It Starts in the Heart

As a young girl, I stood on the bottom rail of a white farm fence that stretched forever.  My great aunt pointed to one of her horses.  His name was King and my Aunt Marge told me that my mother had ridden him when she was a girl.

Wait. My mother had been a girl??  That horse was alive then?  Was my mother as little as a baby once?

My aunt laughed as these questions came spilling out and asked if there was anything else I’d been wondering about.  Yes, I remember telling her… and then I asked the thing I really wanted to know:  How do words come out of pencils?

Last week I was asked to present at Richmond Public Schools’ professional development day. I always say yes to this; I am inspired by the opportunity to work with dedicated teachers from schools across the city. But on this particular day my heart sank as I made my way though the labyrinthine corridors and passages of Huguenot High School.  No one will come all the way to this room, I thought. They won’t be able to find it.  Once there, I tried to transform a bare high school math classroom into an inviting space for writing.  I raised the blinds, set out lots and lots of children’s books and hung charts I’d made with my third graders to help us remember how to “add details,” “stretch the moment,” and find “strong words.”

They found the room. It filled quickly and we got started.  We began with  “For The Love of the Game” by Eloise Greenfield. We talked about what our reluctant writers teach us about the writing process.  I gently prompted these teacher/writers to write poems about what they love. Stand if you are willing to read.  First one stood.  Then two.  Then four. Then ten.  Then more.  Music played in the background and added cadence to the just spoken words still hanging in the air. I talked a little about a lot: mentor texts, writing partnerships, planning boxes, anchor charts.  Session one was over. I shook my head and said that I wished we had more time.  I don’t quite know how it happened, but someone asked if there was any reason they couldn’t just stay for session two.  People went and got chairs. Those who were waiting outside for the next session joined us. Teachers were thinking about the kids they would not give up on, even though others had. They knew that coercion, as a route to writing, was a dead-end alley.  These teachers believed that every child could, should, and would learn to write if invited and inspired. This is not easy, but these teachers were not looking for easy answers.

At the beginning of the year I had some reluctant writers, but I don’t have many now. This came into sharp focus on Friday afternoon.  One of my girls put down her pencil walked over to me with a luminous smile.  “Mrs. Campbell, I just looked around the room and saw how much fun everyone was having writing and reading.  I thought I should share it with you.”  I looked and saw it, too.

How do words come out of pencils? The words start in the heart of a writer.  The pencil helps finish the job.

About Annie Campbell

Annie Campbell is a National Board Certified teacher and loves her work. After a forty year career in the classroom, she continues to support teachers. Annie enjoys cooking for family and friends; she likes to lose herself in a good book; she loves discovering new ideas, restaurants, perfect picnic places, and movies with her husband, Ben.
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14 Responses to It Starts in the Heart

  1. Katy says:

    Inspiring! Thank you.

  2. Daniela Jacobs says:

    Your classroom is a magical place–no matter where it is. Thank you for sharing your passion with all of us. We will all grow as writers together!

  3. jeeyoung says:

    I love the last sentence of your entry. It’s so deep and true! Thanks for sharing this with us.

  4. Stacey says:

    I’ve been preparing for our reluctant writers presentation at Literacy for All next week. Reading your post about the way you inspired other teachers to work with reluctant writers in your district got me even more jazzed to talk about this topic.

  5. blkdrama says:

    I’m with you Annie, working with a group of teachers and a group and students- watching them write and share. Great slice, can you feel me smiling?

  6. onesunflower says:

    Thanks for sharing your passion and knowledge. I love the picture I got from your writing of both the child standing on the fence rail posing the question and the teacher standing among teachers – positive energy pulsing in the air.

  7. Beth says:

    So glad I read this. Wonderful SOL and a memory you should be proud of!

  8. I don’t count myself as a reluctant writer but I would have loved to be in the classroom, gleaning inspiration from you.

  9. Ruth Ferris says:

    I want to come to one of your sessions! How about putting a slice of it on video? Seriously – what great memories your students are making. Congratulations – the rest of us may eventually read the books your students write.

  10. Gayle Hefty says:

    Pretty Words

    Poets make pets of pretty, docile words:
    I love smooth words, like gold-enamelled fish
    Which circle slowly with a silken swish,
    And tender ones, like downy-feathered birds:
    Words shy and dappled, deep-eyed deer in herds,
    Come to my hand, and playful if I wish,
    Or purring softly at a silver dish,
    Blue Persian kittens fed on cream and curds.

    I love bright words, words up and singing early;
    Words that are luminous in the dark, and sing;
    Warm lazy words, white cattle under trees;
    I love words opalescent, cool, and pearly,
    Like midsummer moths, and honied words like bees,
    Gilded and sticky, with a little sting.
    by Elinor Wylie

    I loved those words that came from your heart via your pencil.

  11. Lorna says:


    Lovely post– I loved being brought back to the pencil on paper. My students (much older and of the computer generation) think that poems are made by fingers flying over keyboards, but I always urge them to write out a beloved poem by hand, just to get that organic connection. My own first drafts always and still appear in a notebook! Thanks to Gayle for reminding me of Elinor Wylie’s delicious sonnet.

  12. Gloria Maldonado says:

    This post made me cry. I truly love it!!!! I love the question ” How do words come out of pencils?”. Words truly come from the heart. When we are passionate about writing, each word is meaningful and precise.
    Great teachers do not give up on students. They help them achieve a higher level of learning. Great teachers are the foundation every school needs.

  13. Mallory says:

    You inspire me to give writing another chance. I hope that I too will inspire future writers. Thank you

  14. marvene2 says:

    How inspiring! I thought it was so cute when she asked, how to words come out of pencils. I am more inspired to write now, thanks for sharing.

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