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ON THE PODCAST: Writing as Healing with Barry Lane

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Welcome to Writing as Healing, a Heinemann-podcast series focused on writing as a tool, to increase healing in students and teachers. We know that academic learning doesn't happen without social and emotional support, and writing as a key literacy, is uniquely positioned in every classroom to do both.

How can writing help students see they are not alone?

This week I'm joined by Barry Lane, songwriter and teacher, to talk about the invitation of the open page. Instead of following rules in writing, students learn the power of writing and the intrinsic joy of expressing their consciousness on this planet. We begin with a story from Barry's childhood when he discovered the power of writing.


 


Below is a full transcript of the episode:

Liz Prather:

Hi, this is Liz. Welcome to Writing Is Healing, a Heinemann podcast series focused on writing as a tool to increase healing in students and teachers. We know that academic learning doesn't happen without social and emotional support, and writing as a key literacy is uniquely positioned in every classroom to do both. How can writing help students see they are not alone?

This week I'm joined by Barry, songwriter and teacher, to talk about the invitation of the open page. Instead of following rules in writing, students learn the power of writing and the intrinsic joy of expressing their consciousness on this planet. We begin with a story from Barry's childhood when he discovered the power of writing.

Barry Lane:

I think I started in fourth grade, and I think the aha moment for me was I had this teacher, Ms. Foley, and she would put a picture on the wall, and it was, I guess a kind of a normal assignment, but not in the school that I was in. She'd put this picture on the wall and she said, "Write about this picture. Use your imagination." That word, and I had never heard that word before, and most of the kids would do what a lot of kids do when teachers give an assignment, I call it pooping out paragraphs, is what a lot of state tests, that's all they want. They want to have kids to be able to format their thoughts a certain way, but she was like, no, just go with it.

I took it home with me and I couldn't stop writing. I realized that the one breakthrough to me, I'd be at night after taking my bath and having my bathrobe on, and I'd be pacing back and forth thinking about my story. Hemingway said writing is long periods of thinking and short periods of writing. That's when I realized, wow, this writing thing is really cool. You can create something new and different.

As a writer, I, in my youth, I wrote a lot of short stories, and one of the themes was the Holocaust. My parents grew up Jewish and a lot of my parents' families died in Europe, and yet I did not experience it directly the way you would have if you'd been through the war. I experienced it in someone being afraid that you're going to drown, or just parents just being hyper-vigilant about everything, and to try to write about that through the gauze of times is what I tried to do a lot then. I write poetry sporadically, I never thought of myself as a poet, and I think that that's probably because I don't do it every day, but I do write songs. Songs is a kind of poetry, but it's not poetry, it's really about music. Right now I'm writing a play about my songs.

Liz:

Tell me a little bit about your process.

Barry:

To me, the day before the sun comes up is like a blank piece of paper. Nothing's happened yet, no errands are required. Nothing but a cup of coffee, a blank slate. It's also my least critical time. Many times late at night, I can get, I'm not one of those writers who... I've heard writers talk about how the night erases everything from the day, they can just have a blank slate, but I'm like, the day is just full of chatter and everything else. So in the morning is that time of great. I would call it a grace period of, I'm not as critical and if I'm working on something, especially songs, I find, if I hit the impasse at night and you go to sleep and you wake up in the morning, suddenly the room is bigger, it's not a closet. I can see a wider field of vision and oh yeah, I could throw out this whole song.

I like to look for those kind of things that we would call coincidences, synchronicity, things that can help us find a new direction. To me, it's all about just having that open page, that sense. When kids say, oh, I can't write, I don't have anything to write about. If the page is already full, it's hard to write, but if you can find that possibility, because I think the mental health is all about finding that open space in your head too.

Liz:

I'm so grateful that you shared with me your book Healing, the Healing book, the Healing Pen. In that you describe a writer as someone who, it's a person who asks questions. I think that that's what you're talking about in the sense that there's a blankness or a silence or a space or someone can step into it and ask a question that's on their heart. Talk a little bit about how you arrived at that definition of, a writer is someone who asks questions.

Barry:

Yeah, I think this came early in my career as a teacher. I was lucky enough to teach at UNH, University of New Hampshire. Donald Graves had a big influence here, but Don Murray especially, had a huge influence there. For him, a writing conference was where you sat down and we'd do this, this is the best prep for any teacher of writing. You would meet with every student every week for 20 minutes.

Liz:

Wow.

Barry:

They'd bring you their writing and if you were good at it, they would read their piece or you would read their piece, whatever, but you wouldn't come with a lot of preconceived notions about the writing. I mean, if you were good, if you were not so good, you might be like that brilliant English teacher that marks everything up in red and says, here's how you could make this perfect, kid.

Liz:

Tell me a little bit about your Force Field For Good, and I'm thinking especially your work with the students in Texas that you've been doing.

Barry:

Yeah, actually I've been doing it all over the country, but recently got invited to Uvalde, Texas, to do this program on kindness that I've been doing now for a number of years. It's interesting because it overlaps with literacy in a kind of an interesting way, because a lot of schools teach kindness or have it as part of their curriculum, but it's rule-based, and I want to call acronym-based, where you'll have the word care and it'll be like C stands for courage, A stands for... So a few years ago, I told you the evolution of Force Field For Good, because that will actually help you to understand the work in Texas that I did, but it evolved with a song that I had written for children called, Know Your Higher Self. In the chorus is Know your Higher Self, take it off the shelf, give it room to play every single day. Forget about the fight, reach for what is right. You can teach yourself to fly when you want to cry. The song's about learning to basically find that inner nobility, the principle of kindness inside yourself, rather than simply the rule-based kinds of kindness.

So I wrote that song with a friend, Jay Banta, who wrote the music part. I just put it on SoundCloud and a teacher in Michigan wrote to me and she said that one song changed my entire class. I said, what do you mean? She said, they were really tough group of kids, and which usually means boys in the class. I don't know why, but I think it's boys and girls, it was a second grade class. They didn't know how to learn. They didn't know how to be with each other. After listening to that song, we sang it every day and we got rid of all the class rules and we changed it with one rule.

Liz:

Wow.

Barry:

Be Your Higher Self. So now instead of, he's doing that, he's being a bully. The anti-bully programs are oftentimes are about defining what a bully is, not about defining what kindness is. Instead of that, they'd say things like, I wasn't being my higher self when I pushed you, sorry. Well, I wasn't being my higher self when I called you the name before you pushed me.

Liz:

That's incredibly transformative for a second grader, to have that set of tools. That's powerful.

Barry:

And it's an intrinsic, the way it corresponds with writing is it's an intrinsic love of writing, of expression, of being kind, instead of just following rules. When it would be in the writing sense, it would be, learn how to write a five paragraph essay or learn how to write a blah, blah, blah. You don't realize what the power of writing is when you don't know what the intrinsic joy, I guess you'd call it, of being able to express yourself on this planet, your consciousness in a vast universe or multi-universe, whatever they call it now, it's amazing.

Liz:

It's a gift.

Barry:

Yeah, yeah.

Liz:

Has writing been healing for you in a way that has created your ability to use writing to touch... because I know you've also worked in prisons and with people who have been hurt and who have hurt other people and they have a lot of healing to do. You've created a framework to allow them to access those memories, express those memories, and give themselves grace. Is that something you discovered yourself as a writer that you use writing to heal?

Barry:

Yeah, I think so, but not always in the deepest sense of it. I was thinking about this, there's many different levels of it. Tom Newkirk talks about, create is created itch and then they scratch it. There's a lot of healing that comes from just scratching itches, maybe minor healing.

Liz:

Yes.

Barry:

And also-

Liz:

Absolutely.

Barry:

I remember my first love when I was 20 or whatever, I had to recover from a breakup, and I wrote this little book called The Rock, and it was a takeoff on Shel Silverstein's, The Giving Tree. The biggest bummer of a children's book, but it was a little bit of, it was like an attempt to understand the world and the pain of the world and turn it into something, turn it into something that made sense. I carry that with me.

I wrote about the Holocaust a lot in my youth. I had this experience that... Or I went to Disney World for the first time as a young man. I was 22, I think I was. I sat on the bus, I went by myself, and I sat on the bus going to the park and I befriended this woman, a little woman sitting next to me. She was a Holocaust survivor and she had the tattoo on her left forearm, and we just started talking and she was alone too. So I spent the entire day at Disney World with this Holocaust survivor, and I thought, this is a short story.

Liz:

Wow.

Barry:

The humor also is a big part of it. I write parody songs for teachers because I think teachers are-

Liz:

I'd love to hear one. I'd love to hear a parody song for teachers.

Barry:

Let me try this one, this is one I wrote for the Badass Teacher Association, it goes like this. It goes, I'm a badass teacher from a badass school. Don't read me your mandates, don't feed me your rules. I'm a badass teacher in a badass day for teaching a scorn and testing's a way. I safeguard our democracy, teach my students how to be free. I teach them to think, I teach them to feel, but most of all, I teach so their learning is real.

Liz:

Yes.

Barry:

Yeah. Yeah.

Liz:

Excellent. Love it.

Barry:

I'll do the very last verse, it goes like this. I used to be good, I used to be sweet. I closed my classroom door and shyly retreat, but your door was open and I heard you cry. We started to talk. We asked ourselves why. If we could find some common voice, take back our classrooms, reclaim our choice. We started to sing, we started to shout. Dedicated teachers finally speak out. So that goes on, then it becomes we're the badass teachers.

I remember reading about this once during the Holocaust, in Amsterdam, in Holland, there was this whole underground culture of parody songs that people would sing, and then when they'd be around the Germans, they'd just whistle the tune. It's an act of resistance in the biggest form.

The last song, the Badass Teacher Anthem, which I actually sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial about 50 yards from where Martin Luther King gave his speech at the Save Our Schools rally. It's sort of... Speeches are good, evidence is good, talking is good, a rhetoric is good, but music and dancing that can both feed the movement of what you're trying to do and heal, and heal the troops. So I did, there's a place in DC called Busboys and Poets, and I have a literacy cabaret that I did there with the teachers we did at night. It was like a nightclub and with these different types of songs like that. That's like feeding the troops.

Liz:

Yes, yeah, absolutely.

Barry:

Yeah, it's a kind of healing that comes from actually being able to laugh at the things that oppress you and therefore, transform it. It's a little alchemy, transform lead into gold.

Liz:

All of those things, humor and memories and community and connection and writing, all of those are not a replacement, obviously, for clinical therapy, but they're all tools of transformation and they're all tools to access a connection with a community of people who can create, like you said, a kind of a revolution of sorts, a revolution of peace. I guess I'm interested, is there one assignment that you consistently find in your vast compendium of writing assignments that touches a student's heart, that brings about almost all the time some kind of healing reaction or some kind of helps students with trauma or pain?

Barry:

There's a number of assignments that I find that the kinds of assignments that go deep with kids, but sometimes I think it depends on the class and it also depends on the teacher. It depends on... It's like trust, you can't assign trust. Today, I want everybody to trust me, in any given assignment like that, that works, that doesn't work.

Liz:

It doesn't work that way, does it?

Barry:

No, you have to earn it. You earn it every day by how you treat students, not just the students themselves individually, but the other students that they see you treating.

So when I first wrote my book on healing and writing, I have this funny story. I went to this workshop, I didn't know anything about doing workshops or anything. So I started the workshop, everybody write down a secret you've never told anyone in your life now. 10 people just headed for the door immediately. What I realized is that you can't do that, you have to start somewhere else.

So there was a number of places to start, and I think starting in the shallow end of the pool, and to quote Kelly Gallagher, is a good thing to do. So the shallow end of the pool was just fluency itself, any assignments that teach fluency. A friend, Jeff Hewitt, a poet, he has a great lesson where you just write down one thing you saw today between the time you got up and the time you're sitting here now. I just scribble them all on the board and in 10 words or less or something like that. Then of course, close your eyes and you read it and you say, what's that? And you say, well, that's a poem. That way, you're freeing people from the chains of iambic pentameter or whatever it is that kids have in their brains. Even by third grade, kids don't think they're poets yet because they don't rhyme good enough or whatever. So those kinds of fluency ones are good.

Let me just tell you a few quick ones though. For older students, write about a lost friendship. I mean college or upper grades because the lost friendship has a beginning, middle, and an end and usually there's a reflection part. Why did I lose this friend? It gets into [inaudible 00:17:19].

Liz:

I love that.

Barry:

Yeah, Aristotle wrote about friendship a lot, the different kinds of friendships. Can you think of the friends who are your friends simply because you do stuff for each other? He does this for me, I do that. That's kind of a level. Aristotle, he ranked everything. So he said, that's kind of a friendship, but then the highest form of friendship is where somebody actually wants you to do good. They want you, not because of any other reason, but of their human connection to you and their love for you. That level of love is the thing that is so inspiring and also elusive. Sometimes you only have one friend in life like that if you're lucky. It takes... And not to say all your other friendships are not good because of this, but it's this ability to reflect. A lost friendship has a beginning, middle, and an end too. So it is a story all ready to go.

Some of my more famous lessons is the Explode a Moment, where you take a moment in your life to write in slow motion. I can tell you, Amy, this fourth grader who I wrote about in my book, the Healing Pen, she wrote about the moment her grandmother died, when she was in the hospital, and her feeling of grief and walking outside and seeing some geese fly away. Her father saying, "That's your soul of your grandmother." She believed at that age, but this was a kid that her grief was so great, she could not be in class. She would go to the principal's office and she had this little notebook that she would scribble snapshots, memories of her grandmother and she'd draw.

Liz:

Wow.

Barry:

So when she did this moment, this was like... And I got to tell you, this was a funny story because the school was what I would say, I would say it was a constipated school where people weren't writing. It was like the school where the teachers felt they had to teach everything.

Liz:

There were blockages.

Barry:

Blockages, yeah.

Liz:

Is what you're saying.

Barry:

Anyway, this girl, Amy, she wrote this piece and then she read it and oh my gosh, what happened in that class was it was one of those transcendent moments that happens only once in a while in the class where time stops and everyone started talking about death in fourth grade. My grandfather said I couldn't go to the hospital, I was so mad at him. Then Amy turned to me, and this is probably the best testament to what this podcast is about, which she said, "I thought I was the only one who had this experience. I didn't realize." The relief on her face.

Liz:

Wow.

Barry:

And that sense of, I'm not the only one, you're not alone.

When I went to Uvalde, Texas, I had many experiences. I mean, it was a serendipity that I got a job there only four months after the terrible shooting in May, and at the beginning of school. So basically it was the beginning of the school year. I realized, how do I prepare for this? Because in my head, I felt I am not ready for this. I don't know what to do, even though I'd been doing this stuff for years. Then I thought, well, what you have to do is, it's not about me, it's never about me, it's about them. So there's a prayer I read, Make me a hollow reed, from which the pith of self hath been blown.

I went there and some amazing things happened. One of them is, I wrote a song called I Quiet My Mind, to prepare to go there. It's a song about healing and being able to step back when everything, all the emotional stuff comes back to you. So I'd written that song and I also have a song that I'd written before called, Find Your Happy Place. Deep within your mind, life is not a race, everyone is kind. Stay there for a while, grow a rainbow smile. You are not alone. I had kids draw pictures of their happy place, and we listened to the love in our hearts.

Before I went, I saw this woman who does this thing called a heart meditation, where you make a heart out of your hands and you hold it over your heart. You think about all the love in your heart and how it got there, where it came from. Relatives, friends, God, whatever it is, where that came from. Then you raise the heart up to your eye level and look through the heart and look at the world through all the love in your heart. Then here's the fun part, we're not on the screen so you can't do it with me. Then you take your heart, you do it like in basketball where you bring your heart back down, and then you do a chest pass where you go [inaudible 00:22:13] and you spread it all around. You open your heart. Then I say to kids, now your heart is empty, there's no love in it, right? They go, "No. What do you mean?" You gave away all the love in your heart. And they go, "There's more." That was the healing is that the love, love is more powerful than fear and hate, that's the lesson. It's the lesson of all great literature in some ways. It's a lesson of life.

So the very last class I taught there was a fifth grade class at the Uvalde Dual Language Academy. I was teaching 10 classes a day for 20 minutes each. I was in total teacher jazz land where, you know what I mean? I wasn't going to do any lesson plans at that point. I would just go in and look for inspiration. So I wrote on the board, "I pledge allegiance to my heart." I said, what's the next line? This is Texas where they do two pledges, they do the Pledge of Allegiance to America, and they do Pledge of Allegiance to Texas.

Liz:

Sure.

Barry:

They said, "What's the one to our heart?" This little girl puts her hand up, and this is verbatim, no editing at all. She goes, "I will always stay true to myself." Great, next.

Liz:

Wow.

Barry:

Another hand goes up. "I will show grace to myself and to others." Next.

Liz:

Wow.

Barry:

"Love will always matter, even when I'm mad." Then next, "I won't let the sun go down in my anger."

Liz:

Wow.

Barry:

Then I just added, "I will choose the kinder path." Do you want to hear it? I'll sing it for you. It goes like this.

Liz:

Yes, I'd loved it.

Barry:

I pledge allegiance to my heart. I will always stay true to myself. I will show grace to myself and to others. Love will always matter even when I am mad. I will let the sun go down on my anger. I will choose the kinder path. I will choose the kinder path. I choose the kinder path.

Liz:

Thank you so much for tuning in today. For more information and to read a full transcript, visit Blog.heinemann.com.

 

 

Prather_ConfidenceToWrite_cover_sm

 

Liz is the author of several Heinemann books, including her newest title The Confidence to Write.

 

 

 


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Author_Circle_Headshot_Prather-Liz

Liz Prather is a writing teacher at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, a gifted arts program at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky. A classroom teacher with 21years of experience teaching writing at both the secondary and post-secondary level, Liz is also a professional freelance writer and holds a MFA from the University of Texas-Austin.

Liz is the author of The Confidence to Write, Project-Based Writing: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose, and Story Matters: Teaching Teens to Use the Tools of Narrative to Argue and Inform.

 

AU_Lane-Barry_AuthorPhoto

Barry Lane has authored several books on writing instruction including,  After THE End, Teaching and Learning Creative Revision, Reviser’s Toolbox,The Healing Pen and 51 Wacky We-search Reports.  He believes writing is foremost a tool for self-expression and human connection.  For the last decade he has toured his singing /kindness assembly, Force for Good, all across the United States. More information about his work is available at www.barrylane.com and www.forcefieldforgood.com. Follow @barrylane

Topics: Podcast, Writing, Barry Lane, Heinemann Podcast, Liz Prather, Healing, podcasts

Date Published: 05/09/24

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