Blacksburg Road

I’m now in my third year at Virginia Tech, but about a year into the program our family of five had reason to drive from Dayton, Virginia to Virginia Tech so that my oldest could attend a weekend softball camp. Instead of traveling the most direct route, my husband said, “I’m going to show you the way I used to go when I went to Tech.” Exiting off Interstate 81 at the Salem, New Castle exit, I was happy to watch him reminisce. The drive is an experience that I continue to enjoy each Monday, if the weather allows.

Today, with blinding snow icing the fields, but the macadam spotless enough to take the chance, I made the choice to exit I 81 Southbound, and enjoy Catawba mountain and Blacksburg Road. This trip, I missed spotting the two statues of angels that people have placed in different spots among nature’s towering rock walls. They’re easy enough to miss; so if you ever have the opportunity to cross Catawba, be on the lookout for them. One tall male angel stands high on the hill on your right at the peak of a rock, just before you turn at the stoplight that leads to Catawba mountain. The second little cherub sits, yes sits, on your left on the second wall of rocks, half-way up the rock wall on a ledge.

Here’s what I didn’t miss:

I didn’t miss three deer, looking surprised at me as I rounded a bend in the road. I stared with mutual wonder into one’s brown eyes as the white tail triggered two more to set sail. The strong, slim muscles bulged under the sleek brown as they bounded up the hill, then over the fence.

I didn’t miss the horses, carefully blanketed by their owners in the fields. And I didn’t miss how the evergreens and rocks demanded attention in the backdrop of a winter wonderland. Spotty patches of snow-covered ice helped me to be more cautious and see more than usual.

As I drove, I thought about teaching writing and how students need to have time to play with words in the digital arena that absorbs the majority of their free time. Beyond texts and snap chats, they need to develop digital fluency. Last weekend my husband composed handwritten responses for four hours, (his choice over typing) for a national truck exam. He said he chose to write because he was afraid he would lose his ideas between their emergence in his mind and the keyboard. The keyboard somehow is a distraction in the flow. He was more fluent with a pen, could get all those ideas down on paper.

This experience aligns with Gallagher’s Literacy Stampede; to advance in the workplace, one needs to be able to write and write well. As I rounded the bends and looked for more of Blacksburg Road’s surprises, I thought about the need for educators to create that sense of urgency for digital literacy within the classroom. Troy Hicks’ and Kristy Hawley Turner wrote about that need in English Journal in July: No Longer a Luxury:  Digital Literacy Can’t Wait. What we need is a metaphor like Gallagher used with his students and the “Literacy Stampede,” except we need to create urgency within ourselves in regards to exploring digital writing opportunities. As I thought about this need for a metaphor, a rock fell in front of a sign on the next bend in the road.

The option to compose with a pen, in writing on demand situations, is becoming obsolete.



An Orderly MESS

After spending the last week reading and being inspired by Murray, Kittle, and Gallagher, I think one of the aims of teaching writing and encouraging growth is to create an orderly MESS in the relationship between the writer and the responder:

Mine for the gold in writing, and talk about what makes it gold. Writing teachers often look for golden sentences, and the recognition of what is working in the writer’s craft comes with truly listening during writing conferences, and then taking the time to see if that desired communication is coming through in the piece of writing. Once the message is clearly conveyed, then the writer can further craft that communication to be effective and engaging.

Encourage growth in areas of strength. This growth can be nurtured by matching writing style with reputable authors. I will never forget when I shared my personal writing in front of a group of teachers during a Saturday seminar at the SVWA@bridgewater. The director of the writing academy said, “Jenny’s writing style reminds me of Willa Cather, in the way that she wraps the beginning back to the end.” This did a few things for me. First, I saw that what I had worked to achieve (coming full circle) did have an impact on the reader. Second, it made me want to read Willa Cather. Third, this type of focused feedback gave me confidence as a writer.

Serve others in the classroom via students’ writing strengths. Putting students in a leadership position that capitalizes on a writing strength is belief and trust in action. For example, if a student excels at using metaphors to connect with readers, then put that student in a position to give tips to others. Maybe this means sharing a couple pieces in front of the class and explaining the process. Maybe this means working one-on-one with another student to help them use metaphor in writing. Or maybe this means writing an article on using metaphors in writing and finding a place to publish this for an audience of peers.

Share your writing, not only with the class, but publicly. Most importantly, show the students each step of the work that it took to get you to that place of publication. This effort to show the many steps toward publication puts the emphasis on process over product.

How can we create this orderly mess? In 1993, I started with Rief’s guidance in Seeking Diversitybut Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them provides concrete examples of how to create order without stifling creativity. Likewise, Gallagher’s guidance in Write Like This can serve as a springboard to help toward creating a community of writers that both nourish and encourage.

“Orchestrating from the Outside”

I have always wanted to write an I Am poem. In the past few years, I have seen successful lessons where teachers use this as a writing activity. Often, the I Am poem is coupled with Georgia Ella Lyon’s poem, Where I’m From. Students feel safe writing about what they know; they know who they are, and they want to write to learn to know more about who they are. Last Monday, in my first time co-teaching the evening class entitled Teaching Composition, I tried my hand at writing one of these formulaic, yet open poems, and then further experimented with sharing a Google document with the world. I AM learning with my students, and as Penny Kittle advises in Write Beside Them– You can’t just give teacher assignments “while you grade or take attendance. You’re either in the midst of composing with kids, or you’re trying to orchestrate from the outside.” She also adds that the first has been successful for her, but the latter, not so much.