Tuesday, July 28, 2015


We call it The World's Greatest Critique Group because, well, why not?
This weekend I attended an annual writing retreat with my critique group of fifteen years. We rent a big old house in quaint, artsy Saugatuck with no internet, no TV, and no other distractions except maybe each other.  We write and some of us paint, and we share and eat and laugh and eat and write some more. I always have a good time, but this year was particularly soul satisfying. Having a writing group of some kind is essential if one aspires to write professionally, but I probably wouldn't be writing much anymore at all without the continued encouragement of these marvelous creative people. They are my writing teachers, mentors, and dear friends.  I always feel inspired to keep improving after spending time with them.

          Though I'm newish to the Slice of Life writing community, I see this place in a similar light. Here we teach each other and connect together as colleagues and friends. The pursuit of putting the right words in the right order to say something with meaning can be daunting for anyone.  To write in any context, be it a blog or a book or even in a private journal, takes a certain amount of bravery. Community builds courage.  So here's to writing communities, big and small, everywhere. May they nurture the voices of poets, and change our world for the better as they always have.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Confluence

The river by my house.
Big changes and loss have challenged my family these last few years. Suffering most recently has been my husband, so we've found ourselves frequently looking for ways to cheer him up.  Some bad allergies, unresponsive to almost all medicine, have always made it difficult for me to enjoy the great outdoors, but guess where my husband feels most relaxed?  

Yes, indeed.

So I put on my big girl pants and decided we are going to spend as much time outside this summer as possible: Kayaking, hiking, biking etc. Saturday was a kayaking day. There is a river close to our house so we put in for a couple of hours, laughed a little, bumped into each other and splashed our paddles around. Husband pointed out different wildlife and oriented me relative to area landmarks. He took pictures and I looked for interesting things on shore. 

It appears one of the continued perks of my late-in-life third pregnancy a couple years ago has been a noticeable decline in my allergy symptoms. There have been times when tooling down this  river would have sent me to bed miserable with swollen, itchy, runny eyes and nose. I was all prepared to pretend I was having a thrilling time when something else happened:

Now, floating under some weeping trees, I experience what many people do when outside in nature. Ripples and swirlies make art on the water and I smell the warm wet without the distraction of an imminent sneeze. My senses, not being preoccupied with an allergic reaction, begin to immerse in the sights and sounds and smells of this place. Something inside me unfurls like a brand new leaf. I sink into the kayak.    

I watch my husband take in the sky and water and green and think, Now, just. . .now.  Breathe in this color, breathe out my worries, submit to the earth, usher peace to my soul, and send it all to my partner. He is relaxing and I don't need to be here for that to happen, but I'm glad I am. The trees have never been more perfectly green and each leaf has been carefully cut out and folded by hand, it seems, just for him. I listen to the quiet trickle of water from my paddle, behold this misty, origami forest.

Sometimes you're walking along, living your life, wondering what it's all about and a confluence of all that we are and everything that has happened results in this. . . thing: A husband whose healing can only be found when surrounded by a wooded landscape; a loss that makes you appreciate the beauty of the world a bit differently; a reminder that all marriages end and the love story lives on in its children; the continued discovery of gifts big and small brought by an unexpected baby, and the birth of an unexpected life for us all. You're overwhelmed with all this and then, just when you least expect it, there is this beautiful river. And your partner just happens to be floating on it. With you. And you can really, really breathe.  Literally, you can.  So you do.  And just like that a falling apart story ends, and a putting back together story begins.  You know you will be different when it's over. You will be better. Yes, indeed.  
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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Why Sharing is the Most Important Part of Workshop

The most powerful classroom events can be kind of like the Northern Lights: Rare, fleeting, and only under perfect conditions.  As I plan for next year with third graders I vow that my students will have time to share in workshop. It's the most important activity for creating these conditions I'm talking about.  The best example I might ever have comes from Josh and his classmates from three years ago:

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Josh, a small-for-his-age redhead with dyslexia, had a troubled home life and spent a lot of time pulled out for extra reading instruction.  I had him all to myself for writing workshop, though, and tried to make the most of it. The second week of school he declared to me with excited eyes, and not an ounce of typical sixth grade sarcasm, "I'm gonna do it, Mrs. Van Hoesen. I'm really gonna do it. I'm going to live like a writer."  He carried his notebook around like a talisman.  During sacred writing time he wrote frantically and I had no idea what his sanskrit-like, illegible musings were about. He never shared, I assumed because he couldn't read it himself. 

As the year went on, Josh began to act out and had almost no friends.  With his quirkiness and slight build, he was an easy target for Joe, the class bully. Joe was by turns charming and toxic, an instigator and a ringleader. I did my best to focus on the positive and provide a safe place for sharing in our classroom, but I didn't know if it was working. In general, many of the students in this class really hated school and it all felt like a steep uphill battle every day. I went home exhausted. I cried and thought perhaps I'd made the wrong choice of careers. Why did I take a 6th grade job? I thought. I'm so much better with little kids.

Then one day during sharing, Josh decided to read one of his entries.  Our practice is to sit in a circle on the floor and listen to one another intently. Actively. No clapping allowed, but two snaps of the fingers when someone finishes reading, to thank them for their courage. I never censor what the kids can write about, but I ask them to consider appropriateness when sharing with peers. Now here's Josh:

He takes a deep breath, "Whooo!"  Then, a pause. Eyes roll and I give sharp looks, but also think, Oh boy, here we go. I review my mental script for appropriate content in our sharing circle.

Meanwhile, Josh begins, his eyes tracking across the page in his notebook, "I found out last night that my parents are getting a divorce.  It's tearing me up right now and I cry all night thinking about it. Things are already bad at my house.  My little brother just went in the hospital again because he has cancer and we don't know if he's going to live. When I think about life without him  it makes me wonder if I want to keep going at all if he doesn't make it. My parents are worried all the time. They fight a lot, and no one has time for my problems. I know I'm not dying, but sometimes it feels like it, and no one cares. No one has time. My heart feels messed up. . . ."

Tears roll down his freckled cheeks. He rubs them away and sighs deeply.
Our circle has gone silent, and there is an almost visible energy in the center. The hairs on my neck stand in reverence as I recognize this rare event. Josh can't read anything without constant stopping to carefully decode. He has just read with the fluent expressiveness and charisma of a radio announcer. As my throat burns my teacher hat is still on, assessing and noting some fascination with this context for a student like Josh. You never know what you'll learn in the sharing circle.  

Josh's head drops to his chest and he cries softly for a few seconds, then lifts his face a little and wipes his nose on his sleeve.  He doesn't look at anybody, and we all look in our laps. What can I do with a crying middle school student in front of his peers?  I make eye contact with Josh and put a hand on my heart. You can hear a pin drop. My eyes move over to meet Joe's, and the bully instinctively puts his hand on his heart, too. Like it's natural. Because right now the conditions are perfect, the curtains of light have appeared. Anything is possible. Right now.

We've all just stepped into uncharted territory and expectations have left the building. Hell, maybe we've all left the building because this certainly isn't school. Next to him another hand goes to a heart, and another and another around this circle, like the wave at a Tiger's game but like church it's so sacred.  Josh's eyes follow this until it comes back to him. He puts his own hand on his chest, taps his fingers, smiles, nods. The light is beautiful here.

I lean over to look at Josh's notebook.  "You read so well!" I whisper to him.

He beams, and I look closer.

It is completely illegible. Full of backwards letters and spellings that sometimes approach phonetic. No matter. Josh is a writer because he is living like one, just like he said he'd do. And when you live like a writer you think differently about your world, you think differently about people.

Josh's difficult behaviors didn't completely go away, he still sometimes had trouble with bullies. But he was changed in some small authentic way. Our classroom became a place where the conditions were set for frequent light storms.  It was a place where you could put your hand on your heart and no one would call you a pansy. We knew better because we had shared our stories with one another. A community grew. With each year I teach I'm more convinced sharing is what makes these conditions where light thrives and learning is rich across the curriculum. It's a rare and powerful thing but if we share often, if we provide the conditions, the light will come, and come.