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Armless, Legless, with a Crayon in My Mouth

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Isabel McLean with Pati Cunningham and Sarah Jerasa at NCTE in Orlando

Do you remember the post I wrote last spring about our Teacher as Writer presentation being accepted at NCTE? Well, it was accepted and we did finally present. I worked with two other women: Pati Cunningham, a national education consultant from VA and Sarah Jerasa, a teacher at the Project School in Indiana. We presented our individual teacher as writer projects to an audience of mostly classroom teachers and some university folks at NCTE in Orlando.

Meeting the needs of all participants

I typically struggle with conference presentations—is the presentation going to meet the needs of the audience? In fact, what are the needs of the participants? Who are the participants? What roles do they play in our field? Was I clear enough in my description so that attendees know what to expect?

Writing can save you

As it turned out, I had no reason to worry. We had a great audience for our session. All were eager and interested to discuss making writing more a part of both their professional and personal practice. In our presentations, we tried to connect them with the theme that writing has the potential to save you—be it writing about your teaching or writing about your personal life. Essentially, taking a moment to write about your struggles helps to discover your truths.

We started the workshop with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut: “When I write I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in my mouth.” We showed the participants only part of the quote and we asked them to fill in the blanks: When I write, I feel like a__________ with a_____________. The responses were raw and inspiring. One woman wrote, “When I write, I feel like a paratrooper with no parachute.”

We ended with the ninety-minute session with a truly inspirational gift from Pati—a poem that she wrote about uncovering a sweet secret.

Last Night

Through sleep, I felt you
leave our bed- heard your bare feet
secret in the hallway,
waking me with their mischief.

I crept after you
down the hallway
towards the kitchen’s eerie glow
and found you bathed there
in refrigerator light, spoon
In one hand, quart of Chunky Monkey
In the other and knew then
That this was not the first late night visit
for the small curve of your belly smiled at me.

I watched for a moment as you lifted
the creamy shovelful delicately
to your mouth and then,
without speaking
I slid down the dark hall
Back to our bed where

The burning begins
Not from a
Heat like your hand
Or the breaking of your promise
But the way a secret, hot as tears
Surrenders itself willingly
When a truth is discovered.

So how would you complete this sentence?

When I write, I feel like a__________ with a_____________.

Isabel McLean is a Lead Instructional Coach in Albemarle County, VA. She presents keynotes, workshops, presentations, and professional development for teachers, literacy coaches, and administrators across the country. Previously Isabel worked as a national educational consultant for DSC, served as the Director of Elementary Education for a small rural school district in Virginia, and as an instructional coordinator for an inner-city school in Charlottesville, VA. Her role in both school environments was to coordinate curriculum and to provide focused, high quality professional development for teachers. Isabel has also been a middle school literacy teacher and a teacher of at-risk students in grades 1-4. Finally, Isabel served as an adjunct instructor at the University of Virginia, James Madison University, and Longwood College.

Isabel holds her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. Her doctorate examined gender and literacy acquisition in emergent readers and writers. She has presented at local, state, and national conferences and worked with schools across the country as an independent consultant. Isabel has authored several articles and been published in the National Reading Conference Yearbook. She also trained as a Reading Recovery teacher.

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Comments (2)

I love Pati's poem - has the

I love Pati's poem - has the sterling ring of truth! Thank you.

Check out the conversation on

Check out the conversation on our Facebook page about this blog too! There are some great comments completing the quote from Kurt Vonnegut.

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