Understanding and Embracing the Power of Revision

Many years ago, Sharon Miller, National Writing Project Teacher-Consultant and nationally recognized author and educator in the teaching of writing, asked me to offer my thoughts on the power of revision in the genre of creative nonfiction and how, when we write with intent in the revision process and understand who our audience is, we can produce high-quality writing products that are both effective and accessible to our readers.

Recently, Sharon revisited my theories on revision and applied them to fiction writing. I am happy to say that, in her analysis, they still stand. You can read her complete discussion HERE.

I am humbled by Sharon’s discussion of my writing theories (especially regarding revision and the reader-writer connection) in both genres of creative nonfiction and fiction.  Since she published my original assertions nearly 15 years ago, I have refined my theories on revision, with a focus on the writer’s intent once the decision is made to take a piece of writing to publication.

As shown in the updated graphic below, the writer “revises with intent,” keeping the intended audience in mind to ensure the reader’s accessibility to the content. But to best understand the role revision plays in writing, the writer also needs to understand what happens before the stage of revision even begins.

revision-graph-2014In the early stages of drafting, the writer must provide herself with the opportunity to write uninhibitedly, to play with ideas and explore without judgment or even consideration of the potential audience.  It is here that she allows her Voice, through her raw thoughts and ideas, to resonate as only she can do.

In this early drafting stage, the entire focus should be to understand exactly what the writer wants to say, and why.

The “how” all of this is done is the focus in the revision stage. This is the point when the writer understands — and agrees upon — the establishment of a working relationship with the reader. It is here that the journey begins to “let go” of a reasonable amount of the raw writing while still maintaining the essence of her voice in a polished work that keeps the writing, the message, and the connection with the reader authentic.

Writers of academic and creative writing often procrastinate and wait until the final hours of their deadline to create a piece of writing that they deem suitable to submit so they  can say proudly, “I made my deadline,” as if that were the only goal. Editors (and professors) in both genres are increasingly frustrated that writers often misunderstand the more important aspect of the deadline: to present a polished product that is authentic and that deeply connects with the intended reader. This aspect of writing is often sacrificed because of this misunderstanding.

Writers of academic papers, creative nonfiction, and fiction all need to embrace the importance of this stage of revision and understand the oft-ugly and unrewarding ownership that falls on them to manage. Revision is the darkest part of the writer’s journey, but it is the only path that leads to polished writing that is accessible to the reader long after the writer has moved on to other works.

Challenger: 73 Seconds Define 30 Years

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 10.42.07 AM Dateline – Tuesday, 28 January 1986. 11:35 a.m.

I’m upstairs in my bedroom, cramming the last of my new textbooks in my bag, grabbing a few extra pens and my journal, and checking my look in the mirror: clean-shaven, every single hair gelled in place, and wearing a white oxford with a blue Hugo Boss cardigan sweater. I smile at myself, fighting the need to wear a jacket in the cold January weather. I am beginning my second semester of junior year: an English major with an education minor. This semester feels just the opposite, though, as I am taking classes like Principles of Secondary Education and Teaching Reading in the Secondary Classroom. I am so happy to be immersed in my major courses as I try to look like the teacher I can’t wait to be.

I rush downstairs just in time to catch the liftoff of the most important space launch of my lifetime. Teacher Christa McCauliffe, designated a payload specialist, has joined the flight team of commander Dick Scobee, pilot Mike Smith, mission specialists Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judy Resnik; and a second payload specialist, Greg Jarvis.

At 11:37 a.m., I look at my Mickey Mouse watch. I don’t have to be on campus until 1 p.m., but parking will be a challenge, as usual, so I will need to head out as soon as the space shuttle disappears from the camera’s eye and is swallowed by space.

Dad is in his chair to the left of the television, as he always is when he’s not at the firehouse. I am so thankful that this is his last year before he retires. He hasn’t looked himself lately.

At 11:38 a.m. I sit on the edge of the couch and watch the liftoff, a brilliant burst of light and fire propelling this team of seven into the skies. The energy that it takes, I think, to lift such a machine into the heavens, just so that it can carry on its mission in weightlessness.

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Three seconds into ignition, the Public Affairs Officer announces on NASA TV: “Liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower.”

I have been following Christa McCauliffe’s story for months, where her energy to teach mingles with the lessons I am learning in my courses at Towson. While others are lifting superheroes or movie stars as their idols, I am lifting this 37-year-old teacher from Concord, New Hampshire who is paving a path for all of us in what it means to teach, what it means to “touch the future.”

Twenty-eight seconds, pilot Mike Smith says: “There’s ten thousand feet and Mach point five.”

I watch the bright light arc right, bend to the heavens, on the ultimate teaching mission. I can’t help but see and feel the parallels in my own life. This time next year, I think, I will be in the classroom as a student teacher, realizing a dream to work with others since I was in high school. From my days in elementary classrooms through my senior year, I had the best role models to show me what teaching was all about: Green, Gordon, Bennett, Delaney; then Crouse, Falcone, and DeVita. They had been human, loving, nurturing, guiding in those first 12 years of school. There, as I watch McAuliffe climb higher and higher in the shuttle, piercing the blue and leaving behind a single stream of white, I feel the immediate urge to teach stir within me. This is going to be the best semester yet.

Sixty-eight seconds, CAPCOM, or the Capsule Communicator, says: “Challenger, go at throttle up.”

Dad and I are silent. We are captured by the beauty of the launch on this clear blue Tuesday morning as we watch Challenger roll right.

Seventy seconds, Commander Dick Scobee replies: “Roger, go at throttle up.”

We watch as CNN zooms into the Shuttle. I feel so close to it on the television. We are with the crew of seven, we are flying with teacher Christa McCauliffe for the most magnificent teachable moments imaginable.

Then, at seventy-three seconds, that single stream of white explodes, and two rocket boosters fly to the left and right, leaving a chalice of smoke in the silence of the broadcast.

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Thirty-one seconds after the explosion, a somber voice from the Command Center says: “Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.”

The silence between my father and me changes, shifts from the incredible to the incredulous. We are unsure what has happened, as CNN channels through its camera shots from white-lined skies to crowds of shocked onlookers, some of them Christa’s family. They are holding on to each other. They are holding on to hope.

I look at my watch and the time has somehow slipped away. Minutes have ticked away like seconds, and it is already after 12 p.m. I have to leave. Head to school. Learn what I can to be a good teacher.

But what I realize on the drive to Towson is that what I need to learn to Touch The Future is already in me, thanks to the Christa McCauliffes who have shown me what it means to hold such responsibility, such opportunity to empower others to embrace learning, to let them know that there are no limits to how far they can go.

Seventy-three seconds crystallized that for me for those 30 years that would follow. I vowed then, at 20 years old, to always remember what Green, Gordon, Bennett, Delaney, DeVita, Crouse, Falcone, and now McCauliffe had taught me: no matter the challenges we might face, never lose the energy to empower the young, never abandon the belief in the individual futures that breathe life into our classrooms.

Seventy-three seconds made me who I am today. Though my cardigan might now be a little worn, I will always carry with me the energy of my mentors and Christa McAuliffe’s words, “I touch the future; I teach.”

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Wandering to Fifty: My Secrets of Life

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I’ve included some of my favorite photos that I’ve taken over the years; it’s not that they are terribly relevant to the content of this post…I just think they capture my life over the last fifty years.

So this is what 50 feels like. I have this urge to knock over a food display at Trader Joe’s, or order ice cream before the main course, or take a whimsical trip north for a lobster sandwich in Concord, MA.

Wait– Those are all things that I did in my 20s. Am I giving myself a little nudge to have some fun? To play a little more? To recapture the spontaneity that made those days so carefree and beautiful?

Maybe. It’s not a knock on my life now and where I am — God no. I am incredibly blessed with a beautiful family, a solid set of jobs doing what I love, and a passion to embrace every infinitesimal fraction of every moment existing right here, right now, in my present.

But a little more spontaneity sprinkled in to this incredibly blessed life? Absolutely.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, though, it wasn’t all about road trips and ice cream. In fact, there were plenty of times where I sought some deeper truth, some greater meaning to life and to my role in it. I get that we all have to go through that. It’s a personal journey, after all, and we have to figure a lot of stuff out for ourselves.

Still…

I have the chance to throw a little wisdom down to my youngers who are still making their way toward the big Five-Oh. I know that you have probably heard these tips plenty of times along the way. Nonetheless, I share them with you here, hoping that they might lighten your load a little and help pave your path with a smoother swath of freshly turned leaves and detritus.

So, without further ado, I give to you my “Greatest Hits” of wisdom learned in these first 50 years.

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1. Everything Begins Within.

I think that one of the biggest derailers in my earlier years was allowing so much  of the external world affect my internal being. Bad drive in to work? Derailed. Nasty note from a friend? Derailed. Things didn’t go “my way” as I had hoped/planned/wished? Derailed.

It seemed as if so much of my happiness (or any emotion, really) depended on external forces. I had surrendered control over to one and all in the universe. And, as a result, I was an out-of-control roller coaster of emotions at the whim of the world.

Eventually, I realized that it didn’t have to be this way. I was in control, and by focusing first on my inner core, I could ignite a limitless supply of energy and self-confidence to bolster my immune system against emotional derailments. When I begin with what’s inside of me, I no longer relinquish myself to the external factors surrounding me.

Recognizing that I am in control has changed my entire approach to life. It has removed the distractions and derailments and has allowed me to do the work I am blessed with the gifts to do.

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2. Do the Work You Were Meant to Do.

I was fortunate to know my passions at an early age: teaching and writing. It’s what I have been doing for most of my life, and I have been wise enough to stay immersed in those two fields. Even so, I wasn’t always “doing the work” as best as I could have been doing, simply because I was searching for something bigger, greater, than what was already in me.

Or I just got lazy.

Foolish, foolish, foolish.

I’ve learned that nobody is going to do the work for you, and there is never, ever a “coasting” period where you get to take it easy. It just doesn’t work that way at all.

I remember thinking there would be a time with my writing that I would be able to slow down a bit, enjoy the money that was coming in from my sales, and take life at a slower pace. At that time, I felt like I was always performing CPR in my craft. If I stopped performing compressions, my efforts would be for naught, and my passions would die away.

Well, for one thing, the money has yet to come in. But even if it did, it wouldn’t give me license to relax. Doing the work means focusing your energy — always — on the passions and talents that you possess. This isn’t about compressions or sustaining a minimal existence of life; it is about using your energy in such a way that your work matters. It makes a difference. Nobody can do that for you. You have to do the work, and do it all the time.

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3. Each of Us Is a Part of a Universal Connection.

I tell this story all the time, but what the hell. I’m fifty now, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time I repeat some of my favorite stories.

I think it was 1991 when I was “The Beast” in our week-long Summer Christian Camp at Central Presbyterian Church in Southern Maryland. We had hundreds of kids spending the week with us, and each day, we would do a sketch from Beauty and the Beast and tie it into the theme of the day.

On the final afternoon of camp, with about 500 kids so pumped up in our auditorium, I broke through the walls of the castle and became free of my self-imprisonment. Then, as is the case in any good Christian camp with a musical theme, we broke out in song celebrating life and Christ and everything around us.

There I stood on that stage in front of those kids, and the energy that resonated in that auditorium through our song and movement was absolutely electric. Until that moment, I had never felt so connected to the universe. I realized that we are a part of something bigger, something so very spiritual, that transcends our earthly, day-to-day existence.

We are all interconnected in ways that are both transparent and invisible to us. I was fortunate to learn this at a young age. At times, I have strayed from this connection, but I always come back to my core connection with the greater world. It’s not about Jesus OR Buddha OR any other spiritual source of worship; it’s just about establishing that spiritual and universal connection. In that vast space, we are all contributing to the flow, the groove, the way.

Knowing that has made me care deeply about what I offer to others in all that I do.

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4. When There Are No Desires, All Things Are at Peace.

One of the greatest books that I have ever read is Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. In its 81 chapters of awesomeness, I realized that life isn’t about searching; it’s about providing.

One of my most favorite lines is, “When there are no desires, no expectations, all things are at peace.”

When I first read that line, I thought it was pretty stupid. How can you live a life without expectations? Isn’t that the same thing as living without goals? How ridiculous!

But it isn’t the same thing at all. When we begin to realize our role in the universe, we begin to let go of believing that we are owed anything, anywhere, and by anyone. We let go of the expectations of what others could, or should, do for us. We let go of what we think we earned, of what we think we deserve.

That’s tough to do. We are raised on the reward system, aren’t we? Even now, as adults, we are “compensated” for our work with money. We negotiate contracts for what is fair and right and just for ourselves. We live our lives in a give-and-get mentality. It’s all we know.

The idea of letting go of desires, then, is foreign to many of us. But when we begin to let go and really “do the work” and live our lives genuinely, authentically, to give, to serve, we find that we are rewarded in far greater and immeasurable ways. Some of these rewards are grounded in finances, such as promotions and bonuses. Other rewards are of a more ethereal nature, where we are granted the priceless gifts of love, compassion, and gratitude.

When these arise out of no desires or expectations, we truly appreciate their beauty and their significance. We are filled with gratitude from the blessings that have come to us. We do not judge or weigh their quality, or see how they “sized up” against our expectations. They are simply cherished for what they are.

And when that happens, all things are at peace. What a wonderful thing indeed.

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5. Live in the Present.

Let me take you back a few years to 1989. It was my second year of teaching, and I was living in Southern Maryland and teaching at a small private school. This place was — and still is — amazing in so many ways. I was fortunate enough to be mentored by great educators and administrators who gave me the space to grow professionally.

In April of that year, though, my father died. I was living a somewhat Thoreau-esque life back then, in the woods in a log cabin, and the concepts of carpe diem and sucking the marrow of life itself were fueled by the reality that life is not forever. When I read, “The masses of men lead lives of quiet desperation” by Thoreau, I knew then that I was not going to be one of those men.

And the only way that I knew how to avoid doing that was by living in the present and embracing what exists now. This is what I have, I thought, and I will not take these moments for granted.

Since then, I have kept that mantra at the core of everything I do. I have strayed a bit now and then, sucked into the vacuum of the past or the potentials of the future. But I always end up in the present, grateful for what I have, and excited with the opportunities that await in the moment in which I am living.

We can’t go back to the past, no matter how hard we might try. And we can’t live in a dreamworld of how we want things to someday be. All we can do is work with our present moment, seize the power and the energy it holds, do the work, and be grateful for the opportunity.

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6. We Are Constantly Evolving.

One of the ways I am able to stay “in the present” is by understanding that we are constantly evolving.

I might even add that, in our own evolutions, there is a certain refinement that is constantly happening, too. We evolve through our efforts and energies to learn, experience, and embrace life.

This is a hard concept to grasp if you are living in the past or floating in the future. Evolution doesn’t happen unless you are grounded in the present and staying there as you move forward through action and experience. It’s the only way we can evolve in this ever-fluid universe that we’re all a part of. When we become stagnant, our interactions become stagnant, too. everything dulls, diminishes, atrophies.

We are living, breathing organisms. We are fluid, evolving contributions to a greater swirl of life, of love, of existence that asks of us just one thing: Participate and contribute to the universal evolution of our collective existence.

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7. Embrace the Charge and the Duty to Serve.

I learned at an early age about what it means to serve. My dad was a Baltimore City firefighter, and some mornings when he would come home, I would smell the remnants of his work, the burning buildings he battled to save. On some nights, it was about saving property; on other nights, it was about saving lives.

And on some mornings when he would come home, with soot still rubbed into his forehead along the fine line where his helmet had protected him, I would smell and feel the heavy reality of loss, when his charge to serve was not enough to save the lives of innocent victims trapped in the flames of a three-alarm fire.

Those moments were tough, but my dad persevered. He kept going back. he kept serving.

That stuck with me as a kid. And since then, I have understood the importance of working through those especially tough times with a focus on service. I guess it all goes back to the no-expectations way of living. If we focus, instead, on a life of service, of doing the work for the greater good, then our efforts are all about serving instead of receiving.

Dad died from complications attributed to a medical call he ran in 1986. To this day, his death “in the line of duty” (regardless of how the fire department defined it) has grounded me in a life of service and commitment.

Dad was never the kind of guy that would want any fuss made over the way he lived his life; that’s just the kind of person he was. But his commitment to duty, to service, provided us all with an understanding that our purpose on this Earth transcends any material good or self-serving act.

In this moment, we are here to serve. Period.

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8. Run Loose.

I end with this little story because, with the first seven “Greatest Hits” being a little heavy, I thought that my brother’s simple wisdom captures the essence of everything I’ve learned.

When I was a kid and spending free time with my oldest brother, I would hang on every word he had to say. One afternoon, we were heading to a store to do some shopping, and we passed a jogger on the side of the road. My brother knows running; he was one step away from participating in the Olympic trials, but a heart murmur sidelined him. When the jogger approached us, he shook his head and said, “He’s doing it all wrong.”

I looked at the jogger who was moving at a pretty fast clip. He looked a little stressed, but I just figured that’s the way you look when you are running so quickly.

“Look at his fists, his face, his arms.”

I did. I saw a runner giving it his all.

“Notice anything about them?”

I shook my head.

“All tense. He’s spending all that energy to ball up his fists, keeping his arms stiff, and grimacing with fatigue.”

I had always thought that runners just looked like that.

“He needs to relax. His whole body needs to loosen up so he can put that energy into his heart. His lungs. His muscles that are really doing the work.”

It seemed so odd to me at the time that you had to be loose to run faster, but now it makes total sense to me.

As you are putting your heart and soul into the things you love and believe in the most, you have to go into it loose, relaxed, patient, and flexible.

There’s an old saying that the more you are like bamboo — flexible, able to bend in the heavy winds — the stronger you become. On the other hand, if you are stiff and brittle, you break easily with the slightest of breeze.

That’s how going through life works. Run loose and be the bamboo: deeply rooted in what you believe, but be flexible in the heavy winds that come and go (and they will.)

I leave you with this. James Taylor wrote a song called “The Secret of Life.” The lyrics have played a big role in getting me to where I am today. I hope they play with you in a similar way. They really are simple, and beautiful, and true.

Here’s to you, and all of us. Let’s just open up our hearts and enjoy the lovely ride.

Thanks for being a part of my wandering life. I am ever-grateful.

Why I Love Teaching (#LoveTeaching)

Looking for Sage Wisdom

More than anything else, I remember his face, ripped with an ugly mash up of dull red stress and those deep lines of resigned anger in the corners of his eyes, along his forehead, and drawing down at the tips of his lips. He pushed his cart from one classroom to the next with a hunchback trudging, dragging his beat brown shoes with every resisting step.

I was 21 and doing my high school student teaching rotation at Perry Hall High School in Baltimore, MD. I wore argyle sweaters and matching socks; the pennies in my loafers were polished and facing out so that Abe would be leading the way with every fresh step I took.

I spent a lot of time talking to veteran educators to learn as much as I could about what it was like to be a teacher. The advice I got was mostly cautious; the vets didn’t want to burst my bubble about the realities of their job, but they didn’t want to sugarcoat the day-to-day routine that was nothing like what the textbooks preached to us back in the University classrooms.

When it came time to talk with the man with the ripped face, I asked him the same question I had asked the others:

“With all of your wisdom gained in teaching over the course of your career, what stands out as the most important piece of advice you can give young teachers?”

We were in the teacher planning area, and he leaned against his cart and stared at me with his tired eyes. They were once blue, but not anymore. They had a film over them that reminded me of the eyes of a fish who was just about ready to go belly up in the water.

“You are asking me for advice?”

I nodded with a smile. In my hand was a pencil pressed against a fresh page in my journal.

“I hate my job. I don’t know what has happened to the kids but you can’t teach ‘em. They don’t want to be here, and neither do I. I got three years to go until retirement, and then I am out of here.”

The page in my journal remained blank.

“If you are looking for advice,” he said, “it’s this. Don’t get into this worthless profession. I look back on my life and regret every minute of it, spent on ungrateful kids in a broken system. If you don’t take my advice, you’ll find out for yourself in 25 years. Nothing but regret.”

He pushed his cart past me, and I was left with the residual scents of Old Spice and stale black coffee in his wake.

I had a few minutes before I needed to meet my mentor teacher. I sat down and wrote, “Don’t forget this. The moment I begin to feel this way – if I ever do – I need to get out. Leave the classroom. Stop teaching. I can’t imagine that happening, though. I wonder what I will be like as a teacher 25 years from now?”

Those 25 years have come and gone, and I now know what I am like as a teacher, and why.

I know that I love teaching today more than I did when I was a student teacher in early 1987.

Why I Love Teaching

Sean McComb, my former student-turned-colleague and 2014 National Teacher of the Year, asked me earlier this week to reflect on why I love teaching. It’s been something that I have been thinking about all week. After making some tough choices, I’ve whittled the list down to these four very human reasons.

Students and teachers who are more mindful in the classroom have reduced anxiety, stress.Recognizing the Students

I can think of no greater profession than teaching when it comes to working with individuals who are on the brink of independence. Each year, I look forward to meeting my students who bring with them hopes, desires, dreams, and even fears. Even more important, they bring with them their individuality. Each has much to teach all of us, and I am grateful for the opportunity to provide that space for them to take the risks they need to grow.

Having the Power to Empower

To start a fire, you need three things: fuel, oxygen, and heat. The same is true in the classroom when igniting learning. Each child in the classroom needs three things to grow: materials (fuel), space to think (oxygen), and experiential opportunities (heat). I love to provide all three to my students and empower them to think, create, collaborate, and present their final innovations.

Providing Equality of Voices, Recognizing Individual Strength, Fostering Confidence

Students who are empowered are then respectful of others’ voices, opinions, and ideas. It transcends tolerance; it opens the doors for collaborative conversation at a higher level, where the focus shifts from problems to solutions. I see this often in my classes where students who have embraced their differences generate practical and meaningful solutions that were once unthinkable. In this environment, they are not “stuck” on what divides them; they, instead, thrive on what unites them.

Instilling a Lifelong Love for Reading and Writing

We are a grade-driven world, there’s no doubt about it. Something powerful happens, though, when students are empowered to embrace a lifelong love for reading and writing: securing good grades becomes secondary to the learning that is taking place. The grades they seek are an outcome, not the primary goal, from embracing a lifelong love for what they are learning. In my area, that’s reading and writing. By giving them the tools, the space, and the experiential opportunities, the fire they create won’t be going out any time soon.

Advice to the Young (Teachers) at Heart

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So now it is my turn to be the one pushing that cart. I, thank goodness, do not smell like Old Spice, and I am, for the most part, wrinkle-free. So if you, new teacher, were to ask me my advice about why I love teaching, here is what I would tell you.

You entered this profession for noble reasons (God knows it wasn’t for the money). When you sat in Principles of SecEd or Foundations of Education, you dreamed of the many ways you were going to make a difference. You were going to change the world.

I was there, too.

The challenge is handling those first few years where those dreams of changing the world clash with the reality of juggling the myriad roadblocks and derailments that do their best to get in your way. For some teachers, like the one I interviewed at Perry Hall so many years ago, they don’t make it through those tough times. They become jaded and they never recover.

Here’s the secret: We don’t teach to administer standardized tests or to resist the rolling trends of best practices, policies, and politics; don’t let those things dissolve your dreams about changing the world and making a difference. Those roadblocks and derailments are a part of our professional lives as much as the trials and tribulations we face in our personal lives.

We teach to touch lives, to provide opportunity and experience. Teaching is a very human experience; we offer that personal connection that ignites the lifelong desire within to learn, read, write, and make a difference. It’s more about the stuff you can’t test.

You begin to realize this when you begin to let go of the roadblocks and the derailments.

So hang in there, young teachers. We need you. We need your courage, your imagination, your belief. We need your vision that making a difference and changing the world are still possible.

Because if you still believe in it, then your students will as well. And that, my wonderful colleagues, is why we teach: To ignite and pass along the timeless torch of learning, living, and loving to all who enter our classroom.

You Aren’t Going Back. You Are Already There

Students and teachers who are more mindful in the classroom have reduced anxiety, stress.

School resumes tomorrow. Earlier today, I could feel some anxiety rising–that feeling of stress and the fast pace that keeps you moving non-stop through six periods and 140+ students as you juggle and manage and direct and teach and coach and listen and–

So overwhelming, when you look at it like that. Isn’t it?

Heading back to school (or work, or any other place of professional responsibility) is not a “reality” that you try your hardest to escape. These past 12 days that we have had off since Christmas Eve have been the greatest reality imaginable. Returning to school doesn’t negate that reality; in fact, it affirms it.

Our return to school is a continuation of our reality, our journey, and it isn’t something that we should consider as the “enemy” or the “Great Denying Overlord” that prohibits us from living our lives any different, really, than we do on break, vacation, sabbatical, whatever you want to call what we’ve been on.

I look at it this way: This ride is a long one comprising events and occurrences at varying speeds — all appropriate for their intended purpose — but varying nonetheless. We live as genuinely at one speed as we might another. One does not negate the other; in fact, one gives us greater perspective of the other.

As we head back the classrooms in less than 12 hours, hold on to the reality that has been in place this entire vacation. Enjoy the ride to school, the sounds inside the classrooms, the life energy of the students, and the existence of YOU in the place where you have chosen to be.

Just as this moment is your PRESENT, your everything to you RIGHT NOW, so it will be when you return to school. Every moment has that opportunity to be the greatest reality ever experienced.

So enjoy the return to reality school, and don’t let go of the real person you continue to become, every day of the year.

A Chill In August (Re)Ignites The Fire To Teach

It reached 77 degrees today, on this, the 24th of August. Blue sky, patchy white clouds, and the eerie absence of a Baltimore humidity that makes thousands of locals usually proclaim, “It’s not the heat; it’s the humidity.”

In Baltimore, it’s been neither this summer; just one late-spring day after another. Heat waves have lasted hours, not days, and nobody has been asked to be reminded of the endless days in winter where polar vortices and near-blizzards were making us stare at the summer months on the kitchen calendar.

The real cold front this summer, though, had nothing to do with the weather. It occurred on August 11, when news quickly spread that Robin Williams – comedian, actor, and goodwill activist – had taken his own life.

His death sent a chill in each of us for many different reasons, stirring an unsettling rush of emotions. Whether we felt the chilly sting of childhood memories, the angst of another life lost to depression and mental illness, or the dumbfounding shock of the loss of a great human being, we felt the chill deep in our hearts far longer than we thought possible.

Some of us feel it still.

I appreciated Williams’ stand-up humor or his role as Mork from Ork. It was his movies, though, especially Dead Poets Society, that made a mark on me at the most vulnerable months in my life.

“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” Robin Williams

20140812-071531-26131782.jpgFive events happened in the span of 66 days in 1989. They changed my life because I made the choice to realize my little spark of madness, open my mind for the positive, and accept the charge to live fully. For me, it was a 66-day gestation period of what Carpe Diem really means. Since those 66 days, I have lost my way on several occasions, but I keep coming back to my foundation from that experience.

On April 22, 1989, my father died.

On June 9, 1989, my mother and I took a trip north to New England for a change of scenery from the daily reminders of our lives without her husband, my father. We visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where the graves of Emerson and Thoreau moved me as much as when I spent the afternoon at Walden Pond, reading excerpts from “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.”

On June 17, 1989, despite my resistance to see anything that was popular or trending (we didn’t even know that word existed in 1989), I saw the movie Dead Poets Society with my best friend. I had just finished my second year of teaching, and the portrayal of Mr. John Keating by Robin Williams echoed the sentiments swelling within me from the death of my father and my trip to New England.

On June 24, 1989, 63 days after the passing of my father, 15 days after retracing Thoreau’s steps, and 7 days after seeing the movie Dead Poets Society, I wrote this in my daybook:

“Going to New England made an impact on me that I pray to God I will never lose. . . .Thoreau has made an impact on me like no other. His natural philosophies of “Simplicity” and “Carpe Diem” are the ways that I have been haphazardly living my life. I don’t want to overdo it, however. All I want to do is seize the day and have as much control over my life as God will allow me.”

And this:

“Yes. I love teaching, and I will continue to educate. But my style will change, and my focus will change. I can’t do it all as a teacher. So therefore, I must focus my classroom to resonate a very specific theme or intention. Much like the character Robin Williams played in Dead Poets Society, I want to teach my students to seize the day, to see their independent strengths and weaknesses, to dare to strike out and find new ground.”

And finally this:

“I will not be one of the masses leading my life in quiet desperation. I am a happy man, and I don’t have any regrets. I love this world, and I will strive to leave my small mark to make it just a little better place in which to live.”

On June 26, 1989, I started my 5-week journey with the Maryland Writing Project to become a certified Teacher-Consultant.

The fusion of philosophy, spirituality, and pedagogy had occurred within me, and I carried with me the spark to teach, to make a difference, to accept the dare to strike out and find new ground.

Twenty-five years later, on this chilly afternoon in August, on this Sunday before classes resume at sunrise tomorrow, I can feel the fire burning within me to teach, to inspire, to seize the blessed gifts of being a classroom teacher.

We are given so few chances in life to make a difference. It’s what we do with those chances that changes lives. I will not spend a moment of my time in my classroom grieving the loss of a great actor and human being; I will, instead, continue to ignite that fire to learn, to embrace the importance of individual strength and confidence, to engage my students in literature that resonates truth and passion for living, to empower them with the mighty pen so that they, too, can change the world with their words.

I slip on a light sweater and review my notes for the first week. My Daybook is overflowing with ideas about what to teach, and suddenly 180 days seems like such a finite number. I turn to day one, and focus.

Carpe Diem, I think.

For you, Robin, yes. But for 142 others as well who have a world of dreams around them.

It is time to share the fire. It is time to stand on new ground, and teach.

Thoreaus_quote_near_his_cabin_site,_Walden_Pond

Are You Ready to Publish That Best Practice?

This Summer, I will be teaching another graduate writing course at Towson University.

The beauty of this course? It’s online, and it’s all about you.

The Maryland Writing Project (MWP), which has been recognized as an exemplary site by the National Writing Project in Berkeley, CA, enters its 31st year providing writing instruction and its strategic implementation to teachers and schools across the state. Just last week, the National Writing Project was awarded $24.6 million in grants to support teacher and principal development.

This year, in lieu of its Invitational Summer Institute, MWP will be running three graduate writing courses.

Each of these three courses addresses many of the Common Core State Standards on writing, assessment, and publication (you can download the complete Standards document Here: CCSSI_ELA_Standards).

My course focuses specifically on publishing your best teaching practices, creating a strong argument for or against a relevant topic in education, or conducting quantitative and qualitative data research from the classroom. By the conclusion of our session, you will have submitted your work for publication in a regional or national journal!

The three courses are as follows:

SCED 670. Getting Published: Polishing Your Best Practices and Putting Them in Print (I will be teaching this course online in the first session, which runs from May 29 to June 29).

SCED 603. Writing Across the Curriculum: Teaching Writing Using Web 2.0 Tools (taught in the first session as a hybrid course by Tina Dushel and Katie Profili, Wednesdays 4–6 p.m., and one additional day online).

EDUC 667. Writing As Assessment: Sharpening Students’ Critical Thinking Skills Across the Grade Levels (taught in the third session and on campus by Joan Woytowitz, MWTh 11 a.m.–1:40 p.m., July 2nd to August 3).

For more information about these courses, the academic calendar, and the instructions for registering, go Here: Flyer_Graduate_Sum_2012_sched_reg_info-1.

For more information about the Registration and Billing Schedule, click HERE.

For more information about Graduate Admissions for Non-Degree Enrollment, click HERE.

If you have ANY questions at all about my course, please feel free to email me directly at rusvw13@gmail.com.