For nearly twenty years, I have carried a basket. It’s a strong basket, handcrafted in Ohio by a family-owned company known for heirloom quality weaving. It’s a basket that’s been filled with, at different times, different things. At first I bought it just for magazines, picturing how nice it would look next to my bed: current issues of reading journals and gardening tomes nicely stacked, waiting to be devoured. Then I decided to use it as a car basket, filled with necessities for a trip across town or across country: a map or two, a bottle of water, a sun visor. The basket became, over the next months, a carrying case for many things: flowers from the farmer’s market, sand toys for a walk to the park, lunch for two little boys and me. On the day that I decided to make it a diaper bag, my life was changed forever.
I packed the basket up with enough toddler gear to last a couple of hours, perched Baby Ben on my hip and walked into the principal’s office at the school of our then-kindergarten son Christopher. I smiled, gulped, and offered myself as a volunteer. “I’d like to help children write poetry, stories, anything, for a few hours a week,” I began, “because I love writing and would like for them to love it too.”
“Great!” the principal responded. “I just got a grant to hire someone just like you. How would you like a job?”
That’s honestly how it happened. I was offered a job at that school, on the spot, wearing my momjeans and tennis shoes, as a California Writing Project Writer’s Assistant. I didn’t know if I wanted a job, what the job was, how many hours I would work, how my husband would react or what I would do with my baby. But I said yes. And my life was changed forever.
We worked out the details, of course, which aren’t so hard to work out when it’s something you really want to do. Over the next five years I filled my basket with picture books, stories, poems and ideas, and spent a few hours with kindergartners through fifth graders each week. It was great: There were not a lot of parameters, because this was a grant position at the school and we could make it whatever we wanted it to be. The teachers were each glad to have me for an hour a week, working with their kids, while they were free to do prep-work or teacher-work. The kids seemed to enjoy it, and I liked the extra money. Chris was proud of his Mom working at the school, and Ben had fun in the preschool sandbox.
I liked teaching children so much that I decided to get my multiple subjects credential, encouraged by that same principal to keep the job and attend classes at the same time. I learned about and started weaving more substance into my lessons. I felt I was making a difference in the students by bringing the world of writing to them. I began to prepare myself to enter the world of “real teaching”--- that is, finally getting my own classroom and having my own students to mold into little writers. I was ready! But all that was put on hold when we had another baby, our Hannah, and when I was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer when she was four years old.
The story of my battle with breast cancer is another story, but it does figure here. Dealing with a life-threatening illness changes your perspective on things. It makes you pay attention, and it makes you closely evaluate how you spend your time.
Our family dealt with the illness, did what we had to do, and I got ready to go back into the classroom. I approached the same school, and offered myself to the new principal. The grant that had supported me all those years ago no longer existed, but he hired me with other monies. So I started up again, discovering new picture books, planning new lessons to take to each class and learning new kids’ names.
Right away I noticed differences in the classrooms. The new administration in the district had made some big alterations. Many of the “creative” things were gone, replaced by strict literacy blocks and stringent schedules. All of these things had woven together to make a change in the teachers and in the students. I wondered how they were going to make a change in me.
Teachers were glad to see me because I was going to bring something back into their classroom that they felt had been missing. But, since I was also a different person now, I had to evaluate how I wanted to make a difference. How did I fit into the bigger picture? How could I make it matter?
I quickly found I wasn’t the same person that I was before. I had faced death. I had faced the prospect of me not being here to continue what I had started --- with my family, my friends, and my students. I just wanted to pick up where I had left off, but that was impossible. I had to create a new path and a new journey. A new sort of basket.
As I worked with the kids at this school, a new desire formed. I now longed to be more than the enrichment person, more than the Miss Rumphius of Writing, striding in with her basket of cute projects and ideas. I longed to make a difference in their writing lives, not just for the day, but forever. It would have been easy to return to that younger me, but that wasn’t enough. Was it that I knew more about writing, more about teaching, more about life, or more about me? Probably it was all of these.
My goal was always to spark a passion for writing in the students and teachers with whom I work. Now I wanted to do it in a more lasting way. I began to look around for great resources and mini-lessons, and found many. But my urge was to show the teachers and students more than a mini-lesson and, more importantly, to become more than a mini-lesson giver.
I began to believe that we can help children become more confident writers by teaching focused skills and crafts that they can weave into their writing organically, such as using powerful verbs in everything they create. I began to prepare my lessons by intertwining some of the points that have become the center of my belief system about teaching writing.
We need to not just talk around writing, but model writing in the classroom. We need to help our students find powerful writing in mentor texts. We need to look at what other writers have done in appropriate mentor texts, and try these craft moves in our own writing. We need to know what we are teaching. We need a focus. Within a context, we need to let our students have freedom. Beginning with a certain structure or focus may seem limiting at first, but it can be safe and then motivating because the students have something to hang on to. We must encourage our students to move beyond the safety net, and find the power and the voice that is uniquely theirs.
A change happened in my students because a change happened in me. I started to notice it when these new children, my second generation of students, would run up to me during recess or after school, clutching their notebooks and screeching, “Mrs. Floren – I LOVE writing!”
“Writing is my passion and power,” declares Adrian.
“Each day when you come, I feel like a brand-new boy,” scribbles Jay-Von.
“It was a starry fall night when she was born, Mainya-Laya,” pens Mara. “On the border of Texas, stood a little house. There she lived. It was the beginning of a new cowgirl.”
A new cowgirl, indeed. It’s a very small time that I am with them, really, such a small window of time. And it would be a very easy thing to not claim the space as mine, the students as mine. But when I watch those students beam over a poem, listen to them read a beginning that hits the mark, and feel their words sweep at the soul, I know I am their real teacher.
The lines we lift each day show wisdom in these young writers. That, coupled with my own wisdom from dealing with an ongoing, life-threatening disease makes me want to squeeze the most out of every moment, and that is what makes it real.
Two years ago, I bought a new basket. It’s chunkier, but then, so am I. It has leather handles that are easier to grip, easier to hang on to when glowing boys like Adrian and Jay-Von run up to enlighten me about how they are becoming writers.
Most of us teachers have some sort of basket---those places close to our heart where we weave the words, stash the ideas, let the language churn and burn. Some are backpacks, some are tote bags, some are carts with wheels. Some are little handheld devices where our thumbs and forefingers tap out words in a quiet room.
Being a teacher - and a writer - is figuring out what each of us has in our basket--the full corners and the empty spaces. How to weave all that we already know into our teaching, and how to look for those things we want to plump up. We weave our thoughts onto paper, our words into ears, our yearnings into hearts. Sometimes, when the splints don't go quite right, we have to unweave and weave again.
But in the end, we weavers know we have something that is uniquely ours: A finished product of different shapes and sizes that will really never be finished.
And now that you know it - What will you do with your basket?
(originally written as an article for the San Diego Area Writing Project Summer Invitational)