Above and Beyond the Writing Workshop by Shelley Harwayne is filled with original, joyful writing challenges designed to bring back the spirit of the original writing workshop model while encouraging educators to enhance it through invention, innovation, and inspiration.
In this Teacher's Corner episode Shelley Harwayne talks with Stenhouse editor Maureen Barbieri about her new book and how her experience in schools lead her to write Above and Beyond the Writing Workshop.
Read the transcript
Maureen: Good morning. Good morning. Shelley, almost everybody knows you've been a teacher and a staff developer and you were principal of Manhattan New School for 10 years and superintendent. So you certainly know schools and children and teachers. In recent years, you've worked with teachers as a volunteer in the city and also in Westchester County and I had the immense privilege of visiting Manhattan New School when you were principal there frequently during your 10 years and I've also been with you at PS87 where you worked with teachers before COVID struck and I've seen you in action there.
Maureen: What I remember about Manhattan New School and what I saw again at PS87 is children passionately engaged in what they were doing. They were joyful, purposeful, and gratified by what they were learning. Visitors to Manhattan New School seemed to want to stay all day. They didn't want to go home. Curious and delighted by what they observed. Both joy and rigor infuse the writing workshop in every classroom. Kids were actually eager to learn about the city and the world.
Maureen: So what I'm thinking today is how did all of that experience and knowledge influence your beliefs about the teaching of writing and how did it lead you to write your newest book, Above and Beyond the Writing Workshop.
Shelley: That's a big question. I'm happy to answer it. It's funny that you talk about the visitors to the school. We did have a lot of visitors who did want to stay, and I must say we learned a lot from having visitors. I think every school should have visitors. Someone once suggested we put up arches and write, "One million served," like they do at McDonald's for all the visitors because we always had them but the visitors made us very reflective and got us thinking about our practice which is essential. I love that you said it was joyful and it was rigorous at the same time because I remember early on hosting lots of parent, potential family members, potential parent visitors to the school to see if in fact they want to attend this public school. It did have a catchment area but I accepted kids from all over the city. If I had openings, that was just fine with me. And so we had lots of visitors coming and I remember this woman saying to me once, "I heard this school was crunchy granola." And it struck me, I didn't even know what she meant, and she went on to explain that she heard that our kids were so happy, that they couldn't possibly be working hard. They came out of school singing and dancing. They didn't have tons of homework. How could they possibly be rigorous?
Shelley: It's interesting that for some family members, the amount of homework is a criteria for how hard you work at school. It's so interesting to me. But certainly the thought that you can't be joyful and rigorous at the same time is shocking to me. And parents did come in and were surprised that it was kind of what I'd call two hands on the shoulder kind of teaching. At reading time you read, at writing time you wrote. It wasn't loosey-goosey stuff. We really took on learning very seriously and it was rather contagious for the kids. Even today, when think about the new book, it is joyful to interview your former teachers. It is joyful to mail letters of inquiry. It is joyful to make up awards for topics you're passionate about, to create your own riddles and calendars and books for first graders to read. So a lot of my thinking has to do with being joyfully rigorous.
Shelley: The other thing that occurred to me at the school was that everything about it was based on trust and I trusted the teachers, the teachers trusted the kids and the families, we all trusted literature to help us, and I think that showed in the teaching of writing and I know that at the end of Above and Beyond, I quote Thomas Friedman, who quotes this business expert, Dov Seidman his name is, and he says that trust is the only legal performance enhancing drug. And I think those words rang true at the school. Because we trusted one another, we worked very hard. We trust that people didn't have ulterior motives, that they were going to do their best and give it their all and that went for the adults and it applied to the children as well.
Shelley: The last thing about the school that has strong implications for what I believe in in the teaching of writing has to do with not believing there's only one way to achieve your goals. I know when the wonderful Jerry Harste visited Manhattan New School many, many years ago, decades ago, he told me that he thought the school looked more like a bed and a breakfast than a Hilton. By that he meant of course that every room was so different, that you know how when you go into a bed and breakfast, you're so charmed by each room, they're all so beautiful. As opposed to every room looking the same, same bedding, same curtains, same furniture style.
Maureen: Very true.
Shelley: I took that as a real compliment, and it was true. All the teachers, we believed in the same things. We wanted the kids to be passionate about their literacy, their reading and their writing. We wanted them to have lots of time, we wanted to put them in the driver's seat. But each room was so incredibly different. And I think partly my role as a principal was to hire people who were incredibly different. Who had different expertise, who had different priorities and somehow to make it work and learn from one another. So clearly my experience as an administrator, as a principal who was involved in instruction, plays out in the teaching of writing for me.
Maureen: I remember all of that, how different every classroom was, and I also remember, you used to muse about someday I'm going to write a book and I'm going to call it Great Minds Do Not Think Alike and talk about people's...What you just said, about different priorities and passions, but with the fundamental pedagogy that you shared. I remember all of that.
Maureen: But Shelley, in more recent conversations, I've heard you say that you were a little concerned, a little disappointed that some of the original tenets of the writing workshop were getting maybe lost in the shuffle of a lot of other things and can you say a little bit about that? What made you concerned about that?
Shelley: I think when I started visiting schools, not just New York schools but traveling around years ago, I thought the classrooms had gotten very quiet and that's always a red flag for me, when they're too quiet. I mean I like quiet, I don't like noise. I don't work well in noise. I know there are some educators who can handle the noise, I don't think it's necessarily bad, it depends on how one adjusts to that. But I kind of like, I can't write when it's really noisy. But they were so quiet. They were so low energy. And that's a red flag for me, that if it's so quiet, first off, there's not enough conferring going on. Because we want to hear those soft voices and conferring was the biggest topic we had in professional development. Everybody wanted to get better at it because it was hard, it was hard to learn how to say something smart without taking away ownership. It was hard work. And very few teachers asked me about conferring. So I knew something was going on.
Shelley: But I think more than that, it was that too many teachers are being asked to rush through some mandated checklist of genres in a prescribed format. They're like hustling, they're squeezing it in, getting it, clicking off the calendar and I think that necessarily leads to quiet classrooms because first off there's low energy. The kids aren't chatting with one another, they're in such a hurry to get things done, and there's low energy because it's almost like the kids are cranking it out. They know every September we're going to do personal narrative, just like they know April is poetry month in some settings.
Shelley: And I think that's kind of sad and I think pushing the energy levels up is really important. We used to joke that in kindergarten, if the energy got low, just bring in blue paper and all of a sudden, "Yay, let me at it." Or fold the paper a different way and clip prepared papers and I do think there has to be ways to lift the energy in our rooms and I think it comes from not making writing so predictable and where you have all the answers and you have a finished product in mind and that kids have to go do it and year after year, I saw that with my grandchildren. How many times can I read my granddaughter's story about being on the trampoline for her birthday? She could write it in kindergarten, she could write it in second grade, that was her personal narrative. That was her go-to. And that seems sad to me. So I longed, when I visited classrooms, for moments of awe. Where I was truly learning something new. I longed to be surprised. There was no surprise in those classrooms so I knew something was off and for me surprise is what I'm after. I had a doctor's appointment last week and my husband drove me home and he had sat in the car because they wouldn't let him up in the waiting room because of pandemic restrictions, and he brought his Smithsonian magazine with him, and he was so excited to tell me the variety of topics, what he had learned about in one issue. There was the Hudsonian godwit bird that travels 16,000 miles every year from Chile to Alaska and there was Phillis Wheatley poetry and there was the history of snowboarding and then you turn the page and it's Abraham Lincoln and black visitors to the White House and then it's medieval queens. I mean that to me is the awe, where you learn something new and you're so surprised, you turn the page and I...When I visit writing workshop classrooms, I want to be surprised when I move from desk to desk. I want to be surprised by topics, I want to be surprised by design of the work, the shape, how children are putting the work together. I want to be surprised by a turn of phrase. I just long to be in awe, to learn something new in the writing workshop.
Shelley: So for me, that's been a powerful motivator when I volunteer in the schools. If you open the book, the very first challenge is around the globe. So as opposed to the traditional school report where you write everything you ever want to know about India, about China, about Russia, the kids were asked, "What are you really interested in," and would you be interested in how that plays out in different countries? So to me, to walk to a desk and a child says, "I really want to know how different people fish. I like fishing. So I'm going to find out how they fish in Korea and I'm going to find out how they fish..."And that to me was very exciting and kids would pick just unbelievable topics to me and you could find such interesting research. It's one of the strengths of the internet is that you can find people who've done that kind of research. Santa Claus treats around the world, what different cultures leave for Santa or libraries around the world or wonderful picture books, My Librarian Is a Camel for example. Every page is another country in library services, so there's lots of models and mentors for this in the real world.
Shelley: But it's so new for the kids, and it's the kind of thing I have to believe they'll remember. They'll remember that kind of writing as opposed to everything you ever wanted to know about Italy. So that's what I'm after. Yeah, and I think the topics are rather compelling. I'm looking for things that linger even after you've written.
Maureen: Right, right. They do the research, they write the piece, and they want to tell somebody else about it, guess what I find out, and that there's that excitement of discovery.
Shelley: Yeah, I think so. I mean there's so many challenges in the book that I think have that get under your skin feel too.
Maureen: And this leads to another thing that I notice. A lot of these pieces are not terribly long, they're short pieces, and sometimes a child can have a challenge and do more than one piece in response to the challenge. So I think I've heard you say over the years, short people, short genres. And how did you figure out that in elementary school, a short piece is more appropriate for elementary kids?
Shelley: Well I think they're right. I always said elementary kids belong in Little League, not in Yankee Stadium. So I want age appropriate. I also think about their interest and their attention and their energy that I don't think they want to do draft number four and draft number five. I think they've done it, they want to move on. That's not to say they don't fall in love with a topic and stick to it, I love when that happens, but there's lots of ways to handle any one topic. So one is I think it matches who they are as little people is to have shorter. I also think it's more manageable, especially nowadays with busy teachers, that short genre, it's easier to read and respond authentically because you actually read it as opposed to 10-page stories and you pretend listen and pretend read. Not to make light of it but it is easy to copy on the copy machine when they're shorter pieces. And the other bit is you can have more celebrations, more publications, editing is easier of short pieces. Then you can publish and then you can party and I think kids need lots of that to keep them going.
Maureen: Yeah, that's really clear in the book, the emphasis on that. When the pieces are written, the celebration. That's really great.
Shelley: Yeah, I think so. Because then they want to keep celebrating. You get a lot of mileage out of it. But I want to make sure the readers don't think that short genres are necessarily easier genres. I mean you think of poetry and short story and picture books, they're not easy and I've been watching my grandchildren write their college application essays, and every time there's a word limit, it's maddening. It's so much harder to tell your truths when you're limited to the amount of text. So it's not necessarily easier. And I also think short genres demand as much research and demand as much crafting. I mean the lessons you can get through are reasonable, but it does require research and it does require crafting.
Shelley: But I think you mentioned the most important reason of all, and with short genres, especially the ones ... Most of the ones I've written about, you have a chance to do more than one. And I think traditionally we only saw that in poetry writing. That because poetry was considered short, teachers would often say, "Have a go at another poem," or, "Write two or three poems." Well I think a lot of the challenges in the book require more than one and this pandemic gave me lots of time to be home and one of the things I tried to learn to do was to make paella and my paella got better and better each time I made it. So if you pay attention, if you ... Actually I took notes on it. I wrote on the recipe what to add more of, less of, which product to buy, not to buy. I think it's a deliberate attempt to get better at something. That works with genre writing too. So if you're writing a non-fiction calendar, those are 12 opportunities to write passages to go with the illustrations. That's 12. If you're writing biographical sketches, I have this fun project in there based on Eileen Spinelli's book Do You Have a Hat? she's written and she wrote about distinctive people who are known for their hats, or do you have a cat, do you have a...
Shelley: And the kids came up with their own and I kind of wish...And they wrote several. So do you have your face on money, and they'd write about all the interesting people. Of course now I'm hoping the child who wrote that one will add Maya Angelou to the [inaudible 00:17:32] that page in. But there's so many opportunities to try it again and again and again. I did for that one do you have eyeglasses and I wrote about John Lennon and Whoopi Goldberg and Benjamin Franklin, Mahatma Gandhi. But it gave me an opportunity to keep getting better at biographical sketches. They're short, they get to the point.
Shelley: So alphabet books, riddle books, definitional, which is hard to explain, but where kids pick a concept and try to create vignettes to define it. Like serendipity is, loneliness is, and you get so many opportunities to get better and better and as soon as you share it with your classmates and they kind of sigh or laugh, you know you've touched an emotion. You expect that kind of reaction.
Maureen: Yeah. That's great when that happens.
Shelley: Yeah, and I don't think short necessarily means it's like, "Wait." I looked over the book at the end and I was so stunned that so often I wrote about New York City. I wrote genres about New York City, I wrote a counting book about New York City, I wrote a day in the life of a tour guide in New York City, I wrote a book using refrains. If you're not from New York City, you don't know dog walkers, you can't know dog walkers, et cetera. Or persona mask writing. I am Staten Island. Well you know, each of those was fairly short, but when you put them together, boy, I researched a lot about New York City [inaudible 00:19:10].
Maureen: Yes indeed.
Shelley: There was a lot of content information. So I still, every day when I read, I'm looking for kind of...I look for genres in the real world where I think children, I wonder if children can do that. I ask myself, "Would a child want to do that? Would a child learn from doing that most of all." Right? Because if they can learn from doing that, I'm right there. Let's do it, let's try it.
Maureen: And one thing I noticed reading the book, not only are these challenges really interesting and intriguing, you do talk about lifting the quality of the student writing. So along with presenting the challenge, the craft of writing is still being taught. So the kids are learning to be better writers but they're also learning about whatever they're researching and curiosity seems to grow and be contagious among them so that they care about their environment and really the world at large and become more interested in finding out.
Shelley: I think that's very true. I mean we often refer to it as the writer's toolbox. What's in the toolbox? What are the techniques, what are the crafting elements, whatever you want to call it that you can actually use, and I think it's interesting to think, "Okay, when you're five, which of those are useful, when you're seven, when you're ten." And I'm always amazed how much children love the power of three. They think it's magic.
Maureen: It is magic.
Shelley: I know, and when they're reading, they come up to you, "I've found the power of three. She uses the power of three." They love that, and it makes the writing just a little bit more literary, to teach them a few of these techniques. They love the power of a good verb. Not to say ... They understand when you say, "Which helps you picture the scene? I ate my lunch or I gobbled down my lunch." Five-year-olds get that, that gobbled down gives more information. So therefore more useful. So I think that's woven into it and there are so many books that the writer becomes this unwitting writing teacher, that they don't even realize it, but I think the really important point about children's literature is not to abuse it and not to turn it into a mini-lesson before you really enjoyed the book and talked about the meaning of the book and had good meaningful conversations and it's only upon the rereading and rereading and rereading that you say, "Isn't that interesting how the writer created that effect?"
Maureen: Right. The choices the writer makes.
Shelley: Yeah, I always say to teachers, "Imagine the writer walked in or is peeking over your shoulder. Would you be embarrassed that you're turning it into a mini lesson?" Or would they appreciate that you've actually understood it as a piece of literature first. And I think teachers are under such incredible pressure now because they don't have enough time, that they've condensed the writing workshop so it's really easy to go for the mini-lesson instead of the meaningful conversation first.
Maureen: So Shelley, I don't know anybody who knows as much about children's lit as you do and it's just wonderful. Every time I talk to you, you talk about new books you've read and how does that happen? I mean you were always this way, when you were principal, superintendent, you were always reading children's books, the New York Times, new novels. So how do you do that and what about teachers who are a little bit...Not intimidated but it is...Not as easy for them.
Shelley: Yeah. There are a couple of things. I think about children's lit a lot. I have lots of books at home. I don't know how I'll ever move or -
Maureen: No, you can't.
Shelley: But I think pre-pandemic, life was a little bit different. I used to spend a lot of time in public libraries and bookstores just browsing. Of course now I'm doing it all at my desk and I keep up by reading reviews. As you said the New York Times book reviews, all kinds of reviews, literary magazines, children's magazines. I do do online searches, I note publishers' promotional materials, I read recommendations by librarians and literacy organizations and wonderful [inaudible 00:23:56]. There's blogs out there that are wonderful. Library lists, the YouTube read-alouds are great fun because you get a title and you think it's good and you say, "I wish I could go to the public library and find it," and then you find it on read-aloud. That's great, because you get to sample a book and even now, Above and Beyond has an ongoing bibliography. So I feel the search goes on so I can keep tucking them in, which is great for me and I'm amazed how many I find. But I also re-read old books that I have. Public schools have libraries filled with old books. So I do read the old books. I was laughing the other day, my husband collects Golden Books, those little kids' books, and he has them in alphabetical order in the book case and I came across the I section and I found I'm a Truck, then I saw I'm a Monster Truck, then I saw I'm a T. Rex, and it's funny the little Golden Books, you don't think of an author because they're tucked inside, they're not on the cover and I found the author, Dennis Shealy, I never heard of him and I look him up and of course he's also written I'm a Snowplow, I'm a Dump Truck. Now I know what I need to get, but that fits so well with this persona [inaudible 00:25:18]. So I think it's everywhere and I'm retired, so I have time. And especially during the pandemic, I have lots of time to keep up with children's lit.
Shelley: So to the busy teacher, I do have some suggestions. I think as a staff, if I were still a principal, I often think about that, what would I do? I think it would be great for busy teachers to divide and conquer. For teachers to share the tasks. It would be lovely for colleagues to each accept an area of expertise. Maureen, you could be the poetry maven [inaudible 00:25:56] expertise, and someone wants to specialize in picture book biographies and someone else in -
Maureen: Wear the mask.
Shelley: Yeah. Persona writing, but I do think that if we divided it up and we knew who to go to in the school. I'm looking for such and such, I know who keeps a running list of those. So I think those kinds of things, you make it public knowledge so you know how to go to. The other thing I think would help is if, and I've long advocated for this and I know space is an issue. Most elementary schools have a book room for reading. Multiple copies of books and their levels and they're all organizers for teachers to borrow a set. I think we could do that really well for the teaching of writing. Like whatever the school community is studying, wouldn't it be lovely to have half the room devoted to the teaching of writing. So you keep the books there, you add to them, you borrow them, you change them, you come up with a new challenge, a new genre to study, you create another stack. I think that would help teachers get them started at least.
Shelley: The third thing I would invite other staff members in on this, I think the art teacher, the science teacher, the administrators who care about literacy. I think they should all be invited in on the fun to search out. Not just up to us, I think parents and grandparents. You never know who knows about literature I was just laughing because at our school, Faith Ringgold was a grandparent. At New School and she's just having one of her classic original murals moved from Rikers Island, the women's section, to a museum, and yeah, everybody's clamoring. In February there will be an exhibit of it. She had our three granddaughters at the school. She was a great parent. And the fourth thing I would say to administrators in particular, to devote staff meeting time to sharing of literature. I think that's a draw. Everybody loves that. Elementary teachers, I know when I was teaching in Brooklyn at the start of my career, at the school I was at, we often had to work hard to get parents to come out at night. We knew if we put in the flyer that we were going to put on a slide show of children at work, more parents would come.
Shelley: Yeah. Because who doesn't want to see their kids busy at work? You never get the opportunity to see them. And I kind of feel like starting every staff meeting with five new books, you're guaranteed to have people come in and be in a great mood and remember why they went into teaching and to be able to see the world through children's eyes when they get to share these books and talk about it. Yeah, I just heard from a friend of mine who runs the Harlem Village Academy. Deborah Kenny. And I hooked her up with the people who publish the 1619 book, Born on the Water. Born on the Water is the children's version of Nikole Hannah-Jones' book with Renee Watson. It's an incredible story about slavery and yeah. The publisher offers to do a Zoom conference or I don't know, in-person conference with the kids and Deborah just emailed me to tell me that John Legend is donating 1,000 copies of that book to her charter network and I thought -
Maureen: Oh my gosh.
Shelley: Wow, 1,000 copies of a book. What a difference in the life of those children to each own the same book, this shared literary heritage. We tried that at Manhattan New School and we had some great donations at the time. [Bea Culenin 00:30:16] donated multiple sets for every child. [Die Snowball 00:30:20] donated multiple sets for kids. So I think it's just this brilliant idea.
Maureen: That's wonderful. That's great.
Shelley: Yeah. I mean books do make a difference in children's lives.
Maureen: Oh yeah. Definitely.
Shelley: For sure. So I think once you hook someone on keeping up with children's literature, it's hard not to keep up with children's literature.
Maureen: I know. I keep buying children's books even though now my grandchildren are older and -
Shelley: I know. I've been going to their bedrooms and taking them back.
Maureen: That's a good idea.
Shelley: Well I gave them away. I give them books and yeah, some of them I just want back because they're so important to me.
Maureen: Beautiful. Shelley, the little girl on the cover of the book. So many people have asked me, "What's her story? Why is she on the cover? She's so intriguing." Would you tell us how that happened, I think you told me her name is Dalia and...How did she happen to get that on or to be on the cover of the book?
Shelley: Right. Yeah, I just love the cover of the book. I just love her look. I mean I wish you saw her feet. She has like flowered sneakers and yeah.
Maureen: She looks like such a happy girl.
Shelley: Yeah. She's very wide awake.
Shelley: And I think that that's important. She's very observant, very wide awake. She's got the homemade necklace on the cover. We just love it. So the story about Dalia and the reason I wanted her on the cover, the title of the book is Above and Beyond, and I got the idea for the title. I mean that's like a cliché, above and beyond. I could clip it out of the paper practically every other day, someone says he went above and beyond, she went above and beyond. But for me, it started in New Orleans, when my oldest grandchild was looking for a college. She had gotten all these invitations from Tulane, and so we took her there thinking, "Oh. New Orleans, we love New Orleans."
Shelley: So we took her to tour Tulane. She got accepted, she didn't choose to go, but she got accepted and she loved it and we were in the street in New Orleans and a bus passed by, a public bus, and on the side of the bus, it said, "Every child deserves two things, above and beyond."
Shelley: And it was an advertisement for the children's hospital in New Orleans, and I thought, "Well, a really good children's hospital, of course you want them to go above and beyond for every child." But isn't that true for schools as well? So that's where I got the idea of above and beyond because the schools where my grandchildren attended, and of course they're older now, they're all teenagers. But their elementary schools, for me, went above and beyond, and that's why I was invited in I suppose and why I made such good friends with such lovely teachers. And happily one was an urban and one was a suburban district. So that worked really well for me to keep my learning, and they're both in New York State which is rather interesting. If the state has mandates, I could see it in both perspectives, in the city and in the suburbs.
Shelley: So Dalia was at PS87. She was a third grade student in my friend Renee's class. Renee is a wonderful teacher who actually taught at Manhattan New School, and we go back. She attended Teachers College Reading Writing Project when I was there many, many moons ago. Then she came to teach at Manhattan New School, she's taught in Ecuador, she's taught all over the world. And then she decided, she was a principal in fact, and then she decided to go back to teaching. She was teaching third grade at PS87 and I was thrilled to work in her class, and the summer before last, she sent me an email, a text, that said, "I think you'll like what Dalia just did." And I had spent the year with Dalia right before the pandemic, up until March. She said she wrote a note to Biden and Harris, who were then candidates for president and vice president, and when I read the note, I was so choked up. It was so beautifully written but it was mailed and no one asked her to do it and I thought, "That's the perfect example of above and beyond, where it's not a school subject writing, but it's a way of life, where you've understood that writing makes a difference in the real world."
Shelley: So for me it was a no brainer. Once her parents gave permission, I was thrilled to have her on the cover and Renee hosted many of the writing challenges in the book but I think it was the sum total of all of them, the sum total of being in that school, where the culture supports social justice issues, you pay attention to the world, you listen in to your parents talking at the dinner table. It wasn't any one activity, it certainly wasn't a writing assignment that made her write to the president. She understood the power of the written word, and isn't that what we all aim for? That's above and beyond. There's a challenge in the book where the kids were asked to think of a topic that they really cared about and to imagine a day in the life of a person who is associated with that topic. It was called just for a day, and in fact, Dalia picked ornithology, bird watcher, bird study. And she imagined herself as a bird watcher in Central Park, and it's beautifully written. Unfortunately the pandemic came and we never quite finished it, it's in the book. I don't remember if she ever finished it, but her text is there and you could see she's just a really good writer and all the toolbox elements and techniques show up in her writing. It's not just that she has powerful ideas but that she knows how to convey them well. So she knows how to write well, she knows how to move an audience that your job is to move an audience. She knows what it is to get real world feedback. And the school community I think promotes that. They know that letter writing is not for bulletin boards but for mailboxes. It's for mailboxes. You don't write letters to people who have passed away. You write to people who respond
Maureen: I was embarrassed when I read Dalia's letter and you were telling me this and I said, "Oh, do you have a copy of the original," and you said, "Of course not. The original went to Joe Biden."
Shelley: Yeah, I don't know if he ever read it though.
Maureen: I'm very embarrassed.
Shelley: Yeah, it's such a beautiful letter. You want me to read it to you, the last line?
Maureen: Yes, I think that would be great.
Shelley: Oh, it's very short. "Dear Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, I totally 100% support you. Even though I'm under 18, I still want to help you as much as I can. I always ask my parents about politics as much as I can. In this letter, I am giving you $41.00 from my elephant bank. I hope that it helps you win this election. Your friend, Dalia, age 8, New York, and [Kalia 00:37:51], age 6, New York. P.S.: My three-year-old brother Noah calls you Joe Vitamin because you will heal our country."
Shelley: I was so blown away.
Shelley: I mean her three-year-old brother I mean, amazing. But that she realized what a powerful ending that would be.
Maureen: Yes. Good move as a writer. Very good move.
Shelley: Right. Great move as a writer. And it wasn't just her bank, it was her elephant bank. And it was $41.00, the specificity of it, you know?
Maureen: Right. Specific.
Shelley: Yeah, you could really believe that she was being honest and accurate and specific. She knows what it is to be a good writer.
Maureen: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Maureen: So we read a lot about what a difficult time this is for teachers and you have so many friends who are teachers and what do you think? How can they continue to feel motivated and invigorated and embrace their vocation? Happy to be teachers? What can they do these days?
Shelley: Yeah. I agree with you. It's a very challenging time to be a teacher, and I often think what would help. 20 years ago, Don Graves honored me. He overwhelmed me because he wrote a book called Teaching Is Not Testing, and I was so surprised and thrilled. He wrote the dedication to me, and he said it was because I had a clear vision for children and teachers in America and I have that same vision today but it's so much harder. It's so much harder to achieve because first off, teachers' roles have expanded. Renee came over the other night for dinner. She was fully vaccinated.
Maureen: Good. Good.
Shelley: Tested. But she was talking about how she spends time making sure the kids are wearing proper masks and filtering the air and cleaning furniture and handling remote learning on the spur of the moment and handling hybrid methods of teaching and caring for mental stress issues with colleagues, with kids, with working to calm anxious parents and it kind of reminded me of 9/11 when I was superintendent in the Ground Zero area.
Maureen: Oh, I remember.
Shelley: Well, everything changed. I had to become good at things I never knew or never thought I'd ever have to learn about. So I think the challenges now to teach literacy in rooms where there are no meeting areas anymore, there's no gathering of children, there's no huddling together for collaborative projects. The kids wear masks and sitting at a distance, there's no classroom visitors for interviews, there's few field trips unless they're outdoors. I was recently asked to participate in World Read Aloud Day.
Maureen: Oh yeah.
Shelley: And I can't do it on Zoom. I did it two or three years ago when I actually entered a fourth grade room or a fifth grade room and read aloud a favorite book, but for me on Zoom, I just don't get the same feel to read aloud with the kids in front of me, to see their...You can't see their faces. The gestures, the reaction, the body language. I need that to be present to go on. So I think now more than ever we need to create moments of joy in our classroom, whatever that takes. I've become fascinated lately with the ways people around the world are handling the pandemic by finding moments of joy in their own life. It's amazing how Wordle has caught on for example. Everywhere you go, people are doing these Wordle, and I love doing it. My daughter-in-law sent me it and that's the way I start the day with my coffee, with Wordle, and my friend Sharon who worked at the Guggenheim recently, she was there for many years, working in the education aspects of the Guggenheim museum. She told me about the Getty Museum challenge out in California and they do call it challenges which I was very thrilled because I -
Maureen: Right. Your book is all challenges.
Shelley: All challenges. But the Getty Museum, I think they took this from a museum in Amsterdam actually, where they challenge people to recreate famous works of art using household items. You have to google it to appreciate it. It's so joyful and so much fun and so imaginative. Or what I have been fooling around with is this project from the bookstore in Bordeaux. That's one that I was googling too. It's called the Book Face Series, where the people in the bookstore, they're stuck inside this bookstore and they're finding book jackets, the cover of books that are missing just a piece. There's not a full body or not a full face and they actually put real people behind the books and take pictures and frame them and I was just looking at these things and all these challenges are so imaginative and so innovative and so worthwhile and they spread energy instead of draining energy and that's the spirit I want to return to the writing workshop in our schools.
Shelley: So right now, I think it would help teachers to have more creative arts in their lives, to take abundant time to read aloud wonderful books to children, and then to have important conversations after they read aloud. They have to be reminded of why they went into teaching. And of course more time to write and invite their students to write and I think in the teaching of writing, you need work that's real. And you need time during the school day where you're not making all the decisions. Where the kids are becoming decision-makers. Where you can marvel at children again. Where you can see the world through children's eyes and hopefully those are hopeful eyes. And of course, we need to provide counterarguments to formulaic assignments. I quote this British explorer, Freya Stark her name is, and she said, "There can be no happiness if the things we believe in are different from the things we do." And I think that happens in schools, when teachers are forced to do things they don't believe in. It's really hard [inaudible 00:44:24]. So I think just find a caring colleague, figure out something new you want to learn, and even if it's just with one friend, I think we have to be good at messaging. Politicians have to learn that too, but if you try to accomplish a district mandate in a new way, be proud and show off the results to prove it can be done.
Maureen: Right. Talk about it.
Shelley: Send it home to the family members so they can be advocates for you, they can become ambassadors for the work that's going on in your classroom. We have to make the teaching of writing more joyful and in fact more experimental. I love to think of the brilliant Tom Newkirk and his comment that when we stop experimenting, we stop living as teachers. And I -
Maureen: That's perfect.
Shelley: Yeah. I do think that the sense of exploration and the sense of experimenting is so needed, that I do see glimmers of hope around. Teachers write to me and tell me they're trying new things and you just need one friend to try it with.
Maureen: Yeah, yeah, and it's invigorating when you write about stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new. Maybe try one of these challenges yourself as a teacher.
Shelley: Oh that's the most fun.
Maureen: And come up with your own.
Shelley: Oh, the most fun. I mean writing alongside your students, oh...That's how I knew my challenges made sense, because I found teachers who are willing to try to do it. And I love doing it. I -
Shelley: I never write one challenge that I didn't want to do myself and there are plenty of genres I don't want to try that kids are asked to try, and I'm not interested. They don't appeal to me, but I try to say, "What would I love to do? Would kids love to do it and would they learn from doing it?"
Shelley: I still have people writing to me about would you rather, like things that they think people confuse in the real world. If I said to you, "Would you rather own a co-op or a condo," if you were honest, you might say, "You know what? I need information. Tell me what the difference is in New York City." And so I could write up a little paragraph about both and then you can make an informed decision. So most of the challenges in the book are appealing to adults. I mean…
Maureen: Right. Definitely.
Shelley: Right. You can try your hand at it and I think...I'm always amazed that more elementary teachers aren't writing picture books. They're so immersed it and they've crawled inside them, they know what makes them work, but they haven't tried and I hope...I'm encouraging with the book teachers to write.
Maureen: I think you are. I think you are.
Shelley: I hope so.
Maureen: Very inspiring.
Shelley: Well, well, I hope so.
Maureen: I like that you end the book with the notion of trust. You touched on it earlier, but trusting the kids, trusting the literature, the beautiful literature, and trusting your colleagues.
Shelley: Yeah. I mean for me, it's like sourdough bread, the book. You save a little bit to start the next one and for me, I'm sad that I'm not in schools right now, but there are so many more challenges that are swirling around my head and are tucked into my what if file. I have this lovely file, what if? What if we tried this, what if that, and as soon as I start working on it, I lifted out and have a separate folder.
Shelley: So Paul Janeczko, what a loss that was to the world of poetry, but he has this beautiful book called The Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog. And it's all filled with how to poems. And then a couple months later I come across Follow the Recipe, a poetry book by Marilyn Singer filled with how tos, and I think wouldn't that be something? Have we ever asked kids to write how to poems, and is there something they should learn from reading these? And I say, "Oh, I'd love to play around with that idea," and it always starts with a let's play around with this idea. So there are things like that, and some of the things got cut short in the pandemic. The New York Times has an overlooked column of people they feel guilty they didn't write obituaries for.
Maureen: Right, right.
Shelley: I started that in a fifth-grade class and the kids actually wrote letters to the Times suggesting people who they thought were overlooked. Women -
Maureen: I think I was there the day you were talking about that. I remember that. Yeah.
Shelley: But we never saw it through. The pandemic came in. Our library research project. We started it, you were there also for the library. We never finished that, we never produced an anthology of library pieces. So there are loose ends and there's lots more that I still want to do. I was talking to my friend, the do you have a hat, do you have a cat, do you have a dog, where you put together biographical sketches of a surprising mixture of people who you can connect because they all wear eyeglasses or they all are born in March or they all...I always joke that it would be a great dinner party when you put people together that way. The one I was thinking about, and I just started reading. I have a whole stack of books in the house about inventions and some of them, the product, the invention, takes the name of the inventor. So I started making a list of them. Graham crackers, Ferris wheel, and jacuzzi, leotard, and I looked at it and they were all white men, and I thought, "There must be women. There must be people of color who have done inventions." And of course there are, but I couldn't find many or any that were named after them, except for nachos, and that was a man's nickname, Nacho. The man who invented nachos. And women, I found Apgar, Virginia Apgar, the Apgar scale for newborns. So now I thought, "Well if I were in school, I would be doing that one and researching and pushing the envelope on that." And maybe there's even a picture book there. That's what I would have fun with, writing a picture book about why don't we call such and such with a person's name to try to advocate for that. So yeah, I've been having fun and yeah. My grandson and I just signed a contract to publish a book about the history and science behind snow globes. So that's kind of fun.
Maureen: I can't wait to see that. Thank you so much for doing this. I always love talking to you, but this was great.
Shelley: Yeah, well, there's a lot to talk about. How can you miss?
Maureen: There's a lot to talk about.
Shelley: How can you miss? Books, children, writing, the world.
Shelley: Being hopeful.
Shelley: Well take care. Stay safe.
Maureen: You too Shelley. Thank you. Thank you so much.