This is my space to rant and rave, vent and vex about education, my passion. I am calling it "Mining for Hidden Gems" because of the above quote and because as a teacher, my job is to look for those gems. The real valuable ones are not usually on the surface. You have to dig deep to find them.

I am also borrowing from Katherine Bomer's wonderful book Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching From the Brilliance in Every Student's Writing. It has changed the way I look at not just student work but students themselves and all people around me.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Who Gets to be a Writer?

I always wonder how babies know to instinctively move their bodies to the rhythm of music.  I am also surprised that as soon as a baby starts to dance we don’t immediately start criticizing his footwork.  We do not expect everyone to become accomplished ballerinas or competition ballroom dancers.  We are all expected to get up and respond to the music, have fun and make fools of ourselves.  Dancing is a way to show feelings, express ourselves, however clumsily.  So is writing.

If writing is putting our thoughts into words and transcribing them on a permanent surface to preserve, to share and to propagate, then we all have as much right to write as to dance.  We may not all become published authors and go on book tours.  But we all have a right to scribe. 

So who gets to be a writer? If you have a thought, you can be a writer.  If you have feelings and opinions you are entitled to your own piece of paper and pencil.  My job as the teacher of writers is to help you learn the craft writing, just as a dance instructor does with dancers.  I coach you in getting better at articulating your thoughts and feelings in a way that moves others, convinces them or informs them. 

When I was eight years old, I started taking ballet classes.  One day as I was chasseing across the floor, my teacher admonished me to not bob my head like a pendulum.  Needless to say I did not dance for long.  When young writers come to me to show their work and I find myself reacting first to the missing period, the lack of the capital letter at the beginning of their sentence, the crooked f or the misspelled words, I am afraid that they won’t write again either. 

Katherine Bomer says:

“Learning language follows a developmental course from ‘fluency’ to clarity to correctness.  Writing begins in meaning making, and until students feel ‘fluent’, that is comfortable, strong and at ease with putting their thoughts on paper, they cannot work well on the quality of their own writing; they cannot move toward ‘clarity’ (organization, logical sentence flow) or ‘correctness’ (grammar and punctuation).”

As teachers and curriculum writers we have a choice:  Spending the first few years of early literacy helping our students find their voice, articulate their thoughts and opinions and make a connection with their audiences or drilling conventions and rules.  The consequence of the first choice may be young writers that will have something they will want to say.  They will attempt to publish their work.  They will type it into a word processor that will tell them where their errors are and even help in correcting them.  The consequence of the second choice is a stack of writing with perfect grammar and punctuation that are graded, returned and promptly recycled because they are of no value to the teacher or to the student himself.

When I read the confessions of today’s most accomplished writers, I am even more convinced to just let them write!  I am so glad that Gary Paulsen or Gabriel García  Márquez did not stop writing because they were bad spellers, because the world would not be the same without their stories and their words.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

From My Inverted Universe

As a child, I suffered from chronic tonsillitis.  I remember getting a penicillin shot almost every other week.  This was back in the early sixties in Iran where disposable needles weren’t available yet.  I remember climbing the stairs to the top floor of the pharmacy where a man in a white coat would take out a giant metal injector and place it in a steel container with boiling water to sterilize it.  He would then approach me, who was being restrained by a mother or a father and probably screaming my head off.  Next thing I remember I am walking up the stairs of my house rubbing my sore behind.  When I think of this memory, I also think of books.  Books were my incentive for enduring these painful experiences.  Every time I had to get a shot, my mother would buy me a book!  By age five when I finally had my tonsils removed, I had amassed quite a library.  In second grade when I came down with a severe case of the measles, my one request was a copy of a children’s book I had seen on the children’s story hour on television.  The book was Kaduye Ghelghele Zan or the Rolly Polly Pumpkin, about an old lady who tricks some wild animals by hiding inside a pumpkin as a mode of transportation.  I remember lying miserable and feverish in my parent’s dark bedroom and my father coming home with a hard back copy of that book.  I know he had to have searched for it all over town.  Of all the things I left behind when I came to this country, I miss my collection of children’s books the most.

When I was in fifth grade, I wanted to join the newly established library in my local park.  I had to get permission from my parents and my school principal in order to join.  The principal refused to consent because he thought outside reading would interfere with my academic performance.  My elementary school did not have a library.  The one at my high school was used as the detention hall until a blessed soul took away the locks and let us check out the books.  At fifteen when I stepped into a public library in Houston, Texas for the first time, I could not believe that there were no locks and I did not need anyone’s permission to get a library card.  That was incentive enough for me to try to adjust to a new country and a new culture.
During the years I lived in Venezuela, my reward was the dank and dusty library at the Church that was set up decades ago by the Standard Oil Company to meet the needs of the expatriates living in that far off post.  I read every Agatha Christie mystery they owned, while I fed and carried my four children who were born there.  Once I found a tiny kiosk tucked away in a narrow hallway of a shopping center next to the bakery I frequented.  The young woman and her mother who owned the store were the only source of quality children’s literature in that town.  They did it for the pure joy of it, for God knows it wasn’t for the money.

Once I became a teacher, every time I read The Miraculous  Journey of Edward Tulane, my students would burst into applause at the end of the last page.  For years, kids have come in voluntarily during their lunch period to listen to Esperanza Rising.  How to Steal a Dog and The One and Only Ivan brought tears to the eyes of both teachers and students this past year.

I say all this to make a case for not rewarding students for reading but by reading.  The story is the prize.  The words are the bribe.  Let us not “assign” reading homework but “allow” our students time to read every night.  Let them record not the minutes spent reading but the thoughts and ideas that sprout in their young minds.  There are those who will be hesitant to accept our invitation to embrace reading and books at first. But we must have faith that there is a story out there to hook every child.  

Thursday, March 7, 2013


First, prepare the ground.
It must have the conditions  
for the proper flourishing
of a variety of seeds.

As a matter of fact, back up.
Familiarize yourself with the seeds.
Find out as much about each of them
as possible.
Where are they from?
Are they transplants or natives?
Do they need lots of warmth,
Or do they like to stay out of the light.
Do they need space to grow,
Or need something to grow on?
Do they need constant care
or are they resilient by nature, self-starters.

You must be willing to get your hands dirty.
You must be patient.
You may not see results right away.
Not all of them will show signs of growth
at the same time.
But you must never, under any condition,
lose hope.

Know that you may have ones
who are not suited to the environment
you have created.
At least not right now.
They may not respond,

Do not blame the seed!
Do not be angry at where it came from.
There is no return policy.

Every day, speak encouraging words,
remove the dried up parts, and
get really close to look for signs of life.
They need to feel your presence,
your soft voice whispering close by.

Have the courage to transplant those
who are ready,
to bigger spaces.
Don’t worry if at first they wilt.
They will bounce back.
Give them room to grow. 
Give them something to grow on.
Be the gentle hand that guides them,
but don’t force them to take
a certain shape or form.
Those never look like the real thing.

Remember you can’t make them grow
by standing in front of them and
ordering them to.
You can’t tell them how to grow.
But you can love them so they will blossom
into what they are meant to be.