Today on the Heinemann Podcast, we’re turning things over to Heinemann author and editor Katie Wood Ray as she interviews Katherine Bomer about her development as a writer and educator, and about her forthcoming book, A Teacher’s Guide to Time, Choice, and Response, a part of the Classroom Essentials series. Katherine says that the most important place for a beginning writer to start is with what they know, and what they believe. The rest, she says, is revision.
Here now, is Katherine and Katie.
Below is a full transcript of this episode!
Katie: Katherine, it's so great to be with you and to talk to you about writing today. You and I, we go back a long way in this work together, which is why this is going to be so much fun. I mean, I was just thinking about that. I first met you in back in the early '90s when we were both working for Lucy Calkins in New York at what was then just The Writing Project.
Katherine: Teacher's College Writing Project.
Katie: Yeah, not the Reading and Writing Project, just writing. His college writing project. Yeah. Yup. Not the reading and writing project, just writing and as certainly know that that work was really foundational to all of the work I did after that. I bet that was true for you as well. I'm wondering if you could just talk a little bit about that because you actually were associated with that project before I arrived there to work. You want to just talk a little bit about that and even before that. How did you get started in this work of studying the teaching of writing?
Katherine: Okay. Well, that's where it began, the study of the teaching of writing because I came to Teachers College, Columbia University to go... I thought I was going to get my master's degree and teach high school English and so that I could write on the weekends because I was a writer first. I had worked as a professional writer. I had written poems and essays that were published in small obscure literary journals. When I lived in New York city, I thought, "I know what I'm going to go get my teaching degree," because I've also always wanted to be a teacher, as probably you have since you were a little girl. I chose to go to Columbia University. When I applied to the university, Lucy Calkins was in the room where we were all filling out our applications and being advised on our programs. I didn't know who Lucy Calkins was at that point. I just was trying to get a degree and get out of the business world where I was dying.
She came along and stood next to me and leaned down and said, "What are you thinking you're going to study?" I told her my intentions and she said, "Well, you need this class and this class and this class." Two of them were taught by her. That was my first introduction to Lucy. Then when I entered her class, I've told the story before that we were reading The Art of Teaching Writing, one of her first books. I remember being in my house in Brooklyn and reading that book and just feeling like, "I can't believe that this is possible. I can't believe...." She's writing about my process. This is my process as a writer. This is the process that all my friends have as writers. And this woman is saying we can bring that process to the teaching of young children. It was like... Now I joke and say, "The choir of angels was behind me," to say the light shown through the window right onto the page. I said, "This is what I want to do. This is who I want to be."
Being in Lucy's classes and meeting her and then she asked me if I would come work at The Writing Project as a writer in the schools. I was terrified because I didn't know anything about elementary school kids and I didn't know anything about teaching. You know? And she said, "No, but you know about writing so into the classrooms and share your knowledge of writing and then the rest will come." And that was the beginning. I just got... I was completely enamored of Lucy and all the people that worked at the project at that point. That was 1988. Then when you came in the early '90s, I had been there for a few years.
Katie: What are your memories of the table? One of my fondest memories of the work was the table. You and I were together around the table and-
Katherine: We were-
Katie: Can you talk a little bit about the table?
Katherine: Yes, the table.
Katie: Is that true for you too? Is it powerful? Yeah.
Katherine: Yes. Oh, I have plenty of stories about the table that I won't share right now, but the table... This was in our old offices of The Reading and Writing Project and small offices, but there was this one central room where there was a giant harvest table, I guess they call it, there was an old library table, if you can picture that sort of antiquey, wooden, thick wood and thick legs and there were only probably... When I first started there were probably seven of us around that table and then when you joined, I guess there were a few more, but it was still just a small group of people.
Katie: Maybe 10. Yeah.
Katherine: Maybe 10. Every Thursday we would join around that table, Thursday mornings, and we would be there exactly on time and we would... because we were just so excited to be there. Around that table we would talk about our practice, what we were discovering as we worked in the schools, teaching kids writing. We would bring up issues and we would deeply study certain concepts about teaching. One of the favorite things I love about Lucy Calkins, she is my mentor in every way in this work. She was always wanting to say, "Okay, we think we know the mini lesson, right? We think we have that down pat. Let's really look at it now. Let's really study it. Let's sit and watch it and say, 'How can we better this? How can we make this better?'" That was both sort of stressful but also just wow. I mean, it became a model for how to learn for me. Always looking at practice and saying, "What else can we do? How can we make it better?"
Katherine: Sitting around that table was really... You want to touch... The table still exists in the new offices and you just want to touch that table. You feel like it's vibrating with knowledge and content. And the people who have sat around it, I mean, so many people whose names Heinemann book readers would recognize, sat around that table and contributed their knowledge and expertise to what we now know as The Writing Workshop and The Reading Workshop and all of it.
Katie: It was very heady work.
Katherine: It's really heady.
Katie: I loved that and I agree. I think it became through the years, it's the meta of the table is the metaphor for me for how to learn with other people about this work. You know?
Katherine: Oh, I love that.
Katie: And to always problematize practice and always think about how you can outgrow where you are and-
Katie: It's served me well to have had that in my life.
Katherine: Sweet, same here. Me too.
Katie: Amazing work.
Katherine: I miss the table now actually-
Katie: I do too.
Katherine: Because I'm on my own in this work and it can be very lonely and I don't have a table. I love thinking of that as a metaphor. Thank you. I'm going to carry that in my pocket.
Katie: Yeah. Memories. And then there was too... The other thing that, for me, and I really feel like I took away from that experience was the... a way of learning about my own teaching because we... We did that on Thursdays. We were around the table, but the other four days of the week we were out teaching writing in New York city public schools four or five times a day. And not only did you teach, but you had to explain to everyone watching you why you just did what you did and it makes you incredibly articulate about your practice, doesn't it? And that-
Katherine: Yes. I still do that to this day. I warn people ahead of time, teachers, I say, "I'm going to have a conference, but I'm going to talk to you during the conference because in a way kids are... they're there for us to learn from and with. I'm going to," exactly as you said, "articulate what I'm thinking and why I'm thinking it as I do it." I wanted to say this about The Teacher's College Reading and Writing Project and Lucy Calkins and all the amazing people who were our colleagues. It was a place where I learned how to learn, how to observe, how to learn, how to talk about what I was thinking and listen to other people talk about what they were thinking and how to, yes, articulate the moves that we were making.
I just think that is... It's a model of professional development that I think is rare still and that I just haven't seen that much of in other places where you are learning on site, in the moment you're learning as you do it and the teachers are right there next to us, right, sitting right next to us and learning with us. It's such a beautiful model, so different from when I was a classroom teacher and going to PD workshops of various kinds where you sit for a day and just listen to someone talk at you, just was not as valuable as this.
Katie: I don't know if you remember, but I had just come from graduate school when I came to work there. I had just finished a degree program.
Katie: But I've always felt like I learned more in those years that I worked at The Writing Project than any graduate work I ever did because it was just amazing.
Katherine: Absolutely. It was.
Katie: The other thing that I really value about it, and I wonder if you feel this way too, I feel like Lucy really knew how to believe you into being. It's such a good model of teaching, believe you into being more than you thought you could be. The first time she asks you to to do a keynote or something, you go, "What?" It really, the way she would position you to outgrow yourself, was powerful wasn't it?
Katherine: It was so true. It was terrifying. And yet she... Yes, her genius for knowing that you could do it, or maybe it's just a belief, but maybe also some kind of... something she would see inside you and know, "You can do this," and it is a perfect teaching model that I think both of us have then carried on in our work with teachers and kids.
Katie: We we're actually recording this today. We're at Heinemann.
Katherine: I'm so happy to be.
Katie: Yeah, and you know, I remember too when we were at the writing project, we had not written any of our professional books yet.
Katie: But Lucy is connected to Heinemann at this point, right?
Katie: Because she had written.
Katie: You remember Philippa came to the office one time, Philippa Stratton, who was here then, and the idea of someday writing for Heinemann and being part of Heinemann was-
Katherine: Oh, it was a dream.
Katie: Was a dream, and of course it's been for both us really our publishing home for such a long time.
Katherine: I am a loyal person. I am loyal when there is something of value to be loyal to, you know? Heinemann from the very beginning, well as I said, the first book I read about the teaching of writing was Lucy's book, The Art of Teaching Writing published by Heinemann. Because I had been a writer before that point, I knew to look at copyrights, I knew to look at dates, I knew to look at publishers and even the editor's name. I was all over that bibliographical information. The word Heinemann just became, and the address of the building, you know, just became very, very big in my mythology.
I had not ever seen myself as a writer of professional books before. I had not thought that that was going to be my trajectory at all. I kind of didn't think I could do it. Who am I to write that? I don't have that voice, and yet again, to be encouraged by Lucy to move that way. I had so much good information from her and from Shelley Harwin and from various people around the project saying, "You know, that workshop that you gave last Saturday, there's a chapter," or, "That keynote speech that you performed on the stage. That's a chapter." That was such helpful mentoring in how to do this work, and so then to have my first book published with Heinemann was, yeah, it was a big celebration.
Katie: That just made me think of another way that Lucy had changed the trajectory of my life. Is that those books were our mentor text, right?
Katie: That early work from Heinemann that we were reading became, before we even knew to call them mentor texts, they were our mentor texts. The Art of Teaching Writing was not the first book I read. The first book I read was In The Middle, but I remember when I did read The Art of Teaching Writing, thinking, if I could only write like this.
Katherine: Right, right. I know.
Katie: It's so beautiful.
Katherine: It's so beautiful. Both those books are just so beautifully written and yes, who knew that books telling you how to do something could be so beautiful? I said, "Oh, that's a voice I can relate to."
Katie: Yeah, yeah. So let's talk a little bit about your Heinemann books. The first book you coauthored with Randy.
Katherine: A gentleman named Randy Bomer.
Katie: Who also worked with us in those early days at the writing project.
Katherine: Yes, in fact I always joke that I found my career and my husband, I found love at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Yes, that's a whole 'nother story. A whole 'nother podcast for another time. But yes, Randy and I were life partners and we were actually both working on our PhDs at that point at teacher's college. We had experience of writing together in our classes, in our graduate classes, and that was our trial by fire. We kind of worked out how we could work together in our graduate classes working on projects together, and so then we took that process to this book, For a Better World.
Katie: For a Better World, which I didn't say the title of, sorry.
Katherine: That's okay. Thank you. It's called For a Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action. That was a topic, a content that was part of our lives, that was part of our thinking, our talking together all the time, our who we are together. Of course, even now in the world, wanting to make things better for people in the world who are not treated fairly. What we believed deeply was that kids, even the youngest, youngest kids, five-year-olds can have an impulse toward humanity, helping others and making things fair for all. At that time I was teaching in a New York City public school and I just started doing this work in my classroom and just kind of creating curriculum, day by day. That curriculum became the core of the book for how could you do this work, and what is critical literacy and what does it look like and sound like, and how can you bring that even to a young classroom of fifth graders.
We wrote that book together and it was my first book with Heinemann. Randy had already written Time For Meaning, so he had that experience to bring to it. But that was my first book and it was together, co-written. We divided chapters and just it really was very much a partnership. We thought through the book together and talked about it constantly, every single day and night and then wrote together. So that was the beginning, and then my second book, I was on my own.
Katie: It's interesting too how you For a Better World is, I mean, because when did you write that? What year did that come out, do you remember?
Katherine: That would have been, well, I know it was published in 2001 because I'll never forget getting the first copy of the book and where I was and what the date was. I just remember I was with a group of people and who were congratulating me and I said, "It's hard to feel congratulatory right now in the fall of 2001," and yet this book is the only thing I could have imagined feeling even more strongly about at that moment.
Katie: Yeah, wow. I didn't realize that connection. Yeah.
Katherine: Yeah, it was...
Katie: It was a time to try to believe in a better world.
Katherine: Yes, it was.
Katie: Yeah. It's just interesting too, how relevant the book still is today, and the work. There's still so much work to do around this topic. It's always been relevant, but to look around and go, there's still so much work to do.
Katherine: So much work to do.
Katie: Oh my gosh.
Katherine: Yes. I mean, it's remarkably that I'm proud, we're both proud of that book because it just keeps chugging along. We keep getting another book in the mail from Heinemann saying, "Congratulations on your 15th edition," or whatever, and we're just so thankful. Once again, to Heinemann, so thankful to believe in that book and to say there's a place for this kind of text in education is just such a brave, courageous move for a company to make and then to continue to print it, because there's people out there asking for it. It's just really, really lovely.
Katie: After that came your trilogy.
Katherine: That's what I call it, a trilogy.
Katie: I'll just say the names right quick. The first installment in the trilogy was Writing a Life, which was about memoir, and then Hidden Gems, where you just really taught people how to look at children's writing through generous eyes, and then The Journey Is Everything was the third part of the trilogy, which was about rethinking essay and the teaching of essay.
So yeah, just talk a little bit about that, and I know you've told me that you thought of that as a trilogy from the very start, right?
Katherine: I did. Maybe not from the very start, but...
Katie: Somewhere along the way it became that.
Katherine: Who knew? Well, who knew I had three books in me? I didn't, but once Writing a Life had been published and I was working on the second one, I knew I loved the cover of Writing a Life so much, I loved the look of it, I loved the meaning of it, I loved the symbolism of it, and I said I just would like my second book to have a similar look and feel to it.
Then at that point, the movies, that series Twilight had been published and the movies, and those those books that were basically branded with a black cover and a red symbol, apple or whatever on the cover. I said I want it to look like Twilight, so that's when I started to get the idea, and then by the third one I just was adamant, like this is a trilogy and it also has to have the same cover as my first two books with a symbol on it.
Katie: Yeah, and they do look really, if you put the three of them side by side, they look so lovely together.
Katherine: Thank you very much. I was a little bit controlling about the covers. I maybe shouldn't have been or even had a right to be, but I just felt strongly, I wanted a cover that would be as beautiful as the topics that I was writing about. I'm a huge fan of memoir, both reading it and writing it and having kids write it. I'm a huge fan, huge fan of essay, and of course Hidden Gems, looking at what kids can do beautifully and brilliantly already in their writing is just the core of me. I wanted the books to be lovely looking as well as being about beautiful things in the world.
Katie: Yeah, lovely ideas. It seems to me that a person, especially if you were getting started in this work, you could read those three books, across those three books and walk away with this really just deep understanding of the privilege that it is to work with children. You know, children who are learning, because you really take that stance in everything you do, that this work is a privilege and we're honored to be able to do it.
Katherine: Thank you very much. It's a beautiful thing to say. That is how I feel, so thank you for naming it.
Katie: It comes through.
Katherine: Thank you. The people who have read those books have said, you know, I worry sometimes that they are books that go pretty deeply into all three topics, but the people who have read them and given me feedback have said that they appreciated that they saw them as reading experiences that are maybe different from just looking for something to do tomorrow morning. Which I know because I was a classroom teacher, also I completely understand needing to find something, especially when I taught math, would help. I need to help right this minute and I need to know what it looks and sounds like right this minute. I'm completely understanding of that, and I hope to create content that will help teachers with those kinds of questions.
But these three books, people would say to me, "You know, I took it to the lake in July and I had a week to just sit and read, and I couldn't put it down." When you're a writer and someone says to you that they couldn't put your book down, and meanwhile that book, it's not a murder mystery, it's a book about teaching essay and they say, "I couldn't put it down." That was the highest compliment I could receive as a writer, right?
Katherine: And so I've loved that kind of feedback from people. The memoir book in particular, and also the essay book, people have said that they bought those books for their grandmother, for their mother because "I want my grandmother to write her memoir and your book would teach her how to do that." And again, I thought I was writing a teaching book for teachers, but people have shared them because there's so much about the actual content of literature and how to make a memoir no matter if you're five years old or if you're 95 years old. So I've really appreciated that feedback from people, and to know that that's the role that those folks have played in the world is very meaningful to me.
Katie: And I guess I should say, too, it's been a delight. I don't know how many people know this because not everyone reads the actual inside cover of a book, but it's been really lovely that I've gotten to be able to work with you on, one, in the trilogy The Journey is Everything as your editor, and then now we're actually collaborating again on a new book and it's just been a lot of fun to just sit alongside your process. And it challenges me as an editor because you're so amazing at feedback and response to writers and so to be in this role with you has been challenging, but in all good ways. And there's always that pressure, too, in the editing world that's a little different in the classroom because in a classroom you can give a project as much slow to grow as it needs. We don't have people going, "Okay, what are you going to turn it in?" But it's just been so fun to get to know you in this different way after all these years that we didn't so. I just wanted to say that.
Katherine: Well, it's remarkable, Katie, so thank you for mentioning that because I've just been dying to talk about it. I was reminding you this morning, I think it was that you had a little blurb on the back of my first, Writing a Life, that at that time to have Katie Wood Ray who's the stellar superstar in the literacy education world write this beautiful little one-sentence blurb that just captured the entire book. I was so honored by that blurb. So grateful to you, and then that kind of ... then when I found out that you were going to be an editor and that indeed you were going to be my editor, I was just blown away by that. I was so thrilled to think about that and so very nervous because to have someone with your expertise in writing and in literacy.
Looking now at my book, we have worked out a relationship that is so, I find it so collaborative and beautiful and especially working on this new project together, we're just learning together side by side. And so what you do so well as an editor is just what you did in that one little blurb on the back of my first book is just you get it. You get what I'm trying to do and you say it back in this beautiful succinct way, so it's just ... I'm very lucky.
Katie: Well, and succinct way is interesting because ... so we're collaborating on a book in the Classroom Essentials series, which the great challenge of this work is really getting to the essence of a topic and what is really essential, trying to write in a much tighter space. And so I've spoken to you about this before. I wrote one of these books myself to see what that kinda challenge was like, and I think it's made me a better writer to realize how to get to the heart of things, and I don't know, can you just talk about ... I mean, because it's such a different kind of book than your other books to be doing one of these. Can you talk a little bit about what you've learned from that process, too?
Katherine: Yes, and I'll try to be succinct.
Katie: Can you get to the heart of what you've learned from trying to write a much shorter book?
Katherine: So it is pretty much the polar opposite of my usual writing style. And so this new book I am actually co-authoring again for the second time in my life with a brilliant, amazing young author named Corinne Arens, and she is a person that I work with in my professional development. I asked her, out of all the people that I know in the world and have worked with as a professional developer, she was the one that I said I would love to work with her and collaborate with her on this book. I needed her beautiful eye and her sensibility and her thinking about how to bring this topic to teachers in a way that that I haven't before, in that succinct way, in what do teachers need? What do teachers want? What are their questions? How do they ... what's going to be most helpful?
Because taking a topic like the writing workshop and what's necessary for children to learn how to write is something I could talk about forever in 20 million words. But how to make it into a book that is quite visual and saying things in few words is a struggle, was a struggle, continues to be a struggle, so thank you for saying that my voice is still in there because that was certainly a worry for me.
I'm a poet and essayist by training and by my soul and the way I think and the way I see the world. And so the way, my normal way to write is to instantly start having divergent thinking, to say a sentence and then say, "But on the other hand" or, "So-and-so says about that." That is my style of thinking and being in the world, and that is something that you have helped me carve away, but in a good way, keeping the essential idea without going on many, many journeys, pathways into other topics that don't have to do with this stuff. And so that has been just so helpful for me, and kind of ... as you said, I'm going to write differently now because of it and I do think it is a way that we write in the world now much more visually oriented, and two teachers, I argue often, if we are not doing more with kids with graphic images and learning how to think visually, we're doing a big disservice because this is just the way the world is going because of the internet. So struggling but happy to be part of learning how to write with visual thinking in mind.
Katie: So I'm curious, Katherine, about ... did you ever have to fight any critic inside your head that might've said, "You? Write a professional book?" Because I actually have this little intro in Wondrous Words that says, that talks about that struggle that I had to, "I don't know if I can write a book." I mean, did you ever go through any of that?
Katherine: Are you kidding? I'm still struggling with that voice. I mean, I think ... so the first thing I say is absolutely yes. And the first thing I would say is I think all writers, no matter how famous they are, no matter who they are, no matter what kind of writing they do in the world, have that voice. That is just to me as far as I'm concerned just part of the deal. Over time I've come to appreciate that voice because that's what keeps my writing a quality that I like, the quality that I appreciate, so to learn to love that inner critic is really an important part of the process of learning to be a writer.
But yes, of course. When I first was, my first professional book to think, to have all the books from Heinemann on my bookshelf and to have read them and appreciated them. Ralph Fletcher, and I'm just looking ... and yours, Katie, and Georgia Heard, I'm just looking at these book cover ... Ellin Keene. I mean, these are people who are just stars, rock stars in my mind, and to stop to think that my voice could join those, especially since I wasn't an educator all my life? I had been lived a different sort of different life trajectory. I just thought, "Who am I to write and put my voice in the world for teachers?"
And again, I guess I would first of all go back to Lucy saying there are things that you know that the teachers you're working with may not know. So live what you know, speak from your heart with what you know, and that's going to carry you through this. That's what's going to be what people need to hear. And so I guess it's a similar thing in my writing of professional books, I'm writing what I know and what I believe. And so that core central belief that this is important, I've seen it work with kids and I want desperately for children to have the opportunity to write the way I'm talking about writing. And that's just like a mission.
That's a vision and a mission that I have that I can't let go, and so if I just ... if all beginning writers would just say, "What do I believe in? What do I love? What do I know" and think about that and then let that be like carrying a torch, because the rest of it is just about revision. The rest of it is just making a draft and revising and having a great editor and a lot of help. Those books go through a big process before they're sitting on your bookshelf. There's a village of people helping, so trust that that there will be a lot of help and feedback and insight. But go with what is it you believe. I even put little sticky notes above my computer often of that just to remind myself of what am I trying to say? What is my core? What is the heart of this book, and that's what really carries me through.
A Teacher's Guide to Time, Choice, and Response publishes this Spring. For now, you can explore other titles in the Classroom Essentials Series!
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Katherine Bomer is one of the field’s most gifted writers as well as one of its most gifted teachers of writing. A published poet and essayist, Katherine is also coauthor (with Lucy Calkins) of A Writer’s Shelf. She began over fifteen years ago as a professional developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. A classroom teacher for ten years, she now works with teachers in elementary and middle schools throughout the country. As a frequent speaker at conferences and institutes, she combines a teacher’s practical advice, a writer’s love of language, and a powerful plea for social justice.
Follow Katherine on Twitter @KatherineBomer