My Former Life: An Apple Versus an Orange Versus a Wombat

Funny that you should choose this topic, Lisa—this topic of teaching writing to children. It’s been on my mind.

And in my heart, as well.

First of all, Lisa, I have no doubt that you will be a fantastic writing teacher. I know you to be engaging, knowledgeable, and funny; those are lucky girls! You’re already ahead of the game, as a teacher who is genuinely enthusiastic about a topic, tends to pass that on. Plus—a group that signed up to write over the summer?! Sweet! This is the stuff that teacher dreams are made of!

There have been many surprises in getting a publishing contract—wonderful opportunities and friends have popped up in places I wouldn’t have expected. But there is one thing that I have been looking forward to since pre-contract—and that is getting into schools.

I’ve been plugging away at assembling an “author PowerPoint presentation” for use in the fall. I already know that I will be visiting three schools (fourth, fifth, and sixth grades) and I am SO excited! I love hanging out with kids, anyway. I really do. The same presentation given to ten classes goes ten different ways—and I love that. Kids are spontaneous and honest, funny and open-hearted.

I miss teaching. Still.

I, actually, discovered my love of writing as a teacher. I couldn’t use the errors of students as examples, so I would go home and write stories that would subtly go off topic, contain structural issues, etc. . I bought piles of red pens, passed out my stories and told the kids to grade me and to be honest—to fail me if they must, but they better explain why. (I *may* have given them some little motivational, dramatic shows in response to their grades.)

The kids loved it and I began to look forward to these assignments, as odd as that was, for they loved being on the other side of the desk and dug deep when it came to giving me detailed feedback. I saw immediate results in their writing; it turns out that teaching them to look for things in others’ writings helped them find what they needed in their own. I did not foresee, however, that these writing exercises would turn out to be the birth of my new career.

I would also throw “one-minute writing pep rallies” and the kids’ enthusiasm translated to the page. After the rallies, I would join them in writing (I had an extra student desk for this use.) I remember one impassioned plea to my third graders that they just *had* to use metaphors and action and make their characters jump off the page because, if they didn’t, I would get tired at 1:00 AM while I read their stories. I imitated what this looked like by sitting at my desk, putting my head down, sprawling out my arms, and snoring loudly. This was when one of my colleagues came in to ask a question –the same colleague who’d called me “crazy” and slammed the door as she’d left on a previous day because my students were chanting, “De-TAILS! De-TAILS!” I had a very different approach to this other very capable teacher; however, we both got the job done well.

Which leads me to my little writing/author nugget for the day. Listen up—this is an important one!

In a conversation with mentor and friend, Patricia Reilly Giff, (If you haven’t read PICTURES OF HOLLIS WOODS, you must!!!) I had asked her if when she reads a book that she absolutely loves, does it serve to inspire her or discourage her. She laughed and said that she and Katherine Paterson had talked about that many years ago.

Katherine had said to her, “You’re a teacher, right? Do you stand in the hallway, looking at all the other doors, wondering if the other teachers are better than you? Or do you just go into your classroom and close the door and do what only YOU are able to do? The magic that only YOU can work in your own unique way?”

I’m grateful that I understood this as a young teacher. However, there’s a lesson in here for us writers, too. An essential lesson. Don’t spend time comparing yourself to others; it’s crazy-making and accomplishes nothing. Really. Besides, your unique voice belongs to you and you alone. So, open your mind, your heart, and your notebook, and do what only YOU can do!

In your own unique way.

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16 Comments

Filed under Celebrations, Colleagues, Writing, Writing and Life

16 responses to “My Former Life: An Apple Versus an Orange Versus a Wombat

  1. Woo hoo! I feel like I’VE just been to a pep rally. Thanks for a great post! 🙂

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  2. Lynda Mullaly Hunt

    Thanks so much for coming by Emus for the pep rally! 😉

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  3. I love that idea of having the kids grade you — but wasn’t it hard work to write badly?

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    • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

      Actually, it was more like “revision in reverse.” Weird, I know! Thank goodness, it didn’t become a habit (hopefully!).

      I recently wrote something that is a little lacking for my Powerpoint presentation to prove a point about lack of action/telling. I gave it to my 8th grader to read who looked up at me and asked, “So, I’m supposed to be honest?”

      I nodded.

      He said, “Well…I think it’s monotonous and boring.”

      I threw my arms into the air, exclaiming, “Yes! Exactly what I was going for!”

      So rare that he is speechless.

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  4. Hey, Lynda, I’m going to use your writing exercises in my class. Hope you don’t mind! 🙂 It’s true that teaching writing helps with our own writing. And vice versa. Thanks for a great post, as always, Lynda. I love the way you include insightful writing tidbits with a bit of fun mixed in! I hope those schools you are visiting in the fall include mine. Let’s talk…

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  5. Anyone who says it’s hard to find an honest critic doesn’t have middle-school aged kids! Seriously Lynda, you sound like an amazing teacher. I’d love to pick your brain. I’ve done a dozen or so presentations but they are primarily about constructing historical fiction from useful tidbits. But I’m scheduled to a half a day of writing workshops in November!

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  6. I’m curious, Lynda, what connections you are using to get started with school visits at this point. I’m always interested in hearing people’s strategies for getting started. Are your first visits through people you already knew from being a teacher, from being a writer, or have you been out stumping to get these pre-book school visits. I haven’t moved in that direction yet, because I am not sure if I want to do visits pre-book. The visits I have envisioned doing would have a stronger tie in to my book and wouldn’t make since just yet.

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  7. Lynda Mullaly Hunt

    These are all teachers that I know, and I approached them. It’s important to me that, by the time MURPHYS is released, that I am not still trying to work out the kinks. So, I’ll do these three grade levels, paying close attention to the kids during the presentation–times they are engaged and times they are looking at my shoes. I’ll also ask for their/ their teachers’ feedback. This series will also help me tailor the presentation to different grade levels–very important to get that right.

    I do have some interest from “paying” people for post release of the Murphys. Knowing that word of mouth is very important in promoting your author visits, I do want the word-of-mouth to be positive. As a classroom teacher, sometimes someone would come and not really engage the kids or do very much; just being published is NOT enough. You must inform AND entertain!

    So, no, Jeannie. No one is banging down my door; I banged on theirs. Thank God they answered, though. You know that saying, “I wouldn’t take that for free…” Yeesh.

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  8. I wish I’d been in your class, Lynda. 🙂

    Great idea to “practice” with school author visits before your book comes out. With your experience teaching writing to kids, you’ll have plenty of material for a fun and informative presentation.

    I’ve no doubt that the kids and teachers will love you!

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  9. Kathy Bieger Roche

    Loved this post, Lynda. Thanks. it motivated me to think more positively about doing school visits when I get the chance. Since I was never a teacher, just the idea of groups of kids intimidates me!

    I’m going to file this with my “school visits” tips!

    I’m sure you will be great in the Fall! Keep us posted on how it goes.

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  10. what a great post and a great reminder not to compare ourselves to others. thanks for the reminder!

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