Language is Powerful

Placing my parents’ phone down on the cradle, I could feel the smile creep across my face.  Immediately I grabbed the phone again and dialed up my friend, Eric.  “You’ll never believe this!” I began excitedly.  “I just got a call to play keyboards for one of Portland’s top bands!”  Silence.  Pause.  Suddenly, it hit me.  “Wait, did you give them my name?” I asked.  This was the year 1990 and I had just graduated college.  Eric’s response that day has stayed with me ever since.  “Yes, I did,” he answered.  I knew Eric, along with some college classmates, had recently opened an events planning company and was now in the business of hiring live music.  “You’re going to be a successful musician, Lanny.  And I’m going to be part of making sure that happens.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the power of language on my blog for teachers, Two Writing Teachers, for which I am a co-author.  In that post, I work to make the point that when it comes supporting young writers – and, I would add, readers! – language really matters.  A lot! As parents, mentors, and people of influence in the lives of kids, we are able to harness language to a number of different ends.  One of those important ends, I believe, is creating, building up, encouraging, and inspiring readers and writers.  As Peter Johnston writes in his incredible book, Choice Words (2004), “Language is not merely representational (though it is that); it is also constitutive.  It actually creates realities and invites identities” (Stenhouse, p. 9).  It is interesting to think, when it comes to supporting our kids as writers and readers, are we using language to empower and inspire? Or control and compel?

If we can agree that language invites identities, how might we think about using it to nurture the readerly and writerly identities of our middle school kids?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Hold conversations for enrollment.  For some of us, recruiting our kids into the ranks of readership and authorship is a tall order.  Sometimes it helps to presence possibility; in other words, what if we worked to support our kids in seeing what could be possible when it comes to reading and writing?  After a brief conversation that connects the two of you, try beginning a conversation with, “Hey, what would be possible if…?”  We can ask our kids to dream big…be creative…invent possibilities!  We might say enthusiastically, “If you were to become a huge, voracious reader, what would become possible?!”  Or share examples of how writing has changed the course of world events.  We might say, “Did you know our country began when a few people went into a small room and wrote something down (The Constitution)?  Writing can change the world! You have so much to say that’s worth reading- what would be possible if you became an even stronger writer?”

Contrast the above language with, “You need to read more, it’s good for you”; or, “How come you’re still not using capitals at the beginnings of sentences? You’re in middle school now, so you need to remember that.”

Of course, we may not see the instant effects of such a course of action.  But more than anything, if we begin to use language in service of nurturing an identity of literacy, positive effects are likely to sprout eventually.

  • Acknowledge what he or she is already doing well.  This is sometimes called a “lens of strengths.” When we work to build on what our kids are already doing well, versus pointing out what they are NOT doing, we shift the dynamic of influence.  As a reader, what is s/he doing well?  What can you compliment him or her on?  We might say, “I’ve noticed when I ask you about what you read, you really have a way of making me want to read the book, too!  Not everyone can talk about what they are reading that way.  That’s so cool!”  Or perhaps more specific language might sound like, “I always love asking you about what you’re reading because the insights you share about the characters make me wish I could read people like that.  That’s such an important skill!”
  • Invite a growth mindset when it comes to literacy. Many of us are now familiar with Dr. Carol Dweck’s research out of Stanford University on growth mindset.  The basic premise of her work focuses on the concept that two mindsets exist within the human mind:  the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.  When it comes to talking with our kids, it is important to couch conversation, particularly feedback, in language that nurtures a growth mindset.  That is to say, we want to praise effort, not so much end products, because in doing so we draw attention to a factor they can control- their effort.  Kids don’t feel they can control if they’re “smart” or “not smart”; but they do have control over their efforts.

Check out this version of what I posted a few weeks back.  “Hey, I know you may not see yourself as a writer yet.  But I want you to know that one of my big goals for you is for you to love writing this year.  Your ideas are amazing, and I know that once others are able to read them and learn about them, they’ll agree with me.  We’ll get there, I know we will.”

Bring intentional about language can have a subtle but powerful effect. When my friend Eric told me I would be a successful musician, I wasn’t sure what he meant. But somehow I believed him. And that belief in myself is something I would wish for all the kids we work with.

Bringing Back the Joy to Writing

“Papa! Let’s make a leaf pile!”  Shouting from the front door, my beautiful six year-old daughter already had her shoes and jacket on.  Wait, what?!  A leaf pile?  Is it that time of year already?

Yes.  Yes, it is that time of year.

Although I would describe our front yard that evening as merely cluttered with a smattering of leaves  (making a “pile” proved somewhat challenging), there were indeed many maple leaves adorning the surface of my unfertilized grass.  Some of those leaves were even brilliantly colored in red, yellow, and orange- already!  Fall is arriving! I thought.  And with this time often comes both excitement and trepidation.


For our middle school students, I would venture to guess the intensity of that excitement and trepidation is magnified greatly.  Middle school years are, indeed, both exciting and anxiety-inducing (What will my teachers be like?  Will I have science with my best friend?  I hope my locker works!).  But mostly, fall is filled with joy!  New experiences, harvest festivals, fresh resolutions– so much to be joyful about.  So… what about writing?

My oldest children love to write.  At ages six and eight, they love to write poems, stories, information books, chapter books, greeting cards, signs…you name it.  Likely, you know young children who love to write, as well.  I can remember being a fifth grader the year the movie “Star Wars” came out (yep, just dated myself).  That year, I wrote science fiction story after science fiction story.  And it was so fun!

One of my virtual colleagues, Fran McVeigh, recently wrote about the joy of writing  (check out her post here!).  Fran really got me thinking…how can we support and foster joy in writing with middle schoolers?  Here are a few ideas:

 1.  Try writing yourself-  The great Donald Graves once said, “Write yourself. Invite children to do something you’re already doing. If you’re not doing it, “Hey,” the kids will say, “I can’t wait to grow up and not have to write, like you.”  Even if you don’t see yourself as a writer now, try adopting a growth mindset and think, “I’m not a writer YET.”  Buy yourself a notebook, composition book, journal, etc. and spend some time writing.  While the values of this practice are numerous, know that one central benefit of writing yourself is discovering how hard writing is, as well as what becomes possible.  Who knows– maybe you’ll craft a great short story or poem?  Maybe you’ll discover you have a knack for explaining a topic?  Perhaps you’ll write that letter to the editor you’ve been meaning to write.  What you write isn’t the point– it is the fact that you are writing and living like a writer.  Which is what we ask our kids to do as students of the craft.

2.  Be a book-a-phile and talk up craft-  Being a reader is so important, as most of us know.  But consider a next step: talking with kids about strong writing we see in the world.  Whether we read a lot on our phones, iPads, Kindles, books, or newspapers– we can grab kids’ attention by saying, “Aw, you gotta hear the way this author said this!  It’s just so good!”  Many of us naturally comment on the performances of athletes (“Did you see Tom Brady’s game last night?!”), musicians (“Adele’s voice is so incredible on this song!”), artists (“I never thought I could be so moved by the use of color!”), and others.  Why not turn writers into rock stars and include great writing in our conversations with kids, too?!  By talking up great writing, we draw attention to it.  And where attention goes, energy flows.

3.  Talk up the importance of writing– Writing is one of those skills that seems to become more important as kids get older.  Once high school hits, kids are often asked to write high-level literary analysis papers, critiques, self-reflections, essays, etc.  Then, for many students, come college admission applications, and, of course, eventual cover letters for employment.  And, as many of us know, the job market is changing at an extremely rapid rate.  It is likely that many of the jobs our kids will fill  in the future haven’t even been invented yet!  In the U.S., unskilled jobs are becoming more and more scarce.  However, the need for writing proficiency is becoming more pronounced.  One executive, quoted in the National Commission on Writing (2004), said, “You can’t move up without…writing skills” (from Gallagher, 2006, p. 3).  A quick Google search for “business writing” turns up countless sites dedicated to helping you become “a better report writer.”  Which suggests that the engines of our economy are craving strong writing skills!  So while jobs making phone books are a thing of the past, the critical need for strong writing skills does not seem to be going away anytime soon.  Emphasizing this with our students may prove to influence them in a positive way. Perhaps, if nothing else, such emphasis could function as a gentle counter to the adolescent argument, “I don’t want to grow up and be a writer, anyway!”

And consider the power of writing, as well.  After all, our nation was built on writing that eloquently expresses the best possible ideal our founders could envision for our new society.  Remind students of how writing has changed the world: the United States Constitution, the Treaty of Versailles, the Communist Manifesto…the list of writing that has led to material changes in the world across history goes on and on.  What’s more, as parents, teachers, and mentors, we can tap into an adolescent’s craving for self-determination by reminding them of the power of writing.  Words matter.  Writing is power.

4.  Promote the notion that writing is discovery- One thing to love about writing is the exciting and unpredictable reality that we often discover what we want to say through the act of writing itself.  Many believe that we must know what we have to say before we sit down to write.  I would argue that it is the opposite:  We must sit down to write before we can know what we have to say.  And let’s face it, kids love to discover things!  This summer, my family and I discovered a hidden room in our house (behind a built-in book shelf).  My kids have not stopped talking about it!  A secret room!  What if we conceptualized writing as a way to discover secret spaces in our minds we never knew existed?  Or, as a process that includes a robust element of discovery?  Adding a little adventure can go a long way in conjuring up some joy around anything.

So Happy Fall, everyone!  As the leaves continue to drift down and the harvest festivals gear up, do what you can to create joy.  Whether that means supporting those affected by Hurricane Harvey, spending more time with family, or doing what you love– consider these tips on helping to bring joy into writing for our middle schoolers.  Because just because they are growing up, doesn’t mean they can’t love writing!


Tribute to My Beautiful Mother

Today I was working on cleaning up my inbox in my personal email.  As my eyes scanned to the bottom of the list of “priority” emails, an area toward the bottom, metaphorically dusty and littered with various articles and links filed in my mind in the “I’ll-get-to-these-later” category, my mouse scanned across one particular message.  And suddenly there it was: the warm, colorful, smiling profile photo of my mom.

A few Fridays ago on April 21st, 2017, my beautiful mom passed away at age 74.  For around 14 months my mom, along with the enduring and vigilant support of my dad, had been battling cervical cancer.  As I write this post, I still struggle to believe the very words I just wrote: my mom passed away.  You see, my mom’s spirit was so large, so inclusive, so inspirational, so loving, that it seems impossible she will no longer inhabit this earth alongside my father, her family, her precious granddaughters, her friends, her dogs…or me.  Mom was the living, breathing embodiment of life-giving generosity.  She demonstrated unparallelled integrity, self-reliance, humility, and kindness.  How can she be gone?

My mom’s life journey resembled a sacred mission.  Confidently and actively she always reached out to all those she could touch, laying upon them a kind of nurturing, loving, and sage guidance that truly only she could muster.  I remember recently riding in the car with her, sitting in the passenger’s seat.  At my feet were several granola bars taped to water bottles.  “What are these?” I asked.  “Oh, those are for the homeless,” she nonchalantly replied.  Ah, the ones standing on the street corners at the traffic lights, yes.  I knew who she meant.

That’s the kind of person my mother was, right to the very end of her life– an advocate for those who needed a hand up (I’ve written about her before) and a person of unwavering gracious deportment.  One of my final memories of Mom was when she, while lying in hospice care, gently took her ICU doctor’s hand between her own, tilted her head as she was wont to do, and hoarsely uttered the words, “Thank you for your work.”

Always a kind word.  Always a generous acknowledgement. Always a gracious gesture.

And so, the journey begins, the first reluctant steps into a life without my mom.  And, as a friend commented the other night, the silence is stunning.

I suppose I might add, since this blog is dedicated to supporting young readers and writers at home, that writing about my mom is something I plan to do.  Writing is one important way we can hang onto not only moments we’ve lived, but people we’ve loved and people we’ve lost.  People who meant so much to us. Like Mom.

As for my inbox, I don’t think I’ll be cleaning out emails from my beautiful mom anytime soon.  For now, each remnant of her humanity holds priceless value.  I love you, Mom.  Thank you for being so amazing.


Dedicated to Donna Rae Callaway Ball, 1942-2017

Slice of Life Challenge day 31 #sol17- FINAL DAY

Title: “Grateful”

When I began this year’s Slice of Life Story Challenge, many thoughts swirled through my mind.  What would I write about?  Would my writing be good enough?  Who would read it?  How could I possibly write for 31 days straight- what, with three children, a full-time job, a house, and all the responsibilities that come with such a full life- where would this fit?

And yet, here I am on day 31, along with so many who probably brought similar questions to the challenge.  As a first-time slicer, this experience has opened my eyes to what is possible when people in a community all commit to something and see it through together.  And what a wonderful ‘something’ to commit to seeing through!  A few things I learned:

  1.  Writing enriches – As many of us who engaged with this challenge discovered (or already knew), writing everyday enriches the world.  Perhaps on a small scale, yes.  But the act of writing, as Alan J. Wright wrote early on, allows us to live life twice- once physically, and once interpretively.  And this enriches not only us as writers, but us as readers.  For it is through reflective interpretation that we learn and evolve.
  2. Courage is contagious-  I was deeply moved by those in this community who chose to share and write about incredibly courageous topics.  And to be honest, reading all of you who took such great risk in your writing by writing about the hard topics, inspired me to do the same.  My deduction is that because of the nature of the supportive comments left by readers, we all felt safe, safe enough to write about what really matters.
  3. The ‘writer’s eye’ is real-  For many years, I’ve worked to teach both teachers and students to ‘live like a writer,’ to be on the lookout for ideas that inspire. But honestly, I had never developed that muscle to the degree I have developed it this month.  Living into a commitment of writing everyday has been a bit like an exercise program, a program that has successfully resulted in a strengthened ability to truly reside inside a place of writerly observation.
  4. This community is awesome-  The educators who wrote alongside each other across this month truly are inspiring people.  Your stories and your courage to faithfully be willing to write them down and share them with the world have lifted me as a writer.  And for that, I am truly grateful

Thanks to all of you who have been reading each day (or some days), as well.  Your emails, tweets, and personal comments have been both humbling and unbelievably encouraging.  I thank you for them!

For those of you wishing to continue writing within this community, remember that Slice of Life Tuesdays will continue on Two Writing Teachers blog!  I’ll be hosting the month of April.  Hope to see you there!

Until next year…thank you everyone 🙂



Slice of Life Challenge day 30 #sol17

Choice can inspire true engagement. I got to see that today…

On my way out of a classroom today, I stopped by Qaiden’s desk.  I don’t know him well, but I think of Qaiden as a rather quiet, perspicacious young man.  Kneeling down next to his desk, I whispered, “Hey Q, what are you working on today?”

“De-extinction,” he responded in his level, calm manner, not looking away from his computer screen.

De-extinction?  What did he just say?  Never has a sixth grader dropped a term that’s landed so directly in the no-man’s land of my mental lexicon.  I honestly don’t think I’d ever heard that word in my life.  What I did know is that some of our sixth graders are currently knee-deep in a research phase for an argumentative writing piece.  Over Qaiden’s shoulder, I saw some type of informational website up on his Chromebook screen.  I looked.  Yeah, I’m still not sure what he’s talking about, I thought to myself.  So I asked, “So, what is ‘de-extinction,’ Q?”

“Well, it’s sort of like cloning of animals…kind of like bringing back animals that were extinct.”

Fascinating.  My mind began whirring. “So, this is your argument topic?” I queried.

“Yeah, I think so,” Qaiden responded.

“So, will you be arguing in favor of this, or against it?” I pressed on.

“I’m not really sure yet.”  And then he looked at me.  “I’m still learning about it.”  Qaiden spoke politely, courteously.   But that was my cue.  It was clear to me that I had interrupted his process.  His eyes went right back to his screen.  I’m still learning about it.  Okay, time to tiptoe away.

Sometimes I worry about engagement with our middle school students.  I worry about kids falling into the category of what Phil Schlechty calls “strategic compliance.”  According to Schlechty, students in this category demonstrate “high attention with low commitment.”  They do not see inherent or direct value in the task, but they do associate the task with results that do have value- like grades, for example.

But as I quietly made my way to the door,  I wasn’t worried about Qaiden today.  Nope.  His teacher had allowed him choice in writing topic.  And his words, his actions, all spoke volumes.  He was engaged.  Truly engaged. As teachers, many of us believe wholeheartedly in choice when it comes to reading.  But choice matters in writing, too.  Qaiden is interested in de-extinction.  Why?  I have no idea. But he is.  And when writers are able to pursue a topic that fascinates them, they will write better.

Leaving Qaiden’s classroom that day left me inspired.  What if we could get every kid to be this engaged?

EPILOGUE:  I looked up ‘de-extinction’.  According to Wikipedia (2017):

Deextinction, or resurrection biology, or species revivalism is the process of creating an organism, which is either a member of, or resembles an extinct species, or breeding population of such organisms. Cloning is the most widely proposed method, although selective breeding has also been proposed.


Slice of Life Challenge day 29 #sol17

As soundlessly as possibly, I lowered myself into a chair in the back of the room.  Desks in a circle, some of the eighth graders in the room stared awkwardly at each other, while others bent heads down toward notebooks, silently moving lips to rehearse.  The teacher initiated the discussion. “Okay, fictional violence…what do you think?” she said.

A slight pause.  Then hands raised, a few. A bulky, athletic-looking boy began.  “Well, I think violent video games are fine because they’re labeled ’17 and over.’  The people at the store will not sell them to kids younger than that. So what’s the problem?”

Murmurs ensued around the classroom.

Other hands shot up.  Another boy spoke, “I think video games that are violent are not good because they have no moral value.  I mean, what do they really contribute to society?  All you do in these games is cause violence.  Where’s the value in that?”

More murmurs.

Right next to the teacher, a third boy sat up in his chair.  “Well, one thing that’s good about video games is it provides employment for programmers.”  Fascinating, I thought to myself. I never would have thought of that.

“But these games can be confusing to young minds,” came a girl’s voice from across the room.  “They play the game and think that it’s okay to act like that.”

As a literacy coach, I immediately began to mentally lists strengths, as well as next steps for these writers.  But honestly, I was struck by the intricacy of some of their opinions.  As educators of this age, I was reminded of how imperative it is that we recognize the potential of these students to think deeply and critically about a topic.  The key becomes how to adeptly guide and facilitate students discussion, thinking, reading, and writing in order to foster analytical skills.

Today, the kids scratched the surface.  But that’s an exciting surface to scratch.  I look forward to where they go from here.



Slice of Life Challenge day 28 #sol17

On Sunday, we laid down the vocal tracks in the recording studio…

Entering a recording studio is a magical moment.  This is especially true for those of us who are musicians, but do not have the frequent opportunity to record.  As our lead guitarist and writer pulled open the door on Sunday, I felt a bit like I was walking on air.  Our singer Samantha had arrived already, and our engineer Mark stood ready to go.  Making our way past the gleaming Yamaha grand piano and microphones set up in the main studio, we all proceeded to the sound booth to craft a plan for the day; we would lay down all vocal tracks to the four songs we recorded two weeks ago, as well as an organ solo. Agreed.

Many months of rehearsal led us to this moment.  Samantha, Frank, and I knew our parts, and we all felt excited to overlay our vocal harmonies on the instrumental tracks.  But what is possible in a studio recording is truly amazing- it does not have to only be three voices, it can be five, six, seven, nine, or more.  The possibilities are limitless.  And one by one with Mark’s engineering prowess,  we created not just harmonies, but vocal tapestries.

As we worked, I was reminded of a quote by Lucy Calkins, who said, “It is not the number of good ideas that turns our work into art, but the selection, balance, and design of those ideas.”  I think of this quote often as a writer.  And Sunday, I thought about this within a musical context. Of course we all could have recorded dozens of tracks. But the spirit of the session was not about the number of tracks we recorded.  This was our chance to work as artists- artists selecting, balancing, and designing ideas together in a musical co-creation.

Everyone left Sunday with a smile.  Personally, I plan to add this experience to the short list of cherished musical experiences.  Because how often is it that we have an opportunity to play a part in turning ideas into art?