March 12th, 2014
This week we kick off a new occasional series on the Stenhouse blog called The Editor’s Shelf. Written by Stenhouse editor extraordinaire Bill Varner, the series will reveal the history and background of some of our books and give you a chance to revisit some oldie but goodie Stenhouse titles from the past few years. We kick off the series with a look at how Ann Marie Corgill’s book Of Primary Importance came to life.
I’m a bibliophile. Or, you could say, I’m a book geek. I love everything about them—from authors and their lives, to cover designs, to publishing lore. I can still smell the ink, paper, and glue from my first job in a book bindery. For most people outside the book business, how an idea becomes a book is a mystery. With “The Editor’s Bookshelf,” I thought we’d give you a snapshot of some of our books—the stories behind them, and why we love them.
When I first joined Stenhouse, I was told by our friends and distributors in Alabama, Toni Shay and William Hagood, about a fantastic teacher named Ann Marie Corgill—or, as I’ve come to call her, AMC. She’d taught Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi’s son in Alabama, and also at the renowned Manhattan New School. I first met AMC at the Mid-South Literacy Conference in Birmingham, Alabama. Her presentation was terrific, and she wanted to write a book. “Great,” I said. “Let’s get started.” We started and stopped. We started and stopped. Most authors can’t churn them out like Patricia Cornwell. Since a lot of Stenhouse authors are full-time teachers, everything has to align just “write.” Or, to paraphrase John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making plans to write.” But thanks to AMC’s dogged determination to make the book a reality, several years after I first met her Of Primary Importance arrived from the printer, fresh with the smells of the bindery.
Ever since writing workshop burst onto the scene in the early to mid-eighties, it has fought a constant battle against prepackaged curriculum. Like fast food, prepackaged writing programs are quick and easy. But fifteen minutes after eating an easy meal, I always feel the weight of saturated fat and chemical additives weighing down my mind and body. Students feel the learning equivalent after working a program. Though it may take more time and effort, a healthy, handmade meal leaves one alert, energized, and sustained. Of Primary Importance is the writing curriculum equivalent.
AMC’s book gives you everything you need to create your own writing workshop for primary writers. From establishing the learning environment and developing units on poetry, nonfiction, and narrative writing, to publishing and assessment—it has it all. It’s written in an inspiring voice that says, “Yes, you can do this.” If you haven’t heard of it, or haven’t yet discovered its classroom-tested ideas, you really should. In the world of professional books on teaching writing, it’s a precious gem.
Don Graves used to say about administrators (and anyone who told others what to teach), “Just shut the door and teach.” That’s often easier said than done, but so is everything else worth doing.