Kwame on: The Crossover, Poetry, & Reading

I had added the date to my calendar months ago.  The Potency of Poetry: a webinar. It popped up as a reminder yesterday but in the busyness of my day, I ignored it. By the time I had navigated miles of twisty Vermont roads and turned into my own drive, I had a plan: pajamas, tea, bed. I have been nursing a horrible cold. It had been a long day.

I greeted the dogs, fed the horses, and ate dinner. By the time I finished responding to a few critical emails from school I was already in my PJs.   But just before I logged out, an email notice popped up: Here are your Webinar login instructions. Sigh. I had signed up so long ago I couldn’t even remember what the webinar was about. My tired achy body shouted its vote: Ignore it! Go to bed! But my writer’s heart considered: there was a reason I had signed up. It wouldn’t hurt to check in and then decide. Boy am I glad I did.Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 1.47.35 PM

Last night Scholastic and ASCD collaborated to present an hour with Kwame Alexander, hosted by Donalyn Miller.

There is something very powerful hearing the words of our mentors in their own voices. Last night I was treated to Donalyn’s wry Texas drawl trading time with Kwame’s poetry slam passion.

Here are the choice tidbits:

On Reading:

With a writer father and English teacher mother, reading was a family expectation. But like many pre-teens, Kwame also hit a reading slump. Pressure to read someone else’s texts of choice caused him to “fall out of love” with reading.  The book that brought him back? The Greatest: My Own Story by Muhammad Ali. “Ali was a poet in the ring and with his words,” Kwame added.

“I wrote The Crossover reaching back to my twelve year old self. Here’s a book you will LOVE to read, Kwame.”

He also found poetry: Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Pablo Neruda.

“Poetry transformed both how I write poetry, and how I love.”

On Mentors: 

For a long time he did not understand his father. He disliked the reading tasks his father assigned which included reading the dictionary, and his father’s dissertation! But now he understands why his father did those things. He is currently writing a new book he referred to as a love letter to his father.

“My father showed me I could be a writer. He gave me a road map.”

On The Crossover:

Kwame was in love with the idea of the story for The Crossover for quite some time, but did not know exactly how or where it would go. Then his editor, the incomparable writer, Andrea Davis Pinkney, sent him a couple mentor texts. One was Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust. Reading Karen’s book was pivotal for him in writing The Crossover.

“I learned you can tell a life-giving story through verse.”

When asked if he had a sense The Crossover was something special he replied:

“I wrote 17 books before The Crossover. I have a special relationship with all my books. Because of that, I think they are all “The Cat’s Pajamas”, but he said “I don’t mean that in an egotistical way.”  His family are early readers of his manuscripts. But when he sent his dad an advance copy of The Crossover, “He called me as soon as he had received the advance copy.” This happened over and over. He could tell readers were having a different reaction.

The Crossover was mostly written at his local Panera Bread bakery, sitting in same seat, over the course of 6 years. Once  the word was out, he had to find a new location (sorry top secret!) to write.

He is working on a prequel to The Crossover that will be about the father as a 12 year old.

On Writing Poetry:

Kwame loves that Kobe Bryant recently announced his retirement from basketball in a poem. He doesn’t have a favorite type of poetry. He is glad for all the diverse forms as he believes they help poetry appeal to a wide variety of people. His cure for teachers who are non-poetry believers? “Have them read Naomi Shihab Nye’s Amaze Me, or Jaqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, (or The Crossover),” he laughed.

“Reading and writing poetry gives us white space in a world that doesn’t.”

“Poetry builds your brain. It helps you understand words in a more profound way. It is a bridge to getting students engaged in books and writing.”

“Poetry transforms our writing life-and LIFE.”


Such inspiring words. I can’t wait to share them with The Crossover fans amongst my colleagues and their students. And to think, I almost missed it.

Here is a link to some archived ASCD webinars and upcoming webinars through Scholastic. We are so fortunate for free educator events like these.


11454297503_e27946e4ff_hHaving a writing life makes us better teachers of writing. The lovely folks at TwoWritingTeachers have understood this for a long time. Each Tuesday they host a place for educators from around the country to share and read each other’s writing. Look for the Slice of Life! Come join us!


Embracing a Dog Party

We had our first truly cold late fall night here in Vermont. One of those nights when you pull the quilts tight and snuggle into the yawn of almost winter dark. After falling asleep I had already woken several times, my head full of school. I am transitioning from coaching at one pair of 6 schools in my district, and beginning at the next pair. Much to reflect on. Successes, lessons learned to take to my upcoming schools. Each wake-up I sensed the alarm clock ticking closer to the dreaded 5:30. I have never been a person for whom morning has come easy. Each wake-up, I settled back in, relieved I still had several more hours to sleep, when suddenly I awoke again-to the sound of barking.

Unusual. Even in a houseful of corgies. Andy, the timid one who sleeps upstairs with us,  still slumbered. The remaining trio usually sleep in the laundry room. But AJ, the elder statesman of the bunch, puts himself to bed early these days. Once down, he doesn’t like to move his crotchety old bones and similar personality. Last night, by the time I was finally ready to herd the crew to the laundry room, he was already snoring by the woodstove. I didn’t have the heart to move him. But what was he barking about?

Perhaps it was just a doggy dream. I waited, hoping, but no, the barking grew more insistent. Could we have yet another flying squirrel in the house? Sigh. I would have to investigate. I threw back the quilt, gasping at the chill, padded down the stairs, past the politely sleeping cats, (innocent for once) curled like wreaths in their beds.  I opened the living room door-to a dog party!  THREE corgies, chasing, tugging, couch-bouncing, BARKING-totally nonplussed and unhampered by darkness.

How had they gotten out? My eyes trained on Poppy. Still a puppy with boundless energy, she continually fills our house with the unexpected. She must have bounced and bounced on the bottom Dutch door  that I obviously had not shut tight. Amazingly, given her as yet unreliability, I found no puddles as I coaxed them all back to the laundry room (they will do anything for a “cookie”.)  Finally back into my  bed, I glanced at the clock. 5:15 am.

PoppyculpritI had a choice. To grumble about the lost night (my first inclination), or be thankful (which took a bit of work). There IS something joyfully silly about a pre-dawn, impromptu dog party. It’s a bit like teaching.
So often in our busy profession,  our best laid plans are hijacked by the unexpected, the full-glory messiness of shared lives, and the needs of systems.  One of my professional take-aways from this last trimester, is to more easily let go of where I thought I was headed, to embrace the unexpected. That is often where the true party is happening.  And the joy.


11454297503_e27946e4ff_h Having a writing life makes us better teachers of writing. The lovely folks at TwoWritingTeachers have understood this for a long time. Each Tuesday they host a place for educators from around the country to share and read each other’s writing. Look for the Slice of Life! Come join us!

Leap of Faith: The Power of Listening to Create Change

When the world becomes a slippery slope, when it becomes a place unrecognizable from  what we thought we knew, when we are no longer certain of how it works and of our place in it, it is easy to want to retreat. To box ourselves off into what feels safe and secure. Though in doing that, we become ever more isolated and disconnected.

This recent guest post by the lovely poet Naomi Shihab-Nye, shared in response to the recent terrorism in Paris, so reminded me it is often the times we most want to cocoon away, we most need to connect. It feels counter-intuitive. But so many times when we take a leap of faith towards trust- amazing things happen.

It feels so much the same in education these days. There has always been a shouting of ideologies. There are always those who rush in with a “quick fix” that ultimately proves not to live up to expectations. Education has become so mired in the muck of initiatives and mandates that seem to forget we deal with human beings whose lives are rich and messy and cannot be quantified with numbers alone.  It is no wonder teachers these days have begun to pull away from the fray, holding onto what feels known and comfortable.

As our district has transitioned into using workshop models, I see this over and over. Teachers are are understandably afraid workshop instruction is just one more flash in the pan. They hold back from adopting the unfamiliar structures and cling to comfort of the known path. They feel so much pressure to help their students achieve and are uncertain this will get them there. Adopting workshop feels like leaping into the darkness.

I want to say, leap! Workshop is grounded in the students. It allows their stories and the stories of others to become the center. It gives students a voice and allows them opportunities to hear and reflect on the voice of others. It is through talking and connecting with others we turn fear to community, the unknown to a favorite destination.

But I am reminded, for this change to be true, for it to feel safe, and for it to last, it must also be grounded in story.  I need to listen. I need to hear what is needed. Small steps lead to shared cookies.

This is the world I want to teach in. This can happen here.


Keeping Writing Workshop Responsive: New Calkins Units of Study

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hChoice, time, and authentic purposes for writing are all critical components that keep our student writers engaged. But these things will only take our young writers so far. The “Miracle Grow”  that shifts workshop into high gear is in the thoughtful hands of teachers. Besides creating the structures in which workshop can function, teachers make workshop lessons and feedback responsive to student needs.

A common thread in our SU has been confusion about the look and feel of the “new” Calkins Writing Units of Study. “It feels like a program.” “Where is the lesson on editing? My students are ready for it now.”

For the purpose of providing support for teachers new to workshop instruction, Calkins has written out a possible scenario for presenting each lesson. It does look scripted, as Lucy includes what she might say, but unlike a program that must be followed exactly as written, Lucy’s intent is that of  a mentor teacher inviting us into her classroom to watch her teach. It may have the look of a script, but we are not bound to teach the concepts with her words, rather she wants us to make the lessons our own. This came straight from Lucy herself as she  addressed  a full house of Vermont educators at the VCR conference this past May.

When we teach toward the goals of each unit from our own heart, with our own stories and examples, we teach with more power.

When we respond to what we are observing in our students’ writing with just the needed strategy to lift them as writers, just as they are ready for it, we are keeping our learners at the heart of instruction.

This is what makes workshop teaching so highly effective and so much in contrast to one size fits all programs.

In my opinion, the reflective, problem-solving task of looking at what our writers have control of, and deciding where to go next, is also what makes it so rewarding to teach. Workshop allows (depends on) teachers to be professional decision makers.

If you are new to teaching writing, can you use Lucy’s lessons as is? Of course! They are the lessons of a master teacher-but they will become even better if you tweak them for your own learners.

Can you stretch out lessons, or skip lessons based on the need of your students? Of course, keeping in mind you don’t want to stay in the same unit forever, and you want to be moving students toward the unit goals.

Can you supplement or create lessons with organizers and strategies you have used successfully before? Yes, being mindful the mini-lesson structures (connection, teach, active engagement, and link) are important (they are brain-based), and scaffolds should be provided thoughtfully. Our goal is always to move students toward independence, toward writing that reflects their unique voice and choice.

Workshop is most effective when teachers are monitoring and tracking student understandings and capabilities, and using that knowledge to tailor instruction.

It is this responsive, personalized delivery that makes workshop such a rich learning experience, and very different from a program.

What has helped you personalize the lessons for your students? Feel free to share your experiences below.

From my workshop to yours,