Back To School Again: Retired Edition

My friend Sue was speaking to me of a young writer she knows. She says he is a very smart young man who does not like to write. “He had to write, so he wrote the alphabet and I did not know what to say or do.” Sue wanted to know what I would do with a student who does not like to write.

Why should anyone write? Writing is not easy. Over and over we see examples of our words or the words of friends or the words of community leaders, etc. coming back to haunt the speaker of those words. Considering all the ways in which our speech can be twisted is hard enough. Knowing that there will be other ways — ones we have not envisioned — that will cause confusion and worse, does nothing to make this task more enjoyable. Most of us will not publish that best seller. Most of us will not write that pulitzer prize winning poem. Most of us will not see our play performed on stage. Most of us will never publish a single word. When teachers ask us to write, when teachers ask us to revise, when teachers ask us for alternative ways to frame the same thought, we know they are doing their job and we still think they are crazy.

When we think of our six-year-old thinkers and consider the task from this perspective, we need to keep the following in mind:

  • Writing to them is often synonymous with writing they see in a book
  • Writing is typed or printed and well beyond the ability of their growing fine motor ability
  • When a student sees a book, that student is not necessarily aware of all the revisions or that the first draft may even have been penned with sloppier writing than he or she employs.
  • Writing is spelled correctly and runs straight across the page, with all the spacing between words and lines done perfectly.
  • Writing often has pictures way better than anything the students can produce.
  • Writing comes bound, often with dust jackets and perfect covers.
  • Writing often has words in it that the students cannot even read yet. Sometimes, even when the students are told the difficult words, they still do not know what they mean.

Writing is impossibly difficult. Often when this “impossibly difficult” writing is discussed, parents, teachers, and other adults will criticize it for a wide variety of reasons. (“So even if I do manage to figure out how to make the letters and spell the words and write them down, I still may be screwed! Why bother?!)

The other day, I chanced across a blog from a teacher (Stacey Shubitz: ) who was attending a writing institute. I do not know Stacey but I got sucked into her blog because she was writing about Lucy Calkins (always worth listening to) who was repeating a story from Jack Gantos about what Gantos thinks is hard about writing from the perspective of many students. Shubitz was struck by the claim (from Gantos) that the hard part is the belief that many children do not believe they have a life worth writing about. Combine this, says Shubitz, with the fact that it is the teacher’s job to tell students about their writing (and to assign a grade) and it is a wonder that anyone would choose to work with young writers. Poorly given feedback can be the death of a young author, a crime that I am guilty of even though I ended my career in love with working with young writers.

So, back to the young man who wrote the alphabet during his writing time and how I would handle this smart young man who says that he hates writing. The first thing I would do is believe him. Not only would I believe him, I would not try to talk him out of it. Writing is hard! You are six-years-old, you are still struggling with how to form letters (let alone spell words). You may come from a family in which your opinion is not ever solicited, to say nothing of respected. It is likely that you are asked to be seen and not heard. You may have friends that have more things and more money and a lot more privileges. They may go out of their way to make you feel embarrassed by your clothes, by your lunches or snacks from home, by your house, by your family’s car (or lack), by your lack of cool new technology, by the Church you attend (or don’t attend), by your size, weight, race, gender, culture, health, and nine billion other factors of which you may or may not have any control whatsoever. You have never written before. What can you write about that will not have you feeling like a failure? You can barely even manipulate the pencil anyway. You cannot possibly do this without feeling like a colossal failure. When a student tells you that they hate writing, they usually have very good reasons for saying this. When teachers try to tell them of all the benefits that will come from writing — to give that teacher pep talk: “If you want a good job, you will need to be able to write. Yada yada yada” the students are convinced that you do not understand them, which only makes progress more difficult.

After telling this student that I don’t blame him for hating to write, I would tell him that writing is incredibly difficult. If you are reading this blog and have reached this point and are excited over the prospect of receiving some magic words that will make it very easy to work with reluctant writers, you may as well stop reading. I don’t have those words. I know students. I do not know how to write a “teaching writing” manual. The actual response to this young man is completely dependent upon knowing this student. I do know that I have had the best responses with students when I tell them the truth: “It is okay to hate writing, but I do have to teach writing. You will have to write. What can I do to make this subject go faster for you and be easier for you?” When I can show the student that I understand some of the reasons for not liking to write, when I can demonstrate that the most valuable thing we will do as writers is to make mistakes (and that those mistakes will be badges of honor instead of reasons to humiliate), the willingness to write is improved.

I told Sue that the first thing I would do with this young man who wrote the alphabet is to thank him for writing (very sincerely). I would have him read it aloud to me. Later I might even read Chicka Chicka Boom Boom to him (I have a ton of boys who love the way we read this book together). I would ask him why he chose the alphabet to write and I would listen very closely to his answer because his answer is going to dictate how I respond. Sue suggested that he likely would have given some flippant, “You said we had to write. This is writing. I did what you asked.” I would have agreed with him and had a conversation that could have resulted in my asking, “What were you daydreaming about while you were writing the alphabet?” Or, “Why did you pick the alphabet to write?” And in his answer to these questions, I would have asked him for a few sentences to explain something that is important to him. I would be looking for a small step. “Draw or write what you were daydreaming about while you were writing the alphabet. That is so cool that you can write and daydream at the same time!

That task of building confidence in our own lives to the point that we understand our opinions are important goes right along with being honest about how hard it is to form letters, how hard it is to spell words correctly. I know that for most writing programs to be successful, the classroom value system has to be geared more toward doing what is hard than in getting things correct. If you want students to struggle with writing or math or science or reading or anything FOR FUN! AT HOME, WHEN THEY DON’T HAVE TO!, you have to build students who enjoy fixing mistakes and students who enjoy doing hard work. It takes time! It is hard work!

I cannot teach you to be me. I think you will be much more successful anyway being yourself. My goal with this blog post is to focus the discussion on understanding that teachers spend a lot of time understanding the concept of differentiated learning, which is a complicated way of saying that you are not me and I am not you. Students are different. So are teachers. If teachers remember that students are different, they may stop trying to teach curriculum and start trying to make a difference with their students.

Step one is to listen carefully to the people with whom you are working and to believe them and to respect them, especially when they trust you enough to admit they hate school.

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