I heard the music coming from the classroom before I opened the door -- Mozart's cello concertos. Over a year had passed since I'd finished coaching this new eighth grade English teacher in a tough school; I was driving through the neighborhood and decided to drop in and see how Ms. K was faring. What I found on this freezing January morning was something good, something working as I had resolved to find in our schools this year.
Ms. K was implementing a writing program based on a book called Rain, Steam, and Speed: Building Fluency in Adolescent Writers, by Gerald Fleming and Meredith Pike-Baky. We'd read the book together a couple years ago, but she'd been apprehensive about trying the strategies: there was so much curriculum to cover, she felt, she couldn't allocate the time to these practices.
Inside a Classroom
I was surprised that none of the students raised their heads to look at me or ask me who I was when I walked in; their hands moved furiously across rows of lined paper. Ms. K, perched on a stool and writing herself, smiled and indicated a chair in the back where I could sit.
Written on the white board was the prompt for the day:
Long Overdue Letter
You've been waiting for a long time and today's the day to write that letter. Write a letter to someone you've been meaning to write, but haven't had the chance to. To whom will you write? You decide. It might be a friend, a classmate, a relative who lives far away, someone in your own house, or someone who is no longer here. Write.
I remembered that the book offered dozens of writing prompts and also that the authors urged teachers to play instrumental music during writing time. They shared all kinds of compelling research about how it positively impacted a students' ability to write fluently.
Writing time was called to an end and papers were filed into manila folders.
"Who would like to share today?" Ms. K. asked.
One student had noticed me sitting in the back. "Who's she, Ms. K? What's she doing here?"
Ms. K explained who I was and added that my visit was a great opportunity to reflect on journal time and share their reflections with me. "But first, we always have two or three volunteers read their writing." At least half the class raised their hands.
LaKeisha read a letter she'd written to her best friend from elementary school who'd moved to Texas. Martel wrote to his grandmother who passed away last year. Javier's letter to his father, who is in prison, got many students wiping tears from their cheeks.
"Why do we do journal writing?" Ms. K asked her class. "Can we explain to Ms. Elena why we do this and how it helps us?"
Javier turned to me. "I just have so many feelings in me, this helps to get them out," he said. "I can concentrate so much better after."
A tiny girl in the front row stood to address me. "If we're going to be good writers, we have to be fluent writers. Fluency is about writing smoothly, fast, getting your ideas flowing like a river. We never have time to just write. Since we started this it's so much easier for me to write essays. I just have more words in me."
"Look," said a boy with long braids. He came over to me with two pieces of paper in his hand. "This is my writing from September when we started this stuff." Only half the page was covered in his large, sloppy scrawl. "And here's the one I wrote today," he said, handing me two pages, front and back, covered in print. He beamed.
All over the room, students rifled through their folders selecting evidence to show me. I circulated around. A remarkable one-hundred percent of students had made tremendous growth in their fluency, as evidenced by the quantity they were able to produce in 15 minutes.
"And we've heard a lot of music we never heard before," LaKeisha told me. "I never woulda heard Mozart, but now he's one of my favorite musicians." Many kids nodded in agreement.
"I get sick a lot," said Alexander, a tall, young man who commanded a lot of attention, "but never on journal days. Even if I'm sick as a dog, I get here on those days." He chuckled.
"How often do you do journals?" I asked.
Alexander answered: "Three times a week. I never miss those days. But Beethoven's my favorite. That Symphony 9 kills it!"
Around the room debate ensued -- Beethoven verses Mozart, blues harmonica against Zimbabwean marimba. Students referenced genres and musicians I'd never heard of. "It's a sneaky little side project of mine," Ms. K told me later. "I want to expose them to music they'd otherwise never hear and I love hearing music during the day. It makes us all calmer and happier."
I had so many questions for Ms. K and her students, but another 30 students were clamoring at the door, asking to come in and start journal time. Students in Ms. K's class were not only getting time to write (something that we don't see frequently in middle school) but they were loving it. They were sharing their writing. They were increasing their fluency. And they were listening to music as a regular part of their school day. I left feeling inspired and hopeful.