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.