Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Voice from the Page

This post was originally published on October 6, 2010 and received many comments. It is even more relevant today as next year, in NYS, 40% of a teacher's evaluation will depend on how his/her students perform on assessment tests where the readings are excerpts of our writings, although most teachers are not aware of this fact.

I ’m becoming a part of the movement to save education. I went to see “Waiting for Superman” two days after it opened. I go to webinars. I was invited to hear Geoffrey Canada speak at a McGraw-Hill function last week and I used my phone to take this picture and so you can see I was really there. What has become increasingly clear is that in spite of all the clamor about literacy and whether or not kids can read, there is no mention about the quality of what kids are reading. In an online #edchat (# refers to a group on Twitter) last week teachers were slamming textbooks right and left. Did you know each textbook costs $80+? That’s not only a strain on school budgets; it’s also a strain on kids’ backs! So teachers were talking about putting together their own reading materials for their classes from free open source materials, both print and digital. The underlying premise: one source of information is interchangeable with another.They are if you substitute online info for textbook info. They are both equally bad. I tweeted (peeped? piped up?) “I left teaching to write. No time to do both well.” Don’t think anyone heard me. I was not retweeted.

There is a consensus about what makes a great teacher—it takes mentoring, experience, constant professional development, passion, commitment, discipline, sacrifice and TIME. Guess what, folks—it takes the same thing to become a great writer. Our editors are our mentors, we write, write, write, we get feedback from our readers and critics. It’s tough but we stay with it despite no union, no safety net, no regular paycheck.(And, let me tell you, there is attrition in the ranks.) The qualities that make a great teacher are evident in their personalities, in their intense interactions with their students, in their deeds. What reaches their students is WHO they are as human beings—their humanity. Guess what folks—the same thing is true of us writers. We all have learned how to put who we are as human beings behind the words on the page. It’s called “voice.” Literature has voice. Can you feel how hard I’m hitting these keys right now? I want you to HEAR me. I want my words to shout not tweet.

The #edchat I participated in was my first. I was a little handicapped by my lack of experience with Twitter. Tweets flew by so fast I was breathless trying to read and type (and think) simultaneously. (So many tweets, so little time…..) I was amazed at the way some tweets got answered directly by others. (How’d they do that?). And that there were so few typos!!! Finally I wrote a tweet that seemed to resonate with the group: “Where is it written that every kid has to read the same book on a subject? Why can’t they read different books and discuss?” I used up all my 140 characters on that one but it got me noticed. That tweet was retweeted by quite a few and afterwards a lot of people tweeted me directly (it’s like an email but very short) to thank me and invite me back next week. (A major Twitterer, Shelly Terrell, with almost 9,000 followers sent me her
TweetDeck tutorial to be better prepared next time.)

Maybe we delude ourselves with our awards and blogs and conversations with each other that we are making a difference. The bottom line is that the people who read this blog all get what we are saying; we’re preaching to the choir. It feels good to have that validation. But it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that our task is to reach the people who aren’t listening to us—mainly teachers. I don’t think that they know or have even thought about the difference nonfiction literature can make in their jobs and in their students’ lives. So we have to show (not tell) them. I’ve asked my brilliant colleagues here at I.N.K. to send me two paragraphs on the same subject: one written strictly for information and one written by them. I’ve posted them on our new wiki
. On the left you’ll see a hyperlinked page listed with the title “What’s the difference between literature and traditional informational writing? See for yourself.” Since it is a wiki, we can keep adding examples. Also, at the top of this page you’ll see a tab for “Discussion.” Click on that and hit “New Post” to register a comment about the page that can become a conversation. It takes many voices to make a difference and a chorus to be heard.

Now learn how to use Twitter and tweet the h… out of this blog!!

1 comment:

Notes from a Virtual Easel said...

Thank you! I have been both a teacher and an author and I know from personal experience that each calling requires specialized skills and, as you point out, time. By the way, I have also used materials created by teachers in "work sessions" after school when the district was trying to save money. When, one year, our school abandoned these useless worksheets and purchased the publishers' equivalents, our Title I school made such tremendous reading gains that our entitlement status was threatened. Just sayin'...