture of a classroom where books are everywhere and the teacher is pulling books off the shelves and placing them on tables and countertops. Interest inventories, book talks, and book selection constitute my interactions with students and they become touchstones as we flex our writing muscles and develop our reading lenses. On the first day, I asked students to answer two questions in their notebooks: (1) What is a book you’ve read and loved, and (2) How would you describe yourself as a reader? As the weeks pass and students grow into their developing reading identities, I ask them to return to these statements about their reading lives and reflect on the changes they’ve noticed. Are they still nonreaders? Have they developed a love for a particular genre or author? What caused their feelings about reading to change? We write these answers in our notebooks to make our thinking visible. This first day, of book-talking, writing, and book selection, is critical in my work with young readers. It’s the foundation of everything else I do.

I was still reeling from summer travels, a book release, conversations with other educators, interviews, and conferences, and upon returning to the classroom, I was eager to implement the ideas and strategies that grew from my summer of professional learning. I handed out the interest inventories with plenty of excitement, and much like I expected, many students found it difficult to list a single book that had resonated with them in their pasts. On top of that, several students were brutally honest—they hated to read. The irony is that I told them I wanted them to be honest, but it was their honesty that wounded me. As much as I’d like to say I don’t take this personally, the truth is that I do.

I find myself in this dilemma each year—I want students to find a love of reading quickly because I know the happiness books bring. In the microcosm of a narrative, we travel and think and learn alongside the characters we encounter.  We may witness a cavalier heroine battling a malignant force in a kingdom. A heart-rending search for a missing family. The brutal aftermath of a town ravaged by war. The crippling effects of drug abuse. The foe who is vanquished. And the hero who returns. Books allow us to read the world, to examine the qualities that make us human, to explore possibilities to the problems we encounter. Good stories captivate us, and by default, we proceed intrepidly into the imaginative terrain. I know what this feeling is like, and when I am introduced to students who have never experienced book love, I want them to enter the plane of books quickly. Rushing students never works, though. They have to come to love reading in their own time.

My reading instruction has grown considerably over the past three years as I have opted for more student-centric classroom. Changes in my pedagogy have affected me as much as my students’ attitudes and achievement. This change in my teaching practice has taken time; I wasn’t always attuned to the need for self-selected reading, and now that I am aware of its potency, I can hardly imagine returning to my old ways. I’ve learned that students cannot be rushed. They have to find a love of books on their own and their own time. I can’t short-circuit their journey.

At the beginning of second period on Friday, Anthony burst through the classroom door and announced, “I finished my book, Mr. C! I stayed up late last night to finish it. It was so good!” At the end of class, Jake walked up to me and explained that he had pushed through the slow part of his book, and now he was entranced by the story, excited to finish as soon as he could. Grace gave me her book and asked, “Can I check something else out? This one isn’t speaking to me.” She swapped her book for All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook and slipped quickly into the prose. Brad, a student who had loudly proclaimed his non reading stance on the first day of school, finished his third book yesterday and said, “I need another great one, Mr. C. I think I like this author.” He settled into a place on the floor and was soon captivated by the beautiful poetry of Kwame Alexander. You can’t hurry love. You just have to wait.

There are still students in my classes whose love for reading has not yet ignited, bursting into a gorgeous flame that will grow brighter and stronger with each book they read and love. I have to have faith in them, though, and I have to put trust in this process. That’s the difficult part—the waiting. I find myself in this dilemma each year. I want them to find that love of reading quickly because I know the happiness and joy the right book will bring to them. But I have to remind myself that it takes time.  Once they find the right book, it will light a spark within them and kindle a fire that will fuel their passion for reading. You can’t hurry love. You just have to wait.

I also must remind myself that this process is, in many cases, incredibly new to them. Just as I wrestled with questions and concerns when I initiated a reading-writing workshop, I have to remind myself that my students are wrestling with questions and concerns of their own. A classroom built on free-choice reading and conversations is novel to students whose experiences with reading may have been limited to multiple-choice questions and test preparation. This is not reading; this is anti-literacy at its finest. In a time when reading has turned into a standardized measure and textual analysis and close reading have severed the transaction between story and heart, I am even more confident that students need time to fall in love with stories. My understanding of this profession and of my work with readers is constantly evolving. Every reader teaches me something different. But one lesson is the same—I can’t hurry their book love. I just have to wait.

And wait I shall.  


**I want to give a special shout-out to Penny Kittle, an educator and writer whose thinking has influenced my teaching incredibly. Her session at Tyrolia Institute started with the song “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and as I swayed to the irresistible beat, I understood her deliberate use of this song. Not hurrying love, especially book love, is something that takes time for English teachers. I’m still learning to be patient, but Penny’s words and magnanimity have afforded me a much different teaching stance in my classroom. Thank you, my friend. Your impact is boundless.

Travis Recommends…Vol. 1, Issue 3

For this issue, I decided to focus on two professional texts that have influenced my work as a social studies teacher. My background is in literature and language—I love all things books. Because of my humanities background, my English classroom slanted in that direction, and I’m so glad it did. It made adding social studies to my résumé much easier. Like anyone who approaches a new subject area for the first time, I found myself wading in a sea of information, sorting through standards, lessons, and activities that felt contrived. I needed something different to capture my students’ interest and help them make sense of the world they would soon inherit. I began reading historical fiction like a fiend and fell in love with many young adult novels set in the vast time period 7th grade social studies covers. Delivery, though, is important, and while I learned a great deal about history through many first-person narratives, I needed help collecting my thoughts into streamlined lessons and activities. Serendipity connected me with two phenomenal educators: Lesley Roessing and Sara Ahmed. Their work has engaged me as a thinker and teacher, and as a result, my students have connected with their world. I offer you these two texts as additions to your professional library and hope that they elevate your thinking and teaching as much as they have mine.

No More “Us” and “Them” by Lessley Roessing

This powerful book landed in my hands several months ago. I have followed Lesley on social media for almost a year, and because of her timely updates and the intersections of our reading lives, I have felt keenly connected to her in spite of the miles that separate us. Out of kindness, Lesley sent a copy of her book to me, stating that she felt it would be useful in my English and social studies classes. She was right.

No More “Us” and “Them” is a beautiful collection of lessons, handouts, strategies, and philosophy that will nudge you in your work with adolescents. The things we carry—stories, histories, experiences, connections—give us strength. They are the threads that connect us with the rest of humanity, and although unique to us, they intersect with the voices and experiences of so many others. This text provides detailed ideas for welcoming all students and building community in our classrooms, especially in a time when language on the national scene is vitriolic and demeaning. I love the emphasis at the beginning of the text on getting to know students and students getting to know their teachers. The creation of personalized name signs and “I Am…” poems grounds students in heart work and identity, and it demonstrates the need for introspection and understanding, big ideas that are useful and important across a school year with kids.

I read through Lesley’s book twice, once to gather ideas and a second time to pick up things I missed. I’m glad I did. There is a rich humanity in the way Lesley brings students around critical moments in world history, especially in delving into the conditions of apartheid and the Holocaust. The rich conversations around these horrific moments in history are shaped by the reading and writing her students do. I seek to emulate her craft.

We understand others more when we understand ourselves, and the more we learn about others, we learn how we connect to them and the world at large. I loved how this professional text reached into all strands of identity, literature, connectedness, and the human condition. Of course, I would expect nothing less from Lesley Roessing. If you have not had a chance to read this important book, I recommend it highly. As vitriol continues to be spewed from the highest office in our nation, I am working to create readers, writers, and thinkers, ones who will interact with their world and seek ways to affect positive change. And I want experiences in my classroom to support their endeavors.

no more us and them


Being the Change by Sara Ahmed

Being the Change by Sara Ahmed is one of the timeliest books for educators on the market. Social comprehension, or the knowledge that helps one negotiate the world, is often overlooked in classrooms. Sara brings to life the lessons, texts, and conversations from her work with students across her career and shows teachers how they can navigate conversations about humanity with students.

I highly recommend reading this professional text with a highlighter and a pen—you won’t be able to resist highlighting Sara’s brilliance and making personal notes. This school year, I started my social studies class with several weeks of foundational learning, especially working with bias and discrimination, two touchstones that are continuously referred to in class discussion and in ELA book clubs. Before this year, my work as a social studies teacher felt circumscribed to the pacing guides and standards documents that were passed around our department; however, Being the Change helped me deconstruct those walls that surrounded sound teaching. Now, learning happens because it is tied to navigating the world beyond the school.

My students’ favorite lesson focused on identity. Sara’s work with students and teachers in regard to identity and the critical importance of knowing yourself and each other has helped many educators connect differently with their students because they know them. Classroom culture changes because students know the people around them. The creation of identity webs, “Where I’m From…” poems, “I am” statements, and “I am not” statements generated a feeling of empowerment in my classroom, engaging kids as they realized that pieces of their identity lived in their classmates. When my students crafted their identity webs, I circulated around the room, talking with students about their webs. During this time, the classroom was not quiet (I would have felt weird had it been silent!), and throughout their work time, kids borrowed colored pencils, erasers, and markers, remarking on their friends’ webs as they did. Students were surprised to realize that they shared interests with their classmates. As a teacher, I need this environment. I need students to connect with each other. Because a shared understanding creates community.

Sara’s book has magnified my teaching life. Not only is she a magnificent writer; Sara is also a friend, and I love the encouragement I have received from her. She guides my teaching life without even knowing it. Thank you, Sara, for words and wisdom that I have learned from. I stand on your shoulders as I continue to work with students and teachers.

being the change


I hope you find these recommendations useful.



Where There is Reading, There is Freedom

Reading brings us together.
It forges relationships.
Creates community.
Grants us the courage to resist our enemies.
Provides comfort when we’re alone.
But above all, it gives us freedom.

Where there is reading, there is freedom.
A well-read human being is not bound by the restraints of the ignorant.
She is happy in her pursuit of wisdom.
He is joyful in his search of knowledge.
They are fruitful in their quest,
Because where reading abounds, there is the freedom to search, to explore, to experience.

Where there is reading, there is no program.
There is no machine or metric to tell you that a level, number, or letter
Will make you happier, wiser, or more knowledgable.
Instead, there is the horrid facsimile of reading—
Stripped of life and choice and quantified so hungry spreadsheets will be satisfied.

Where there is reading, there is humanity.
There is no fear of skin color, choice of clothing, country of origin, identity.
Reading compels us to look into mirrors, look through windows, walk through doors.
It eliminates fear and creates proximity.
It is the anti-phobia,
The heart and motivation of resistance.

This is where reading exists.
In classrooms full of books.
In pleasurable reading.
In the reading lives we adopt and share.
In the choices we gift our students.
In the reading identities that flourish and thrive and carry kids into a lifetime of joy.
In the tears that spill from young eyes when they connect with a story or character—
Tears that demonstrate the type of authentic close reading we want students to experience.

Where there is reading, there is freedom—
To express, to engage, to live.
Democracy demands a literate populace,
And we have the power to help reading spread like fire.

I challenge you to step up and offer your wisdom as guidance. We need educators who are willing to direct our young people to a lifelong love of reading, an act that will give light to a very dark world.

We are stronger because we are together. Today we are a chorus of voices, blending beautifully to promote this freedom that reading can bring, to nudge each other to a deeper understanding of our work with children. When we stand in our classrooms, welcoming students back for another year of learning, I hope this chorus resonates in your heart and mind.

We have freedom because we read. Our minds are not bound.

You are a spark. And I challenge you to spread the light.

**Today, along with Amy Ralph and Brian Smith, I spoke at the inaugural #NerdCampNC event at Lenoir-Rhyne University. This is the nerd talk I gave. I hope you find it meaningful.

A Defense of Writing Workshop: Choice, Challenge, Importance

“We write to discover what we want to say.” -Don Murray

Writing is hard. Here’s something else—writing is hard for me, too. When an idea forms and begins coalescing into a piece of writing, either in my mind or my notebook, I often struggle to find the right opening, the logical flow of my thinking, the beautiful words, the perfect metaphors, and the lyrical closing. I agonize over these pieces and often print unfinished pieces of writing, paste them in my notebook, and write around them, hoping to stimulate better thinking. I consult my own quickwrites and reactions for insight, and many times, I find ideas that make excellent additions to the unfinished piece. After revisiting a piece of writing multiple times and placing it into the hands of people I trust, I am able to get the words in the right order. The pieces I craft grow stronger and my ideas become deeper and more complex. Writing, thinking, reading, and community, it seems, form the foundation for confidence in the life of a writer.

For the past several years, I have followed the thinking of leaders in my field, teachers who want to inspire students to write from deep inside and develop authentic writing voice. Decades ago, Don Graves led a significant research study of elementary-age students, finding that choice, community, and feedback, both from peers and instructors, guided students to develop their most authentic writing. For the time, and honestly even now, it was cutting-edge, a direct result of questions the academic community had about the writing process, especially in regard to students. Nancie Atwell, in her seminal In the Middle, transitioned her traditional middle school classroom to a workshop classroom based on the ideas of Graves and his research team. Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher beautifully articulated the conditions necessary for developing and sustaining writing workshop conditions in 180 Days. Linda Rief stretched Atwell’s ideas and combined them with her own original thinking to develop a workshop classroom with her 8th graders. Her books Seeking Diversity and ReadWriteTeach explore the challenges of a writing workshop with her middle grades students. I stand upon the shoulders of these magnificent educators in my own work with student writers, consulting their books and ideas to gain a deeper understanding of this important work we do with kids. I want to create an authentic environment for my students, so I do my best to create a space for students to choose their own writing topics and use their community (i.e. our classroom) to grow that writing.

Many times, though, students are subjected to a barrage of criticism about their writing, never gaining the confidence necessary to adopt a writerly life. Imagine, though, a classroom where students respond to poems, articles, independent reading, and images across a week; a classroom where kids read mentor texts and study craft moves alongside their teacher; a classroom where students choose the topics they want to explore through writing; a classroom where academic writing is founded upon authentic writing opportunities, and literary responses are meaningful and deliberate; a classroom where risk-taking is valued and failure is seen as a measure of growth; a classroom where the messy work of real writers is preferred above the writing completed for compliance. This is a writing workshop classroom.

My first few years of teaching were filled with attempts to get students to write and think like academics. I even found acronyms to help students remember the layers of good paragraphs, and after a while, drawers in my filing cabinet were filled with graphic organizers and worksheets to help students develop their best writing. Year after year, the writing was dry and lifeless, an arid wasteland of sentences and regurgitated ideas. When I came to understand how a writing workshop could inspire students to write from their hearts, I was thrilled to see many students identifying topics of interest and writing about them joyfully. Additionally, I did not abandon literary analysis. In our writing workshop, students wrote in response to poems, their independent reading, and whole-class texts. Kaylee’s notebook is full of character and idea analysis from her independent reading life, as well as fictional narratives she decided to craft based on books she read and loved. Because of her interest in intertextual relationships, Deanna crafted a memoir in verse, based on ideas she connected in “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes and the novel Crank by Ellen Hopkins.  A writing workshop did not replace academic writing; instead, it enhanced it.

Interestingly enough, students prefer being told what to write. That takes a sizable chunk of the work out of it—well, for them, at least. In my writing workshop, I expect students to write beside different texts, and then, at a point in a grading period, choose one or several of those pieces and take them to the best draft possible. As the teacher, I do not decide what they write. During writing conferences, I listen to what students have to say about their work and ask them to read their work aloud to me. I want them to hear their writing because usually, when they read it aloud, they hear the mistakes and notice the gaps in the narrative, argumentative, and informational pieces they craft. I also ask them to read their work aloud to a peer editor or their group, using the power of community to strengthen and clarify their work. I tell students that all writers, including me, are in a constant state of revision—we are finished when we have our best work. Altogether, this is challenging for any writer. Jacob told me so one day during writing workshop. “I think I know what I want to write, but I’m not sure,” he said. Together, he and I went through his notebook and Google Drive, looking for seeds of writing that could be taken to a fuller draft. His notebook was full of ideas, ones that could be taken to a complete draft, but part of the challenge of a writing workshop is sifting through different ideas to find a focus. Eventually, he settled upon a story he had written about his sister. “I want to write part of it from the perspective of an object Mr. C,” he said a day later. “Didn’t Shaun Hutchinson do that in Violent Ends? Can I get the book and read that chapter to see how he did it?” As teachers, we want to stand on tables and cheer in moments like these. Because of mentor texts we had studied in class and his own independent reading life, he had seen how authors personify objects for purposes of narration. He read the mentor text (Violent Ends) to move his thinking forward. He later explained that this was one of the more difficult pieces he wrote, but it was one he was most proud of.

Students must be active participants in the writing process to develop strong writing skills. Daily immersion in authentic writing opportunities exercise the writing muscle. I believe that students should be writing about things that matter to them, but part of the challenge of a writing workshop for students is finding the writing that resonates with them. We study a host of mentor texts to stimulate thinking and probe our minds for the ideas that matter to us. Once students start filling their notebooks with writing, they have access to options for full drafts of writing. Below, I list several of the ways I help students exercise their writing muscles, unearthing the things that are meaningful to them.

Quickwrites—According to Linda Rief, quickwrites are bursts of writing where writers craft as quickly as they can for several minutes in response to a text (image, poem, article, etc.). Like everything in a writing workshop, I model the quickwriting process for students, showing them process and examples from inside my own notebook. I highlight good thinking that I unearth through my own writing. We quickwrite as often as we can. Sometimes this is in response to a poem, other times in response to an article, book chapter, or image that I know will move them as thinkers and writers.

Heart Maps—Georgia Heard’s brilliant heart maps are practical and critical for a classroom where writing matters. I ask students to draw an outline of a heart inside their notebooks (mine is on display under the document camera) and begin filling it with things that live inside their hearts. Throughout the year, I encourage students to add to their heart maps, especially if there is a book or a piece of writing that they grew to love. When students are looking for something to write about, I ask them to look at their heart maps for inspiration.

Responses to independent reading—Throughout a week of instruction, students should be responding to both the texts they study (such as poems, articles, mentor texts, etc.) and their independent reading. When I respond to books I am reading, I often find ideas that I want to explore further. I model this for students, demonstrating that a response, such as a question to a character’s actions, can nudge us further in analytical thinking and writing.

Writing beside a text—There is something beautiful about writing beside a text. Laying a poem down beside my notebook and looking at it as I begin crafting my response elevates my writing. My words are woven with those of the author. As a result, my thinking is elevated, too. Throughout the year, students and I cut out pieces of poems that resonate with us, or, perhaps are related to the books we are reading. We paste these in our notebooks and write beside those excerpts. Sometimes the writing we do beside a text becomes a new poem, a new story, or lines we use in other pieces of writing.

Choice and challenge frame the heart of a writing workshop. If we give students time to write and immerse them in a world of beautiful mentor texts, students will have the access they need to adopt a writerly life. I witnessed this on the last day of this past school year. Charlotte, a reticent student, stood beside one of the classroom windows for the last hour of the day, staring at nothing but a brick wall and a stone walkway. In the last fifteen minutes of school, a student rushed over to me.

“Mr. C, Charlotte is crying!”

“Is she ok?” I asked, quite concerned.

“She said she wants to talk to you.”

Charlotte walked over, rubbing her eyes, sobbing uncontrollably.

“What’s wrong, Charlotte?” I asked, as she wrapped her arms around me and continued sobbing.

When she finally gained enough composure to speak, she said: “I am never going to have another teacher like you. You helped me discover that I can write poems and songs and stories. I never thought I would be able to do that. No one else has asked me to do that. Ever. And you did. Now, I feel like I can write anything.”

This is why I teach writing the way I do. There are thousands of other students who are waiting to tell their stories and find their voices. Because Charlotte was allowed to participate in an authentic writing community, she discovered a talent she didn’t know she possessed. Don Murray was right when he said that we write to discover what we want to say. This discovery allows writers to find the writing that is meaningful to them, and although it is challenging to find that meaningful writing, it is well worth the rigor. I have had many students explain that participation in a writing workshop gave them confidence. Writing doesn’t get easier, but as students write and discover more of the things they want to say, they develop confidence in themselves as writers. A former student, Jonathan, told his teacher this past year that he wrote all year in my class, and even after an entire year of writing workshop, the process hadn’t gotten any easier. The process doesn’t ease, but our confidence does increase.

A writing workshop is not an elementary endeavor; instead, it is a challenging task we set before our students and ourselves. Authentic writing requires patience and daily immersion, and in a writing workshop, students have the chance to develop authenticity as writers. There are days when students would much prefer I give them a prompt or story starter, or tell them what I want them to write. I always refuse. They need the struggle. They need to feel the writing process and know it for themselves. They need to participate in the work of real writers. Quickwrites, heart maps, reading responses, and mentor texts are just the beginning of a beautiful workshop framework. Lift your pen with me. Let us change our students’ writing lives with a pledge to authentic writing work.

Writing is hard. But it is worth the challenge.


For more ideas about writing workshop and developing authenticity, pick up a copy of Sparks in the Dark by Travis Crowder and Todd Nesloney.

The Least of These: Lighting a Spark for Change

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” -Mahatma Gandhi

“Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.” Matthew 20:40

For several days, I have been at a loss for words. My social media accounts have been flooded with vicious imagery, filled with haunting stories and photographs of children who have been ripped from their families and detained in what has been euphemistically coined a “tent city”. I have read the statements of politicians and constituents, people who have waged war with semantics, defining separation, legality, and morality in terms of belief systems and political stances.  In many cases, moral imperatives have been eradicated in honor of fulfilling one’s duty to our country, which, ironically, has nothing to do with honor or duty. The soul of intellect and reason has fought against this inhuman act, especially in spite of the fact that this is supposedly “upholding the law,” a phrase used to placate guilt and justify horror. While watching these new atrocities unfold, especially the harrowing images of children crying, I began to feel an urgency, one that includes the need for using books as a catalyst for social change.

I’ve written considerably about the need for literacy and how we, as adults and teachers, can engender a love of reading in our children. Access to books, time to read them, and an environment where readers can thrive are elements that help students into readers. I’ve watched non-readers adopt readerly habits and join their classmates in academic conversation about characters, themes, and motives. Today, however, my mind shifts to another thought regarding literacy: Is what I’m doing enough to make these students not only readers, but also decent human beings, ones who will stand against the atrocity toward children that we are currently witnessing?

Giving students access to books, providing a well-stocked classroom library, and giving time to think, write, and talk about books are necessary elements of an effective classroom. Additionally, book talks are essential. Without them, many students have no access to the literary world. I have talked about a wide range of books for several years, especially on the first day of school. When kids enter my classroom, they know that books matter because books are everywhere. I surround my students with books that show characters in affirming, positive portrayals. Students, like all readers, need to see the rich diversity of the world represented in the literature they consume. But this is not enough—the national scene bears witness.

For years, students have read books like To Kill a Mockingbird, ones that tackle hard conversations about racism and inhumane treatment, yet we continue to see a racist and inhumane agenda touted as the “right thing to do.” What are the conversations around this book like? Do we talk about it only in terms of injustice of the past? Are no connections made between the past and the present? Are current events ignored? For years as a classroom teacher, I taught To Kill a Mockingbird, but I did so in the absence of beneficial contemporary connection. As my social awareness and consciousness have grown, I have abandoned practices that do not allow students opportunities to submerge beneath the rippling waters of a thought-provoking book. I am choosing to be part of a movement that pushes students to be better human beings.  

A rich reading life is necessary for the development of empathy. Volume matters, too. But in addition to variety and volume, students must be having conversations about these difficult issues. I want students to read and affect change in their world because of the books they read. I want them to use their reading lives as platforms to discuss the problems that plague our world. Literacy is not just a skill; it is a movement. Books and reading can be agents of change, but only if we use them for that purpose.

Because of these recent national events, where children, the least among us are being separated from their families, I am pledging to be more transparent about my reactions to my reading life, talking with students more openly about the way books affect me. I talk about books constantly, but students need to know how I have connected to these books and how they have moved me to create change in the world. If students can see how I am influenced by texts, I believe that they will emulate that behavior in the books that they read. Additionally, I will model, through writing, how stories have created change in my thinking, and I will share this writing with my students, asking that they write alongside me as we challenge our beliefs and thinking. We can teach students to love, respect, and fight for everyone. We can teach them that the books they read are microcosms of our world, giving them keen insight into the struggles of humanity and ways in which to respond to those struggles. We can teach them that writing helps them unravel their thinking. We can teach them that reading and writing are not mere subjects, but critical pieces of understanding and analyzing their world. And through that reading and writing, I know they will discover more of what they want to solve, write, and read, and understand. This is the beginning of social change, and it can start with our students, the youngest among us.

I believe that reading can change us, but I also believe that I have to model that change for my students. I am responsible for the readers in my classroom. I am responsible to give them good things to think about, lead them to great books, motivate them to read, and challenge them as thinkers. When they read, I want them to see the harrowing transgressions of corrupt people, as well as the beautiful triumphs of exquisite heroes. But I want them to use those books as agents of change, ones that call them to action in a world that is so often dark and oppressive.

 We can teach students to love, respect, and fight for everyone. We can teach them that the books they read are microcosms of our world, giving them keen insight into the struggles of humanity and ways in which to respond to those struggles. We can teach them that writing helps them unravel their thinking. We can teach them that reading and writing are not mere subjects, but critical pieces of understanding and analyzing their world. And through that reading and writing, I know they will discover more of what they want to solve, write, and read, and understand. This is the beginning of social change, and it can start with our students, the youngest among us.

Books have the capacity to change the world, and I am confident that my students have the power to affect that change because of their reading lives. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I know I’m not the only one. I stand upon the shoulders of writers, mentors, and thinkers, ones whose teaching lives have been built upon the beautiful social change that literacy can create. A reading life has no power if it does not stir within us a need for change. And if we do not act on that need for change, we do a disservice to the books we read and the least among us. I am being the change I want to see in the world by reading, writing, and talking. I am asking you to join me, and if you already share your connections to books transparently, inviting students to engage with their own independent reading as you do with yours, I salute you and ask that you continue this critical work. Together, we can empower our students and help them develop the agency necessary to affect social change. I believe it wholeheartedly. I believe literacy is the answer.

Because in the end, I know literacy can ignite a spark for change in our world.