Gill, Nancy E. 1942-

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GILL, Nancy E. 1942-
(Nancy Elizabeth Gill)


Born September 25, 1942, in Aberdeen, WA; daughter of Noel W. (a realtor) and Violet E. (a homemaker) Gill. Ethnicity: "White." Education: Grays Harbor College, A.A. (summa cum laude), 1962; Washington State University, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1964, M.A., 1965; Pennsylvania State University, Ph.D., 1979. Politics: Democrat. Hobbies and other interests: Art, hiking, carpentry, gardening, travel.


Home and office—Port Orchard, WA. E-mail[email protected]


Pennsylvania State University, DuBois, instructor in English, 1965-68; Bloomsburg University, Bloomsburg, PA, assistant professor of English, 1968-88, associate professor of English, 1988-96; writer, artist, and tutor for at-risk children and teenagers, 1997—. Educational consultant conducting workshops for at-risk students and their parents and teachers; volunteer teacher at high schools. Artist, with pottery, photographs, paintings, and drawings exhibited at galleries in the state of Washington.


International Society for Exploring Teaching Alternatives (member of board of directors, 1994-98), Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Theta Kappa.


Martin Luther King Humanitarian Service Award, Bloomsburg University, 1996; Apple Award for outstanding volunteers, South Kotsap School District, 2005.


Helping Kids Hope: A Teacher Explores the Need for Meaning in Our Schools and in Our Lives, Scarecrow Press (Lanham, MD), 2003.


Nancy E. Gill told CA: "As a college English professor, I was alarmed and saddened to discover that, by the time they reached their freshman year in college, almost all my students found writing and reading to be painful and boring. I did not understand this at first and did not know how to reach such students. Most had not considered trusting teachers at any level with their feelings, experiences, awareness, values, and beliefs. Most had never read anything that moved or inspired them. For more than thirty years I taught, primarily, students who were likely to fail or to drop out of school. For more than twenty of those years, I went out into the public schools to listen to the next generation of students, adopting one group of gifted third-graders and staying with them for ten years, until they graduated. (These students are now adults, and I still keep in touch with many of them.)

"Their principal asked me to return to work with sixty ninth-graders whom teachers found to be uncooperative and hostile. When I found them to be just as friendly, open, and engaged as the previous students, I called guidance counselors at high schools across the state and asked for permission to work with hundreds of students who were expected to fail or drop out—because they had difficult home lives, they abused drugs or alcohol, they were violent and had prison records, or they were unhappy for other reasons. I stayed with all these students for four years, treating them as if they were gifted, even if they did not yet know what their gifts might be.

"When they, too, graduated, I went on to adopt two groups of African-American ninth-graders in an 'inner-city' high school, staying with each group for four years. By this time, I was taking college students with me, inviting the high school classes to become pen pals with white high school students and with my college students, and to come to the college together during the summer. In my last year of college teaching, two entire college classes adopted the younger students and worked together on several projects.

"I wrote Helping Kids Hope: A Teacher Explores the Need for Meaning in Our Schools and in Our Lives because I wanted college students who were going into teaching (and parents and teachers of students like mine) to understand that what students at risk need, before almost anything else, is someone who will listen empathically and nonjudgmentally to them, treat them with respect and dignity, believe in them, and keep caring about them. I am writing Helping Kids Write: A Book for Students Who Dread Writing because, all my life, I taught composition at the college level and for decades I worked with younger students who felt like failures because they could not, and sometimes would not, write in ways their teachers required. They felt there was something inauthentic about many traditional writing assignments. They could not be themselves, they could not take positions teachers did not like or share, they could not explore subjects teachers did not value. They did not feel that their efforts were appreciated, and they did not feel understood. For decades I have struggled with these issues. I have never seen a book about writing that addresses them, and I want to be able to encourage students everywhere to see writing, especially their own writing, in a different light. I want them to enjoy their writing and find meaning in it, and I want them to experience the happiness and relief that come from being heard, understood, and appreciated.

"Who or what particularly influences my work? When I was a college freshman in 1960, I wrote a short paper about a teacher I thoroughly admired for her high standards and her spunk. My professor wrote this comment at the end: 'I never did like that woman. You made me see her in a different light.' At the time I wondered how anyone could not admire this person but, also, I was moved by the news that my admiration, expressed simply and sincerely, could actually change someone else's way of thinking. This was not something I had ever experienced before.

"When I was a college junior, our advanced composition professor required us to write the worst paper we could possibly write. He said the worst paper in the class would receive an 'A'. I was certain that I could do this and had a most delightful time making mine worse and worse every day. The professor passed back all the other papers and kept mine. 'This,' he said, waving it in the air, 'is the worst paper I have ever seen in my life. I will attempt to read it.' Forty years later, I could still see this usually solemn, usually dignified, scholarly man, dressed in a suit and tie, standing in front of our class, his hands shaking and tears of laughter running down his cheeks, reading my paper. Glancing left and right, I saw that my classmates were also dabbing at their eyes and laughing. To think that such a simple and ridiculous thing could have such a powerful effect! I was certain that I was meant to be an English major and determined to find other, equally memorable ways in which I could leap fences and be free.

"All my life I have been moved to tears by the ways in which some authors seem able to speak the emotional truths of their lives without, themselves, being overcome by their own pain and suffering and by the pain and suffering they see all around them. I have been moved by the sheer beauty of the human voice—singing in its own way, seeming somehow to invite consciousness, to celebrate consciousness, although consciousness is painfully alone and vulnerable. These writers (including James Weldon Johnson, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Pablo Neruda, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, e.e. cummings, Indian poets, Indian storytellers, Chief Joseph, Richard Lewis, and so many others) go where I go, lest I forget that we all go together, and we sing in chorus; new and old solo parts rise above us, step back, and rise again and again.

"To describe my writing process: I say what it is that concerns me in my journal, almost every morning, before I get out of bed. I eat breakfast, walk the dog, and sit down at an old computer. I write what walking the dog has made a space for. If nothing comes, I type 'I don't know how to say this, but' and then I say it anyway. I write for an hour, two hours, sometimes all day, but most often I fill the morning with writing. Then I leave the house, work in the art studio, walk three or four miles, mow the lawn, paint the barn doors, weed the garden, make phone calls, take care of business, play the violin or piano, start a painting, make a pie like my mother used to make, in the old green bowl she used to use, throw a tennis ball for the dog, check the mail, visit a friend, vacuum, clear off the top of my desk, recycle, buy groceries, take a ferry to Seattle. In other words, I write first, and then I go back to living, and then I write again. I celebrate, I do yoga, play tennis, run a mile, eat ice cream. Helping Kids Hope took more than twenty years to experience and about six years to write and rewrite. Well aware that readers do not spend that much time with a book, I made my chapters short, so that readers too could make their phone calls and their pies.

"What inspired me to write on the subjects I have chosen? When I arrived at the DuBois campus of Penn State in 1965, all the English departments at all the Penn State campuses were teaching a composition/literature course designed by S. Leonard Rubinstein. This course was titled 'The Need for Meaning.' We understood that we were expected to use our lives to shed light on the literature, and the literature to shed light on our lives, not by setting ourselves above the students, but by modeling learning, by examining our lives and our readings along with them. We, the faculty, attended each other's classes and participated in them. Because we took our learning so seriously and were so eager to make real connections with each other and with our students, we were able to create a genuine learning community long before learning communities were in vogue. We learned as if our lives depended on it. In my second teaching position, no colleagues and no students looked at learning in this way, and so I spent the rest of my teaching life trying to create 'need for meaning' courses. I wrote about the struggle to find and create meaning because what I saw all around me looked so empty."

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Gill, Nancy E. 1942-

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