Friday, July 12, 2013

Bard College Institute for Writing and Thinking

I was fortunate to spend a week at Bard College attending the Writing to Learn workshop. Our final assignment was to write a letter to someone who we thought would be interested in what we had learned. Below is my letter.

Dear 5th Graders,

This week I attended the Bard College Institute for Writing and Thinking. That’s a complicated name for what I like to think of as Writers’ Workshop camp for teachers. I found the week of intensive writing very helpful to me as your teacher, in part because I got to try out a lot of new and inspiring writing ideas which I plan to share with you this year. For example, I hope we can expand our literary study of the world to include free writing as we listen to music from Afghanistan, Kenya and Vietnam. I hope we can bring in unusual objects from home and hypothesize about what they might be. Most importantly, I hope we can do more partner sharing and feedback sessions, because I know you love to share your writing, and because I think we all have a lot to learn from each other in class.

The experience was also important to me because it showed me what it must feel like when you sit at your desks and I ask you to write. I started to see my prompts and assignments through your eyes, and this is going to make me a better teacher, because I have a better understanding of what it’s like to be you.

When I ask you to write in your Writer’s Notebooks, I say things like, “Just do it! Write anything! Don’t concern yourself with perfection or my expectations!” But as a student in my summer workshop, I immediately found my mind brimming with these very same questions about my own work. When my teacher gave me a prompt and asked me to write, a tiny voice in my head screamed, “I have questions! I need to know more before I start!” I reminded myself of how you  push through your doubts and write without hesitation. I reminded myself of the high quality writing you produce, and I decided that if you could go for it, so could I.

Sometimes “going for it” was really tricky. Sometimes, instead of writing about what the class had just discussed, I wrote about how confused I was, or how frustrated I felt. I wasn't technically following the instructions, but I tried to always follow the number one rule: Write Something. Sometimes I looked at my quick writes and felt eager to share them with my classmates. I was proud of what I had written and excited to release it from my notebook pages and into the room. Other times I really just wanted to listen to the others and let my mind relax, take a break from being on the spot. I think you must experience both of these feelings when I ask you to read, although most of the time you’re all so eager to share that we barely have time in the period for everyone to take a turn. I am inspired by you and your confidence.
After this weeklong workshop, I feel I can empathize with you and really, deeply understand how you’re feeling when you write.  Like you, I have sat with the uncomfortable feeling that comes from thinking you’re probably doing it wrong, and I have discovered how glorious it feels to push through those feelings and write anyway, write anything, write even if the content is about how challenged you feel in the moment.

Also like you, I now know how awesome it feels to fill the pages of notebook.  I’ve seen students spend months writing entries and stories, leaving 5th Grade with a tattered notebook full of their own thoughts, ideas, and questions. Now, I also know how good it feels to have a thick stack of notebook pages filled with writing. Even though the lines are peppered with scribbles, crossed out phrases, and notes sticking out of margins, the pages feel like work, like a huge accomplishment. I thought of you girls as my classmates and I (remember, these are all other grown ups, other teachers) marveled over our notebooks, discussing with pride how prolifically we have produced during this intense week of writing.

I am excited to spend this year learning from each other as we write.

Ms. Kirsch