What I’m Thankful For: Small Writing & Big Thinking

Sticky notes are a love language, right?

These days, everything seems big. The problems are enormous, the exhaustion is shattering, and the challenges are endless. It’s no wonder I keep finding myself feeling totally overwhelmed. Whenever I realize that I’m sitting in an overwhelmed space, I’ve found that something that’s helpful to me is to break the enormity down into smaller pieces. This week is Thanksgiving, and even the things that I’m thankful for sometimes seem so big they’re overwhelming. So, for this month’s post, in the same spirit of my coping mechanism of breaking things into smaller pieces,  I want to focus on something small that I’m thankful for. And, in this case, that something small is a collection of small pieces of writing: Keep Moving by Maggie Smith 

I’m thankful for all of Maggie Smith’s work (just this summer, I had the rather awkward experience of sitting on a bench at a neighborhood playground and ugly crying into her collection Goldenrod) but in the spirit of keeping this small, this fall, I’m especially thankful for her book Keep Moving. I’m thankful for it as a reader, a human, and as someone who facilitates learning for English Teachers. Even though this task itself seems big and complex, I’m going to try to break down some of the reasons why I’m thankful for this little gem of a book, how it affects my practice, and how that might transfer into Language Arts classes. 

Why I’m Thankful for It: 

1. This book pushed me out of my usual. 

As I first started leafing through it, I realized it wasn’t so much poetry as it was little clips of writing: affirmations, micro-essays, notes. At first, I was disappointed; this wasn’t the poetry I knew and loved, but it wasn’t long before I was sucked into this book, too. Now it’s been sticky-noted within an inch of its life because I’m finding that it’s a goldmine for both my own reflection and for facilitating professional learning. I don’t usually spend a lot of time reading in this format, but it turns out that this writing is small in size but big in potential. 

2. Micro-Writing Prompts Macro-Thinking 

One of the reasons I love this book and its small clips of writing is that it offers facilitation possibilities that prompt big thinking. I’m an English teacher at heart, so of course I love the written word, and I think it’s important to remember the power that a few beautifully said words yield in sparking new ideas. In a few of the sessions that I’ve facilitated this fall, I’ve turned to Maggie Smith’s notes to prompt discussion and/or reflection. A few that I have particularly loved these past few months include: 

“Let go of the narratives you’ve dragged around for years: you are not who you were as a child, or in year X, or on a day Y – at least not only. You do not have to fit yourself into those old, cramped stories. Be yourself here and now” (148). 

“Think of what you’ve achieved that didn’t seem possible last year, or five years ago, or ten; it didn’t seem possible then but you’ve proven it was. Now imagine what might be possible in another year or five or ten”  (152).

“Choose your words with a jeweler’s eye, considering their facets, their clarity, their ability to reflect light. Speak without silencing others. Listen without losing your own voice” (155).

I love these for setting the culture of collaboration, shared learning, and agreements or norms. In some cases, I offered the quote first before individual reflection and in others as a link to a discussion prompt. In another opportunity, we read an excerpt and followed Linda Rief’s Quickwrite process. No matter how we connected our learning to the prompt, I was grateful to have Maggie Smith’s words to guide us. The heart of an ELA classroom is rooting our conversation, our writing, and our learning in beautiful words, so this year, I’m trying to also keep it at the heart of professional learning for ELA teachers. 

3. Metaphors 

Maggie Smith is a poet, so it’s no surprise that, no matter the size of the writing in this book, it’s lush with metaphor. Though I probably have a nerdy allegiance to the device because of my roots as an ELA teacher, I also think that metaphor can help learners in all disciplines and settings. Metaphor requires the learner to step outside of themselves or a situation to ascribe new language to it. When Smith tells us about the word serotinous and how it applies to pinecones coated by a protective resin that requires fire to open, we not only gain new vocabulary for what we might be experiencing, we’re offered an opportunity to reframe the conversation. Smith ends her micro-essay “After the Fire” with the line: “And the cones of the lodgepole pine, having waited for so long for fire’s touch, opened” (65). The sentence nearly stole my breath because with just a few short words, my perspective shifted. Rather than focusing on what’s consumed by a fire, I shifted my thinking to looking for what had been waiting to open. While I learned of this marvel in nature, I also felt profoundly connected to this idea myself.

So much of facilitating learners (of any age) is trying to craft the perfect conditions for those shifts in perspective, and I think a well-crafted metaphor can be a part of those conditions for a few reasons: 

  1. Metaphors personalize and depersonalize at the same time. A great metaphor will probably feel personal because you’ll connect it to something: It’s not just a term for a biological phenomenon; it’s the toughest dang pinecone that not only survived against the odds, it thrives in the most inhospitable heat. But a metaphor also has the power to depersonalize: Yeah, we’re talking about a pinecone, but really we’re talking about our teaching practice. Learning is deeply personal, but sometimes that gets in its own way. Metaphors can help establish psychological safety that allows learners to both personalize and depersonalize as they need. 
  2. Metaphors can scaffold thinking. Whether you work with kids, teenagers, or adult learners, you’ve probably experienced wanting your learners to go deeper in their conversation. Extending the metaphor can help: If your experience was this lodgepole pine, what created your protective coating? How “hot” does it need to get for the coating to melt? What might happen once your metaphorical pinecones can release their seeds? 

In one of her ending notes, Smith writes, “Being creative – creating, making from scratch – applies not only to your work but to your life. Be creative in your daily life. Practice the qualities of a creative person: observant, innovative, open” (209). Much like she ties work to your life, I tie professional learning to learning that happens in the classroom, and I want all of them to run parallel. I’m thankful for this book because these beautiful, short texts provide opportunities for learners of all ages to engage in ways that help them to be observant, innovative, and open. 

What small things are you thankful for this year? How are rooting lessons in beautiful words to help your learners to be observant, innovative, and open? I’d love to hear from you! Comment below or reach out on Twitter @megankortlandt 

Megan 

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