Friday, June 14, 2013


When Donald Hall's mother died at the age of ninety, he emptied her house and moved seventy or eighty boxes to his own house. 

His wife, Jane Kenyon,  was sick at the time and later died.  He did not unpack the boxes until several years after his wife died.

In Unpacking the Boxes : A Memoir of a Life in Poetry , Hall, the former 2006-2007 Poet Laureate of the United States, writes about unpacking the boxes from which his " childhood rose like a smoke of moths":
There were reams of manuscript, a thousand poems, novels I wrote at seventeen and nineteen; high school magazines with my poems and stories--the antique tracks of poetry and ambition.  I found a high school theme called " The Wild Heifers." If found a verse play called The Folly of Existences. The unpacked boxed laid out my childhood and adolescence as if they assembled a model train.

In the Columbus Area Writing Project, it has become our tradition to invite our summer institute participants to unpack their literacy artifacts and reflect on their literacy lives in an assignment we call the Archaeological Dig.

As participants, we all dig through our lives looking for artifacts that represent, illustrate, or otherwise connect to our development as writers and readers.

What have our parents saved from their childhood literacy experiences?

What torn and tattered papers remain?  What pieces of a past reading and writing life emerge as we sift through boxes and draws and cedar chests, scavenge in basements and attics and hidden recesses of our homes, our mothers' homes, our grandmothers' home?

After excavating our former literate selves, we bring these items, along with a literacy narrative around the artifacts, and display them on  our retreat.  The manner of presentation for each varies considerably--from loose papers and a few posters or books to a dining room place setting with articles connected to eating together, to a library shelf and beautiful handmade books.  From big books to frail, typed reports on onion skin paper. From old letters to published books and CDs.

Unpacking the boxes of our own childhood and years that followed allows us to critically and curiously consider how we became the literate people that we are this minute.

My own dig illustrates the fact  that  beginning at a very young age I engaged in writing.   Although the writing took many different forms over time, there were five main categories or layers in my writing life.

  • Protocol and Play
This layer  included obligatory  thank-you notes, invitations, scrapbooks of family trips and a novel entitled The Day the Earth Fell Off Its Axis written sometime before I was six.
The lesson in this layer was that sometimes we have a duty to write and that imaginative writing--creating stories--can be fun.

  • Presentation, Preservation, and Publication
I began to experiment with the way writing looks and to create pieces that looked published  or were actually published. Items included two "little books" and a professional book.

  • Power of the Pen
. This layer includes letters, speeches and other ways that I  have used writing to make my voice heard and affect change. They indicate that I have learned writing is powerful.

  • Purpose and Practice
 Writing is a big part of the daily work I did as a teacher and still plays an important part in the work I do now . This section includes letters, memos, reports and a variety of  pieces that support accomplishment of work. The lesson is that sometimes writing is necessary.

  • Prayer, Praise, and Poetry
The final layer or category of writing relates to religion, spirituality and faith in God and included sermons I have given in church, the column I write for our church newsletter, retreat day meditations and journal entries.  This layer taught me that writing can bring me closer to others and to God. 

As always looking and responding to the digs is an exciting part of our retreat.

Through this year's digs we were ushered inside a fragile father-daughter relationship, taken to a fictional world in which a strong ruler gave his kingdom to a child, watched  two brothers grow into their brotherhood,  read wedding vows, looked at forgotten golden books and revisited Dick and Jane.

 We peaked at old letters, essays and reports and books constructed by 8-year-olds, 11-year-olds, teens and  young college students.

We reread the comments of teacher long dead.  
We relived the wonder and wariness, the  pleasure or pain, of our former  writing selves.
Unpacking the boxes of our previous and current selves  is a surprising journey in which some of us were led to write new texts answering, questioning, or responding to the texts of our past.

As we looked at our classmates' artifacts we sometimes cried.
Other artifacts caused us to nod with knowing or laugh out loud out.

With each artifact handled, read or examined we came to know its creator on a deeper level.

 The Multigenre Literacy Autobiography Assignment included in The Socially Networked Classroom: Teaching in the New Media Age by William Kist is a similar activity which also fosters this reflective consideration of our literacy development ( See page 14)

When Bill came to talk with us at our summer institute-- he shared a PowerPoint  showing his own artifacts gathered  in response to this assignment.( page 13)

What artifacts represent your life? Your literacy development? Your spiritual development?

What items have you saved that tell your story?

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Unpack and sort through boxes, drawers, shelves or any where else that artifacts of your literacy life might be found.

Select several artifacts that  represent, illuminate or  had a role in your literacy development.

Write a literacy narrative detailing the significance of each of the artifacts.

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