How to Begin a Book

To write a book, I had to begin. But how?

Just start writing. This is what they said at the writers’ conference, what my author son told me, and what I read in my growing collection of books about how to write.

So I started . . . And my writing took me back. I was, once again, in first grade at Yoder School, where work seemed like play as I learned with Amish and Mennonite classmates and where I decided to become a teacher one day. As I wrote, I relived the shock of moving from a Mennonite community to the rustbelt city of Flint, Michigan, where paddles hung in classrooms, where you read the third-grade reader, even if sixth grade books fit you better, and where I wondered how I’d ever learn to be a good teacher if I didn’t have one.

I wrote about my excitement when someone offered to pay my way to Lancaster Mennonite High School for my senior year of high school. Finally, I had thought, I’ll be back with my people. Only, when I got there, I didn’t feel at home anymore.

I wrote about how in all my classes along the way—through elementary and junior high and high school and then a community college and a university, I had kept looking for a glimpse of Yoder School, hoping to find a learning so full of wonder that I couldn’t tell whether I was working or playing.

My pages filled as I wrote about how I had finally found this liveliness of learning again, at Antioch College, a haven for philosophers, artists, and left-over hippies in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

When I finished that first long draft, I realized that I understood my thirty years in the classroom in a fuller way. I could see more of why I taught as I had.

And, I thought, I have nearly completed my book.

(More later)

A Book Has To Be About Something

Now that I was retired, I had time to fulfill a childhood dream—to write a book and publish it. Only I didn’t know what to write. I created a new document on my laptop and stared at the blank page.

“You can do this,” I told myself.

And I remembered back to elementary school where I won first prizes in writing competitions and to high school when I once received a $25 check for an article I wrote for a magazine and to college when professors had told me I should pursue writing in a serious way.

Only I couldn’t write.

So I went to a writing conference where I learned about the five values of art and writing tools like Scrivener. At the conference were bloggers and authors of books and poets, who all talked about voice. And I left that conference with one conclusion—I didn’t have a voice.

But then I took a road trip with my son, who knows how to write books and get them published. He asked me about the writing conference, and I told him what I had discovered at the conference—that I didn’t have a voice.

“What do you know, Mom?” he asked.

Not much, I thought. I went to school and then I taught school. I’ve spent my life in the classroom.

And from that idea, a possibility emerged—what if I were to write a memoir about my education, a teacher looking back on the classrooms that formed me?

I had, after all, a unique repertoire of schooling. I had gone to school, for example, with the Amish in the mountains of western Pennsylvania and with the city kids in the rustbelt city of Flint, Michigan, and with the hippies at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

How did this disparate education later influence my teaching?

(more to come)


I Taught for Decades . . . But I Didn’t Write a Book

On my tenth birthday, I set a goal—to publish a book before I died. Only I never got around to it. I went to college, had babies, taught school for three decades, wrote curriculum, volunteered at church, ran a music camp, and served on the library board. But I didn’t write a book.

A few weeks after I retired, I thought again of my goal. So I searched through my bookshelves. And I found the book my parents had given me when I turned ten—Someday You’ll Write.

Elizabeth Yates had written this book for her daughter, who wanted to write . . . and for me,  I had been convinced when I was ten.

yatesI thumbed through the pages remembering the advice I had read so long ago:

  • Write something every day. . . whether you feel like it or not.
  • As a squirrel has to work hard with a nut to get the meat out of it, so does a writer with an idea.
  • Ideas may come to you out of the blue and in the oddest moments, so jot them down for future exploration.

I recalled how smart I had felt reading Yates’s analysis of the opening lines of Little Women and Peter Pan and Charlotte’s Web.

And I read again the poem Elizabeth Yates had been taught by her English teacher.

The written word should be

Clean as a bone,
Clear as light,
Firm as a stone,
Two words are not so good,
As one.

I’m going to write like that one day, I had told myself those decades ago—clean and clear and firm and with one word when I don’t need two.

I remembered all this as I stood in front of the bookcase holding Yate’s book from the long-ago birthday. Now in my sixties, I had more decades behind me, I knew, than ahead of me.

So I took a breath and asked myself a question, “Are you going to try to do this, or not?”

(More later.)

How My Teachers Taught Me to Teach

When I was student teaching, my supervisor said something that startled me.

“What forms how you work with students—more than the education courses you’ve taken and more than your student teaching—are the classrooms of your childhood.

And then I started thinking. Ever since first grade, I had watched teachers. I’ll do that when I teach, I’d tell myself. I’ll bring out the mettle in students like Miss Bordeaux, and show I care, like Mr. Pollard. I’ll set water on fire, like Mr. Jenkins and scatter mind puzzles around the edges of the room like Mrs. Parsons. I’ll start class with math riddles, like Mr. Parker, and give students words to live by, like Mr. Wooten. I want to teach like Mr. Deaton so that when the bell rings, students can’t believe class is already over.

But other times I’d think, when I’m a teacher, I won’t do that. Mrs. Russ, in third grade, dismissed each student every day one of two ways: with a swat (if we were bad) or a piece of candy (if we were good). Though I couldn’t articulate my thoughts about this, I could tell it was wrong. And as a teacher, I have tried to be different from Mrs. Russ—to recognize the complexity of student behavior.

This watching of teachers continued in college. One morning, headed for an exam, I stopped in confusion in the driveway. Our car was missing, stolen, we discovered. So I took a city bus to class, arriving ten minutes late.

“Yeah, sure!” said Dr. Cline, and refused to let me start the exam.

And with those words, Dr. Cline set in me a proclivity toward believing students.

“You have an educational biography,” my student teaching supervisor had told me. “Unlike most professionals, you’ve already spent well over a decade in the setting of your new work.”

So take advantage of this, he had urged me. Think about the teachers you admired and the teachers who frustrated you. Learn from them.

Now that I’m old and retired, some of my former students are teaching. I hope some of them sometimes say, I’ll do what Mrs. Swartz did. And I’m sure they also think, well, I sure won’t do it that way!

Yo-Yoing Through Middle School

A middle school kid can come in two versions. Take Chris, for example, from my first year of teaching. I was never sure which version of Chris would show up for class on any given day. Would he be a young adult? Or a little kid? Chris wore his emotional age on his face each day, and I could measure it with a five-second look.

Some days, it was all about Chris—what he thought, what he felt, and what he wanted to do. On those days he’d stomp right over the needs of other kids to get his own met.

But the next day, the grown-up version of Chris would come to class. This Chris would keep his emotions from escalating, control his impulses, and care about what others needed.

It was like I taught two students in one body. These differences in Chris discombobulated me, and I wasn’t sure how to respond to him. But gradually I learned to keep my balance with Chris and other yo-yo kids. Here are some concepts that helped me.

  • Expect that painful steps backward will follow forward leaps in emotional growth. For middle school kids, emotional growth is rarely linear. Valleys follow peaks. If you expect linear growth, you will be disappointed. Middle school kids sit, after all, on the precipice of childhood and adulthood.
  • Use a retractable leash. With retractable leashes, dogs can roam much further than on a standard leash. But their owners have the option to lock a leash to a shorter length when necessary. Middle school kids need freedom to explore further afield, but they also need the safety of a short leash when their decisions begin to affect their long-term well being.
  • Spotlight the grown-up moments. When students hit the bottom, remind them about the times they helped someone or made an astute comment in class or stood up for justice or showed restraint. Catch them at the high point and then send them messages: This is who you are. That’s a Chris-like thing to do. I see how you are contributing.
  • Sympathize with setbacks. “You know, just the other day I lost my temper,” I liked to say to a guilty student. “And I felt rotten about it. But I’m going to try again to control my temper.” This gave students courage to try again. It gave them hope that growing up was within their realm.

Adolescence is tough—a time of social anxiety, physical change, and growing awareness that life is hard. It’s no wonder that some kids cope by fluctuating their emotional ages. Teachers of these students need deftness and agility. But the spinning and the zinging are fun when you catch the rhythm.

Who Cares?

Teaching students what they don’t want to know is no fun. You can recognize the signs: eyes rolling or glazed or actually closed, heads propped on a hand or down on the desk, feet tapping, fingers drumming, and bodies shuffling.

To change this scene is a challenge. How can teachers transform a class into note-taking, question-asking, forward-leaning students?

One way is to take a lesson from screen writers. They’ve got it down to the minute, these creators of film and television episodes and video games. They understand how to hook the brain, how to carry it along with rising tension, how to make us care and cry and laugh, and how to leave us satisfied at the end of a story. They use a set of tools gleaned from neuroscience, and they spend years getting it right.

The precision of screenwriters is impossible for a teacher with classes coming up hour after hour, day after day, week after week, term after term. But I’ve found that using a simple theatrical model often wakes students up. My impulse is not to do it this way.

Left to my natural way of thinking, I tend to unfold a lesson in sequential, logical steps, to build on information, to start out telling students what they should know instead of taking time helping them to want to know. So I need to consciously turn my lesson planning to a more dramatic approach. This works most naturally for social studies and literature and science, but it can also be applied in math. Here, for example, is the model I use with second-grade gifted students who were learning algebraic equations.

  • Set Up: Hook the interest (lead in with a story or a question)

I told the old story of Cinderella. Then I asked students to think about the step-mother from the perspective of Cinderella.

“She wasn’t fair,” the students said. And we talked about fairness.

  • Conflict: Reveal the tension

“Today in math,” I said, “you’ll have a chance to be fair. That’s what equations really are—solving the mystery of x in a fair way.”

Then I showed them an equation: 3(-x) + x – (-x) = 10 + x

“You control the world of this equation,” I told them. “And you’ve got a mystery to solve—what is x? As the ruler of this world, you can do anything you want—as long as you are fair.”

  • Resolution: Resolve the dilemma (through points drawn from content)

And then I gave them some tools, tools they wanted by this point:

  • Choose one side to be the x side and one side to be the number side.
  • Then just be fair, step by step—
    • If you take an x from one side, you take an x from the other side.
    • If you add an x to one side, you add an x to the other side.
    • If you divide on one side, you divide the same way on the other side.
  • Reprise: Review key elements

“Your equations will keep getting harder,” I told them. “But the principles will stay exactly the same—isolate the x and be fair while you do it.”

I could have started this lesson with the principles of algebraic equations. But the Cinderella story with the concept of fairness caught their emotional interest. Second graders care, after all, about fairness.

Four Hundred Kids and Me

Before-school duty scared me. That’s when I was in the gym with hundreds of kids while they waited for homeroom. The first five minutes of the duty seemed manageable, but the buses kept coming, disgorging another seventy students each. Kids streamed into the gym, teasing and jabbing and thundering their ways up into the bleachers. Every single one of them, I thought, must have had Mountain Dew and cookies for breakfast.

I’d stand there watching. They’d group with their kind in the bleachers—geeks with algebra books open and notebooks out, athletes in team jerseys, skaters with dark clothes and streaked bangs, band kids with their instrument cases piled in front of them. And sprinkled among all these groups, loners tried to look as if they fit in.

As the minutes passed, they’d get louder, even when they didn’t mean to. Someone in one group would raise a voice to make a point. And the next group would turn up their volume in order to be heard. Then so would the group beside them. And all the voices multipled as they bounced around the hard surfaces of the gym.

I’d try not to look at my watch. But when I’d finally give in, sure I was half way through my thirty minutes, I’d find only ten minutes had passed.

As the bleachers crowded, the tension would rise. Someone stepped on someone’s book bag. Two kids who fought in the cafeteria yesterday accidentally sat too near each other. An argument broke out in the in the middle of the bleachers, and near the top a lunch drink spilled. On the eighth-grade hall side a group of kids were waving me to come over. They had a problem.

No wonder I had trouble sleeping the night before this monthly duty.

But gradually I discovered a few tactics that took the edge off before-school duty:

Set a tone. A smile helped. I high-fived and fist-bumped and said good-morning and, if I knew them, called out their names. How I started with students, what I did the second they first saw me impacted the next thirty minutes.

Keep an eye on the overall. Don’t wade into the bleachers. I learned this the hard way. In the bleachers my back was always turned toward some students. This provided the right opportunity to throw a banana or a punch or escape out the door. Instead, I stood far enough away from the bleachers so I could see everyone from one end of the bleachers to the other.

Co-opt students into service. If I could get the right students working for me, I found, my job became easier.

“You see that guy standing at the top of the bleachers under the school flag?” I’d say to the nearest loud mouth. Go tell him to sit down and then point to me.”

I’d watch as the loud mouth stomped up the bleacher stairs and yelled, “Sit down!”

When the startled kid looked my way, I’d send him a friendly wave and watched as he sat.

“You need more help,” the loud mouth would say when he returned triumphant, “just let me know!”

Intervene early. It’s easier to prevent trouble than to stop it. So I learned to listen for strident voices and watch for posturing stances.

“Go get that kid,” I’d tell one of my bouncers.”

This pulled students out of situations before they escalated out of control.

I never learned to like before-school duty in the gym. But these strategies helped.