Isabel McLean's picture

Making It Sweet

I have been reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I was meeting with a group of incredibly gifted educators and writers the other day and in our discussion they referenced Writing Down the Bones—clearly they considered Goldberg a huge influence in their professional lives—and sadly I had not yet discovered her work. Have you ever had one of those moments? I was a little embarrassed that she was new to me and very intrigued at the same time.

So, naturally, I ordered the book on Amazon that evening, and when it arrived two days later I devoured it. Writing Down the Bones (for those of you are who are like me and are late coming to Goldberg’s now 20 year-old classic) is an incredibly poetic, artistic and thoughtful collection of short essays about becoming a writer. Goldberg describes many important writing habits, even as simple as choosing a pen that is “a fast-writing pen because your thoughts are always much faster than your hand.” One essay that gave me pause was about the importance of “making learning sweet” for novice writers.

She describes a Jewish tradition of giving children a piece of candy when they are first learning Hebrew so the children associate the new learning with something sweet. She argues that all new learning should be associated with something sweet. Goldberg writes, It should be the same with writing. Right from the beginning, know it is good and pleasant. Don’t battle with it. Make it your friend.

I saw my husband do this with my 4-year old daughter the other day. She was throwing the lacrosse ball with him for the first time and no matter how aimless her throw was; he praised her for her efforts. I can’t tell you how many times I heard him say, “Good throw!” or “Nice try!”

Right now, my writing feels sweet for me. My colleagues and friends have made my initial forays very sweet indeed—I have received a tremendous amount of positive feedback and support with my work; I feel lucky. It makes me wonder, though—do we make sure our young writers experience success at their first attempts? Do we make the learning sweet for children in our schools?

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.

Read more blogs by Isabel McLean



Comments (3)

It was good to be reminded of

It was good to be reminded of the lessons shared in this seminal text. It's been sitting on my bookshelf for many years but sort of like a long-lost friend. Isabel, after reading your post  I'll pull it down and reacquaint myself.

In response to your question about making the learning sweet for children. I think you can celebrate that many teachers are doing exactly that. I spent many hours in classrooms this past year watching children experience pure joy as they were "writing down the bones".

Sweetness and learning -

Sweetness and learning - shouldn't they go together automatically? But sadly for too many children they are faced with a red pen and criticism for their efforts to learn and explore. It really makes teachers and educators consider how their reactions, comments, and suggestions to our young writers/learners can make significant impact. A simple word or phrase can change the whole attitude a child may have towards writing. In classrooms, writing needs to be celebrated and when writing is shared among classmates, friends, and teachers it should be a big deal. Asking students what they love and cherish about a piece is a great way to start making those writing steps as sweet as can be. 

I love Natalie Goldberg, simply for the way she makes writing seem accessible and possible for even the most reluctant writers. I have often shared with my students her idea of getting the junk out on paper first so the great writing can come out. Her usage of analogies to describe how the writing process really is makes it so clear for teachers and adult writers. 

 Thanks so much Isabel for this post. It definitely has re-sparked my re-read Ms. Goldberg and find more connections to make with my students! :) 

Thanks for both of your

Thanks for both of your comments and I am thrilled I was able to remind you of Writing Down the Bones!

Sarah, sweetness and learning most certainly go hand in hand in your 5th grade classroom. I hope you don't mind; I am attaching the phrases your students crafted when you asked them what their writing meant to them. I hope others will take a moment to read them. One of your students wrote that writing is "a silent recess where anything can happen." Another wrote that writing was like cake batter and in the end you get a story!

Clearly, you are an inspirational teacher who has discovered a way to make your students' writing sweet for them.

 

phrases (pdf) 
phrases (Word)

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