As Teachers Say Goodbye to the School Year

Published on, the online news source for WHYY (NPR) in Philadelphia on May 24, 2012. Read below or click on link.

It is nearly the end of the school year, my first year of teaching, and I am humbled, tired, reflective, and panicked.  The feeling of panic was a surprise, and it woke me up the other night with the feeling that somehow I needed to impart to my 7th grade students everything they will need to know about the English language in the next three weeks, including, but not limited to: proper grammar, excellent punctuation skills, a deep love for poetry, a hunger to read widely and often, and the confidence to flex their own writing muscles.

Truthfully, I have learned alongside my students this year.  Last summer, the head of the girls’ school where I now teach took a leap of faith hiring me to fill in for a teacher who was going on pregnancy leave.  “But I’m just a writer,” I protested, scrambling about in my brain for what I remembered about thirteen-year-old girls.  It wasn’t pretty.  I also hadn’t had a “real job” in decades, let alone the type of job where you actually have to be somewhere every day with every moment of your day planned chock-full of exciting and informative lessons that will shape the next generation of global thinkers.

Helping me make the decision to accept the teaching position was the stark fact of my age.  For years I had been thinking of myself as “middle-aged,” but now, unless I was going to live to be 120, I was no longer in that category.  I was not just getting old, I was old.  Typically, like many of my generation, I have decided not to go gently or gracefully into that good night.  7th graders would be just the thing – they could benefit from my years of experience as a real writer, and I could benefit from their energy and youthful perspective on the world and their places in it.

I didn’t anticipate that I would grow to think of the students in my English classes as “my girls.”  As in, “I wonder how I’m going to get my girls to love this poem as much as I do?”  Or, “I wonder if my girls can tell that I hate teaching grammar rules, and would rather have them writing in their journals.”  Or, “I wonder if my girls are surprised that they really, really like Shakespeare?”  My own learning curve has, at times, been as steep and rocky as a mountain goat trail in the Rockies (that’s a simile, girls).

I have felt like a bit of an oddity being a first-year teacher at the age of fifty-nine.  As a freelance writer for the past thirty years, I have worked alone and fashioned my own schedule.  Now (and for the past year) I am part of something much larger than myself.  I not only have a desk in the tiny “Faculty Workroom” with eight other teachers (think of it as the bowels of the school, nearly subterranean – containing our cubicles, a copy machine, a water cooler, a small refrigerator, piles of papers and books, and an air of general hilarity mixed with pathos – think of it as a teacher’s version of “The Office”) but I also have meetings.  Lots of meetings.

Looking back now on all those meetings, and at various conversations in the Faculty Workroom (what happens in the Faculty Workroom stays in the Faculty Workroom) and at the hundreds of exchanged emails and hallway conversations, I am struck by how the blur of days, that at the time seemed to be an inchoate, rudderless thing, now seems to have been a well-orchestrated, wondrous plan.  How did those teachers do that?  How did they make that happen?

As an outside observer, with an insider’s perspective, I think I know how it happened, and how it must happen in most schools.  Every teacher I have met wants the best for each and every one of his or her students, and works as hard as they can to make that happen.  What a simple thing.  What a humbling thing.





Author Events Let You Learn from the Best

(Originally published in The Writer magazine in March, 2001.)

You can have access to the best writing teachers in the world without ever signing up for a class. During past years I have learned about believing in your dreams from Jacquelyn Mitchard, and what it’s like to immerse yourself in another era from Margaret Atwood. Ray Bradbury exhorted me to stretch my imagination and look always for the metaphor. Jane Hamilton talked calmly about confidence, and Scott Turow weighed in on luck vs. talent. I have learned that passion must ignite your work from Isabel Allende. And John Updike… Well, John Updike just had to stand there reading a poem, and you felt inspired to write twenty poems yourself.

Do I have access to a special university program that somehow attracts only the biggest and brightest names in publishing? Did I have to pay thousands of dollars to attend conferences where these authors were guest speakers?

The answer to both these questions is “no.” I do, however, scour the book review sections of local publications and websites to see what author events are upcoming. Most of the events that featured the authors I mentioned, and other well-known writers were free – usually readings and question-and-answer sessions in book stores. The author events that did charge admission were usually fundraisers for local library districts, museums and other cultural institutions, so if you did spring for a ticket you felt like you were doing something worthwhile. Continue reading

Some Notes on the Teaching of Writing

(Originally appeared in the Tishman Review on 8/28/2015. You can link from my Published Works page or read here.)

It struck me one day, when I was in the midst of scribbling notes during a lecture about writing, that I was learning as much about the teaching of writing as I was about the actual act of writing.  And since many, if not most, writers will find themselves in the role of teacher – whether as an actual job or just giving advice to another writer – it also struck me that there is a nice symmetry to the process.  A give and take that is worth thinking about and looking at a little further.  These are some of the things I have learned during my life as both a student and a teacher of writing:

You can have opinions.  I used to think that a teacher should be neutral and present a balanced view of any information he or she is imparting.  But now I believe that the best teachers do have a point of view, and will back up that point of view with concrete examples from their own experiences both as a reader and writer.  Be aware though of the fine line between being confident and being strident and intimidating.  As a teacher of writing you may have some hard and fast rules about writing, but you should also encourage students to experiment with new forms for their work, and the classroom or workshop should be considered a safe place to stretch one’s writing muscles.

The most effective lectures or presentations are ones where the teacher has really thought through and organized the material he or she wants to present.  One of the best lectures on writing I ever attended was a craft seminar with the rather loosey-goosey title: “Some stuff that will make narrative writing easier, and some stuff that will make it far more difficult.”  But the instructor had well-organized pages of printed notes that he presented to the audience in a fast-paced, organized, and coherent manner that had us hanging on (and copying down) every word. Continue reading