Mirrors: A Reflection of a Writer Teacher
by Connie Pertuz-Meza
“I wrote a prologue,” Jacob whispered. We walked down the hallway on our way to the cafeteria. Jacob was in the front of the line, his sweatshirt hood over his head. He refused to be seen without a hood.
“Oh yeah?” I glanced at him. My eyes darted to the rest of my fifth grade class.
“It’s the prologue of the novel I’m working on.” Jacob brown eyes stared at me, a longing not unlike my own at his age.
“A novel,” I smiled.
“Yes, like you.” Jacob turned back towards his classmates. “I want to be a writer too.” He swallowed his lips and looked down.
“I can’t wait to read it,” I said.
Jacob was a gifted artist. First time I saw one of his sketches was inside his writer’s notebook, only ten and already so good — in a few years he’d be great. Jacob wrote scenes much like his anime sketches, with a precision of details you became lost in.
We walked down several flights. Once in the cafeteria, I turned towards Jacob, placed a hand on his shoulder. “Send me what you have on the Google Drive, share it. I’d love to read it.” Jacob beamed, standing among the loud voices of other ten and eleven-year-olds. Outside of the cafeteria, I looked back at Jacob from behind the glass wall, which separated us. Reflected back I saw a shy, sensitive, introvert who prefers to read during recess and spend most of his time lost in the corridors of his imagination. I caught sight of myself seeing him, and for a second my own reflection overlapped his.
Writing bleeds to all the parts of my life. I teach the way I write. Character-driven, I teach the child and not the subject. Many of the craft moves find themselves in my instruction, show not tell, get to the heart of the story, and specificity to sharpen the details. And, as I strive to leave my soul on the page, I aim to do the same in the classroom. I tell the parts of me to help students take risks in their own writing. I pepper my writing lessons with personal anecdotes, from the simple and silly to the painful and sad: my love for cheese; how once my wrap around skirt slipped off my waist while I taught division of fractions; my childhood as a daughter of an alcoholic; growing up on welfare, and reading as an escape. All these bits make up the whole of who I am. And it’s the page which best reflects me back to me.
Everyone tries in one way or another to be heard and seen, whether you come from a well-adjusted home, a blended family, a chaotic home, or have never felt at home anywhere. Stories can illuminate not only who we are to us, but help reflect the complexities of life, holding up mirrors of the lives of others, so we can catch a glimpse of our humanity through the reflections of others. While so much time is spent focusing on all the differences, little effort is put on noticing the universal, but writing our own stories and sharing them does just that.
In the meantime, creating a safe space, treasuring stories as something sacred and possessed by everyone, writers can grow. Like two characters in a story, Jacob and I are mirrors for each other. I tell Jacob what I wished someone told me when I knew for sure I wanted to write. That hard work, persistence, and faith are just as important as a strong verb, a sharp image, and a sophisticated vocabulary. I open up to my own process, show Jacob and my students my submission calendar, my writing journal filled with early writing ideas, and my marked draft of my manuscript. Jacob's eyes widen, his expression echoes what all writers have felt once the mystery of writing is revealed to them. Like an invitation handed to Jacob, he eagerly joins the celebration. Happy, I think to my relationship with my writing teacher and my mentor, and how their confidence in me gave me the courage to keep on writing.
Is a writing identity important for all students? Not every student is like Jacob, one might say. But yes, it is important because every student is made up of a patchwork of stories. In order to live a full life, we need to embrace the stories that make us who we are. The quicker the realization, the faster anyone can get on with the joy of living. A writing life can be rewarding whether you become a novelist or screenwriter, develop the habit of journal writing, or move your loved ones with the letters you’ve written. Writing is messy, a dedicated practice, but also a way to communicate. A communion of self and with others, giving voice to those who don’t feel like they have one, and changing the lives of the writer and those reading it.
Through developing a writing identity, an awareness of your true essence becomes uncovered, the part of you which is brimming with infinite potential. The part in every person moved by stories and confident it can move others with story can spark the growth of a classroom of strong and amazing children — the ones they are meant to be.
Partnered in an Integrated Collaborative Team Teaching partnership, I’m part of a classroom where my co-teacher and I enrich our classroom with our passions. I’m a writer, my co-teacher is a tech, and we both see the value of enhancing our classroom with our passions. In our parallel teaching, small groups, or co-teaching structures, we seek to challenge our students and ourselves by creating fun lessons outside of our areas of expertise. Often, seeking resources in order to learn more about technology, I ask my co-teacher questions, go to Youtube, read articles on technology, and if I’m feeling daring I upload a new app or program to tinker with. In turn, my co-teacher does the same, asking me questions before creating a writing lesson; reading teacher texts on writing; writing an entry in his teacher’s writer’s notebook or going through the draft and revision process of the unit at hand. Though we both delight when writing and technology come together naturally, which it often does.
Yes, not all teachers consider themselves a writer, but a lot can be done in the classroom to support writers, and through practical instruction, they can see what’s possible. But all any teacher really needs is the willingness to open up to a classroom of students with some of the stories that make them who they are. And, soon you will have one hand go up to share a story, then another, and one after that, and then dozens of hands will reach high above them to tell their story.
THREE HABITS TO SHARE WITH ANY WRITER AT ANY AGE
Develop a Practice
Writing is as much about practice as it is beautiful metaphors and clever similes. Writing a set amount of notebook entries a week is a practice. I often describe writing like the latest video game trending. If you want to get a higher score you keep playing, writing is no different, write more, and sharpen your skills like you do with FortNite.
Writing while a solitary act thrives with community. Students need to feel comfortable and safe to share their writing. This can be created with partnerships and groups, also sharing writing with former teachers, family members, and friends outside of the school. All writers are hungry for readers, and once aware they have an audience a writer will do what they love most, write.
Read A lot
Writers must read as much as they write, if not more. Reading a lot allows writers to begin to discern what makes a good writing and what is not. It also acts as inspiration and writers will begin to discover genres and styles. Students should feel at ease to share books with one another, suggest titles for the classroom library, and for those reluctant readers graphic novels, poetry collections, and spoken word videos are a great way to get them interacting with text.
Writing is a mirror for writer and reader and writer and self. There is no greater reason to teach writing as if everyone is Jacob if only to see a classroom of writing notebooks reflecting your students back to you.
Connie writes stories about her life, family, and ancestors. Propelled to action as a New York City public school teacher, and mother of a teenaged daughter and middle school aged son. Currently working on a semi-autobiographical YA novel. Documenting her life through personal essay on her blog, Conniepertuzmeza.wordpress.com. Staff writer for Hispanecdotes.com, a monthly online literary magazine. Essay published by Accentos Review 2018, Essay published by MUTHA magazine 2018, Essay published by La Pluma y La Tinta in Penate Anthology 2018, forthcoming essay in Latina Outsiders: Remaking Latina Identity Anthology 2018, and 2017 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist and Honorable Mention.
A two-time VONA/Voices Fiction Alum (2015 and 2017), participant of Christina Garcia’s Las Dos Brujas (2017), fellowship at the Cullman Teaching Institute with Salvatore Scibona (2017), and Tin House Craft Intensive participant (2017 and 2018) Member of M. Colleen Cruz’s writing group for teachers who write, based in Brooklyn since 2004.