March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

A Voice of One’s Own | Editorial

Once upon a time, a writing workshop changed my life. For a week during high school, I spent my days and nights with other Whittenberger Fellows, writing, critiquing, refining, and discussing poetry and other pieces. We bunked in college dorms and ate together in the cafeteria. From this brief but memorable experience sprang the sense that I had a voice of my own, one that I could use to make a contribution and even, potentially, a life’s work. It resonated, took root, and gave me direction.

On the face of it, that intensive program had all the hallmarks of such deep dives: daily assignments and revision, rigorous peer feedback, and an ongoing discourse on life and literature. What was unique was its definition of fellowship, which encompassed high school students and their teachers. What a brilliant, powerful idea to place us together with teachers as peers.

As the editorial team started to bring together this, SLJ’s Writing Issue, I reached out to Linda Harter, the teacher who made Whittenberger possible for me. She had taught English, composition, and drama at my high school in Wallace, ID. I wanted to thank her, reminisce, and learn more about her teaching life. Through our ensuing exchange, I gained perspective on her approach to teaching and a deeper appreciation of her work.

Whittenberger was one of several initiatives launched by the Idaho Language Arts coordinator, who “was instrumental in setting up the statewide writing assessment, which included teaching teachers to blind-grade essays,” Harter says. “I still think it was an outstanding way to both train writing teachers and raise awareness of the importance of writing instruction.” Harter recalls that the fellowship required teachers to apply, and then, if accepted, they could nominate a student to apply as well.

To be nominated by a teacher I greatly respected was a huge vote of confidence. To go through an application process, and be accepted, cemented that thumbs-up for the work itself.

Being centered in the work was the essence of Harter’s approach. I remember her actively creating space and time—opportunity—for us to write. She notes that she used to dedicate time for it at the start of class. “It was work that was not assigned and was not corrected,” she says, “as I think it is important for a writer to be able to freely write without feeling it will always be ‘graded.’”

While I knew Harter had left Wallace, I had no idea how rich her entire career was. When the local economy was hit hard by mine closures, she and her husband, who also taught at the high school, faced a choice. “It became depressing to see staff cut and the once vibrant community suffering the economic losses,” Harter recalls. “We had enough seniority to know we would not lose our jobs, but the atmosphere lacked vitality. There was a sense that one would not continue to grow if we remained in Wallace.”

Vitality. That key word defines my memory of Harter’s modeling. After 12 years in Wallace, the Harters headed overseas. In full, Mrs. Harter taught high school for 25 years and in a university in China for another and spent four years serving as a principal. Today, she keeps a hand in as a senior examiner for the oral IB [International Baccalaureate] exams.

“I went into teaching to have time to work on photography, which was my first love, or so I thought,” writes Harter. “The very first day, I could hardly contain myself as I constantly wanted to laugh out loud; I was having such a good time. All I could think was that I was getting paid to do this and having a ball. Within a few years, I sold all my photography equipment. I had discovered I was a teacher and was never sorry for it.”

I recall having a writing space of my own when I was taught by Harter, which I think speaks to the power of her approach. I have not written poetry in years, but I have used the skills that she taught me, and the voice that eventually emerged, throughout my adult life. I have also often recalled and sought to emulate her intellectual engagement and pleasure in sharing ideas. Oh, and her joy in the work.


Rebecca T. Miller

This article was published in School Library Journal's May 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller ( is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.