From Teaching to Writing
TeachingBooks asks each author or illustrator to reflect on their journey from teaching to writing. Enjoy the following from Jaime Berry.
I started teaching in 2002 in a small historic “railway” building in Brooklyn—there were no hallways, and all the classrooms were connected. My first year was challenging. But I loved my school and my class, and in particular, I loved our time reading and writing together. We worked in Writer’s Notebooks. I encouraged them and said they could write whatever they wanted in their notebooks, that their ideas and observations were important, and they could draw from them when it came time to “publish” pieces.
Decorating our notebooks happened the first week of school and it was also the first time I invited family members into class. We collaged, chatted, snacked, and helped the kids cover their notebooks in images and words that meant something to them. I made my very own notebook that day, but it was mostly for show and, at the time, so was my writing.
My notebook entries started off as a tool to teach, in that I used them to illustrate the skills and strategies I wanted my students to try out. To kick off our personal narrative unit I started giving them topic generation tips, places to pull good ideas from. They contributed too and after a day or so our list included things like “a first time,” “a last time,” “an item that’s special and why.” A student suggested “a time I felt jealous” and we listed other emotions next to jealousy that we might pluck ideas from as well.
The reason this little bit of writing was different than the others was because I hit on something true.
I wrote an entry about the time I met my grandmother’s new friend, a woman named Margaret. When I was a kid, my grandmother was my best friend. We went everywhere together, but when Margaret and my grandmother started going to bingo I often wasn’t invited. Though Margaret was a perfectly nice woman, I deeply disliked her and worried over what other ways she might impact my friendship with my grandmother. That entry sparked something in me. My first (unpublished) book is based on the two paragraphs I wrote with my class that day. The reason this little bit of writing was different than the others was because I hit on something true. I wasn’t writing just to teach my students; I was writing for me too. It felt wonderful, and I kept doing it.
That seems to be what happens with most of my books; they slowly sprout from a small seed of truth pulled from my own life. Sometimes (most times) I don’t even know exactly what the story will be about. Then other things come together, ideas gather and grow, until eventually I have a first draft. But it took me a LONG time to realize I wanted to be a writer and even longer to finally get published.
Over the years I have collected a lot of little true moments in my Writer’s Notebooks. I start new notebooks for every project (sometimes I still decorate them) and I always carry one with me, keep one on my nightstand, and have them scattered around my house just in case I think of something I don’t want to forget. They are tattered, often feathered with wrinkled post-its and marked up printouts, and they are an essential part of my writing process.
But as I wrote and collected entries, my story, as it often does, shifted and grew into something unexpected.
In a way, that first notebook entry about my jealousy over my grandmother’s new friendship also plays a part in my new book. HEART FINDS is about 11-year-old Mabel and started off as a story meant to pay tribute to the kind of friendship that can exist between a grandparent and grandchild. My sister sent me a big envelope full of photographs of me with my grandmother, and sorting through them let me revisit and in a way reexperience some of our times together. But as I wrote and collected entries, my story, as it often does, shifted and grew into something unexpected. HEART FINDS became more about dealing with change and learning when to hold on and fight for something and when to let go.
With this book and all my books so far, I still use lessons I taught my second and third graders—from coming up with ideas to the “final” editing touches (I say final, though these touches can sometimes feel never-ending). Every part of my writing, the steps but also the fact that I am a writer at all, I owe to my time as a teacher and to my students.
I grew up in a tiny, rural town and being a writer never occurred to me. I used to tell my students that writers were keen observers of the world who tapped into their own experiences, and because we all have experiences that matter, we too can be writers. It took years of me saying that to kids before I believed it was true for me too. I’m incredibly grateful for those years and grateful they’ve led me to where I am now.
Books and Resources
TeachingBooks personalizes connections to books and authors. Enjoy the following on Jaime Berry and the books she’s created.
Listen to Jaime Berry talking with TeachingBooks about the backstory for writing Heart Finds. You can click the player below or experience the recording on TeachingBooks, where you can read along as you listen, and also translate the text to another language.
- Listen to Jaime Berry talk about her name
- Enjoy Jaime Berry’s note about Heart Finds
- Discover Jaime Berry’s page and books on TeachingBooks
- Visit Jaime Berry on her website, Twitter, Instagram, and GoodReads.
Special thanks to Jaime Berry and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers for their support of this post. All text and images are courtesy of Jaime Berry and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, and may not be used without expressed written consent.