Young word-slingers source of inspiration for teachers
Making the Grade: Paul Tamburello
Wednesday, February 18, 2004
Being a writer is alarmingly like being a gunslinger. No matter how good you are, there's always someone better. Fortunately, when a writer comes across that someone, a riddled body is not the outcome. Psychic damage, however, can be humbling when one of those superior word-slingers happens to be a fourth-grader you are teaching how to write.
Look, I don't mind getting gunned down once a week by my hero, columnist Sam Allis, author of The Observer in The Boston Sunday Globe. Sam writes with more "voice" than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He's my Wild Bill Hickok, a man who can put words on notice that they'd better march into his column with verve or have to do a little dancin' as he fires some metaphors at their feet, making 'em tap dance a bit in the street.
For the past two years, I've been sharpening my own writer's "voice" so I won't have to do that embarrassing dance. With practice and chutzpah, I've even landed this monthly column. Each month, I read drafts of my prospective columns to my students with the authority of a bona fide writer. When the columns appear in print, I dash out to the corner news stand so I can read them the final versions, with a dubious mixture of pride and self-importance, not long after the ink on the newsprint has dried.
With evangelical zeal, I teach my students to notice the way their favorite authors write, encourage them to use similes and metaphors, and to listen to their classmates' writing for a source of inspiration.
During our frequent writer's workshops, sessions held when I ask my writers to read their work to the class, kids come up with novel ways to solve what we call "juicy writer problems:" how to "show and not tell" as they elaborate, how to find a good lead for their stories, brainstorm for just the right word that captures the feel of their subject.
As it turns out, I have a few Wild Bills in my own classroom every year. These little word-slingers seem right in tune with their inner writing voices. With the cool swagger of the sheriff, they can draw a bead on those images they see on the "Wanted" posters in their imaginations and have them incarcerated between the lines before a crowd forms to witness the heroics.
The Latin root of the word education is educare, which means "to lead out." The most ironic aspect of educating is that occasionally teachers find themselves leading out young people who have a raw talent or native ability in a particular subject that exceeds our own. That's when the job gets interesting in a different way.
How do we best serve these sharpshooters? One way is to join the posse. With a nod to Miss Conlon, my 10th-grade Latin teacher, posse is derived from the word meaning "to be able." Teachers become enablers in the best sense. We get curious, we ask these students questions about their thinking and give them space to ponder. We challenge their assumptions, applaud their efforts, and then ask more questions. In sweet irony, giving them a context in which to flex their intellectual or artistic muscles shapes our own approach, expands our horizons and deepens our practice.
Successful teachers consciously create environments in which this can happen routinely. Rather than get powder burns when our students are quicker on the draw, we use the heat from the spontaneous combustion of their intellectual energy to stoke our own engines.
Case in point: Jeff Lowenstein. Jeff was firing out powerful writing in 1974, when he graduated from my fourth grade. Even as a young teacher, I could see that he had a born knack for connecting with others. Now a freelance writer, his article, "King's Chicago harvest," was featured on page 1 of Chicago Tribune's Jan. 25 "Perspectives" section. Reading Jeff's work, and listening to his encouragement as I strapped on a keyboard myself, has been one of the most rewarding parts of my 34-year career.
For the past 10 years, one of our running jokes has been, "When I grow up, I want to write like you, Jeff!"
And Sam Allis, if you're reading this, I'm available if you ever need a sidekick.
Paul Tamburello is a writer and teacher. He has taught in Brookline since 1970.