Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Penny Kittle - Writing Wednesdays

In 2011 I attended my first NCTE in Chicago, Illinois. At some point over the weekend I went to see Linda Darling-Hammond. I was taking graduate courses at night and Linda’s books had been required reading. I went to that session with Donalyn Miller, an online friend who had written a pivotal book for my teaching career, The Book Whisperer. As we took our seats towards the front, someone else came in to sit down. She knew Donalyn, so she joined us, sitting on my other side. It was Penny Kittle.

To say it was a bit of an out of body experience would be an understatement. Just to be in the session to learn from Linda was enough. Donalyn’s words had transformed my teaching, but I knew her pretty well by then, so I had held myself together. But Penny? Her books: Public Teaching: One Kid at a Time (2003), The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching (2005), and Write Beside Them (2008), they had spoken to my heart. I sobbed over her books. They broke me down, but in the best of ways. They made me want to be a better teacher, a better human. I’ve told Donalyn often that both she and Penny make me cry when I read their professional books, which is not your typical reaction to reading about teaching.

But maybe it should be.

Penny’s books had, over the years, reached across the miles and told me I wasn't alone. They remind me to see every kid in my classroom, to see the best in them. And they encouraged me, reminding me that what we’re doing here, it matters. Even when no one else tells us it does, we just need to look at the kids.

So yeah, that November day, I freaked out a bit inside. When Penny gave me a piece of gum, I kept the wrapper and put it in my journal. I showed my husband later and he laughed, asking if that was a bit stalker like. I said it was just there to remind me of the teacher I wanted to be. And seven years later, I still knew exactly where it was when I sat down to write this post.

Just a week ago I messaged Penny and explained that I’d love to know more about her writing life. She immediately agreed, sending the document back shortly after I shared it with her. And once again, just reading her words was like balm to my tortured writing soul. I needed her words, I needed the one and only Don Murry’s words. It’s been a rough writing week and I had no idea that reading her response would get me back on track. And on that note, please welcome Penny Kittle to Read, Write, Reflect.

Talk to me about your writing life - what does it look like?

I write in my notebook at my desk in my office almost every morning. When I am traveling for work I write in my notebook propped up in my hotel bed most of the time. I start in my notebook because it helps me clear my head. I make a list on  one side of a page of all the things I need to do that day--this helps me clear my mind so I can work. I put my phone in the kitchen so it won’t distract me. I sit and stare out the windows to the woods that surround my house and write.

Sometimes I reread entries from the last few days before I start working. If I can’t get started, I describe the weather--what I see out my window, and then start listing the things I’ve been thinking about. I have found that getting an idea about what to write comes from getting my pen moving. As I write, ideas come to me that are unrelated to what I am writing, but the action of forming letters into words activates my mind and  brings ideas and images to the surface.

This is a picture of my daughter sitting at my desk.

Where do you get your inspiration?

I almost never write fiction. I write about people I know, and when I’m telling the story and shaping it, I use the person’s name. Sometimes I change them later to protect the privacy of the person. Since I write what has happened, the setting is real, so I just close my eyes and try to image every detail of it.

What was your journey into writing?

I’ve always written. I have writing notebooks from elementary school. I started writing stories I wanted to publish while teaching because I was trying to understand the process of writing what I asked my students to write. That led me to my first two books which are stories about teaching.

Were you a writer in middle school? A reader?

I have always been a reader. I started reading at 4 and I even remember the night I learned how to make sense of the words on the page… I remember holding the book and one word at a time I could suddenly hear what Mom had been reading to me. I went to the library every week with my mom in elementary and middle school and checked out my limit (8 books) which I read and reread until the next week. I also bought lots of paperbacks from the Scholastic book order and found favorites like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, Encyclopedia Brown and Harriet the Spy.

I remember only writing school work in middle school, but I kept a notebook and once in awhile wrote my own stories.

What was your publishing journey like?

I wrote first for journals for teachers. When I found out my work would be published in my favorite one, Voices from the MIddle, I went dancing and screaming all over the house. It was thrilling. I was encouraged to send my writing to an editor at Heinemann, who has published all of my books. My first editor was a true cheerleader and she helped me believe in my work and to continue to shape it so that it could be published.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

From my friend, Don Murray: “15 minutes a day, Kittle. Just 15 minutes a day and you’ll have a book in a year.” That advice told me to just try--just dedicate regular time to the practice of writing and I would be able to reach my goals. It also told me that I didn’t need to dedicate hours and hours to it--although I certainly have. I needed advice to get me started and to move away from excuses like, “I don’t have time to write.”

What is some writing advice you’d like to give either to my students or to other aspiring writers?

“You have a story to tell that no one can tell but you.” Don Graves told me that. He encouraged so many teachers to write and that’s what I now tell people I talk to… write your life. And share.

Best thing about being a writer?

I love to write. I like imagining a student and then working to tell her story and then reading it and thinking, that’s what I wanted to say. I like rewriting and fiddling with words and listening to the sounds of sentences that work together well. I love the blank page, knowing that I can’t know what will happen as I begin to fill it with words. The surprise of writing brings me back every time.
Hardest part of being a writer?

Deadlines--and letting something go to a publisher that feels not quite right. What I’ve learned is that I am never satisfied and that nothing has ever felt ready to be published, but I’ve let it go anyway. My friend Don Murray told me to send it out into the world to do its work and get to work on the next thing. That’s the advice I follow, but it is hard. I always want to revise my books when I reread them.

What do you do when you’re stuck?

I move my pen across the page. Sometimes I sketch. Sometimes I list, sometimes I write one stupid sentence after another and stop judging them, I just stack them up and look for joy and purpose in one line and another. And some days I do not find either. I get up the next day and try again.

Do you have an “inner editor” voice that is unkind?

Yes. I am my worst critic and I don’t like a lot of what I write.

What are you reading now that you’re loving?

So many things! Poetry and fiction and books on how to be a better leader. I am reading a lot of Andrea Davis Pinkney work to study how she writes and rereading Harry Potter to look at how she writes what so many of us love.

Finally, do you want to share the inspiration for your most recent project?

When I moved to college teaching I made a list of the four essential writing experiences that most of my students were missing that I believe are critically important for all high school writers. I am now shaping those into units with Kelly Gallagher, my co-author on my last project.

Did you all get as excited as I did when you saw that sentence above? I’m beyond thrilled that Penny and Kelly are collaborating again. If you haven’t seen their last book, 180 DAYS: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents, check it out NOW. Kelly’s Readicide is one of my all time favorite reads, but all of his books are amazing. I can’t wait to see what this new book becomes.

Thanks again to the amazing Penny Kittle for giving of her time to share her thoughts with us. If you'd like to find Penny online, here are some links:

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