Sunday, July 11, 2010

In Pictures and In Words

Katie Wood Ray's latest book, In Pictures and In Words: Teaching the Qualities of Good Writing Through Illustration Study is hot off the presses.  If you're like me, you devour Katie's writing.  If you're like me, your thinking is stretched in new and interesting ways as you read her latest work.  If you're like me, you value Katie's work because at the end of the day, she is first and foremost a writer.  And, from whom do we learn to teach writing from most effectively... from a fellow writer!
   I couldn't wait to talk to Katie about her new book.  It was a pleasure to talk to her about her latest project.  It is a thoughtful and thought-filled read.  Enjoy our interview...
Patrick:  Your initial questions, “What if children are introduced to key qualities of good writing in the context of illustrations.  What If children gain lots and lots of experience planning, drafting, revising, and editing content in the process of composing illustrations for their books?” are so powerful.  So inquiry based. 
    Every time I read your books, or listen to you speak, I’m reminded of the Elephant’s Child by Kipling… you’re so full of insatiable curiosity, you “build your case” so wisely.  Tell us a bit more about how your own curiosity drives you to think deeply, and thoughtfully, as both a writer and teacher of writing.

Katie:  Hmm…I honestly don’t know that anyone has ever described me as curious before, and I’m not sure I think of myself in that way. I mean, I know people who I think of as possessing curiosity as a real habit of mind, and I’m just not sure I fit that bill. Like lots of times I travel to interesting places for work and I never leave my hotel room to go see what’s there. It seems like if I were a truly curious person I wouldn’t let those opportunities pass me by. Hmm… 
   Having said that, I do get interested in things about writing and teaching, and as that interest grows and the edges of it start to fill out a bit, this often leads me to start writing about it. And here’s the thing, maybe it is curiosity that leads me to writing, because one thing I have come to completely trust is that when I do start writing about something, I will know WAY more about it when I’m finished than when I started.

Patrick:  In chapter two, you talk eloquently about stamina and its role in the writer’s workshop.  Although you focus on “young writers” in this book, how would you describe the notion of “stamina” as it relates to writers in upper elementary classrooms?    

Katie:  Same thing, more of it! Truly, upper grades writers should have even better stamina for writing than young children, but you know what’s sad is, so often they don’t. Many of them have gotten so used to school being a place where every moment of the day is directed by someone else, that they don’t know how to work their way through time without outside direction.  If kids are going to learn to keep themselves going through time as writers, they are going to need big projects they are working on all on their own to sustain them. This is why I have always felt students should have a folder of totally self-sponsored work (I call it back-up work in Study Driven) they’ve got going all the time. I would encourage them to work on novels, plays, articles, guides – anything that interests them really. Most of it will be not-so-good writing, but if it helps them build stamina for writing, that’s fine.  

Patrick:  I asked Ralph Fletcher this question recently, “What are some of the practices you see being implemented in classrooms in the name of ‘writer’s workshop’ that send shivers down your spine?”   

Katie:  I get frustrated when writing curriculum is not taken seriously. If children were being taught, say, that the nation’s capitol is in Chicago instead of Washington, we’d call that absurd because of course that’s not true. And yet, there are just as glaringly erroneous things (in my opinion) taught to children as writing curriculum and no one bats an eye. The whole myth curriculum that has grown up around “how to write a paragraph” being one notable example. You know, it is just not true that a paragraph must have five sentences and that you build each one with a topic sentence and supporting details and then move on to the next. The evidence for this is in every single text a person reads, and yet children are still subjected to this completely false curriculum in so many places. How can it possibly be okay to teach children something so far off the mark?  And unfortunately, there are other examples I could give, but I won’t so as not to sound off too shrilly.  

Patrick:  When you were writing In Picture and In Words, what was your greatest ah-ha?  Tell us about the part of the book that you’re most proud of as a writer yourself. 

Katie:  I think I was most surprised by how deep it got when I started making the connections between what illustrators do and what writers do. I knew there were connections, but I didn’t realize how significant they really were until I pushed myself to articulate them for all those different techniques. This is probably my favorite part of the book, though I’m not sure everyone will have the patience to dig into them! 

Patrick:  One of my favorite chapters is chapter four.  Your metaphor is filled with your voice.  I love how you challenge us to “read like a writer, on purpose.”  The act of developing a new habit of mind as readers of illustrations and constantly nudging writers to make important decisions plays a critical role in your teaching… how can we best encourage our colleagues to take risks when “thinking aloud” during the teaching of writing?

Katie:  I don’t ever really feel like I have good answers to questions that involve getting colleagues on board with something. The only thing I know to do is to take the When Harry Met Sally approach – “I’ll have what she’s having.”  If we’re living demonstrations of thinking and risk-taking in all our work together, and folks see the amazing places that can lead us, perhaps they’ll want to come aboard.  Interestingly enough, I think I am most at ease thinking aloud when I’m teaching children, much more so than I am sometimes in the company of adults.  

Patrick:  Your predictable framework for planning a unit of study, for generating curriculum, even with a study of illustrations, is so logical, so inquiry-based.  Teaching children to “learn how to learn” plays such a key role in the process.  What are your words of wisdom for someone who wants something more “prescriptive”, dare I say it, “canned”?

Katie:  Start small. Instead of planning a whole year of units from an inquiry stance, start by planning just one or two. I haven’t met many teachers who didn’t tell me that they loved how energizing it is to get in there and learn alongside their students.  Once a teacher has gotten a taste of that, it’s hard to not want more of it. Going to work every day is so much more rewarding when you can expect the unexpected instead of always expecting the expected. But you have to learn to trust children and trust yourself to be able to teach into what children think and notice. 

   Some of this, also, is connected to having a deep understanding of the nature of writing curriculum. In many ways, writing is so complex and multi-faceted, that to imagine it can be programmatic, is to not really understand the nature of it. With almost anything I can think about that is important to know about writing, there are multiple ways to know it, multiple ways it could go. There’s no way to make it simple, as programs seek to do. Teaching from an inquiry stance allows the complexity of writing curriculum to maintain its integrity in our teaching.  

Patrick:  The last five chapters focus on a fifty illustration techniques (again following that predictable format).   Each chapter is organized so explicitly.  I’m in awe.  I imagine you sitting in your library, pulling book after book out of your collection… noticing and naming… Tell us about writing that section.   How did you stop at 50?  Do you have a favorite technique?
Katie:  A lot of the techniques were ones I had explored with Lisa and her students in their writing workshop. But yes, there were new ones I found as I indeed sat and pulled book after book off my shelves. And of course, with some of the ones I already knew,  I wanted to find the best possible examples to describe in the book, so that sent me exploring as well. This part was great fun to write actually – like going on a treasure hunt. Making all the writing connections to the illustration techniques sent me back into some classic books about word crafting that I hadn’t looked at in a while, and I enjoyed that immensely.  

   I stopped at fifty because it just seemed like a good round number. I could have done more, but I think I made my point and accomplished my goal – to give teachers enough examples of this kind of noticing, thinking and connecting that they go could forward and work independently of what I write about in the book.  
   Probably my favorite technique is the beginning and endings that match (#26 I think). This is so common in writing as well, and I love that I was able to show that lead and ending from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.  

Patrick:  On a personal note, tell us how you handle writing with four dogs at your feet, or under your feet… how did you stay focused?  Perhaps you have a picture book in mind with your dogs as the characters? 

Katie:  My dogs are too big to sit under my feet! My smallest dog – “little” Ivy we call her – is 70 lbs. They just lie on dog beds all around my office. To be honest, I came to my love for dogs late in life, and I can’t imagine how I lived or wrote books before I had them. They are so wide awake to everything around them (except when they’re asleep of course), that I just experience everything more fully when they’re around. And they do make what can be a very long, lonely day sitting at my desk much less lonely.  

Patrick:  On page 97, you say, “To write well, writers need ideas, and then they need ideas for how to express those ideas…”  With that in mind, what is your next project?  What are you thinking about as a writer?  Where is your insatiable curiosity leading you….
Katie:  I am interested in the day-to-day decision making of a teacher who is not following a script for teaching in the writing workshop. While s/he may be working within a predictable framework for teaching as I describe in so much of my work, day-to-day decisions about what comes next still must be made. The best writing workshop teacher I know, Lisa Cleaveland, and I are going to explore this next year in her classroom. I don’t know if a book will come out of it or not, but I feel if I could name the ways decisions are made in her teaching, it could be very helpful for other teachers who are wanting to break free of programs and make their own decisions.

   I’ve also been thinking about the quality of talk in the writing workshop for some time and have collected lots of thinking about it, but so far I haven’t felt I have anything really different to write about it than what Peter Johnston so perfectly captured in Choice Words. If I ever feel I have anything significant to add to that, I might have a go at it.  
   Word crafting continues to pull at me. It’s something I toy with going back to all the time, but don’t know if ever will.  
   And then Matt Glover and I are working on a project that will be in the form of an E-Book and will be a combination of text and video clips of writing conferences with very beginning writers. It’s pretty exciting stuff and hopefully will be out in the next year. It’s all stuff we’ve just filmed during normal days in writing workshops, no big film crews and bright lights, so it’s very real, very raw. When we show it to teachers in workshops, they love that about it, so making it available to folks in an affordable, easily accessible format is our goal.

Patrick:  Thanks for sharing your thinking with us and thanks for once again challenging us to think more clearly and deeply about our work with the writers in our care.


  1. Thank you, Patrick and Katie...there was so much information in this interview! Writing stamina is something my sixth graders really struggle with at the beginning of the year, Katie's ideas about writing wit pictures is something I really want to explore - so, I've just added Katie's book to my summer reading list.

  2. oh boy.....i've found my next read :) thanks patrick for sharing this!!!

  3. Patrick, This is a wonderful interview. I recently read and reviewed Katie's new book and continue to love her insight and guidance in writing workshop. Thanks for the thoughtul questions to probe deeper into Katie's work.

  4. Thank you for this insightful interview! Hearing Katie's take on the various chapters make me eager to dig in!

  5. Fantastic, in-depth interview. I can't wait to get my hands on this book!