Writing Reflection #3: Reading Like A Writer

I started teaching in the heyday of the Writing Process.  It was all about having Post It notes accessible when you came across a great word.  I was teaching Grade 2 with many students learning English as a second or third language.  It was mostly about words and vocabulary development when they marked their books with post its.  However, I designed lessons around predictable pattern books.  The standard 5 frame evoking the five senses and sometimes feelings:

I see…

I hear …

I smell…

I feel …

I taste …

It went with us while I read inside, outside, and on fieldtrips.  Paying attention to the language and paying attention to your sensory experience was taught. Closing your eyes and imagining went hand in hand with this.  We would cut off the stems and be left with some impressive poetry.  Even my youngest kindergarten students were reading like writers in the very beginning stages of learning to read.  

When my daughter was learning to read, she was masterful at memorizing text and using her imagination to go where the author was taking her.  I brought up with her teacher that she wasn’t actually decoding text.  She was completing the pattern the author had established.  Her writing was fraught with spelling errors, but the ideas and length of the stories was far beyond what was expected.  I got the big eye roll and the sigh.  I was lumped into the category of another parent with too much background knowledge and unable to celebrate her child’s success.  The MA in Reading was helpful in giving me the knowledge to ensure that she got the testing required to pinpoint the remediation that was required for her to develop into a voracious reader and continue to develop her writing skills.  I did sigh with relief that we exist within the age of spell checker.

My daughter had learned along the way to read like a writer.  She dismisses that a well-developed vocabulary and a facility with language are indicators of intelligence.  She strongly asserts, it is a product of the environment that they grew up in.  However, stepping aside from that ongoing debate, she is a voracious reader with well developed writing skills.  That process started long before she was able to read or write independently.

In her book, Bird by Bird, the author discusses how the great power of writing is that it changes the way you read.  It got me to thinking.  The other day I was lending out books to a friend.  He laughed when he commented on the number of posts it notes in the books.  The books by Ibram X Kendi, all have been instrumental in my thinking and writing about race, antiracism, belonging, otherness, inclusion, and how we create welcoming and racially diverse places of learning, worship, and work.  

Back in secondary school, I remember learning the art of highlighting.  As with many of my peers, whole articles would be highlighted.  It didn’t indicate that we knew how to pick out the main ideas, only what colour highlighter was our favourite.  This carried on until I took history and political science courses at the University of British Columbia and York University.  I found that highlighting was limiting because the key ideas would change according for the point you were trying to make.  Anyone who has read the bible can attest to the fact that text can be used to prove any number of points and perspectives.

What I realize now is that my lessons about reading like a writer have been mostly focused on the reading of non-fiction text.  I suppose this is because most of my writing has been for professional purposes.  Reading fiction like a writer, is a different beast.  My tendency with fiction has been to sit down and read without attention to the writer’s craft.

I recently finished reading The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman.  I found it a tough slog, but I am a believer in finishing the book.  Greatness could be just around the corner.  When I deliberately started to read like a writer, I discovered that my disdain was not for the writing.  The author had been able to create a character that I truly disliked.  Vacuous and self-absorbed.  At that point I was able to consider how it was done.  She revealed Nate through his own thoughts and choices rationalizing his actions.  I finished the book with a far greater appreciation of Adelle Waldman.  She had portrayed many of the “boys”, I had encountered at university frat parties.  

I want to write fiction.   In the review of Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel, The Plain Dealer comments “Martel has once again demonstrated that nothing tells the truth like fiction.”  I completely agree,

Now when I read, it isn’t just about getting immersed in a good story, identifying with a great character, or thinking about something from another perspective.  It’s about thinking about how the author brought me into that story, or created the character, or made me stop and reconsider.  I wonder if I’ll start using post it notes when I read fiction?

A Dozen Ways to Find #Joy During COVID-19 Self Isolation

1.  Celebrate a really good cup of coffee first thing in the morning.  I discovered I had one more tin of coffee from the Café Du Monde in New Orleans.  Oh the happy memories of travelling.  Bonus!

2.  Prepare really good food to eat.  It might be cooking old favourites or involve trying some new recipes.  I had just recently came across the recipe for the cinnamon buns that I adored when I was getting my Bachelor of Education Degree at U.B.C.  I am still trying to perfect the carmelized topping that I remember from back in the day!

                                                                                                Aspiring to recreate iconic UBC Cinnamon Buns

3.  Be grateful for small kindnesses.  After I sent my second letter home to parents and students, I got the gift of a drawing from one of my students for the Easter weekend.  It made my day.

4.  Marvel at Springtime Blossoms and amazing views during physically distanced outings.  The cherry blossoms and the magnolias are particularly magnificent right now!

5.  Feed your mind.  Read lots of books.  Fat, sad books.  Non-fiction.  Listen to audiobooks.  Poignant books read by the author and hard-boiled detective novels.  Professional sources.

6.  Write journals, stories, blogs and poems.

7.  Slow down and take time to notice details in familiar places. 


8.  Sink your teeth into a great binge watch.   Netflix.  Showtime.  Cable TV.  When else will you invest the time to commit to several seasons in a few days!  A binge watch of  Marie Kondo inspired me to go crazy with organization! 

9.  Start new routines.  I did an online workout and discovered muscles I forgot I had.  

10.  Take the opportunity to do chores that haven’t been done in years.  Or perhaps should be done every week.  The joy for me is in the finished product.  The clean gene skipped me and I find NO enjoyment in this task.  I also find that I am able to control the start and finish of these tasks.  And yes…I do like that.  The big joke when I lived in the suburbs was that if there was ever an earthquake, the coats of paint on the walls would hold up the house!

11.  Plan at home date nights, virtual social times, celebrations, and events – even if it is just a very English tea time.



     12.  Plan for when life goes back to normal and the possibilities open up.

Why Blog?

Although I have not always thought of myself as a writer, I have always been one.  I have Holly Hobby diaries recording the events of my life – who I liked, where I had ridden my bike, what Nanny Keenan had cooked for Sunday dinner, what my older sister and cousin said, and who had made me mad.  My Hobbit journal details all of the food I ate, provides detailed descriptions of places, people and events as I traveled through Europe after graduating from high school.  There are many diaries and variations through-out  the years. I wrote letters to my best friends about my siblings, the chores I had to do, and how sick of watching Days of Our Lives EVERYDAY with my step-mother during bright and sunny California days.  I detailed my life for my Mom when I was away and wrote of my aspirations.


I understood the power of the written word at an early age.  I have letters and cards with words of love and affirmation.  My father used to write me letters from the hotel he was staying at when he was presenting at Neurosurgery conferences.  I would formulate future travel plans based on the postcards I liked best.  I have letters dripping with anger and mean-spirited intent – the dark underbelly of the acrimonious divorce of my parents.


As I got older, writing became a vehicle to explore my feelings and my thoughts.  In many cases, it became a coping strategy.  In the midst of family conflict, I would go sit on Ventura Beach or in The Sierras and write until long after the sun had disappeared.  I would also sit at a log on Jericho Beach or Spanish Banks and detail the gloriousness of life.  It continued to be a mechanism to facilitate coping as a wife, a mother, and a daughter watching the denouement of my parents lives.


An opportunity to teach practising Chinese teachers at The Fuyang Bureau of Education came up right after my Mom died.  I gave my family a gift and went off to China to document life.  I had no interest in exploring my very raw emotion.  I started my first travel blog.  I got two pieces of feedback immediately.  One came from my step-mother noting how embarrassed I must be having spelt the word “massage” wrong – an “e” rather “a” and I learned about the downside of autocorrect. The other feedback came from my good friend, Jan Wells.  She commented that she loved reading about my adventures in China, and she loved my style and skill at writing.  In fact, she kept it on her desk top and read it with the newspaper every morning.


As with children, a little encouragement goes a long way.  I became a diehard blogger.  Travel blogs.  Food blogs.  Blog posts instead of newsletters for parents in my schools.  And then I roomed with Rosa Fazio @Collabtime at the Vancouver Elementary Principal / Vice Principal Association Conference co-sponsored with the VSB.  Rosa introduced me to the Twittersphere.  This was my advent into connecting with like-minded professionals online.  The retweet grew into participation in TwitterChats and then developing online relationships.  Then reading articles from the people I connected with online, replaced subscriptions to professional journals.  Recommendations for professional books to read came from my online professional learning committee.  Like-minded educators in the Lower Mainland would come together at Edvents and other face to face meetings of the mind.  The desire to chew on the ideas, formulate an understanding and engage others in the conversation emerged.  I wanted a Book Club online.  This was my advent in to the professional blog.  It precipitated a different type of writing that incorporated aspects of writing for my thesis and other university course along with all of the other writing I had been doing over the course of my life .


Writing a professional blog may have similarities with Book Club, but there are no like-minded friends to finish the sentence for you.  You have to write down your ideas with enough context for the reader to understand your thought processes.  It requires a grasp of your topic and that you’ve had enough reflection time to fully formulate your ideas.   You need to develop the skills to consider who your audience is, and strategies of how to engage them.   Blogging also forces you to rely less on spell-check and to develop your editorial skills.  Or just come to terms with being less than perfect!


Many of my colleagues tell me they don’t have time to blog.  To quote Adrienne Maree Brown: “There’s always time for the right work.” Certainly not all people are writers or readers or talkers.  I am all three so for me it is the right work. Blogging allows me to reflect of what I reading, living, thinking and talking about.  It pushes the card on considering things from a different angle.  Best case scenario, someone responds with a comment, a question, or a conversation.  We all do what works for us!  Blogging makes me better.

The Beauty of the Monster Within

The black poster with the gothic lettering did not come under my range of awareness until the third morning that I woke up and crept on to the deck waiting for Taipei to wake up.   The garden space has been created on the deck at the top of the 72 stairs and emerges to claim its place in the world of Taipei rooftops.  A haven of plants, birds and secrets.  The black poster asks “What kind of monster have I become”?  It is positioned beside a photo on the beach of a pre-pubescent girl on a beach with a cigarette handing out of her mouth.   The picture does not reflect all that is “sugar and spice and everything nice” but the survival of a young girl who has experienced loss, betrayal and anger.  The image is not one of innocence but of Paradise Lost.

Beyond the protected garden paradise emerges the dichotomy of the old and new of Taiwan.  Tiny green leaves emerge and begin their climb towards the heavens.   Two shiny, stainless steel  water tanks stand over the tenuously placed air conditioning systems and rusting out sheet metal, cracked tile and dirty brickwork.

Two pigeons take their place above a small area of red, clay roof tiles beyond and look down on me.  The bird choice of my not quite related, paternal grandfather brings the warm glow of having been loved unconditionally.  Only some people are able to celebrate the contradictory elements of innocence and respect the quest to emerge beyond mere survival.  He lived dichotomies and he could understand them.

Traffic in the background is a steady, predictable hum.  No blaring horns.  No sirens. No persistent car alarms.  Warbling birds and tiny chirps are different from the plaintive seagull calls and crow scoldings of my usual life, but somehow familiar and calming.  A persistent sweeping of the broom establishes a rhythm.  Exercise for a higher purpose.  Cleanliness.  Godliness.

There is no fengshui in my morning alcove.  It is a creation of the mind where the green astro-turf under the table, the collection of textured, patterned and coloured blankets over comfy couches, butterflied and dragonflied pillows, real and fake plants come together with curios to feed the imagination.  The space is not beyond the possibility of dark, twisty discoveries and fabrications.

On my flight to Taiwan, my viewing pleasure included the movie creation of Mary Shelley’s life.  Many were disbelieving that an eighteen year-old girl could have authored such a book as Frankenstein.  The bigger discovery is that the girl had already experienced such despair, disenfranchisement and had personal knowledge of the monster within by the time she was 18 years old.  The Frankenstein book was made possible by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet she loved, her own loving father, a disapproving step-mother and the havoc they wrought with her heart and mind.  Her strength was her ability to name her monster, chew on it and use it to make sense of her life.

The paint bucket with clean white paint drips emerges from a hiding place behind a couch.  The ability to put a fresh face on the less than clean and sparkly.  Imagine the possibility.  Re-created the sense of self you want to project.  Yet, is aware of the monster that lurks beneath the surface that is responsible for teaching us how to be resilient.

On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

My buddy, Armando, was a great fan of Stephen King in high school.  Uttering the name, Cujo, became a tool to freak each other out walking home from the bus stop late at night or in expansive yards in Kerrisdale during late night parties.  Of course, the movie version of my namesake, Carrie, taught me the power of standing poker straight, the unblinking stare and clearly enunciating “No”.   Even the most drunk frat rat or persistent “bad choice” date responded with the intended outcome. Although my older sister digested horror books en mass, I never did.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this book.

Stephen King is a prolific writer who has been able to translate that to market success. My assumption was that his goal as a writer was mass market success.  His book On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft reveals this is not the case. His writing has been a way to live his life, starting from a very young age.   Life granted him both the ultimate highs and ultimate lows that he negotiated through his writing.  He says that he doesn’t even remember writing Cujo because it was in the midst of a dark time when he was drinking heavily.  Perhaps it was the darkness that made the book so haunting!

His writing has strong voice, a direct style and an honesty and openness that I admire.   His advice to aspiring writers:  Make the time to read widely and write widely.  He reads because he likes to read.  He reads fiction because he likes stories.  The learning comes from both the good and the bad books.  “One learns most clearly what not to do from bad prose… Good writing on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth telling. “(p.146)

King is a disciplined writer and he rarely skips a day.  He is not a believer in mapping out the plot and then developing his story. He begins with the situation and flat, unfeatured characters.  Once that is firmly in his mind, he begins to narrate.  He emphasizes:  “Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story…Reading will help you answer how much and only reams of writing will help you with the how.”(p.173)

His book also includes a few pieces of advice that were given to him along the way.

by John Gould, editor of The Lisbon’s weekly newspaper where he had his first job:  “When you write the story, you’re telling yourself the story. he said.  When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all of the things that are not the story.” (p.57)

in a rejection letter in spring of his Senior high year: machine generated signature of editor  :“Not bad, but PUFFY.  You need to revise for length.  Formula:  2nd draft = 1st draft-10%.  Good luck.”

This book taught me so much that I can use in the teaching of writing and in my own writing.  I’m so glad it fell into my hands.  I highly recommend it.


Readers Who Write

Spanish Banks was my favourite beach to take my kids to because I could actually have some reading time when the tide was way, way out there and I could look down at a book.  My daughter, Larkyn, completed the classic “starting school” assignment as a young scholar: Draw a picture that tells about your family.   Stick mommy has fountains of tears coming out of both sides of her head. Stick Mommy is perched on top of what looks like a big box. The arrow pointing to it says “fat, sad book”.   She nailed it. Rohinton Mistry, A.S. Byatt, Jane Urquhart, Michael Ondaatje, Wayne Johnson and Ann-Marie MacDonald are all near and dear to my heart.  The descriptive language, the character development and the story captivates me.

In a discussion of favourite books and good reads recently, I was surprised that a colleague shares a common all time favourite book, Possession by A.S. Byatt.   We laughed because in many ways we couldn’t be more different. However her observation was “Hhmmm, that’s why you can write.”  Same conversation, David Hutchison, author of The Witches’ Malice was sharing his love for Edgar Allen Poe.    My Dad loves Poe and always highly recommended his books for evening reading at his cabin in the Sierra Nevadas.   I wouldn’t be able to put the book down, read long after everyone was sleeping and terrified myself.  The visual image of the pendulum moving closer and closer still comes to mind when I’m dreading something. The Witches’ Malice, reflects Hutchison’s fascination with building suspense and the macabre imagery of the hand.  The learning from the reading isn’t deliberate but pervasive.

As part of my teaching assignment next year, I am sharing a grade 3/4 classroom with a teaching partner.  I am looking forward to teaching reading and writing with young children again.  However I’m also looking forward to exploring the reading-writing connection with them.  Many of the students in our school have English as a second or third language. Reading becomes mandatory practice rather than something that defines how we communicate.  I’m looking forward to the process of working with eight and nine year olds to discover the possibilities for readers who write.

“Blogging” For Thinking

I have the great pleasure of working with Virginia Bowden at Tecumseh this year.  Through her work with students participating in The District Gifted/Enrichment Seminars and my role as Computer prep teacher with the District MACC students, we have arrived at convergent inquiry interests.  Thanks to the mentoring of Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser – through both Vancouver sessions and their book, Spirals of Inquiry, we are making our way along the path toward framing our inquiry question.  When we first sat down to scan what was going on for our kids and the experiences we were providing, we came up with some similar experiences and perceptions.

Both of us were exploring how technology could be used to not just replicate tasks done offline but help students to apply their background knowledge, make connections and actually deepen student thinking and reflection.  Yes, and spark their interests, passions, and develop writing skills!  Providing the assignment or conveying information through interest focused blogs (ie. http://tecumsehcomputerwhiz.wordpress.com/)  became very teacher focused and invited conversational (chat-like) responses and comments not doing much more than scratching the surface.  Our hunch was that blogging could be a way to allow students to go deeper by pushing their thinking – either in reflective responses or the ability to engage their audience in their writing.  The quest is to discover the route.

I’m wondering about how student choice over the theme of their blog will impact the investment in creating thoughtful blog posts?  Virginia is thinking a lot about how much class time is required for students to be able to reflect on their day in a way that pushes them to use their higher order thinking skills?  Both of us wonder how thoughtful comments from peers can extend thinking?

In order to teach students about blogging in a somewhat protected environment, Virginia started using Kidblog.  We both now have our groups set up in classes so students can write their own blog posts and invited comments from classmates without it having to be moderated by the teacher or necessitate use of pseudonyms.  We’re also exploring the privileges that are extended to parents and guests.  Virginia is focusing on daily reflections of learning throughout the day.  I am focusing on developing student voice and ability to engage their target audience into blogs that reflect their own interests.  We’re both still considering where we are going with our learning and what our students need from us to use technology to extend their thinking in thoughtful ways..