Teachers Write 8/1/14 – Channeling Your Inner Nerd with Donalyn Miller

Happy Friday, Teachers Write campers!

You’ll want to be sure to visit Gae’s blog for Friday Feedback today, and we also have a special Friday Feature here – with our amazing guest author Donalyn Miller! Donalyn is probably no stranger to most of you at Teachers Write. She’s co-founder of the Nerdy Book Club and the author of two great books about authentic reading – THE BOOK WHISPERER and READING IN THE WILD

Channeling Your Inner Nerd: Writing About Your Passions

by Donalyn Miller

The word “nerd” first appeared in Dr. Seuss’ I Ran the Zoo (1950), when the narrator, Gerald McGrew says he will collect, “a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker, too” for his zoo. “Nerd” is often used in pejorative terms to describe a person who is socially awkward, obsessed with trivia, or overly intellectual. In certain social groups such as video gamers and science fiction/ fantasy fans, the term nerd is seen as a badge of honor—identifying your group affiliation with others who share common interests.

The cultural popularity of movie and television franchises like Doctor Who and Star Wars, along with the rise of nerdy celebrities like Wil Wheaton (http://wilwheaton.net) and Cory Doctorow (http://craphound.com), have moved nerds into the mainstream—making the term more socially acceptable and even desirable.

As Wil Wheaton famously said in a speech at the Calgary Expo last year, “Being a nerd isn’t about what you love, it’s about how you love it.” (http://wilwheaton.net/2013/04/being-a-nerd-is-not-about-what-you-love-its-about-how-you-love-it/) Moving away from negative stereotypes and expanding our definition of nerd, we are all probably nerds about something.

I am a reading and book nerd. I could spend every day (and often have) reading and talking about books. I collect more books than I can read. I own bookish jewelry and clothes (not a requirement, but fun). I always have a book recommendation or book loan for you. I visit bookstores and libraries on vacation. All of my close friends are book and reading nerds, too. I am blessed that my nerdy passion for reading is also my vocation. In many ways, I am a professional reader, which makes me happy beyond belief.

My obsession with reading feeds my writing, too. A lot of my writing ties back to reading. I write about my work as a reading teacher, my love for books, and my efforts to connect more people with reading. Mining my passion for reading as a source of writing material, I am more comfortable with my nerdy obsession and understand myself better. I recognize and accept the role that reading plays in my life and in my relationships with other people and the world. I read more than ever and enjoy my reading life unapologetically.

No matter what your interests might be—running, restoring furniture, collecting Pez dispensers, gardening, watching old movies—I encourage you to embrace your inner nerd and write about it.

Reflect on your own nerdiness and see what bubbles to the surface. Consider the following questions.

  • If you could spend all of your leisure time invested in one activity, what would you choose? Allow yourself to be selfish and honest here.
  • How did you first discover your hobby or interest? What excites you about it? Who do you share this interest with?
  • If you had to describe your interest to people who knew nothing about it, what would you tell them?
  • How did your interest or hobby look to people the past? How has it changed over time?
  • Removing all limits, how might your hobby or interest look in the future? How might technology or cultural evolution change it?
  • What would you like to learn about your passionate interest or pastime?
  • View your passion through the eyes of someone who hates it or doesn’t appreciate/understand it. What’s their objection or obstacle?
  • How does your passionate interest connect to the interests of others?
  • How might your interest look different to someone younger or older than you?
  • What topics have fascinated you, but you never pursued them?

 Looking at your reflection, what surprises you? What’s worth exploring further? Could you write an essay about your hobby describing your experiences? Could you write an article explaining its history? How about an ode gushing about how awesome it is? How might your nerdy obsession look in a fictional setting? What passions might your characters have?

Writing about your nerdy interests can lead to greater self-awareness and acceptance. Your enthusiasm may spark interest or forge affiliations with others. Given free rein to research and write about what jazzes you can increase your personal enjoyment and understanding of it, too. Writing about your passions can be an interesting source of inspiration and ideas.

25 Replies on “Teachers Write 8/1/14 – Channeling Your Inner Nerd with Donalyn Miller

  1. This is something I haven’t really thought about in relation to characters. Great questions for reflection! Thanks!

  2. My passion is also the love of reading books. My favorite ones are on hand to read
    when I need them. Books I love are on a specific bookshelf in our front room library. Books
    I really love are at my bedside. If I can’t find a certain book when I need it, I get frazzled.
    These are quirks I could use in my writing that I never would have thought of! Thanks!

  3. I appreciate the list of questions…they will really help to give additional nuances to the characters we all create.
    Thanks! I am a drama nerd…and a photography nerd and a vintage button jewelry nerd…working on a character for one of my plays who is all three!

  4. This was great fuel, this morning. Each of my characters has something they are focused on that is their role in the plot, but my elusive MC should have something entirely unrelated to the plot that is his true passion. He has a job, which should just be how he survives; he takes his father\’s racing motorcycle and another object with him from place to place, but these are his burdens of duty to his family. He was involved in violence related to war, but it was unintentional. I knew his general skill was as a storyteller — like, he might have become a journalist if things had gone differently. I\’ve added details of how he *sees* and remembers things, which is both his passion and why he gets into trouble. Today, I used this TW exercise to add a little of this nerd-obsession in a way that filled out his character more in a scene. I wrote a little bit that built out how he has developed a tick over the years to help him keep silent about the stories he knows, even when interrogated: he draws meaningless doodles. Adding the mannerism of him minutely doodling his father\’s racing logo in the air beside his drink was a good way to reveal that a particular memory was triggering an elevated response in him. So I was glad for this exercise. It was a great push to focus on the character from a different angle — knowing his passion outside of the story reminded me of details that give contrast and make him more real.


    1. I shared a bit of my work today on Gae’s Friday Feedback, and then shared an extended scene on my blog. I definitely had greater clarity about this elusive character today, between imagining pictures of his doppleganger and having his passion in mind. If anyone visits, be sure to say hi in the comments – I love connecting with our TW crew, blog-to-blog. (And I don’t usually share this much, so I’ll be pins and needles about any feedback – you know how that goes. Thanks again for the motivation. http://elissafield.wordpress.com/2014/08/01/todays-work-share-a-scene-from-never-said/

  5. Donalyn – Thank you for the great self-reflection questions. I would have to say I have many hobbies/ interests but my most nerdy is counted cross-stitching. It is an old tradition and I have always been slightly embarrassed about my love of it. Thinking about the classroom, I feel these questions will be very helpful for students, especially those that don’t feel they fit in. THANKS

    1. Counted cross stitching sounds fascinating. I haven’t sewn in a long time. You should write about it, so we can all learn from you. I agree that students should embrace their nerdy passions and write about them.

  6. Thank you for the amazing reelection questions, Donalyn! I tried to keep this short.
    I am a teacher nerd. When I was 15 I got a job working for a non-profit and one role my peers and I had was speaking on public health issues. I knew I wanted to be a teacher long before this, but it is where I caught the bug. In jobs I had throughout college I always excelled, primarily because I could teach my peers whatever it was needing getting done. I worked a lot of retail, because my other primary interest was fashion. At 19 I had a gold badge working a Bullock’s department store. This meant I was on the floor and able to help with most things a manager could do- but with no keys. Mostly I helped new employees learn the ropes. Mostly there I loved helping. I worked phones at the Improv in Hollywood as a summer gig. All at once I dreamed of doing stand-up because I knew when I spoke my favorite feeling was getting laughs. Instead I went back to finishing my teaching credential- the idea of begging for stage time and dealing hecklers was too much for me and my fragile ego. After having a few years of teaching under my belt, I ran into the owner and gave him a flippin’ witty response to his repulsed reaction to my being a teacher- which actually earned me my crowning glory- a chuckle from Bud Friedman.

    When I hit the classroom I worked at a middle school ELA Demonstration site. We would have visitors all the time, we’d visit other sites as well. Just 3 years in, I was serving as a master teacher for USC. I trained as a trainer of teachers in ELA through LACOE and UCLA Literature Project (now Reading and Literature)- studying under the amazing Carol Jago. I led workshops for my school and served my district on ELA committees. I served my local IRA as secretary and was being groomed to be President of our local. I had the honor of having a Heinneman editor come to me and ask me to write a How-to on teaching Pre-K. Then my daughter was born not breathing- and I disappeared from education- dropped off the face of education. (She is an amazing 11 year old- I’ll write that story down one day.) That was almost 12 years ago, and I am just ready to get back to my life- only so much has changed. Managing blogs, FB, Twitter.

    But teaching is in my blood. I no longer need to be the center of attention as I did when I began over 20 years ago. I love turning over the proverbial mic and seeing my students lead the way. I love teaching my peers- that is something that I’ve been passionate about since the tender age of 15. There have been many trials along the way- professional and personal. I love teaching and I’ve been back in the classroom 6 years now. Bumpy-bumpy return in the age of scripted lessons and high stakes testing and raising a family.

  7. Donalyn,
    Thanks for the reflective questons here that will help me know myself better, as well as my students and my characters. THE BOOK WHISPERER, made a major impact on myself and my colleagues, and our students have been blessed tremendously through your words.

    Here are my rambling thoughts about my inner nerdiness:

    I have several passions, and while the intensity of each has changed over time, they seem to share a common thread – competition. I find this interesting because I have never seen myself as an athlete, but I do have a lusty enjoyment of competition.

    My passions have included baseball and football (mostly watching, following, and studying); poker, running, writing, and teaching (all of which I am actively participating / competing).

    In all of these, I’m not really competing against others, but against myself, or against an idea. With poker, I read about strategies, study my opponents, and try to know my own strengths, weaknesses, patterns, and perceptions. And while I want to win, I usually apologize whenever I do. Because for me competition is solely about being my best, rather than besting someone else.

    Especially in writing or running. I’m driving myself to be better. To go deeper. To stretch myself. And the exertion drives me. I used to be stopped by the obvious, mental obstacles. The little voice that would usually ask me what was so special about me that made me think I could write? That anyone would give a hoot about whatever I had to say. Or why would I bother running when there are very few able-bodied souls who couldn’t dust me in a foot race?

    I learned to ask different questions of myself, and “compete” for different reasons.

    With teaching, it is really about being the best teacher I can be. And about defeating and negative voices that creep into the thoughts of my students. Teaching them to compete for themselves.

    Some of my interests look really strange to people. Especially the distance running. An article I read a few years ago asked “when do you get a chance to do something that inspires yourself”? That is when I took up the goal of running an ultramarathon. I read all about how to train, eat, and prepare for it. I focused my schedule, my diet, and my energy around completing that race. To many, it seemed ludicrous, but to me, it was a chance to inspirre myself.

    1. I, too, have many nerdy passions. If I had to narrow it down, however, it would be my love for reading and writing rhyming (Dr. Seuss-like) poems and short stories. I have a secret guilty pleasure of reading Regency Novels and I love Gone With the Wind, Jane Austen, and anything from that era as well. What started my nerdiness for reading and writing? I’d say the positive influence of my parents. We had bookshelves lining every room. All of our gifts surrounded literacy somehow. My mom is a great writer of poetry and my dad is a great informational writer. It just became therapeutic and relaxing as a teenager to lock myself in my bedroom and write. It was soothing to my soul. As I get ready to go back to school, I hear myself saying, “I need to read just one more regency novel for me prior to setting foot in my classroom.” Guilty pleasures that I share with my students to share my literacy excitement!

  8. I really, really loved the questions from this morning. Thanks so much for them.
    One of my goals this week was to try to work fully for my allotted writing time. It’s hard once the first crush of the idea settles in.

    So, I took a look back over what I wrote in response to the questions and hi-lighted just the lines that stood out to me with language that kinda stopped me. I like to do this to mix up the words into verses later.

    What was nice though, was that AFTER that experience I looked at my outline for my WIP and Charlotte’s prompt on Gae’s blog and got out a good amount based on the prompt. My pump had been primed by the reflective time! It felt super good and I’m now kinda looking forward to getting into revisions of the poems I’ve gotten down.

    I look forward to answering these questions from the POV of characters in stories. That will be fun as well.

    Thanks so much and have a great weekend. I’ll catch up with you Aug. 5th with other VA Librarians who are discussing Reading in the Wild. I just giggled when I saw your name this morning because I’m very new to twitter –thanks to my friend Carolyn V. and here you are here as well! Small world.

  9. I’m so excited that you are today’s guest author! I was so inspired by The Book Whisperer that I started a no-AR revolution at my school. We have seen such an increase in student reading due to modeling, choice, and conferencing! Thank you!

    As for the answer to today’s question, I am a Word Nerd. I love to read, and I love to write. My passion is helping others improve their reading and writing. I also enjoy playing word games and writing poetry — which is ultimate word play.

    We had a PD today, so my brain isn’t very focused right now, but I plan on delving into more of your questions this weekend. Once again, thank you for being such an inspiration!

  10. This post has given me a lot to think about. I don’t have time to write about it now, but I will definitely be returning to think about this in my writers notebook.

  11. Thank you, Donalyn for this post and for inspiring me! You and your books changed my life completely! I am thrilled to have met you and that you spoke at my daughter’s teacher credential graduation at Willamette! Somewhere you wrote that “if you write, you are a writer” and you totally freed me up to blog about my passions. My blog posts aren’t always amazing, but I love to write and read and I am always writing about my passions, hopes and dreams. As a 2nd year principal, I can’t wait to get nerdy with my staff and reading and writing! You inspire me. Thank you. Thank you!

  12. Jennifer I would love to have a Nerdy Principal. I\’ve done school wide reading challenges at my school. When asking my principal to set a reading goal he actually asked me how many books he had to read. When I told him to set his own reading goal for the year he wrote down 2. That is all he read.

  13. My passions are intertwined. I knew from the time I was in fourth grade and our school burned down that I wanted to be a teacher. They stacked the smoke damaged text books outside for anyone to take. I had complete sets of all grade levels. When we played school at my house we played for real. That’s why both of my sisters entered kindergarten reading. I gave up recesses to help kids who struggled with reading. I also grew up writing. It started as journaling when I was frustrated. Then I wrote stories for my sisters and scripts for puppets. When I became a teacher I brought all of that with me. I wanted to make sure my students were well rounded so I brought my love of sewing and quilting to class. We read books like “The Quiltmaker’s Gift” and “The Qultmaker’s Journey” by Jeff Brumbeau. We then created quilts and donated them to pregnancy centers and hospitals. After reading Shana Burg’s book “Laugh With the Moon” we created dresses for Africa. The year after 9/11 happened we wrote about how we saw people show compassion to others during adversity. Students created wall hangings to go with them. I have always found ways to bring sewing into my classroom and mix it with books and writing. The arts foster reading and writing and it works the other way as well. I teach in an IB school. We have student ambassadors who take prospective teachers on tours of classrooms. It makes me proud to hear the tell parents that if they want their kids to learn to love reading and writing then they need to be in our school. I have a personal class library of close to 2000 books. I run reading challenges to give away books. So I would have to say my biggest passion is reading and writing and bringing some form of arts into it.

    1. Wow, you’ve got a lot of great things going on in your classroom! What grade do you teach? Love the idea of incorporating the sewing.

  14. Donalyn:

    Sincere apologies for my tardiness with this comment.

    Like many educators, I share the love of reading and writing with my students. Today, I met with three boys for a summer school lesson. Each one departed with two books in their book bags. The boys selected their own books that were *good pick books.*

    I earned a Masters degree in Reading and am a certified Reading Recovery Teacher. Even with my advanced degree, I truly feel, The Book Whisperer has taught me so much. It is an invaluable resource. Authentic reading is so important. Your unconvential approach to encourage the “dormat reader” [reluctant reader] is amazing and encourages success.

    Your words of encouragement to write about “nerdy interests” that can lead to self “awarness and acceptance” inspires me. You inspire me. Thank you for an excellent post.