Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #10

Encouraging Teachers to Write

(Laurie Wagner Buyer)

Not being able to attend Laurie Wagner

Buyer’s presentation on writing at a

recent conference of the Colorado Language Arts Society, I asked her if she wanted to make an article out of it. She replied she couldn’t find her notes but would provide a brief summary from memory, which follows. (B. King)

On a snowy day last fall I arrived at the Mount Vernon Country Club in Golden, Colorado, to speak to the members of the Colorado Language Arts Society, a group of brave-souled teachers who endured the icy roads and cold wind in hopes of gleaning some ideas on encouraging students to write. 

Laurie Wagner BuyerThe best way to inspire others, I said, is to be passionate about the topic.  If teachers find joy and delight in writing, then those skills are easy to pass on to students.  If teachers show no fear and are willing to take some risks themselves, then students become bolder and more willing to reveal themselves in writing. 

However, if     writing is difficult for the teacher, then it  is hard for him or her to help students entertain the notion that writing can be worthwhile, rewarding, and fun.

When I go into a classroom as an artist-in-residence to talk to students about writing poetry and prose they pick up on my excitement.  They realize that I'm doing something I love and they absorb my enthusiasm.  I'm also there in the capacity of someone who allows them free rein with words and expression because I have no prior expectation and I promise that there will be no test at the end of the day. 

Teachers aren't often allowed to have this kind of easy come, easy go attitude about students' skill levels and progress, but what they can do is experiment with writing on their own.  When teachers challenge themselves to learn something new or take a skill to a higher level, they begin to understand why students are sometimes skittish about writing, particularly when sharing what they've written.

Because my newest book was Infinite Possibilities:  A Haiku Journal, I spoke about the writing process involved in simply capturing a moment in time.  Then the additional finesse needed to put that moment into an exact form, in this case three lines and a total of seventeen syllables.  Two quotes helped me

illustrate how to get started:

"Pay attention to minute particular

details” from  William Blake and "If you're not inspired, then you're not paying attention" by  Andy Wilkinson

Then I turned the teachers loose with pen and paper and five minutes to focus on something and write a haiku.  When the writing time was up, I asked for feedback on the experience.  Many said that it was interesting and fun.  A few said they couldn't come up with anything no matter how hard they tried. 

Some were reluctant to share what they had written.  A couple were so jazzed by what they had come up with that they were anxious to stand up and read their words out loud.

The teachers and I spent some time discussing the difference between a first draft (what comes in the initial rush of inspiration) and a final draft (which evolves over time with many reading and revisions).  I gave them quite a few tips on self-editing, which would also be good suggestions for students in the classroom.  Here are a few (which are applicable for prose as well as poetry):

ORGANIZATION--Being organized in your thoughts about the action or the issue taking place in your poem will help you put things into sequence in your writing. Chronological order often works best because it is the easiest to write and

the easiest to read.

CLARITY--Remember that readers go into your poem blind.  They do not know anything.  Each step of the way you are informing and enlightening them about who, what, where, when, and why.  Be

exact. Be precise.

CHECK FOR ABSTRACT WORDS--Words like love, peace, hate, soul, anger, growth, sorrow, grief, joy, happy, etc….are general and uninspiring.  Pick concrete words to describe these

emotions instead.

LOOK AGAIN AT THE BEGINNING OF YOUR POEM--Does it have a true start?  Are the first few lines important?  Would the poem have more life if you started it further along?  Sometimes we have to write a lot of unnecessary material to help us get to the point. 

Make sure your poem begins with something interesting that will draw the reader in.

LOOK AT THE WHOLENESS OF THE POEM--Does everything belong?  Does each event and image have a place and purpose?  If there a detail or image your brought up early in the poem that can be woven into the ending to aid the poem in completing the circle of thought and experience for the reader?  

LOOK AT THE ENDING OF THE POEM--Have you said too much?  Gone on too long?  Could the poem have ended sooner?  Does your ending give the sense of perfect closure, or does it leave the reader hanging?

To close our time together I reminded the teachers that the four "Ps" sustain my life as a writer:  passion, patience, practice, and persistence.  These are the same characteristics that will help their students fall in love with writing, or at least gain enough affection for the process to be interested and engaged.

--Laurie Wagner Buyer www. laurie wagner;