Counter with Art

Last night after pasta and post-movie conversation with a teacher friend — I was driving home when I realized this — The only story I know to counter a lack of vision is art.

After seeing Into the Woods (another recent underscore for how important the story we tell is) I was twirling linguini as my friend Marie listened patiently and sympathetically to me telling the painful issues I’d encountered in coordinating a family literacy grant at my elementary school. (Of course as a high school teacher she encounters similar issues.) Our grant difficulties in logistics were to be expected and, of course, we made changes to adapt. That was the easy part of revision.

I was trying to summarize and not dwell on the discomfort. But I was stuck with swirling alfredo sauce getting cold — trying to responsibly articulate the gap between my grant writing story of a welcoming environment for new families learning English whose children are in primary school learning to read and write — and the story on the ground I encountered. A different vision, perhaps unconsciously held, by our teaching staff.

I ended my sad narrative with saying I didn’t think I could write my piece for our advanced institute (in mid-January) until I could face down disappointment with school tone on my campus. My job as interventionist has the dark side of the woods: A view of the disparity between how “high-performing” children are treated in some classes and the prejudice against intervention students, the students I teach all day, who are learning the language and struggling to read well.  The ones who get labeled as “low” whom controlling teachers dislike because those statistics show them they can’t control everything. Even when these students make genuine progress in Leveled Literacy, sometimes teachers still talk smack about those kids, forgetting the growth and ignoring the potential.  I take this personally.

My grant work story is just another small chapter in my larger teaching story, a saga not likely to be made into a movie.

A new family in our school, the Spanish speaking mom and her sons, one not school age yet and a first and second grader. She works long hours weekdays and here she is doing word work with her boys on a Saturday morning.

So, my next move is to create a Parent Appreciation exhibit in our cafeteria. I want to display poster size photos of parents who have attended writing nights and saturdays.

Dad comes to Saturdays while Mom travels to do her work. The son is eager and bright, yet finds English and reading difficult because of a speech defect.

Instead of waiting to do my photo essay at the end of the work, in January, I envision a banner with headings underneath…thank you for listening to your children, thank you for talking with your children, thank you for reading…I’d like to write poetic captions for the photographs — and ask the team to invite the K-3 teachers to input their own posters of thanks.  Express appreciation for our parents.  All of them. I want to ask our wonderful translators to help me interview some of the parents about their experiences of school and what they want for their children.

Dads are so important to growing boys.

Gratitude may be the only thing I know that can heal defensiveness.  I think it may be healthy to appreciate the people some staff habitually gripe about:  the generic n’er do well parent who doesn’t support the great work the teachers are doing.

Last night I couldn’t sleep realizing that everyone on the campus — even in alphabetical order — from the aide, after school program, bus monitor, cafeteria worker, classroom teacher, counselor, custodian, health clerk, interventionist, librarian, principal, psychologist, PTA, occupational therapist, secretary, speech therapist, translator, and yard duty — could give our parents a big, huge THANKS.

When I talked with this Dad he wanted to know where “his people” were, meaning the other parents of color.

We have no control over whether a parent enforces homework.  But we do control our thermostat on school tone.  We have control over how we connect with parents and how we invite them into the world of literacy and learning in our school.  A negative report card conference just doesn’t quite do it.  And I only have a little say in this since I’m one of the odd balls who doesn’t run with the pack.  So the countering move now is to let the photos and some poetic captions speak.


Reflecting a moment on campus tone: What is one of the unspoken leadership pack’s big complaint? (Keep in mind that they can turn anything into a gripe.) We’re being monitored.  Which is the job of administrative leaders, for the most part, isn’t it?  While I sympathize with every teacher’s desire for agency — to be trusted to do the very best for their students with the curriculum and practice they see fit — I don’t see being whiners winning that for us.  But I digress.

And, I can’t go over and turn up the thermostat to warm up the environment after another big bitch session in the staff room, or an attempted take down in a faculty meeting.  But I can continue to try to bring some of the Writing Project into my workplace…the art and the democratic respect for all they players — yes, even among unhappy teachers who are frustrated by large classes and top down directives.So what follows is my rewriting for the San Jose Area WP advanced institute which is based on the work of Joseph Harris, in his book Rewriting:  How to Do Things with Texts.  The four moves he models are “metalanguage” for revision.  While Joseph intended his book for college level writers, our director, Jonathan Lovell, and associates took it as a framework for powerful coaching.

Giving new teachers agency to revise their practice using the moves to discuss and explore their work — to work with them much as a writing group functions — has great promise.  The institute’s secret FaceBook group mission is “We’re going to change the face of professional development.”So, if you want to read on (and I know I’m responsible for making you want to), don’t worry too much about the revision moves — they’re embedded in my narrative.  At the very least, scroll through the photos and ask yourself if you see something I consider beautiful and poster worthy?

Think what captions you might write for each…IMG_2265

  1. Coming to Terms

“Coming to terms” involves asking, “What’s your project? What do you want to accomplish?”


My project. What I want to accomplish is to create a welcoming environment in our school that nurtures literacy for primary students and their families.  That makes reading and writing fun and meaningful.  I want teachers and parents to interact in helpful ways. I want our non-English speaking families to be a part of our learning community and know that their stories and experiences are important.

I think I was secretly hoping that some of the old school attitude to writing would evanesce and be replaced by more cooperative forms of teaching composing.  But that would be an underlying motive I was unaware of at the time of writing and revising a grant proposal on the fly.

I wrote and Jonathan and I revised the partnership with the SJAWP with the NWP and the Kellogg Foundation, which was accepted.  Only one in California and one of six in the nation.  We began the work last summer with a team of 4 teachers training in Memphis, Tenn. with NWP leaders.  Teacher consultants from the writing project and two kindergarten teachers at my school have worked — with the invaluable (and monetarily under-valued) assistance of our translators to provide K-1 and 2-3 with positive literacy experiences.

  1. Forwarding

Harris’s “forwarding” move asks writers, “What’s working?” in a draft, so they can build on that as they revise.


What is working for the Saturday programs is to have one, not two sessions.  We had to override the teacher view from the previous “Saturday Reading Boosts” that this was a program just for struggling students.  What’s working is that the parents who show up enjoy participating and the sessions are fun.

Yet we had to realize that modern young parents are not disposed to get up and be at school at 9 am on a Saturday. Starting at 10 with breakfast treats — and having an RSVP for each event — has raised the participation numbers.

The teacher consultant who is an ELD literacy coach in her school does a superb job of gathering the first grade children, showing them how to do something while the parents watch, then having the parents do the activity with their children.  Very high engagement.  Parents want more games to use in teaching their children.

Parents of kindergarteners have appreciated telling stories to their children, childhood accounts that otherwise may have not been told.  They have been encouraged to listen to their children talk while they draw and not put so much emphasis on the correctness of written language at this point.

  1. Countering

When revising an essay, “countering” means considering your draft and asking, “How might I acknowledge other views and possibilities?”

Dad entertains baby and toddler out in the hall so Mom can work with their other child in the classroom.

This first step in getting well is to admit I have a problem, right?  I have a point of view, a vision for creating welcoming literacy experiences.  I have to admit that vision was inadequately shared with our staff.  The principal had the two kindergartner teachers on our team do an activity at the first staff meeting.  I gave hand outs to teachers and copies of the welcome letter we sent to our K-3 EL families.  I assumed everyone would support and welcome the work of talking it up and bringing in families.

As an interventionist, I see parents as my link to best serving the child.  Teachers want parent cooperation, but tend to see themselves at odds with many parents who don’t comply with the homework program. At school my position is intervention teacher.  This grant coordinating is looked upon by some of my colleagues as “just one more thing,” and not viewed with the same passion as drives me to work the extra hours for a small sum of money.

Our first grade teachers, it turned out, looked on the grant work as remedial reading only for the struggling students.  Some teachers are so busy that they are barely aware of the events being offered.  Why should they care, when they have grades and lessons to plan?

My role as grant coordinator is, of course, to make things happen on the calendar and get all the people and things in place.  I hire the teacher consultants and translators and track the project for the writing project admin and the Tower Foundation at SJSU.  I report to my principal and sit in with the teacher team on monthly phone calls with other family literacy grants around the country.  These assistance calls are directed by the NWP leaders who obtained the grants from Kellogg Foundation.

But my role is more.  Things don’t get advertised or communicated without me writing, posting to PTA, getting events on the school marquis and sharing feedback with teachers.  I am the primary mover of the project.  The teachers just show up for the niches they agreed to teach.

I think the countering work that matters most of all at this point is my art project to bring the vision — and appreciation of our EL parents into the school view.  This was not planned for in the original version of the project.  The next K-1 Saturday session and the next writing night for grades 2-3, Penguins and Eskimo Pies are Polar Opposites, will go on as planned.  The ELD writing workshop and the teacher consultant push in to a classroom to support the reading and writing of a group of EL third graders will go happen.

In addition, the art show in the cafeteria is my attempt to counter the below-the-surface-nature of the work.  In one sense I want to address below the surface attitudes.  There is an unconscious elitism.  Perhaps from the days when our school was peopled by more affluent families and not a transient place for many economically disadvantaged families. Like when America was a different nation.

And I also want to raise awareness of what the project really is, not just write a report at the end.

  1. Taking an Approach

The move that Harris calls “taking an approach” involves asking about a draft, “What’s next? What are the implications of what you have to say?”

One approach is let them chose books and let them write about what they know and what they consider fun! Energy and excitement.

I still believe that art has much to offer the world of academic education.  By understanding the art of composing, I understand the reciprocity of reading and writing.  Art, visual and literary, can offer vision where words have become just words and the spirit of the work is not addressed.

Sometimes too many words are hammered on the table and not very much listening happens.  And the tone of the conversation has not been conducive to my wanting to work. Take note, reader, I love to work. There is a strong desire in me to move somewhere else – is it a fantasy land where teachers are grateful for the privilege of serving especially our neediest students?  Is this my Disney wish I ought not to be wishing?

Maybe the soul work inside me will make it possible to continue in my somewhat awkward role as not-quite-a-classroom teacher and not an admin — maybe I will find the strength to not care that my job is viewed by my peers as a solo performance.  I have been hurt to be excluded from collaboration, but carry on.  Teaching the kids has to be enough for now…with sneaking in grant opportunities.

Gratitude is powerful.  Vision and poetry matters.  These people, the parents we invited to our education party, are important.  Revision here means taking an approach that matches what I believe to be true and good.  It means I can treat the staff as if they are happy and generous, too, as well as those parents I have come to love. Well, only with art can I do that. So let’s bring on the Parent Appreciation Party.  Exhibit it.  Write them.  Talk to them.  Invite them.

That’s my story, for the time being.

5 responses to “Counter with Art”

  1. It’s immunity.


  2. Maya, I’d love to be in the same school as you.
    Here’s the book link for Harris’ moves:

    I’ll blog about my word for the yeat: that feels like the next piece.
    I ordered photo reprints in all sizes for our Parent Appreciation exhibit.
    Best to you in the New Year!


  3. Coming to terms, forwarding, countering, and taking an approach–yes, powerful for re-envisioning (thinking of Katie Wood Ray) our lives, our schools, our faculties, and our writing. To improve my writing and my life, I so often have see my world through new eyes. To improve our schools, we have to see our students, staff, and parents with new eyes. Showing gratitude for the good may just begin to build what you’re trying to build. I wish you and I taught on the same hall. I’ve often said to my WP friends that I would like for us to all be at the same school because that would be one rocking school. So often these days teachers don’t feel empowered and are exhausted by higher demands and accountability. I’d love to know more about the four steps you shared and about how those four steps will help us all revise and not compromise. Best wishes for the new year–what’s your word? Forwarding? Revision? Re-envisioning? Gratitude? Possibilities? Vision? I anxiously await the unveiling of your OLW. I’ve served–awaiting your volley. 🙂


  4. Right after I finished this post, I read a blog via Nova that says that happiness is contagious. That’s the good news. And it explains why the unhappiness I experience among my colleagues is also like a virus to combat.


  5. Your parents, students, and fellow educators are lucky to collaborate with such a thoughtful practitioner.

    Truly, this post was an honest reflection. Thank you.


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