Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Mixed Metaphors of the National Board Writing Process

The following is the speech I presented to current National Board candidates at the opening of their working retreat with the Arizona K12 Center in Tubac last weekend.  

Correction: The following is the speech I wrote.  What came out of my mouth once I started speaking had a life of its own.  I had a good time, though, and I think I helped a few people.  

Mixed Metaphors of the National Board Writing Process:  Hammering Out Your Self-Portrait.

I pursued National Board Certification for complex reasons, as I’m sure many of you did.  I was led to it by the caliber of the teachers I knew who had achieved certification. They were smart, strong and had a certain clarity in their voices when they spoke about what really matters in schools. I was a little bit intimidated by them.  I sensed they were possibly quite radical, which intrigued me.  I wanted to see if I was like that.  I kept my eye half on it for years, and finally it was time.  The stipend at our school was looking very nice after years of pay freezes, and several colleagues were talking about precandidacy.  I knew I would have a cohort, and that appealed to me.  I knew it would keep me motivated as I pressed beyond the type of feedback I got in evaluations to explore who I really am  as a teacher.

Last year, I was sitting where you are, enjoying good coffee and too many carbohydrates with my colleagues, and waiting for the day to begin. I had overpacked with too many snacks and a rolly cart full of binders and student work. I was distressed, because I had had a necessary and yet seemingly permanent falling-out with my Student B, and I had already spent about 30 hours writing about his work. As usual when I miss school, I occasionally glanced at the time and wondered whether my students were doing the work I had left for them with the substitute.

During one of the opening activities, a colleague sitting beside me surprised me when she commented that she didn’t even care about getting her certification anymore. That she felt like the process was more about the format of the writing than it was about her practice as a teacher. She sounded bitter and tired.  It was the kind of thing someone might say when they are afraid of failure; a way to cope with the pressure. I didn’t know how to respond, because I really did want the certification and was not afraid to tell everyone I knew that I wanted it. And I needed to hear that what I was doing was worthwhile. I couldn’t really deal with the idea that it had no value. I can’t remember what I said in response, but her comment really stuck with me.  And got me thinking.

I agreed with her:  The certification process was very much about the writing.

But I also disagreed with her:  Just because it was about the writing didn’t mean that it wasn’t about my teaching.  It was about both.

And I want to talk about why I feel that way. And I hope that now that you are immersed in the standards and becoming familiar with the demands of each section of the portfolio, and are realizing exactly how much work completing your portfolio will demand, I can give you encouragement that even within the confines of the portfolio guidelines, what you are doing is worthwhile and gives you an opportunity to articulate and actually create your identity as a teacher. I hope that along the way here you don’t mind me sharing some words of writing advice that rang in my mind throughout the process.  They helped me, and I hope they help you.

In writing, we not only express thoughts, but we create them.  William Stafford, a great American poet and teacher of poetry writing, says “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.”

If you teach language arts at any level, I’m sure you are familiar with the typical steps of the writing process as they are presented in most textbooks and teaching materials.  Often, they are presented linearly:


When I sat down to work on my portfolio, it would sometimes take me an hour or more just to settle, to get everything in place, to check personal and school e-mail, facebook, my blog statistics, upload all my documents to my class handouts websites... In the back of my mind, the core issues of each entry bubbled, simmered, incubated.  Thinkubated. By the time I was settled, the key questions had formed in my mind.  Then it was time to get coaching or speak to a colleague.  And so.  Finally, after a snack, I would write.  As I wrote, other thoughts and reflections bubbled behind my thoughts.  I took breaks in order to blog. Then back to writing. I wrote on March 23 of last year: “I am finding this year that writing is like stirring a pot that has settled.  You can't just stir the top half of the pot with that big wooden spoon, but all the contents that have settled at the bottom come whirling around with it.” I wrote several poems during times last spring, some even inspired by the students represented in my portfolio.  

I think we need to give ourselves permission as writers to recognize all of these things as part of the writing process. Maybe writing isn’t your medium. Maybe you take breaks to sketch, to play violin, to take a run, to call your best friend. Often, the writing process is presented as a series of linear steps, when any teacher who has at all reflected on actual writing processes probably already knows that really, writing processes are recursive and sometimes chaotic, which, given the time and energy, will eventually crystallize into something finished, if you are committed and if you trust yourself.  It is a process of discovery. You have to discover your process. And it takes time, and retreats.

I encourage my students to develop metaphors of the writing process that help them to acknowledge the way it happens for them, in reality, in the real world. I couldn't find any of my photos of their posters, so I created a little glimpse of what the writing process looked like for me:

One of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, expresses why that messy process is important.  Her metaphor is more linear than mine would be, but she always inspires me:

   “When you write, you lay out a line of words.  The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe.  You wield it, and it digs a path you follow.  Soon you find yourself deep in new territory.  Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject?  You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.
    “You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully.  You go where the path leads.  At the end of the path, you find a box canyon.  You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins.
    “The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool.  The new place interests you because it is not clear.  You attend.  In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles.  Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless.  Process is nothing; erase your tracks.  The path is not the work.  I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back....

    “You write it all, discovering it at the end of the line of words. The line of words is a fiber optic, flexible as wire; it illumines the path just before its fragile tip.  You probe with it, delicate as a worm.”

Writing is a verb. Like exercise, it is an action that you have to do. Writing is discovery. Writing is creating knowledge.  And what the constraints and time limitations of National Boards gives you is the suitcase, the plot of land, the frame. It gives you a map, but you have to plan the route and follow it yourself.

What Annie Dillard says about erasing your tracks is important.  Knowing ahead of time that much of what you produce may not make its way into your portfolio sets you free to say what you need to say, to rant, to pine, to complain, to brag.  And then decide what belongs in the entry later.  The idea of erasing your tracks is important, because it takes away any excuse for writer’s block.  William Stafford is almost more famous for this bit of writing advice than he is for his poems: “Lower your standards and keep going. When it gets hard, don't stop - it is hard because you are doing something original.”

If you have already plowed through two or three entries, I would bet that you followed this advice.  If you are stuck, go easy on yourself in the beginning.  It is the only way you will find the strength to begin.  And only by beginning will you discover the process that will lead you to what you have to say.

Entry 1, the case studies of two students as readers and writers, was the hardest for me. I wrote 27 pages of narrative and reflection about one student.  The whole time in the back of my mind, I knew I would have to chisel it down to five pages.  This worried me, but I just had to keep going.  I had a lot of help, but most of that help was in the form of questions:  Is this necessary? How does this relate to the standard? Do you need all these details?  At the Biosphere retreat last year, I blogged about the process of shrinking my entry: “Chisel, chisel, shape, shape.” A friend of mine who certified the year before me, Jenni Hunt, advised me “When you get to the end, it’s like writing haiku.”  So true.  But you can’t start there.

I agonized the most over Entry One.  I started it in October, and it was my last entry to be finished.  It also ended up being my highest score.

During the last part of the process is where I began to see how what would finally emerge from the mess of grand ideas, classroom moments, ranting, obsessions and self-doubt would be a crystallized portrait of who I am as a teacher.  My portfolio would not include everything, but the tough choices I would make as I stirred the pot and chiseled away at my haikus did ultimately define me.  When I mailed that blue box, I did not feel certain about very much, but I was confident that I had taken advantage of every opportunity to immerse myself in the process, to get much-needed coaching along the way, to retreat from daily life enough to experience all the messy chaos that was necessary, and I felt in my gut that I knew exactly where my weaknesses were.  I was hugely relieved to certify, but just as validating was looking over my scores and seeing that the strengths and weaknesses that I had identified during my portfolio process almost exactly correlated with the feedback I got on my portfolio.  The requirements and guidelines may feel restrictive, but working up against those gave me both clarity about my identity as a teacher and a set of new professional goals for improvement.

The writing process is not tidy, but it brings its own rewards that cannot be had any other way.  You must give yourself the time and space to experience it.

In the end, I followed Annie Dillard’s advice and erased my tracks.  My rolly cart filled with binders, files and AZK12 folders sat in the corner of my dining room untouched from March until November.  The day I found out that I had been successful, we celebrated with drinks around our little firepit in the back yard.  On a whim, I brought out the cart, and emptied all of the burnables little by little into the flames.  

All the work, all the drafts, it was all part of the past.  At the end of the line of words was my new identity as a teacher.  What counts now is what I do with that, where it takes me. 

So, enjoy your beautiful room, your fireplace, the comforts of food and the benefits of  the best professional support team you will ever have at your disposal. And know that it is about your writing, but the writing will help to create you, if you let it.

1 comment:

  1. Regardless how it came out of your mouth on that day, this piece represents the blood, sweat, and tears that went into the process so very elegantly! I feel honored to be quoted in the same blog with Annie Dillard, too. :)


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