I got a piece of mail today from the school where my dad went to college. It was a colorful tri-fold request for donations to support the campus library. On the outside was a drawing of a darkened library and the words “No one would die if the library didn’t exist.”

On the inside was a drawing of the same library lit up and bustling with activity and the words “but we wouldn’t truly live.”

I get the point and I agree with the second part – even though libraries don’t save lives the way, say, hospitals do, they’re essential to our vitality.

But I took the first part as sort of a query. Is it true that no one would die if libraries didn’t exist? And I don’t just mean in that colloquial “I would die if I couldn’t go to the library ” kind of way.  I certainly can’t imagine my life without the library, but that isn’t what I’m getting at.

I think it’s probably easier than we might think to trace the actual survival of actual people to their own or others’ access to libraries. Some of the connections may be distant – a person who will one day hold the power to start or stop wars begins by finding a book in a library that inspires him to read or to learn more about something that in turn inspires further learning or inquiry and investigation or just plain empowers him to believe that he has the ability and resources to make an important contribution. Other connections may be more direct. People in tremendous despair have been saved by specific particular books that let them know they are not alone in their plight or that map a way out they wouldn’t otherwise have known existed. And then there’s that libraries are often used by those who are homeless to keep warm during the day. By itself that’s probably not enough to keep a person alive, but it may go a long way toward it.

This may be an especially sore subject for me this week, as a faithful listener to The Writer’s Almanac, which ended last Wednesday and whose archives were removed from the web when Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media severed its ties with Garrison Keillor’s media companies after allegations of sexual misconduct. Along with the obvious importance of taking such allegations seriously, there are  legal and financial reasons that under the circumstances the show could not continue to be broadcast and had its archive removed. I mention it here not to comment on that situation but because the archive of the show is a library of its own, of history, poetry, and connection among writers and thinkers. As with the libraries, we could say that no one will die because it’s gone, but we don’t know that. We don’t know what strength and power a handful of words or a well-timed resonant historical note or a library or a book from that library can have. We just don’t know.


The other day, one of the teenagers I know was talking about one of her teachers and how on certain days he plays music from one of his favorite albums during part of class. She said “He plays it in every class he hosts that day.”

When she’d finished telling the story I asked her about her choice of verb, because of course “host” isn’t what you’d expect in this context, but it hadn’t seemed like an accident. She said “Yeah, I’m not sure why I said it that way, but it seemed like what I meant.”

We had other things to talk about so I didn’t dwell on it. I just wanted to know if she’d chosen the word more or less on purpose. From the sound of it, in that particular teacher’s class, this student feels more like a guest than a… subject, the way many do in many classes.

A small thing, except not at all.


To see more from Xavi Bou’s Ornitographies, a chronophotography project of shapes generated by birds in flight, visit his website here and click “The Project.” If you’re like me and it doesn’t occur to you right away to scroll sideways, my recommendation is to scroll sideways.


This, from poet Sara Holbrook, who found some questions on a Texas achievement test, about poems she herself wrote, difficult to answer:


I have a tendency to get a little ranty about this subject, as I have always considered it risky business to teach a young person that it’s possible to know what someone else meant when they wrote something.  It’s not that I don’t think it can be interesting or edifying to speculate about what someone might have meant, but to imagine that we can know without asking, or let anyone have the authority of knowing, yikes.  Anyway, because I have the aforementioned ranty-ness tendency, I liked this characterization from Sara Holbrook.  Big baloney sandwich.  I found a triangular (lover of words and math that I am) drawing of one here to really drive the point home for myself.


lexical visualization

The other day I talked with an 11 year-old who wishes he were better at spelling.  He told me (as many do) that when he writes a word he can tell if it’s not the right spelling but he often can’t figure out how to fix what’s not right.  We talked about how this is a funny thing about the brain – if you know something when you see it, and you know not something when you see that, how could you be unable to generate the something itself? The answer, of course, is some version of this fact: receptive language (what you hear and process) and productive language (what you say) are not one process.  We don’t have the same access to brain files when it comes to receiving and producing.

Later the same day I was reading more of Dan Roam and trying a drawing exercise in which I had to represent, in simple sketches, a few different popular cities.  For Paris, of course, I attempted to draw the Eiffel Tower. I realized I was having the same trouble with the drawing as my young friend has with spelling.  I know the Eiffel Tower when I see it, and I can draw all the shapes it would require to represent it adequately for someone else to be able to recognize it, but I couldn’t quite manage to pull together well enough the knowledge that makes it recognizable to me and my ability to assemble shapes into drawings to get it right enough.

Dan Roam has me convinced that it’s not too late for me to learn to do it, and my young spelling friend and I have been talking about how to use his extensive lexicon of recognized words when he’s trying to spell one.  It, like the drawing, seems to benefit from involving the eye.  The teaching of spelling has traditionally relied heavily upon the ear – “sounding out” – but for many young people who have become competent readers (and thus have an extensive collection of recognized words in their brains), the eye and the visual memory offer a steadier more reliable sensory  assist.


writing and drawing

I’m working my way through all of Dan Roam’s books about how simple drawings, alongside a few words, can bring ideas to life. I’ve finished  The Back of the Napkin and Blah Blah Blah, and now I’m reading Unfolding the Napkin.

Dan points out that in school we are trained to communicate almost exclusively in words – drawing is relegated to art or free time.  Yet pictures are much closer relatives to experience than words, and as young children are attempting to make sense of and assimilate what’s happening and what they’re being told, their first impulse is often to draw.  We’ll grant them that, but not for long before we want them to focus their attention on reading and writing, shoving the drawing to the periphery (at best).  I’ve been wondering what would happen if we let them draw as much as and for as long as they are compelled to.  How would it influence their development?  What effect would it have on how they communicate?  Would some processes speed up and some slow down?

It’s been interesting, in the course of my exploration of Dan’s visual thinking work, for me to try to train myself to expand the way I think about communicating, to try to incorporate images into the way I share something I’m trying to say.  It feels very difficult, but also as though if I figure it out, it’ll be a relief not to be quite so dependent on one mode.


This week I have developed a new appreciation for those who are learning to write or draw for the first time, thanks to a foray into ambidextrosity.  As I have mentioned here recently, my right shoulder has been giving me trouble, and so I was distressed to think that I couldn’t participate in a 100-day art-making challenge I heard about.  I realized that while my right hand works considerably better than my left, I do have two hands, and if I really wanted to participate without over-straining my right shoulder, I could use my left hand. It might even make an interesting creative challenge/constraint/improvisational score.

It is hard.  I often want to switch back to my right hand for things I know it can do that the left cannot.  Straight lines, for example.  So many things my right hand does without any intentional thinking require planning and troubleshooting, if they can be done at all (and many can’t).  Then there’s the challenge of writing against the flow of traffic, as it were.  My father and brother are both left-handed and so I have watched plenty of left-handed writing-utensil-wielding but not ever given thought to the degree of difficulty involved.

I’ve also been thinking about what it’s like for kids to sort these things out, and how much practice they need, and how much easier it would be without someone breathing down your neck about how neat it is, or how to do it “right.”

While we’re on the subject, here’s a little thing I posted on the subject a few years back:

I know several kids who write very, very slowly. I know others who like to decorate their letters as they write, many who form their letters starting at the bottom rather than the top, and lots who despise the task of holding a writing utensil at all, complaining of tired and weak muscles.

I watched one of these slow writers doing some math the other day.  The speed of her math performance has been a point of concern and discussion in school lately. It occurred to me as I was watching that part of the reason she takes a long time getting through math problems is that she wants the numbers to look nice.  For her, writing numbers (and anything else) is an opportunity to make art.

Artistry is often at work with the letter-decorators I mentioned too, though I’ve also seen letter-decorating used primarily to combat boredom.  Here are two other interesting coincidings: those writers who work from the bottom of the letter also tend to be the ones who would rather be designing and building things than sitting bent over a piece of paper, and the messiest and most apparently tormented or resistant are often the ones to whom the words are the most important.  The writers.

I’ve been observing young writers for a long time, and I was also one myself once.  The year I was eight was significant for me. I spoke in front of a large group of people for the first time, among other things. But the thing that got the most attention that year was my handwriting.  It wasn’t very good. I was in too much of a hurry, the adults told me.  I could do better.

Fortunately, that flurry of concern over my sub-par penmanship didn’t leave much of a mark on me, as far as I can tell.  I know that the parents and teachers who harped on my letter formation back then had my interests at heart and in mind.  I’m pretty sure that if they had realized I was just trying to keep up with my thoughts, they’d have handled it differently. The teachers I know now aren’t as hard on kids about handwriting as the ones I had when I was young, but we still tend to miss the opportunity to learn from what goes on with kids when they sit down to write – not just how the letters look but how kids are about it and what communication there may be for us to receive in the course of watching.

We miss this opportunity for noble reasons; we believe we know how to tell when writing’s going well and when it’s not.  The sight of neat legible letters soothes us, makes us feel as though things will be OK for the child forming those letters.  But too much haste, too little haste, unusual pathways, and general resistance worry us.  The task of writing feels important, so we get rigid and frightened about it and push for the results we know to push for.

But being rigid and frightened makes it hard to see what more there is to see, and it tends to undermine access to the very proficiency we’re after.

Here’s the thing.  The word is penmanship.  As with craftsmanship or sportsmanship, there’s grace and individuality suggested by and allowed for in the word.  Penmanship has come to refer only to how tidily we write, but it didn’t start there and we don’t have to settle for that.  We can ask ourselves more interesting questions about the emerging penmanship(s) of those newest to the tool – the way each one wields his or her pen.  What is there to see in a child’s resistance to writing?  What might it lead to?  Why would a person spend as much time drawing spiraling tails on every letter as choosing the words the letters make up?  Why is the messy writer in such a hurry?

If we ask questions like these, we’ll get insights into the behaviors themselves and also, most likely, surprising causes for further curiosity and even celebration.  And we’ll make lots more room for young people to come to own the work of writing, and to call on it to serve and support them in whatever paths and pursuits they choose.