Jennifer Abrams -Consultancy that informs, inspires, and empowers VOICE
November/December 2009

Happy November and December!

About two weeks ago, I got into my car and drove down the Pacific Coast Highway to The Sun Magazine personal writing retreat at Esalen, just south of Big Sur. The post on the website said, "Join Sun readers, authors and staff for a weekend of investigating our lives through the written word."  If you don't know The Sun Magazine, it "publishes the work of emerging and established artists who are striving to be thoughtful and authentic."  I didn't go to learn how to publish or how to become an author.  I went to find "my tribe."  To find a group of human beings who weren't afraid of truth telling; who don't "step back into safety''; who ask, "How are you?" and really mean it.

The weekend included reading, writing, great food, wonderful, sweet interactions with truly humane, human beings, a beautiful view from any spot on the grounds, a massage on the cliffs with the surf roaring below, and my first naked hot tub experience under a full moon. As if that wasn't already enough, I also learned a few ideas about writing and workshop facilitation, which I will share with you here. 

If you have any questions, comments or topic suggestions, please feel free to email me at [email protected]. I look forward to hearing from you!

What Matters? A Few Thoughts from The Sun Magazine Writing Retreat

Don't Vomit on the Page And Other Tips for Great Writing

Tim McKee, Managing Editor of The Sun, gave a talk about what makes a superior piece of writing.  As he went through his list, I kept thinking, "He could be talking about great teaching."  See if you agree.  Here are a few bullet points from his talk on what makes a submission worthy of publication.  For 'manuscript' I have substituted 'teaching' and for 'reader' I have substituted 'student.'  See what you think.

  • The teaching moves the student – it evokes emotion, sometimes laughter, sometimes tears, sometimes goose bumps.  Moving the student matters.

  • The teaching is intellectually stimulating – it answers the readers' unsaid "So What?"

  • The teaching has extraordinary consciousness – The Sun contributor, Cheryl Strayed once said, 'In writing, you get no points for the living.  Extraordinary consciousness must be brought to bear on extraordinary events.'

  • The teaching offers a gentle but dynamic ride.  Skillful teachers guide you along in their journey, orienting you properly, establishing sensible chronology, doing nothing to disorient you.

  • The teaching has the teacher go beyond his or her own comfort level, examining and sharing what is below the surface.

Perhaps as educators we might think about looking at ourselves as authors too – of our lessons, our workshops, our facilitations.  Given what Tim suggested, what changes might we make in our work?

Think of One or Two Things about Yourself that Are Not True of Anyone Else You Know– The 50 Word Bio

Each person at the retreat was asked to bring a 50 word bio – a 'contributor's note' as the magazine puts it.  All 120 of us read our bios aloud Friday night.  It was one of the most lovely, touching hours I have spent in recent memory.  I realized later while going to bed that while my bio was 'true', it wasn't true.  It didn't meet Tim's criteria that in good writing 'the writer writes what they're scared of others hearing.'  Given that this newsletter is entitled, "Voice Lessons," and my quest to be more authentic in my communications, here is my 'Take Two' with about 60 words…

Jennifer Abrams is an actress in teacher's clothing.  A performer who does her one woman show every commute up to San Francisco by singing to the car roof, Jennifer spends her time hoping others see her like the teacher in Dead Poets Society, yet really secretly wishes to be to be seen like Michelle Pfeiffer, draped on a piano as a chanteuse in The Fabulous Baker Boys.

Given 50 words and a dose of boldness, what would you say in your bio? How might writing one help you bring more vitality to your work? And, if possible, how might you use this type of exercise in your teaching?

Speaking What Matters

On late Saturday afternoon, Cary Tennis,'s advice columnist, ( offered twelve of us this prompt, "If you could have the rapt attention of everyone on earth for five minutes, what would you say? Whatever it is, your choice will reveal something about your most sacred beliefs, as we attempt to express them succinctly to an imaginary audience of billions." 

Cary gave us 12 minutes to respond.  In rough draft form, each of us read aloud.  The rest of us simply received.  With quiet smiles, maybe a word or two about what resonated, and then just silence, we received.  Some spoke about global warming, homelessness, prejudice.  Others wrote of ending wars and tenderness toward ourselves and others.  An excerpt of what I wrote included: "What matters is to find out what matters and then do something about it.  To not be afraid, to not just wish you had spent more time doing it, or to excuse it due to health insurance needs, but instead to know your parameters, see the constrictions, the containers, the limitations, and to live within them and do something anyway. Push at the marshmallow sides of the container of your life and discover the freedom and choice you do have.  None of this, 'No, no. You do it for me.  You share.  You write.'  Instead, however terrifying it is to realize one is in charge of one's life, realize it anyway and do it yourself."

If you had five minutes, what would you say? What matters to you?  How can you see the writing to this prompt would help you with your teaching?

The Sun Magazine will be doing the retreat again at Esalen in fall of 2010.  Dates to be determined. I will be there.  Join me.

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Cool Resources

For further information on the concepts described above, check out the following two resources:

  • Please check out The Sun at  As it says on the website, "The Sun is an independent, ad-free monthly magazine that for more than thirty years has used words and photographs to invoke the splendor and heartache of being human. The Sun celebrates life, but not in a way that ignores its complexity. The personal essays, short stories, interviews, poetry, and photographs that appear in its pages explore the challenges we face and the moments when we rise to meet those challenges."

  • And if you haven't been, get yourself to Esalen.  "Esalen Institute, renowned for its healing natural hot springs, has long been recognized as a world leader in alternative and experiential education. Dramatically situated on the Big Sur cliffs over the Pacific Ocean, the sacred beauty of the land—clear air, pulsing sea, garden path and waterfall, steaming mineral water bubbling up from deep within the earth—is itself transformative. Now in its fifth decade, Esalen offers more than 500 public workshops and seminars a year, accenting personal growth and social change."

Upcoming Events

Each month I will share with you information about a few of my upcoming trainings.
If I am going to be in your area, contact me so we can say hello, hopefully in person!

November 17
Leadership Team Training - Best Instructional Practices
An Ongoing Series, 2009-2010
San Mateo Union High School District
San Mateo, CA

December 3
Equitable Teaching Practices
Leadership Team – Galileo High School
San Francisco USD
San Francisco, CA

December 5-6
Having Hard Conversations
Pre-Conference Session
National Staff Development Council Annual Conference
St. Louis, MO

December 9-10
Elements of Effective Instruction
Rich Township High School District 227
Olympia Fields, IL

For additional upcoming events, please visit my Web site.

Until next time,


Feel free to forward this newsletter to friends and colleague. You may reprint this newsletter in whole or quote with attribution to Jennifer Abrams and a link to

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© 2009 Jennifer Abrams | Email Jennifer | 4290 Wilkie Way #L, Palo Alto, CA 94306 |  (650) 858-0699


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