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ON THE PODCAST: Writing as Healing with David Rockower

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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 educators. 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.

This week Liz is joined by David Rockower, a freelance writer and Pennsylvania middle school teacher, to talk about writing with students as an act of community and vulnerability and using patience and writing invitations for apathetic students to take risks. 


 


Below is a full transcript of the episode:

Liz Prather:

So let me ask you, do you consider yourself a teacher who writes, or a writer whose day job is teaching?

David Rockower:

Oh, what a great question. I think I would have to go with a teacher who writes, because the teaching really came before the writing. I've always liked to write, but it didn't become part of my everyday life until I was a teacher writing about my parenting and teaching life.

Liz:

Well, let's talk a little bit about your writing life first, and we'll get to the teaching eventually. Tell me about your writing life. What do you like to write, when, where, what's your process?

David:

Sure. So I like to write just about everything, but I think my comfort zone is personal essays. As you mentioned, I write a column for State College Magazine, it's called Family Matters, and I've been doing that for about 15 years, and that's just stories about my kids and what it's like being a dad raising two kids. So I love doing that. I'll occasionally write articles for education publications about things that are going on in the classroom, and as you mentioned, my book on vulnerability. But I also really like to write fiction, and that's a dream of mine someday to publish stories for young readers. In the summers, as far as process goes, in the summers, I try to write a thousand words a day. During the school year, that never happens. I'm lucky if I get a thousand words a week.

And when I write, I like to have a quiet room. I don't need a great view, although that's nice, but just a quiet space, somewhere in the house where I can close the door and there's just silence and I can get into the zone. And I usually start in my notebook, on a blank sheet of paper with a pencil. That's my idea generation. And then from there, I move to the laptop where I compose and revise and edit. That's a little bit about my process. Even when I'm not writing, I'm thinking about writing. So I am a listener, and if I overhear a conversation and I hear a line and I think, "Oh, that would be a great book title," or "That would be a great problem to work out in an essay." And I know you know this, Liz, once you start writing, you see the world through a different lens, and so everything becomes a possible story or essay or idea.

Liz:

Yes, yes. We have these tentacles out. Story tentacles, right?

David:

Yes.

Liz:

Everything, you're like, "Oh, wow, what a great line of dialogue." A thousand words a day in the summer is exceptional. Are you working toward, right now, a project, like a novel?

David:

I am. I'm doing short stories right now. So I'll talk more later about my teaching life, but I get to write a lot of my own curriculum, and my students have been begging for a horror writing class or a horror reading class.

Liz:

Wow.

David:

So finally these last two years, I developed a... It's scary stories for middle school, right?

Liz:

Sure.

David:

So there's not a whole lot out there. There's horror for elementary kids, right?

Liz:

Yeah.

David:

And there's horror for high school and above. There's that niche in middle school where there's just not a whole lot written for the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, or so. I have been writing scary stories for middle schoolers for the last, I don't know, six, eight months. It's been a lot of fun.

Liz:

That sounds amazing. That sounds so much fun. I guess in some way, Jonathan Green said he always wrote for himself, he wrote for who he once was. And I guess if you're a middle school teacher, you're kind of also a middle schooler at heart too. You kind of keyed into what makes those kids tick. Has the writing that... I know you do writing with your students because that's the invitation that you extend in your book for teachers to be vulnerable and write with and for their students. So has that process been healing in any way for you? Of course, our theme here today is Writing As Healing. And healing has kind of a broad application as to how you might define it, but how would you say that the writing that you do for yourself or with your students has been healing in any way?

David:

For me, it is absolutely healing. I am an anxious person by nature, and my mind is always going a thousand miles an hour. And writing is one of the few things that centers me, that allows my mind to slow down and focus. And time really does slip away when I'm in that quiet room writing for a long time. And I love it. I always feel like at the end of a writing session, that day has been meaningful, it's been fulfilling. I'm more comfortable and relaxed because of it. So in that way, it's definitely been healing. And it really doesn't matter if the writing's any good or not, it's just the process isn't what's important.

Liz:

Right.

David:

That's true for the creative process in general. Because I also take pictures, I like photography and I bake bread. And so those things also fill me up, but not in the same way that writing does. Writing really centers me. That's what I keep coming back to. And I think it also helps bring clarity. So anytime I'm struggling with a decision, a life decision, or a stressor and I write about it, I always come away with a new perspective or a little more comfortable about the whole situation.

Liz:

So it's a tool. Do you think the fact that you do your first drafts, your generative writing with a pencil or a pen and paper, do you think that has something to do with slowing down and grounding yourself a little bit? I mean, is it different when you compose on a digital device?

David:

I think it is. It's just a little more personal when it's on paper, it's a little more here and now. And I do compose sometimes if I'm traveling or something and I'm on the computer, but I don't feel as grounded. I don't know if that makes sense. But when I have the paper and pencil in front of me and no lines and I can be messy and just jot ideas down, I think it's a different feel.

Liz:

I love that you described it as kind of a almost a contemplative or meditative process. Think of, if you will, a piece of your writing, either one that you've recently completed or one that you've done a long time ago that has been especially transformative for you in terms of healing. Maybe what caused the healing. Maybe what was the subject. What might be that piece for you?

David:

Yeah. So my mind goes right to an event that happened with my father about three and a half years ago. He suffered an aneurysm, and we didn't think he was going to make it, but he did, and he's doing great now. But at the time he was in the hospital, and this is my father, I need a little bit of background about him. Real stoic guy, not a lot of affection, always put together, didn't show a lot of emotion when I was growing up. And he's in the hospital writhing in pain. They're getting ready to life flight him for emergency surgery. And my brother, mom, and I are standing by his bed, and he says to us, "I'm so sorry you have to see me like this." It's really hard to watch people you love in pain.

In that moment, from this man who I never would've thought would say something like that, just floored me. And I knew in the moment that I was going to write about it, and I just let it percolate for a long time. And maybe a year or two later, I wrote an essay about the experience, about how I saw my father growing up, about that moment, and then about how he changed after that near-death experience. He started to say I love you more. He wanted to be around people more. He was a better listener. And so when I published the piece, I was really afraid to share it with him because I didn't know how he would receive it.

Liz:

Of course.

David:

And I gave it to him, and he read it, and he called me, and he thanked me for writing it. And he said, "I really didn't know that you saw me that way growing up." And we had a nice conversation. And I think just that whole process, writing about it, and then talking to him about it has helped us understand each other better. So that would be an example of a personal experience of something that I wrote in my personal life. I could share one from school too if you'd like.

Liz:

I would love to. Before we move on to the school thing, I want to talk, just for a minute, how powerful that is, because every single person who's listening to this podcast has had a moment, like you described, of just intense clarity and intense emotion around a loved one. But taking the next step to process it later after you've done some thinking and doing it through writing is really what led you to naming that moment as transformative.

David:

It is. In one of the writing books I read at some point in my life, I remember the author saying that, "Much of what we write about, we should let compost for a while." And I love that.

Liz:

I love that.

David:

And that was very true with this experience. If I had written about it right afterward, I'm not sure I would've been able to get the 30,000-foot view of what I was trying to say. And so that time and letting it sink in and waiting a little while before I knew what I wanted to stay with it was important.

Liz:

I love the idea of composting. It becomes richer, organic matter. Right?

David:

Exactly.

Liz:

I mean, that's truly what you have there. Well, that is incredibly powerful. You're getting ready to tell me about a piece of transformative writing that you did maybe as a teacher.

David:

Yes. So I used to teach sixth grade at a middle school, a more traditional middle school where we had inclusive classrooms. So I had the kids for the whole day, they didn't move from subject to subject, I had them for most of the day myself. And this particular year, we were struggling with community, and there was a lot of bullying and cliques. And every classroom meeting we had just kind of made things worse. So finally, I decided to write about it, and I wrote a letter to the kids. It was about a two-page letter about my experience in school being bullied, and then at times when I was a bully in school, and I let them know what that felt like for me. And then I just asked them to respond in writing, just general questions like "Where do you see yourself this year? How are you impacted by what's going on in the classroom?"

And, Liz, they wrote for 45 minutes to an hour straight through, and I told them, "We weren't going to share these." This was just an outlet for them to share it with me. And I took those home at night and read them and was just... I knew them so much better after that.

Liz:

Sure.

David:

And the class never really developed into this tight-knit group. But what it did is just naming it, putting it on paper, that gave them some kind of validation, and it allowed them to understand that other people... When they saw everybody writing throughout the class, and I think I had more conversations with kids one-on-one about what they were going through after it too. So that was a really healing experience.

Liz:

And that wouldn't have happened if you had not been vulnerable. That would not have happened had you not written the two-page letter, let them have a window into your life as a human, not just as a teacher. What a gift. That's a real gift. We want as teachers to say, "And then that changed the entire complexion of my classroom."

David:

I can't lie. No, it didn't. It helped. Things were... I felt like people had a weight off their shoulders after it but didn't magically cure everything.

Liz:

Right. That's made for TV movie of teaching. It's not what we know is the reality of teaching.

David:

So true.

Liz:

I think that's a great segue into kind of talking about your teaching. And I guess you've kind of answered this question, but it seemed like the two-page letter that you wrote to talk about bullying was something you did as an instinct, right? You knew this is something that needed to happen. What is one actual piece of your curriculum or one piece or an assignment, part of your instruction that you use every year that you've noticed has really produced healing for students?

David:

I'm going to share more of an exercise than an assignment, and it has to do with poetry. Many kids come in thinking that poetry has to be about love, and it has to rhyme. So as soon as we get past that and we talk and explore free verse, and they know it can be about any emotion, it can be angry, it can be dark, it can be uplifting. I have them start to compose their own free verse poetry, and then I tell them that the next class period, "I'm going to share some of these aloud anonymously." And of course, if they have one that they don't want me to share, I honor that. Absolutely.

So the next class, I come in and I spend the first 15 minutes or so just reading aloud their poems. And after I read one aloud, we always just let it sit. And I ask them, anyone in the class, "What hit you? What line stood out?" And they start to just say, "Oh my gosh, this was incredible. And this line really grabbed me." And I felt that exact same way. And then after we talk about it, the poet can claim it, or they can leave it anonymous.

Liz:

Oh, wow. I love that.

David:

And they almost always claim it because they've just heard-

Liz:

Sure.

David:

... their peers raving about it, right?

Liz:

Right.

David:

But more importantly I think, they come in thinking that what they have to say and write about is trivial and insignificant, and really, it's universal. Almost always-

Liz:

Yes.

David:

... they connect with somebody else in the room or everyone in the room, and they love that process. And I think it's validating, it builds confidence for writers. Plus, poetry is just magical.

Liz:

Absolutely. That kind of expressive nature... And you talked about as soon as we get past the idea that poetry doesn't have to rhyme, opening up that for students is a real, I think, a path toward expressing things that they would not be able to express and say a syntactically more rhetorical framework when we think about argument or think about personal narrative or something like that. Having a line instead of a sentence, for example, to capture an emotion. So what about this particular... Is it the identity piece that moves the needle on this assignment, you think, so that they start seeing themselves as writers and that provides the healing? Or is it actually the thing that you mentioned, which is they realize this is a universal situation?

David:

I think the first step is just the validation that I can write. That this is an outlet that I can use to tell people who I am in an environment where it's going to be accepted and celebrated. And then from there, they start to write about things that matter even more to them. So it's first the invitation, then the confirmation, and then the, "Okay, now I'm really going to dig in and I'm going to talk about what's really on my mind." And that is healing.

Liz:

Yes. Yeah. Now, and why is that... I mean, I say this a lot when I talk to students about writing. I say, "Writing is not a replacement for clinical therapy, but it is a tool, and it does lend itself toward being heard and hearing others." And that's part of creating that social fabric for community and for healing. So why then is writing, do you think, especially for middle grade students, so powerful in terms of the social-emotional piece, that social-emotional learning that is really, I think sometimes given short shrift in classrooms?

David:

Yeah, I think you're right. I think it actually starts in preschool and kindergarten when kids fall in love with stories. Right?

Liz:

Yeah.

David:

We're just naturally in love with stories. And then when kids, younger children, finally have the ability to put those down on paper and make their own stories to share with people, that's magical for them. And it's really enriching and it's joyful. It's a joyful experience. And I think even in middle school, fiction is still students' favorite genre to write. I think it's the hardest genre to write well, but I think that the fiction writing for them gives them a lot of joy. And it's not just fiction, though. To answer your question, I think it's also other areas of writing that build them up, like argumentative writing. I've had students write to our principal about new playground equipment that's needed, and then they see that happen. Or they go to the township meeting and read a speech about why they should have chickens in their backyard.

And those things... We've had students who've accomplished things through their writing. And how validating is that? How good is that for building confidence in your social-emotional state when people are paying attention to what you say through your writing? What a great tool to have. I would share one more example. I had a student a few years ago who had a severe peanut allergy and was bullied in elementary school because of it, like relentlessly bullied, and came to middle school and found a new group of friends, and the bullying stopped. And she was able to write a personal essay, a really heartfelt personal essay about how much it impacted her. And she published it. And she talked about how healing that was for her to be able to, A, write about it and B, put it out into the world so that somebody else she felt like might see that it's going to be okay. Right?

Liz:

Yeah.

David:

Because those things, when you're living them are terrifying and upsetting. So I think that was another example of positive impact of writing in middle school.

Liz:

Um-hum. Yeah. You've used the word magical a lot describing the act of writing. And as a writer myself, I know exactly what you mean, but I don't know if the word magical would appear on a lesson plan or in a curriculum map, if your instructional coach or your administrator might be able to ascertain exactly the educational value of that. But your book actually does that. Your book, The Power of Teaching Vulnerability, actually makes the kind of magical concrete for me.

David:

Thank you.

Liz:

Yeah, it really. I love, for example, one of the letters that you provided in the appendix was a gratitude letter. Tell me a little bit about those gratitude letters.

David:

Oh, boy. That was a colleague I had who used to teach a class called The Pursuit of Happiness, and had students write a letter of gratitude to another student or a parent, and not only write it, but then read it aloud. We hear students still to this day talking about that experience and how much it impacted them emotionally, obviously, and relationally with the person that they wrote the letter to. So yeah, I hear what you're saying about not being able to put magical into the curriculum, but I think what the magic does is it makes the writing better. It just naturally 100% starts to meet those standards of writing with strong imagery. And writing from the heart makes the writing just come alive, and it's better.

Liz:

Absolutely. I agree with you there. The doors that opened up for you after writing The Power of Teaching Vulnerability, did your teaching process change? Were you able to kind of illuminate for yourself how vulnerability and the connection of that created a community in your classroom? Tell me a little bit about after publishing a book, how that worked.

David:

Oh, boy. I think, yeah, definitely started to pay more attention to it. All through my Heinemann Fellowship, I started to pay more attention, obviously, to those vulnerability moments in the classroom. I think the big leap for me was being able to write in front of my students. That was always really scary. And now, something I do on a regular basis, for example, if we're starting a memoir unit, I'll put a Google Doc up on the screen and I'll say, "All right, throw out an emotion that you've experienced once in your life, and I'm going to tell you a story on paper or on the screen, and I have nothing planned because I don't know what emotion you're going to throw out." And they'll throw out there. They always want to know a time when I'm afraid, right?

Liz:

Yeah.

David:

"Tell me a time when you had fear." So what they'll do is they'll see me compose, they'll see me misspell, delete, change. For about 15 minutes, I'll craft something, and then by the end of the 15 minutes, I'll have the beginning of, or a mini personal essay or memoir on the screen. And they have lots of questions. And what I realized was I was doing more than just building community through that, because I was sharing part of myself, but I was also sharing them what the writing process looks like during. Because we do so much teaching before and after, we do the brainstorming and the outlining and the planning, and then we do the revising and editing, but we don't often talk about, "What does it look like when you're writing?" So that's a really good example of an active vulnerability that is building community, but it's also a really effective teaching tool. And they always want to try it after that. I always have students who say, "Can I come up now and write cold in front of the class?" So...

Liz:

Oh, that's amazing. They're brilliant. And so, I mean, the act of modeling, it's not just modeling the writing, right? It's modeling the vulnerability, it's modeling the dead ends of thought or casting about for the right word, or crossing out an image, all of those things.

David:

Yes. Yeah. And I mean, something else I wanted to mention was that teachers are always asking students to take risks in their learning, but how often are we as teachers modeling that?

Liz:

Great point.

David:

And we're always asking students to apologize for mistakes. How often are we modeling that? Not enough. I write in the book a lot about sorry. And when teachers say they're sorries, "I'm sorry I had to yell, but if you weren't so loud, I wouldn't have had to raise my voice." Right? That's not an apology at all.

Liz:

Right.

David:

So I think that's another thing that I try to do that came from my book is really pay attention to every conversation I have with kid and own when I make a mistake and just say, "I'm sorry, I'm going to do better."

Liz:

Yeah. This is kind of off the path, but I think it's really instructive. Do you ever have a student who hides behind his apathy? Tom Newkirk in Embarrassment, talks about students that put forth a posture of indifference, I think was the way he put it. A posture of indifference in order to shield themselves from the risk. And so nothing ventured, nothing gained. Do you find that you have to entice students that have put up that apathetic shield? And if so, how do you do that? How do you invite them in?

David:

It's a great question. And the word that comes to mind is patience. And I am lucky because I work in a school where I teach grades six through eight, so I loop with the same kids. I can have them up to three years. And we definitely have those kids. And I think my instinct early in my career would be to push, to zero in on them. And the more you push, the more they resist. So I think just constant invitations for kids to share when they're ready and to open up when they're ready. And some kids are never going to be vulnerable in their writing, and that's okay.

I used the example of my son, who's now in college, but he was actually in my school when I was doing the research. He's a huge sports fan, Philadelphia Eagle sports fan. So when they made their Super Bowl run, for him, opening up was me just like prodding him toward, "How did you feel? I know in your writing, you're telling me a lot about what happened in these games. You're doing reporting, right? But when you were on the couch and your heart was hammering and you were right there with... How did it feel for you?" "Oh, well, okay." Then he was able open up because it was something he loved. He didn't really see that as vulnerability, but it was for him talking about his feelings.

Liz:

Sure.

David:

So I think to answer your question, getting to know each kid, being really patient, and then just small invitations. Looking at what they're writing and saying, "How did you feel in that moment?" or "What were you thinking then?" And I think it's Nancie Atwell who has a mini lesson in one of her books where it's A Movie Behind Your Eyelids. So if they're writing something and there's a critical moment, you want to slow the action down, close your eyes, picture what happens there, and then write it in slow motion. And I love that. So I use that a lot too. And I think that's another way where you can just kind of pull out a little bit more for those resisting kids.

Liz:

That's wonderful. But before I let you go, I have a little lightning round of sentences. First word is always the best word, right? So...

David:

Yes. Usually.

Liz:

Here we go. Writing is...

David:

Meditation.

Liz:

Teaching is...

David:

A roller coaster.

Liz:

Great. I wish every teacher in America had...

David:

The patience to listen to every student they teach.

Liz:

Yeah. I wish every child in America had...

David:

A teacher who would listen to them.

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.

 

RockowerDavid-1

David Rockower is a classroom teacher in the State College Area School District and recipient of the 2017 National Middle School English Teacher of the Year award. A former Heinemann Fellow, David completed a two-year Action Research Project on the study of teacher vulnerability and its impact on student learning and school culture.He is author of the book, The Power of Teaching Vulnerably: How Risk-Taking Transforms Student Engagement

Topics: Podcast, Writing, Heinemann Podcast, Liz Prather, David Rockower, Healing, podcasts

Date Published: 04/11/24

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