Context Clues

At the end of January, I posted my troubles finding my Schmidt’s Pick for February. After much reading, I did indeed find a Pick for February. I was reminded the other day that I never shared with you, my dear reader, what that Pick is. Call it oversight. Blame it on being busy (juggling full-time teaching and full-time doctoral work is a bit demanding). Or blame it on me. I’m inundated daily with spam messages left on the blog (some messages are downright offensive), and I assume, wrongly, that the majority of my readers aren’t readers at all but spammers.

What I’ve learned from my brief stint as a blogger is it doesn’t matter who’s reading or not reading because I’m writing for me. As someone who battles perfectionism when writing, blogging has become a freeing experience for me. I’ve stopped worrying about the blog being perfect. I’m no longer mortified if I go back and find that I’ve made a grammatical or mechanical error; I simply go in and fix it. I’ve had an easier time writing my dissertation as a result. I think of this blog as rehearsal (as Lucy Calkins refers to prewriting) for a much bigger, more formal, and more serious piece of writing. This has become a place to gather my thoughts and write about something I’m curious and passionate about – reading and YA literature. A topic tangentially connected to my dissertation but not my dissertation topic. A topic that sets the stage for bigger things.

“It is important to remember that what children do as writers depends largely on the context in which they write and on their backgrounds as writers” (Calkins, 1986, p. 33). The Art of Teaching Writing is a seminal text in writing workshop. As a very young teacher, this text was like the Bible for my writing classroom, combined of course with Atwell and Graves. As a doctoral student, I’ve returned to Calkins to examine the theory behind her text and process, and I found many gems within the text. But the quote that opens this paragraph is important to my life as a writer – not just my life as a writing teacher. It is important that what I do as a writer largely depends on the context in which I write and my background as a writer. My background as a writer is one of diagramming sentences and learning the mechanics and grammar of writing before I even put pen to paper. Once allowed to put pen to paper (in high school), I had no idea what I did to earn an A or even a B-. I truly felt like it was the luck of draw. There was one teacher I had in high school in which we were able to figure out his grading system. Do an AMAZING job on the first paper of the semester, and every paper after that will get the same grade. Believe me, it’s true. There were a group of us who tested the theory over and over again. The only feedback on the paper were corrections in red pen. As a result, 25 years later, I’m still paralyzed when it comes to writing. My background has shaped who I am as a writer, which is what makes writing the blog so much fun. I’ve been able to tackle some of my writing insecurities and deal with my perfectionist demons. None of these posts will earn me any writing accolades, grades, or awards, but it doesn’t matter. I just write. The bigger question arising from my experience is how to give my students the same writing experience I had to leave the classroom to find. But that’s a bigger thought for my dissertation.

Just as my writing experiences in the classroom have shaped who I am as a writer, my reading experiences have too. I had a wonderful kindergarten teacher who nurtured my very young reading ability. Even though kindergartners didn’t read, Mrs. Knoeller rummaged in the store room, found some old Dick and Jane readers, and put together a small reading group with the four or five us who could read. (Talk about differentiating instruction.) In first grade, it was my speech teacher, Mrs. Schuh, who nurtured that love of reading. Seeing that I wasn’t getting reading instruction beyond phonics in my first grade classroom, Mrs. Schuh found books that worked on the speech problem I had as well as helped improve my reading. Mrs. Thompson in second grade, read aloud to us every day after lunch (probably to calm us down), but nevertheless, it was during this time that I met Charlotte and Wilbur, Staurt, Beezus, Ramona, Henry, and Ribsy. I couldn’t wait to get to the library, check out the book Mrs. T. had just read to us, and reread it on my own, losing myself once again in the story (this is the reading flow that Gallagher talks about). It was these formative experiences in school and the print-rich world of my home that made me the confident reader I am today. And because of the experiences I had with favorite teachers whose names I remember 35 years later that I believe in the importance of free-choice reading in the classroom and sharing what I’m reading with my students.

And that is why The Maze Runner by James Dashner was my Schmidt’s Pick for February. This book was my unputdownable book for February. The day the book was allowed to be checked from the library, I had a young man racing down the hall towards my room (which is an interesting paradox. Students aren’t supposed to run in school, but he was running for reading and he reminded me of the characters in the novel a bit). This eighth grade boy wanted to be the first to check out the book. This young man was at the beginning of another novel, but he didn’t want to have to wait for The Maze Runner. As he was checking out the book, another eighth grade boy showed up for the book. In homeroom, 3 seventh graders came looking for the book. And during first block, 2 eighth grade girls came in for the book. But they were all too late. There was a bit of controversy because the young man who checked out the book didn’t drop the book he was reading. Instead he finished that book. Classmates were pressuring him to read (not a peer pressure problem we normally have in middle school). Finally, he started The Maze Runner. Two days later he was finished and asking me for The Scorch Trials. The best part of this anecdote – the young man who was the first to sign out The Maze Runner is a reluctant reader. I haven’t seen him excited about reading until he found The Maze Runner.

My March pick? Not sure yet. Stayed tuned…

Until next time… See YA!

Calkins, L.M. (1986). The Art of Teaching Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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