Then one day, my girlfriend [now wife] brought me a copy of a little brown book Writing: Teachers & Children at Work and said, “You’ve got to read this… it’s an amazing book!” I watched her finding joy in the work she did with children day after day, so I read it! I was hooked from the first paragraph, “Children want to write. They want to write the first day they attend school. This is no accident. Before they went to school they marked up walls, pavements, newspapers with crayons, chalk, pens or pencils…anything that makes a mark. The child’s marks say, ‘I am.’”
And, as I closed the book, I knew… I had to teach. She was right, that little brown book was full of insights about learners, writers, and process. After graduation, I got my graduate level certification in elementary education. So, you might say my career was launched by two important mentors: my wife Susan and Donald H. Graves. And Writing: Teachers & Children at Work still holds a special place on our professional shelf.
I first met Donald Graves in person in November of 1987 at a workshop in Castle Rock, Colorado. Our district invited him to spend the day with a group of teachers from each elementary school. Luckily my principal, Laura Harmon, chose me to attend [Laura had the uncanny knack of putting people in the right place at the right time]. That workshop changed the way I looked at writers and writing. I took our little brown book and had it signed, “To Susan, A used book—the best kind. Hope to meet you someday. All the best, Don Graves.” And, trust me, all these years later, that book has been used.
Since that initial meeting, I’ve spent time learning from Don on several occasions. In the “good old days” the PEC [now PEBC] used to sponsor week-long summer institutes in writing and Don facilitated several of them. Seeing Don became one of the rituals in my teaching career. Every time I knew he was in Denver, I was right there. I never grew tired of hearing him share his work. I schlepped donuts and coffee to attend PEC summer institutes for “free” [before I was a staff developer]. I drove with friends through a blizzard on I-25 just to hear him speak for two hours at North High School. I sat in Stephanie Harvey's family room listening to Don talk to a small group of colleagues about his latest thinking. I last saw him at CCIRA a few years ago [thanks Carol for getting him here one last time]. I have devoured his books, taken voracious notes when he spoke, and sat in awe as he told stories of his work with writers. Don’s work strengthened the underpinnings of what I believe about writing and writers. I wasn’t a writer until I met Don Graves.
Now, here I am, sitting at my kitchen table with all his books within reach, saddened by the news of his death. I’m thinking about his stories of his wife Betty, of a sea of children, of jogging, of… of everything. But I’m also happy. Happy to have met him. Don made everyone feel like his best friend. And like thousands of teachers, and tens of thousands of children, I have been changed because of his legacy. That’s the good news. Don lives on.
In my copy of Build a Literate Classroom, Don wrote, “To Patrick. How well I remember our first meeting down the valley. Seems as though you are everywhere. What a delight for me to be together again. Enjoy! Don Graves.” [June 1981] And, really doesn’t it seem like it is, in fact, Don who is everywhere… is there a teacher of writers whose life he hasn’t touched? His voice ruminates through Katie’s work, through Ralph’s work, through Shelley’s work, through Penny’s work… there’s not one teacher of writers, who understands how important our work with young writers is, that doesn’t ground their work in Don’s body of work.
There’s always an echo of Don’s voice in our minds when we sit down to confer with a child. We imitate Don when ask a writer, “What’s that for?” or “How did you know how to do that?” We learned from Don that there’s a time for silence after hearing a child read his writing, when a simple touch on the shoulder is enough. We also learned from Don to “nudge” a child to rethink her work, to add depth to the writing. We learned from Don to tell our stories… in ten-minute spurts he told us. We learned from Don to take action, to tackle genre, to know our students well. We learned from Don that it takes energy to teach and to find that energy in our work. We learned from Don to find joy. And, we learned from Don that teaching is not testing and that we must help children develop as long thinkers. We learned from Don that if we want to teach writers we have to be writers ourselves. We learned these things and so much more. Aren’t we the lucky ones?
And now what? I think I’m going to do some rereading over the next few weeks, remembering what Don taught me that perhaps I’ve forgotten… in my notebooks, in articles, and in his books. I’ve already started. Tucked inside my copy of Experiment with Fiction, I found a letter Don wrote to me in June of 1991. In it he says, “So, we have had a career together. Do you wonder where it will all end up? Who cares. We’re going to enjoy the trip together.
It is getting so every time I come to Denver I look for you in the crowd. The first time you emerged was at the session we had at Castle Rock a number of years ago.”
And Don goes on to say, “Thanks for the enclosed quote. Yes, a loud yes, the legacy we leave is no idle thing.”
Don, you were right. The legacy we leave is no idle thing. Thanks for the grand legacy you’ve left us all! I’ve enjoyed the trip. Where will it all end up?
Donald H. Graves 1930-2010
"We learn more from hanging around someone who does it than from being told how it’s done." A. Kohn