Recent conversations with my school colleagues about the teaching of writing has me reflecting on my own practice. And as I do, the same overriding precept keeps coming to mind: first do no harm. This belief underlies every choice I make about what and how to teach, guides me in decisions about whole group lessons, conversations with individual children about their work, communications with their parents, and is deeply ingrained into the very core of my being as a teacher. Why, you may wonder, is that? Sadly, it is because a teacher unknowingly did harm me, causing me to be terrified and incapable of writing for twenty years.
This may surprise those of you who know me today as the author of books, articles, reviews, and blog posts. But that is now. Then was 1970, my senior year of high school. I’d always liked writing and thought I was pretty good at it. Certainly until then, despite my miserable spelling, I’d always felt appreciated and supported by family and teachers. But that year I was in an AP English class taught by a teacher we admired beyond all reason. You know how it is in high school — there is always at least one incredibly smart and charismatic teacher — ours was Oscar Wilde-like in his witty snarkiness. Sure, he was often scathing, telling us he didn’t know what any of us were doing in the class, but somehow it didn’t matter. He was brilliant and, in spite of all the harsh talk, he made us feel brilliant too. I was certain, by the end of the year, that he’d concede, confess that we weren’t all that bad after all.
But then there came a day that is still vivid in my memory decades later. It seems embarrassingly pedestrian today, but that is why it is so important to describe. Because it is just the sort of thing we teachers can easily do, things that affect our students in ways we can’t imagine. On that day my parents told me that this teacher had recommended I not take a part in the spring play because I needed to “work on my writing.” Theater was then my passion, and the idea that this godlike teacher thought my writing was so problematic had me miserable. I had no idea what he thought was wrong with my writing as he never volunteered to help me and I was far too in awe of him to ask. Instead, I’d stay up until 2 AM hopelessly trying to “fix” it even though I didn’t know what needed fixing or how to do it.
At college things got worse. My poor performance in freshman English sent me to a weekly remedial writing tutorial with the head of the department. She diagnosed my problem as emotional and felt she had no cure to provide. So I came up with my own — to stay away from the always-enticing English Department offerings for the rest of my matriculated life (and I’ve an undergraduate and two graduate degrees). I read voraciously on my own, took intellectually stimulating courses in other departments, and would looked longingly at the literature offerings in the course catalogs before quickly turning the page.
When I became a teacher I was determined that my students would feel like writers — always. And so they did loads of the same sort joyful writing I had done when young — reports, stories, poems, reviews, journals, and more. Sometimes we published and sometimes we didn’t. I had them think about audience, introduced and reinforced the necessary language conventions, supported them through the revision process, helped them become independent proofreaders, and met privately (sometimes after school) with those who needed the sort of individual attention I didn’t get. My introduction to the writing process approach in the early 1980s was nirvana. So were computers.
Yet I was still not a writer myself. Oh, I went through the motions. After all, I had to write all the time — papers for graduate school, curriculum and lesson plans, reports to parents about their children. But deep down I felt totally incompetent, still that person nailed by her high school AP teacher as needing to work on her writing. Until 1990 when I saw an announcement for a fellowship to study children’s literature at Princeton and wanted to do it — badly. So much so that somehow I wrote (and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote) the required essay well enough to be one of the fifteen selected out of the over one hundred who applied. After all that time an English professor (one of those I’d avoided for twenty years) thought I could write; evidently he didn’t think I needed to “work on my writing” at all. From then on everything was different. I started writing seriously and a lot, perhaps making up for all those lost years. I came across the childlit list serve and made a name for myself with extensive and opinionated posts on a range of topics. I wrote my first book for teachers. I was told often that I was a good writer and my editors were surprised when I told them of my earlier difficulties. The curse had been lifted, but it took twenty years.
I still remember that high school teacher with great fondness. He was such a grand character and introduced me to some wonderful writers and playwrights. I’m sure he never had a clue that he did anything to me. And that is what I take away from this — that as a teacher I have to be so careful, to be sure my classroom is a safe place to learn, to be certain that my students have the confidence and feel secure enough to take risks. I need to be aware of their individual sensitivities, their private weaknesses, and to always support them in every possible way as developing writers and human beings. Most of all, I must try to do no harm.